Walking the (Learning) Walk

We find ourselves in something of a paradoxical education landscape. On the one hand we are learning more and more about the science of learning. Neuroscience is pushing the boundaries of the known world on a near daily basis. As a result, our knowledge about working with a variety of minds continues to grow at a phenomenal rate. Yet, numerous policy mandates bent on increasing “achievement” (as often measured by reading and math scores on standardized tests) require that we minimize the amount of time spent on some things that actually lead to increased learning.

In effect, we have removed tires from cars we want to go faster and farther.

Take exercise for example. We know that exercise is very good for cognitive functioning —  in youth, adults, and especially so in the elderly. However, there is a significant decrease in the amount of time given to students for recess, PE, and other active engagement.

The result isn’t just that we increase the risk of childhood obesity, we also reduce access to physical activity for students who need it for their own intellectual and physical well being. We are, consequently, leaving students behind.

However, the need to help all students reach their potential does not translate into a need for more seat time.  Quite the opposite in fact.

Educators know this. A student who is challenged in sustaining attention can find success through more active learning opportunities. Students who are lethargic or low on energy can get pepped up with a few in-class movement activities. These are tried and true tricks for most educators.

What happens, though, when the decrease in activity is systematically mandated and increased expectations become the norm? Should teachers just become accomplice in denying students the physical activity they need?  Not likely.

Former 5th grade teacher, Laura Fenn, found herself more and more troubled by the lack of activity and the resulting negative consequences on her students — both in terms of health and engagement. Through a clever use of technology, she found a way to meet both needs: activity and learning. In a recent blog post on Q.E.D. Foundation’s blog she wrote,

I witnessed an increase in the weight of the students at school and a decrease in the time allocated to physical activity.  Knowing how much I enjoyed going for a walk while listening to podcasts after school and on weekends, I thought that maybe my students might enjoy doing the same.  I scoured the Internet for educational podcasts that were *somewhat* related to our curriculum, and I loaded up a class set of mp3 players. My students would get some fresh air and exercise, but I could also convince my principal that we weren’t sacrificing any instructional time.

She went on to report,

Away we went–walking, listening and learning.  My students went nuts for the walking program—they thought they were getting out of something, but in fact, they got so much more:  they returned to class in better moods, more focused, and more productive. The best surprise was how effective walking while learning was for my non-traditional learners.  I had several ADHD boys who struggled in class simply because they poured every ounce of energy they had into trying to stay out of trouble.  While we walked, they could jiggle and wiggle as much as their bodies needed to, so their minds were freed up to absorb the content they were listening to.   I also had autistic students and dyslexic students who, for the first time in their academic career, regularly started participating in class discussions after our walks.  Kinesthetic learning was a preferred style of learning for these children that they didn’t know about.

We can tell our students all about different learning styles until we’re blue in the face, but until a child experiences a style of learning in which s/he succeeds, the words are empty.  To witness a child enjoy feeling smart is like no other joy that a teacher can experience.

Since making this discovery, Laura has since left the classroom and is now co-founder and Executive Director at The Walking Classroom, working to provide other classrooms and schools with podcasts and mp3 players aligned with the Common Core State Standards. One very encouraging outcome of her endeavor: others are reporting similar findings and increased levels of engagement. (You can learn more at The Walking Classroom.)

Where else are innovations meeting the needs of students in creative and inclusive ways? What other programs might we highlight?

Image: Jen McNulty
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12 Brain Rules

Below are the 12 Brain Rules developed by John Medina. Each link will take you to his site and to more information about each of the rules.

You can find the original list in his book “Brain Rules” and on his Brain Rules website.

Enjoy.

Exercise EXERCISE | Rule #1: Exercise boosts brain power.
Evolution SURVIVAL | Rule #2: The human brain evolved, too.
wiring WIRING | Rule #3: Every brain is wired differently.
attention ATTENTION | Rule #4: We don’t pay attention to boring things.
shortterm SHORT-TERM MEMORY | Rule #5: Repeat to remember.
longterm LONG-TERM MEMORY | Rule #6: Remember to repeat.
sleep SLEEP | Rule #7: Sleep well, think well.
stress STRESS | Rule #8: Stressed brains don’t learn the same way.
multisensory SENSORY INTEGRATION | Rule #9: Stimulate more of the senses.
vision VISION | Rule #10: Vision trumps all other senses.
gender GENDER | Rule #11: Male and female brains are different.
exploration EXPLORATION | Rule #12: We are powerful and natural explorers.

Social Emotional Learning Core Competencies

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Seeing the forest despite the trees.

Our nation’s educational focus continues to zero in on “achievement” as defined by test scores in specific academic areas and the resulting gaps therein. This hyper focus exacerbates our nearly systematic blind eye related to learning for living and cultivating life long learners. As a result, policies that increase the stakes of standardized assessments necessitate schools increase the amount of time spent on basic skills — reading and math, primarily — to the exclusion of a broad range of other skills, experiences, and competencies. In effect, we see a couple of trees, but miss the forest, or big picture ecology, of learning.

However, research suggests there are programs that have the dual benefits of both raising achievement and increasing student well being. It is in this realm where we learn to think about education in terms of the forest, despite our hyper focus on the trees.

Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is such an example. CASEL (Collaborative For Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning) is the leading organization working to build demand and capacity for SEL. Their work ranges from network building to conducting research to policy advocacy. Below is a graphic (source here) illustrating what they define as the core competencies for SEL.

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Additionally, they published a meta-analysis of research titled, “The Impact of Enhancing Students’ Social and Emotional Learning” (download it here). The meta-analysis concluded:

The reviews indicate that SEL programs:

  • Are effective in both school and after-school settings and for students with and without behavioral and emotional problems.
  • Are effective for racially and ethnically diverse students from urban, rural, and suburban settings across the K-12 grade range.
  • Improve students’ social-emotional skills, attitudes about self and others, connection to school, and positive social behavior; and reduce conduct problems and emotional distress.
  • Improve students’ achievement test scores by 11 percentile points.

It all demonstrates that we must think more holistically about students, learning, and the ecology of education. Simply working to improve math and reading test achievement falls far short of ensuring that our students are healthy, safe, engaged, challenged, and supported in the ways that matter most to their long term personal “achievement.”

Special thanks to Jackie Gerstein, whose post “Video Games and Social Emotional Learning” first pointed us to this chart.

This is a part of an ongoing series exploring components of QED’s Transformational Learning Model. This piece relates to Academic Access, Curriculum Frame, Curriculum Goals, and Student Support.

Photo Credit: Today is a good day via Compfight cc

From “Deficits” to “Neurodiversity” — The Time Is Now

Armstrong_Neurodiversity_mech.inddIn a recent commentary piece at Education Week, author, speaker and educator Dr. Thomas Armstrong argues for tipping from a deficit model to a more inclusive (and enlightened) model that values students’ strengths, regardless of their learning profiles. He writes,

I believe it’s time for a paradigm shift in the field of special education. Fortunately, a new concept has emerged on the horizon that promises to establish a more positive foundation upon which to build new strength-based assessments, programs, curricula, and environments for these kids.

The concept is neurodiversity. The term, which was coined by Australian autism-activist Judy Singer and American journalist Harvey Blume in the late 1990s, suggests that what we’ve called in the past “disabilities” ought to be described instead as “differences” or “diversities.” Proponents of neurodiversity encourage us to apply the same attitudes that we have about biodiversity and cultural diversity to an understanding of how different brains are wired.

It would be absurd to say that a calla lily has “petal-deficit disorder,” or that a person from Holland suffers from “altitude-deprivation syndrome.” The fact is, we appreciate the flower for its intrinsic beauty and value citizens of the Netherlands for their unique landscape. So, too, we should celebrate the differences in students who have been labeled “learning disabled,” “autistic,” “ADD/ADHD,” “intellectually disabled,” “emotionally and behaviorally disordered,” or who have been given other neurologically based diagnoses. We ought to appreciate these kids for who they really are and not dwell upon who they have failed to become.

We could not agree with him more. It is why we have built our organization around 5 principles:

  1. Inspire optimism in the face of learning challenges
  2. Discover and treasure learning profiles
  3. Eliminate humiliation, blaming, and labeling of students
  4. Leverage strengths and affinities
  5. Empower students to find success

To read his full and compelling article, click here. For more about our work, click here.

Image: Da Capo Press 

How the Brain Retains (Infographic)

The folks over at mindflash developed this infographic about how and where the brain stores it’s information. While much of the brain’s information storage system remains a mystery, it is important to remember (see what we did there?) that memory is varied, nuanced, and often associative. Working memory is different than short or long term memory and what students take away from an experience or recall about it later, cannot be dictated by anyone else. They construct knowledge and memory themselves. It is why, as educators, we must be conscientious of providing environments and experiences that are meaningful, relevant, and engaging to them.

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Minds at Work, Unpacked

An All Kinds of Mind’s School of Distinction, St. Andrew’s Episcopal in Potomac, Maryland discovered their top to bottom attention to research-based practices necessitated founding an institution dedicated to exploring the meeting ground between neuroscience research and educational practices. Their Center for Transformational Teaching and Learning was created with four key questions in mind:

1. What is learning?

2.Where does learning happen?

3. How do all students best learn?

4. What research in educational neuroscience can help inform and measure exceptional teaching and learning?

As a center, their mission states:

The CTTL’s long-term vision is to be a thought-leader in the neuro-science of teaching and learning and to share what we know and learn with public and private schools nationwide.

Its recent publication, Think Differently and Deeply, explores the application of emerging trends in the science of learning with their efforts to push each and every student to their fullest potential. While the publication unpacks the theories in the context of their school, readers will find transferable ideas for better meeting the needs of all students. Topics include neuroscience in education, design thinking, play, centrality of arts, and foreign language and the mind, among others.

Visit their site, explore their resources, and consider working with them as to complement and inform your school’s professional development plans.

You can also download the pdf here

What’s Up with Kate? (Part 2)

Last week we told you about Kate, a 6th grade student with some learning challenges.  Kate is earning good grades, but she really has to work hard for everything – seemingly much harder than her peers.  She struggles to retain new vocabulary words, recall information from reading passages, follow multi-step directions, and master math facts.

So what’s really going on with Kate?  We got some terrific responses to last week’s post, with thoughtful analyses of Kate’s challenges as well as creative strategies for using her strengths and affinities to help her.  Here’s what we think:

The Good News

Kate has strengths in expressive language and writing.  She is also very creative, a function of higher order cognition.  She enjoys graphic design and computers, indicators that spatial ordering could be a strength for her.  She also loves animals, especially cats.  We’d want to continue to encourage her in these areas, and take advantage of these strengths and affinities when coming up with strategies to help Kate. (See the comments on last week’s blog for some great ideas on how to do this!)

Getting at the Root of the Problem

As many of our readers suggested in their comments, memory seems to be an underlying theme behind Kate’s learning issues. While retrieving information from long-term memory is okay, getting the information into long-term memory is a challenge that is showing up when she studies new spelling and vocabulary words and tries to master her math facts. Summarizing what she reads also relies on functions of memory, including active working memory. Weak active working memory could also be making it difficult for Kate to follow multi-step directions. 

Talking to Kate

The first step we’d take is to discuss with her the reasons behind some of her difficulties in reading and the resulting academic struggles. It’s important to highlight Kate’s strengths as well as the areas in need of improvement.  As one of last week’s readers alluded to, we’d also want to foster her confidence that she can succeed in these areas.

We’d talk with Kate about the different types of memory, and tell her that she has difficulty “getting things into” her memory. We might make this idea more concrete by using an analogy such as putting clothes in a dresser or papers in a file so she can easily find them later.  We’d share with her that subjects like social studies and science have a lot of factual information and more memory demands than other subjects, which is why she struggles more in these areas.

Working toward Success

As we mentioned earlier, we’d want to capitalize on her strengths and interests when thinking about strategies to use with Kate.  Here’s a few examples:

  • Support Kate’s interest in animals by having her read about a species or particular animal and practice summarization skills and memory strategies by role-playing as a zoologist. 
  • In addition to supporting Kate’s art activities, give her the opportunity to work with experts in set-design and construction, so that she will see multi-step processes and instructions at work.

Other strategies you might try with Kate include …

  • Help with reading – Provide her with some basic accommodations in reading assignments to help her experience some success in class and to improve her learning of the content. For example, give her outlines – possibly partially-completed – from text book chapters to guide her to important information.  As one reader mentioned, graphic organizers, charts, and drawings might also work well for Kate.  Have her save these “tools” to study for tests.  These tools might vary based on the subject.  For example, in history, she may benefit from making timelines or creating cause-effect flow charts.  In math, she may benefit from making reference cards with the technical vocabulary words of an upcoming lesson.  One reader also recommended using visuals to help Kate remember math facts (e.g. the program “Nine Lines”).
  • Help with tests – Give Kate specific guidance in what is expected of her on tests and assignments. For example, instead of just asking Kate about the author’s intent in a story, provide instruction to her: “The next few questions will ask you about the author’s intentions in writing the story. Use what we learned about the author’s feelings about the subject to help you understand her intentions. Use facts in the story to back up your conclusions.”
  • Help with vocabulary – Limit the number of new vocabulary words she’s asked to learn at one time. Too many vocab words can be overwhelming for her, especially if other rules are introduced at the same time. For example, the word endings for action, suspicion, and suspension all sound the same, but are spelled differently. Some students find it easier to practice these rules one at a time.  One of last week’s readers also suggested having Kate “visualize” her vocab words.

See the comments on last week’s blog entry for more great strategies for working with kids like Kate.  What strategies would you use?  What are some other ways we could leverage her strengths and affinities?  If you haven’t done so already, share your ideas with us by leaving a comment below!

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