Wednesday, March 27, 2013

It's Groundhog Day in Education

My heart sank last Friday morning as I read the article "More Teachers Are Grouping Students By Ability", which reported that elementary teachers are increasingly grouping kids by ability level again, in spite of significant research that shows this is not an effective practice and is contrary to what their own union recommends. This news comes from the recently-released report by Brookings Institution's Brown Center on American Education, which found that "the percentage of fourth-grade teachers who said they created ability-based reading groups skyrocketed from 28% to 71%. In math, between 1996 and 2011, the practice rose from 40% to 61%."

These teachers must believe that this practice provides some benefit to the students, otherwise they would not be doing this.  However, I wonder how many realize that ability grouping has long been controversial because students often end up being separated by race and class. In addition, I suspect they may not be aware of the research that presents two equally-significant psychological reasons they should avoid ability grouping regardless of the race/class composition in their classrooms: 
  1. It can negatively affect students' beliefs in their abilities and therefore their motivation to learn, at every ability level, and 
  2. It can negatively affect teachers' beliefs about students' abilities to learn and grow.

Student Beliefs
Dr. Carol Dweck, a Stanford University psychologist, recently published an important book describing the connection between belief in our abilities and our actual success in school (and life).  "Mindset: The New Psychology of Success"  describes clearly and compellingly how a "fixed mindset", the belief that intelligence and talent are set and unchangeable, can decrease motivation in any student.  Given that many students operate with this mindset (and I would guess almost all of them do), it is clear that ability grouping can have a significant negative impact on their development.

For example, as you might predict, placing a student in a low-ability group can lead the student to believe that they are of low intellectual ability, resulting in a lack of interest in exerting any effort. After all, what's the use? What's surprising, however, is that Dr. Dweck found that even if the same student is later moved to a higher-ability group, the original belief and motivation to learn don't necessarily change -- these students continue to view themselves as intellectually limited, but now they feel out of place and anxious as well.  Their mindset hasn't changed, and continues to limit them.

As for the higher-ability kids, they don't fare any better.  The research shows that "smart" kids often give up on challenging tasks when they have a fixed mindset because they "...want to make sure they succeed. Smart people should always succeed."  In other words, for kids who are told they are "smart", failure is not an option, so they don't risk stretching themselves, instead choosing success over growth.  Further, and more alarmingly, "they may feel a sense of superiority, since success means that their fixed traits are better than other people's." 

According to Dr. Dweck, the solution for all kids of any level is to teach them a "growth mindset":  understanding that their abilities, intellectual and otherwise, can be developed through learning and practice.  So, informed and skillful teachers can mitigate some of the potential damage of ability-grouping by:
  1. Teaching students that they can expand and grow through effort,
  2. Consistently emphasizing and recognizing effort over results, and
  3. Framing failure as "a problem to be faced, dealt with, and learned from."  
The problem is that teachers need to be aware of these ideas in order to act on them, and I worry that many don't.  Further, they also need to be aware of another potentially harmful factor:  their own beliefs.
Teacher Beliefs
In addition to the very real risk of reinforcing students' negative beliefs about themselves (as described above), there's a further danger that ability grouping can influence the teacher's beliefs as well.  It's called the Pygmalion Effect, and according to psychologist Robert Rosenthal, it is the result when "what one person expects of another comes to serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy." 

Research has shown that teachers' beliefs and expectations about their students can make an enormous difference in the students' achievements.  A teacher who believes in a student's potential and expects that student to succeed is warmer and more encouraging (verbally and non-verbally), provides more material (and often more difficult material), allows more opportunities for the student to contribute, and offers higher-quality feedback. This is an unconscious choice by many teachers, however, and ability grouping can either reflect or reinforce teachers' own limiting beliefs and expectations about their students.

So, if you are a parent whose child is put in an ability-level group, I urge you to do the following:

1.  Take action. Speak to your child's teacher and explain your concerns.  You can let them know that their own union, the National Education Association, is against this practice and even has a statement against it on their web site. Then, jointly come up with a plan for addressing your concerns, including encouraging them to find another way to meet students' needs beyond ability grouping.

2.  Read "Mindset" (see link below).  If your child's teacher is not able or willing to move beyond ability grouping, you will need to intervene with your child. This book will help.

More about "Mindset"If you are a parent or teacher and have time to read only one book about educating children, this is the one.  Your children's mindset about learning and success will impact them throughout their lives, and the information and techniques in this book will help you support them.

Click here to see other books I recommend.


Sunday, March 17, 2013

Broad Experience, or Deep Engagement?

You know how you get a song stuck in your head sometimes, and even though its driving you crazy you can't get it out of your mind?  Or how you can get fixated on something someone said, and you keep replaying their words over and over, trying to figure out what they really meant?  Well this week I've added a new category to my "types of obsessive thoughts" list:  Circular Questions.  This is a new one for me, and I've been going round-and-round on one particular question: 

"Is it better to spend your childhood, or your life, 
a little bit interested in a lot of things, 
or a lot interested in one thing?" 

I have the author, Paul Tough, to thank for this.  I've been reading his book "How Children Succeed",  learning how research is showing that positive character traits like perseverance, curiosity, and self-control are actually more important than intelligence when it comes to succeeding in school. Mid-way through the book he begins describing a group of middle-school kids who are members of a chess club at their inner-city school, and how they regularly win chess tournaments against kids from much more affluent schools, including some of the best high schools in their area, and even against some adult chess masters.  He attributes much of their success to their teacher/chess coach who challenges the kids "to look deeply at their own mistakes, examine why they had made them, and think hard about what they might have done differently."  In other words, how to persevere. And part of this perseverance includes hours and hours of practice each day, which means they have time for little else.

So here is where the question is posed. "Is it better to spend your childhood, or your life, a little bit interested in a lot of things, or a lot interested in one thing?"

In spite of what I had just read about the chess club kids, my immediate response was "a little bit interested in a lot of things"; kids should have a chance to try things out and see what they enjoy, to experience as much as possible.  This is certainly what I've encouraged my kids to do, and is what I've spent most of my own life doing -- trying something out, getting pretty good at it (or not), and then moving on.  When given the option of being a "generalist" or a "specialist", the former has always seemed the better choice.

But, it turns out that there's a very strong case to be made for specializing, too, even when you're young.  In the words of the chess coach from the book, "I think it's really liberating for kids to understand what it's like to be passionate about something. They're having momentous experiences that they'll always remember."  Right.  Passion and big experiences -- they're important, too.  The opportunity to deeply engage in an activity, to develop mastery, is rare these days when we're all called on to be "multi-taskers", where technology-driven interruptions and distractions are the norm.

So now I'm reflecting on my original answer to the question, and am rethinking it a bit.  I want my kids to have the experience of being deeply engaged in something meaningful, to push themselves and experience the feeling of accomplishment that comes from dedication to a goal.  

But... I still want them to experience as much of life as they can.  Is there a way to have both?  What do you think?

A note on the book....

Paul Tough has produced an incredibly-researched, well-written book that will serve as a valuable resource for educators and policy-makers.  If you are interested in education, educational policy, or character development, I highly recommend that you pick up a copy.  You will be amazed at all of the great information and insights.  

If you don't have much time, but are still interested in learning more, there is a summary version of the book called "How Children Succeed.... in 30 Minutes".  Just click on either of the images below to order through Amazon.