Laurel School’s Center for Research on Girls, directed by two Shaker Heights educators, provides teachers – at Laurel and around the country – with progressive ways of training young women to excel throughout their lives.
By Diana Simeon
Perhaps you’ve noticed the oval, green magnets on cars around town emblazoned with the word “YET”.
Those magnets are the creation of the Center for Research on Girls (CRG) at Laurel School. Head of School Ann V. Klotz, the founder of CRG, explains: “It’s a way we talk to our girls about persevering. When they don’t experience success right away, we’ll say, ‘You haven’t gotten it yet.’”
That may seem simple and straightforward, but the idea for CRG’s YET campaign is actually grounded in rigorous academic research, most notably by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck. In 2007, Dweck published the results of a two-year study she’d conducted at a New York City middle school. She showed that the students who had what she termed a “growth mindset” were more successful in math than students with what she called a “fixed mindset.”
“Our job is to prepare our students so they continue to thrive when they leave.”
“It’s brilliant work,” says Dr. Lisa Damour, a Shaker resident who is the director of CRG and author of Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions Into Adulthood. “And it’s a clear idea that makes sense.” Basically, Dweck discovered that there are two kinds of students: those with a growth mindset, who believe that with hard work, they can improve at math or reading or anything else – including in non-academic areas – and those with a fixed mindset, who believe that there’s no improving on the talents they were born with. It’s the difference between: “I’m just bad at math and I always will be,” for example, versus “If I work harder at math, I’ll get better at it.” Not surprisingly, growth mindset students are, on the whole, more successful.
YET, then, distills Dweck’s groundbreaking work into one word that reminds Laurel students, faculty, and parents to stick with a growth mindset, a concept that is taught to the independent school’s students starting around fifth grade.
As Klotz notes, magnets are practical and can carry simple but meaningful reminders. “I feel that everything we do that is going to be successful needs to be able to be a magnet to help remind you – in that moment, with your child – that this is how to do it.”
Translating academic research such as Dweck’s into a form that’s practical for Laurel’s community has been the goal of CRG from its founding.
“It was this hot August afternoon in 2007 and we were sitting here talking about Laurel’s legacy of scholarly research,” recalls Klotz. The school’s founder, Jennie Prentiss, studied with the philosopher and progressive educator John Dewey. In the 1980s, Carol Gilligan, a prominent researcher and author of the seminal In a Different Voice, spent six years studying the girls at Laurel. JoAnn Deak, author of How Girls Thrive and other books about girls, served as director of K-8 at Laurel for many years.
“We said, ‘Let’s reclaim this,’” says Klotz, who also lives in Shaker. “We knew that there was lots of interesting scholarly research languishing on the shelves and we wanted to build a bridge between that work and our day-to-day work with the girls here at Laurel.”
Seven years on, CRG has built many bridges, which are evident throughout the school. Take, for example, the plethora of academic research on why girls are underrepresented in STEM fields, such as computer science. “We looked at that research and found that there are actually very few cognitive gaps between girls and boys, except in the areas of mechanical reasoning and spatial skills,” explains Damour. “But those gaps seem to play a major role.”
CRG’s answer: Get girls to tinker, which research shows is useful in building those particular skills. Laurel now has three tinkering stations, one for each division, where girls can spend their free time playing around with a variety of colorful building materials.
“We were surprised and delighted to find that we can put the same materials in all three divisions,” says Damour. “The older girls are just as happy to work with the same materials as the younger girls.”
And then there are the pencils.
“One of my favorite things was before the PSAT, they gave us these pencils,” says Laurel junior and Shaker resident Mara Cohen. “The pencils say ‘Gators’ on them, which is the Laurel mascot. The pencils were also wrapped with a little paper where each letter in the word ‘GATORS’ began a sentence that told a fact about how well Laurel girls do on standardized tests” – for example, G is for “Grades – girls get higher grades than boys.”
Of course, these are not just ordinary pencils. They’re a way to remind Laurel students what they’ve learned from CRG about “stereotype threat.” That’s where members of a negatively stereotyped group can develop anxiety in a situation where they believe their performance may confirm that negative stereotype. This is not a conscious process. No girl is sitting in the math ACT thinking, “I’m worried that my performance will confirm the negative and false stereotype that girls are not as good at math as boys,” but there’s ample evidence to show that at least some part of that girl’s anxiety over the test is for that reason.
At Laurel, students are trained in stereotype threat in ninth grade. “The research shows that if you educate girls about the phenomenon, you can protect them from it,” says Damour. “The research also shows you can shield girls from stereotype threat if you give them alternate positive stereotypes.” The pencils provide those positive stereotypes, just moments before a major test like the PSAT or SAT.
“So our girls go into those tests actually thinking, ‘Watch out,’” says Damour.
Pencils and magnets, even tinkering stations, are just three examples of the broader curriculum developed by CRG.
The curriculum doesn’t have much to do with Shakespeare or algebra or any other academic subject. Rather, it’s about developing the many non-academic skills that the research shows help girls to be successful.
“It’s not enough for us to just equip them academically,” says Damour. “So much of what our girls will become, they’ll only become after they graduate. Our job is to prepare them so they continue to thrive when they leave.”
That’s certainly the case for Samantha Basch, who’s now a sophomore at Vassar College. “I have a YET button on my backpack that I carry it around with me at school,” she says. “It’s a constant reminder to think in a growth mindset when I’m doing something challenging. It helps take a lot of the pressure off.”
Among the main goals of CRG’s curriculum is to help Laurel’s students build resilience. The research on resilience, or the ability to recover from a setback and handle stress, shows that, in many ways, resilience is the most important factor when it comes to success, even more than academics. This is true both for boys and girls. You can be the most talented student in the classroom or athlete on the field, but if you give up when you get a poor grade or fail to achieve a goal, you won’t be successful.
After meticulously reviewing the available research, CRG picked five areas of focus that help develop resilience in girls specifically. These are mindset, purpose, creativity, self care, and relationships. They’re now all key parts of Laurel’s overall K-12 curriculum.
For example, there may be a workshop, led by Damour, on a subject like sleep (self care). Or it could be the weekly lunch meetings between Laurel’s high school students and their advisors (relationships). Perhaps it’s the way a teacher talks to a student (mindset). Or a classroom activity that encourages students to solve problems in multiple ways (creativity).
“A lot of it is in the way the teachers teach,” says Mara Cohen. “Their attitude is always, ‘You’re working on it.’ No one is giving up on you or assuming you can’t do it.”
That doesn’t surprise Klotz. “What has contributed to the pervasiveness of CRG throughout Laurel is the faculty’s sense that the research is so credible. It’s really helped them feel comfortable and excited to bring it into their classrooms.”
Asking New Questions
Of course, there’s not necessarily an answer for every question CRG asks about girls. Take the experience of African-American girls in independent schools, where there’s scant research. “When we feel that there’s a gap in the research literature, we conduct original research to fill in,” explains Damour. CRG is now working with four other independent schools around the country on this question.
The impact of stress on girls is another area of concern for CRG, but there’s not a lot of research here either. “There is not much funding to look at girls who are generally functioning very well and who may be experiencing high levels of stress,” Damour says. That led CRG to sponsor a major study on girls and stress with Dana Hall, an independent school in the Boston area, and researchers at Boston University. The 21st Century Athena Study followed girls in the sixth, eighth, and tenth grades, at both Laurel and Dana Hall, for a year. Its findings are now being published and CRG is contemplating how to put the findings to practical use for girls.
Visit Laurel School’s Center for Research on Girls to find research briefs (four-page summaries), podcasts, videos, and curricular materials, as well as details on CRG events that are open to the public.