Kids Just Need a Simple Adjustment

A couple of years ago, “Mindset” was all the rage here in the overly-large school district. Many principals lead their staff in reading and discussing the book and the author’s concepts started popping up in everything from admin slide shows to professional development planning.

Her thesis, based on “decades of research”, basically claimed that a person’s native talent and abilities were not enough for success, or even the most significant factor. Instead how well we do in life was more determined by whether we had developed a “growth mindset”.

And, as with other pop psychology (think “The Tipping Point”) and business books (“Drive”, “The World is Flat”), many educators quickly tried to apply the concept to kids in school. It’s that application, or more often misapplication, of complex theories to teaching and learning that bothers me.

Alfie Kohn also finds “something disconcerting about how the idea has been used – and about the broader assumption that what students most need is a “mindset” adjustment” and explains it so much better.

The problem with sweeping, generic claims about the power of attitudes or beliefs isn’t just a risk of overstating the benefits but also a tendency to divert attention from the nature of the tasks themselves: How valuable are they, and who gets to decide whether they must be done? Dweck is a research psychologist, not an educator, so her inattention to the particulars of classroom assignments is understandable. Unfortunately, even some people who are educators would rather convince students they need to adopt a more positive attitude than address the quality of the curriculum (what the students are being taught) or the pedagogy (how they’re being taught it).

That happens a lot in the process of education reform: politicians and ed “experts” call for the application of current popular fad thinking while completely ignoring the fundamental structures of school.

The whole essay is worth a read but I especially like his statement “kids themselves are seldom consulted about what they’re doing”, a point that deserves far more emphasis. Kohn goes on to remind us that kids are often aware of manipulations like the one being worked on them with mindset.

The more serious concern, however, is that what’s really problematic is praise itself. It’s a verbal reward, an extrinsic inducement, and, like other rewards, is often construed by the recipient as manipulation. A substantial research literature has shown that the kids typically end up less interested in whatever they were rewarded or praised for doing, because now their goal is just to get the reward or praise. As I’ve explained in books and articles, the most salient feature of a positive judgment is not that it’s positive but that it’s a judgment; it’s more about controlling than encouraging. Moreover, praise communicates that our acceptance of a child comes with strings attached: Our approval is conditional on the child’s continuing to impress us or do what we say. What kids actually need from us, along with nonjudgmental feedback and guidance, is unconditional support – the antithesis of a patronizing pat on the head for having jumped through our hoops.

Kids also need to be substantially involved in all parts of their education, especially the curriculum and pedagogy.

Reflective Rebels

In a new essay, Alfie Kohn, one of the sharpest and most rational voices in the ed reform discussion, says he wants students to become “reflective rebels”.

His starting point is the “tangle of deeply conservative beliefs” which says that parents are too permissive and as a result, kids are spoiled and narcissistic. Kohn points out that there’s no evidence for this contention and that adults have had a similar view of young people for “approximately forever”.

However, let’s assume the grumblers are correct. What should we do differently so that children are less self-centered and will look beyond themselves?

The answer, I think, is to help them become people who are not only empathic and compassionate but skeptical and courageous. It’s one thing to offer a kind word or a dollar to an individual in distress; it’s something else to address the systemic causes of that distress. The latter requires a willingness to question authority and challenge unjust features of the status quo – to stand up to power. In short, the real alternative to egocentricity is what might be called reflective rebelliousness.

The problem with this approach, of course, is that the same people doing the complaining really don’t like the idea of “rebellious” kids, reflective or otherwise. Society, especially the formal education part of it, is not at all receptive to rebelliousness.

Whether or not it’s stated explicitly, compliance remains the central goal of most classroom management programs, character education initiatives, and parenting resources. Sure, we stress the virtues of independent thinking and assertiveness, but mostly in the context of getting kids to resist peer pressure. If a child has the temerity to resist unreasonable rules and demands imposed by adults, well, then, bring on the “consequences” (read: punishments) to “hold them accountable for their behavior.”

We certainly do talk a lot about wanting our students to learn to be creative, innovative, independent thinkers. But when it comes to their relationship the process of school and the educational system that’s been laid out for them, it’s pretty much all talk. We really don’t know what to do with truly creative kids.

In the end, Kohn says that if we really want kids to develop into “reflective rebels”, to think for themselves, “we ourselves must be rebels” and push back “against the dominant tendency to focus on producing children who do whatever they’re told.”

Unnecessary Evil

Alfie Kohn, one of the smartest voices in the education reform discussion, has an interesting article about new research into the value of homework, one that includes a reminder of the important of reading studies carefully “rather than relying on summaries by journalists or even by the researchers themselves”.

Kohn, who literally wrote the book on the subject, the wonderful The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing, starts by noting the significant lack of support for the instructional value of homework found in previous studies.

First, no research has ever found a benefit to assigning homework (of any kind or in any amount) in elementary school.

Second, even at the high school level, the research supporting homework hasn’t been particularly persuasive.

Third, when homework is related to test scores, the connection tends to be strongest — or, actually, least tenuous — with math.

This latest study focuses on math and science homework in high school, an area that Kohn says is one “where you’d be most likely to find a positive effect if one was there to be found”.

And the result of this fine-tuned investigation? There was no relationship whatsoever between time spent on homework and course grade, and “no substantive difference in grades between students who complete homework and those who do not.”

This result clearly caught the researchers off-guard. Frankly, it surprised me, too. When you measure “achievement” in terms of grades, you expect to see a positive result — not because homework is academically beneficial but because the same teacher who gives the assignments evaluates the students who complete them, and the final grade is often based at least partly on whether, and to what extent, students did the homework. Even if homework were a complete waste of time, how could it not be positively related to course grades?

Beyond the value of homework, or the lack thereof, Kohn’s discussion of the research process itself, and especially how the researchers “reframe these results to minimize the stunning implications”, is well worth your time to read the whole article, footnotes and all.

Addicted to Numbers

Alfie Kohn is one of the smartest observers of American education and someone whose voice needs to be heard more in the ongoing reform discussion. He recently posted an essay about how the increasing drive to collect data on kids is both “uninformative and misleading”.

The whole post is worth a few minutes to read (and pass along to your favorite school administrator and politician) but this observation is one that stands out for me.

You’ve heard it said that tests and other measures are, like technology, merely neutral tools, and all that matters is what we do with the information? Baloney. The measure affects that which is measured. Indeed, the fact that we chose to measure in the first place carries causal weight. His speechwriters had President George W. Bush proclaim, “Measurement is the cornerstone of learning.” What they should have written was, “Measurement is the cornerstone of the kind of learning that lends itself to being measured.” [emphasis mine]

Although the administration here in our overly-large school district talks a good game about “21st century skills”, “innovation”, “creativity”, and all the rest of the high minded phrases, the emphasis at the school level continues to be on testing and collecting more and more data to be analyzed.

And all those assessments, “formative”, practice, and otherwise, can’t help but shape – and narrow – instruction in most classrooms.

The Hypocritical Love Affair With STEM

Alfie Kohn asks an excellent question about the education priorities laid out by our national leaders:  Why do STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) subjects consistently attract so much money and attention?

He has one theory.

As compared with other “softer” disciplines, STEM usually provides us with the reassurance of knowing exactly how much, how many, how far, how fast, which means that these subjects are viewed (often incorrectly) as being inherently objective, therefore more reliable (another questionable leap), and therefore more valuable (yet another one).

Beyond that, I also think much of the love affair with STEM comes from the gut feeling of most people in this country that subjects like math and science are just more serious than social studies or music, like anyone who racks up lots of those credits will automatically get a better job, earn more money, and probably be a better human being.

Either way, there’s a big hypocrisy factor at work here.

Many of the politicians behind the big push for students to take more STEM classes (or at least increased test scores on international tests) are also the ones loudly disparaging the scientists and engineers who produce research and recommendations they disagree with.

Go to college, learn lots of math and science, but don’t use your skills to discover anything that challenges my preconceived ideas.

Great message to offer kids.