Don’t Weigh the Elephant — Feed the Elephant: Feedback Is Key in Assessment

Let’s focus on giving kids what they need — information about their own brains, it turns out.

March 13, 2007

I was at a meeting recently when a colleague told a story of being in India, where an educator there asked her, somewhat skeptically, "In America, you test your students a lot, don't you?" She replied, "Well, indeed, the United States has a national policy that requires testing of all students in certain grades." The Indian educator said, "Here, when we want the elephant to grow, we feed the elephant. We don't weigh the elephant."

Now, I've never been to India, and I've never tried to weigh an elephant. But this strikes me as the most concise and sound educational policy advice I've heard: Concentrate on what we should be doing intellectually (and physically) -- feeding our children, and not just measuring their weight. But our nation, burdened by NCLB testing, is finding it's incredibly difficult to weigh an elephant accurately. The obsession with testing is slowing down an already lumbering educational system, at a time when we need to be speeding up.

If we were to emphasize feeding our students' brains, what would we feed them? Most answers would focus on content in the language arts, science, or math, and how it should be taught. But what about telling students something about the very nature of learning, intelligence, and brain development itself? Why not teach students about how their own brains develop, that the brain is the most marvelous and complex organ that human beings have, and how learning is the nourishment their brains need to grow and develop?

New research demonstrates that teaching children to appreciate their brains actually motivates them to learn and expend greater effort -- with particular improvements in mathematics learning. These are the remarkable findings of Carol Dweck, Stanford University's William B. Ransford Professor of Psychology, and her colleagues, Columbia University's Lisa Blackwell and Stanford's Kali Trzesniewski, published in the journal Child Development and highlighted in a recent National Public Radio report.

The sample for the trio's first study, which explored relationships between students' theories of intelligence, their motivation to learn, and their academic achievement, included 373 students from a New York City junior high school. The children, according to the article, were "moderately high achieving, with average sixth-grade math test scores at the 75th percentile nationally; 53 percent . . . were eligible for free lunch." The sample was 55 percent African American, 27 percent South Asian, 15 percent Hispanic, and 3 percent East Asian or white.

Those students who held a "growth model" of intelligence agreed more often with statements such as "You can always greatly change how intelligent you are" and disagreed with statements such as "You have a certain amount of intelligence, and you really can't do much to change it." They also valued learning more strongly (agreeing more often with statements such as "An important reason why I do my school work is because I like to learn new things") and believed more strongly that effort leads to positive outcomes ("The harder you work at something, the better you will be at it").

Faced with academic difficulties, such as not doing well on a test, they were more likely to redouble their efforts rather than blame their lack of intelligence or the fairness of the test. This growth model of intelligence corresponded with higher mathematics achievement in the first semester of seventh grade and the second term of eighth grade.

The fact that students' beliefs about themselves as learners should have an impact on their math grades should attract the attention of educators and policymakers eager to improve mathematics achievement. The researchers connected this potent relationship between adolescents' beliefs and their academic performance to this critical developmental period in which a new teenager's personality and self-image are being formed in powerful ways.

In the second study, the researchers set out to determine whether this growth model of intelligence could be taught. In a different New York school with a similar racial mix but involving students with lower-achieving and poorer backgrounds, ninety-one students were assigned to experimental and control groups. Both groups received instruction during eight twenty-five-minute sessions on brain physiology and study skills. The experimental group, however, was "taught that intelligence is malleable" through, for instance, "vivid analogies [of] muscles becoming stronger." "The key message was that learning changes the brain by forming new [neurological] connections, and the students are in charge of the process." All students had the same math teacher, who was unaware of which students were assigned to which group.

Math grades typically decline during the early teen years, but students who were taught to think about their brains, and about how their intelligence could expand, reversed the expected decline; students in the control group continued to worsen academically. In the NPR interview, Dweck described how seriously students took this neurological learning: "When they studied, they thought about those neurons forming new connections. When they worked hard in school, they actually visualized how their brain was growing."

The kids' math teacher gave these accounts of two students who had been taught the growth model: "L., who never puts in any extra effort and doesn't turn in homework on time, actually stayed up late working for hours to finish an assignment early so I could review it and give him a chance to revise it. He earned a B+ on the assignment." (He had been getting grades of C and lower.)

Meanwhile, the teacher added, "M. was [performing] far below grade level. During the past several weeks, she has voluntarily asked for extra help from me during her lunch period in order to improve her test-taking performance. Her grades drastically improved from failing to an 84 on her recent exam."

Two sentences near the end of the Child Development article summarize its message to educators: "Children's beliefs become the mental 'baggage' that they bring to the achievement situation. . . . A focus on the potential of students to develop their intellectual capacity provides a host of motivational benefits."

In a future column, I'll provide more details on Dweck's work, including her recent book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, and her recommendations on what teachers, parents, and policy makers can do to promote a more positive attitude in students.

One more note about elephants: One thing I do know about them is that their gestation period is about eighteen months. As a new Congress moves toward hearings to reshape NCLB, we should spend the next year and a half giving birth to a new national educational mind-set, based on expanding students' minds and their own understanding about how to use them.

Milton Chen is executive director of The George Lucas Educational Foundation.

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