What’s your definition of success?

08.26.13 | Learning on the EDge | 1 Comment


We devote some attention in Leaving to Learn  to describing what we mean by student success and, by implication, what we do not mean by success. We argue for looking at the whole young person, who we see as defined by more than his or her test scores. We worry, as perhaps you do, that the extraordinary attention given to math and reading scores is diverting schools from looking at much more of each student.

Here’s what we wrote:

It is not just schools that need a more comprehensive understanding of success and how to achieve it. Our country is often of two minds about success. While most Americans celebrate the outliers who define success differently and take an unconventional path to achieve it, they (and this includes parents and education policy makers) take a very conservative and narrow view of what constitutes success with respect to schools and schooling. Parents, for example, are convinced that a four-year degree from as prestigious a college as their budgets will allow is the ideal pathway to success.

We’re wasting talent because we fail to embrace the qualities that distinguish many of our young people.

Our country and our schools need to treasure diversity, not just in ethnicity and race but also in how we look at the world and its problems and how we devise solutions to those problems. We are reminded of the poem “Pied Beauty,” by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1877), in which he celebrates “dappled things. . . . All things counter, original, spare, strange.” Hopkins encourages us to nurture the outliers.

It seems, therefore, actually dangerous or at least detrimental to our individual and collective well-being to stand so firmly on one definition of success. Our schools and our country are wasting talent because of our failure to embrace the “pied beauty” that distinguishes many of our young people.

Then think about these questions:

  • What is your school’s definition of student success? What are the dimensions of student success you think are important? Why?
  • How open are you to other formulations of success? Other dimensions?
  • How is your school trying to address all of those dimensions of success? How are the dimensions addressed in the learning opportunities you provide for students?
  • How do you obtain evidence of student learning and growth in those dimensions of success?
  • Even such an outcome/definition of success as “ready for college” is quite broad. Do you mean by that every student ready for Harvard? For a four-year college? For a community college or technical program? For the military?

Our guess is that, if you think about those questions deeply, you’ll discover that there is still a lot of work to be done to ensure that schools will graduate every single student to be successful in postsecondary learning, in their careers, and in their families and communities.


About Elliot Washor

ELLIOT WASHOR is cofounder and codirector of Big Picture Learning. His last Kappan article, coauthored with Charles Mojkowski and Loran Newsome, was “At the Core of the Apple Store: Images of Next Generation Learning,” Phi Delta Kappan, October 2009 (Vol. 91, No. 2), pp. 60-63.

Comments on What’s your definition of success?

  1. Dedra Carter says:

    I think these articles are informative and insightful. It has offered another view on the perspective of teaching young children. It gives me a different view of how to reach the little ones.

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