Revealing Reflections:

A consideration of empirically based ideals for creating vibrant, healthy schools

As we settle in to the new year, I can’t help but reflect on what’s just passed. Don’t we all do that? Consider the good and the bad, the fruitful and not so fruitful aspects of the year? The tail-end of 2014 twirled by like a whirlwind — or maybe dust-devil is a better descriptor? – in that it was chuck-full of work and of life. As you very well know, I haven’t posted much, of late, and that’s why. There are only so many hours in the day.

Even though I had very little time for writing in the Fall term, I did keep a toe dangling in the social-media pool though. Since I didn’t have time to do a lot of reading, and since “links” and “posts” on the web are fleeting, changing at an astonishing rate, I started something new, to keep track of things I wanted to go back to. I started up a companion facebook page (check it out, if you like!) and have been using it as a pin-board of sorts. Over the course of the semester, several articles accumulated, and some interesting discussion too.

During the winter break, I took some time read through the postings, and reflected on their contents. As a set, the articles tell quite a story. A story about research, education, and optimism. You can look at the state of education “stateside” with either a half-full or half-empty perspective and I do I tend towards the half-full side. That said, I thought I would shape up the list of articles I gathered over the term and present the story. It is a story of transformation that anyone can jump right in to. A reflection, that is, that reveals some straightforward (and empirically backed) ways that we can start effecting healthy change to the system, one classroom at a time.

I’ve collected my thoughts on the articles “pinned” to my facebook wall, have grouped them into four themes, and have started to weave them together into a narrative. I hope you find these reflections useful and inspiring. As always, I would love to hear your thoughts on these matters too, because there’s lots of food-for-thought here.

I. School readiness: it’s not what you think.

Letting kids play, giving them time to interact with others, with nature, and with fiction better prepares them for school than does “early” emphasis on the 3-Rs. Preschoolers and Kindergartners need to learn to regulate before they learn their letters and numbers. If the latter comes at the expense of the former, you will see diminishing returns later. Though counter-intuitive, it’s an idea worth thinking seriously about.

Research in both developmental science and in education converges on the fact that when kids can effectively “self-regulate” then are better able to learn and to learn more, more quickly. Self-regulation is a general term that includes the abilities to

  • Control emotions in situationally appropriate ways
  • Have patience when called upon to do something counter to your own desires
  • Focus attention to the task at hand
  • Inhibit responding to distraction

When kids can do this well, they learn more and learn it faster. And most importantly, when kids can self-regulate as they learn, they are more likely to experience the excitement of accomplishment more than the frustration of repeated failures. Whereas some “failure” is necessary, if failure outweighs success in the long term, then motivation to learn takes a dive. If we want our youngest learners to hit the ground running, then we should ensure that they have the personal skills and motivation in place to nurture a healthy sense of endurance.

For more, read, listen, and watch: (1 is a TEDx talk, 3 is a documentary)

  1. Adele Diamond: Turning some ideas on their head
  2. Should Society Fund Mindfulness?
  3. School’s Out: Lessons learned from a Forest Kindergarten
  4. Too many classroom decorations may harm learning
  5. Why we should embrace boredom

From this set, comes some interesting conclusions. Namely, that if we let kids play freely, figure things out on their own, explore creative outlets, and study their own internal states (in age-appropriate ways), they will acquire the personal skills that underpin healthy achievement in school. Said another way, we’ve got it wrong if our idea of school readiness centers on introducing literacy and numeracy at earlier and earlier ages.

II. Continued school success comes from doing less with more.

By “less,” I mean less emphasis on overly focused “seat time,” and by “more” I mean more breadth of topics covered. As Adele Diamond points out in her interview with Krista Tippet (i.e., for the radio program “On-Being”) adding more “seat time” to the school day – especially when this is done at the expense of other activities like recess, music, or art — doesn’t help kids learn more. In fact, it hurts their learning. If we want our school-aged children to learn to focus their attention on their studies, they need variety and regular breaks.

This perspective isn’t new – in fact, the fun website “Brainpickings” shares with us a similar perspective articulated by Lewis Carroll many, many years ago. His advice on how to learn can be summed up like this:

  • Go slow, taking a little at a time
  • Master goals in small steps
  • Talk over your learning with peers
  • Talk over your learning with experts

Modern research in educational psychology and socio-culturally inspired “Gallup polls” attest to the power of this sage advice. Learning that lasts and that translates to success inside the classroom and out of it comes from situations where learners feel connected, supported, and have rich opportunities to explore and apply their knowledge. It happens in classrooms where students have a chance to correct their mistakes and learn how to move forward from failure. When this is the approach taken to lessons though, you (the teacher) must cover less, but doing so allows you to do more with it. It’s worth thinking about!

A key reason for schooling, after all, is to socialize our youth to carry on the goals of our society. To enable youth to grow up and handle the unknowable challenges the future will surely bring. To ensure that youth live up to their potential and lead interesting, fulfilling lives. Skills, facts, and figures are a necessary aspect of this ideal, but only part of it. We need to teach our youth to discover, innovate, and solve problems too. To do so, they need variety in their learning endeavors: variety in how they go about learning, and variety in what they learn.

III. Learning can be enhanced in practical, situational ways

You don’t need a curricular package to start doing these things, either. You can do it right away. Cognitive scientists and educational psychologists have put their minds to the task of understanding how to enhance learning and there’s much to be gained by applying the principles therein. Here are some things to think about:

A. We learn from testing. That is, when given a choice between “reading & reviewing” versus “practice testing & correcting,” students learn more in the latter case. When memory is challenged in a low-stakes environment, and when mistakes are corrected right away, students learn from testing.

Conversely, when students read & review, they don’t focus in quite the same way. Once learned, a review can actually backfire, feeding what’s called a “stability bias:” an underestimation of your ability to accurately recall the material at a later time.

The kind of testing does matter — little is learned from high-stakes testing. High-stakes testing, instead, establishes a culture of performance anxiety and dread

B. Flunking can be a good thing

That is, mistakes happen during learning – it’s a messy process! Skill attainment and mastery do not occur in a linear fashion. Young learners take a step back for every two steps forward: a pattern called wave-like change.

When students’ mistakes are met with something like this: “So you made a mistake. All that means is you just aren’t quite there yet,” then the “flunk” is something useful: it helps learners target where their next step forward should be, on the road to mastery.

Carol Dweck provides some really powerful examples of how this perspective works—take a moment to hear her TED talk here.

C. Other ideas that come from cognitive science research:

– What we learn lasts when it’s meaningfully connected to what we already know.

– When learning is distributed over time in small doses, it takes less total time to reach mastery than when learning is crammed into fewer, longer sessions. That’s right – less total time!

– Learning transfers to later successes when the learning happens in a supportive environment.

Whereas teachers don’t get to choose on a day-to-day basis whether they will participate in high-stakes testing, teachers can choose how to engage students in their classrooms. Classrooms that run on the principles noted here, and classrooms where teachers and students have meaningful relationships with one another (see here and here for a great discussion on this too), are classrooms with students who are most likely working closer to their potential than they would otherwise.

IV. Youth learn more when they feel safe and respected.

We can foster a culture of kindness and respect, both in and out of school. And doing so will help our youth learn more. There’s no time like the present to think more deeply about how to nurture kindness and respect in our students. Violence, discrimination, and bullying are ever-present in the news. We needn’t feel helpless about this. Rather, when we look to the research coming from positive psychology and social-cognitive developmental labs, we can find a way forward.

In sum, my intent with sharing this snapshot is to capture some of the really great information “out there” ready for wise consumption. We needed let the accountability movement drag us too far down (thought it really is easy to get mired in the frustrations high-stakes testing is causing) — there are a lot of things teachers can do right now (today) to counter the negativity. High-stakes testing doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon, but teachers still have a lot of control over the day-to-day running of their classrooms.

The long and the short of it is this:

  1. When teachers recognize the value in and nurture the social-emotional/self-regulation abilities of their students, then are giving them a gift that will keep on giving.

2. When teachers challenge the misguided notions that increased seat time, and intensive focus on fact acquisition, will increase student success rates, and instead embrace a “less is more” approach, an approach that affords opportunities for “discovery” and for “making,” then their students will achieve, enjoy, and thrive in school

3. Students perform better when they feel safe, respected, and valued. Stress takes a toll on learning, whether it’s stress from home, from the playground, or from the classroom. Steps taken to reduce social stress in schools pay back dividends in terms of freeing students’ minds up for learning.

Let’s take charge of education from the ground up and push back in small ways. Our youth depend on us, and we have a lot of power to effect good and meaningful change in the world. Let me know what you think of these ideals. And if you want to join my facebook page, to track the articles as a find them, please do. My spring semester doesn’t appear to be lightening up much, but I will still keep reading.

4 thoughts on “Revealing Reflections:

    1. Thanks, Dad! Not only do I really love the vintage graphics, but they are also “licensed” for non-commercial reuse. Win-win. Hope you enjoy the posting too.

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About EricaK

As a professor and a parent, I think a lot about education. Turns out that the topics I teach (e.g., cognitive and developmental psychology) inform my thoughts about teaching, and that is what I want to write about here.