Redefining Smart – A Book Review

Redefining Smart book cover for blog postQuality educators who have operated from their heart, from relationships with students, and who have seen themselves as coaches and designers of learning, will be greatly heartened by a new book, Redefining Smart: Awakening Students’ Power to Reimagine Their World (Corwin, 2016). I found it difficult to put the book down.

As a psychologist, educator, and disciple of positive psychology, Markham makes a strong case for soft skills, suggesting that we have spent enough time focused on a deficit and reductionistic view of human nature. As a Christian, I resonate deeply with models of learning that, knowingly or unknowingly, recognize the image of God in each learner and focus on positive ways to educate students. I appreciated Markham’s counter of the “we must have rigor” argument by suggesting that the “soft” skills of effective communication, emotional balance, gratitude, empathy, optimism, perseverance, etc. are in real life some of the most difficult skills to master, certainly more difficult than fact memorization. I was further encouraged by the author’s reminder that positive emotions can actually improve health and be biologically restorative. As a believer, that resonates deeply with how I would expect our Creator to have made us – and we are reminded to be positive by verses such as “Whatsoever is true, noble, lovely, good, pure…..think on these things.” (Philippians 4:8)

Markham advocates for a “connectionist” model of learning – a holistic model that brings together relationships, attitudes, emotions, and brain functions and explores the impacts of new research about both our brains and our hearts. We are learning ever more about how the brain loves novelty, grows, reflects the needs of its owner, and how it is also very social. The warmth of relationships, positive emotional connections, and the control of the level of stress hormones all contribute to an increase in performance of the learning brain. In other words, love matters and we now have the research to prove it!

The chapter I have talked about the most with others is the one on reconnecting the heart and the brain. Markham shares new information from the heart research of Fredrickson and other researchers that is pretty astounding, yet confirming of biblical wisdom. To list a few examples: the heart contains 30,000 neurons that are very similar to those in the cranial brain, 80% of nerve traffic goes upward from the heart to the brain, the heart is the primary regulator of our nervous system in managing stress and optimizing performance, and positive/negative emotions activate the heart network that impacts our entire body. Our heart generates 5,000 times more electromagnetic energy as our brain and the heart waves from our body can be detected up to six feet away! In other words, the state of our hearts are communicated to those around us! Successful classroom and school climates are driven by our attitudes of love and acceptance that can help our students hearts and brains function at maximum levels. It is fascinating to see the medical science now bear out what we have know intuitively – we need to really love others to bring out the best in them and positive emotional states can be contagious.

In the second half of the book, Markham moves to consider how  our current understanding of how students are smart might be aligned with appropriate pedagogy, strategies, and structures. He makes a strong case for personalized, student-driven systems of learning through three key elements: caring relationships, the desire for meaning, and the power of mastery.

Some key ideas in the latter half of the book:

  1. Gallup research indicates that students who have at least one teacher who makes them feel excited about the future are 30 times more likely to show signs of classroom engagement – a key predictor of academic success.
  2. Helping kids to flourish: “Fostering intelligent behaviors and deeper learning won’t occur without an appreciative interest in the whole person or in the absence of caring relationships and empathetic interactions.” (p.62)
  3. Ecology or school climate matters – create child friendly systems that produce hope, engagement, and well-being. Remove cultural and structural barriers that inhibit caring educators.
  4. Rethink competency – competency needs to include not only skills and content mastery, but also creativity, problem solving, innovation, and self-reliance.
  5. Take charge of standards – filter, decide what is non-negotiable, and align to questions and topics that matter.
  6. Shift from classroom management to people management. Move into a coaching role and use a protocol to guide coaching conversations.
  7. Coach critical thinking, ask great questions, and focus on practices of inquiry.
  8. Add fiero to your classroom. (Sorry – you will have to read the book to see what that means!)
  9. View collaboration as a key competency, and reduce focus on competition.
  10. The last chapter suggests 12 ways for you as a teacher to prepare yourself for this time of major shifts in educational practice.

As you can see, this book has been written to the teacher in the trenches and I appreciate the challenge the author gives to the reader – a teacher can make a huge difference. While I have difficulty agreeing with the author’s contention that “there is no need to associate character attributes with moral or religious movements,” I feel that overall the author makes a compelling case for holding high the dignity and worth of each individual student, and demonstrates how love is a key to learning.

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