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Did You Set Them Up For Success?

3 Nov

child-cheating-classroom-mdnMy freshman year of college, I took a challenging calculus class.  I was doing ok in it, but then came the final.

There were only 10 problems, and for one of them, my answer just didn’t seem right.  I clearly had not fully grasped the power of compounding interest, because when I looked at my returns after “10 years at 8.5%, reinvesting the dividends” I kept thinking, “that can’t be right, that’s way too high.”

So I did what many motivated, grade-conscious students do in that circumstance.  I carefully peeked at the person’s work next to me, and copied his work.

I got my just desserts–turns out my original answer was correct.  And to this day, I still remember that moment and wince, wishing I could have had the fortitude to keep my head down.

My school had an honor code like most other colleges, and my behavior certainly didn’t match it.  But in truth, a lot of high achieving students have at one time or another behaved unethically on their work–copying homework problems, cheating on a test, grabbing paragraphs for their essay from the Internet.  Most of them will tell you it’s wrong, but they do it anyway.

Why such paradoxical behavior?  Some people will say it’s because students are conditioned to care more about the grade than the learning process, so it’s all about the outcome (probably true) and some will say it’s because we judge others most on the actions we’re ashamed of ourselves (maybe true too.)  But it’s also because self-control takes a lot of mental energy, and when you have a mentally draining task, like a hard test, in front of you, it takes additional energy not to look at the paper next to you.

Honor codes are interesting things, because sometimes we set up people to fail them.  Willpower, or self-control isn’t limitless.  In 1998, Roy Baumeister found that when adults had to exert willpower in one situation (resisting cookies) they did worse on the cognitively demanding geometry task they were asked to do later.  Stressing your self-control in one area made it more difficult to exert self-control in another.  Putting people in a position of academic challenge, and then telling them not to do something that will help them to succeed, places an additional stress on them.  They need to exert the will to keep working and the self-control not to cheat.

So when a professor emails out a final problem set and then tells students, “only take three hours on this and talk to no one” it puts a behavioral test on top of an academic one.  A lot of people will pass it–but for the ones who struggle most with the content, both tests become harder.

This plays out again and again with some of our youngest students.  Go into a kindergarten or 1st grade class and you can already see 5 and 6 year olds covertly glancing at their neighbor’s papers when they’re doing an assessment.  Watching them labor over how to form letters and spell words, and also struggle not to copy their classmate’s work, highlights how the cognitive load, the need for willpower to keep trying and not to peek–double up.

Of course we should follow the rules and uphold our ethical responsibilities.  As a 19 year old, it was a reasonable expectation that I keep my eyes to my own work.  But people’s environments have a lot to do with their success or failure.  For assessments, that might mean privacy dividers, proctored tests, desks in rows.  For assignments it might mean more projects that encourage collaboration, or chances to revise and fix-up work.

Hoping the other person will do what you want, regardless of the situation, is sometimes the easier path at the start.  But creating a setting that encourages positive behavior is ultimately less stressful for everyone, because it allows people to focus on what really matters–the task at hand–rather than on controlling their impulses.

Taking off Our Superhero Capes

29 Aug

superman_capeWhen I was 10, my mom used to pack me a lunch that had a little tuna-sandwich making kit in it.  A little sleeve of crackers, plus a mini-tin of tuna and a packet of mayonnaise you mixed in.  I barely liked anything my mom packed for lunch, but I liked that.  The problem was, the tuna was a bit fragrant.  As the smell wafted over the lunch tables, someone would inevitably say, “ewww…does someone have tuna?  I hate tuna.”  As my cheeks reddened, I tried to covertly hide the fact that I was the tuna-eater.  It was embarrassing to be eating something that others found distasteful.

I spent a lot of time thinking about that tuna, and I eventually came to the conclusion that while it was acceptable to dislike something that others liked–to be the person saying, “gross, I won’t eat that”–it was not acceptable to like what others disliked.  Far safer to automatically reject something that might not be accepted, than to embrace something that others would find objectionable.

Glennan Doyle Melton, a mommy blogger and best-selling writer, named this phenomenon “superhero capes”–people’s tendency to wrap themselves in a cape of sarcasm, or perfectionism, or positivity–to protect themselves against painful personal exposure.  For me, negativity was a good cape.  Saying I didn’t like something was easier than saying I did.  If you reject something before it rejects you, you’re all good, right?

Fast-forward to adult-me, and now I see this particular cape a lot in schools.  It becomes stronger and thicker as children grow older.  It’s particularly thick in middle school, where making fun of something or someone before they can make fun of you is a classic peer-control strategy.  But it shows up in the workplace too, and personal lives, and it creeps into each interaction we have with others.

The need for superhero capes is, I think, deep down about the need for connection.  It’s about being afraid you’ll be rejected from a group, and pre-emptively removing yourself so you don’t have the pain of being cast out by others.  It’s similar to the strategy of self-handicapping in learning, where you don’t put in effort from the beginning, so that when you fail you can protect yourself from the disappointment by saying, “that failure doesn’t really say anything about me…I didn’t even try.”  If you reject an activity, or idea, or person first, you protect yourself from knowing if they would have rejected you.

A sense of belonging lessens the need for superhero capes.  It’s why community building is so important for classes, and staffs, and why we start with icebreakers and connectors in most meetings.  A warm, welcoming environment allows us to try new things and open ourselves up for failure.

community_circle_displayI’m getting ready to start a new year of teaching as a reading specialist, and I’m about to have 5 new mini-communities in my daily reading groups.  The kids already know each other from class, but we’ll start with some warm-fuzzies anyway so that they know they’re welcome and they can open themselves up to try new things without a fear of rejection.   We’ll make a group picture book, and write about our families, and read stories together.  Maybe we’ll have some special lunches once a month, so that we can bond over non-academic fun too.

And if they bring tuna fish, I’ll be sure to say, loud and clear, “Did someone bring tuna fish?  Awesome, I love tuna fish too!”

What’s in a Stat? Using Data to Impact Small Choices

1 Aug
salutations-chart, from

salutations-chart, from

In a blog post titled, ‘We Experiment on Human Beings,” OKCupid founder Christian Rudder shares how the site manipulated user profiles to gain data on what led to interactions and meaningful conversations on the site.

His post is in reaction to the ruckus over the Facebook emotional contagion study, but I thought it was much more interesting how OKCupid uses it’s data.  Yes, they mine their data for information that will help them make the site more successful (and by extension, profitable) but they also share their information on their blog.  Oktrends is a veritable gold mine of information about our habits, preferences, and our often misguided assumption about what will appeal to a potential mate (or ourselves.)

What’s awesome about their data is that they interpret it for us–so when they share their thousands of data points about what first messages gained the most traction in their post, Exactly What to Say in a First Messagethey get very specific with advice–open with “how’s it goin” or “What’s up,” but not the more formal “Hi” or “Hello.”  Express interest by using the phrases, “I was curious,” or “You mentioned…”  Contrast that with the general advice we often get, like “be casual,” or “show specific interest in the other person.”

Imagine this transferred to other fields.  Let’s take the classroom.  We give feedback to students, but it’s often a general, not-easily-applied kind of message.  For example, “Johnny is not very engaged in his reading.  He needs to focus on his books for longer.”  We have a very general piece of data here–not engaged in reading–that’s sort of equivalent to OKCupid telling users, “you’re not successful at getting dates.”  It’s accurate, but it’s describing a problem, rather than being helpful.  In fact, it’s pretty discouraging to hear.

We could get more specific with our data.  “Johnny reads for an average of 5 minutes before he finds an alternate activity, like going to the drinking fountain or sharpening a pencil.”  But we’ve really just described the problem in more detail, like saying, “people look at your profile on OKCupid an average of 8 seconds before they click away.”

We need some data for when Johnny is successful at engaging in reading to see the difference–or barring that, some data about when other students similar to Johnny are successful.  “Johnny reads for an average of 15 minutes when his book is a series with characters he knows well,” or “Johnny focuses for more than ten minutes at a time when he’s sitting in a favorite spot, facing away from other students so he’s not distracted.”  Suddenly we have some strategies for how to help Johnny, like OKCupid telling us that pictures that show activities spark more meaningful conversations on average than selfies that just focus on a smiling face.

Now imagine we give this information to Johnny, instead of just sharing with parents at conferences or keeping the knowledge tucked in our head.

Johnny, I’ve been marking when you’re reading and when you’re doing a different activity, and I noticed something interesting.  Usually when you’re reading, you read for about 5 minutes before you get distracted.  But sometimes when you read, you can focus for ten or fifteen minutes at a time!  Usually that’s when you’re reading your series books, like Animorphs or The Lightening Thief.  What do you think of that?”

Johnny can make the cognitive leap.  And now he can devise some plans for how to stay engaged more in reading.

Data is a powerful tool for noticing trends, and what works and what doesn’t, but it’s often held by a those in charge.  OKCupid has opened up some of their data to benefit their subscribers, and they’ve made that data specific, comprehensible, and useful.  Too often in education the data is vague (such as “below standard in math” or “5 on the API”) or not shared with the ultimate actors–the students.  If we are really specific about the issue (struggles in reading because doesn’t notice when a vocabulary word is unknown) then we can be very specific about solutions (repeated lessons with short texts working on identifying and attacking unknown words.)

Data can help us to identify problems, but it can also help us to identify solutions.  We can share data with our students, in the form of grades, percentages, or smiley-faces, but the more specific we are with our observations, the more our students can respond with a positive solution to the problem.


The Myth of: “I Totally Do That Already”

26 Jul

expertWhen I was just a few years into teaching, I had the opportunity to spend a week at Columbia Teachers’ College, learning from the gurus who invented reading and writing workshop.  As I listened to Lucy Calkins, the director of the program, share her thoughts on teaching and model exemplar lessons, I thought to myself, “I totally do all of that already.”

I felt satisfied, and maybe a tad smug.  This really wasn’t that difficult–just focus and work hard, and you could have it down cold.

Five years later, my new thought is, Will I ever be an expert at this?  That week in New York feels like a lifetime ago, and I can only look back with a shake of my head.  How wonderful to feel so confident, with so little actual knowledge.

The myth of expertise can you hit you anywhere in life.  I felt it as a student teacher, watching my mentor teacher lead the class.  I totally already do that.  I believed it before I led my first training.  No problem I can definitely do that.  And I even felt it, in a different way, before I had my daughter.  I know how to do all that already.

In each of those situations, it wasn’t until I gained a little more knowledge–enough to know what I didn’t know–that I began to realize I wasn’t quite the expert I thought.

My experience isn’t atypical–it’s often the least experienced who feel the most confident.  Why do we tend to overestimate our expertise when we’re new?

1.  You only see the outcome, not the possibilities.

Let’s take the example of calling on a student to answer a question.  Seems fairly straightforward.  But there are a lot of other choices that can create a different outcome.  A teacher could call on a student who doesn’t know the answer, and then have to make a decision about what to do when the child is stuck.  A teacher could have all of the students share their thinking with a partner, and then share the answer herself.  A teacher could pose the question and have students record a response, and then look over their thinking later.

None of these choices are wrong, but they all have a slightly different purpose.  An expert understands the different decisions that could be made at the “share out an answer” point, and the ramifications.  A novice might think, “pose questions, call on a student to respond,” with no thought to the other choices that could be employed, or the reason for each.

2. It’s hard to know what’s the cake and what’s just decoration.

When you’re inexperienced, it can be hard to learn from experts because you don’t know what to focus on, what to learn.  The year I spent observing my mentor teachers is a hazy blur.  I’m not sure what I was observing–from my notes, it seemed to be mostly anthropological details like where students’ eyes were tracking at specific moments–but it’s pretty devoid of anything that would lead to meaningful practice on my part.  When I started teaching, after a few months of struggling with the basics, I would have given anything to go back and watch them again.  Now, I thought, I know what to look for.  

3.  You don’t understand that what’s not happening can be just as important as what is occurring.  

The absence of problematic behaviors is just as important as the presence of positive ones.  We often focus on this in students–the ubiquitous “caught you being good!” We know the myriad of possibilities for negative behaviors, so we can notice the absence of them, and the presence of quieter actions like starting quickly and time on task.

The more expert you become in a subject, the more you can notice the absence of problems.  When I watched a master lesson as a new teacher, I didn’t know why things were going smoothly.  I failed to notice that the teacher didn’t instruct for more than ten minutes at a time.  Or that the teacher didn’t jump from teaching point to teaching point.  Or that the teacher didn’t pick a model that wasn’t accessible to the kids.

I totally already do that.

It’s a wonderful thought, really, and it’s not all bad.  It gives you confidence and makes you feel a little less overwhelmed, which lets you take on tasks that might otherwise seem too daunting.  But the blanket statement can also close you off to areas of growth.  If you already do that, totally, there’s nowhere to go, nothing to learn.  So I’ll try to change my thought to, I totally do some of that, or I can totally learn to do that, because in the end, becoming an expert is way more motivating and fun than just being an expert already.

Are Traditional Classrooms Killing Creativity?

14 May

From Steve Jobs’ legacy of innovation to Google’s crazy “Moonshots,” America prides itself as a country where anything can be possible.   Creativity is increasingly valued in the business world as well as the arts.  In a 2010 IBM poll, 1,500 CEOs identified creativity as the best predictor of future success.

However, even as interest in creativity is rising, creativity in youth is dropping off. Kyung Hee Kim, a professor at the College or William and Mary, documented a continuous decline in creativity among American schoolchildren over the last two or three decades.*  According to Kim’s research, all aspects of creativity declined, but the biggest decline was in the measure called Creative Elaboration, which assesses the ability to take a particular idea and expand on it in an interesting and novel way.**

What’s causing the decline?  The academic environment, far from fostering creativity, often squelches it.  Innovation thrives in open environment, without restrictions.  Time limitations, admonitions to “do it right,” and graded performances all drive students down a narrow path of performance.

Dr. Elad Segev shares how when students were told, “finish the drawing the right way to get one point,” they almost universally drew simple houses.  The belief that there was one right answer drove them to look for the simplest, most universally acceptable drawing.  Later, when simply told “finish the drawing,”  they produced a much greater variety of drawings.

You can see a similar result with time pressure.  Children who had to finish immediately went for the simple solution, versus those that had the luxury to try out another idea.

This echoes Sir Ken Robinson’s famous TedX lecture, where he shares how we are educating people, “out of their creative capacities.”  Children are prepared to be wrong, so they have the capacity to be creative–if you’re petrified of getting the wrong answer, you’ll never come up with anything new.  Now think about the message we send with standardized testing.

This is a tricky subject, because we would never want to say that there’s no such thing as a wrong answer.  If you measure the support beams for a house incorrectly as a contractor, you have a pretty big problem.  Same thing if you translate a legal document incorrectly as a lawyer, or don’t understand how drugs interact as a pharmacist.  But we put a lot of emphasis on questions with one right answer up until children are 18 (or 21), and then throw them into an adult world where, for many problems, there are no right answers.  Sometimes there aren’t even clear problems–it’s the really creative folk who become “problem finders” and figure out that there’s a better way.

How can we foster creativity?  Giving students access to space and materials that they can use to create is one way.  Makerspaces are opening up all over the country, and they provide children with the tools, time, and space to work on the kind of projects that have been pushed out of most classrooms.

Design challenges also give students the opportunity to be creative, and to work together in a group-worthy task.  In this challenge, elementary students must design a car that will land “in the zone” when the launch it, as well as a background story.  The challenge combines engineering, creativity, and teamwork.

Even more “traditional” subjects, such as writing, can be approached in a more open-ended way.  Consider the difference between giving students a traditional prompt, “write a 5-paragraph essay on your favorite summer activity, due tomorrow” (controlling the subject and the format) with a workshop-type approach to writing: “take two-four weeks to work on a piece about a moment in your life that stands out” (open timeline, subject, and form.)  No one is suggesting we don’t teach children some rules within the open structure–complete sentences, paragraphs that make sense, cutting out empty filler–but there’s room for creativity even as you teach the basics.

There’s a happy compromise between rows of students reciting “2+2=4” and a free-for-all chaos of children working on projects that might be inventive, but seem to impart few skills (the skeptic’s picture of “open” schools.)  I bet if we were creative, we could find it.



*Kyung Hee Kim (2011). The creativity crisis: The decrease in creative thinking scores on the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking. Creativity Research Journal, 23, 285-295.


Matching the Reader to the Book

8 May


four boys reading, from Google Images

four boys reading, from Google Images

My husband is an occasional, sometimes outright reluctant, reader.  If he doesn’t really love a book, he’d rather play on his iPhone or troll Reddit for random facts than read a longer text.  But recently, my dad recommended he read Brandon Sanderson’s epic fantasy, The Way of Kings, and he was hooked.  As he enthusiastically shared his thoughts about the novel, it occurred to me that he was doing exactly the kind of deep reading work I want my students to do.  Making connections between texts.  Noticing themes and symbols. And most importantly, reading every free moment he had.

My husband doesn’t need me to teach him phonics or comprehension strategies.  A basal reading program isn’t going to improve the quantity or quality of what he reads.  What he needs are thoughtful book recommendations from someone who knows him.  Those books are what make him a reader.

Reading teachers need to teach children how to read (phonics, word solving, fluency) and how to think as you read (comprehension strategies) but they also need to help children engage with texts.  Research tells us that one of the most important factors in making a child a better reader is the time they spend reading.  The difference in time spent reading between an expert reader and a struggling reader can be astonishing.  Guthrie (2004) has pointed out that the best readers spend about 500% more time engaged in reading than do the least proficient readers.*  And it makes sense.  Just like expert golf players and chess players spend thousands more hours reading than the average person, expert readers read far more.

However, you can’t make a child read.  You can make him sit in a desk, you can make him open a book, you can even make him turn the pages at set intervals so it looks like he’s reading, but at the end of the day, that’s not reading in any sort of sense that will increase achievement.  Children need to engage with a book purposefully, and for a lot of kids, it’s all about finding the right book.

The new Common Core State Standards have increased the emphasis on informational texts to 50% in elementary school and 70% in high school, which is probably good news for boys and engagement.  Reluctant readers (many of whom are male) are drawn in to informational books in a way they often are not with fiction.  It’s not uncommon to have a reluctant reader read one or two fiction books a month (a dismal amount when the books are only 69 pages each) but be able to recite an encyclopedic volume about dinosaurs, or WWII, or LeBron James.  With that knowledge comes high-level, domain specific vocabulary and fluency.

We can increase the amount that struggling readers read by providing series, like The Magic Treehouse and Harry Potter, whose familiar characters and set plot lines provide a wonderful support.    A wide variety of genres helps too.  Many a boy wouldn’t be caught dead with The Princess Fairy series, but he’ll dive into Goosebumps.

But most important is the careful recommendations by teachers and fellow students.  An enthusiastic book introduction, This book is so funny, I actually fell off my seat when I read it…and a careful link to the student, you’re the kind of reader who loves to learn about history, so I know you’ll love this one… encourages a reluctant reader to dive in with enthusiasm and engagement.  A short decodable text or excerpt from a scripted reading program won’t do that.


*  Guthrie, J.T. (2004). Teaching for literacy engagement. Journal of Literacy Research,

36(1), 1–28.


Learn Like a Toddler

28 Apr

Two weeks ago, I watched a toddler climb to the top of my stairs, and immediately begin to climb back down.  She was quick and full of enthusiasm to conquer the stair mountain.

But the steps were a little too large for her tiny legs, and she tripped on one and fell headfirst.  Luckily, her mom was right beneath to catch her.

What did she do next?  She ran right back up the stairs to climb down again.  In fact, she climbed up and down those stairs more than ten additional times.

Adults are programmed to avoid failure, but we don’t start out that way.  My wonderful school psychologist used to tell the staff, “think about how many times children fall while learning to walk.  Have we ever seen a child who gave up and decided walking just wasn’t for him?”  No, of course not (children may give up momentarily, but not permanently).  Walking is an incredibly difficult task for someone whose leg muscles are still developing and whose head is disproportionately large (compared to adults), but children try, try, and try again until they get it right.

How do they get that resilience?  Children are very motivated, and they do usually have a lot of support, but small children are also buffeted by failure on a daily basis.  For a 2 year old, failure is a part of life–not something shameful or hurtful.  They are protected from the negative psychological aspects of failure by its sheer frequency, and are free to reap the ultimate rewards of failing at something repeatedly–learning and succeeding.

There are a lot of examples of famous individuals failing their way to success nowadays, from Michael Jordan, to Oprah, to Einstein.

J.K. Rowling’s commencement speech at Harvard was on the importance of failure.

But all failure is not created equal.  There are some important differences between people who fail well, and those who just…fail.

1. Those who fail well…try again.

Sir James Dyson had 5,126 failed versions of his vacuum cleaner before he found success on the 5,127th try.  Randy Nelson, of Pixar University, talks about how the core of innovation is not failure-avoidance, it’s error recovery.  

There’s little benefit to failing if you then give up.  The benefit comes from getting up and trying again.

2.  Those who fail well…redefine failure as information-gathering or a challenge.  

When asked how he endured such a string of failures without giving up, Dyson said, “We have to embrace failure and almost get a kick out of it. Not in a perverse way, but in a problem-solving way. Life is a mountain of solvable problems and I enjoy that.”  

There’s no such thing as failure in the scientific process–instead you “disprove a hypothesis” which provides you with more information so you can move forward.

3. Those who fail well…reflect and iterate.

Failing well doesn’t mean doing the same thing over and over until you succeed.  That toddler I mentioned in the beginning?  The second time she tried to go down the stairs, she asked her mother to hold one hand for balance.  She practiced with this new support multiple times before she attempted (and succeeded!) at descending solo again.

Iteration is a core principal of design thinking, an increasingly popular approach to solving problems and fostering creativity.

The language of design thinking, “ideate,” “prototype,” and “test,” imply that a solution is almost never “perfect” or “complete.”  Everything is a work in progress–a much different way of framing a task than the binary “failure” or “success.”

What happens that takes away children’s resilience to failure, they’re innate tendency to see a roadblock as something temporary on their road to success?  Maybe it’s the adults.  When we start putting an emphasis on the “final score,” or “grade,” children receive the message that failure is bad.  Rather than spurring creativity, or being part of the learning process, failure becomes a signal that they are intellectually, physically, or sometimes even morally deficit.

Failure is inevitable in a lifetime.  Repeated failure.  The question becomes, how are we going to react to it?  When that two-year-old fell down the stairs, the adults’ reaction was encouragement and support.  It was more impressive that she had failed and tried again than if she’d effortlessly run down the first time.  No one really cared if she got down these stairs this time–it was her enthusiasm and the process that mattered.

So in the future, I’ll try to keep her in mind.  I’ll try to learn like a toddler.  



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