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).

Learning & the Brain Presentation: Martha Denckla

One of my favorite conferences is the Learning and the Brain Conference held at various locations several times a year. The most recent conference was held in Washington, D.C. in early May. I tried to play the role of on-the-spot-reporter and "tweeted" live from the conference.

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.

Here are my posts from Martha Denckla's keynote:
  • Martha Denckla is next presenter. Topic: “The Syndrome ADHD & the Symptom ‘Attention Deficit’ Overlap Only Partially.”
  • Denckla is an M.D., director of developmental cognitive neurology at Kennedy Krieger Institute, part of Johns Hopkins.
  • Going to use “MD” to indicate ideas/comments from Dr. Martha Denckla.
  • MD: Major issue in ADHD: the executive function capacity.
  • MD: Officially, ADHD (not ADD) with subtypes of inattentive and hyperactivity (or, in full-blown, both).
  • MD: Is there really a “deficit” in ADHD—a quantitative lesser amount? (Denckla suggests
  • that there is not.)
  • MD: In testing for ADHD, a problem can occur in at least four different “steps” of testing process.
  • MD: Many “disagreements” between ADHD scientists are due to differences in study population—not comparing the same elements.
  • MD: “Frontal filtering,” or selective deficit, not “bottom up” processing, is associated with ADHD.
  • MD: More anticipatory errors occur with ADHD, but not covert orienting attention.
  • MD: ADHD children are more dependent on correct cueing. Some studies suggest ADHD deficits worse on left side (rt. hemisphere issue?).
  • MD: ADHD child has intact “bottom up” orienting, but slow response to unexpected events—slower to reorient/re-direct attention.
  • MD: LOTS of evidence for Attention ALLOCATION Deficit—more descriptive name for actual problem. Not a deficit of attention.
  • MD: In ADHD, “distractability” is really “attractability.” Intrinsically rewarding activities are “attractive.”
  • MD: Lack of inhibition when required task lacks “attractability,” cannot allocate attention appropriately.
  • MD: Specific actions done by the nervous system require inhibition of other actions.
  • MD: Inhibition is “other side of coin” of focused attention.
  • MD: Suggested title: A-AD, Allocation-of-Attention Deficit. Impulsivity is shared across subtypes; hyperactivity is less common.
  • MD: Cognitive impulsivity resembles inattention. ADHD is “radar sweep” attention but weak in “spotlight” attention.
  • MD: Sweep of surroundings vs. narrow, steady, intense focus.
  • MD: Right hemisphere more involved in “radar” attention; left hemisphere more involved in
  • “spotlight” attention.
  • MD: Triad of ADHD weaknesses: motor, cognitive, & emotional display control—all executive function issues.
  • MD: Motor control in place around age 15; cognitive, around 25; emotional display, around 32—stages of maturity. Interesting minimal age for President of US: 35.
  • MD: Motor control issues are often indicators of risk for developing ADHD.
  • MD: Girls are typically a year ahead of boys in motor control development until puberty.
  • MD: Example of motor control: finger sequencing on a single hand (not moving other hand in tandem).
  • MD: Future research: relationship of emotional and cognitive regulation. Emotion plays role in focused attention.
  • MD: “Real frontier”: adverse impact of adversity/stress—causes an “amygdala detour” in the brain.
  • MD: So, as a child struggles in school, that stress can mimic ADHD when the child actually does not have ADHD.
  • MD: “If you don;t have ADHD at age 7 you don’t suddenly develop it at age 9.” The “Oh-we-missed-the-ADHD” idea is usually wrong.

Be the Change. Listen. Follow-up.

“We need effective, high quality, meaningful professional development,” I wrote in a recent blog post. “Otherwise we do a disservice to hard-working professionals and deserve the bruises their opinions inflict on our egos.”

While leading the best possible professional development session for every teacher in the room is unlikely to ever happen, there are some ways we can help avoid professional development being a “waste of time.”

1. Be the change. Leaders of professional development seem to forget that they’re actually teaching, and that part of teaching is modeling the activity you hope to see adopted. A session devoted to equipping teachers to implement more collaborative learning that is presented via “death by PowerPoint” is an oxymoron, a term originating from a Greek word appropriately meaning “pointedly foolish.” As one teacher recently expressed it, “Why does the worst teaching often happen in sessions on how to improve teaching?” Why, indeed?
Modeling is a powerful teaching technique. In addition to communicating that the suggested new approach promotes learning, demonstration taps into some of the brain’s natural learning systems:
This may be because demonstration actually encourages the brain to engage. Specialized neurons known as mirror neurons make practicing “in the head” possible…When a teacher repeatedly performs a sequence of steps, her students’ mirror neurons may enable their own preliminary practice of the same steps. In other words, as a teacher demonstrates a skill, students mentally rehearse it.1
Leading professional development sessions that utilize the instructional techniques and approaches being recommended is more than a courtesy. It increases the likelihood that teachers will appreciate and understand the concepts being shared.

2. Listen. I have a tendency to get preoccupied with my preparation and forget that I’ll actually have people in the professional development session. Not just people but colleagues!

A few years ago, I was asked by another organization to lead a day of professional development for a large school district in the Northeast. I arrived early and began to prepare the room and my materials. The teacher whose classroom was being used as the meeting site was there when I arrived. She shared with me what had been going on at the school. Contract negotiations were underway and not going well; a strike was likely. She informed me that I would have representatives from both the union and administration sitting in for the day and that either or both may speak up at any time to contest any ideas I presented. After thinking of possible escape scenarios, I left the room and found a quiet place to think. I needed to redirect the focus of the group—at least as much as possible—or the day would be a waste.

As the teachers and union/administration reps came into the classroom, I asked them to think back to when they decided to become an educator and to jot down the most influential reasons for their choice. I opened the session sharing a brief account of my decision to become a teacher. I then had them do the same in small groups. As they recounted their original motivations for becoming educators, I could sense the atmosphere change. I mentally collected comments I overheard from the conversations and used them to summarize why we were now coming together to explore how we could do what we wanted to do even better. Surprisingly, there were no objections from either rep during the day. While it wasn’t an ideal day of professional development, it became more beneficial because I listened and had enough flexibility to adapt to the needs of my colleagues.

Though we’ve been invited to lead professional development, we do not have all the answers. Professional development involves merging new research findings with current personnel—i.e., bringing ideas and people together. One way I’ve tried to do more of this recently is to ask teachers if any of them have tried something similar to a new approach I’ve explained. If any have, I invite them to share their experience. This invites elaboration, a critical cognitive process for constructing understanding. If the teacher’s experience was positive, we discuss why the approach was successful. If the teacher’s experience was frustrating, we often find together the reason for it and develop a plan for structuring it better the next time. This give-and-take values everyone, respects the experience present in the session, and allows the leader to be a colleague rather than an aloof expert.

3. Follow up. I’ve written previously about the importance of coaching and the characteristics of an effective coach. A one-time information flood is ineffective, no matter how engaging the session’s leader may be. Teachers need support as they begin to implement new ideas, methods, and approaches. Note that support, not judgement, is needed. Showing up with an evaluation form is a certain way to kill any benefit professional development might yield. Teachers are learners, and we need the time and space to try, to reflect, to try again, to get helpful feedback, and to truly master implementation. We need the opportunity to learn. Coaching provides this opportunity, along with the encouragement and feedback necessary for success.

Let’s not dismiss professional development as useless because of a few bad experiences. Rather, let’s structure professional development so that it truly invests in teachers, providing them with new and effective means of investing in our students.

Authentic learning for both is what we’re chasing. Catching it requires professional development of the highest quality.

Washburn, K.D., The Architecture of Learning: Designing Instruction for the Learning Brain (Pelham, AL: Clerestory Press, 2010), 68.

Image: 'Cautious / Suspicious'

Friday, May 28, 2010

Learning & the Brain Presentation: Michael Posner

One of my favorite conferences is the Learning and the Brain Conference held at various locations several times a year. The most recent conference was held in Washington, D.C. in early May. I tried to play the role of on-the-spot-reporter and posted on Twitter live from the conference.

To provide readers with a sense of the conference, I'm going to post my Twitter stream from each presentation. These are the actual "tweets" I posted from the conference. I've cleaned them up a little, but other than a few corrected typos, they represent the raw ideas presented at the conference.

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.

Here are my posts from the first keynote presenter, Michael Posner:

  • First speaker is Michael Posner, topic: Brain’s Attention Networks. Will use initials (MP) to indicate speaker.
  • Posner is from the University of Oregon and was recently honored by the President for his work in cognitive neuroscience.
  • MP: Attention is a central topic for education. New tech giving us new insight into nature of attention.
  • MP: Attention is a set of neural networks—at least 3: alerting, orienting, & executive. Each set associated w/different brain area.
  • MP: At rest, two brain networks are active, “default state,” which alert brain to change.
  • MP: Alerting deficits in early childhood later negatively affect the executive network.
  • MP: There are both overt AND covert shifts in attention.
  • MP: A deficit in orienting attention network correlates with some autistic behaviors.
  • MP: Executive network is associated with conflicts in sensory data and self-regulation.
  • Post on importance of self-regulation:
  • MP: Effortful control of attention is one self-regulation element of the executive network.
  • MP: The anterior cingulate is related to self-regulation; size & activity can predict self-regulation capacity.
  • MP: Executive network deficiency is related to most cognitive disorders.
  • MP: Individual differences in executive network functioning are wide-ranging.
  • MP: For example, the speed in managing conflicts in sensory data correlate w/self-regulation capacity.
  • MP: Separate white matter pathways deal with the three attention networks.
  • MP: Recent study shows IBMT (form of meditation) actually influences those white matter pathways positively.
  • MP: IBMT meditation influences brain state, which positively influences executive functions.
  • MP: Differing neurotransmitters are also associated with each attention network. This can help guide gene research.
  • MP: When does executive network begin to self-regulate individual? Evidence shows around 7-10 months of age.
  • MP: Around 7 months, a child is aware of conflicts in sensory data—e.g., a scene different from expectation.
  • MP: Anticipatory looking at 4-7 months correlates w/some self-regulation abilities at 4 years of age.
  • MP: Connectivity of the executive network, however, develops slowly—present at age 9 but not fully connected.
  • MP: Showing novel objects may help produce connectivity within executive attention networks.
  • MP: Gene DRD4 present on a specific chromosone correlates with ADHD. (Genetic basis discovered?)
  • MP: If gene is present AND parenting is poor, MAJOR ADHD impulsivity develops.
  • MP: “True experts” have “highly elaborated semantic memory,” correlated w/activity in fusiform gyrus.
  • MP: High levels of experience influence brain activity for specific areas. Fusiform gyrus active in chess, bird, & dog experts.
  • Posner now taking questions from audience.
  • MP: Alerting attention deficiency associates w/aging & ADHD disorders.
  • MP: Orienting attention deficiency associates w/autism.
  • MP: Executive attention deficiency associates w/Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, addiction, & others.
  • MP: Parents not to blame for ADHD children; research shows correlation in extreme impulsivity.
  • MP: With research subjects, parenting classes actually decreased children’s impulsivity.
  • (As you can imagine, some resistance to these ideas. Posner: “Just sharing what research shows.”)
  • MP: My research will be translated to classroom by educators, not me. I’m just a scientist. We need teachers to think this through.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Professional Development: A Defense

Teacher conversations about professional development often include the terms worthless and waste of time, and a general disdain for typical approaches is often evident. The back-and-forth can be a bruising arena for those who actually provide professional development, and I’ve been feeling a bit bruised recently. Don’t worry. The bruises have only been blows to my ego. (The only actual bruise I have came compliments of a concrete planter on the corner of New Jersey & M Streets in Washington, D.C., and that’s not a tale I care to retell.)

I must confess that my own experience supports such derogatory comments. I once spent an entire morning of “professional development” brainstorming alternate ways to earn a living. Though I’m sure the administration’s intent and the presenter’s goals were worthwhile, the session was so poorly designed that worthless and waste of time accurately described the result.

Why, then, do the current perspectives of professional development seem bruising? A few years ago I began an organization committed to “investing in teachers,” a “school’s most valuable asset.” And, yes, professional development is a significant component of what we do. So, allow me to provide a brief defense of professional development based on what it can do when it’s effectively designed.

Professional development can contribute to increased student learning. As we learn more about teaching and related topics, such as findings from neuro- and cognitive science, we discover principles that can improve our teaching. As our teaching becomes more effective, our students understand more. Our growth in teaching influences their depth of learning.

Many times, our growth in teaching relates to our instructional design—an element that directly influences student learning: “Many breakdowns in student learning may be a function of poor classroom curriculum design,” suggests Robert J. Marzano. “...the expert teacher has acquired a wide array of instructional strategies along with the knowledge of when these strategies might be the most useful.”1 Professional development can equip us with additional strategies for fostering learning.

Professional development can provide a common language for teachers to talk to teachers about teaching. This increases the possibility of collaboration, a practice known to improve practice:
Surgeon and author Dr. Atul Gawande details conclusions of a Harvard Business School study on the learning curve surgeons experience when learning new surgical techniques. Practice in itself proved an unreliable predictor of learning rate and success, but how surgeons practiced made a significant difference. A surgeon leading one of the quickest-learning teams picked “team members with whom he had worked well before” and kept “them together through the first fifteen cases before allowing any new members. He had the team go through a dry run the day before the first case, then deliberately scheduled six operations in the first week, so little would be forgotten in between. He convened the team before each case to discuss it in detail and afterward to debrief.” In contrast, a surgeon who had significantly more experience led one of the slowest-learning teams. He involved different personnel in each surgery, “which is to say that it was no team at all,” and led no pre- or post-operation discussions. Increased collaboration quickened learning rate and improved performance. Most important, patients benefitted from the surgeon’s collaborative approach.2
Educational research reaches a similar conclusion: collaboration improves teacher performance. Unfortunately our learning institutions often impede professional growth by inhibiting collaboration. As a result, we can actually hinder student learning by failing to sharpen one another through collaboration.3 Common professional development can provide a basis and means for such collaboration.

Professional development can provide new research that equips teachers to be more intentional. New research often illuminates why what we already know to be successful teaching is effective. This recognition helps us become more intentional in our use of various methods and approaches. When we understand why something works, we know better how to optimize its effectiveness. A consistently good teacher is an intentional teacher, and the more we understand about teaching and learning, the more intentional we can become. Professional development can do these things, which also means it can fail to do them, and this is a source of teacher frustration and justifiably bruising comments:
Unfortunately, schools provide little help. Most professional development programs for teachers, claims Richard Paul, are “episodic, intellectually unchallenging, and fragmented” with “very little discussion on or about serious educational issues, and when there is such discussion it is often simplistic.”4
Those leading professional development sessions have a critical responsibility. In the next post I’ll explore some principles that should be considered when designing and leading professional development. We need effective, high quality, meaningful professional development.

Otherwise we do a disservice to hard-working professionals and deserve the bruises their opinions inflict on our egos.

  1. Marzano, R.J., What Works in Schools: Translating Research into Action (Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2003), 106, 78.

  2. Gawande, A., Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance (New York: Henry Holt, 2007), 230.

  3. Sergiovanni, T.J., Moral Leadership: Getting to the Heart of School Improvement (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1992), 88.

  4. Washburn, K.D., The Architecture of Learning: Designing Instruction for the Learning Brain (Pelham, AL: Clerestory Press, 2010), 191.

Image: 'Audience'

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Motivation, the Elusive Drive

“Come on, you can do it!”

They were wrong.

In my youth I played a sport that makes up a chunk of many-a-child’s early athletic endeavors. My father was passionate about it. My older brother was MVP of his high school team. And I…just didn’t get it. In the final game of my final year of eligibility, by some fluke of fate, I managed two significant plays. In an entire season of mediocrity those two plays were what stayed in the minds of the coaches, and I was named to the all-star team. The “honor” meant practicing beyond the season’s end and playing games against all-star teams from other locales.

My father was proud. My older brother thought, for the first time, that I might follow in his footsteps. I was miserable. Miserable and unmotivated. Somehow I maintained a pulse despite a lack of heart for the game; I was merely a body filling a position.

My coach and teammates yelled endless go-get-‘em, show-’em-what-you’ve-got’s to no avail. I didn’t get the sport. Never did. It was meaningless to me, and I was definitely the team’s weakest link. Without motivation, I remained in my mediocrity, not interested in learning how to improve. This is the only time I can remember my parents allowing me to quit something I had started, and I’m sure their allowance immediately improved the team.

An Elusive Drive
Motivation is elusive. In part because motivation is idiosyncratic. We all assign different levels of significance and meaning to different things. What captivated my father and brother’s interests seemed like only a time-filler to me. Part of discovering ourselves is finding those things that spur us to action—meaningful, intentionally chosen action. When we find these captivating pursuits, our inner drive kicks in and we act with purpose, passion, and even inspiration.

Students are individuals. What motivates one may not motivate another, which is why a blanket approach, be it “sticks” or “carrots,” rarely works, especially long term. I once used a reading motivational program initiated by a national restaurant chain. I’d set monthly goals for students and if they achieved them they received a certificate to use at the restaurant. For a month or two, I’d have 80%+ of my students achieve the goal. Then the achievement rate took a dip, followed by another and another, until only a few students were achieving the monthly goals. I was trying to motivate individuals with a one-size-fits-all approach, and my use of extrinsic motivation probably negatively influenced any intrinsic motivation some of my students had for reading.

One Hot Potato

Motivation seems to be our controversy of the moment. On one “side” we have famous authors and speakers suggesting that extrinsic motivation is wasted energy. On the other, we have researchers paying students for various academic-related achievements. We can cite research that supports both perspectives, which leaves us arguing over philosophical stances and pragmatic solutions.

Let’s step away from the shouting for a moment and consider principles that can guide our thinking about motivation and learning.

Extrinsic Motivation: Be Specific in the Short-term
Focusing attention on a post-task reward can promote action. For example, I love Boston Cream Pie (which isn’t a pie at all), but it’s not a common dessert here in Alabama where banana pudding is more the norm. Once in a while the urge to taste the delicious combination of cake, cream, and dark chocolate moves my attention and action to the kitchen. I bake the dessert so I can eat the dessert. The reward at the end of the task moves me and makes me move. I don’t enjoy the process of baking enough to make Boston Cream Pie every day, every week, or even every month. But occasionally, the reward at the end is enough to make me don a baker’s cap (at least figuratively).

This example illustrates some important principles for using extrinsic motivation. First, extrinsic motivation is best used for short-term, measurable tasks. Research suggests that attempts at using extrinsic motivation long-term actually end up undermining motivation. An initial burst of activity is typically followed by decreased drive and achievement. Daniel Pink suggests using extrinsic motivation only when there is no intrinsic motivation that may be undermined.1

Short-term extrinsic motivation can be effective if the task is concrete and measurable. For example, Roland Fryer Jr.’s controversial research found that paying students for high test scores or good grades was far less effective than paying students for each book they read.2 The reason: students knew how to achieve the reward for reading a book but did not
necessarily know what to do to raise their test scores or grades. For extrinsic motivation to be effective, the targeted action needs to be specific and the individual needs to know exactly how to accomplish the desired goal.

Daniel Pink describes such tasks as those that “require following a prescribed set of rules to a specific end.”3 The message: offering extrinsic motivation for vague concepts, such as good behavior or more effort, is unlikely to succeed. Using extrinsic motivation for specific, concrete tasks, such as mowing the lawn or reading a book, can be effective, but probably only in the short-term.

That does not mean that short-term extrinsic motivation cannot lead to long-term changes in behavior. If the motivation sustains a change long enough, the individual may develop new habits that persist beyond the external reward. For example, a student offered a reward for a specific behavior, such as returning an item to its appropriate place of storage after use, may develop the habit of putting the item back after each use. Pink warns, however, that offering the extrinsic motivation long term often leads to resentment as the “motivatee” feels manipulated by the one offering the reward. Short-term, specific, and measurable can make extrinsic motivation work without most negative side-effects.

Intrinsic Motivation: Setting the Stage

Wouldn’t it be great if there were a recipe for igniting intrinsic motivation—”Do X and all your students will be passionate about learning.” Yeah, that would be great. We can dream, but the reality is that intrinsic motivation is impossible to generate for someone else. However, we can create environments where intrinsic motivation is more likely to flourish.

First, create conditions in which students experience competence. Humans like to feel capable of meeting challenges, whether it’s working a formula correctly or running a mile. We like to feel like we can be successful, even when it takes work. How do we create these conditions in our classrooms? One of the most powerful modifications a teacher can make is increasing the amount of instructive feedback given to students while they are working on a task. Formative assessment combined with instructive feedback is the heart of effective teaching. As a teacher moves throughout the classroom observing students at work and offering additional challenge and redirection as necessary, students gain confidence in their abilities to be successful. Why? Because someone is there to point the way. It’s that simple. When we are working to learn something new, having someone who knows how to do what we’re trying to learn and who is willing to offer feedback and guidance kicks our intrinsic motivation into gear.

Second, establish an environment that communicates autonomy. Students like to feel like they have some control over their actions. (Teachers do too, by the way!) If everything in a classroom is so structured that students never have options, intrinsic motivation will wither. The choices can be as simple as either A or B. The point is not to provide students with a myriad of options, but to make sure that giving students choices is a regular part of the classroom. Don’t confuse autonomy with independence. It’s not that students want to be left alone to achieve for themselves but that they want to feel like they have some say in how they learn and demonstrate their learning. In fact, given as an option, many students will choose to work collaboratively with others, recognizing that such interdependence has many potential benefits.

Third, provide appropriate challenge for students. Many times increasing the challenge means doing less as teachers. We have a tendency to think and act as though giving students all the new material nicely organized and tied up is the best way for them to get it. After all, putting it all together worked for us as we interacted with the material. That, right there, is the key: we accepted the challenge of processing the material and gained deeper understanding of it as a result. Students need to go through a similar process—to take on the challenge of sorting the new material.

Research supports this conclusion. A study that has been replicated featured two groups both
given the text passage to read. For one group, the text was preceded by an outline that had the same organization as the text. In other words, the researcher, or teacher, communicated that this was the way the ideas should be organized. For the second group, the text was preceded by an outline having a different organization from the text. The researchers then gave two different tests to both groups. The first test was simply to recall the text passage. In other words, it measured superficial learning of the text. In this first test, the group that had received the outline that matched the text had the better scores.

However, when the researchers tested deep learning by testing each group’s ability to use ideas from the text to engage in creative problem-solving, the second group, the group that had been given an outline that differed from the organization of the text passage, significantly outperformed the other group.

Why did the results differ for the two groups? Here’s the researcher’s explanation: “The
efforts that participants in the second group made to relate the outline to the text reduced their ability to recall the text but increased their understanding of it. This increased understanding meant that they were better placed than participants in the first group to generalize or transfer their knowledge to the creative problems.” The extra challenge of restructuring the outline to match the text better equipped them to transfer their learning or to act with intention in using the new material.4

Dr. Judy WIllis recently presented valuable insights regarding the brain and challenge. When, as students, our brains are not challenged we become bored easily, and boredom is actually a form of stress. When stressed, the regions of the brain associated with “fight, flight, or freeze” become active, generating behaviors often associated with a variety of disorders, including ADHD, oppositional-defiant disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, and others. As a neurologist, Dr. Willis began to question the high percentage of children she saw who
supposedly had indicators of these disorders. Knowing the numbers seemed far too high, Dr. Willis began to visit classrooms and noticed that, for many students, the questionable behaviors occurred when the child was either unchallenged or feeling incompetent in relation to the challenge.5 Appropriate challenge avoids the extremes that can extinguish intrinsic motivation.

Fourth, help students perceive progress. I love the Nike+ system used with my mp3 player to track my runs. After each run, I can see my progress in relation to personal goals, established standards, previous runs, and much more. I have a visual representation of my progress. Researchers often refer to this as something like the “gamer effect,” gamer being the player of video games. When you play a video game and reach the end of a challenge, you move on to the next level. You always know where you are in relation to the game’s ultimate challenge and conclusion. You can “see” progress.

Would it be possible to help students see their own progress? If we have a series of skills that ultimately enable students to complete some task or reach some answer—could we provide them with a chart that shows the progression? Could they check off “levels” as they master the sub-skills? Think, “How can I represent the learning in a way that students will be able to see progress?”

Finally, help students discover meaning in their learning.
…meaning is motivational. Because the brain constantly strives to make sense of the sensory data our experiences provide, finding meaning triggers the brain’s reward system and increases the likelihood of our retaining the information. “The brain’s determination of what is meaningful and what is not is reflected not only in the initial perceptual processes but also in the conscious processing of information,” claims Patricia Wolfe. “Information that fits into or adds to an existing network has a much better chance of storage than information that doesn’t.”6
Meaning emerges as students blend new learning with past experience (elaboration) and as I see its relevance to their current world (intention). By helping students see the relationship between new learning and their past and present experiences, we can make our instruction conducive to intrinsic motivation.

Remember, there is no magic formula for generating intrinsic motivation or guarantee that even with all these conditions in place that it will flourish. This, however, gives a focus, a place to put our energies so that intrinsic motivation is possible.

In conclusion, let’s consider one more major influence on intrinsic motivation: the teacher’s passion (or lack of it) for the subject matter being taught. We have the responsibility of learning to like everything we teach so that our attitude toward it is consistently upbeat and positive. Many of us likely became teachers because of a dynamic teacher in our past. We need to be that dynamic teacher in our classrooms.

I’d like to pay you $5.00 for reading this entire article, but I wouldn’t want to undermine any intrinsic motivation you may have for implementing its ideas. My continued curiosity about the topic led me to write it—i.e., I didn’t write it for pay! Hopefully it’s generated some ideas worth considering. Applying new learning does have its own rewards!

And who knows? With enough intrinsic motivation you might earn, deserve, and enjoy a post on the all-star team!

  1. Pink, D.H., Drive: The Surprising Truth Behind What Motivates Us (New York: Riverhead Books, 2009).
  2. Ripley, A., “Should Kids Be Bribed to Do Well in School?” Time, April 8, 2010.
  3. Pink, 62.
  4. Baddeley, A., Eysenck, M.W., & Anderson, M.C., Memory (New York: Psychology Press, 2009) 113-135.
  5. Willis, J., “Teaching Students How They Can Change Their Intelligence by Teaching Them a Brain Owner’s Manual,” presented at Learning and the Brain: Using Brain Research to Raise IQ and Achievement (San Francisco, 2010).
  6. Washburn, K.D., The Architecture of Learning: Designing Instruction for the Learning Brain (Pelham, AL: Clerestory Press, 2010) 46-47.
  • ‘Free Hey Now You’re An All Star+Creative+Commons‘
  • ‘Murphy‘
  • ‘goodbye‘

Monday, April 12, 2010

Creative Thinking in the Classroom, Part 2

Time. Is there a greater challenge for educators? It seems like instructional time is often the target of well-meaning but time-devouring programs. Assemblies, pep rallies, fund-raising motivational events, and those intercom announcements eat precious minutes, and these are on top of an already bloated curriculum. As a result, we tend to eliminate anything that has a whiff of being extraneous.

One major casualty: creative thinking. However, as I discussed in Part 1, for the brain creative thinking is not just the predecessor to producing art. It is a means of deepening understanding. In other words, creative thinking is a cognitive gateway to deeper, more meaningful learning. Let’s examine how learning can spark creative thinking, which can lead to deeper learning.

Learning involves four “core processes,” two of which are comprehension and elaboration. If learning proceeds in a straightforward fashion—experience→comprehension→elaboration→application—it can bypass opportunities for creative thinking. This is unfortunate because learning can spark creative thinking:
The resulting understanding prompts a creative curve. The mind says, “Wait a minute! Let’s explore that again, but this time from a different perspective, or with a different reference point, or in multiple dimensions, or by combining it with _____.” Neuroscientist and writer Gregory Berns describes this as “reverse perception.” Creative thinking, claims Berns, “comes from using the same neural circuits used to perceive natural objects,” but in reverse. Instead of perceiving what is and acting on it, the mind seeks what else could be. The individual re-explores the new data, returning to comprehension to disorganize, relabel, and re-sort the data in a different way. This difference may be in perspective, in scale, in dimension, or in any ways that alter initial thinking about the data. For example, the creative individual may engage a creative tool (e.g., drawing an analogy) or explore representational variety (e.g., a multiple intelligences approach, such as representing verbal data in a musical or spatial form).1
This figure shows the “creative curve.”
When given the opportunity to re-explore understandings, the brain often engages in re-comprehension, the sorting of critical details, and re-elaboration, the recognition of new patterns. These new patterns may be new, unique, creative. As the individual examines these new patterns, methods of expressing them may come to mind. These possible expressions are then examined for potential, and if deemed effective, the individual may proceed to producing a creative product. At this point the individual’s skills in the chosen medium come into play—i.e., an experienced and capable painter will likely produce work of a higher quality than the novice. However, both beginner and master benefit from the thinking preceding the expression because it’s the thinking that deepens understanding of the original topic.

Note that learning and creative thinking are actually overlapping processes. Both engage (re-)comprehension and (re-)elaboration, and as a result, both have the potential to deepen understanding. If deep learning of subject matter is the goal, creative thinking can help achieve it. Also note that creative thinking requires time and space. If learning proceeds too efficiently, opportunities for creative thinking are lost. Challenging students to revisit subject matter, reorganize its details in different schemes, and explore those reorganizations for new patterns can initiate creative insights. Those insights contribute to deeper learning. When creative thinking leads to creative products, another opportunity for deepening learning is generated:
…creative works can deepen learning in the classroom. For example, Erica, a middle school teacher, has her students develop a series of symbols to summarize a work of literature. For example, one student summarizes Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol in a series of three symbols: a tightly clenched hand, that same hand with three different colored streaks of light surrounding it and a large timepiece in the background, and finally an open hand extending forward. The results become new data for the other students. As they examine the symbols, the students reprocess the details of the literature, consider the connection between the story and the symbol, and make a decision regarding the symbol’s effectiveness. This reprocessing—interacting with the symbols as if they were ‘another person’—mirrors learning’s core processes, engaging recall and thought about the original stimulus. This rethinking fosters deeper learning of the subject matter.2
There are also implications for our teaching. Want to be creative in your instructional design? Your brain needs the time and space to explore the subject matter—to reorganize it, search for new patterns, and apply the resulting insights to teaching plans. Unfortunately this time and space is probably the biggest challenge to our teaching more creatively. One way I deal with this is to look ahead and identify the major upcoming instructional units. This look ahead creates a space between what I’m currently teaching and what I will be teaching and gives my mind time to explore the subject matter in ways that enable creative thinking.

Getting away from my normal work space seems to help. Many of my creative ideas find me during morning runs. Actually, research suggests such a change of scenery increases the likelihood of creative thinking:
Sometimes a simple change of environment is enough to jog the perceptual system out of familiar categories. This may be one reason why restaurants figure so prominently as sites of perceptual breakthroughs...When confronted with places never seen before, the brain must create new categories. It is in this process that the brain jumbles around old ideas with new images to create new syntheses.3
Creative thinking and learning are complementary processes. Learning enables creative thinking, and creative thinking deepens learning. This is why my target-based organization of thinking does not include a separate ring devoted to creative thinking. I see creative thinking as a type of learning. As such, teaching students to think creatively is critical if we seek to develop self-directed learners. Add skill in expression, such as the methods and approaches taught via the arts, and we’ll be graduating creative thinkers with the skills to engage the world through art—or at least bring artful expression to their lives and work.

  1. Washburn, K.D., The Architecture of Learning: Designing Instruction for the Learning Brain (Pelham, AL: Clerestory Press, 2010), 231-232.
  2. Ibid., 234-235.
  3. Berns, G., Iconoclast: A Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think Differently (Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing, 2008), 33.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Creative Thinking in the Classroom, Part 1

Sirens seize our attention. They scream, “Crisis!” and we scan the horizon or media streams to secure the details.

Despite their obvious function, sirens do little to actually address the emergencies they signal. After awareness is achieved, sirens fall silent while those charged with solving problems shift into high gear. The perp is pursued, the fire is fought, the EMT's and ambulance crew care for the injured. It’s these individuals on the ground who address whatever triggered the siren’s screech across the airwaves.

Creativity has become the target of many sirens, pundits who find purpose in critiquing current educational practices. Some, such as Sir Ken Robinson, go so far as accusing education of killing students’ creativity. (By the way, this is not a criticism of Mr. Robinson. I appreciate his thinking, share his talks with others, and have read all of his books!) These sirens have served a purpose: educators are aware of and talking about the need to develop students’ creative capacities. However, many of us are not shifting into high gear to address this problem because we have not been equipped to do so. Returning to the analogy, if I am the first on an accident scene I’ll do what I can while praying for the EMTs to arrive soon. I’m simply not equipped to deal with serious injuries. And with all due respect, suggesting that more dance or drama be added to the curriculum does little to help the people “on the ground,” classroom teachers, foster creative thinking in students.

To explore creative thinking in the classroom we must first recognize that creativity is broader than the arts. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a HUGE supporter of arts in the schools. Music, drama, writing, architecture, and literature are major contributors to my life, and I’m learning to appreciate the arts not included in that list. I believe strongly that young people should receive regular experiences and instruction in the arts.

However, creative thinking is a valued process in nearly every field. The Root-Bernsteins realized this when they launched their ground-breaking research on creative thinking. From their penetrating study, the Root-Bernsteins identify “thinking tools” employed by creative individuals.1 These tools cross disciplines, showing creative breakthroughs in multiple professional fields. For example, a practicing biologist is just as likely to gain insight from analogizing as a sculptor of abstract artwork. The Root-Bernsteins show us that creative thinking possesses value beyond the stage and easel. Unfortunately findings from the study “Are They Really Ready to Work?” reveal that only 21 percent of American corporate leaders reported excellence in this area among recent college graduates seeking employment with their companies.”2 Nearly ⅘ of the corporate world is dissatisfied with the creativity new hires bring to the workplace. Creative thinking needs to be an emphasis in all of education, not just students’ training in the arts.

To integrate creative thinking into our teaching, we need answers to a few questions: 1) What do we know about creative thinking?, 2) Is there any relationship between creative thinking and learning?, and if so 3) How can we engage students in creative thinking while continuing to teach our required curriculum?

While much of what sparks creativit
y and the neurological processes that enable it remains a mystery, evidence suggests creativity includes a period of disorganization prior to creation. In the landmark book The Creative Brain: The Science of Genius, Dr. Nancy C. Andreasen hypothesizes:
...that during the creative process the brain begins by disorganizing, making links between shadowy forms of objects or symbols or words or remembered experiences that have not been previously linked. Out of this disorganization, self-organization eventually emerges and takes over in the brain. The result is a completely new and original thing: a mathematical function, a symphony, or a poem.3
My favorite description of this disorganization-reorganization process comes from architect Steven Holl, who writes:
In each project, we begin with information and disorder, confusion of purpose, program ambiguity, an infinity of materials and forms. All of these elements, like obfuscating smoke, swirl in a nervous atmosphere. Architecture is the result of acting on this indeterminacy.4
Perhaps the presence of “obfuscating smoke” is what prevents us from knowing more about creativity. However, it appears that a period of disorganization gives way to a period of defining and organizing, which is followed by a period of associating data with known concepts through which patterns begin to emerge.

If true, creativity shares some cognitive processes with learning. In fact, since learning involves the transformation of data into meaning, some researchers describe learning itself as a creative act. It is possible that these shared processes result, in part, from shared brain geography. As Science writer Greg Miller explains, researchers at University College London found that the hippocampus, a brain structure critical for forming new memories, is also essential for imagining scenes. Such findings “provide experimental evidence that memory and imagination may share neural circuitry.”5

These findings hold potential implications for us as educators.

First, if creative thinking promotes personal and professional success, it is something we should be addressing in schools. Sir Ken Robinson is right: “Creativity is possible in science, in technology, in management, in business, in music, in any activity that engages human intelligence.”6 As such, creative thinking should be one of the portals through which we engage students in our subject matter.

Second, if creativity and learning aren’t completely different languages—if, in fact, they share cognitive processes—then integrating creative thinking into learning should be possible. We should be able to design instruction that engages creative thinking that not only fosters its own development but also deepens the learning of our original subject matter.
We need to find ways to welcome the “obfuscating smoke” into our classrooms!

We’ll explore some how-to ideas in the second post on this topic. Perhaps then we can silence, or at least dampen, some of the sirens.

By the way, these ideas are explored in depth Chapter 8 of The Architecture of Learning: Designing Instruction for the Learning Brain. Copies are available directly from Clerestory Press or through

  1. Root-Bernstein, R. & Root-Bernstein, M., Sparks of Genius: The 13 Thinking Tools of the World’s Most Creative People (Boston: Mariner Books, 2001), 118.
  2. Rappaport, J., Arts Skills are Life Skills.
  3. Andreasen, N.C., The Creative Brain: The Science of Genius (New York: Penguin Group, 2005), 77-78.
  4. Holl, S., Phenomena and Idea.
  5. Miller, G., A Surprising Connection Between Memory and Imagination, Science, 315, (2007), 312.
  6. Robinson, K., Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative (Oxford, UK: Capstone Publishing, 2001), 10.