Brain-informed teaching and learning

The Brain and Language Lab for Neuroimaging at DC’s Gallaudet University .

I get to do a whole variety of things at my work, and some of the most interesting is related to the science of learning – another phrase for brain-informed teaching and learning. Over the past year or so, we’ve visited some of the university sites that’re doing research in this field, such as the Science of Learning Institute at Johns Hopkins. We’re blogging about it, I had the chance to do a SXSWEdu session with researcher David Yeager, and in November we will have a meeting here in DC about it, bringing together researchers, practitioners, and policy makers so that they can share ideas about this multi-faceted subject and come to common understandings and ways of working together. As we have talked with researchers, for example, we have discovered that the translation into practice is not always a focus; Hopkins is a place where they are persevering to make that happen.

So, what’s this all about, this science of learning? In short, it’s applying what we know about the human brain and its development to teaching and the classroom; it’s aligning where students are neuro-developmentally with instruction. Glenn Whitman, who directs the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Potomac, MD, said it rather nicely when I went out there for a visit. I forget the exact quote, but it was something like this: That a teacher has 20 brains in that classroom, not just 20 kids, and it doesn’t make sense for a teacher not to know what’s happening in those brains. Optimal learning can only happen with that understanding.

The Center For Transformative Teaching & Learning at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School.

But a lot of classroom instruction is not very brain-aligned. Here’s one example from Dr. Bruce Perry:

Learning requires attention. And attention is mediated by specific parts of the brain. Yet, neural systems fatigue quickly, actually within minutes…[and] neurons become “less responsive”…Only four to eight minutes of pure factual lecture can be tolerated before the brain seeks other stimuli, either internal (e.g., daydreaming) or external…If the teacher is not providing that novelty, the brain will go elsewhere. Continuous presentation of facts or concepts in isolation or in a nonstop series of anecdotes will all have the same fatiguing effect – and the child will not learn as much nor will she come to anticipate and enjoy learning.

Now, I was certainly guilty of this heaping on when I was teaching, and as we are discovering in our work at the Alliance, there are not many teacher training programs that connect pedagogy to neuro-development. All the more reason for shops like Glenn’s, that works with teachers to transform their practice to be more brain-informed.

I have just scratched the surface; there’s a great deal of information out there for further reading. For example, see Paul Tough’s book Helping Children Succeed; in its beginning he discusses historically underserved children and the impact of their sometimes tumultuous home life on later school success:

Part of the evidence supporting this belief comes from neuroscience and pediatrics, where recent research shows that harsh or unstable environments can create biological changes in the growing brains and bodies of infants and children. Those changes impair the development of an important set of mental capacities that help children regulate their thoughts and feelings, and that impairment makes it difficult later on for them to process information and manage emotions in ways that allow them to succeed at school.

Or get on Twitter, punch in #neuromyth, and stop talking about “left brain” and “right brain” or “learning styles.” Just two examples of many neuromyths that continue to have legs. Or see Benedict Carey’s book How We Learn, in which he praises the research around distraction – that effective studying is not closeting yourself in a room for eight hours straight, grinding through your Psych 101 textbook.

Distraction is one of those things everybody is worried about – certainly every parent, with the iPhones and people jumping on Facebook and so on. And of course if you’re spending your entire time tooling around on Facebook, you’re not studying, so that’s a problem…However, there’s a whole bunch of science looking at problem-solving. In problem-solving, when you get stuck, you’ve run out of ideas, distraction is really your best friend. You need to stand up, let it go – walk around the block, go to the cafe, drink a beer, whatever it is – and that is really your best shot at loosening the gears a little bit and allowing yourself to take a different and more creative approach to the problem.

I know, I know: I feel like I’m at the blackboard again during my third period English class, just filling it with ideas, from me and my students. Too many much, as we say in our house, and certainly not very brain friendly. I am all over the place.

Well, I’ll end with this: We know more and more about how the brain works when it comes to learning. How do we ensure then that teaching and classrooms and schools align with what we are discovering?

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Building culture on Twitter

BFC-ValuesFor the last year or so I’ve been involved with a Twitter spark chat with the hashtag #BFC530. It stands for “Breakfast Club, 5:30 am,” identifying that, yes, we remember our John Hughes’ movies and that, yes, the chat happens at 5:30 am. This year it happens at 5:30 in every time zone – for just 15 minutes – hence the word “spark” – and right now the working term for making every #BFC530 chat in a day is called The Quad. (Thanks for the idea, Eric, although we need to discuss your Man United allegiance.) We have not devised a moniker yet for making all 20 in a week.

Last fall I fell into this chat by accident. I’m usually up before 5:30 am, and poking around on Twitter at that time, I found it. While I’ve dabbled in other K-12-related Twitter-hosted chats – see here for ed hashtags, which may indicate some kind of weekly chat – I never really committed to one; #BFC530 seemed a good one to try: Time-wise, it worked for me, it lasted just 15 minutes, and its topics were an interesting mix of ed-related topics. OK, I’m in.

Here are the other qualities about this chat that I soon discovered: It’s really, really friendly and really, really supportive, just the shot of energy and thoughtfulness and good will that anyone could use at the start of his or her day. (Or the end of the day, since some participants dial in from New Zealand and Australia.) Yes, I have discovered: You can get this sort of stuff from Twitter.

I have often thought that #BFC530 is like the morning meeting routine that many schools employ; kids and staff arrive at school, they gather in a common area, announcements are made, and then there is some ending ritual, such as a song, a chant, or words of encouragement for the day. I love this kind of routine in a school; when done right, it builds that all important culture, reminding community members of qualities of the school, inculcating new members into that community, and sending folks out into the day (and the world) with a purpose, with a mission, all related to the community. A teacher or student enters a school building as an individual; a morning meeting ritual knits those individuals into a community.

#BFC530 is the same way, a band of early risers and coffee drinkers joined together through this digital morning meeting. We don’t sing a song at the end of each quick chat, but there’s always a “Make it a great day!” for every participant, a piling on of positivity that is infectious, that makes me smile. I like to think that its 15 minutes of culture building is just the tip of the iceberg for #BFC530 participants; they take that morning’s chat – its content and its affect – and bring it to all the other ice of their day. At least for me it does that, a community setting a tone and providing guidance for everything after 5:45 am.

Yup, and all on Twitter. Who woulda thunk? 🙂


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Chromebooks and teaching and learning

bookOur school district has delayed the further roll out of a program for Chromebooks at several different grade levels, and on our community listserv, the back and forth about this move (which amounted to a savings of about 0.12% of the overall district budget) has been vigorous and very thoughtful. Here are a few of the comments, this first one from someone with kids at our district who works in a neighboring school district:

[Our county’s schools] took an amazing step this year in not only purchasing hardware but providing training to teachers and implementing software that helped students stay organized and be productive while helping teachers keep track of assignments and give feedback. Bringing about this sort of change in schools in a single school year is truly impressive. Which makes it all the more unfortunate to see this program cut short…

[My] daughter found the use of Chromebooks and Google Apps to be a great tool. They help her stay organized, make it easy to work on assignments between school and home, and give her access to useful resources. Difficult to see next year working as well without those benefits.

Distributing existing Chromebooks into more grade levels and classrooms is not an ideal solution. Technology is used differently when students have access to it every day. It becomes part of the classroom routine, and teachers can regularly plan lessons and activities that incorporate it. Consider how convenient our phones are and how they have become a part of our daily routine. They help us to be more efficient and productive. They allow us to interact and respond faster. Some tasks we simply couldn’t do without our little gadgets. Now imagine if there was one phone on your block and you had to sign up for a specific time to use it. Not as useful, huh?

…One thing I’m sure of: Teachers are the most creative and industrious people I know. We may be upset about a useful program being cut, but I’ve no doubt that with whatever technology is available to them, [these] teachers will be doing their absolute best to help our kids learn.

And here’s what a teacher had to say about this cut:

[My] students benefited from the first phase of the Chromebook rollout. I benefited as least three days a week [my students] used the Chromebooks. They wrote paragraphs and essays and could share them with other students for peer editing. They took quizzes using Google Forms. They studied vocabulary using Quizlet. They conducted research using [various] databases…the Chromebooks bring a new level of engagement to the classroom.

Chromebook use far outweighs taking a class to a computer lab. First of all, trying to schedule lab use is never easy. It was so difficult two years ago that I did not use the computer labs at all.  Also the desktop computers take a while to log into. Chromebooks take less than 20 seconds…By using the Google Classroom application, I could hand out and collect assignments and make comments to give feedback. I almost never made copies this year. Knowing that I can incorporate Chromebook use any time adds another exciting facet to my teaching experience.

Another teacher made this statement:

I couldn’t possibly…put into words how the Chromebooks have changed the way I teach for the better. 75% of my class either is or once was ESOL and 25% are students with IEPs. It has made a world of difference for these students in writing, and the Chromebooks have enhanced all subject areas in some way. I couldn’t possibly list all the ways we’ve used them this year and how students’ learning has increased dramatically as a result.

Nice to hear right from the folks that implement this kind of program and also to hear some of the same themes that I have discussed in this blog: The efficiencies added by this use of technology; the ability to stay organized, for students and teachers; the access to all kinds of important resources; the potential for differentiation; the increased engagement of students. Let’s hope in the future our district gives more credence to these kinds of programs, given the benefits to teachers, students, and parents.

I got the above picture here.

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Middle schoolers and their digital literacy

2015-05-20_0939Last PTA meeting of the school year last night and a vigorous discussion about social media, its use and (particularly) misuse by middle schoolers, and multiple ideas on helping these young people and their parents better understand the issues around any person’s missteps in the digital arena. I was most intrigued by some of the larger, more systemic issues raised: One parent talked about the issue of school culture and just what is “acceptable discourse,” no matter the delivery mechanism. Another parent talked about the power over their peers that social media allows some kids to exert. I left the meeting thinking that it’s not just about Instagram and and the annual cyber-bullying speaker, but it’s about the long-term, it’s about teaching, it’s about a more comprehensive approach with our kids that helps them understand their digital profile and become digitally literate.

I wrote about this issue last September and last night’s meeting also got me thinking about this article from The Atlantic, called Digital Natives, Yet Strangers to the Web, by Alia Wong. In the article Wong highlights Reuben Loewy’s work, particularly his Living Online Curriculum, a “curriculum for the digital age.” As Wong writes,

Loewy’s “revelation wasn’t simply that technology is overhauling America’s classrooms and redefining childhood and adolescence. Rather, he was hit with the epiphany that efforts in schools to embrace these shifts are, by and large, focusing on the wrong objectives: equipping kids with fancy gadgets and then making sure the students use those gadgets appropriately and effectively. Loewy half-jokingly compares the state of digital learning in America’s schools to that of sex ed, which, as one NYU education professor describes it, entails ‘a smattering of information about their reproductive organs and a set of stern warnings about putting them to use.'”

Loewy is developing the Living Online Curriculum for high school students – although that seems too late, given middle schoolers’ immersion into digital realms – and it has a dozen units/modules, such as “Privacy,” “A is for Algorithm,” “Digital Activism” and “Cyberpsychology.” His curriculum’s first unit, called “Identity,” “gives students insight ‘into how their identities may be unconsciously shaped by digital media and online socialization.'” The summary of the unit goes on: “We will examine how individuals craft and express their identities across multiple online and offline contexts and discuss the implications of having different identities, avatars, and facets of ourselves across different networks.”

Now, sure, there seem to be variety of roadblocks to this approach, all of which Wong delineates in her article: Teachers are already being asked to implement all kinds of programs, and here’s yet another; the shifting sands of new digital tools – last night was the first I’d heard of how works – means that this curriculum would need to be constantly updated; and adults will be asked to implement this curriculum, both teachers and, I hope, parents, and we’re always slightly behind the digital curve.

But we need to take the long view on this work, a comprehensive approach, as I said above. The article’s finish: Without “understanding the intricacies and dynamics of the Internet,” Loewy states, “”you’re not taking advantage of everything digital technology offers. Without the knowledge, you’re not able to take advantage of the web and navigate it properly. You can’t be an informed, responsible, and critical member of society if you don’t have the education.” It’s a new kind of civics education, right? And the actions of young people in our digital society are not something that we can sit back and react to; we need to be proactive and intentional and help young people build the right skills and knowledge for it, as we do with reading and writing and mathematics and the other mainstays of school.

I got the above pic via the link for the Atlantic article.

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Students keeping organized with online tools

Google-Docs-Online-Training-Made-Easy1Let me rant once again about teachers using different tools for learning and their impact on kids (such as our own): It is frustrating and, worse, detrimental in their attempts to keep organized. You might remember this post from two years ago, in which I argued that having consistent processes in classes across a school building – such as the way teachers post homework on their whiteboards – just might aid the organizational horror show that is a middle schooler. Well, I’m back at this idea, and this time it’s about the use of different learning online platforms or tools.

Why is it that some teachers (a minority in our school) are using Google Docs and other Google Classroom tools, while others continue to rely on posting Word docs to the online portal that kids log into? Why is that one teacher uses a system completely different from this online portal? Even the way teachers deal with creating and posting docs at the portal can cause issues at home: My son and I tried to download a doc from one teacher and paste it into a Google Doc but could not, since what had been created was not text but an image. Google Docs could not read the image. Heaven help any student trying to use a Chromebook to do his or her work, given teachers’ continued reliance on Microsoft products.

Middle school students are so organizationally challenged that any middle school needs to have a single and consistent approach to its teachers’ use of digital tools. I can no longer buy the “easing in” of certain tools that happens in school buildings, as some teachers get used to new things while others do not even need to bother with them. Whole swaths of disorganized kids suffer as technologies are “eased in.”

I asked some of my peeps to chime in, to make sure I was not a raving lunatic, and here’s what teacher/librarian/media specialist Emily Auerswald had to say:

Middle schoolers have so much going on (and often school is the least of it!) that trying to figure out which teacher is posting what, where, and in which format can be overwhelming. Who wouldn’t be tempted to throw in the towel when you can’t get the attachment to open because you’re on a different platform? Schools: Please pick one plan and stick to it. Remind your teachers that the challenge in the assignment shouldn’t be getting the assignment.

And from Steve Isaacs, a middle school teacher from New Jersey:

In our school we use something somewhat uniform called the homework portal, which is linked from the teacher lesson planning site. So, if a teacher enters his or her homework…in the lesson plan, it automatically shows up in the homework portal. In class, I have seen a variety of approaches. Our students do all get an assignment book which, if they use, should provide a fairly consistent structure. In addition, teachers have their own website (essentially a requirement). I believe most teachers are pretty good about posting resources and such on their site, and so students become accustomed to look there. I’m not sure how consistent it is, and I agree with your point about the organizational challenges.

Thanks, Emily and Steve, for your thoughts. Let’s hope that more and more schools and school systems see that online platform consistency can help kids keep organized – or at least not further impede the organizational challenges that can come at certain grade levels. Let’s not make platform juggling a problem that kids have to solve before they even get to their assignments.

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Fun and games


Last night, before I hit the hay, I played a game on our tablet. Yup. Actually sat down in the sun room and, for about 30 minutes, played World of Goo by 2D Boy, an older game but one I really like. We bought this game a few years ago, for our Wii, and just got it on the tablet, and it worked just fine. Was fun too.

The object in World of Goo is to collect goo balls by building various structures towards a small vacuum pipe, which sucks out the requisite goo balls needed to get to the next level. All structures built are governed by the laws of physics, and different levels have different obstacles that your structures need to get around. Last night, for example, I had to build a bridge across a chasm – see below – and needed to ensure that that the front end of the bridge was not built in a manner to cause the back end to lift off ground and topple. And that’s one of the easier levels.

bridgeOK, so what’s with World of Goo and playing these games? Well, a few months ago, I went to an education technology conference up in Baltimore and heard several teachers talk about their use of games in their classrooms – and, no, they weren’t talking about Oregon Trail. Justin Eames, a tech teacher in Baltimore, shared that he used the narrative exploratory game Gone Home in his classroom, and a quick search of that game led me to the website of Paul Darvasi, a high school English teacher in Toronto who’s using Gone Home as a text in his senior English class.

Gone Home is sure not Oregon Trail. It’s a first person game with no pre-set goal. Katie Greenbriar (which is you, as you play the game) comes home to find her family’s mansion empty and wanders through it on a mission of discovery, looking at household objects, finding notes and other items, creating a path or narrative through this abandoned house. Through a text, as Paul Darvasi would say. In fact, Paul writes in his blog that when he first read a review of Gone Home, he asked himself, “Was this a video game critique or a book review?” Here’s more from Paul’s blog:

The game opens in the mansion’s covered front porch, it’s pitch black outside, and a thunderstorm rages. Katie drops her bags and finds an enigmatic and worrisome note from her younger sister, Sam, pinned to the front door. The note sets up the game’s key conflicts – where are Sam and her parents? What happened to the family while Katie was away? What secrets are harbored in the family’s new home? Will she encounter ghosts and ghouls on this dark and stormy night, or simply some skeletons in the closet?

Gone-Home-Video-Game-WallpaperThese teachers and what they had to say at the conference and then Paul’s blog about using Gone Home in his class piqued my interest: What games are teachers using in their classrooms, beyond what I might call content-focused skill-and-drill games? How’s the use of games such as Gone Home, one not built for the K-12 classroom, changing a typical classroom – and just what does learning look like in those classrooms?

So I started my own playing/gaming with World of Goo, thinking about how a teacher of physics or physical science might use it to support/explore content from the class. Not sure I have any thoughtful answers just yet, but, yes, even World of Goo has spurred research: See this paper by Florida State’s Valerie Shute and Yoon Jeon Kim, called Does Playing the World of Goo Facilitate Learning? In it they write

Our beliefs motivating this research are twofold: (a) it is important to develop valid models and assessments for complex knowledge and skills that are required for success in the 21st century; and (b) assessments can be embedded within video games to support such skills that are currently not being assessed and supported. Our goal is to illustrate how people can develop educationally valuable skills (e.g., problem solving and causal reasoning) by playing a well-designed video game that is not explicitly developed for educational purposes.

gonehome3I know that I’m just nibbling at this new area – new for me, that is – and I feel strongly that well-designed games, whether specifically for the classroom or not, can be an important part of a teacher’s instructional arsenal. Imagine a classroom where an online game is central to the work of the teacher and her students, where it might serve as the text, as Paul is doing with Gone Home, or be an environment for a connected series of scientific experiments, all building on skills learned from the previous, as World of Goo seems to be. Imagine students playing the game on their own or in small teams. Imagine them coming back to the larger group, for discussion, or going off to a corner to write and think about their learning. Imagine the teacher’s role, as she coaches her students as they play the game, as they write, as they share ideas and discuss. Imagine students learning both content and processes or skills, such as the steps to the scientific method. Yes, it’s like the best classrooms that we’ve already seen, in many ways. But with that game at its center – and a well-designed, multidimensional game – it might also be very different.

I look forward to sharing more as I learn. This will be fun, I know. Yes, fun and games. Fun and games and learning too.

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