What makes teams work? Ask Google


Google has spent 1000s of hours trying to figure out how to make people work better in teams.

The answer? Teams are most effective when there is “psychological safety” — in other words, everyone feels safe contributing ideas, questioning others (even the boss), and sharing problems.

In the best teams, people feel free to offer the most outlandish, ambitious ideas — and they are not shot down. Also, everyone contributes more or less equally.

The same holds true in our classrooms. If we create “psychological safety” for our students, they are more likely to contribute to discussions, more likely to ask questions and more likely to seek help — and they will be more effective learners.

How can we do it? Many students have a natural adversity to speaking up. They don’t want to be wrong. They don’t want to be laughed at. They don’t want to be the center of attention. And often, they lack confidence that they have anything meaningful to say.

And we teachers have a natural reluctance to embrace teams — because we assume students learn best alone, like we did back in the day.

We can overcome these barriers, but we have to start early each semester, and we have to be consistent. Here’s how:

1 – Involve every student right away. Call on every student by name as often as possible — the ones you don’t call on will automatically feel less valued and engaged.

2 – If students are shy about answering, let them discuss questions with a partner or in a small group first. Then, when they answer, they know someone has their back.

3 – Seat students in small teams of 2, 3 or 4. Individual seats all pointing forward does not create a collaborative environment.

4 – Encourage divergent thinking. Ask questions that have multiple answers, rather than one right answer. Start class with a question each day — not something irrelevant like “what’s your favorite TV show” but something related to your content, like “what’s the worst survey question you can think of?”

5 – Create a playful environment, where it’s OK to laugh at and even celebrate mistakes. It’s actually more fun and more productive to be in a workplace where people are comfortable enough together to laugh, but that means everyone has to be vulnerable — starting with us.

By the way, Google also found that an effective team of medium-skilled employees will outperform a dysfunctional team filled with superstars.

Our students don’t learn in isolation; they learn in a social setting. We need to create the setting that lets them shine together.



Do SMART goals limit teachers’ vision?

canstockphoto19982029Writing SMART goals — “Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timebound” — is now a fall rite of passage for public school teachers, right up there with crafting a syllabus, assigning seats and putting up bulletin boards.

This process always strikes me as perfunctory. Do SMART goals really get us anywhere? Or is this just another exercise in jumping through hoops?

As it turns out, SMART goals aren’t as useful as we are led to believe. The funny thing is, GE pioneered SMART goals in the early 1980s, and by the late 1980s — long long before they made their way into public education’s acronym collection — GE already knew there were flaws.

When specific GE divisions were having problems, setting SMART goals did not help.

What is good about SMART goals is that they force us to make plans, rather than just hold vague aspirations like, “I want all my students to be self-disciplined and successful.”

The bad news is that they produce a lot of trivial goals, and they don’t push us to think outside the box much. By 1990, Gary Latham (who helped create SMART goals) wrote that they “can cause [a] person to have tunnel vision.”

In other words, we become obsessed with checking off our short-term goals, like 1% improvement, and lose sight of the big picture, like our massive achievement gap.

In 1993, Jack Welch decided GE needed to embrace “audacious” goals in addition to the smaller, process-oriented SMART goals. These audacious goals are, by definition, so ambitious that you can’t possibly set a timeline or describe specific steps.

These are goals like “I’m going to get these struggling readers to read and understand Shakespeare” or “The students in the remedial math class will make two years’ progress this year.”

How are goals like this even useful? It seems to contradict we’ve been told about goal-setting.

Audacious goals can work because they force us to rethink everything. For example, at one GE plant described in the book Smarter, Better, Faster, the aircraft manufacturing division set a goal of reducing errors by 70%. It seemed impossible, but within six years they had up-ended their processes — changing organizational charts, rewriting job duties, revising the hiring process — and reduced errors by 75%.

Audacious goals can drive us to make serious, lasting improvements if we sincerely commit to them, even when we’re not sure how or when they will be attainable. Once we set them, then it’s time to set smaller SMART goals — always with an eye to the “audacious” end game.

This is what we should be talking about at the beginning of the school year. Not little goals that let us off the hook, but audacious goals that might force us to rethink what we do.

Intimidating? Yes. But so much more powerful.

Let’s get serious about stereotype threat


It’s been 20 years since Steele and Aronson first published their work on “stereotype threat,” demonstrating that we are profoundly influenced by internalized cultural stereotypes about ourselves.

Since then, more than 300 peer-reviewed experiments have found similar results. Time and time again, we find that individuals perform worse in school, limit their career options and often make bad decisions – in reaction to stereotyped expectations about their race, gender, age, nationality and other characteristics.

Reading the book Mindwise (Nicholas Epley) this summer reminded me of stereotype threat — and made me wonder why we as educators don’t talk more about it when we work on strategies to overcome the achievement gap.

I suspect it’s because we don’t really believe it’s true, no matter what the research tells us.

If you never read the original research, or don’t remember, the quick version is this:

When researchers called attention to race, African-American college students did worse on a test than their white peers. When race was not emphasized, they performed as well as white students. Calling attention to race was as simple as asking the students to fill out a demographic survey before taking the test — or even telling the students it was an “ability” test, which triggered stereotypes about “inherent” intelligence.

I remember reading this in 1995 and being shocked. If you’re not similarly shocked today, try this study (quoted in Mindwise):

“[The study] measured the aging stereotypes of 229 volunteers who were 18 to 39 years old and then tracked their health histories for 38 years. At the end of the study, 56% of those with negative stereotypes about the elderly (measured 38 years before) had suffered a major cardiovascular event (mainly heart attack or stroke) compared to only 18% of those who had positive elderly stereotypes.”

If you’re tempted to minimize the impact of stereotypes on students — “Oh, surely they can overcome it!” — it’s humbling to realize that our internal stereotypes about aging are this powerful. You can literally stereotype yourself into having a heart attack.

If stereotype threat is that powerful, we really need to start addressing it in our schools. The million-dollar question is: How?

One way is by confronting it head on — making sure students understand how negative stereotypes impact them, so they can cognitively confront them. (We talk about this in AP Psych.) But that alone is not enough, because our minds aren’t tricked that easily.

Another way is to be intentional about not triggering stereotypes. While we need to recognize students’ individual differences, we must take care not to make students self-conscious about their race, gender, age, cultural background, etc. — a delicate balancing act for teachers.

We can also avoid triggering stereotypes about academic ability by assuring our students that all of our tests (even the ACT and SAT) measure effort – not inherent ability. This fits with our effort to develop a growth mindset in all of our students.

We also need to provide role models and student exemplars that reflect our diverse student bodies. This way, we can subtly show our students that people “like them” have achieved success in our disciplines. If all economists are white males, what young woman thinks she has a chance? (Yes, this has been studied, too.)

Finally – it goes without saying – we can help overcome stereotype threat by building relationships with our students and treating them all as individual human beings. When students know we see them as individuals, they are less likely to think of themselves in stereotypical terms.

What we cannot do is continue to ignore the power of stereotype threat or the impact it has on our students or ourselves. We need to believe what the data is showing us — and act on it.

A cynical take on the value of school

canstockphoto40542858Last week, a Slate.com article on a new technology to track mental engagement (Pay Attention!) raised the issue of boredom in school, quoting this stat: “82 percent of U.S. high school students report being sometimes or often bored in class.”

Like me, the writer Mary Mann (also the author of Yawn: Adventures in Boredom) clearly finds this disturbing. So does the researcher, Dr. Hasan Ayaz, who is using spectroscopy to identify and prevent student boredom at the neurological level.

The commenters on the article… not so much. Here’s what they had to say:


“Learning to handle boredom is an invaluable skill.”

“I couldn’t agree more. In fact, it’s one reason I think public school is useful: kids learn to navigate boredom.”

Wow, that is depressing. Here’s another one:

“School is boring for the most part, that’s just the way it is.”

The conversation also touched on what’s important to learn in school, what’s not important, who’s responsible for boring curriculum and other issues, but the general consensus was: Who cares if school is boring? Work isn’t fun, and life isn’t fun. They might as well find out early.

When people bash on the very idea that learning could be engaging, it makes me sad for them. What kind of education did they have that left them so cynical? Why was it so removed from anything that mattered to them?

Work can be fun. Or at least it can be interesting and engaging and better than just reading social media and watching reality TV, which would leave me feeling brain-dead and exhausted. Meaningful work can give you a sense of purpose. Same with school.

We need to start there — and fight the idea that school is merely training for a monotonous life.


What do ‘experts’ have to offer us?


For the past few weeks, I’ve been going to physical therapy to deal with rotator cuff tendinitis in my right shoulder. At my intake appointment, I learned that I brought this problem on myself by doing what I thought was “the right thing.”

For years, I thought I was helping my shoulders and preventing future problems (like stooping) by making myself do shoulder presses at the gym — but it turns out I was actually messing up my shoulders and upper back.

By stupidly following a “common-sense” regimen without expert advice, I made matters worse. Now, I have to work extra hard every day to fix it.

You might wonder: What does this have to do with teaching?

Too much, unfortunately. Every day, we use and promote learning strategies that seem effective, seem like common sense, and when they don’t work, we do more of the same rather than seek expert guidance on what to do differently.

For example, telling students to re-read the textbook. Re-reading is the number one study strategy most kids bring to college, but repeated research has shown it to be pointless. That’s right — reading a textbook once is useful, but the second go-round adds no value.

I know… research shme-search — many of us don’t want to hear it. It’s so far removed from the classroom — from my classroom — and what do those “experts” know about teaching and learning anyway?

But relying on common sense isn’t so great either, as I learned from my shoulder. Sometimes, experts know something we need to learn.

If we take time to read current studies (and make sure they’re legit, not just self-promotion by curriculum companies), we can actually figure out how to do our jobs better.

For example, a Hong Kong study that compared problem-based learning to lecture in a middle school science class. Although students learned equally well in the short term with both methods, the long-term retention was a different story. The PBL group showed a 162% improvement in pre/post-test scores, compared to 35% for the traditional class.

If this is true, and I think it is, don’t you want to know about it?

I thought I knew what I was doing at the gym, and I was wrong. I actually injured myself. What parts of my classroom practice are also wrong — or at least not as sharp as they could be? And am I willing to change them? I hope so.

Kids work like crazy when they have a purpose


What does motivation look like? I saw it in the faces of about 40 kids at Irondale High School (MN) on Saturday morning. They were the KnightKrawler robotics team members, gathered in the library at 9:30 a.m., waiting for the “big reveal.”

Saturday was the day when organizers of the global FIRST Robotics competition announced this year’s challenge, and there was a lot of nervous anticipation — not just at Irondale but at schools around the world.

Thousands of teenagers will devote the next six weeks to designing and building robots that can accurately throw wiffle balls, deliver gears to a lever, and climb ropes — among other challenges. Then they’ll be going to competitions, hoping for a shot at nationals.

“I’m nervous,” one of the students, Neely, told me. “The next 12 weeks of my life are going to be so busy.”

Why are students so eager to work extra hours on robotics — like, 30 hours a week — when we have so much trouble motivating students in our classrooms, especially in STEM fields?

There’s something magical about competition — and about robots.

Continue reading “Kids work like crazy when they have a purpose”

Stop telling students the answers


Students learn better when we ask questions before we provide the answers.

They learn better if we ask them to generate their own strategies, interpretations and ideas before we tell them how to do things — whether it’s how to use an economic model, solve an algebra problem or write an essay.

I learned this nugget of wisdom when I first read Make it Stick last year, but it was really brought home by Daniel Schwartz’s and John Bransford’s 1998 paper titled “A Time for Telling,” which was recently referred to me.

Reading “A Time for Telling” is making me want to toss out my lesson plans for AP Microeconomics and start over. I won’t — there’s no time for that right now, and I’m already integrating this approach into many of my lessons — but you’ll see why I want to.

One of the problems with our traditional, Madeline Hunter-style lessons, where we explain new learning, then require students to practice and apply it in class and independently, is that we teach everything as an answered question. There’s nothing to be curious about, nothing to explore because we already have all of the answers.

All the students need to do is know what we know, not think for themselves.

According to the paper, “When telling occurs without readiness, the primary recourse for students is to treat the new information as ends to be memorized rather than as tools to help them perceive and think.”

Yes, that’s exactly how our students regard most of what we teach them. Ends to be memorized.

Continue reading “Stop telling students the answers”

‘Common sense’ is failing us

mctestWhich is a better way to prepare for this week’s Psych test?

  1. Dedicate three solid hours to reviewing the textbook, notes, and practice questions, as well as quizzing yourself with flashcards.
  2. Spend 30 minutes writing a test for yourself over the content. Take a nap, eat a snack, do your math homework. A few hours later, take the test and grade it. Repeat the next day — spending less than three hours in all.

Most students choose A — the intensive, focused, cramming method. Intuitively it makes sense. Repetition makes us feel like we know the material, and the intensity of the studying makes the subject feel coherent.

B is a much better choice. According to Make it Stick, the best book I’ve seen on how to learn, interleaving different subjects (and giving your brain time to process information during a nap) is far superior to cramming.

But it doesn’t feel better, which brings me to one of the critical issues in education.

Effective learning strategies and effective teaching strategies are not intuitive — they do not fit our idea of common sense — so we waste a lot of time and money pursuing the wrong “common sense” solutions.

Continue reading “‘Common sense’ is failing us”

Is boredom actually good for you?

Boredom can be good for you, it’s true. But at school, not so much.

After my last blog post, a friend challenged me and pointed out that boredom is not all bad. I spent a little time following up on that — to see what research says about the plus side of boredom.

Researchers have in fact found connections between boredom and creativity. This study, published in the Harvard Business Review, found that people who were forced to do a boring activity — either copying numbers from the phone book or simply reading the phone book — performed better on a test of divergent thinking than a control group.

“The findings suggest that boredom felt during passive activities, liking reading reports or attending tedious meetings, heightens the “daydreaming effect” on creativity—the more passive the boredom, the more likely the daydreaming and the more creative you could be afterward,” the article explains.

That all sounds strongly in favor of boredom. But let’s look back at that task. The researchers asked people to “read the phone book”. Did they want the participants to actually remember the phone numbers they read or wrote down? No. Did anything about the task matter? No.

Continue reading “Is boredom actually good for you?”

Let’s end boredom together

new-nbWhat does it mean to “never bore” our students?

How can we train teachers in active-learning strategies that engage all students?

Promoting active learning in high school classrooms has been my mission for just over a year, and now there are big changes underway at NeverBore.

You may have noticed that this blog is now MarthaRush.org. I will continue to post my thoughts, ideas and concerns about classroom issues and broader educational policy here, though just once a week on Mondays (starting next week).

NeverBore.org is now an expanded site, offering curriculum, professional development workshops, coaching and tips for teaching with engagement in mind.

A new blog — focused solely on active learning strategies — will debut on the NeverBore site in November.

As this article from the June 11 Economist explains, effective teachers are the critical component to student success. We must train teachers to ensure that “all the brains are working all of the time.” I believe teachers must lead the way.

I hope you will check out the new www.NeverBore.org and become a subscriber. Let’s end boredom together.