The Magic That Happens When Students Set Their Own Learning Goals

“We have to do this work with the students, and not for the students.” -Patty McGee

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I’m not proud of it, but I have seen all eight of the Fast and Furious movies. I have no defense except that I have a soft spot for absurdist early 2000s bubble-gum action movies that involve Vin Diesel and/or Dwayne Johnson. One of my favorite parts of nearly every one of these movies is that each one inevitably has a scene where the racers are involved in an intense race and, right as the moment of truth comes, somebody yells, “Use the NOS!” If you haven’t seen the movies, NOS  refers to Nitrogen Oxide, which is a gas that if piped into an engine significantly boosts its performance for a brief burst. The racer then hits the NOS button (always a giant red button), the car takes off like a rocket, and the good guys just barely edge out the bad guys.

One of the things I like about both the movies as a whole and the NOS scenes is the fantasy of how wonderful it would be if reality were that easy — how wonderful it would be if there existed a button that we and our students could hit to suddenly succeed in our toughest ventures.

The closest we have to this is a topic I talked about last post–wise interventions–which are short, timely, and targeted actions that can rapidly make a huge impact on improving student outcomes and/or closing achievement gaps. In preparation for the first day of school next week, I am going to spend this week looking at a few of the most impactful, and I want to start today with one that can have an NOS-like effect on the learning process, if used right: student goal setting. Continue reading “The Magic That Happens When Students Set Their Own Learning Goals”

Wise Interventions: The Most Important Educational Concept You’ve Probably Never Heard Of (And How to Use It to Help Your Most Vulnerable Students)

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Wise Intervention: a brief, timely action that significantly improves student achievement and/or closes performance gaps based on race and gender.

In Helping Children Succeed (the link has an annotated pdf of the whole wonderful book!), Paul Tough tells the story of a group of Stanford researchers–Geoffrey Cohen, Gregory Walton, and David Yeager–who decided to investigate how we can best help the most vulnerable students, namely those who are grappling with trauma, toxic stress, low-self esteem, and/or feeling like outsiders.

And what they stumbled upon is something that should be as ubiquitous in education as concepts like the growth mindsets and grit (both of which grew out of the same research): wise interventions.

To introduce wise interventions, it is probably best to tell the story that Tough and Angela Duckworth tell to illustrate it:

In 2006, Cohen and fellow Stanford researcher Julio Garcia did a study with 7th graders who were getting essays returned to them. The teacher gave feedback on the essays in exactly the same way the teacher always gave it with the exception of one small difference. Half of the students got a little handwritten post-it on the top of their essays that said…

“I’m giving you these comments so that you’ll have feedback on your paper.”

The other half got a handwritten post-it that said…

“I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.”

This little difference might not seem like much, but they found the quick I-believe-in-you nudge resulted in double the number of students doing a revision. What was even more striking is that while white students in the “high expectation” group were only slightly more likely to revise than the control, Black students in the “high expectation” group were over four times as likely to revise. Further, later replications not only showed similar numbers, but researchers also found the high levels of revision continued to the end of the year without any further interventions.

In a later paper, Yeager and Timothy Wilson of the University of Virginia theorize that the reason the intervention had little effect on some students and a profound lasting effect on others is that it only worked on those students who consciously or unconsciously viewed feedback as threatening in some way. For the students who already felt teacher feedback came from a place of high teacher expectations, the post-it offered nothing new. But for those who saw feedback as punitive, intimidating, or biased, the post-it stepped in at the time when the student was the most vulnerable—-when their papers fluttered down on their desks–and disrupted those feelings with an instantly noticeable vote of confidence. For many, this effectively quieted those negative feelings, which in turn cleared the way for them to act in a more academically advantageous way.

That is what a wise intervention is and the power it can have.

To recap, a wise intervention is where the teacher…

  1. Identifies a belief or behavior that some students have that is detrimental to their learning,
  2. Identifies a moment where that belief or behavior is reinforced, and
  3. Identifies a small intervention that can disrupt the negative belief or behavior at that critical moment and replace it with one that will be more positive for student learning, thus creating a new and more positive cycle.

And when the teacher executes a wise intervention right, the effect can be like magic. Think about the teacher above. He/she/they didn’t have to massively change pedagogy or how the class operated to get double the revisions and significantly close a serious gap in a lasting way. Instead it took one post-it–the work of five seconds–to do it.

There are numerous studies like this where tiny wise interventions have led to remarkable student gains:

  • Ramirez & Beilock (2011) found 9th grade students who struggled with test anxiety scored significantly better on their first finals (B+ vs. B-) when they were given an opportunity to write for a couple minutes about their thoughts and feelings concerning the test ahead of time.
  • Hulleman and Harackiewicz (2009) found that 9th grade students who started the year with low expectations of success in science and wrote every month about how topics from their science class applied to their lives scored .80 grade points higher than similar students who simply wrote about the topics from class generally. 
  • The famous Stanford Marshmallow Experiment (the one that offered kids a chance of one marshmallow that was sitting in front of them now or two if they waited 15 minutes in a study of self-control) had a follow-up that showed that when kids who exhibited less self-control were taught strategies for control (like imagining the marshmallow as a picture or turning their chairs around so they couldn’t see the marshmallow), they were able to delay gratification at similar rates to kids who demonstrated higher self-control.

The issues these wise interventions address–test anxiety, low self-confidence, fear of the teacher, self-control–are some of the most important and difficult we face in the classroom, and while wise interventions aren’t panaceas for all gaps and problems, they point to a really effective and efficient way to help many of our most vulnerable and alienated students. Next week, in preparation for the school year, I’ll be doing a mini-series diving a bit deeper into proven and practical wise interventions, so check back soon, if you are interested. In the meantime though, I encourage you to think about your most vulnerable students and why they believe what they believe and behave in the ways they do. Then think of strategic spots where small, surgical interventions could disrupt their negative beliefs, behaviors, and cycles and point them towards more positive ones. Like wise interventions themselves, this little activity takes minimal investment, but if done well it would not be hyperbole to say that the return on the investment could be immense.

Thanks as always for reading!

Yours in teaching,


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What Should We Do With the Five Paragraph Essay?

“What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.” -Samuel Johnson

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Kids book author Sandra Boynton’s classic sketch of the five-paragraph theme.

As a writing teacher, one of the most common questions I’m asked is how do I handle the five-paragraph essay. If I’m being honest, until relatively recently, I tried my best to avoid this question, as discussion of the five-paragraph essay is the writing instruction equivalent of talking about politics at Thanksgiving. It is the third rail of ELA instruction, with an army of passionate and seemingly intractable supporters on both sides.  Continue reading “What Should We Do With the Five Paragraph Essay?”

That One Big Thing I Got From These Six Things

A month ago I identified six books that I simply have to read this summer. Since that point I’ve read 5 of 6 (Circe; There, There, These Six Things, Grit, andThey Say, I Say, ), and I’m happy to report that all five have absolutely lived up to my expectations. Out of the five though, Dave Stuart Jr.’s These Six Things is the one that has stuck with me the most. Not only is it the most comprehensive, polished, and practical compilation of Stuart’s work (which regular readers of the blog know I love) to date and loaded to the brim with brilliant suggestions about teaching reading, writing, arguing, speaking/listening, and content, but it begins with a section called “Start With the Heart” that absolutely blew me away. Stuart prefaces it as follows:

All of our work in and out of the classroom ought to be informed by a fundamental, internal layer: the layer of key beliefs. The best kinds of classrooms rely on inside-out learning.

What Stuart so succinctly says here is that in the same way that a vegetable garden bears more fruit in carefully prepared soil, our students will learn and grow best when we cultivate in them a handful of key beliefs about learning, the classroom, and themselves. The beliefs that Stuart recommends we focus on building are the following:

1. I believe in my teacher.
2. I belong in this classroom.
3. I can improve through my effort.
4. I can succeed at this.
5. This work has value for me.

Continue reading “That One Big Thing I Got From These Six Things”

Why I Don’t Grade Anything Until October

main-qimg-2c5b31ed3874d9d845eecddfdd9f5905While they feel inextricably linked with school, grades are actually a relatively new invention, with the first known grades appearing at Yale in 1785 and widespread grade usage (and the current A through F system) only beginning a little over 100 years ago.

While it is hard to imagine a time before report cards, that was exactly the case for thousands of years and in millions of schools, ranging from the School of Athens to Harvard’s early days. In the place of grades in most schools was feedback, with the idea being that school was meant for building knowledge, not sorting students into categories. Of course, before waxing too nostalgic for it being a wiser time, it is important to note that most people (women, non-white, non-wealthy) were generally not welcomed into the halls of education during these times and feedback largely came in the unnecessarily harsh form of critiques delivered by stern-faced professors in front of the entire class. But in the ungraded spirit of those early pre-grade days lies an important point that has been consistently backed up by modern research: teaching someone and rating someone are distinctly different practices that weaken each other when put together. Continue reading “Why I Don’t Grade Anything Until October”

A Simple Plan for Significantly Increasing Student Motivation to Write

I have long been interested in motivation. Why is it that one person will spend 20 or 30 hours a week training for a marathon and someone else will stay up late for weeks on end carefully sanding and breathing in lacquer fumes to refinish an antique table? Why do some students throw themselves into school, or theater, or a sport while others who engage in the same things put in almost no effort at all? And why can some push through even the stiffest adversity while others fold at the first flimsy obstacle they see?

I find these motivational questions endlessly fascinating, and luckily for me the last few years have seen a plethora of new developments and discoveries concerning motivation. A few of the most important for educators include:

  • The University of Chicago, among others, makes a compelling argument in this meta-study that external motivators–both positive and negative–generally decrease future student motivation because they replace the internal joy we get from accomplishing something with a need for receiving or avoiding something externally. One notable exception to this is that for repetitive, rote, and required tasks, external motivators are often needed because these things simply do not inspire internal motivation.
  • The recent book The Motivated Brain explains that the release of dopamine comes not when we get something we want, as was long suspected, but instead when we are in the pursuit of something we want. The new theory is that dopamine is part of a “seeking” system in our bodies designed to get us to constantly seek new information and accomplishments, as from an evolutionary perspective, the creatures that always seek are the ones that live longer and do better. This seeking system explains why seeking-style hobbies like marathon running or refinishing a table appeal to so many and why smartphones and social media are so addictive. In all of these, when we seek something new–whether it is running an extra mile or to see who our Twitter notification is from–our brains reward that seeking with a small shot of dopamine, encouraging us to do the same action again in the future.
  • A large study of critical traits for the 21st century commissioned by the Dept. of Education confirmed what a lot of teachers already know: when students feel that their teachers care and are paying attention, those feelings turn into significantly more motivation to engage with the course work and succeed in it.
  • And of course, there are Daniel Pink’s three keys to what inspires internal motivation: having purpose, having autonomy, and having the belief that we can reach mastery.

But amongst all of this research I’ve read on motivation, potentially the most useful piece is this short post from the University of Virginia’s groundbreaking Motivation Lab called “I Could Be Changing the World Right Now, But Instead I’m Solving for X.” In it, Motivation Lab director Chris Hulleman discusses the expectancy-value theory, which for a theory from a bunch of university professors, is remarkably straightforward. It goes… Continue reading “A Simple Plan for Significantly Increasing Student Motivation to Write”