Category Archives: psychology of teaching and learning

An important confession.

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but one of the most important things I’ve read about education recently comes from the CEO of an educational technology company.

I usually approach educational pronouncements from ed. tech. companies with skepticism. That may not be fair – there are a lot of great teachers and smart folks who work in ed. tech. – but often what I see coming from those sources seems to be breathless excitement about something that will “save” education, “revolutionize” learning, or (worse) bring the “outdated industrial age education model into the 21st century.”

The underlying principles of teaching and learning don’t change much over time, and they don’t need “revolutionizing.” I love learning and talking about educational technology, but it’s just a tool like the other tools teachers and students use. There are many COOL tools (my favorite lately = PearDeck – I’m very excited to start exploring how to use that) but I think we should doubt anyone who claims that this or that new technology is “the answer” to supposed problems in education.

And that’s why I’m surprised at how much I love this “Confession and Question about Personalized Learning” from Larry Berger, CEO of Amplify (reproduced in Frederick Hess‘s blog). In the confession, Larry Berger describes a “conversion experience,” and I think it’s remarkable and important.

Here’s my favorite quote: “Until a few years ago, I was a great believer in what might be called the “engineering” model of personalized learning, which is still what most people mean by personalized learning…I spent a decade believing in this model—the map, the measure, and the library, all powered by big data algorithms. Here’s the problem: The map doesn’t exist, the measurement is impossible, and we have, collectively, built only 5% of the library… So we need to move beyond this engineering model. Once we do, we find that many more compelling and more realistic frontiers of personalized learning opening up. Which brings me to the question that I hope might kick off your conversation: “What did your best teachers and coaches do for you—without the benefit of maps, algorithms, or data—to personalize your learning?”

That’s a BIG admission, and I admire Mr. Berger for overcoming what must have been considerable confirmation bias, etc. as he worked toward this realization. It would have been in his best interest to just keep going on the path of “engineering” personalized learning, but I think he’s absolutely right: the people who think that learning can be carefully engineered and “personalized” in the sense of “automation” will continue to struggle. John Dewey said that learning is inherently “relational,” that social interactions are integral to real educative experiences, and I think he’s right. I’m glad Mr. Berger found his way back to that idea, and I’m excited to see what he does with this realization.

Thinking and Acting and Mindset

I love Carol Dweck’s research on Mindset. Her perspective as a cognitive psychologist is very useful as we think about why students might “give up” on learning in specific contexts. Her team has solid evidence that a growth mindset is associated with good outcomes for students, and a “fixed mindset” isn’t a good sign for future learning.

[Side note: one of my favorite assessment authors, Rick Stiggins, talked about an idea very close to what Dweck calls Mindset in the article “Assesment Through the Students’ Eyes” in 2007, the same year Dweck published Mindset. It’s one of my favorite classroom assessment articles, and it’s inspiring, and it’s short. You should probably read that article rather than this blog post.]

But I wonder whether or not students who already HAVE a fixed mindset benefit from TALKING about mindset. The students who I know who have fixed mindsets (and there are plenty of terms for this: losing streaks, learned helplessness, etc.) ended up thinking this way because of powerful past experiences: usually repeated assessment events that showed them failure. They learned through these experiences that they won’t succeed no matter how hard they try. They learned that their efforts don’t make a difference.

Here’s my thought: since students “experienced” their way into fixed mindsets, they probably need to experience their way “out” of fixed mindsets. If a student is convinced that “no matter what I do, it won’t help,” it won’t help to talk with them about mindset. I don’t think any kind of “pep talk,” or conceptual conversation about Dweck’s theory, or any “cognitive intervention” will help change their mind. They may need to SEE success, to EXPERIENCE and BEHAVE their way into a new way of thinking. A teacher (a teacher they trust and have a good relationship with) has to convince them to try one more time, then get feedback from that teacher, then USE the feedback as they try again, and SEE that they “got better.”

Some teachers and I started talking about assessment as a “loop,” and teachers or students USING feedback as “closing the loop.”

The idea of “closing the loop” is at the heart of what some researchers and educators call Formative Assessment. Unfortunately, the perfectly fine term “formative assessment” has been used SO often to mean SO many different things that I worry it’s turning into “edubabble.” And that’s sad.

I believe Dweck is right: the way we think about our abilities matters. But when we’re convinced we can’t,  we may have to experience and behave our way to a growth mindset instead of just talking about it.