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.
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.
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.
An excellent essay published in March’s Educational Researcher (1) by Susan Moore Johnson (2) brings the lens of complex systems to bear on the controversial issue of VAM.
Johnson takes to task the hasty moves of policymakers to bring VAM to the forefront of teacher evaluation. She focuses specifically on the problematic assertion by proponents that VAM is an effective measure to isolate and measure individual teachers. Johnson brings what she terms an “organizational perspective” to the issue—in other words, she considers how VAM might play out from the perspective of a school as an ecosystem, rather than as a set of individual, isolated teachers.
Johnson’s perspective is unique in that she explicitly acknowledges the impact of social networks on teacher and student performance. She refers to a 1988 James Coleman analysis, “Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital,” which suggests that:
. . . whatever human capital schools acquire through hiring can subsequently be developed by interactions among teachers, principals, and others within the organization through activities within subunits such as grade-level or subject-based teams of teachers, faculty committees, professional development, coaching, evaluation, and informal interactions. In the process, the school organization becomes greater than the sum of its parts, and in this way, the social capital that transforms human capital through collegial activities in schools increases the school’s overall instructional capacity and, arguably, its success.
It probably goes without saying that the recognition of a school organization as “greater than the sum of its parts” is something we’re pretty adamant about here on Schools & Ecosystems.
Johnson asserts that the traditional structure of a school as an “egg crate,” in which teachers are isolated from one another, is a problematic model:
Compartmentalized school structures limit the potential development of individual teachers, who lack direct access to their colleagues’ expertise. However, social capital theory would suggest that if provided systematic opportunities to engage with their peers outside their classroom, the human capital of individuals—in this case, their instructional effectiveness—could be shared and augmented. Given this line of argument, the more robust the teachers’ instructional repertoire and the more opportunities they have to exchange and integrate promising ideas and techniques into their own teaching, the more likely it will be that all students—not only those assigned to the more effective teachers—will experience the benefits of expert teaching. This analysis suggests that teachers are not inherently effective or ineffective but that their development may be stunted when they work alone, without the benefit of ongoing collegial influence.
I’ve personally worked as a teacher in two very different kinds of school environments: one in which I was mostly isolated from my peers (due to divisive internal politics and management), to one in which I meet daily with colleagues to discuss student work and instructional practices. And I can attest to the significant impact that a collaborative and positive organizational environment has had upon my professional development.
Johnson would phrase my experience as an example of “how social capital augments human capital.” She points to the influence of context and peer learning as a factor in professional development:
. . . changing the context in which teachers work could have important benefits for students throughout the school, whereas changing individual teachers without changing the context might not (Lohr, 2012). Given that possibility, it is worth learning more about the components of a teacher’s workplace that promote greater satisfaction and more interdependent work.
. . . both theory and empirical evidence suggest that students and their schools stand to benefit when teachers work closely and collaboratively with colleagues.
Johnson also explores the “unintended consequences” of relying on VAM to evaluate individual teachers, a warning that we’ve echoed here in response to Gov. Cuomo’s misguided push for greater weight on student test scores, and which also echoes similar issues that Dana Goldstein has pointed to in her historical exploration of teacher evaluation.
She concludes that “that expanding the use of VAMS in teacher evaluations (even if it represents no more than 30% of the teacher’s total score) might compromise the school’s potential for improvement.”
Johnson therefore suggests that “reformers should lead the way with efforts to improve the school throughout as an organization that supports effective teaching and rich learning.” She suggests including teachers in the hiring and professional development process in their schools, as well as in recognizing and sharing instructional practices from teacher leaders, such as Peer Assisted Review (PAR) programs.
This is the kind of thinking that I wish we heard more of in education reform circles—not hasty, breathless championing of the latest panacea, but instead reflective approaches that consider schools as whole organizations, complex adaptive systems ripe with social interactions and relationships.