Sunday, June 21, 2009

Growing Personally and Professionally Produces Meaningful Results

A few times every year, I get to lead a professional development event known as “Writer’s Stylus.” Each time, including just last week, it proves to be an exciting experience. We begin the week thinking we already teach writing. We end the week as writers, producing an essay that has undergone multiple waves of revision. We end the week as writing teachers with a vision for developing young writers, not just students with good writing skills. We end the week as different individuals and professionals, and as a different community than when we started.

The week of training illustrates three principles that transfer to any area: personal growth aids professional growth, professional growth often requires re-evaluating long-held beliefs and practices, and whe
n combined, personal and professional growth produce meaningful results.

Personal growth aids professional growth.

“At the beginning of the week, I would never have worded this sentence like this,” the teacher explained. “But by learning how to revise my own writing, I can see the difference structuring it this way and using the stronger verb, ambushed, makes.”

“I needed someone to tell me to make it personal—that it was okay to write in my own voice,” explained another teacher. “That turned what was a very direct and didactic essay into something that makes its points through simply relating my experience.”

For all of us, the first noticeable growth was personal. We learned how to revise our own writing. We examined texts crafted by master writers. We noticed things in good writing that we’d never seen before, and we implemented those ideas into our own drafts. We grew as writers.

Our ideas, first either overwhelming or overly sketchy, developed into clear and clever expressions of ourselves. As a group, we got to know each other through rough drafts, coaching sessions, and moving final versions of our essays. The process of writing created a community of writers.

But we also grew as teachers. Because we knew what characterized and went in to crafting good writing, we recognized the weaknesses of our instructional approaches. We began to identify skills we needed to teach our students, but teaching in new and more effective ways means letting go of less effective habits.

Professional growth often requires re-evaluating long-held beliefs and practices.

Our growth as writers changed how we examined our instruction. In looking through writers’ eyes, we recognized much of what we call writing instruction fails to teach writing at all. We have students do too much drafting and not nearly enough revising. We spend too much time having students mark up pre-printed sentences and not nearly enough time crafting original ones. And we get hung up on students forming diagrams for other people’s sentences to the point that we value a correct diagram over a well-constructed original sentence.

Our old ways of thinking argued with us. What would our teaching friends who love diagramming say if they knew we were not going to overemphasize it? If we spent more time in writing and revising, what would happen to the dozens of practice activities and worksheets our textbooks provided? Would coaching young writers as individuals mean that our classes would cover fewer uses of quotation marks than we had in years past?

We asked these questions, and often we ended up laughing at ourselves. Wait, we kept reminding each other, we’re teaching writing. To learn to write, students must write. They must revise. They most journey through the full process. No one ever expressed themselves clearly and in ways that deserve attention by diagramming or underlining preprinted sentences.

Re-evaluation told us the truth. Yet, even with our new eyes, the results astonished us.

Personal and professional growth produce meaningful results.

“I felt like I was trying to hug an elephant.” We worked all week on the essays, and what started as “hugging an elephant” ended up a piece of writing that would rival anything Erma Bombeck ever wrote. “I called my essay, ‘Lettuce. Rejoice!’” she explained. Then she read, “I relished walking the rows of my neighbor’s garden…”

Look at that. Just look at the verb choice in that first sentence! Relished! Would any other verb have brought gardening and vegetables to mind nearly as well?

Several volunteers shared their revised essays, and the quality of each one surprised and delighted us. From essays on adopting and raising children to those detailing personal mission experiences, the results were meaningful—valued, important, significant—both to the writer as an individual and to us, the community, as writers.

Growth is a beautiful and productive process. We need to seek it for ourselves, both personally and professionally, and we need to let it influence our educational practices. When we do, the results may allow us to stand back an say, “Lettuce. Rejoice!”

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Learning from Mistakes Takes the Right Feedback

I slammed my foot and, to my surprise, picked up speed. The lawn mower headed straight for the newly planted apple tree in our backyard. The sound of mower blades slicing through a thin tree trunk caught my father’s attention. He strode across the lawn, and I prepared to be banished from the riding lawn mower. But my father laughed.

“Do you know what you did?” I nodded and explained I had stepped on the clutch rather than the brake, freeing the mower to roll downhill and over the sapling. “Okay,” he said, “where’s the brake?” I showed him which was the brake and which was the clutch. Chuckling, he explained, “You’ve got it. Don’t worry about the tree. It was dead anyway. Now we won’t have to look at it. Keep going.”

Mistakes, claims Jonah Lehrer, “should be cultivated and carefully investigated.” To the brain, “Disappointment is educational.”1

Dopamine, a neurotransmitter that influences emotion, provides a sense of pleasure when what we anticipate happening matches reality, but when our expectations are not met—when our actions do not produce the desired result—we feel disappointment. Through disappointment, we gain an opportunity to literally rewire neuronal connections, to learn, but only if we attend to our mistake: “Self-criticism is the secret to self-improvement.”2

Since we learn, in part, by attending to our errors, what kind of feedback should we, as teachers, give to our students?

Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck contrasted the results of two different types of feedback. One group of students were praised for their intelligence: “You are smart at this.” A second group of students was praised for their efforts: “You worked hard and look at the results.”

The findings? Students praised for their intelligence became easily discouraged when they encountered difficult tasks and lost 20% of their achievement between pre- and post-testing. These students were only content when they could compare their results with students who preformed worse on tasks or tests. In contrast, students praised for their efforts sought challenge, welcomed mistakes, and increased achievement an average of 30% between pre- and post-testing. Lehrer explains:

The problem with praising kids for their innate intelligence—the “smart” compliment—is that it misrepresents the neural reality of education. It encourages kids to avoid the most useful kind of learning activities, which is learning from mistakes. Unless you experience the unpleasant symptoms of being wrong, your brain will never revise its models.3
Dweck’s findings mirrors those of Dr. Jennifer Mangels: individuals who believe intelligence is a fixed entity (i.e., you get the intelligence you’re born with) focus on performance and respond to negative feedback (i.e., the identification of an error) by withdrawing and extending little effort. In contrast, individuals who believe intelligence is malleable (i.e., smart is something you become not something you possess) respond to negative feedback with a mastery-orientation, seeking means of correction and learning. Such learners are resilient, responding to set-backs with renewed energy directed toward learning.4

How can we direct student response to feedback so that the mastery-orientation overcomes the performance-orientation? How can we guide student disappointment to careful investigation of mistakes?

Dr. Robert Brooks (2007) suggests couching feedback in “we” statements. For example, rather than telling a student that a response is incorrect and to “try harder,” Brooks suggests, in one-on-one conversation, saying, “This strategy you're using doesn’t seem to be working. Let's figure out why and how we can change the strategy so that you are successful.” Such a response invites a careful investigation of the mistake and makes the interaction a problem-solving experience. A classroom environment that welcomes error as a gateway to learning contributes to better feedback responses.5

My dad responded in a way that kept me moving forward in my learning and mowing the lawn successfully for several years. Disappointment led to reflection and investigation, correction, and renewed interest in getting it right. Guess I learned more than where to find the brake that day.

  1. Lehrer, J., How We Decide (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2009), 51, 48.
  2. Ibid., 51.
  3. Ibid., 53-54.
  4. Brooks, R., Mindsets for School Success: Effective Educators and Resilient, Motivated Learners. Presented at Learning and the Brain: Using Brain Research to Enhance Cognitive Abilities and Achievement (Nov. 2007).
  5. Mangels, J. A., Motivating Minds: How Student Beliefs Impact Learning and Academic Achievement. Presented at Learning and the Brain: Using Brain Research to Enhance Cognitive Abilities and Achievement (Nov. 2007).

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

"What" and "Where" Enable Learning and Higher Thinking

While their research and associated technology can be complicated, the discoveries of neuroscientists often reveal simple principles of brain functioning.

For example, neuroscientists recently traced the flow of auditory data through the brain. As sound waves spark our nervous system into action, auditory data gets sent from lower functioning areas of the brain to higher functioning areas via two “routes.” One route, the “low road,” carries data through the temporal lobe and enables us to identify what we are hearing. Simultaneously, data traveling the other route, the “high road,” moves through the parietal lobe and enables us to identify where the sound was produced.1

Visual data follows very similar routes. The “low road” flows through the temporal lobe and extracts information about what is being seen. The “high road” flows through the parietal lobe and extracts information about where objects are located.2 What and where precede deeper thinking about new data.

What does this have to do with learning? If students are asked to think critically about or apply new information without an opportunity to establish what and where, their efforts will likely yield poor results.

For example, I often observe teachers presenting a sequence of steps that students need to follow to achieve some result. As students practice, the teacher roams the room and checks student work. A student with an incorrect result is often reminded that the steps “are listed on the white board,” and directed to look there to find his mistake. But whose brain processed what and where as the teacher wrote the steps in order on the board? The teacher’s. The student’s brain focused on the what and where of the teacher’s movement and voice, not the material. As a result, the student still lacks the processing of the material necessary to enable higher functioning, such as using the sequence of steps to achieve a result.

However, if the teacher has the students write the steps of the sequence onto index cards and then arrange them in the correct order, the students process the what and where of the new material. Additionally, the teacher can assess the students’ knowledge before they begin making application. Instructive feedback at this point prevents incorrect practice.

Professional literature often refers to this processing of what and where as comprehension (not to be confused with reading comprehension), and some instructional design models recognize its role in effective teaching. Including opportunities for students to identify and sort new instructional material—to identify what and where—enables the higher functioning, such as constructing understanding and engaging in critical thinking, that we’re pursuing.

A simple principle of brain functioning; a necessary element of learning.

1. How Brain Processes Speech. ScienceDaily. /releases/2009/05/090526140733.htm
2. Berns, G., Iconoclast: A Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think Differently (Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing, 2008).