A high-quality education that culminates in a college degree has the power to break intergenerational cycles of poverty by facilitating social mobility for low-income students. That’s why creating more pathways to college completion is arguably one of our nation’s highest priorities.

In our work with hundreds of nonprofit organizations, funders, and school districts, we have had the privilege of supporting a diverse group of leaders who are working to create those pathways. One of the most promising approaches we’ve seen is supporting student development of a set of beliefs, mindsets, and social and emotional skills. (We use the terms “developing effective learners” as a means of bridging the different nomenclature used by the fields and disciplines engaged in social and emotional learning, character development, and academic mindsets.)

This approach has been proven to increase academic achievement and other positive life outcomes. But in order to bring about large-scale change, it needs to reach far more students than it has to date. To discuss how to make that happen, Bridgespan—with the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) and Character Lab—recently convened leading nonprofit organizations, school districts, and funders. We shared the results of the convening in the SSIR article, “Rethinking How Students Succeed.”

An important message from the article is that efforts to expand existing programs—even the strongest programs—are unlikely to achieve the magnitude of results we aspire to see, particularly among low-income students in large urban districts. Many programs are taught as a separate module or add-on. What’s needed, instead, is an approach that’s designed to help teachers integrate effective learning tools and practices into their interactions with students throughout the school day.

Such integration is critical to creating the supportive environments that are required for the beliefs, mindsets, and skills of an effective learner to be translated into positive academic behaviors and results—a finding well captured in the work of Camille Farrington and her colleagues at the Consortium on Chicago School Research. But ensuring that effective learning happens in the classroom means that teachers must also go up a learning curve of their own and begin to model the behaviors and attitudes they strive to instill in their students.

Teaching all teachers about effective learning is an audacious objective, but we’re optimistic, especially given some of the approaches we’ve seen and the results they’ve realized so far. Chief among those is utilizing  high-quality teacher professional development to introduce classroom practices that foster student academic mindsets and social and emotional learning skills. We’re excited about this approach because it has three immediate and powerful advantages:

  • It leverages an existing channel: Professional development is a direct and available means through which teachers can gain an understanding of effective learning skills and mindsets, and learn how to model the behaviors of an effective learner for their students.  
  • It complements existing high-quality teacher development programs: Practices that develop effective learners unleash greater student engagement and effort, which in turn improves teacher effectiveness—the goal of teacher professional development. New Teacher Center, for example, has noted that this complementarity results in an authentic “pull” to embed such practices into their already effective professional development approaches.
  • It can reach many teachers—and by extension, many students—quickly: All teachers are required to take part periodically in professional development. Organizations that provide that training, such as New Teacher Center, already have broad reach. As more of them incorporate practices to develop effective learners, they will have increasing impact on teacher and student behaviors and skills.

We are also excited about recent collaborations between researchers and teachers; the two groups are increasingly working together to develop, assess, and improve the ways in which teachers can develop effective learners. The 8th/9th Teacher Network and Character Lab, both described in “Rethinking How Students Succeed,” provide two examples of initiatives that seek to develop a set of modular, portable practices designed for easy adoption within schools and across districts. These practices, independent of a specific program model, could be introduced in any sort of regular professional development training or preparation. That means teachers could integrate the new approaches into their daily routines more quickly, with the potential for greater reach and impact.

Effective learning and effective teaching go hand-in-hand, each reinforcing the other, in schools capable of changing children’s lives. Let’s bring them together.

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