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 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!