What Changes When a School Embraces Mindfulness?



It was lunch time at Marysville School in Southeast Portland when the fire broke out. Teachers quickly herded their students out of the building to the sports field behind the school as the old colonial-style building burned. The fire that traumatized students and staff alike was in 2009, when Lana Penley was in her second year as principal. The 460 students and 50 staff members of the K-8 school relocated to a vacant school building in another part of Portland, displaced from their school site for three years as the district rebuilt the Marysville building.

“We were already a school that struggled, and then adding [the fire] on top of it, we really thought we needed to find a social and emotional curriculum that connects to the heart to overcome our trauma,” Penley explained. When the school reopened, Penley and her staff started using the MindUP curriculum, developed by the Hawn Foundation (founded by the actress Goldie Hawn), to try to address underlying trauma both from the fire and from the daily poverty that many students face.

At first they implemented the program using a counselor, rotating between classes, teaching the 15-lesson sequence that starts with explaining to students how their brains work and what’s happening when they are stressed, scared or angry. The program then moves into mindful breathing exercises, meant to help students feel present in their bodies. There’s a section on choosing to approach the world with optimism and discussions of mindfulness in all the senses: seeing, listening and eating. Towards the end of the sequence the lessons expand outward, asking students how they can contribute to the community, how they can be better citizens. Students practice doing random acts of kindness and reflect on how that makes them feel. Gratitude becomes a daily practice.

The program is a blend of neuroscience, social and emotional tenets like empathy and perspective taking, and mindfulness, a practice which many schools have already started exploring. Several programs teach mindfulness in schools, including Mindful Schools.

After implementing the MindUP program at Marysville, Penley saw the difference. “We’ve seen this huge shift in the overall tone and civility of the school culture,” she said.

Penley and her staff soon realized that when the counselor taught the class, students were getting the benefit, but teachers weren’t. Soon teachers started coming to Penley, asking to teach the class themselves, as part of their regular classes.

“After our first year we began to think about how we could bring this to the overall health of the school,” Penley said. As a staff they decided to teach the MindUP lessons concurrently, at the same time every week, so there would be a sense of synergy. “Everyone is in a classroom except the custodian and secretary,” Penley said. “Imagine all of us hearing about gratitude and asking ourselves how we can integrate it throughout everything we do.”


A Marysville class doing three minutes of mindfulness. (Lana Penley/Marysville School) 

Penley says the real shifts in school culture came when they started implementing the program school-wide. Teachers now start class in the morning with a few breaths to help students feel present. The middle school has breathing exercises after passing periods. Penley described how kindergarteners used to come into their classroom for free breakfast while their teacher was already directing them to look at what she’d written on the board. Students were having a hard time learning that way because they didn’t feel settled or safe.

Now, teachers greet kids at the door and play soft music with the lights down; they talk about the practices the whole school is working on at that moment. In this low key environment, the teacher is taking roll and checking in on students.

Gradually the practices in the MindUP program became part of how the school operates. “These are the ways we treat each other and that happens all the time throughout the day,” Penley said. The switch to thinking about every interaction and learning moment in the school day as one of mindfulness has dramatically changed the tone of the school, according to Penley. She says discipline referrals have dropped and students are using their mindful seeing practice in classes like English, art and science to make better observations. An eighth grader recently noted that he’d been watching the presidential debates and that the candidates weren’t doing a good job of listening to one another’s perspectives.

And this more human approach hasn’t stopped at the classroom door. Teachers get a “brain break” at the start of staff meetings in recognition that they’re coming from a hectic teaching day and need a moment to ground themselves in the present before starting another task. The staff also practice whatever skill they’ll be teaching through MindUP with one another before rolling it out into the classroom.

“Our teachers are happier, which is really important, and we have a ton of people applying to our school now because they’re interested in mindfulness,” Penley said. Before they started the MindUP program, Marysville, like many other Title 1 schools serving a diverse population of learners, struggled to attract teachers. Now, Penley said she has 100 applicants for every open position, which also allows her to hire teachers who are in line with their vision.

On a teacher survey administered in the 2013-2014 school year 95 percent of the adults in the building said they were satisfied or extremely satisfied working at Marysville. And all of the adults reported that teaching MindUP has carried over into their personal lives and extends into the classroom throughout content areas.

Despite the success of the program, it hasn’t been all smooth sailing. Some teachers initially pushed back with the inevitable “initiative fatigue” that plagues many schools. But Penley said she kept them engaged in conversations about what made them uncomfortable and how they could work through those issues. “Once you are on the ground and realize that what it’s teaching are just basic human practices, we’ve seen that even our most resistant teachers have come a long way with it,” Penley said.

Penley said the program has also helped her personally. “It’s helped me find the joy in my job,” she said. “Being a principal is a really hard job. A lot of principals don’t like their jobs.” She’s learned to be more present in each meeting and to think of her main job as being a listener. She used to rush about trying to solve every problem, but now she tries to stay focused and present in each moment, giving her staff her full attention. It’s helped her remember why she loves working in education and being around kids.

“It really is a shift in the heart,” Penley said. “It’s a way of being. Instead of compliance, we call it moving more towards compassion. It’s going to shift the feel of the school.”


University of British Columbia professor Kimberly Schonert-Reichl, who was one of several researchers consulted on the development of MindUP, conducted a randomized controlled trial on fourth and fifth graders participating in the program in Vancouver public schools.Students reported many positive benefits of the program: 82 percent of children reported having a more positive outlook, 81 percent learned to make themselves happy, and 58 percent of children tried to help others more often.

Schonert-Reichl also tested children’s saliva for cortisol levels and found those who participated in the program had healthier levels. Peers also rated students in the program as more prosocial. Schonert-Reichl says teachers in British Columbia were involved in developing the curriculum based on evidence-based neuroscience and psychology principles, which helped ensure the lessons were hitting home for educators.

“When the MindUP program was developed it was an iterative process between researchers and teachers,” Schonert-Reichl said. Teachers would teach a lesson, give feedback and help the researchers improve on the program.

Marysville student practice mindfulness (Lana Penley/Marysville School)



“When teachers see it they’re like, oh yeah I can do this,” she said. “It wasn’t something foreign because it had been developed by teachers.” The program also came out in 2005, just after British Columbia had included social and emotional learning as a part of the curriculum. Schonert-Reichl said the high level recognition that these skills are valuable made it much easier for schools to get access to training money and to implement with fidelity.

In Vancouver there is a district-level person who coordinates trainings and materials, supports teachers in classrooms, and connects them to one another. “Instead of it just being this outside person who drops in and does the professional development and leaves with no follow-up, you have this core district support,” Schonert-Reichl said.


Jonathan Weresch became a MindUP trainer after seeing the results in his own classroom. He taught students with learning differences and disordered behaviors, who were especially hard to teach after lunch.

Weresch said it took about six weeks for his students to get on board with the program and there were plenty of times they tested his patience as they got used to it. In the beginning when he’d ask them to focus their attention on their breathing with their eyes closed there would be a lot of silly noises. But he modeled patience and continued to teach them about what these exercises were doing for the brain, and in time students stopped joking around. Although he’s a principal now, he still does MindUP trainings on the side because he believes in it.

As a trainer, Weresch answers a lot of questions from teachers who are either having problems getting results or who don’t see how three minutes of focused breathing three times a day can make such a big difference. Weresch explains that it’s like any other skill.

”First we have to practice things deliberately, and then what happens — just like learning to play the piano or something like that — we practice and then with enough practice it becomes a habit. And the habits become character traits after a while.”

The most common complaint he hears from teachers (who are choosing MindUP as their professional development) is that they don’t have time for an extra program, the curriculum is already too big and hard to cover. Weresch sympathizes with that argument, but tells them that in his own experience the time spent on the front end tremendously improved the quality of learning throughout the day. He also points to research indicating that social and emotional learning improves academic achievement.


Letter Grades Deserve an ‘F’

The Atlantic
The adoption of the Common Core could usher in a new era of standards-based grading.

Letter grades are a tradition in our educational system, and we accept them as fair and objective measures of academic success. However, if the purpose of academic grading is to communicate accurate and specific information about learning, letter, or points-based grades, are a woefully blunt and inadequate instrument. Worse, points-based grading undermines learning and creativity, rewards cheating, damages students’ peer relationships and trust in their teachers, encourages students to avoid challenging work, and teaches students to value grades over knowledge.

Letter grades communicate precious little about the process of learning a given subject. When a child earns a ‘B’ in Algebra I, what does that ‘B’ represent? That ‘B’ may represent hundreds of points-based assignments, arranged and calculated in categories of varying weights and relative significance depending on the a teacher’s training or habit. But that ‘B’ says nothing about the specific skills John has (or has not) learned in a given class, or if he can apply that learning to other contexts. Even when paired with a narrative comment such as, “John is a pleasure to have in class,” parents, students, and even colleges are left to guess at precisely which Algebra I skills John has learned and will be able to apply to Algebra II.

As a teacher, I struggled with the fuzzy logic of grading every term. I was invested in all those points I totaled and calculated, in categories I devised and weighted on assessments I wrote. I considered their relative value, their worth as a measure of learning, their objectivity and subjectivity. Did I grade that first paper, the one I graded just after dinner, when I was fresh, full, and in a good mood, on the same relative scale as that last paper, when I was exhausted, and just wanted to get to bed? Did the midterm test comprehension or rote memorization? I agonized over these details as if they were my final and unequivocal communication of educational truth.

We are asked to assess students precisely and with the appearance of objectivity while using an inherently subjective process.
I realized that the current system of points-based grading is highly subjective. As Alfie Kohn has written, “what grades offer is spurious precision—a subjective rating masquerading as an objective evaluation.” A few years ago, I told my students about a study I’d read that showed judges rule more favorably after breaks, so from then on, students left snacks in my office and reminded me to take breaks when they knew I would be grading their work. If the purpose of grading is to objectively evaluate student learning and achievement, surely my work breaks and snacking habits should prove irrelevant in their calculation.

Teachers are trapped in a Catch-22. We are asked to assess our students precisely (many grading programs track scores to the hundredths place) and with the appearance of objectivity while using an inherently subjective process. Teachers are then asked to present their calculations on official documents and defend those numbers at parent-teacher conferences as if they are objective measures of student learning. For all the effort, time, and best intentions teachers invest in those reams of grade reports, we are lying to ourselves and to our students’ parents, cheating our students out of clear and accurate feedback on their academic process, and contributing to the greater illusion that grades are an accurate reflection of skill mastery.
Teachers have struggled for years with the calculation and purpose of grades. The evolution of the grading system we use today reflects that search for a valid system of evaluation and assessment. In 1913, I. E. Finkelstein sought to find answers to a few basic questions about grading in his book The Marking System in Theory and Practice:

What should the mark really represent? Should the mark be based upon ability or performance, or even upon zeal and enthusiasm? What is the best set of symbols to represent ability or achievement?
At the heart of his book is the question of what a grade ought to represent. In the early days of American education, teachers used all sorts of distinctions in order to evaluate and differentiate students for the convenience of the teacher and the institution. As former Harvard University president Charles William Eliot explained in his book Harvard Memories, 18th-century Harvard students were arranged “in an order determined by the occupational standing of their parents.” As colleges moved toward a more academically relevant measure of distinction, Yale was the first institution to use a system of evaluating achievement, first with a series of descriptive adjectives, and later with a numerical scale of 1 to 4, which probably led to the 4.0 scale we use today. In 1877, Harvard began using academic “divisions” and a system of “classes” to rank students. Finally, in 1897, Mount Holyoke College adopted the familiar system of A-D and F for grading students.

Recently, a few schools have recognized the many drawbacks to points-based letter grades and have moved to a more informative and logical approach to evaluating students’ learning. This approach is known as standards-based grading. It is a system of evaluation that is formative, meaning it shapes instruction in order to fill in knowledge gaps, and measures mastery based on a set of course objectives, standards or skills.

Veteran high-school math teacher Patricia Scriffiny, who has been using standards-based grading at her high school for a few years, uses the example of homework to illustrate why standards-based grading is a better tool than points-based grading. She wrote in an article a few years back:

Many notions I had at the beginning of my career about grading didn’t stand up to real scrutiny. The thorny issue of homework is one example of how the status quo needed to change. I once thought it was essential to award points to students simply for completing homework. I didn’t believe students would do homework unless it was graded. And yet, in my classroom, students who were clearly learning sometimes earned low grades because of missing work. Conversely, some students actually learned very little but were good at “playing school.” Despite dismal test scores, these students earned decent grades by turning in homework and doing extra credit. They would often go on to struggle in later courses, while their parents watched and worried.
The answer for Scriffany was to stop awarding points-based grades and switch to standards-based grading. The goal in her classroom is no longer points or grades, but mastery. Students are held accountable not for the maximum points total assigned to a homework set, but for mastery of the concepts it contains.
Consequently, her grade book is much more informative and useful in that it clearly shows which skills need more work as a class and where each student stands in their individual journey toward mastery of those skills. Here’s an illustration of the difference:

In a points-based grade book, the student at the top, Zoe, might assume she’s doing great, but according to the standards-based grade book, she (and the teacher) can see that Zoe is not proficient in an essential skill she needs to move forward in her writing education. Conversely, Pierce’s points-based grade would be lower than Zoe’s due to that lost homework assignment, but in reality, he is already proficient in the skill that assignment was designed to reinforce.

Teaching and learning with an eye toward mastery of a defined list of competencies circumvents many of the pitfalls that points-based grading causes. If mastery of a specific concept or skill is the stated goal for everyone, students are free to be more creative in their thinking. They are encouraged to challenge themselves in pursuit of that mastery. And they maintain a focus on the process of learning rather than the destination of a grade. Finally, if mastery is understood to be the goal of education, students have little incentive to cheat.

While a shift to standards-based grading from the traditional, points-based system sounds daunting, now is the perfect time to make the transition. Currently, 45 states have adopted the Common Core State Standards, a ready-made, comprehensive list of standards for math and English, a list of skills that could be used to communicate what a particular student has learned in a given marking period. For example, if John is in 8th grade, the Common Core math standard requires that he “know and apply the properties of integer exponents to generate equivalent numerical expressions.” If John understands, and can apply this skill, his teacher will be able to communicate his proficiency simply and clearly to him, his parents, and other schools.

Standards-based grading establishes one high standard—mastery—for all students. Students who move often, such as kids in poverty, the military, or the foster care system, benefit the most from a standards-based system of evaluation because it would quickly and clearly communicate their competence in a given subject based on a common set of standards. As standards are not dependent on geography, socio-economics, or ethnicity, all students subject to that standard are held to the same expectations for mastery, and eventually, graduation.

One School’s Foray into Blended Learning Meets with Early Success

If we teach today’s students like we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow.” John Dewey

Our school’s transformation began simply enough with just one idea. We were celebrating our 40th anniversary, and the entire staff of Indian Creek School (Maryland) was looking toward the future. The head of school charged the two of us with coming back from the Online Education Strategies for Independent Schools conference in Boston with “a big idea” one that would galvanize our community of 631 students and families. There, in a sunny Boston courtyard in fall 2013, we started sketching out a new concept: Blended Learning at Indian Creek School, or BLinc, a program that would mix face-to-face and online instruction.

A Productive Brainstorming Session

We really wanted BLinc to be a game changer for Indian Creek. Like other independent, preK–12 day schools, we face a host of challenges: admission, retention, tuition increases, and revenue streams, to name a few. We thought that BLinc could better position Indian Creek in the marketplace and bolster the school’s value proposition to current families.
To start, we asked ourselves a few pivotal “why not?” questions.
  • Why not use our current learning management system (Haiku) to deliver a summer course that middle schoolers could take for upper school credit?
  • Why not make this summer course a science class to promote our burgeoning STEM program?
  • And why not handpick an experienced teacher unafraid to try new things and who just happens to be the head of said burgeoning STEM program to offer this class?
The details crystallized when we returned to campus.

An Early Groundswell of Support

Head of School Rick Branson quickly got behind our idea for a blending learning program. In fact, he asked us to launch two classes, one in the sciences that would bridge middle and upper school course work, and another in the humanities for upper school students to prepare for their future in college and beyond.
In both blended courses, students would receive content online asynchronously and be required to meet at certain times over the summer. Students in the science course would take field trips to the Chincoteague Bay Field station on Wallops Island. For the writing course, a couple of evening meetings would serve as writing workshops. Students would learn at their own pace, in the comfort of their bedrooms, hotel rooms, a local Starbucks, or wherever! The same was true for the teachers.
We knew none of our competitors had anything like this program; we believed we had a differentiator on our hands.
At the same time our excitement was building, we worried that the initiative wouldn’t catch on. Our mixed feelings disappeared as the two classes began filling up for the summer 2014 session. The Coastal Ecology course reached its capacity of 18 students. Sports Writing had a solid enrollment of upper school students eager to learn to write in a new format. These offerings gave students the opportunity to explore topics our standard courses didn’t address. BLinc was off and running in summer 2014.
Summer BLinc.png

Blended Learning at Indian Creek is dedicated to expanding the classroom community beyond walls. Credit: Indian Creek School (Maryland)

A Diverse Array of Courses

Indian Creek classifies BLinc courses in one of two ways: electives for credit or enrichment courses for no credit. Many courses are available in the summer alongside our traditional camp offerings (students can take part in both). We offer enrichment courses during the school year, and other courses are already included in our daily schedule.
As of spring 2016, less than three years after we conceived the idea, BLinc has expanded to 22 courses offered year-round to students in grades preK–12. Students can take Diggin’ Deep into Dinos, Storytelling Through Dance, Author Study, Writing Your College Essay, and Oceanography, among other interdisciplinary courses. The full list appears in the infographic below.
blended learning.jpg

A Satisfied Group of Students and Parents

Since we began BLinc nearly two years ago, we have persisted in collecting hard and anecdotal data about the student and parent experience. Before and after each course, we have separately surveyed students and parents about their familiarity with blended learning. We ask about delivery channels such as email and social media, pros and cons of the online and face-to-face format, frequency of communication, etc.
These surveys have shown that parents and students are highly satisfied with the course format and the instructors. Many respondents said they wanted us to offer more courses. Our lower school families began emailing us and cornering us at parent events, wanting in on the action as well.
The demand for blended courses continues. In summer 2015, we enrolled 16 percent of our 631 students in blended learning courses. In the 2015–2016 school year, 16 percent of our 395 lower and middle schoolers are enrolled in BLinc courses.

A Focus on Student Engagement and Feedback

At the outset, we decided our blended learning program would focus on student engagement rather than remediation. Engagement takes different forms depending on the grade level. Students in preK and kindergarten participate in weekly get-togethers with the BLinc instructor and/or a week of camp in addition to accessing online videos, sharing ideas in message boards, and completing digital arts and science projects.
In the middle and upper schools, students may chat in a Google Hangout, participate in a Skype session, or collaborate on a wiki in which the students create their own content and then share it with the teacher or the entire class.
In BLinc courses, instructors provide students constant feedback via weekly, personal emails. Upper school students enrolled in for-credit classes receive comments and earn grades. Instructors describe what the student has accomplished and what to expect moving forward. They may comment on a student’s paper, give a virtual pat on the back for a particular discussion board post, or offer a simple “keep it up!” Students and parents often receive more information than they do in our traditional classes, in which teachers maintain open gradebooks and send progress reports home every five weeks.

A Teaching Pool of Multiple Generations

Current and retired Indian Creek teachers create the content for BLinc courses. It’s challenging to design and teach a course from scratch in an online environment, and we recognize teachers’ time commitment in undertaking this work. They receive a two-tiered compensation package that includes an initial payment for creating the course and a second payment near its conclusion for teaching.
BLinc teachers design a course with the understanding that they may not always be the course’s instructor. Although we prefer the original creator to be the course instructor, a course can carry on with a new one. Indian Creek owns all course content.

A List of Key Learnings

We’ve learned several lessons from starting our blended learning program.
  1. Class titles and offerings matter. A colleague said we needed to offer “hot topics with pied pipers.” We have found her advice to be true. Surviving the Apocalypse died on the vine. However, Introduction to Coding has been a crowd pleaser, and Writing Your College Essay already has a waiting list for this summer.
  2. Our lower school students are excited about blended learning. They are our fastest-growing segment. This is unsurprising in some ways: Younger students are extremely capable in an online environment and primed to use 21st century tools.
  3. Building a program from the ground up consumes school leaders’ time. We now have three people working part-time on the BLinc program, and running it could qualify for a full-time job with additional help.


A Promising Future for BLinc

We wonder what our school will look like in two years as our blended learning disruption continues to transform our teaching and learning practices. Already we see glimpses of the transformation in traditional classrooms. Teachers of BLinc classes are experts with our learning management system and are thrilled to be able to create the course “they’ve always wanted to teach,” as they say.
Their expertise and passion have translated to the daily classroom environment, and many faculty members have adopted the blended teachers’ methods. For instance, in the upper elementary grades, online discussions are now typical, and assigning students to watch online videos for homework is more common.
Meanwhile, middle school teachers are moving some of their lecture content out of the classroom and into the online space. They choose this flipped classroom model to gain valuable collaboration time in class. Many upper school teachers are reformatting their courses to a blended model to allow more flexibility for them and their students.

A Change in Our School’s Path and Pace

The high levels of satisfaction among teachers, students, and parents have prompted us to explore other avenues where BLinc would be a fit travel programs, home schooling organizations, parent education, etc.
It is fair to say that our school has fundamentally changed its path and pace because of our blended learning program. As one of our 17 blended instructors put it, “I think the BLinc program is a valuable and exciting component of what Indian Creek offers its students. Not only does it provide students the opportunity to explore areas of interest outside of our curriculum, it allows them to learn from anywhere.”
Individualized learning. 21st century tools. Passionate teachers. Satisfied parents. Better-prepared students. We couldn’t be happier with the outcomes we’re seeing.

Professional Ethics in Advising


March 28, 2016, Vol. 41 No. 4

I find ways to make it obvious to all students that I want them to become better, more virtuous people (in ways consistent with our school’s stated purposes and projected outcomes for our graduates).

— ISM Characteristic of Professional Excellence No. 2

The Professional Characteristic expressed above derives from ISM’s research on school culture, and student performance and satisfaction. It is a distinguishing component of ISM’s approach to faculty growth and renewal. A core principle behind ISM’s guidance to schools, in general, is that their reason-for-being is to benefit students. As one dimension of this student-centered focus, we have endorsed a mission basis for middle and upper school advisory programs and emphasized that the advisor is a professional. We have recently encouraged the adoption of a strengths-based approach to advising. To engage in advising that is thoroughly professional and, in the process, to benefit all the student- and family-serving roles a professional educator plays when fully exhibiting the Professional Characteristic noted (i.e., including encouraging student virtue by being a “virtuous” advisor), we recommend incorporating the consideration of theprofessional ethics of advising into advisors’ professional development. Such a consideration would complement steps you already take to inform all faculty of the legal responsibilities that apply at your school.

Professional Ethics

Communities of educators can (and should) collaborate to create shared understandings about the professional practice of advising that serve institutional mission, align with its values, put benefit to students first, and identify legal or other limits and constraints. The terms “ethics” (rather than “morality”) is conventionally used to apply to members of a particular group’s principled consideration of right or good actions. Service to others without attention to its ethical as well as legal dimensions is not fully “professional.”

The Ethical Advisor

An understandable question may arise: Is the ethics of advising any different from that of teaching (since most advisors are classroom teachers)? Why “the ethical advisor”? Why not just “the ethical teacher”? Certainly some ethical principles apply to all who work with young people. However, the following situations suggest some distinctively advisor-centered ethical considerations:

  • advisor personal experience and feelings—feeling especially positive or negative about an advisee, making assumptions about others’ (advisees’) situations and feelings, offering advice to an advisee, coping with own personal life difficulties, and making personal self-disclosure to advisees;
  • advisors’ dual or multiple roles, which raise questions about the advisor’s duty to advisee and to others (advisees’ teachers, coaches, or parents; school administration), including when the advisee is a child of a faculty colleague and when a classroom teacher is “pressuring” an advisor to get advisee compliance with that teacher’s expectations;
  • a planned advisory group activity that (inadvertently) touches on an advisee’s current emotional vulnerability;
  • the high degree of interpersonal closeness that may develop across a four year advisor-advisee relationship; and
  • in academic advising the advisor’s bias (for or against certain courses or courses of study) or, in a highly departmentalized program, lack of understanding of the full curriculum.

In these or other situations, the professional advisor exercises judgment, most often autonomously, with an intention of doing both practical good (effective advising) and ethical good (principled advising).

Professional Development

The topic of ethics has, of course, a long history in philosophical and religious traditions and is a staple of training and continuing education in other professions. It is not possible to summarize that history here or appropriate to direct schools on what assumptions and specific ethical principles should underlie their approach to this topic. We do, however, suggest four approaches to your consideration of the ethics of advising, each of which may include advisor group discussions in a seminar-like atmosphere as well as some measure of individual advisor reflection.

Hold case conferences. With preliminary understandings about student and family confidentiality, have discussions of current advisee situations with the intention of resolving particular ethical questions and, more broadly (and, arguably, more importantly), of focusing awareness on general advising situations and related ethical questions that other advisors may encounter. Instead of or in addition to actual cases, you may wish to discuss fictional
case studies that present potential ethical problems and raise ethical questions.

Discuss queries and other prompts. Consider and discuss any or all of ISM’s Characteristics of Professional Excellence through the lens of ethics—asking: What is “good” about this characteristic? What does it “look like” when practiced in an intentionally ethical way? What are challenges or potential obstacles to expressing this characteristic ethically?

What does it mean to be a “professional advisor? What are the essential differences between being an advisor and “just” being a teacher or an “amateur” caring adult? How does the matter of ethics distinguish “amateur” from “professional”?

What are the essential qualities of an ethically good advisor? From where do these qualities come? Are they “out there” as something like universals for us to discern, embrace, and aspire to? Or are they “up to us” to generate through the shared beliefs and expectations of our community? What would be the benefits and drawbacks of having an Advisor Code of Ethics? What do’s and don’ts should be explicitly articulated? What advisor virtues do we identify and define as central to professional practice in our school’s advisory program?

As appropriate to your school’s faith-based or secular identity, devote time to prayer or to meditation with a guided focus on student (advisee) well-being and on advisor ethical goodness. “Compassion” may serve as a focal point in this practice.

Draft an advisor(y) code of ethics. You and your colleagues may see potential value in creating an Advisor or Advisory Code of Ethics. A simple internet search will yield various codes of ethics in education and other professions, codes that can serve as models in terms of structure and content. You may find that the processes of making the decision to initiate this kind of project and then the collaborative work performed to create the draft document are the main value derived. Your final document might best be viewed as open to future revision. Most important, in practice, it will be hollow, useless, or even detrimental if the culture of the school does not authentically both support and reflect the code’s content and if attention is not given to shared understandings about responsibilities to enforce it. The code cannot create the culture; the culture must be a vital context for the code. It is recommended that your final draft and plan for publication or other uses be reviewed by school legal counsel.

Host a presentation by, and discussion with, an outside professional. Invite an academician, clergyperson, or member of another profession with expertise in ethics to make a presentation and lead a discussion on this topic. In advance, provide him or her with your program’s mission statement, a definition of advisor roles in both group and one-to-one advising, and, if possible, descriptions of some actual ethical challenges and dilemmas that your advisors have faced. You may wish to give him or her an edited version of the list of situations described above to provide focus on professional ethics.

The potential benefits of advisors’ engaging in these practices include enhanced clarity about professional priorities and responsibilities, renewed focus on program mission, and heightened in-the-moment awareness (mindfulness) in encounters with advisees and their families. It is also likely that this awareness will extend to other professional roles at school (as teacher, as coach, as colleague) and, in general, foster a more contemplative way-of-being at school. While these practices may elicit feelings of caution, at least initially, the longer term benefit can be the reward of advisors’ sense of defined and delimited purpose and the feeling of satisfaction in taking the ethical high road in being of help.

Don’t Grade Schools on Grit

Lilli Carre

Philadelphia — THE Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once observed, “Intelligence plus character — that is the goal of true education.”

Evidence has now accumulated in support of King’s proposition: Attributes like self-control predict children’s success in school and beyond. Over the past few years, I’ve seen a groundswell of popular interest in character development.

As a social scientist researching the importance of character, I was heartened. It seemed that the narrow focus on standardized achievement test scores from the years I taught in public schools was giving way to a broader, more enlightened perspective.

These days, however, I worry I’ve contributed, inadvertently, to an idea I vigorously oppose: high-stakes character assessment. New federallegislation can be interpreted as encouraging states and schools to incorporate measures of character into their accountability systems. This year, nine California school districts will begin doing this.

Here’s how it all started. A decade ago, in my final year of graduate school, I met two educators, Dave Levin, of the KIPP charter schoolnetwork, and Dominic Randolph, of Riverdale Country School. Though they served students at opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum, both understood the importance of character development. They came to me because they wanted to provide feedback to kids on character strengths. Feedback is fundamental, they reasoned, because it’s hard to improve what you can’t measure.

This wasn’t entirely a new idea. Students have long received grades for behavior-related categories like citizenship or conduct. But an omnibus rating implies that character is singular when, in fact, it is plural.

In data collected on thousands of students from district, charter and independent schools, I’ve identified three correlated but distinct clusters of character strengths. One includes strengths like grit, self-control and optimism. They help you achieve your goals. The second includes social intelligence and gratitude; these strengths help you relate to, and help, other people. The third includes curiosity, open-mindedness and zest for learning, which enable independent thinking.

Still, separating character into specific strengths doesn’t go far enough. As a teacher, I had a habit of entreating students to “use some self-control, please!” Such abstract exhortations rarely worked. My students didn’t know what, specifically, I wanted them to do.

In designing what we called a Character Growth Card — a simple questionnaire that generates numeric scores for character strengths in a given marking period — Mr. Levin, Mr. Randolph and I hoped to provide students with feedback that pinpointed specific behaviors.

For instance, the character strength of self-control is assessed by questions about whether students “came to class prepared” and “allowed others to speak without interrupting”; gratitude, by items like “did something nice for someone else as a way of saying thank you.” The frequency of these observed behaviors is estimated using a seven-point scale from “almost never” to “almost always.”

Most students and parents said this feedback was useful. But it was still falling short. Getting feedback is one thing, and listening to it is another.

To encourage self-reflection, we asked students to rate themselves. Thinking you’re “almost always” paying attention but seeing that your teachers say this happens only “sometimes” was often the wake-up call students needed.

This model still has many shortcomings. Some teachers say students would benefit from more frequent feedback. Others have suggested that scores should be replaced by written narratives. Most important, we’ve discovered that feedback is insufficient. If a student struggles with “demonstrating respect for the feelings of others,” for example, raising awareness of this problem isn’t enough. That student needs strategies for what to do differently. His teachers and parents also need guidance in how to help him.

Scientists and educators are working together to discover more effective ways of cultivating character. For example, research has shown that we can teach children the self-control strategy of setting goals and making plans, with measurable benefits for academic achievement. It’s also possible to help children manage their emotions and to develop a “growth mind-set” about learning (that is, believing that their abilities are malleable rather than fixed).

This is exciting progress. A 2011 meta-analysis of more than 200 school-based programs found that teaching social and emotional skills can improve behavior and raise academic achievement, strong evidence that school is an important arena for the development of character.

But we’re nowhere near ready — and perhaps never will be — to use feedback on character as a metric for judging the effectiveness of teachers and schools. We shouldn’t be rewarding or punishing schools for how students perform on these measures.

MY concerns stem from intimate acquaintance with the limitations of the measures themselves.

One problem is reference bias: A judgment about whether you “came to class prepared” depends on your frame of reference. If you consider being prepared arriving before the bell rings, with your notebook open, last night’s homework complete, and your full attention turned toward the day’s lesson, you might rate yourself lower than a less prepared student with more lax standards.

For instance, in a study of self-reported conscientiousness in 56 countries, it was the Japanese, Chinese and Korean respondents who rated themselves lowest. The authors of the study speculated that this reflected differences in cultural norms, rather than in actual behavior.

Comparisons between American schools often produce similarly paradoxical findings. In a study colleagues and I published last year, we found that eighth graders at high-performing charter schools gave themselves lower scores on conscientiousness, self-control and grit than their counterparts at district schools. This was perhaps because students at these charter schools held themselves to higher standards.

I also worry that tying external rewards and punishments to character assessment will create incentives for cheating. Policy makers who assume that giving educators and students more reasons to care about character can be only a good thing should take heed of research suggesting that extrinsic motivation can, in fact, displace intrinsic motivation. While carrots and sticks can bring about short-term changes in behavior, they often undermine interest in and responsibility for the behavior itself.

A couple of weeks ago, a colleague told me that she’d heard from a teacher in one of the California school districts adopting the new character test. The teacher was unsettled that questionnaires her students filled out about their grit and growth mind-set would contribute to an evaluation of her school’s quality. I felt queasy. This was not at all my intent, and this is not at all a good idea.

Does character matter, and can character be developed? Science and experience unequivocally say yes. Can the practice of giving feedback to students on character be improved? Absolutely. Can scientists and educators work together to cultivate students’ character? Without question.

Should we turn measures of character intended for research and self-discovery into high-stakes metrics for accountability? In my view, no.

Angela Duckworth is the founder and scientific director of the Character Lab, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of the forthcoming book “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.”


7th Grade Problem-Based Learning

Madison Huber and Jonathen Schatz show off their Iditabits product during the STEM survival and Iditarod unit presentation at Cheney Middle School. Photos by David Samson

Cheney 7th-graders create innovations for Iditarod project

Students at Cheney Middle School in West Fargo had a tall task when they were given a week-and-a-half to research, design and test a new innovation to help Iditarod dog mushers during a fictitious race across North Dakota.

In the “I Will Survive!” project, 96 seventh-grade students in groups of two or three created a tangible invention to help the dogs or mushers complete and survive the long race across North Dakota. They presented their projects Friday in the school’s lunch commons.

Before students started their projects, they heard a presentation from a local veterinarian who discussed the problems and obstacles dogs and mushers face during an Iditarod race. The real Iditarod race began in Alaska in 1973, with a route from Anchorage to Nome. Mushers and dogs can face whiteout conditions and extremely cold temperatures.

Grace Planteen and Victoria Smith created a “doggy care kit” that includes a blanket with a heating system, a dog booty for paws and organic dog treats.

“We spent like a whole day thinking of many different designs and it just came to us,” Smith said.

“There was so much stuff that the mushers need that they can’t always fit all of their stuff they need for the dogs and so we thought, ‘Why can’t the dogs carry their own,’” Planteen added.

Items in the doggy care kit fit into a lightweight pack the girls designed to fit on the dogs. They even tested the packs on their own dogs.

Smith and Planteen said they both enjoyed working on the project. “I really liked creating the prototype,” Smith said. “I thought it was really fun to interact with it and just working with another person on making this happen.”

Two other students, Abigail Carlson and Elizabeth Lokosang, created a better braking system for sleds used in the Iditarod race that would make it safer for the mushers to slow down.

“We had a lot of ideas, but this is the one we really wanted to do because the mushers were falling off their sleds and getting hurt,” Lokosang said.

Carlson said she enjoyed the hands-on design part of the project and not the research, but said the project required her to become a better researcher.

Abigail Carlson and Elizabeth Lokosang talk about their Total Terrain project for the STEM survival, Iditarod unit. David Samson

Abigail Carlson and Elizabeth Lokosang talk about their Total Terrain project for the STEM survival, Iditarod unit. David Samson

The new braking system uses a hand brake to slow or stop the sled instead of the musher stepping on two brakes on the rear of the sled. Carlson said the current braking system leads to mushers falling off the sleds more easily.

Another pair of students created “Iditabars,” an energy bar snack for dogs to help them get the nutrients and energy they need to complete the race. Madison Huber and Jonny Schatz developed the recipe after extensive research. They also had to develop a way to keep the bars together after baking them proved impossible.

“Instead of baking them we froze them, so they’re like frozen dog treats,” Huber said.

Huber tested the treats on her own dog.

“He loved it,” she said. “He was just wagging his tail and he was running all night.”

Cheney Middle School seventh-grade teacher Karen Lietz said the project helps students prepare for future solution-based career fields.

“These kids when they graduate, they will have all of those 21st-century skills, with collaboration, creativity,” Lietz said. “They’ll be able to communicate effectively with others. They’ll have developed those soft skills as well as the problem-solving skills that are real-world.”

Can Teaching Spatial Skills Help Bridge the STEM Gender Gap?

For all the emphasis placed on science, technology, engineering and math instruction, not much attention is given to a skill set that’s closely related with success in STEM: spatial skills.

The ability to mentally manipulate objects is key to success in many fields, including physics and engineering. Spatial skills are an early indicator of later achievement in mathematics, they “strongly predict” who will pursue STEM careers, and they are more predictive of future creativity and innovation than math scores. In fact, a review of 50 years of research shows that spatial skills have a “robust influence” on STEM domains.

However, women generally score lower than men on tests of spatial reasoning — particularly measures of spatial visualization and mental rotation. Some researchers point to evolution as the culprit, while others have tied the discrepancies to hormone levels or brain structure.  As one researcher put it, “Sex differences in spatial ability are well documented, but poorly understood.”

Sheryl Sorby said she’s not interested in arguing about why the gap exists because training and practice can close it.

“A lot of people believe that spatial intelligence is a fixed quantity — that you either have good spatial skills or you don’t — but that’s simply not true,” said Sorby, an engineering professor. This misperception is particularly harmful to girls who may not be encouraged to engage in spatially rich activities that would set them up for later STEM success.

“We may start with this small biological difference, but it grows because of our environment,” said Sorby.  For example, starting at an early age, boys are more likely to engage in activities that boost spatial reasoning. Research shows that boys play with spatial toys more than girls do — and spatial toys are often marketed explicitly to boys. In addition,studies find that parents are “less likely to restrain the exploratory behavior of boys,” such as allowing them to roam further from home than girls their same age.

The Ripple Effects of Spatial Reasoning

Boosting girls’ spatial skills can have a positive effect on other domains. Sorby believes that the small but persistent gender gap in standardized math scores can be largely explained by differences in spatial reasoning: Girls tend to do worse than boys on test items that have a spatial component.

A 2014 review of middle school physical science exam scores found that the gender difference boiled down to a few specific questions that required mental rotation. According to one report, “after students’ scores on the mental rotation assessment were taken into account, there was no longer a gender difference in physical science scores.”

Early in her career, Sorby wondered if spatial skills training could help colleges retain female students in engineering, a field with an acute gender disparity. As of 2011, 19 percent of all undergraduate degrees in engineering were awarded to women, and 3 percent were awarded to women of color. Sorby said that at many colleges, the first engineering courses for beginning students cover design graphics, which is highly spatial. 

When Sorby taught at Michigan Technical University, she noticed that some female students — who otherwise excelled in math and science — would struggle with the class and choose to switch majors. “They assumed they didn’t have what it took to be an engineer,” said Sorby, “when the real issue was a weakness in spatial skills.”


From “Educational Research in Developing 3-D Spatial Skills for Engineering
Students” by Sheryl A. Sorby. 

To help her incoming engineering students, Sorby developed a “short introduction to spatial visualization” class. The course is 15 hours of instructional time —  “a miniscule amount of time” in the scheme of things — but the payoff has been worthwhile. Sorby taught students how to sketch figures from multiple perspectives, look at cross sections of objects and create 3-D objects through paper folding exercises. Students who took the class not only improved their spatial skills, but also their grades in all STEM classes improved, and they were more likely to graduate with an engineering degree.

In ninth grade at the Columbus School for Girls, students can take a version of Sorby’s spatial visualization course as a spring elective. The course is nine lessons and is taught by Linda Swarlis, director of information services. Swarlis says she often hears from graduates about how this course helped them in their college STEM classes. One young woman described how she found herself the only female enrolled in an inorganic chemistry class at a competitive college.

“The professor introduced the concept of chirality, and she recognized the concept as the right hand rule in engineering, something that she learned in her spatial visualization course,” said Swarlis.

Given that spatial skills can be learned, what can parents and teachers do? Sorby offers these suggestions:

Encourage Block Play: Playing with blocks and puzzles correlates with spatial development. Lego kits are particularly good for strengthening spatial visualization because kids have to examine a 2-D diagram and turn it into a 3-D model, said Sorby. She also recommends trying out some of the new engineering toys that have hit the market, such asGoldiblox.

Involve Girls in Practical Spatial Tasks: When planning a road trip, hand a map to your daughters and ask them to plan the route, said Sorby. When putting together a piece of IKEA furniture, involve girls in reading the instructions and screwing it together. These types of activities build skills and confidence.

Hold, Build and Sketch 3-D Objects: Sketching 3-D objects improves students’ mental visualization and rotation skills. Have children build an object out of blocks and then sketch it. Then have them rotate the object and sketch it again. Recent research also suggests that “holding an object in your hand seems to help you visualize it,” says Sorby. For example, showing students a 2-D model of a molecule does not help them nearly as much as handing them a model that they can hold, turn and examine from different angles.

Play 3-D Video Games: One study found that a mere 10 hours of “playing an action video game can virtually eliminate this gender difference in spatial attention and simultaneously decrease the gender disparity in mental rotation ability.” The authors speculate that more exposure to 3-D video games “could play a significant role as part of a larger strategy designed to interest women in science and engineering careers.”

Remember the power of expectation:  “If we have a child with poor math skills, we don’t say, ‘That’s too bad — you’ll have poor math skills for the rest of your life.’ But with spatial skills we tend to do that,” said Sorby. “Instead we need to tell kids, ‘You can develop these skills just like you develop any skill.’ ”