April, 6th: 2014
Take Away: Changing our learning culture to embrace struggle as our opportunity to learn rather than something to be avoided will unlock our best learning potential.
During this week’s session, we heard from four different researchers: Greg Walton (Social Belonging), David Yeager (Growth-Mindset), Bill Damon (The Path to Purpose) and James Stigler (The Teaching Gap). All four speakers were excellent so it was a wealth of information for a Sunday afternoon.
Here is a very quick summary from each of the speakers:
Students in transition are very vulnerable. They are quick to doubt whether or not they belong. They are making many decisions about what they are capable of and where they fit in. There is a land-grab for both social and academic territory. Help students frame positive views of themselves and any struggles they face using modeling of older students who explain difficulties will get better in time. Greg used the powerful quote from Michelle Obama’s time at Princeton to illustrate what the feeling on not belonging can be like even for a high achiever like Michelle:
“My experiences at Princeton have made me far more aware of my 'blackness' than ever before. I have found that at Princeton, no matter how liberal and open-minded some of my white professors and classmates try to be toward me, I sometimes feel like a visitor on campus; as if I really don't belong. Regardless of the circumstances under which I interact with whites at Princeton, it often seems as if, to them, I will always be black first and a student second.”
We live in a culture of frequent praise and very little feedback. This feeds our tendency towards fixed-mindsets. We must work hard to overcome the long established fixed-mindsets that suggest some students are smart and talented, and others are not. Learning must be about constant growth and growth comes from welcoming challenges and welcoming feedback. To help students develop a growth mindset He recommended utilizing what has been coined the “magic phrase” in education: “I’m giving you these comments [critical feedback] because I have high standards and I know you can meet them.” Versus a more typical explanation of red marks on a paper “I’m giving you this feedback so that you can improve your writing [math, art, etc.].” Additionally, avoid describing achievement by students as smart or talented. That label becomes a burden that makes students defensive when they don’t know. The smart label is something they will lie for, avoid reflection on mistakes for, and ignore growth opportunities because of the risk they might pose to their “smartness”. Another reason that fixed mindsets may persist is because they can provide social power. For example, “I’m a math person, and you are not, therefore I have an added value you can’t attain.”
(THE PATH TO PURPOSE)
In his research he explores the power of purpose in motivation. He talks about 4 different types of students.
Highly active students without purpose. You can think of straight A students who don’t really know why they work so hard other than that’s what they were told they were supposed to do.
Highly active students with purpose. These are the most avid learners. When students are connecting their daily work to some bigger, longterm goal, or purpose in life, they are unstoppable learners.
Low active students with purpose. These students have many issues that they care about but have no practical plans on how to act upon these issues. You could think of any idealist student or adult you know that always dreams of world peace or environmental harmony without taking any steps to actualize what they value.
Low active students without purpose. These students welcome apathy as their general disposition in life. I know we can all think of students like that! Mr. Damon told us a story about a meeting he once had with the Dalai Lama. In that meeting, Mr. Damon presented his research and then was allowed to ask the Dalai Lama one question. Mr. Damon asked how he can reach this comfortably-apathetic fourth group. The Dalai Lama’s response was to provide the apathetic student with long and detailed narrative about what life would be like throughout their life without purpose and then give them examples of the joy and meaning people can experience when they dedicate their lives to their particular purpose. Worth a shot!
(THE TEACHING GAP)
Mr. Stigler’s work explores the teaching strategies utilized throughout the countries that frequently score well on international tests. He found that teaching is largely cultural. In other words, we have an idea about what teaching is in America, and we often default to that typical version of teaching that we expect in American classrooms. One particularly interesting point that James Stigler made was about what teaching strategies have proved to be the most effective throughout the world. While I expected him to say project based-learning, flipped classroom, guide on the side, or something along those lines, he instead said that his UCLA based research suggests that it does not matter what strategies teachers use.
What matters the most is that teachers create learning opportunities that challenge, confuse (yes confuse), and get students to work through the struggle of learning something new. Of course, the confusion and struggle must be in context so that students do not simply give up in total frustration. Each country gets to that end by different means, but the one thing in common was pushing students to work through struggle. This work reminded me a lot of the work our own FNESU has done in moving towards understanding math conceptually versus just procedurally. Mr. Stigler also spoke about how much of learning may be ritualized learning rather than informative learning.
Mr. Stigler showed a clip from this video about Andrew Wiles, mathmatician who worked on one math problem for over thirty years. He used this as an extreme example of struggling in learning rather than looking for a procedural answer: