Let’s “Stretch” Our Students

Stretch learning is exactly that – it “stretches” a student to achieve their potential in individual classes, in school activities, and in their overall school experience. It pushes them to become all they are capable of being.

Most schools don’t stretch their students. Why not? Because most schools today are organized on a “proficiency model.” In other words, they believe their job is to get all their students to the same level by a given date, and then measure the results with a test.

That’s impossible!

Students come to us with different levels of proficiency. They have different learning styles, different interests and yes, different aptitudes.  As the father of five, I know!

Stretch learning is individualized. For one student it might be scoring well on the SATs; for a severely disabled student, it might include learning critical daily living skills or self-care habits. The IEP (Individualized Education Program) process for our children with disabilities often does this. All students would benefit from the IEP concept, without the layers of regulations built around it, to guide their educational experience. But in the end, stretch learning means moving students beyond their comfort zones.

We must move schools into what Carol Dweck calls a “growth model,” where we take each child from where they are today and move them as far as they can go in the amount of time we have with them.

Why Stretch Learning Is Important
Take a look at the world we live in. It’s unpredictable. It’s rapidly changing. It’s interconnected. It’s diverse. Technology dominates. Students will not succeed in this world if all we’ve done is prepare them to pass the latest state assessment test. They’ll need much more: Creativity, innovation, teamwork, problem solving, collaboration and tolerance, for starters. In today’s world, it’s not about what you know, it’s about acquiring new knowledge and skills.

We cannot continue to replicate the past. We must create a 21st century education system that promotes lifelong learning, where students are not afraid to go beyond their current boundaries. The world will pass us by if we don’t.

How Do You Teach It?
How do you teach students to stretch? In different ways. Think about music classes. Or art classes. Career tech ed. Physical education. Sports. Classes like that stretched us. We lost sight of their value somewhere along the way. Educators de-emphasized these classes to focus more on the next standardized test. Big mistake!


One of the important benefits of classes like this is they engage students. Students are not passively sitting at their desks as the “sage on the stage” tries to impart knowledge. Instead, students actively participate! Their teachers teach differently. Think about it. The glee club teacher or the football coach is on the sidelines, coaching, showing, cajoling, encouraging. Teachers and students are engaged – and an engaged student is a strong, well-rounded student ready to take on the unpredictability of the 21st century.  

Reversing Course for Success

Our country’s most rapidly improving schools are seeing dramatic improvements in their test scores. That’s really not a surprise. What is surprising, however, is that they spend far less time focused on standardized tests than most other schools.

What’s their trick?

They take a step back, slow down and ask themselves three important questions:
·       “What do our students need to know to be successful in the world beyond school?”
·       “What must our students do to succeed in the world beyond school?”
·       And finally, “What must our students be like to succeed in the world beyond school?”

Three Ways Forward
The answers may or may not surprise you:
·       Students must develop and use what I call “guiding principles.” These are attributes like responsibility, respect, perseverance, initiative, adaptability and trustworthiness.
·       Students must stay focused and fully engaged in their learning environment.
·       Students must stay focused on getting better at what they do every day. Basically, they need to adopt a growth mindset.

Changing Things Around
Educators at these schools decided to emphasize those characteristics, not just test scores. They changed their report cards to stress these characteristics. When they did, students’ academic performance dramatically improved.

The approach of these schools is if you focus on the soft skills (which I refer to above as guiding principles), student engagement, and simply trying to help all students grow academically, then state tests will take care of themselves.

A Powerful Tool to Help Achieve Success
Welcome to the Learning Criteria.

Based upon the success of these rapidly improving schools, we created the Learning Criteria to help schools we work with evaluate their students. It is also a tool for teachers, administrators and parents to evaluate classroom experiences and focus on high-engagement learning opportunities. The goal is to create well-rounded individuals ready to succeed in school – and beyond!

          The Learning Criteria consist of four components:
n  Foundation Learning.  This is knowledge a school requires all students to achieve. It is measured through standardized tests, and often is related to achieving “Adequate Yearly Progress.”
n  Stretch Learning. This learning takes place when students push beyond the minimum requirements. Stretch learners participate in interdisciplinary activities, enroll in honors courses and seek specialized certificates.
n  Learner Engagement. When learners engage with their teachers, peers and the overall school community, they become more motivated and eager to participate in the learning process. When students are engaged, they feel a sense of satisfaction, belonging and accomplishment.
n  Personal Skill Development. Basically, working on leadership and social skills. Does a student show empathy? Can she control her emotions? Can she collaborate? Can she work as part of a team? Through personal skill development, students will be better prepared for lifelong success in business, at home and in their communities.

Racing the Wrong Way
Most schools focus first on foundation learning before moving on to the other three criteria. Sadly, many students never get past this initial stage. One way to think about the Learning Criteria is to envision a race with four hurdles. Most schools try to clear the hurdles in this order:
1.     Foundation Learning
2.     Stretch Learning
3.     Personal Skill Development
4.     Student engagement

Many schools can’t get their students to clear the first hurdle. But they double down anyway in an effort to score well on state standardized tests. They never reach the three other hurdles. They’re running the race in the wrong direction.

Reverse Course!
Our country’s most rapidly improving schools run the race in the opposite direction. They focus on student engagement first, then move on to personal skill development and stretch learning. Guess what? When you run the race this way, foundation learning takes care of itself.

In future blogs, we will focus on details of student engagement, personal skill development and stretch learning.

Stay tuned!