Category Archives: Research Insights

Can compassion cure indifference?

Research suggests that the level of incivility in the U.S. is rising. As we publicly battle out our issues in every arena—on our roads, in schools, on social media, in the check-out lane—we’re exhausting our collective ability to empathize with each other. In his latest column in ASCD’s Educational Leadership, McREL’s CEO and president Bryan Goodwin looks at the research and wonders why the shift away from empathy began, and how, as educators, we might help reverse this trend.

Empathy is feeling with another; compassion is feeling for another. Either would lead us to behave ethically toward the people around us. But, to social scientists and brain researchers, they differ in a crucial way: Compassion can be taught and better sustained than empathy.

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Supporting student creativity, perseverance, and risk-taking (the good kind)—(Infographic)

When I was five, I saw my sisters riding their bikes and thought it looked fun, so I decided I would learn, too. I got on a bike, toppled over, and skinned my knee. My grandpa, who was watching nearby, helped me up, gave me a little hug with some advice on how to keep my balance, and told me I needed to try again. I got back on, determined to conquer the bike, and started pedaling. I could hear my grandpa behind me, encouraging me and telling me to keep pedaling.

Eventually, with my grandpa’s encouragement, I learned to ride a bike. Without that support, I may have given up, feeling defeated and a bit wounded. Students can feel the same way in the classroom when they don’t feel supported, encouraged, and safe.

Being supportive is one of three key characteristics of effective teachers, along with being intentional and being demanding, that are discussed in McREL’s The 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching. Being supportive means that a teacher interacts with students and encourages growth in a trusting, nurturing environment.

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The power of parental expectations is expressed in everyday messages

The importance of parent involvement may be obvious. How schools should harness it remains a bit of a mystery.

In his September Research Matters column for ASCD’s Educational Leadership, McREL CEO Bryan Goodwin observes that research shows home environment heavily influences student achievement.

But what about home environment and parental involvement has the most influence? Nagging kids to do homework? Showing an interest in school? Getting involved with extracurricular activities?

These tactics may be good for parent-child relationships, but none of them makes much difference in student achievement, Goodwin writes. The unsettling consequence? “[M]any schools’ parent involvement efforts may miss the mark.” These include such commonplace requests as checking homework or attending school events.

The thing about home that does have the power to boost achievement, Goodwin stresses, is “parental communication of high expectations.” Such expectations may be transmitted quietly, but they work—perhaps because young people internalize them and convert them into their own expectations for themselves.

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Teachers in Triad Teams: Three is not a crowd

Intense focus on accountability and teacher effectiveness in recent years has expanded the thinking around instructional coaching. While instructional coaching occurs at nearly every school, the purpose of coaching and the formats used vary widely among schools. It’s not surprising that such variety exists given that, while research suggests coaching supports the success of improvement initiatives (Hubbard, Mehan, & Stein, 2006; Stein & D’Amico, 2002), little evidence exists that explains how it happens.

What we do know, from researchers like Bruce Joyce and Beverly Showers (2002), is that the most effective professional learning for teachers includes a combination of different types of learning opportunities: introduction of research and theory; demonstration of new practices; opportunities to apply new knowledge through deliberate practice; and instructional coaching that includes ongoing, descriptive feedback. Of these, Joyce and Showers found coaching was the one learning opportunity that had to be present for teachers to translate new knowledge and skills into their practice.

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Are great school leaders born or made?

When we think of great leaders, we often think of those who seem as if they were “born to lead.” But is leadership really a fixed trait, or is it an acquired skill? In the May issue of Educational Leadership, McREL’s Bryan Goodwin and Heather Hein explore the research on how school leaders become great leaders.

Recent studies support the idea that leaders’ performance does indeed change over time—though not always for the better. One study of 197 elementary schools found that significant changes in principals’ performance were linked to better school improvement capacity and higher student growth rates (Heck & Hallinger, 2010). However, a similar study of 39 elementary principals found that leaders changed how they spent their time over a three-year period—but that schools where principals focused more on managerial tasks had higher achievement, while those where principals focused more on instructional leadership had lower achievement.

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Differences, not disabilities

Students who learn differently from most have often been defined as having disabilities, which has a profound effect on their experiences in school, their relationships with others, and even their sense of identity. But a growing movement is seeking to shift the paradigm from learning disabilities to learning differences—recognizing that no two students learn exactly the same and that all students deserve an education based on their strengths, not their deficits.

In the April issue of Educational Leadership, McREL’s Bryan Goodwin and Heather Hein examine these differences through the lens of learning styles, which focus on the ways students gather, process, and evaluate information—and how that can inform curriculum, instruction, and assessments.

Learning styles have been around for decades, the authors explain, but little hard evidence proves their existence, let alone their impact on learning. However, the concept continues to influence educators. The Every Student Succeeds Act, for example, calls for states to apply the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL)—a framework for developing flexible learning environments that accommodate individual learning differences—when planning assessments and instruction. Why?

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What does it really take to personalize learning?

Emma is an 8th grader who loves horses. For a school project on animal behavior, she learned all about their intelligence and complex social dynamics—and then, with her teacher’s guidance, designed an experiment to see whether horses were smart enough to learn how to read. More specifically, she showed horses one board painted with a circle and another board painted with a rectangle to try to teach them to choose the circle in order to get a treat.

This is personalized learning at its best: Students learn what they need to learn (how to design a science experiment) while getting to choose how to go about it based on their interests (horses) and curiosity (are they smart enough to read?). But, asks McREL’s Bryan Goodwin in his latest Research Matters column in Educational Leadership, how effective is this kind of learning? Does it work for everyone? What does it take to implement it well?

Goodwin points to some promising studies that show benefits, particularly for low-achieving students. A 2015 RAND Corp. study, for example, compared achievement levels of 11,000 low-income and minority students in personalized learning environments with that of similar peers nationwide and found positive effect sizes for both mathematics (0.27) and reading (0.19). Perhaps most impressive was the fact that students who started off below average on national assessments were scoring above average just three years later.

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Teaching our students to think critically in the era of fake news

Critical thinking has always been key to academic and career success. But in the information age, it’s more important than ever, as students struggle to keep up with and process the copious amounts of information coming at them constantly.

In the latest Research Matters column in Educational Leadership, McREL President and CEO Bryan Goodwin looks at what critical thinking really is and how it can best be taught. Its complexity—a mixture of dispositions and skills including valuing inquisitiveness and other points of view, using logical reasoning to support arguments, and examining our own beliefs and changing them based on new data—may explain why schools, and even colleges, often do little to develop it.

However, Goodwin says, research shows it can be learned, using two key approaches. First, critical thinking skills should be taught directly. Marin and Halpern (2011) showed that students in low-performing high schools who received explicit instruction in such skills (how to develop arguments, parse correlation from causation, identify stereotypes and mental models, and predict long-term consequences of decisions) demonstrated significant gains in critical thinking, while students who took a course in which critical thinking skills were embedded but not taught directly showed no gains.

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Research spotlights an invisible barrier to student success: Fate control

Half a century ago, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University set out to determine if and how schools could counteract the effects of poverty on student success. Hopeful that the findings would provide evidence to support War on Poverty education policies, policy makers and even President Lyndon Johnson were shocked when the study found that the effect of non-school factors outweighed school characteristics, leading researcher James Coleman to conclude that schools provide “no opportunity at all” to even the playing field for impoverished and minority students.

However, as McREL’s Bryan Goodwin explains in the latest Research Matters column in Educational Leadership, many people overlooked one powerful finding that still has implications today: A single “student attitude factor” (or lack thereof) showed a stronger relationship to achievement than all of the school factors combined.

In the decades since, Goodwin adds, researchers have built on this finding, showing that academic success is largely based on how much control students think they have over their ability to succeed—or their “fate control.” Internals, or those who believe they can shape their futures by their actions, are more likely to succeed academically than externals, who see their circumstances as shaped by forces out of their control.

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