When I was growing up in the era of roof-top antennas, (that is before cable, before satellite dishes, before streamed video, dvds, or even video tapes!) once a year The Wizard of Oz used to be shown on television (usually around Easter). The big moment, when Dorothy walked out of her black and white Kansas house into a technicolour Oz was a bit lost in my family’s living room, where we only had a black and white television. But the wonder was there all the same.
I got thinking about those days recently as I watched ads for the CBC’s “Over the Rainbow” contest and wondered why, in all the years that I had watched the movie, that it had never dawned on me that there was a fundamental contradiction in the story. You remember that the lion had no courage, the tin woodsman – no heart, the scarecrow (of course), no brain and Dorothy, no way home. But, as it turned out: the lion was the bravest; the tin man the most sensitive; the scarecrow the brightest; and Dorothy could have clicked her heels and gone home any time she wanted. In actual fact, what they lacked wasn’t courage, or a heart, or a brain, or ruby shoes, what they lacked was a belief in their own abilities.
In his ground-breaking book Self Concept and School Achievement published back in 1970, William Purkey found that there was an “inevitable relationship” between self-esteem and academic success. As parents and educators, this really comes as no surprise. At Kenneth Gordon, we welcome a wide range of students whose first main obstacle to learning is a strong conviction that they just can’t do it! To some extent this has been drummed into their collective psyches by a series of personal “failures”, led by a “failure” to read as quickly and fluently as their peers. On another level, this sense of a lack of self worth has been subtly (and not so subtly) reinforced on them by well-meaning adults who prod and poke them and then scratch their heads when the traditional “one size fits all” instructional techniques don’t work – somehow the onus gets put on the learner for this “failure” rather than the unsuccessful educator whose task it was to make it happen.
As a result, the first critical step for us as teachers and tutors and parents is to break down those barriers to learning and to build the child’s belief in his or her own abilities back up. The “I can’t learn” mindset has to be supplanted by the “I can learn, only I do it differently” self-revelation. Until students turn that corner in their own minds, the learning curve remains too steep for even the most proficient educator “sherpas” to get them to the top! But, unlike the lion, the tin woodsman and the scarecrow who get their self-deprecating laments turned upside down in an instant by a benign wizard, for our students it takes a lot of work, a lot of support, and a healthy dose of patience on everyone’s part.
But after all, isn’t that what we are all here for? The main focus of our Social/Emotional Learning programme – three hours per week – is to rebuild and reinforce the belief in our students that they can, and will succeed.
As Bill Purkey once told me: “Everything worth doing, is worth doing poorly the first time.” We have to ensure that our students do not see that poor performance as failure, but rather as the first step on the journey to mastery.