Superhuman or Normal Variation?

This fascinating infographic highlights a few seemingly superhuman feats of the mind. While we do not disagree that they are amazing, we can’t help but think, “But, of course. With over 7-billion people on our planet, such variation is expected. Spend any time in a classroom and you will see such brains in development!”

Which leaves us wondering two things:

1. How many more savants (defined as “a learned person, esp. a distinguished scientist”) might we have if we all intentionally cultivated students’ strengths?

2. Where are the profiles of women?!

superhuman

Infographic source: Smarter.org
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The Toll of High Stakes Tests on Non-Traditional Learners

This guest post by Bobbi Snow, co-founder of The Community Public Charter School in Charlottesville, VA, exposes the impact high stakes testing has her school’s neuro-diverse students and the teachers who work with them. It was originally published on Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog

Exam

He was already exhausted and had 58 questions to go. On the second problem of the 8th grade math exam he was stuck for almost 30 minutes.  This is the state standardized test given to all 8th graders in Virginia. Jim is a visual learner and needed to draw the answers for each possible option. Pausing a moment Jim reached into his snack bag and announced “Help me out here Pringles.”  Turning to me he commented, “I hear salt helps the brain.” I smiled.

I was drained watching Jim’s agony, as he thought out every problem and bounced from question to question.  But if I was drained, Jim was miserable.  He wanted to do well.  He stayed at it for five hours. The computer doesn’t fit Jim’s style of learning or showing what he knows. He is a hands-on, multitasking young man who likes to verbalize aloud what he thinks and figure out multiple solutions. He is an outside-the-box big thinker.

Melissa had a similar experience taking her SOL test.  Melissa thinks like an artist and has the kinds of skills we will need in this  century.  She asks questions that connect to other questions and has trouble with information that is separated into decompartmentalized chunks.  She just kept drifting off the test into some other world more interesting to Melissa.  She tried to engage me in pondering some of these bigger interesting questions but I am a seasoned proctor and I gave my Buddha look and reminded her I could not have discussions during the testing.  I brought my sewing in to establish a calm environment and stitched away.  In the middle of the test Melissa said in a panic, “What if I fail this?”  My heart felt touched knowing how scared she was at that moment. She returned to the test muttering, “This is a disaster.”

These are two students who do their work, have good analytical skills, and an intense desire to do well in school.  Their families support them to use their minds well. Teachers did adequate review and they were well prepared for the tests. They both felt like terrible failures. So many of their peers felt the same.

And so did I.  I know as a charter school we are being judged by the outside world to do well on high stakes testing.  The mission of our school is to help students who have been unsuccessful in their previous schools become thinkers and creative problem solvers.  Our goal is to prepare young people for the real world and as a public school we also accept the responsibility of preparing students for their testing lives.

But there are so many consequences that come with this acceptance.  One of our first year teachers reviewed the results of the writing tests and felt devastated by a few of her student’s scores. She felt that she had let them down by not preparing them well enough to pass. She sunk into her own feelings of failure as a teacher and considered shoring up the curriculum to be more aligned to the test.  This was because three perfectly wonderful students who are able thinkers and creative beyond what most adults we know could ever contribute to a conversation much less a class were deemed not worthy of scoring the necessary 400 points to pass the essay test. They were close. But no cigar. Was their prompt they were given too off target for their life experience?  Was it their anxiety that day that kept them from a good sequencing of ideas?  What exactly was their issue?

One test, one day of a test, made this gifted teacher second-guess her whole year of teaching.  How will it affect her next year when she has to make decisions about our arts infused project-based activities?  Will she want to reduce the class to worksheets and drill to review concepts and skills?

I believe in accountability and knowing what works for students to be successful. There are better ways than this one-size-fits-all testing to assess and record what students know.

As educators, are we seen as so limited that we cannot be trusted to create our own rigorous assessment tools and be judged by them?  Let us become the agents of our own work and design how to define mastery and be held accountable to our standards.  We will invest ourselves to figure out the mysteries of what a quality education means and can provide.  Until then we are held hostage to a system that is archaic, harmful for many students and teachers and missing an opportunity to involve local stakeholders in addressing the crisis in education.

For now we will just have to hope that Pringles can help.

Photo Credit: albertogp123 via Compfight cc

Biodiversity and Neurodiversity

poster01 biodiversityToday, April 22, is Earthday — a day to celebrate, appreciate, and advocate for our planet. This holiday seeks to build and sustain an international environmental awareness and ethos that reshapes how we conserve, preserve and manage the resources of our planet. Now celebrated or observed the world over, there is at least growing awareness about the challenges our planet faces at our hands.

Aside from climate change, which will affect everyone the globe over, there are scores of other environmental concerns. One is the rate of plant and animal extinction due to human related activities. Fragmentation, habitat destruction, and human intrusion continue to wreck havoc on both plant and animal communities. One of the key indicators of a healthy environment is the amount a biodiversity within that ecosystem. As a general rule of thumb, the greater the amount of diversity within plant and animal communities the more stable the ecosystem.

It is our belief that the same holds true for neurodiversity. We already know that no two brains are exactly alike (like fingerprints), and that the differences between brains is now understood to be variation, not deviation. Given this, we would do well to embrace and celebrate cognitive variety — seeking to ensure that each and every mind is at its full and unique potential. We would do well ensuring that each person feels that their contributions are valued.

Q.E.D. Foundation’s Theory of Change states,

IF we have cultures of transformational learning where we

  • create competency-based learning pathways and learning opportunities,
  • know each student’s strengths, challenges, interests, and abilities,
  • intetionally design for student agency, coaching and assessing habits of mind and being,
  • cultivate communities of collaboration and partnership both inside and outside of school, and
  • embed these practices in laboratories of democratic practice, 

THEN all students will flourish and achieve to high levels.

And, if we can achieve this, we can only imagine what might be in store for our planet — perhaps we will be one step closer to realizing and actualizing the dream of Earthday. For today, we will not only celebrate our planet, but also the great variety of minds that live on it.

Poster: Pedro Teixeira via DesignBoom (shortlisted in the iida awards 2010)

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

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).

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

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