Tuesday, June 17, 2014

I recently asked my youngest daughter, Lizzie (age 6), what she wanted to be when she grows up. Lizzie promptly replied, “A pet shop owner.” She also added, “and no parrots would be allowed.” I misunderstood her pronunciation of the word “parrot” for “parent.” I asked with a hint of rejection, “Why aren’t parents allowed?” She, still thinking I was repeating the word parrots, said, “Because they are so talkative and just plain weird.” Feeling more insulted and rather bothered with those harsh words, the conversation continued to spiral downward. I started to plead my case of why parents should be allowed; she remained unflappable insisting parrots would not be admitted. I voiced how much her mother and I would like to come to her store. She sat quietly for a moment with a puzzled expression on her face that then shifted to a smile and said, “You and mom can come! I said PARROTS aren’t allowed.”

Leaving the parrot confusion aside, the conversation did reveal that Lizzie was rather confident in her ambition of being a pet shop owner. This career choice is a puzzling one to me. We don’t have any pets and she generally hides behind my leg at the sight of any dogs passing by and doesn’t embrace other people’s cats. And yet, she really didn’t see the obvious disconnect between her apparent fear of animals and her desire to be a pet shop owner. Keep in mind, she is 6-years old. Two days ago, she probably would have said she wanted to be a queen of a small island. Nonetheless, our conversation reminded me of a presentation from Dr. Russell Quaglia at the ASCD conference that I attended this past March. Dr. Quaglia shared a powerful message about the importance of making student voice and student aspirations a bigger part of learning and teaching today. He shared a graphic similar to the one below that illustrated aspirations are the intersection of dreaming and doing. As educators, our goal should be to help more students find their way into the upper-right quadrant: helping them define and reach their aspirations.


I’m a big believer in the power of imagination. History has shown us the importance of dreaming big. John F. Kennedy’s lofty vision of putting a man on the moon just didn’t inspire astronauts at that time; it rallied a nation to appreciate new advances in technology and spawned a whole generation to become more interested in science and mathematics. Martin Luther King, Jr. forever shaped the landscape of racial integration by standing up and sharing his dream with the nation. Having a dream, a vision, a big idea, doesn’t just give purpose to one’s own life; it brings meaning and hope to others. But, dreaming without action - without “doing” doesn’t yield results and is ultimately just thoughts in someone’s head. Had we never landed on the moon or made great strides with racial equality, I’m not sure that President Kennedy’s or Dr. King’s speeches would be remembered more than five decades later. And, although Lizzie might imagine herself as a queen of a small island, that doesn’t make it come true.

The disconnect between Lizzie’s actions around pets and her dreams of being a pet shop owner is not just representative of other six-year olds; this gap of dreaming and doing also exists in many students of all ages – including those just now graduating. We have students who dream of being mechanical engineers or astronauts, who don’t want to take four years of mathematics in high school; students who talk about becoming fashion stylists who don’t enjoy art; and kids who dream of being NBA players who don’t show up regularly for basketball practice.

But, this article is not your typical “kids these days” lecture. In fact, overall, I remain optimistic about our youth and our future. They are a generation who largely want to have their voice heard and want to show value and purpose in their work. They want to do something that matters. So, how do you convince a 6-year old or a 16-year old that their actions of today are what makes their ambitions of tomorrow possible? After listening to speakers like Dr. Quaglia, spending time in classrooms, talking with teachers and students, and trying to navigate the daily rat race with my own children, I’ve become increasingly convinced that it’s not what we tell the students that shapes their thinking and actions the most; it’s our ability to ask the right questions and to inspire them to become better questioners themselves.

After I asked Lizzie what she wanted to be, I altered the question to, “Who do you want to be?” “In other words,” I explained, “what do you want others to think about you when you are older?” She paused for a bit and then shared the following adjectives as her desired qualities on what she would want others to use to describe her: nice, kind, loving, active, caring, hardworking, curious, and smart. These powerful words guided our conversation into how she can make others feel this way about her. Almost magically, she began rattling off countless actions she could take now. It wasn’t an abstract conversation about some far-off future. It was her “to-do list” for tomorrow at school.

In the book To Sell is Human, Daniel Pink shared a tip in asking the right question in sales that also works with children. He suggests if a teenager doesn’t want to do their homework, ask the teenager: “On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 meaning ‘not the least bit ready’ and 10 meaning ‘totally ready,’ how ready are you to study?” So, I tried this with my older daughter, Anna Mae (age 9), as he suggested. After rating her desire to do homework as a 3, I asked Pink’s essential follow-up question: “Why didn’t you pick a lower number?” I simply was amazed to hear her giving me reasons on why she should do the homework, exactly as Pink had described. In other words, instead of me barking out my normal do-your-homework-or-else threat, by asking the right question, Anna Mae made the argument herself about why the homework was necessary and conceded rather quickly to do the work.

By sharing these examples, I’m not claiming that I have the art of asking questions mastered. Too often I fail to ask the right questions in my job and in my home. I also know how difficult it is to step away from the front of the room and let go of being the great explainer and instead embrace becoming a better questioner. But, we know that giving our students both a voice and choice in their learning and asking thought-provoking questions - instead of reciting facts - is more effective in helping students become better problem solvers and ultimately better learners. And by doing so, we help empower students to find that powerful combination of both dreaming and doing, reaching their ambitions.

So, each day, I work on being better at asking questions. My hope is that someday both Anna Mae and Lizzie achieve their ambitions. And if Lizzie does become a proud owner of a pet shop, I hope she will fight the urge from banning me because I’m too talkative or weird.

(This article was also posted here on Five-Star Technology Solutions blog.)
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