Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Child-Development Findings Are Ready for School

Schools can bridge the long-standing gulf between child psychology and classroom practice.

August 31, 2009
Credit: Laura Morris Designs

Regina Athnos, an elementary school teacher in South Pasadena, California, had begun a class on Native Americans with her students when -- she couldn't help it -- an old song from the 1970s popped into her head. Athnos might have quietly shooed it away, but she'd spent too much time studying cognitive development for that.

So instead, she found the tune online, cranked it out over her classroom speakers, and soon had all her third graders shaking their tail feathers to "Indian Reservation," by Paul Revere and the Raiders.

"We went over the lyrics I'd put up on the projector, then sang it, then got up and started doing movements around the classroom," she says. "The kids weren't only reading about it and discussing it; they also had a feeling."

For those acquainted with research in cognitive psychology, that last word, feeling, is key. Research has shown that experiencing a piece of information in multiple ways dramatically increases our ability to retain it. "It triggers a relationship between the pieces of information, making it more likely to stick," Athnos says. "I tell my students, 'We're going to light up your brain like a Christmas tree.'"

Athnos's dance-a-thon represented a significant achievement, but not because it was the first time anyone's cut a rug in elementary school or because the science she cited was particularly earth-shattering. What was notable was the simple application in a public school classroom of child-development research. It just doesn't happen that often.

Ships Passing in the Night

There is no shortage of potentially effective research that might be adapted for use in public school classrooms to enhance learning. Educators can find research that's relevant to teaching in the work of child-development and brain-science researchers around the country, according to Robert Pianta, dean of the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education and director of the Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning. The problem, he says, is that what is discovered in the lab tends either to stay in the lab or is basically irrelevant to the classroom.

"There's been an explosion of knowledge over the last 20 years in child-development research," he notes. "But one would be hard pressed to go through most classrooms in the United States and see a reflection of what we now know about child development."

Too often, those studying the minds of children and those shaping those minds operate on separate planes, with only the occasional crossover, notes Pianta, who adds that most teacher-training programs require only one course in child psychology or child development.

Former schoolteacher Ellen Usher, now an educational psychologist at the University of Kentucky, reports that academic exchange in the other direction -- researchers getting significant education training -- doesn't always happen, either. Such a practice, says Usher, may have done wonders in a classroom she visited recently, where she was interviewing teachers, parents, and eighth-grade students on the subject of mathematics as part of an investigation into academic motivation and how teachers influence their students' confidence.

In the course of her work, Usher met a student she calls Xavier. "One teacher had clearly given up on him. He was putting his head down on his desk. The teacher's perception was that he didn't care. She said to me, half-jokingly, 'His future is jail,'" Usher recalls, adding that the teacher hated to say that but felt she couldn't do much to help the child.

In fact, Usher's work with Xavier led her to a different conclusion: He cared very much about learning math, but his confidence was shot. Studies in the educational psychology field have shown that what a student believes about his capabilities is a strong predictor of academic achievement -- and often an even better predictor than a direct measurement of the student's actual abilities.

"A good body of research shows there's often a self-fulfilling-prophecy effect with teachers," Usher says. It is work, she adds, that could be enormously beneficial in the hands of educators.

"As a teacher, I wasn't in touch with this kind of work being done in educational psychology," she adds. "I don't believe all research needs to have direct application. But it would be great if there were more of a connection between universities and schools. Imagine what would happen if psychologists were forced to take a year and spend it in the classroom now and then."

Moving Little Plants

The lack of exchange between academic circles and educators in the classroom isn't just a result of each group's isolation from the other. Another obstacle to a meeting of these minds is the confounding diversity of psychology research and its theoretical nature.

To wander into the thicket of contemporary psychology research is to glimpse a dauntingly wide field, dotted with markedly narrow projects: Here, we have a study on the effects of a colored font on the recall of syllabus information. Over there, we find an investigation into the question "Can analog magnitude representations support reasoning about multiplicative transformations of discrete quantities in young children prior to formal instruction in relevant symbolic algorithms?"

Meanwhile, over in another corner, neuroscientists scan brain after brain, looking for physical clues into our behavior. Funneling all this research into the public-education system would be a Herculean feat.

Credit: Laura Morris Designs

In addition to problems of scale, a variety of other hurdles keep research from moving more freely, and more effectively, into lesson plans. Michael Cole, a communication and psychology professor at the University of California at San Diego, has written about the difficulty of translating research into practice -- a project he likens to "moving little plants from a hothouse out to the Alaskan wilderness."

First, there is the question of which plants we should be moving. "As a teacher, it would be hard to know which findings are anomalous in the field and which are supported by hundreds of other studies," says Andrew Scott Baron, a postdoctoral fellow in the psychology department at Harvard University.

Second, there is a judgment to be made about when to move the plants. Jay Giedd, chief of the brain-imaging unit at the Child Psychiatry Branch of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), describes an occasional overeagerness to extrapolate lessons from neuroscience. As a result, research sometimes gets applied before its time.

Popular notions about the left brain and the right brain, for example, have made their way into classrooms despite being factually questionable. In 1997, John T. Bruer wrote "Education and the Brain: A Bridge Too Far," a widely distributed article that argues that attempts to implement neuroscientific results in the classroom can be premature. In fact, he wrote, neuroscience doesn't have much to say to teachers -- yet.

Finally, divergent professional cultures make it even tougher to connect the laboratory with the classroom. Educators occasionally resist what they see as an overly theoretical, wet-behind-the-ears take on learning. "Stay in your ivory tower" is a message heard by many scientists who wish to introduce research into schools.

At the same time, teachers who do hope for dialogue with child psychologists often discover an academic community stretched thin by publishing demands and researchers who are seldom rewarded for making their work accessible. The term popularizer was, for years, an insult in the field.

So, what's the net result of all these hurdles? Baron estimates that the gap between current research and what's actually in textbooks to be about 15 years. Says Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck, "It's a very long and difficult process. If scientists discover a miracle drug, there's a pipeline for getting it out there. But here, there is no pipeline."

Signs of Success

Despite the practical and ideological morass that sometimes keeps them apart, teachers and researchers are fellow travelers in important ways, eager for the same reasons to see the most compelling findings about learning make their way into the classroom. Both are focused on the workings of young brains, and both would be gratified to see research carried out to its logical conclusion.

In some cases, this shared passion can lead to an improvised pipeline between the theoretical and the practical. Look in on a reading lesson anywhere in the country, and you'll see the consequences of years of research into learning styles followed by an ambitious translation of that work into curriculum.

Meanwhile, many public elementary schools are paying more attention to what's called developmentally appropriate practice, thanks to the work of education researchers such as Sue Bredekamp, director of research at the Council for Early Childhood Professional Recognition and former director of professional development at the National Association for the Education of Young Children. And occasionally, a well-publicized chunk of research will find traction at a more local level -- just as it did in Regina Athnos's classroom.

Carol Dweck managed to find an opening for herself: She was able to get her research on motivation and self-conception into the mainstream through heavy coverage from journalists and bloggers. Because of this strategy, Dweck's findings on how to praise children have been passed from parent to parent and teacher to teacher.

Perhaps best known at this point is her critique of the practice of praising kids' intelligence, which she says actually gives them a brittle, fixed mind-set about their potential. Instead, she recommends praising their effort.

Further success stories exist on both large and small scales. Bruce McCandliss, a professor of psychology and human development at the Sackler Institute for Developmental Psychobiology, at Cornell University's Weill Medical College, won the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers in 2006 for his pivotal research into language development and learning disabilities. He cofounded Reading Works, a computer-technology program that teaches reading skills based on insights from cognitive neuroscience research, and the program has helped improve the basic reading skills of New York City elementary school kids.

Prominent researchers, such as Arizona State University psychology professor Nancy Eisenberg, have helped translate developmental research into large-scale interventions. In the 1980s, Eisenberg helped write a proposal instrumental in establishing the widely successful Child Development Project, an Oakland, California, school-change program designed to create a caring, supportive learning environment and to encourage positive discipline.

And, of course, research into multiple intelligences has convinced many educators to bring sight, sound, smell, and motion into their lessons to better engage students' brains in the learning process. The effect of MI on teachers has been easy to see. As NIMH's Jay Giedd puts it, teachers across the country no longer say, "Settle down, class -- it's time to learn." Now they say, "Get excited -- it's time to learn!"

What's Next

So, what research remains locked up in academic journals, yet to be transposed into improved classroom-management techniques and teaching strategies? The recent findings of Harvard's Andrew Scott Baron on intergroup bias and stereotyping haven't made the jump yet, though the applications appear obvious.

"There's work showing that when a person is made conscious of stereotypes about his or her group -- say, that females aren't good at math or science -- that person will do worse than someone who isn't aware of those stereotypes," he explains. "When researchers had girls simply check off their gender on a math test, they did worse on it. These are real issues to children, influencing their unconscious perceptions of the world."

As with many researchers, Baron's job is to observe and analyze, not to prescribe. But when asked for ideas, he provides a few suggestions for how teachers might implement his findings, as he's done as a consultant in schools.

"If you're trying to address discrimination, bias, or prejudice, it's helpful to expose students to counterstereotypical exemplars -- artwork on the wall showing girls enjoying and excelling at math, for example -- to help redefine their associations about those activities," Baron says. "Teachers, meanwhile, can become more aware of these issues. Are they calling on boys more in math class? Are they giving more praise to one group of kids than another?"

Some research has received plenty of national attention without affecting school policies or curriculum. Few educators have taken to heart the surprising findings of Jeffrey Karpicke and Henry Roediger, whose 2006 study on retention strategies suggested that repeated testing is better at helping students retain information than traditional studying methods.

And perhaps the most famous, if not always heeded, research of recent years is that of Duke University psychologist Harris Cooper, who has demonstrated that too much homework doesn't particularly help elementary school students learn. Cooper has worked with numerous schools and school districts, but the vast majority of elementary school teachers have yet to make substantive changes to their assignments.

For his part, the University of Virginia's Robert Pianta cites the prevalence of zero-tolerance policies toward misbehavior and a general emphasis on academic competition as bad practices, approaches that he says "don't reflect what we've learned about kids' development and decision making."

Help on the Way

As varied as the child-psychology field is, there seems to be a consensus that it's inching toward a closer relationship with the education community: The National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education recently began working with the National Institutes of Health's National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to cultivate a clinic-to-classroom approach resembling the NIH's successful bench-to-bedside orientation for medical research. The American Psychological Association is striving to better reflect its knowledge of child development in education practice, and Harvard's Mind, Brain, and Education program encourages students to bring their scholarship more to the education sphere.

On an individual level, Harvard's Andrew Scott Baron advises teachers to speak with their principal or superintendent about partnering with a university psychology department, perhaps by inviting researchers to come talk at their school about the work they're doing.

"We still don't have easy ways for a middle school science teacher to click on something that answers the question 'How should I structure my classroom in a way that encourages positive development?'" Pianta points out. "But we are seeing more and more efforts to be more intentional about making connections."

What's more, those connections -- between research and the classroom -- could conceivably drive the further evolution of each of these important realms.

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

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