Environment Drives Performance, Results, Success

Trace the private sector’s evolution from the early days of total quality, quality circles and employee involvement to just-in-time, SPC, lean, six sigma…to the present where we’re shifting gears with employee engagement and emotional intelligence. One fundamental truth has been taking shape the whole time: attending to human needs and issues is the gateway to performance excellence. People before process.

Here we’ll look at an article recently published by the Greater Good Science Center, Kids Need More Than Just Brains to Succeed in which Jill Suttie talked with science journalist Paul Tough about his book Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why. While Tough’s focus is children living in poverty conditions, here we’ll look at broader applications.

Decades of private sector studies have identified core human needs and validated their impacts in the workplace. More recent research suggests that the same needs and impacts are in play in education and even in society. The emerging universal truth: the greater a person’s social-emotional well-being, the higher their level of engagement and contribution to the environment around them. People before process.

We could stand to get a better grip on a few critical causal relationships:

  1. Social-emotional well-being (SEWB) is based on the same attributes as engagement theory.
  2. SEWB and engagement are not directly actionable goals. They are both outcomes of an environment that is right for people to choose to be more engaged, resulting in a greater feeling of well-being.
  3. The same universal human needs and values move people, whether young or old.

Education is locked in on cognitive skills development. Tough’s proposal in Helping Children Succeed is that social-emotional related environmental factors greatly influence learners’ ability to fully learn the how-to-do-stuff, cognitive skills. Maximum learning potential is not realized without social-emotional environmental support.

Tough’s academic investigation findings mirror what I’ve observed in the private sector so regularly that it’s become one of my personal core beliefs: people before process.

Tough observes that non-cognitive attributes like grit, perseverance, self-regulation, optimism are not learned and cannot be taught. These attributes and more govern a person’s ability to learn cognitive skills. They evolve given the right supportive and engaging environment. And….

People Before Process is Relevant Across-the-Board…In Education, Workplace, Community

What specific things can we do to provide the right environment? Tough offers actionable examples for two different environments and phases of development. First in the home, early childhood: “…neuroscientific research tells us that when kids are in early environments that are responsive, interactive, and warm and stable, and involve what psychologists sometimes call “serve and return” parenting, which involves face-to-face, back-and-forth interactions between parents and their babies, that creates secure attachment—a real sense of security that kids have with parents or other caregivers.”

Second, the school environment where consistently providing the right narrative is critical: “…create environments in the classroom that change students’ mindsets by implicitly and explicitly giving them messages around belonging and possibility. When kids are given the message that they belong in the academic community, it has a profound effect on their motivation and on their ability to persevere and to stick with projects and problems for long periods of time. And if you’re in a school where you’re given the message that failure is part of the process of learning and that people change, and that you can improve your abilities, and that challenge is part of that process, those are the kids who are much more motivated to persevere, and work hard, and take on more challenges.”

Two Education Environment Building Blocks

Tough singles out two practices as particularly successful in nurturing non-cognitive attributes:

(ONE) Teacher-leaders stay with one group of students called “crews” for several years. Leader and crew meet for a half hour each day, giving the kids “…a sense of connection, of belonging and relatedness, and all of the psychological research suggests that those are incredibly powerful motivators to persevere at school.”

(TWO) Project-based learning: “…really challenging academic work-rigorous, long-term projects that students take on where they can’t help but learn in a deeper way. In addition to the academic skills that kids are learning…they’re also experiencing a psychological message: I can learn from my mistakes; I can get better at things. I can take on challenges that seem impossible; I can get the right kind of help; and I can solve them.”

You Get What You Measure. So Measure What’s Important

SEL is viewed through the same lens used to assess achievement in cognitive skills development and educators have struggled with accepting SEL as important. What does it do, what are the results? How do you measure it?

SEL’s effectiveness and engagement levels are not directly actionable or measurable objectives.  But there are wildly important outcomes impacted by (1) social-emotional development, (2) designing a supportive environment, and (3) using known engagement levers to encourage people to fully engage. There are known, fully actionable factors for all three. It’s a logical progression:

SE development / environmental engineering -> supportive environment ->

Social-emotional well-being and greater engagement ->

Maximum performance -> achievement, success.

Teacher Assessments

Tough observes “A lot of people feel that test scores alone are not a full measure of what kids are learning or how successful they’re going to be. And yet the problem with trying to put numbers on non-cognitive qualities is that we don’t have measures for grit or self-control that are as reliable as the standardized tests are for cognitive skills.”

Northwestern economist Kirabo’s work on assessing teachers is based on value added to students, using four common measures: attendance, behavior, grade point average, and grade progression. Kirabo found these to be reliable indicators of students who are more motivated and engaged, and that certain teachers consistently had students who performed better in the four measurement areas. Tough explains: If you were a student in one of these teachers’ classes, you were more likely to show up every day, more likely to work hard, and less likely to get in trouble. And that’s an incredible skill for a teacher to have. Using the tools of economics, he showed that those teachers are having a bigger effect on students’ long-term outcomes—including high school graduation, and college matriculation and graduation—than the teachers who were particularly good at raising students’ test scores.”

Tough concluded that There’s something about the classroom environment certain teachers are creating that makes students feel more of a sense of belonging and motivation and the desire to take on challenges.” And their performance shows it. We need more attention here-and that’s not a plea to indulge in endless navel-gazing!

The Engagement Factor

Employee engagement has had peaks and valleys of attention for decades, and engagement in the academic environment is gaining traction. Engagement and social-emotional development are closely related, with many common attributes. That common ground is examined in Supercharging Engagement. Note in particular the detailed description of eight Universal Attributes — basic human values, needs, motivators. Cliff Notes version follows.

  1. Relationships Built on Caring and Trust.  We all need to be nurtured no matter our age. Humans thrive when someone truly cares, not about what we do or how much we do or how well we do it, but when someone actually cares about US.
  2. Clear Expectations and Feedback. We want to make a meaningful contribution…and we need to know we’re doing the right things and how we’re doing along the way.
  3. Sense of Community.  Humans have been social creatures since first banding together in tribes for safety and companionship. More than strength in numbers or birds-of-a-feather, we have a basic human need to be part of a group;
  4. Connected to Community Vision. Connecting to vision can be simple as providing the “why” behind “what”, providing a line of sight from everyday tasks to compelling community or group goals.
  5. Sense of Personal Purpose. We all want and need to leave a legacy. What I am involved in that matters long-term; how can I make a difference in the grand scheme of things?
  6. Values-centered. We’re at ease when our values are aligned with the environment, we’re uncomfortable when our values are stifled or contradicted. Even if we’re not aware of our values, when there’s a conflict we still know something’s not right and we don’t like it. We just don’t know what’s wrong or why we feel bad.
  7. Opportunity to Shine: when people do what they do best and truly enjoy doing, they produce exceptional results. Well-being skyrockets with accomplishment, leading to even more impressive performance.
  8. Opportunity to Grow. The Army has it right. We all want to be all that we can be. We have strengths (#7) but that’s not enough. We want to be more, we want to do more.

BEST PRACTICES! Benchmark the studies and findings from the employee engagement experts. We know it works in the workplace for those attentive to their environment. Similar high levels of improved performance are attainable in education.

The Brass Ring Is In Reach

Tough concludes with the observation that research is still new, but slowly picking up steam over the past three years: “In the K-12 realm, the idea that teachers can be coached to provide a different kind of environment for students and that those environments make a big difference is not mainstream thinking right now in education. As with anything, when you’re trying to change people’s fundamental understanding of the work they’re doing, it takes time.”

Teachers make a difference in the education environment. Doing so improves performance, possibly more than teaching to the test to improve standard test scores. In the face of growing evidence and general acknowledgement of an overwhelming need to improve, what’s the holdup? Let’s get serious about understanding engagement and social and emotional well-being, about understanding what we need to do to create environments where people–young learners, workers, everyday citizens of all ages–not only survive but thrive. Then, let’s roll up our sleeves together and build a system that taps into the abundant common ground among the sectors. We are, after all, talking about universal human values and basic human needs.

The stakes are incredibly high, with minimal risk and maximum reward–no significant monetary investment needed. It doesn’t take Einsteins, it takes involvement and effort from an army of John and Mary Everymans.


If you made it all the way through to the end, you must be interested! Below: a few other relevant articles, on LinkedIn Pulse and here on Ripples.

Environment Drives Performance > Results > Success  (you are here!) review of interview with Paul Tough published at the Greater Good Science Center

Where is Education Improvement Headed? It’s Academic A review of a recent article posted by Education Reform Now.

Supercharging Engagement. We know it works in the workplace and in school. So let’s get serious about it!

Kids’ Epiphany—For Brielle. I am deeply committed to making a difference in young peoples’ lives, for good reason.

Process is Process—Education Too.  Leaning on my manufacturing roots, education could use a little process management discipline.

Philanthropists–Butt Out. A recent game-changing revelation on its education improvement efforts by the Gates Foundation.

We’re All On (or Off!) the Same Bus Universal truths relevant in education, community, private sector.

Re-thinking Purpose and Roles in Education>Training>Development>Skills

(by the way, the Greater Good Science Center is an incredible resource for educators and regular folks who just want to get informed and be involved!)


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