Recent advances in technology and nearly two decades of research into how students learn have come together in a series of programs that could represent the future of assessment.
Developed by researcher Mogens Jensen, these online programs reportedly can map a student’s behavior, both mentally and emotionally, and then suggest a highly customized solution for growth as the student develops academically.
In effect, the programs aim to pinpoint how each student’s mind processes information, then prescribe a solution that is targeted specifically to the individual.
The programs grew out of Jensen’s theory of “mediated constructivism”–in layman’s terms, the idea that all the cognitive and motivational tendencies associated with a learner can be developed with the help of teachers, parents, mediators, coaches, and guides who are aware of that student’s culture, as well as his or her mental and emotional proclivities.
This process is the basis for what Jensen calls “mediated learning experiences,” or experiences the student must have to “learn how to learn.”
Putting his theories into practice, Jensen–who received his doctorate in psychology from Yale University–founded the International Center for Mediated Learning (ICML) and developed MindLadder, a family of online programs.
The programs allow educators, parents, and administrators to work together as a team to help each student reach his or her full learning potential, Jensen says.
The first step is to discover how teachers can best reach a particular student both mentally and emotionally. To do this, a teacher (or someone else who knows the student well) fills out the first resource in the MindLadder solution–the LearningGuide.
The LearningGuide is best described as a snapshot of a student’s mind, Jensen said. It identifies both target areas in need of investment and strengths that can support growth and change.
The guide begins with background questions about the student’s general behavior, because Jensen believes that “context makes a difference.” For example, the questions might ask if the teacher has had any concerns about the student or has noticed any recent changes in the student’s behavior.
The questions then progress toward understanding a student’s “intellective functions.” These functions focus on the student’s concept of time, how the student interprets symbols and signs, whether the student is receptive to vocabulary, whether he or she is prone to being imaginative or creative, and so on. Some responses are based on a number scale, while others range from “not true” to “very often true.”
The guide then assesses the student’s non-intellective factors. This portion focuses on aspects of personality–social and emotional behavior. Non-intellective factors can include self-esteem, whether a student believes his or her emotions are ignored, whether the student has feelings of competency, how he or she responds to distractions, whether the student has a tendency to belittle others, how distracted he or she becomes, and whether the student gives up before trying a problem.
The LearningGuide also raises questions about students’ reading skills, math skills, and all other subject-area skills. These are rated on a scale from “low” to “excellent.”
“These questions begin the search for patterns in the student’s learning processes,” said Jensen. “We’re moving away from the wait-to-fail approach. With MindLadder’s reach-to-teach model, schools can anticipate, recognize, address, and document student learning needs and match them up, without delay, with specific and effective instruction.”
The LearningGuide can be printed out as a PDF, or a teacher can fill it out online or via eMail. The guide comes in a short version that focuses just on basic functions, a standard version that covers everything, or a long version that should be completed by a school psychologist for students with behavioral difficulties.
When the teacher has completed the LearningGuide, each function of the student’s mind is color-coded according to what must be developed (urgent), what must be strengthened, and what could be built upon (good). (See image below)
“Before, only school psychologists could complete these kinds of tests, and it would only be for troubled students. Now, the test is simple enough for any teacher to use and understand, and [it] can be used for all students to best help them learn,” Jensen said.
A teacher can click on an “advisor” button at the bottom of the guide to get help on how to teach to the student. For each function of the mind–for example, understanding symbols and signs–the advisor feature gives information about the function’s meaning, how to introduce it to the student in a private or classroom setting (including examples of real classroom scenarios), and how to embed the teaching of this function into the larger curriculum.
The advisor section for each function can be read either as a “novice” or as an “expert,” and it also contains the most recent research about these learning functions. Eventually, Jensen says, the advisor feature will include video of many classroom scenarios.
The LearningGuide doesn’t have to pertain to a single student–it can be used to provide a snapshot of an entire classroom by choosing “composite” before viewing the results. This composite report will show the teacher the strengths and weaknesses of the group as a whole. Teachers also can select which function they want to focus on specifically, such as reading skills, and the report will show which individuals in the class have strong reading skills and which have poor skills. Advice on how to teach each dynamic group of students similarly is available through the advisor feature.
Jensen said the LearningGuide doesn’t need to be refreshed often, just as much as the teacher thinks is necessary as the student progresses. He also believes that as students get older, they can be made aware of their learning functions and can understand how to take “ownership of their strengths and weaknesses to apply their knowledge to all subject areas.”
Lynda Lee Osborne, a teacher at Asa Philip Elementary School in Fulton County, Ga., said the LearningGuide questionnaires and cognitive mapping capabilities have “proven invaluable, allowing me to isolate areas of ease and challenge for my students with respect to their cognitive processing.”
Along with the LearningGuide, MindLadder’s program also includes a Dynamic Assessment.
If the LearningGuide offers a snapshot of a student’s mental and emotional processes and how they relate to learning, the assessment is a movie–one designed to make the student’s thinking as visible as possible. Educators can use the LearningGuide to collect information about the student in preparation for the assessment.
During the assessment, the examiner (educator) and the student explore processes that are used to collect, connect, and communicate information. Jensen said the assessment is an “interactive, collaborative relationship that treats the teacher as mentor”–a relationship much like students in Europe have with their teachers, he said. (See “U.S. educators seek lessons from Scandinavia.“)
Questions included in the assessment vary as to the amount and type of support that is offered, and the examiner selects problems that include many tasks, such as pictorial, figural, verbal, or numerical tasks.
The assessment measures the student’s efficiency, retention, and many other factors–including the difference between the questions students got right and the ones they got wrong. Eventually, the assessment will be viewable on both the student’s screen and the teacher’s screen, allowing each answer the student gives to pop up in real time on the examiner’s screen. (As of now, the assessments are still administered in paper format.)
“This is not meant to replace traditional testing,” Jensen said. “Instead, it is a whole new way of looking at assessments. The teacher is a mentor, not just an examiner. The test, along with the guide, measures students’ growth over time, allowing them to be the best learner they can be.”
Jensen first introduced the MindLadder programs five years ago during the meeting of the International Association for Cognitive Education and Psychology (IACEP) in Seattle, and representatives from Singapore took immediate interest.
Since that 2003 conference in Seattle, ICML has conducted four training workshops in the United States: two in Atlanta, one in Sacramento, and one that just concluded Aug. 15 in San Diego. Four beta projects have emerged from these training workshops, Jensen said–two in North Carolina, one in California, and one in Georgia.
Fulton County’s Osborne says her students use the Dynamic Assessment in one-to-one scenarios or in small groups. Making sure her students know the goal of the assessment is not to judge, but rather to help them grow and learn, Osborne uses the assessment to pinpoint areas of weakness and work through challenges in how her students process information.
“Using the variety of MindLadder programs, I have seen students become more aware of their thinking and more confident in their expression of what they know,” she said. “My students have gained clarity in their reflection on their learning, thus enabling the transfer and application of what they’ve learned to subsequent situations. … They also really enjoy the camaraderie of learning and seem to gain a greater respect for their own minds–almost as if they were empowered by the comfort and knowledge that they now had cognitive tools to apply at will for processing information.”
Implementing the LearningGuide and the Dynamic Assessment might be a challenge for many educators, because “…we as educators are not prepared to think and conceive of learning as malleable and adaptable,” said Lynn Pennington, an independent education consultant specializing in data-based problem solving.
“Most of us were taught, implicitly or explicitly, that intelligence was a fixed entity, thanks in part to the proliferation of IQ tests and classification of students’ potential to learn over the last 50 years,” Pennington explains. “We need to throw away those old perceptions and embrace the idea that we can teach in ways that enhance students’ ability to think and learn, making mastery of any content standards possible.”
The total MindLadder package includes initial costs for training, as well as an annually renewable licensing fee of about $15 per student for continued access to the programs, upgrades, and support. Training can be customized to meet the pace, scope, and material requirements of each school or district, Jensen said.
“There’s a common saying in education that it takes 20 years for research to be put into practice,” said Pennington. “I am hoping this is not the case with Dr. Jensen’s work. We are desperately in need of a model with practical application tools, because the ‘different learner’ is already filling our classrooms. Too often, we don’t know what to do when our students don’t respond to our current approaches to teaching and learning. MindLadder offers us a tool that can support the mastery of all content standards.”