Assessing the dark matter of learning

A figure skater in competition falls on the ice while attempting a triple jump that she has successfully performed hundreds of times in practice. Similarly, an all-star basketball player who typically makes 90% of free throws misses several of them in the last few seconds of a close game. When we watch these athletes, however, we never question their physical skills. We know there is an unseen variable in the situation that triggers something inside their mental/emotional state that affects their performance. Their success and failure have little to do with their ability; rather, it's how well they can manage this unseen, yet very real variable - their dark matter.

In physics, dark matter is defined as an unseen type of matter whose existence would explain a number of puzzling observations. Similarly, in the context of human behavior, that unseen variable that explains puzzling observations, like that of skater or the basketball player, is the absence of psychological safety: the dark matter of learning.

Unfortunately, when it comes to assessing and evaluating students, the context is often overlooked or ignored. Commentary or explanations are not put next to test scores; they stand alone as stark indicators of ability. Leaving out the context in explaining performance is like observing a well operating car getting stuck in the snow or mud and thinking something was wrong with the car. Observing and analyzing the road conditions should occur before opening the hood to look for problems. Our students should be afforded this same benefit of the doubt: judgment about their abilities should be reserved until other factors/variables are explored and analyzed. Like snow or mud for the car, the conditions blocking their progress could be their dark matter.

To be fair to educators, although the "road conditions" vary dramatically from student to student, they can appear to be the same for everyone. The conditions that impact learning cannot just be discerned from the external environment. These conditions/dark matter are the product of prior experiences that students carry in their hearts and minds into every new learning experience.

That is why the difference between success and failure for students can be a single word, as this research study revealed: minority students performed significantly worse on a visual intelligence test if it was clearly labeled "a test" and significantly better when it was labeled "a puzzle." Non-minority students performed about the same regardless of the label assigned to it. Change one word (puzzle to test) and for some students an intriguing task becomes a fearful one.

This is an example of a particular type of dark matter called stereotype threat: a situational predicament in which people are or feel themselves at risk of performing or conforming to stereotypes of their social group. Stereotype threat is the result of generations of psychologically unsafe situations becoming assimilated by a minority group and then inherited by individuals of that group. For these individuals the past becomes part of the present: an invisible burden they carry inside of them that impedes learning and lowers performance in testing situations.

As empathetic as educators try to be, it is difficult, if not impossible for them, to fully appreciate the impact of stereotype threat or dark matter on their students' learning. Educators are typically people who have succeeded in school and life. Like most adults, they have chosen a profession that matches their skills and abilities. They work and live within their comfort zones-psychologically safe situations (sans dark matter).  

I too have been able to navigate my professional and personal life to stay away from situations where my dark matter might surface-that is until my wife asked me to take swing dance lessons with her. I reluctantly said, "yes;" what happened was an eye opening experience for me. Everything was in place for me to succeed but the results were not positive.

Here is my analysis of what happened:

 Conditions:

I chose to take the course.

I could quit it at anytime with little or no consequences.

I had a purpose for going: preparing for five wedding invitations in the next six months

There was no test or grade involved.

The teacher never criticized anyone.

Results:

I did not look forward to each class.

While in class I kept glancing at the clock anticipating the class being over.

After a few unsuccessful attempts, I felt overwhelmed, lost and unable to process any new instructions.

Regardless of the amount of demonstrations and explanations the teacher provided, I would immediately forget them as I tried to imitate him.

I never found it enjoyable.

In the end, I learned a few steps that I could do with my wife at upcoming weddings.

The poor results could be because I am physically inept, but it's more likely that my dark matter was the cause:

  • It was impossible for me not to compare my performance to the others around me; they were "getting it" and I was not.
  • My prior success (language-based) as a student in school conflicted with learning dancing. In my mind, learning should have been easier for me.
  • I wanted to not make mistakes, so I tried to mentally guide my body step-by- step, which only stifled my ability to dance.
  • As much as I knew the teacher was non-judgmental, I still wanted his approval and knew I was not good enough to get it.
  • As much as I was aware of what was going on inside of me and how it "irrational" it was to feel the way I did, it seemed impossible to overcome those feelings or to even put them aside for a little while.
  • Most of all, my perception of myself, as not musical, lacking rhythm, and my deeply ingrained desire not to look foolish colored my entire experience.

Probably the most positive outcome was my renewed appreciation and empathy for students with learning problems. I always thought I had great empathy for students, but this experience really brought what they endure (and can't escape) right into my own heart.

Here are some recommendations to help educators improve their assessments of students and to help them manage dark matter:

  • On a regular basis learn outside of your comfort zone. Keep a journal of your thoughts and feelings and share them with students.
  • Never take your relationship with any student for granted: check in regularly to assess their trust level and sense of belonging in your class.
  • Find as many opportunities for students who struggle with academic tasks to learn in their comfort zone.
  • Avoid the mistake of thinking learning is an intellectual skill; remember it involves the whole person and emotions.
  • On a regular basis talk with your students about the emotional component of learning; they need to have words for their feelings.
  • Provide opportunities for students to have some voice and choice in how their learning is assessed.
  • Discuss with students the purpose of assessment. Unless you explicitly state that assessment is to help instruction, students will probably assume it is only about judging them.

P.S. After I wrote about my dark matter, I felt better when I went to my next class and did a little better.

Jim Dillon has been an educator for over 40 years, including 20 years as a school administrator. He is an educational consultant for Measurement Incorporated, who sponsor the Center for Leadership and Bullying Prevention. He is the author of Peaceful School Bus (Hazelden). No Place for Bullying (Corwin, 2012) and Reframing Bullying Prevention to Build Stronger School Communities (Corwin)and the picture bookOkay Kevin (Jessica Kingsley Publishing).

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