Sunday / July 21

When Perception of Learning Isn’t Reality

In 1970, an actor played a lecturer, aptly named “Dr. Fox” at the University of Southern California School of Medicine. Dr. Fox was presented as an expert in the field of Game Theory and proceeded to present a lecture that included, by design, a high dose of excessive talk, off comment remarks, contradictory statements and non sequiturs. In other words, he was confusing and probably off-putting. After the lecture, participants rated their experience and Dr. Fox overwhelming received positive reviews (a ratio of 6:1). Interestingly, time and time again researchers have tried the Dr. Fox experiment, and each time the actor’s expression and engagement lured high perception data from students, regardless of the quality of the content presented or the level of content actually obtained. Students appeared to have a difficult time determining what they were learning. Because of this, many have argued against the use of (or at least curb) perception surveys to grant tenure or take part in evaluations. I think a greater question is whether students actually have the tools to understand their own learning, talk about their progress and proficiency, and work with others and access resources to improve their learning.

Next to Mount Wellington, a volcanic peak in Auckland, a beautiful primary school, Stonefields School, focuses on developing a learner’s assessment capabilities. That is, the school focuses its efforts on ensuring learners have the knowledge and skills to discern their own learning performance, understand the dispositions that make a great learner (e.g. to persevere), and a language to discuss their learning. Assessment capable learning has an effect size of 1.44, way above the average effect of .40 which constitutes approximately one year’s growth over one year’s time (Hattie, 2009). At Stonefields, learners as young as 5 develop the knowledge, skills, and language to understand and engage in their own learning process. Young learners use the phrase “building knowledge” when they are beginning to understand an idea or multiple ideas. They say “making meaning” when they are relating ideas and “applying understanding” when they are transferring their understanding of ideas to real world challenges or rigorous tasks. They also use the term “the learning pit” to describe the process of failure and the necessity of failure to construct knowledge and go back and learn more information. Learners use data to determine their performance levels, leverage peers to give and receive feedback, and advocate for clear guidance from teachers to ensure they are reaching established learning goals and success criteria.

The research of Dr. Fox is far more telling of our lack as an educational system in focusing our efforts on giving students the skills needed to actually “own” their own learning. I wonder how Dr. Fox would do with the young learners in Stonefields? My guess is that perception data would be much more accurate on the impact a teacher was having on their own learning and they would be less blinded by window dressing.

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Michael McDowell, Ed.D. is the Superintendent of the Ross School District. Most recently, he served as the Associate Superintendent of Instructional and Personnel Services at the Tamalpais Union High School District. During his tenure, the Tamalpais Union High School District was recognized by the Marzano Research Laboratories as one of the top highly reliable organizations in the United States, and schools within the district received recognitions by the US News and World Report, and honored with California Distinguished Schools accolades.

Prior to his role as a central office administrator, Dr. McDowell served as the Principal of North Tahoe High School, a California Distinguished School. Prior to administration, Dr. McDowell was a leadership and instructional coach for the New Tech Network supporting educators in designing, implementing, and enhancing innovative schools across the country. Before engaging in the nonprofit sector, Dr. McDowell created and implemented an environmental science and biology program at Napa New Technology High School, infusing 1:1 technology, innovative teaching and assessment, and leveraging student voice in the classroom. Additionally, Dr. McDowell, taught middle school math and science in Pacifica, CA.

Dr. McDowell is a national presenter, speaking on instruction, learning, leadership and innovation. He has provided professional development services to large school districts, State Departments of Education, and higher education. In addition, he was a former National Faculty member for the Buck Institute of Education and a key thought leader in the inception of their leadership work in scaling innovation in instructional methodologies. His expertise in design and implementation is complimented by his scholarly approach to leadership, learning, and instruction.

He holds a B.S. in Environmental Science and a M.A. in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Redlands and an Ed.D. from the University of La Verne. He received departmental honors for his work in Environmental Science and was awarded the Tom Fine Creative Leadership Award for his doctoral work at the University of La Verne. He has also completed certification programs through Harvard University, the California Association of School Business Officials, the American Association of School Personnel Administrators, and Cognition Education. He holds both a California single subject teaching credential and an administrative credential.

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