In my post from last week I took a pot shot at education; a seemingly easy target these days. The education system—whether we are talking about crowded inner city schools or sub-standard institutions of higher education—have been under scrutiny from a wide range of social critics for a long time now. Jonathan Kozol, for instance, has made a career out of telling the heartbreaking stories about marginalized children who slipped through the cracks of the educational system. The recent documentary film "Waiting for Superman" chronicles the many systematic obstacles to fixes what many people believe is a broken system for equipping our children with knowledge and skills.
It is easy to see where blame might lie and there appears to be no shortage of explanations for America's educational deficits. Teacher-student ratios are growing in an unfavorable direction. District budgets are getting reduced in a tight economy. The teacher tenure system may inadvertently protect poor performers. Aging facilities are falling into disrepair. A lack of parental investment holds back children who might otherwise succeed. The rising popularity of gangs, violence, and drug use pose new distractions for students who want to learn in a safe environment. Indeed, everywhere you turn there seems to be a new culprit in the erosion of the quality of our education system.
As a positive psychologist I am as interested in "filling in holes" as I am in pointing out holes. It is easy to be an armchair critic and a bit more challenging to offer solutions. I take the responsibility of finding solutions seriously and over the last year my team at Positive Acorn has been interviewing instructors and students from higher education to get a better sense of their actual educational experiences. Admittedly, we confined our conversations to college and university students and do not claim to have sweeping insights to primary education students. We contacted people at public and private colleges and universiities as well as at community colleges. Further, our participants ranged geographically from California and Texas and Tennessee to Oregon and Illinois and Pennsylvania. Our interviews were conducted so that we could capture the experiences of high performing students, underperformers, gifted instructors and professors who were—shall we say—less gifted. We asked questions such as "how would you define educational success?" "what is college for?" and "what makes for good teaching?"
As a psychologist I was interested in some internal trait that might set the good students apart from those who struggled. It is easy to imagine that hard work, intelligence, or a great working memory might distinguish between top and bottom students. I quickly learned, however, that my trait oriented approach was too simplistic. I had made the classic mistake of looking for a simple explanation in a world where people and variables collide. In short, I should have been looking at the interactions between teachers and students rather than some characteristics of the instructors or students themselves. Once my research team shifted our attention toward the way that top and bottom students and instructors interact we learned that there are predictable work styles that suggest success and its opposite.
What we discovered is that it is less a matter of whether a student is high performing or low performing, or whether an instructor is talented or cynical. The real action is what happens when these two types of students interact with the two types of instructors. As you might guess the best results come when academically gifted students are paired with top teachers. At Positive Acorn we call this combination "flourishing" because it is marked by accelerated learning and a sense of satisfaction for both the faculty and the students. By contrast, when low performing instructors are paired with low performing students everyone loses. There is insufficient motivation to truly have an enriched learning environment and we call this "languishing."
The two other possible combinations are, perhaps, the most intriguing. When top instructors are paired with lackluster students we call this "challenging" because both parties feel unduly challenged by the mismatch. The faculty members are often frustrated by the apparent lack of student initiative and the students, in turn, can be exasperated by what they perceive as pressure from their teachers. Both parties can come away feeling overwhelmed and discouraged. In the final pairing, top students are put together with low performing instructors who lack the ability or inclination to properly nurture them. We call this "leapfrogging" because the all-star students tend to bound right over their professors as if they are an obstacle to learning.
This understanding of what leads to student engagement (and faculty satisfaction as well!) is an important adjunct to the traditional attention to external factors such as funding and school resources. In a blame game where it is easy to pick on students, on teachers, or on the educational system itself it can be helpful to remember that interactions and contexts are also vital to academic success. The best students in our research were those who had the internal drive and initiative to make their learning experience extraordinary even when they were faced with real world limitations.