I’ve been reading the book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Chip and Dan Heath. The book identifies key factors that spur positive change. In one section, the authors discuss creating a new identity and a growth mindset. They tell the story of Molly Howard, a special education teacher who became the principal of Jefferson County High School. This particular high school was low achieving for many years, with only 15% of graduates going on to college. Molly Howard changed this when she became principal, and she began by altering the identity of the students. Students, teachers and administrators had begun to think of only some kids as potential successes, able to attend college and achieve more than they currently were achieving. Molly Howard challenged this assumption and changed the grading system in her school. Instead of A, B, C, D and F as potential grades, she limited grades to three: A, B, or C. If you hadn’t achieved at least a C your work was described as “Not Yet.” In this way, no child would ever be perceived or perceive him or herself as a failure or a D student. All learned to identify themselves as able to succeed in learning. In 2008, she was named Principal of the Year by the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

Not only do our students need to identify themselves and be identified as able to succeed in academics, we also need to identify them and ourselves in other visionary and important ways. It isn’t enough for students to succeed on standardized tests measuring their acquisition of certain scholastic skills; we all need to create bigger identities for ourselves as agents of positive change. Many have come to believe that we really can’t change pervasive problems in the world. Last summer I spent a couple of nights with a group of strangers on an island off Newfoundland. Among them was an Israeli couple. The subject of Israeli-Palestinian peace came up, and not only did the Israeli couple believe that there would never be peace, many of the Americans in the group agreed with them.

If we believe that peace is impossible, that we cannot end slavery or institutionalized animal cruelty, reverse climate change or restore habitat, slow human population growth or find non-polluting energy and mineral sources, then we will never achieve these important goals. But if we change our identities, realize that we have the ingenuity and capacity to solve problems, we can do so. We have the ability, and many have the will. But we need the belief, the identity, and the commitment to raise a generation who with this same believe and identity. And then we must provide this generation with the tools and knowledge to achieve this great task.

Zoe Weil
Author of The Power and Promise of Humane Education, Most Good, Least Harm and Above All, Be Kind

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