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Designing an ecosystem for academic excellence: 7 elements to consider

By Mona Yoast, Vice President of Professional Services

As a teacher, you want your students to achieve great things. Our responsibility as educators is to create an academic ecosystem—a community of “just-right” conditions—where students are able to thrive.

In working through the research of many current and foundational educational experts and authors—including Brian Cambourne, Eric Jensen, Carol Dweck, and others—I’ve highlighted seven key elements that are instrumental in building an ideal environment for student success.

Conditions of learning
During his time as a classroom teacher, literacy and learning expert Brian Cambourne was puzzled. Several students in his class struggled academically, yet didn’t have issues with learning outside of the classroom. Through research he conducted by studying babies learning to speak, he determined that there were eight ideal conditions of learning. When these conditions were present, the young children developed language and literacy in ways that were enjoyable and meaningful:

Immersion: the need to be in an environment that is rich in spoken and written language
Demonstration: the opportunity to observe models of written and spoken language in daily life
Engagement: to understand the purpose of learning and see themselves as capable of success
Expectation: the need to be in an environment where there is the expectation of proficiency
Responsibility: the need to take ownership of their own learning
Use: the time and opportunity to use the skills being acquired
Approximation: the opportunity to explore concepts through trial and error, knowing that productive struggle and mistakes are essential for learning to occur
Response: the need for timely, constructive feedback from knowledgeable people

Focusing on engagement
Of all the conditions Cambourne found, engagement was the most critical. He created what he calls the Principles of Engagement. Learners must also like, respect, trust, and want to emulate the teacher.

Author Eric Jensen takes engagement a step further in his book Engaging Students with Poverty in Mind. Jensen outlines seven factors that correlate with student engagement and are strongly tied to socioeconomic status: health and nutrition, vocabulary, effort and energy, mindset, cognitive capacity, stress level, and relationships. Focusing on these factors holistically can help educators gain a better understanding of what will engage and motivate all students.

Dedicating time for deliberate practice
Those who are successful at a particular subject are thought to have an intelligence and natural aptitude for it—at least, this is the impression Malcolm Gladwell was under when he started researching his book, Outliers. Hoping to understand why some people succeed while others fail to realize their potential, Gladwell spoke to many of the world’s most successful people. He found proficiency is directly related to mastery, and mastery is gained through deliberate practice. Roughly 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, to be exact.

Similarly, Geoff Colvin’s Talent is Overrated insists that natural talent is a myth and deliberate practice is the catalyst for great performance. There are many ways deliberate practice can be modeled in the classroom—one of those ways is to challenge students to stretch beyond their comfort zone into what Colvin describes as the “learning zone.”

Modeling a growth mindset
This is the opposite of a fixed mindset, in which students believe they’re either good at something or they aren’t.

In her book Mindset, author and researcher Carol Dweck outlines an experiment she and her assistants performed with two groups of elementary school students. The students were asked to solve a series of puzzles. With one group, Dweck’s assistants praised the students’ intelligence (“You must be very smart!”), and in the other, they praised the students’ effort (“You must have worked really hard on that.”). Through the life cycle of the experiment, the students who were praised for effort (growth mindset) performed 30% better, while the ones praised for intelligence (fixed mindset) performed 20% worse. By shifting to the process of learning over the product, these students had a positive attitude about their own learning capacity, which increased their engagement.

Targeting the learning zone
Deliberate practice and growth mindset can be combined to push students past their limit—to stretch into what Geoff Colvin describes as the “learning zone.” This zone is a place where a student is continuously improving skill sets, and is located in the middle of the comfort zone—where one feels safe or at ease—and the panic zone, where making a mistake might cause a student to shy away from new challenges.

Master coaching
Teachers are master coaches—they observe how a student works through a particular task, and then design practice for specific areas of need. They also take what they’ve learned about the student to design expert feedback and teach metacognition strategies. Just as doctors practice medicine, teachers need to see themselves as people who practice teaching. Colvin says it best:

“Decades or centuries of study have produced a body of knowledge about how performance is developed and improved, and full-time teachers generally possess that knowledge…it’s almost always a necessity for a teacher to design the activity best-suited to improve an individual’s performance. Anyone who thinks they’ve outgrown the benefits of a teacher’s help should at least question that view.” (Colvin, 2010.)

Collaborating with data
Data is an important piece of an academic ecosystem—it’s essential for understanding student achievement. Educators don’t look at that data in a vacuum—they get together and collaborate to understand the data and decide on courses of action for students.

Those are the seven elements, but there’s another critical part of this ecosystem to consider—ignition. As educators, you play a critical role in showing students what the future version of themselves looks like.

Mona Yoast, Vice President of Professional Services
Mona Yoast, Vice President of Professional Services
Mona Yoast, M.Ed., was formerly the Vice President of Professional Services at Renaissance and is an expert in balanced literacy practices. Passionate about learning, she has spoken at many state and national conferences.

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