Are your children learning robustly?

There are many reasons for your children to learn robustly.

Theo Dawson
5 min readJul 15, 2018
  1. It’s fun!
  2. Over time they’ll learn increasingly quickly and effectively.
  3. They’ll keep growing longer because learning robustly develops minds that are set up for life-long learning.
  4. They are more likely to develop healthy, richly connected, and adaptive minds.
  5. They’ll be better prepared to find engagement and satisfaction in adult life.

Truly, there are no downsides to learning robustly. Yet, robust learning is not what’s happening for most students in most American schools. We have mounting — and disturbing — evidence that this is the case.

The data in the figure below are from our database of reflective judgment assessments. These are open-response formative assessments of how well people think about and address thorny real-world problems like bullying, television violence, dietary practices, and global warming. We’ve been delivering these assessments for several years now and have a diverse sample of over 45,000 completed assessments to learn from.

We wanted to know how well schools support mental development and what kind of role learning robustly might play in their performance.

In particular, we wanted to know why students in one school — the Rainbow Community School — outperformed students in other schools. (To learn about the Rainbow curriculum, click here.)

We first looked at one of the key sources of evidence for robust learning — the quality of students’ arguments. In the figure below, the Y axis represents the clarity or coherence of students’ arguments, and the X axis represents their Lectical phase (or developmental phase, 1/4 of a Lectical Level). The highest clarity/coherence score students can receive is a 10.

In this figure, the Rainbow Community School is the clear leader, especially when it comes to students performing in lower phases, with inner-city (primarily low socioeconomic status) public schools at the low end and more conventional private schools and high socioeconomic status public schools in the middle.

So, how does this relate to student development? Since we regard the clarity/coherence of arguments as strong evidence of robust learning, and assert that robust learning is required to support optimal development, we would expect Rainbow students to develop more rapidly than students in schools with lower clarity/coherence scores.

The figure below tells the story. When it comes to students’ development on the Lectical Scale, Rainbow Community School students are way ahead of the pack. And our inner city schools are way behind. In fact, the average senior in our large (over 10,000 assessments) inner city sample is 5 years behind the projected score for the average senior in the Rainbow sample. Or in other words, inner city seniors, on average, are performing at the same level as Rainbow 7th graders.

We know socioeconomic status is a factor that contributes to this gap, but shouldn’t our schools be closing it rather than allowing it to grow larger? Take a look at the figure below. This figure assumes that students in the Rainbow Community School, on average, start out at about the same developmental level as students in private and high SES public schools, yet student growth is faster. In fact, the data project that Rainbow 9th graders would perform as well as seniors in the other schools. That’s almost a 3-year advantage! We believe this difference is due to differences in instructional practices. What if we used these same practices in our inner-city schools? If we could accelerate their learning as much as the Rainbow Community School has accelerated the learning of its students, inner-city students would be doing as well as private and high SES public schools!

Although socioeconomic status is a key factor, we think the differences seen here are at least partially due to fundamentally different ways of thinking about learning and teaching. Conventional schools tend to be primarily correctness focused. There is an emphasis on learning as remembering. The Rainbow Community School is skill focused. Its teachers use content as a vehicle for building core life skills, such as skills for learning, inquiry, evaluating information, making connections, communicating, conflict resolution, decision-making, mindfulness, compassion, and building relationships. To build these skills, students continuously engage in virtuous cycles of learning — cycles of information gathering, application, reflection, and goal setting — that exercise these skills while building robust connections between new and existing knowledge. Students not only learn content, they learn to use it effectively in their everyday lives. It becomes part of them. We call this embodied learning.

We’re eager to study the impact of skill-focused curricula on the learning of less advantaged students. If you know of a school that’s fostering robust learning AND serving disadvantaged students, we’d like to help them show off what they’re accomplishing.

Note: Not only does Rainbow Community School ensure that its students are continuously engaged in VCoLs (virtuous cycles of learning), it uses a system of governance, Sociocracy, that supports virtuous cycling for everyone on staff as well as the continuous improvement of its curriculum.


Sample responses from 8th graders in different schools

Examples are taken from the performances of students with average scores for their school. (We cleaned up the spelling.)

The question students answered: How is it possible that the two groups [pro and anti-bullying] have such different ideas?

Rainbow Community School

It could be due to different experiences. Perhaps the ones going for the argument that a little bullying can be okay were disciplined more at home and have a tougher shell for things like this. [Parents] may base their initial ideas on their own experiences or their children’s. It all really depends on the person and how they were raised.

High SES public School

This because they have different ideas and reasons for thinking what they believe and you can’t change that. The parents are not the same and every one of them is different so they have a right to believe what they want to believe.

Low SES public school

Many people think different and many people look at things differently. So people get different ideas and opinions about things.


Dawson, T. (2017, October 19). An examination of the relationship between argumentation quality and students’ growth trajectories. Proceedings from Annual Conference of the Northeastern Educational Research Association, Trumbull, CT.

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Theo Dawson

Award-winning educator, scholar, & consultant, Dr. Theo Dawson, discusses a wide range of topics related to learning and development.