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Want Children to “Pay Attention”? Make Their Brains Curious!
By Judy Willis, M.D., M.Ed.
From Psychology Today Online
Curiouser and Curiouser
Plato Under a Brain Scanner
A few thousand years ago, in 360 B.C., Plato advised against force-feeding of facts to students. "Elements of instruction...should be presented to the mind in childhood; not, however, under any notion of forcing education. A freeman ought not to be a slave in the acquisition of knowledge of any kind. Bodily exercise, when compulsory, does no harm to the body; but knowledge which is acquired under compulsion obtains no hold on the mind."
We now have neuroscience of learning research to support these recommendations to avoid forced instruction and provide children with the best environment and experiences for joyful learning. We have come to literally see how stress and curiosity edits which sensory information is given entry to our neural networks and where the input ends up.
Social, emotional, hormonal, and nutritional influences are overtaking the attribution of intelligence to primarily genetic factors. Microbiology research reveals that emotions and experiences turn on or off portions of genes that determine how that gene will be expressed. Neuroplasticity research reveals that intelligence can be changed and guides us to educational and parenting strategies are neuro-logical to promote positive changes. Those are topics that will be in future posts here and are addressed in articles on my website www.RADTeach.com .
In this post, combining my background as a neurologist and classroom teacher, I'll share my strategies to help parents and teachers get information "admitted" through brain's attention system.
Children Are Paying Attention, Just Not to the Boring Things in Class
Getting into the brain is like getting into an exclusive nightclub where only the glamorous few are selected. Once inside, another gatekeeper, stress, determines what makes the cut to enter the upper VIP lounge in the prefrontal cortex - that valuable 13% of cerebral architecture where our highest cognition and emotional reflection takes place. (That will be the next post.)
The brain evolved to promote the survival of the animal and the species. That means giving priority to potential threat. Every second, of the millions of bits of sensory information from the eyes, ears, internal organs, skin, muscles, taste and smell receptors that are at the entry gate, only a few thousand make the cut. The system that determines what gets in - what the brain attends to is the Reticular Activating System or RAS. This primitive network of cells in the lower brainstem, through which all sensory input must pass to reach any higher regions of the brain, is essentially the same in your dog, cat, child, and you.
The RAS favors intake of sights, sounds, smells, and tactile sensations that are most critical to survival of the animal and species. Priority goes to CHANGES in an animal or human's environment with priority to change appraised as threatening. When threat is perceived, the RAS automatically selects related sensory input and directs it to the lower brain where the involuntary response is not to think, but to react - fight, flight, or freeze.
Force Feeding Won't Work Even on a Hungry Brain
The RAS is a virtual editor that grants attention and admission to a small fraction of all the available sights, sounds, and tactile sensations available at any moment. This survival-directed filter is critical for animals in the wild, but as it has not changed significantly as man evolved, and the implications for the classroom or with children in the home are significant.
When children's brains perceive threat (punishment or embarrassment in front of classmates for not doing homework, fear that they will be picked last for a kickball game, or anxiety that they will make an obvious error because they are not fluent in English) the RAS lets in only what is perceived as relevant to the threat. Unless the perception of threat is reduced, the brain persists in doing its primary job - protecting the human or animal from harm. The neural activity on scans during fear, sadness, anger or other stressful emotions is evident in the lower brain. In this stressed state "attention" is not under our control and the brain activity on scans drops way down in the prefrontal cortex. That higher, reflective, cognitive region of the brain does not receive the sensory input, determined irrelevant to survival. The day's lesson does fall on deaf ears.
When students criticized for not paying attention to the lesson it doesn't mean they are inattentive. Their RAS is paying attention to (letting in) sensory input, just not the sensory input their teachers think in important.
One of the great gifts of neuroimaging research is information about which sensory input gets through the RAS when threat is not perceived. When not under high stress alert, the RAS is particularly receptive to novelty and change that arouse curiosity. That is the key to the gate - the brain seeks input about the new, the unexpected, the colorful, musical, moving, aromatic sensations that are available when perceived or imagined threat is not blocking the way. When students are curious about something, they seek an explanation. This motivates them to persevere in seeking the information they now WANT to learn, what they need to be taught.
Knowing about the RAS means we can promote classroom communities where students feel safe, where they can count of the adults in charge to enforce the rules that protect their bodies, property, and feelings from classmates who they perceive as threats to these things. Our increasing knowledge of what gains access through the RAS, once threat is reduced, offers clues to strategies that promote attentive focus to lessons in school and at home.
Curiouser and Curiouser
You can build novelty into teaching new information. Changes in voice, appearance, marking key points in color, variation in font size, hats, movement, lessons outdoors, music, curious photos, unexpected objects (a radish on each desk when students enter the classroom) get the RAS attentive to admit the accompanying sensory input of lessons that relates to the curious sensory input!
Advertising a coming unit with curiosity provoking posters or adding clues or puzzle pieces each day invests curiosity as children predict what lesson might be coming and the RAS is primed to "select" the sensory input of that lesson when it is revealed. Playing a song when students enter the room can also promote curiosity; hence focus, if they know that there will be a link between some words in the song and something in the lesson. If a teacher, or parent helping with homework, walks backwards before a lesson about negative numbers, the RAS is primed by curiosity to follow along when a number line is unrolled on the floor start learning about negative numbers. Even a suspenseful pause in your speech before saying something particularly important builds anticipation as the students wonder what you will say or do next.
To further alert the RAS, increase curiosity, and the subsequent memory of the information (learning) that explains the curious phenomenon, have children make PREDICTIONS. The predictions can be written down, shared with a partner, or held up on individual white boards at any point during a lesson. Don't break the participation or curiosity with a "yes" or "no", but maintain the interest by responding with a nod of acknowledgment or a "thanks you" so the other students will continue to predict. The brain actually learns based on a system of predictions and feedback as neuroplasticity strengthens neural networks used to make correct predictions and corrects memory networks used to make incorrect predictions. (This is why feedback is important so those faulty circuits can be replaced with accurate information.)
Children Who Actually Get Excited When Asked, "What did you do in school today?"
Recall how, as a child, you felt about radishes as garnish on your plate. Now, imagine walking into your childhood classroom and finding a radishs on all the desks. Students' RAS will be curious about this mundane object because it on THEIR desk in a classroom, and not on a dinner plate. Now their attention is alerted to the novelty and curiosity so the RAS admits sensory input "clues" to the puzzle of the novel object on their desks. They are engaged and motivated to discover the reason the radishes are there. Now they are attentive and their brains are engaged.
Younger students learning the names and characteristics of shapes might have the opportunity to develop a concept of roundness and evaluate what qualities make some radishes have greater "roundness" than others. The lesson for older students might address as analysis of similarities and differences. The RAS will respond to the color, novelty, peer interaction of evaluating these objects that are usually disdained when found in their salads as they develop their skill of observation, comparison, contrast, and even prediction as to why the radishes that seemed so similar at first, become unique as they become detectives using magnifying glasses. Students' stress levels remain low as they use their individual learning strengths to sketch, describe, or take notes about what the radishes in their group have in common and how the differ.
As the survival tool, the RAS alerts to curiosity and remembers the resolution of the brain's prediction, as animals need to learn and repeat behaviors that are satisfying and fulfill survival needs, such as eating tasty food or following the scent of a potential mate. Engaged and focused brains are alert to sensory input that accompanies the pleasurable sensations. In animals these associations will make them more likely to find the source of pleasure in the future. As students enjoy the investigation with the radishes, the required lesson content can follow the open gateway to reach the higher, cognitive brain.
The novel experience of a simple radish, when used to promote curiosity and prediction, is likely to do more than carry the learning experiences into long-term memory. When children are asked that evening, "What did you learn in school today?" they are likely to further strengthen the memory as they describe both the radish AND the lesson as grateful parents give the positive feedback of attentive listening.
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Topic: Why Don't My Students Pay Attention?
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Source URL: http://www.psychologytoday.com/node/42444
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If we truly want to help ALL students meet or master the standards, we must provide effective differentiation for our students. However, over the years, several practices have crept into the way we differentiate lessons that actually make student success LESS likely. The following are four practices that actually interfere with effective differentiated instruction.
Creating multiple assignments rather than multiple pathways. Differentiation is not about the number of assignments you create; it's about giving students multiple pathways to success and then helping them choose the pathway that is best for them. Simply providing multiple assignments not only creates a lot of work for you, it can pigeonhole some students into lowered expectations and decreased opportunities to stretch and grow. Instead of creating different assignments, create ONE assignment and provide students several different pathways to success on that assignment (for more on planning differentiated lessons that rely on ONE assignment, check out The Differentiation Workbook for a lesson plan and process). By focusing on different supports rather than different assignments, you can better target students' needs and give them the scaffolding they need to reach success.
Differentiating by learning style versus learning needs. Not every lesson you give will accommodate students' preferred learning style - nor does every lesson need to. Our time is better spent examining students' particular learning needs for each assignment and using their learning needs to identify and provide the support and scaffolding they need to be successful. Learning styles are static while learning needs constantly change and shift depending on students' current content and procedural knowledge. Learning needs give you a much more accurate picture of where students are currently and what you must do to help them successfully master a range of standards and skills. From there you can create customized pathways and supports to help all students meet or exceed the standards.
Differentiating by achievement level rather than by students' current learning level. Some will tell you that there are three kinds of students - high, medium, and low. But this distinction is not very useful. There are times when a student you consider to be in your high group will struggle with the content. Other time, students in your low group will sail through an activity, outperforming the students in your high group. Because students bring a variety of skills and experiences to the classroom, classifying them as high, medium, and low doesn't really help you adjust your instruction effectively to meet their complex needs. These static groupings also limit students. Once you start thinking about students in these ways, it is difficult to see them any other way. Differentiating by achievement level often results in lowered expectations for struggling students and extra work for advanced students. Lowering the target for some students while raising the learning target for others is not differentiation - it's tracking. Real differentiation takes into account where students are at a particular point in time. It doesn't label kids "low", "average," and "advanced"; it groups students by their current understanding of the content and processes involved in a particular learning activity and then provides students with the targeted supports they need to successfully master that activity.
Differentiating down rather than up. When we differentiate down, we tend to look for ways to "dumb down" an assignment to students' current learning level and hope that over time, they will begin working at the level demanded by the standards. In most cases, our efforts fall short. Differentiating up means starting with the standard and figuring out what supports students will need to reach the standard. All assignments are written at or above grade-level. We can offer students varying degrees of support and different routes to success but the target itself should never change.
By avoiding these mistakes, you can make your efforts at differentiation much more successful -- and much less stressful. Take a look at your differentiation practice and make sure that you are not unintentionally making things harder for both you and your students.
L2L Web Seminar Series recordings (November 2008 - January 2011) are listed below. Please click on the link to access the full recording on Adobe ConnectPro software. Special event/Non L2L Series Web seminars are listed in italics.
January 19, 2011 - Talking Tech-y: Finding Time to Make Social Networking Happen
December 15, 2010 - Learn, Teach, Lead: Your Development as an ASCD Leader
November 23, 2010 - Affiliate Program Study Task Force Recommendations and ASCD Response
November 17, 2010 - Post-Election Analysis: What the Midterm Election Results Mean for Education
October 28, 2010 -Knowledge Ecologies
October 25, 2010 - Professional Interest Community Facilitator Meeting
October 13, 2010 -Tech Me Out: Taking Strategic Communication from Page to Screen
October 1, 2010 - ASCD EDge for Professional Interest Community Facilitators
September 30, 2010 - The Role of an Emerging Leader Coach 2010
September 29, 2010 - 2010 Emerging Leaders Orientation
September 22, 2010 - Taming the Torrent: Making Information Come to You
August 27, 2010 - Professional Interest Community Facilitator Meeting
L2L 2010 Event - July 23, 2010 - Connecting Online to Engage Offline: Social Networking for ASCD Leaders
June 16, 2010 - Back to the Future: Membership in the 21st Century (e-mail email@example.com for this recording)
May 12, 2010- Vision in Action: The Whole Child Initiative
April 21, 2010 - Measuring Success: Data Gathering and Analysis for ASCD Leaders
March 24, 2010 - Advocacy in Action: The ASCD 2010 Legislative Agenda
February 17, 2010 - Whose Property is It Anyway? Rights and Permissions for ASCD Leaders
January 20, 2010 - Living on the EDge: Navigating ASCD's Social Network as an ASCD Leader
December 16th, 2009 - Working Across Generations
November 18th, 2009 - The Decision to Volunteer
October 28th, 2009 - Emerging Leaders and Coaches Web Seminar
October 21st, 2009 - Developing Successful Community Partnerships
September 23rd, 2009 - All Hands on Deck: Building Consensus for Strategic Action
August 12th, 2009 - To Committee or Not to Committee: Effective Committee Work
I’ve been talking to teachers lately about creating an environment in their classrooms where students are free to make mistakes and supported in learning from their mistakes. I argue that learning from mistakes can be a powerful way of helping students learn. But the value in learning mistakes isn’t just limited to our students. As professionals, we need to learn from our mistakes as well. I realize that the environment in our profession isn’t exactly friendly to making and learning from mistakes right now, but I would encourage you to not let that stop you. Don’t be afraid to make the inevitable mistake or two in the classroom as you teach. Instead, be open to learning from your mistakes and using them to make your teaching stronger.
To get the ball rolling, I thought I’d share five mistakes I made early in my career and what I learned from them. Please share your mistakes as well in the comments section and let’s learn from each other.
What mistakes have you made and what have you learned from them?
Unfortunately, over the years the term rigorous has accumulated a lot of baggage. The following are seven myths about Rigor.
Myth One: If you have rigorous standards, you have a rigorous course. Rigor isn’t as much about the standards as it is about how you ask students to reach the standards. There are times when students are asked to achieve highly rigorous standards in un-rigorous ways. And other times, teachers are able to take mediocre standards and help students achieve highly rigorous learning by designing rigorous learning experiences that correspond with those standards.
Myth Two: Rigor means more work. While rigorous instruction may require that students put forth more effort, it is not based on the volume of work students complete. Rigor is about the quality of the work students are asked to do, not the quantity. More assignments or more reading does not guarantee more rigor. In fact, rigorous classrooms often have less assignments and homework.
Myth Three: Rigor means harder. Rigorous classrooms do present more challenge to students but there is a difference between challenging and difficult. Challenging work asks students to stretch and reach for new understanding. Work can be difficult however for a variety of reasons including unclear instructions, a lack of necessary resources, a lack of adequate support, demands that are too great for the time allotted, etc. We can all think of assignments we endured that were difficult without being intellectually challenging. Thus, it is a mistake to think that just because students had difficulty completing their work, they have engaged in a rigorous assignment.
Myth Four: Rigor is a matter of content. Just because you select highly rigorous content does not guarantee a highly rigorous learning experience for students. How you ask students to engage in the content also determines the level of rigor for your course.
Myth Five: Younger students cannot engage in rigorous instruction
Even young children can think and interact with material in highly rigorous ways. In fact, left to their own devices, children naturally take what they are learning to solve unpredictable problems and deal with uncertainty. Doing so is at the very nature of learning. They key is to make sure that your rigorous instruction is developmentally appropriate.
Myth Six: In order to engage in rigor, students must first master the basics. Rigorous thinking is involved in learning even the most basic material. Students can learn the basics in highly rigorous ways. They can learn how to build adequate representations, organize those facts in some way, analyze and construct relationships among those facts, and make inferences beyond what is explicitly presented while they are mastering the basics.
Myth Seven: Rigor is for the elite. All students can and should have access to rigorous instruction and learning. To reserve rigorous learning opportunities for an elite group of students while relegating others to lives of memorizing disconnected facts and blindly participating in meaningless activities is to leave them unprepared to meet the demands of a 21st century and beyond.
Find out how to conquer these myths by ordering your copy of How to Plan Rigorous Instruction http://www.ascd.org/publications/books/110077.aspx
Published in Educational Leadership
Summer 2007 | Volume 64
Engaging the Whole Child
The Neuroscience of Joyful Education
Judy Willis, M.D., M.Ed.
Most children can't wait to start kindergarten and approach the beginning of school with awe and anticipation. Kindergartners and 1st graders often talk passionately about what they learn and do in school. Unfortunately, the current emphasis on standardized testing and rote learning encroaches upon many students' joy. In their zeal to raise test scores, too many policymakers wrongly assume that students who are laughing, interacting in groups, or being creative with art, music, or dance are not doing real academic work. The result is that some teachers feel pressure to preside over more sedate classrooms with students on the same page in the same book, sitting in straight rows, facing straight ahead.
Supporting Good Teaching Practices with Neuroscience
The truth is that when we scrub joy and comfort from the classroom, we distance our students from effective information processing and long-term memory storage. Instead of taking pleasure from learning, students become bored, anxious, and anything but engaged. They ultimately learn to feel bad about school and lose the joy they once felt.
My own experience as a neurologist and classroom teacher has shown me the benefits of joy in the classroom. Neuroimaging studies and measurement of brain chemical transmitters reveal that students' comfort level can influence information transmission and storage in the brain (Thanos et al., 1999). When students are engaged and motivated and feel minimal stress, information flows freely through the affective filter in the amygdala and they achieve higher levels of cognition, make connections, and experience “aha” moments. Such learning comes not from quiet classrooms and directed lectures, but from classrooms with an atmosphere of exuberant discovery (Kohn, 2004).
The Brain-Based Research
Neuroimaging and neurochemical research support an education model in which stress and anxiety are not pervasive (Chugani, 1998; Pawlak, Magarinos, Melchor, McEwan, & Strickland, 2003). This research suggests that superior learning takes place when classroom experiences are enjoyable and relevant to students' lives, interests, and experiences.
Many education theorists (Dulay & Burt, 1977; Krashen, 1982) have proposed that students retain what they learn when the learning is associated with strong positive emotion. Cognitive psychology studies provide clinical evidence that stress, boredom, confusion, low motivation, and anxiety can individually, and more profoundly in combination, interfere with learning (Christianson, 1992).
Neuroimaging and measurement of brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) show us what happens in the brain during stressful emotional states. By reading glucose or oxygen use and blood flow, positron emission tomography (PET) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) indicate activity in identifiable regions of the brain. These scans demonstrate that under stressful conditions information is blocked from entering the brain's areas of higher cognitive memory consolidation and storage. In other words, when stress activates the brain's affective filters, information flow to the higher cognitive networks is limited and the learning process grinds to a halt.
Neuroimaging and electroencephalography (EEG) brain mapping of subjects in the process of learning new information reveal that the most active areas of the brain when new sensory information is received are the somatosensory cortex areas. Input from each individual sense (hearing, touch, taste, vision, smell) is delivered to these areas and then matched with previously stored related memories.
For example, the brain appears to link new words about cars with previously stored data in the category of transportation. Simultaneously, the limbic system, comprising parts of the temporal lobe, hippocampus, amygdala, and prefrontal cortex (front part of the frontal lobe), adds emotional significance to the information (sour flavor is tasty in lemon sherbet but unpleasant in spoiled juice). Such relational memories appear to enhance storage of the new information in long-term memory (Andreasen et al., 1999).
Mapping studies of the electrical activity (EEG or brain waves) and neuroimaging show the synchronization of brain activity as information passes from the somatosensory cortex areas to the limbic system (Andreasen et al., 1999). For example, bursts of brain activity from the somatosensory cortex are followed milliseconds later by bursts of electrical activity in the hippocampus, amygdala, and then the other parts of the limbic system (Sowell et al., 2003). This enables us to evaluate which strategies either stimulate or impede communication among the various parts of the brain (Shadmehr & Holcomb, 1997).
RAD Lessons for the Classroom
A common theme in brain research is that superior cognitive input to the executive function networks is more likely when stress is low and learning experiences are relevant to students. Lessons that are stimulating and challenging are more likely to pass through the reticular activating system (a filter in the lower brain that focuses attention on novel changes perceived in the environment). Classroom experiences that are free of intimidation may help information pass through the amygdala's affective filter. In addition, when classroom activities are pleasurable, the brain releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter that stimulates the memory centers and promotes the release of acetylcholinem, which increases focused attention.
The acronym RAD can remind educators of three important neuroscience concepts to consider when preparing lessons:
* Novelty promotes information transmission through the Reticular activating system.
* Stress-free classrooms propel data through the Amygdala's affective filter.
* Pleasurable associations linked with learning are more likely to release more Dopamine.
There are no neuroimaging or brain wave analysis data that demonstrate a negative effect of joy and exuberance in classrooms, yet some schools have unspoken mandates against these valuable components of the classroom experience. Now that hard science proves the negative effects of stress and anxiety, teachers can more confidently promote enthusiasm in their classrooms.
Planning for the Ideal Emotional Atmosphere
Although it is valuable for teachers to be familiar with neuroscientific research and pass relevant findings along to education stakeholders, it is crucial that educators use classroom strategies that reflect what we know about the brain and learning. So how can teachers create environments where anxiety is low while providing enough challenge and novelty for suitable brain stimulation?
Make it relevant.
When stress in the classroom is getting high, it is often because a lesson is overly abstract or seems irrelevant to students. Teachers can reduce this type of stress by making the lesson more personally interesting and motivating. Ideally, students should be able to answer the question, “Why are we learning about this?” at any point in a lesson.
Teachers can find valuable background materials and human interest connections in textbooks published in the 1990s, before many publishers dropped such information to make room for practice test questions. The Internet is a source of many teacher-shared lesson plans and links to Web sites that provide resources for student activities and information databases that bring the more fact-heavy lessons to life. These are just a few Web sites that teachers can mine for ideas:
* The Jason Project: a multimedia, interdisciplinary science program for grades 4–9, www.jasonproject.org
* NASA Education: resources and information for K–12 teachers, http://education.nasa.gov
* PBS Teachers: multimedia resources for preK–12 educators, www.pbs.org/teachersource
* A to Z Teacher Stuff: a teacher-created site designed to help teachers find online resources, http://atozteacherstuff.com
* Edhelper: theme units, lesson plans, and worksheets, www.edhelper.com
It is not always possible to explain the immediate relevance of every lesson. In math, for example, students must master certain skills before they can go on to investigate larger, more clearly relevant topics. One way to increase the emotional connection is by adapting word problems so that they include the names of students, popular celebrities, historical figures, or sports heroes. Similarly, problems about interest rates can relate to purchasing something the students would want to buy, such as an iPod or new sneakers. Students can learn about decimal place values by calculating batting averages to the thousandth place.
Language arts teachers can combine lessons on formal letter writing with a study of ethics or advertising. Students select a television commercial or print ad they judge to be misleading and write a letter expressing that opinion to the company in question. Students can compare historical fact and fiction by reading texts, examining primary sources, and viewing movies.
In science classes dealing with the differences between mixtures and solutions, students can predict which liquids in their homes are mixtures and which are solutions. At home, they test their predictions by seeing which items are in separate layers until shaken. Or instead of just studying facts about pollution, students can learn to take and test water samples (www.baylink.org/lessons/3fr_pollution.html).
When a lesson or block of lessons is full of facts to memorize, students will often feel less stress when they see an intrinsic reward for their efforts, such as using the facts they've mastered as a tool for participating in a more appealing activity. For example, when students know the metric to standard measurement conversions, they can “translate” a recipe from a cookbook that uses metric measures into the quantities they need in U.S. standard measurements to prepare cookie dough in class.
Give them a break-a syn-naps.
Just like adults, students can reduce stress by enjoying hobbies, time with friends, exercise, or music. Even though schools are shortening recess, physical education, art, drama, and even lunchtime to add more time for core subjects, teachers can give students a three-minute vacation to reduce stress. Any pleasurable activity used as a brief break can give the amygdala a chance to cool down and the neurotransmitters time to rebuild.
Create positive associations.
Eliminating all stress from students' lives is impossible. However, even if previous classroom experiences have led to associations that link certain activities, such as memorizing multiplication tables, to a stress response from the amygdala, students can benefit from revisiting the activity without something negative happening. By avoiding stressful practices like calling on students who have not raised their hands, teachers can dampen the stress association.
Students can develop positive associations with multiplication by practicing it with a positively reinforcing strategy. For example, they might first review the table for multiplying by eight, then fill in blanks on a worksheet and immediately check each written answer with a calculator. If the answer is correct, the student experiences instant positive reinforcement. If the answer is incorrect, the student sees the right answer on the calculator—a much more pleasurable experience than hearing a classmate call out the answer before the student can even begin to compute it.
In a similar way, students can build on their neurochemical memories of positive feelings if they have opportunities to recognize and savor their successes. A posted “Personal Goal Achievement” list, for example, acknowledges all students' successes. Students set personal goals, such as learning a specific multiplication table, and their names go on this list when they achieve their goals. Unlike the more typical competitive list of scores or lists of students who have mastered specific skills, this goal achievement list includes only the names of students who have met their goals, not the actual goals themselves.
It is helpful for teachers to guide students in learning how to prioritize information—how to decide what facts are worthy of writing down and reviewing when studying. When teachers demonstrate and explain how they determine which facts are important, students see how to make those judgments for themselves as they read texts and study. Helping students learn how to prioritize and therefore reduce the amount of information they need to deal with is a valuable stress-buster.
Allow independent discovery learning.
Thanks to dopamine release and the consolidation of relational memories, students are more likely to remember and understand what they learn if they find it compelling or have a part in figuring it out for themselves. In addition, when students have some choices in the way they will study or report on something, their motivation will increase and stress will diminish. They will be more accepting of their errors, motivated to try again, and less self-conscious about asking questions.
A Safe Haven
Classrooms can be the safe haven where academic practices and classroom strategies provide students with emotional comfort and pleasure as well as knowledge. When teachers use strategies to reduce stress and build a positive emotional environment, students gain emotional resilience and learn more efficiently and at higher levels of cognition. Brain-imaging studies support this relationship.
Andreasen, N. C., O'Leary, D. S., Paradiso, S., Cizaldo, T., Arndt, S., Watkins, G. L., et al. (1999). The cerebellum plays a role in conscious episodic memory retrieval. Human Brain Mapping, 8(4), 226–234.
Christianson, S.A. (1992). Emotional stress and eyewitness memory: A critical review. Psychological Bulletin, 112(2), 284–309.
Chugani, H. T. (1998). Biological basis of emotions: Brain systems and brain development. Pediatrics, 102, 1225–1229.
Dulay, H., & Burt, M. (1977). Remarks on creativity in language acquisition. In M. Burt, H. Dulay, & M. Finocchiaro (Eds.), Viewpoints on English as a second language. New York: Regents.
Kohn, A. (2004). Feel-bad education. Education Week, 24(3), 44–45.
Krashen, S. (1982). Theory versus practice in language training. In R. W. Blair (Ed.), Innovative approaches to language teaching (pp. 25–27). Rowley, MA: Newbury House.
Pawlak, R., Magarinos, A. M., Melchor, J., McEwen, B., & Strickland, S. (2003). Tissue plasminogen activator in the amygdala is critical for stress-induced anxiety-like behavior. Nature Neuroscience, 6(2), 168–174.
Shadmehr, R., and Holcomb, H. H. (1997). Neural correlates of motor memory consolidation. Science, 277, 821–825.
Sowell, E. R., Peterson, B. S., Thompson, P. M., Welcome, S. E., Henkenius, A. L., Toga, A. W., (2003). Mapping cortical change across the human life span. Nature Neuroscience, 6, 309–315.
Thanos, P. K., Katana, J. M., Ashby, C. R., Michaelides, M., Gardner, E. L., Heidbreder, C. A., et al. (1999). The selective dopamine D3 receptor antagonist SB-277011-A attenuates ethanol consumption in ethanol preferring (P) and non-preferring (NP) rats. Pharmacology, Biochemistry, and Behavior, 81(1), 190–197.
Judy Willis, MD, M.Ed. practiced neurology for 15 years then became a credentialed classroom teacher for 10 years. She currently conducts professional development workshops and her new book Learning to Love Math will be published in July. She is the author of Research-Based Strategies To Ignite Student Learning: Insights from a Neurologist/Classroom Teacher, (ASCD 2006); Brain-Friendly Strategies for the Inclusion Classroom, (ASCD 2007); Teaching the Brain to Read: Strategies for Improving Fluency, Vocabulary, and Comprehension (ASCD, 2008)
How Your Child Learns Best, Sourcebooks: September 2008; Inspiring Middle School Minds, Great Potentials Press, March 2009. Learning to Love Math (tbp ASCD July 2010). Current Impact of Neuroscience in Teaching and Learning. A chapter in, The Future of Educational Neuroscience: Where We Are Now and Where We’re Going Next. Ed. D. Sousa. Solution Tree Press, 2010.
OK, so you’ve gone through the trouble of creating great questions aimed at higher-order thinking. And, the moment comes in your lesson to cause your students to reflect and make connections. You wind up, and ask the question. Three hands go up. Woops, two. One student just needed a Kleenex. You call on Micky, who gives a pretty decent response. So, you’re finished right? What happened to the other 23 students? Do you have any evidence that they reflected on your question?
Next time, cause some ripples. Picture your question as pebbles. This time, you’re going to need each student to individually reflect on your question. So, you’ll need 25 pebbles. Toss ‘em out (Ask your question), but don’t take responses yet. Ask students to individually quick-write their responses (the first “plunk” of the pebbles). Then, ask your students to share their quick-writes in pair-shares or small groups. Thus, the first few ripples. Next, bring it to the whole class. Call on students to share what was discussed in small groups. Thus, the widening ripples. There. You just provided access to higher-order thinking to the whole class, instead of just to Micky (The Language-Rich Classroom: A research-based framework for teaching English language learners, Persida & William Himmele, ASCD, 2009).
I know this probably won’t be popular, but if I am going to continue to talk about “New Forms” in education, this needs to be on the table.
Why are teachers still doing daily lesson plans? What is the conceptual (current, 21st century) framework around this traditionally rigid process? What is encapsulated in these daily snapshots that would not be better to see in either a weekly format or perhaps something a little more open-ended? (Meaning that if the learning takes 3 days, it takes 3 days…if it takes 6, so be it. What’s more important, the learning, or the time in which we expect the learning to occur?)
I’m not saying get rid of all daily moments…assessment, anchors, general instructional arc…but the whole six point lesson plan thing seems to be a foot in the door of 1985. Or 1955.
Perhaps the terminology is dated. I often say in workshops that teachers should stop the creation of the lesson “plan” and instead create lesson “events.” That which is memorable will stick. That which is traditional and “the same as always” will almost certainly be forgotten. Yet, in many schools, the traditional is so well entrenched that anyone doing great things is suspicious and certainly shouldn’t be trusted with children. Seriously.
What do you remember about your school experiences?
The worksheets you did? The drill and skill cursive writing? No? No memory of those things?
What about those moments that weren’t the same “day in / day out” minutiae? What about the field trips you took? What about that time your teacher dressed up as Jon Bon Jovi and sang the Periodic Table to you to the tune of “You Give Love A Bad Name?” (Which you can still remember verbatim, including the atomic weight of Carbon.)
I think I’m opening several cans of worms here. For one, what does the hierarchy of lessons look like if we remove the daily lesson plan, and two, is anything singular even worth planning for?
Briefly, let me address both.
A lesson typically fits into an instructional arc or subunit, tied into an overall unit, which is housed in a year of learning. This plan seems to me to perpetuate encapsulated moments that define when learning can take place. It’s kind of like going to the doctor on a Monday morning with a broken arm and the doctor saying that he’s sorry, but broken limbs aren’t dealt with until Friday, or maybe February.
But WHAT IF (I like saying “What If…”) things weren’t so compartmentalized? What if the process for deconstructing curriculum, breaking apart standards, and precisely defining skills and methodologies was a little messier, and deleted the daily lesson plan in favor of “LESSONS” plans? We could still address common threads and connections through UNITS, but the plans themselves look at the whole neighborhood, instead of just one house. (Know what I mean?)
But then, that opens up the second can of worms. The singular content area lesson. One skill, one piece of content, one content area, one assessment…everything one at a time and separated from everything else. It’s all very neat and linear, but it seems very limiting. I have a hunch that sometime in the very near future, the definition of what a 21st Century educator is will include the total abandonment of singular content lessons. The future is in integration.
If you think about the “real world” that we’re preparing kids for, how often is the “real world” day broken up into science moments, math moments, writing moments, etc? We engage all of these things at all times. Also, it’s not like integrated units are anything innovative…there’s been tons of research and lots of books written specifically providing examples of how to do it. So why isn’t it happening? Kids don’t need a six-week unit on mastering quotation marks; they need to learn to master the quotation marks piece in the screenplay they write collaboratively about the people of Iceland solving problems around a catastrophic tectonic event that includes the gathering and analysis of quantitative data. (See what I did right there?)
There’s other cans of worms here…the reformation of assessment practices (Think Denmark! Think Japan!), the realignment of associated skills with differentiated instruction and backwards design models, the deep understanding of curriculum design – specifically prioritization and consensus anchor knowledge, the singular student / singular product mode, etc.
I’m thinking out loud here. If you’ve read this far, I hope it’s because you’ve either been inspired or angered. What are your thoughts? How do we innovate the “lesson plan?” How do we tear it down, build it up, upgrade it, dispose of it, or grow it? Or do we just keep the blinders on and hope for the best with what we’ve got?
Imagine the following HS requirements being recommend to the School Board:
• 3 years of economics and business
• 2 courses in philosophy – one in logic, the other in ethics
• 2 years of psychology, with special emphasis on child development and family relations
• 2 years of mathematics, focusing on probability and statistics
• 4 years of Language Arts, but with a major focus on semiotics and oral proficiency
• US and World history, taught as Current Events - backwards from the present
• 1 Year of Graphics Design, Desktop Publishing, and Multimedia presentation
Outrageous? Hardly – if we do an analysis of what most graduates actually need and will use in professional, civic, and personal life. How odd it is that we do not require oral proficiency when every graduate will need the ability. How absurd it is in this day and age that students aren’t required to understand the capitalist system. How sad it is that physics is viewed as more important than psychology, as parents struggle to raise children wisely and families work hard to understand one another. Requirements based on pre-modern academic priorities and schooling predicated on the old view that few people would graduate and fewer still would go on to college make no sense. Ask any adult: how much algebra did you use this past week?
Don’t get me wrong. I am proud of my classical education at St. John’s College. I learned physics through Newton’s Principia and geometry through Euclid and Lobachevski - in a college program with no electives. I had a fine general education, one truly deserving of the title Liberal Arts (the arts that make you free). But would I mandate that all colleges look like St. John’s? Absolutely not – no more than I would mandate that all schools be required to adopt my proposed new graduation requirements, above – even though they make more sense than current ones.
We are once again confusing standards with standardization in education. Our misguided quest for a set of one-size-fits-all requirements shows that we do not yet know how to make education modern – i.e. client-centered; adapted to an era where the future, not the past, properly determines curricula; and where the future is re-invented regularly, and far more personalizable than our forebears dreamed possible.
Why does everyone need the same medicine? It is absurd to mandate standardized prescriptions in a pluralistic democracy. Enforced uniformity, whether required in school or a country, has no place in a modern world. Student interests, needs, talents, and aspirations differ. Communities differ. Institutional requirements differ. Twenty-first century schools should be more like healthcare organizations than medieval guilds or nineteenth century factories. In other words, they should be responsive to individual clients and their present and future needs. (We badly need a Hippocratic Oath for schooling: Above All Else, Do No Harm.)
My point made more practical is that a single set of diploma requirements for all makes no sense. At a time in history when a political and social revolution is sweeping the country whereby people exercise choice – in healthcare, job choice, living arrangements - it is odd and out of touch for local, state, and national educational policymakers seem bent on inventing a one-size-fits all diploma. Why can't a kid major, just like they do in college? (Florida was the first state to permit it, but it is still a timid effort).
We probably do not need the conventional diploma on the low-level grounds of college entry. Arnold Packer put it well in the SCANS report over a decade ago: students should graduate with a résumé, not a transcript. That gets right the obligation of schools in a democracy to better play to the strengths and interests of its students. I would go further, to draw out what is implicit in the idea: schools should stop giving a diploma at the end of “12th grade” all together. Schools should merely report out each student’s achievement profile – their intellectual strengths, weaknesses, and levels of performance on novice-expert continua for each subject each year. Let the (aptly differing) entry standards of the student-desired next institutions dictate what course selection and exit-performance-level “passing” need to be.
Standards and requirements are nothing if not contextual. So-called requirements are thus more aptly characterized as “if-then” statements about very diverse entry-level requirements: IF you want to be a scholar, THEN certain requirements follow. But IF you want to be a lawyer, a businessperson, a musician, an actor, or an electrician, THEN very different needs follow. Not being able to predict each student’s likely profession does not change the fact that schools should treat students as subjects, not uniform objects. Teachers, not just doctors, must more vigorously broker personalized possibilities.
We should no more mandate what all schools should teach and require in the way of performance than we should mandate what all businesses should sell and their margin of profit. Modern schools would then be no different from modern professions in a crucial sense. They, too, would serve niches. All schools should be magnet schools, charter schools, and alternative schools – if we want to make schools more responsive, effective, and coherent.
(This is an updated version of an article I wrote a decade ago. It seems even more pertinent now. The editor of Ed. Leadetrship apparently agrees: a revised and updated version will be published in the March 2011 issue of the ASCD journal.
Teacher self-rating is one of the easiest and least threatening ways for teachers to obtain information on their performance. Teacher self-rating is not a new idea. Ross and Bruce (2007) discuss its use in their article “Teacher Self-Assessment: A Mechanism for Facilitating Professional Growth.” They conclude that “providing a self-assessment tool is a constructive strategy for improving the effectiveness of in-service provided it is bundled with other professional growth strategies: peer coaching, observation by external change agents, and focused input on teaching strategies” (p. 146).
To collect self-rating data, teachers simply score themselves on each of the 41 elements in Domain 1 using the scales in the observational protocol in Appendix A. Simply stated, a teacher assigns him- or herself a score of Not Using (0) through Innovating (4) on each element. We have found that teachers are open to and even enthusiastic about this process as long as they know its purpose is to improve their pedagogical skills.
In addition to or in lieu of self-perception data, teachers can generate self-ratings using a videotape of themselves. The use of video as a feedback mechanism has a rich history in K–12 education. For example, Rosaen, Lundeberg, Cooper, Fritzen, and Terpstra (2008) found that when teacher interns used video of their own teaching as the basis for reflection as compared to recollections, they were more likely to emphasize instructional components and “paid more attention to the children in terms of instruction, student achievement, and listening to the students, thus moving the focus away from self and onto the children” (p. 353). One subject in the study concluded that her reflection without the video was based on a feeling of how the lesson went rather than the video-based evidence that required a more honest analysis. Furthermore, the ability to review a lesson multiple times, pause the video, and engage in focused reflection greatly added to professional growth.
In another study, King (2008) found that preservice teachers “overwhelmingly felt that a visual record of their teaching inspired them to reflect more critically” (p. 28). Sewall (2009) found video-elicited reflection had a number of positive effects over traditional approaches. When a lesson was observed by a supervisor and followed with a postconference, teachers talked less and were less reflective during the postconference than when engaged in a video-based reflection. Furthermore, the dialogue and the reflection were dominated by the supervisor. Teachers were relegated to a defensive position, sometimes haggling over what had actually happened during the lesson rather than reflecting on the lesson itself. This outcome was in stark contrast to the video-elicited reflection in which teachers spoke more frequently than their supervisors and offered deeper levels of analysis and reflection.
Finally, Calandra, Brantley-Dias, Lee, and Fox (2009) asked novice teachers to engage in two different methods of postlesson analysis. Each member of the control group debriefed with a teacher educator after his or her lesson and later wrote about two critical incidents from that lesson. Members of the experimental group recorded and reviewed their lesson on video and edited the video to present two critical incidents. After the editing was completed, the experimental group was also asked to write about the two critical incidents. Novice teachers in the experimental group produced longer reflections, were more likely to connect student behaviors to their own pedagogy, and were more likely to describe “transformations in their thinking about teaching” (p. 81).
Teacher self-rating using videotape is a fairly straightforward process. Teachers videotape a typical lesson and then at their leisure score themselves on the 41 elements in Appendix A. We recommend that when scoring their videotapes, teachers view them multiple times for various aspects of Domain 1. For example, during the first viewing, a teacher might focus on the use of routines. During the second viewing, the teacher might identify the content lesson segment that was being employed and analyze behaviors relative to that category of segment. During the third viewing, the teacher would examine the use of strategies that are enacted on the spot. There will most probably be elements of Domain 1 that were not observable in the video segment. For example, if the taped lesson focused on a content segment involving new knowledge, the teacher would not be able to observe him- or herself using strategies or behaviors that address practicing and deepening knowledge or applying knowledge by generating and testing hypotheses. For these unobserved elements, the teacher would simply score him- or herself based on perceptions of general behavior.
To learn more about the book or pick up a copy, you can navigate to the ASCD Store.
Here is my latest article from the Mindsteps newsletter and blog:
For years, I have unquestioningly accepted the prevailing wisdom that the holy grail in education is to have intrinsically motivated students who learn for learning's sake.
And yet, most of us don’t do everything we do for purely intrinsic reasons. We work at least partially for a paycheck. We drive the speed limit not because we enjoy driving 25 mph when we are in a hurry but because we don’t want to get a ticket and imperil the lives of the other drivers around us. We work weekends in order to meet deadlines and complete paperwork because its our job. We clean behind the fridge because company is coming over and we endure family dinners with Aunt Midge so we don’t upset our mothers. In fact, very little of what we do is purely intrinsically motivated.
For years I thought the key to student engagement was to make work more interesting and yet studies have found no evidence that the interest value of material is a determinant -- as opposed to a consequence -- of learning. In fact, the more I read the literature on motivation, the more I am struck by one startling idea: Intrinsic motivation may be over-rated. Two concepts have changed my mind.
The first is the idea of integrated extrinsic motivation. The research shows that external motivators, when used correctly, can actually help people develop intrinsic motivation over time. When students recognize the underlying value of a behavior, identify with it, and integrate it with other aspects of themselves, they will carry out the behavior independently and outside of your control -- even if they are not intrinsically motivated to do so. Although externally motivated, they are more likely to transfer to internal motivation.
In order to achieve integrated extrinsic motivation, three factors must exist. Students must feel a sense of autonomy - that they are not being forced to do the activity; they must feel that they can be successful at the activity (competence); and they must see how the activity helps them function within the classroom and outside culture (relatedness).
The second concept is emergent motivation. This theory asserts that although students may initially find an activity boring, it doesn’t mean that they will always find it so. When they begin to see relevance in the activity or their skill set with the activity improves, and if they can find in the activity opportunities to be successful, the activity becomes more interesting and finally, enjoyable. In other words, our motivation to do something may be initially low, but we can actually grow our motivation over time.
For too long, we have been trying to get students to care about what we teach and lamenting their lack of intrinsic motivation. Turns out, the problem isn’t that our students are not intrinsically motivated. They may never love literature the way that we do. They may never get their kicks from solving impossible math problems and spelling may never be as important to them as it is to us. The real problem is that the way we try to motivate them externally fails and puts the work on us. We have to keep pushing them to get any work out of them at all and we are exhausted. But what if our external motivators could be, well, more motivating? Do we really need students to love everything we do in the classroom or is it enough that they engage for externally motivated reasons, and in doing so, learn to build their own motivation over time?
Don't forget to leave your ideas and comments here
For more information, check out the Handbook of Competence and Motivation. (2005, Elliot, A., and Dweck, C., Eds.)
~Robyn R. Jackson
RAD Lessons can have one or all three components of RAD
Reach (Focused attention & engagement, get through RAS filter to reach thinking brain in prefrontal cortex))
Attitude (Negativity & Stress = Behavior Problems and Learning Blocks. Solutions such as: Directing input through Amygdala with positive attitude, using Individualization for Achievable Challenge
Develop Long-Term and Conceptual Learning (strategies involving: Dopamine, Neuroplasticity with Mental Manipulation and Mistake supported by feedback, Inquiry for Prefrontal Cortex)
Lesson objective: Introduction to unit about rules of punctuation
Grade: Taught to grade 5. Could be applied to upper elementary through high school.
Objective: To promote student interest in wanting to learn about proper use of punctuation so the lesson would engage their attentive focus.
Lesson description: The Problem -Low interest in learning required material: We all know how much students love to learn and practice rules of punctuation. I can clearly visualize their glazed looks when I previously listed, lectured, and had them drill on placement of commas. Even when they “learned” these rules to successfully answer test questions, this knowledge did not become permanent long-term memory or the students did not recognize the concept of comma rules as something of value or personal relevance to apply to their own writing.
To promote curiosity and engage students through an area of high personal interest I told them I had an advance copy of the first pages of a new Harry Potter book by J.K. Rawlings. I explained that although she did not plan to write any more, she was inspired to do a follow up to her last book and a friend had gotten me a sneak preview.
After the students asked questions (I kept answering “you’ll see”) and class curiosity rose, I distributed a page of print. I actually took random paragraphs from an earlier Harry Potter book and typed them into the computer as a single paragraph. I did not include any punctuation or capitalization.
Student responses: After I distributed the page and put one on the overhead and varying durations of trying to make sense out of the page, students protested that they could not read the page. They were truly frustrated. I listened to their complaints and nodded agreement with most of them. The class was so engaged they essentially lead the discussion.
I then asked them to what they wanted to happen to resolve their frustrating dilemma.
The initial responses were what has been called, “welfare teaching” where the teacher does the work for them.
“I want you to put in commas or periods or quotes so I know who says what.”
“I can’t read this because it is not separated into sentences and paragraphs. I need you to put things together that go together.”
My response was that I would help them figure out how to make the page readable if they would write down specifically what they needed to read it successfully.
Now the students took control of finding solutions to a problem they wanted to solve.
“I need to know where to put periods so I can separate the sentences.”
“I want to learn how to pick words that should have capital letters and make those changes in this page.”
“I think there are people talking. I see Harry’s name and words that don’t look like regular words but that people use when they speak. I think those things are clues to where quotation marks go. I want to know if I am right and how else to figure out where to put quotes so I know who says what.”
RAD Connection: This lesson connected with the “R” in RAD. By stimulating students’ interest and curiosity about personally meaningful reading their RAS filters were open to selecting the sensory input I offered in the lesson. The novelty, surprise, and high motivation of these students to read a “new” Harry Potter book resulted in their personalization of the learning goal. They had a “Here-Me-Now” desire to have punctuation. THEY WANTED TO LEARN WHAT I HAD TO TEACH.
Understanding by Design Meets Neuroscience
Judy Willis, M.D., M.Ed.
Consider the Best Computer Game Model: In the most compelling computer games, think about what the player gets after working through the challenges of each successive level. When they succeed at mastering the skills of the new level, they don’t get prizes, money, hugs, or teacher approval. They get recognition of their incremental progress by being promoted to the next level of play – which is actually MORE CHALLENGING WORK! These game attributes, applied to teaching, can have the same motivating and successful effects on learners.
What makes computer games so captivating? The successful computer games promote goal orientation, perseverance (even after failure), scaffolding when needed, clear tasks, opportunities to practice, and recognize one’s own incremental goal progress. The best games are broken up into levels. Reaching the next levels provide opportunities for players to recognize their progress on their way to the final game goal.
Achievable Challenge. The most popular computer games provide increasingly challenging levels as players become more and more skillful. As skill improves, the next challenge is at again at an appropriate level of achievable challenge that the player can reach with practice, effort, and perseverance. This game model correlates to using achievable challenge, motivating goals, & feedback about incremental progress in the classroom, with the scaffolding provided for support, as students are motivated to strategically build mastery.
Collaboration of Neuroscience, Cognitive Science, and Education
The confidence base is established when students know that they will have access to the tools and support they need to reach the high expectations differentiated for them. These are the classrooms where the bar does not need to be lowered or challenge eliminated in the name of access. Achievable challenge set students on appropriately challenging paths increases maximum brain engagement. The extra planning time is rewarded by increased student engagement such that less time needed for behavior management and students have increased motivation to participate in class and on homework.
The additional brain-memory bonus, as I’ve written about previously, is the dopamine-reward cycle activation where students’ pleasure-reward response responds to more frequent opportunities to recognize their own incremental goal progress. In addition of this perseverance promoting effect of dopamine released by intrinsic motivation, students develop the concept that effort does bring goal progress, and regardless of past experiences, they can succeed with effort and opportunities to get the support and tools they need to promote their success.
Achievable challenge set students on appropriately challenging paths increases maximum brain engagement. The extra planning time is rewarded by increased student engagement such that less time needed for behavior management and students have increased motivation to participate in class and on homework. The additional brain-memory bonus, as I’ve written about previously, is the dopamine-reward cycle activation where students’ pleasure-reward response responds to more frequent opportunities to recognize their own incremental goal progress. In addition of this perseverance promoting effect of dopamine released by intrinsic motivation, students develop the concept that effort does bring goal progress, and regardless of past experiences, they can succeed with effort and opportunities to get the support and tools they need to promote their success.
Neuroscience, Cognitive Science, and Education: UbD for Neuro-logical Planning and Instruction
When I recognized the compatibility of the computer game model with the correlations of my area of specialization as a neurologist, and later during my ten years of teaching elementary and middle school, I sought models though which the computer game model could be best applied to curriculum and assessment planning as well as to classroom instruction. I found was the work of Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins in their Understanding by Design (UbD) and Planning by Design books provides a wealth of information for planning, assessment, and instruction. My references to UbD in this article are to aspects particularly relevant to the computer game model including: a curriculum and assessment model that includes backward planning starting with goals as “big ideas” and “essential questions”, advance planning of formative and summative assessments with ongoing student feedback and teacher feedback, authentic performance tasks as assessments that teach and motivate, and transfer of learning to new domains.
Achievable Challenge and Student Awareness of Incremental Progress: Successful curriculum, assessment, and goal planning are required for the video game model (dopamine-reward system) to work its magic. The UbD model sets up information delivery and output goals that are ideal for the patterning, prediction, and pleasure systems that drive and guide the brain.
Research has given us increasing understanding of what sensory input has the greatest likelihood of passing through the brain’s attention and emotional filters to reach the highest emotional and intellectual control centers in the prefrontal cortex. We know more and more about what it takes to retain that new input, first in working memory then in long-term and extended conceptual memory.
We have the guidance of further research supporting the “packaging” and “output goals” that promote the brain’s most efficient internal drives and organization. The UbD system is ideal for the brain’s structure and function by incorporating core concepts into meaningful and authentic contexts and including opportunities to “play the game while building the skills” as students apply learning throughout the acquisition process.
The likelihood of information being maintained in long-term memory increases when students’ brains are prepared in advance to “catch” the new input. This requires that we confirm that students’ foundational knowledge is accurate and then use strategies to activate the memory circuits of prior knowledge to which new input can physically link to construct working memory. Without this preactivation, there is nothing to which new input can link and new learning, failing to consolidate with an existing circuit, is not retained.
To prepare students for the dopamine-reward system that sustains motivation and memory through incremental goal progress, we need to preassess and correct faulty foundational knowledge, activate prior knowledge, and sustain the incremental progress awareness through ongoing formative assessments and feedback. This involves differentiation and individualization with scaffolding to customize the learning process for students’ levels of achievable challenge. Then, with opportunities to apply and transfer learning through enjoyable and personally relevant activities, students reach that video game model state in which they want to learn what they have to learn.
For the two years, I have had the privilege of collaborating with Jay McTighe. One area of our focus is curriculum planning and instructional strategies that incorporate the computer game model’s dopamine-reward system, fueled by the intrinsic motivation of incremental progress recognition. Our work together has further convinced me that achievable challenges are promoted when student interest is developed and teachers communicate high expectations while insuring that students have the support and scaffolding needed to achieve the challenges.
The component of incremental progress requires clearly structured and motivating goals that are made evident to the students from the beginning. Transparent expectations are also part of UbD planning, as students know the goals and assessments in advance. The recognition of incremental progress is supported by the authentic assessments and frequent feedback about goal progress throughout the unit (instead of their receiving feedback only by summative test scores of rote memory at the end of units). The clarity and student-desirability of unit goals is what the brain needs to best use its pattern-seeking design to construct and expand memory stored in relational networks.
With input now having a “big idea” or “essential question” on which to link, patterning activities can strengthen links and extend relational memory networks. These activities need to continue to appeal to the brain’s prediction, pattern, and pleasure seeking. As in the video game process where players use trial and error, inductive reasoning, instructive feedback from the game, and even read the manual to reach their goals, students will do the same when they value the mental manipulations (such as the authentic performance tasks in UbD) and available resources as tools to reach their desired goals. The same is true with corrective feedback and direct instruction during a unit if students’ brains directly link this input with the goals they seek.
The key is to develop desirable goals, provide individual students the paths to progress that suit their levels of achievable challenge, then to provide them with frequent opportunities to recognize their individual incremental goal progress. These students not only benefit from the intrinsic satisfaction of the dopamine-reward response to their incremental progress (as the video game player does to getting to the next level), but they also change their brains.
Neuroplasticity is the process through which the brain sustains learning in long-term memory and links related memory circuits together as conceptual knowledge. Each time a memory circuit is activated, electricity that flows through it fuels neuroplastic construction (dendrites, synapses, myelination of axons). This circuit activation is most effective when students are motivated by personally relevant performance tasks and opportunities for authentic transfer activities throughout the learning process.
It has long been the goal of education to provide students with skills and knowledge to serve them beyond the classroom and the habits of mind that sustain lifelong learning. Now this goal is even more critical as much of the information and technology that will be available to today’s students when they graduate is not even here now. Fortunately, we have the correlations from neuroscience and cognitive science to guide us in designing learning experiences to promote the construction of long-term, conceptual memory and the circuits of executive functions that will serve our students beyond graduation.
From clear goals as the “packaging” for successful brain intake, to authentic performance tasks for mental manipulation, and transfer opportunities to apply learning in ways beyond those in which it was acquired and practiced, we have tools to promote learning consistent with the brain’s most powerful neural processing. Despite the unrealistic demands of an over-packed curriculum, the convergence of neuroscience and cognitive science, advances in curriculum planning, assessment quality, and instructional strategies can engage the brain as powerfully as the best video game. We have the tools to plan instruction with the packaging of information input and clarity of goal-directed output that aligns with and IGNITE our students’ brains’ most successful processing now and in the future.
Copyright © 2011 by Judy Willis
Dr. Judy Willis, a board-certified neurologist and middle school teacher in Santa Barbara, California, attended UCLA School of Medicine, where she remained as a resident and ultimately became chief resident in neurology. She practiced neurology for 15 years, and then received a credential and master's degree in education from the University of California, Santa Barbara. She has taught in elementary, middle, and graduate schools; and provides professional development presentations and workshops nationally and internationally about learning and the brain. Her website is www.RADTeach.com
Classroom strategies from a neurologist
Children are naturally curious and have magnificent senses of wonder. They want to learn and explore. Often starting at age three or four, especially if they have older siblings, children look forward with great excitement to the day they can start school. The big day comes and things might go well for a few years. Then something changes and school is no longer a wondrous place. How sad that is.
The No Child Left Behind agenda has resulted in one-size-fits-all cookbook curriculum that leaves little room for teachers to make lessons engaging enough to be considered "valuable" by the brain's intake filters. All learning comes through the senses and what sensory information comes in is the unconscious decision of our primitive lower brains. Priority is given to HERE-ME-NOW input such as novelty or input that previously was associated with pleasure.
Animals need that sorting system to be alert to signs of danger or potential pleasure (the sight of potential prey or the smell of a potential mate). Through natural selection, the animals with brain intake filters most successful at alerting to novelty and change, have survived. Humans have this same primitive brain information intake system. At the unconscious, reflexive level our brains are programmed to let in input (pay attention to) novelty, change, and cues that are linked with pleasure.
Those prerequisites to paying attention are not found in classrooms where the teacher lectures and the students "memorize" facts they regurgitate on tests and soon forget. Neuroimaging PET and fMRI scans provide evidence that this type of rote learning is the most quickly forgotten because the information is never stored in long-term memory storage. As students lose interest in lecture-and-memorize classes, their attention wanders and disruptive behaviors are the natural consequence. Even for children who are able to maintain focus on rote instruction, the disruptive responses of their classmates are encroaching more and more on their teachers' instruction time as teachers spend more time trying to maintain order.
Today's brain toxic focus of fact memorization is not the fault of teachers, many of whom started teaching before NCLB invaded their classrooms. In those days, in the best classrooms, lessons were interactive and information was delivered through activities, projects, field trips, discovery, and class visits by professionals who used the math, science, or language in their cool jobs or hobbies.
The toxic NCLB pressure resulted in teach-to-the test curriculum with its drill-and-kill worksheets and memorization. The cost our children is the loss of the golden opportunity to build on their curiosity and enthusiasm. As early as kindergarten children begin to begrudge their time in school and gradually their brains construct neural circuits for self-stimulation (talking during lectures, drawing pictures instead of doing boring worksheets, fidgeting with change in their pockets or toys hidden in their desks). I'll save for another time the fact that the toxicity of the stress of boredom and frustration also causes the sustained release of too much cortisol, which kills neurons and damages the immune system. (More on this topic on George Lucas's Edutopia Website in the discussion of the webinar I did for them in early April: http://www.edutopia.org/webinar-discussion-april-2009#comment-59931
Parents' intervention is now needed to help children reach their highest potentials and find ways to help them connect to the information in mind-numbing classes. Parents can use the brain-friendly practices used in great classrooms by teachers who know how the brain learns. These strategies will breath life and increase unconscious attentiveness to the mandated, overstuffed curriculum. Without parent stimulation, children's brain pathways to the prefrontal cortex (highest thinking conscious decision making brain) are pruned away from disuse.
If we give children experiences that make the classroom lessons relevant, we are counteracting the toxic classroom experiences. When children are prepared with background knowledge that helps them personally relate to school units, new information will reach the prefrontal cortex, the reflective, thinking, conscious brain where creativity, prediction, deduction, independent judgment, memory building, and insight await the arrival of new input to process.
Many schools are cutting back on the extracurricular activities that build character and add multidimensionality to learning. Those children are feeling more disconnected from their teachers and schools, but parents can use art, music, family field trips, and meaningful discussion to increase children's connection to their school subjects.
Budgets and job security in the school system are tied to schools' abilities to mass-produce students trained to pass standardized tests that reward rote memorization skills. Instead of encouraging children's critical thinking skills, teachers are pushed to "teach to the test" and students in their classrooms are losing interest in the information force fed to them in these toxic classrooms. With home supplementary engagement of children's personal connections, background knowledge, and curiosity parents can bring life back into their learning while helping children build the critical thinking and reasoning skills that are being sacrificed with this rote memorization approach to teaching.
Learning can be a joy. Parents know their children better than any teacher ever will. Using the growing field of evidence-based neuroscience and learning research strategies now available, parents can assist their children learn what they need to know to pass the tests and much, MUCH more. Using strategies that engage and captivate your children's interests, parents can work with them at home to enhance their personal connection with and critical thinking about the dry, factual data they are served up at school.
The realities of standardized tests and increasingly structured, if not synchronized, curriculum continue to build the levels of classroom toxic stress for children. Cutting edge neuroimaging research (PET scans, fMRI scans) reveals significant disturbances in the brain's learning circuits and the brain's chemical messengers that accompany stressful learning environments. Science has provided us with information about the negative brain impact of stress and anxiety and the beneficial changes in the brain that are seen when children are motivated by and personally connected to their lessons.
In the past decade, the neuroimaging and brain-mapping research that I evaluated from my perspective as a neurologist and classroom teacher have provided objective support to the student-centered educational model where students feel they are partners in their education. This brain research demonstrates that superior learning takes place when information is presented in ways relevant to students' lives, interests, and experiences. Lessons must be stimulating and challenging, without being intimidating, for the increasing curriculum standards to be achieved without stress, anxiety, boredom, and alienation becoming the emotions children experience in their classrooms.
During the fifteen years I practiced adult and child neurology with neuroimaging and brain mapping as part of my diagnostic tool kit, I worked with patients of all ages with disorders of brain function, including learning differences. When I returned to university to obtain my teaching credential and Masters of Education degree, these neuroimaging tools that I had used as in my neurology practice had become available to researchers in the field of education.
This brain research demonstrates that superior learning takes place when classroom experiences are motivating and engaging. Positive motivation impacts brain metabolism, conduction of nerve impulses through the memory areas, and the release of neurotransmitters (brain chemicals like dopamine) that increase attention, focus, organization of thoughts, and high-level thinking called executive function. We now see the brain response when lessons are relevant to children's lives, interests, and experiences so each child feels he or she is a partner in the learning process and develops personally relevant goals that motivate attentive focus to the topics of study.
Empathy – a term used to describe Supreme Court nominee Sotomayor personally and judicially – is poorly understood. Empathy is wrongly described as a ‘feeling’. Empathy is not sympathy. It is the intellectual act of putting yourself in another’s shoes – it is a non-sectarian term for the Golden Rule.
The term comes originally from art criticism: it was argued that the viewers had to pro-actively place themselves into the artist’s mind and heart if they were ever to ‘understand’ the work of art. Empathy is deliberate understanding of the life of others, surely the job of a wise judge.
This was in fact the point Sotomayor made in her now-famous speech in which she talked about perhaps being a wiser Latina than a white man in certain situations. Her final comment is thoughtful - and conveniently overlooked by her critics:
“However, to understand takes time and effort, something that not all people are willing to give. For others, their experiences limit their ability to understand the experiences of others. Other simply do not care. Hence, one must accept the proposition that a difference there will be by the presence of women and people of color on the bench. Personal experiences affect the facts that judges choose to see.”
The latest post from the Mindsteps Blog
I was talking to a friend and colleague over the holiday break about my frustration with most professional development models. You know the kinds of experiences I’m talking about – the sit and get, spray and pray deals most of us have had to endure perched atop those really uncomfortable cafeteria stools or crammed into the media center aimlessly flipping through a stack of handouts or secretly completing a crossword puzzle while desperately wishing I was in my classroom grading papers and praying for 3:30 when they would unlock the doors and set us free. I’ve always hated those days and work very hard not to deliver the same kind of professional development when I conduct workshops and yet, there were several times in 2009 when I came very close to providing or participating in someone else’s providing the very same kind of experience.
There has got to be a better way.
And in 2010, I am looking to find it. So I am throwing down the Professional Development Gauntlet: If I cannot deliver a professional development experience that is worth more to teachers than spending the same amount of time grading papers, I won’t offer it.
You see, I started Mindsteps not because I wanted to get in on the professional development gravy train. I started Mindsteps because I believed that there was a better way to help teachers. I have never understood why we use such bad teaching practices to show teachers how to be better teachers. I want every teacher to become a master teacher, to reach every child in his or her classroom and to have a ball doing it. I love teaching so much that I want everyone in this profession to love it. And I am convinced that can’t happen if we continue to teach teachers in the same ways we always have. So, I am going to stop trying to improve the old model.
I am going to build a new one.
The old model doesn’t work and I am no longer satisfied with trying to tweak it. I think if we are going to do what’s right for kids and provide every one of them with a quality education we have to start and end with a master teacher in every classroom. That’s a scary idea to a lot of people. Whenever I declare that any teacher can become a master teacher with the right kind of support and practice, I always face skepticism. People think it isn’t possible and they are right as long as we continue to provide the kinds of training we are currently providing. If we are really going to make a difference for teachers, for the quality of their teaching and the quality of their lives in the classroom, we have got to start by dramatically overhauling the kind of support and practice we provide them.
I want professional development that:
It’s an ambitious list that I am sure will grow and change over the next few months as I begin this journey. And if I am really honest, this is a scary thing to do. It means that I am now accountable to you and it also means that in my attempts to create a new way of providing professional development, I will make some mistakes. Publicly. But I am tired of the same ole, same ole.
I think you deserve better.
I also want to make it clear: I am not beating up my colleagues who provide professional development. I understand how easy it is to get sucked into the old model of providing PD. Many of the conditions are frankly outside of our control. We come in for a day or two and then leave hoping that somehow that brief amount of time has made a difference. I have been sucked into that model as well. But I want something better for the teachers I serve and I am inviting my colleagues to join me in reaching for it. In fact, I will be engaging my colleagues in conversations about how we can create a new model of professional development that honors teachers and our profession. I cannot solve this problem alone. I need their help.
I also need your help. What kind of professional development would be most useful to you? What kinds of experiences would dramatically improve your practice? Go ahead and dream big here. I can’t do this without you. I invite you to leave your comments and ideas here. I will check in with you each month and let you know how we are doing.
Please take time to comment and let’s build something better together.
[Full Disclosure: I’m an independent marketing consultant who works with ASCD on communicating about their products and stirring up trouble whenever I can.]
Last week, all H E double-hockey-sticks broke loose in the education community when the Los Angeles Times announced that it was going to publish a series of articles called Grading the Teachers that would ostensibly show “how effective Los Angeles Unified School District teachers have been at improving their students' performance on standardized tests.” The article that followed the announcement went so far as to identify to the public individual teachers as being “effective” or “ineffective” based on an evaluation method known as “value added” analysis.
Although US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was fine with it, most people remotely related to education were not. Two prominent ASCD authors and commentators Diane Ravitch and Rick Hess, who often don’t see eye-to-eye on school policy-related matters, had no problem agreeing that the LAT’s public outing of teachers was out of line.
Ravitch criticized the LAT for using test scores alone as a basis for teacher evaluation, while Hess said the LAT’s treatment of teachers “confuses as much as it clarifies, puts more stress on primitive systems than they can bear, and promises to unnecessarily entangle a useful management tool in personalities and public reputations.”
A big problem with the LAT’s approach is that the value added methodology really doesn’t work for many reasons, as Daniel Willingham explains here.
Willingham also has a nifty animated video on YouTube that is probably the most easily digestible analysis of the many flaws with value added evaluation.
Despite these misgivings with value added measurements of teachers’ performance, other states appear to be moving ahead with this approach. Part of the reason for this is that the federal government is requiring these types of evaluations in order to qualify for competitive grants such as Race to the Top. So the pressure will continue to build to evaluate teachers based on student test scores, at least in part.
ASCD has been looking at teacher evaluation for years. Ten years ago, two giants in the field Charlotte Danielson and Thomas McGreal wrote Teacher Evaluation for Professional Practice which emphasizes the role of professional development in teacher evaluation. In their third chapter, they explain that an effective teacher evaluation system has “three essential elements:”
”• A coherent definition of the domain of teaching (the ‘What?’), including decisions concerning the standard for acceptable performance (‘How good is good enough?’).
• Techniques and procedures for assessing all aspects of teaching (the ‘How?’).
• Trained evaluators who can make consistent judgments about performance, based on evidence of the teaching as manifested in the procedures.”
Four years later, ASCD published Linking Teacher Evaluation and Student Learning by Pamela D. Tucker and James H. Stronge. Their take is that teacher evaluations, in order to be effective, really need to include “objective data” of student learning, which could include test scores. They look at four different types of evaluation systems that incorporate objective data, including student work samples, standards-based criteria, student goal setting, and yes, value-added assessment. But Tucker and Stronge also point out that
”Accountability should be thought of as a collective responsibility for supporting learning by parents, principals, superintendents, school board members, and teachers, to say nothing of the students themselves. Holding teachers accountable for student achievement without recognition of the roles played by these other partners in the educational process is patently unfair and can amount to scapegoating.”
(emphasis not added)
So, safe to say that these ASCD authors wouldn’t approve of what happened in LA either.
Will the type of incident that happened in LA likely occur again? No doubt, the pressure to implement widespread teacher evaluations isn’t going to go away. But until there’s more clarity about how to do it, these types of public humiliations should not be repeated. And before there are more of these kinds of incidents, educators can develop approaches to teacher evaluation that are more fair and effective. What do you think?
A guiding question for educators should be, "Would I want my child in this classroom?" Educators should constantly reflect on curriculum and instruction, while attempting to answer this important question. If college readiness is the goal, then all students should receive a quality curriculum which prepares them for the next level of learning. The recently released Common Core State Standards for Mathematics assert that "It is time to recognize that standards are not just promises to our children, but promises we intend to keep" (2010, p. 5).
Would I want my child in this classroom:
1. if a majority of the instruction is focused on memorization and recall?
2. if the teacher uses a single textbook for history and does not teach multiple perspectives?
3. if the science and social studies classes are considered non-essential for grades K-5, because they are not tested?
4. if the curriculum is not aligned (horizontally or vertically)?
5. if the teacher is passionate about worksheets?
6. if the grading practices force my child to love a 95% more than the love of learning the intrinsic benefits of education?
7. if the principal of the school values test prep and test scores over student understanding and the whole child?
8. if the SMART Board is used as a glorified overhead projector?
9. if the teacher values straight rows and order versus student collaboration and project-based learning?
10. if the teacher views multiple choice tests as authentic assessments which prepare my child for the 21st century workforce?
It is not difficult to answer these questions from a parent's perspective. If you do not have a child, think of your favorite nephew, cousin, neighbor, or another child who is important in your life. Would you be pleased to find out that some of the teachers in the school teach the standards, while other teachers create their own lessons and units of study without following any guide from the state standards or local curriculum guides? Would you jump for joy to find out that the students in one sixth grade classroom are learning the essential learning outcomes while your son's teacher proudly admits, "I don't believe in a common curriculum or the district's curriculum map?" How would you react if your daughter enters college and spends her first year taking remediation courses? The courses will be on your dime, because one or more teachers failed to offer a 'guaranteed curriculum.'
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." Do you have a teacher in your building that is opposed to following the state standards? Do you have a team of teachers that cannot agree on which key concepts to teach because they are a dysfunctional team? Do you conduct teacher evaluations and give high marks to teachers that still lecture for 45 minutes and then assign the students a worksheet? Do you know if your teachers have a college-readiness approach? Is curriculum alignment an activity that happened three years ago on an Early Release Day? As curriculum leaders, it is the role of teachers and administrators to make certain that injustice does not exist when it comes to curriculum and instruction. Injustice is easy to spot. Ask yourself, "Would I want my child in this classroom?"
Additional ASCD EDge Resources by the Author on this Topic: