Sunday, September 13, 2015

Where Are the Stars?

Walt Whitman is an American poet, and to say he is "famous" doesn't quite cut it. He's best described as an American icon, and as anti-establishment, non-conformist, and fiercely independent. No wonder he represents America, especially 19th century America.

Whitman's elegy to Abraham Lincoln, "O Captain! My Captain!," is one of the most recognizable poems in American history. If you remember The Dead Poet's Society, then Whitman's "O Me! O Life!" may come to mind. Or, you may recall Apple's iPad Air commercial that quoted the poem, with the famous line "that the powerful plays goes on, and you may contribute a verse." But, today's post will be about a lesser known Whitman poem, "When I Heard the Learned Astronomer." Here is the poem:

When I Heard the Learned Astronomer

When I heard the learn'd astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide,
  and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with
  much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander'd off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars.

The speaker in the poem is listening to a respected "learn'd" astronomer try to explain the mysterious physics and chemistry of the universe - the stars, the galaxies, planets, moons - with "the proofs, the figures . . . ranged in columns." The astronomer had his "charts and diagrams," wanting his students "to add, divide, and measure them." Apparently impressed and amazed by the astronomer's ability to explicate the universe with mathematics, charts, and diagrams, the astronomer's audience applauded him, with one exception. Without really knowing why, the speaker became "tired and sick." The inexplicable feelings, which we can assume are a reaction to the astronomer's lecture, force the speaker to glide out of the lecture room to wander alone outside in the "mystical moist night-air." And, then, in the last line, the speaker's angst seems to be resolved, looking "up in perfect silence at the stars."

Whitman's classic romanticism shines in this poem. And, the poem gives us the contrast between learning passively and through experience. As I read the poem, especially when the speaker decides to leave the lecture room, I imagined the speaker sitting confounded as the other students applauded the lecture. I imagine the speaker was thinking, "Here I am looking at diagrams and charts, adding and dividing, to understand the stars, when right outside is a night sky full of them. Why look at charts, figures, and diagrams, when I can look up in awe at the stars?" It's as if the speaker couldn't help but go out, see the stars, and experience the universe, if you will. The speaker wants to make the astronomer's numbers, charts, and diagrams REAL, to make a PERSONAL connection to the subject matter of the lecture room.

The stars, the night skies, the planets, the moons, and the universe are full of beauty and wonder; the speaker wanted to experience this beauty, not listen to a lecture. In the world of education, and in an era where state exams require so much attention, it is easy to focus on "the proofs, the figures" and to reduce subjects to diagrams and charts. Let us not become too focused on the charts and figures. Let us not forget to allow students to experience the beauty of the subjects we teach. We all have a bit of the speaker in us, itching to go out and look up in "perfect silence at the stars," to go and experience the world, and I know we have students in our schools that are exactly like the speaker, longing for that personal connection to what they're learning. In the midst of curriculum guides, textbooks, and state exams, let's remember to make our subjects relevant to students. I've no doubt that before the learned astronomer became so learned, he was once compelled to walk in the "mystical moist night-air" and look in awe at the stars.


Monday, September 7, 2015

Growth Mindset

"Good job!" "Way to go!" "Well done!" "I knew you could do it!" Is there anything wrong with directing these phrases toward students? Absolutely not! Positive phrases and praise such as these motivate students and make them want to continue to do good work.

1. Students do good work. 2. We provide praise. 3. Because students like the praise, they continue to want to do good work. Seems simple enough, but here's what happens over time. We begin to provide very generic praise; providing praise to kids has become such a habit and so common that it has lost its power. The following example is somewhat unrelated, but it provides a good illustration of the point: For many of us, it has become habit when we greet someone to ask, "How are you?" Most of the time, we're not really all that curious about how the other person is doing. We just say, "How are you?" out of habit. The question isn't authentic; we are just going through the motions. It's the same with praise; when we just say, "Good job!" out of habit, the praise isn't very powerful, especially when we are praising a student that normally does a good job and has heard "Good job!" 36 times before lunch.

However, over the years, sound research and theory has revealed that with a few tweaks, praise can regain its power - and praise, specific and authentic praise, can increase students' academic achievement.

Years ago, Robert Marzano, a rockstar in the field of education, pinpointed 9 strategies that positively impacted student achievement. Reinforcing effort and providing recognition was one of the nine strategies. Reinforcing effort is a way to show students the link between effort and achievement. Descriptive feedback to a student where the student's effort is acknowledged is the type of praise that is most effective and can lead to the most academic gains.

Teacher to student: "I noticed that you were focused and listening when I worked the practice problem on the board today. I also noticed that you worked through one problem 3 times today before getting the correct answer. What a great effort! You did a great job today!" This is a great example of reinforcing effort and recognizing progress. This shows a student a direct relationship between their effort, their success, and the praise from their teacher. And, because their effort was specifically recognized, the student is far more likely to exert the same effort in the future. Ultimately, through recognition and reinforcing effort, the teacher (or whomever is doing the recognizing and reinforcing) is helping students build the habit of giving effort and showing the student that their effort is what is making them a successful student.

Beside showing students the link between effort and success and conditioning students to give their best effort, recognizing and reinforcing effort creates a mindset for students that will benefit them long after they are in school. This mindset is called "growth mindset." Carol Dweck is responsible for coining the phrase "growth mindset" and has done a great deal of research on growth mindset.

Dweck contends that most mindsets fall into two different categories: fixed and growth. People with a fixed mindset believe that innate talent and intelligence -or lack thereof- accounts for a person's success or failure. Essentially, people with fixed mindset believe talents are set in stone, we are born with a certain amount of potential, and success is evidence of innate talent or intelligence and failure is evidence of a lack of talent or intelligence. Students that say things like "I'm just not good at math" have a fixed mindset toward their abilities and math. Others will say, "Some people are just good with numbers." This type of thinking reveals a fixed mindset, which leads to giving up and impedes improvement. Those with a fixed mindset typically don't like challenges, especially in areas of their life they feel they are weak; before they even attempt to conquer a challenge, those with fixed mindset have often already concluded that they will fail; their effort and resilience will not help them conquer the challenge because they feel they don't posses the requisite talent and will not be able to acquire it; after all, we are born with talent; it is not something to be acquired, or so says the fixed mindset. Sometimes, it is easier to chalk failure up to a lack of innate talent and intelligence.

Conversely, people with growth mindset believe that if they work hard enough, they can attain the talent necessary to be successful or to master a certain set of skills. People with growth mindset believe they can actually become more intelligent; intelligence is malleable and pliable. When students with growth mindset are presented with a challenging math problem that they don't know how to solve, they believe that if they practice the right strategies and spend enough time on the problem, they will solve the problem. Even if they get the problem wrong the first few times, they will continue to actively seek a solution. When a student with a fixed mindset (I'm just not good at math) is presented with a challenging math problem they don't know how to solve, they will likely attempt the problem, but after they get it wrong a couple of times, they are more likely to give up.

The main idea with this mindset thing is this: it may very well be true that some of us are born with a certain talent and a certain amount of intelligence. And, it may be true that no matter how hard we work, we may never be the best at certain task or be able to master certain skills. Though I don't agree, perhaps some students are born good at math and some aren't; perhaps some are born writers and some aren't. What we are born with doesn't really matter; how we approach challenges and problem solving does. Maybe we can't become more intelligent or more talented, but it is to our never-ending benefit to live as if we can. The growth mindset at least pushes us to always attempt to overcome challenges, attempt to get smarter, attempt to become more talented. More times than not, through the attempts, we will find that we were more talented or intelligent than we first thought.

Who of us will go through life and never be confronted with a situation, challenge, or task we are not yet equipped to overcome and conquer? If you and I live on the same planet, then we can agree that life constantly presents us with challenges, but we rarely already have the right amount of talent or intelligence to overcome and conquer the challenge. Those with fixed mindset will avoid challenges or give up much too soon and thus fail to learn new things and grow as a person. But, those with growth mindset will confront challenges, even though they know they don't have the right amount of intelligence and talent. Through effort, resilience, and spending the right amount of time, they will overcome challenges, learn new skills, and grow as a person, always looking for the next challenge.

We don't want to reinforce effort and provide recognition simply because Robert Marzano's research revealed that it will improve academic achievement. We want to reinforce effort and recognize students' progress because we want to foster growth mindset. When students leave our school, we want them see the link between their effort and their success; we want them to believe that if they want to achieve at high levels, but don't have the right amount of talent and intelligence, they can can work hard and practice long enough to be as successful as they want to be.