What Teenagers Want: University of Virginia Professors Team up to Help Teachers Connect with Students

June 27, 2006 -- At a time when the federal government’s No Child Left Behind legislation is requiring teachers to be deemed “highly qualified,” University of Virginia psychology
professor Joseph Allen and education professor Robert Pianta are going beyond superficial criteria to the heart and soul of the classroom.

With a recently announced $1.25 million grant from the William T. Grant Foundation, Allen and Pianta are combining their expertise — Allen’s in adolescent social development and Pianta’s in teachers’ professional development — to pinpoint what the best teachers know intrinsically: how to reach their students and make individual, personal connections with them.

“For all the attention that goes into curricula and standardized testing, surprisingly little has gone into students’ interactions with their teachers,” said Allen, director of the Virginia Adolescence Research Group, where he conducts long-term studies on teens’ psychosocial development. The researchers cite several surveys in their proposal that describe students’ objections to
high school.

“Youth often report a sense of disinterest in the goals of school and little motivation to perform academically. They describe school experiences as irrelevant and lacking appropriate and meaningful challenges,” the proposal says. “These tendencies are exacerbated dramatically for youth attending schools in low-income communities, rural communities, large schools and for those with histories of poor achievement or problem behavior.”

Meanwhile, the high-school dropout rate is stubbornly sticking at 30 percent, and climbs as
high as 45 percent for some racial and ethnic minority groups.

What do high-quality teachers do that makes a difference?

They give teens plenty of chances to be active in the classroom, allowing them to make choices
and decisions, without giving up their authority as the teacher. Setting up this environment plays to teens’ desires for independence and competency. These teachers also figure out how to convey relevance and get the students interested even if the subject seems unrelated to their daily lives, Allen said. Good teachers also interact with their students in ways that show them their teachers know them and care about them. Even small encounters can make a big difference, Pianta has found in a similar study of kindergarten through fifthgrade teachers.

All of these elements help boost students’ motivation, which is as important for teenagers’
school success as the ways teachers deliver the subject matter, according to Allen.

“One of the most tragically avoidable errors that some secondary school teachers make is to assume that youth strivings for autonomy and self-expression represent negative forces to be countered rather than positive energy to be harnessed,” he and Pianta wrote in their project

The researchers will use a video-based, one-on-one conference system that Pianta has field-tested in his other project, called MyTeachingPartner. The study will comprise approximately 80 teachers working with about 1,200 students in Virginia public schools.

The two-year program will be geared toward teachers in their second to fifth year, because this
group has a high rate of leaving the profession. They will attend an introductory workshop
focusing on adolescent motivation and discuss how to apply this psychology in the classroom.
Researchers also will have a control group for comparison.

In the MTP program, teachers learn to videotape themselves during their classes and then work with a consultant who reviews their actions and practices on the tape, giving them feedback. The consultant also shows the teacher appropriate video clips of successful teachers in action
and suggests alternate strategies. The MTP consultants use a detailed assessment in analyzing
the teachers, called the Classroom Assessment Scoring System, or CLASS, that has been modified for high schoolers.

“We think we have learned that our approach to supporting teachers and providing them feedback about their actual classroom practices has proven effective with teachers of younger children,” Pianta said, “and we have every reason to believe that early career teachers in secondary classrooms will find this approach as or more helpful. We have received dozens of very positive reactions from the teachers with whom we have worked so far and the administrators who also work with them.”

Provided the study helps the high school teachers find ways to improve their classroom
environment, it should enrich teen development in the process.

Since its inception in 1936, the William T. Grant Foundation has focused on improving the lives
of youth ages 8 to 25 in the United States through high-quality empirical studies.