October 2011
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eXtreme Education: Cognitive programming

I read a few articles that I’d like to pull together and place under the growing umbrella of what might probably become my personal teaching philosophy. First, when you look at eXtreme Programming, it consists of a collection of reinforcing practices. I’m not going to review them here because I just want to highlight the interconnectedness of the method (image taken from the book, Extreme Programming Explained: Embrace Change, by Kent Beck).

With that visual in mind, I want to project the idea of self-reinforcement and process improvement into education. Education is about personal growth, and continuous learning. It’s about having a supportive environment in which you can safely experiment, without fear of reprisal or long-term consequence. You need the opportunity to fail, so that you can analyze what doesn’t work.

But, for too long in America, we have been afraid to let our kids taste the bitterness of failure. As a consequence, they are mediocre in ability, but feel confident. This confidence is artificial, and cannot survive the harsh realities of the working environment that lies beyond the sandbox of public school. Yet, in a worthwhile education, it’s not failure that’s a problem! It’s the approach and mindset, that you use to reflect on the experience.

In three articles, Why Do Some People Learn Faster[1], How Not to Talk to Your Kids[2], and What if the Secret to Success Is Failure?[3] I read this weekend, I learned a couple of valuable lessons that can definitely improve the effectiveness of a teacher.

Lesson 1. Praise work, and don’t hint at natural ability.

There’s a long standing myth that top performers in a field are naturally gifted. When in reality, they are more obsessed, more focused in their practice and training, and just plain out-work everyone else. We should communicate this sentiment to our inheritors.

[psychologist Carol Dweck] Randomly divided [New York 5th graders] into groups, some were praised for their intelligence. They were told, “You must be smart at this.” Other students were praised for their effort: “You must have worked really hard.”

Then the students were given a choice of test for the second round. One choice was a test that would be more difficult than the first, but the researchers told the kids that they’d learn a lot from attempting the puzzles. The other choice, Dweck’s team explained, was an easy test, just like the first. Of those praised for their effort, 90 percent chose the harder set of puzzles. Of those praised for their intelligence, a majority chose the easy test. The “smart” kids took the cop-out.

Why did this happen? “When we praise children for their intelligence,” Dweck wrote in her study summary, “we tell them that this is the name of the game: Look smart, don’t risk making mistakes.” And that’s what the fifth-graders had done: They’d chosen to look smart and avoid the risk of being embarrassed.[1]

By praising work, the students will choose the opportunity to fail! because those are opportunities for learning.

Lesson 2. By failing in the right frame of mind, they will learn faster.

Dweck distinguishes between people with a fixed mindset — they tend to agree with statements such as “You have a certain amount of intelligence and cannot do much to change it” — and those with a growth mindset, who believe that we can get better at almost anything, provided we invest the necessary time and energy. While people with a fixed mindset see mistakes as a dismal failure — a sign that we aren’t talented enough for the task in question — those with a growth mindset see mistakes as an essential precursor of knowledge, the engine of education.

It turned out that those subjects with a growth mindset were significantly better at learning from their mistakes. As a result, they showed a spike in accuracy immediately following an error. Most interesting, though, was the EEG data, which demonstrated that those with a growth mindset generated a much larger Pe signal, indicating increased attention to their mistakes. (While those with an extremely fixed mindset generated a Pe amplitude around five, those with a growth mindset were closer to fifteen.) What’s more, this increased Pe signal was nicely correlated with improvement after error, implying that the extra awareness was paying dividends in performance. Because the subjects were thinking about what they got wrong, they learned how to get it right.[2]

Lesson 3. It’s up to the schools to provide an environment that encourages the productive frame of mind.

The final article, [3], was about the KIPP program, and the institution of a status card, about a child’s developing character.

[Duckworth] and her team of researchers gave middle-school students at Riverdale and KIPP a variety of psychological and I.Q. tests. They found that at both schools, I.Q. was the better predictor of scores on statewide achievement tests, but measures of self-control were more reliable indicators of report-card grades.[3]

By encouraging students to regularly reflect on their own behavior, analyze and explain what the feel and why they acted the way they did, progress is made rapidly and steadily. And, often, the learner doesn’t know.

Though the seven character strengths aren’t included in every lesson at KIPP, they do make it into most conversations about discipline. One day last winter, I was speaking with Sayuri Stabrowski, a 30-year-old seventh-and-eighth-grade reading teacher at KIPP Infinity, and she mentioned that she caught a girl chewing gum in her class earlier that day. “She denied it,” Stabrowski told me. “She said, ‘No, I’m not, I’m chewing my tongue.’ ” Stabrowski rolled her eyes as she told me the story. “I said, ‘O.K. fine.’ Then later in the class, I saw her chewing again, and I said: ‘You’re chewing gum! I see you.’ She said, ‘No, I’m not, see?’ and she moved the gum over in her mouth in this really obvious way, and we all saw what she was doing. Now, a couple of years ago, I probably would have blown my top and screamed. But this time, I was able to say: ‘Gosh, not only were you chewing gum, which is kind of minor, but you lied to me twice. That’s a real disappointment. What does that say about your character?’ And she was just devastated.”

Stabrowski was worried that the girl, who often struggled with her behavior, might have a mini-meltdown — a “baby attack,” in KIPP jargon — in the middle of the class, but in fact, the girl spit out her gum and sat through the rest of the class and then afterward came up to her teacher with tears in her eyes. “We had a long conversation,” Stabrowski told me. “She said: ‘I’m trying so hard to just grow up. But nothing ever changes!’ And I said: ‘Do you know what does change? You didn’t have a baby attack in front of the other kids, and two weeks ago, you would have.’ ”[3]

This steady focus on character building, isn’t just a metaphor that used to rate each other’s conduct, it’s a valuable and prolonged exercise in cognitive behavioral therapy. Practicing the self-reflection leads to better performance. Because the learner can build the mental models that them (a) know when they aren’t achieving what they want, (b) feel confident that they can exercise some amount of self control and direction, and (c) monitor their own effectiveness to (d) experiment with different approaches.

How does this relate to eXtreme Programming again?

Fundamentally, this process of self-monitoring underpins the eXtreme Programming methodology. Programming isn’t about writing clean, correct code the first time. Likewise, education isn’t about memorizing facts and computing answers. At it’s core, education is about communicating self-directed development.

We should focus on learning the tools and techniques to discover approaches that work by analyzing the faults in attempts that didn’t work. We should practice this in everyday life as well as on our homework. Repeatedly applying those tools until they really sink in, and we all become better, more flexible, more understanding, more capable people.

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