On the KQED Mindshift blog, Annie Paul Murphy summarizes a study by Stanford University’s Paul O’Keefe about the impact of summer camp. But not just any summer camp: Duke’s well-known Talent Identification Program.
The researchers were looking at the teenagers’ “goal orientations”—were they interested in learning for learning’s sake, or in showing off their smarts? The first type of attitude, called a “mastery orientation,” has been linked to high levels of motivation and engagement, while the second, known as a “performance orientation,” has been tied to greater anxiety and less resilience in the face of failure.
During the summer enrichment program, the students became more apt to favor a mastery approach, endorsing statements such as “It’s important to me that I learn a lot of new concepts in science,” and discounting statements like, “One of my goals is to show others that I’m good at science,” which indicate a performance orientation.
The surprise was that the teenagers’ embrace of mastery remained strong even after they returned to school—which, with its tests and rankings, often places more emphasis on performance than on learning for its own sake.
Like I said, the program being studied was no “average” summer camp. As Murphy Paul describes it:
[I]t is held on the campus of Duke University and lasts for three weeks, during which participants attend academically rigorous classes for seven hours on weekdays and three hours on Saturdays. The courses, which include subjects like Aerospace Engineering, Introduction to Medical Science, Marine Biology, and Pharmacology, are deliberately designed to emphasize mastery and de-emphasize performance.
Some key characteristics:
- The program promotes collaboration, playing down competition among students and fostering “a collegial attitude towards fellow learners.”
- Its instructors offer what O’Keefe calls “autonomy support,” encouraging students “to draw their own conclusions and justify them, explore aspects of class subjects that interest them most, and make decisions regarding what they prefer to learn and how they would like to learn those materials.”
- The program rewards intellectual risk-taking, and avoids punishing students for failed experiments.
- Feedback given to students recognizes effort and growth and focuses on the learning process, rather than on its outcome.
OK, I get that this was a program with above-average intelligence in its leaders and students. Duke is no slouch when it comes to facilities and resources. And one can imagine that the kind of kid who can enroll in this project has parents who are above-average in their desire and ability to support their children’s intellectual growth.
At the same time, though, there are takeaways that we can port into our own work.
I’m on a (-n awesome) diverse team that is working over the summer to develop an after-school quasi-makerspace group in the coming year. We engage in tons of discussions about how to put students at the center of their own learning — how much modeling by adults is helpful without accidentally tipping the scales into prescriptiveness? How can students demonstrate learning? How do we encourage an environment that is fun and engaging but still productive? “Autonomy support” is exactly what we’re going for.
Huh. There’s a word for it. Cool.