Is There a Goldilocks Principle for Modernizing Schools?

The chairs! Too big, too small! And one was just right.

The porridge! Too hot, too cold! And one was just right.

We all know the story of Goldilocks. (I was reminded of it when it was selected as a play by a school serving nearly 100 percent Maori and Pasifika students. I wondered about the cultural impact on students of this English story with a yellow-haired main character. Then a bit of Googling taught me two things. First, the story was originally based on an old, ornery, troublemaking woman. Second, it’s been multi-culturally renewed, including the Ghanian Goldilocks.)

The phrase Goldilocks Principle is often used to talk about finding some type of balance or operating within a set of margins. Some fields have specific uses of the term. For example, a Goldilocks Economy is “one which enjoys sustained economic growth and low inflation.” I’ve repeatedly seen the phrase used as a general metaphor of “getting it just right” in education.

However, as we move toward a broader set of student success goals I’ve started to wonder…Is there a Goldilocks Principle about the mix of learning experiences?

We are asking schools to prepare our students with much more than academic knowledge. We want students to become independent learners and understand how to use academic knowledge and skills. The expectation has always been there but it is now explicit and therefore requires more intentionality. Thus, schools have to start thinking more intentionally about how they creating the conditions, supporting their teachers, and creating the opportunities for students to develop three sets of knowledge, skills and mindsets:1) building blocks for learning such as self-regulation and growth mindset; 2)academic knowledge and skills; and 3) the transferable skills needed to use that knowledge such as problem-solving, analysis and communication.

What types of experiences are needed during the day, week, semester and year to make this happen? Here’s my short list:

Relationship building: There are portions of each and every day, some formal and some created as the opportunity arises, for trust and relationship building. With new students, getting to know your students is the magic ingredient for the student-teacher alliance to form.

Building Blocks of Learning: To help students learn to put forth effort in their learning and to become lifelong learners, they need instruction, guidance, coaching, and opportunities for reflection. Growth mindset, self-regulation, and social-emotional learning are some of the core capacities students need to learn and to continue refining throughout their thirteen or so years in school. They’ll need to see teachers model the behaviors, learn strategies, and have a safe place to reflect. They’ll need to set goals for developing these skills and receive feedback to help them develop strategies that work for them. Making sure students fully develop these skills is an essential strategy for any school committed to equitable education. (See Zaretta Hammond’s book Culturally Responsive Teaching and The Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students. It’s a must read.)

Direct instruction: Students need high quality direct instruction to learn. They also need an opportunity to practice and receive timely feedback so that misconceptions can be identified and corrections made. In order to move new concepts from working memory to long-term memory, they may need help in strategies to memorize. We underestimate the time it takes to achieve automaticity – that instant retrieval of information. If students don’t achieve automaticity, they are going to have a tougher time engaging in deeper learning. Quite simply, their working memory will be trying to remember what a term or concept means and won’t have as much bandwidth for puzzling through more complex problems. Thus, time for practice and retrieval is critical.

We know that learning is tiring. We become depleted after 15 minutes or so of hard thinking. So direct instruction has to build in breaks or change the rhythm of learning. And students will have different skills and levels of enduring rigorous learning. Some will carry worries into school that will draw attention away from learning unless they are supported in ways to manage emotions and thoughts.

Application: I use this general term to try to capture all the different ways that students have opportunities to use and apply what they are learning. These might be performance tasks and performance-based assessments. Some schools use the term deeper learning. Too many use project-based learning as a catch-all term for any type of activity or project. If students are learning to apply all three sets of success skills (lifelong learning, academics, and transferable skills) in schools, what are the best ways to apply and reflect upon them so we are confident that students are mastering all three sets of student success goals?

Bob Lenz of the Buck Institute advised that a good starting point is to offer students two project-based learning opportunities a year.

Inquiry and meaning-making: Again, this is another catch-all category. Students need the opportunity to explore, ask their own questions, and make connections to their lives past, present, and future. They need opportunities to broaden their horizons, engage in real-world problems, meet adults with interesting jobs they didn’t know existed, and imagine their future. There are concerns, based on research, that inquiry-based learning may not be as effective as direct instruction in building new academic knowledge and skills. However, it may play other critical roles in the development of students that are valuable for learning. For example, that wonderful stage of early adolescence and the exploration of Who Am I? is a powerful opportunity to develop intrinsic motivation for learning.

Assessing, reflecting, and providing feedback: Just because this is listed last doesn’t mean it’s less important. Time, teacher attention, and resources need to be directed toward understanding how students are progressing, reflecting on the implications for improving instruction, and providing feedback to students so they can master the learning targets. Truly, we have to stop misdirecting resources with too much time and money spent on summative assessments.

What is the right mix of creating a foundation of trust, building lifelong learning skills, instructing students on specific academic knowledge and skills, providing opportunity to learn how to apply skills, and making meaning of what students are learning in school? How might we define the Goldilocks Principle, that just-right experience for students in modern schools? Instead of classes, courses and semesters are there other ways of clustering time that might help us begin to communicate more effectively about how schools are designed?

It’s likely that we have too many expectations and to many standards to pack into the school calendar and schedule. But before we get into nitpicking what is most important to learn, let’s use this creative tension as an opportunity to be more strategic and understand how all these pieces might fit together.

As I think more about this challenge, I realize we need to start from Goldilock’s perspective.

Let’s think about what the ideal day is for students to optimize learning.

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