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'