How to empower students to learn 

You have the power to help students develop a new sense of self.

What?!?!?!

Ever feel that your students don’t want to learn? 

You know, the student that sits in the back row taking a nap during class. 

The student that won’t stop talking to their neighbor – no matter how many stern glares you send their way. 

The student that turns in homework late – or never – even though you’ve repeatedly mentioned that you’re open to giving extensions if students would just ask. 

What if I told you those experiences might have more to do with a student’s self-identity and less to do with their lack of interest in your course. And that you have the power to help students develop a new sense of self. 

What?!?!?! 

What sets students up for failure? 

The Growable team recently read Bandwidth Recovery by Cia Verschelden. The first 2/3rds of the book were tough, Cia’s writing style is great – but the content broke our hearts. Cia describes in detail the MANY ways students from marginalized groups suffer academically.  

One idea that really stuck with me is how students develop a negative academic self-identity in response to identity threat.  

‘One strategy non-majority and poor students use (sometime unconsciously) to decrease identity threat is to base their self-esteem on domains in which they can be successful and disidentify from domains in which they have failed or in which society expects them to fail.’ 

Verschelden, C. (2017). Bandwidth recovery: Helping students reclaim cognitive resources lost to poverty, racism, and social marginalization. Stylus Publishing, LLC.

Yeah, I totally get that. If I have experiences that teach me I’m not good at a certain skill I will wrap that limitation into my sense of self. Young people especially are always trying to figure out who they are, where they excel, what they should avoid.  

When you have negative academic experiences, your academic sense of self crashes. You fail a test. Your teacher gives critical feedback on your writing. Your experiment doesn’t go as planned. But what if societal stereotypes define your academic self before you even have a chance to have those experiences – positive or negative. Girls aren’t good at math. Black children aren’t smart. Poor students are lazy and forgetful. 

Ugh. 

So, not only are there external factors at play that negatively impact marginalized students. The external factors become internal factors that extend the negative impact. 

Flip the self-identity script 

Thankfully Cia also shares strategies for guiding students to develop a new sense of academic self. One idea I resonated with is a values affirmation exercise. And it’s super simple!  

Provide students with a list of values – optimism, competition, humor – the longer the list the better (the book provides an excellent starting list on page 81, also available here). Instruct students to identify 10 values that resonate with them. Encourage students to add to the values list if they feel something is missing. Then students pick their top 3 values from the list of 10 that they feel are most important. 

Students then use their top 3 values to write a letter to a classmate or the instructor explaining why these values are important to them, how these values guide their actions, and some examples of these values at play in their lives. 

So simple! So why does it help? 

Value affirmation exercise helps students see the value they bring to the classroom. It’s an asset-based approach! Writing the letter reminds students that their competitive drive or creative nature or tendency to create orderliness can be harnessed to help them succeed – both personally and academically.  

Maybe the napping student realizes their value of teamwork means their late nights practicing intramurals interferes with their ability to be a good teammate in class activities. Or the chatty student finds a connection with their community value that leads them to allow their classmates to listen during class. Or the self-reliance value of the student that never submits their homework realizes their inability to ask for help is limiting their ability to further their self-reliance. 

The added self-awareness is great; however, the real gains are seen when a student’s self-identity is impacted. When a student sees that despite the negative stereotypes, they are capable of academic success because of the values they are already living out in other areas of their life. The optimism they bring to personal relationships can help them succeed academically. We are valuing the individual talents and strengths of our students.  

What am I going to do? 

I teach a sophomore level engineering course covering engineering properties of biological materials. Basically, we practice scientifically describing naturally derived materials, like foods, seeds, and plants.  

Defining engineering properties is often confusing for my students. Engineering properties are quantifiable (numbers must be involved) and inherent to the material. I use the concept of states vs traits to help describe the inherent part of the definition. 

For example, temperature is not an engineering property. Yes, we use numbers to describe temperature (it’s currently 32 f while I’m writing this). However, it’s not always 32 F outside. Even if we add qualifiers like at a certain time in the morning on a given day with a certain amount of sunshine… it could be 12 F or 68 F.  

The current temperature outside is a state. It’s a transitory description of the air outside of my house. 

Properties are traits – something that is consistently true of a material. For example, the rate of change of temperature for a material is described by its heat capacity. Heat capacity describes the amount of thermal energy required to change the temperature by a given amount. This value is defined by the types of atoms and bonds that make up the material. Heat capacity is inherent to the material. Kinda like values are inherent to a person. 

I plan to integrate the values affirmation exercise into the introduction of engineering properties in my course this fall. The connection to course content will  benefit my students ability to understand engineering properties while improving their academic self-identity.

What are you going to do? 

Is there a topic in your course or classroom that could be aligned with values? How can you weave in a bit of values affirmation into your normally scheduled content?  

Share your ideas with us and let us know how it goes! 

Note: Like many things, values affirmation exercises only work if you create a classroom environment that values growth and authenticity. Students will see right through you if you approach this activity without truly valuing your students as individuals. 

Join me in trying out this strategy to increase student belonging

Our Growable team just finished up reading Bandwidth Recovery by Cia Verschelden in our book club. We discussed so many of the different ways that students are sapped of cognitive resources. I think one of the “underminers” that hit closest to home was the idea of belonging uncertainty.

What is belonging uncertainty?

Belonging uncertainty is built on two theories of psychosocial development—Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development. Coming into bookclub, I was already familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs basically stating that humans must have their physiological needs for food, water, and shelter met first, then they can think about safety and security, and finally belonging. The hierarchy is generally shown as a pyramid.

Verschelden points out that “to the extent that we are able, we need to help students to meet their basic needs so that they can move on to establishing their place in the campus culture; this sense of belonging is positively correlated with academic success” (p. 46).

The second theory, Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development, was new to me. It describes a series of “crises” that every person needs to resolve as they develop from infancy to old age. For new college students, this crisis is “identity versus role confusion”. Basically, this is that stage of life where students are “finding themselves” and figuring out where they fit. Regardless of background, this is a significant shift for most high school students who are coming to college. For students coming from (1) a financially secure family where (2) Mom or Dad went to college and (3) college is the expected next step, there is the need to navigate the transition from being dependent on your caregivers to being more independent and living on your own. But for many first generation and non-majority students, the shift is even more extreme because of the added stress of lacking social or cultural capital.

Social or cultural capital is like having insider info. You have the 411. You know what’s up. You know where to look for an on-campus job. You know how to find financial aid like scholarships, grants, or loans for school. You know where to find tutoring or writing help if you are struggling in a class. You know how to build relationships with mentors and instructors so that you can ask them for a letter of recommendation. If you don’t have social or cultural capital, you are going to have a bad time.

And this, in my mind, is the root of belonging uncertainty. You don’t know what you don’t know. And if you don’t know, it makes you feel like an outsider and that you don’t belong. Verschelden points out that belonging uncertainty is a stress that many non-majority students feel during their first-year college experience. And it certainly describes my own experience.

College: The perfect breeding ground for belonging uncertainty

When I came to college, I was coming as a first-generation student. My dad had some college (and maybe even an associate’s degree?) but I would be the first in my family to go to a 4-year institution. I remember my first semester was a rocky start.

My first week of classes I felt totally overwhelmed. I went to my Spanish class only to learn that the instructor would not be speaking any English in an effort to provide an “immersive” language experience. I may have tested into that Spanish class, but I was clearly not as proficient as my test score would indicate. As I sat through several days of Spanish class where I didn’t understand ANYTHING that was being spoken, I had this gnawing feeling that I did not belong. Certainly not in that class and maybe not even in college at all. It was only one class, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was totally unprepared for the college experience despite graduating at the top of my high school class. I remember calling my mom crying and asking to come home. Luckily, she suggested that I just drop the class rather than leave college all together. (Thanks for the wise advice, Mom!)

After dropping the class, I felt a bit like a failure, but at least I was getting along great in all of my other courses. As the semester progressed, I seemed to be back to my former confident self. I was blossoming into that annoyingly eager freshman student who raised her hand and answered questions in an auditorium filled with several hundred students in my Psych 101 course. I thought I knew what I wanted to do with my future and the degree I needed to have to get there. But upon sharing my future plans with a college advisor (who I learned was wildly overcommitted with 900 students to advise), I was given my file, told I was in the wrong place, and immediately sent to the education department. Stunned and confused, I didn’t push back on the idea. I took my file, walked across campus to the education building, met with my new advisor, and felt horribly out-of-place all over again.

Now, I did end up graduating with my bachelor’s degree in elementary education. But I also can’t help feeling like I was lucky. Lucky to have a supportive mom who helped me to see a way forward when I was doubtful. Lucky to have found a new home in the education college. I know that under different circumstances I might not have been so lucky and that those two negative experiences early in college could have been my first and last in higher education.

What can we do to help?

Throughout the book, our group commiserated that it was tough to read about all the ways that poverty, racism, and social marginalization harm students (mentally, emotionally, physically, etc.) and we were eager to read in later chapters about interventions that could be used to counter things like belonging uncertainty.

In a later chapter, Verschelden promotes an intervention called Pecha Kucha Life Reports to encourage identity development and combat belonging uncertainty in new undergraduate or graduate students. The life report is a short presentation made up of 20 slides showcasing primarily pictures, where each slide is displayed for 20 seconds when the report is given. The idea is to take about seven minutes to share about yourself and your life journey in a way that “respects cultural norms that values the spoken word”. The life report is adaptable for use with different groups. For example, speakers might share about their whole life from birth until present day with major positive and negative milestones highlighted throughout, or speakers may take a more focused approach by sharing their experiences from high school through the start of college and highlighting future goals and aspirations.

Verschelden points out that she presents her own life report first and is careful to “role-model openness about my life and willingness to take risks”. I love this idea. Whenever I mentor students (especially those that come from non-majority backgrounds), I make a point to share my story. I think students need to hear these messages from those of us within the university who have experienced a similarly rocky road. They need to hear that it is perfectly normal to feel out of place and they do belong (even if it doesn’t feel like it). They need to hear that it’s okay if they don’t come to college equipped with social or cultural capital… but they are going to need it and they can do x, y, and z to build it. And, maybe most importantly, they need to hear that here’s nothing wrong with them! The problem is with the system.

I’m trying it out and I invite you to join me!

I am currently creating my own life report and the experience so far has been really enjoyable! It’s fun to explore old photos and start piecing together all of the twists and turns that have led me to my current position. I think I’m most encouraged by the idea that simply sharing my story can be incredibly validating for students who are just starting down their own path and experiencing “speedbumps” of their own. And that it can be used to start the conversation about how to gain the social and cultural capital needed to navigate the university system.

Whether you create your own life report to share or not, I’d love for you to think about the stories that you share with students who are experiencing belonging uncertainty. What are you sharing? How are you sharing it? What highlights and “speedbumps” have made you the person you are today? Let me know your thoughts and how your own journey of story-sharing is going.

Seeking playful, joyful, and whimsical pathways to learning…

In the foreward to his book, Mindstorms, Seymour Papert writes about the power of models as teaching tools. Specifically, he recounts his love for gears and how they functioned as much more than mere toys in his childhood. In fact, they served as models and “carried many otherwise abstract ideas into my head.”

I have often read that play is essential for childhood development, but this was the first time the idea was articulated in such a way that I could actually understand how (mechanistically) childhood play was functioning to support learning. And the “how” (at least for me) is tied up in this magical idea that playing with toys/games/manipulatives/whatever you want to call them is directly leading to the creation of mental models about how things work.

In my mind, it goes a little something like this… Through play we can notice and wonder and puzzle about what might happen if…. and then we test it out! We interact and play and tinker and make in any number of situated contexts. And whatever happens (or doesn’t happen) is fed back into our system as feedback that informs our mental models of the world and how it works.

Informed by the work of Jean Piaget and his idea of assimilation, Papert goes on to succinctly blow my mind with the quote below about how our success or failure (or maybe it is better to term this ease or difficulty?) as a learner can be traced back to our collection of models that we have acquired over time and whether we can find a way to integrate new information into these models. 🤯

Slowly I began to formulate what I still consider the fundamental fact about learning: Anything is easy if you can assimilate it to your collection of models. If you can’t, anything can be painfully difficult.

Seymour Papert

(PS– As someone who learned about Piaget in my undergrad education program but had never heard of Papert until a few years ago, I found it fascinating that Papert and Piaget worked together in Geneva in the 1950s and 1960s and Papert created his own theory of learning called constructionism based on Piaget’s constructivism. If your interest is piqued and you would like to learn more about these theories, here is a good read from Edith Ackerman.)

But I digress…

I can’t tell you exactly why this idea is so impactful to me. Regardless, the theory that children (and really all of us) are developing mental models by interacting with people and things and the world around us (i.e. learning through play) has led to some pretty significant insights for me as someone who designs learning experiences for K-12 youth.

Maybe the most important of which is how can I better design learning experiences that allow learners of any age to learn through play? How do I help shepherd learners into a headspace that allows for “playing” with ideas– especially ideas that baffle or confound or confuse because they don’t fit with a learner’s established mental models?

I plan to dedicate several future blog posts to exploring this idea of playful, whimsical, and joyful learning experiences. In the meantime, I would love to hear your thoughts! Have you found ways to experience playful learning as an adult? If so, when or how did you do it? If not, what do you think is/was standing in your way?

As an aside, if you love gears as much as Seymour did and want to do a deep dive (like a really, really, really deep dive), you may want to check out this Explorable Explanation from Bartosz Ciechanowski.

We are terrible at thinking about scale.

Do you ever see those analogies that attempt to put something that is mind-boggling large or numerous into perspective? Humphrey Yang posted a great TikTok that used piles of rice to compare $100,000 vs. $1,000,000 vs. $1,000,000,000 vs. Jeff Bezos’ wealth of $122 billion.

One of my favorite Nebraska teachers, Katy Dornbos, posted a tweet to celebrate #MoleDay2021 and provided a money analogy that helps us understand just how big a mole (the unit of measurement equal to 6.02214076×1023, not the animal) is and why it makes sense to have a unit of measurement that big when you are thinking about atoms.

I love these analogies because we are pretty terrible at thinking about large numbers. At some point my brain doesn’t try to think about how much larger a billion is than a million, it just thinks “oh… that number is big and that number is really big“. I think I like these examples because they help my brain break away from this vague and abstract sense of “big” and start helping me think about big numbers in a more concrete and familiar way that leverages my prior knowledge to make these very big numbers suddenly feel real and meaningful.

So what?

You might be thinking, “Okay. But why does it even matter if we are not good at grasping the scale of wealth of the ultra-rich or just how tiny atoms are?”

Well, lately I’ve been running into little everyday things that I do that don’t seem like they can possibly have that big of an impact, but when you scale them up and think about all of the people on the planet and how many of them are ALSO doing these everyday things– well, the impact can be overwhelming. And easy to overlook, at least in part, because we are really, truly terrible at thinking about things at that scale.

I’ll give you an example that’s been blowing my mind this week. Yesterday, I saw a tweet that was incredibly relatable and gave me a chuckle.

I am pretty good at reading and responding to emails but utterly terrible at deleting them. It’s digital hoarding and I am not proud of it. But as I read through the thread of comments, I was feeling better about myself. Because 1) WOW, there are a lot of email hoarders out there (YAY! I’m not alone!) and 2) some of them are impressive hoarders. (YAY! My hoarding problem pales in comparison!)

And up until now, I thought that my email hoarding was a me problem. Not hurting anyone else, right? I mean, it’s just a pile (okay, thousands upon thousands) of harmless little emails. Until someone in the comments pointed out that, actually, these emails are more of an us problem.

I had never, ever thought about the environment impact that my inability to delete emails might be having (which, I’ll admit, caused me a little cognitive dissonance because my job is teaching about systems thinking). It was eye-opening to think about my individual choices and the impacts they might be having. But it was downright mind-boggling when I started thinking about the impact of these decisions on a global scale.

It got me thinking about an article I had been reading on the hidden costs of digital consumption. It explored environmental costs of digital vs. analog purchases like ordering an ebook vs. a paperback. But the article also compared how costly different types of digital consumption are (like browsing websites, watching a YouTube video, or streaming a song on Spotify).

Using YouTube as a case study, they pointed out that in a single year YouTube was estimated to have “emitted nearly as much CO₂ as a metropolitan area like Auckland, New Zealand did in 2016. Put in other words, 10.2 metric tons of CO₂ is equivalent to the yearly footprint of approximately 2.2 million cars in the United States.” In addition, “YouTube traffic consumed 19.6 Tetrawatt-hours of electricity in 2016.” That’s enough electricity to power 1.7 million U.S. homes for a year.

These are great analogies that help put an “environmental price tag” on digital consumption at a global scale. But I think my most important take-away from the article was in the discussion about solutions. They point out that “Aside from increasing the efficiency of each part of the pipeline and taking advantage of renewable energy, mindful design could also go a long way.” For example, much YouTube traffic stems from music videos. But some of those “views” are likely users who are using a video platform to consume audio content. In other words, they don’t care about watching the video, they just want to hear the song. “If this “listen” to “view” ratio were even just 10%, YouTube could have reduced its carbon footprint by about 117 thousand tons of CO₂ in 2016, just by intelligently sending audio when no video is required. That’s over 2.2 million gallons of gasoline worth of CO₂ in savings.

So now I’m thinking about mindful design in my own life and the systems of which I play a part. What if we could all commit to a yearly email purge? Or avoiding video streaming when what we really want is audio? What about you? What mindful design ideas do you have? Where could we take small actions that lead to big impacts? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

I’m a terrible gamer.

My work with the science literacy includes developing experiences that allow learners to practice making data-driven decisions. One way of doing this is through game-based learning. You would think that a game where I get to irrigate fields and move cattle from pasture to pasture would allow for a low stress environment to play around and experiment without worrying about the actual impacts that my choices will make.

A grass-fed beef operation in the AgPocalypse video game.

If I irrigate my corn only 3 times in July, who cares? If I skip fixing the windmill and see how many cattle are killed, no worries!

Should I do this in real life? No. But it doesn’t really harm anyone or anything if I do this in a gaming situation. I know these things to be true. So why isn’t it fun or carefree for me? Why am I paralyzed when making decisions even in a game?

Plausible theories include my lack of experience as a gamer, my anxiety, my dislike of making decisions without ALL THE DATA or a strategic plan of attack. But lately, I’ve started to wonder if it also has to do with empathy.

Logically, I know those cows and crops aren’t real and I’m not hurting anyone or anything by making poor decisions. But when I tried skipping the windmill repair and I killed 60 or so cows, it felt awful. Not because it impacted my gameplay or my score, but because I made a selfish choice and it killed my livestock.

Mostly, I’m posting this because I wonder if anyone else experiences this when playing a game. Does anyone else out there feel remorse or regret or simply the inability to make a choice if the virtual consequences involve loss of life? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Jumping in…

Over the past four years with the Science Literacy Initiative, I feel like I’ve learned a few things while engaging K-12 audiences, specifically, and the public, more broadly, in systems thinking and data-informed decision making. This blog is my attempt to designate the time and space to write about the lessons I have learned and provide a bit of context for how and why my approach has moved in a particular direction.

I’m not sure how others will interact with this blog just yet, but I am hoping to capture and catalog ideas/thoughts/brainstorms/etc. in this space that might contribute to a broader conversation with others in the IANR science literacy community about our efforts and how they can be improved.

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