Showing K12 students they can “get smart”

By: and | February 9, 2017

As founder of Research for Better Teaching— an organization dedicated to improving instruction and leadership— Jon Saphier says underperforming students need to believe that “smart is something you can get.”

As founder of Research for Better Teaching— an organization dedicated to improving instruction and leadership— Jon Saphier says underperforming students need to believe that “smart is something you can get.”

His new book, High-Expectations Teaching (2016, Corwin Publishing) demonstrates that ability can be grown significantly if educators first convince students to believe in themselves. Saphier provides an instructional playbook for administrators who want to build student confidence.

The book is an expansion of the strategies he has been teaching for decades, and first introduced in his 1979 book The Skillful Teacher. Beyond teachers, however, Saphier believe politicians need to hear the message.

“I would like very much to find a way to reach policymakers with these ideas to get them to consider what the implications would be for state regulations and for state education laws,” he says.

We’ve seen surveys where students say teachers don’t care about them or whether they succeed. Your book seems to offer an antidote to that.

Right. I work closely with Ron Ferguson, the author of one of those surveys. We had been looking for a district that would face the facts of that survey information and then undertake trying to figure out what teachers can do in their daily classroom interaction to turn that around.

Let’s define “high expectations teaching.”

It’s getting the kids to believe that “smart is something I could get, not something that I am or am not.” My job is to help students believe that mindset is true and that it applies to them.

High expectations teaching offers the tools to actualize that belief and the desire to want to. The book breaks down the behaviors a teacher would follow if they used our strategies with kids.

The obstacle is the Bell Curve—the belief that ability is something that is God-given and fixed and that it determines how you do in life, and you can’t do anything about it.

I spent most of my adult life believing that until I started coming across evidence it wasn’t true. It does really dominate how we structure schools and how we respond when students don’t do well.

Does it also dominate how teachers are taught?

Yes. The things I advocate in the book are not part of teacher education.

For 40 years there have been people who have been advocating the “smart is something you can get” approach, but it wasn’t until Carol Dweck took her years of research and put it in a really readable form (Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, 2006, Random House) that it caught the popular imagination.

If teachers want their kids to believe in themselves, teachers first have to believe it would matter if they did believe in themselves. It means that all of us who grew up believing in the fixed mindset have to challenge our own beliefs.

There’s a section in the book where teachers compared each other’s behavior with students who were seen to be intelligent and those considered to be struggling.

Those are called the Pygmalion behaviors, based on a study in 1968 by Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson. It’s the phenomenon where higher expectations lead to increased performance.

The idea was just what you suggested there: a process of peer observation—let’s give each other feedback. But what the teachers discovered was that they weren’t actually treating students equally.

That behavior perpetuates a self-fulfilling prophecy: “This student isn’t smart. I’m not going to waste much time on him.” That student won’t succeed.

That’s it exactly. We can fix that. All we need is to really confront our own willingness to treat kids with equity, and believe that just because they’re behind or they’re poor doesn’t mean that they are destined to low ranks in school achievement.

The equity issue is inextricably entwined with this business of high expectations teaching.

You spoke about getting teachers to challenge their beliefs about the fixed mindset. How do you do that?

We do it in organized PD experiences. I just finished teaching a course that met six times over the span of a few months where we try to do that.

Each teacher picks a kid who is underperforming and discouraged and doesn’t believe they’re smart enough to do well in school. They do a case study of that kid in which they apply everything that we teach, and they keep a weekly log about what they tried and how it’s going.

Then they come back with other people in the PD experience and compare notes.

We’ve been doing this for 30 years in our courses. We find that well over half the people have amazing, transformative experiences with the kid.

Once they get that one kid to outperform the stereotype of himself, they say, “Oh golly, I could have done this with everybody.” The evidence that they can do it with one kid will really open a teacher’s eyes.

In a school setting it takes a lot of support and a lot of self-examination to do it, but it does work. You want the people who are most interested in this to be the first people in a school to try it, because then they will serve as the champions for the idea.

Can you give an example of a school where this has paid off?

Yes I can, and what you find is that the way to get to high expectations teaching is to have a strong adult professional culture where it is safe to take risks as a teacher and to non-defensively examine your own practice.

That strong adult culture, which really relies on a good leader, is the catalyst for getting a whole lot of people to learn high expectations teaching.

Revere High School, which is in a real blue-collar, urban community here in Massachusetts, is a good example. They have gone from a level four school to a level one school over a five-year period—that’s Massachusetts’ ranking.

For an urban district, that’s a really big move and they have used a great many of the strategies listed in the book. I’d say about 75 percent of their teachers who are using those strategies of getting the kids to do the talking and the thinking are experiencing success.

I have to say, the ideas you present seem rather obvious to me. Why don’t they seem obvious to teachers?

I think the starting point—that you can actually get smarter—is not an idea that’s easy to accept. We’ve all grown up with that fixed mindset view.

When I was a kid, my mother would say, “Uncle Don was so smart. He always got A’s and he never took a book home.” Then I’d ask how Uncle Vic did. She’d say, “Vic got straight A’s too, but he had to work so hard.”

Without realizing it, I’m getting the implication that if you have to work hard at something you’re not as smart as somebody who doesn’t. I think that’s the main obstacle. People like to say, “All children can learn,” but what most of us really believe is, “All children can learn a certain amount and some can learn more than others.”

So this is something that can be done regardless of whatever state or federal standards a school faces—with no repercussions?

Right. It takes no additional resources to implement these ideas—though I sure would like to have those resources. It just takes sitting back and reflecting on them and saying, as you just did, “Isn’t this obvious? Can I do this?” Then if you’ve got the will, you can learn it. There’s nothing here anybody couldn’t do.

Policy-makers could, without being intrusive, create regulations that positively affect the levers of influence on what teachers do. Those levers of influence are teacher ed and teacher certification. Then they could use their grant resources for hiring and induction and professional development.

If you certify educators at all different levels in a state—and the state is the unit of change in this country—you would want those coaches to show that they know something about high expectations teaching. These are all levers of influence the state could use if the policy-makers thought it would be important.