Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Self-Regulation Supports Student Learning and Achievement

You sit in a room with almost nothing in it. It’s just you, a table, and a single cookie. The researcher who left a moment ago said you could eat the cookie—two chocolate wafers connected by a cream filling. Or, you can wait until he returns in a few minutes and have two cookies. You sit, thinking, “One now? or two later?”

Oh, one more detail: you are four-years-old, and whether you eat one cookie now or wait for two later may predict many aspects of your future.

Thanks to recent Radio Lab episodes, coverage on news programs, and attention from bloggers such as writer Jonah Lehrer and educator Aaron Eyler, self-regulation has become a hot topic. Much of the attention has focused on the original study, often called the “Marshmallow Test,” conducted by Walter Mischel in the 1960’s. (The researchers switched to cookies shortly after launching the experiment.) But more recent research provides insights into the relationship of self-regulation and academic achievement.

Also known as self-discipline, researchers describe self-regulation as the ability to consciously suppress or delay responses in order to work for a higher goal. Examples include “deliberately modulating one’s anger rather than having a temper tantrum, reading test instructions before proceeding to the questions, paying attention to a teacher rather than daydreaming, saving money so that it can accumulate interest in the bank, choosing homework over TV, and persisting on long-term assignments despite boredom and frustration.” Self-regulation predicts academic success better than IQ. It also better predicts GPA, standardized test achievement, homework completion, the potential for GPA gains during the course of a year, and even SAT scores.

Because it significantly influences student achievement, it makes sense to develop students’ self-regulation capacities. But how? How can teachers and schools aid their students’ strengthening of self-regulation?
Self-regulation is much like a muscle. It can be exercised and strengthened. Any task that requires ignoring and delaying reward or that requires persistence through boredom or challenge exercises the self-regulation “muscle.” For example:
  • Exercise students’ “muscles” of self-regulation. By engaging students in activities that require delayed gratification or perseverance, we provide a self-regulation workout. Just like exercising yields slow but steady results, gradually increasing the amount of self-regulation required for tasks slowly builds capacity. As Aaron Eyler suggests, engage students in complex assignments that require time spent thinking about how ideas connect instead of separate, quickly-completed assignments focused on individual ideas.
  • Teach students stick-to-it and wait-for-it strategies, such as self-talk. The messages we consciously “speak” to ourselves influence our thinking, and our thinking influences our actions. In several recent studies, researchers have found that “mental tricks,” motivational and instructional self-talk has “small but significant effects” on “physical exertion…[and] performance” and help us stay “focused.”
  • Teach students “cognitive transformation.” Cognitive transformation involves distracting the mind by shifting the focus. For example, in the famous “marshmallow test,” some children managed to avoid eating the marshmallow by imagining it as something else—a cloud, a table, a chef’s hat. This “distraction” prolonged their ability to resist eating the marshmallow.
  • Engage students in attention training, such as listening for details, observing closely, and solving complex puzzles. Again, increasing the level and duration of attention required for success can strengthen the self-regulation “muscle.” Reading aloud to students is one of the best ways of accomplishing this. Throughout a school year, increase the amount of time you read to children and the complexity of the texts you read.
  • Implement a school FITNESS program. The emphasis needs to be on fitness, not on competition or learning a specific sport. Students engaged in regular physical activity score higher on self-regulation measures.
Some may argue that because self-regulation is non-academic it should not be addressed in school. This perspective fails to recognize the strong connection between self-regulation and learning. Perhaps a metaphor can help. Imagine a suspension bridge, such as San Francisco’s Golden Gate or the Bristol Channel’s Severn. If the road, carrying travelers from one shore to another, represents a student’s learning, the cables, the roadway’s essential support, represent self-regulation. Weak cables limit the roadway’s depth and distance. Strengthening students’ self-regulation capacities supports the academic learning we’re seeking through our teaching.

Duckworth, A. L. (2008). Self-discipline, IQ, and academic achievement. Presented at Learning & the Brain: Using Emotions Research to Enhance Learning. Boston (Fall 2008).

Duckworth, A. L., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2005). Self-discipline outdoes IQ in predicting academic performance of adolescents. Psychological Science 16(12), 939-944.

Duckworth, A. L., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2006). Self-discipline gives girls the edge: Gender in self-discipline, grades, and achievement test scores. Journal of Educational Psychology 98(1), 198-208.

Eyler, A. (2009). Hybridizing education. Stretch our minds (May 22, 2009): http://stretchourminds.blogspot.com.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Who Should Coach? Three Essential Traits for Professional Development Coaches

“Who do you think should be our coach?” I get this question from administrators in schools that invite me to lead professional development events. There is an assumption that after a few days of working with teachers I’ll have a good sense of who could coach colleagues effectively. Sometimes I do, but often I don’t feel confident in making a recommendation. I’ve had teachers in these events who seemed resistant but on a return visit had become a new initiative’s supporter and best practitioner. Conversely, I’ve experienced teachers who seemed receptive and motivated during training but who resisted actually making changes to their practice. The training event is not the best setting for identifying potential coaches.

What, then, should we look for? What traits does a successful coach possess? While a lengthy list could easily be developed, let’s examine three that are critical.

First, an effective coach possesses a passion for and a deep understanding of the new initiative. Genuine passion is contagious. It acts like a magnet, drawing others to its energy, but it rarely manifests itself as a cheerleader. A quiet dedication to doing something right, to working with excellence even while learning, marks the teacher who attracts others to a new initiative. An effective coach will help colleagues see the value of new ideas through actions more than words. Does the teacher take an initiative to make changes to her practice? Does she seem concerned about getting it right, about trying out the initiative as designed? Does the teacher pursue more knowledge and better ways of implementation?

Implementing a new initiative is an act of transfer—the applying of new ideas and methods to actual classroom practice. Coaching others is a step beyond that: equipping and enabling others to be successful in their transfer of new ideas and methods to their classrooms. “The first factor that influences successful transfer is degree of mastery of the original subject,” conclude Bransford, Brown, and Cocking. “Without an adequate level of initial learning, transfer cannot be expected. This point seems obvious, but it is often overlooked…Transfer is affected by the degree to which people learn with understanding rather than merely memorize sets of facts or follow a fixed set of procedures [italics added].”1

Just attending the same training event everyone else attended does not equip someone to coach colleagues successfully. Deeper understanding must be constructed so that the coach can adapt the initiative to various teachers, various classrooms, and to best serve various students. An effective coach seeks additional learning and, if available, additional training in the new initiative.

Second, an effective coach knows how to strategically handle difficult conversations. If the training event went well and the administration has been open with teachers prior to it, difficult conversations may be few in number, but they will still happen. At some point, the coach encounters a colleague who is overwhelmed and feels stressed and defensive about making changes, or a colleague who feels threatened by the idea of having a coach in the classroom, or even a colleague who would like to be left alone to use the same approaches that have been used before. All these conversations occur in every type of school.

After explaining the importance of self-respect and respect for one’s counterpart, Holly Weeks, author of Failure to Communicate, explains how a successful coach perceives difficult conversations:

Self-respect and respect help us frame the problem between us and figure out how to talk about it. Meanwhile, respecting the landscape of a tough conversation assumes there will be problems ahead. Rather than put our heads down and start to plow through, we will do better to step back, take a satellite view, and think about the lay of the land. That is, think about the problems we are likely to encounter and look for a good path through them.2

A good coach will approach difficult conversations with such a “satellite view,” rather than a perspective of “the problem is you.” A good coach stays focused on solving problems and supporting progress, avoiding and ignoring personal attacks.

Finally, a good coach focuses on improving thinking. The goal with any major professional development initiative should not be to produce robots who follow formulas to plan teaching. The goal should be to help teachers understand what works and why it works, to deepen teacher thinking about teaching and to increase teacher intentionality. A good coach aids colleagues’ thinking, often using questions to support teacher thinking rather than short-circuiting thinking by always giving answers. Questioning helps others discover insights for themselves. David Rock, author of Quiet Leadership, explains:

…it’s time to give up second guessing what people’s brains need and become masters of helping others think for themselves. The best way to do that is by defining solutions rather than problems, and helping people identify for themselves new habits they could develop to bring those solutions closer. Pivotal to all this is the art of enabling other people to have their own insights. Once people have had new insights for themselves, our job as quiet leaders is to provide the encouragement, ongoing support and belief in people, over time, to ensure they develop the new habits that are possible. Then we will be truly bringing out the best in others.3

Certainly more contributes to successful coaching, but these three traits are where I’d begin my search, either for a coach or to determine my potential as a coach. Here are some guiding questions based on these thoughts:

  • With whom does the new initiative seem to resonate? Who holds the same values as those advocated by the new approach? Who shows an authentic dedication to the new ideas?
  • Who is skilled at navigating difficult conversations? Who can calm others in the midst of heated interaction? Who maintains a focus on finding solutions? Who seems capable of equipping and encouraging colleagues?
  • Who is skilled at engaging others in thinking? Who asks great questions? Who can use questioning to help others think things through for themselves? Who works with colleagues to think things through rather than assigning blame or taking resistance personally?
The professional development event may be great. The presenter may be dynamic, engaging, and informative. But after the event, the real work begins. The coach plays a pivotal role and directly influences the success of a new initiative. Effective coaches know the program, know the people, and know the processes that will optimize success. When asked for my recommendations, the best advice I can offer administrators is, “Choose wisely.”

  1. Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (Eds.), How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School (Washington, D. C.: National Academy Press, 1999), 41, 43.
  2. Weeks, H., Failure to Communicate: How Conversations Go Wrong and What You Can Do to Right Them (Boston: Harvard Business Press, 2008), 45.
  3. Rock, D., Quiet Leadership: Six Steps to Transforming Performance at Work (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), 27.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

A Missing Piece of the Professional Development Puzzle

Growing up, my older brother loved jigsaw puzzles. He’d sort the pieces and bend over our card table looking for the next fit.

I only enjoyed one piece of his jigsaw puzzles—the last piece. When my brother left the room I’d sneak a piece away and hide it in my sock drawer. The puzzle would remain incomplete until I showed up and proudly placed the last piece.

We often approach professional development without all the pieces in place. We schedule a training event rather than strategizing how to support the changes we want to see in our classrooms. As a result, the training becomes a memory rather than a springboard.

A good coach can carry the professional growth from the training event into the classrooms. With coaching, a great training event becomes a launching pad for greater instructional excellence.

Why? What does a coach do that aids professional growth?

A coach activates reprocessing of new concepts and skills. Most likely, the training event featured a wealth of information. Unless the presenter intentionally planned time and activity to think through the material, many teachers left without constructing a deep understanding of new ideas. A coach engages teachers in thinking through the material and ways of using it to improve teaching.

A coach provides resources for success. Success motivates continued effort, but lacking the resources necessary to implement new strategies frustrates and defeats. A coach monitors teacher needs and works to provide the tools, materials, and support that will enable success.

A coach directs focus toward solutions. If we’re honest, we all tend to resist growth and change. It can be easy to find every reason why something will not work, and this perspective quickly defeats new initiatives. A coach can redirect thinking away from finding problems to designing solutions that enable a new initiative to progress.

A coach helps transform thinking to reality. Let’s move to the gym for a moment. Imagine a basketball coach who meets with the team once at the beginning of the season for a day-long seminar held in the school library. After that, the players are on their own to achieve excellence throughout the season. How successful would this approach be? Not very. The team needs the coach nearby to help them implement the vision and ideas on the court. (Even professional basketball teams need coaches.) Similarly, the coach in the classroom helps the teacher experience success with a new initiative.

That puzzle piece in the sock drawer drove my brother crazy. An incomplete puzzle is unsatisfying. It shows potential unrealized. Don’t let this be the description of your professional development efforts. Recognize the important role a good coach can play in supporting instructional success.

Of course, many questions remain. What traits do successful coaches share? How can a coach establish relationships that will promote optimal effectiveness? Future postings may discuss these and other related ideas.

One final note: a coach can only be helpful to the degree that a teacher welcomes the dialogue. It never feels comfortable to have a colleague observing our instruction because we think the focus is on what we’re doing wrong. A great coach will work for your success and celebrate your success. Let’s welcome such input. As we grow, our teaching improves. As our teaching improves, our students’ learning increases. And that’s a piece we all want in place.