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

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.

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.

Photo Credit: TheNickster via Compfight cc

Fast vs. Slow Thinking — Brain Tricks

Below is a clever and enjoyable video from AsapScience, about how the brain works in relation to systems the author dubs, “Fast Thinking” and “Slow Thinking.” You might think about these as instinctive vs. conscious thought.

As you watch the video and engage in the exercises, you will probably see implications for teaching and learning. We wonder, how often we do plan lessons assuming we’ll engage students’ “slow thinking” brain, but inadvertently engage the “fast thinking” brain? Or when might we fail to consider how one activity may in fact “blind” students to subtle variables that are in fact very important?

Either way, you can learn more about these systems in the book, “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman.

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.

brain-infogr

Humor — It’s all in your head

Humor is generally regarded as an important and valuable tool for sustaining engagement with students (in moderation, of course). But what is really going on in the brain when it comes to humor?

In an article in New Scientist magazine, Daniel Elkan writes,

Yet humour is a far more complex process than primeval pleasures like sex or food. In addition to the two core processes of getting the joke and feeling good about it, jokes also activate regions of the frontal and cingulate cortex, which are linked with association formation, learning and decision-making. The team (led by Dean Mobbs of Stanford) also found heightened activity in the anterior cingulate cortex and the frontoinsular cortex – regions that are only present in humans and, in a less developed form, great apes. Indeed, the fact that these regions are involved suggests that humour is an advanced ability which may have only evolved in early humans, says Watson, who conducted the research.

He goes on to write,

More than anything, the recent research confirms the fact that humour, an oft-neglected trait when considering our cognitive skills, requires a tremendous amount of brain power. “Getting a joke would seem – on the surface – to be a very trivial, intuitive process. But brain imaging is showing us that there is more going on than we might think,” says (Andrea) Samson (of the University of Fribourg in Switzerland).

Below is the accompanying graphic for that article, showing the parts of the brain activated when under the influence of humor:

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Language Learning and the Developing Mind

Here is a short video from Southern California Public Radio station KPCC on the science behind bilingual learning. The site, Bilingual Learning, explores “the science, options, and dilemmas of dual language education.”

Much appreciation to Marcela Summerville (@PreKlanguages) of Spanish Workshop for Children for pointing this out to us.

Neurology of Gaming, Infographic

As with most things, “gaming” (or being engaged in video games) has both positives and negatives when it comes to developing minds. Too much gaming, and the positive effects are overshadowed by the negative.

Yet, the right balance can add another avenue for pursuing educational goals and achievement. As a result, more and more programs are using gaming to reach and teach students in ways they never could before. Therapy programs, schools, and even research scientists have all benefitted from the strategic use of games to increase successes.

Below is an infographic from Online Universities looking at the brain on games. What do you think? How have you used games in your work with students? What might we need to be cautious of in incorporating gaming in our learning environments? Share your thoughts and any resources you find valuable in the comments.

effect-video-games-brain-infographic

Image: Online University