Fires in the Mind

A researcher’s Rx for “academic wellness”

Patricia Alexander is a professor in the Department of Human Development at the University of Maryland. But for years she taught in public and private schools, and she finds herself dismayed by the current press by policymakers for the quantification of what students learn in school.

It has become an educational myth, she maintains, that “school achievement” as defined by today’s high-stakes testing equates to learning. Other such myths: that the purposes of education are clear, and that “covering the curriculum” equates to teaching.

In fact, we’re probably headed down the wrong path altogether, she says, if we’re looking to develop “a populace with a hunger for knowledge, the ability to reflect deeply on critical issues, and the skills to deal effectively with the demands of a complex and rapidly changing world made more accessible as a result of a technological revolution.”

So Alexander turned her researcher’s eye on the problem. Developmentally speaking, she asked, what is required for a student to progress from “a state of naïveté” to some degree of competence in an academic domain like history, reading, or mathematics? And what can schools do to promote such development?

Alexander starts with the premise that learning is a lifelong journey. Proficiency or expertise, she asserts, cannot be realistically achieved in a typical K–16 education. “It is not the mission of K–16 teachers to create domain experts,” she declares.

But, she says, given the right conditions, learners can expect to cross the threshold into some level of competence by the time they graduate from college. “And thankfully,” she adds, “most students who have the benefit of a K-12 education can achieve at least fragile competence in most basic academic domains.”

Where do experts come from?

Competence may be the appropriate goal for the formative K-12 years. Nonetheless, Alexander says, elementary and secondary schools must also lay the foundations for expertise that may develop later.

With each year of school, our students should become “not only more knowledgeable, more capable of thinking critically and intensively, more hungry for understanding, and more interested in the domains or topics to which they are exposed, but also more emotionally healthy and socially competent.”

Those very qualities, research in cognitive psychology has shown, describe the journey toward expertise. And so Alexander set out to devise a map of how the learner’s journey looks, at every stage along the way.

Three kinds of systematic changes occur, she found, as we progress toward increased competence within recognized fields of study, or “domains.”

  • We increase our subject-matter knowledge. (This takes place broadly, within a domain of study, and also deeply, within a topic in that domain).
  • We increase our skills of “strategic processing.” That is, we first approach a particular problem at the surface level and gain some initial understanding of it. But then we find ways to go deeper. We may personalize or transform the problem, or make analogies between it and other problems we have seen. With time, we gain deeper understanding, which shows up initially as competence, and can develop into proficiency. Eventually, we may even become experts, contributing new knowledge to the field.
  • Our interest increases in what we are learning. Sometimes that interest comes from the situation in which a subject is presented. (Our physics teacher takes us roller-skating, for example.) In that case, interest might fade over the course of time. But sometimes the interest springs from some individual passion or affinity. Over the long term, Alexander maintains, these interests are more likely to develop into proficiency or expertise.

Across our life span, Alexander says, “the paths of knowledge, strategic processing, and interest interact and intertwine,” as learners journey toward competence or even expertise in an academic domain.

So she wants to see education as a developmental process, an ongoing journey to relish, rather than a year-by-year, course-by-course treatment of instructional content.

A prescription for ‘academic wellness’

Academic development is not “coldly cognitive,” Alexander asserts. It’s the “continual interplay of cognitive and motivational/emotional forces operating within a dynamic sociocultural context.” One might have many reasons for participating in it, including personal fulfillment.

Students, of course, come to school with differences in their knowledge, strategic abilities, motivations, and cognitive capabilities. So we must take proactive steps, Alexander says, to promote “academic wellness” in all students from the outset.

Especially at the start, when a learner is struggling to acclimate to a new field of knowledge, it’s important to have good coaching by a knowledgeable teacher. That coach can help us figure out what a task requires. He or she can explicitly coach us in habits of mind and learning strategies that work, spark our personal interest in the domain, and set goals we want to meet. With good coaching, we put in the effort and “work smart,” stretching beyond what we already know.

It’s easy to see where Alexander is going with her “Model of Domain Learning.” Cognitive, social, emotional, cultural, and physical factors, she believes, contribute to the motivation, and the mastery, that students display in school.

So why aren’t we paying more attention to those factors? Why not use student growth, not the school or the district, as our unit of analysis when we talk accountability?

For more, see Patricia A. Alexander’s 2010 article “Through Myth to Reality: Reframing Education as Academic Development,” in Early Education & Development, 21: 5, 633-651.


3 Responses to “A researcher’s Rx for “academic wellness””

  1. Martha Lomi says:

    Cognitive, social, emotional, cultural, and physical factors definitely contribute to the motivation, and the mastery, that students display in school — “academic wellness” is the future!

  2. Thanks for your comment! Can you tell us how you are incorporating those issues in your own practice?


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