The Myth of Average

Todd Rose’s brilliant talk at TEDxSonoma expands on a startlingly simple point:

When you design for the average, you design for no-one. He suggests instead we to need design for the extremes.

For anyone who has worked with students, it is an intuitive enough concept, in theory. Yet in application, it has proven challenging, especially in a climate fixated on norm reference test scores, where average is king (or queen). How do we design and deliver for the wide variability of students’ learning profiles when there is so much pressure to get all students to the same level in all subjects?  The default has become education policies that claim to race to the top, but instead stagger for the middle, effectively limiting the extremes.

As Rose so eloquently demonstrates with a story from military history, in trying to target the average, we invariably isolate everyone.

What makes him an expert in this topic? He was a high school dropout with a 0.9 GPA who is now an author of “Square Peg” and a professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education.

He says,

I’ve been to the very bottom of our educational system. I’ve been to the very top. I’m here to tell you that we are wasting so much talent at every single level. And the thing is, because for every single person like me, there are millions who worked as hard, who had the ability, but who were unable to overcome the drag of a educational environment designed on average. And their talent is forever lost to us.

Watch his talk above for more. We guarantee you will be even more inspired to cultivate that which makes your students unique, wonderful, and valuable to the well being of our communities.

11 Characteristic of Meaningful Work (and Learning)

Meaning_People_700x300In a recent repost of Shawn Murphy’s “11 Characteristics of Meaningful Work,” the editors at QED’s blog noted that,

While this piece by Shawn Murphy is related to business practices and targeted to managers and business leaders, the parallels to education and student learning are striking. Teachers, curricula developers, and education leaders can find plenty herein to ponder, reflect on, and apply in practice.

We couldn’t agree more. Switch a few key words (for example: “work” to “learning experiences,” “employees” to students,” and  “the organization” to “school.”) and, voila!, some great advice for educators and education leaders.

Below are the 11 characteristics of meaningful work in title only. To read the explanations for each, you can visit Shawn’s original post here, or QED’s repost here

1. Basic needs are met

2. Strengths are leveraged

3. Pull personal satisfaction from work

4. Being in on things

5. Treated with respect by peers and managers

6. See how one’s work fits into the bigger picture

7. Personal sense of independence and interdependence

8. Employees believe they are valued by the organization, by management

9. Opportunities to know self

10. Promotion of other’s satisfaction

11. Recognized — give recognition for good work

Image: Shawn Murphy

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

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

Photo Credit: DailyPic via Compfight cc

All Kinds of Minds Website Gets a Makeover!

All Kinds of Minds is pleased to announce that our website has been updated with a brand new structure and design.  We’ve streamlined the navigation and structured the content to provide you with a better user experience.

Your Go-To Source for Learning about Learning

While the site has a new look, you’ll still be able to access the same great resources geared toward helping you understand and apply the science of learning in your schools and classrooms, such as:

If you haven’t visited our new site yet, take a look today!  We hope you like what you see.

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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One School’s Faculty-wide Exploration of Schools for All Kinds of Minds

By Mary Mannix, Guest Blogger

Last spring, administrators at Indian Creek School, an All Kinds of Minds School of Distinction, searched for a book for summer reading for the faculty that would be meaningful and relevant to teachers across all three divisions of the school, from pre-kindergarten to 12th grade.

Why Schools for All Kinds of Minds?

Administrators chose Schools for All Kinds of Minds because they believed it would serve as a platform for the faculty to review, reflect upon, and discuss Indian Creek’s ongoing commitment to using the All Kinds of Minds approach to teaching and learning. Group discussions would also provide the opportunity to learn how teachers in each division are using the All Kinds of Minds philosophy and framework in their instructional practice.

All faculty members were given a copy of the book on the last day of school and asked to prepare for small group discussions to be held at the start of the school year.

Framing the Book Study

Ten faculty members, designated as small-group facilitators, developed guiding questions to frame the group discussions. Throughout the summer, they shared their thoughts and reflections on their own blog. As their discussion unfolded, several questions emerged:

  • How are teachers nurturing and using students’ strengths and affinities to support learners and learning?
  • How has the teacher’s role changed with the All Kinds of Minds approach?
  • How do we help students develop metacognition and insight into how they learn best?

The facilitators agreed that the goal of the discussions would be to determine how reading the book would affect our teaching and our students’ learning this school year.

Faculty “Aha’s”

Over 80 faculty members gathered in small groups on the first day of school. A major “aha” for many was the book’s shift away from a focus on students’ weaknesses and the emphasis on using students’ strengths and affinities to support and leverage learning. Teachers perceived this to be an important change in perspective which would allow a broader implementation of the All Kinds of Minds framework and would ultimately improve the learning experience of all students.

“To build a mind requires that you understand it” was an idea that resonated for many teachers.

Teachers also felt that the book validated the importance of investing time and effort into understanding the unique minds in our classrooms. During discussions, it became obvious that while the details of how teachers achieved this goal differed according to the grade level of the students, teachers shared a belief that getting to know students is the best way to support them. “To build a mind requires that you understand it” was an idea that resonated for many teachers.  

Book Study Takeaways

Reading Schools for All Kinds of Minds as a faculty allowed us to see clearly that the All Kinds of Minds approach is a thread that weaves itself throughout all three divisions of our school. This way of thinking about teaching and learning allows us to realize the goal set forth in our mission statement: “to provide an academically challenging education in a warm, nurturing environment to a group of students with a wide range of talents and skills.”

Discussing Schools for All Kinds of Minds reenergized our teachers, deepened their understanding, and renewed our commitment as an All Kinds of Minds School of Distinction. It provided a meeting ground in which elementary, middle, and upper school teachers could learn from each other and share insights and ideas. For us, it was the right book for building bridges across three divisions.

What’s next at Indian Creek?

The book discussion was so successful that another has been planned for mid year so teachers can share how they are implementing the ideas they took away from the book. We are focusing on “small-wins” – a concept highlighted throughout the book – and sharing our success stories regularly at faculty meetings. Administrators are also giving teachers an opportunity to visit classrooms across divisions to observe the implementation of All Kinds of Minds strategies and practices.

__________

Mary Mannix is the Lower School Learning Specialist and All Kinds of Minds Coordinator at Indian Creek School in Crownsville, Maryland.  She is also a long-time All Kinds of Minds facilitator.

__________

Have any other schools out there engaged in a book study using Schools for All Kinds of Minds?  If so, tell us about it!  What were your faculty’s “aha’s”?  How will you continue to use the book throughout the school year?  Questions for Mary?  Leave a comment … we’d love to hear from you!

Note from All Kinds of Minds:  Did you hear about our free book giveaway?  We’ve already given away several books, and this is the last week of our giveaway!  Here’s how it works: Each week that we feature a blog post related to Schools for All Kinds of Minds, we’ll be giving away a free, signed copy of the book!  To be entered to win this week, you must (1) subscribe to our blog, and (2) share your thoughts about this blog entry by posting a comment.  Remember: Non-subscribers are not eligible to win!  Subscribing is easy: just look for the “Email Subscription” box to the right.  We look forward to hearing from you!

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