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Posted at 11:30 AM ET, 12/ 6/2010

Willingham: Close to a magic bullet in education

By Valerie Strauss

My guest today is cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia and author of “Why Don’t Students Like School?”

By Daniel Willingham
No one talks about “magic bullets” in education, except to warn that something is not one.

Recent work in social psychology may bring us as close to a magic bullet at we’re likely to get.
The intervention concerns gender and achievement gaps, those groups of students who persistently perform worse than we would expect.

For example, women represent only about 25% of the PhDs in the physical sciences. There’s no evidence that they are any less capable than men, but they earn worse grades in college physics courses, and thus are less competitive for spots in graduate school. Many are likely discouraged from even applying.

The discrepancy in ability and performance is thought to be due to stereotype threat. This occurs when a member of a stereotyped group is, however subtly, reminded of the stereotype.

Concern about fulfilling the stereotype leads to anxiety which, in turn, negatively affects performance.

A recent experiment examined the impact of a brief self-affirmation writing exercise. Students selected from a list the value that meant the most to them, and wrote for 15 minutes about why it was so important.

Control subjects picked the value they thought least important, and wrote about why it might be important to others.

This brief writing exercise occurred once during the first week of classes and again in the fourth week. (The physics professor and teaching assistants did not know which students were in the experimental or control groups.)

When scores on class tests (three midterms and a final examination) were examined, there was a gender gap, but it had been reduced in the values-affirmation group by about 60%.

At the end of the semester, researchers also administered a standardized test of conceptual ideas in physics. For this test the gender gap disappeared altogether.

This is the sort of intervention that sounds too good to be true. A mere half hour of student time seems to have a significant impact on the gender gap in physics.

This sort of brief self-affirmation exercise has been shown effective in at least one other group—African-American middle school boys.

How could such a brief intervention have such a profound effect? Consistent with the steretotype threat hypothesis, there is evidence that self-affirmation reduces stress. In this study, college students who performed the self-affirmation exercise before a stressful examination showed normal levels of epinephrine—a sign of sympathetic nervous system activity--after the exam.

Control subjects showed elevated levels of epinephrine.

Self-affirmation is not the sort of magic bullet that eliminates a problem. But an intervention that can attenuate gender and achievement gaps at such low cost to students and educators seems magical indeed.


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By Valerie Strauss  | December 6, 2010; 11:30 AM ET
Categories:  Achievement gap, Daniel Willingham, Guest Bloggers, Research  | Tags:  achievement gap, daniel willingham, education research, gender gap, school reform  
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I just have to politely differ with the lead. Lots and lots of voices talk about magic bullets in education. They don't use that term as it's inherently disparaging, but the concept is wildly popular with the powerful but ignorant. Just see "Waiting for Superman" (magic bullets: eliminating teachers' unions and exalting charter schools).

Posted by: CarolineSF | December 6, 2010 12:06 PM | Report abuse

The price is right, the effort is minimal, but I can certainly see where the results could be huge.

Much like a daily exercise, children given a chant, or routine, are more likely to follow their own direction once heard from their own mouths.

I do believe though it requires more than a single cheerleading exercise. I would be curious to see this performed prior to testing by NCLB to see the difference in test scores.

Posted by: educ8er | December 6, 2010 12:24 PM | Report abuse

No, educ8er, no. That comment is a sad, sad commentary on how far down the wrong road we've come.

Not somebody else's chant "from their own mouths." Affirmation of THEIR OWN most important values.

There is such a movement still afoot. The Center for Applied Linguistice has such self-exploration and affirmation writing activities in its ELL training materials. I've used them, they "work".

Last year, Some of us tried hard to get them incorporated into the curriculum and "goal statement" for our proposed school advisory period, but standards-driven admministrators threw them out, in favor of using the advisory to acquaint children with expectations they face and help them to adjust to those. Chants, if you will.

This year, they are back again, and growing in support. Even evil for-profit turnaround partners seem willing to experiment with them (if there's profit in it), and might be moving to incorporate such ideas into the proprietary curriculum programs they sell.

This study is anough to push it over the top, I think. Thank you, Dr. Willingham.

Posted by: mport84 | December 6, 2010 2:39 PM | Report abuse

mport, my apology. I was talking about our youngest students where it would be difficult to get them to express values. Calm down.

Posted by: educ8er | December 6, 2010 2:53 PM | Report abuse

Experienced teachers who have an understanding of the social and emotional needs of their students have always been the most effective, but often undervalued by modern school reform policy. Inspiring children by understanding the uniqueness of the individual is not part of standardized test preparation that defines today's "Highly-Effective Teacher", but it has the greatest long-term benefit towards developing self-aware and productive young people.

Unfortunately, the business model of education reform promotes the idea that good teachers and administrators can be quickly produced in a system of accountability, with interchangeable parts like that of an efficient assembly line manufacturing plant.

Modern school reformers like Arne Duncan and Michelle Rhee do not adequately appreciate the fact that students are human, and therefore have individual emotional and experiential characteristics that need to be addressed as part of effective teaching.

Taylorism (from Wikipedia):

Scientific management was a theory of management that analyzed and synthesized workflows. Its main objective was improving economic efficiency, especially labor productivity. The core ideas of the theory were developed by Frederick Winslow Taylor in the 1880s and 1890s ...

... In management literature today, the greatest use of the term "scientific management" is with reference to the work of Taylor and his disciples ("classical", implying "no longer current, but still respected for its seminal value") in contrast to newer, improved iterations of efficiency-seeking methods. In political and sociological terms, Taylorism can be seen as the division of labor pushed to its logical extreme, with a consequent de-skilling of the worker and dehumanisation of the workplace. Taylorism is often mentioned along with Fordism, because it was closely associated with mass production methods in factories, which was its earliest application. Today, task-oriented optimization of work tasks is nearly ubiquitous in industry. The theory behind it has evolved greatly since Taylor's day, reducing the ill effects, although in the wrong hands it is sometimes implemented poorly even now.

Posted by: AGAAIA | December 6, 2010 4:15 PM | Report abuse

AGAAIA, you eloquently said what I hear from my collogues. These are the teachers I wish to grow up and be like. (I am a first year teacher…at this grade level). When will education change for the better? Change is constant, I know this. But most of the change seems to be for the better test score. When will we see what has been proven to work…smaller class size? In response to self affirmation exercises, time is minimal but as I see it all available time is scheduled. If we try this technique what would we have to give up? Perhaps this worked because the students were of collage age? Could a chant of some sort be as effective for the primary grades?

Posted by: tristaartist | December 8, 2010 8:07 PM | Report abuse

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