Hans Herman: Welcome to Critical Window, a podcast from the Alliance for Excellent Education that explores the rapid changes happening in the body and the brain during adolescence and what these changes mean for educators, policy makers, and communities.
This week on Critical Window, we’re learning about what the science of adolescent learning tells us about the development of literacy skills during adolescence and how educators can support this development. Dr. Medha Tare is a senior research scientist for the Learner Variability Project at Digital Promise where she leads the synthesis of research on the cognitive, social-emotional, and student background factors that affect K-12 learning. With the goal of increasing educators’ and product developers’ understanding of learner variability.
Medha studies the factors that affect how children and adults acquire new skills and knowledge including individual differences, learning environment, and the medium through which they learn. She’s published her research in The Journal of Cognition and Development, Language, Learning, and Technology and in numerous technical reports and presentations for non-academic audiences.
Medha holds a BA from Rutgers University and a PhD in psychology from the University of Michigan. Welcome to the show, Medha.
Medha Tare: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Hans Herman: So let’s start by talking about Digital Promise. For those not familiar, could you provide an overview of Digital Promise’s history and its core programs?
Medha Tare: Sure. Digital Promise is an independent, bipartisan non-profit that was authorized by congress in 2008. Our primary mission is to accelerate innovation in education. So, our work is at the intersection of educators, researchers, and entrepreneurs to work together to tackle some of education’s biggest challenges. Primarily, we work to connect people and ideas through networks, we conduct research on learning science and technology, and we look to share stories that inspire action.
Ultimately, we want to see that all learners have equitable access to powerful learning opportunities that are authentic, collaborative, and inquisitive.
Hans Herman: That’s a lot of different stuff you guys work on. [laughs] So, Digital Promise, as you mentioned in there, you have a suite of work related to the learning sciences. Can you first share how Digital Promise defines “learning sciences” and explain why the organization is interested in this space?
Medha Tare: Yeah, definitely. At Digital Promise, we consider learning sciences to be interdisciplinary. So, including research from psychology, education, sociology, cognitive science, disciplines that may not normally talk to each other. We don’t only focus on how people learn but also the resources and supports that enable learning and also how to design learning environments and instruction that help students reach their potential.
One of our goals is to move this research out from behind the walls of academic journals and into the hands of those working up close in classrooms in schools so that it can be used.
Hans Herman: Thank you. And what are the projects and specific programs at Digital Promise related to the learning sciences?
Medha Tare: So all of our projects and programs are steeped in learning sciences. We really want to make research come alive in various learning environments and support practitioners and ed-tech developers who are looking for ways to apply the research in the classroom. So one example is Digital Promise’s League of Innovative Schools. It’s a premiere network of 114 districts nationwide. Many of the school leaders are interested in learning sciences topics such as social-emotional learning, real-world learning, and learner variability.
One thing that Digital Promise does is to facilitate cohorts of district leaders from across the country, help them dig deep into these topics together, and then share out their successes and challenges.
Hans Herman: And today we’re here to talk about one project in particular, the Learner Variability Project. Could you start by telling us what the Learner Variability Project is and tell us about the history and goals of the project?
Medha Tare: Recognizing learner variability is something many teachers have tried to do for decades. So, it’s understanding in a whole-child way a students’ challenges and strengths and then tailoring instruction to meet each learner’s needs.
The reason we say it’s whole-child is because it recognizes how learners variate in their academic skills, their cognitive abilities, social-emotional states, and their personal backgrounds. All of this is what research says has an impact on learning. In order to facilitate this understanding, we look at what the research says.
One learner may struggle with working memory, their ability to hold information in mind and kind of manipulate it. But is this challenge a learning difference, or is it because they’re getting too little sleep? Maybe they’re taking care of younger siblings while their single mom works the night shift. So research supports both assumptions and we also show strategies for working with students in both situations.
Hans Herman: So you mentioned the whole child. You mentioned social-emotional learning. I think sometimes in discussions around this area in the science of learning or the learning sciences, people who aren’t familiar can hear all these different terms and it seems like what you’re saying is the Learner Variability Project draws on these different areas and is connected to them, they’re not necessarily competing. Is that the case?
Medha Tare: Absolutely. So we consider “whole child” kind of the umbrella term. Then, within that, we highlight factors that cover a lot of these topics that educators are interested in. So, emotion, motivation, stereotype threat, then trauma that students have experienced. So a lot of the initiatives that people are talking about that you would consider to be whole child, we try to make them concrete and show you the research behind what are the factors that actually create the whole child.
And then another thing I wanted to be clear about and to add on is that when we talk about learner variability, we’re not talking about learning styles. Current research does not support that learning styles exist, the idea that learners have a particular modality like visual or auditory where they learn best. Instead, learner variability is steeped in the research that shows the factors that we know matter in learning. These could be students’ attention abilities, how much exercise they’re getting, the safety of their neighborhood, and building block skills such as background knowledge. We know that these factors interact with each other. So we know that greater physical fitness can improve attention and focus in the classroom. Our tool shows how these connect.
In our website, the Learning Ability Navigator — which is free and open-source for anyone to use — we show those connections and also what educators can do to support the variability of each student.
Hans Herman: Great, thank you for clarifying how those all relate with each other. And you started explaining this, could you explain more how the Learner Variability Project is constructed and what type of content people can expect to find there?
Medha Tare: Yeah, absolutely. I’ve mentioned our categories. Things like social-emotional learning, and cognitive learning, and student background where researchers have studied all of these different variations that can affect students’ outcomes. Many times, these research areas are siloed where people studying cognitive development don’t consider social-emotional components and vice versa. So we’re showing how all these factors connect and that’s also an area that’s ripe for new research as well.
What we do is we curate those factors. We also show the research-based strategies that can support students with different strengths and needs and we provide resources such as videos to get practitioners started using the strategies in their classrooms.
I’ll note that we added workspaces to our website so people can curate their own workspaces and share with collaborators. Ultimately, the goal is to support practitioners and also educational technology developers to design educational experiences that meet the needs of diverse learners.
Hans Herman: Which researchers have helped you all guide the development of the Learner Variability Project?
Medha Tare: We have an overall board for the project. That’s a wonderful group of advisors who range from researchers, thought-leaders, educators, district administrators, ed-tech product developers. One is Kelisa Wing who’s a 2017 State Teacher of the Year. She’s written several books about equity in schools.
Then, each learner model — we now have them from Pre-K to high school for math and literacy — has its own advisory board made up of research in the content area for the grade range. These are researchers who studied the development of adolescent reading and writing skills in the most recent model and how they interact with motivation, social relationships, and identity.
One of the advisors, for example, is Steve Graham who is a national expert on the development of writing skills and how they affect reading comprehension.
Hans Herman: People, when they’re on the website, they can see the names of these folks who helped you build this? They can learn more about them and their work?
Medha Tare: Yeah, absolutely. We have the names of the advisory board members on each model that shows who was involved in the process. They often were reviewing some of the content that we generated, giving suggestions, or helping in other ways.
Hans Herman: Can you quickly tell us all the different models that you’ve already developed as part of the project?
Medha Tare: Absolutely. We started off with reading Pre-K to third grade. Now we also have literacy for grades four through six and the adolescent literacy that we just launched. Similarly, we have math for grades Pre-K to two, grades three to six, and seven to nine. So that goes up into high school and algebra. We divided those up based on where the literature was. So how do researchers group those age ranges for developments that are happening in terms of cognitive skills and academic skills. Then, also, of course, all these different social developments as well.
Hans Herman: You just referenced your newest model that we’re going to talk more about now, a literacy model for grades seven through twelve. Can you guide us through the development of that specific model and what it looks like?
Medha Tare: Absolutely. This was a great experience developing this model. I learned so much in diving into the research. What we do is we start with an initial scan of the literature, we read summary reports of empirical research to get a sense of the major developments in the topic area. In this case, your reports on the science of adolescent learning were really helpful for setting the stage. I read all of them; I’m a big fan. [laughs]
Hans Herman: Thank you. We appreciate the positive feedback.
Medha Tare: Yeah. Then, our advisors, they help us draft the set of learner factors that we know predict successful literacy outcomes. We added some key components to this model including argumentative reasoning, disciplinary literacy, and critical literacy. Those are skills that are developing and really coming online for adolescents at this age.
Then the advisors also help us refine existing factors. For example, Allan Wigfield is at the University of Maryland. He’s an expert on motivation. He helped us update our framing of academic motivation. Rather than a traditional model describing intrinsic and extrinsic motivation as two, mutually-exclusive types, the current thinking is that oftentimes both are at play when students are working toward a goal.
A student might not be intrinsically motivated to write a particular essay, but they might understand how doing that relates to a longer-term goal that they have. Because our process is iterative, we can continually refine our content to reflect this complexity. We were able to do that with the motivation factor.
Hans Herman: You mentioned that our reports helped you out, which like I said, we’re very happy and excited to hear that. Could you just say what specifically you were drawing from them and how they were helpful with you developing your work in this model and perhaps others?
Medha Tare: Yeah, absolutely. The reports just really helped frame out in particular the cognitive and social-emotional background pieces of the work. We were focusing on developing the literacy factors that were the skills that were coming online. But your reports focus on identity, they focus on culture, they focus on physical development. All of those different pieces gave us a starting point for looking at the empirical research. I read them, I was looking at the references you guys had, and then went from there to build out each individual factor that we have in our model. And, of course, you have a wonderful advisory board as well. There’s some overlap in your advisory and our advisory. I think there was a lot of great synergy there.
Hans Herman: What are the core themes the model tells us about the development of literacy skills in adolescence?
Medha Tare: One of the major themes is that students are now using those foundational reading and writing skills that they developed in elementary and middle school to build knowledge and then write and read authentic text and write for authentic audiences and purposes that are meaningful to them, that motivate them. We know from your previous reports this is key for engaging adolescents.
They’re also learning the conventions of literature, science, history, and other disciplines and how to use those conventions so they can work at a higher level. The key developments in things like meta-cognition — those cognitive skills — that is what is allowing students to think about their reading comprehension. To say “Oh, I didn’t understand that passage; I’m going to go back and re-read” or to use planning strategies when they’re writing.
Hans Herman: And we like to emphasize this a lot here in adolescence — you were talking about it — it’s this unique period of development where you’re still seeing changes in the brain. You talked about the meta-cognitive skills that are developing. Literacy skills are affected by this ongoing neuro-development that’s taking place, correct?
Medha Tare: Absolutely. We see working memory skills, reasoning skills, meta-cognition is a huge one. That’s really allowing students to get to the next level in their ability to think critically, and create arguments, and persuade others, and understand and empathize with others as well.
Hans Herman: How important — and can you give some examples of this — how important is cultural and historical responsiveness in adolescent literacy?
Medha Tare: It’s huge. Identity, of course, is a major component of adolescent development. As students are understanding facets of their own identity in relation to the outside world, the diversity of the literature they’re assigned and discussions that are happening around these texts can play a major role in them understanding more about themselves and the academic content.
We hosted a webinar recently that you can still watch a recording of with one of our advisors, Gholdy Muhammad at Georgia State University. She presented on how to bring students’ identity, personal histories, and socio-political, and historical events into the classroom. For example, she writes about black literary societies of the 1800s and how students should know about their academic legacies. In her new book she also presents sample lesson plans and sets of texts to guide teachers in creating these kinds of lessons.
We also had a wonderful national board-certified high school English teacher, Sarah Ballard on the webinar. She shared her experience teaching primary black students in Mississippi. One movement she embraces is teaching living poets. Students can study works by contemporary writers who come from backgrounds similar to them. I thought both of their presentations were amazing. They both talked about how building relationships with students and making space for conversations about race, identity, and other topics was critical.
Hans Herman: Do we do a good job currently — in your opinion — applying some of these themes already in our classrooms in our literacy development for adolescents? Are we considering their neurodevelopment? Are we considering their identity, and culture, and historical ramifications of the communities they come from? Or, are we not really considering these things?
Medha Tare: I think we could do a lot better. I think a lot of teachers have good intentions in that area, but have not necessarily been trained on how to manage those kinds of conversations in the classroom. That’s why building some knowledge for teachers and presenting them with examples can go a long way.
Hans Herman: One of the comments you made to me when we were preparing for this conversation was that the model moves beyond the traditional, old school, English literacy class and that it uses background knowledge to think critically about bias and power. Could you elaborate more on what this model does?
Medha Tare: Yeah and I think this relates to the question you just asked about what we could do better and how can we help provide those strategies to educators as well. What we’ve found is that adolescents really need to be engaging with a variety of texts to be able to compare them and then question the sources, consider issues of power and bias and disparities in society. This is the idea of critical literacy where students are building inquiry skills, they’re building reflection skills, that allow them to look at text through a socio-cultural lens.
Some of the strategies that we feature on our website include layering different texts and even multimedia content such as videos to trigger this kind of reflection. Another strategy that I love is having students produce counter-texts. They are explicitly prompted to consider non-dominant or marginalized viewpoints that might have been missing from original documents that they read. Students can give voice to these perspectives, challenge stereotypes or flawed historical accounts. I think these are the kinds of history and English classes that I think a lot of us wish we had. They’re skills that can be taken beyond the classroom.
Hans Herman: I’m hearing all this wonderful, theoretical, and research-based content that you’ve all put together and you’re referencing. Can you share some explicit examples of places where you’ve seen this model work and successfully applied?
Medha Tare: Yeah, that’s a great question. Our work is not just to curate and share the research. We have active partnerships with ed-tech products and school districts to build their awareness and understanding of learner variability and how they can design for it.
One of the districts we work with, they provided an example for us of a story where a young girl was probably in first or second grade. She was having a lot of trouble with reading seemingly. They brought the teacher, the parents, and the school counselor in. They looked at our website together. They showed how the teachers thought it was a decoding issue — this was early reading so that’s a major focus. They said, “We tried a lot of different strategies but none of them seem to work.”
Then they showed how decoding and reading skills are related to emotion. The parents mentioned that she has a lot of anxiety reading in front of other people. That might be where it was coming from where she couldn’t read in class, it was really an emotion issue. That was one example where using the site and laying out the whole-child framework actually triggered a conversation where people realized that there was more than just the basic skills that are playing into what’s happening in the classroom.
You asked about other ways that we’re applying the work. We’re in the process of building out PD toolkits for teachers. We want teachers to be able to have a practical way of actually using the content that we have on our website. One example is a Lesson Reflection Guide that our Practitioner Partnerships Director has just created. Really just taking your typical lesson plan and then using our site to gauge “Am I considering all of these different factors that are affecting how students learn? Are there ways for students to collaborate and be social in my lesson? Are there ways that I’m touching on culturally relevant content? Are there ways that I’m supporting students who have had adverse experiences?”
You don’t have to do everything in every lesson; that’s not possible. But, just to keep that in mind as you’re going through and building out your curriculum.
We haven’t yet done a lot of work with the adolescent literacy model because it just launched about a month ago. But with one of our previous literacy and reading models, we worked with a non-profit literacy platform called ReadWorks where we supported their efforts to infuse research-based features on their platform. A recent efficacy study that we conducted showed that 92 percent of students use the features that were added to support different needs.
I’ll give one example. Teachers told us that they had students with lower reading comprehension skills in their classroom including students with autism. They used an audio feature where they could listen along to an article on ReadWorks. That meant that students didn’t miss out on building critical background knowledge skills and they could also participate in classroom discussions because they had access to the content. That’s one example where we showed how audio features could be a research-based way to access content for a more broader audience of students.
Hans Herman: That’s really exciting. And I’m sure — like you said — if people visit your site and look at the other models, they’ll find examples of where this has been successfully applied. As time goes on for this model, there will be more of those examples. How can teachers use this model and apply the findings in their own coursework? Do they have to start from scratch with just this model, or can they incorporate in with what they’re already doing?
Medha Tare: Yeah. Teachers will recognize many of the strategies that we highlight. But they can learn more about the research behind them and how they support different learner factors. Teachers can use the information here, weave it into programs in practices that they’re already implementing. As we mentioned earlier, we address whole-child topics, culturally-responsive teaching, other initiatives that schools are engaging in, and LVN can also be aligned with state standards.
Hans Herman: What do school leaders, superintendents, and principals learn from this work that you’re doing? What really is their role in applying the science of adolescent learning to literacy development?
Medha Tare: We want people to know that the research matters. We emphasize that we need to teach the whole child. That means weaving social-emotional learning into academics. We also want people to know that it’s doable, that they can incorporate this work into their district initiatives. We know from our work with districts that teachers must be supported primarily through professional development that’s based on what the current science shows is key for whole-child learning.
Actually, our latest national survey shows that 90 percent of public school teachers say they lack the support to focus on students’ individual learner variability. We know that this professional development and support from administrators is a critical piece of the puzzle. As part of our project, we’re also building out some of those PD tools.
Hans Herman: What do you see is the next steps for implementing large-scale policies and practices that align with the findings of this model and support implementation in schools and classrooms?
Medha Tare: We would love to see federal and state policies recognize learner variability and its evidence-based, whole-child framework. Also to see how our free tool can help teachers, colleges, and professional development programs support teachers and build that base through their own education programs so that they can then meet the needs of each learner and help students reach their potential in schools and beyond.
Hans Herman: For those interested in connecting more with the Learner Variability Project, what are the resources and opportunities they can find to connect?
Medha Tare: That’s a great question. We have a lot going on and a lot of different resources. The Learner Variability Navigator website that I mentioned is LVP.digitalpromiseglobal.org. That’s where you can go to see the factors and strategies that I was mentioning. We have reports also on the research we conduct and also thought papers on what we consider learner variability to be. On EdWeb we have a community on personalized learning for learner variability where we have the archives of the webinar I referenced as well as many others on particularly culturally-responsive teaching and math and literacy topics as well. We are always looking for people to partner with; school districts and practitioners who are interested in implementing these practices and also products. We actually have RPs for products to work with us to do those assessments and help them infuse their work with more research.
Hans Herman: This is some really exciting work that you all have put together and I’m really happy that we were able to have you here today. Thank you for your time. Our guest is Medha Tare. She is a senior research scientist for the Learner Variability Project at Digital Promise where she leads the synthesis of research on the cognitive, social-emotional, and student-background factors that affect K-12 learning with the goal of increasing educators’ and product developers’ understanding of learner variability. Thank you again so much being here.
Medha Tare: Thank you for having me. It was really a pleasure.
Robyn Harper: Thank you for listening to Critical Window, the Alliance for Excellent Education’s podcast on how the research from the science of adolescent learning can inform middle and high school design and the work of school leaders. Tell your colleagues, friends and families about Critical Window and please subscribe on iTunes to Stitcher to make sure you catch future episodes. This podcast was produced by Aharone Charnoff, Hans Hermann, and Robin Harper. To learn more about the science of adolescent learning visit all4ed.org/SAL.
[End of Audio]