(The Learning Mindset)
Can simple psychological exercises have a positive impact on school pupils’ attitudes to learning?
The ROCKWOOL Foundation Interventions Unit has examined whether simple learning exercises that have generated positive results in the United States can improve pupils’ approaches to learning, perception of affiliation and academic return on their school years.
About the initiative
Psychological research from a range of school contexts in the United States has demonstrated that it is possible to boost school pupils’ attitudes to learning and academic return through the application of simple psychological exercises. The purpose of these exercises is to encourage school pupils to think about their own personal values, for example, to give advice about difficult situations to other pupils, or to redefine their relationship with their teachers. The distinguishing feature of the exercises is their focus on breaking down psychological obstacles to learning (rather than working with the cognitive obstacles).
We at the ROCKWOOL Foundation Interventions Unit have examined whether this knowledge gained from American research could be relevant in a Danish context. We have adapted and trialled the initiatives in the middle school years, where we were curious to see whether simple interventions could be used to enhance the pupils’ belief in their own abilities, to strengthen their sense of affiliation with their school and thus to boost their academic return on their school years.
At the ROCKWOOL Foundation Interventions Unit, we work systematically to incorporate knowledge about the mental development of children and young people into our work.
The early years of youth are the perfect time to work with pupils’ attitude to learning and academic return, because the capacity to learn and enter into social contexts develops rapidly in the 9–14 age range. Both positive and negative emotions are experienced more intensely at this age, where social recognition and status play a key role .
It is at around this time that pupils are particularly sensitive to positive input from their surroundings. Such input can provide the foundations for pupils to develop positive interpretations of the learning environment of which they form part, and thus promote their attitude to learning and the academic return they receive from their school years.
What have we learned?
Our work with learning exercises has demonstrated that it is possible to adapt exercises from the American research to a different, younger target group in a Danish school context. We have seen indications that, with significant adaptations and a shift from book-based exercises to more play-based exercises, we can engage the pupils in the learning exercises.
Through tests and trials, we have established that pupils can reflect on, appropriate and identify with the material. However, as we have not conducted an impact assessment of the exercises, we cannot say whether the exercises actually help strengthen the pupils’ attitudes to learning and academic return.
Why stop here?
Even though we have succeeded in generating engagement among the pupils through the exercises, we do not believe that the exercises, in and of themselves, are sufficient to encourage pupils to shift from a negative approach to learning, towards a more positive attitude to it.
We believe that the solutions are dependent on our capacity to make changes to the system. As the learning exercises do not affect the environment around the pupils, we take a sceptical view of their preventative potential with regard to the pupils obtaining greater academic return on their lower secondary education, and achieving a school-leavers’ examination result that provides access to further education.
Finally, our emphasis is on shifting emphasis from the individual to the community. In recent years, we at the ROCKWOOL Foundation Interventions Unit have increasingly focused on system innovation, and on interaction between citizens and the system. The systems in place today function smoothly in many respects for the majority of pupils, but there remains a group of pupils who are likely to find themselves in vulnerable positions later in life. This is the group for whom we are particularly interested in generating measurable change.
The project was completed in 2022 under the auspices of the ROCKWOOL Foundation, and the insights live on in the ‘Lås Skolen Op’ (Unlock the school) project. Find our knowledge below.