‘You can get smarter’

Evanston is a Chicago suburb with one very large high school. It enrolls the children of doctors, lawyers and Northwestern professors. It enrolls students from low-income and working-class families. Half are white or Asian-American and half are black or Latino. 

When Eric Witherspoon took over as superintendent of the district, he saw a very integrated school with segregated classrooms, reports Sophie Quinton in National Journal. “Our Advanced Placement classes were disproportionately white, and our classes for struggling students were disproportionately nonwhite,” says Witherspoon.

Team ASAP (Access and Success in Advanced Placement) tout AP classes at Evanston High

Team ASAP (Access and Success in Advanced Placement) members encourage Evanston students to choose AP classes.

Evanston High has expanded academic supports, such as AVID, study centers, early morning and Saturday study sessions. In 2010, honors humanities was opened to all ninth graders. Those who do well earn honors credit and prepare for Advanced Placement work. Other students earn credit for a regular class.

My daughter’s ninth-grade English class (aka “Critical Thinking”) was an honors class for students who chose to do extra work and a regular class for others. It worked well — because the spread wasn’t all that great between the two groups.

Honor students’ parents protested, fearing the courses would be watered down, but “earned honors’ has expanded to ninth-grade science.

The school, which is very well funded, has invested in training teachers how to teach mixed-level classes and how to have “constructive conversations” about race. Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck has talked to staff about cultivating a “growth mindset,” the belief that you can improve, if you work hard enough.

The belief that “intelligence is malleable” has taken root, says Witherspoon.

“You can get smarter,” he says, banging his hands on the table for emphasis.

. . . Nine years ago, about 38 percent of juniors and seniors had taken at least one AP exam, and 77 percent of tests earned a passing grade or higher. Last year, 64 percent of juniors and seniors took at least one AP exam, and 71 percent of tests earned a passing grade or higher.

In the class of 2014, 88 percent of white graduates, 82 percent of Asians, 60 percent of Latinos and 44 percent of African-Americans took at least one AP exam.

Study: ‘It gets better’ prevents depression

Telling ninth graders that people can change can lower the risk of depression, according to a University of Texas study published in Clinical Psychological Science. 

Lifelong struggles with depression often start with puberty, says David Yeager, assistant professor of psychology and lead author of the study.

The study asked one group of incoming ninth graders to read a passage describing how individuals’ personalities are subject to change.

The passage emphasized that being bullied is not the result of a fixed, personal deficiency, nor are bullies essentially “bad” people. An article about brain plasticity and endorsements from older students accompanied the passage. After reading the materials, the students were asked to write their own narrative about how personalities can change, to be shared with future ninth-graders.

Students in the control group read a passage that focused on the malleability of a trait not related to personality: athletic ability.

Nine months later, “rates of clinically significant depressive symptoms rose by roughly 39 percent among students in the control group, in line with previous research on depression in adolescence.” However, students who were told personality is malleable showed no increase in depressive symptoms, even if they’d been bullied.

That jibes with research on the academic benefits of having a “growth mindset,” the belief that ability is malleable. And with the “it gets better” campaign aimed at gay teens facing abuse.

Computer tutors ‘read’ learners’ emotions

Computer tutors are learning to read students’ emotions, so they can provide better feedback, reports Annie Murphy Paul on the Hechinger Report.

Analyzing students’ posture in a special chair,  how much pressure they exert when they click on a special mouse or the pitch of their voices can reveal “academic emotions” such as “curiosity, delight, flow, engagement, confusion, frustration and boredom.”

Some systems use wireless skin conductance sensors or cameras that analyze facial expressions and track students eyes.

“One computerized tutoring program uses ‘mind-reader software’ to identify 22 facial feature points, 12 facial expressions and six mental states,” writes Paul.

Detecting the learner’s feelings is just the first step.

A computerized tutoring program called Wayang Outpost, developed by researchers at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, features an onscreen avatar that subtly mirrors the emotions the learner is feeling. When the learner smiles, the avatar smiles too, making the learner feel understood and supported. When the learners express negative feelings, the avatar mirrors their facial expression of, say, frustration, and offers verbal reassurance: “Sometimes I get frustrated when solving these math problems.”

Then — in a shift that researchers have found to be essential — the avatar pivots toward the positive. “On the other hand,” the avatar might add, “more important than getting the problem right is putting in the effort and keeping in mind that we can all do math if we try.”

Researchers try to encourage a “growth mindset,” the belief that ability improves with effort.

If the learner seems bored, for example, (Notre Dame’s Affective) AutoTutor might respond with the comment, “This stuff can be kind of dull sometimes, so I’m gonna try and help you get through it. Let’s go.” If the AutoTutor senses that the learner is confused, it might advise, “Some of this material can be confusing. Just keep going and I am sure you will get it.”

Deep learning requires struggle, say researchers in affective computing. “Students show the lowest levels of enjoyment during learning under the conditions in which they learn the most, and the feeling of confusion turns out to be the best predictor of learning.”

However, repeated failures turn confusion into “frustration, disengagement and boredom (and ultimately, minimal learning).”

How to get students to work harder

High standards mean nothing — except another chance to fail — unless students believe they can learn, write Thomas Toch and Susan Headden, both of the Carnegie Foundation, in The Atlantic.

“Students who doubt their academic abilities, or question whether students with their particular backgrounds belong at their schools, frequently fall behind or fail at school — regardless of their innate intelligence or the quality of the teaching they receive,” they write.

However, it’s possible to raise students’ confidence — and their effort.

In a recent study, 7th-graders at a middle-class, racially diverse New England public middle school were told to write an essay on a personal hero.

The teachers graded the essays the way they typically would, adding routine critical comments like “unclear,” “give examples,” and “wrong word.”

Then the researchers randomly attached one of two sticky notes to each essay. . . Half of them received a bland message saying, “I’m giving you these comments so that you’ll have feedback on your paper.” The other half received a note saying, “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know you can reach them”—a comment intended to signal teachers’ investment in their students’ success.

. . . Among white students, 87 percent of those who received the encouraging teacher message turned in new essays, compared to 62 percent of those who got the bland note. Among African American students, the effect was even greater, with 72 percent in the encouraged group doing the revision, compared to only 17 percent of those randomly chosen to get the bland message. And the revised essays received higher scores from both the students’ teachers and outside graders hired for the study.

The encouraging note had the largest effect on black students who’d previously trusted teachers the least, concluded researchers. They believed the critical feedback was a sign the teacher cared.

Praising students regardless of their performance is counter-productive, says psychologist Carol Dweck. It suggests effort doesn’t matter.  Students who develop a “growth mindset,” the belief that hard work leads to improvement, are more likely to succeed, she argues.

Latino, African American, and first-generation students often fear they “don’t belong” in college. At the University of Texas in Austin and an elite private university, these students earned more credits and earned higher grades if they received messages encouraging a growth mindset and a sense of belonging.

The dangers of IQ tests

Testing a child’s IQ can pin on a permanent label that denies future learning opportunities, writes Jessica Lahey in an Atlantic review of Scott Barry Kaufman’s Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined. The Truth About Talent, Practice, Creativity, and the Many Paths to Greatness.

As a failing elementary student, Kaufman was tested by a psychologist, who decided he had a low IQ and was “seriously learning disabled.” His parents gave up their plan to send him to an elite private school and instead sent him to a school for children with learning disabilities. “My fate was sealed by a single test,” writes Kaufman.

(Not really. He earned a doctorate at Yale and became a cognitive psychologist. But it wasn’t easy.)

Intelligence changes depending on environment, Lahey writes.

. . . people who believe intelligence is fluid, and can be increased through hard work, are much more likely to put in that hard work and show that intelligence is fluid. Unfortunately, children who believe their intelligence is fixed are far more likely to avoid challenges and simply allow the label to speak for itself. Put simply, children who believe they can become smarter, become smarter through effort and persistence.

Labeling all kids as “gifted” doesn’t work, however. Students who think their intelligence is fixed, whether they think it’s high or low, don’t work as hard as kids with a “growth mindset,” according to Stanford’s Carol Dweck.

For “gifted” kids, that can mean that they are so worried about marring the shiny veneer of that label that they never risk failure, and for the “seriously learning disabled” kids, the grungy tattiness of their label can lead to apathy and hopelessness.

Analyzing learning disabilities can identify what sort of help different children need, Lahey concedes. “I have even recommended intelligence testing for students who, despite their persistence, diligence and effort, are not succeeding in school.”  However, all too often, “a label signals a death knell for future effort, learning, and academic achievement.”

 What if we praised our students’ efforts to learn and grow and improve rather than praised them for showing up at school or on the soccer field, label affixed and prominently displayed? What if we watched those kids carefully, and taught them that they are not the measure of their IQ, but of their efforts to do their very best with what they have?

Yes, but some kids have more than others to work with. Kaufman wasn’t just a slow kid who worked hard.

Kaufman found a book on intelligence in the library and looked up the IQ he’d been assigned at the age of 11. The chart said: “Lucky to graduate high school.” He didn’t believe it, even though his teachers did. Finally, a learning resource teacher said she’d noticed he was bored. “You don’t seem to belong in this classroom,” she said. “Why are you here?”

He left the learning resource room with “his growth mindset and his well-honed skills of grit, diligence, and persistence,” Lahey writes. Now an adjunct psychology professor at NYU, he writes the Beautiful Minds blog on Scientific American. Here’s Kaufman asking Is Your Child Ungifted?

Teaching a ‘growth mindset’

Students who believe they can develop their intelligence over time — what Stanford Professor Carol Dweck calls a “growth mindset” — work harder and learn more than classmates who think intelligence is inborn and fixed.  Dweck and colleague Lisa Blackwell talk about Classroom Strategies to Foster a Growth Mindset with Larry Ferlazzo on Education Week Teacher.

Teachers should set high expectations and tell students they have the ability to succeed, say Dweck and Blackwell.

Let your students know that you value challenge-seeking, learning, and effort above perfect performance, and that the amount of progress they make individually is more important than how they compare to others. Make it clear that mistakes are to be expected and that we can all learn from them.

. . . When you introduce a new topic or assignment, tell students they should expect to find some things confusing and to make initial errors. Ask kids to share their “best” mistake of the week with you, and what they learned from it and do the same yourself.

Useful feedback focuses on “the things students can control, like their effort, challenge-seeking, persistence, and good strategies — not on their personal traits or abilities,” they say. Praising students for being smart can be counter-productive.

Neuroscience research shows the brains develop through effort and learning, they say. Tell students they about the “malleable mind.”

Let students know that when they are practicing hard things their brains are forming new connections and making them smarter. Instead of feeling dumb when they struggle, they will learn to “feel” those connections growing.

Dweck, the author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, founded Mindset Works with Blackwell, a former school leadership coach and the principal designer of Brainology.

Ferlazzo’s list of resources on developing a growth mindset is here.

The growth mindset reminds me of research by psychologists Harold Stevenson and James Stigler.  Peg Tyre summarizes in Don’t trash-talk math:  “In countries that produce a lot of math whizzes, parents and teachers believed math ability is like a muscle you strengthen with good instruction and practice. In the USA, where kids don’t do that well, parents think of math ability as a talent, not a skill.” Chinese parents see a bad grade as evidence their child didn’t work hard enough, while American parents let their kids get away with saying, “I’m just not good at math.”