Cultivating A Learning Disposition: Concrete Strategies and A Call for Participation!

 In Blog, Connected Learning, Learning Disposition

PhillipianPhotoCrop_NoahRachlinBy Noah Rachlin

Last week’s blog post on the first installment of the Tang Institute Lunch and Discussion Series articulated six key dimensions that my colleagues and I have identified as fundamentally important for adults who are working to help students to cultivate a learning disposition. Within those six areas are the ideas that this work must be authentic, regular, and concrete for students and adults alike.

Sometimes this is easier said than done, and so one of the most enjoyable aspects of the Institute lunch discussion was that it afforded all those who were present with the opportunity to share their own best practices and to hear great ideas and practices from colleagues. The time and space for such sharing and collaboration can be difficult to find in our daily lives as teachers; but the lunch was a powerful reminder of how valuable and productive it can be to share with one another.

While I think I’ll always be partial to in-person communication, social media has proven to be a phenomenal resource for facilitating this type of sharing. For example, my colleague, Phillips Academy Biology Instructor Christine Marshall-Walker, who is also very interested in this type of work, has just begun to share what she has learned about facilitating student research in her upper-level biology elective. In her first blog post, she recounts a conversation with Harvard Medical School Professor and PA alum George Church in which he discusses the fundamental importance of making mistakes. Additionally, a recent post by Jessica Lahey in the New York Times’ Motherlode Blog powerfully demonstrates that it’s not just teachers, but also parents who can be engaged in the work of cultivating a learning disposition among young people.

In the spirit of conversation, I am sharing three very concrete strategies that I have implemented in my own history classes this year to help cultivate a learning disposition in my students. I hope that readers will respond in turn with their own great ideas and/or questions so that we can continue this work together. Are you doing anything in your classes that you find particularly productive relative to this work? What about methods of assessment or feedback? How do you think about embedding this work in the culture of your classroom while still accomplishing everything you need to do when it comes to teaching more traditional content and skills? What are some of the challenges that you have overcome or continue to face in trying to conduct this work? Please help to start a lively, online discussion by providing feedback or questions in the comments section.

Strategy 1

TOPIC: Mindset

OBJECTIVE: Introduce students to the idea of growth and fixed mindsets and explain how these concepts might apply to their own experiences as students.

ACTIVITY: On the day that the first essay or test of the term will be returned, students have no homework due. When students arrive in class, they are given time to read an excerpt from Dweck’s book, Mindset. The reading is supplemented with two helpful charts: the “dweck_mindset chart” and a “fixed vs growth mindset chart.” (Again, thanks social media!)

Questions that Drive the Discussion

What is a fixed or growth mindset? What are the benefits of having a growth mindset? What are specific ways in which students can adopt a growth mindset in their academic work?

NARRATIVE: I return the graded assessments at the end of class with the acknowledgement that we just spent the period discussing the fact that they can either, 1) interpret the feedback and/or grade as an indicator of their innate talent and ability that cannot be changed or, 2) as an opportunity to focus on specific areas for improvement and growth. The choice is theirs, but clearly the research points to the fact that one interpretation would be far more productive than the other.

Strategy 2

TOPIC(S): Deliberate Practice, Mindset

OBJECTIVE: Encourage students to focus on a specific area for improvement in their written work and establish a structure that forces them to think about how they are going to make improvement.

ACTIVITY: For each essay after the first such assignment of the year, students are required to answer two questions on a page that becomes the cover sheet for their assignment.

  1. What is at least one specific area for improvement from your previous essay(s) that you are trying to address in this current essay?
  2.  How have you gone about trying to address that area for improvement in your preparation and/or what did you do as a part of your essay to improve in this way?

NARRATIVE: More than anything else that I have tried with regard to writing instruction, this strategy has led to profound progress for students. In my comments, I often find myself applauding the progress that students have made in the areas that they had selected and then identifying something new for them to work on in the next assignment. Even better, they come up with particularly creative and insightful strategies that they or I can share with other students.

Strategy 3

TOPIC: Motivation

OBJECTIVE: Create greater intrinsic motivation around essay assignments.

ACTIVITY: Rather than selecting specific dates in a term for an essay in my United States history class, I present at least one prompt every week. Generally, students write two essays per term and so they must choose to write on one of the prompts before the mid-term and on another one in the second half of the marking period. Prompts go out after class on Friday and are due the following Friday. Students are not allowed to write on a prompt from a previous week.

NARRATIVE: This has the twin benefit of being popular with my students and better for me as the teacher. Students regularly cite the flexibility of this system as one of the things they most appreciate about the assessments in the class, and I now have a much more manageable, albeit more consistent, workload with regard to grading. It also helps to improve my class planning and syllabus. I’m forced to think about potential essay questions every week, which ensures that I am presenting interesting and engaging questions in class, consistently moving through material, and providing enough depth for students to be able to complete the essay assignment.

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