Research Reflections

Cameron Mount


Spring 2013

Research Reflections

Reflection #1

Carol Dweck’s book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, argues that the main indicator of success in relationships, academics, sports, the arts, and self-conceptualization is whether a person has a growth mindset or a fixed one. A person with a growth mindset gains strength from putting effort toward a valued goal, while a person with a fixed mindset judges and identifies themselves in terms of success versus failure. I will focus here on the chapter dedicated to teachers and parents.

This split between growth and fixed goes further than “good teaching” versus “bad teaching.” Seemingly innocent and positive language can inadvertently instill fixed-mindset thinking. Haim Ginott observed the following language from a kindergarten inquiring about paintings:

“Who made those ugly pictures?”

“It’s not nice to call pictures ugly when they are so pretty” (Dweck 173).

This response by the parent is seemingly innocent, though the teacher’s follow-up response showcases what growth mindset is about:

“You don’t have to paint pretty pictures. You can paint mean pictures if you feel like it.”

What the kindergartener was asking, implicitly, was ‘What happens to a boy who doesn’t pain well?’ or ‘how will I be judged?’

Dweck gives more example of fixed-mindset language that teachers and parents use without much thought, leading students to define themselves in comparison to ideals:  “You learned that so quickly! You’re so smart!” (“If I don’t learn something quickly, I’m not smart.”) or “Look at that drawing. Martha, is he the next Picasso or what?” (“I shouldn’t try drawing anything hard or they’ll see I’m no Picasso.”) (174).

Praising intelligence, or using labels of any kind toward a student, harms motivation by indicating a “product” as the valued outcome, rather than the process of effort and challenge. In the fixed mindset view – frighteningly common – success means you’re smart while failure means you’re dumb (175). Many parents think they’re giving children “permanent confidence” by showering them with compliments, but instead they’re fostering an aversion to risk and setting a precedent for staying in the comfort zone.

I saw these ideas specifically in play in my job as an AmeriCorps volunteer this summer at the Dawes Middle School. The camp prepared and paid for students to take part in the Cornhusker State Games. I assisted as a supervisor and took charge of the three-times-a-day journaling where students set and reflected on their goals and progress. On the first day of camp, a sixth-grade student on the sidelines told me that he wasn’t good at any sport and didn’t want to participate in the State Games. I was floored that someone who hadn’t even entered middle school had already defined himself as a failure. I began structuring the students’ journals with opportunities for fostering a growth mindset that derives momentum from effort, not a label. As tiny goals turned into tiny victories and tiny victories into bigger goals, I witnessed incredible transformations.

In my student teaching, I’m bringing these ideas in wherever I can to get students to “love challenges, be intruiged by mistakes, enjoy effort, and keep on learning” (177). When students seem proud by their speed in getting work done, instead of praising it I make them question if it was really a worthwhile, challenging assignment. For “Flash Fiction Friday” this last week – an assignment with virtually no official parameters beyond writing creatively in some form for 15 minutes, a student (who had previously turned in a very creative poetry assignment) turned in a piece of paper with about 100 words of a creative story, vigorously crossed out. Under it, she had written:

“This whole flash fiction thing? Yeah, it’s not working for me. I don’t write, I don’t like to write, and I’m not good at writing. I could sit here for hours and you would never get a good written story out of me. Sorry, but it’s true.”

She was the only student having trouble with the assignment. I responded:

“What you crossed out, your Where I’m From poem, and even that anti-flash fiction note shows that you have thoughts, voice, and the ability to be creative with them. A lot of times my free-writes wouldn’t make sense to anyone else – it’s just top-of-the-head, whatever’s floating around up there. That’s okay – don’t feel confined to the types of writings we’ve read or heard from classmates. Just put effort toward language in some way. Some ideas for this week:

-Pretend you’re having a conversation with someone you know

-Rant about something

-Retell a story you’ve heard in your family in your own voice

-Take the first thought that comes into your head and run with it

-Recount a dream”

With many of the other students, I’m working individually to polish they’re writing and lead them in new directions. But for this student, I’m recognizing a clearly fixed mindset and a need to carefully troubleshoot this idea of “I don’t,” “I don’t,” “I’m not good at.” Dweck reminds of educator Marva Collins, in whose class “three- and four-year olds used a vocabulary book titled Vocabulary for the High School Student. The seven-year-old were reading The Wall Street Journal. For older children, a discussion of Plato’s Republic led to discussions of de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, Orwell’s Animal Farm, Machiavelli, and the Chicago city council” (200). My experiences so far may only show a shade of that, but they’ve also proved that extraordinary things are possible when you engage students’ mindsets in positive, growth-oriented ways.

“When children hear their parents level fixed judgments at others, it communicates a fixed mindset. And they have to wonder, Am I next?

Speed and perfection

“Whoops. I guess that was too easy. I apologize for wasting your time. Let’s do something you can really learn from!” (179)

“fascinated with the process of learning” (194)

Remind students that school is for them

Challenge assumption that school is for students’ learning only

Marva Collins: three- and four-year olds used a vocabulary book titled Vocabulary for the High School Student. The seven-year-old were reading The Wall Street Journal. For older children, a discussion of Plato’s Republic led to discussions of de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, Orwell’s Animal Farm, Machiavelli, and the Chicago city council”


Reflection #2, February 20, 2013

Richardson, Will. Why School?: How Education Must Change When Learning and Information

are Everywhere. TED Conferences, 2012. Kindle file.

In Why School?, Will Richardson posits that the role of education is not just changing, but in some fundamental ways, reversing. “Old school” assumes that knowledge is relatively scarce; content is inaccessible on-the-fly, so it needs to be learned and retained in schools. Now: “two billion people are connected online, reaching five billion by 2020…A trillion webpages. Eight years’ worth of YouTube videos uploaded every day. Four million Wikipedia articles, in English alone.” News is reported from Twitter, not handed down by the six o’clock news. Good customer relations in advertising now depends on Facebook monitoring, and flaws quickly affect ever-important Yelp reviews. Everything from government (Wikileaks), to health care (Foldit), to music (Spotify), to shopping (Amazon) is changing in ways founded on an abundance of information, not a scarcity. Education needs to take the same leap, Richardson argues.

In high education, this is already being seen. The Mozilla Foundation, with the MacArthur Foundation,  has started a program awarding “badges” for expertise gained through more informal, nonstandard, and innovative means. In summer 2012 a dozen universities – including Princeton, Stanford, Duke, Georgia Tech, and Penn – partnered with Coursera to offer “100 or more free massive open online courses, or MOOCs, that are expected to draw millions of students and adult learners globally.” Similarly, MITx lets students take MIT courses for free, then pay a small amount for a certificate upon passing a test.

Richardson uses his son playing the game Minecraft as an example. The computer and console game has users create whole worlds out of combining building-block resources, forcing users to use innovative and creative means to survive (and thrive). Richardson’s son went in with a passion to play, “cobbling” together his own multimedia texts using YouTube videos of self-assessed ability level, local tutors (friends via video chat software ooVoo), and global tutors (other players on the massive global Minecraft server). In an “old classroom” mindset, content and coaches are scarce. He receives the same texts, the same pace of readings, the same goals, and the same assessments, telling little about he has developed.

Richardson emphasizes that access doesn’t come inherently with ability. The ability to cull millions of Twitter followers, RSS feeds, Delicious bookmarks, Kindle Singles, and Evernotes in a personally meaningful and beneficial way takes literacy, and students need teachers’ help to navigate this terrain in “safe, ethical, and effective ways”.

The Khan Academy website is a nonprofit with more than 3,300 video lectures across a range of subjects. The Knewton platform, still in development, takes “individually tailored” content from a massive database to “carve out a personalize path through any digital course” for every user. If a user’s answer to a math story problem, for example, evinces not arithmetic deficiency but critical reading comprehension skills, the next screen may bring up a reading lesson tailored to that user’s ability, based on the experiences of many million users who came before them. Richardson urges that classroom community and shared experience plays a vital role in this system, but that we must rethink the teacher’s role as ‘keeper’ of content.

Nor must this “new system” a way of delivering old curriculum in new ways, a strategy being promoted by policymakers like Bill Gates. Instead, the new system must be based around discovery, “built on decades of progressive thinking about education, as articulated by John Dewey and others,” now able to be realized more fully in the age of abundance. Emphasis must shift from “content mastery” to “learning mastery,” where students create unique paths to outcomes using the information they have available. Reforming the assessment this calls for starts with this: “Stop asking questions on tests that can be answered by a Google search.” If you have to, Richardson says, let them use their technology to answer. A question from the New York State Regents test, for example, which every potential graduate in New York was supposed to answer in 2011, was “Which geographic feature impacted the development of the Gupta Empire?” Instead, why not something like “In what ways have the inventions and works of the Gupta Empire had an influence on our modern culture?” This judges not how well students can answer a question, but how literate they are in pooling their resources and networks in critical ways. That, Richardson argues, is what it means to be prepared “for a world of abundance”.

Richardson has six tips for educators to ensure that they are always unlearning and relearning in this world of ever-changing abundance:

1. “Share everything (or at least something)”: This includes blogs, PDF units, and classroom practice and observation.

2. “Discover, don’t deliver, the curriculum”: In 2010, 11th graders at High Tech High developed provocative questions about the health of the San Diego Bay, leading to questions like “What is our place in nature?” “Is civilization inherently harmful to nature?” “Can we accept ourselves as part of nature?” Students developed yearlong projects, which led to poetry, research, interviews, etc about not only the habitats of turtles and pelicans, but even homeless humans who lived on the bay. That is discover learning, rather than delivery.

3. “Talk to strangers”: Find ways to bring in outside resources safely and effectively; teachers are everywhere in this “moment of abundance”.

4. “Be a master learner”: “There’s no competitive advantage today in knowing more than the person next to you…What the world cares about is what you can do with what you know…And…that you can keep learning”. Serve as a role model of ever-changing, ever-updating learning.

5. “Do real work for real audiences”: Move beyond “take home folders” of work; broadcast, collaborate, interview, and compete in digital spaces.

6. “Transfer the power”: Invite students to create real-world projects with real-world meaning, like identifying alternative energy sources and fuels.


Reflection #3

Grossman, Pamela, and Loeb, Susanna. “Measure for Measure: The Relationship between

Measures of Instructional Practice in Middle School English Language Arts and Teachers’ Value-Added Scores.” Calder Urban Institute. Volume 45 (May 2010): JSTOR. Web.

“Measure for Measure” recognizes that studies have explored the correlation between teacher characteristics and student achievement, but says that few look at specific classroom practices that predict student test score gains in Middle School Language Arts. While teacher characteristics like college program or test scores may provide valuable information, they have “limited utility” for policy makers and improving instruction (Grossman 1). The study also looks to find whether value-added measuring (evaluating teachers by their student scores’ comparison to the previous year’s) is effective, or whether the method reflects students’ characteristics more than teachers’.

The article is framed around the disturbing achievement gap “between white and non-white students, and between higher and lower SES students” which is increasing (unlike for elementary ages) (3). The study’s most striking finding was the effectiveness of “Explicit Strategy Instruction” (16). Teachers who utilized this approach most effectively provided students with very structured and specific ways to approach activities. As an example, a teacher systematically broke down a newspaper article to helps students understand journalistic features. She taught them how to find the “4 W’s,” then use those to create a “lead,” and how to incorporate supporting details. Students then wrote their own articles using specific strategies. These teachers “made visible the often invisible process requisite for successful, sophisticated literary analysis, reading comprehension, or writing” (17).

Explicit instruction trumped other factors studied, like Intellectual Challenge. A lesson asking to “anticipate an opponent’s counter argument in writing an editorial,” for example, failed to discuss how students would accomplish this goal in their writing (23). This lack of structure failed students also when it carried over into peer writing, leading to responses like “I love it!” or “you could make this better” (25). The study also found that the most effective teachers focused on writing and speaking, while less effective teachers focused on reading and literature. The more successful teachers used more class time for pre-writing and oral presentations, while less successful teachers used more time on individual reading and reading aloud. The study supported the use of value-added measuring.

The conclusion of this study admitted some of its shortcomings, like not finding many statistically significant specific strategies that trumped others that were effective across teachers. They attributed much of this to their limited sample size. I do, however, think the call for structure is useful to keep in mind. Even with energizing lessons, they easily fall apart without specific goals and support. I also worry that the “explicit” approach called for here will be translated by many into “direct instruction”. Yes, such instruction may get students to pass a test, but I worry the skills will not be as transferable as they could be. The “essential goals” of any unit should require creative synthesis and transferability, something that was not addressed here.


Reflection #4

Xu, Zeyu, and Hannaway, Jane. “Making a Difference?: The Effects of Teach For America in

High School.” Calder Urban Institute. Volume 17 (April 2007). JSTOR. Web.

Criticisms of Teach for America generally fall into one of two categories: TFA teachers do not receive traditional teacher training and that the program requires only two years out of its members, increasing the turnover rate. This study claims to be the first of TFA at the secondary level. The study “includes end of course (EOC) testing for students across multiple subjects…to employ statistical methods that attempt to account for the nonrandom nature of student assignments to classes/teachers, which have been shown to lead to biased estimates of the impact of teacher credentials” (Xu 3). The findings show that “TFA teachers are more effective, as measured by student exam performance, than traditional teachers,” exceeding the effect of the experience factor (3). Math and science, in particular, show the strongest results.

A previous study showed that in Language Arts, “TFA teachers perform somewhat worse than ‘college recommended’ teachers in their first year teaching, though they tend to catch up to some degree in later years” (6). The study found that in general, “[d]isadvantaged secondary students would be better off with TFA teachers, especially in math and science, than with fully licensed in-field teachers with three or more years of experience” (26). The study points toward strong academic backgrounds as a recruitment priority, and toward teacher selection valued over teacher retention.

I chose this article hoping to interact with some of the legitimate criticisms of the program I’m entering. Though this added to my perspective, I did feel it was lacking in some of the finer points of what makes an effective teacher. Though the five-week TFA training course does look to be intensive, what is lost when years of reflective growth are taken away? How might TFA be supplemented with effective foundations of traditional training programs? The nature of TFA placements, which are to classrooms with the highest level of needs, makes for tricky data collection as well, a point the study mentions.

I believe strongly in Teach For America’s mission to close the achievement gap, but am wary about the program when treated almost as a cure to traditional teaching programs, as it appeared to be here. Whereas the English cohort seemed to be grounded in social justice, big-picture precepts from the beginning, I don’t get that sense from some other subjects; perhaps that distinction would yield greater answers for education reform than “this program is good”. Still, I’m looking forward to engaging with the big questions this study points toward from both the “traditional” and TFA perspectives.


Reflection #5

Finnigan, Kara S., and Alan J. Daly. “Mind the Gap: Organizational Learning and Improvement

in an Underperforming Urban System.” American Journal of Education (2012): JSTOR. Web.

This study examines whether low-performing schools under “sanction” affects school climate and relationships in a way that impacts learning. NCLB and Race to the Top require low-achieving schools to reform, but “trends indicate that most schools have struggled rather than improved, and increasing numbers have advanced to the ultimate consequences of the law” (Finnigan 3). Underperforming schools tend to see high turnover, high amounts of reform, and unstable leadership. While outside of education, system-wide improvement has shown the greatest effect, within education collaboration and “trusting cultures” are most likely to lead to success.

Principals of schools under sanction are often isolated from each other and central office staff, without much sharing of expertise or support of “social processing of knowledge” needed for improvement (29). Internal evaluation of these schools’ processes was also less likely for sanctioned schools, leading to only “incremental,” if any changes rather than the “radical” overhauls most needed (29). The study urges district leaders to provide supportive structures that encourage teachers to take risks, since “risk-tolerant climates are critical in the exchange of expertise and creation of knowledge (30). The study also urges school to implement social, as well as technical, accountability measures, and offering the same sorts of incentives for doing so. It is “dense ties that allow the flow of complex knowledge” to run most openly.

The study found that “newly sanctioned school had the greatest likelihood of improving,” suggesting that structures should be put into place to facilitate sanctioned schools’ improvement (31). School meetings in these schools should have the formal support necessary to foster growth-minded strategy.

I appreciated the view into the social effects of branding “low-achieving” labels onto schools. Now that I’ve seen first-hand how routine and arbitrary school meetings can play out, it’s easy to imagine the self-defeating prophecy when a school is on a downward track. It was striking to think of the effect of routine underachieving on my students extending into a school culture. Though the article focused on systemic considerations, I think on a personal level much of this can be boiled down to the “unproductive triangles” studied previously: our jobs aren’t easy, but positive, growth-minded action (not just talk or educational practice) will achieve the most success.

Reflection #6

Duncan-Andrade, Jeffrey Michael Reyes. What a Coach Can Teach a Teacher: Lessons Urban

Schools Can Learn from a Successful Sports Program. New York: Peter Lang, 2010. Print.

  1. Develop your philosophy

“When you express your own philosophy, you are much better prepared to teach young people how to use your teachings to develop their own philosophy” (212) … “constantly revisiting and revising”

Absolutely this is key. A number of times when explaining something, my answers have been phrased in terms of empathy, critical literacy, and growth. This doesn’t reach every student, but it conveys a sense to everyone that this is what I stand for. I don’t want to be a teacher that just did fun things or just did difficult things; I want to be a teacher that conveys a sense of passionate purpose.

  1. Establish clear objectives – you can be good at a lot of things or great at a few

“clarity of purpose…identify a set of clear and measurable skills and values”

Without a clear objective, the best lessons fall flat. Objectives should be big enough to be creatively transferrable, but specific enough to be assessable.

  1. Pedagogy (content and delivery)

“what you teach (curriculum) and how you teach it (delivery), is the most impactful element of your teaching system”

I like the focus on delivery here. Teaching requires constant attention to content, but it is ultimately how it is delivered: performing what you know. I’ve found this to be one of the more creative experiences of the classroom, turning content I’m passionate about into an interactive performance.

  1. Create structures that develop discipline and obtain objectives.

“in opposition to punishment…training through which we may construct new subjectivities…a rigorous craft…painstaking creativity…busts the binary between entertainment and education…in this classroom, everybody swims”

I love this treatment of discipline as a creative framework. It is rigid to the extent that it is intensive training, flexible to the extent that training itself grows with the person. Within a clearly defined and practiced framework, I can see how management itself can be fulfilling and creative rather than an add-on chore.

  1. You have to get buy-in

“students don’t care what you know until they know you care…win the war of movement”

This has been one of the most routinely successful strategies I’ve used, and most of the time without realizing it as a strategy: bargain with students. Let them know your objective and what you think a fair support system to meet it is. Give and take, building up trust, community, structure, and learning.

  1. Be dynamic – Learn how to read and react

“adjust without abandoning your philosophy…read these blockages and redirect students toward a clearer path toward the same objective…fluent enough…to win any symbolic confrontation with students…boundary between the humanization and mechanization of our work” (216)

While on-the-fly adjustments have saved several lessons this semester, there have also been times when I’ve been forced to question core objectives by the frequency of adjustments. Sensitivity to the range of perspectives is one of the most exciting parts about the craft of teaching: it is always, always improving, and always satisfying when it does.

  1. Classroom as community of practice – Developing generalists and specialists

“fundamentals shape the group values of the team, but to complete the team you must allow individual talents to emerge and find room…shared repertoire of resources” Recruit/tryout/practice/individual polish

This is something I would like to work on next year: fostering a sense that individual talents work within group values. I have students now who have their own talents, but I often try to move the focus to a skill the group can accomplish, rather than give the sense that we are eachother’s resources. Just as all the world’s information is now at our fingertips, it’s creative utilization of shared knowledge that determines real-world success.

  1. Beyond your classroom – colleagues and community

“The alternative is unmet needs…which inevitably sneak in and weaken the foundation of the community…At the very least all parents should receive consistent opportunities to read about, hear about, see what is going on in our classroom.”

The past couple years with the cohort has certainly strengthened my sense of community. If I want to impart a sense that my classroom community thrives off the variety of perspectives, how could I preach this without utilizing the same practice? Media resources are part of the supplementary material, but they don’t come near constituting the dynamics of social life.

  1. Stay ahead or you are getting behind

“competitive instinct…purest form of this is internal”

Constant research is imperative — not only to stay steps ahead of students during research-based learning, but to stay literate of the ever-changing world. If “literacy” is a prime objective of English, then a constant drive to be literate of more and more of the world seems a mandatory essence of education.

  1. Battle

“I tell my students that I will spend my life battling on their behalf…Successful teachers…explain to students that what they offer is part of a path to freedom…they do not rest the relevance of their lessons on the false rhetoric of the bootstrap theory…all great undertakings are risky” (221)

I hope that my “forward push” instinct stays with me throughout my career. I want to be able to explain every “why?” with relevancy, and to accept the tensions found in risk and difficulty.

Overall, I find the language of this article powerful. It frames some essential precepts of education in passionate terms fully aware of the risks of teaching.

Reflection #7

Deschenes, Sarh, and Cuban, Larry. “Mismatch: Historical Perspectives on Schools and Students

Who Don’t Fit Them.” Teachers College Record. Volume 103, Number 4 (April 2001): pp. 525-547. Web.

This study examines “the history of these students who have not been able to do what educators wanted them to do,” the effects of labels associated with this, and explanations for why students fail (Deschenes 525). The idea that all students can be held to the same high standards seems in some ways obvious but in other ways utterly radical. “We do not make our education fit their psychology,” the article says about the self-fulfilling prophecy of labelling and setting expectations for “misfit” students (526).

The standards movement does focus on raising the bar for everyone, but offers no support for those who “experience a mismatch with schools,” culturally (526). The study criticizes moves like eliminating social promotion as misguided attempts that hurt rather than help. The civil rights movement saw blame shift from students to school system, but in practice “continued to segregate and label children” (534). Blame still extends to parents and the “range of intellectual abilities and different destinies,” often (536). In current responses, the “core structure and assumptions of the institution” is left untouched, leaving only “new niches for the unsuccessful” (538).

For a majority of students, the current structure of public school serves them well, which is why so little change has happened. The study offers three possible policy changes from here: change the school the fit the child, address the social inequities particularly in inner-city neighborhoods, or to undertake a complete and dramatic overhaul of every feature of school structure now.

This “overhaul” approach might take some surprising approaches: ungraded “transition” years in the K-4 range, personal benchmarks rather than public passing and failing, and smaller schools with much greater room for internal and community collaboration (543). The article focus urges the conception of a “comprehensive vision” that works from the ground up (544). Otherwise, the core of the system will continue to serve who it was created to serve.

I agree in the need for dramatic overhaul, and was energized by much of the language here. However, I don’t think we’re near the point where the problem so affects those with power that this overhaul is currently practical. I want to bring these ideas into the classroom (for example, in our Lord of the Flies discussion of creating a new society) in order to help build the momentum of this conversation, but am also discouraged by how far off the realization now seems. Within the current system, however, I do aim to tailor my classroom to the student as effectively as I can. No student is beyond reach, and I believe the idea of setting “personal benchmarks” in particular is a useful place to start.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s