Saturday, August 20, 2016

It is what it is... or is it?

I love the Olympics. Pageantry. Drama. Suspense. Triumph. The spectacle of the whole thing. It's a time to learn about and celebrate the world's diversity. But the Olympics always reminds me more of our similarities than our differences. Sportsmanship. Pride. Joy. Disappointment. Love. Grace. Our common humanity.

Paul Tough and Anders Ericsson write about our common humanity in their recently published books Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why and Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. Both writers eloquently interpret the findings of current research. While Tough's work leans toward nurture and Ericsson's toward nature, their ideas intersect in an interesting and not-so-surprising place.

Engagement.

Engagement is a multidimensional construct that includes behavioral, cognitive, and emotional attributes associated with being deeply involved in an activity. Both writers base the success of their assertions on its presence.

In How Children Succeed, Tough writes about the importance of a child's environment on the development of non-cognitive capacities, the "emotional and psychological habits and abilities and mindsets" that enable children to negotiate life effectively. These capacities include things like empathy, perseverance, self-control, and focus. In school, they are reflected in a child's ability to understand and follow directions, maintain focus, communicate effectively with others, persevere, and learn from failure. Tough asserts that non-cognitive capacities are distinct from cognitive skills in that their development is not the result of direct instruction and practice but more the byproduct of a child's environment. Furthermore, stress, the kind associated with poverty or growing up in adverse emotional conditions, inhibits the development of non-cognitive capacities. Tough points to evidence that traditional pedagogies in school perpetuate the consequences of stress because they rely on incentives that don't facilitate the kind of motivation it takes to become deeply involved in academic work.

In Peak, Ericsson writes about cognitive adaptability and the idea that we have been "overestimating the value of innate talent and underestimating the value of such things as opportunity, motivation, and effort." Scientists have realized that the brain is much more adaptable than previously thought. Geniuses, once thought to be born rather than made, are not exceptions to some rule that binds most of us to so-called normalcy. Even the most exceptional among us are not genetic outliers but ordinary humans who, through what Ericsson calls deliberate practice, have worked for whatever it is that separates them from others. Deliberate practice involves the building of mental representations, the encoding of information specific to the domain of learning that allows one to store ever-increasing amounts of information in long-term memory and advance conceptual understanding. It's hard, iterative work. But it's also qualitatively distinct from forms of practice that emphasize volume and repetition. It typically requires facilitation by experts who can assist learners in identifying and focusing on the details of performance. For Ericsson, meaning and purpose, an essential element of behavioral and cognitive engagement, are the ingredients that motivate people to maintain the intense focus and attention to detail that is required to become an expert in something.

Both writers insist learners must be active, not passive. And deep learning is not generally solitary work, but connected to others. Tough advocates interactive pedagogy in schools, discussion, and collaboration among students; project-based learning that takes students through "extensive and repeated revisions based on critiques from teachers and peers." Ericsson writes that one does not "build mental representations by thinking about something; you build them by trying to do something, failing, revising, and trying again, over and over." Passion and perseverance for long-term goals is also necessary. The work of Angela Duckworth regarding the concept of grit makes and appearance in both books. Grit is also, in part, a function of environment. In her work, Duckworth cites the work of Benjamin Bloom regarding the development of world class pianists, neurologists, swimmers, chess players, mathematicians, and sculptors. Bloom observed that in every studied field, high achievers had a strong interest in the particular field in which they excelled. In other words, it was meaningful to them. Intrinsic motivation develops when people, in the pursuit of something, are able to feel competent, connected to others, and in control of their own behaviors and goals. When people experience these three things, they become self-determined and are able to be intrinsically motivated to pursue the things that interest them, that have meaning to them, to persevere in the face of difficulty… to show grit... to become engaged.

Tough's non-cognitive capacities strongly influence the cognitive work of developing expertise that Ericsson writes about. Conversely, Ericsson's revelations about cognitive adaptability should inform discussions about supporting students growing up in less than ideal circumstances with early intervention and focused support. Both How Children Succeed and Peak are profoundly optimistic books. I think they are fundamentally about hope and potential, aspects of our common humanity restricted neither by circumstance nor genetics. Olympians are a great example of this. To become Olympic, they had to hope, care, connect, focus, practice, and persevere. They had to fulfill potential and even expand it. They had to engage.

  • Ericsson, A. (2016). Peak: Secrets from the new science of expertise, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
  • Tough, P. (2016). Helping children succeed: What works and why, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. 

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Book review: The Importance of Being Little

Practice makes progress. My 4-year-old is learning this. If you work at it, you’ll get better. It’s an important lesson for kids. But while practice makes progress, it doesn’t make new, according to Wharton professor Adam Grant in a recent New York Times op-ed. In other words, it doesn’t foster creativity. 

Expertise relies on depth of knowledge. People can get really good at something with a lot of practice, but it doesn't necessarily lead to something new. Creativity, Grant points out, relies on both depth and breadth of knowledge. Grant urges parents to back off a bit. He says "creativity may be hard to nurture, but it's easy to thwart." Focus on values rather than rules and respond to the intrinsic motivation of your children. Give them guidance, facilitate practice, but give them the room to discover and explore interests. Let them go into the weeds to see what's there.  

It was Grant's article that I kept coming back to as I read Erika Christakis' book, The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need from Grown Ups. Christakis reflects on her experiences as an early childhood educator and offers guidance about closing the gap between schooling and learning, two things she laments are often not aligned. Young children have the capacity for tremendous growth, learning, and creativity, but rather than focus on those dimensions of learning most crucial to development, standardization (increasingly even at the preschool level) has led to a focus on "skills and metrics that look nice on paper but don't really tell us much about what individual human beings do." 

Christakis, like Grant, urges us to back off. Only she is talking to all of us: parents, educators, politicians, pundits, and anyone else responsible for schooling but not focused on learning.

To be sure, Christakis doesn't succumb to the either/or dilemma John Dewey lamented in Experience and Education. Namely, that one must choose between traditional or progressive instructional ideas. Like Dewey, she argues for recognition of the intermediate possibilities. 

And that's one of the most valuable lessons of the book. Christakis attempts to articulate what occupying the middle space would look like for the preschool world. While she notes that "getting out of the way is often the best thing we can do for a young child," her book makes the point that child-centered doesn't mean unstructured. Just the opposite. It takes tremendous effort and expertise to design and facilitate learning environments that take into account the intermediate possibilities. 

Christakis argues that among the obstacles we face in changing how we think about early childhood education is changing the way we think about childhood. One unintended consequence of advances in the understanding about individuality is what Christakis calls the "fragmentation" of childhood. Rather than looking at childhood holistically, as a period of life through which all people go and in which variances could be considered normal, our learning has narrowed the focus from childhood as a thing unto itself to childhood as a collection of discrete parts, resulting in labels that she fears may be inhibiting or leading to some of the obstacles put in the way of children. Behaviors, personality traits, learning styles, disorders, and symptoms, while, on the one hand, reveal much about the human experience and have led to appropriate, helpful treatments also lead to labels that perhaps, on the other hand, result in restrictive learning environments and undermine children's confidence or freedom to learn. 

"The human brain appears unwilling to zoom in on both the background and the foreground at the same time," she writes. "So, at every level of observation, we are missing something - the big picture or the small parts - and there is always a cost to observing only one."

What's the cost? 

American scores in creative thinking measures have declined in the last 20 years with the greatest declines occurring among elementary and early secondary aged children. Kyung Hee Kim of the College of William and Mary found that children’s ability to produce ideas has significantly decreased. Children have become less verbally expressive, less imaginative, less perceptive, and less able to connect seemingly irrelevant things. Kim suggests the causes include children’s diminishing freedom to participate in the mental processes required for creativity and their diminishing ability to assess themselves apart from the assessment of others (internal locus of evaluation).

I think this is reflected in what Christakis observed in The Importance of Being Little

While explicit and systematic instruction is effective for "imparting intentional knowledge," young children "learn primarily from their relationships" and benefit from opportunities to be creative. For Christakis, creativity means "a sense of generativity" or a child's desire to be productive. "Creative, generative children feel confident that they can create meaning - whether from an idea or even a relationship - because they see a world of possibility and see themselves as capable of unlocking that promise."

Creative. Confident. Capable. Sounds like a pretty good outcome to me. ★★★★★
  • Christakis, E. (2016). The importance of being little: What preschoolers really need from grownups, New York: Penguin Random House.  
  • Kim, K. H. (2011). The Creativity Crisis: The Decrease in Creative Thinking Scores on the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking. Creativity Research Journal, 23(4), 285–295. doi:10.1080/10400419.2011.627805

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Reconcilable differences

Sir Ken Robinson told a group of Texas educators recently that the problem with standardization in education is that people “don’t come in standard versions.” Simple. Common sense. Square peg, round hole. People are unique. Standard education doesn’t account for that fact.

So what to do?

Since it’s not likely that people will come in standard versions anytime soon, we need to change the educational environment so that it takes “proper account of the different talents of students.” Educational systems should be designed to preserve the intrinsic motivation for learning with which children are born. They should encourage the self-determination that leads to a life of purpose, productivity, and personal responsibility.

There is an opportunity at hand this year for Texas to influence system design for the better in education.

The Texas Commission on Next Generation Assessments and Accountability held its first meeting in January. Created by legislation passed by the 84th Texas Legislature and charged with studying and making recommendations for changes in the state’s testing and accountability system, the commission will meet six times this year before filing a final report in September.

What direction should the commission take?

In his latest book, Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That's Transforming Education 1, Robinson makes the point that a problem with most current assessment systems is that they are too light on description to “convey the complexities of the process” they are meant to summarize. To enhance assessment, we need to expand the elements of description and the evidence upon which learning is evaluated.

Research is providing direction for this kind of work if only we can muster the will to think and act in different ways. A study published in the Journal of Educational Psychology last month, The Narrative Waltz: The Role of Flexibility in Writing Proficiency 2, could inform a discussion about next generation assessments.

Long story, short… the researchers found that context in the evaluation of learning matters.

Short story, longer… having longitudinal data to make decisions about student learning is critical; specifically, in this case, in evaluating writing proficiency. The researchers were trying to understand the extent to which high school students’ linguistic flexibility across a series of essays was associated with writing proficiency. Flexibility refers to students ability to adapt their writing styles and use various linguistic properties according to the specific context of the writing task; properties like cohesion, rhetoric, complex syntax, explicit argument, reported speech, contrasted ideas, and narrativity.

To analyze flexibility, the researchers utilized both natural language processing techniques and dynamic methodologies to capture variability in students’ use of narrative text properties across 16 argumentative, prompt-based essays.

Why narrativity as opposed to another linguistic property?

One, they needed a property to quantify and analyze, and narrativity, as an easier writing style for high school students to use, was likely to be more prevalent across multiple writing assignments. Two, they wanted to address what they believe is a common misunderstanding about the use of narrativity in essay writing. Research has shown that texts with more narrative elements tend to be easier to read and comprehend. Narrativity, therefore, is often assumed to be a sign of essay quality. But this assumption is not supported in the literature. The majority of research on essay quality suggests the opposite; that higher quality writing is associated with decreased levels of text narrativity.

In the current study, the degree of narrativity was assessed using a narrativity component score provided by Coh-Metrix, a computational text analysis tool that analyzes text at the word, sentence, and discourse levels. Coh-Metrix calculates the coherence of texts on many different measures. The Coh-Metrix narrativity Easability Component score, based on the results of a previous, large-scale corpus analysis, served as a measure of text readability based on the degree of story-like elements that were present within an individual text. To quantify students’ narrative writing patterns, the researchers applied random walks and Euclidian distances to create visualizations and classifications of students’ use of narrative properties across the 16 assigned essays.

The researchers found that it was students’ flexible use of text properties rather than the consistent use of a particular set of text properties (in this case, narrativity) that correlated with established measures of essay quality. The situational influence of narrative text elements on writing quality varies. It’s not just about frequency or consistency of use, but the writer’s ability to use appropriate techniques given the context. Flexibility informs writing proficiency.

Bottom line? Writing proficiency measures should account for a student’s sensitivity to multiple linguistic profiles, which can only be determined by evaluating multiple writing samples over a period of time.

The authors argue their findings suggest standardized test developers should “aim to develop more sophisticated assessments that can capture students' writing skills across a number of different contexts." In other words, when designing assessment systems, we need to think in terms of expanding the elements of description and the evidence upon which learning is evaluated.

The square peg and round hole are not irreconcilable. It’s a question of commitment to a process of developing “original ideas that have value.” Or what Robinson calls... creativity.

1 Robinson, K. & Aronica, L. (2015). Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That's Transforming Education, New York: Penguin Publishing Group.

2 Allen, L. K., Snow, E. L., Mcnamara, D. S., Allen, L. K., Snow, E. L., & Mcnamara, D. S. (2016). Journal of Educational Psychology Proficiency The Narrative Waltz : The Role of Flexibility in Writing Proficiency.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

The earlier, the better

The latest National Assessment for Educational Progress scores were released in October, and 4th grade English language learners (ELL) remained more than twice as likely as non-ELL students to score below Basic in reading.

Eighth grade results were similar, but 4th grade represents a critical juncture for ELLs because students who enter kindergarten as ELLs and have not been re-classified by the upper elementary grades become less likely ever to make the transition. This, from a study published recently in Educational Policy that also sheds light on the relevance of primary language in English language acquisition.1 Karen Thompson, an assistant professor at Oregon State University, found that entering kindergarten, proficiency with academic language in the primary language was positively related to the likelihood of reclassification by the end of elementary school.

Of course, experience with academic language in English matters as well. Using nine years of longitudinal data, Thompson found that students with high levels of proficiency in both their primary language and English entering kindergarten were 24% more likely to be reclassified by the end of elementary school as students with low levels in both languages. However, students with similar proficiency in either English or their primary language had "statistically indistinguishable likelihoods of reclassification" by the end of elementary school.

Early academic language proficiency in English facilitated quicker reclassification, but it was having a basic grasp of academic vocabulary itself, not the language, that mattered most in reaching reclassification before the elementary window closes.

This is an important finding because it informs how schools and communities might look at school readiness strategies for families with ELL students. Parents not proficient in English can still be very helpful in preparing their children for the English language acquisition process once school starts.

And the work parents do or don’t do with their children before they enter schools matters a great deal.

Academic language is “school language” and language used in the workplace; the language used in textbooks, essays, assignments, class presentations, and assessments. It's a meta-language that helps learners acquire the 50,000 words they are expected to have internalized by the end of high school. And, it develops with deliberate, diligent, exposure to diverse language experiences…

...early in life...

...like from the very beginning!

While formal education moves this process along, prohibitive gaps among students exist before children ever get to school age. Toddlers living in poverty hear less than a third of the words heard by children from higher-income families. By the age of four, this extrapolates to a 30-million word difference between low and high income children… a prohibitive gap.2

And the economic problem may be getting worse.

By Robert D. Putnam, 2015
In Texas, 60.2% of public school students are economically disadvantaged, 14% higher than 20 years ago. The same is true nationally. In 2007, the south became the first region in which the majority of students were economically disadvantaged and that extended to the nation as a whole by 2015. Furthermore, the achievement gap between children from high and low income families is 30-40% larger among children born in 2001 than 25 years earlier.3  While the achievement gap has been growing within racial groups and actually narrowing somewhat between them, ELL students - a growing percentage of Texas public school students - are more likely to come from low-income homes. Of the 23.7 million people in Texas who are five years of age or older, more than a third speak a language other than English at home. A large majority of those — almost 85 percent — speak Spanish.

Thompson's findings, as she suggests, have implications for the design of instructional interventions for ELL students, how and when ELL students are assessed (including how primary language assessments are used), and the need to expand access to high quality preschool programs (ELL students attend pre-school at a much lower percentage than non-ELLs, nationally).

However, Thompson's study should also be used to look backward from the school starting line.

Parents are the first and most important teachers in a child’s life. They are responsible for virtually all language development before children reach school age. Parent involvement is essential to a successful comprehensive school program, and a comprehensive educational program begins before children reach school age.

Research sheds some light on how to think about this as well. Ultimately, it’s an engagement issue.

Solutions to the challenges facing Hispanic families with potential ELL students lie within the communities themselves, according to researchers who evaluated a comprehensive educational program for Hispanic parents with young children.

A random-assignment study of Abriendo Puertas/Opening Doors, implemented by the Los Angeles Unified School District, published last year by Child Trends found statistically significant positive impacts on reading with children, storytelling and discussion, studying letters, and real-world interaction with language; all important in helping children acquire language.4

Abriendo Puertas/Opening Doors was launched in 2007 as a parenting program dedicated to getting young children ready for school. Today, it reaches 70,000 families in 35 states. Ten interactive sessions draw from real-life experiences, incorporate data about local schools and communities, and focus on helping parents understand their role in their children’s learning life. Also, the program is available to parents in Spanish; important in light of Thompson's findings about the relevance of a family's primary language in English language acquisition.

Across all socio-economic and racial groups, students with more engaged parents do better in school. They are more engaged, have higher grades and test scores, earn more course credits, participate in more advanced academic programs, and are more likely to graduate high school and pursue college.5

Student engagement begins with parent engagement, family engagement, and community engagement. But the engagement has to begin before school does.

1 Thompson, K. (2015). English learners' time to reclassification: An analysis, Educational Policy, published online Aug. 2015, 1-34.
2 Hart, B. & Risley, T. (Spring 2003). The early catastrophe: The 30 million word gap by age 3, American Educator, 4-9.
3 Putnam, R. (2015). Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, New York: Simon & Schuster
4 Moore, K., Caal, S., Rojas, A., Lawner, E., & Walker, K. (2014). Abriendo Puertas/Opening Doors Parenting Program: Summary Report of Program Implementation and Impacts, retrieved online.
5 Tarasawa, B. & Waggoner, J. (2015). Increasing parental involvement of English language learner families: What the research says, Journal of Children and Poverty, 21(1), 129-134. 

Friday, January 2, 2015

In a galaxy not so far away

Phil Ostroff | Flickr
Look it up on Wikipedia (Google entry number one) and you learn that a galaxy is a "massive, gravitationally bound system consisting of stars, stellar remnants, an interstellar medium of gas and dust, and dark matter." French computer scientist Owen Cornec has applied this concept to browsing the World's most famous Internet encyclopedia. Cornec's WikiGalaxy visually transforms Wikipedia, mapping every entry to a star in a virtual, searchable galaxy. It also illustrates the breadth of information published on Wikipedia since its launch 14 years ago. There are currently more than 4.6 million articles in the English language Wikipedia alone.

The social practices combined with the technology that make Wikipedia, and other platforms, possible represent new literacies for which understanding is emerging among researchers. Some argue literacy is context dependent, continually changing as new technologies appear while most recognize the social practices that guide work and learning are changing and evolving with technology. If one considers how rapidly technology is developing (see Moore's Law), literacy is becoming quite a fluid concept.

Professors Michele Knobel and Colin Lankshear summarize new-literacy research findings in the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy. They frame the research as focused on "ways in which meaning-making practices are evolving under contemporary conditions" along with, and perhaps due to, the expansion and refinement of digital electronics and communications technologies (read Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations).

Knobel and Lankshear distinguish between new and conventional literacies by what they call a different ethos that is emerging through the more integrated social practices made possible by digitization. New literacy practices are more participatory, collaborative, and distributed. Wikipedia has grown into one of the largest reference sites with hundreds of millions of visitors monthly and tens of thousands of contributors working on more than 31 million articles in 285 languages. It's success depends on aggregating knowledge on a massive scale; on the abilities of people to research, evaluate, synthesize, coordinate, disseminate information, and communicate across diverse communities. Examples of platforms where new literacies are emerging include social media sites, like Facebook and Twitter, affinity spaces like the fan fiction site, Kindle Worlds, blogging and micro-blogging platforms, photo curating and sharing sites, mobile applications, digital storytelling and pod-casting media, and online gaming. There are economic implications as well. Peer production platforms are emerging in a variety of sectors, giving rise to new modes of labor, providing new services, and disrupting older services. Online marketplaces like Fiverr and Amazon's Mechanical Turk allow people to hire others to do simple jobs. eBay is a market place for selling almost any type of merchandise. Etsy creates a massive international market for crafts. The computer operating system, Linux, is an open-source software developed by a peer production network, and peer production has also been utilized in producing Open Educational Resources. Knobel and Lankshear say participation in these platforms involves "deep interactivity, openness to feedback, sharing of resources and expertise, and a will to collaborate and provide support that is writ large into myriad contemporary everyday practices."

Young people learn and engage with new literacies in ways that are often not accommodated in schools' instructional methods, according to Knobel and Lankshear. They point to key findings from new-literacy research for educators to consider: Collaboration and peer dialogue are important. Authenticity matters. Learners should be active. Young people value customization. Creativity requires opportunities to make connections across disciplines. Communication, deliberation, and reflection matter. Meta-cognitive awareness, regulation, and experiences are necessary for learning. And exploration is engaging. Student achievement research reflects such findings as well.

However, another line of research might be of equal importance when considering new-literacy practices. As most teachers have experienced, and most of us are intuitively aware, communications technologies can be distracting. Cognitive scientists are studying technology as it relates to executive function, which refers to one's ability to manage and control one's own cognitive processes. While there is no evidence yet to suggest a negative impact on long term executive function, there are studies that show these technologies can have an immediate negative impact on one's cognitive ability to exert self-control and concentrate, both necessary for deep learning. The challenge, then, is to figure out how to leverage the new-literacy platforms for the better. No matter where the research on executive function leads, negative effects on executive function have more to do with how these technologies are used, not simply that we are using them.

What can schools do?

First, don't ignore the problem. Embrace it. Technology isn't exactly rolling back these days. Moore's Law is still playing out. Furthermore, collaboration is the bedrock of innovation. Or so says Walter Isaacson in The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution. In a biographical study of individuals working at the intersection of computing and networking, Isaacon makes the case that innovation most often happens collaboratively, when individuals work together to synthesize disparate insights that had not previously been connected. Isaacson has written about many of America's geniuses, people individually credited with extraordinary accomplishments. People like Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, and Steve Jobs. But all of these people, while perhaps gifted, were collaborators. They were connectors, working across disciplines and invoking the expertise, perspectives, and talents of others to create something that could not have otherwise come about. New literacies and new technologies make this kind of work more possible than ever.

Second, follow the research. In addition to the findings above, Knobel and Lankshear point to something educationists already know: frequent formative assessment and feedback are critical for deep learning. They provide structure and accountability around learning objectives and can also be useful in helping students navigate new platforms for learning and new literacy practices. Video games are well known to integrate frequent assessment and feedback to provide scaffolding for game-players to improve.

Finally, educators themselves must experience and understand what it means to participate in new literacy practices. Only by internalizing the ethos of some of these practices can educators effectively navigate the nuances that distinguish them from conventional literacy practices and facilitate real meaning-making around learning standards, goals, and objectives.

Where to start?

In this post alone I have incorporated Blogger, YouTube, Flickr, Twitter, and Google Search. Or how about a Wikipedia entry? Anyone can do it. And... you would have your very own star in the WikiGalaxy!


  • Knobel, M., & Lankshear, C. (2014). Studying New Literacies. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 58(2), 97–101. 
  • Ossola, A. (2014). Why Kids Won't Quit Technology. The Atlantic. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/12/why-kids-wont-quit-tech/383575/

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Who gets to be a writer?

Drew Coffman | Flickr
More than 400,000 people, including 100,000 kids, participated in '30 days and 30 nights of literary abandon' this November. It was National Novel Writing Month, and if you were up to it, the task was to write 50,000 words of a novel in one month. The goal of National Novel Writing Month (also known as NaNoWriMo) is to get people writing and keep them motivated. It’s not about finishing a novel. It’s about first drafts. Anyone who gets to 50,000 words is a winner. The idea is that anyone who gets to 50,000 words, or even close, gets past the hardest part of novel writing. They get momentum, structure, and perhaps something really special to pursue.

Why would someone do this?

Research has a lot to say about what compels people to do creative, difficult work. Writing a novel qualifies as both. Intrinsic motivation, doing something for its inherent satisfactions, is necessary for high-quality learning and creativity. However, it’s not a completely independent quality. Intrinsic motivation seems to be conditional on people realizing some basic psychological needs associated with their participation in an activity. Structures that facilitate feelings of competence and a sense of autonomy in an activity increase intrinsic motivation.

Extrinsic motivation can help too. Extrinsic motivation refers to behavior that is driven by external rewards such as money or grades; some outcome that is separate from any inherent satisfaction associated with completing a task. While extrinsic motivation can undermine creativity if it is perceived to be controlling, it can also support intrinsic motivation. Structures that focus work, thus promoting self-regulation for making progress, can help people internalize values and behaviors that are necessary for creative, difficult work. The key is that there is still some level of autonomy or choice associated with participation. Choice is critical. It is both a necessary component for intrinsic motivation and a pathway from less autonomous forms of extrinsic motivation to more autonomous forms.

A research article recently published in Studies in Continuing Education explores issues around identity and learning in becoming a fiction author. Patricia Gouthro, who interviewed 40 published fiction authors, argues that fiction writers have a strong desire to do work that is meaningful to them. They are compelled to write. They are intrinsically motivated. Becoming a fiction writer is a particular kind of work that is pursued by personal choice. One does not stumble into this line of work. Gouthro found that successful authors benefited from gradual successes and feedback regarding their work, things that facilitate feelings of competence and autonomy. Also, while writers often report that much of the work is solitary, they benefit from the affirmation that comes through being connected to others in the field - writers, editors, and even readers - during the writing process. Stephen King, in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, talks about writing for his "constant reader," someone who reviews his work and is always in his mind as he is writing.

But for some, intrinsic motivation is not enough. While NaNoWriMo appeals to intrinsically motivated people and provides structures that help writers feel competent, autonomous, and connected to others, it also provides some external structure that is purely extrinsic: a word-count, a deadline, and the potential for status associated with being a winner. But choice is still important. One does not have to submit to this sort of structure. But they do, in increasingly large numbers.

Does it work?

Well, more than 90 novels begun during NaNoWriMo have been published, including New York Times Best Sellers Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, and Cinder by Marissa Meyer.

So who gets to be a writer?

I like what National Novel Writing Month Executive Director Grant Faulkner says about this. “Start writing. Now. Write with moxie, with derring-do, with abandon,” Faulkner said. “Don’t let anyone tell you you’re not a writer because the definition of being a writer is to write.”
  • Gouthro, P. (2014). Who gets to become a writer? Exploring identity and learning issues in becoming a fiction writer. Studies in Continuing Education, 36(2), 173-187.
  • Ryan, R. &, Deci, E. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions, Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25, 54-57.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Finding your voice

Recording artist Usher Raymond IV spent last spring helping aspiring singers reach for success on NBC's reality television singing competition, The Voice. In fact, Usher and his protege, Josh Kaufman, won the competition, which for Josh included a large cash prize and a record deal with Universal Music Group. It's a terrific show if you like good singing, and it can be touching to watch people, through mentorship and hard work, realize a dream. This fall Usher has partnered with Scholastic Corporation, a leading publisher of educational materials, to launch an initiative to elevate the importance and joy of reading for all children. Through its Open a World of Possible initiative, Scholastic, and its partners like Usher, are working to "encourage conversations in classrooms, at home, and online so teachers, parents, and children can share ideas and advice about simple ways to incorporate reading into busy classroom days and family time."1 It's about helping children learn to consume, comprehend, process, internalize, and create quality written information... that's what literacy is. It's also about helping children find a voice and realize dreams... that's what literacy does.

Scholastic, the World's largest publisher and distributor of children's books, asserts that its mission to help "children learn to read and love to read" is based on the belief that independent reading is a critical part of children's learning and growth. Scholastic's research compendium, The Joy and Power of Reading: A Summary of Research and Expert Opinion, summarizes the literature around independent reading.2 While recognizing that the scholarship around language acquisition and literacy is "vast, varied, and vital", Scholastic's compendium highlights the importance of reading volume, access and exposure to print materials and books, reader choice and variety, and reading aloud to learning readers.

It should come as no surprise that the more students read, the better their comprehension, fluency, and vocabulary. What might be surprising is how little time students actually spend reading. About 10 minutes per day on average at home for kids up to age 12. That drops off among older students. Also, the older the students, the smaller the percentage who report reading for pleasure at all.3 That doesn't bode well for reaching higher levels of literacy; levels at which students begin to internalize what they read and develop sophisticated communication and writing ability.

Time to read is key. Two experimental studies, meeting the research standards put forth by the National Reading Panel, published this year show independent reading programs in schools can facilitate increased involvement in reading as well as significant gains in total reading ability, reading comprehension, and scores on state-mandated high-stakes end-of-course exams.

In one study, conducted in a high-poverty school in the southeastern United States, third graders given time to read, along with guided choices about what they read, showed increased involvement in reading as measured by attention to text, affective responses to their reading material, their physical interaction with text, and their interaction with others about what they were reading.4 Another study conducted in a large public high school in the southeastern United States with a majority of students qualifying for free-or-reduced lunch showed that independent reading, with simple accountability measures, could facilitate improved student achievement even after only a few interventions (14 hour long sessions over 5 months). While the control groups gained the equivalent of one grade level for one year in both total reading ability and reading comprehension, the experimental group made gains that were more than twice that of the control group.5

I don't think it's a question of whether independent reading is superior to skill-building with respect to reading instruction. Both are important. Direct instruction, appropriately differentiated, is important for readers who enter school with deficiencies in alphabet knowledge and phonological awareness. But I also think it's important to engage students in reading; to help them recognize and participate in the joys of reading at the same time. Also, considering the little time students spend reading outside of school, it just makes sense that reading in school can both help improve academic achievement and, potentially, help foster a love of reading that extends beyond school; that helps students find their voices and, maybe, realize their dreams.

  1. Scholastic Media Room (2014). Usher Joins Scholastic to Launch Open a World of Possible Initiative and Celebrate the Power and Joy of Reading. Retrieved from http://mediaroom.scholastic.com/press-release/usher-joins-scholastic-launch-open-world-possible-initiative
  2. Bridge, L. (2014). The Joy and Power of Reading: A Summary of Research and Expert Opinion. New York: Scholastic
  3. Rideout, V. (2014). Children, Teens, and Reading: A Common Sense Media Research Brief. Common Sense Media. Retrieved from https://www.commonsensemedia.org/research/children-teens-and-reading
  4. Hall, K. Hedrick, W. & Williams, L. (2014). Every Day We're Shufflin': Empowering Students During In-School Independent Reading. Childhood Education, 90(2), 91-98.
  5. Cuevas, J., Irving, M., & Russell, L. (2014). Applied Cognition: Testing the Effects of Independent Silent Reading on Secondary Students' Achievement and Attribution. Reading Psychology, 35(2), 127-159