The cover story
of latest New Republic
wonders whether American educators have fallen in blind love with self-control. Author Elizabeth Weil thinks we have. Titled “American Schools Are Failing Nonconformist Kids: In Defense of the Wild Child” the article suggests that educators harping on self-regulation are really trying to turn kids into submissive little robots. And they do so because little robots are easier to control in the classroom.
But lazy teachers are not the only cause. Education policy makers are also to blame, according to Weil. She writes that “valorizing self-regulation shifts the focus away from an impersonal, overtaxed, and underfunded school system and places the burden for overcoming those shortcomings on its students.”
And the consequence of educators’ selfishness? Weil tells stories that amount to Self-Regulation Gone Wild. A boy has trouble sitting cross-legged in class—the teacher opines he should be tested because something must be wrong with him. During story time the author’s daughter doesn’t like to sit still and to raise her hand when she wants to speak. The teacher suggests occupational therapy.
I can see why Weil and her husband were angry when their daughter’s teacher suggested occupational therapy simply because the child’s behavior was an inconvenience to him
. But I don’t take that to mean that there is necessarily a widespread problem in the psyche of American teachers. I take that to mean that their daughter’s teacher was acting like a selfish bastard.
The problem with stories, of course, is that there are stories to support nearly anything. For every story a parent could tell about a teacher diagnosing typical behavior as a problem, a teacher could tell a story about a child who really could
do with some therapeutic help, and whose parents were oblivious to that fact.
What about evidence beyond stories?
Weil cites a study by Duncan et al (2007) that analyzed six large data sets and found social-emotional skills were poor predictors of later success.
She also points out that creativity among American school kids dropped between 1984 and 2008 (as measured by the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking) and she notes “Not coincidentally, that decrease happened as schools were becoming obsessed with self-regulation.”
There is a problem here. Weil uses different terms interchangeably: self-regulation, grit, social-emotional skills. They are not same thing. Self-regulation (most simply put) is the ability to hold back an impulse when you think that that the impulse will not serve other interests. (The marshmallow study would fit here.) Grit refers to dedication to a long-term
goal, one that might take years to achieve, like winning a spelling bee or learning to play the piano proficiently. Hence, you can have lots of self-regulation but not be very gritty. Social emotional skills might have self-regulation as a component, but it refers to a broader complex of skills in interacting with others.
These are not niggling academic distinctions. Weil is right that some research indicates a link between socioemotional skills and desirable outcomes, some doesn’t. But there is quite a lot of research showing associations between self-control and positive outcomes for kids including academic outcomes, getting along with peers, parents, and teachers, and the avoidance of bad teen outcomes (early unwanted pregnancy, problems with drugs and alcohol, et al.). I reviewed those studies here
. There is another literature showing associations of grit with positive outcomes (e.g., Duckworth et al, 2007
Of course, those positive outcomes may carry a cost. We may be getting better test scores (and fewer drug and alcohol problems) but losing kids’ personalities. Weil calls on the reader’s schema of a “wild child,” that is, an irrepressible imp who may sometimes be exasperating, but whose very lack of self-regulation is the source of her creativity and personality.
But irrepressibility and exuberance is not perfectly inversely correlated with self-regulation. The purpose of self-regulation is not to lose your exuberance. It’s to recognize that sometimes it’s not in your own best interests to be exuberant. It’s adorable when your six year old is at a family picnic and impulsively practices her pas de chat because she cannot resist the Call of the Dance. It’s less adorable when it happens in class when everyone else is trying to listen to a story.
So there’s a case to be made that American society is going too far in emphasizing self-regulation. But the way to make it is not to suggest that the natural consequence of this emphasis is the crushing of children’s spirits because self-regulation is the same thing as no exuberance. The way to make the case is to show us that we’re overdoing self-regulation. Kids feel burdened, anxious, worried about their behavior.
Weil doesn’t have data that would bear on this point. I don’t either. But my perspective definitely differs from hers. When I visit classrooms or wander the aisles of Target, I do not feel that American kids are over-burdened by self-regulation.
As for the decline in creativity from 1984 and 2008 being linked to an increased focus on self-regulation…I have to disagree with Weil’s suggestion that it’s not a coincidence (setting aside the adequacy of the creativity measure). I think it might very well be a coincidence. Note that scores on the mathematics portion of the long-term NAEP increased during the same period. Why not suggest that kids improvement in a rigid, formulaic understanding of math inhibited their creativity?
Can we talk about important education issues without hyperbole?
Duckworth, A. L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of personality and social psychology, 92(6), 1087.
Duncan, G. J., Dowsett, C. J., Claessens, A., Magnuson, K., Huston, A. C., Klebanov, P., ... & Japel, C. (2007). School readiness and later achievement. Developmental psychology, 43(6), 1428.
Part of the fun and ongoing fascination of science of science is "the effect that ought not to work, yet does."The impact of values of affirmation on academic performance is such an effect.
Values-affirmation "undoes" the effect of stereotype threat (also called identity threat). Stereotype threat occurs when a person is concerned about confirming a negative stereotype about his or her group. In other words a boy is so consumed with thinking "Everyone expects me to do poorly on this test because I'm African-American" that his performance actually is
compromised (see Walton & Spencer, 2009 for a review).One way to combat stereotype threat is to give the student
better resources to deal with the threat--make the student feel more confident, more able to control the things that matter in his or her life.That's where values affirmation comes in. In this procedure, students are provided a list of values (e.g.,
relationships with family members, being good at art) and are asked to pick three that are most important to them and to write about why they are so important. In the control condition, students pick three values they imagine might be important to someone else
. Randomized control trials show that this brief intervention boosts school grades (e.g., Cohen et al, 2006).Why? One theory is that values affirmation gives students a greater sense of belonging, of being more connected to other people. (The importance of social connection is an emerging theme in other research areas. For example, you may have heard about the studies showing that people are less anxious when anticipating a painful electric shock if they are holding the hand of a friend or loved one.)A new study (Shnabel et al, 2013) directly tested the idea that writing about social
belonging might be a vital element in making values affirmation work.In Experiment 1 they tested 169 Black and 186 White seventh graders in a correlational study. They did the values-affirmation writing exercise, as described above. The dependent measure was change in GPA (pre-intervention vs. post-intervention.) The experimetners found that writing about social belonging in the writing assignment was associated with a greater increase in GPA for Black students (but not for White students, indicating that the effect is due to reduction in stereotype threat.)In Experiment 2, they
used an experimental design, testing 62 male and 55 female college undergraduates on a standardized math test. Some were specifically told to write about social belonging and others were given standard affirmation writing instructions. Female students in the former group outscored those in the latter group. (And there was no effect for male students.)
The brevity of the intervention relative to the apparent duration of the effect still surprise me. But this new study gives some insight into why it works in the first place.References:
Cohen, G. L., Garcia, J., Apfel, N., & Master, A. (2006). Reducing
the racial achievement gap: A social-psychological interven-tion. Science, 313, 1307-1310.
Shnabel, N., Purdie-Vaughns, V., Cook, J. E., Garcia, J., & Cohen, G. L. (2013). Demystifying values-affirmation interventions: Writing about social belonging is a key to buffering against identity threat. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin,
Walton, G. M., & Spencer, S. J. (2009). Latent ability: Grades and test
scores systematically underestimate the intellectual ability of negatively stereotyped students. Psychological Science, 20, 1132-1139.
The importance of a good relationship between teacher and student is no surprise. More surprising is that the "human touch" is so powerful it can improve computer-based learning.In a series of ingenious yet simple experiments, Rich Mayer and Scott DaPra showed that students learn better from an onscreen slide show when it is accompanied by an onscreen avatar that uses social cues.
Eighty-eight college students watched a 4-minute Powerpoint slide show that explained how a solar cell converts sunlight to electricity. It consisted of 11 slides and a voice-over explanation.
Some subjects saw an avatar which used a full compliment of social cues (gesturing, changing posture, facial expression, changes in eye gaze, and lip movements synchronized to speech) which were meant to direct student attention to relevant features of the slide show.
Other subjects saw an avatar that maintained the same posture, maintained eye gaze straight ahead, and did not move (except for lip movements synchronized to speech).
A third group saw no avatar at all, but just saw the slides and listened to the narration.
All subjects were later tested with fact-based recall questions and transfer questions (e.g. "how could you increase the electrical output of a solar power?") meant to test subjects ability to apply their knowledge to new situations.
There was no difference among the three groups on the retention test, but there was a sizable advantage (d = .90) for the high embodiment subjects on the transfer test. (The low-embodiment and no-avatar groups did not differ.)
A second experiment showed that the effect was only obtained when a human voice was used; the avatar did not boost learning when synchronized to a machine voice.
The experimenters emphasized the social aspect of the situation to learning; students process the slideshow differently because the avatar is "human enough" for them to treat it prime interaction like those learners would use with a real person. This interpretation seems especially plausible in light of the second experiment; all of the more cognitive cues (e.g., the shifts in the avatar's eye gaze prompting shifts in learner's attention) were still present in the machine-voice condition, yet there was no advantage to learners.
There is something special about learning from another person. Surprisingly, that other person can be an avatar.
Mayer, R. E. & DaPra, C. S. (2012). An embodiment effect in computer-based learning with animated pedagogical agents. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 18, 239-252.
It's not often that an initiative prompts grave concern
in some and ridicule
in others. The Gates Foundation managed it. The Foundation has funded a couple of projects to investigate the feasibility of developing a passive measure of student engagement, using galvanic skin response (GSR). The ridicule comes from an assumption that it won't work.GSR basically measures how sweaty you are. Two leads are placed on the skin. One emits a very very mild charge. The other measures the charge. The more sweat on your skin, the better it conducts the charge, so the better the second lead will pick up the charge.Who cares how sweaty your skin is? Sweat--as well as heart rate, respiration rate and a host of other physiological signs controlled by the peripheral nervous system--
vary with your emotional state.Can you tell whether a student is paying attention from these data? It's at least plausible that it could be made to work.
There has long been controversy over how separable different emotional states are, based on these sorts of metrics. It strikes me as a tough problem, and we're clearly not there yet, but the idea is far from kooky, and indeed, the people who have been arguing its possible have been making some progress--this lab group says they've successfully distinguished engagement, relaxation and stress.
(Admittedly, they gathered a lot more data than just GSR and one measure they collected was EEG, a measure of the central, not peripheral, nervous system.) The grave concern springs from the possible use to which the device would be put.
A Gates Foundation spokeswoman says the plan is that a teacher would be able to tell, in real time, whether students are paying attention in class. (Earlier the Foundation website indicated that the grant was part of a program meant to evaluate teachers, but that was apparently an error
.)Some have objected that such measurement would be insulting to teachers. After all, can't teachers tell when their students are engaged, or bored, or frustrated, etc.? I'm sure some can, but not all of them. And it's a good bet that
beginning teachers can't make these judgements as accurately as their more experienced colleagues, and beginners are just the ones who need this feedback. Presumably the information provided by the system would be redundant to teachers who can read it by their students faces and body language, and these teachers will simply ignore it. I would hope that classroom use would be optional--GSR bracelets would enter classrooms only if teachers requested them.Of greater concern to me are the rights of the students. Passive reading of physiological data without consent feels like an invasion of privacy. Parental consent ought to be obligatory.
Then too, what about HIPAA
? What is the procedure if a system that measures heartbeat detects an irregularity? These two concerns--the effect on teachers and the effect on students--strike me as serious
, and people with more experience than I have in ethics and in the law will need to think them through with great care. But I still think the project is a terrific idea, for two reasons, neither of which has received much attention in all the uproar.First, even if the devices were never used in classrooms, researchers could put them to good use.
I sat in at a meeting a few years ago of researchers considering a grant submission (not to the Gates Foundation) on this precise idea--using peripheral nervous system data as an on-line measure of engagement. (The science involved here is not really in my area of expertise, and had no idea why I was asked to be at the meeting, but that seems to be true of about two-thirds of the meetings I attend.) Our thought was that the device would be used by researchers, not teachers and administrators.Researchers would love a good measure of engagement because the proponents of new materials or methods so often claim "increased engagement" as a benefit. But how are researchers supposed to know whether or not the claim is true?
Teacher or student judgements of engagement are subject to memory loss and to well-known biases. In addition, I see potentially great value for parents and teachers of kids with disabilities. For example, have a look at these two pictures.
This is my daughter Esprit. She's 9 years old, and she has Edward's syndrome
. As a consequence, she has a host of cognitive and physical challenges, e.g., she cannot speak, and she has limited motor control and bad motor tone (she can't sit up unaided). Esprit can never tell me that she's engaged either with words or signs. But I'm comfortable concluding that she is engaged at moments like that captured in the top photo--she's turning the book over in her hands and staring at it intently. In the photo at the bottom, even I, her dad, am unsure of what's on her mind. (She looks sleepy, but isn't--ptosis, or drooping upper eyelids, is part of the profile). If Esprit wore this expression while gazing towards a video for example, I wouldn't be sure whether she was engaged by the video or was spacing out.Are there moments that I would slap a bracelet on her if I thought it could measure whether or not she was engaged? You bet your sweet bippy there are. I'm not the first to think of using physiologic data to measure engagement in people with disabilities that make it hard to make their interests known.
In this article
, researchers sought to reduce the communication barriers that exclude children with disabilities from social activities; the kids might be present, but because of their difficulties describing or showing their thoughts, they cannot fully participate in the group. Researchers reported some success in distinguishing engaged from disengaged states of mind from measures of blood volume pulse, GSR, skin temperature, and respiration in nine young adults with muscular dystrophy or cerebral palsy. I respect
the concerns of those who see the potential for abuse in the passive measurement of physiological data. At the same time, I see the potential for real benefit in such a system, wisely deployed.When we see the potential for abuse, let's quash that possibility, but let's not let it blind us to the possibility of the good that might be done.And finally, because Esprit didn't look very cute in the pictures above, I end with this picture.
In primary school, a student's relationship with his or her teacher has a significant impact on the student's academic progress. Students with positive relationships are more engaged and learn more (e.g., Hughes et al, 2008). In addition, teachers are more likely to have negative relationships with boys than with girls (e.g., Hamre & Pianta, 2001).
Previous research has not, however, accounted for the gender of the teacher. Perhaps conflict is more likely when teacher and student are of different sexes, and because there are more female than male teachers, we end up concluding that boys tend not to get along with their teachers.
A new study (Split, Koomen & Jak, in press
) indicates that's not the case.
This appears to be the first large-scale study that examined teacher-student relationships in primary school while accounting for the sex of teachers.
Teachers completed questionnaires about their relationships with their students. The questionnaires measured three constructs:
- Closeness Warmth and open communication. Sample item "If upset, this child will seek comfort from me."
- Conflict Negative interactions, need for the teacher to correct student behavior. Sample item "This child remains angry or resentful after being disciplined."
- Dependency Clinginess on the part of the student; sample item "This child asks for my help when he or she really does not need help."
All in all, the data did not support the idea that boys connect emotionally with male teachers.
For Closeness, female teachers generally felt closer to their students than male teachers. Male teachers did not feel closer to either boys or girls, but female teachers felt closer to girls than they did to boys.
For Conflict, female teachers reported less conflict than male teachers did. Both male and female teachers reported less conflict with girls than with boys.
For Dependency, female teachers reported less dependency than male teachers did. There were no differences among boys and girls on this measure.
This research has been difficult to conduct, simply because most groups of teachers don't have enough male teachers in elementary grades to conduct a meaningful analysis. This is just one study, but the results indicate that all teachers--male and female--have a tougher time with boys. More conflictual relationships are reported with boys than with girls, and female teachers report less close relationships with boys.
Hamre, B. K., & Pianta, R. C. (2001). Early teacher–child relationships and the trajectory of children's school outcomes through eighth grade. Child Development, 72, 625–638.
Hughes, J. N., Luo, W., Kwok, O. M., & Loyd, L. K. (2008). Teacher–student support, effortful engagement, and achievement: A 3-year longitudinal study. Journal of Educational Psychology, 100, 1–14.
Split, J. L., Koomen, H. M. Y., & Jak, S. (in press) Are boys better off with male and girls with female teachers? A multilevel investigation of measurement invariance and gender match in teacher-student relationship quality. Journal of School Psychology.