Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Fitness & Learning

“Exercise is medicine,” claims researcher John Ratey (2007). Exercise impacts the brain, both at the system and cellular levels, and promotes new cell growth within the brain. Additionally, according to Ratey, exercise positively influences:
  • attention and motivation
  • impulsivity
  • mood
  • the ability to overcome learned helplessness
  • norepinephrine levels (neurotransmitter associated with mood, self-esteem, and perception)
  • serotonin levels (neurotransmitter associated with mood, impulse control, and learning
  • dopamine levels (neurotransmitter associated with memory, attention, and problem-solving)
  • beta-endorphins associated with stress and pain management
  • brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein released during exercise, that promotes the growth of neurons and synapses
Ratey, whose book SPARK: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain will be released in January, also cites research showing that schools with daily physical education programs have higher student achievement. They key, stresses Ratey, is the school’s emphasis on physical fitness rather than athletics. Fit students make better students.

(Oh, and fit teachers make better teachers, too!)

Give this some thought on that afternoon walk or run!

More information can be found at Dr. Ratey's website: www.johnratey.com.

Ratey, J. (2007, Nov.). SPARK: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. Presented at Learning and the Brain: Using Brain Research to Enhance Cognitive Abilities and Achievement.

Creating a Motivating Learning Environment

In his presentation “Mindsets for School Success: Effective Educators and Resilient, Motivated Learners,” Dr. Robert Brooks identified characteristics of motivated learners and of teachers who foster motivated mindsets. I’ve combined his ideas into descriptions of a classroom environment that fosters motivated learning.

The motivated learning environment:

  • features a teacher who is supportive and available, is not judgmental or accusatory, and can be described as a “charismatic adult”—one from whom the learner “gathers strength”
  • fosters the belief that the ability to learn is based largely on the learner’s attitude and effort—that learners have a “sense of responsibility for their own learning”
  • fosters the belief that learner effort will result in learning
  • accepts mistakes as a part of the learning process and helps learners understand that mistakes are expected and accepted
  • features a teacher who believes that from birth every child wants to learn and succeed
  • features a teacher who recognizes that all students are motivated, but some are dominated by “avoidance motivation” as a means of self-protection
  • features a teacher who asks, “What can I do differently to help this student become more helpful and successful?” when dealing with learners dominated by avoidance motivation
  • honors each learner’s “islands of competence” while nurturing additional growth

Dr. Brooks suggests teachers give themselves the following daily reminder: “Today may be the day I say or do something meaningful in a child’s life.” He also suggests teachers reflect on the following:

  • Would I want anyone to say or do to me what I have said or done to this child?
  • What do I hope to accomplish?
  • Am I saying or doing things in a way that students can understand what I am attempting to communicate?
You can find a series of articles entitled “Creating Motivating Environments” at his website: www.drrobertbrooks.com.

Brooks, R. (2007, Nov.). Mindsets for school success: Effective educators and resilient, motivated learners. Presented at Learning and the Brain: Using Brain Research to Enhance Cognitive Abilities and Achievement.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Framing Feedback for Continued Learning

How students perceive feedback dramatically influences their ability to correct errors and continue learning. According to Dr. Jennifer Mangels (2007), students’ perceptions arise from their beliefs about intelligence. Individuals who believe intelligence is a fixed entity (i.e., you get the intelligence you’re born with) fixate on performance and respond to negative feedback (i.e., the identification of an error) by withdrawing and extending little effort. They become helpless, focusing on their performance rather than on how to learn correct responses or processes for future use. In contrast, individuals who believe intelligence is malleable (i.e., smart is something you become not something you possess) respond to negative feedback with a mastery-orientation, seeking means of correction and learning. Such learners are resilient, responding to set-backs with renewed energy directed toward learning.

As Dr. Mangels describes the difference, both groups desire similar outcomes (success) but possess different goals that serve as motivation (superior performance vs. mastery learning). One group sees feedback as a threat to avoid, while the other sees the same feedback as a means to improvement.

How can we direct student response to feedback so that the mastery-orientation overcomes the performance-orientation? Guiding students to view the feedback as a challenge to be overcome or a problem to be solved is the key. A classroom environment that welcomes error as a gateway to learning contributes to better feedback responses.

Dr. Robert Brooks (2007) suggests couching feedback in “we” statements. For example, rather than telling a student that a response is incorrect and to “try harder,” Brooks suggests, in one-on-one conversation, saying, “This strategy you're using doesn’t seem to be working. Let's figure out why and how we can change the strategy so that you are successful.” Such a response converts the feedback immediately into a problem-solving scenario—a scenario with a potentially positive conclusion.

What kind of messages do our classroom environments send students? Are we encouraging competition and comparison so that students become performance oriented? Do we welcome, even embrace errors as gateways to learning? The tone we establish and the approach we take to giving feedback can promote additional learning or stall student progress. Beliefs are influential!

By the way, this research was presented at the Learning and the Brain Conference in Cambridge, MA. Watch the blog for future gems from this outstanding conference!

Brooks, R. (2007, Nov.). Mindsets for school success: Effective educators and resilient, motivated learners. Presented at Learning and the Brain: Using Brain Research to Enhance Cognitive Abilities and Achievement.

Mangels, J. A. (2007, Nov.). Motivating minds: How student beliefs impact learning and academic achievement. Presented at Learning and the Brain: Using Brain Research to Enhance Cognitive Abilities and Achievement.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Change the Representation, Deepen the Learning

Can a second-grade student not yet formally taught the concept or mathematical processes of division identify one-tenth of a rectangle?

In Mind, Brain, and Education (June 2007), researcher Florence Mihaela Singer details how a change in representation can trigger the use of knowledge never formally studied and deepen the understanding of new knowledge. A change in representation is a change in the form of how material is viewed and considered. For example, rather than a rectangular grid from which students identify a tenth, a blank sheet of paper activates different thinking. The second-grade student cited as an example successfully identified one-tenth of a rectangle once the researcher changed the form, from a grid to a blank rectangle, with which the student was working. While the grid encouraged a focus on numeric elements (the number of squares in the grid), the blank rectangle allowed a focus on spatial relationships, and this shift enabled the child to accomplish the task.

Changing the representation of material provides a powerful means of deepening learning and constructing understanding. Even after students have processed new material, changing its representation forces a new focus on the material and increased processing of its important details and relationships. Consider the knowledge, insights, and wisdom conveyed in narrative forms—fables, parables, allegories. The change in representation imbues the information with memorable power through a shift in perspective from factual statement to narrative context.

Similar impact can occur when teachers force a change in representation of new instructional material. For example, imagine you have just taught a social studies unit on the American Civil War to middle school students. You have presented the facts—key issues, events, and personalities—and students have processed these in various but somewhat familiar ways. Perhaps they have created a timeline of the key events, explained the differing perspectives on critical issues, and associated specific individuals with issues and events. This is effective processing and will generate some understanding.

However, consider the potential of a change in representation. For example, you may engage students in exploring a change of scale: What if the entire Civil War had been fought within one house? Would the upstairs represent one side of the conflict and the downstairs the other? How would the important personalities be represented within a family? Where would the battlefields be located? How would the difference in perspectives have become evident? As students change the scale from a national to a familial conflict, every important detail of the instructional material must be revisited in depth to assign it the most rational role in the new representation. The new content gets processed deeply as the new, in this case imaginary, representation is explored and developed.

Teachers using the Architecture of Learning Instructional Design Model (see www.clerestorylearning.com) have a built in opportunity for such processing. The Elaboration Strand of both the Content and Combination Blueprints provide ideal opportunities for reprocessing new material through representational change.

For some students, such a change will make new material learnable. For others, the initial learning will deepen, increasing the value, meaning, and potential transfer of newly constructed understandings. All learners benefit from such activity.

Change the representation, deepen the learning.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Sleep, Emotions, & Learning

Researchers from UCA-Berkeley and Harvard recently quantified what teachers have known for years. A lack of sleep increases emotional reactions and can negatively impact learning. Sleep-deprived individuals showed a whopping 60% activity increase in brain regions associated with emotional response.

Though some brain functioning follows the anticipated route of becoming less active with tiredness, the emotional centers ramp up, including those associated serious disorders such as depression. Sleep-deprived subjects suffered a decrease in prefrontal activity—neurological processes critical for emotional control and learning.

What does this mean for educators? And how should we make use of such findings?

First, though the study’s subjects suffered significant sleep deprivation (no sleep for 35 hours), smaller losses of sleep likely impact the same neurological regions and functions. Students who get less than their needed amount of sleep have an increased likelihood of overemotional responses. For example, a student who normally enjoys joking with a teacher may respond negatively when the teacher initiates such an interaction, indicating that sleep deprivation may be playing a role. Such days require additional patience and grace on the teacher’s part, recognizing that with a good night’s sleep, the student will likely be back to normal the next day.

Second, teachers need to monitor their own sleep and avoid sleep deprivation as much as possible. Teaching is stressful, and increased emotional responses from a sleep-deprived teacher can negatively influence student learning.

Finally, educators need to be proactive in sharing the results and implications of this research with parents and school/community leaders. Last spring, I spoke with a parent whose third-grade child played little league baseball. It was play-off time, and the parent was lamenting the crazy schedule her child would need to keep in order to participate. Some of the play-off games had start times as late as 8:30 PM on school nights! Her child would BEGIN to play baseball at what normally was his bedtime! Such scheduling, even if only for a couple of weeks, will impact the child’s sleep and, consequently, the child’s learning. By communicating such research findings, we can help parents and community organizations help us optimize student learning.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Envisioning What Can Be

According to leadership expert Jim Clemmer, we tend to find what we focus on. In fact, Clemmer suggests that faulty vision “sees things as they are, not as they can be” (2005, Growing the Distance).

Vision provides two foundational components for educational success: motivation and direction. With vision, we can focus our energies. For example, if we determine to produce individuals with exceptional thinking abilities we will direct our energies toward embedding student thinking in every area of our curriculum.

Many schools lack a well-developed vision. As a result, their energies get scattered and they tend to latch onto any new thing that comes along. New textbook? We need that. New computer? We need that. New teacher training? We need that. Without a vision, every change seems to offer a promising direction.
To avoid this, and to thrive as schools of excellence, we need a vision. What, then, are the characteristics of a well-developed vision?

First, the vision can be envisioned by all school community members. The vision should be so well and so thoroughly communicated that each individual connected to the school can articulate and explain it.

Second, the vision is congruous with the school’s values, history, and capacity. Not pursuing something that’s either impossible (e.g., our students will be the most technologically advanced graduates ever) or something short-sighted that betrays values (e.g., our test scores will the highest in the city, the county, the state, the nation!).

Third, the vision guides decision-making and problem solving; it establishes a reference point. For example, a school with a vision for producing writers capable of communicating truth with clarity and beauty would be skeptical of a new computer program that has students choosing correct end marks for 15 minutes a day, even if it guarantees a 3% increase in standardized test scores. The program simply does very little, if anything, to make the school’s vision reality.

Fourth, the vision is challenging. It promotes striving for improvement and excellence, requiring the investment of time, attention, and energy to achieve. It balances the ideal and the possible to motivate everyone to greater growth.

Finally, a well-developed vision is inspiring. It generates enthusiasm and commitment, or as researcher Alan Blankstein explains, it provides a “profound sense of purpose” (2004, Failure Is Not an Option).

For example, a school may claim the following as its vision: Our school equips and empowers individuals to influence society through soundly-reasoned thinking and action. Consider the vision's key words: 1) equips, 2) empowers, 3) individuals, 4) influence, 5) society, 6) soundly reasoned, 7) thinking, and 8) action. Each possesses implications for instructional form and content, providing a guiding challenge for faculty and staff.

What vision do you and your school have for students? Remember, we tend to find what we focus on!