The Language We Choose to Use with Students and Its Impact

Last week, as part of our parent speaker series, my school hosted Dr. McCurry. A clinical child psychologist, his talk was titled: The Anxiety Dance: A Parent’s Guide.  He spoke mainly about how we can either react or respond to behavior regardless of whether you were a parent or teacher. His talk provided us with several examples and strategies of how to help children who have anxiety whether or not it is clinically diagnosable.

A week before that, I attended part of Evergreen School’s speaker series’ presentation by Allison Master: Mindsets Revisited: Exploring the power of growth mindset and word choice in motivating children.

Every once in a while a book comes along that can be transformative. In terms of teaching, Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset was one of those for me. Master who has co-authored a few articles with Dweck, began with a quick introduction defining the two kinds of mindsets that have been researched, fixed and growth. The word “mindsets” is becoming overused and can describe a lot of things not related to Dweck’s theory, so if you’re unfamiliar with her work, search using the terms “fixed,” “growth,” and “mindset” and that should get you going in the right direction.

One of the most important things I’ve learned abo about helping students manage anxiety or fostering growth mindsets is the language we use with them. What we say as parents and educators can be so influential. The feedback we give can impact a child for years to come.

There’s a huge difference between saying to a child, “You’re a good drawer!” and “You put a lot of effort into that drawing.” The first places value on the ability. The latter places the value on the effort or process. Which one do you think privileges actual learning? The language we choose to use with our students influence mindsets profoundly. A healthy dose of anxiety is normal, but it too places value on the process rather than the event. You acknowledge the event and feelings with a timestamp, like, “I can right now that you’re frustrated…” Then give the child agency to make a decision to move away from a fixed idea of their frustration to one that will pass.

A great book our faculty is reading is called, Opening Minds: Using Language to Change Minds by Peter Johnston. It cites Dweck’s work and goes on to show how powerful the language we use can affect the way children perceive themselves. He uses the terms “fixed” and “dynamic” to describe the way we think about ourselves. Basically, learning is something that we can change and knowing that our brains are plastic and adaptable is  important. When a child is having an, “I’m stupid,” moment, it’s imperative to help the child recognize that it’s just a moment, not a fixed idea. A child with a growth mindset is going to have less anxiety, learn throughout life, and develop resilience. As adults, it’s natural to want to rescue a child, but as an adult you have to know the difference between pushing a child out of the way of a speeding car and doing their homework for them.

Furthermore, both Master and Johnston show the evidence of how language influences social and moral agency. If we put a fixed label on ourselves, it becomes very different to find the value in others and develop the empathy needed to work with those with differing views.

This works for adults too. I can learn from my colleagues and they can learn from me, but only if we are willing to see that. The next time you’re giving feedback to a child (or a peer), instead of a simple, “Great Job!” be specific.  For example, “I really like the choice of words in this paragraph.” If you can’t think of anything specific right away, at least praise the effort. “Wow! I can see you put a lot of work into that!”

I haven’t read McCurry’s book yet, but I highly recommend the other two. They might just change a life.

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Learning About Giving

Students love field trips, and I do too. Visits have to be meaningful though, not just a fun day off from school. When planning trips, one needs to ask what  the children learning from the experience. There are many reasons to leave the classroom. A few include, extending the curriculum, participating in authentic learning, and being exposed to new ideas and resources.

I’ve always appreciated the size and scope of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, but until this year, didn’t know that they had a visitor’s center adjacent to their headquarters here in Seattle. If you are ever in Seattle, I highly recommend a visit. It’s only about a 7 minute walk from the Space Needle, and it’s free. Our second grade classes visited last week.

The center is divided into 5 main areas:

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Voices

Hear voices from around the world and see portraits of our foundation family—employees, grantees, partners, beneficiaries, and our co-chairs.

Family & Foundation

Find out why and how the Gates family started this foundation, see examples of how we work around the world, and tell others what you’d do if you had your own foundation.

Partnerships

Discover how our partners are making progress on tough problems globally and locally, and weigh in on newsworthy issues.

Theater

Watch and listen to a rotating program of short videos offering a deeper perspective on our work.

Innovation & Inspiration

Solve real-world problems using your own best skills, and learn more about how people just like you are making a difference every day.

My favorite (and I think the children’s) was the innovation and inspiration area. The entire visitor’s center is designed to be interactive, but we could have spent hours in this particular room. Children are asked to think outside the box to design solutions to some of our problems. They also had several examples of products in the field on display such as shelter boxes and filtered drinking straws. They even had prototypes of items like Soccket, a soccer ball that captures energy during play. Enough to light an LED for a few hours or charge small batteries. The foundation pointed out that they weren’t the inventors of these innovations, but supported efforts like these to further their mission.

One of the neat features of this interactive room was that the children’s ideas or creations were displayed and shared instantly on large walls alongside ideas from previous visitors.

One of the other rooms emphasized partnerships. That while one person may have a brilliant idea and can have an incredible impact, it takes teamwork to achieve many of our goals. Our tour ended with our docent asking the children what they would do if they had a foundation. It was great to hear students come up with ideas that were outside the scope of the Gates Foundation, like animal welfare.

Before our visit, our class had a great discussion about needs and wants. The class agreed that basic needs included water, food, and shelter.

They had a harder time deciding at what time in one’s life one could care for themselves. They decided it could be both a need and want depending on the context. The other two topics that students grappled with were education and health. Several students had solid reasons why they were needs, wants, or somewhere in between.

We involve our students in service in many ways such as helping one another in our own classrooms, partnering with students outside our classroom, planting trees in a city park, and packing food at a local feeding center. Helping children see beyond themselves is not always easy, especially in 2nd grade, and some of these ideas come from the adults around them. It’s extremely powerful, however, when service learning ideas come from the students themselves. Hopefully, this visit inspired a few and planted some seeds that will help serve our immediate and global communities.

Inspire Life-long Learners by Being One

Today, I had the added privilege of presenting at the conference and was both humbled and honored with the opportunity to do so. I’m also amazed at the kinds of innovative success stories that are being shared. I am learning plenty!

Needless to say, after day 1, I’m completely exhausted, but I thought I’d try writing about the first session I attended: ePortfolios – Teaching Children to Curate and Manage Their Digital Footprints.

Right now, student work is celebrated on bulletin boards, when parents visit classroom events, uploaded to the class website, and by sharing it with each other.

According to the Garrison Forest School in Maryland, students often ended up with huge stacks of paper. But before embarking on their project, they wanted to make sure there was purpose to creating ePortfolios. The lower school team had very compelling readongs. One of their considerations was time. They needed something simple so that students the work of scanning documents, etc didn’t take so long.

Then, they had to find on a format. One that would be customizable and easy to use. They considered google sites (which they used at their middle school), edublogs, or Evernote, and , for the lower school, they decided Evernote was the simplest.

I think it’s important to learn how to control your public profile as well as to highlight your work digitally. One of the things I really liked about this presentation was that they recognized that first graders would need help from adults to curate their digital portfolio. The part I liked best was that the children would use these to showcase their work, assess it, and learn to choose which pieces of work to include.

Giving children some autonomy is necessary to its success, and when children choose their work, the idea of growth becomes evident to them.

The group did a marvelous job presenting and gave compelling reasons which you can read here: bit.ly/NAISePort

There are challenges to this of course, but once you have a common vision of why ePortfolios are important, these difficulties will naturally dissipate.

As I mentioned, It’s been a long day, but I hope to share with you the main points of my presentation and the experience leading up to it, Jim Collins’ keynote address, and the final panel of four voices, each with a take on youth culture and social media.

Tomorrow, I look forward to hearing from the filmmaker Lee Hirsch of the documentary “Bully.” He’ll be interviewed on AC360 on CNN tonight. I’m also looking forward to hearing Tererai Trent’s story of overcoming obstacles and turning oppression into opportunities in a session called, “Education is a Human Right.” I will also be attending sessions on purposeful use of technology in classrooms and Cathy Davidson who will try to convince us that education needs a paradigm shift.

Is Quantifying Teacher Performance Akin to Flipping A Coin?

Last week, on the way home from school, I tuned into a story on the radio titled: “Seattle Releases First Teacher Ratings Based on Student Performance.” Data is great, but if you paid attention to the elections a few weeks ago, there were two kinds of math going on. Nate Silver’s Five Thirty Eight blog predicted 50/50 states. Karl Rove’s analysis of the data had him flummoxed. The difference was that Rove was emotionally attached, was eager to win, and for some reason his analysis of the same polls was way off. Alternatively, Silver simply plugged numbers into complex algorithms.

Mathematicians have noted that test scores and teacher performance don’t necessarily have a strong correlation, yet an incredible weight and cost is attributed to these standardized tests. Math professor Johh Ewing says, “You might as well look at all the teachers and flip a coin and those that get heads, say, are good, and those that get tails are bad, and it’s not much different from using one year of growth to measure teachers,”

Ewings paper, “Mathematical Intimidation: Driven by Data,” Looks at the potential pitfall of trying to create Value Added Measures to teacher evaluation.

Like the election examples earlier, we often attach a lot of emotion to the data creating a lot of noise. This noise had the potential to lead to bias. When a teacher says, “But I’ve done this for 20 years. I know this works,” it is evident that experience plays an important role. But is there bias involved. During those 20 years, did that teacher ever once control the experiment by not utilizing a particular skill? If so was the result the same, better, worse. Without trying to control for various things, how does one really know if what you do works. Is it just a feeling or is it based on empirical data.

Finally, there are so many things that make a good teacher: relationships with students, high expectations, integrity, care, leadership, collaboration, etc. Yet all of these traits can’t be tested for.

Standardized test scores are a reality and here to stay. As long as graduate schools use test scores as a tool to help with admissions, and undergraduate schools do the same, high schools and middle schools won’t have much of a choice. Elementary schools just follow.

There’s a dark side to this. Children as early as Pre-K are getting tutored in test preparation. Like the qualities of teachers, students have many amazing strengths and skills. However just because they struggle with test taking, potential doors my be closed without even giving the child a chance to show the brilliance that lies within.

And what about those 21st Century Skills – Critical Thinking, Communication, Collaboration, Creativity, etc. Will teachers drop integrating teaching these skills in order to meet the demands of the test scores? I hope not.

Letting Go of Our Need to be Right

I had an incredible day of learning today at the PNAIS Fall Educator’s Conference. It was fun to be on a team that helped choose the theme: Risk + Failure = Growth: Developing the Resilient Learner and Educator and select some great speakers. 

The morning started off with keynote Kathryn Schultz who calls herself a ‘wrongologist’. Author of the book, Being Wrong, she talked about how humans in general have a hard time being wrong. Being wrong carries many negative emotions. We are able to see our fallibility in acknowledging mistakes we’ve made in the past, and even recognize that we know we’ll make others in the future. But in our present selves, we seem to have this need to be right. 

In this bubble or attachment of needing to be right, we tend to think those who disagree with us as either ignorant, an idiot, or, if they’re really smart and well-read, evil. 

And there are often two main messages we send to kids when we give them a grade like a C-.

1) Kids respond to this as something punitive, “you’re lazy, not smart, etc.”

2) It motivates them to become perfectionists (who work to be right most of the time, then FREAK OUT when they make a mistake because they think there’s something wrong with them). 

But without ignorance, Ms. Schulz says, we lose creativity or inquiry. We need to value our students’ curiosity and their thirst for knowledge – what they don’t know yet, but desire to find out.

Schulz ended by giving several philosophical thoughts on error (I’m clearly going to have to do more reading):

  1. Socrates’ ἀπορία (aporia): doubt, perplexity, wonder
  2. Montaigne’s Que sais-je? What do I know?
  3. The Pessimistic Meta-Induction from the History of Science
  4. Over 1000 years before Descartes, St. Augustine’s Fallor ergo sum. (although there was some ambiguity to the quote when I looked it up – I doubt I’ll have the time to find a copy of the primary source, learn Latin, and translate it). Nonetheless a phrase like, “I err, therefore I am” is fundamental to us according to Schulz.

In my classroom, kids take risks and make mistakes all the time in their learning. They know I do too, but one thing I can do more of is  be more explicit when I make mistakes, and model it for them. I am also trying to add more ambiguity in how they arrive at their final products, so that during the process they are indeed learning important skills, but the direction in which their learning takes them may be a little fuzzy. This is hard to do and may not always work, but maybe if I can let go of needing to be right, they can too.

I learned a lot from four other great presenters today. Hopefully, I’ll be able to share more of what I learned over the next few weeks. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with Kathryn Schulz’s TED talk.

 

Should Educators in the Lower Grades Consider Eliminating Homework?

Challenge Success is a project out of Stanford University’s School of Education. Its mission is to “work with schools, parents and youth to develop and implement action plans to improve student well-being and engagement with learning.”

Recently, they announced that they are working on a series of white papers that evaluate and summarize the body of research in a given topic in order to make the research more accessible and to offer suggestions for educators and parents. Their first paper is on homework and rather than take one side of the argument or the other, they try to answer both viewpoints using the available research. Part of their conclusion included the following:

“Much of the research supporting and refuting the benefits of homework seems to be contradictory, and some of the arguments actually have no research to support their claims. Given that much of the research points to little or no benefits of homework, we urge educators to take a hard look at their current practices and policies. Some educators in the lower grades might consider eliminating homework altogether, and just asking students to spend time reading for pleasure (which is positively connected to achievement), or allow them extra time for play and time with family….”

The research on homework is indeed ambiguous, so it’s nice to have a group that has the time to look at the research more closely. Over the past three years I have looked at my current practices (the policies are outside of my control) and considered eliminating homework (short of reading for pleasure), but the reception of this has been mixed. I’m glad that there is more support for what I’ve been advocating.

The suggestions they offer to teachers and parents to make homework more engaging and meaningful are also good.

An example of a recommendation for parents: “Parents can help organize [students’] time or prioritize assignments, but when parents deliver forgotten assignments to school or step in to rescue a child at the last minute, they may be denying the child the opportunity to develop resilience and fortitude.”

For many adults, finding work/life balance can be tricky. Especially if one is truly engaged and finds meaning in their work. An article published in today’s NYTimes about a course at Google to help their employees achieve that balance comes as no surprise. It would be nice to ensure that our students begin to develop a healthy balance?

How Rational Are Our Choices?

A rational person might take a few light reads when they go on vacation, but instead I chose to read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow. One downside to a Kindle is you don’t really get a sense of the physicality of a book. Kahneman, a cognitive psychologist, won the Nobel for economics in 2002. His book delves into his life’s research.

First, he describes the two different systems at play in our brains: 1) Fast thinking, which is automatic, subconscious, emotional, and requires very little effort. 2) Slow thinking which is conscious, requires much effort, is more logical, and is deliberate. He provides plenty of evidence of why we might overestimate human judgement, and in general, we do not make very rational choices. In test after test, human subjects mostly fail to think statistically and don’t do the math. The final part of his book discusses his research on happiness. Our minds on that topic are also divided. We can measure our happiness by our experiences, but what dominates our own perception of happiness is how we remember the peak and valleys of the pain and pleasures.

It’s not a light read like one of Malcolm Gladwell’s book that pieces together research of other people. Rather, it’s an intriguing account (and sometimes memoir) of his own research on how we think. I highly recommend it. Thinking Fast and Slow is a difficult book to summarize or review, so I’ll simply link to a couple of of them:

Here is the WSJ’s review and the NYTimes review.

There’s one simple math question in his book used as an example that I like:

A ball and a bat together cost $1.10. The bat cost a dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

Over 50% of Harvard and M.I.T. students got this wrong. Why? They did not bother to check. They relied on their intuition that happened to deceive them.

After writing about our divided brains with two systems, Kahneman says that these systems of thinking aren’t really separate but it’s important to be aware of those two systems. It’s amazing how irrational some of our own decisions are. Kahneman suggests that we approach our thoughts as an outsider at times. It will help us lower our overconfidence and reduce many of our own invisible biases. As we become more aware of how we think and when we should tap into deeper thinking, I hope we can help our students to do the same. 

Here’s a TED talk he gave a couple of years ago.