Cultivating a Learning Disposition in Students: Fellow Noah Rachlin Explains Why and How

 In Blog, Connected Learning, Featured, Learning Disposition

On Friday, April 3, 2015, more than 30 community members gathered in Pearson C to engage in discussion with Noah Rachlin, Instructor of History and Social Science and 2014–15 Tang Institute Fellow, about his project, “‘I Can’t Do that Yet’: Cultivating a Learning Disposition.” His project focuses on helping students to develop a learning disposition so that they are equipped with the mindset, motivation, and strategies needed to overcome the inevitable challenge and struggle of learning both in and out of the classroom. Rachlin was the first fellow to lead a session for the spring Tang Institute Lunch & Discussion series, which offers a regular forum for conversation and idea sharing on a range of creative efforts to advance innovative teaching and learning efforts at PA and throughout education.

Photo Credit: Noah Rachlin

Rachlin uses this model to convey learning disposition.

Informed by research in the field, Rachlin’s work, which he designed and began to roll out during this academic year, includes a series of three, seven-week sessions for small groups of Andover students to delve into various, interrelated concepts, including mindset, motivation, deliberate practice, focus, and attention. Through individual discussions and by reading a variety of literature on these concepts, students gain a more nuanced understanding of how to turn ideas into practices in their daily lives and how to customize activities that can help them to to meet their academic and personal goals. Following the sessions, Rachlin gathers feedback and insight by asking participating students to fill out a concluding survey. Student responses clearly highlight a number of opportunities associated with this approach to learning.

One student commented, for example, that a reduced focus on grades actually helped to increase the student’s academic performance overall:

“I spent less time worrying about grades and college and performance and spent more time on the material, which actually ended up helping the aforementioned aspects of my Andover career that I had been worrying about,” the student said.

It’s Not Just What We Say, But What We Do that Matters

In his talk, Rachlin shared specific classroom-based strategies that he has employed in his own courses. These include the practice of providing a weekly essay option throughout the marking period in order to allow students to write on a topic that they are naturally interested in as a way to cultivate greater intrinsic motivation in their written work.

“In my United States history class, for example, rather than selecting specific dates in a term for an essay, I present at least one prompt every week,” said Rachlin. “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.”

Rachlin also responded to a number of analytical questions from the audience, including: How do we emphasize effort and process and not just output? How do we best capture the entire learning journey of a student? Rachlin weighed in to share some best practices and a range of ideas.

“If we truly value these ideas and think it is important to cultivate a learning disposition in our students, then it is fundamentally important that we embody this work and these ideas not just in what we say, but also in what we do, each and every day,” said Rachlin. “This might mean utilizing different forms of assessment, thinking critically about the feedback that we provide on student work, or adjusting the conversations we have with students on a regular basis. Right now, there is no silver bullet. But we do know that if we are to be truly serious about this work we must fully embrace these ideas and make them a part of our regular vocabulary and practice. Then, they can become an ingrained part of our school culture and ultimately a core piece of the education we provide to our students.”

Key Concepts Highlighted


Lunch discussion participants also provided feedback on some of the work Rachlin has already done and helped to distinguish the following key concepts as important to the creation of a learning disposition. These include:

  • The end and the means matter: The traditional “output” of student work and the metric(s) by which such output is measured deserve reconsideration. Engaging students in constant learning—and embedding an understanding of the learning process as valuable in and of itself—was reiterated as a pedagogical principle.
  • Words matter: Students arrive at school as the recipients of numerous, oft-repeated messages. Changing the hard-wiring of an individual’s self-perceived identity can be difficult; the language we employ contributes to students’ formation of fixed or growth mindsets. The growth opportunities inherent in each student ought to be shared within the community. While a single, negative grade could derail a student’s passion for a particular topic, so, too, could explicit encouragement keep him or her on track—or provide the impetus to pursue a new endeavor.
  • Meaning matters: The relevance of student work is important. Students should be supported in determining the meaning of their activities—and be fully engaged in pursuing that higher purpose. Although activities may offer either personal reward or may aim to serve others, the value assigned to them matters in determining if goals are realized.
  • The community matters: Trust represents an important component of the growth mindset. Students need to trust that others will journey with them; they must trust themselves as empowered agents. Trust takes time, of course, and emerges through well-nourished relationships. Teachers, parents, peers, and others all play significant roles in reinforcing a learning disposition.
  • Concrete activities matter: Taking time both in and outside of class to discuss what grades mean—and what they do not signify—can offer important perspective. Establishing regular routines to provide or gather feedback and then to process those observations can ground the learning process. Repeating and reinforcing a broad set of practical activities aligns a learning disposition with habitual activity and contributes to building a culture of healthy growth.
  • Not just for students: The benefits of a learning disposition are not just for a student population. All stand to benefit from flexible, growth mindset-focused approaches which encourage new perspectives on teaching and learning, both in the classroom and in daily life. A learning disposition can help anyone.

Next week, Rachlin will post a follow-up blog that will provide classroom-based strategies to help guide teachers and students in implementing similar approaches as they work to deploy a learning disposition. All community members will be invited to participate in an online, public discussion by sharing insights and ideas in the comments section of the blog post’s Web page. Stay tuned for the link and more information.

Please continue to visit for more information about the exciting work fellows are doing at the Tang Institute.

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