Among the great and trying debates of our time—Scorsese vs. Spielberg, the permissibility of the NSA's cell phone surveillance program, the subject of Carly Simon's song, "You're So Vain"—the one that's had my wheels turning most of late is the Batman Question. There are those among us who would argue that Batman isn't actually a superhero: that he's really smart, and has amazing toys, but that he lacks the requisite mutant superpowers to be officially deemed a superhero.
I lean toward the more inclusive definition of superpowers: the unique and quirky mix of personality and talents brought to bear in response to an opportunity or need to breath-taking effect. Breath-taking here is an intentionally neutral modifier: one can use one's superpowers for good or evil, but the point is that there is a focus and extreme quality to them, even if they're not actually mutant.
Thinking about superpowers has raised a lot of good questions for us—questions about how we work, the nature and causes of our impact, and how we should focus our energies. And there’s a point that I think our summer blockbusters have missed—one that's obscured by our tendency to worship lone heroes. Because the most interesting thing about superpowers really isn’t in their definition, it's in their origin; it's in teasing apart our superpowers from the activities, experiences and environments that unlock them. At Playworks, we're not that interested in Superman; we're after more planet Kryptons.
This past spring, we announced findings from a study done on our work in schools that showed we had a statistically significant impact on reducing bullying, recovering instructional time, increasing vigorous physical activity among kids, and helping kids to feel safer at school. We were surprised at first. We never explicitly mention bullying, and we don't tell kids to pay attention in class. But we realized the explanation was simple, and it had everything to do with superpowers.
We don't bring about those changes ourselves. We come into a school and shift the environment at recess in a way that unlocks students' superpowers. It is the students who create the amazing and powerful changes. They are the superheroes.
It's worth noting that people often have ambivalent feelings about their own superpowers. They are often either grounded in that thing which makes them different, or by virtue of having a superpower, one feels kind of "other." Batman is a loner, after all. Creating an environment in which people feel safe in sharing different perspectives and experiences, in bringing their whole selves to the work, is critical to ensuring that complementary skills are brought to bear in addressing challenges, and that a broad range of understandings are shared in solving problems. And it is a fundamental environmental shift if we are to build institutions that can maximize the strengths of our diversity.
Shifting our thinking to unlocking superpowers as opposed to just celebrating them has huge implications, not just for building schools that work for kids, but in building effective workplaces and engaged communities for all of us. The desire to discover one's own superpowers and to have them appreciated is basic and at the root of our collective love of the Justice League.
Acknowledging this desire and prioritizing it represents a critical step in building a world in which every one of us—child, teacher, coach—can truly be a changemaker.