This began as an email to my brother, who is valiantly trying to change the minds of the climate sceptics he knows. Then I thought I would share it with my colleagues in science. And I thought my friends who teach math and statistics might find it interesting. It got so long, I thought I’d just put it here.
I’m writing because I have either spoken with you about the work of Dan Kahan or because I think it might be of real interest. He studies the “science of science communication,” including the issue of how to overcome the effects of political polarization on climate change education.
His research is fascinating but his findings are tough to take. First, and this is kind of intuitive, perceptions of risk (to things like climate change or guns) is linked to social identity. He calls this the “White Male Effect.” People make rational choices when constructing their opinions, based in part on their decisions’ relative, perceived threat to their social identity. Many older, white men, then may have more to risk with their social group by becoming publically concerned about climate change than they do if they dismiss it as not a major problem.
Second, simply educating people (like these older white men) about the science of climate change or encouraging them to engage in open-minded thinking does not move the needle on the ideological divide. A graph on page 6 of this article by Kahan, “A Note on the Perverse Effects of Actively Open-Minded Thinking on Climate-Change Polarization,” suggests that conservative Republicans who engage in open-minded thinking may be more likely to identify the import of identity-based cognition and they actually appear LESS likely to accept the scientific consensus.
So what to do? One thing not to do, I think, is to simply argue with sceptics. The research doesn’t show this as effective, though it may be cathartic or soothing. Instead, Kahan suggests some options from research on overcoming “protective” cognition, in a mercifully short article in Nature.
I think that these ideas are applicable to all sorts of issues. Trying to “teach” a room full of liberals about white privilege during a professional development day starts to look like attempting to sway the minds of conservative climate-change deniers on Facebook. As soon as we put our audience on the defensive, we’ve lost them.
Kahan writes in Nature: “One method … is to present information in a manner that affirms rather than threatens people’s values…. If … they are presented with information in a way that upholds their commitments, they react more open-mindedly. …” This sounds simple but it takes thought and planning. We have to know our audience!
“The second technique for mitigating public conflict over scientific evidence is to make sure that sound information is vouched for by a diverse set of experts. … People feel that it is safe to consider evidence with an open mind when they know that a knowledgeable member of their cultural community accepts it. Thus, giving a platform to a spokesperson likely to be recognized as a typical traditional parent with a hierarchical world view might [for example] help to dispel any association between mandatory HPV vaccination and the condoning of permissive sexual practices.”
These seem like slender reeds with which to support such vital arguments. But I don’t know what else there is do.
The more I think about how to better teach my students, the more I seem to come back to mastery learning. Why? Because it seems a sensible response to each of my personal teaching goals in my US History courses this year. Here’s what I mean: I want my students to really learn more (and forget less); I want them to be more curious about history and more in charge of their learning; and I want them to be resilient, intrinsically motivated learners. For each of these goals, focusing learning on mastery–rather than plowing through a syllabus–just makes sense.
But without a fairly fundamental transformation in my teaching and my school’s culture of learning, a sudden switch to measuring year-long mastery outcomes seems unlikely. I also know it is really tough for ex-Fulbrighters to return from Finland and try to “change everything.” I have heard this from other grantees. So … here are the adjustments I am trying to implement as I return from Jyväskylä.
What my students learn. This I have been more happy with over the years. My colleague, Peter Shulman, and I have tweaked and changed the US History survey annually, and this year is no different. We continue to think about how much information we subject our students to, asking ourselves how much we should ask them to take in–and how much they will actually be able to assimilate given their busy school schedules and over-scheduled lives.
The civics aspect of our course remains intact, but this year we are trimming where we can to increase the amount of attention we will pay to Native American history and immigration history. Anyone who has ever taught a survey course knows omitting key topics is a constant source of frustration. So we continue to tweak the course content, subtracting as we add, with an eye on current topics of debate in American society.
How they learn. For me, this year, this has involved rearranging the desks in my classrooms from a seminar-style “U” to four groups of four students, each group sitting in a “pod” around two tables. These pods remain set for the duration of a unit, usually a handful of weeks. Each day they have a pair of Google Docs waiting for them on our Google Classroom page, a warm-up/reflection that takes about 5 minutes and, second, a document with the group’s task for the day.
The warm-up gives me a little data about how the reading is going and I hope to use the responses from students to help them set some goals around study habits as the year progresses. The tasks on the main document for the day involve interpreting the reading assigned as homework; other days I have had them work on maps, graphics, and challenged them to present a complex, detail-filled reading in an easier-to-understand form.
I am seeing the usual benefits of group work: everyone is participating every day. Quieter students appear more confident, especially because they are repeatedly working with the same three people. I move about the room while they work, trying not to interrupt the flow of the work while trying to talk to every student every day.
The topics aren’t chosen by the students (something I’d like to try, even in the US History survey). But I am still seeing more student ownership of the material, as they work to master the readings and assignments with their friends in their pod. I like to think of it as four kids figuring it out instead of one blurting it out. It’s collaborative work, not group work in which each student completes part of the whole.
With student-to-student conversation at the center of the course, the “floor” is higher. Everyone is writing into the document I’ve shared with them, which asks questions to spur discussion. Everyone is speaking up–usually many, many times–during every meeting of the class. And it much harder for anyone to leave the class feeling left behind or confused about the essential questions of the day and the unit of study.
I suspect that if one of the stronger students from a previous year returned, they might find the current set-up a bit less pleasing in terms of content. There is less of it, because I am not holding conversations with the quickest, most confident and most verbal students in the guise of a “class discussion.” Instead, stronger students are helping their peers–picking up other skills along the way as they solidify their understanding of the core concepts of the course.
This question has been on my mind: how much of what we sometimes take for “teaching” is actually merely lecturing–offering data which may or may not be received and remembered? I hope I begin to discover an answer.
How they are assessed.
This is where I have not made much progress but where I also feel the most progress might be made. First, I should note that I am trying to improve the knowledge my students possess about US History one, five, or ten years after they take my course. This is difficult to measure! The reason I want to increase what they actually know is because I think what I am teaching has all sorts of practical application and I don’t want to reward only those who can cram information into their heads the night before a high-stakes exam. Much of that learning is quickly lost and therefore useless. Those types of tests also cause a lot of students unhelpful anxiety.
So, I am trying to figure out better ways of assessing what I want them to learn. The collaborative work is part of this of course, but so is assessment. Different ways of testing students are actually different methods of teaching in disguise–so what works best for what I am trying to do?
Most of the major assessments in my courses are not tests but papers and projects. These I feel less conflicted about but they also tell me less about how much a student knows–they reflect work and focus and understanding but are less direct indicators of what a student had mastered. So for the moment, I am going to focus on in-class writing assignments. I still use a lot of reading quizzes, though even these present some issues I am struggling with.
I have been moving away from high-stakes, in-class tests for several years. This doesn’t mean I am giving up measuring what my students are learning. I still don’t like semester or course grades–they don’t tell us much at all–but feedback on recent work can help students understand their own strengths and challenges. Still, they have to be offered the chance to apply those lessons!
So should I test and retest? This week I spoke with Jeff Crosby, who heads the Science Department at Catlin Gabel School and has done a lot of hands-on work in this area. One thing that Jeff said that struck me is that offering feedback and critique is great and shouldn’t stop. It is the act of placing a final, immutable letter grade on an assignment that often brings learning to a halt. It is louder than all the other voices on the assignment, including that which offers feedback.
I wholeheartedly agree with those who argue that formative tests (from which information gained by teachers informs future teaching) are vastly superior to those that are merely summative. But are these the only options? I am swayed by the argument that re-testing students on material from earlier units is a way of helping them better transfer the information into their long-term memories.
As Annie Murphy Paul has argued in Scientific American, “Retrieval practice [another term for repeated assessment] is especially powerful compared with students’ most favored study strategies: highlighting and rereading their notes and textbooks, practices that a recent review found to be among the least effective.”
So I keep returning to the big question from the first half of the unit as we begin to wrap up. In upcoming units I plan to quiz them again on essential questions from earlier in the course.
Minor assignments. A staple of my course is the reading quiz. About one per week. But I fear I am merely testing their working memory and not their understanding of the issues at hand. How can I get around this. One thing Jeff has tried is offering the quiz at the end of the class instead of at the beginning. Any pre-class cramming will likely be mostly lost and what remains will be longer-term memory. Of course this means I wouldn’t quiz ideas we’d covered during that meeting of the class, but it’s worth a try. And hey, why not have a reading quiz on Tuesday for the reading due Monday?
Major assignments. Currently, I am shying away from asking students test questions which call for great amounts of specific recall in favor of those that ask students to show what they know about the topic as a whole. For example, my students are finishing a unit on the development of race-based slavery in colonial Virginia this week. In the past, I have asked questions like this:
How did racism come to be the central feature of colonial Virginian society? In your answer, consider the social structure in the periods both before and after Bacon’s Rebellion.
Looking at this question, I am struck by how much information it calls for. Using Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676 as a narrative turning point, students must describe Virginia society in two eras. The question implies that what is important is the relationship between the two social structures and the emerging role of racism in society. This means they have to explain how racism became codified as well as why–the reference to Bacon’s Rebellion is a “hint.” Looking at this afresh, I can foresee what I know to be true. That answers will largely differ by levels of omission of parts of the information called for in this prompt.
I usually tip my hand about the question in the classes leading up to this test. I do think in part because I want to encourage them to study effectively. I think I also do it because I know I am asking for too much recall. I also worry I have created a speed-writing contest.
This year I am trying something else. I have told them the essential questions of the unit repeatedly, essentially why and how did race-based slavery come to dominate colonial Virginia. And this is what I want them to know: how and why the English settled on African slavery.
So I will try, really hard, to ask a question that calls for that which I hope they will know five years from now. This means much less detail and more focus on themes with a few examples broadly drawn. I don’t think this is reductive. The answer is complex and can be rendered in all sorts of subtle ways. But if a student offers a fairly broad outline that nevertheless answers the question I’ve asked, I think that is better than an incomplete answer to a question like that I asked last year.
Eventually, I would like my assessments to be based partially on objective factors, like a student’s rendering of the narrative of the coming of structural racism in North America, and partially on goals the students set with me. (This idea was distilled for me by my colleagues Kathryn McDermott and Dave Whitson.) If a student struggles with organizing evidence but writes great topic sentences, we could identify their challenge as something they will work on on a given assignment. My focus also would be there rather than on dozens of factors.
Finally, grades. (Yuck.) Should the grade for the year be where they are at the end of the year–which is what they have learned–or an accumulation of marks from September to June? Perhaps a mixture of the former, plus credit for participation, etc. There seems little use for a test from September to hold down a grade if they show better competency with THAT TOPIC in June. Again, an argument for testing and retesting–but I fear I will end up with them studying for a terrifying final. So I will have to keep quizzing the early material rather than amassing it into a single assessment. Perhaps I can help shift the goal for some of my students from trying to be perfect all the time towards aspiring to correct mistakes and solidify knowledge and skills by year’s end. We’ll see.
American educators love to post articles on Facebook about how kids in Finland are allowed to be kids. A typical article is the Atlantic’s “The Joyful, Illiterate Kindergartners of Finland.” Yes, Finnish kids don’t get formal instruction in reading until age seven. They get recess every hour. And so on.
Such articles are one part research, one part concern, and a third part nostalgia. Yet they are difficult to refute. Allowing kids to move around after every 45 minutes or so of classroom time makes sense, both in terms of physical fitness and learning.
But I teach high school. Where does this leave me? Finnish upper-secondary students don’t get all that recess time–still, I was struck by the ways in which they are treated differently than American teenagers by teachers, parents, and society as a whole.
When I visited secondary schools in Finland, it seemed that educators respected the ability of teenagers to make decisions large and small–and live with the consequences. Students even choose whether they attend the vocational or college-preparatory streams in the secondary education system. I know this first-hand, sitting in on classes in which a fellow Fulbrighter asked students who made this life choice. Almost without exception, they told her they, not their parents, made this determination. They seemed to find it absurd and almost insulting that someone else would make such an important choice for them.
Something else striking: the uses of time. Finnish teens have little homework and move easily and freely around their cities. After school (which can end at 2pm or even noon on some days) the pedestrian centers are filled with teens, hanging out. Finnish schools don’t have clubs or sports like American high schools. This coupled with the light homework load means young Finns have much more free time–and they have control over that time. I don’t think the combination of physical freedom and free time are by chance. They combine to give teenage Finns yet more control over their lives.
It goes without saying that Americans have an ambivalent set of feelings about our teenagers. We are the land that invented teenagers … but also the “No Loitering” sign outside convenience stores.
But let’s say our goal was to educate teenage students and send them off to college or into the workforce as healthy young people ready to contribute to society? What would best practices be around this goal?
Any changes made by American schools–or entities outside of schools–should of course be based on the rich research done in recent years on developmental psychology. This isn’t the case right now, however. Many psychologists now speak of “emerging adults,” a new phase of life created by social and economic forces (think of the emergence of adolescence as a recognized stage of life a century ago), while states have lowered the age at which children can be tried as or incarcerated as adults.
Similarly, even as we know more (but not much really) about the teenage brain and its development, elite colleges are essentially requiring applicant take a year, maybe two, of calculus in high school. Stanford’s admissions office is very clear: “Our most competitive freshman applicants often have four years (grades 9-12) of English, four years of math (including calculus)….” Writing in the Journal of Adolescent Health, two researchers from Johns Hopkins and a third from the National Institute of Mental Health say very clearly that, ” The frontal lobes, home to key components of the neural circuitry underlying ‘executive functions’ such as planning, working memory, and impulse control, are among the last areas of the brain to mature; they may not be fully developed until halfway through the third decade of life.”
If we know that for many if not most people, the frontal lobes aren’t finished growing until the age of 25, why are we requiring teenagers take calculus if they want to attend Yale? Does early frontal-lobe development signal something else? Or is it like a selective middle school admitting only tall eleven-year olds or kids with big feet–for their age?
What’s worse are the side-effects of the college-selection arms race in the US: so many wonderful, capable, intelligent kids are pushed into classes where they struggle and feel dumb. Others feel hopeless because they can’t reach calculus. Still others give up summers to “catch up” in math. Many also feel they must structure their “free time” around their college resumé: music lessons, community service, team sports, even entrepreneurship. None of these things are bad, it’s just that many young people feel obliged to pursue most or even all of them in hopes of landing a spot at a prestigious college. And lost is the social time, the down time, the sleep, so needed for human development.
The frontal lobes are also home to impulse control. Again, this area of the brain is just about latest to develop. Thinking about it this way, it just seems cruel to punish teens for making errors of judgment, especially those which are arguably victimless. Right now, any act of school discipline for any reason (think cheating on an exam or showing up drunk to a dance) truly does go on a student’s “permanent record.” Kids applying to most selective colleges must fill out a Common Application and this document requires disclosure of all events–even one which took place when the child was a 14-year old freshmen, “that resulted in a disciplinary action.” The Common App allows the student to explain what they have learned from their experience, but this is cold comfort. A friend who works in college counseling tells me college admissions officers don’t weigh these earlier missteps as heavily. But if we really wanted students a chance to make errors in judgment and learn from them, shouldn’t we have a less punitive and shaming system? Perhaps something like a policy which erases suspensions from a student’s record after two years if no more take place?
There is one way in which American teens appear to have more freedom and responsibility than their Finnish counterparts. Americans can obtain a driver’s licence, easily, at sixteen. In Finland, the minimum age is 18, and the process of earning the license is lengthy and expensive. And the right to drive can be easily lost, if a new driver compiles as few as two violations.
In the US, motor vehicle accidents kill more teenagers than homicide, suicide, drownings and poisonings combined. Over 5,000 every year. Our response to these harrowing facts? We keep buying our children cell phones and handing them the car keys. Okay, that’s simplistic. But we have designed our cities so that daily driving is a necessity. Given how difficult it is to move around suburban spaces on foot or by bicycle, it’s no wonder getting a licence is a right of passage. And now it is the number-one killer of teens. Shouldn’t the US do something about this? I would suggest immediately raising the driving age to 18, perhaps 21, and making the process of obtaining a licence much more difficult. Setting the age at which a person may drive an SUV 65 miles-per-hour down a freeway must, no doubt, balance safety and convenience–but I’d err on the side of saving lives.
What is odd is how Americans like me simultaneously expect adult behavior from teens, extending this expectation even into the criminal justice system–while also infantilizing them. It was baffling to the Finnish upper-secondary students I spoke with that if a student in an American high school needs to use the toilet during the school day, they usually need teacher permission and a slip of paper in order to get past suspicious adults in the hallways. Why does someone who can drive a car need a note to walk to the toilet?
What would American high schools look like if we showed optimism about our students and treated them like “young adults” while acknowledging the developmental roots of much teen behavior. Teachers might not correct them when two students spoke quietly during class. Teachers (and parents) might respect their need for downtime and 9 or 10 hours of sleep per night. And while this is tricky, educators might give students opportunities to fail and learn from their mistakes. This is true in math or laboratory science, so why not in ethics or behavior as well?