It’s so simple it slips by most educators


Simple is Better

Lets focus on something that is so simple it slips by most educators. In fact, it is easily the most non-predicted, surprising “Top 15 factor” for student achievement. That’s partly because it is happening everyday, all day, in your work. It’s ubiquitous. It’s almost like the joke that 8-year olds tell:

“Help, help, it’s all around me!”
The friend says, “What’s the problem? What’s all around you?”
“My belt” he says, with a grin.

Actually, this factor is so powerful, it’s finally getting the research done that it deserves. Can you guess what it is?

The Research

The top 15 student achievement factor is “Clarity.” It’s a top 15 factor in Visible Learning by John Hattie (2010). Here’s an example of what ‘clarity’ is.

In a recent study, HOW the teacher said something made all the difference.

I have said (and written) that brains often need short cognitive breaks. But, I never said, “Tell your kids that their brains lose focus after 20 minutes and they need a break to build their brain power back up.”

Your word choice is critical. Students have many beliefs about willpower. For example, some believe willpower is limited to a few minutes and others believe it’s mostly up to, well, their willpower. If you view it as a non-limited resource, it impacts sustained learning when working on a strenuous mental task.

In a recent study, the participants who were led to view willpower as non-limited showed greater sustained, quality learning (20% better) over the full duration of the task. In short, if you tell kids, “Your brain power wears out after the hard job of thinking” they believe it!

The study highlights the interactive nature of motivational and cognitive processes: motivational factors can substantially affect people’s ability to recruit their cognitive resources to sustain learning over time.

You can also “frame” an upcoming class event as either work or fun. Faced with a decision between two classroom options, one labeled “80% fun,” the other “20% hard work and misery,” which would your students choose? The overall class time is exactly the same, but most students would pick “80% fun.” The language used to describe options often influences what students choose, a phenomenon called ‘the framing effect.’

Using fMRI scans, researchers link the framing effect to neural activity in a key emotion center in the human brain, the amygdala. They also identify another region, the orbital and medial prefrontal cortex, which may moderate the influence of emotion on decisions—the more activity subjects had in this area, the less susceptible they were to the framing effect.

Statements made with a greater downside risk activate the amygdala. In other words, the more we use our frontal lobes and the less the amygdala, the less we are likely to base our decisions on emotion. Sounds like, “Duh?” research, but it’s actually profound.

PART TWO: Applications and Contributions

We all have our biases, but framing is very intentional. As you work with others, framing is the “spin” you put on things. I call it an intentional bias. For example, do NOT say to students, “Your brain runs out of energy after twenty minutes, so that’s why we need energy breaks!” This ‘plants the seeds’ of an energy drop. It is not speculation, it’s actually been researched (Miller, et al, (2012).

Instead, you should say to your students, “After twenty or so minutes, we’ll take a quick stretch break just to bump up circulation and raise the good brain chemicals.”

That’s it; no gloomy predictions – just say what you’ll be doing.

Here’s another example in the area of testing. A teacher might think to him/herself: “That last quiz was a disaster. One in five completely failed it. If we don’t ensure everyone does their daily reviews, nobody will pass it next time.”

But, what you should say to the class is, “Good work for most of you on the last quiz. We aren’t yet at the 100% pass rate, so this week we’ll be trying out a few different things to get everyone in the pass column.”

Note that the framing effect could realistically be used all day long, and all year long. Too much can be annoying and a lot of work for you. But when things are not working well, one place to notice is how you frame the daily events. For example:

“I’m worried. You have only five minutes left and if you don’t get your act together, your team loses out and you’ll never make the deadline.” Or, you could say,

“Attention everyone: You’re all right on track. In your last five minutes, be sure everyone gets his or her two items listed and the team report is finished just like the posted sample. This will ensure everyone gets full credit. Now turn to your team mates and say, ‘We can do it!’”

Notice how there are many ways to say the same thing. We all have our biases. Why not put a positive spin to things so that students feel more capable and energized?

Let me know how this works for you.


* * * * Opportunity Notice * * * *

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De Martino B, Kumaran, D, Seymour B, Dolan RJ. (2006) Frames, biases, and rational decision-making in the human brain. Science. Aug 4;313(5787):684-7.
Hattie, JA (2010) Visible Learning. Rutledge, London, UK.
Miller, E. M., Walton, G. M., Dweck, C. S., Job, V., Trzesniewski, K. H., & McClure, S. M., (2012). Theories of willpower affect sustained learning. PLoS One, 7, e38680.

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