Social-Psychological Intervention Presentations

To follow up on my last post on how we are incorporating social-psychological interventions at my school, here’s a few sessions I developed based off the research that I will provide my colleagues. These lessons can be used as is or modified and adapted for specific needs.

Growth Mindset Session 1

Growth Mindset Session 2

Value Affirmation

WOOP Goal-setting

The More We Compete, The Less We Gain

“More than anything else, competition is an ideology—the ideology—that pervades our society and distorts our thinking. We preach competition, internalize its necessity, and enact its commandments; and as a result, we trap ourselves within it—even though the more we compete, the less we gain.

This is a simple truth, but we’ve all been trained to ignore it. Our educational system both drives and reflects our obsession with competition.”

—Peter Thiel, Zero to One

More Research on Impact of Green Space on Learning

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NEW YORK — Putting more green space around an elementary school may help students develop some mental abilities, a study suggests. . . .

Green space may help mental development in part by reducing air pollution from vehicles, according to an analysis by the researchers that included pollution data from the schools.

It may also help by reducing noise and encouraging physical activity, researchers said in a paper released Monday by the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Policy makers should know that “more green around the school is better for cognitive development and that they should make sure that kids can see and play in green areas,” one author, Mark Nieuwenhuijsen of the Center for Research in Environmental Epidemiology in Barcelona, said in an email. . . .

Their analysis indicated that differences in socio-economic factors between schools did not account for the study outcome.

“Study: Green Space Around Schools May Boost Mental Abilities.” The NY Times, 15 June 2015. Web. <>.

Other posts from Schools & Ecosystems on this topic:

How Can We Mitigate the Errors in Our Minds?

Text Analysis: “The Bugs in Our Minds,” written by Richard E. Nisbett for Nautilus.

Relevance to Schools & Ecosystems: an exploration of socio-ecological constructs, the impact of context on perception, and the mitigating power of knowledge, humility, and self-awareness

In this article, author Richard Nisbett explores the fallibility of our puny human minds. He outlines the power and import of schemas, alongside the dangers and pitfalls in an over-reliance on often faulty stereotypes and heuristics.

The Power of Schemas

Schemas “refers to cognitive frameworks, templates, or rule systems that we apply to the world to make sense of it.” They “affect our behavior as well as 
our judgments.”

Schemas organize and simplify our understanding of the world around us, providing us with models and maps we can be guided unconsciously by. As further explained on a website, Changing Minds, “Schemas help us fill in the gaps. When we classify something we have observed, the schema will tell us much about its meaning and how it will behave, hence enabling threat assessment and other forecasting.”

The Allure of Stereotypes

While schemas are necessary for us to operate and interact successfully in a complex world without being overwhelmed at every moment, there are inherent dangers in the use and application of schemas, such as in the form of stereotypes.

According to Nisbett, there are “two problems with stereotypes: They can be mistaken in some or all respects, and they can exert undue influence on our judgments about people.”

And as most educators know so well, stereotypes can exert a tremendous psychological burden on children. The stereotype effect is well-documented by research in its impact on African American children and females in STEM subjects, for example, and I have witnessed the impact of labels such as “special education” or the impact of placement such as “12:1″ on student behavior and mindset.

Schemas and stereotypes are easily triggered without our conscious awareness. “A serious problem with our reliance on schemas and stereotypes is that they can get triggered by incidental facts that are irrelevant or misleading. The stimulus radiates from the initially activated concept to the concepts that are linked to it in memory.”

The Dangers of Context, Environment, and Incidental Stimuli

“Incidental stimuli that drift into the cognitive stream can affect what we think and what we do, including even stimuli that are completely unrelated to the cognitive task at hand. Words, sights, sounds, feelings, and even smells can influence our understanding of objects and direct our behavior toward them. That can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending.”

By Ernest Martin (Fotofundus Ernest Martin) [CC BY 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

This influence of context and environment has been a recurrent and major theme on this blog for this reason. We significantly underestimate the impact of seemingly irrelevant factors such as where a school is located, the acoustic environment created by the floor tiling, the structure of its hallways, or the color of paint on its walls, despite a growth in research demonstrating the tremendous power such factors can wield over performance and behavior. We overestimate, instead, the influence of abstract political decisions rendered at the state-level or the very visible and direct influence of what teacher happens to be placed in front of students.

But as Nisbett points out, “(1) The effect of incidental stimuli can be huge, and (2) you want to know as much as you possibly can about what kinds of stimuli produce what kinds of effects.” We should be doing everything we can to determine what kinds of school designs produce the outcomes we seek.

The Fault Often Lies in Our Heuristics

Similar to the problem with knee-jerk stereotypes, “we often arrive at judgments or solve problems by use of heuristics—rules of thumb that suggest a solution to a problem, and can introduce errors in judgment.”

One of the biggest errors in heuristics is what Nisbett terms “the representativeness heuristic”: “This rule of thumb leans heavily on judgments of similarity. Events are judged as more likely if they’re similar to the prototype of the event than if they’re less similar.”

Representativeness judgments can influence all kinds of estimates about probability.”

I also happen to be reading Nassim Taleb’s Fooled by Randomness at the moment, and one of his basic premises, as indicated by the title, is that most people—including supposed experts in their field—are taken in by the mere appearance of a short-term pattern in what is really chaotic noise on a cosmic scale.

As Nisbett states in his article,”Simply put, we see patterns in the world where there are none because we don’t understand just how un-random-looking random sequences can be.”

Nisbett suggests that the most reliable heuristic you can wield is the the following: “The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.” Teachers and principals, take note.

6 Ways to Mitigate the Limitations of Our Puny Minds

So, what can we do? We’re fallible human beings, subconsciously influenced by cosmic signals from in extremis stars. Even when we think we’re rational, intellectually driven experts, we’re being steered by the room we’re sitting in, the clothes we’re wearing, the framing engendered by our immediate and historic situations.

One thing in Nisbett’s testimony that stood out to me on this: “Whenever the direct evidence about a person or object is ambiguous, background knowledge in the form of a schema or stereotype can increase accuracy of judgments to the extent that the stereotype has some genuine basis in reality.”

1) BUILD WORLD KNOWLEDGE: In other words, accurate and broad world knowledge and understanding can better inform our mental models and schemas. We’ve discussed this here on this blog before, in terms of a need to better equip “children with the knowledge and understanding of the world necessary to buffer them from forces that seek to exploit their ignorance.” By building a broader understanding and knowledge of the world, we can better understand and dialogue with different people, rather than falling back on malformed prejudice.

2) DESIGN YOUR ENVIRONMENT FOR SUCCESS: Another lesson from Nisbett’s account, in regards to the power of environment and incidental stimuli, “is that you want to rig environments so that they include stimuli that will make you or your product or your policy goals attractive.” In considering schools, we want to “rig” and design them so that learning and positive life outcomes are attractive. Schools shouldn’t be places that children nor adults fear to step into—they should be places that inspire eagerness and joy.

3) DEVELOP JUDGMENTS OVER TIME BY EXPERIENCING DIVERSITY: “A less obvious implication of our susceptibility to “incidental” stimuli is the importance of encountering objects—and especially people—in a number of different settings if a judgment about them is to be of any consequence.” This implication is also interesting to consider in relation to a school. The segregation of our schools, both racially and socioeconomically, has further contributed to the increasingly polarized mental and geographical realms that our society lives segregated within. How can we create an accurate judgement of a wealthy or poor person if our only exposure has been through what we see on the news? By regulating and promoting diversity within our schools, we can cultivate opportunities for children to interact with and relate to many different perspectives. We need to build in time to engage with a diverse range of people and ideas.

4) BE HUMBLE: Nisbett’s other suggestions relate to having humility, and thus, open-mindedness. How can we ever be certain about our judgments in a world ruled by uncertainty? We should operate with the “recognition that the views of other people that differ from our own may have more validity than our intuitions tell us they do.”

5) CULTIVATE SELF-AWARENESS OF YOUR OWN BIASES: Furthermore, Nisbett advises that we develop our self-awareness, and know our own biases and schemas. “We can try to recognize our own stereotype-driven judgments as well as recognize those of others.”

6) RESIST SNAP JUDGMENTS BASED ON SUPERFICIAL FACTORS: Finally, Nisbett also suggests that we “Remember that the similarity of objects and events to their prototypes can be a misleading basis for judgments. Remember that causes need not resemble effects in any way. And remember that assessments of the likelihood or frequency of events can be influenced simply by the readiness with which they come to mind.”

Nisbett, Richard E. “The Bugs in Our Mindware – Issue 24: Error “Nautilus, 7 May 2015. <>.

How My School is Designing Stealthy Interventions

I’ve written about the idea for “stealthy” interventions that I was introduced to at the ResearchED conference by Carl Hendrick. I recently was able to present some of that research, along with other ideas about growth mindset and WOOP goal-setting, to my staff last week. I’m sharing the presentation I used in the hopes that it might give you ideas for your school! Share and share-alike.

Stealthy Interventions in Action

We recently examined “stealthy”— or social-psychological—interventions: the idea that you can have a tremendous and long-lasting effect on student academic success via small interventions that target a student’s subject experiences at school.

Here’s a high school in San Bernadino, California, doing these interventions effectively, despite significant challenges:

“For some of the most troubled students, creative holistic solutions are there; the Ladies Club asks its girls to commit to graduate, with the promise of a pink sash draping the commencement robe waiting for those who succeed. The program is shaped around a butterfly concept, helping girls through “I am wonderful” classes to emerge with self-esteem. An “angel closet” provides clothing for the girls; snacks provide enticement to show up as well as nutrition; old-fashioned-seeming teas and a Thanksgiving dinner provide a backdrop of social graces.

Some programs are run by the students themselves: Best Buddies for students helping mentally disabled students; the Link Crew, for mentorships between upperclassmen and entering 9th graders; University Prep Club for older students to work with younger ones on college-prep skills and calendars.”

Forest Mondays

A stream in the Adirondacks

A stream in the Adirondacks

“Every Monday morning, the kids suit up for a day outdoors. Rain or shine — even in the bitter cold — they go out. They head to the woods next to their school where they’ve built a home site with forts and a fire pit.

First thing, the kids go to their “sit spots.” These are designated places — under a tree, on a log — where each kid sits quietly, alone, for 10 minutes. Their task is to notice what’s changed in nature since last week.

. . .

What her students gain from the experience might not be measurable, she says, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing.

Her principal, Amos Kornfeld, agrees. He says schools are being forced to think about everything in terms of data and measurable outcomes, but he doesn’t need test scores to tell him forest kindergarten is working.

When the kids come back from the woods, they look happy and healthy, he says. “Schools need to be focusing on that, too.”

–“Out Of The Classroom And Into The Woods,” news story on NPR ED by Emily Hanford

The Mindset of Scarcity

By Tomas Castelazo (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

I just found out about an intriguing book published by a behavioral economist and psychologist, Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, on the impact of scarcity on mindset and behavior. This is a subject especially relevant in the field of education, given our focus on mindsets, character, and poverty.

To whet your appetite, here’s a snippet from a lengthy review:

“Based on their analysis of the data, they sought to show that, just as food had possessed the minds of the starving volunteers in Minnesota, scarcity steals mental capacity wherever it occurs—from the hungry, to the lonely, to the time-strapped, to the poor.

That’s a phenomenon well-documented by psychologists: if the mind is focused on one thing, other abilities and skills—attention, self-control, and long-term planning—often suffer. Like a computer running multiple programs, Mullainathan and Shafir explain, our mental processors begin to slow down. We don’t lose any inherent capacities, just the ability to access the full complement ordinarily available for use.

But what’s most striking—and in some circles, controversial—about their work is not what they reveal about the effects of scarcity. It’s their assertion that scarcity affects anyone in its grip. Their argument: qualities often considered part of someone’s basic character—impulsive behavior, poor performance in school, poor financial decisions—may in fact be the products of a pervasive feeling of scarcity. And when that feeling is constant, as it is for people mired in poverty, it captures and compromises the mind.

This is one of scarcity’s most insidious effects, they argue: creating mindsets that rarely consider long-term best interests. “To put it bluntly,” says Mullainathan, “if I made you poor tomorrow, you’d probably start behaving in many of the same ways we associate with poor people.” And just like many poor people, he adds, you’d likely get stuck in the scarcity trap.”

—Cara Feinberg in Harvard Magazine, “The Science of Scarcity

On Stealthy Interventions

By Sidharta-999 (done by a friend) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Last weekend I attended the Research ED conference, an intriguing new style of conference organized by Tom Bennett and other educators from across the pond. Getting the opportunity to listen and learn directly from educators I’ve only read online, such as Daisy Christodoulou, Carl Hendrick, and David Weston, was an enriching experience.

There’s many bits of learning I gleaned from that day, but there was one piece of research that really stood out to me in relation to the focus of this blog. Carl Hendrick, in his presentation with Harvard GSE’s Christina Hinton on a grassroots model of education research (view the presentation here), made an off-hand reference to the research of David Yeager on the concept of “stealthy interventions.” It piqued my interest, so when I got home, I dug up this review by Yeager and Walton, “Social-Psychological Interventions in Education: They’re Not Magic.”

As readers of this blog know, we’ve explored the concept of “obliquity” as critical to sustaining impact within a complex environment, especially in relation to goal-setting (see the following posts: 1, 2, 3, 4).  This is why the idea of a “stealthy intervention” caught my attention—that sure sounded like the principle of obliquity in action.

I’ve struggled with the application of the principle of obliquity within my own practice in the classroom—so I was excited to find that the “social-psychological interventions” outlined by Yeager and Walton are fairly concrete, once some resources and materials to apply them are developed. Some of them I’m already familiar with and have been applying—I’ve been teaching my students about a growth mindset since I first read Rita Smilkstein’s “We Were Born to Learn,” and I’ll use affirmation exercises with my students prior to state tests. But to wield such interventions more strategically and systematically, especially to assist students who are in crisis or struggling with significant academic hurdles, is something my special education department and I are seeking to build across our school. So I brought Yaeger and Walton’s review to my team, and we did a close reading of pages 274-275, which proffers insight such as the following:

“This analysis draws on a core tenet of social psychology, namely, that every attitude and behavior exists in a complex field of forces—a “tension system”—in which some forces promote a behavior whereas other forces restrain that behavior (Lewin, 1952; Ross & Nisbett, 1991; Wilson, 2006). One lesson from this analysis is that the structure of the system determines its potential for change—an intervention that increases students’ motivation to learn or that removes barriers to learning will improve academic outcomes only when learning opportunities exist in the educational environment.” [Bold added]

What I love about this exposition is how the authors explicitly acknowledge the complexity of the educational environment, then explain how oblique interventions operate within such an environment. The authors explain the success of a social-psychological intervention as attributable to how they fold into and reinforce the learning activities already present within the school (what they term “recursive processes”):

“. . . what can seem especially mysterious is how a time-limited or one-shot social-psychological intervention can generate effects that persist far ahead in time. For instance, people may assume that an intervention has to remain in mind to continue to be effective. But like any experience, a psychological intervention will become less focal as it recedes in time. As we suggest below, a key to understanding the long-lasting effects of social-psychological interventions is to understand how they interact with recursive processes already present in schools, such as the quality of students’ developing relationships with peers and teachers, their beliefs about their ability, and their acquisition of academic knowledge. It is by affecting self-reinforcing recursive processes that psychological interventions can cause lasting improvements in motivation and achievement even when the original treatment message has faded in salience (e.g., Walton & Cohen, 2011).” [Bold added]

In other words, social-psychological interventions leverage relationships and the experience and knowledge of students and school staff. That’s what I call viewing a school as an ecosystem.

The most powerful takeaway I got from this research, aside from concrete suggestions for activities and interventions based on their review, was the heuristic of designing an intervention or goal-setting process that accounts for the student’s subjective experience:

“. . . social-psychological interventions can be brief yet impactful because they target students’ subjective experiences in school and because they rely on a rich tradition of research on persuasion and attitude change to powerfully convey psychological ideas.” [Bold added]

As my special education department seeks to include our students in the process of setting their IEP goals, this is a good rule of thumb to bear in mind.

Your Neighborhood Matters

By Alexander de Cadenet (Alexander de Cadenet) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

One of the central tenets of this blog is that place (and context) matters. We examine this tenet specifically as it pertains to schools, and it’s why we propose viewing schools as forms of ecosystems. Physical environment, colors, natural light, exposure to fresh air, the content that is taught, how it is taught, who it is taught by, the leadership in the building, the social relationships between students and staff — all of this adds up to a dynamic socio-ecological construct that goes far beyond what we currently purport to measure.

So it’s nice to see some further economic research to back this socio-ecological perspective up. Economists Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren have generated a report that demonstrates the fundamental importance of where one grows up on long-term outcomes. As Justin Wolfers points out in his analysis:

Their findings are clear: The earlier a family moved to a good neighborhood, the better the children’s long-run outcomes. The effects are symmetric, too, with each extra year in a worse neighborhood leading to worse long-run outcomes. Most important, they find that each extra year of childhood exposure yields roughly the same change in longer-run outcomes, but that beyond age 23, further exposure has no effect. That is, what matters is not just the quality of your neighborhood, but also the number of childhood years that you are exposed to it.

The implications are clear: education alone will not raise social mobility — we need to foster and transform entire neighborhoods. Much harder work, perhaps—but if we’re honest about tackling poverty and raising opportunity and providing equity for all, then it’s the real work.