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,

Matt

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