By Jason Flom
Dichotomously, data shapes and distorts our practice, sometimes in unequal measure and too often to the detriment of our whole child efforts. It is the well-intended red herring of education. In seeking specific data to open windows to understanding, we inadvertently close the door on big-picture data that might lead to transformational learning.
While we focus—intently and deeply—on data from reading assessments, we may miss the more important data on students’ emotional well-being. Our endless gathering of math skills data hyperfocuses us on products and outcomes, potentially leaving us blind to the importance of process.
The cumulative effect of focusing primarily on student-mined quantitative data can be observed in our education systems today. Students are stressed and losing sleep, and instances of anxiety and depression are rising. Teachers feel demoralized and are leaving the profession in droves and putting schools in a constant state of crisis.
Perhaps we instead need to follow a model proposed by Daniel Burrus in his book Flash Foresight. Rather than focus on our (perceived) biggest problem— student achievement—let’s “skip it” and “go opposite.”
I am not suggesting a “Hey, everyone! Let’s neglect kids!” approach to improving teaching and learning. Far from it.
Let’s assume student achievement is our biggest problem. (I would argue that we have bigger problems, like inequity, but because our data-collection efforts are largely focused on institutional problems rather than systemic ones, focusing on student achievement comports with our efforts herein.) Let’s skip the problem of “achieving” learning and go opposite by looking at data related to the conditions and context of learning.
Rather than cull additional data from students with an endless barrage of testing, let’s instead examine the burgeoning wealth of data from two similar and emerging fields in education: the science of learning and educational neuroscience.
Here are four important “data” points from these fields that should inform whole child school design:
1. Social and emotional learning (SEL) programs positively influence student outcomes.
In findings reported in Child Development, researchers conducted a meta-analysis of the effects of “enhancing students’ social and emotional learning.” The chief take away is that SEL programs have a foundational influence on students in a broad range of contexts and in all the ways that matter to whole child learning: safety, engagement, achievement, empowerment, and well-being. Students who better understand and are in control of their emotions demonstrate, in measurable ways, outcomes that lead to more positive school cultures and higher student achievement.
2. Motivated students are students who learn.
In their article in Research in Higher Education, researchers Kaylene Williams and Caroline Williams identify “five key ingredients for improving student motivation” on the basis that literature supports the theory that “motivation is probably the most important factor that educators can target in order to improve learning.”
I. The student must be considered more than a “customer or recipient of knowledge.” Teachers/administrators must consider factors that influence student motivation such as social norms, individual hierarchy of needs, and sense of well-being, among others.
II. Teachers matter. Motivated and well-liked teachers have a greater effect on student motivation than unmotivated and disliked teachers. Their skills in giving assessments, communicating content, and relating with others all influence students’ engagement and motivation.
III. Content, at a very minimum, should be “accurate and timely. However, content also should be relevant and useful to the student in his or her life.” Choice, ownership, competency, and success, among other factors, all influence students’ motivation levels.
IV. The method/process of instruction can nurture or squelch motivation. Balancing ways of framing problems, designing learning experiences, communicating learning objectives, and delivering feedback helps to keep students motivated.
V. The environment provides the context for motivated students to feel welcomed or not. Attending to emotional literacy, learning profiles, engagement opportunities, and empowering learners all play into student motivation.
3. Neuroscience and complex systems shed light on design of learning environments and experiences.
Todd Rose, a high school dropout turned Harvard professor of neuroeducation, writes in his book Square Peg about “four ideas derived from both the study of complex systems and recent neuroscience findings” that can help teachers and parents be “much more understanding and effective.”
I. “Variability is the rule.” We are all very different in how we perceive and react to the world.
II. “Emotions are serious stuff: Contrary to what we’ve long believed, modern neuroscience has shown that there is no such thing as purely rational thought or behavior.”
III. “Context is key: People often behave in dramatically different ways, depending on the circumstances. Among other things, this suggests that we unfairly prejudice children by labeling them with a disorder, when they’d be perfectly fine in a different environment.”
IV. “Feedback loops determine long-term success or failure. . . . Small changes in your child’s life today can make an enormous difference tomorrow.”
4. “Information From the Neuro- and Cognitive Sciences That Educators Should Know”
Chapter 1 of Mariale Hardiman’s book The Brain Targeted Teaching Model for 21st-Century Schools addresses the difference between “neuromyths” that continue to shape our practice in schools and “neuroscience.” These two concepts are worth attending to—and not just because Hardiman is vice dean of academic affairs, professor of clinical education, and cofounder and director of the School of Education’s Neuro-Education Initiative (NEI) at Johns Hopkins University. The bigger picture is that in our effort to respond to student data with “brain-based” programs, educators and policymakers alike can be “duped by false advertising” and fall for products that lack scientific support.
Here are some myths worth considering:
- Left versus right brain learners
- Mozart and intelligence
- The closing of “windows of opportunity for learning”
- 10 percent of our brain usage
- Learning styles
- Brain cell production or lack there of
Taken together, these four research-based ideas suggest our whole child work must focus first and foremost on our learning environments, relationships with students, and providing a safe place for taking risks long before we worry about keeping track of a scope and sequence or collecting quantifiable data from student work.
I might even argue that the data that matters most is the data coming from research in the emerging fields of the science of learning and educational neuroscience. These two areas of explosive growth offer findings about development and the brain, giving us a fresh way to relook at old problems and challenges confronting educators today.
By turning away from the student achievement data right in front of us and instead turning to bigger-picture research data, we may find that there are new opportunities to create transformational learning for all students.
Burrus, D. (2011). Flash foresight: How to see the invisible and do the impossible. New York: Harper Collins.
Rose, L. T., & Ellison, K. (2013). Square peg: My story and what it means for raising innovators, visionaries, and out of the box thinkers. New York: Hyperion,
Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D., & Schellinger, K. B. (2011). The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development, 82(1), 405–432.
Hardiman, M. (2012). The brain-targeted teaching model for 21st-century schools. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Williams, K. C., & Williams, C. C. (2011). Five key ingredients for improving student motivation. Research in Higher Education Journal, 12(8), 104–122.
Jason Flom is the director of Cornerstone Learning Community in Tallahassee, Fla., a whole child school he cofounded with other educators. He also serves as a Faculty member with ASCD’s Professional Learning Services.