Happiness and achievement: correlated! Happiness and test percentiles: NOT correlated!

  • This month: Research on standardized test percentiles and the power of relationships: aka "a reminder for us as parents: really, the goal is not to push our children any faster through growth and learning, but love and support them now through the process of development, and see who who they are as whole people. As far as what usefulness standardized tests have for predicting long-term success for young students, even Harvard researchers are trying to determine what correlates to percentile scores on standardized tests. Achievement correlates to happiness."
  • In December, I'll be tying together whole person education, the importance of our relationships, and why our school culture is the most important factor in learning. aka, how and why we will preserve our culture first in any decision we make for the school. 

A study from Harvard school of education has established a correlation between student happiness and achievement (as measured by GPA).  See the synopsis here.

I discussed this past month a concern with several families across the levels regarding whether or not their student was moving 'fast enough' through the curriculum, and if the child would be able to get ahead in their study if possible. I am surrounded by Montessori trained colleagues who remind us all that the planes of development define the curriculum we offer students. While students may be offered ways to go deeper into curriculum, our goal is not to get ahead faster. This is a radical idea that is in contrast with wider society and the conventional education culture.

 These phrases of "fast enough" and "get ahead" are conventional school terms for a problem that I see engaging parents and plaguing our schools. (And note here that I am a parent! I find tension between my own educator wisdom and my sometimes parent paranoia.) Really the phrases about "racing to the top" and "getting ahead" imply that a student is not only on a race, but the faster they develop the better. If we follow that logic, we'd be pushing college, careers, and adulthood as early as possible - and something I am so relieved by is the Montessori reminder to follow the developmental needs of the child. The implied race to "complete development ASAP" robs children of the time and space they need to savor their process and appropriately integrate their unique gifts.

It's not a race to develop as fast as possible, but instead we all (educators, adults, parents) have a responsibility to provide children in our society with a rich  and nourishing environment.  We trust that when they are developmentally ready to engage in a standardized measurement  (usually 10th, 11th, 12th grade) is when we can best come up with strategies to support them. In our school philosophy, relationships are the starting point - and a standardized test is at best an indicator of where a student might be in terms of "performance". I really encourage us as a society to think about this word "performance" - and consider when it's appropriate in an academic career to ask a child to perform, versus giving a child a chance to rehearse, reflect, express, and truly learn in accordance with their development.

How would you apply the concept of "developmentally appropriate education"to the following:
A) A student is an empty vessel to fill as quickly and thoroughly as possible with content
B) A student is a living organism - a seedling to nurture, observe and allow to develop?

Montessori education is about going deeper into a subject if there is time and interest. (As opposed to going faster through rote process.) It's engaging with the classroom community. It's personalized learning that inspires deep care for our work. Montessori requires us to see a child as a living organism that develops in it's own time, not as a performer who meets our idea of a timeline. And, we can look Montessori in the early 20th century as a pioneer of this view! (An academic reference to the four planes of development (click) - and a more academic article published by AMI here)

And, I want to make clear, as a child's development moves into the middle and later adolescence, we at Great River see our young adults succeed in achievement and standard measures. Our students have excellent college and IB program outcomes. Our oldest adolescent students qualify for merit scholarships to Ivy league colleges, and score very well on measures. Great River has National Merit Scholar commendations, semi-finalists, and finalists.

But, the relationships students build throughout their schooling are key to enriching a foundation of success. We want to be parents, guides, and students who see learning as a process, not a race!

As the lead researcher concludes:
“In this study, we found that a network of supportive relationships is at the heart of happiness... If schools want to support student well being and achievement, they should take seriously nurturing positive relationships among teachers and students.” 
                                                                                                               ~ Christina Hinton
A synopsis of the study goes on to describe: 
"Using both quantitative and qualitative measures, she found that from elementary school to high school, happiness is positively correlated with motivation and academic achievement. [Hinton] also found that the culture of the school and the relationships that students form with their teachers and their peers play an influential role in their happiness."

Of course! Having a psychologically safe space is the foundation of learning. And what we see at Great River is often a reliable correlation between quality of a student's relationships and achievement because they are engaged in work that is meaningful to them. This is our high aspiration as a school.

Life, and the skills of persistence (aka followthrough/determination/grit) are practices of habit. These are the qualities we measure as guides in observing a student's development. Great River School seeks to meet psychological needs, build safe spaces, and engage students in a conversation about their view of a quality world. This leads students to generally experience nurturing positive relationships.

So, this month, I'll invite us to consider the elements that support our students in having positive and nurturing relationships. Generally, I'm going to suggest that there are a few key qualities to 'nurturing' in this case:
we accept students for who they are now
we ask students what makes a quality world for them
we ask students when they feel safest in their relationships
we listen to and respect their answers
we hold them to a high expectation within a context of developmentally appropriate activity

Supporting development is often a game of watching and waiting. It is rarely a game of intervention and control. And when we have a relationship that is supportive, it allows students to share when they are having a challenge, and we can best offer a rich environment for the students to engage in development.

A closing quote from Maria Montessori:
"We must take man himself, take him with patience and confidence, across all the planes of education. We must put everything before him, the school, culture, [religions of the world], the world itself. We must help him to develop within himself that which will make him capable of understanding. It is not merely words, it is a labour of education. This will be a preparation for peace, for peace cannot exist without justice and without men endowed with a strong conscience and personality.
~ Montessori “Four Planes of Development”

A few links related to this post:


Inequitable Opportunities: How Current Education Systems and Policies Undermine the Chances for Student Persistence and Success in College