Ep 167: What Self-Directed Learning Can Do for Teens

Episode Summary

Diane Tavenner, author of Prepared and founder of Summit Public Schools, joins us to shed light on the practical to-dos she has learned from running some of the highest ranked public schools in the United States.

Show NotesInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

When it comes to our kids’ education, we don’t want to cut corners. We want them to have access to a thorough, fulfilling schooling so that they’ll have a bright future! However, today’s school system often fails to meet our expectations. Teens are shuffled through a long day of sitting in a classroom, doing what they’re told, with almost no personal connection to what they’re learning. No wonder so many of them are falling behind or finding themselves woefully unprepared for college!

Although it may seem like there’s no way to combat this problem, our guest today thinks otherwise. The trick, she believes, is to flip the script and put teens behind the driver’s seat of their own education. If we’re encouraging kids to push themselves forward instead of constantly forcing them to budge, we might actually see them make some real progress! It won’t be easy, but it will be well worth it.

This week, we’re talking with someone who’s putting in work everyday to revolutionize education. Diane Tavenner is the co-founder and CEO of Summit Public Schools, a nationally recognized system of charter schools that has been praised across the board–including being ranked in American News and World Report as some of the best high schools in the United States! She’s here to talk about some key ideas from her book, Prepared: What Kids Need for a Fulfilled Life

In the episode, Diane and I are telling you how you can help your teen take charge of their own education, and figure out what they want to do with their life! Plus, we’re shelling out quick and easy mindfulness practices that you and your teen can both practice on an everyday basis to boost motivation.

How Teens Can Drive Their Own Education

When Diane and four other teachers decided to start up a charter school, they first had to draw up some principles that would guide their classrooms. They reflected on their own experiences struggling through the poorly designed public school system as teachers. Together, they realized that one of the most troubling aspects of most schools was the passivity of the student experience! Instead of pushing kids to set goals based on their own interests, schools expected kids to complete worksheets full of rote memorization and take classes they didn’t care about.

Diane, along with Summit’s other founders, decided that their school would emphasise the students’ personal ownership of their education. Instead of teaching compliance, like most public schools, they would teach independence! This didn’t come easy, however. Diane has frequently been challenged by Summit’s students to shift her perspective towards a student-driven model. 

In one case, Diane was confronted with a student who was doing so poorly that he simply wasn’t going to be able to graduate. Frustrated, she and the student’s parents made a list of all the things they could do to help get the student back on track. By the time they were done, however, they realized they hadn’t even consulted the student at all! Because we’re so used to a school system totally controlled by adults, we forget just how integral it is for students to make choices about how they’re learning.

In the episode, we talk about how you can bring this principle into your own home to encourage your teen to be intentional about their learning. But what about beyond school? Diane and I also talk about helping your teen find out what they want to do with their future.

Helping Teens Find Their Purpose

Even if teens are active in their own education, it doesn’t mean they are sure about their direction! It’s hard to pick a path when you’ve barely experienced the world yet…and it doesn’t help that we constantly ask kids what they “want to be when they grow up” from the time they’re old enough to talk. Luckily, Diane has some great tips for helping teens narrow down their career journey and find their calling.

Diane calls on parents to help teens find their “ings”. This process involves guiding teens to define the activities that they enjoy, that they’re good at or that make them feel purposeful–like writing, coding, dancing, teaching, etc! When we ask teens to pick a career, we’re often asking them to pigeonhole themselves into something they likely know nothing about, says Diane. Many students go into college or even graduate college with no connection to their degree. Instead, figuring out the things they are driven to do can help them find a meaningful pursuit.

For some teens, this can also include defining the “ings” they don’t resonate with. In the episode, she tells the story of a student who was lucky enough to score his dream coding internship…only to find out he hated coding. Although he initially viewed this as a failure, he eventually came to see how this perceived disappointment acted as a lesson! Instead of trying to fit into a box he didn’t belong in through adult life, he came to realize that coding was not his destiny. He did find that he enjoyed “ings” like collaborating, setting him on a new career path.

By encouraging your teen to do some self reflection, you can help them be more intentional in their own education. It is important to note, however, that setting intentions is one thing but keeping to them is another! In our interview, Diane is sharing some simple practices to make every day life more intentional for both you and your teen.

How Mindfulness Can Boost Motivation

You may have been intrigued by the idea of mindfulness, but can’t commit to hours of meditation or long morning yoga classes. With all the stress of life, it can feel like these relaxing practices are just another thing we have to pencil in after work. However, with the right methods, you and your family can incorporate mindful practices in everyday life. Helping your teens take time out of their day to reflect can be a helpful aide to their education process too, says Diane.

Diane and I talk about a process called “check-in, check-out”. Instead of requiring lots of time and effort and throwing off your daily schedule, this practice simply involves taking five minutes at the beginning of the day and five at the end. In the morning, Diane encourages us to “check-in”: set some intentions for the day, think about how we feel, and set ourselves in the present. At the end of the day, as we’re winding down, she recommends that we “check-out”, or process our feelings about the day, evaluate whether or not we met our intentions, and think about what we are going to do tomorrow!

This basic practice can help us get in touch with ourselves instead of staring at our devices! It also helps us keep our goals in mind, and live our best lives. Diane suggests that parents introduce this concept to teens, and even invite them to share their results with you. Teens often feel like we don’t listen, says Diane, and showing that you care can help the two of you strengthen your connection. Plus, this practice may help them think critically about their education goals, and whether or not they’ve been met!

In the Episode…

I learned so much from Diane this week, and I know you will too! There’s so many great tips for parents in this episode. On top of the topics discussed above, we talk about:

  • Why kids need space to fail
  • How to ask better questions than “How was school?”
  • What to do when your kid quits everything 
  • How to help a kid that’s totally checked out

If you want to check out more of Diane’s work, you can find helpful resources at www.preparedparents.org. Thanks for listening, and don’t forget to subscribe!

Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: You have a lot of experience in schools, some schools that you have kind of built from the ground up really, and getting to experiment with a total new way of education and a new way of thinking about how to really prepare kids for life. And it’s really inspiring. It’s cool. Can you talk a little bit about just, how did this happen? How did you get here and what inspired you to then turn it into a book?

Diane: Wow. Well, thank you. I am grateful to be in conversation with you today, and it’s always fun to reflect on the journey of how, how we got here. And honestly it starts with my own education and what education meant to me. And I grew up in a home that wasn’t terribly safe, both emotionally and physically. And in many cases, school was sort of my safe space in some cases and sometimes it wasn’t, and so there’s a real contrast there. That said education really enabled me to find my way out of that situation and sort of begin to make sense of myself. So it was a real calling for me wanting to create that for other people, or other kids like me and feeling like maybe I could do something more or better on that front, given where so many people come from. So, that’s kind of how it began.

Andy: But you started to get kind of burnt out at one point, or you wrote in the book that there was kind of a point where you felt like maybe I don’t even want to keep doing this and this sort of beat down a little bit or something.

Diane: For sure, I think that it came about five years in when I had sort of been able to build a classroom and relationships and good work directly with students. But I had also been there long enough to start to see a bigger system that just really wasn’t working and so many parts of it that were doing the opposite of what I wanted to do with students. That can start to feel really heavy and oppressive and where do you even begin to solve this? And so, those moments come for sure where it can feel very overwhelming and a whole bunch of things come into play to keep going. So unfortunately I did keep going and that’s where curiosity really comes into play. This idea of being really curious about what’s going on and what’s not working, and then being curious about what might work better and how we might do it differently.

Andy: You then had the opportunity to sort of reinvent the system a little bit.

Diane: It’s an incredible opportunity, and it’s interesting now, fast forward 20 some years I think people now, it feels sort of normal that you could start a new school. I mean, I think we’ve got enough of that going that people are like, oh yeah, new school start. But honestly, 20 years ago, I thought it might be a once in a lifetime opportunity, I truly did not think this would be a thing that would keep happening. I was pregnant literally when I got this opportunity, and for the first time, I didn’t know what that would entail or what that would mean. Sort of logic said to me, I don’t know, you probably shouldn’t have your first child and start a school at the same moment, but you know, this opportunity might not come along again. And so, all right, here we go, let’s do it and let’s see what we can make of it. And so my son was born and six weeks later I started our first school summit.

Andy: So, and you from the very beginning, you did things really differently at the school, what was sort of like, or I guess if you have to describe to people, what is different about your school, how do you even begin to talk about that?

Diane: Yeah, I think as I reflect back on it, there was sort of one big design principle that we started out with, and there was literally like five of us doing this. We’re starting a high school there, five of us, it’s only 80 students.

Andy: Okay.

Diane: We’re bringing this thing into life. So it’s a small group and everyone in the five has been a successful teacher. So someone who really connects with kids but deeply believes in teaching and felt like we weren’t set up to be successful in our schools. And so that was really our starting design principal. What would it look like if great teachers were set up for success? Wouldn’t everything sort of fall into place after that because great teachers want all of their students to be successful and grow and to learn. And if we actually set teachers up for success, you’re setting students up for success, so that’s kind of how it started. That was like our design principle.

Diane: And a couple key things grow from that. One, we knew we needed mentoring. We knew that in order to successfully learn, people have to have a relationship to be connected, to have someone who sort of coaches and guides them. So that was a key pillar of what we were doing. Second, we really believe in learning that is hands on and real world and authentic. We are very clear that the science of learning tells us that people don’t learn well when they’re just sitting in straight rows, quiet, passively taking in information, taking tests.

Diane: So we wanted something really active in terms of the learning. And then three, we realized that we were preparing kids for college and life, and that meant that they had to take ownership. They really had to drive their own learning and their journey and their development, and if you think about our schools, they’re not designed to do that. They are the opposite. How do you comply? How do you follow directions? How do you do what you’re told? So I would say those are three big pillars of what makes our schools. Now there’s multiple of them, different.

Andy: Is there anything that has been surprising to you or that has really changed in the way you think about education or child development and kind of this experience?

Diane: Yeah, oh my gosh, so many things. I think that’s another hallmark of the schools is that they’re just continuously improving and evolving, they’re never done.

Andy: “Okay. We figured it out.”

Diane: That doesn’t exist, constantly learning, constantly growing. I think probably the thing that I keep growing on, like over and over and over again is, is that last piece of having kids really take ownership of their own learning and their lives. There’s so much, we’ve been conditioned into that you don’t even know is there in how you do things. And I think that’s where I’ve made the most growth over time is really changing how my interactions with students are and how we think about teaching and what the classroom experience looks like. All of those pieces to go more and more and more towards their ownership, and so much less about me, so much of this can be about the adult.

Andy: That was a really interesting moment in your book, you talk about a conversation that you were having with one of your fellow teachers, about a student who was really falling behind and was on track to fail. That’s one of the kind of principles that you set your school up on is that everyone would be able to graduate that you promise the parents that you’ll get everyone through. And so there’s this student who’s just, for whatever reason, not really working, whatever is happening is not really working. You said you kind of got together with her and put together this list of what are all the things that we could possibly do, and then realized that so much stuff on that list was about you doing things for him.

Diane:  Yes.

Andy: Or about her doing things for him, this sort of realizing that’s not the answer that we need to help him take ownership for his own education for his own future. So what did you then ultimately do, or how did you do that?

Diane: Yeah, that conversation is one of the most pivotal ones I’ve ever had in my life, and I still work with Kelly Garcia that other educator in close partnership. For both of us it was so profound because we had that aha that you just recited, which is like, oh my gosh, we’re doing everything.

Andy: Yeah right.

Diane: That’s not going to help him, and we don’t even know what’s going on there and why he’s not doing things. So it really flips the whole conversation to be, first of all, go figure out what he wants, what matters to him, what motivates him, what’s blocking him. Then have him participate in building the way out of that. The most interesting thing is before you even get to that place, you have to interrupt our thinking, which is pretty normal where it’s like, oh, well that, that kid didn’t, didn’t do what they were supposed to do, they’re just going to fail. That is a thing we do over and over and over again, and with incredible consequences, so one of the big lessons that comes out of that is this idea of revision and redemption. And that learning really is about, trying something. Maybe it’s not working the first time. Getting some feedback, revising it, and having the opportunity to redeem that one time shot. We generally give people one at bat learning in America, which is crazy, it doesn’t and make any sense. So having a culture in the learning environment that is all about that. Constantly revising and iterating and learning and growing, and you’re starting to see a theme now between how we run the whole organization. It’s how we think about our own journey and development and that for our kids as well.

Andy: So you also had a conversation you talked about in this book with some friends of yours and they were kind of asking you, okay, well, we can’t all just send our kids to your school. How do we handle having our kids being in a regular school where they are bored, where they’re being asked to do this homework that’s just rote learning every night and have hours of homework, and they’re not engaged? The teachers are not really doing any of this stuff that you’re saying is so important at your school. How do we sort of exist in this world? It seems like this is probably a conversation that you have a lot with parent. So I wonder what do you say to that?

Diane: It’s such a painful conversation, and the one you’re reciting in the book was early on and it literally was a punch to the gut. It was painful and I continue to search for better and better answers to that conversation. Certainly there’s a whole discussion about what we need to do as parents, to ask for, and advocate for the type of schools that work for our kids. I don’t want to just leave it as sort of at activism as you will, because there’s the reality of my child’s in front of me today.

Andy: Right now.

Diane: What do I do right now? And so on that front, this book in many ways is a love letter to parents, it’s here are some actual things that you can do as a parent, if you believe in these ideas and care about this type of growth and development. What I’m really happy to report now, I had only just begun this work in the book, I think it’s mentioned at the very end of it, but we have built a whole organization called Prepared Parents with this incredible website that has all of these tool that parents can use. They’re all free in multiple languages, that really help parents take and translate the ideas from the book into pretty simple daily type routines that take five or 10 minutes that you can use with your students, that you just incorporate into your parenting. That really advance these ideas we’re talking about. I’m really so proud of that work and the amazing people who have led that. An incredible woman Myra Brown really led that. Another incredible mom, because I do think those tools, those daily routines, and we can talk about a couple them if you want, are at the heart of what it means to be a prepared parent. They sort of start to shift the dynamic and move us away from this kind of old system way of thinking and into a more productive way, I think.

Andy: Yeah. I’d love to talk about some of those, but I feel I’d love to address this also, this idea that we hear from a lot of parents and teachers that, Hey, maybe it’s kind of good to have our kids be in this crappy system, because that’s how the world is. That’s what everyone else is going through, it builds character, and I went through this kind of school system and I turned out just fine. So did all the people I know they turned out fine and they’re good people. Do we really need to be trying to change things? Do we really need to be looking for a different way of doing things, like what’s wrong?

Diane: Yeah, that conversation, and I have it a lot, it is so sad. Two parts of it are really so sad to me. The first part is, and you said the word that every single parent says in that conversation, “fine.”

Andy: Yep.

Diane: “My child will be fine. I turned out fine.”

Andy: Yeah.

Diane: And my question always is, are we really going to settle for fine?

Andy: Is that the bar we want to aspire to?

Diane: That’s what we are going to settle for is fine? I mean, truly we can’t, and that really is at the heart of the why. We can’t even right now imagine something better. We can’t even open our minds to think about what the world might be if kids weren’t fine, but they were great.

Andy: Yeah.

Diane: What if, people had a great experience of really inspiring, incredible experience and what would be possible if that happened? We are putting our own limits on ourselves if we can’t even imagine what that would look like and then aspire and want it and drive towards it. Those are hard conversations to have, but I think really important conversations to have. I, for one not satisfied with fine. I want more.

Andy: I think we’re all right there with you. And I wonder if you could talk about some of those strategies, some of those daily habits. That you were talking about earlier, what could that possibly even be? Or what could that possibly look like?

Diane: One of the most popular ones we have, and it’s so simple it’s called check in and check out. The idea is that five minutes in the morning, five minutes at night, and there is literally a parent and then with your children, you check in. Checking in looks like, first of all I literally am intentionally checking into my life and my day in the morning.

Andy: Okay. Yeah.

Diane: Everything I’m about to say will be very, familiar to people who have meditation practices or yoga or intentional or leadership. These are not new ideas, but the simple routine of in the morning checking in with yourself. So what this looks like, if I’m a mom, let’s pretend you’re my child, and we’re going to check in in the morning and I say, I’m going to check in with myself. How am I feeling this morning? Well, I’m feeling optimistic or I’m feeling nervous, or I’m feeling…quick check in about what’s going on. As a parent you’re modeling that presence and that honesty and vulnerability about what’s coming in the day and then a bit of an intention. So what is my intention for the day? What is one thing I want to have come out of the day? And then I’m in. And what that means is like, I’m in, I’m present I’m in life, right. And then ask your child to do the same. It can be a routine, around breakfast, driving to school, walking,

Andy: Totally.

Diane: Whatever it is, five minutes. And then the idea is you circle back to it in the evening as you end your day and you check out, and so this is more reflective now, whereas like how was the day? What did I experience? That intention that I set, did it come about? I’m like, what am I thinking about for tomorrow? And then we check out of that day for our rest before we check back in. I mean, so simple, so powerful, this practice of setting an intention and reflecting on it is one of the skills of really successful people. This is what it means to own and drive your own life in a really simple way.

Andy: That’s cool. I love that. So much of the time we just don’t do that, we go days and we’re so busy and we just like suppress our feelings because we distract ourselves with our devices and our work and all the things we’re stressed out about. We don’t just take the time to really just check in with ourselves and…

Diane: And each other…

Andy: To model.

Diane: And each other in that relationship, which it can be that you can go days and realize, oh I don’t actually know. And as a parent, what’s interesting is when you do this as a practice, it feels a little bit weird at first, but then you can get into the routine of it and there’s all kinds of places that you can take it. You can start practicing more sort of adjectives to describe how you’re feeling and getting really good at articulating your emotion is a very powerful skill to have. And so there’s all different directions you can go, but most importantly, you’re building a connection with your child, like a really authentic connection. You’re really listening to them. And one of the things that we hear most from teens, they don’t feel like adults listen to them. They have really incredible things to say, if we pause and listen. So making space for that regular routine, for that to come up, obviously some stuff will come up and then you’ll want to follow up in deeper more. But if you are not even making a space for it to come up, you might miss it.

About Diane Tavenner

Diane Tavenner is the author of the book Prepared. She is the co-founder and CEO of Summit Public Schools, a nationally-recognized nonprofit that operates 15 public middle and high schools in California and Washington. She designed a school model that prepares all students to succeed in college and life, earning Summit national accolades and distinctions, including a 2019 America’s Best High Schools winner by US News & World Report. Diane is on the board of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning, T.L.P. Education, Transcend, The Opportunity Trust and The Pahara Institute.

Prior to Summit, Diane spent ten years as a teacher, administrator, and leader in traditional public schools. She has a degree in psychology and sociology from USC and an MA in administration and policy from Stanford University. All author net proceeds from the sale of Prepared will be donated to the Community High School Foundation to support a college and career scholarship fund.

Want More Prepared?

Find Diane on her website, Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn.