Brief Review of L. Todd Rose’s “Square Peg”

“Behavior isn’t something someone ‘has.’ Rather, it emerges from the interaction of a person’s biology, past experiences, and immediate context.”

L. Todd Rose, from his book, Square Peg

6301560117_fa8f4c16b9_bFor students with learning differences schools can be (and often are) incredibly trying places. Imagine being a kid who wants to do well — motivated, eager to please, and enjoys interacting with other students — but struggles with attention and working memory. Rather than reep the joys of learning, the student finds herself labeled, removed from her classmates and made to do the things she struggles with for a significant portion of the day. Other subjects, like PE, Art, the Humanities, are sidelined, even though they may be areas of strength for her. Her resulting behavioral expression of the dissonance between her and her learning environment is seen as misbehavior and disciplinary actions follow.

At the end of a day, month, year, or decade, what has she concluded about her “smarts” or her potential as a student? More importantly, what is her assessment of her value as a human? What does she see when she looks at herself through the lens of a school experience that focused, almost solely, on her deficits?

w_2115_smallerL. Todd Rose, co-founder and president of Project Variability, offers a glimpse of a similar experience in his part-memoir part-neuro-education book, Square Peg. His story goes something like this:

  • Classic case of boy with ADHD
  • Struggles in school — discipline, academics, friends
  • Suspended, fails, becomes wholly disenfranchised
  • Drops out
  • Works minimum wage job to support wife and baby
  • Ends up on the faculty at Harvard (after a lot of hard work)

In the telling of this incredible journey, he shares insights from his experiences and from research into the needs, challenges, and value of the “Square Pegs” in our lives. The anecdotally academic weaving together of personal tales and studies from the field of neuro-education (he teaches Educational Neuroscience at Harvard Graduate School of Education) creates numerous access points for a compelling narrative arc as well as enlightening examples of applied theory. In short, it is a book that is hard to put down.

squarepeg-8-8-VER-8While he maintains a child’s sense of wonder and fascination about his own turnaround throughout the book, he also plays the role of scholar, unpacking the theories and ideas that became leverage points for capitalizing on his strengths and accommodating for his challenges. In the prologue he suggests the field of complex systems offers the best possible explanation for his story, and by proxy, the story of many others. He describes his application of complex systems as such:

To put it simply, the study of complex systems looks at how different parts of a system influence each other collectively to produce various outcomes. Nowadays, scientists have been holding up this lens to a range of traditional disciplines, from physics to biology–and, most recently, in centers like the one in which I work: Harvard’s Mind, Brain, and Education program–to the study of human learning. As this effort matures, it is offering a radically new and useful way for parents and teachers to understand the often bewildering behavior of children in their charge.

Throughout the book he uses complex systems and neuroscience to flesh out four ideas to help us be “much more understanding and effective parent(s) and teacher(s)” for the square pegs in our lives. But in reality, the ideas apply to myriad human systems. They are:

  1. Variability is the rule: As humans, our ways of perceiving the world and reacting to what we perceive are much more diverse and dynamic than we might ever have imagined.
  2. Emotions are serious stuff: Contrary to what we’ve long believed, modern neuroscience has shown that there is no such thing as purely rational thought or behavior. Parents and teachers need to learn to tune in to children’s emotional states to help them make the most of their education.
  3. Context is key: People often behave in dramatically different ways, depending on the circumstances. Among other things, this suggests that we unfairly prejudice children by labeling them with a disorder, when they’d be perfectly fine in a different environment.
  4. Feedback loops determine long-term success or failure: Remember those flapping butterfly wings, and keep in mind that small changes in your child’s life today can make an enormous difference tomorrow.

Taken together, these four ideas create a mosaic of factors playing into students’ lives, influencing and affecting their choices, decisions, and behavioral outcomes. They demonstrate that the only silver bullet is in not accepting there there is a silver bullet. No juggernaut exists for all people in all situations. Rather, we must be champions of the individual, unwavering advocates for the well being of each child, and Loraxes who speak for the square pegs.

We highly recommend this book to parents, educators, and clinicians working with square, triangular, and / or round pegs. Not only will you glimpse what the world may look like through their eyes, you will learn a bit about yourself, the science of learning, and, ultimately, the anecdotal and neurological value of caring.

Photo Credit: Mario Inoportuno via Compfight cc
Todd Rose portrait: HGSE
Square Peg Book Image: Hyperion
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Resources for Improving Your Long Term Memory

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The following is a guest post by Dr. Craig Pohlman, Director of Mind Matters at Southeast Psych. You can view the original post here.

These days, it seems like there are no limits to what our genius gadgets (like computers, iPhones, tablets, calculators, etc.) can do.  So, is human memory even as important anymore?  The short answer to this is yes.

Even with all of the tools to which we have access, we still need our own memory for a variety of academic and other tasks.  Here’s a quick overview of the components of memory:

  • Short term memory holds a small amount of incoming information for a limited period.
  • Active working memory holds information in your mind while working with it at the same time, such as steps in a process.
  • Long term memory stores and retrieves information over a long period.

Both active working memory and long term memory are used extensively in academic activities, including reading decoding, reading comprehension, spelling, written expression, math operations, and math reasoning.  If you struggle with memory, there are plenty of strategies you can use to improve and to make these academic activities a little more manageable.

Last week, we presented tips for improving long term memory and before that, we listed ideas for boosting active working memory.  Here is a list of resources you can use to get more information about improving long term memory:

  1. Sum Dog – This website, www.sumdog.com, offers free games to make math fact practice fun.
  2. Quizlet – This website, www.quizlet.com, offers tools to help you study anything.  You can study words using flashcards, play games to learn and practice important course material, and test yourself to see if you are ready for success.
  3. “Thirty Days Has September: Cool Ways to Remember Stuff” – This book by Chris Stevens provides tips for memorizing across the curriculum.  Specifically, this book is helpful for younger students.
  4. “Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge: The Book of Mnemonic Devices” – This book by Rod L. Evans presents tips for memorizing across topics and is appropriate for all ages.
  5. Math Fact Grid – Web resources, such as www.mathisfun.com, offer free printable math fact grids (for addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division).  These can be used to practice and reference important math facts.

Exercising your memory (just like you would exercise your muscles) will help to make it stronger over time.  Visit www.sepmindmatters.com for more information.

Dr. Craig Pohlman is the Director of Mind Matters at Southeast Psych and the author of “How Can My Kid Succeed in School?”  Stay connected: Mind Matters Facebook | @MindMatters_SEP

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15 Things About the (Human) Brain

As we get excited for Brain Awareness Week next week, we thought it might be fun to take a quick look at our amazing brain.

Below is an info-graphic from onlineschools with 15 facts you may or may not have known. Number 9 is a great reminder for parents, educators, and health conscious people — we think what we eat.

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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.

Words that Ignite Learning

Below is a guest post by Kevin Washburn, Ed.D., author of “Architecture of Learning” and Executive Director of Clerestory Learning. His most recent recording at a Learning and Brain Conference can be found here

3184815166_1b775d1817It seems like a ridiculous question: Can a teacher’s words influence student learning?  Of course, we’d respond, how well a teacher explains new ideas naturally influences student learning.

But what about the words that are less planned, the comments teachers make in response to students’ ideas, efforts, and results? Can they make much of a difference?

Research suggests they can and do, probably to degrees we’d be surprised to discover.

Words reinforce beliefs, and beliefs, especially those about intelligence, influence learning. Students can hold or lean toward either believing intelligence is something you’re born with (or without), or intelligence is something you gain through effort. A student who believes you’re born smart—or not—is less likely to put forth effort to learn. This student seeks to convince those around him that he is one of the chosen who were given the gift of smart at birth. Either that, or the student may believe he is not among the chosen so effort is futile. The same belief interpreted differently yields the same result: a student who is unlikely to work to learn when learning does not come instantly or easily.

This mostly erroneous belief can be slippery. A student may believe it is true in one discipline but not another. For example, the same student can believe that you are/aren’t born smart in mathematics, but that you get better at reading through effort.

Where do these beliefs originate? Many times in the home. We’ve probably all heard a student say something like, “My dad said that I’m probably not good at math because when he was my age, he wasn’t good at math either.” The father’s words conveyed, confirmed, and/or introduced the wrong belief. When adopted by the child, the erroneous belief becomes an obstacle to learning.

However, communicating the wrong idea about intelligence is not usually so overt. In fact, it can show up in a statement intended to encourage learning: “Wow, Sam, you’re really good at math.” Such a statement emphasizes a belief that intelligence is something you are/aren’t born with because it suggests innate ability rather than drawing attention to the effort-result relationship. “Wow, Sam, you worked hard on this and look at these results!” is better because it reinforces the idea that we get smart through effort.

Just how much of a difference can this make?

In one study, some teachers used comments that suggested intelligence as inherited (“You’re smart at this!”) while others phrased comments that emphasized effort-result relationships (“You worked hard and look at the results!” or “We didn’t work very hard at this and the results show it. How can we make this better?”)

The results reveal the power of words that suggest both the right and the wrong beliefs. Students praised for innate ability put forth less effort, avoided challenge and feedback, and lost 20% of their achievement between pre- and post-testing. Not only did they not learn much, they seemed to lose ⅕ of what they knew prior to instruction.

In contrast, the students praised for their efforts sought challenge, desired feedback, and had a 30% gain between pre- and post-testing. Think about that—a 50% difference existed between the two groups at the study’s conclusion, and the defining factor was the teacher’s words.1

Neurobiology plays a role in this effect. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter that influences emotion, provides a sense of pleasure when what we anticipate happening matches reality, but when our expectations are not met—when our actions do not produce the desired result—we feel disappointment. Jonah Lehrer explains, “The problem with praising kids for their innate intelligence—the ‘smart’ compliment—is that it misrepresents the neural reality of education. It encourages kids to avoid the most useful kind of learning activities, which is learning from mistakes. Unless you experience the unpleasant symptoms of being wrong, your brain will never revise its models.”2

Through disappointment, we gain an opportunity to literally rewire neuronal connections, to learn, but only if we attend to our mistake. The student who believes intelligence is genetic loses this opportunity because he generally refuses to attend to his mistakes.

Our words can influence the belief students hold about intelligence, and that belief influences the effort students apply to learning. We need to pause and think, “How can I phrase this feedback so that it emphasizes an effort-result relationship?” Our students may have to wait a moment for our comments, but what they receive may actually make them better learners.

A wise writer once warned that words can be so destructive they burn down entire forests. But fire can also ignite rockets.

Let’s intentionally use our words to ignite learning.

References

  1. Mangels, J. A., Motivating Minds: How Student Beliefs Impact Learning and Academic Achievement. Presented at Learning and the Brain: Using Brain Research to Enhance Cognitive Abilities and Achievement (Nov. 2007).
  2. Lehrer, J., How We Decide (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2009), 53-54.

This post was originally published at Ecology of Education

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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.

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The Science of Love

One last video take on the biology, chemistry, and neurology behind love. This one is by the creative folks over at AsapScience, who also produced the clever “Brain Tricks” video.

We promise to move on tomorrow, after Valentine’s Day. Until then, share this with a loved one.