Sunday, February 17, 2013

Islands of competence...

At dinner the other night, a friend, who is also a teacher mentioned a metaphor which I had not heard before, but that resonated with me, as I knew immediately what it meant. "Island of competence" is a term devised by Dr. Robert Brooks, who writes about resiliency, motivation and family relationships. In case the term does not immediately grab you as self-explanatory the way it did me, you can read just a bit more on Dr. Brook's site. Dr. Brooks wrote:
..."islands of competence" was not intended simply as a fanciful image but rather as a symbol of hope and respect, a reminder that all individuals have unique strengths and courage. If we can find and reinforce these areas of strength, we can create a powerful "ripple effect" in which children and adults may be more willing to venture forth and confront situations that have been problematic.

This metaphor influenced the questions I posed and the strategies I initiated in my clinical practice. For example, whenever I meet with parents, teachers, or other professionals to discuss children who are burdened with problems, I ask them to describe the child's islands of competence. Next, I ask how we might strengthen these islands and display them for others to see. I have witnessed the ways in which these questions can alter the mindset of adults as they shift their energy from "fixing deficits" to "identifying and reinforcing strengths."
Doing something well provides a foundation for doing other things well. Doing something well shifts one's sense of self. I purposefully repeat myself, Doing. (Can the fourth time, please be the charm?) Unfortunately in much of American education, activities are all too strongly focused on a narrow range of passive academic pursuits, avoiding the range of available islands of activity in which competence can be discovered.

Children need to dance, move their bodies, raise their voices in rhythm to music. Children need to do their writing in huge letters that set their whole bodies in motion. Children need to make useful, beautiful things that can last centuries and secure meaningful relationships between home, school, history, the natural environment and themselves. Children need to do real things that engage all their senses and provide islands of competence upon which to build their lives.

Much earlier in the blog, I had written about David Henry Feldman's metaphor, "The child as craftsman." It is worth reading again, as the metaphor is active along the same lines. One of the things that we learn whenever we are with kids is that they self-distribute, each deliberately seeking ways in which they can define themselves and express different skills in relationship to each other. This happens in classes and also in families. They want to demonstrate and prove to each other what they know and can do. And yet, we've created schooling in which children must be tested by others while we ignore their most natural inclination to test and measure themselves and to grow from what they have discovered as their own strengths.

When we devise education to be confined within narrow bounds, we limit the opportunity for children to discover their own islands of competence.

One of the things I like about the island metaphor is that islands are things that we "discover." After having discovered an island, we discover next that it is part of an archipelago. Then next, just as did Columbus, we discover whole continents of knowledge and skill, ripe for learning.

On the same subject, My wife and I watched a documentary last night on slam poetry in Chicago schools. Louder than a Bomb is both a documentary film, and an annual competition. Poetry can be an island. Listen and see what you think.

Islands of competence, can also apply within narrow bounds in a specific discipline like woodworking. For instance, look at what you are good at. What discrete activities within the discipline are you best at and take the greatest pleasure in? Do you like sawing? Do you like chiseling? Do you like planing or sanding things perfect to the touch? Use the self-confidence derived from that as the launching point in the conquest of your next island.

Today in the wood shop, I'll be fitting bottoms to boxes and making lids.

Make, fix and create...

1 comment:

  1. "Islands of competence" reminds me of a great book I have read called "Now, Discover Your Strengths" by Donald O. Clifton and Marcus Buckingham. In this book they recommend focusing on the your strengths to overcome your weaknesses. Using this book as well as some others by Marcus, such as "Go Put Your Strengths to Work: 6 Powerful Steps to Achieve Outstanding Performance", I have been able to better articulate and therefore understand my strengths in ways that lets me apply them to completely different subject areas – software development and woodworking, for example. The first book tries to help you identify your top 5 strength themes (out of 34). The 2nd one helps you articulate more specifically what you are strong at.

    To identify areas of strengths, Marcus recommends taking note when you “feel strong” about what it is you are doing. By this, he means you are doing something that gets you so excited and consumes you to the point where you can easily lose track of time. He recommends doing this for a week initially – and then an additional week or week(s) as needed to discover more specifically what it is you like to do – which typically is indicative of your areas of strength.

    There are other great books by these same authors along the same vein – all of which I think originally stemmed out of the notion of “positive psychology”. A great read regarding this movement is “How Full Is Your Bucket?:Positive Strategies for Work and Life”, by Tom Rath and Donald Clifton