Monday, June 30, 2008

Reflections on an Incredible Week!

Despite fire alarms and building evacuations, I enjoyed and learned much from the participants in the inaugural Writer’s Stylus™ training. (And I’m sure those evacuations will make great writing material!) About twenty educators from various Philadelphia- and New York City-area schools made this week unforgettable. Together, we explored visioning’s role in the writing process, revision’s “waves of improvement,” the coaching cycle and its upward influence on student achievement, the role of instruction and mechanics in writing development, and integration of multiple methods to optimize student writing growth.

We also examined interesting brain- and learning-related aspects of writing, such as:

  • The brain constructs understanding by recognizing emerging relationships or patterns. Writing is meaning making in that it promotes the thinking necessary for a writer to understand new experiences or concepts, and when the writing is well constructed, it promotes similar thinking by the reader.

  • Writing develops important cognitive functions such as working memory. “Few activities are as cognitively demanding as writing” (Dingfelder, 2006). In fact, different writing phases engage different elements of working memory. While drafting obviously engages verbal working memory, planning a piece of writing actually engages spatial working memory. Writers “represent their ideas visually when trying to structure their essays,” notes neuropsychologist David Galbraith (Dingfelder, 2006). Spatial working memory empowers planning, verbal working memory empowers drafting, and both empower revision as writers evaluate and improve both idea-level structure and word-level details. Improving working memory abilities influences fluid intelligence, capacities “critical for wide variety of cognitive tasks” and “considered one of the most important factors in learning” (Jaeggi, Buschkuehl, Jonides, & Perrig, 2008). Teaching students to write may not only give them a means of constructing understanding, but may actually equip them for better or more efficient learning in multiple areas. Writing engages “more areas of the brain and involves them more intensely than any activity thus far investigated” (Houston, 2004, p. 8).

  • Increasing instructive feedback, such as coaching, increases learning. Marzano (2003) found that students who had teachers that consistently provided timely and specific feedback scored anywhere from 21 to 41 percentage points higher on standardized tests than students who had teachers that failed to provide such feedback. Neurologist and classroom teacher Judy Willis (2006) offers a likely explanation for this dramatic impact: “One of the most successful strategies for engaging students’ brains in their lessons comes from personal connection and accountability” (p. 82). Through frequent coaching, teachers connect with individual students, hold them accountable, provide an opportunity for student questioning, and optimize learning and achievement.

  • Rather than making journals a collection of personal thoughts and feelings (which creates problems for the teacher), journals should be viewed and used as learning tools, in which students write “about concepts or information” they are learning and “the activities in which they are involved in any class” (p. 213).
    Houston (2004) explains the results of such an approach:
    …we found that journaling was one of the activities that had the greatest impact on student learning and on test scores…Class-ending journal entries were…written during the final ten minutes of every class. We found that to make this entry productive, the full ten minutes were needed, but that those minutes were valuable learning time…At the end of the project,…every teacher indicated that journals were one of the most useful tools they had in helping their students learn…students who had been in the project for three years made remarkable gains on standardized tests. Aside from the test score gains, teachers believed that their students had not only learned how to be good test takers, they had learned how to be good learners (p. 214-217).
If you missed this exciting event, we are identifying dates and locations for future Writer’s Stylus™ training. Contact Clerestory Learning to receive details via email as they develop. If your school or organization is interested in hosting either Architecture of Learning or Writer’s Stylus training, contact Clerestory Learning for details.

Dingfelder, S. (2006). Writing exercises all aspects of working memory. Monitor on Psychology 37(7).19.

Houston, G. (2004). How writing works: Imposing organizational structure within the writing process. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Jaeggi, S. M., Buschkuehl, M., Jonides, J., & Perrig, W. J. (2008). Improving Fluid Intelligence With Training on Working Memory. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 105(19), 6829-6833.

Marzano, R. J. (2003). What works in schools: Translating research into action. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Willis, J. D. (2006). Research-based strategies to ignite student learning: insights from a neurologist and classroom teacher. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Working Memory & Exercise

“Working memory is the gateway to authentic learning,” I wrote earlier this year. Without working memory activation, data will not proceed past sensory registration, preventing consolidation or construction of long-term memory. “Working memory is now known to be a busy, temporary workspace,” explains John Medina (2008), “a desktop the brain uses to process newly acquired information” (p. 124). And the deeper, more elaborate and personal that processing is, the greater the likelihood of data reaching long-term memory.

Recently, researchers at the University of Michigan seem to have discovered a means of improving working memory capacity. Subjects played a simple, Concentration-like card game and then completed tasks requiring fluid intelligence. Fluid intelligence is a cognitive ability that enables reasoning and problem-solving, especially when tasks do not correspond to previous experience. It plays critical roles in learning.

For the first time, this research team demonstrated not only that working memory capacity can be increased, but that it can also be transferred. And, as the subjects experienced more training, their working memory capacity, and thus their fluid intelligence abilities, increased. Additional training increased achievement (Jaeggi, Buschkuehl, Jonides, & Perrig, 2008).

This represents important brain-related research for educators! If working memory capacity can be increased, our approaches to working with all learners, but especially struggling learners, may have powerful new options. Increasing working memory capacity can improve learning abilities and many school-related tasks, such as reading comprehension.

Combine this with the attention exercise is getting, and we may be on the verge of a new combination of activities that dramatically influence learning and brain functioning. In addition to Ratey’s recent book, John Medina (2008) discusses exercise’s impact on brain plasticity. “Physical activity,” claims Medina, “is cognitive candy” (p. 22). In addition to increasing blood flow to hippocampal regions of the brain, which are critical for memory formation, exercise increases Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor, which keeps neurons healthy and more likely to form connections and encourages the formation of new neurons. Exercise can literally grow the brain!

What does this mean for educators? First, with new research suggesting working memory can be improved, methods for working with all learners should incorporate proven methods. We are not only teaching so students learn, we are teaching them how to learn. By improving their working memory abilities, we can increase their learning in all areas. Second, we can no longer ignore the influence of exercise. We MUST begin to take exercise seriously as a learning tool. However, allow me to clarify this: by exercise, I mean students actually engaging in regular (i.e., daily!) cardiovascular activity. Playing a softball game in gym class won’t cut it, and neither will pocket video games allowed in the playground. We need to be teaching students exercise habits that can last a lifetime.

Think of it—new neurons ready for use, current neurons ready to connect, and working memories operating optimally. What a learning environment we could create inside our students’ heads!

Now, where are my running shoes and that deck of Concentration cards?!?

Before concluding, I want to suggest a couple of resources. If you read only one teaching-learning related book this summer, make it John Medina’s Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School. (Order a copy here.) It’s easy to read and loaded with useful information. Dr. Ginger Campbell interviewed Medina on the Brain Science Podcast (download Episode 37). (The show notes for this interview are here.) The book is outstanding, and the interview is excellent. While at the Brain Science Podcast site, check out Episode 38, which features an interview with Jeff Hawkins, the author of On Intelligence. There's a great discussion of pattern recognition that will be of interest to readers with an interest in the Architecture of Learning. Enjoy!

Medina, J. (2008). Brain rules: 12 principles for surviving and thriving at work, home, and school. Seattle: Pear Press.