Sometimes problems seem insurmountable. But what if you tried creating change for kids just one name at a time?
In this article and Truth for Teachers podcast episode, I’ll share how often the solution to big problems is solving smaller ones.
You’ll hear NYT bestselling author Dan Heath share a short case study from Chicago Public Schools that illustrates how this name-by-name approach worked for reducing dropout rates.
And, I’ll share an intuitive 8 step approach you can use to tackle big problems like student engagement or work completion. You can practice solving for individuals first, and notice patterns in what your students need in order to scale those solutions.
There’s something powerful about knowing that even if you can’t solve every problem for every student, you CAN help solve THIS thing for THAT kid.
This is how we make progress. And, this is how we create better systems: by designing those systems for individuals rather than trying to force individuals to fit into the systems.
Maybe you can’t make every lesson topic relatable and engaging for EVERY kid, but you can start with ways to engage one kid. Maybe you can’t fix all the home barriers for learning for EVERY kid, but you can start by finding solutions for one kid.
This doesn’t mean that we pick and choose which kids to help, or leave some kids out.
Instead, this is a way to break down a problem that feels so impossibly big you can’t possibly fix it — like student engagement — and look for solutions that work for individuals.
Because if you can solve a problem for one person, that means it IS a solvable problem … and you can solve it for the next, and the next.
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A case study on creating change, one name at a time
In a moment, I’m going to share a step-by-step method for doing this, but I think it will make more sense if we talk about the context of this approach first.
Back in episode 197 I interviewed Dan Heath about his book Upstream. That episode was called Creating systemic change and solving problems BEFORE they happen. If you missed that episode, it would be a great one to download next, because Dan shares some really fascinating examples of how systemic changes are made, and how solving for ONE kid helps solve for ALL.
I”m going to share an excerpt here, in which Dan gives in-depth example about a problem in schools:
DAN HEATH: The story I’m talking about happens at Chicago Public Schools, CPS, one of the largest school districts in the country: 300,000+ students, a 6-billion-dollar budget, which is about the same as the whole city of Seattle. This is a big battleship we’re talking about.
Back in the 1998 era, the graduation rate at CPS was 52%. You had a coin flip’s chance of graduating as a teenager in CPS. So imagine, to your question, you’re a concerned teacher or administrator inside that system, and you just find it unbearable, intolerable that the failure rate is that high. What do you do?
Well, let me describe what happened at CPS. The first ray of hope that things could be different came when some academics, including a woman named Elaine Allensworth (who’s become really well known for this work) discovered that in the freshman year, they could predict with 80% accuracy which of those freshmen would go on to graduate and which would drop out.
Freshman year, four years ahead, 80% accuracy. They called this metric Freshmen On Track. There were two very simple components of it: The first was did the freshman complete five full-year course credits? And, did they not fail more than one core course? So, if you failed a core course like English or math, and if you failed just one, you could still be on track. The second was the critical threshold. Those two things together compiled this Freshman On Track metric that was very predictive.
In a nutshell, what they found was there’s something peculiar about the ninth grade year, this transition point into high school, that is critical for getting students to graduate.
All right, so that’s part one of the story. Part two is, what do you do with that information? So you know a freshman is off track? What now? That’s where they had to invent new ways of collaborating together.
The first thing that they observed was that some of their own policies were sabotaging their students unwittingly. One example was in the late ’90s and the early ’00s was the tough on discipline era — zero tolerance. I talked to one person who was active in this work and she said, “In those days, two-week suspensions were doled out like candy. A couple of kids would shove each other in the hallway, and boom! Both of them were out with a two-week suspension.”
What we now know from the research is if you take an at-risk kid and you kick him out of school for two weeks, guess what happens? They never catch up. They come back. They’re lost. They fail a class. They fail a couple of classes and boom! They’re off track.
So, do you think any of those assistant principals knew when they were doling out these suspensions that they might well be dooming them to drop out of high school? Certainly not! But you’ve got to look at systems carefully when you’re going to change them.
The most profound thing that they did, by way of changing students’ trajectories from off-track to on-track, they adopted this practice called Freshman Success Teams, where all the ninth grade faculty — biology, English, math, arts, and so forth — they would get together a couple of times a month.
The subject was specific students. They would get a list from the district of students who were most likely to be off-track based on their current grades and attendance.
And then they would go name by name.
They would say, “Okay, Michael? Was he in school every day last week? How are his math grades doing? Last time, they were suffering. We got in some extra tutoring, so now he’s at a C. Okay, great. Let’s talk about Keisha. Well, Keisha’s having this issue where she has to drop off her little sister at elementary school every morning, so she ends up coming to first period late almost every day. Oh, gosh. We’re not going to be able to fix that, so what if we switch her into PE first period? So at least if she suffers in the first period, it’s for a class that’s an elective rather than a core course.”
That was the way change was made. It was made one name at a time — school by school, meeting by meeting, student by student — and these numbers started to budge.
They started getting students to show up at school more. They started figuring out ways to boost grades, to give more support, and the Freshmen On Track numbers began to improve.
Then, just as those numbers had predicted, four years later, when it was time for those kids to graduate, they started graduating in higher and higher numbers. To the point where last year, or the year prior, the number was up to 78% graduation. More than a 25-point increase in the graduation rate in one of the biggest school districts in the country.
I think anybody listening to this who’s been involved in education can appreciate the sheer magnitude and improbability of that story. This is one of those situations where most people just assume a posture of learned helplessness.
It’s too big of a problem. The district is too big. There’s no way we can ever pull enough levers to move this. They moved it.
Solving big problems by solving smaller ones
There’s a lot more to that anecdote in episode 197 — Dan talks about how grade level teams worked together, so teachers had more information about their students than they could uncover in one class period alone, and how data meetings were used in ways that were actually helpful. So do check out the whole episode for more.
But we had that conversation a year ago, and it’s resurfaced in my thoughts many times since then, given the number of problems it now seems are too complex to solve. I think we have to choose to see big problems as solvable — as things we can do something about, because if the problem is truly that massive, we can’t just do nothing.
What Dan’s book Upstream showed me is how often the solution to big problems is solving smaller ones.
And one approach for solving might be this idea which I’ve been experimenting with, which is, to solve for all kids, start with ONE kid.
An intuitive approach to solving name-by-name
Now I’m pretty sure your school already has elaborate methods for data collection and tracking interventions and so on, but I want to share a really simple approach. Think of it as a loose interpretation of classroom-based action research.
You can experiment with this anytime there’s a problem you need to solve that seems to be impacting a lot of kids. Use it when you’re overwhelmed with the scope of the problem and don’t know where to start.
1. Frame the problem as a question that digs for the root issues.
Instead of saying, for example, “Hardly any of my students are turning in their assignments,” ask yourself, “Which students aren’t turning in their assignments, and why?”
This first step is about getting curious, and preparing yourself to look beneath the surface to something deeper.
2. Identify which kids are impacted.
Take one class period or group of kids, and make a 3 column list: those who generally turn in work on time, those who are hit or miss, and those for whom this is a major issue.
Once see you that list there in black and white, you may be surprised, to learn that a smaller percentage of kids have a major issue than you’d assumed.
This step alone can be powerful: it can show you how you’re framing the problem as bigger than what it actually is. We can’t come up with workable solutions until we understand the true scope of the problem — not just how big the problem feels. It feels like hardly anyone in class turns in their work on time consistently, but noting which kids ARE turning in most work, which are turning in some, and which are totally off track is important.
3. Jot down any information you have about why those kids are impacted.
Look at the column of the kids who are struggling the most in this area. Chances are good that the reasons they’re not turning in work are different from student to student.
Write down any information you have about why the work isn’t getting turned in: Do they have an after-school job? Are they responsible for sibling care? Have they recently moved? Are shuffled between multiple homes for custody purposes? Do they struggle with reading or writing so basic assignments are too hard?
Spend a moment thinking about each student in that “most severely impacted” column and what you know about the reasons why.
4. Underline the reasons you know for sure are true.
Through this process, you might find that you don’t actually know much about what’s happening with a particular student. It might become suddenly obvious that you really haven’t tried much yet to get to the bottom of the problem — and that means it may have some fairly simple solutions you can try.
It might also become evident that you’ve made some assumptions, but haven’t actually checked in with a particular student recently to find out what’s going on. For example, you might be vaguely aware that a student’s parents separated a few months ago, but not really sure if they got back together, got divorced, or how any of that is actually impacting the student. They might be feeling absolutely fine about the separation and are instead now worried about an unrequited crush.
If you don’t know for sure, put a question mark by it if you’d like, and only underline the reasons you’re certain are truly impacting the students’ work completion rate (or whatever problem you’re solving for).
5. Make notes for yourself about things you can do to learn more.
You might set up a reminder to talk with a student before or after school, contact the family, follow up with a school counselor, or check in with the students’ other teachers to see how the child is doing in their class.
It could be helpful to approach this like a detective trying to solve a mystery: the case of the student who doesn’t turn in any work. You can disregard that analogy if it doesn’t sit right with you, but I think it’s much more intriguing and motivating to solve a mystery than to follow up for the thousandth time with a kid who’s not doing their work. Solving a mystery implies being curious rather than judgmental, and looking for clues and patterns.
What might you be able to do to learn more about what’s happening with the student?
6. Look for the low-hanging fruit: start with the problems that are easiest to solve.
During this process, you might find yourself getting overwhelmed by how many problems there are and how many things you need to do for follow up.
But here’s the thing: you’re not going to try to solve all the problems all at once. You’re just looking at the scope of what needs to be addressed. To solve for all kids, you’re going to start by solving for ONE kid.
Often it’s good to start with low-hanging fruit first. In other words, begin with the easiest problems to solve, and use that forward progress to build momentum.
Maybe there’s a student who was doing much better with turning in work when you gave a hyperdoc organizer for the week, but you stopped for a while. Reintroducing the hyperdoc might solve the problem for that one kid. You know how to do that, and you know it helps, so that’s an easy actionable step.
Maybe there’s a student who just lost a loved one and is not coping well with the grief. In terms of your responsibilities for supporting that student in turning in work, this is fairly low-hanging fruit, as well, because the root problem doesn’t have anything to do with you or your class or the way your assignments are structured. You can schedule a check-in with that student and make sure they’re included in relationship and rapport building elements of your day, and there may be other supports and resources within your school you can offer for trauma.
But this is a student who needs time and space to process grief, and after-school tutoring and other academic supports that a different child may benefit from are probably not going to be the most effective solution, at least at first. These are sweeping generalizations about a hypothetical child, but I hope you get my point: start with the low-hanging fruit: the simplest steps you can take, so that you don’t get discouraged and feel like the problem’s just too big for you to even try.
7. Look for patterns and scalable solutions.
It’s fine to begin with the problems that seem easier to solve and work from there. The result is that you will begin to uncover patterns, which means you can look for scalable solutions.
If you notice that several kids could use more frequent individual check-ins, you can create a schedule for that, so that each morning you check your list and notice which students to initiate an additional conversation with.
Or maybe you notice that several kids claim their work isn’t getting turned in because they forgot how to submit assignments through the new online portal. You could make a note to yourself to resend the screencast with instructions to those kids, and walk them through it again the next time an assignment is turned on so there’s an additional level of accountability.
This kind of thing is never fun to do as a teacher — can we just admit that? Repeating directions over and over again can be frustrating. But it is easier to offer that support when you know exactly which students to target, and you’re watching them carefully to ensure that reason isn’t used as an excuse next time around.
As you look for patterns and notice overlapping problems and accommodations, it should begin to feel like you’re seeing some organization arise from chaos. A huge overwhelming problem like kids not turning in their work becomes about solving that problem for just one kid, and then another, and another.
It’s much easier to think of solutions and interventions for one student — as in, “What could help THIS CHILD?” versus, “How do I get all my students to turn in their work consistently?”
The reasons they’re having a problem are individual, so the solutions are individual, with common patterns and themes so you can pull from a toolbox of supports as needed.
8. Check-in regularly to see which kids you’re prioritizing, and look for bias or inequity.
As you go through this process, you want to check in with yourself and make sure you’re approaching your problem-solving systematically. Watch to make sure you’re not leaving kids out, or prioritizing certain types of kids over others.
You want to check in with yourself and ask,
Am I solving more for girls, or favoring boys? What about students with disabilities — am I avoiding their problems because they feel too hard, or ignoring the kids who don’t have qualified for special services but are still really struggling? How about race/ethnicity — is there a group underrepresented here in my problem-solving, or over-represented? Or maybe it’s a personality thing — am I focusing more on kids that are like me or relatable to me?
It’s very common for us as educators to identify with some kids more than others, and noticing that natural human tendency can help us reach out more to the kids that we find it harder to connect with. If you notice that you’re giving a higher priority to certain types of kids than others, or viewing a behavior as a major issue when one gender or race exhibits it but shrugging it off when another does it, that’s a sign of bias.
Being aware of that bias can help you watch out for it, and ensure that you’re treating students equitably.
Solve for individuals, notice patterns, and scale solutions
This 8-step approach is a general overview of just one loose, intuitive way you can tackle big problems. Solve for individuals first, and notice patterns in what people need, and scale it a bit.
There’s something powerful about knowing that even if you can’t solve every problem for every student, you CAN help solve THIS thing for THAT kid.
And that’s the way progress is made. This is how we create better systems: by designing those systems for individuals rather than trying to force individuals to fit into the systems.
So when everything starts to feel overwhelming and you’re frustrated because you can’t fix everything for everybody, come back to fixing it for one kid, and go from there.