Friday, January 2, 2009

A Blog Begins! The Inspiration for Optimistic Teaching

Blogs today are a dime a dozen, so hopefully this one will be at least worth a quarter.

This blog will focus on my thoughts and research about optimistic teaching. I am in the process of completing my PhD in Educational Psychology from the University of Alabama, and my research explores explanatory style and its role in teaching and learning. I'm just embarking on this research, so this first phase is establishing a baseline of teacher explanatory style and whether explanatory style can predict how long a teacher will stay in the field. It's exciting to be on the cusp of a line of research!

When I first encountered positive psychology in Martin Seligman's book Learned Optimism, I immediately saw a connection between my classroom experience and explanatory style. I was pretty confident that explanatory style could help explain some of the motivational problems teachers have in the classroom. My students would not always take advantage of opportunities available to them. As a teacher, I would give my students every opportunity to do well in my class, only to watch them squander those opportunities. One such opportunity is my make-up test policy, which is quite generous. Students can take a make-up test for any test they take in my class. These make-up tests are typically 20-item short-answer tests. The original tests are multiple-choice. Students can take these tests as many times as they want to until they get the grade they want (or until the grading period is over, whichever comes first!). So, once students take the make-up test once, they know the questions on the test! I grade their answer sheet, give it back to them (if their score is under an A), and then students can reschedule a time to return to take the test again.

Yes, you read all of that right. Students in my class should earn all A's all of the time, right? Well, you guessed it, they don't. In fact, the A students are the most diligent in returning to retake tests, and my D and F students rarely take advantage. Why? This question plagues me! I would hear students say things like, "The make-up tests are too hard!" and "I can't do short-answer tests." I would get very impatient with these excuses. "Do you understand," I would say, "that you can come in, write down the questions, and then get them back and study the test? Do you get that opportunity in any other class?" I would be incredulous. Why weren't these students, those who needed my generosity most, not taking advantage of this opportunity? I couldn't buy into the idea that they were lazy or unmotivated. Many would come to me crying about their grades, desperate to improve them. But I would never see them to take make-up tests, because they didn't think they could do it.

When I read Learned Optimism, I heard my students voices. The pessimistic explanatory style embodied what I was hearing from my students - I can't do it, I'm not smart enough, This will never get better. If I could change the way they viewed school, perhaps I really would make a difference.

School works backward, in my mind. We teach, test, then move on. There is no room for redemption. There is no learning from failure. Failure is proof that you are not cut out for what we're doing. If you get it the first time, with little explanation, then you are smart. If you don't understand, there is something wrong with you - you are stupid, unmotivated, lazy. I believe this system is screwed up. I believe learning truly can happen when you fail. You don't know what you don't know until you don't know. If you already knew everything there was to know, why go to school? Those students who get it the first time don't really need me. They would be fine with a textbook and a laptop. My make-up test policy is designed to rework school into a system that works for those students who actually need me. It gives them an opportunity for redemption. It teaches them resilience. They can do something about their bad grades. The test is not the end of learning, but the beginning.

Resilience and optimism go hand in hand. If you believe you can affect change in your life, you are more willing to try different strategies when you fail. If my students could believe they had the power to change their grades, they make take more advantage of make-up test opportunities rather than squander them. And perhaps that learning would transfer to other areas where they struggle - math, English, science. Isn't that what teaching and learning is all about?

As I researched explanatory style more, I found there was little, if any, research about what a teacher's style predicted about their own behavior and whether a teacher's style has any effect on student achievement. Surely the explanatory style of teachers matters. Students spend significant amounts of time with their students each day (especially in the case of elementary teachers), so if a teacher were pessimistic, what effect would that have? What about an optimistic teacher? Just how optimistic are teachers, anyway? These questions started keeping me up a night, which meant I needed to do something about them. Otherwise, I'd have bags under my eyes. Can't have that!

I teach high school psychology. I am not a career researcher. I teach 5 classes a day, 5 days a week, 180 days a year. I am also a wife and mother. Not much time left over for research. But I have the best access to teachers because I am also in the trenches. I know whom to talk to in my district to get research approved. I know what will work for my district and what won't. So, I went to graduate school. Heck, if I was going to do this huge project, I should get something out of it! I am now in the data collection phase of my research. I have created an Educator Attributional Style Questionnaire (based on the original ASQ by Peterson, et al). I am establishing a baseline of explanatory style among teachers in 3 school districts (two suburban and one rural) and determining if explanatory style predicts job satisfaction, professionalism, and retention in the field. This research could set the stage for teacher preparation and mentoring programs designed to keep teachers resilient and active for longer, which could then lead to higher student achievement. I don't believe explanatory style is the end-all, be-all of education reform, but it's an unexplored link that could provide answers to those students who say, "I can't."


Henry said...

At the risk of sounding unread or cliche (too late), this sounds really interesting. And it sounds like something Sharon would get really geeked out about (... cliche and bad grammar all rolled into one comment. I'm bringing the pain, Amy.) I like this blog, though.

Amy Fineburg said...

Thanks, Henry! There are so many applications for this stuff in medicine. People actually have stronger immune systems if they are optimistic. It's amazing how much the way we think affects health.

Glad to have you aboard!