Transforming Batch and Queue

4782496500_273a4c7d29_bKim Carter, the Executive Director of our parent organization, Q.E.D. Foundation, was recently interviewed by the the good folks over at KQED’s Mindshift blog for a piece on competency-based learning.

As a leading expert in the field, she had a number of insights into both the benefits of competency-based learning and critiques of the traditional “batch and queue” model.  Among the many valuable ideas embedded in the the article, we found one of particular importance for working with a neuro-diverse student body. The author, Katrina Schwartz, writes,

If a student gets 50 percent in a class in a traditional school, she fails and has to repeat the course or grade level until she scores higher, even if the score means that she understood half the material. Forcing her to repeat everything is inefficient and puts the student at a disadvantage for the rest of her academic career. In competency-based classrooms, students relearn and demonstrate competencies in only the areas that challenge them before moving forward.

“‘Batch and queue’ is horribly inefficient and destroys kids’ concept of self,” Carter said. “It’s like manufacturing, where you put everything through the same system and compare it to standards at the end. If it doesn’t match, put it through again.”

How often do students experience failure not as a stepping stone toward success, but as a road block to progress? Far too often, in our opinion. Too many students find themselves branded and labeled by a system not designed for unique strengths, affinities, and, ultimately, individuals. This lack of personalization, by proxy, communicates to the students that they are of value when they fit into the system, and not necessarily when they do not.

A competency-based model ensures that students are recognized for their growth while encouraging their involvement, contributions, and unique insights. It gives students a platform for employing their strengths toward achieving their goals / the standards.

This sort of empowerment transcends the walls of the school building and prepares the students for achieving success in life beyond graduation.

Photo Credit: Yvonne Thompson via Compfight cc
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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.

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Todd Rose portrait: HGSE
Square Peg Book Image: Hyperion

One Story About Embracing Diversity and Empowering Students

In this powerful and inspiring TEDxManhattan talk, teacher Stephen Ritz shares a program he started with his students called Green Bronx Machine. More important than the program itself, though, is how the experiences have transformed and empowered his students — their present and their future.

Jackie Gerstein describes his work in her post “Learners as Entrepreneurs,”

Stephen Ritz’s Bronx classroom features the first indoor edible wall in NYC DOE which routinely generates enough produce to feed 450 students healthy meals and trains the youngest nationally certified workforce in America. His students, traveling from Boston to Rockefeller Center to the Hamptons, earn living wage en route to graduation.

One of the things that makes his talk so incredible, besides the breakneck pace of it and his constant stream of witticisms, is how the program embraces the diversity — of mind, body, class, and culture — of his students. The student variation becomes a proof point for the validity and integrity of the program. Take a look and see for yourself.

What other projects / programs do you know of that support diverse student profiles and bring about good in a community? Share in the comments.

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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