George Lucas Educational Foundation

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.
Milton Chen
Senior Fellow
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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.

Comments (4) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Here's another old adage..."How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time!"

Peggy Bass's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Educating children about their brain and how it works seems to be a brilliant way to get them to think and study hard by actual visualization of this ongoing process. I would add any and all new findings that have come forth about the brain and early onset of dementia and Alzheimer's disease, and that building a strong brain and continual education helps to avert this. I would also hang a large sign in every classroom with one of my favorite quotes from Martin Luther King Jr. "Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity" along with a lesson on what that really means and what misery and devastation ignorance and stupidity can cause in this world.

Patrick Moran's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a teacher at the college level I sometimes encounter students who have been through the mill when it comes to what tests are all about, why they should learn, and how they might better learn. When students have been subjected to a long series of events that teach them that the grades are all that matters, that people with ideological biases toward heterodox beliefs may try to lead them onto a darker path, and that "learning" means coming up with responses to assignments that will get them high grades and the imagined indelible job permit, achieving any degree of unlearning of these scores can be a serious draw on classroom time and everyone's energies. The students on the highest level of self culture will learn for the joy of discovery and the satisfaction of greater competency. Students who have not so far reached that level may still be relatively easy to lead because they hope to please their teachers. At a level of minor dysfunction students can exhibit an almost fanatical fixation of their grades and even attempt a kind of hording behavior, i.e., they may try to extract every possible percentage point -- even if they already have an A average. In so doing they waste the energies that could make them true winners in the search for competency. On the low end of the scale are students who will copy hunks of essays from on-line essays, patch them together, and curse their teachers when called on their cheating. In the middle there are often students who want to be successful but have been burned so many times that they have learned only that they are perennially unsuccessful.

I have found some degree of success with two strategies that may complement educating students in learning psychology. One is to tell them a true story that appears in an account of an American (or maybe it was British) student who went to Japan to study karate. He reported that on one occasion another student from somewhere in the western world came into the school seeking instruction. In the course of a brief discussion with the head teacher of the school the foreign student asked the master how long it would take him to get a black belt. The teacher went to a cabinet, withdrew a new black belt, handed it to the student, and told him to get out. The student's error was that he revealed a desire for a material sign of competency -- to be delivered on schedule -- and no appreciation that what he needed was a competency that would only come in the fullness of time.

The other strategy I recommend is somewhat useful in countering suspicions on the part of students that a college education is a threat to the orthodoxy of their belief systems. It is not so easy to deliver this message because it asks that students make themselves available to learning objectively about a phenomenon first, and to name that phenomenon and evaluate it later on. An example might involve getting students to learn about what Islam actually teaches, and also learn how this belief system works out in practice in, e.g., a small Muslim fishing community in Malaysia.

I have found some students to be highly resistant to the idea that weekly quizzes are primarily useful in evaluating how successfully the educational process is working and how it might be improved. Some students seem to want to bank their credits on a weekly basis and use them to offset potential disastrous performance in final exams. Actually, unless a student is cramming before every weekly quiz, average weekly grades, midterm grades, and final grades are only discordant if the student is under the stress of illness or some similar circumstance at midterm or finals time. In such a case the exam results are invalid anyway. But students may not appreciate the value of the weekly measures to ensure that study is done in a timely and consistent way.

Mitchell Jorgensen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I was reminded of this today on Twitter. I read the original probably just a week or two after it orginally posted. This is as relevant now as it was then. I have actually made this part of my doctrine when teaching others. We need to have not only just in time education, but just in time assessment. Assessment that actually shows us what kids are able to do. We don't need complex weighing processes we need better feeding processes.

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