Lesson Kent ISD Dave Stuart Jr.

One Simple Lesson, a Scientific Study and Life-Changing Results

I want to share with you the most exciting study I’ve read in the past year; it’s by David Yeager and Adriana Miu. In less than 1,000 words, I’ll lay it out briefly and then explain why I think it basically proves that our most idealistic conceptions of teaching — that teaching is magical, that it makes a difference, that it creates change that ripples on for centuries — are actually quite reasonable.

The study

600 freshmen students from three different high schools were given a short reading and writing exercise in September of their 9th-grade year. They were randomly assigned to an intervention group (Group A) or a control group (Group B), without knowing which group they were in. [1]

From a press release about the study:

Students assigned to [Group A] read a passage describing how individuals’ personalities are subject to change. The passage emphasized that being bullied is not the result of a fixed, personal deficiency, nor are bullies essentially “bad” people. An article about brain plasticity and endorsements from older students accompanied the passage. After reading the materials, the students were asked to write their own narrative about how personalities can change, to be shared with future ninth graders.

Students in [Group B] read a passage that focused on the malleability of a trait not related to personality: athletic ability.

In other words, kids read a passage, an article, and some words from older students, and then they wrote a narrative summarizing what they had learned. In one case, the readings were about how personality can change and social exclusion isn’t permanent; in the other, the readings were about how athletic ability can change.

It took a class period.

The results

From the press release (emphasis mine):

A follow-up 9 months later in May showed that rates of clinically significant depressive symptoms rose by roughly 39% among students in [Group B], in line with previous research on depression in adolescence. [In other words, Group B’s activity neither harmed nor benefited the students.]

Students in [Group A] who learned about the malleability of personality, on the other hand, showed no such increase in depressive symptoms, even if they were bullied. The data revealed that the intervention specifically affected depressive symptoms of negative mood, feelings of ineffectiveness, and low self-esteem.

Okay, stop. Pause. If you are not completely blown away by this, read it again. This, to me, proves the power of teaching.

Why this encourages me so much

Here are the three things that blow my mind, purely from a teacher standpoint:

  • A short, simple activity yielded widespread, long-term results. A single reading and writing activity in a single class period decreased the onset of depression in the freshman year by nearly 40%. And this decrease was measured 9 months later. 
  • These results are potential life changers. The freshman year of high school is pivotal. When students live beneath clouds of “negative mood, feelings of ineffectiveness, and low self-esteem,” they are less likely to succeed in their classes. As studies of Chicago and New York City dropout rates have shown, “success in high school coursework is directly tied to eventual graduation,” and that success is largely determined in the freshman year. [2] While graduation is no guarantee of a great life, not graduating is a strong guarantee of a hard one.
  • Which means that every one of our lessons has the potential to affect long-term flourishing in a significant way.

This has ramifications across my whole life:

  • What I need much more than information is wisdom. Miu and Yeager weren’t swinging in the dark — they identified a problem (onset of depressive symptoms in the freshman year), brought a theory to bear on the problem (the incremental theory of personality), and they designed an absurdly simple intervention for introducing the theory to students. Just knowing about all those problems wasn’t enough; they needed wisdom in order to connect the dots and put the intervention together.
  • Simplicity and trust trump complexity and control. Miu and Yeager’s intervention was a reading and writing activity — I’m not even sure a teacher was involved. I know that they didn’t train teachers on how to reinforce the messages of the text; kids didn’t do an elaborate project. They simply trusted that fourteen-year-olds could make sense of the information through reading and writing.
  • On a much smaller, non-empirical scale, this study suggests that every one of our interactions with other people — our students, our spouses, our children, our friends — has great potential. Again, this means we need wisdom — because it’s wisdom that enables us to speak the right words at the opportune moment. Information just can’t do that.

My goodness. I’m so glad to share this with you. I do hope I did the study justice. At this end of the school-year time, I hope this post served as encouragement for the good work you have yet to do this year, and the improvements you hope to make for next year.

Kent ISDDave Stuart Jr. writes atDaveStuartJr.com and teaches in Cedar Springs, MI. On his blog, he creates weekly articles about literacy instruction, character strengths, and the inner work of teaching. He’s on Twitter, too: @davestuartjr

Footnotes:

  1. Here is the study’s abstract. Here is an NPR story on the Miu & Yeager study. Here is a press release regarding the study.
  2. Here is the Chicago report.

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