Are our children learning robustly?

There are at least four reasons why people should learn robustly:

  1. It's fun!
  2. They'll learn more quickly.
  3. They'll keep growing longer.
  4. They'll be better prepared to participate fully in adult life.

Truly, there are no downsides to learning robustly. Yet robust learning is not what's happening for most students in most American schools. We have mounting—and disturbing—evidence that this is the case. 

The data in the figure below are from our database of reflective judgment assessments. These are open-response formative assessments of how well people think about and address thorny real world problems like bullying, television violence, dietary practices, and global warming. We've been delivering these assessments for several years now and have a diverse sample of over 20,000 completed assessments to learn from. 

We wanted to know how well schools are supporting development and what kind of role learning robustly might play in their performance. (Watch the video above to learn more about what counts as evidence of robust learning.) In particular, we wanted to know why students in one school—the Rainbow Community School—are outperforming students in other schools. (To learn about the Rainbow curriculum, click here.) 

We first looked at one of the key sources of evidence for robust learning—the quality of students' arguments. In the figure below, the Y axis represents the quality or "coherence" of students' arguments and the X axis represents their Lectical phase (or developmental phase, 1/4 of a Lectical Level). The highest coherence score students can receive is a 10.

In this figure, the Rainbow Community School is the clear leader, especially when it comes to students performing in lower phases, with inner-city (primarily low socioeconomic status) public schools at the low end, and more conventional private schools and high socioeconomic status public schools in the middle. So, how does this relate to student development? Since we regard coherence of argumentation as strong evidence of robust learning, and assert that robust learning is required to support optimal development, we would expect Rainbow students to develop more rapidly than students in schools with lower coherence scores.

Coherence by phase and school type

The figure below tells the story. When it comes to students' development on the Lectical Scale, Rainbow Community School students are way ahead of the pack. And our inner city schools are way behind. In fact, the average senior in our large (over 10,000 assessments) inner city sample is 5 years behind the projected score for the average senior in the Rainbow sample. Or in other words, inner city seniors, on average, are performing at the same level as Rainbow 7th graders.   

We know socioeconomic status is a factor that contributes to this gap, but shouldn't our schools be closing it rather than allowing it to grow larger? Take a look at the figure below. This figure assumes that students in the Rainbow Community School, on average, start out at about the same developmental level as students in private and high SES public schools, yet student growth is faster. In fact, the data project that Rainbow 9th graders would perform as well as seniors in the other schools. That's a 3-year advantage! We believe this difference is due to differences in instructional practices. What if we used these same practices in our inner city schools? If we could accelerate their learning as much as the Rainbow Community School has accelerated the learning of its students, inner-city students would be doing as well as private and high SES public schools!

Although socioeconomic status is a key factor, we think the differences seen here are at least partially due to fundamentally different ways of thinking about learning and teaching. Conventional schools tend to be primarily content focused. There is an emphasis on learning as remembering. The Rainbow Community School is skill focused. Its teachers use content as a vehicle for building core life skills, such as skills for learning, inquiry, evaluating information, making connections, communicating, conflict resolution, decision making, mindfulness, compassion, and building relationships. To build these skills students continuously engage in virtuous cycles of learning—cycles of information gathering, application, reflection, and goal setting—that exercise these skills while building robust connections between new and existing knowledge. Students not only learn content, they learn to use it effectively in their everyday lives. It becomes part of them. We call this embodied learning.

We're eager to study the impact of skill-focused curricula on the learning of less advantaged students. If you know of a school that's fostering robust learning AND serving disadvantaged students, we'd like to help them show off what they're accomplishing.

Note: Not only does Rainbow Community School ensure that its students are continuously engaged in VCoLs (virtuous cycles of learning), it uses a system of governance, Sociocracy, that supports virtuous cycling for everyone on staff as well as the continuous improvement of its curriculum. 

Appendix: Sample responses from 8th graders in different schools

Examples are taken from performances of students with average scores for their school. 

The question students answered: How is it possible that the two groups [pro and anti bullying] have such different ideas?

Rainbow Community School

It could be due to different experiences. Perhaps the ones going for the argument that a little bullying can be okay were disciplined more at home and have a tougher shell for things like this. [Parents] may base their initial ideas on their own experiences or their children's. It all really depends on the person and how they were raised.

High SES public School

This because they have different ideas and reasons for thinking what they believe and you can't change that. The parents are not the same and every one of them is different so they have a right to believe what they want to believe.

Low SES public school

Many people think different and many people look at things differently. So people get different ideas and opinions about things.

6 thoughts on “Are our children learning robustly?

  1. Dear Theo,  Thank you so much for sharing this. I think that this finding supplies some strong empirical backing for something that I think many good teachers already know (both through intuition and experience): collaborating with learners in the process of engaging with knowledge is always more transformative than focusing on conveying content. This seems all the more relevant given the rapid pace at which our access to, and understanding of, information is growing and changing in the 21st century. 

    To adopt this kind of industrial model for education is to assume that it is legitimate to mould human beings, to modify their behaviour, according to certain clear-cut intentions without making any allowance for their own individual wishes, desires or interests (Kelly 2004: p.71).

    It is … not so important which facts one teaches the student, because very often these facts are already obsolete by the time they can be used. It is more important to help him to develop his potentialities so that he can rely on his own ability to cope with the unexpected and solve whatever new problems may crop up. He must be helped to feel independent in his own world and to develop the vision that will help him as an adult to maintain the environment in such a way that the unending, creative and gigantic cosmic task of man can continue (Montessori, 1987).

    For the anti-dialogical banking educator, the question of content simply concerns the program about which he will discourse to his students; and he answers his own questions, by organizing his own program. For the dialogical, problem-posing teacher-student, the program content of education is neither a gift nor an imposition–bits of information to be deposited in the students–but rather the organized, systematized, and developed 're-presentation' to the individuals of the things about which they want to know more (Freire 2000: p. 74).  

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