For all our talk about noncognitive skills, nobody has yet found a reliable way to teach kids to be grittier or more resilient. And it has become clear, at the same time, that the educators who are best able to engender noncognitive abilities in their students often do so without really ‘teaching’ these capacities the way one might teach math or reading – indeed, they often do so without ever saying a word about them in the classroom.”
“If you are a teacher, you may never be able to get your students to be gritty, in the sense of developing some essential character trait called grit. But you can probably make them act gritty – to behave in gritty ways in your classroom. And those behaviors will help produce the academic outcomes that you (and our students and society at large) are hoping for.”
“Decisions may be the product of culture. But culture is the product of decisions.”
So how are noncognitive skills shaped? For fortunate children, they come from a number of subtle, intricate environmental forces at home and in classrooms. Kids who grow up with calm, consistent, warm, and responsive parenting, and without significant adversity, internalize these messages: You’re safe; life is going to be fine. Let down your guard; the people around you will protect you and provide for you. Be curious about the world; it’s full of fascinating surprises. Almost all of these children will do well when they get to kindergarten.
“When parents behave harshly or unpredictably – especially at moments when their children are upset – the children are less likely over time to develop the ability to manage strong emotions and respond effectively to stressful situations,” says Tough.
“On the emotional level,” says Tough, “toxic stress can make it difficult for children to moderate their responses to disappointments and provocations. A highly sensitive stress-response system that’s constantly on the lookout for threats can produce patterns of behavior that are self-defeating in school: fighting, talking back, acting up, and more subtly, going through each day perpetually wary of connection with peers or teachers.”
Executive function is also weakened, impeding children’s ability to navigate the complexity and constant distractions of school.
In the classroom,” says Tough, “neurocognitive difficulties can quickly turn into academic difficulties. Students don’t learn to read on time, because it is harder for them to concentrate on the words on the page. They don’t learn the basics of number sense, because they are too distracted by the emotions and anxieties overloading their nervous systems. As academic material becomes more complicated, they fall further behind. The more they fall behind, the worse they feel about themselves and about school. That creates more stress, which tends to feed into behavioral problems, which leads to stigmatization and punishment in the classroom, which keeps their stress levels elevated, which makes it still harder to concentrate – and so on, throughout elementary school.”
harsh punishments are ineffective in motivating troubled youth to behave, concentrate, and succeed.
Talking back and acting up in class are, at least in part, symptoms of a child’s inability to control impulses, de-escalate confrontations, and manage anger and other strong feelings – the whole stew of self-regulation issues that can usually be traced to impaired executive-function development in early childhood.”
“The impact of financial incentives on student achievement,” says Fryer, “is statistically zero in each city.”
They believe people are driven by three basic needs – competence, autonomy, and human connection – and that intrinsic motivation is sparked when these needs are being satisfied. “The problem,” says Tough, “is that when disadvantaged children run into trouble in school, either academically or behaviorally, most schools respond by imposing more control on them, not less.
“If we want students to act in ways that will maximize their future opportunities – to persevere through challenges, to delay gratification, to control their impulses – we need to consider what might motivate them to take those difficult steps.” Deci and Ryan believe that if teachers are able to create an environment that fosters competence, autonomy, and connection, students are much more likely to feel motivated to work hard.
“Jackson’s data showed that spending a few hours each week in close proximity to a certain kind of teacher changed something about students’ behavior. And that was what mattered. Somehow these teachers were able to convey deep messages – perhaps implicitly or even subliminally – about belonging, connection, ability, and opportunity. And somehow those messages had a profound impact on students’ psychology, and thus on their behavior. The environment those teachers created in the classroom, and the messages that environment conveyed, motivated students to start making better decisions – to show up to class, to persevere longer at difficult tasks, and to deal more resiliently with the countless small-scale setbacks and frustrations that make up the typical students’ school day. And those decisions improved their lives in meaningful ways.
“There is little evidence that working directly on changing students’ grit or perseverance would be an effective lever for improving their academic performance,” the report said. “While some students are more likely to persist in tasks or exhibit self-discipline than others, all students are more likely to demonstrate perseverance if the school or classroom context helps them develop positive mindsets and effective learning strategies.”
If you are a teacher, you may never be able to get your students to be gritty, in the sense of developing some essential character trait called grit. But you can probably make them act gritty – to behave in gritty ways in your classroom. And those behaviors will help produce the academic outcomes that you (and our students and society at large) are hoping for.”
“Messages that teachers convey – large and small, explicit and implicit – affect the way students feel in the classroom, and thus they way they behave there,” says Tough. Farrington has distilled the voluminous mindset research to four key beliefs that, if students embrace them, produce academic perseverance:
<!-- [if !supportLists]-->-<!--[endif]-->I belong in this academic community.
<!-- [if !supportLists]-->-<!--[endif]-->My ability and competence grow with my effort.
<!-- [if !supportLists]-->-<!--[endif]-->I can succeed at this.
<!-- [if !supportLists]-->-<!--[endif]-->This work has value for me.
To be truly motivated, students also need to believe they are doing work that is challenging, rigorous, and meaningful.
Orwell’s concept of doublethink, the method by which a bureaucracy conceals evil not only from the public but from itself.”
“Executives are bombarded with information,” explains Useem. “To ease the cognitive load, they rely on a set of unwritten scripts imported from the organization around them. You could even define corporate culture as a collection of scripts.” These are efficient, relieving leaders of the burden of figuring out how to handle each new problem. But scripts can keep people from stepping back and analyzing what’s really going on.
One common factor in disastrous corporate decisions, says Useem, is ambitious goals set by out-of-touch leaders that collide with reality.
“We know what strain does to people,” says Useem. “Even without it, they tend to underestimate the probability of future bad events. Put them under emotional stress, some research suggests, and this tendency gets amplified. People will favor decisions that preempt short-term social discomfort even at the cost of heightened long-term risk. Faced with the immediate certainty of a boss’s wrath or the distant possibility of blow-back from a faceless agency, many will focus mostly on the former.”
“It’s becoming incredibly important to learn to decide well,” says Brooks, “to develop the techniques of self-distancing to counteract the flaws in our own mental machinery.” Some pointers:
• Assume positive intent. In a conflict, if we start with the belief that others are well-intentioned, it’s easier to absorb information from people we’d rather not listen to.
• Use the 10-10-10 rule. How will we feel about this decision 10 minutes from now, 10 months from now, and 10 years from now?
• Get out of your comfort zone. A survey of newly-married women found that 20 percent weren’t initially attracted to the men they married. “Sometimes it’s useful to make a deliberate ‘mistake,’” says Brooks, “agreeing to dinner with a guy who is not your normal type. Sometimes you don’t really know what you want and the filters you apply are hurting you.”
• Avoid narrow-framing. “Whenever you find yourself asking ‘whether or not,’ it’s best to step back and ask, ‘How can I widen my options?’” says Brooks. Rather than deciding whether or not to fire someone, ask how the person’s role could be shifted to take advantage of strengths and avoid weaknesses.
• Develop a better understanding of the anatomy of decision-making.
<!--[endif]-->Mission and vision – Long-term district aspirations;
<!-- [if !supportLists]-->-<!--[endif]-->Theory of action – Fundamental beliefs about what will lead to long-term success;
<!-- [if !supportLists]-->-<!--[endif]-->Priorities – Broad areas of focus to support the theory of action;
<!-- [if !supportLists]-->-<!--[endif]-->Measurable goals – Specific and measurable targets related to district priorities;
<!-- [if !supportLists]-->-<!--[endif]-->Initiatives – Projects related to priorities to achieve the measurable goals;
<!-- [if !supportLists]-->-<!--[endif]-->Action steps – An articulation of what steps need to occur, by when, and by whom.
Kim and Parashar conclude with ten mistakes to avoid in the strategic planning process:
• Don’t start without first gaining a clear, fact-based understanding of the district’s current strengths and challenges.
• Don’t draft a plan that skims the surface: address the root causes by asking Why five times to get at the underlying issues.
• Don’t shortchange developing a cogent theory of action. “The strongest theories of action are focused, easily understood by virtually all district stakeholders, and guide critical tasks and workflows, organizational arrangement, and culture in the district,” say the authors.
• Don’t treat every idea as a good idea; develop a list of fewer than five high-impact priorities. “Manage expectations that not all ideas may find their place in the final plan,” say Kim and Parashar.
• Don’t forget to include specific, measurable action plans. This includes the roles and responsibilities of school and central staff, key milestones, and necessary budget shifts.
• Don’t forget to include many parts of the organization, not just academics. Although student achievement is the ultimate outcome, other departments such as finance, human resources, and operations play key roles.
• Don’t just engage in open-ended discussions with stakeholders about their concerns and hopes. Elicit specific, actionable feedback on a draft of the strategic plan.
• Don’t forget to include lagging (output-oriented) as well as leading (input-oriented) metrics to track progress.
• Don’t just layer new initiatives on top of existing ones. “Seek to leverage and build upon the work being done in the district and create a coherent and aligned approach to moving the work forward,” say the authors.
• Don’t forget to establish clear implementation and monitoring processes. “Effective implementation requires detailed planning and communication, cultivation of leadership capacity, and the analytics to monitor progress,” conclude Kim and Parashar. “The implementation plan and monitoring process must also be tailored to the district’s strengths, weaknesses, and available resources.”
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