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  • Writer's pictureKevin Graham

Predicting Success in Education – the chicken and the egg

Every time we do anything, we’re making a prediction on success. Be it investing, watching a hockey game, casting a vote, trying a new recipe… or educating our children. We’re placing a bet on a method, trusting that we’ve properly measured and determined the path to success.

As you may surmise, my concern here is on the education of our children. How can we predict success in the education of our children? How can we prescribe for success in the education of our children? How can we measure success in the education of our children? These are, of course, trick questions. They cannot be answered before we first articulate what success in education actually is. With that achievement, the exercise becomes a never-ending loop: describe; prescribe; predict; test; and measure – then tweak the system and do it all over again.

What is success in education? Ask 100 parents and you’ll get 100 different answers. Too many will still say, ‘getting a well-paying job’. Too many will still say, ‘gaining admission to a prestigious college’. Too many will still say, ‘higher grades’. Ouch, ouch, and more ouch!

Over the past 25 years of working with independent schools, I’ve come to witness an unfortunate transformation in parents as their children progress through the grades. Parents of Kindergartners invariably want their children to get along… and not to bite anybody today. As their children mature, developmental changes turn many parents into veritable beasts. “I want my child to attend College X or College Y, and I don’t care whom they have to bite to get there. It’s a dog-eat-dog world and this world is a zero-sum game. If you’re not a winner, you’re a loser.”

Let me be clear that this picture bears no resemblance to anything in my definition of success in education for my children. Grades and post-secondary studies and high-paying jobs are residuals of success, not objectives. For my own children, I’ve recommended three steps on the path to success, as follows:

  • First, figure out what you love most to do.

  • Second, become the best you can be, doing what you love most to do.

  • Third, find someone crazy enough to pay you to do what you love most to do.

If money is meant to follow, it will. If not, you’ll still be doing well what you love to do. This fits more than satisfactorily into my picture of success, both in education and in life, generally.

To this simple prescription, the only condition I’ll add is that you need to be a net contributor to society. Make a difference. End of discussion.

Fear not. The 3 R’s are foundational in my model of education. Make no mistake of that, but there’s so much more to be achieved. I haven’t yet worked with a school that doesn’t surpass the minimum threshold in academic preparedness for higher education. With this threshold as a given, then, I am compelled to ask:

  • What else can you do for my children?

  • Can you help them to find and feed their passion?

  • Can you help them to find and forge a place for themselves within the (school) community?

  • Can you help them to ‘get along and not bite anybody’?

If you’re still with me, accepting the notion that, largely, we’re not preparing our children to work in factories:

  • Which aspects of the 1830 factory model school can we safely jettison?

  • Should we knock down the walls that separate master teachers from novices?

  • Should we run year-round classes?

  • Should we abandon standardized testing?

  • Should we explore for better predictors of success, assuming of course that we agree on a workable definition of success?

  • Should we place our chips on Scott Looney’s Mastery Transcript Consortium? From what I know of him, I’d never bet against Scott Looney.

Still there? Bear with me. This has a destination, I promise. In search of a prescription for success in education, I find myself facing somewhat of a ‘chicken and egg’ dilemma. Let me set it up with a short list of statements, all of which I view as central to any conversation about success in education:

  • I want my child to feel a strong sense of belonging to the school community.

  • I want my child to feel emotionally safe while at school.

  • I want my child to be actively engaged in out-of-classroom activities (OOCA) at school.

  • I want my child to learn how to adapt to change in this rapid-fire century.

  • I want my child to be able and willing to take appropriate risks.

  • I want my child to have and take the opportunity to explore and develop passion for both academic and non-academic pursuits.

  • I consider the presence of intellectual curiosity as a far better predictor of success than standardized testing. This one, alone, demands its own doctoral thesis.

Here’s my dilemma. How can I place these items in an ordered sequence that leads to success in education. What comes first? What comes second? In fact, is there a sequence? Is this, in any way, a one-directional journey through a series of predictable checkpoints? Clearly, it is not.

Sense of belonging leads to emotional safety, but emotional safety, in turn, leads to engagement which, in turn, enables a sense of belonging… just as it does for other elements on my wish list. Does engagement in OOCA lead to enhanced risk assessment or is it the other way around? Can intellectual curiosity be trained, or is it just one of those things where, ‘you’ve got it or you don’t’?

I’m sure you could easily add to my wish list. I offer it here only to make a point: This is not a chicken/egg dilemma. In the end, we need chickens to have eggs and we need eggs to have chickens. There is no clear and concise causal model for success in education. Certain factors contribute more to success than others, but what are they? Success leads to more success… until, in the presence of complacency, it inevitably leads to failure. In some cases, influence is bi-directional, and in others, many-directional. The direction of cause and effect is fully up for grabs. It’s also moot. My focus is not to ascertain the direction of cause and effect, but to study correlates – associations, not causal relationships, at least not directionally. Specifically, I want to know which elements in my model consistently rise to the top in correlation with other elements?

This is one of the major objectives set for the upcoming Community and Belonging survey of students (to be administered in November, 2022, at no cost to participating schools). There are already 85 independent schools signed up, involving more than 37,000 students in Grades 9 through 12. We expect this to rise dramatically by the end of Summer.

The foregoing sets the stage for me to share with you the finalized survey (please take note of the boldfaced type here), linked here.

Demographic questions A3, A4, and A5 are the only distinctions between these two versions. All rating-type questions are identically matched. Are Canadian and American students more alike than different? I’m betting ‘yes’. We’ll know the answer soon enough.

Looking through this questionnaire, you can imagine my joy at the prospect of studying the answers to all 42 questions, each on their own, and each as they connect to one another. While, for certain, I won’t be able to articulate a definitive formula for ‘success in education,’ I do anticipate good opportunities to say, ‘look closely here and look closely there’. (In fact, I’ll boldly predict overwhelming success on this account.) I look forward to sharing our findings with you here, early next year. Stay tuned.

With respect,

Kevin Graham

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