New Buehler Sesquicentennial Chair: On the nature of knowing
By Alicia Potter
As an undergraduate and then a master’s degree student in philosophy at Columbia University, Lynch School of Education Assistant Professor David Miele was drawn to two enduring questions: What do we know and how do we know it? But it wasn’t until his doctoral studies in social psychology at Northwestern University that he began to apply beliefs about the nature of intelligence and ability to the psychology of learning—the crux of his work today.
“I realized how different kinds of beliefs affect judgments of learning and the importance of those judgments in how students allocate their time and resources,” says Miele. Students who prioritized tasks wisely, he learned, demonstrated a particular insight: They could accurately assess what they knew and what they didn’t.
Miele now focuses his research on motivation, metacognition, and self-regulated learning. Recently, he was named Boston College’s first Sesquicentennial Challenge chair—the Buehler Sesquicentennial Assistant Professor—a $1.5 million endowed position for faculty in the early stages of their careers. The support, says Miele, is especially well timed. While a good deal of his work has centered on students, he is starting to expand his research into other populations, all in the interest of improving educational practice.
Miele’s first foray in this direction investigated parents’ beliefs about whether their children’s math and verbal abilities are fixed or malleable, and how those beliefs shape the way parents help their children complete challenging problems in these areas. With colleagues at the University of Maryland (where he worked before he came to Boston College in August 2013), he surveyed more than 1,000 parents through an online questionnaire and observed 80 parents and their five-year-olds in the university’s lab.
The findings, some of which Miele presented last year at the biennial meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development and other conferences, indicate that the more parents believe their children’s intelligence is fixed, the less likely they are to engage in supportive parenting behaviors, which have been shown to yield better academic outcomes. Next, Miele wants to pursue a similar study with educators, to learn how their perceptions of students’ abilities affect their teaching behavior.
Miele says the work has potential for “substantial downstream effects.” For instance, because beliefs can be modified, the research may prove useful in developing interventions to help parents and teachers “understand the benefits of thinking about their children’s abilities in a particular way.”
Meanwhile, he is pursuing a study of “meta-motivation”—specifically how college students’ awareness of their own motivations, and the motivational demands of particular tasks, influence the way they pursue their goals. Another project focuses on beliefs about the permanence of memory.
While most of Miele’s areas of inquiry are not new, he says they are “gaining traction” in the educational world. One contributing factor, he explains, is that as career possibilities grow, it’s nearly impossible to anticipate all the knowledge that students will need for success. As a result, students must be nimble, resilient thinkers—able to set goals, shift strategies, and assess their own performances.
“One of the best ways to prepare students in this day and age,” says Miele, “is to help them learn how to learn.”