Sending mixed messages

Do as I say, not as I do.

Mark Guzdial recently highlighted an ICER 2019 paper by Jamie Gorson and Eleanor O’Rourke, “How Do Students Talk About Intelligence? An Investigation of Motivation, Self-efficacy, and Mindsets in Computer Science.”

Interestingly, they found that the way students talked about mindsets was sometimes not consistent with students’ associated behaviors.

One possible explanation for this behavior lies in the way that certain skills are emphasized in the CS classroom. Many of the CS teachers in classrooms I’ve observed make statements that support growth mindset and a learning goal orientation, such as claiming that getting more practice solving problems is key to succeeding, that it’s important to work with a partner, or describing the value of not just getting the right answer but understanding how that answer came to be. However, the lesson plan oftentimes tells a different story: students are rarely given in-class time to practice, partnerwork is uncoordinated with limited instruction or expectations management, and teachers selectively highlight correct answers without emphasizing process on the board or in their teaching materials. Teachers’ verbal encouragement of wrong answers provides little reprieve as wrong answers are quickly explained away and given no further mental or physical consideration in the classroom.

Considering the problem from a sociocultural perspective, teachers, as the dominant agent for socialization in the classroom, implicitly determine the classroom values. The inconsistency between students’ mindset talk and their associated behaviors could be influenced by teachers’ mixed messaging, which in turn informs the interactions between students.

We can imagine different kinds of interventions for this theory. One that appeals to the underlying sociocultural problem is to create a community of learners by enacting the values emphasized in speech by giving students more scaffolded practice, teaching students how to work with other students, and framing instruction in terms of process rather than product. The CSEd and broader STEM education literature propose many different ways to solve this problem including think-pair-share, peer instruction, POGIL, and flipped classroom formats. What’s notable to me is that the aforementioned methods modify the role of the instructor and the student in delivering the message.

Alternatively, we could also intervene by providing scaffolding to frame the way students are expected to analyze, create, and evaluate problems. Early work from George Polya (How to Solve It) suggests a four step process, and many since then have developed similar problem solving models.

  1. You have to understand the problem.
  2. Find the connection between the data and the unknown. You may be obliged to consider auxiliary problems if an immediate connection cannot be found. You should obtain eventually a plan of the solution.
  3. Carry out your plan.
  4. Examine the solution obtained.

Framing problems in terms of this explicit problem-solving process could provide a more productive basis for student-student and student-teacher interactions as ideas aren’t just classified as right or wrong, and can instead be assessed to a finer degree.