Mental development in organizations


Mental development involves the dynamic integration of thoughts and feelings through interactions with the social and physical environment. It takes place in “virtuous” cycles of learning, application, and reflection that are accompanied by natural learning emotions like eager anticipation, mild frustration, and satisfaction. When components of the cycle are missing or the natural learning emotions are replaced with negative emotions like dread, severe frustration, anger, or fear—virtuous cycles of learning are disrupted and mental growth stalls. An organization that wants to create a learning culture needs policies and programs that support virtuous cycles of learning.

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Bottom of the class syndrome

What happens if you consistently punish someone for engaging in a particular practice? Most of us assume that it will get them to stop. Right? So, why have we developed an educational system that punishes millions of children for learning?

Because all capabilities are distributed in the population as “bell curves,” half of all children inevitably will be in the bottom half of their class. Most of these students will consistently receive grades that reflect poor performance relative to other students, primarily because (for a variety of reasons) they learn more slowly than their age mates. Young students tend to understand poor grades as punishments for poor performance or evidence of stupidity. The occasional low grade that is clearly attached to a lack of effort can act as an incentive to try harder. But consistently low grades with no hope of improvement teach students that learning is bad, because no matter how hard they try, it leads to punishment. I call this “bottom of the class syndrome.”

Clearly “learning is bad” is not the message teachers mean to send. They expect the punishment of a low grade to motivate students and their parents to try harder, and this is likely to work for many of the students in the upper half of the class. But it is not likely to work for kids in the bottom half of the class, because most of them are consistently slower learners. Most students in the bottom half of the class need more time and must make more effort to learn concepts and skills than students in the upper half of the class. They can’t afford to dislike learning; even more than students in the top of the class, they must retain their inborn love of learning to have any hope of success over the long term.

As long as we award scores that rank students, about half of those students will be vulnerable to “bottom of the class syndrome.” Society will lose many of them as learners, and their life choices and contributions will be unnecessarily restricted.

My colleagues and I have been working on this problem for many years. The solution we offer requires sophisticated ways of thinking about learning and motivation as well as new tools for evaluating learning—tools that don’t compare students, but allow each of them to develop on their own timeline. And it requires that we systematically study how students learn every single skill or concept we teach, so we know what every score on every assessment really means—in terms of what a given student understands and what he or she is likely to benefit from learning next. It’s hard work, but we’ve learned how to do it. Humans have tackled much more challenging problems. All we need is the will to ensure that every child has an opportunity to realize his or her potential, the patience to do the work, good people to carry the work forward, and a little thing called funding.

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Testing as part of learning 2

I can’t help it, I’m a developmental psychologist. I’ve been lurking about, watching my Granddaughter, Erwin, as she learns to master her environment. She’s about 8 months old now (real age, she was three months premature, so her birth age is 11 months)

Last week, Erwin figured out that complex actions can be used intentionally to make things happen in social situations. For example, she started reaching toward her Mom and Dad to indicate her intention to be picked up. At around same time, she began pointing to objects to indicate interest or draw them to the attention of her others. And she has begun to imitate actions like waving, clapping, and head shaking. Today, when we were Skyping, she clapped her hands to get me to play pat-a-cake, and she shakes her head to get her Mom to do the same—which she finds hilarious. To Mom’s dismay, Erwin is so excited by this new way of influencing her environment that she has stopped napping.

To see an example of Erwin’s attempts at verbal communication and her new reaching behavior, double-click on the picture below. Notice how emphatic her arm extension is, and how she makes eye contact as she reaches out.

A few months ago, most of Erwin’s actions were aimed toward physical mastery—learning to obtain objects and manipulate them in a variety of ways, learning to move herself toward things she wanted to manipulate, or playing with sound just to hear the results.

When she was learning to do physical things, the physical environment provided most of the feedback. Although her parents were there to give encouragement, we all had the sense that it was the physical feedback that she craved—getting an object to her mouth, inching toward a favorite toy, pulling herself to stand.

Now she craves feedback from her parents; she has shifted her focus from physical mastery to social mastery. She reaches for Mom and gets picked up. She shakes her head and Mom shakes her head back. She points to a banana, and Dad brings it to her. She claps her hands, and Grandma plays pat-a-cake. And every time she undertakes a new action, she is conducting a test.

Testing is part of learning.

Each time any infant tries out a new skill, she is conducting a test. Each attempt is part of an action-feedback loop. Repeated attempts to master a new skill form a series of these action-feedback loops. Each iteration is an exemplary test—in the sense that it is educative—that guides the infant incrementally toward a new level of mastery.

Interestingly, infants never tire of this kind of testing, even when the feedback is not instantly gratifying. In fact, much of the feedback is along the lines of, “almost, but not quite,” or “that didn’t work,” neither of which seem to get in the way of infant learning. For example, when Erwin first started reaching toward her parents to ask to be picked up, her action was not easy to read. It rarely got the desired response. She gradually learned that the reaching needed to be clearly directed toward the parent and accompanied by eye contact. Now the message is, “You’ve got it!” At this point, Erwin takes the skill for granted, and has shifted her attention to things she has not yet mastered, like figuring out how to get adults to do other interesting or gratifying things.

The natural action-feedback mechanism of infancy works perfectly, because the proverbial carrot is usually, due to the very nature of normal human environments, dangled at just the right distance. Good parents respond to early attempts at communication, rewarding them with interesting responses, but success isn’t the only reward; it’s always accompanied by a new “carrot”—another interesting possibility just beyond the infant’s reach. In this way, the action-feedback mechanism functions both as an aid to learning and as a motivator.

Aspects of this “carrot-and-stick” perspective on learning have been expanded and described in a variety of research traditions—e.g., as part of the notion of reinforcement feedback in social learning theory (Bandura, 1977), as zone of proximal development in Vygotsky’s (1986) work, and as part of a complex process of assimilation and accommodation in Piaget’s (1985) work. It is important, because it speaks both to how we learn and to our motivation for learning. Good feedback plays two essential roles. First, it helps the learner decide what to try next. Second, it motivates the learner to keep striving toward mastery. And, as the infant example suggests, feedback cannot be reduced to simple reward or punishment. Ideally, it is information that supports learning by being useful to the learner. Learners are not motivated by reward or punishment per se, but by an optimal combination of “not there yet” “almost” and “you’ve got it”.

DiscoTests are for learning

Most of today’s tests provide feedback in the form of rewards (good grades, advancement, or honors) or punishment (bad grades and failure). My colleagues and I don’t find this acceptable, so we’ve created a nonprofit called DiscoTest. The overarching objective of the DiscoTest Initiative is to contribute to the development of optimal learning environments by creating assessments that deliver the kind of educative feedback that learners need to learn optimally. DiscoTests determine where students are in their individual learning trajectories and provide feedback that points toward the next incremental step toward mastery.

I’ll be writing more about DiscoTest in future posts. For now, if you’d like to know more, please visit the DiscoTest web site.

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A good test

babyIn this post, I explore a way of thinking about testing that would lead to the design of tests that are very different from most of the tests students take today.

Two propositions, an observation, and a third proposition:

Proposition 1. Because adults who do not enjoy learning are at a severe disadvantage in a rapidly changing world, an educational system should do everything possible to nurture children's inborn love of learning.

Proposition 2. In K-12, the specific content of a curriculum is not as important as the development of broadly applicable skills for learning, reasoning, communicating, and participating in a civil society. (The content of the curriculum would be chosen to support the development of these skills and could—perhaps should—differ from classroom to classroom.)

Observation. Testing tends to drive instruction.

Proposition 3. Consequently, tests should evaluate relevant skills and be employed in ways that support students' natural love of learning.

Given these propositions, here is my favorite definition of a "good test."

A good test is part of the conversation between a "student" and a "teacher" that tells the teacher what the student is most likely to benefit from learning next.

I'll unpack this definition and show how it relates to the proposals listed above:

Anyone who has carefully observed an infant in pursuit of knowledge will understand the conversational nature of learning. A parent holds out a shiny spoon and an infant's arms wave wildly. Her hand makes contact with the spoon and a message is sent to her brain, "Something interesting happened!" The next day, her arm movements are a little less random. She makes contact several times, feeling the same sense of satisfaction. Her parents laugh with delight. She coos. In this way, her physical and social environment provide immediate feedback each time she succeeds (or fails). Over time, the infant uses this information to learn how to reach out and touch the spoon at will. Of course, she is not satisfied with merely touching the spoon, and, through the same kind of trial and error, supplemented with a little support from Mom and Dad, she soon learns to bring the spoon to her mouth. And the conversation goes on.

Every attempt to touch the spoon is a kind of test. Every success is an affirmation that the strategy just employed was an effective strategy, but the story does not end here. In her quest to master her environment, the infant keeps moving the bar. Once she can do so at will, touching the spoon is no longer satisfying. She moves on to the next skill—holding the spoon, and the next—bringing it to her mouth, etc. Having observed this process hundreds of times, I strongly suspect that a sense of mastery is the intrinsic reward that motivates learning, while conversation, including both social and physical interactions, acts as the fuel.


A good educational test should have the same quality of conversation, in the form of performance and feedback, that is illustrated in the example above. In an ideal testing situation, the student shows a teacher how he or she understands new concepts and skills, then the teacher uses this information to determine what comes next.

Part of the conversation

However, a good test is part of the conversation—not the entire conversation. No single test (or kind of conversation) will do. For example, the infant reaches for the spoon because she finds it interesting, and she must be interested enough to reach out many dozens of times before she can grasp an object at will. Good parents recognize that she expresses more sustained interest if they provide her with a number of different objects—and don't try to force her to manipulate objects when she would rather be nursing or sleeping. Each act is a test embedded in a long conversation that is further embedded in a broader context.

What comes next?

In the story, I suggest that the spoon must be both interesting and within an infant's reach before it can become part of an ongoing conversation. In the same way, a good test should both be engaging and within a student's reach in order to play its role in the conversation between student and teacher.

An engaging test of appropriate skills can tell us how a student understands what he or she is learning, but this knowledge, by itself, does not tell the teacher (or the student) what comes next. To find out, researchers must study how particular concepts and skills are learned over time. Only when we have done a good job describing how particular skills and concepts are learned can we predict what a student is most likely to benefit from learning next.

So, a good test must not only capture the nature of a particular student's understanding, it must also be connected to knowledge about  the pathways through which students come to understand the concepts and skills of the knowledge area it targets.

Back to conversation

I argue above, that in infancy, a sense of mastery is the intrinsic reward that motivates learning, while conversation is the fuel. If conversation is the fuel, tests that do a good job serving the conversational function I outline here are likely to fuel students' natural pursuit of mastery and a lifelong love of learning.

Later: But what about accountability?

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