Prioritizing ‘success’ comes under fire

California’s community colleges should focus on educating students who are making progress toward a certificate or degree, giving lower priority to “permanent students” and people seeking enrichment courses, recommends a state task force. College newspapers are campaigning against the changes, saying students should be able to explore without committing to completing a “program of study.”

Also on Community College Spotlight:  One out of four students enrolled in community college in fall 2010 was not enrolled anywhere by the following semester, though that includes students who earned a certificate or degree.

Tests that teach (and those that don’t)

Tests can be a valuable teaching tool “when used in combination with enjoyable, interactive projects that enable students to construct meaning actively (rather than learning it by rote),” according to Big Think’s interview with Sam Wang, a Princeton neuroscientist.

Tests that provide immediate feedback enhance learning, says Wang. Standardized tests, which provide a non-itemized score weeks or months later, don’t let students learn from mistakes. High-stakes tests have limited value as a teaching tool. “Anxiety’s a lousy teacher.”

Wang recommends “low-stakes pop quizzes structured as a game, possibly with the class divided into competing teams.”

Frequency and brevity are important points here – regular quizzes ensure that learning is reinforced before students have time to forget the lesson, and keeping them brief divides the learning into discrete and memorable chunks.

Hour-long standardized tests do teach one valuable thing: Persistence.

True grit

What if the Secret to Success Is Failure? asks Paul Tough in the New York Times Magazine. Both Dominic Randolph, principal of the elite Riverdale Country School in New York City, and David Levin, superintendent of KIPP schools in New York City, are trying to teach character, the “essential traits of mind and habit” that lead to success in life. It’s more of a challenge for Randolph because private school parent don’t see the need.

 “Whether it’s the pioneer in the Conestoga wagon or someone coming here in the 1920s from southern Italy, there was this idea in America that if you worked hard and you showed real grit, that you could be successful,” he said. “Strangely, we’ve now forgotten that. People who have an easy time of things, who get 800s on their SAT’s, I worry that those people get feedback that everything they’re doing is great. And I think as a result, we are actually setting them up for long-term failure. When that person suddenly has to face up to a difficult moment, then I think they’re screwed, to be honest. I don’t think they’ve grown the capacities to be able to handle that.”

Both men met in 2005 with Martin Seligman, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Learned Optimism, which helped establish the Positive Psychology movement. Seligman showed them his new book (with Michigan Psychology Professor Christopher  Peterson), Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification, a “manual of the sanities.”

Seligman and Peterson consulted works from Aristotle to Confucius, from the Upanishads to the Torah, from the Boy Scout Handbook to profiles of Pokémon characters, and they settled on 24 character strengths common to all cultures and eras. The list included some we think of as traditional noble traits, like bravery, citizenship, fairness, wisdom and integrity; others that veer into the emotional realm, like love, humor, zest and appreciation of beauty; and still others that are more concerned with day-to-day human interactions: social intelligence (the ability to recognize interpersonal dynamics and adapt quickly to different social situations), kindness, self-regulation, gratitude.

These strengths represent a reliable path to “a life that was not just happy but also meaningful and fulfilling,” they wrote.

Eventually, Randolph and Levin developed a shorter list: zest, grit, self-control, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism and curiosity.

One of Seligman’s graduate students, Angela Duckworth, a former teacher who’s now a psychology professor, focused on two key traits: self-control, which is essential to achieve basic success, and grit, which is needed to excel.

Levin had seen the first KIPP grads go off to private and parochial high schools; most went on to college. But those who persisted in college were not necessarily the top students academically.

. . . they were the ones with exceptional character strengths, like optimism and persistence and social intelligence. They were the ones who were able to recover from a bad grade and resolve to do better next time; to bounce back from a fight with their parents; to resist the urge to go out to the movies and stay home and study instead; to persuade professors to give them extra help after class.

KIPP’s New York City schools now integrate discussions of character traits into lessons and issue a character report card that’s used for parent-teacher-child discussions.

But Riverdale’s character education remains focused on being nice to others. Randolph worries that his students think success is guaranteed.

“The idea of building grit and building self-control is that you get that through failure,” Randolph explained. “And in most highly academic environments in the United States, no one fails anything.”

If you read my book, Our School, (which you should), you’ll encounter the Spanish version of grit, ganas. Downtown College Prep, a charter high school in San Jose, recruits underachievers from low-income and working-class Mexican immigrant families. They need a lot of ganas to make it to college and even more to make it through. Many in the first graduating class struggled academically in college, counselor Vicky Evans told me. But they weren’t discouraged.  “They know what it’s like to start a new school and get hammered. They can handle failure. They’ve done it and survived.”

Magdalena Villalvazo gave the commencement speech for the first graduating class, recounting all the challenges they’d faced. “Slowly, our fears became our strengths,” she said.

Financial aid helps neediest students

Financial aid significantly boosts persistence rates for the neediest students, but doesn’t make much difference for average students.

Also on Community College Spotlight: To qualify for financial aid, college students must declare they’re seeking a degree. People who enroll to learn some English or brush up on basic skills will be counted as drop-outs.

What does success look like?

What does success look like for community colleges? It’s not a simple question.

Also on Community College Spotlight: Persistence pays. Forty years after enrolling in college, Jeanee Bernek completed an associate degree in business. She’s 81.

Why students persist

Adult students who connect with an instructor persist in community college.

Also on Community College Spotlight:  Community colleges must compete for job training funds with for-profit career colleges.

Learning is ‘persistence through failure’

As a second-year teacher of fifth-grade special education students, Mark Anderson often feels like a failure. He hasn’t mastered the “pedagogical and content master of all subject areas” or learned how to meet all of his students social and emotional needs. Also, “I’m not Superman.” But that’s OK.  “Learning is fundamentally about persistence through failure,” he writes on Gotham Schools.

Anderson was inspired by Rita Smilkstein’s “We Were Born to Learn,” which calls for “making mistakes, correcting mistakes, learning from them, and trying over, again and again.”

He also quotes Deborah Meier, from her book on trust in schools:

There is no way to avoid doing something dumb when you are inexperienced or lacking in knowledge, except by not trying at all, insisting you don’t care or aren’t interested, thinking the task itself is dumb (not you), or trying secretly so no one can catch your mistakes — or offer you useful feedback. Of course, these are the excuses we drive most kids into when they don’t trust us enough to make mistakes in our presence.

As he learns to be a teacher, Anderson makes mistakes.  He tells students when he’s made a mistake and what he’s learned from it.

The important part of learning is not that we fail, nor even that we fail over and over again. The important part is that we persist. And with time and the proper support, anyone can get better.

Of course, learning from failure is a skill.

Self-control at 3 predicts health, wealth

Three-year-olds with poor self-control are “more likely to have health and money problems and a criminal record by the age of 32, regardless of background and IQ,” according to research conducted in New Zealand and Britain. From Reuters:

They found that children with low self-control were more likely to have health problems in later life including high blood pressure, being overweight, breathing problems and sexually transmitted infections.

They were also more likely to be dependent on substances such as tobacco, alcohol and drugs, more likely to be single parents, have difficulty managing money and have criminal records.

The study has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal.

In the New Zealand study, teachers, parents, observers and the children themselves assessed their ability to tolerate frustration, persist in reaching goals and think before acting.

Researchers also looked 500 pairs of five-year-old fraternal twins in Britain.

They found that the sibling with lower self-control scores at age five was more likely to start smoking, do badly at school and engage in antisocial behavior at age 12.

Children can learn self-control skills, said Alexis Piquero, a Florida State criminology professor who was not part of the research team. “Identifying low self-control as early as possible and doing prevention and intervention is so much cheaper” than dealing with the problems as impulsive children grow up.

Via FuturePundit.

This sounds like another version of the Stanford marshmallow experiment:  Preschoolers who are able to delay gratification did much better in school and in life than the marshmallow grabbers.