By Tom Vander Ark & Mary Ryerse
I have rewritten—often several times—every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers.”
~ Vladimir Nabokov
Think of a time when you saw teenagers doing world-class work.
Were they musicians, debaters, actors, athletes or performers? We have been asking educators when and where they’ve seen world-class work, and–more often than not–the top-of-mind examples come from extracurricular experiences such as these:
- A debate champion integrating subject matter knowledge with well-constructed arguments and defending a line of reasoning under intense scrutiny.
- A state basketball championship team that showed discipline, character, teamwork and persistence through adversity.
- A great musical performance where an unexpected talent blossomed after months of practice and great tutoring.
- A student-led newspaper publication that exhibited professional quality investigative journalism, great photography, and perfect editing.
- A championship First Robotics team championed by a teacher and inspired by mentors.
We’ve visited thousands of high schools around the world and we’ve seen a few hundred where young people do world-class work both within and beyond the classroom. Across these schools and experiences, we’ve seen common conditions, cultures and connections that power world-class work.
What are the Necessary Conditions?
There appear to be six preconditions, most of which must be present to cultivate and support world-class work:
- Sustained relationships. In order to pull off a culture of revision, there needs to be trusting relationships in a safe and supportive environment.
- High expectations and a strong vision. When young people know what is expected and have a strong vision for what’s possible. A winning team or great drama program almost always stem from a tradition of excellence Kickstart the flywheel with Models of Excellence.
- Community connections. While the role of a strong teacher, coach or advisor is key (see practice below), one person is often not enough. Most young people who do world-class work have both the support of and feedback from a community.
- Culture of revision. Nabokov’s “eraser quote” sums up the fact that world-class writing requires many, many drafts. When students know that any given assignment isn’t “one and done,” it’s easier for them to adopt a growth mindset. The first draft becomes less personal and more of a starting place.
- Deliberate practice. Anders Ericsson’s 10,000-hour rule (popularized by Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers) suggests it takes a lot of work,(perhaps 10,000 hours) to become an expert. However, as Ericsson describes in his new book Peak, it is deliberate practice that often involves performing exercises that were assigned by a teacher to help you improve in a particular area.
- Relevance. Most students engage more deeply when the work matters to them. Relevance may be formed through a combination of interest, community and competition which produce agency and persistence through cycles of practice and revision or improvement.
These conditions underscore the important role of the teacher, coach or advisor in promoting world-class work.
Why is it common to see world-class work outside the academic core? Why don’t we think of world-class work in English or math?
What Gets in the Way of World-Class Academic Work?
We see four main barriers to world-class academic work:
- Private work. Most of school is private– teachers grade assignments, they go into a gradebook and then get averaged in with other work. Moving beyond “turn it in” to doing public work–publications, presentations, productions–is the first step to creating the agency and the conditions for doing better work.
- Small tasks not big projects. You can ace a worksheet but that’s not world class. Quality work takes time. Big integrated blocks (like those common at New Tech Network schools) provide time for sustained inquiry and quality production.
In many cases, blended learning has exacerbated the problem of bite-sized learning. It takes academic leadership (teacher, school, system) to create space for deeper learning and world-class work–a choice for depth over breadth.
- Lack of vertical alignment. World class work doesn’t happen without years of deliberate practice–a clear focus within a common framework. Think of a great sports program that cultivates young talent with a freshman team and junior varsity. Academic examples include writing across the curriculum with common feedback practices. Another example is a K-12 STEM feeder pattern with annual science fairs.
- Honest feedback. Getting real honest feedback against a world-class standard is rare– and when it comes, it can be hard to hear. It needs to come from a trusted source and learners need to be in a safe place to hear and use tough feedback. At One Stone, an innovative Boise afterschool program and high school, students receive coach, peer and client feedback in an environment where they talk about “51-ing it,” which means it might take more than 50 tries to get a great idea or product.
Honest feedback in the classroom can come with effective formative assessment practice (where teachers help pave the path forward and students know how they are doing and where they are headed on a daily basis).
Promoting World-Class Work in the Classroom
What can teachers and school leaders do to create a culture of revision and promote world-class work?
- Move from private to public work. Host exhibitions, display student work, ask students to develop a portfolio, host student-led conferences and publish student work.
- Make room for big projects. Integrate topics. Develop an integrated block. Make room for big projects that challenge students and give them a chance to make something they’ll remember 20 years from now.
- Engage in real-world situations. Solving for x on a worksheet (a small task) means far less than solving for x as part of a project to design an aerodynamic airplane wing (part of a big project).
- World class skills is a team sport. World class work may take a couple of years to emerge. Managing competency-based progressions may take several handoffs in a grade span. Teachers working together aiming at common outcomes.
- Build on prior learning and experiences. Vertical alignment shouldn’t only exist on paper. Capstone projects can grow out of early experiences. Expand students’ engagement in the community as they deepen understanding.
- Provide honest feedback in a safe environment. Students can best receive feedback when they know they are accepted and when they can separate. “You’re a great person. Now let’s talk about the work product.”
- Honor the process. Remind students that, despite what they may have experienced in school so far, it’s more normal to revise and iterate work than it is to “get it right” the first time.
Ultimately, world-class work requires a combination of pressure and support. When the pressure is externalized (e.g., feedback from a real-world client, a statewide robotics competition, the big playoff game, a public performance)–and the motivation is internalized (students care)–it allows the teacher or advisor to be heavy on support.
Too often, we’ve put pressure on young people to work hard “so that they’re ready for the future.” But world-class work is not just about what students are preparing for somewhere down the road. World class work requires focusing on becoming a better learner, team member, contributor and friend tomorrow than we are today.