Thursday, March 24, 2011

"The Window" Moving to New Location!

This blog, "The Window," is moving to a new site:

This will be the final post at this site.

If you signed up to receive the blog posts via email, you should continue to receive them without interruption.

If you receive new posts via an RSS feed, you will need to change the address in your reader.

The move is part of a total revision of the Clerestory Learning Web site, where more information is presented in a snappy new look. We hope you will visit us there soon!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Environment of Achievement, Part 2

But hope is not disconnected from action or result; it is the drive that propels action and result. It is not an ungrounded feeling but a belief that action can bring about change.

Hope is word #1, a characteristic of an atmosphere that enables optimal achievement.

The second: humility.

The dictionary suggests it involves a modest view of one’s own importance.

At this point I could rail against the lack of humility we often see in our public personas. I won’t, except to mention its potential influence on our thinking and on that of our students. The message we get from the media: to be successful see yourself as more important/gifted/intelligent/_____ than the next guy, and find a camera crew to capture your bravado. This viewpoint is actually detrimental to a learning mindset.

Why? What does humility have to do with learning?

Humility opens the mind to learning. In Fires in the Mind, Kathleen Cushman makes a convincing argument for valuing as initial motivation for learning.1 We become interested in something new when we value the relationship we have with others who already know something about it (e.g., a son becoming a baseball player like his father), the products we can produce by knowing more than we do (e.g., a photographer who pursues mastering a new camera lens), and/or the satisfaction we get from having our questions and curiosities addressed (the child who tears a computer apart to discover what’s inside that makes it work). We value something other than our previously gained understandings. We place ourselves in the role of humble learner rather than overconfident know-it-all.

Note the implications for us as educators. To create and maintain a learning environment characterized by humility, we need to attend to our relationships with students. (Do I establish relationships with students that enable me to potentially inspire their interests in new learning?) We need to reveal what new learning will enable students to produce. (Do I know how what I teach has value beyond the classroom? and do I engage students in using what they learn beyond the classroom?) We need to foster students’ curiosity. (Do I use the power of questions and “I wonder…” statements to engage students’ attention and thinking?)

Humility makes the mind receptive to feedback. To summarize Daniel Pink in an overly succinct way, the equation for motivating learning is meaning + feedback.2 If valuing initiates learning, feedback maintains the interest and deepens new understanding. But not just any feedback will fill this vital role. A paper returned to a student after three days with nothing more than a “B” or an “84” at the top does more harm than good. Why? Because it sparks a prideful, protective response. Either the student will pretend not to care about the grade (“I know I’m better than you think I am.”) or the student will argue to regain the points that were mysteriously lost (“I’ll prove that I’m better than you think I am.”). Either way the opportunity for learning from mistakes is likely lost.

To be effective, feedback must be part of learning; while the cement of new knowledge or understandings is still wet, the teacher needs to engage students in discussion, offering redirection, encouragement and exhortation, and additional challenge. Instructive feedback should have the goal of enabling each individual student learn as deeply and achieve as highly as possible.

How does instructive feedback contribute to an environment characterized by humility? First, the teacher models humility through the way feedback is given. Dr. Robert Brooks uses the term “we statements” to describe an effective approach.

Second, feedback communicates that error is part of learning and is expected. In Kathleen Cushman’s research, one student suggested that feedback during learning enabled her to laugh at herself and use the error as a prompt for additional learning. Without the feedback, she would have continued to practice her errors and have become frustrated when her progress stagnated. Such frustration often activates a defense response rather than a mindset that accepts and even seeks feedback.

Finally, feedback maintains the correct perception of learning as being endless. We can always know more, understand better, or improve how we do something. Feedback keeps us challenged and helps us avoid feeling like we know all we need to know. We accept the humility that comes with recognizing we never reach perfection in any area or with any topic.

In this area, I’m concerned about students for whom school learning seems to come easily. They often absorb and live by the idea that being smart means not having to put forth effort. This erroneous belief about intelligence has significant, negative ramifications for their learning and achievement.

When working with the teachers, I’m often asked, “What do I do with the students who master the concepts or skills easily and quickly?” A question I use to prompt my own thinking in this area is, “What does the next level of achievement with this concept or skill look like?” I then use the answer to direct my feedback to these students.

Implications for us as educators? We need to be providing students with supportive and helpful feedback during learning. (Am I engaging my students in such conversations?) This includes challenging students to keep learning, keep refining, keep extending their knowledge and skill, even when the immediate task is completed easily. (Do I keep every student challenged and growing? Do I pursue learning myself so that I model the endless nature of mastering new concepts and abilities?)

Humility maintains curiosity (and vice versa). Curiosity is the name we give to the state of having unanswered questions. And unanswered questions, by their nature, help us maintain a learning mindset. When we realize that we do not know all there is to know about something in which we are interested, we thirst. We pursue. We act as though what we do not know is more important than what we do. Humility allows us to question; asking questions keeps us humble.

How do we spark curiosity in the classroom? One of my favorite suggestions and examples comes from one of my favorite teachers, Dr. Judy Willis:

Hoping for ways to energize the next day’s math lesson for her middle school students, Dr. Willis visited a supermarket, seeking an inexpensive item she could display on the students’ desks as they entered the classroom. She settled on a small vegetable, not knowing exactly how she would use it. The next morning, Dr.

Willis started teaching the lesson without explaining the radishes the students discovered on their desks. At the lesson’s conclusion, the students asked about the radishes. Still uncertain of the answers, Dr. Willis replied, “Why do you think I put a radish on your desk for today’s lesson?” The students offered several explanations. They connected mathematical concepts with their sensory experience of the radish, making associations that seemed sensible to them. Though Dr. Willis could have “come up with something” to share as an explanation, the students’ thinking generated more connections, and their discovery of these connections fostered deeper understanding and better memory formation. In short, the students were engaged in significant elaboration of the day’s mathematical content prompted by its curiosity-generating pairing with a common vegetable.3

Curiosity, having unanswered questions, propels learning. (Am I making serious efforts to spark curiosity in my students?)

We may think of hope as looking up. However, that should not prime our thinking to view humility as looking down. Humility is looking around, finding out what we do not know, seeing what’s available for learning it, and pursuing it until we become, we produce, or we satiate.

How do we foster an atmosphere of humility in our classrooms, schools, systems? Here are the questions I’m using to prompt my thinking:

  • Do I establish relationships with studnets that enable me to potentially inspire their interests in new learning?
  • Do I know how what I teach has value beyond the classroom? and do I engage students in using what they learn beyond the classroom?
  • Do I use the power of questions and “I wonder…” statements to engage students’ attention and thinking?
  • Am I engaging my students in conversations that capitalize on feedback’s contribution to learning?
  • Do I keep every student challenged and growing?
  • Do I pursue learning myself so that I model the endless nature of mastering new concepts and abilities?
  • Am I making serious efforts to spark curiosity in my students?

What questions would you add?


  1. Cushman, K., Fires in the Mind: What Kids Can Tell Us About Motivation and Mastery (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010).
  2. Pink, D.H., Drive: The Surprising Truth Behind What Motivates Us (New York: Riverhead Books, 2009).
  3. Washburn, K.D., The Architecture of Learning: Designing Instruction for the Learning Brain (Pelham, AL: Clerestory Press, 2010), 45.




Monday, January 24, 2011

The Environment of Achievement, Part 1

Three words grabbed my attention. Ideas that can make the difference between a t-ball novice and A-Rod, between nephew Johnny’s string recital performance and a Yo-Yo Ma concert, between the weekend jogger and Paula Radcliffe.

No, not age, not time, nor even practice. (Though all these play a role.)

For decades, researchers have pitched their tents in one of two camps: either nature (i.e., genetics) makes us who we are, or nurture (i.e., environment) does. For every study claiming to capture the flag for one camp, a counter study contends that it retains the banner.

In The Genius in All of Us, David Shenk argues that the interaction of genes and environment produces the individuals we become. Environment, contends Shenk, plays a leading role in how genes are “expressed.” But let’s set the science and the debate aside for now and simply consider what allows ability to reach its fullest potential.

This brings us back to those three words. They appear in the opening of David Shenk’s book, and they should play a leading role in education: hope, humility, and determination.

Word #1: hope. Of the three words, this one gets the most negative press. Cynics point out that hoping never made something happen nor brought anything into existence. Some even suggest hope is damaging, viewing it as wishful thinking that prevents the action needed to generate change.

Such arguments fail to look behind results; they fail to consider the causes of observable effects. They’re akin to arguing that the pleasure of a warm fire on a cold night is unrelated to, and certainly not dependent on, the match used to ignite the flame.

But hope is not disconnected from action or result; it is the drive that propels action and result. It is not an ungrounded feeling but a belief that action can bring about change. No great change has ever been attempted without hope, even if the belief was never voiced.

The dictionary associates several concepts with hope: expectation, belief, desire, good. I’d add another: resilience. Here’s why:

Resilience involves maintaining hope despite failure. Set-backs in life are inevitable, whether one is trying to strut across a narrow balance beam or learn to balance lopsided equations. Response to setbacks makes the difference between progress and stagnation, and hope motivates forward movement. Students need to learn to remain positive, believing that hard work can eventually overcome most setbacks and that the effort can yield beneficial and satisfying results. Relatedly…

Resilience involves embracing failure as an element of learning and progress.Hope can endure difficulties when the difficulties are seen as revealers of weaknesses that can be targeted and tweaked. Once recognized, weaknesses can become the focus of the efforts that lead to eventual success. (If students are not failing—encountering challenges—in your classroom, their learning may be minimal or even non-existent.)

David Shenk shares a compelling illustration. Basketball great

Michael Jordan would use

informal, pick-up games to work on

skills he knew were his weakest. While others in these games relied on doing what they already knew they could, Jordan

analyzed his setbacks, identified their causes, and then worked to correct them. The hope of eventual success made failure something to seek rather than avoid.

As teachers, we have a critical role to play in helping students perceive failure correctly. The feedback we give students can make the difference between failure that focuses effort and failure that is fatal to further attempts.

Finally, resilience involves being able to change direction. Failure is easy to repeat. You simply do the exact same thing you did previously while expecting the result to be different. (I believe this was Einstein’s definition of insanity.) It takes effort to consider alternative approaches and to maintain the hope that making such changes can yield better results.

To help students grow into individuals who do not view failure as fatal, we must nurture their spirits, helping them maintain hope, especially when learning is challenging.

Some questions I’ve been pondering lately include:

  • How resilient is my hope in the face of challenge?
  • How do I convey hope when my students face challenges and obstacles?
  • Is my classroom/school/district a place characterized by hope and its accompanying momentum?
  • How am I modeling resilient hope?

What questions would you add?


Shape of a hoper


Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Using Groups Effectively: 10 Principles

Confession: as a student, I usually hate group work. I know, I know. Having students

work in groups reaps a bounty of benefits, including boosting students’ social skills and upping the number of “happy campers” in the classroom. Such findings filter through my thinking when I’m preparing to teach, so I do use group interaction, hoping that the promises from its advocates will be realized. Occasionally they are; often they are not.

I recently attended a conference session featuring Keith Sawyer. In addition to being a jazz pianist (a musical collaborator), Sawyer is an expert on the effectiveness of group efforts. His presentation focused on what has been and potentially can be accomplished through collaboration, but he hinted that just getting people into groups is not the answer.

This piqued my curiosity, so I bought his book Group Genius. In it I’ve begun to find some answers to my questions: When are groups effective as means of learning? What tasks are better accomplished collaboratively than individually? How do you structure groups for optimal effectiveness and results?

Though his focus is on creativity, I think Sawyer’s insights apply to our use of groups to foster learning. Here are ten principles I’ve picked up:

  1. Flow matters. Flow is a term used to describe a state of high engagement in which thoughts run freely and progress occurs, often without group members being conscious of it. However, flow is like intrinsic motivation; it can’t be created on demand. The best we can do as teachers is provide a classroom environment that fosters flow.
  2. Conversation is key. Sawyer succinctly explains this principle: “Conversation leads to flow, and flow leads to creativity.” When having students work in groups, consider what will spark rich conversation. The original researcher on flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, found that rich conversation precedes and ignites flow more than any other activity.1 Tasks that require (or force) interaction lead to richer collaborative conceptualization.
  3. Set a clear but open-ended goal. Groups produce the richest ideas when they have a goal that will focus their interaction but also has fluid enough boundaries to allow for creativity. This is a challenge we often overlook. As teachers, we often have an idea of what a group’s final product should look like (or sound like, or…). If we put students into groups to produce a predetermined outcome, we prevent creative thinking from finding an entry point.
  4. Try not announcing time limits. As teachers we often use a time limit as a “motivator” that we hope will keep group work focused. In reality, this may be a major detractor from quality group work. Deadlines, according to Sawyer, tend to impede flow and produce lower quality results. Groups produce their best work in low-pressure situations. Without a need to “keep one eye on the clock,” the group’s focus can be fully given to the task.
  5. Do not appoint a group “leader.” In research studies, supervisors, or group leaders, tend to subvert flow unless they participate as an equal, listening and allowing the group’s thoughts and decisions to guide the interaction.
  6. Keep it small. Groups with the minimum number of members that are needed to accomplish a task are more efficient and effective.
  7. Consider weaving together individual and group work. For additive tasks—tasks in which a group is expectedtoproduce a list, adding one idea to another—research suggests that better results develop when individual thinking precedes the pooling of ideas in a group setting. Researchers also suggest that alternating between individual and group work helps keep the work focused but not fixated—i.e., not limited to one aspect or detail of an idea or issue. (By the way, this weaving of individual and group interaction may be reason why technological or “electronic brainstorming” is often effective.)
  8. “Divide and conquer” ≠ collaboration. When groups assign members to specific responsibilities for completing a task they undermine the thinking that collaboration can produce. Sawyer talks about creativity via collaboration as being “exponential,” meaning that it is constructed via conversation. One individual’s thought may inspire another group member’s insight, which in turn sparks new concepts for another. It is this emergent thinking that enables collaboration to accomplish what individual effort cannot.
  9. Think threefold. Group tasks that produce the best results often have three defining characteristics: 1) they are novel, something students have not done before, 2) they feature a visual component, something that can be represented in nonverbal forms, and 3) they are relational, meaning they require the combining of ideas or components to be accomplished.
  10. Be complementary. The best groups are composed of members who have enough familiarity with one another to be comfortable but who possess varied backgrounds and experiences. Again, because of how we typically use groups in classrooms, we tend to form groups around ability—if there is at least one “good student” in the group, we think something will get done. However, Sawyer suggests ability should be less of a consideration than diversity in experience. This can be challenging to accomplish but it’s worth considering when grouping students for collaborative tasks.

These insights have me rethinking groups, not whether or not to use them, but when and how to use them effectively. As with every aspect of teaching, using groups effectively requires mindful planning and attention to more than who works with whom. As Sawyer summarizes, “Putting people into groups isn’t a magical dust that makes everyone more creative. It has to be the right kind of group, and the group has to match the task.”2


  1. Sawyer, K., Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration (New York: Basic Books, 2008), 43.
  2. Ibid., 73.


Monday, October 18, 2010


I’m convinced: our schools need to give fitness a place in the curriculum. Let me clarify one thing. By an emphasis on fitness, I’m not recommending more or longer recess periods (though they may help), nor more or longer physical education classes (though, again, they may help). I fear some schools may reach these conclusions and implement changes without additional thought. Such an approach would be a mistake as schedule changes are only part of a good response to the growing body of research.

An emphasis on fitness is different from merely increasing unstructured play time or adding more days of dodgeball into the schedule. (Forgive me, PE Teachers. I know that many of you do not consider dodgeball to be a beneficial way to spend a physical education class. I’m speaking to the erroneous perception, not your work!)

Dr. John Ratey, who literally wrote the book on this subject, uses a school in Naperville, IL to illustrate an emphasis on fitness. During one physical education session Ratey observed, students ran a mile while wearing heart rate monitors. In addition to completing the distance, students focused on reaching a target heart rate and on improving their times recorded in earlier previous sessions. Ratey then explains this focus:
The essence…is teaching fitness instead of sports. The underlying philosophy is that if physical education class can be used to instruct kids how to monitor and maintain their own health and fitness, then the lessons they learn will serve them for life. And probably a longer and happier life at that. What’s being taught, really, is a lifestyle. The students are developing healthy habits, skills, and a sense of fun, along with knowledge of how their bodies work…[The] effects [of this emphasis] have shown up in some unexpected places—namely, the classroom.1

Sure, I’m concerned about the childhood obesity rate (estimates put the number around 23 million children in the US—more than thirty times the number during my youth). Being overweight influences movement, both physical AND cognitive, and it’s this latter impact that interests me.

Consider these recent findings:

Fit children possess more of the neural geography used in learning and thinking. For example, in-shape children have “significantly larger basal ganglia, a key part of the brain that aids in maintaining attention and ‘executive control,’ or the ability to coordinate actions and thoughts crisply.”2 (Executive function is “an umbrella term for the complex cognitive processes that serve ongoing, goal-directed behaviors,” including goal setting, planning, organizing and initiating behavior over time, flexibility, attention, working memory capacity, and self-regulation. It comprises abilities to plan for the future, control impulses, and make sense of incoming data.3) In a similar study, fit children possessed larger hippocampi—more than 10% larger— and scored significantly higher on tests of associated memory than their less fit peers. (The hippocampus is a brain structure associated with memory, both encoding and retrieval.) The researchers concluded that “interventions to increase childhood physical activity could have an important effect on brain development.”4 In short, fitter children develop brains with the potential for better learning and thinking.

Childhood fitness also affects capacities that uphold and empower learning. For example, children engaged in regular fitness activity score higher on tests of self-regulation, an executive function that provides critical support for learning. Self-regulation is the ability to consciously suppress or delay responses in order to work for a higher goal. It predicts academic success better than IQ. It also better predicts GPA, standardized test achievement, homework completion, the potential for GPA gains during the course of a year, and even SAT scores. Self-regulation is like the support struts of a bridge; it is not the roadway to learning, but without it, an individual lacks the emotional and cognitive control that optimize learning.
Researchers have also discovered relationships of fitness and academic achievement. A recent study focused on students representing four different categories: 1) children who possessed high physical fitness levels in fifth grade and maintained those levels in seventh grade, 2) students who were fit in fifth grade but lost their fitness by seventh grade, 3) students who were not fit in fifth grade but were physically fit by seventh grade, and (sadly) 4) students who were not physically fit in fifth grade and remained not fit in seventh grade. In reading, math, science and social studies, the fit in fifth, fit in seventh group outscored their peers. The students who gained fitness between fifth and seventh grades had the second best scores. The students who lost fitness from fifth to seventh grades had the next to lowest scores, with the never fit group scoring the lowest. Researchers conclude that physical fitness actually shows up in academic performance.5 Schools minimizing physical education classes to spend more time on academic subjects may actually dampen the academic performance of their students.

However, not all types of fitness show similar results. Teenage boys with higher cardiovascular fitness outperformed their peers in intelligence, education, and even income as adults. The researchers from this study stress the importance of cardiovascular fitness: “In every measure of cognitive functioning they analyzed—from verbal ability to logical performance to geometric perception to mechanical skills—average test scores increased according to aerobic fitness.”6 Weight training alone did not provide the same effect.

What do we do with such convincing evidence—evidence that suggests the best tool to improving learning may be a pair of running shoes for each child? What do we need to change besides perceptions and schedules? Since physical movement seems to improve cognitive “movement,” how do we help our students get smarter by moving more?

I’m going to ponder these questions as I head out for a run. Anyone care to join either the run or conversation? Looking forward to your comments! For now, I’ll give John Ratey the last word:
The notion that [fitness can influence learning] is supported by emerging research showing that physical activity sparks biological changes that encourage brain cells to bind to one another. For the brain to learn, these connections must be made; they reflect the brain’s fundamental ability to adapt to challenges. The more neuroscientists discover about this process, the clearer it becomes that exercise provides an unparalleled stimulus, creating an environment in which the brain is ready, willing, and able to learn…”7.

  1. Ratey, J., SPARK: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain (New York: Little, Brown & Co., 2008), 12.
  2. Parker-Pope, T., Phys Ed: Can Exercise Make Kids Smarter?
  3. Meltzer, L., Executive Function in Education: From Theory to Practice (New York: Guilford Press, 2007), 1.
  4. ScienceDaily., Children's Brain Development Is Linked to Physical Fitness, Research Finds.
  5. ScienceDaily., Students' Physical Fitness Associated With Academic Achievement; Organized Physical Activity.
  6. ScienceDaily., Fit Teenage Boys Are Smarter—But Muscle Strength Isn't the Secret, Study Shows.
  7. Ratey, 10.
  • ‘Running Shoes’
  • ‘Morro Bay, CA High School Physical Education+class+-+teen+girls+run+up+and+down+the+Morro+Strand+State+Beach’

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Do You Speak "Academia"?

If our profession exists to enable understanding of new ideas, should we really have our own language? Consider the following opening paragraph from a recent journal article:

“Education is an all-encompassing institution where schools can be found in each and every continent, culture, and society; their functional principles, organizational structure, and modus operandi are quite universal.”1

The paragraph, from an article with content I appreciate, illustrates several “rules” of academic writing. As a result, it violates several principles of good writing.

To begin, the opening main clause, “Education is an all-encompassing institution,” makes little sense, and the rest of the sentence fails to clarify its meaning. The use of “each and every” is redundant; if each continent and culture, then, by default, it is every continent and culture. After the semicolon, good verbs become weak adjectives: functional and organizational. The entire paragraph could be restructured as an easily understood sentence: In every society, schools organize, function, and operate similarly.

Lest I be guilty hypocrisy, here’s a sample of my own convoluted academic writing:

As a causal-comparative study, instructional time represents an uncontrolled factor. Teachers in each fifth grade classroom made decisions about instructional time based on the required time to complete activities dictated by the reading program in use. It is likely that instructional time varied between the classrooms, but the decisions about instructional time were based on the independent variable used to define the groups. Any variance developed, in part, because of the independent variable being examined.
Interpretation: The teachers in each fifth-grade classroom were not given minimum or maximum time limits. They determined how much time to spend on reading each day by considering their students’ needs and the activities recommended by their reading programs.

So what? Why pick on paragraphs pulled from their contexts? If you read (or try to read) educational journals, you’ll find that these examples are not isolated. They illustrate the “academic style” characterizing such periodicals. These periodicals, their supporters argue, provide the link between research and classroom practice. But the poor communication—the academic writing—requires the reader to add steps to the usually efficient cognition of comprehension. The reader is forced to pause and ask,
“What does that mean in plain English?” It’s not that different from reading text in a second language, one in which the reader may be knowledgeable but not proficient.

Unfortunately, it’s not just our journals that speak their own language. This same gap often exists between students and their textbooks. Consider the following passage from an advanced high school biology text:
The technical aspects of life involve the complex chemical interactions that take place among the several thousand different kinds of molecules found in any living cell. Of these, DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) is the master molecule in whose structure is encoded all of the information needed to create and direct the chemical machinery of life. Analysis of the flow and regulation of this genetic information among DNA, RNA (ribonucleic acid), and protein is the subject of molecular genetics.2
Rather than “A-ha!,” such writing often elicits, “Huh?,” as a recent study highlights:
Middle and high school students who read fluently in English class and on the Web may find that they cannot understand their science texts. And their science teachers may be ill prepared to guide them in reading the academic language in which science information is presented.3
This issue is so prevalent that some experts recommend we teach students “academic language.”

This additional distance between the writer and reader decreases the likelihood that the journals will actually be read. And if the journals are not read by teachers, the research will be slow to influence educational practice, if it does at all. With some research, a “translator” will eventually convert the findings into easily understood material for teachers. Research that does not attract the attention of such a translator may remain unknown and unused. We are spending time, effort, and sometimes money on research doomed to remain idle because it’s not communicated well. The poor writing prevents worthwhile application.

Similarly, our textbooks may alienate students and hinder learning. If understanding depends on translating the language, students who struggle with this prerequisite may lack the motivation or inertia to think beyond, or even through, the interpretation. We’re making understanding more difficult—a seeming antithesis to our role as educators.

Does academia serve its purpose by maintaining its own language? Why can’t “academic” journals and textbooks utilize common principles of good writing. Why do we insist on communication complexity when our goals would be better served by simple clarity?

Tradition? Are we trying to honor the past by continuing to insist on outdated standards? If so, then we should rethink our goals. Journals are not meant to influence the present but to carry on conventions of the past. Textbooks are not meant to inform but to complicate learning. If this is their purpose, teachers and students ignoring journal and textbook content should not be considered a problem.

Status? Are we insisting on “academic writing” because it separates journals from the “rags” intended for the masses or textbooks from the unlearned? If so, our goal must be to maintain some perceived elite readership—a readership probably not teaching or sitting in our classrooms. And thankfully so! Who wants children to be in a classroom where the teacher communicates with consistent complexity? ‘Children, today the teacher (the academic style outlaws use of the personal pronoun I!) will initiate a discussion of the upper atmosphere in post-sunset conditions.” In other words, “Today we’re going to talk about stars.” SImplicity produces clarity; complexity produces confusion.

Alignment? Do we think that our research and subject matter is complicated, therefore our communicating should also be complex? This is so contrary to logic and sound teaching that it’s an oxymoron. A basic principle of writing (and teaching) rebuts this argument: A complex topic requires simple writing, especially when the reader likely lacks the author’s background knowledge and experience. This is almost always the case when a researcher seeks to address individuals who were not part of the research team or involved in similar research themselves, or when experts in a field seek to articulate concepts for students.

As an example, consider the topic of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) previously discussed in the textbook example. Complex? Absolutely, yet note how beautifully and simply John Medina writes about it:
One of the most unexpected findings of recent years is that DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, is not randomly jammed into the nucleus, as one might stuff cotton into a teddy bear. Rather, DNA is folded into the nucleus in a complex and tightly regulated manner. The reason for this molecular origami: cellular career options. Fold the DNA one way and the cell will become a contributing member of your liver. Fold it another way and the cell will become part of your busy bloodstream. Fold it a third way and you get a nerve cell—and the ability to read this sentence.4
Medina presents ideas simply and in ways known to foster learning. As the brain engages in elaboration, it overlays new data with known experiences, making connections that help construct understanding. Medina relates a new, complex topic to a familiar childhood activity—origami (even though he is not writing for children). By giving us a reference point for understanding DNA, he equips us with the tools needed to construct understanding. Isn’t this what we should be striving for, both in our textbooks and our journals?

Why, then, do we not insist that good, clear writing characterize our journals, the journals researchers want us to read and heed, and the textbooks we use in our classrooms? We’re educators. Let’s write like we want people to actually learn something.

  1. Chen, D., Schooling as a Knowledge System: Lessons from Cramim Experimental School,
  2. Micklos, D. & Freyer, G.A., DNA Science: A First Course (Spring Harbor, NY: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, 2003) 4.
  3. Science Daily Staff, Academic Language Impedes Students' Ability to Learn Science, Expert Argues,
  4. Medina, J., Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School (Seattle: Pear Press, 2008), 53.
'...but there's still so much left'
'Day #2: Back to the grind'

Monday, June 7, 2010

Learning and the Brain Presentation: Daniel Willingham

Daniel Willingham, a cognitive scientist and author of Why Don't Students Like School, made an insightful presentation at the Learning and the Brain Conference in DC. As you read through these "tweets," keep in mind that I was posting the comments/ideas of the presenter. These do not necessarily represent my conclusions from the research.

These are my "tweets" posted live from Willingham's presentation at the conference.
  • Will use initials DW to indicate Willingham’s comments/ideas.
  • DW: Title of pres: Why Students Don’t Like School.
  • DW: Interest in topic sprung from daughter’s excitement over possible snow days.
  • DW: Daughter basically liked school but would have chosen to not have it most days.
  • DW: How to make classroom activities more appealing? What drives our choices.
  • DW: Factors of choice: 1. Outcome of choice 2. Probability of outcome 3. Costs of choice 4. Personality.
  • DW: Outcomes can be concrete, can be emotional. Probability of outcome influences effort.
  • DW: Cost: is task easy? hard? Relationship of effort required to probability of outcome.
  • DW: Personality factors: self-discipline, carefulness, thoroughness, organization,
  • deliberate, need for achievement.
  • DW: Appeal of choice=outcome x probability/input x personality (figuratively!).
  • DW: Policy-makers only think in terms of personality: “Kids just need more ‘grit.’”
  • DW: Teachers think in terms of interest. Better to think about probability—how can we make students successful.
  • DW: When psychological pain of risk is higher than psychological gain, people do not want to participate.
  • DW: Opportunity to gain more is not the sole factor in choices—e.g., 50% of winning $30 vs. risk of losing $20.
  • DW: The potential loss is the weightier factor in choices, not the potential gain. What are student losses.
  • DW: Student losses: failure and shame. Fear of loss influences effort.
  • DW: Make sure students experience successes. Minimize the “loss”—e.g., failure is not a terrible thing.
  • DW: It’s a tough sell, but unique to schools. Kids fail at video games, but see it as learning. Think of academic work differently.
  • DW: Dweck’s work indicates beliefs about intelligence contribute to this different view of failure. (More info on student beliefs & learning.)
  • DW: At every possibility, emphasize the malleability of intelligence—something you get not something you are.
  • DW: “Time discounting”: time between choice & outcome influences power of influence— e.g., ice cream in store vs. ice cream in bowl.
  • DW: Example, value of money given now considered more valuable than same amount promised to be given to you later.
  • DW: If you want child to value the outcome, the outcome needs to be almost immediate. Promised future rewards have no appeal.
  • DW: Most academic outcomes are distant—diplomas, grades, pizza party on Friday.
  • DW: Evaluations of outcomes are relative. Framing outcomes example: Tom Sawyer painting fence.
  • DW: Software engineers reframing: “It’s not a bug, it’s a feature.”
  • DW: Teachers should frame for positive outcomes not negative outcomes. Emphasize reward not punishment.
  • DW: Punishment gets compliance only as long as “punisher” is present. Rewards are longer lasting.
  • DW: Rewards change behavior, often to the point of internalization—e.g., I’m a kid who turns in things on-time.
  • DW: Example of framing: UVA honor system—most profs emphasize the penalty of dismissal rather than how students can live up to idea.
  • DW: Reasonable goals for each “session” (e.g., exercise) promote success. Daily targets are better than full goal.
  • DW: Example: not “writing my dissertation” but “writing 200 words today.
  • DW: Small goals help because they seem achievable. “Good grade” goal—success unknown. “Do this today”—manageable outcome.
  • DW: Another approach: fuse a task with a more desirable task—charities do this: attend a concert rather than give $ outright.
  • DW: Example in edu: gaming in the classroom (e.g., Jeopardy in classroom).
  • DW: Scheduling also helps—daily schedule for completing a term paper works better than just deadlines for final papers.
  • DW: Emotional support > guilt. e.g., exercising with a friend (support) vs. working alone.
  • DW: Group work where students are responsible to one another—hard to pull-off, but effective if achieved.
  • DW: Personality elements: student’s self-image as a student. Students who feel they don’t belong in school are overwhelmed by image.
  • DW: How does a student reach this conclusion, this hindering self-image. This is not self-esteem.
  • DW: Students need to feel 1) I’m needed here, and 2) I can contribute. How do we encourage this.
  • DW: Emphasize classroom as community, everyone has responsibilities, everyone participate in range of activities.
  • DW: …everyone tastes success and failure. Curriculum needs to be broad (e.g., science gets only about 5-6% of 3rd grade time.)
  • DW: Challenges for teachers: creating community, vulnerability (teacher’s willingness to fail, tendency to control).