Oh, The Places You’ll Find Yourself — Spatially Speaking

Below is a TED Talk by Neil Burgess, a neuroscientist at the University College in London, who researches, as described on the TED website, “how patterns of electrical activity in brain cells guide us through space.”

Supplemental to the grid cells Dr. Burgess discusses are additional neurological systems that give us a sense of our surroundings. Dan Peterson, who writes a fascinating blog (Sports are 80 Percent Mentalabout the body-mind connection in sports, recently posted “Spatial Awareness on the Football Field” (where we found the above TED Talk — Thanks, Dan!) in which he writes,

Jeffrey Taube, a professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Dartmouth, has been studying our sense of direction and location. “Knowing what direction you are facing, where you are, and how to navigate are really fundamental to your survival,” said Taube.

In his research, he has found there are head direction cells, located in the thalamus, that act as a compass needle tracking the direction our head is currently facing.  At the same time, in the hippocampus, place cells determine and track our location relative to landmarks in the environment, say the football field sideline or the end zone.  These two sets of cells communicate with each other to guide our movement.

“They put that information together to give you an overall sense of ‘here,’ location wise and direction wise,” Taube explained. “That is the first ingredient for being able to ask the question, ‘How am I going to get to point B if I am at point A?’ It is the starting point on the cognitive map.”

It reminds us once again that strengths and affinities can be left at the door of our schools and classrooms if we don’t incorporate movement, action, and an intentional use of our bodies in our lessons and activities. Research continues to indicate that taking advantage of the neurological links between spatial ordering, graphomotor functioning, attention, and memory can help nurture achievement among a broader diversity of learners than the traditional sit-n-git approach (which leaves too many students itching for something more engaging).

7 C’s of Resilience

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A recent piece at KQED’s MindShift blog titled, “How Free Play Can Define Kids’ Success,” explores some of the ideas from Kenneth Ginsburg book Building Resilience in Children and Teens. It is part of a growing trend of research and theories related to student efficacy, tenacity, and persistence.

These are important ideas for anyone working with students and kids in today’s schools. With so much focus on test scores within a limited scope of “basic subjects” we sometimes lose sight of the larger goals in “schooling” students: We want them ALL to be successful in whatever they choose to do.

In looking to reach all students, regardless of their learner profile, we might do well to consider how we might foster resilience in our students. Below are Ginsburg’s “7 C’s of Resilience” which should lie at the foundation of our design and delivery of learning experience for meeting the needs of all students.

7 C’s of Resilience

1) COMPETENCE: Young people need to be recognized when they’re doing something right and to be given opportunities to develop specific skills.

2) CONFIDENCE: Confidence comes from building real skills that parents and educators can teach and nurture. Confidence can be easily undermined, but also bolstered by tasks that push learners without making the goal feel unachievable.

3) CONNECTION: Being part of a community helps kids know they aren’t alone if they struggle and that they can develop creative solutions to problems.

4) CHARACTER. Kids need an understanding of right and what wrong and the capacity to follow a moral compass. That will allow them see that they cannot be put down.

5) CONTRIBUTION: The experience of offering their own service makes it easier for young people to ask for help when they need it. Once kids understand how good it can feel to give to others, it becomes easier to ask for that same support when it’s needed. And being willing to ask for help is a big part of being resilient.

6) COPING: Kids need to learn mechanisms to manage their stress by learning methods to both engage and disengage at times. Some strategies for doing this include breaking down seemingly insurmountable problems into smaller, achievable pieces, avoiding things that trigger extreme anxiety, and just letting some things go. After all, resilience is about conserving energy to fit the long game and kids need to know realistically what they can affect and what should be let go.

7) CONTROL: In order to truly be resilient a child need to believe that she has control over her world. Feeling secure helps engender control, which is why kids test limits.

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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

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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Addressing Sensory Needs in the Classroom

SensesThe following guest post is by Dr. Penny Cuninggim, Founder and Associate Director at New England Adolescent Research Institute (NEARI) and Director of the Brain-based Learning and Resource Center. You can sign up for NEARI’s “Smoothies for the Brain” Newsletter here

Imagine your child in a world where something as basic and reliable as the sound of the school bell or another person’s touch is perceived as something foreign or threatening. Imagine that when others climb and happily slip down the slide, your child cringes, feeling dizzy at the top of the ladder, and has to back down the rungs in shame. Or imagine that when other children are eagerly examining a dead frog your child is crumpling to the floor woozy from the smell. If this describes your child, then learning is not a fresh and rewarding experience. Instead, it is fraught with landmines of all kinds.

If one’s senses aren’t working properly, learning is no fun, and school is no longer a safe and secure place to be. 

LEARNING AND BEHAVIORAL PROBLEMS

Many students with behavioral and learning problems in school are unable to focus because of sounds, smells, sights, tastes, or tactile sensations that take away their attention and increase negative emotions. In addition to the traditional five senses, a student might also have trouble sensing where his or her head and body are in space (the vestibular sense), or where and how various joints and muscles of the body are operating (the joint/muscle sense). These seven “senses” need to be working together in an integrated way in order for students to learn easily.

When these senses are not working together, one or more of the following behaviors are clues that a teacher might be able to observe:

  • Hypersensitivity to noises, touch or lights
  • Distractibility, hyperactivity, or irritability
  • Aggression, excessive talking, damage school supplies
  • Spaciness, withdrawal, anxiety
  • Poor speech development, learning disabilities, social problems
  • The inability to calm down, poor muscle tone, poor coordination

These dysfunctional behaviors are the result of a student’s inability to modulate, discriminate and organize sensations to adapt to classroom demands. In effect, these children cannot integrate incoming sensory information to complete learning tasks successfully. One student might be distracted from his math work by noises on the playground outside the classroom window, the teacher’s perfume, or the clock ticking at the front of the room. Another student might get stuck on a written assignment because of the intermittent giggling between two girls seated behind him or the collar of his new shirt scratching his neck. And still another student might be unable to either answer a question the teacher asks because she is uncomfortable standing to recite or role-play an appropriate social interaction with another student.

For most students, sensory issues can be accommodated by teachers as part of a classroom learning process. In a few cases, students may also benefit from additional work with an occupational therapist. 

CLASSROOM INTERVENTION

The goal of using special sensory supports in the classroom is to a relaxed alert state in the student. Teachers and parents can use many teaching strategies and sensory tools to help children compensate for their sensory dysfunction.

Examples of strategies include:

  • Reducing outdoor noises
  • Having fewer bright visual materials posted on the walls
  • Providing order for a messy art activity
  • Refraining from talking in a high pitched tone or wearing perfume or bright, floral clothing

Some tools include:

  • Camp cushions to sit on
  • Rubber balls and other fidget tools to fiddle with while learning
  • Pressure blankets to wrap around itchy limbs
  • Whisper phones to help students hear their own voice

These teaching techniques and tools may feel like luxuries in a high stakes testing environment. Nothing could be further from the truth. For these students, time on learning is critically enhanced through the use of specific sensory techniques that address their individual issues. It is a win-win strategy.

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Anxiety and the Mind

Below is an image from a Time Magazine article on the “Anatomy of Anxiety” from a few years ago. While the article is a bit dated, the relevance remains, especially for educators.

Students need to feel relaxed, safe, and welcome in order to learn effectively. If we focus only on content and raise the stakes of assessments, we increase some students’ anxiety and make it more difficult for them to learn. A reminder that our job in working with students begins, and is sustained, through relationship building and trust.

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Image: Joel Ertola via Time 

 

Topography of Diversity

Below is a pretty cool topographical map of a brain from UNIT SEVEN. While it is not to be taken as scientifically accurate, it does serve as a fantastic metaphor for thinking about students’ minds.

We know that while the major structures of the brain are largely the same from one cranium to the next, the specific architecture of individual minds varies person to person based on experience. The splendor of minds and their (sometimes confounding) behavioral manifestations, as with ecosystems such as forests, deserts, and wetlands, lies in their variation, not their standardization.

The diverse topography of strengths, affinities and challenges evident in each student must be celebrated, embraced, and leveraged to strengthen and enrich our schools, communities, and, most importantly, their learning experiences. In honoring and demystifying their differences, we empower them to discover new vistas, hidden glades, and cascading rivers. Such metacognition helps them “draw” a map of their brain that will serve them as they navigate far beyond the walls of the classroom.

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