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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Put Child-Psychology Research to Work

Close the gulf between research and the classroom and make use of findings that can enhance learning.
By Chris Colin

This how-to article accompanies the feature "Child-Development Research Is Ready for School."

Researchers tend to resist translating the results of limited psychological studies into simple prescriptions; this is partly why their work doesn't reach the classroom in the first place. But some research results yield practical possibilities for teachers. Here are a few findings that could translate into tips for educators:

Save Praise for When It Counts

Stanford University psychology professor Carol Dweck is cited frequently for her research on how to effectively praise students' hard work, but what happens when students excel at an overly simple task? Rather than heap the praise even higher, Dweck advises apologizing: "That was too easy for you -- I'm sorry for wasting your time with it." By saying this, the teacher reinforces the pleasure of confronting an actual challenge.

Apply Inclusion Intervention and Self-Affirmation for Minority Students

In one of the first studies to test the effectiveness of a psychological intervention in reducing the racial achievement gap in classrooms, Dweck's Stanford colleague Gregory Walton -- then a postdoctoral fellow at Ontario's University of Waterloo -- showed that black students entering a mostly white college performed dramatically better after an intervention designed to boost their sense of belonging.

In the intervention, older students of all races simply explained to them that they'd initially been nervous about belonging at the school but that their fears had eventually subsided. The black students who received the intervention went on to study longer each night, correspond with teachers more, sustain higher levels of motivation, and earn better grades. Arranging for a similar dialogue between new students and older ones could prove surprisingly beneficial when extrapolated to secondary school settings.

In his own work exploring approaches to narrow the racial achievement gap, University of Colorado at Boulder psychologist Geoffrey Cohen found that when black adolescents do a self-affirmation exercise in the classroom, their grades go up, and the achievement gap between these students and their white peers is closed substantially as a result. Teachers struggling with that achievement gap could implement a simple exercise in which students write about something they value in their lives -- for instance, a hobby or a loved one -- for potentially lasting effects.

Sustain Creativity in Older Children

Alice Sterling Honig, professor emerita of child development at Syracuse University, has written that creativity levels, if they aren't nurtured, can plummet by fourth grade. Teachers of young children can sustain creativity with activities as simple as reading books with silly rhymes, like those of Dr. Seuss, or those featuring particularly imaginative characters who embark on wild adventures.

Give Teens' Brains a Break

Laurence Steinberg, a psychology professor at Temple University and former director of the institution's MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Adolescent Development and Juvenile Justice, has argued that, given research on how the brain continues to mature into one's 20s, it's important to treat mistakes that teens make as temporary.

"Brain science tells us that adolescents are inherently less able than adults to control themselves, to resist peer pressure, or to think ahead," he wrote recently. Steinberg was making the case for limiting teens' legal culpability, but teachers could follow a similar principle in the classroom by expressing leniency, in the form of understanding, to positive effect.

Chris Colin is a San Francisco-based freelancer and the author of What Really Happened to the Class of '93.

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Sarah 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I'm curious what the latest is on using rewards in the classroom. I'm familiar with the book Punished by Rewards but see a lot of teachers using them. Is there any new research on this topic?

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