Teaching Students How to Learn

640px-La_scuola_di_Atene copy

A recent article in Business Insider discusses a big problem with most classrooms: Teachers do a good job of teaching students what to learn, but they tend to neglect the important step of teaching students how to learn.

It’s probably not a coincidence that I believe one of the most important roles of a school psychologist is to help students – and their parents and teachers – understand how they learn in order to provide the most effective classroom support possible.* Teaching students about metacognition can have a huge impact on their ability to succeed.

[Y]our ability to learn is such a huge predictor of success in life, from achieving in academics to getting ahead at work. It all requires mastering skill after skill.

The article goes on to offer learning strategies that can be used by anyone. These are:

1) “Force Yourself to Recall”: Work hard at learning, don’t stop at the spot where it’s easy for you. Use flashcards!

2) “Don’t Fall for Fluency”: If it feels too easy while you’re learning something, it probably means you didn’t learn it.

3) “Connect the Old Things to the New Things”: Relate new learning to prior knowledge.

4) “Reflect, Reflect, Reflect”: Reflect on what you have learned.

Read the full article, along with lots of great embedded links to supporting research, here.


*As an aside, this is one of the shortcomings of a strictly RtI approach to intervention. RtI does a good job of showing us what a student has not learned, but does not tell us why the student has difficulty in certain areas or what the best teaching approach would be for that student. It’s true that RtI interventions gives us implicit information, but I maintain it cannot give us explicit information about gaps in learning. This is one reason I believe individual assessment is so important.


Do Professors Show Bias When Choosing Students to Mentor?


A recent story on NPR discussed apparent bias by university faculty when it came to selecting students who would receive the most guidance. The discussion centered around results of a recent study authored by Katherine Milkman at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Milkman and her colleagues sent mock letters to over 6,500 professors at the top 250 universities in the country; the letters were supposedly written by students inquiring about a meeting with the instructor. The letters were identical in content but were signed with varying names that were deliberately selected to denote the gender and/or ethnicity of the letter writer. Here is a sampling of names:

Brad Anderson, Meredith Roberts, Lamar Washington, LaToya Brown, Juanita Martinez, Deepak Patel, Sonali Desai, Chang Wong, Mei Chen.

The idea was to send letters coming from a diverse-sounding pool of students who requested a meeting with the professor, then see which students received a reply. Here’s what the NPR reporter said about what the researchers found:

[All] they were measuring was how often professors wrote back agreeing to meet with the students. And what they found was there were very large disparities. Women and minorities were systematically less likely to get responses from the professors and also less likely to get positive responses from the professors. Now remember, these are top faculty at the top schools in the United States and the letters were all impeccably written.

The “large disparities” were that depending on which department the professors were associated with, their bias in replies varied greatly. In the humanities, for example, there was the smallest amount of discrimination. But in business departments, there was a 25% gap between “students” whose names read as white and male vs. women and minorities. Private schools showed more discrimination than public schools, and “students” whose names read as Asian were discriminated against more than any other group. Further, having a diverse faculty does not remedy the situation.

MILKMAN: There’s absolutely no benefit seen when women reach out to female faculty, nor do we see benefits from black students reaching out to black faculty or Hispanic students reaching out to Hispanic faculty.

The research is interpreted as revealing a “glass ceiling” of sorts. By selecting faculty at top schools, the idea is that those faculty – and their time, attention, knowledge, contacts, etc. – can be conduits to higher levels of (financial) achievement for the students with whom they work most closely. Having more access to a professor and his or her resources is believed to equate to more success. In a sense, the faculty at these top universities could be said to represent what is colloquially referred to as an “old boys’ club.” Except these professors aren’t just old, aren’t just boys, and aren’t just social elites.

I’d be interested in seeing further research on this topic. For one thing, it would be very interesting to somehow go back and interview the professors to try and find out the thought process behind which letters they chose to reply to and those they didn’t. I’m not sure it would even be possible to get an honest assessment, but it might be worth trying. Also, it would be even more informative if the researchers could do a longitudinal study in which they tracked the careers of students who were identified as being top mentees of the top professors at the top universities. Would those students achieve the more successful outcomes predicted by this study? Or perhaps the research could be done retroactively: Select the top 250 leaders…or powerful CEOs…or wealthy Americans, and ask them who their mentors were. The results could be very informative, to say the least.

*  *  *  *  *

Further exploration:

– The myth of the Model Minority: Persistent stereotypes about Asian Americans.

– Stereotype Threat: When fear of confirming a negative stereotype leads to anxiety and decreased performance.

– Women are more inclined to undermine rather than help other women in a professional environment.


The Problem of Perpetual Cynicism

Drawing by Henry Marks.

But what is it? Drawing by Henry Marks.

A recent opinion piece in the New York Times, written by the president of Wesleyan University Michael S. Roth, points out something disturbing that seems to have infected our youth: A type of perpetual cynicism born of teaching students to think critically about their world, but not following up with teaching them to also find meaning in it.

Mr. Roth suggests that the traditional liberal arts goal of teaching critical thinking has devolved into something focused too much on the critical, and not enough on the thinking. It starts when professors teach students how to tear apart written texts, as if being critical (i.e. cynical) were the sole purpose and pursuit of education.

Yes, there’s a certain satisfaction in being critical of our authors, but isn’t it more interesting to put ourselves in a frame of mind to find inspiration in them?…Our best college students are very good at being critical. In fact being smart, for many, means being critical. 

And it continues when students assume the role of distant and disdainful commentator, one step removed from the object of their scrutiny. The sad result is that these students have come to believe intelligence reveals itself in their ability to describe everything that is wrong with a written work, but nothing that is right.

The inquirer has taken the guise of the sophisticated (often ironic) spectator, rather than the messy participant in continuing experiments or even the reverent beholder of great cultural achievements.

Mr. Roth gives the example of having to ask his students to “put their devices away” when he shows them movies in class. As a former film studies major, I find this especially distressing. When I was in school, we read essay upon essay about film’s transformative power, largely related to the obvious analogies between dreaming and watching a movie. But to feel cinema’s power in that way, you have to give yourself over to the experience. In other words, you have to take emotional and intellectual risks. From what Mr. Roth describes, today’s students prefer their culture served cold, and at arm’s length.

As debunkers, [today’s students] contribute to a cultural climate that has little tolerance for finding or making meaning — a culture whose intellectuals and cultural commentators get “liked” by showing that somebody else just can’t be believed. But this cynicism is no achievement.

I agree with Mr. Roth that cynicism is no achievement. And, if his assertions about modern-day students’ lack of interest in being inspired by art and culture and thought are true, then my next question would be, where did they learn to take such a cynical view of their world? Is this an effect of our modern culture, which some call corrosive (although, really, don’t those voices erupt in every generation)? The inevitable aftermath of postmodernism? The result of education trends going back to the 1960’s, when nearly everything about higher education was called into question? Maybe Mr. Roth will write a follow-up piece in which he teases apart the roots of the problem he has identified. I’d be interested in his thoughts.

Further exploration:


FlowFlow. “Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s famous investigations of “optimal experience” have revealed that what makes an experience genuinely satisfying is a state of consciousness called flow. During flow, people typically experience deep enjoyment, creativity, and a total involvement with life. In this new edition of his groundbreaking classic work, Csikszentmihalyi demonstrates the ways this positive state can be controlled, not just left to chance. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience teaches how, by ordering the information that enters our consciousness, we can discover true happiness and greatly improve the quality of our lives.”

100 ObjectsA History of the World in 100 Objects. “When did people first start to wear jewelry or play music? When were cows domesticated and why do we feed their milk to our children? Where were the first cities and what made them succeed? Who invented math-or came up with money? The history of humanity is a history of invention and innovation, as we have continually created new items to use, to admire, or to leave our mark on the world. In this original and thought-provoking book, Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, has selected one hundred man-made artifacts, each of which gives us an intimate glimpse of an unexpected turning point in human civilization. A History of the World in 100 Objects stretches back two million years and covers the globe. From the very first hand axe to the ubiquitous credit card, each item has a story to tell; together they relate the larger history of mankind-revealing who we are by looking at what we have made.”


Technology: Myth of Multitasking.  “[T]here is no such thing as multitasking —  at least not the way you may think of it. The fact is that multitasking, as most people understand it, is a myth that has been promulgated by the “technological-industrial complex” to make overly scheduled and stressed-out people feel productive and efficient. 


The Resignation Heard ‘Round the World

Dear Mr. Barduhn and Board of Education Members:

It is with the deepest regret that I must retire at the close of this school year, ending my more than twenty-seven years of service at Westhill on June 30, under the provisions of the 2012-15 contract. I assume that I will be eligible for any local or state incentives that may be offered prior to my date of actual retirement and I trust that I may return to the high school at some point as a substitute teacher. As with Lincoln and Springfield, I have grown from a young to an old man here; my brother died while we were both employed here; my daughter was educated here, and I have been touched by and hope that I have touched hundreds of lives in my time here. I know that I have been fortunate to work with a small core of some of the finest students and educators on the planet.

I came to teaching forty years ago this month and have been lucky enough to work at a small liberal arts college, a major university and this superior secondary school. To me, history has been so very much more than a mere job, it has truly been my life, always driving my travel, guiding all of my reading and even dictating my television and movie viewing. Rarely have I engaged in any of these activities without an eye to my classroom and what I might employ in a lesson, a lecture or a presentation. With regard to my profession, I have truly attempted to live John Dewey’s famous quotation (now likely cliché with me, I’ve used it so very often) that  “Education is not preparation for life, education is life itself.” This type of total immersion is what I have always referred to as teaching “heavy,” working hard, spending time, researching, attending to details and never feeling satisfied that I knew enough on any topic. I now find that this approach to my profession is not only devalued, but denigrated and perhaps, in some quarters despised. STEM rules the day and “data driven” education seeks only conformity, standardization, testing and a zombie-like adherence to the shallow and generic Common Core, along with a lockstep of oversimplified so-called Essential Learnings. Creativity, academic freedom, teacher autonomy, experimentation and innovation are being stifled in a misguided effort to fix what is not broken in our system of public education and particularly not at Westhill.

A long train of failures has brought us to this unfortunate pass. In their pursuit of Federal tax dollars, our legislators have failed us by selling children out to private industries such as Pearson Education. The New York State United Teachers union has let down its membership by failing to mount a much more effective and vigorous campaign against this same costly and dangerous debacle. Finally, it is with sad reluctance that I say our own administration has been both uncommunicative and unresponsive to the concerns and needs of our staff and students by establishing testing and evaluation systems that are Byzantine at best and at worst, draconian. This situation has been exacerbated by other actions of the administration, in either refusing to call open forum meetings to discuss these pressing issues, or by so constraining the time limits of such meetings that little more than a conveying of information could take place. This lack of leadership at every level has only served to produce confusion, a loss of confidence and a dramatic and rapid decaying of morale. The repercussions of these ill-conceived policies will be telling and shall resound to the detriment of education for years to come. The analogy that this process is like building the airplane while we are flying would strike terror in the heart of anyone should it be applied to an actual airplane flight, a medical procedure, or even a home repair. Why should it be acceptable in our careers and in the education of our children?

My profession is being demeaned by a pervasive atmosphere of distrust, dictating that teachers cannot be permitted to develop and administer their own quizzes and tests (now titled as generic “assessments”) or grade their own students’ examinations. The development of plans, choice of lessons and the materials to be employed are increasingly expected to be common to all teachers in a given subject. This approach not only strangles creativity, it smothers the development of critical thinking in our students and assumes a one-size-fits-all mentality more appropriate to the assembly line than to the classroom. Teacher planning time has also now been so greatly eroded by a constant need to “prove up” our worth to the tyranny of APPR (through the submission of plans, materials and “artifacts” from our teaching) that there is little time for us to carefully critique student work, engage in informal intellectual discussions with our students and colleagues, or conduct research and seek personal improvement through independent study. We have become increasingly evaluation and not knowledge driven. Process has become our most important product, to twist a phrase from corporate America, which seems doubly appropriate to this case.

After writing all of this I realize that I am not leaving my profession, in truth, it has left me. It no longer exists. I feel as though I have played some game halfway through its fourth quarter, a timeout has been called, my teammates’ hands have all been tied, the goal posts moved, all previously scored points and honors expunged and all of the rules altered.

For the last decade or so, I have had two signs hanging above the blackboard at the front of my classroom, they read, “Words Matter” and “Ideas Matter”. While I still believe these simple statements to be true, I don’t feel that those currently driving public education have any inkling of what they mean.

Sincerely and with regret,

Gerald J. Conti Social Studies Department Leader
Cc: Doreen Bronchetti, Lee Roscoe
My little Zu.


“Once You Learn Something it Never Leaves You”

A little school humor for my cohort. It’s been one of those weeks where you know you know what you know, but you can’t translate that knowledge into statements that make sense to anyone.

Someone told me we’re in what’s known as the “March Doldrums.” Tensions are flaring, moods are fragile, and stress is high. I guess it’s just part of the school-year cycle, but I’m hoping it’s over soon – if only for the sake of our collective mental health. A lot of schools have spring break next week, so that may be the cure. In the meantime, enjoy this clip from The Andy Griffith Show.

The Process


For second-year Ed.S. students in Illinois, this coming Friday is a big day. It’s called Decision Day, and it is the day we are officially allowed to accept or reject offers of employment as interns next year. Most of us have been interviewing since about January, and some of us have even received offers, but none of us are technically allowed to accept any offers until this Friday, March 15th.

So as you can imagine, this is a week of great anxiety for many of us. And of course there will be some who receive no offers, or not the right offers, and will have to keep submitting applications. This is not too unusual, as there are always schools that haven’t even posted their internships yet because they are still working out their budget situations for next year. I’ve heard that it is not outside the norm for students to accept internships into April and even May. So it is an ongoing process.

But I’ve been receiving some anecdotal reports of what it’s like out there in internship interview world. The most frequent sentiments are that it is exciting, confusing, and stressful. The flip side is that there is also a lot of secrecy and usually gregarious peers are playing their cards very close to their chests. So with the exception of your closest friends, it’s kind of hard to know where everyone is in the process at any given moment.

“There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

– United States Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld

So without knowing specifics, I just wanted to offer a general show of support for everyone in my cohort. Maybe also a little encouragement and distraction. So…

One way to put your situation in perspective is to look at others who have been there. A recent article in the NY Times explores the trials of people who have been called back to 3, 4, 5, 6 and more follow-up interviews – yet are never offered a job. I actually found the comments section to be the most interesting part of the article. Scroll down to read the comments from people who share their job interview horror stories. Here’s a sample:

I was given a third interview at a major retailer and told to bring a strategic plan for a particular issue they were facing. I prepared this plan. On the day of the interview, I got horribly lost and called the interviewer to apologize and say that I would be late and being late is unacceptable and a terrible first impression, so it was completely okay if she did not want to interview me. She said it was okay and that I should come ahead anyway.

We had what I thought was a good interview. She told me about the next steps that I would be asked to take and who I would next interview with. She said she would call me next week.

Long story short, there was no fourth interview. When next we spoke, she told me she could not hire me because I had not prepared what she had asked for–and then named a completely different assignment that was never mentioned to me. And then added, “And you were late.”

Sometimes it helps to be reminded that even as you’re going through a stressful experience, someone else has gone through something worse – and came out the other side.

So hang in there, everybody. It will work out, and one day we will look back on all of this and have a good laugh (remember: comedy = tragedy + time).

Harper High School, Part Two

HarperPartTwoYesterday This American Life aired part two of their two-part series about Harper High School in Chicago. As a side note, in the week since part one aired I found out that I know the school psychology practicum student at Harper, and others in my cohort are currently working in schools in the area. So aside from being a Chicago story in general, this series really hits close to home.

Link to Part Two.
to Part One, aired February 15, 2013.

Debunking an Urban Myth

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For today’s post, I want to address an urban myth that apparently has been making the rounds for years. I heard this last year in one of my classes, and then it came up indirectly again last month in a discussion about the importance of cementing reading skills by third grade. The myth is that states use third grade literacy scores to determine how many prisons to build (or how many prison beds they will need). This is not true, and although it has been cited repeatedly, nobody seems to know the origin of the myth.

One possible source might be a book titled The School-To-Prison Pipeline: Structuring Legal Reform. I haven’t read the book, but last week someone I know was discussing it and cited the third grade literacy quote in such a way that it seemed it came from the book. At any rate, the idea that officials use third grade reading scores to determine how many prison beds they will need has now been debunked and relegated to the dustbin of urban myths. The only problem, of course, is that (almost) nobody knows this. So I’m going to do my part to ensure that truth soldiers on, and urban myths…don’t.

Here are a couple of links to explain how and why the erroneous quote has been proven false, including perhaps the original article in the Oregonian that started the debunkification:

oregon-state-penitentiaryjpg-d0cdf04753ac6ab3_large1Prisons don’t use reading scores to predict future inmate populations
: “The myth probably has survived and circulated for more than a decade because it reflects the more fundamental truth that there is a powerful connection between school failure and crime.”

Cite the Source: “The idea that prison-planning is based on elementary school literacy drop-out rates is a commonly held assumption…The problem is that I can’t find one single piece of state legislation or governmental corroboration for this. Nowhere can I locate official documentation that prisons indeed “use reading scores to predict future inmate populations.” As far as evidence goes, I can find nothing.”

PolitiFact Oregon: “We started with a basic Google search and came across the claim we’d kept hearing: Prison officials use third grade reading scores to predict the number of beds they’ll need. That claim, it seems, is nothing more than an Internet rumor that has been soundly disputed. In fact, The Oregonian happened to refute the adage a couple years back. “This is an urban myth,” California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokeswoman Terry Thornton wrote in an email to Oregonian reporter Bill Graves.”