Sunday, April 9, 2017

P.O.W.E.R. & Thriving: Formulas for Success

We’ve been studying various ways to explain growth - leaning on traditional models of student development like Perry and Kohlberg. We also examined racial identity development models (see beverly Daniel Tatum's "Talking About Race, Learning about Racism"), another crucial area of growth. Movement through developmental models (ethical, moral, racial) can lead to an overall state of flourishing. 

One formula that measures how students flourish is what education professor Laura Schreiner calls the “thriving quotient.” Her formula accounts for the kind of growth we’d like students (and ourselves, as life-long learners!) to achieve. Schreiner breaks up her formula into five common sense factors: Social Connectedness, Positive Perspectives, Academic Determination, Valuing of Diverse Citizenry, and Engaged Learning.

She describes those ingredients in her essay, "The Thriving Quotient.” Social Connections speaks to fostering social capital and “soft skills” we need for collaborative work. Positive Perspective refers to positive psychology theories like Carol Dweck’s “Growth Mindset” and Angela Duckworth’s “Grit.” Academic Determination has to do goals, attitudes, and skills for growth. Value for Diverse Citizenry isn’t only about the ability to work well with different kinds of people. It’s about hope and the spirit of optimism that intergroup collaboration makes a difference. Engaged Learning accounts for actively participating in one’s learning.

That same month we analyzed Schreiner's essay, a presenter at a Black History Month event spoke about the relationship between resistance and growth. Communication professor, poet, and artist, Dr. Rachel Hastings introduced us to the acronym "POWER" which stands for her version of success. Her reading accounts for resistance against oppression. This was apt since the event celebrated Malcolm X and his heroic struggle for social justice. Here's what Doc Hastings proposed:

Though the two frameworks don’t map onto each other perfectly, we noted important similarities. Both formulas call us to be intentional and purposeful (Academic Determination + Pick Your Purpose + Walk the Walk). Each prescribes active, “live” learning (Embrace your Education + Engaged Learning). Both argue for intra-personal understanding, an internal optimistic mindset (Offer Openness + Positive Perspective). And, in certain ways, “offering openness” and “social connectedness” are complementary, both asking ourselves to trust ourselves and others.

Yet two differences strike me. First, Schreiner lists abstract concepts - her ingredients are conceptual nouns. In contrast, Doc Hasting offers everyday, tangible actions along with concepts  - she directs listeners to act. What’s so important about this difference? Nouns suggest a destination (place!) or possession (thing!). Schreiner’s factors seem like you must “arrive” at an abstract state, or own an non-concrete object. You’re there, or you're not. You “got it,” or you don’t. The POWER formula calls for decisive, easy to grasp actions (pick, offer, walk, embrace, and read are all verbs). Verbs capture the processual, developmental aspect of flourishing. Doc Hasting's thriving is not a "one-and-done" event. Sure, the concepts remain abstract, but the actions are accessible. 

Malcolm X urges us to read behind the media's rhetoric.
Also, think of the contrast between the questions, “Do you have 'academic determination'?” and “Are you 'walking the walk'?” Both need a yes, no, or a slightly nuanced “somewhere-in-between” answer. The first question, the one from Schreiner’s recipe, asks the us to mull over our condition, our state. The other question, the one derived from Doc Hastings, asks if we whether or not we are being active in our own education. Hasting's acronym 
suggests that growth is a course of action, not just a meditation. They phrases are directives, injunctions 

Her commands are more memorable because  Hastings uses alliteration and repeated grammatical patterns (Verb + Noun). Her use of rhythm lodges the acronym in our head more securely.  

Perhaps I'm being finicky over word choice, but the image and action implied by POWER seems more motivational, more visceral, than the headier, more abstract phrases Schreiner coined. 

A second difference has to do with “Read through the Rhetoric,” the factor refers to developing a critical eye, an analytical mindset. This makes sense at an event celebrating Malcolm X. Doc Hastings would want listeners to notice how discourses of domination operate in the media, popular culture, government, places of worship, and our education systems. Schreiner’s formula misses the critical analysis and anti-oppression stance POWER promotes. 

Yes, "valuing diverse citizenry" speaks of hope. But "valuing" and "hope" bespeak a willingness to dream of justice instead of deconstructing systems of advantage. That’s a crucial omission. The abstract terms "valuing diversity" and "hope" risk erasing the need for naming and dismantling oppressive structure. The flourishing I want doesn’t passively accept the stories that shape our society. I want a theory of success that compels me to critically examine and deconstruct oppressive narratives in order to create a just society.

This is precisely what Malcolm X asks us to do when we consume media: to look behind the surface meaning of messages, to look for implications,interpretations and interpretations that contribute to colonized thinking. bell hooks also promotes reading through the rhetoric, using critical thinking in order to advocate for everyone's success.

bell hooks asks us to interrogate what & how school teaches.
Regardless how engaged our learning is or how academically determined we are, when we carelessly “believe the hype,” we maintain the status quo. The final injunction in Hasting's POWER acronym urges us to see the imbalances in our systems, those gaps and broken places that give rise to injustice.

Don’t misunderstand. I like Schreiner’s equation. Her concepts are useful. And to be fair, her discussion about optimism, hope and diverse citizenry does approach what I like about Hasting’s acronym. Still, POWER promotes a flourishing, a mode of success that explicitly urges us to actively critique ourselves and the world around us. POWER prescribes a praxis for success for all. 

A hearty thanks to Doc Hasting for her permission to write about her talk and to our students Krystin S. & Ayzha H. for their help revising this post. #EngagedLearning #AcademicDetermination