Educational Approach Aims to Battle Social Inequity

Is our educational system designed to promote or quash independent thinking?
Anahid Modrek, Thomas Jefferson University
Anahid Modrek, Assistant Professor of Psychology in Jefferson’s College of Humanities and Sciences

Research has shown that Pennsylvania is by far the highest in funding inequality between the highest and lowest-income school districts of all 50 states. Funding students based on their need is the first step to reducing decades of inequality. But changing the focus within the classroom is another, says Anahid Modrek, assistant professor in the department of Psychology. She studies educational inequality by looking at how learning opportunities created within the classroom can affect cognitive development and so much more. Her work suggests that when students are given autonomy over their own learning, they are given more opportunities that allow them to develop into effective learners and more critical, self-directed thinkers.

We talk to Dr. Modrek here about her research and how changes in the classroom can impact social inequality.

What is your research focus?

I am interested in socio-cognitive development. I study the development of reasoning and learning skills and how they can develop from a contextual, cultural perspective and I ask how such skills might inform long-term outcomes such as academic achievement. To do this comprehensively, I also of course account for individual differences – the idea that we need to understand how each child, adolescent, or student is experiencing the same context.

By bridging the fields of cognitive science and education, my work aims to influence and inform policy, practice, and educational interventions that aim to reduce societal inequalities. I believe that some of these inequalities very well stem from learning environments and social contexts.

What’s one question you’re investigating?

Can autonomy – the freedom to exercise choice – lead to deeper thinking by allowing individuals to consider multiple, interacting relations as they influence outcomes?

I take both an experimental and applied approach to address this. One study tested this with a sample of 696 low-income students in urban classrooms. We found that when teachers reported giving more autonomy, and students felt it, students better identified more reasons as contributing to an outcome – and they did so independently, and more effectively.

When students are offered greater autonomy, they are more often put into situations of having to consider multiple options, or causes, leading to an outcome. They need to evaluate all possible outcomes of an action of choice, a form of causal reasoning. In addition, they need to consider multiple contributing factors and how they may interact.

Too much teacher control in classrooms may in fact make students feel that they have little agency. — Anahid Modrek

When someone is in a situation where they must choose the only option available to them, they are not being given the opportunity to consider or compare other options not made available to them. If instead they are more often in situations where options A, B, and C are available, they are more often in situations in which they must reason in a multivariable causal framework. As a result, they gain practice in doing so, in the process gaining greater skill.

What happens when students don’t get enough autonomy?

A study we published a few years ago showed that too much teacher control in classrooms may in fact make students feel that they have little agency. This can come at a cognitive cost to adolescents’ inductive reasoning and learning, especially in high-achieving environments that emphasize performance outcomes, rather than opportunities for learning. If students are to be able to reason well about phenomena they want or need to know, they must have the necessary opportunities to do so.

To the extent that opportunities for autonomy are available to the individual both inside and outside the classroom, they deserve our close investigation, along with the external factors under educators’ more direct control.

Evidence exists demonstrating that autonomy in classrooms is not only crucial to academic performance, but that it can be fostered.

It becomes even more important to understand what the development of autonomy can accomplish for effective reasoning, especially as we’ve shown that it can contribute to environments supporting both skills for independent learning  as well as long-term educational outcomes.

What first sparked your interest in your area of research?

I am interested in growth and change. I like to think about understanding cognitive development in two ways: how things come to be, and how they can be changed. This creates a framework of development with a lens of equity, so that we don’t just look at what skills a child or student comes with, but also how they can grow. Developmental research presents a multidimensional approach to how we understand ourselves, others, and opportunity.

What’s a cool fact about your study subject?

Its disseminative capacity is limitless. Much of this work can inform parents, teachers, policy professionals, and economists. Understanding human development can inform micro-organizational dynamics such as a parent-child interaction, to macro-organizational systems like how the economy can affect parenting and child development.

More broadly, I am hopeful that this line of work will address the long withstanding model in education that views performance measures as reflective of a successful education experience. The consequence of this is twofold: it fuels the ongoing inequality that we know exists between socioeconomic status and academic achievement, and – more importantly – it takes away from opportunities for true, deep learning. I hope that my preliminary findings, at minimum, will spark questions as to what the point of an education is, and what it’s intended to develop.

Many researchers have superstitions. Things they’ve done to cosmically help their research work succeed. What are yours?

I write down what I want to study, what my question is, and what I think I’ll find. Then I have no other option but to see if I can find evidence to support my hypotheses! It’s almost like I trap myself.

What’s the best part of your job?

Watching my students grow. I get to see development on a daily basis. Being able to watch my students succeed as scholars, and research scientists, is rewarding enough to keep me committed to my role as faculty and as a PI.

What’s something people would be surprised to find out about you?

I like to switch back and forth between scientific, academic writing and creative writing. Sometimes I have to turn off my brain to switch between the two – but ironically, I recently wrote a review that shows it can be done.

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