A recent job change has extended my daily commute and as a result I have been listening to audiobooks to pass the time and minimize the frustration with road construction. I know that I am late to this party, but audiobooks are a pretty great way to both decompress after a challenging day and get excited about a new one. I recently listened to The Power of Moments by Chip and Dan Heath and it has been rolling around in my head for a while since I finished it. (This poses a new challenge with audiobooks. With a traditional book, I would flip through the pages and reread different sections. I haven’t quite figured out how to do that with the audio version.) I have been a big fan of the Heath brothers since reading their book Switch, which contained one of my favorite metaphors about the change process and proved incredibly helpful in a variety of settings.
The Power of Moments is a similar book in that it is not written exclusively for educators and yet the connections are undeniable. The authors’ thesis is that we all have experienced defining moments in our lives that have impacted us in different ways. I was hooked early in the book when the authors described a treasure chest that we all have where we keep souvenirs and mementos that are meaningful to us. I have a green hanging folder that simply has a smiley face on it. I created that folder in my first teaching job more than twenty years ago and it has followed me to every single job I have had since. Inside I have placed notes from administrators, school pictures from my years as an elementary principal, cards from parents, and artwork from students. When I have a difficult day, I pull out the ‘smile file’ and remember times when things worked well in order to relive those powerful moments. Imagine the potential if we could purposefully design moments that are memorable and meaningful and, ultimately, improved the experiences of others. The authors assert that defining moments are characterized by four different concepts: elevation (moments that are unique), pride (celebrate achievements), insight (provide realizations), or connection (bond us with others).
Part of the reason these ideas resonated with me is that I often start presentations by asking the audience about a personal experience with assessment. I try not to influence the conversation by specifically not asking for negative or positive experiences, and yet when I ask for individuals to share with the group, the majority of those examples are negative. If we take the advice of Chip and Dan Heath, could we change that?
When I told a fellow traveler on an airplane that I worked in assessment, he asked if I had a stash of #2 pencils. He obviously had one specific idea about assessment based on his own experiences. One of the reasons that moments become “defining moments” is that they are moments of elevation that rise above the routine. Do we have assessments that challenge the stereotypes of testing? I believe that assessments can be rigorous, aligned with standards, meaningful, and also “break the script” of past experiences. The authors actually give an example of a high school interdisciplinary project that involves high rigor and public demonstrations of knowledge that has become a tradition in the school. Assessment should be an opportunity for students to truly demonstrate what they know and are able to do. It should be a moment of elevation and of pride as well.
Another component of defining moments that stuck with me was the concept of insight. When we have a moment of insight, our views can be completely transformed. Again, I found myself thinking of those often negative experiences with assessment that participants have shared over the years. Participants have stated “after I failed the test, that’s when I decided I was bad at math,” or “when I failed, I never auditioned for anything again.” I could not help but wonder if those were accurate insights. Don’t hear me say that our feedback should only be positive. I have learned most when people provided me with specific feedback, either positive or negative. The difference is when I have been given a chance to do something with that feedback; that is when a real transformation has taken place for me. The authors shared learning examples that caused people to “trip over the truth,” and caused people to stretch and risk.
What would that look like in a classroom? Could our students be provided with opportunities to risk and potentially fail, knowing that we would be there to help them overcome those obstacles, rather than play “gotcha?” Do we provide students with enough feedback along the journey so that they can do something with it? Does our feedback help students see how they can get through that door or do we just slam it closed? I have heard people describe feedback as something that should be as much work for the recipient as for the provider, which would certainly help students create their own insights instead of making the change for them. I was certainly guilty of this as a former English teacher who corrected my students’ writing errors in red pen. I denied them the opportunity to “trip over the truth” or to learn from their mistakes by revising. What if I had provided feedback at a point when they could use it to improve their writing?
The authors also do not dispute that some of the most powerful moments in our lives are spur of the moment. How as educators are we communicating with our students so that we keep those doors of opportunity open? Sometimes the off-hand comments we hear can last a lifetime. I remember distinctly an elementary teacher telling me that I would never write a book when I stated that as a goal. I don’t think she meant it to be a defining moment, but it became one. And I will write that book someday! I have also been fortunate to have plenty of other people in my life give me very different messages about what I could accomplish.
The Power of Moments was a book that did not necessarily provide me with new information about designing quality assessments, but with a new frame with which to view my work as an educator. We play influential roles in helping to shape the futures of students. Do our learning opportunities and assessments include elevation, pride, insight, and connection? If we could create assessments using those ideas, I believe that I will hear about fewer of those negative experiences with assessment in the future. Our students would have their own “smile file” of moments that fuel them.
The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact (2017) by Chip and Dan Heath (Simon and Schuster)