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It is part of federal law that students with special needs should have their strengths identified and described in their IEPs (IDEA 2004 Section 1414(d)(3)(A)). And yet, when I search the special education literature online, I find virtually nothing dedicated to identifying strengths in these students.
If a student is having difficulty in school, what they need is to have adults around them who see the very best in them, not just their deficits, disorders, and dysfunctions. I’ve created an informal 165-item strength-based checklist in my book Neurodiversity in the Classroom: Strength-Based Strategies to Help Students with Special Needs Succeed in School and Life. However, there are a number of formal strength-based assessments out there that should be utilized by special education personnel in identifying the strengths of students with special needs. Here are seven of them:
I would be interested in hearing from special educators or researchers who use one or more of these strength-based assessments with a special education population or with individual students with special needs. In particular, I’d like to know what impact knowledge of strengths has upon the students themselves as well as their teachers. Contact me at: email@example.com or visit my website at: www.institute4learning.com.
Long-term predictability. In non-linear systems, a lack of understanding, the smallest miscalculation, or the smallest bit of information missing magnifies throughout the system until predictions are useless (Waldrop, 1992). Unpredictability is key to creativity which emerges from complex interactions and “cannot be intended in any comprehensive way….we are agents in systems that are coevolving into an open-ended evolutionary space” (Stacey, 1996, p. 71, 217). We are not in control of what happens in long-term outcomes.
The system moves toward a strange attractor like the mission and vision of a school, but never reaches the mission and vision. The system continues to move toward the mission and vision from the given point of the school generated by the sociocultural and environmental contexts driven by the specific interactions of the multitude of agents residing in the school community or any networked systems resulting in the school “orbiting” shakily around this strange attractor as those negotiations are made (Gilstrap, 2005). Long-term outcomes based on these uncertain, complex movements are unpredictable at best (U.S. Department of Education, 1998).
Short-term predictability. In complex systems, themes and archetypes are recognizable (Stacey, 1996; Waldrop, 1992). In fact, understanding the history of a complex system to look for patterns allows educators to plan within a short-term time frame, sometimes simply the next move to be made. This almost total lack of control causes the behavior of the system to emerge. Short term, general predictions are possible since tiny fluctuations take time to build and the momentum of the system is rooted in the past (Kieren, 2005; Stacey, 1996). “Patterns emerge at higher levels as a result of adaptive dynamics at lower levels of integration…prediction is limited, and…we must develop statistical mechanical methods to extract the knowable from the unknown” (Levin, 2002, p. 15).
When analyzing their school’s organizational context, principals cannot underestimate the unpredictability of the long-term future of the system. Marginalized populations within the school act as a recessive system undermining the efforts of the dominant, legitimate system. The future of the school emerges from interactions within and between the recessive and the dominant systems. A new paradigm that recognizes and makes meaning of the dynamic, nonlinear versus linear nature of the processes and interactions of these two subsystems would help protect principals from unreasonable long-term planning, unproductive and unmanaged conflict, innovative but misguided agents, and wasted time due to superficial work and restructuring efforts not based on emergence (Bower, 2006; Stacey, 1996).
The dominant paradigm rosily sees success in stability, predictability, and carefully strategic plans (Stacey, 1996). “Predictions are nice, if you can make them. But the essence of science lies in explanation, laying bare the fundamental mechanisms of nature” (Waldrop, 1992, p. 39). Educational complexity is not different. Researchers have to look at explaining how education works with the knowledge that it may not result in predictability since education is emergent based on too many factors to mathematically analyze.
History and past pedagogy is important to creating effective high-performing, high-poverty schools (HP2S), but vast changes in the sociocultural capital available to students in this decade make research of previous decades null or irrelevant. Even within the same time period, findings in one context will not be generalizable to another setting. Failing schools that are trying to transform cannot hope to perfectly implement what other successful schools have accomplished because of the unpredictability of complex systems (Barr & Parrett, 2007; Berliner, 2002; Brady, retrieved October 22, 2007; Church, 2005).
Strategic planning in complex environments results in rigid processes such as goal setting and action plans that restrict emergence. Educational institutions should allow for a more flexible process that takes into account causal relationships (Gilstrap, 2005). Small fluctuations would have a harder time permeating multiple boundaries within similar structures across a flattened hierarchy. This redundancy provides stability, robustness, and resilience against small environmental fluctuations (Stacey, 1996).
This post is a part of the ASCD Forum conversation “how do we define and measure teacher and principal effectiveness?” To learn more about the ASCD Forum, go to www.ascd.org/ascdforum.
As we face rapid technological, environmental, economic, political, and social changes in this new world, the need for dedicated, skilled teachers has never been greater. We need teachers who can teach children not only how to solve problems, but how to use higher-order thinking skills to discern what problems need solving—teachers who can inspire students to do their best work and thrive as contributing citizens in an increasingly complex world.
We need, in short, teachers who move beyond good teaching to great teaching—transformative teaching. Just as students need a specific set of skills to equip them to succeed in the 21st century, teachers need a specific set of tools to be effective teachers of 21st century learners.
Responsive Classroom professional development focuses on building 21st century teacher skills in three crucial, interrelated domains:
Too often in schools, community, management, and academics are seen as three separate domains. Responsive Classroom approaches the challenge of increasing teacher effectiveness for the 21st century by helping educators develop teaching skills that simultaneously apply across all three of these crucial, interrelated domains.
Teachers who have these tools at their command have the ability to immediately impact student learning in powerful, positive, and lasting ways. Few teachers begin their careers with highly developed skills in all three domains, which is where professional development comes in. We work with teachers, schools, and districts to develop the skills that today’s teachers need to realize our shared vision of a high-quality education for every child, every day.
What do you do when Graduate School loands and Fellowships only cover have of your expenses and you need structure too much to wait another 2-3 months about scholarships?
I tried Crowdfunding. It's actually kind of like a social experiment. I learned so much making this project funding page.
Please read it, I'm very interested to hear what people think.
Help fund my grad degree so I can help others! I'm about begin a program in Environmental Science and Policy at Columbia University in NYC, but I need support.
I have an article in the April 9, 2013 online issue of Education Week Teacher entitled: ”7 Ways to Bring Out the Best in Special Needs Students.” In the article, I share the experience of a music teacher who had a young student with Asperger’s syndrome in her class who said he hated music and proceeded to make her and the class miserable for the rest of the year. But then she introduced him to GarageBand, the Apple software program that allows users to easily compose music. He took to it like gangbusters, and soon, he was winning acceptance from others for his music, and had a whole new way to express himself in the world.
This story suggests that we focus on the strengths of kids with special needs rather than focus too much time on their weaknesses. I share seven tips for doing this: 1. discover students’ strengths, 2. provide role models of people with disabilities, 3. develop strength-based learning strategies, 4. use assistive technologies and Universal Design for learning methodologies, 5. maximize the power of your students’ social networks, 6. help students envision positive futures, and 7. create positive environmental modifications. To read the entire article, click here. You can also leave a comment just below the online article if you wish. I’d love to get your reactions!
Many confuse chaos theory with complexity theory. Chaos theory is defined by nonlinear, chaotic systems, homogeneous in nature, moving toward strange attractors which may very well describe dysfunctional organizational units within a complex system. Complexity theory seeks to understand heterogeneous complex adaptive systems moving toward one or more attractor patterns with the ability for “strong emergence” with radically novel results which describes the institution of education as a whole (Gilstrap, 2005).
Theory is meant to explain in order to gain understanding to the point of accurate predictability whereas the science of complexity serves as a “conceptual framework” or paradigm to analyze complex adaptive systems (Semetsky, 2006). Bloch (2005) says, “It is in the nature of each [complex adaptive entity] to adapt to its environment and internal state to maintain its life” (p. 195). Levin (2002) defines the properties of complex adaptive systems as diversity and individuality of components, localized interactions among those components, and an autonomous process that uses the outcomes of those interactions to select a subset of those components for replication or enhancement. Schools can only be complex if they are more than their ‘complicated’ parts. Structure is not enough since those components have to be in competition and cooperation with each other to have enough tension for the system to become emergent as appropriate components within the school are replicated and enhanced. Schools are just now beginning to embrace complexity since the past has been an effort to revolve and replicate the entire institution of education around a point attractor and wait for the next cycle to occur.
In Waldrop’s (1992) masterpiece, he defines complexity as:
A class of behaviors in which the components of the system never quite lock into place, yet never quite dissolve into turbulence, either. These are the systems that are both stable enough to store information, and yet evanescent enough to transmit it. These are the systems that can be organized to perform complex computations, to react to the world, to be spontaneous, adaptive, and alive (p. 293).
While Stacey’s (1996) following piece examining complexity in human organizations speculates
what the peculiarly human features do seem to add is potential complexity; they make the operation of human systems more complex and unpredictable rather than less so…the rate of information flow, the level of diversity in schemas, and the richness of connectivity among agents all remain as control parameters [with] further control parameters added…of power differentials and levels of anxiety containment (p. 114)
which move the organization along the complexity continuum and/or edge of chaos.
“Complexity arises because you have a great many of these simple components interacting simultaneously” (Waldrop, 1992, p. 86). Since broad features of complex adaptive systems are knowable (Levin, 2002), “the challenge for theorists…is to formulate universal laws that describe when and how such complexities emerge in nature” (Waldrop, 1992, p. 86). Understandings of complex organizations coalesce around relationships, especially in schools where the density of network connections determines the level of complexity (Bloch, 2005; Gilstrap, 2005).
A supersystem such as education has “a holographic or fractal aspect in which the parts interact continually to recreate the whole and the whole affects how the parts interact” (Stacey, 1996, p. 21). As smaller organizational units or fractals, which look similar to the overall organization, paradoxically enable and constrain each other through the layers of the organization, leaders have the opportunity to understand, through complexity science, the “dynamic, co-implicated…integrated levels—including the neurological, the experiential, the contextual/material, the social, the symbolic, the cultural, and the ecological—” of the school “rather than isolated phenomena” (Davis & Simmt, 2006, p. 296). Levin (2002, p. 16-17) asks “seductive” questions surrounding the study of complex adaptive systems that make their study relevant to educational leaders facing diminishing resources, increasing accountability, a hostile political environment, rigid school structures protected by reluctant staff and unions, growing concerns of equity and social justice, and absent family involvement:
The dominant metaparadigm currently views organizations predominantly in equilibrium with members acting rationally and cooperating. Outcomes are predictable in the long run within a regular and uniform world. A metaparadigm based on the science of complexity would understand effective organizations as far from equilibrium operating at the edge of chaos, but not quite falling into chaos. The organization could embrace the paradox of competition and self-organizing cooperation in the behavior of its agents. Actions into outcomes would be unpredictable except in the extremely short-term as “the links between actions and their long-term outcomes are lost in the complex interactions between various components of the system” (Stacey, 1996, p. 248).
An educational complexity metaparadigm would serve as a framework for understanding how school systems act as complex adaptive systems within local, national, and global ecosystems (Waldrop, 1992). Because complex adaptive systems have many parts cooperating and competing, interaction is too overwhelming to reflect on at once, so, paradoxically, educators use many lenses to focus on one or two aspects of a system while keeping in mind that all the systems and agents working together actually account for what is happing on local and global scales (Stacey, 1996). Educational complexity is the matrix of cultural, social, environmental, political, symbolic, economic, historical, and directional interactions and contexts of which any given school is comprised. A school would not exist in as richly a manner and be able to provide the degree of cognitive stimulation necessary for the development of future citizenry without the complexity existent in the public school system. If we were all white, middle-class males from the same geographic location of the U. S. and would never work outside the local school community, then maybe complexity would not be as big an issue; regardless, the brain is a complex learning system that grows by being challenged and making connections through complex problem-solving situations (Nasir & Hand, 2006).
Education is constantly barraged by new programs and new practices (Marzano et al., 2005). The recent trend of comprehensive school reform recognizes the complexity of the school system and attempts “to address all aspects of school effectiveness” (U.S. Department of Education, 1998, p. 21); however, through a lens of complexity, leadership recognizes resources “not as discrete items…but as inter-related variables that are a part of a comprehensive plan to impact student achievement in high-poverty schools. This is an important step beyond one-shot remedies or magic bullets” (Machtinger, 2007, p. 7). Marzano and colleagues(2005) agree with Fritz (1984) and Fullan (2001) that education is too complex for absolute truths or “once-and-for-all answers” (p. 67). DuFour and Eaker (1998) reiterate, “The interconnectedness of the elements affecting teaching and learning makes it impossible to attribute either improvements or problems to a single area” (p. 268). Leaders prepare for structural and pedagogical changes in school function as complex, difficult, and dependent on context while gauging multiple cores of successful practice within unstable environments (Marzano et al., 2005; Schechter & Tischler, 2007; Chenoweth, 2007).
The use of Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences (MI theory) has been increasing by leaps and bounds in countries across the globe. In many countries, it has become part of national policy. In India, for example, as part of its National Curriculum Framework for School Education teachers are required to have familiarity with the concepts of multiple intelligences. Gardner himself writes: “…I have been amazed to learn of jurisdictions in which the terminology of MI has been incorporated into white papers, recommendations by ministries, and even legislation…I have heard from reliable sources that MI approaches are part of the policy landscape in such diverse lands as Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, China, Denmark, Ireland and the Netherlands” (Multiple Intelligences: New Horizons in Theory and Practice, p. 248).
At the same time, research studies based on multiple intelligences have multiplied in higher education institutions around the world. Journal articles dedicated to this subject have covered populations from areas as diverse as Namibia, Zimbabwe, Zambia, South Africa, Malaysia, China, and Japan. In Geneva, Switzerland, the prestigious International Baccalaureate (IB) Organization, which offers programs to over 600,000 students in 128 countries, has acknowledged Gardner’s role in influencing its own approach to learning: “Howard Gardner has been influential in changing views about learning and the ways we learn. Access and equity within the IB today is much wider than it was previously. It is acknowledged that all students have strengths and weaknesses which must be supported in a strategic way for them to meet their potential.” (IB World, September, 2007).
In the Phillipines, the MI International High School in Quezon City (a suburb of Manila) puts MI theory to work in the cause of promoting entrepreneurship among its students. Students are challenged to develop real-world business plans based on ideas that emerge from MI lessons. A linguistic group, for example, developed Flash Range, a media center that creates books for teens that deal with environmental and personal and emotional growth issues. A musical group created a business called Boom Box Music, which offers musical composition and record production services. A group of people-smart students conceptualized their own family restaurant –Pastuchi- featuring a fusion of Italian and Japanese cuisines.
In Denmark, the industrial manufacturer Danfoss, has created a theme park—Danfoss Universe– that incorporates many strategies and ideas from multiple intelligences. They have essentially created a multiple intelligences interactive museum, where children and adults participate in over fifty activities designed to both test their multiple intelligences and also raise awareness concerning the many different ways of being smart.
In my own work with multiple intelligences, I’ve given keynotes and workshops in twenty countries including Iceland, Singapore, and the tiny province of Andorra. I’ve had my books on multiple intelligences translated in over fifty foreign editions into twenty-three languages (including 11 editions in Chinese alone). It’s truly been marvelous to see the broad impact that MI theory has been making internationally.
To learn more about the impact of multiple intelligences in cultures around the world, see: Multiple Intelligences Around the World, Jie-Qi Chen, Seana Moran, and Howard Gardner (eds), San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2009. To read my chapter from the book, click on the title: “When Cultures Connect: Multiple Intelligences Theory as a Successful American Export to Other Countries
Calling all educators! Want to create an atmosphere in your school or classroom that is based upon the positive attributes of all your students? Want to meet the needs of kids with special needs by creating IEPs and learning strategies that are based on their strengths? Then watch this free webinar sponsored by ASCD that presents strategies for bringing out the best in every child, but particularly in those who have been diagnosed with learning disabilities, ADD/ADHD, autism spectrum disorders, intellectual disabilities, and emotional and behavioral disorders. This webinar presents a revolutionary new paradigm based on ''diversity'' rather than ''disability.'' The webinar will show you how to create positive ecological niches for these students consisting of strength-based learning strategies, positive environmental modifications, positive role models, affirmative career aspirations, enriched human resource networks, assistive technologies/Universal Design for Learning, and basic strengths awareness to help ensure that students with special needs achieve success in school and life. To watch the webinar, click here.
On November 29, 2012, I did a free webinar for edWeb.net, a professional social network for the education community. The topic was Neurodiversity in the Classroom: Emphasizing Strengths in Students with Special Needs. It was based on my forthcoming book (out December 13, 2012), entitled: Neurodiversity in the Classroom: Strength-Based Strategies to Help Students with Special Needs Achieve Success in School and Life, published by ASCD. In the webinar, I talk about my own beginnings as a special education teacher in the mid-1970′s, my introduction to multiple intelligences in the 1980′s, and my discovery of neurodiversity in the 2000′s. Then I define neurodiversity, and explain how it can be used to view students with special needs in a more positive way. Most of the webinar is practical: I focus on seven components of what I call “positive niche construction” or creating favorable environments within which students with special needs can flourish.
Providing concrete examples, I cover five different disability categories for each of the seven environmental enhancements: learning disabilities, ADHD, autism, intellectual disabilities, and emotional and behavioral disorders. The seven components of positive niche construction that I talk about in the webinar are: strengths awareness, enhanced human resource networks, affirmative career aspirations, strength-based learning strategies, positive role models, environmental modifications, and assistive technologies/Universal Design for Learning. In the course of the webinar there are at least 35 practical strategies that both special and regular educators can use to help students with special needs achieve success in school and life.
The webinar lasts for approximately one hour, includes over 130 slides, and ends with a brief question and answer session with the participants who were participating in the live broadcast. To listen to the webinar in its entirety, click here.
I’ll be doing a Webinar on November 29, 2012 at 4 pm (EST) with edWeb.net., a social network and professional learning community for educators. The title of the webinar will be “Neurodiversity in the Classroom: Emphasizing Strengths in Students with Special Needs.” Here is some information from edWeb.net on my presentation:
“This webinar will introduce the concept of neurodiversity as a positive paradigm for helping students with special needs succeed in the classroom. I will discuss the importance of using a “diversity” paradigm based on strengths, rather than a “disability” paradigm based on weaknesses, in working with these children.
I also will discuss the origins of the term neurodiversity, and will present an ecological intervention model that explores the use of “positive niche construction” as a practical framework for creating favorable environments where students with special needs can flourish in the classroom. All seven basic components of positive niche construction will be outlined:
* strengths awareness (with highlights of research findings on the strengths of individuals with autism, ADHD, dyslexia, and other special needs)
* positive role models
* innovative technologies and Universal Design for Learning
* strength-based learning strategies
* enhanced human resource networks
* affirmative career aspirations
* positive environmental modifications.
I hope that you will join me for this event. There will be opportunities for audience interaction during my presentation. If you enjoy the ideas shared in the webinar, you can order my book Neurodiversity in the Classroom: Strength-Based Strategies to Help Students with Special Needs Achieve Success in School and Life, which is being published December 13, 2012. For more information about the webinar, click here.
One of the joys of my retirement years is the ability to pick and choose schools that I decide to consult with and work in as a volunteer. Since I live in Philadelphia, I also feel as if I am helping to support public schools that work with urban children who often live in difficult circumstances. Two of these schools, the Parkway Northwest High School for Peace and Social Justice and the Science Leadership Academy, are very special schools, both dedicated to helping students learn and grow around an important theme, and providing multiple opportunities to promote their themes in engaging ways.
Imagine how surprised I was to learn that a new and wonderful book, Embracing Risk in Urban Education, by Alice E. Ginsberg (2012: Bowman and Littlefield Education) features these two schools, along with two other Philadelphia schools.
Why is “Embracing Risk” in the title? In an interesting twist, Alice Ginsberg turns the concept of risk on its head. She argues that, instead of eliminating risk from schools by “regulating, standardizing, scripting, and quantifying” what we do in schools, we should try to develop schools that embrace risk by enabling students to “…experiment, disagree, … assert their individuality, test assumptions and question data”, essential qualities for a 21st century world and a democratic society (p. 3). The book then describes four Philadelphia urban schools and sample teaching examples that, in her view, “make space for children to explore the unknown” (p. 4), to learn how to inquire, collaborate, foster social justice, and build patience, sustained commitment, and cooperative, responsible leadership (p. 10).
What is special about these four schools? Briefly, Science Leadership Academy is a public high school committed to inquiry, creativity, project based learning, and experimentation. It has gained national attention for its willingness to try new approaches to teaching and learning, its emphasis on five core values, and its commitment to authentic learning. The Folkarts Cultural Treasures School (FACTS) is a K-8 Charter School in Philadelphia’s Chinatown that embraces the cultural values, identities, knowledge, wisdom and languages that students bring to the school and incorporates these into all learning. The Parkway Northwest High School for Peace and Social Justice is a public high school that promotes peaceful methods of solving problems, and emphasizes conflict resolution, social development, ethical behavior, citizenship, service, and leadership. Finally, the Wissahickon Charter School is a K-8 school that promotes a ‘discovery approach’ to all learning, and has an environmental focus that includes a working garden, a healthy lunch program, and student access to environments such as woods, lakes and mountains that are not ordinarily accessible to urban students.
In short, these schools have unique and common features that “embrace risk”, such as purposeful, meaningful, thoughtful missions and goals, open-ended inquiry and project based learning, student reflection, relevance, empathy, experiential learning, community connections, literacy in a broader sense than just the ability to read and decode, and multi-faceted assessments that go well beyond the traditional multiple choice, right answer standardized test.
Although the book is ostensibly about urban education, all educators can learn from its key ideas, school and teaching examples. I urge anyone who is interested in further understanding the core concepts embedded in the book, the nature and character of these schools and model teaching examples, and what they imply for a 21st century education, to read this book. You will not be disappointed. The concept of “embracing risk” that is explored on many different levels; the lessons from, characteristics, and distinct qualities of these four schools; and the personal qualities exemplified by students who graduate from these schools need to be thoughtfully examined and considered by all educators as we prepare our children for the challenging, complex, confusing, and risky world of the future.
Elliott Seif is an educational consultant, author, member of the Understanding by Design cadre and the ASCD faculty, and a contributor to Educational Leadership.
This is a letter I wrote on the morning that the Occupy Chicago movement joined with the Chicago Teachers Union for a march through downtown Chicago for better public schools. The letter is my attempt to unite the missions of both groups.
October 10, 2011
Dear Chicago Public School Teachers, Protesters, the 99%, the 1 %, Politicians, and Allies on all Sides,
First, to Chicago Public School Teachers and Allies:
I know we have the day off. I know I am in need of some rest and relaxation! But today we are needed more than ever. I’d like to do nothing more today than sit at home and play video games. Of course, that would never happen. I'd be spending my holiday grading the 120 lab reports that were turned in on Friday. It has to be finished today because I want to be able to pass them back to my kids on Tuesday so they can learn from their mistakes, and improve for the next lab I have planned for them.
J.C. Brizard and Mayor Rahm Emanuel are trying to belittle and degrade our noble professions by forcing us to work 29% more than we already do for 2% more money (only half of the annual raise that we already lost this year).
I believe that a longer school year and school day would benefit our children. I am in the business of doing what is best for our kids, their future, and ultimately the country’s future. For my kids, the more time that they are in school, the less time they are out on the streets, which have become more dangerous as ever as the recession hammers a neighborhood of poverty-stricken U.S. citizens.
I'm not a teacher for the money, even though I do make a decent, middleclass salary. I'm a highly qualified biological researcher and could be making significantly more money working in the research industry. However, I go to work everyday as a Secondary Science Teacher to inspire, mold, shape, help, support, and teach the next generation of our country’s leaders. I believe that I have one of the most important (and hardest jobs) that I could be doing at this point in my life. That said, I also feel I should be equitably compensated and respected for the job that I do, just like any other profession.
I am often saddened by the conditions that some of my students face on a daily basis. There are days that the shootings and violence surrounding my school overwhelm me, but it is always the resilience of my students, being stronger and more composed than I ever will be, who remind me with their hopeful eyes that education is their path to a better future. I push my students to dream big, and there isn’t a second in my classroom that’s not used to create our future leaders and innovators. However, I am aware that for many of my students, graduating from high school and going to college means being able to earn just enough money avoid public welfare. For some of my students, being in school for an entire school day and away from the streets for a few hours is a matter of life and death. (There was a shooting at 7:21 am a few weeks ago just 2 blocks away from the school and violence is a regular occurrence in the surrounding neighborhood)
Given the current political, economic, and environmental situation of our country, sometimes I feel like all of my efforts are in vain and I am giving a false sense of security to my 10th and 12th grade students. We have the resources, the ingenuity, and strength to create a bright future. Unfortunately, corruption, gluttony, and greed are currently controlling the path the world is on, and preventing that future. I have not given up hope and never will.
For the respect of our profession, the nobility of our daily task of preparing the next generation of leaders, and the lives of our students, please join parents, students, teachers and other community members for a march to tell big business: “Put kids first!”
Next, to the Protesters and Allies in Chicago, New York City, Los Angeles, and around the world:
How can I continue to push my students to graduate from high school and take out loans to go to college when there are no jobs waiting for them when they graduate that pay a living wage? How can I continue to hold my students accountable for embodying the value of commitment when the leaders of our country continuously drop the ball on their water-downed promises? How can I impress upon my students the ideals of compassion when the wealthiest minority is oppresses the vast majority of the people of our country? How can I continue to imprint upon my students the value of integrity in one’s conduct, given the fact that after failing the economic system, the largest banks were bailed out and face little to no consequences for their immoral actions? Finally, how can I continue to teach my students the value of reflection, leading to improvement and self control when, upon taking a reflective inventory of the economic and environmental status that the world is in, no substantial and sustainable changes occur?
I creatively continue to infuse my curriculum and teaching practices with these values because I of my hope for a better future. I have not given up hope and never will. Every child that leaves my Biology class at the end of every year has not only has a deep understanding of living things and how they interact with the world, but they also understand why it is so important that human beings consistently embody commitment, compassion, integrity, and reflection in every idea thought, every word spoken, and every action taken.
Everyday, 120 wonderful people sit in front of me with inquisitive teenage eyes that crave hope for the future. I believe it is part of the responsibilities of my job to calm their fears, fuel their hope, and give them the tools to manifest their destinies. I will be at Occupy Chicago as much as I can, as long as it doesn’t interfere my commitment to my students.
We will succeed in Chicago. We will succeed in New York City. We will succeed in Los Angeles. We will succeed in D.C. We will succeed everywhere that Americans are standing up for what is right, just, and humane. We will succeed because failure is not an option. We will succeed because this is the most important thing in the world right now. We will succeed because we have the strength and endorsement of the majority of the people and living things that make up this planet.
It is up to us, the 99% to take back control of our world. There are ways to sustainably rectify the dire situation that the majority of the people in the world and the planet itself are facing.
What type of future are we going to give our children? What is our legacy? How will we fix environmental and economic collapse? What will you do to make sure we succeed?
Finally, to Those in Power, Those in Charge, the 1%, and Their Allies:
We will never give up. This protest has no definitive beginning or end point, but don’t underestimate its power. The American citizenry is not an entity that will fizzle out after a month, a year, or even a decade. Politicians seeking endorsements and corporations hunting profits will not hijack us. It is We, the People, United and Standing Strong. This is about total systemic change. I know you hear us and now it is impossible not to see us. The status quo is no longer acceptable or even possible. A peaceful and non-violence transition to a new way of life is the sane and sensible option. It is to this future to which we, the 99%, have committed. Will you fight us, or will you admit defeat and join us at the table?
Love, Hope, and Support for Humanity and the Living Planet,
Robert Earl Thollander Jr
Secondary Science Teacher
Chicago Public Schools
P.S. If you like what you read in this letter, pass it on. Write you own letter and pass that on too. Also, if you don't like what you read in this letter, respond! What we need right now in this country is a civil and democratic dialogue.
Last week, President Barack Obama announced a new $1 billion teacher program, the Master Teacher Corps, to aid and promote education in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). On our blog, we’ve spent a good deal of time on science and math content this summer. We’ve also talked about the importance of connecting literature to science and math. But we haven’t directly addressed the gender gap in science fiction, a genre that tends to appeal to boys more than girls.
A blog from the New York Times earlier this year cited a 2010 study from the Codex Group, a consulting group for publishers found that 50 percent of young men cite science fiction titles as their favorite genre compared to only 26 percent of young female readers. The trend continues into adulthood as well. Thirty two percent of adult male book buyers report being science fiction fans while only 12 percent of adult women report an interest in science fiction titles. What is it about science fiction that appeals to males—but not females?
One explanation might begin by looking back on science fiction’s ambivalent and somewhat limited gender constructions in media—something that really began in the 1960s with TV shows like Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie. Sure, Jeannie and Samantha had power that transcended mortal men (more specifically, their husbands), but ultimately, their power was, as cultural critic Marleen S. Barr puts it, “tempered at the request of the men in their lives.”
Of course, the role of women in science fiction has apparently changed for the better by providing female viewers with an alternative to the traditional male, sci-fi hero. Think about characters like Scully from The X-Files or Ripley from the classic Aliens trilogy.
But strong, “female-centric,” sci-fi characters don’t begin and end with film. There are numerous science fiction books that appeal to girls that teachers can use to encourage them to try the genre:
This is obviously a short list of titles that may appeal to both boy and girl readers of science fiction. There are many more comprehensive online lists of youth and young adult science fiction that provide even more quality titles, including:
Where to Start with Young Adult Science Fiction
Youth Science Fiction (Amazon)
9 Best Science Fiction Novels for Young Adults
Connected Youth: Science Fiction
How do you inspire your students to try a new genre that isn’t their favorite?
Since the beginning of my teacher training, I was told that the Illinois State Standards were lacking. Not even insufficient, but vague and with little rigor in what I should have expected from my students. Luckily, we have been using the College Readiness Standards for science in our classroom to monitor skills, and roughly structured our Environmental Science curriculum around PSAE standards. While these have been helpful in modeling our instruction and content, I believe they are still lacking in specific focus, rigor, and appropriateness to grade level. This is why I have, for the last two years, been a strong proponent of national standards that would do away with poorly structured, low expectations, and politically driven curriculum standards every state has lamely thrust upon their education system. The fingers have been pointing in many directions, from teachers to funding to Facebook, for the decreasing success of secondary education. I have consistently emphasized that without accountability and standards voicing high expectations, our students won’t possess the drive we want from them in achievement.
The common core standards, while not perfect, are a manifestation of this belief that states do not have the ability to develop highly rigorous or effective standards, and that our country should be unified and aligned in our secondary teaching. Especially considering that students will be pushed forward from current expectations from K-12. Though we won’t see the results in our high school for almost a decade, I am glad to have a more rigorous standard to hold my students to. Sadly, there is no science common core, and we have once again been asked to utilize both the reading and math instead of a specified science standard. While science incorporates all subjects of study, reading and math especially, there are many scientific skills and methods of thought that will be left out of these modern standards. I am hopeful that one day they do develop science common core standards, and have heard conflicting evidence that they are on the way, however I can take solace in the fact that our students will be once again asked to push their zone of proximal development instead of remaining simply in their comfort zones.
Judy Willis, M.D. M.Ed.
A Primer for Use in Teacher Education about the Neuroscience of Learning
Why Teacher Education Should Include Neuroscience
The neuroscience of how the brain learns and what influences the most successful brain acquisition and application of learning should be included in all teacher education programs. Teachers need to be prepared with foundational knowledge to understand, evaluate, and apply the neuroscience of learning. With this knowledge they will be able to recognize future implications from this rapidly expanding field of research to increase the effectiveness of their teaching and build and sustain students’ joy of learning.
Teacher education needs to prepare tomorrow’s teachers with the knowledge and tools to prepare their future students for the game-changing realities globalization. The new common core standards align well with the preparation for students need to be prepared with the thinking skills already sought by employers. These skillsets are those described in the neurology literature for almost 100 years, and they remain the brain networks that can be strengthened so all students can participate in the opportunities and challenges in higher education, vocations, a global society.
Neuroscience is on the vanguard of producing research of increased quality and applicability to education. Functional neuroimaging gives us insight into what circumstances and sensory input most successfully promote the brain’s acquisition of new knowledge. Among those insights is evidence of increased metabolic activity in identifiable networks neural networks when information is encoded into memory, when memories are retrieved, and when executive functions use is associated with increased neural circuit activity in the prefrontal cortex.
Correlations to neuroscience research have yielded strategies most consistent with brain’s information processing now “visible” with functional neuroimaging. For example, when information is presented in ways that emphasize relationships to existing stored memory, the brain’s own patterning system increases successful memory acquisition.
Teachers need to understand the why and not just the how of the most effective teaching strategies to have the motivation and positive expectations to best utilize these strategies. These topics include how the brain “pays attention”, encodes new input into working memory, uses neuroplasticity to construct long-term memory, is influenced by stress, and develops its neural networks of executive functions.
Especially critical is teacher awareness of the vast potentials of neuroplasticity that increases their opportunities to influence the development of their students’ brain networks of executive functions – their highest cognitive skillsets. Teachers with foundational understanding about the neuroscience and cognitive science of how the brain turns input into long-term memory and memory into transferable knowledge, will be the most prepared to guide all students to achieve their highest potentials.
A Primer about the Neuroscience of Learning
Teachers are the caretakers of the development of students’ highest brain during the years of its most extensive changes. As such, they have the privilege and opportunity to influence the quality and quantity of neuronal and connective pathways so all children leave school with their brains optimized for future success.
This introduction to the basics of the neuroscience of learning includes information that should be included in all teacher education programs. It is intentionally brief such that it can be taught in a single day of instruction. Ideally there would be additional opportunities for future teachers to pursue further inquiry into the science of how the brain learns, retrieves, and applies information.
Teaching Grows Brain Cells
IQ is not fixed at birth and brain development and intelligence are “plastic” in that internal and environmental stimuli constantly change the structure and function of neurons and their connections. Teachers have the opportunity to help all children build their brains beyond what was previously believed to be fixed limits based on learning disabilities or the predictions of test scores or achievements.
It was once believed that brain cell growth stops after age twenty. We now know that through neuroplasticity, interneuron connections (dendrites, synapses, and myelin coating) continue to be pruned or constructed in response to learning and experiences throughout our lives.
These physical changes of brain self-reconstruction in response to experiences including sensory input, emotions, conscious and unconscious thoughts are so responsive that human potential for increased knowledge, physical skills, and “talent” in the arts is essentially limitless. There are conditions associated with the most successful strengthening of neural networks, such as guided instruction and practice with frequent corrective feedback. As neuroscience research continues more information will be available to guide teachers providing the brain with the experiences best suited to maximize its learning and proficiency.
High Stress Restricts Brain Processing to the Survival State
The prefrontal cortex, where the higher thinking processes of executive functions (judgment, critical analysis, prioritizing) is also the CEO that can manage and control our emotions. Like the rest of the PFC it is still undergoing maturation throughout the school years. Students do not have the adult brain’s developed circuits of reflection, judgment, and gratification delay to overcome the lower brain’s strong influence.
Neuroimaging research reveals that a structure in the emotion sensitive limbic system is a switching-station that determines which part of the brain will receive input and determine response output. Brain-based research has demonstrated that new information cannot pass through the amygdala (part of the limbic system) to enter the frontal lobe if the amygdala is in the state of high metabolism or overactivity provoked by anxiety. It is important for teachers to know that when stress cuts off flow to and from the PFC, behavior is involuntary. It is not students’ choice in the reactive state when they “act out” and “zone out”.
Through interventions to go beyond differentiation to individualization (see article about video game model) it is possible to decrease the stressors of frustration from work perceived as too difficult or boredom from repeated instruction after mastery is achieved. Further information from neuroscience research reveals other causes of the high stress state in school and suggests interventions to reduce the stress blocking response in the amygdala.
Memory is Constructed and Stored by Patterning
The brain turns data from the senses into learned information in the hippocampus. This encoding process requires activation or prior knowledge with a similar “pattern” to physically link with the new input if a short-term memory is to be constructed. The neuroimaging research supported by cognitive testing reveals that the most successful construction of working (short-term) memory takes place when there has been activation of the brain’s related prior knowledge before new information is taught.
When teachers work to clearly demonstrate the patterns, connections, and relationships that exist between new and old learning (e.g. cross-curricular studies, graphic organizers, spiraled curriculum) the probability of encoding increases.
Teachers can help students increase working memory efficiency through a variety of interventions correlated with neuroimaging responses. For example, with opportunities to make predictions, receive timely feedback, and reflect on those experiences. These experiences appear to be increase executive function facilitation of working memory, such as guiding the selection of the most important information hold in working memory.
Memory is Sustained by Use
Once and encoded short-term memory is constructed it still needs to be activated multiple times and ideally in response to a variety of prompts for neuroplasticity to increase its durability. Each time students participate in any endeavor, a certain number of neurons are activated. When they repeat the action, the same neurons respond again. The more times they repeat an action, the more dendrites grow and interconnect, resulting in greater memory storage and recall efficiency.
Retention is further promoted when new memories are connected to other stored memories based on commonalities, such as similarities/differences, especially when students use graphic organizers and derive their own connections. Multisensory instruction, practice, and review promote memory storage in multiple regions of the cortex, based on the type of sensory input by which they were learned and practiced. These are distant storage centers are linked to each other such that triggering one sensory memory activates the others. This duplication results of storage increases the efficiency of subsequent retrieval as a variety of cues prompt activation of different access points to the extended memory map.
The construction of concept memory networks requires opportunities for students to transfer learning beyond the contexts in which it is learned and practiced. When information learned and stored in its own isolated circuit it is only accessible by the same stimuli through which it was obtained. These transfer activities activate memories to new stimuli and with other knowledge to solve novel problems. These simultaneous activations promote extended connections among memories that are the larger concept memory networks most applicable to future use.
Pattern recognition facilitation and opportunities for knowledge transfer extends the brain’s processing efficiency for greater access to and application of its accumulated learning. These teaching interventions will prepare graduates for future incorporation and extension of new information as it is becomes available. Students who have the guided learning experiences needed to construct concept memory networks will be have the best preparation for their futures. As the information pool expands, these students will continue to comprehend new information, consolidate it into their neural networks, and recognize, develop, and globally disseminate its new applications.
As the research continues to build, it will be the obligation of those who prepare our future teachers to insure they understand and can apply the best current and future teaching strategies. This includes insuring that the teachers who graduate from their programs have the foundational neuroscience knowledge to use the fruits of the expanding pool of research to the betterment of all their own future students. That is a fascinating and exciting challenge to meet at a pivotal time in the evolution of education.
The references used for this article are listed here. The published version of this article required that format. I can provide the specific annotations if needed. In addition, since it was written in 2005, newer research is now available on all topics described and incorporated in the articles I’ve written on these topics in recent rears. Teachers with neuroscience foundational knowledge will be able to seek, evaluate, and apply that subsequent and future research.
Andreasen, E (1999) Human Brain Mapping, 8(4), 226-234. Wiley-Liss, Inc. Iowa City, Iowa.
Ashby, C. R., Thanos, P. K., Katana, J. M., Michaelides, E. L., Gardner, C. A., Heidbreder, N. D. (1999) The selective dopamine antagonist. Pharmacology, Biochemistry and Behavior.
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Kato, N. and McEwen, B. (2003). Neuromechanisms of emotions and memory. Neuroendocrinology. 11,03. 54-58.
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Approaches to Language Teaching, ed. Robert W. Blair. Rowley: Newbury, 1982 p 25- 27.
McGillivray, S. and Castel, A. (2011).Betting on Memory Leads to Metacognitive Improvement by Younger and Older Adults. Psychology and Aging, Vol. 26, No. 1, 137–144.
Pawlak, R., Magarinos, A. M., Melchor, J., McEwen, B., & Strickland, S. (Feb. 2003). Tissue plasminogen activator in the amygdala is critical for stress-induced anxiety-like behavior. Nature Neuroscience, 168 – 174.
Shadmehr, R., and Holcomb,H (1997). Neural correlates of motor memory consolidation," Science 277:821
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Wunderlich, K. et. al., (2005). Improving Learning Through Understanding of Brain Science Research. Learning Abstracts, Volume 8, Number 1. 41-43.
While attending a recent education conference, David Warlick shared the following on Facebook:
“I'm at an education conference & just heard from a state DOE about legislation & funding. Is there a concerted effort out there to kill public education?”
The answer, unfortunately, in this day and age, is yes. At least that is the appearance.
Consider this equation:
New Common Core Standards
+ Data Driven Instructional Practices
+ Rigorous Teacher Evaluation
= Higher Student Achievement
And then, consider this equation:
New Common Core Standards
+ Data Driven Instructional Practices
+ Rigorous Teacher Evaluation
= Systemic Change (Growth)
But then, consider the reality:
New Common Core Standards
+ Data Driven Instructional Practices
+ Rigorous Teacher Evaluation
= Failure by Design
What do we know about Higher Student Achievement and Systemic Change? Both take time and purposeful steps toward a goal. There is not a magic elixir to cure the illness. Someone with a sickness doesn’t take all of the prescribed medicine at once. They take it little by little, over time getting better and better, until they’ve reached the healthy zone. Otherwise, the overdose kills them.
But now, we are in overdose mode in many states around the country. We cherry pick what we think the best courses of action are and then apply them all at once.
Drinking the Kool-Aid of Race to the Top is hardly a good reason to accept the course of action on the perceived diagnosis.
I think we need a 2nd opinion.
States are being proactive but on every front. It’s starting to sound like a set up, don’t you think? If all of this doesn’t work (and it’s not looking good...), well, the states can say they tried, right?
If they stick to their equations, their magic elixirs, then students must perform, right? And the states don’t need to involve parents or consider other environmental concerns, or poverty, or attendance, because they don’t really have any impact on student learning. And testing students every which way is a good idea because state assessments are the best measure of student learning. And while the states do all of this, they say it is in the best interests of the kids while they divert attention away from the textbook companies and the charter school entities and the online learning companies who are positioning themselves to take over when all of this comes crashing down.
Now, consider this equation:
New Common Core Standards
+ Data Driven Instructional Practices
+ Rigorous Teacher Evaluation
+ Beefed up government to implement/monitor these things
- Money to implement these things
- Money period, from Across the board cuts
- lack of Parental Responsibility
- real caring and concern about the lives of children
=Failure. By Design
And the new equation becomes:
Dump the entire system
+ Textbook lobbyists
+ Charter and Private Schools
+ Online School Companies
+ The Elimination of Unions
- Common Sense
To where exactly are we racing?
Even Hester Prynne would wince.
Teachers will continue to teach, even if emblazoned with unfair measures of teacher evaluation.
At the current state trainings, the state of New York is using the words growth and achievement synonymously. Achievement is an unfair measure. Growth, I can live with.
The New York Times took great pleasure in revealing teacher "scores" based on previous years' data that was acknowledged as flawed by the state.
When is this madness going to stop? When are we going to focus on kids?
When is the Race to the Top going to morph into what it needs to be: the Race to End Poverty? We are not addressing environmental factors. We are not addressing parent responsibility. We are not addressing the fact the "one moment in time" assessments should NOT be the barometer of teacher failure or success.
For what teachers are paid, and the scrutiny they are currently under, how many of our young people are going to choose education as a career? Teachers can't be the scapegoat for the ills of society. Teachers can't be held accountable for models of instruction that were created over a century ago. Those constructs are no longer viable, and holding teachers to old societal standards won't change the fact that modern preparation needs to radically change.
The reality of the current system of teacher evaluation in several states, because of the Race to the Top grants, will produce:
There's no anger left, only disbelief that the leaders of our country and our states are so blind and so willing to keep RTTT money that the systems of morals and ethics and systemic change are being compromised.
For teachers that are already in the unfortunate situation of being called on the carpet by bogus evaluation systems, buy yourselves a t-shirt with a giant capital "T" on it. A "T" for Teacher, because that's what you are.
Wear it proudly. You are not a score. You are a teacher, a parent, a coach, and a catalyst for growth for children. You are not a number. You are not one test. You do the best you can with what you have in the systems and structures which are currently valued.
Ignore those that make rules but don't understand all the variables. Ignore newspapers that are more interested in selling copies than valuing America's front line fighters.
Keep up the good work. Keep shining. Keep doing what's best for kids.
And wear that letter "T" boldly.
The children in most of the primary grade classes I observe spend hours --yes, hours-- at their desks doing seatwork, or sitting on the carpet for teacher-directed lessons. I have often thought that most adults could not sit for this long and still be able to concentrate. I just came across a research study that confirms what seems to be common sense-- that physical exercise can improve children's attention and help their academic achievement.
Researchers at the University of Illinois studied the effects of having 9 year-old children take a test after either resting or briskly walking for 20 minutes. The researchers measured the brain activity of the children and found that those who did the physical exercise were better able to filter out extraneous stimuli - in other words, better able to pay attention and act appropriately.
Next the researchers tested the same children on academic achievement tests in spelling, reading, and math. The reading results showed improvement after the exercise break - more than the math and spelling tests which were done after the reading test. Apparently, the closer the timing of the test was to the exercise break, the greater the benefit. The researchers plan to study more about the timing effects of physical activity. This research appeared in the journal Neuroscience. You can read more about the study here.
In the current education environment in which children are pushed to learn more and more skills in less time, it can be tempting to just keep children working longer. Hopefully this study will help inspire you to try giving children more physical breaks. Here are some suggestions for integrating physical activity into the daily routine:
Share in the comments your suggestions for other ways to incorporate physical exercise into the daily routine. What have you found that works?