Fostering Growth Mindsets in Students

Motivational psychologist Carol Dweck has spent most of her career looking at how a person’s views about intelligence affect their performance in a particular domain. Those who believe that intelligence is fixed, unchangeable, and innate have what’s known as a fixed mindset or fixed theory of intelligence, whereas those who believe that success and intelligence are a product of one’s efforts and hard work have what’s known as a growth mindset.

Applied to Goals

These mindsets influence many other things, such as what kind of goals people set. Those with fixed mindsets tend to set performance goals, where instead of bettering  themselves, they accomplish as task in order to prove how good their (fixed) level of talent/intelligence is. Alternatively, those with growth mindsets tend to set mastery goals, where they try to excel at the task itself, which in turn tends to be correlated with higher levels of intrinsic motivation.

Applied to Education

This paradigm applies very well to the field of education, especially in a system where students are constantly under pressure to succeed. Dweck has written a whole ton of papers about how her theory can help students to achieve in school, such as this one and this one. She has also done studies showing how students who have been taught about the differences between these mindsets, and who have been exposed to some introductory science about brain plasticity, have shown remarkable increases in their academic performance. Her team has even created a computer game called Brainology based on this model, where students can learn and apply this theory in a fun way.

Okay, so that’s the gist of it. (I didn’t want to go on, but check out the links if you’re interested!)
Now here are some of my own thoughts about this!

1. Parallels

It’s amazing to see just how many parallels there are between Dweck’s theory, and several other psychological theories. Check out this shmexy diagram I just made:

I’d definitely endorse the message that Dweck and others are promoting about intelligence. And it doesn’t even have to be through her computer program – anyone who is aware of it can go ahead and just teach it! I would recommend introducing the concept at the beginning of Grade 7 (or whenever high school starts). This would give students a great head start for their high school studies, and empower them to do well and to stay in school.

2. Self-Evaluation Grades

As for our grades, well, they currently give no indications to students one way or another. I admit this would be highly tricky to do.

For instance, I remember in elementary school, the back page of our report cards would always include a “self-evaluation” section. We didn’t know it at the time, but I fathom/hope that this was an attempt to incorporate this message of empowerment.

The problem? Most of us always gave ourselves the best marks possible on that report card, rather than being genuine and thoughtful in our self-evaluation. e.g. 1 1 1 1 1 1. (on a scale from 1-4). Of course, we made sure to bring down a few of the grades, to make others seem like we were being realistic. e.g. 1 1 2 1 2 1

Why? Because we were afraid of not impressing and pleasing our parents and teachers. Back then, we lived in a world where we had to constantly try to impress them with our work, day in and day out. We had what’s known as a contingent self-esteem. A sense of self that depended on how well we did in schools. This is especially bad in certain cultures, as this 60 minutes Australia report shows. So even when this new set of grades came out, we students were still stuck in the mindset of our regular grades because they were not explained properly.

So what needs to be done here? I say, let’s beexplicit with our students about what we’re actually trying to do here. Like Dweck and her team are doing. And in the process, we can show students a neat lesson in psychology.

4. There’s this unfortunate prevailing notion in our culture that endorses a fixed mindset. For some reason, students always like to say, “oh, he’s so smart” or, “I’m not smart enough for this class,” etc. Now I’m not sure if this is a natural human thing, or a product of our educational system, but I’m guessing that it’s a combination of the two.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I actually do think that some people have certain innate qualities about them that give them advantages or disadvantages over others in many domains. But in most cases, I believe these differences can be overcome (or at least mitigated). I picture it like a running race, but where each runner starts off at a different distance away from the finish line. While you may be place farther back than someone else, the “race” isn’t over. Okay, so that’s my position… there’s actually a huge debate in the field of psychology about this, if you’re interested.

5. One way of changing at least one of the outcomes – whether or not students opt to challenge themselves – is by implementing yet another psychological concept – approach vs. avoidance. But I’ll get to that later! (Please nag me if I don’t get that post done soon!)

Follow-Up to the Introduction/Conclusion Post

After having read my previous post about the legitimacy of the five-paragraph essay, one of my readers (and good friends) had a rebuttal: while the 5-paragraph essay may not the most applicable writing format for students to learn, it does have its own strengths. For instance, it teaches students to focus their attention on a single topic, and to remain steadfast on that topic as their text progresses. It gets them to outline their arguments, and to be fully aware of what they plan on writing before they go and write it. (In other words, to see the forest through the trees.)

When she brought up this point, I then brought up some counter-points of mine own. But it turns out that we’re actually in full agreement on this issue, and on each others’ points. You see, the 5-paragraph essay actually does provide some valuable lessons for our students. And let’s face it: especially given some of our large class sizes, these essays are the easiest and simplest to correct and teach. (But that hints at a whole ‘nother issue!) But this is the not the only way of teaching those lessons. And this is in no way the only way in which people write. So it would be best to teach this format at the beginning of high school, but only for a few months. Once the students “get the message” about the importance of structure and flow, we can then diversify, show them the other formats for the rest of their years in high school.

In other (but related) news, I just saw this post on answers.yahoo.com:

Notice how whatisan...’s second paragraph about school runs counter to her first paragraph about how “good writers” act! I find this striking (no less because of the juxtaposition of these arguments!) This, to me, shows how there’s this organizational culture at school that emphasizes following the rules, and getting a good grade, over doing the right thing.

Letting students choose the contents of a lecture

Last year, (as she does every year,) my cognition professor did something incredible. She allowed our class (0f 600+ students) to determine what the material for the last week of the course would be. We held an in-class vote on it, and eventually the topic of Autism won out.

So why am I pointing this out? Well, according to SDT (self-determination theory), there are countless benefits to giving people choices when they’re completing an activity. In Why We Do What We Do, Edward Deci writes about a study he did on this effect. All participants were given the change to work on a set of puzzles. However, participants in the experimental group were offered a choice about which puzzles to work on, while those in the control group were assigned particular puzzles. As a result, those in the experimental condition (1) spent more time playing with the puzzles and (2) reported liking them more.

As Deci goes on explaining himself, I see snippets of what my cognition teacher did, and the ramifications of it:

“The opportunity to make even these small choices had made a difference in their experience and strengthened their intrinsic motivation. … People who were asked to do a particular task but allowed the freedom of having some say in how to do it were more fully engaged by the activity. …

Providing choice is a central feature in supporting a person’s autonomy. It is thus important that people in positions of authority begin to consider how to provide more choice. Even in crowded classrooms, fast-paced offices, or harried doctors’ offices there are ways, and the more creative one is, the more possibilities one will find. Why not give students choice about what field trips to take and what topics to write their papers about, for example? …

[Meaningful choice] encourages people to fully endorse what they are doing; it pulls them into the activity and allows them to feel a greater sense of volition; it decreases their alienation.

In all of my time going through schooling (and that’s 17 years and counting!), I have never seen a teacher give students choice in such a manner. Teachers often let students choose what topic to do their assignments on, but they never let them determine the content of their lectures.

For thinking creatively and democratically, and for proving that education reforms can take place even in large, alienating lecture hall classes, this action my cognition teacher took deserves her the title of education trailblazer!

A new way to go about interdisciplinary learning

Currently, under the traditional education system, the vast majority of a students’ schooling takes place in classes divided by academic discipline:

English, Math, Geography, Science, etc.

And this pattern continues on from ~Grade 3, all the way to university. So, for instance, most management students take the following “core courses”:

Finance, Marketing, Operations, Human Resources, etc.

And then go on to study 1-3 academic disciplines. In one of my previous posts, I described how schools need to show students the meaningful connections between the different things they’re learning in school. Well, our students rarely ever get a chance to make connections between these subjects. It’s as if they’re living double lives, (or rather, 5-9 “lives” at a time)! Each subject is taught in separate classrooms, separate teachers, separate material, and often with different sets of classmates.

So far, there have been good efforts to promote interdisciplinary learning. These efforts are great, and should be promoted in our schools. For instance,

1) Some teachers so try to incorporate material from other disciplines. For instance, when a poli sci prof includes a bit of sociological network theory in 1 or 2 of their social movements lectures. (In particular, the teachers who do this, tend to be the ones who have some autonomy to determine the content they teach, rather than being restricted by government mandates, departmental rules, and the like.)

2) Many schools are trying to help students integrate their learning by introducing multidisciplinary courses, and “integrative/capstone project” courses.

Now don’t get me wrong, I believe these methods are great, and should be promoted. But I just don’t think they go far enough for at least 2 reasons:

1) Often times, a topic which spans over multiple disciplines is explored, but no perspective taking is ever quite achieved. What do I mean by that? Well, picture you and a friend sitting in a room, and one of you holds up a sculpture (by some famous artist) between the two of you. If each of you is asked to describe the sculpture, the two of you will most likely come up with similar but different answers, because each of you is viewing the object from a different perspective. Now, to use the example I brought up earlier, picture political science being one of you, and sociology being the other. Often what happens when a teacher introduces an interdisciplinary topic, they are still viewing it from their disciplines’ perspective. The interdisciplinary learning then becomes relatively superficial in nature.

2) At most, students take 1-2 interdisciplinary courses out of several years of schooling. It’s like learning to professionally sing using karaoke rather than a music coach. They don’t cut to the heart of the matter. To “go further” with interdisciplinary learning, we need to challenge our assumption that students’ learning always has to be organized  by discipline.

MBA Program Cores

Many leading-edge business schools are already starting to approach education from the perspective of issues, rather than disciplines. Take the Yale School of Management, for instance. Their MBA core is structured by “Organizational Perspectives.” Students take courses such as:

Competitor
Customer
Investor
Sourcing and Managing Funds
State and Society
Employee
Innovator
etc.

As Yale describes it,
“Today, managerial careers cross functions, organizations, and industries, as well as cultural and political boundaries. Yale SOM teaches management fundamentals in an integrated way — the way successful managers must function every day. [...] This focus on organizational role, instead of disciplinary topic, creates a richer, more relevant context for students to learn the concepts they need to succeed as leaders.”

These courses form a coherent narrative, which is, what our brains are actually looking for. This method of structuring is more realistic, because this is what people normally do. People don’t wake up in the morning and think, “what kind of geography am I going to do today?”, they think, “how am I going to solve this problem of mine?” and then draw from whatever disciplines/schools of thought that are necessary to solve the problem. Of course, some jobs are very specialized, but many others are ones where people have to build bridges between different kinds of information.

But who says that you need to wait 15 years to get to your Master’s level to get this kind of interdisciplinary schooling? And who says that you need to become a management student to do so? My recommendation here is to bring this kind of structuring to more schools, and to more subjects, and to have it trickle down to the undergrad, and high school levels. But remember, this is not to replace traditional disciplines, but to complement them. Students should feel free to pick some courses that are organized around traditional disciplines, and some others that are not.

Bird courses, as an example of extrinsic motivation

Many university students pick their elective courses based on how easy they are. Any time a course becomes significantly easier than the rest on campus, it starts to become known as a “bird course.” For example, in the university where I’m studying, some of the most well-known “bird courses” are “Natural Disasters” and “The Art of Listening.” These courses quickly become really popular, because hey, who wouldn’t want to raise their GPA?

But this, to me, is one of the effects of students being externally motivated – how they’re being motivated to act by grades, rather than by the course material itself. Consequently, thousands of students end up taking courses that aren’t very meaningful to them, and that aren’t in line with their life goals and interests. To put it bluntly, it wastes the students’ time and energy, as well as the schools’.

In order to behave in an intrinsically motivated fashion, a student has to work against the system, rather than with it. They have to reassure themselves that “even if I don’t do well, it’s OK, because I’m going to learn a lot of meaningful information.”

So how do we fix this?

This is much easier said than done. In an ideal world, we would give students credits for being more or less interested and/or personally invested in their courses. But then, there’d be nothing stopping students from claiming to be 100% intrinsically motivated 100% of the time. And we could resort to lie detector tests to sort that out, but of course, that’s just ridiculous and invasive!

Psychologists have actually found many, many ways to test someone’s level of intrinsic motivation on any given task. For instance, you can have a person perform an activity for a specific period of time. And then, once that time is up, you give the person “free time” to do whatever they please. The more the person continues to spend their time on the first activity, the more that person is said to be intrinsically motivated.

This could be successfully applied to a school setting, but definitely NOT if it affects students’ grades. Because the minute they perceive that this test will affect their grade, they will spend all of their “free time” doing their activity. So the problem is not being able to track intrinsic motivation. The problem is when we try to use intrinsic motivation as a diagnostic tool, in order to determine a person’s grade, or to reward or punish them in any, shape, or form. Because rewards and punishments are just that – extrinsic motivators!

“Making room” for intrinsic motivation

So the solution then is not to track intrinsic motivation, but to make room for it. To give students a space (and resources) where they can pursue their interests, without having to be obsessed about their transcript, their resume, or “what a future employer/school will think about this.”

And there are many ways to go about doing this. One of such solutions is actually one that’s already in place in some schools here in North America: pass/fail courses. Here, as long as a student passes the course, it will show up as a “pass” on their transcript. The specific grade they get in the course will not affect their GPA. This solution is easier to implement than some of the other ones I will present in the future, because it fits so nicely into the rest of the traditional (and completely outdated!) system. It doesn’t go far enough in my opinion, but it’s a start, and it’s headed in the right direction.

We need to expand the pass/fail system to high school and CEGEP levels, and properly explain it within the context of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation to students. I have no idea why these concepts have been around for over 40 years, and yet the vast majority of students have never been taught them, even though (1) they spend over 4500 hours sitting in class – what, we never had the chance to tell them about this even once? (2) they spend over 4500 hours sitting in class – these concepts are so prevalent and relevant in their lives!!

Conclusions:

  1. “Bird courses” are a prime example of extrinsically motivated students.
  2. Intrinsic motivation can be measured, but not if the person knows that they will receive a reward and/or punishment as a result of the measurement’s outcome.
  3. Tracking students’ intrinsic motivation (in the “non-contingent” manner) will not decrease it, but nor will it increase it. In order to foster intrinsic motivation, you need to “make room” for it (in terms of space, time, and resources).
  4. One (but definitely not the only) way to “make room” for intrinsic motivation is to use and properly explain the pass/fail system.

The Hole-in-the-Wall project, as an example of intrinsic motivation

[cnnvideo url='http://edition.cnn.com/video/#/video/world/2009/02/22/sidner.india.slumdog.inspiration.cnn' inline='true']

The Hole-in-the-Wall project was dreamed up by Dr. Sugata Mitra, a scientist in Delhi. He wondered, “what would happen if you stuck a computer in a wall in a poor neighbourhood, and let children have free access to it with no supervision?’

The computer was an instant hit with the kids. There was always a line-up for it! The children taught themselves to not only use the computer, but to play the educational games installed on it.

“Now, there are 48 of these across Delhi, and the idea has caught on across the world.”

This is an example of how children really are intrinsically motivated to learn and become educated. You see, no one ever forced them to use the computer, and the children received no external rewards or grades or gold stars for playing the games. But yet, many of them keep coming back to it, again and again, and day after day. “Amazing,” eh?

On a personal level, this is something that I’d like to do someday – something really awesome like this that imparts the gift and the joy of learning to youth.

To learn more about the Hole-in-the-Wall Education Ltd, visit http://www.hole-in-the-wall.com

Values-based education

I believe that our education should be more explicitly values-based. Of course, it’s important to have students go through an educational process. But students also need time to step out off of their proverbial treadmill, and take a look at what they’re doing and why. To be more mindful, and conscious of their education, rather than “just going through the motions.” The same goes for our teachers, staff, and school administrators, who also sometimes lose sight of our many “raisons d’être.”

Edit: Here is a GREAT example of a values-based education! I just discovered this great TEDx talk by Zoe Weil, the President of the Institute for Humane Education. Weil talks about how students need to learn much more than just math, English, and science. They need to learn to be morally conscious, and globally aware… to be a part of the world’s solutions, rather than to perpetuate its problems.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t5HEV96dIuY]

What students and teachers are really thinking about

People often talk about what we learn in school, and offer suggestions on how to change or upgrade our schools’ curriculum. (I, for one, have several recommendations on this front. More on those in the future!) But I have yet to see someone outline a step-by-step process of schooling that students go through in our system. So here’s my first attempt at it.

Let’s look at the process of what goes on when a student writes an essay for school.

Note: I’m saying “essay” here, but you can replace this with “research paper,” “project,” “lab report,” or any other long piece of text that a student is asked to write.

  1. The teacher explains the instructions of the essay to the class.
  2. The student writes the essay.
  3. (optional) The student visits/emails/calls the teacher because they have questions about the essay.
  4. The teacher corrects the essay.
  5. The teacher hands the essay back to the student and the student reviews their essay.
  6. (optional) The teacher and student sometimes meet to discuss the essay.
  7. The essay is put away and rarely (if ever) looked at again. Either,

a) The student throws it away at the end of the school year.
b) The teacher stores it, and then shreds it after a few years.
c) The student stores it in their room, closet, or basement. They usually never look at it again, except on occasion, when they feel like reminiscing.

Alright, so what’s on their minds?

Let’s look at this process from the perspective of moment-by-moment consciousness. In other words, what are the students and teachers thinking about during each of these stages? What’s occupying their minds? What’s motivating them to act?

  1. The teacher explains the instructions of the essay to the class.
    They describes the main purposes of the essay, and how it fits into the curriculum, and this is great. But it doesn’t last very long. The discussion quickly segways into grading, rules, timing.
    Student questions revolve around grading:
    “How many pages long should it be?”, “Do we need a cover page?”, “What’s the late penalty?” etc.
  2. The student writes the essay.
    Their primary goal here is to get a good grade.
  3. (optional) The student visits/emails/calls the teacher because they have questions about the essay.
    Their questions usually revolve around optimizing their grade. Because, after all, the students who get the best grades are the ones who are able to “psych out” their teacher a bit.
  4. The teacher corrects the essay.
    While they’re reading, they’re mainly focusing on how well they hold up against the criteria that they previously established. (Granted, I’ve personally only ever had one experience with grading papers, but I can attest that was the #1 thing on my mind the entire time I was correcting.)
  5. The teacher hands the essay back to the student and the student reviews their essay.
    The student looks through the paper to make sure that they got a fair grade. They make sure the teacher added up the points correctly. Many of them only look at the questions/parts where they lost points. They don’t even care to look at what they did right, because hey, as long as you got the credit, what else matters??
  6. (optional) The teacher and student sometimes meet to discuss the essay.
    Most of the time, the student is here to contest the parts of the essay they think were wrongly graded as incorrect/poor.
  7. The essay is put away and rarely (if ever) looked at again.

Notice how at every step of the process, everyone’s main focus is on the grading of the essay. De jure, grades are supposed to be a means to an end, but de facto, the subject material is treated as the means, while the grades is treated like the end. As John Holt puts it, “We encourage [students] to feel that the end and aim of all they do in school is nothing more than to get a good mark on a test, or to impress someone with what they seem to know.”

Caveats

Now, admittedly the above analysis makes a lot of sweeping generalizations.

1. First of all, students actually do spend a lot of time thinking about the course material. It’s not like it’s being ignored or anything! And some of these essays, and teacher-student conversations can and do get very deep.

I would argue, however, that the breadth and depth of their contemplation is only as deep as the grading asks of them. Most students are very busy, and their grades in their other classes would suffer if they went deeper or more broad then what is required of them. This only gets worse in university, when students are pressured to read more and write more in a shorter amount of time. The pressure to do well also increases, as students are now working towards a GPA, and are facing tougher “competition” among their classmates. Then, there are even less opportunities for deeper thinking and creative insights.

Some schools pride themselves on how they set “high standards” for their students, by requiring them to do more, read more, and memorize more. But ironically, these “higher standards” often lead to lower quality education.

2. Second of all, there are also individual differences between students. Some will be more intrinsically motivated in each subject than others. And that’s to be accepted, understood, and even celebrated in my opinion. But that doesn’t take away from how, I believe, the dominant culture among students is to be grade-focused and extrinsically motivated.

3. The second diagram is called an “ideal” for a reason. Reaching this ideal is easier said than done, and it’s impractical for it to be reached 100% of the time. But that’s OK, and it doesn’t take away from us striving towards that ideal, letting students know about this ideal, and reminding students about this ideal when times get rough or boring.

Multiple ways of conveying information

Just now, browsing around in this library, I picked up a large book called History: The Definitive Visual Guide, by Dorling Kindersley. It’s an amazing textbook which brings history to life. Captioned pictures, diagrams, maps, and timelines abound in this book. Each double page is a “capsule” which gives an overview of one topic in history (e.g. Cleopatra, the Napoleonic Wars, The Slave Trade, etc.) which the reader can research further if they’re interested.

The value of images

Having lots of pictures in textbooks is currently viewed as a sort of crutch. That it helps to pique students’ interest, but is ultimately a lesser form of knowledge than text. So as one moves up in the educational system, texts become accompanied with less and less pictures, and students become increasingly discouraged (or at the very least, less encouraged) from including pictures in their schoolwork. To the point where many academic papers contain nothing but text at all. As if pictures are to be associated with weakness, immaturity, and childhood.

The same sometimes goes for audio/visual materials as well. They’re seen as lower down on the totem pole to text, in the same sort of mental hierarchical pecking order people give to different disciplines, as Ken Robinson points out in his famous TED talk. (I’ll get to that in a future post!)

But I completely disagree with this notion. Not only are pictures, graphs, flowcharts, maps, and diagrams a motivating factor for visual students such as myself, but they also convey a whole plethora of information. They “complete the picture” (no pun intended!) where text leaves off. They instantly show multiple connections between many concepts where texts struggle to do the same. As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words!

Recommendation

Let’s encourage our academic paper writers and textbook editors to include more pictures, flowcharts, and diagrams in their works when they contribute to students’ understanding and mastery of the material.

Study technique for visual learners

On a personal level, here’s a technique I sometimes use to memorize lists of concepts. I draw a simple picture that includes one symbol for each of the items I need to memorize. I make sure to annotate the picture with numbers and arrows connecting each number to its respective symbol on the pic. And during test time, if I’m stuck, I simply redraw the picture. It works like a charm!

A recipe for a future-oriented curriculum

It’s often said in graduation speeches that “education is the future.” But most of our schooling is based on the past. We read books that were written in the past, discoveries that were made in the past, quotes people said in the past, and so forth. Much of what students do is simply reproducing the culture of the past. The present and the future are still largely neglected, if not completely ignored at the moment.

I think that schooling should show more of a balance between the past, the present, and the future. We should move the notion that “education is the future” from cliché, to reality, as much as we can.

But don’t get me wrong, I think it is also extremely important that students learn about the foundation of knowledge that the humanity before them has laid out for them. So, overall, the majority of the time spent should focus on the past. So if (hypothetically), the percentages are at: 80% past, 15% present, 5% future, we should try to shift it to something like 55% past, 20% present, 25% future.

So while I’ll cover “the present” in a future post (perhaps there are puns intended…), here’s my Recipe for a Future-Oriented Curriculum which can be applied to mostly any subject:

- The future of society: Write papers envisioning what they think the future of our society will be like, or what they hope the future will be like. (Focusing on 1 aspect of it, the topic will vary from course to course.)

- Future leaders of society: Read and talk about leaders in the world today who have a long-term vision, and are trying to bring about that vision on a practical level

- Their future role in society: Write, or talk about how they see themselves being a part of / contributing to this future society. Have them ask themselves, “Am I going to be a part of the problem, or a part of the solution? And how can I remind myself of these commitments in the future?” –> Hopefully, this can contribute to their moral foundation that can guide them later on in life. We see all too often examples of fully grown adults who have clearly forgotten what they learned in kindergarten!

- The future of their personal lives: Have students write about their personal life will be like, to set long term goals for themselves. Ok, so I remember in Grade 8, we actually did something like this. We set short-term, medium-term, and long-term goals. And this is great. But, as with much of what we did in school, there was never any follow up with our goals. My suggestion here is to have students hold on to these plans (or have the teacher hold on to them), and to bring them out twice a year to have student check-up on how they’re doing. To add a sense of continuity to the exercise.

- The future of a body of knowledge: For science, social studies, and other classes, have students try to come up with their own theories, or new insights they can add to the material they’re learning. It can either be a theoretical insight, or an applied one e.g. In biology class, a student can ask what allows plants to stay upright and grow, or how the emotions of animals differs from the emotions of humans (ok, ok, that was something I asked in biology class!) But instead of having it be a passing thought, allow the class to incorporate the student’s suggestions and interests and discoveries.

Not only will implementing this be a virtue in and of itself, but having a future-oriented curriculum, I believe, would actually be very intrinsically motivating for students. Knowing how what they’re learning is going to affect their future gives students an extra sense of purpose and meaning in school.

 

Learning and producing knowledge generally go in that order, but it’s not absolutely necessary that they do. They can also go hand in hand, you know…

The way our system is set up, it is assumed that students have to keep acquiring knowledge until they reach graduate school at around age 22. For two reasons. 1) It’s assumed that only then are they mature enough to start producing new knowledge and have the rest of the world take them seriously. And while I agree that maturity is a factor that shouldn’t be ignored, children and teens offer something special: extra doses creativity and passion. A lot about making a new discovery requires creativity, and children are full of it. Why don’t we leverage that?

2) Our traditional educational model assumes that you need to learn everything that has been researched in an academic field before being able to contribute to it. But I disagree with this notion. I believe students have the capability to come up with insights, knowledge, and new questions to be explored as they spend years exploring the material. Okay, so students at a young age might have all of the experience necessary to write a lit review for their paper, but this is where teachers can help them out. To work with the student, rather than lecture at him or her.

For instance, even in the second year a student learns biology, they are capable of coming up with new hypotheses to be tested. If a student comes up with something novel, their teacher could help explore that topic, by providing them with whatever resources they need, and by offering them with advice. The student should feel free to take a break from their usual schedule of learning, to go into further depth on their topic of choice, on occasion, to conduct real research to a real audience, and then to return to whatever else they were “supposed” to be learning at that time.

This is all about sending the right messages to kids. At the moment, we send the message that society won’t listen to them, and doesn’t really care about that they think until they become an adult. I think it’d great if we started sending them different messages.

PS: If you’re interested in this last topic I brought up, check out this wonderful related TED talk by Adora Svitak:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V-bjOJzB7LY&w=560&h=315]