Chase Nordengren is the principal research lead for the professional learning team at NWEA. He received a PhD in leadership, policy, and organisations in K–12 systems from the University of Washington. He also authored Step into Student Goal Setting: A Path to Growth, Motivation, and Agency from Corwin Press.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A famous study on delayed gratification asked a few dozen children to sit in a room alone with a marshmallow. The researcher promised each child that if they could wait and not eat the marshmallow, they would get two marshmallows at the end of the study. Follow-up studies showed that the children who waited had better life outcomes, educational attainment, and many other positive attributes decades later.
What Happens When We Dig Deeper
One follow-up study to the marshmallow test showed that family background, cognitive ability, and children’s home environments explain most outcomes. In another, children were more likely to delay gratification when they knew a teacher or peer would find out what they did, not because of any innate qualities. In another follow-up, with the genius title “Rational snacking“, whether children ate the marshmallow depended on how much they trusted the researcher giving instructions.
These all conclude that a child’s environment, rather than who they are, has more influence on whether and how they delay their gratification.
The Case for Professional Development Well Beyond Year Five
Another research idea that’s almost as famous is the finding that teachers stop improving after three to five years into their careers. This idea started from a single study by the economist Jonah Rockoff and took off.
A recent Research Partnership for Professional Learning brief highlights the progress made on this question since the early 2000s. Follow-up studies find continued positive impacts from professional learning on teachers with up to 15 years of experience. Particularly when more complex aspects of their practice are explored, like the ability to generate classroom discussions or handle student mistakes.
A critical instructional practice is effectively applying MAP® Growth™ data to support instructional decisions. As we know, giving a MAP Growth assessment isn’t enough on its own to change student outcomes, and expecting it to isn’t realistic.
Understanding the complex relationship between professional learning and student outcomes is key to the NWEA professional learning theory of change. No magic content or type of experience works for all teachers or students at all times and in all situations. Instead, we design and deliver our learning around high-quality professional standards, align the focus of our learning with critical instructional practices that change outcomes for students, and measure the impact of that learning on teachers and students.
Question the Status Quo
When looking at any evidence of the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of educational practice, apply some healthy scepticism. Most importantly, don’t take one study’s word for it. Look for confirming or disconfirming research or use tools like the meta-analyses of researcher John Hattie to understand what dozens or hundreds of studies have to say about a particular practice.
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