hands manipulating wooden blocks.

Empowering students and teachers: Academic Youth Development aims to change the way students and teachers view mathematics education

Posted on March 10, 2011

Empowering disadvantaged students has been a lifelong goal of Charles A. Dana Center founder Uri Treisman.

Treisman received a MacArthur Foundation fellowship in 1992 for his work in designing and developing the Emerging Scholars Program, which began as a series of mathematics workshops when he was a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley in the 1970s. Counter to the predominant practices at the time, ESP was built on the idea that the best way to engage underprivileged students is not to expect less of them, but to challenge these students to do more rigorous work while simultaneously encouraging their participation in social and academic communities.

More than 30 years after those first mathematics workshops, the “Treisman model” continues to shape the work of the Dana Center and forms the foundation of one of the center’s newest innovations, a collaboration with Agile Mind, Inc., called Academic Youth Development.

A transformative experience

In most classrooms, making students cry would be a bad thing. But in the case of an Academic Youth Development class in Chicago last summer, tears told of a transformative learning experience. It began with an assignment requiring students to interview someone in their lives about one of the core values of the AYD program: perseverance.

AYD teacher Maisie Gholson had hoped the assignment would improve organizational and public speaking skills, but when one student broke into tears while telling of his mother’s triumph over the challenges of teen parenthood, Gholson realized that the true lesson was something else.

“It seemed that in the middle of telling the story he realized how much his mother had sacrificed for him and her family,” Gholson said in an email to the Dana Center. “Several students, male and female, walked over to hug and put their arm around him. It was quite special.”

One student told of a blind aunt, also a teen mother, who overcame great difficulty to send her daughter to private school; another told of a family member serving in the military in Afghanistan.

Following the presentations, the students reflected on what they’d learned from the interview project. The overarching realization was clear: Everyone has hardship, but you can overcome this hardship and succeed.

So, what does this have to do with math? It turns out, quite a bit.

AYD by the numbers

AYD empowers students to successfully make the transition from middle school mathematics to Algebra I and, more broadly, from middle school to high school. It is a yearlong program that begins with a three-week summer experience for a select group of students, who then spread those ideas and strategies to other Algebra I students throughout the school year.

During the summer, students and teachers have the opportunity to get to know each other in a low-risk environment—no grades, no tests—as students work together on forensic science and mathematics problem-solving situations. When the school year begins, AYD participants become “student allies” who, along with their teachers, work to improve the academic culture of their classrooms and potentially the whole school.

After completing a successful 25-site pilot program in 2007, AYD kicked off its first year of full implementation in 2008, with 100 schools participating. By 2010, the program expanded to reach more than 5,500 students in 14 states.

One of AYD’s most fundamental lessons is also the least obviously math related: You control your own destiny. AYD shows students—using animations and activities on the neuroscience of the brain—that they get smarter by working harder, and that, with sustained effort, they can persevere through challenges in school and out in the real world.

two students looking at computer.

The brain on AYD

In addition to showing students that their brains physically change by growing more neurological connections when they challenge themselves (even when they make mistakes), AYD helps students understand that difficulty and confusion are a natural part of the learning process and alters the ways students frame their own learning experiences.

For example, if a student does poorly on a test, his/her habit might be to say, "I’m just dumb." The AYD approach is to redirect the student’s thought to something like, "If I try harder, I can do better next time."

Dana Center program coordinator Lisa Brown, one of AYD’s developers, says empowerment is a key outcome. “For many students, the only power they perceive they have is to comply or not. We want students to understand the important role they play in their own learning.”

AYD helps students discern what they can control, whether it’s something concrete—such as participating in tutoring or study groups—or something more abstract. For example, when asked what she wanted to carry into the school year from her AYD summer, one student said the ability she had developed to control her anger.

“That’s the thing about this program; when you start peeling back the layers, it touches on so many things,” says Dana Center AYD program coordinator Brian Newsom. He adds that when you empower a disadvantaged student to understand who he or she is as a learner, “you’ve just created the most powerful person on earth.”

Fixing the "fixed intelligence" mindset

The supporting research for the AYD approach comes from current and emerging leaders in adolescent psychology and the learning sciences. For example, AYD draws on the research of Stanford University professor Carol Dweck, whose work in social, developmental, and personality psychology over the past 30 years hinges on the distinction between people who believe that traits such as intelligence are “fixed” versus those who have a “growth” mindset—believing that intelligence can grow with effort.

In an interview on the website Learning and the Adolescent Mind, on which AYD is featured as an exemplary program, Dweck says, “Many years of research have now shown that when people adopt the fixed mindset, it can limit their success. They become over-concerned with proving their talents and abilities, hiding deficiencies, and reacting defensively to mistakes or setbacks—because deficiencies and mistakes imply a (permanent) lack of talent or ability. People in this mindset will actually pass up important opportunities to learn and grow if there is a risk of unmasking weaknesses.”

By contrast, people with a growth mindset “believe that their talents and abilities can be developed through passion, education, and persistence,” Dweck says.

students engaged in work.

"I come home happy": How teachers benefit from AYD

Teachers report feeling re-energized by the AYD program, which upsets the common misconception that some students just can’t do math.

Many Algebra I teachers are disheartened by students’ lack of skills, yet most also recognize that the problem goes beyond the content. According to a 2008 study by the National Mathematics Advisory Panel, 62 percent of Algebra I teachers reported that the “single most challenging aspect” of their jobs is “working with unmotivated students.” AYD addresses students’ motivations to pursue academic goals in tandem with the development of important academic skills.

“When you observe math classes, many times you’ll see teachers who have such low expectations for their students that it’s enraging,” Newsom says. “AYD presents an opportunity for teachers to see that students actually can do a lot more if the teacher trusts in the students’ strengths and ability to succeed.”

AYD not only encourages students to strive to reach their highest potential, it also frees teachers from the discouraging belief that their students can’t learn. Though AYD is focused on student achievement, it also creates a positive, dynamic learning atmosphere that can ripple through classrooms and even entire schools. One teacher approached Newsom in tears, saying that the AYD experience reconnected her with why she became a teacher in the first place.

“My husband says that I actually come home happy now,” she said, “I haven’t come home happy in seven years.”

To learn more about the ideas and experts behind AYD, visit the Dana Center's AYD site, Agile Mind's AYD site, and Learning and the Adolescent Mind.

written by Cara Hopkins, staff editor

edited by Rachel Jenkins and Sarah Searcy, staff editors

layout and design by Amy Dolejs, webmaster, and Sarah Searcy