Sunday, May 16, 2010

Emotions and Teaching: Mastery Goals vs. Performance Goals-Based Teaching

What is the best way to teach highly gifted children? Some people advocate home schooling. Others posit that regular schools combined with grade and/or subject-specific acceleration is sufficient. However, I firmly believe that arguing for one approach over any other clearly misses what is almost certainly the single biggest determinant of long-term success: emotions. It is wrong in my opinion to argue that a one-size-fits-all approach is the best for gifted children. Yes, I believe that my daughter will flourish at home. However, what works for my child may not for others regardless of intellectual capacity. I just finished reading Science Education for Gifted Learners. The chapter titled The Emotional Lives of Fledgling Geniuses tackles the issue of matching educational approach and emotional personality. The key thesis is that the choice of educational approach should be dictated largely by the emotional characteristics of the student. My wife and I have chosen to home school Pauline next year. After objectively reading The Emotional Lives of Fledgling Geniuses, I feel comfortable with our decision to home school because it best matches our daughter’s personality, emotions, and approach to learning.

There are many ways to categorize teaching styles. The Emotional Lives of Fledgling Geniuses argues that one may view teaching as split into two camps:

  • performance goals-based
  • mastery goals-based
Real-world teaching may mix the two approaches, but it is instructive to think about the implications of these two and how they relate to emotions. Performance goals-based teaching focuses on the tangible and measurable like grades and test scores. Mastery goals-based puts the emphasis on learning and understanding, brushing aside grades as unnecessary and possibly outdated. Mastering arithmetic or learning enough to be able to understand a research paper or solve an opened problem are examples of mastery goals-based learning. Some kids flourish under performance goals-based teaching because they are very competitive and/or because they need a structured environment. Other kids prefer abstract, long-term goals and to study what they care about. Finally, there are kids who enjoy both types of teaching. Hence, it is important to understand your children and try to structure the teaching style around their personality. I am not arguing here for one philosophy over the other. I believe that both are important, but a curriculum could be structured with a bias towards the philosophy that benefits your children the most. This is the key message of this blog post. Get to know the emotional personality of your child and then structure his or her learning environment to optimize the learning potential.

Let’s use my daughter as an example. Paulina does well in exams. I did too when I was a kid, but she is one of those people who seems to do well in tests without even trying. She is extremely competitive, and she has started attending contests. For instance, she participated in the Math Kangaroo this year and came out very excited, asking to do it again next year. She always wants to get the highest score in every test she takes and practices incessantly whenever she has a performance. On the other hand, she already has long-term goals. A good example is her passion for black holes. I don’t remember how this started, but she became fascinated with black holes when she was five. She would ask me to read her everything we could find on black holes. She now reads by herself everything she can find on the subject, and she has been speeding through the math curriculum as fast as possible since I explained that it is a key to understanding black holes. In the process, she has discovered probability, graph theory, and other subjects that interest her, but her goal remains to learn math because it will allow her to understand black holes and other astronomical phenomena.

The point of the above example is that my daughter needs both performance goals and mastery goals-based teaching. In a way, I think the former appeals to her competitive nature and the latter to her interest in particular subjects and her search for depth of knowledge. The exact reason is irrelevant to me as a father and teacher. What I must do is keep in mind is her need for both types of teaching and how to use them appropriately. I have met highly gifted kids who are happy in performance goals-based environments. I have met others with personalities to thrive in a mastery goals-based setting. Finally, some like my daughter prefer a mixed environment. The thing to remember is to understand your child well enough to foster the right teaching environment.

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