Starr explores theories of intelligence in his first book club


From (left to right), Montgomery superintendent, Joshua Starr, staff development teacher at Rocky Hill MS, Karen Scharff, parent, Peggy Sorensen, director of the division of accelerated and enriched instruction, Monique Felder . (Montgomery public schools)

Montgomery superintendent Joshua Starr offered a glimpse of his educational philosophy, and his cerebral personality, Tuesday night during his first official book club gathering.

The auditorium of the central office was transformed into a talk show studio for the evening, which was scheduled as part of the new superintendent’s transition plan. Starr relaxed in a leather chair, surrounded by green plants and dark wooden book case. A panel of guests sat on a sofa across the coffee table.

The featured guest — author Carol Dweck — was beamed in via Skype from her study in California. A cardboard display of her book, Mindset , was propped up on a side table.

Dweck is a psychologist at Stanford University. Her book talks about the importance of developing a “growth mindset,” or a belief that your intelligence or abilities can be developed through hard work. Research shows that people who believe this, as opposed to the notion that talents and abilities are fixed traits, are more likely to be successful.

Dweck said that teaching a “growth mindset’ often comes down to how we give praise: “Praising students’ intelligence backfires. It makes them afraid of taking on challenges, and it makes them crumble in the faces of failure. What we have to do instead is focus on the process that students engage in,” Dweck said.

In the classroom, she asked, “Does the teacher make it clear that the fastest answer isn’t always the best answer? That a mistake-free paper isn’t always the best paper? Does the teacher praise people for taking on challenges?”

Starr talked about how parents can also reinforce this idea at home. He recounted a story about how his three-year old son recently discovered that the world ‘brown’ starts with ‘B’. “My wife says, ‘You are so smart,’” he said. When he discouraged her from saying so, “she looked at me like I was crazy,” he said.

He invited the panelists, who included a teacher from Rocky Hill Middle School, a Montgomery parent, and an administrator, to discuss how the school system is trying to develop such a mindset in school through the new curriculum or teacher training.

Teacher Karen Scharff said that she had taught her students about famous mistakes that have been made historically in science and other areas to encourage students to keep trying.

“We have always know that intellect could be developed. It’s nice to know that research is backing that up,” said Monique Felder, director of the division of accelerated and enriched instruction.

The school system has pursued multiple ways to give all students greater access to enriched instruction, including open enrollment to many Advanced Placement classes.

More than 80 people joined the live discussion. Some held copies of the book on their laps. One woman brought her knitting. Viewers online and via cable television were invited to e-mail or tweet their questions.

One woman asked how it’s possible to encourage a growth mindset when student are often divided into the “smart” or the “slow group” in class. Dweck said it’s important to avoid such labels and to coach students in the less advanced groups that “our job here is to work hard and work smart so you will get into the next level.”

Students who appear to understand quickly and easily also need to be challenged, so they will not be led to believe their intelligence will “automatically take them to some great discovery...or achievement,” she said.

“Ability doesn’t have a motor...it needs to be propelled by the individual,” she said.

Starr talked about the history of public education as a history of “sorting children.” He cited another book, Raymond Callahan’s 1962 Education and the Cult of Efficiency, about how public schools over time have bent to the demands of business models of efficiency, rather than to what’s most educationally sound for all kids.

“We inherited this system. It’s the way we were conditioned and brought up and the way our economy works...One way we can get around that is to introduce different ideas to people,” he said.

The next book club is in Jan. 31. The book is “Drive”, by Daniel Pink.

Michael Alison Chandler writes about schools and families in the Washington region.
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