Friday, November 20, 2020

Deep Appreciation for All You Do!

This week’s article summary, A Letter of Appreciation for Educators in The Pandemic, written by a college dean of education, captures the gratitude the entire country—if not the entire world—needs to bestow on teachers for their efforts over the past eight months.
I especially liked the words from the article’s penultimate paragraph that elevate our profession: Our country’s scientists are taking care of the science. Our medical professionals are taking care of our health. Our first responders are taking care of our safety. Similarly, our teachers are teaching our children. 
I’ve always been proud of being a teacher, yet today our profession--to which the vast majority of us have been called--is finally beginning to get the recognition it deserves.
At Trinity, all of us have made tremendous sacrifices during the first months of school, have diligently followed our PRP guidelines, and have masterfully put into practice our school mantra of Reimagination, Flexibility, Patience, and Grace. We have helped and supported our students in countless ways. We have witnessed the importance of in-person school for our students’ academic and social-emotional health and growth. And as we’re attending to our students at school, we’ve supported those who have needed to learn from home.
As we head into our Thanksgiving Break, I am so thankful for all your efforts, fortitude, energy, imagination, teamwork, positivity, and hope! As we take a collective breath over Thanksgiving, let’s appreciate what we’ve accomplished thus far this year!
Over the past eight months whenever things have looked particularly bleak or my physical or emotional energy was sapped, I imagined it was 2, 5, 10 years in the future and how proudly the future me will look back on what I did. For most of us, this will be the greatest moment of our teaching careers!
It can be very solitary and lonely during these unsettling times, and I feel deeply sorry for those who don’t have family, friends, and colleagues they can lean on for comfort, support, and even a good vent now and then.
To paraphrase Robert Frost, We have miles to go before we sleep, yet I am buoyed by being on this journey with all of you! 
Enjoy a restful, healthy, and safe Thanksgiving!
While most of us are well into this unprecedented academic year, I want to say thank you to you—our nation’s teachers, who are giving 110 percent every day! Not only is your work and dedication vital to our children, schools, and communities, but it is also central to the progress of our society, especially during these particularly challenging times. You have always been at the forefront of shaping the next generation.
Thank you for spending countless hours collaborating with your colleagues. We see the 12-hour days, evenings, and weekends. We know you are probably worried about making mistakes, which are inevitable right now. We understand the challenge for you to learn and relearn new curricula, programs, and assessment approaches. All this while you are still expected to be fully present, including for your students who are learning remotely.
We see the high stakes involved with teaching at this moment, even when you have lives to live. Some of you have school-aged children of your own, some of you are caregivers for your own parents or other family members. You are doing spectacular work under extraordinary circumstances, and we recognize your commitment.
In many ways, this is nothing new. As teachers, you have always stepped up. When students needed safety, you provided it. When students needed mentorship, you provided it. When students needed academic engagement, you provided it. Now, during a pandemic, you have once again stepped up, albeit in different ways. By providing a space of stability, security, and safety, you are helping us collectively heal, learn, and persist. 
For all of these reasons, you—our nation’s teachers—need our gratitude. You are providing structure. You are providing consistency. You are providing an opportunity for our children to engage with their teachers and peers. You are providing opportunities to learn. You are reinforcing many of the basic skills that are necessary to be successful in school. Rather than asking what learning is lost during these times, we should be asking a different set of questions: How are teachers being creative? What policies, practices, and support systems have leaders put in place to make sure that you and your students flourish? What can others learn from you?
Our country’s scientists are taking care of the science. Our medical professionals are taking care of our health. Our first responders are taking care of our safety. Similarly, our teachers are teaching our children. It is time for us to support you—time to trust your professionalism and commitment and time to recognize the work behind your personal and professional efforts to excel for our students every single day in less than desirable circumstances.
While the teaching and learning experience will be different for the foreseeable future, the service that you are providing to our children, families, and communities during these challenging times is, indeed, recognized and appreciated. For those of you who are engaging and affirming your students, and supporting families, you are providing the hope that we all need right now.

Friday, November 13, 2020

Is Turn and Talk Effective in Classrooms?

When I was in graduate school, one of my education professors asked his students to tape-record their classes and then re-listen to the class and provide a numerical rating every 7 seconds on the type of talk that was occurring in the class. How often was the teacher talking, how often were kids talking, and were they talking to the teacher or to other students?

My classmates and I were surprised that the vast majority of our classes were dominated by teacher-to-whole-class talk. Back then (and to a certain extent now) the Holy Grail of a great classroom was student-to-student talk. In other words, teachers should minimize their lecture time and allow for much more student-to-student interaction.

As you’ll see from the article below, there are some benefits to student-to-student talk, yet educational research shows that more often than not student-to-student talk doesn’t lead to better student learning.

What I especially like about education today compared to when I started in the 1980s is how the focus today is on the evidence of student learning, when years ago the focus was more on the components of exemplary teaching. I know this sounds weird—as the purpose of education should always be on what the student learns--yet my graduate studies focused more on improving teaching methods under the assumption that better teaching would lead to better student learning. Many teachers in the 80s thought they taught wonderfully. Back then I heard a lot of bragging about how stimulating teacher presentations had been and it was the kids’ fault that their test results were so poor.  

Today teachers truly empower kids and not just through student-to-student talk. We help students be more aware of not just what they’re learning but literally how they are learning, including the different pedagogies we employ to help them learn, remember, and then transfer and apply. Having kids be more cognizant of thinking about their thinking (metacognition) and having teachers guide them to various types of thinking with appropriate cues and scaffolding aids in remembering, recalling, and applying.

While art remains an important part of being a great teacher, the science of learning is certainly more prominent in schools today as our focus is on learning, not only teaching.

Lecture isn’t all that effective because it doesn’t necessarily actively engage students. But as the article below attests, student-to-student interaction isn’t always that effective either. 



Teachers have been led to believe it’s good practice to have students work in groups or pairs, to boost learning and critical thinking. But too often, students get little or no benefit. Walk into almost any elementary classroom and you’ll see the teacher introduce a question and then immediately direct kids to “turn and talk” with a partner. I’ve seen this happen as often as every five or ten minutes. And I’ve seen kids have some lively discussions. But here’s what else I’ve seen:
  • Kids having a lively discussion about a topic that has nothing to do with what they’re supposed to be talking about
  • Kids having a discussion about the intended topic but saying things that don’t make a lot of sense
  • One kid holding forth while a partner just listens—or stares into space
  • Both kids staring into space, waiting for the teacher to say that time is up
Teachers may suspect that “turn and talk” isn’t always working the way it’s supposed to, but it’s been drummed into them that it’s an essential part of their pedagogical repertoire and should be used often. Relying on theories formulated many decades ago, schools of education train prospective teachers to believe that standing before a class and explaining things doesn’t work. What does work, they’re told, is having students interact with peers. 

To be sure, there’s truth to the idea that interaction has educational benefits. Learning doesn’t happen unless students are engaged, and group and pair work can be very engaging for students. But it’s possible to have engagement without learning. 

Research studies show that students can learn more from interacting with peers than from working independently, but just telling them to “turn and talk” isn’t enough. Teachers need to give kids guidelines that require them to debate and negotiate—for example, “Make sure you understand your partner’s perspective.”

That could work—but only if students start out with some understanding of what they’re discussing. Often, they’re directed to “turn and talk” about a topic the teacher hasn’t explained, on the theory that it’s better for them to figure out the facts for themselves. If learners don’t know much about a topic, they may not yet have a “perspective.” They may not have much to say at all—or they may come to erroneous conclusions.  Peer interaction may be great for getting students to share opinions or for reinforcing learning through discussion, but when it comes to factual conveyance, that’s what a subject expert is for.

In many ways group work is one of the most enduring myths in education. 

That’s not to say students should never be asked to work in pairs or groups. 

The alternative to group and pair work isn’t necessarily having a teacher just lecture to passive students. A teacher can impart information and guide thinking in engaging ways. In fact, the recent meta-analysis of studies on group and pair work found that having students interact with an adult one-on-one was more effective than having students interact with each other. But given that most classrooms have one teacher and 20 or more students, that’s not a realistic approach.

Still, teachers can read aloud or explain a concept to the entire class, and pause periodically to ask questions designed to check comprehension, focus attention on what’s important, and prompt analysis. A whole-class discussion can’t involve every student, but the teacher can expand the possibilities—and keep students on their toes—by calling on kids who haven’t necessarily raised their hands. Further questioning can encourage students to respond to others’ ideas and get a true conversation going. Once students seem to have a basic grasp of the subject matter and possible interpretations, a turn-and-talk activity might be appropriate.

One other potentially powerful and underused interactive technique that reaches all students is writing. That may not look like it involves interaction, but writers are inevitably trying to communicate with a reader. Writing requires much of the same cognitive work that underlies what scientists call the protégé effect--the boost to comprehension and retention of information that occurs when one person explains something to another. The caveat is that writing is far more difficult than speaking or even reading. Inexperienced writers need to be guided through carefully crafted activities that free up enough cognitive capacity to allow them to grapple with the material they’re writing about.

That’s challenging but far from impossible. Instead of repeatedly having students turn and talk—and running the risk that the talk will lead nowhere or not even happen—teachers could sometimes ask them to take a few minutes to reflect and write.

Friday, November 6, 2020

Literacy, Reading Comprehension, and Social Studies

This week’s article summary is School Reading Classes Still in a Slump Without more Social Studies.

An article summary from a month ago focused on the importance of background content/prior knowledge as a significant benefit to reading comprehension, and the one a few weeks ago focused on how superficial and incomplete most of today’s history textbooks are.

This article focuses on how American schools devote 40% more class time to learning to read compared to other countries. This high percentage is unquestionably influenced by high-stakes math/literacy testing mandated by our federal and state governments.  

The article’s author, an avid student of history, makes the case for how students by studying more history in school will increase their content knowledge, which in turn will raise their reading comprehension scores.

I agree with him up to a point. While content knowledge is good (and helps us answer questions on Jeopardy), a perplexing question is what constitutes accurate, truthful history. 

As I read the article, I couldn’t help but think the author loves history yet also thinks of it from a one-dimensional, one-perspective manner. Too often we learn only one diluted version of history. 

I agree with him that history can be exciting and thought-provoking, but it needs to push and challenge students by going beyond the superficial. We need to guide students to actively ask questions like ‘Whose experiences and perspectives are lacking’ and ‘In what way might this text skew the full story or omit disturbing events for the sake of narrative/thematic flow?’

I grew up in Cold Spring Harbor, a small town on Long Island Sound. In colonial times, it was a whaling village. When I was a kid, my town was a popular tourist stop with lots of quaint antique stores and even a small but popular museum on the history of whaling. From my kid’s perspective, my town’s history was bucolic.

Imagine my surprise when as an adult I learned that my idyllic hometown in the early 20th century was the infamous epicenter of American eugenics studies and research. (For those who don’t know, eugenics was the racist belief that Nordic whites were genetically superior to other people.) While textbooks commonly attached eugenics to Nazi Germany, America’s part is never covered.

As a history major in college, I read a lot of textbooks but by the time I was a junior and senior and taking discussion-based seminar classes, I mostly read primary sources, especially novels, to get a fuller view and feel of the time period. Nevertheless, what I read was mostly a white, male, Eurocentric perspective. Well-written books with provocative ideas but hardly the only perspective. 

So while I agree that content knowledge is important, we also need to teach kids to think for themselves, and to not assume what they read is the complete story. We all benefit from healthy skepticism of what we read, hear, and see--today more than ever. Superficial textbooks can help kids grow their content knowledge, but whose content knowledge? 



From an early age, I have been a social studies nerd. Elementary school lessons on Civil War battles, besieged presidents, and westward expansion thrilled me.

So I am sad to learn that, according to a recent study, U.S. elementary schools are spending only 28 minutes a day on my favorite subject, while English language arts gets two hours and math almost an hour and a half.

The authors of the report say the puny history lessons are bad for reading achievement. “On average, students who receive an additional thirty minutes of social studies instruction per day . . . in grades 1-5 outperform in reading students with less social studies time. Social studies is the only subject with a clear, positive, and statistically significant effect on reading improvement.”

E.D. Hirsch and others have been pointing out for decades that children need more background information to become good readers. Yet the conventional wisdom still rules. Kids just need more reading instruction, we are told. That approach has left 2/3s of 4th and 8th graders not reading proficiently.

“Social studies has long been neglected in American primary school,” the authors say. “Elementary teachers are often taught that students should ‘first learn to read, so they can read to learn,’ even though youngsters can learn a lot about the world before they can decode.”

Other developed countries devote much less time to literacy classes than we do. American schools spend about 40% of class time on reading. In Japan, the number is only 24%. In Germany, it is 20%, in Finland 24% and in Canada 27%.

Part of the blame is the belief among many people that reading, beyond decoding, really is a skill independent of knowledge. School districts brag about their big blocks of time for reading instruction without bothering to see whether they work. Federal policy may have contributed to this trend by mandating annual state testing in reading and math.

Virginia’s annual state history tests were much admired around the country, but the scores were disappointing, perhaps because too little time was devoted to teaching social studies. The state solved the problem by killing state history tests. The English language arts exams remain.

This study notes a contrary trend in Louisiana. It is putting out reading assessments that align with the state’s English language arts and social studies curriculums. Natalie Wexler, author of “The Knowledge Gap,” said that literacy curriculums that incorporate social studies content may be the way to go.

“I’ve seen second-graders who are using that kind of curriculum eager to find out who won the War of 1812,” Wexler said. “They were also learning lots of other history and geography.

Could rebel teachers sneak more intriguing lessons on history and politics into the English curriculum? My grandsons often leave their school backpacks lying around. I will search them in hopes of finding unauthorized lessons on the Alamo and Teapot Dome.

Friday, October 30, 2020

Lessons from Elementary School

This week's article summary is Let's Read, Listen, and Connect to Bridge Political Differences.

As we still have a few more days remaining of this acrimonious presidential election, this essay from the President of NAIS is not only timely but also provides pragmatic suggestions for how we as a country can begin to move beyond the current climate of fanatical partisanship that divides and separates us.

In my classroom-teaching days whenever a presidential election came along, I would discuss with my 8th-grade students the differences between the Republican and Democrat political parties. I’d start by drawing a horizontal line entitled Forms of Government on the classroom whiteboard; on one end I’d write ‘Anarchy’ and on the other ‘Totalitarianism.’ I’d ask my students to give me examples of each, and they typically focused on anarchy’s absence of government and unlimited individual freedoms and totalitarianism’s complete government control and severe restriction of individual freedoms. 8th graders quickly saw the disadvantages of either extreme.

Then I’d asked them to place Democracy, which tries to find that delicate balance between an effective government that ensures individual rights, on the horizontal line. Democracy isn’t perfect—think of Churchill’s famous quote “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others”—but my students understood its ideals. 

Then I’d ask them about what they knew or had heard about the platforms of the Republican and Democrat parties in America. They brought up taxes, social services, gay rights, prayer in school, military spending, abortion, etc. 

Finally, I had them place both parties on the whiteboard’s horizontal line. Invariably the class agreed that both parties were very close to the middle where they had placed Democracy. Their collective a-ha moment was the realization that Democrats and Republicans were much more similar than different when compared to other forms of government.

As you’ll see in the article, our entire country needs an a-ha moment.

And maybe what we do in elementary school can lead the way.

We teach our students to listen and to have respectful, civil discussions. We guide them to think using multiple perspectives. We help them see that the world is not a binary—with only zero/sum, either/or choices--but a kaleidoscope of difference, variety, and nuance. We encourage them to have an open mind, to withhold judgment, and to remain life-long learners on a continual search for truth. We ask them to seek commonalities and to celebrate differences. We guide them to be fair, honest, responsible, and kind. And most importantly we challenge ourselves and their parents to role model all the above in not only our words but our actions.

It’s been challenging to remain positive and upbeat as we continue to live through this pandemic and this vitriolic presidential election. (Won’t we all breathe a collective sigh of relief when political ads stop?)

Still, the reason I teach and the reason I love elementary school is our focus is on hope, optimism, and possibilities!



I grew up in an era when arguing about politics over dinner was a friendly family sport. Although these discussions were often passionate, we would always end amicably, agreeing to disagree. The arguments did not focus on political party positions but rather on issues. Today, political tensions are at an all-time high, and what used to be friendly banter can now devolve into heated debates that rip families, friends, and colleagues apart. 

USC has measured the change over time in political polarization, specifically the number of Republicans who lie to the right of the most right-leaning Democrats and the number of Democrats who lie to the left of the most left-leaning Republicans. Currently, the overlap is close to zero while in the 1960s it was about 50%; ideological moderates in both parties have seemingly disappeared.

Are we really so divided on issues though? Or could this be more perception than reality? A new report by the University of Pennsylvania suggests that "Democrats and Republicans both think that the divide between them is more than twice what it actually is." The study reveals “an opportunity to address a range of false beliefs that Americans hold about each other that lead to fear, distrust, and hostility.” 

Opinion leaders can begin to stop the spread of polarizing rhetoric and do much to change hearts and minds. Community leaders can create awareness campaigns about partisan misperceptions through voter’s guides and outreach to faith and cultural communities. Individually, we need to really listen to those who see issues differently than us and find areas of agreement.

In our school communities, we can and must work to facilitate effective dialogue so that we can create healthy cultures for students and adults. Moral Reframing is one technique. The way people typically approach political persuasion is that they talk about their own reasons for holding given political positions, but this neglects the fact that the person you’re talking with often has very different moral values, very different psychological makeup, and a very different social background. Moral  Reframing is rooted in empathy: if you want to begin to change someone’s mind, you should make your argument from an understanding of their values, not your own. This technique can bring people together on a range of issues, like economic inequality, environmental protection, and same-sex marriage.

Today, people tend to read and watch those sources that confirm their point of view; by doing so, we’re training ourselves to struggle speaking with someone with different values. We can begin by reading as much as possible on views that are opposing to our own.

Many schools are already doing this work successfully, but we must continue to grow if we are to become communities in which respect, empathy, and mutual trust are the foundation. We are learning communities first and foremost. Let’s put that muscle to work in bridging political divides.

Friday, October 23, 2020

Are Textbooks in History Class Outdated?

This week's article summary is Are History Textbooks Worth Using Anymore?

When I lived in Oklahoma, I taught 8th-grade history at a K-12 independent school. I taught World History up to the Renaissance where the 9th-grade history class began.

Every few years the 9th-grade history teachers and I reviewed new textbook options.

Reading the article below reminded me that back then our elusive hope was that our new textbook would be more multicultural, include different viewpoints about important historical events, and not hold back on history’s complexities—its good, bad, and ugly. While there were always a few cursory additions to newer textbooks, the one we ultimately selected never came close to our hopes, as textbook publishers catered to the preferences of large school districts, especially those in Texas, and hence omitted the darker side of history (all the stuff that kids and history teachers find so fascinating!).

Writing one-volume surveys of history is rare today. The most recent—and one I recommend highly—is Jill Lepore’s These Truths. Unlike the blander textbooks I used in 8th grade, Lepore’s history of America is premised on our country being founded on inherent contradictions that we continue to grapple with today: the Declaration of Independence and Constitution both espouse freedom and equality for all under the law yet ignored slavery, negated women’s rights, and allowed for the persecution of Native Americans. While this textbook is replete with the good, bad, and ugly of American history and details the experiences of those often marginalized in other textbooks, the reader nevertheless needs to understand that Lepore has a particularly strong stance about America, which you might or might not agree with. 

As a whole-to-part learner, I have always liked textbooks because they provide a big-picture overview of the subject. Yet just as Lepore’s textbook has a theme, readers need to ask themselves what may be missing or what else they need to learn to get the complete picture of the subject matter. While the article below recommends using primary sources rather than textbooks, even primary sources are biased and subjective.

Back in Oklahoma, I wish I had taken more time to have my students reflect on what was missing in the textbooks we read, what perspective the author was writing from, and whose voices and experiences were missing. 

Even in Trinity’s elementary school environment, we can guide our students to be more questioning about what they read and see. For me, preparing kids for the future includes developing in them a healthy skepticism and an inquiring mindset about what more they need to know.


Among contemporary education critics, the textbook is a classic and perennial foil—perhaps because its contents are a compromise between experts and politicians, groups with sometimes competing agendas. This is especially true of history texts, which attempt to distill complex and contrasting events into simple, linear narratives, often at the expense of nuance and unpleasant truths. Yet despite these limitations, textbooks are still the most popular way to teach and learn history.

Education historian Diane Ravitch contends that “every textbook has a point of view, despite a facade of neutrality.” Beyond names and dates, she notes, “there is seldom, if ever, a single interpretation of events on which all reputable historians agree. History is anything but agreeable.”

Textbooks pass through innumerable hands before they ever reach a classroom. And states play an outsized role. Textbooks are shaped by state standards, approved by state legislatures, and reviewed by panels of educators appointed by state departments of education, who can request significant revisions from publishers. A recent New York Times analysis detailed how the most influential states, Texas and California, produce markedly different versions of the same texts from publishers “shaded by partisan politics.”

The California version of a popular McGraw-Hill textbook, for example, includes language on redlining and housing discrimination against African Americans after the Second World War; yet the Texas version does not. Depending on what state they’re sold in, textbooks with the same titles either temper or amplify subjects like Reconstruction, LGBTQ rights, and gun control.

“The truth of the matter is education is political,” says Tinisha Shaw, a former history teacher in North Carolina.

Tellingly, although Shaw has helped write standards at the state level—the same ones that influence textbook adoption—she hardly ever used them in her own classroom, due in part to what she sees as flaws in how textbooks are written and adapted, as well as their tendency to overly script curriculum.

“I’m more of the thought of getting rid of the textbooks,” she says. Instead, she suggests that each teacher create curated lists of materials they’ve vetted—“primary sources and secondary sources that hit particular themes that we discuss.” It’s for sure a different approach to teaching history, but one that’s gaining currency with educators who want their students to explore a greater variety of viewpoints.

Of course, history texts across the board have changed significantly over the past half-century, stripping out narratives of European and American exceptionalism along with myths minimizing the impacts and conditions of slavery. And publishers have made at least some effort to add more multicultural and diverse perspectives. Still, too often the story of women and people of color is not woven into the central narrative of the textbook but is relegated to sidebars and special sections.

An even bigger issue is the need to prepare students for an uncertain and protean future—the so-called fourth industrial revolution. They need strong critical-thinking skills, and just teaching to the textbook is not enough.

Despite the fact that history isn’t made from any one source, textbooks can only teach students how to digest a narrow synthesis of history written from a single perspective, which may be as untenable as it is undesirable. What students really need is to encourage students to work with primary sources themselves. That way they’re doing the work of historians—following an approach known as historiography--contrasting various points of view and coming to their own conclusions. In essence, not trying to teach students what they should think but how to think.


Friday, October 16, 2020

Letting Boys Be Emotional

If you asked people what’s the most important goal in their life, the most common response would be ‘to be happy’.

And happiness extends to our emotional state--we all want to be feel good and be happy most, if not all,  of the time.
If you’re familiar with the Buddha’s life, you know that for his first 20 years he was a pampered prince, never experiencing or even seeing any sadness or heartache; in the cloistered protection of his palace, he was shielded from the real world--its ills, pain, suffering, and ugliness. 
Not surprisingly, Buddha at some point had to leave this utopia and experience the real world. 
His story is an allegory for all of us. As we all know, experiencing only continuous joy and happiness is unrealistic and ultimately unwanted. Yes, we want to experience happiness but we also need to embrace a full range of emotions that result from the vicissitudes of our life.
As the article explains, parents/teachers encourage the full range of emotions with all myriad nuances in girls, yet don’t do the same with boys. Experiencing all our emotions and learning how to deal and react with them takes practice, reflection, and guidance. We do a disservice to boys by limiting their range of emotions to societal expectations for males—being stoic and unemotional. Consequently, boys/men are often more emotionally distant than girls/women because they haven’t been afforded the opportunity to experience their full emotional range.
The story of Buddha reminds us that perpetual happiness is an impossibility. We can dream of perpetually sipping a bottomless margarita on a Caribbean beach under a cloudless, azure sky, yet deep down we know that’s an unfulfilling existence. We all need to experience all life has to offer including its pain and suffering and employ our full range of emotions to handle the ups and downs of life.
Psychologists have long championed the importance of cultivating positive emotions as one path towards optimizing well-being, resilience to stressors, and salutary physical health outcomes. Not surprisingly, when people are asked what emotions they want to feel, we place a heavy emphasis on wanting to feel primarily positive emotions.
However, research suggests the choice may no longer be a straightforward one. Recent work by psychologists reveals the once hidden benefits of experiencing a diversity of emotions, both positive and negative. 
This is consistent with what we have long known about emotions; namely, those emotions serve as a guidepost on the map of human experience, drawing our attention to the important markers in our environments—the warning signs, or things that need to be noticed, changed, or processed and understood. 
If having lots of different emotions is good for our health as adults, then shouldn't we be fostering the experience of a diverse range of emotions in young children as well? 
Research suggests we are not fostering emotional diversity from a young age, especially when it comes to raising young boys. As early as infancy, boys’ and girls’ emotional landscape differs. One study reported that when watching an infant being startled by a jack-in-the-box toy, adults who were told the infant was a boy versus a girl were more likely to perceive the infant as experiencing anger, regardless of whether the infant was actually a boy. Gender differences in the diversity of emotion words parents use in conversations with young boys and girls also emerge. Another study examining conversations between mothers and young children, mothers interacting with daughters employ emotion vocabulary of greater density and depth, whereas conversations with sons tended to focus primarily on a single emotion—you guessed it, anger. 
Regardless of whether gender differences in adult behavior arise from conscious or unconscious psychological processes, one thing is clear: boys grow up in a world inhabited by a narrower range of emotions, one in which their experiences of anger are noticed, inferred, and potentially even cultivated. This leaves other emotions—particularly the more vulnerable emotions—sorely ignored or missing in their growing minds.
Indeed, a lack of fostering emotional diversity in youth may have long-term problematic consequences. As early as elementary school, the avoidance of strong emotions (besides anger) results in academic underperformance in boys. Later in development, men suppress their emotions more than women; and men, in turn, experience greater depressive symptoms, and resort more often to physical violence. Scientists speculate that trouble regulating emotion may explain the link between restricted emotions and aggressive behavior towards others in men. This seems likely, given that the skills to regulate emotion are gained through practice, which boys may be less likely to have if they do not have permission to experience the full range of emotions.
Unfortunately, men’s restriction in emotional expression extends to the home—men are also less likely to share their own vulnerable emotions with partners and are less open to these experiences in their partners.
Experiencing the full range of emotions may not only benefit young boys’ psychological health but have far-reaching benefits for society at large.

Friday, October 9, 2020

Unlocking Students' Internal Drive for Learning

This week’s article summary is How to Unlock Students' Internal Drive for Learning.


Daniel Pink’s book Drive posits that three needs motivate adults in both their personal and professional lives: autonomy (the desire to direct our own lives), mastery (the dedication to improve in areas that matter to us), and purpose (the need to contribute to something bigger than ourselves).

In schools, student motivation is typically separated into intrinsic (from within) and extrinsic (from outside). While parents/teachers strive for their children/students to develop intrinsic motivation, we invariably resort to providing extrinsic incentives and punishments.


As the article explores, though, the problem with extrinsic motivators like grades, praise, and rewards is they don’t support children developing agency, self-confidence, and the fortitude to handle challenges and missteps, and too often even lead to loss of engagement and inquisitiveness—with the reward the goal, not the learning. At our Admissions Open Houses, prospective parents are surprised when I tell them that kids often lose interest in school as early as 3rd grade when school becomes a chore to be endured rather than an unfolding adventure of discovery. 


When we provide a classroom and learning experiences that foster intrinsic motivation, our students, as the article says, work harder, learn more deeply, and voluntarily and eagerly take on tougher challenges (cue to our Program Pillars!). By giving more student voice and choice, by emphasizing the process as much as the final product of learning, by including student self-reflection, teachers help maintain student interest, support their agency development, and foster intrinsic motivation.


Realistically, extrinsic motivators won’t ever disappear: for parents and teachers sometimes they are easier and more convenient to use. Yet both parents and teachers need to make sure they’re providing opportunities that foster intrinsic motivation development.




When Destiny Reyes started elementary school, she felt highly motivated. Like most young children, she liked learning new things, and she excelled at school. She got good grades and reveled in her success. She was at the top of her class, and she proved herself further by testing into a competitive, private middle school. But there it wasn’t as easy to be at the top of the class, and her excitement about school – and learning – subsided. Eventually, she says, nothing motivated her. She went to school because she had to.


Destiny, 18, is like most students in the United States. Surveys reveal a steady decline in student engagement throughout middle and high school, a trend that Gallup deemed the “school engagement cliff.” The most recent data found that 74% of fifth graders felt engaged, while the same was true of just 32% percent of high school juniors.


One of the key components of engagement is students’ excitement about what they learn. Yet most schools extinguish that excitement.


It all comes down to motivation. In many schools, students do their work because their teachers tell them to. For students like Destiny, getting a good grade and outshining their peers – not learning itself – becomes the goal of school. For other students, they need minimum grades to be on sports teams or participate in extracurricular activities or please their parents, and that becomes their motivation. Students who do their work because they’re genuinely interested in learning the material are few and far between.

But that’s exactly backwards.

Decades of research, both about educational best practice and the way the human brain works, say extrinsic motivators are dangerous. Offering students rewards for learning creates reliance on the reward. If they becomes less interesting to the student or disappear entirely, the motivation does, too. That’s what happened to Destiny in middle school when she no longer got the reward of being celebrated as the top of her class.


Inspiring students’ intrinsic motivation to learn is a more effective strategy to get and keep students interested. Students actually learn better when motivated this way. They put forth more effort, tackle more challenging tasks, and end up gaining a more profound understanding of the concepts they study.  

Still, Deborah Stipek, a Stanford University professor of education and author of the book “Motivation to Learn: From Theory to Practice,” is pragmatic about the role of extrinsic motivation.

The problem is that the balance, in most schools, is way off. While some schools around the country are trying to personalize learning and, in doing so, to tap into students’ interests, Stipek estimates that most teaching minimizes students’ internal desire to learn.

That’s not the case everywhere, though. Destiny’s trajectory of diminishing engagement took a turn in high school. Instead of getting increasingly uninterested and disconnected from school, she became more engaged. That’s because she enrolled in the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center, a public high school district in Rhode Island. The Met is at the extreme when it comes to tapping into intrinsic motivation. Students don’t take traditional classes. They spend virtually all of their time learning independently, with support from advisors or at internships. Students all have individual learning plans and accumulate credits toward traditional subject areas through projects, self-directed study, internship experience and dual enrollment with local colleges. Almost everything they do, all day, connects to a personal goal or something they’re interested in.

Education researchers have been studying student motivation for decades, identifying the best classroom strategies to promote an intrinsic drive to learn. The Met puts many of them to use: Students learn through real-world, hands-on problem-solving:

  • They tackle open-ended assignments that require sustained effort
  • They get the power to choose what and how they learn
  • They finish projects with something to show for their learning in portfolios and concrete products; they set their own academic goals
  • They need never focus more on a grade than the process of learning because they don’t get traditional grades. 

All of these things come straight out of playbooks for inspiring intrinsic motivation. And the impact on students can be profound.

One challenge for schools trying to spark intrinsic motivation is to make sure that fun, engaging lessons also bring academic rigor. Several studies have found that projects and hands-on activities can be effective at intrinsically motivating students, but don’t actually result in substantive learning.

This comes down to teacher preparation and school design. Teachers aren’t trained to design academically rigorous lessons that motivate students in the right way. And schools aren’t set up to give teachers the time to do so. It is possible, though. 

And because it’s hard, it’s necessarily risky. Many teachers are afraid to experiment with this work. The accountability movement, where states hold schools to strict standards for student performance on standardized tests, put a damper on teaching methods that prioritize intrinsic motivation. Accountability is important but has prompted teachers to focus on test prep. That prioritizes the testing outcome – the grade – rather than the learning process, a surefire way to kill students’ sense of intrinsic motivation.

Researchers have found that one consequence of using grades to motivate students is that they stop challenging themselves for fear of trying something hard and failing at it.

Students don’t do particularly well on standardized tests at The Met. Rhode Island gives every school a star rating based on test scores, graduation rates and other metrics. The Met graduates more students than the state average (90 percent vs. 84 percent), but its rating, just two out of five stars, is dragged down by student achievement on state tests. School leaders, though, don’t pay much attention to test scores. They prefer to keep track of state survey data about student engagement, parent feedback about their children’s progress, student behavior, graduation rates and student performance in college courses.