Weekly Research Roundup


Each week during the 2019-2020 school year, we will highlight current research on topics related to either the year’s theme of empathy and connection, or the book Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls by psychologist Lisa Damour, Ph.D. In case you missed any of them, or would like to revisit any, here is a list of the topics we addressed with links to more detailed information and resources.

Week of 10/7: Parenting as Gardening

At the end of Candide's journey pursuing truth and enlightenment, Voltaire's Candide concludes with the simple sentence "Il faut cultiver notre jardin"–we must cultivate our garden. Alison Gopnik, psychologist and philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley, who has studied child development and parenting throughout her career, would agree. Her research has led her to construct two models of parenting, the carpenter and the gardener. The carpenter believes that "if you just do the right things, get the right skills, read the right books, you're going to be able to shape your child into a particular kind of adult." By contrast, the gardener seeks to create "a rich, nurturant but also variable, diverse, dynamic ecosystem." Gopnik links the carpenter model to increased levels of stress and anxiety in both children and parents. Like all dichotomies, these models oversimplify a complex process, but schools can also learn from the distinction. Schools can also be carpenters or gardeners in providing educational opportunities. Read an article/interview with Alison Gopnik here, or dive more deeply into her research by reading her book The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us about the Relationship between Parents and Children.

Research Roundup Archive:

SEPTEMBER 2019

9/30: Developing a Sense of Purpose

  • Research on adolescent development has demonstrated the benefits of having a sense of purpose. Purpose, in this context, has both an internal and an external dimension. Purposeful work leads to both personal satisfaction and the accomplishment of a goal beyond one's own individual pursuits. Developing a sense of purpose contributes to both psychological and physical health. A recent study found that having a sense of purpose differs by age group. For middle school students, for example, this study found that a sense of purpose involved forming connections with others and being empathic. High school students, by contrast, searched for a role to pursue their sense of purpose. These findings provide important direction for schools and parents as we seek to support the development of purpose at each stage of growth. The research also tracks the development of purpose for later adolescents and young adults. Read the study "Adolescent Purpose Development: Exploring Empathy, Discovering Roles, Shifting Priorities, and Creating Pathways" here.

9/23: Making Caring Common

  • Head of School Elizabeth J. McGregor concluded her convocation remarks by highlighting the goal of "making caring common." Her words echo the name of a research project based at the Harvard Graduate School of Education committed to "raising kids who care about others and the common good." Empathy forms the basis for perspective-taking and connection, crucial factors in equipping students with the disposition to do good, while acquiring the skills to do well. In its original research report, "Turning the Tide," Making Caring Common recommended key changes in the college admissions process that highlight character as well as achievement. In its most recent report, "Turning the Tide II," the researchers have turned their focus to the roles of schools and families in advancing these goals. Read their recommendations for helping schools create a caring community founded on empathy here. To read the report on how schools and parents can "cultivate ethical character and reduce distress in the college admissions process," click here.

9/16: Active Learning

  • An ancient Chinese proverb says "I hear, I forget; I see, I remember; I do, I understand." A variation attributed to Benjamin Franklin says "Tell me and I forget; teach me and I may remember; involve me and I learn." Both proverbs emphasize the value of what is now called "project-based learning." A recent study at Harvard tested the wisdom expressed in these sayings in an introductory physics class. The experiment led to two significant, yet distinct findings. The same material was taught to two groups, one using the traditional lecture format and the other using project-based learning. As the proverbs would have predicted, the students scored higher on assessments if they used the project-based approach. Perhaps the more important finding was that the students reported feeling that they had learned more in the lecture format. So, the perception of learning in this case is contrary to the actual learning. Hearing a well-delivered lecture creates a perception of learning, but doing an experiment leads to greater understanding. Appreciating the value of project-based educational strategies must also overcome the false perception that lectures are the best route to learning and understanding. Read an article about the study here, and read the full study here.
9/9: Empathy and Connection

  • In her convocation address, Head of School Elizabeth J. McGregor highlighted the importance of empathy and connection as key factors contributing to the development of children. As themes for the year, these concepts will help shape the direction of Westridge throughout the year. Educational and psychological research, especially recent research, has documented the benefits of empathy for students. Michele Borba, an educational psychologist and parenting expert, writes, "Empathy—or the ability to understand others' feelings and needs—is also the foundation of a safe, caring, and inclusive learning climate. Students with high levels of empathy display more classroom engagement, higher academic achievement, and better communication skills (Jones et al., 2014). Empathy reduces aggression, boosts prosocial behaviors (Eisenberg, Eggum, & DiGiunta, 2010) and may be our best antidote to bullying and racism (Santos et al., 2011)." Dr. Borba's book, UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World, documents two decades of research on the benefits of empathy. Watch her TED talk "Empathy is a verb" here.

9/2: Back to School Tips from Challenge Success

  • Challenge Success, a research-based program at Stanford University takes a leading role in helping teachers, parents, and students redefine success in ways that reflect the importance of reflection, balance, and student well-being. Moving beyond a narrow definition of success in purely academic terms, Challenge Success seeks to foster practices and policies that create meaningful and enduring learning experiences for developing children. Part of their mission statement reads, "We all want our kids to do well in school and to master certain skills and concepts, but our largely singular focus on academic achievement has resulted in a lack of attention to other components of a successful life—the ability to be independent, adaptable, ethical, and engaged critical thinkers. Our work helps to foster learners who are healthy, motivated, and prepared for the wide variety of tasks they will face as adults." At Westridge, we seek to negotiate the challenges of supporting students' academic achievement with an awareness of the importance of social and emotional development through programs such as homeroom, Council, advisory, and human development. Challenge Success has compiled a set of recommendations for getting the school year off to a good start. Read their recommendations here.

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day school for girls, grades 4–12

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