Multipliers and diminishers: 5 ways to bring out the best in students

Our guest blog post from Alyssa Gallagher, Director of Global Leadership Development for The Wiseman Group, highlights strategies teachers can use to help their students thrive and shine. 

Teachers strive every day to bring the best out of each of their students, which is no easy task when faced with larger class sizes, a variety of educational needs and often a shortage of resources. Despite our best intentions, how might we be shutting down the intelligence of our students? As teachers and the leaders of our classrooms, we can apply our own leadership advice to interactions with our students.

Liz Wiseman, the best-selling author of Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter and The Multiplier Effect: Tapping the Genius Inside Our Schools, began her research several years ago with a fairly straightforward question: How do some leaders create intelligence in the people around them, while others diminish it? 

Her research uncovered two fundamentally different types of leaders: Diminishers and Multipliers. Diminishers tend to believe there are few really smart people and that people won’t figure things out without them. Conversely, Multipliers see their employees as intelligent, capable people, and create the right opportunities for each person, based on their unique skill sets, to help them continually grow.

As you can imagine, these two types of leaders get very different results. Multipliers tend to get twice as much from their resources as Diminishers do. Liz identifies a leadership continuum with Multipliers and Diminishers on opposite ends. As you might expect, just a small number of people fall into either polar extreme of being a Multiplier or a Diminisher 100 percent of the time. Most of us find ourselves somewhere along a spectrum, functioning as Accidental Diminishers.

This concept of Accidental Diminishers is especially intriguing in education, as most educators I know are extremely well-intentioned. They follow popular leadership and instructional practices which may actually have a subtle diminishing influence on those they lead, whether they’re teachers or students. With some focused effort, we can shift our accidentally diminishing tendencies and develop skills to lead and teach more like a Multiplier. Here are five things you can do in your school or classroom to bring out the best in your students.

  1. Shift from answers to questions. Explore your students’ prior knowledge before providing them information that they might already know. For an identified period of time, only ask questions of your class. By shifting into a questioning mode, you’ll learn about your students and how to ask effective questions. Vary the types of questions you ask to avoid getting the typical “fine” or “good” responses students often give. This Huffington Post blog suggests 25 alternate ways to ask about the school day that will engage your class. Instead of asking kids, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” say, “What kinds of problems do you want to solve?” Creating more interesting questions almost always guarantees more interesting answers.
  1. Play fewer chips. Often as adults, we have so much to share that we end up inadvertently shutting down what our students have to share. Think of your contributions as poker chips to be played. When planning your lessons, identify how many “chips” you’ll use while teaching. Planning your contributions ahead will help you identify where your input is essential. Limiting your sharing will create more space for students to do their best thinking.
  1. Offer bigger challenges. Imagine that the challenges you give your students are like the stretch in rubber bands. Say you’re holding tight to one end of the rubber band and a student’s holding tight to the other, and you pull the band to its maximum tension point. Your student has two choices: let go or move closer to you. Teaching is a series of experiments with the amount of stretch in the rubber band. Stretch too much and your students give up, but stretch too little and they’re not invested in the challenge. As an educator, do you tend to over-stretch or under-stretch? Your students’ best learning happens when there’s maximum tension on the rubber band and they have to step into the learning.
  1. Find their genius. We all know each student has unique innate talents, so it’s important to see everyone differently. Challenge yourself to observe, identify and nurture the native genius of every student in your class. Operating as the Chief Talent Finder in your classroom will help students understand their personal strengths and weaknesses and use them to learn effectively.
  1. Give the pen back. Learning is a messy process, and there are times when people get stuck. As educators, our goal is to help students—but sometimes when we jump in to help we end up taking ownership of learning away from kids. Aim to assist students just enough to get them “unstuck,” but then give the pen back. Ensuring that students have ownership of the learning process empowers them to shape their own academic success.

Investing time in these five strategies will get you on your way to teaching like a Multiplier. With intentional practice you’ll be more easily able to tap into and unleash the genius of those around you.

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Alyssa Gallagher is the Director of Global Leadership Development for The Wiseman Group and a co-founder of the weekly #DTK!2chat. She enjoys coaching leaders on innovative mindsets and disciplines. With the goal of improving learning experiences for students, she is constantly exploring “What if…?” with school leaders and works to support radical change in education.