Friday, August 20, 2010

Learning Oriented Learners

The best kinds of learners concern themselves mostly with what they are learning and only occasionally stop to reflect on how well they are doing. Alfie Kohn writes about this at length in his book The Schools Our Children Deserve, and I wrote about it briefly here.

Research also supports this. I was reading Education Weeks' Inside School Research when I came across this:

"Learning, Performance and Improvement," in the latest issue of the London-based Institute of Education journal Research Matters finds students learn and behave differently if they—and their teachers—focus on improving their knowledge and competence rather than proving it. Yet simply talking about learning won't overcome a classroom atmosphere focused on meeting test benchmarks.
In a review of more than 100 studies from the U.S. and across the globe, Chris Watkins, Institute reader in education at the University of London, ties the current discussion over how to teach modern critical thinking and problem-solving skills back to the decades-old discussion of students' motivation in the classroom.
The research suggests two parallel motivations drive student achievement: "learning orientation," the drive to improve your knowledge and competency; and "performance orientation," the drive to prove that competency to others. Watkins found the highest-achieving students had a healthy dose of both types of motivation, but students who focused too heavily on performance ironically performed less well academically, thought less critically, and had a harder time overcoming failure.
Two guesses which orientation develops under a U.S.-style assessment accountability system, and the first doesn't count.
"When teachers are told to improve performance, they talk more, they judge more and they control more," Watkins said. Students of all grade spans proved highly attuned to their teacher's motivation in the classroom, even if she or he did not explicitly state a desire to improve test scores. One included study showed 10-year-olds mirrored their teacher's performance orientation even in unrelated tasks outside the classroom—and performed poorer on those tasks as a result.
In a learning oriented classrooms, students are less worried about looking smart and more about becoming smart. Ironically, to do this you have to be willing to take risks and make mistakes which can create a kind of vulnerability. The best classrooms embrace this vulnerability in a safe and caring community of learners who truly understand that proving how good you are over and over again is an inferior use of your time especially when you could be using your time getting better.


  1. Joe,
    Thanks for an interesting post which got me thinking and writing

  2. Joe. I am glad you liked the edweek take on my research review. More details (and a "read-only" version) at
    Best wishes. Chris

  3. NOW (just gone live) you can get this research review, plenty more publications, presentations, handouts and videos at my new web-site Enjoy


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