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Education Trends, Uncategorized   |   Apr 5, 2011

Passion, growth mindset, flat world, and the bright spots: reflections on ASCD 2011

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Passion, growth mindset, flat world, and the bright spots: reflections on ASCD 2011

By Angela Watson

Maybe it was the laid-back California vibe. Maybe it was the jet lag. For whatever combination of reasons, I took a laid-back approach to this year’s annual ASCD conference.

And it might have been the best one yet.

My intention was to live-blog and live-tweet some sessions (especially the keynotes) as I’ve done in the past. That’s a fast-paced endeavor that requires quick thinking and extreme multi-tasking skills. But I soon discovered which there was no wi-fi access in the keynote sessions and spotty reception in several conference rooms. Initially, this disappointed me (especially after talking to an educator from Alaska who remarked, “I can get wi-fi on a dog sled traveling between schools in the frozen tundra, and the Moscone Center can’t get it in the heart of San Francisco?”) But lack of connectivity is pretty typical in many of the schools I work in. What do we do? Improvise. Flexibility is one of the most important qualities in an educator, and where better to practice than at an education conference? Right? Right?

A funny tweet shared by Tara (whom I am compelled to refer to by her blog moniker, the Science Goddess. Why didn’t I think to put ‘goddess’ in my title?)
A funny tweet shared by Tara (whom I am compelled to refer to by her blog moniker, the Science Goddess. Why didn’t I think to put ‘goddess’ in my title?)


I decided to go with it. I let go of the mindset that I needed a minute-by-minute record of the conference and just absorbed what was happening. Instead of relaying copious notes on every detail of every event, I observed, listened, and took time to THINK. Rather than compartmentalize the conference into different sessions and events, I chose to just experience it and contemplate it as a whole. And in place of a hastily-typed summary composed on the long plane ride home, I gave myself time to soak in the information and see what ideas would actually ‘stick’ after I was settled back in my normal routines.

That’s how I realized some of my best thinking was done in a California Pizza Kitchen.

This year’s conference was, for me, about conversations. Talking with some of the 10,000 educators in attendance about their experiences was invigorating. It’s easy to get discouraged about the future of education when reading the news, but for me, realizing there are so many school leaders who really GET IT gave me a renewed sense of hope. Over lunches, dinners (including one across the bay with a favorite author/blogger), and tapas at a tweet-up, I listened to ways other people are making a difference in their communities. We talked about what we learned in the sessions and how we’d apply it to our work. We indulged in the rare luxury of looking past the current state of our schools and into the big picture of education and the changing needs of students.

And as we talked, a few themes emerged for me:

The Bright Spots:

Chip Heath spoke about looking at what IS working and how to learn from the ‘bright spots’, rather than focusing on what’s not working and devise ways to fight it. Not just in terms of studying other schools and teachers who are effective: what are the bright spots in our OWN work places? For example, we can ask ourselves, Who are the kids that are achieving in our classrooms, and what skill sets do they demonstrate? Call attention to those traits and reinforce them, and teach those traits to the other students. This is a very positive approach to creating change that really resonated with me. The conference was full of presenters who had identified the bright spots in their schools and replicated positive change by studying them and teaching others to use their habits and skills. The approach was never a cookie cutter copy of someone else’s success; instead, we were encouraged to look at what’s going right in our own communities and build on that. This was a great take-away that struck a chord with lots of attendees.

Growth Mindset:

Carol Dweck’s growth mindset research was pervasive among the presentations; it’s not a new concept, but it’s starting to have a serious impact on education, and that’s fantastic news. Dweck’s research states that people who have a ‘fixed mindset’ believe their basic qualities (like talent and intelligence) cannot be changed; those with a ‘growth mindset’ believe hard work and perseverance can make a difference. As educators, we can teach children to have a growth mindset which will enable them to work through and learn from their failures. Neuroscience is increasingly backing up these claims (as was fascinatingly detailed in Eric Jensen’s Teaching With Poverty In Mind session and other brain-based learning presentations.)  We can help kids overcome the neurological effects of poverty by teaching them to develop skills such as a strong working memory, processing skills, and an internal locus of control. These skills are free and teachable ‘micro-solutions’: Jensen recommends incorporating them on a daily basis, and the improved test scores will follow naturally.

Flat World:

Linda Darling-Hammond‘s session about education reform was the highlight of the conference for many (and if I had a nickel for every person who said “I wish she was appointed instead of Arne Duncan!”, I would have had a free flight home.)  And as another aside…I got the general sense at the conference that reform conversations are finally moving away from talking about tech tools for the sake of using tech tools, and moving toward an analyzation of the role of technology in our students’ futures. I was happy to see fewer sessions and conversations centered around the concepts of teaching digital natives (a misleading and erroneous term, IMO) and 21st century skills (an over-hyped, nebulous catch phrase that I think has outlived its usefulness.) Instead, most talk was of helping teachers and kids thrive in a ‘flat world’ of globalization. What do we need ’21st century skills’ FOR? Though other countries might outperform us in standardized tests, what sets us apart in America is that we value individualism and creativity. The thought among many was: let’s not try to compete with China and India by imitating their methods and forcing students to memorize and be compliant.  Let’s focus on our strength as Americans–innovation. Let’s produce a generation of students who create ideas and products rather than follow directions on an assembly line. Our defining characteristic should be…


It’s no secret that kids today are largely unmotivated to learn in school. And many teachers have lost their enthusiasm to teach, since lessons are increasingly centered on test prep. For many at the conference, their ‘big idea’ was helping teachers and students tap into their passions and interests and enjoy their work. Alison Zmuda spoke on breaking free from myths about teaching and learning and Mike Anderson spoke on the Well-Balanced Teacher. In the Eye on Education booth, author Angela Maiers (and co-author Amy Sanvold, via Skype!) engaged teachers in conversations about the passion-driven classroom, and their energy was contagious! My take-away: When we help kids discover their passions and use their interests to drive instruction, we find motivated learners and invigorated teachers. Education reform is meaningless without passion.

Nothing helps instill and renew passion among educators like attending a conference, especially a large top-notch one like ASCD. It’s an amazing opportunity to step back from the day-to-day work of educating and reflect on where you’d like to go next.

For me, the literal answer to that is easy. ISTE. Hope to see you there.


WANT TO LEARN MORE? There were many other educators blogging at the conference, some of whom I’ve been reading for years. Getting to meet and talk with them in person was fantastic! Here’s what a few of them had to say about their experiences at the conference (more bloggers listed here and recorded sessions are archived here):

  • ASCD bloggers: These folks captured video and wonderful summaries of lots of sessions.
  • Jason Buell: Provides very detailed session summaries–nice resource!
  • Alex McMurray: Great perspective (and photos) from a teacher new to the conference.
  • Joan Young: 3 big ideas from the super sweet/talented ‘Finding All Ways for Kids to Flourish’ blogger.
  • Lisa Dabbs: Fantastic co-presenter with Joan; she shares their experiences on ‘Teaching With Soul’.
  • Alice Mercer: Who ambitiously took on the live blogging task that I did not. Go Alice!
  • Bill Caroza: Lots of reflections here.
  • David Cohen: Excellent summary and thought-provoking analyzation of numerous blog sessions.
  • Tara Richerson: Has her presentation resources + solid recommendations for next year’s conference.
  • Jenny Orr: One of the most child-centered educators I know–her blog shares her presentation info.
  • Peter Pappas: Didn’t attend this year (we missed you, Peter!), but followed via social media and compiled the best tweets of the conference.

Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela created the first version of this site in 2003, when she was a classroom teacher herself. With 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach, Angela oversees and contributes regularly to...
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  1. I’ve been hearing a lot about the growth mindset in the past two years!! I think there’s definitely something to it. I’m glad you had such a good time at the conference — wish I could have been there! I really need a “find your passion” pep talk these days 🙂

    1. Hi, Sarah! I’m looking forward to finding out more about growth mindset. The research is very exciting! Hang in there through these last few weeks of school. I think most people need a pep talk right about now! Hopefully you’ll be able to enjoy your time with the students now that testing pressure is lessened. That’s always the bright spot in May and June. 🙂

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