Sunday Smorgasbord


By bigmick (flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Last week, NYC students returned to school. I wish the best of luck to a fresh new start to the school year to students and teachers! While you recharge and steel yourselves for the week ahead (or celebrate Eid), here’s our weekly roundup of delectable Ed and other delights from across the Net.

Students are not hard-wired to learn in different ways – we need to stop using unproven, harmful methods

I can’t tell you the number of debates I’ve had with otherwise very intelligent and well-informed educators about the inefficacy of “learning styles.” While I agree that much of the onus is on teachers to be “critical consumers,” I also bring some measure of blame to our ed schools and district leaders. I had a professor who oriented her entire syllabus around videos from Mel Levine’s All Kinds of Minds’ “Schools Attuned” program, as if it were the gospel. Speaking of which, did you know that the NYC Department of Education once spent quite a bit of money on a 5 year contract with Schools Attuned? It’s frankly embarrassing.

Teachers need to be critical consumers of research – as with medicine, lives are also at stake – yet with the best will in the world and without the knowledge and time to do so, decisions may be made to adopt new approaches that are not only ineffectual, but can actually do harm. A case in point is learning styles. 

Failure to Replicate Values Affirmation as an Countermeasure to Stereotype Threat

Daniel T. Willingham casts some shade on the “stealthy intervention” of value affirmation, suggesting that it’s simply too good to be true.

Value affirmation is a short intervention intended to counter the “stereotype threat.” It is a simple exercise that I have used multiple times with students, generally right before state testing, since I first read about the research: you give students a piece of paper and ask them to think of something important to them, and then write for 10-15 minutes about those values.

Another intervention along those lines I’ve also used is where you just ask students to “write it out” for 10 minutes. I use both of these interventions in the hope that at the very least, it can alleviate the anxiety they feel when state testing rolls around.

The good news is that unlike learning styles, a values affirmation exercise is not going to harm children, and it only takes 15 minutes max. So I say keep on truckin’ on this one. If it can alleviate some of our children’s anxiety, then it’s done something good.

The door is not closed on the values affirmation intervention, but much work is to be done if it is to prove useful in schools.

A Worrying Trend for Psychology’s “Simple Little Tricks”

Science writer Ed Yong (excited to read his new book about the ecosystems of the body) also reports on the research above, as well as other studies that question so-called “wise interventions” that have claimed to have a significant long-term academic impact.

I’ve written about these sort of “stealthy interventions” before, and made a concerted effort at my last school to promote these practices, so it’s certainly disappointing to hear this news. But it certainly fits in with the one of the few things I can say with certainty about the messy world of education: improving schools requires lots and lots of hard work. There are no short cuts.

It seems, then, that wise interventions are like sensitive and delicate flowers, only able to bloom if the conditions are just right. Walton, Cohen, and their peers have always argued as much. But that’s in itself a problem. If it is so hard for teams of experienced and competent social scientists to get these techniques to work, what hope is there for them to be used more broadly?

Books: How Repeated Evictions Impact Students’ Lives

Alexander Russo reviews Matthew Desmond’s EvictedSounds like a fit companion to Edbuild’s recent report on segregated school districts.

Evicted shows that it’s not just slumlords who are culpable for the deplorable, exploitative situation. The legal system, law enforcement, and even social support agencies all play a role in creating and perpetuating things — and tolerating what’s clearly intolerable.

Putting Student-Produced OER at the Heart of the Institution

Mike Caulfield with trenchant insight into the critical function that institutions can serve—especially in regards to public services and goods.

People make things possible. Institutions make them last.

I had worked my heart out for this thing, evangelized widely, written up the prototypes and the stubs, explained it to the college. But I hadn’t institutionalized it. And so it was bound to die the minute I left.

. . . while we like to scoff at all the mucky-muck bureaucracy around training, budgets, policy and messaging, it’s precisely that stuff that prevents your dream initiative of today morphing into rotting infrastructure of tomorrow. It’s all too easy in this business to end up the new interactive whiteboard — bought one year as the must-have accessory and abandoned the next.

Noise: How to Overcome the High, Hidden Cost of Inconsistent Decision Making

Daniel Kahneman and others provide advice on overcoming human bias and inconsistency when making professional judgments.

This is certainly relevant to education, where educators make constant evaluative decisions about children. Grading papers, for example, can be highly subjective and subject to the “noise” described in this article. I, for one, welcome the day when algorithms will grade student writing, leaving teachers to focus on the much more critical task of providing ongoing opportunities for feedback and practice.

Where there is judgment, there is noise—and usually more of it than you think. As a rule, we believe that neither professionals nor their managers can make a good guess about the reliability of their judgments.

. . . Algorithms are sometimes used as an intermediate source of information for professionals, who make the final decisions. One example is the Public Safety Assessment, a formula that was developed to help U.S. judges decide whether a defendant can be safely released pending trial. In its first six months of use in Kentucky, crime among defendants on pretrial release fell by about 15%, while the percentage of people released pretrial increased. It’s obvious in this case that human judges must retain the final authority for the decisions: The public would be shocked to see justice meted out by a formula.

Uncomfortable as people may be with the idea, studies have shown that while humans can provide useful input to formulas, algorithms do better in the role of final decision maker.

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

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.”

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.