Giving Every Student the Equivalent of a Time Turner — by Betsy Hill

October 28, 2014

In The Prisoner of Azkaban, the third book in the Harry Potter series, Hermione Granger manages to attend extra classes with the help of a Time Turner. The Time Turner allows her to go back in time so that she can, in effect, take two classes at once. To use the parlance of renowned education Robert Marzano and others, it gave her “more time on task.” Of course, Hermione was “quite the brightest witch of her age” and so learned an even more prodigious amount with extra class time.

Many educators would like to figure out how to put more hours in the day – both for teachers and students. But, of course, the time-space continuum is what it is, using a Time Turner isn’t an option. Sometimes, schools look at extending the school day, or the school year, and that seems to have helped in some situations, but perhaps we need to take a step back and look at the time-on-task equation in a slightly different way.

Here is the equation. If Johnny needs an hour to learn to a particular concept, or a series of steps to solve a problem, or set of vocabulary words, then 30 minutes of instruction and study time will leave Johnny short of mastery. The problem for many teachers is that they are pressed to simply “cover” the material. If “covering” a topic takes 30 minutes, that’s just the way it is. The question then becomes whether there is a way to help students learn more material in less time.

I can think of two, and neither of them is a Time Turner. Both ways of helping students learn more material in less time can be effective for those that are the “brightest of their age” and those that are not.

The first is to teach more effectively. It may be that students will “get” whatever it is more quickly if the material is presented in a more effective way. Teachers who understand how learning happens in the brain can often get more and better learning to happen for their students in less time.

The other is to improve the efficiency of learning by building a student’s learning capacity.   What if Johnny could grasp that concept in less time, or manipulate the steps of a story problem more effectively? What if he could sustain his attention better so that he is actually attending to the instruction rather than needing it to be repeated multiple times? What if he could take notes while listening to the teacher? What if he could monitor his own pacing and progress to finish his work?

Many teachers assume that they are stuck with their students’ learning capacity, leaving them to choose between just “covering” the material or taking more time to teach. That assumption no longer holds. Dramatic improvements in students’ capacity to learn are possible in a very short period of time. In 12 weeks of using BrainWare SAFARI, for example, students have improved their cognitive skills by an average of 4 years, according to peer-reviewed published research.

So, if we can help students learn more in less time, how much time will we spend helping them get to that point? Is it worth the investment of time?

Let’s do the math again. The time spent using BrainWare SAFARI is typically 30 to 50 hours over those 12 weeks – usually no more than 30 hours.

If we assume that a typical school year involves 1,000 hours of instruction, 30 hours of cognitive skill development is a one-time investment of 3 percent of instructional time in that particular school year. If one considers that the improvement could be amortized over three years of elementary school (since 3rd grade is a common year in which to incorporate BrainWare SAFARI in the curriculum), the investment of time diminishes to about one percent of instructional time. If learning capacity, then, is only one percent more efficient, it would be an even trade, but learning capacity is likely to be much more efficient than that because learning is not linear and learning one thing better provides the groundwork for learning everything that comes afterward more efficiently. It also doesn’t account for the cumulative effects of students who go on to middle school and high school with the capacity and preparation to succeed at those levels.

Maybe, Time Turners aren’t an option, but that doesn’t mean we can’t enable our students to learn more than they currently do.

What Teachers Should Know About the Brain — by Betsy Hill

October 21, 2014

A recently published research study on teachers’ understanding of the brain and neuroscience research has been getting a lot of attention.  The findings, based on surveys of teachers in the U.K., Greece, Turkey, Holland, and China, showed that teachers had many misconceptions about the brain.  The findings echoed a survey of teachers in the U.S. finding that teachers in American schools have the same misconceptions.

The translation of  neuroscience research to classroom practice is something that is getting increased attention, but unfortunately most teacher training programs do not include much discussion of the brain or how neuroscience research findings can be used to help students perform better.  This gap was documented in a research report by the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE).

As I’ve been reading the stories about how teachers’ misconceptions are potentially harmful to students, I asked myself what factual neuroscience information would be most important to replace those misconceptions.  Here are three neuro-myths — misconceptions that teachers have about the brain — along with something they should know about the brain and may not:

Neuro-myth:  we only use 10% of our brains.

What teachers need to know:  the brain is “plastic” and is constantly changing.  Everything that happens in the classroom physically changes children’s brains.  Teachers need to know more to take advantage of this amazing plasticity.

Neuro-myth: we need to teach differently to right-brained and left-brained children.

What teachers need to know:  first, no one is right-brained and no one is left brained.  Teachers need to teach to whole brains.  But there are very different ways that teachers should teach different types of materials and skills.  If teachers don’t have an in-depth understanding of the difference between procedural memory and declarative memory and how that matters in the classroom, they need to know what the implications for teaching and learning are.

Neuro-myth: children’s brains shrink if they don’t drink 6 to 8 glasses of water a day.

What teachers need to know: physical exercise has a tremendous impact on brain development.  Scheduling time into the day for active physical activity is more likely to improve students’ academic performance than trying to get so many glasses of water down their throats (kids generally drink liquids when they are thirsty, just as adults do).

If you are interested in expanding teachers’ understanding of neuro-reality, I would welcome an opportunity to share ideas!


Funding Professional Development for Teachers — by Betsy Hill

September 24, 2014

Almost two years ago, I blogged about the stunning research by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development on the connection between student scores on the PISA tests and economic well-being.  The bottom line was that if the U.S. could raise every child’s PISA score to the minimum level of proficiency on the PISA (the international tests that enable the academic rankings of various nations), it would unleash $73 trillion of GDP.

Of course, that’s a big number, but may not really help us appreciate the impact at the level of an individual student.  A recent court decision related to tenure provisions in the state of California has highlighted another research study from 2012 by Chetty, Friedman and Rockoff, in which the authors connected state test scores to lifetime earnings for students and the difference that a good teacher can make.  They found that replacing a poor teacher with an average teacher for one year resulted in an additional $50,000 in lifetime earnings for each student.  Thus, the impact of lifetime earnings on a class of 20-30 students for just one year of poor teaching amounts to $1 to $1.5 million in lifetime earnings for those students.

In the last few years, we have seen many school districts cutting or even eliminating funding for professional development for teachers. Not only does this impair teachers’ ability to raise their performance, it means that new research on effective teaching fails to reach teachers at all levels, such as applying neuroscience research in the classroom.  As one example of what recent research is showing, we now understand that cognitive skills training, done correctly, has a substantial impact on student performance, including raising performance on state test scores, the same measure correlated to lifetime earnings in the Chetty research.  Giving teachers tools like BrainWare SAFARI cognitive skills development software, can play an important role in raising teacher effectiveness.

Providing BrainWare SAFARI to a classroom of students along with professional development on applying neuroscience in the classroom would cost a tiny fraction of the $1 million in increased lifetime earnings for those students.  In these days of low interest rates, professional development like that, with a 10-100 fold return, could be one of the best investment opportunities around.

Rethinking Remediation in Higher Education – by Betsy Hill

July 23, 2014

The remediation statistics are sobering. Over half of students who enroll in 2-year colleges take remedial courses in English and/or math. Almost 20% of those enrolling in 4-year colleges do so. The rates for low-income students are even higher – 68% and 39% respectively.

Of even greater concern is that higher education’s remediation efforts don’t seem to be working. Of those enrolled in remedial courses in a 2-year college, 62% complete remediation, but less than 10% graduate within 3 years. For students taking remedial courses in 4-year colleges, almost 75% complete remediation, but only 35% graduate within 6 years. It doesn’t seem that remedial courses in college are delivering the skills required for post-secondary academic success.

While remediation at the college level has traditionally focused on bringing student up to speed in reading and math, being ready for post-secondary work is not simply a matter of reading at a sufficient level, or knowing algebra. It is also a matter of “non-academic” skills like communication and collaboration, as well as the level of a student’s cognitive development. In fact, cognitive development is not a requirement for high school graduation nor is it measured as a prerequisite to college admissions, but it is nonetheless critical for success. And the lack of fully developed cognitive skills may, in fact, be the root cause of students’ lack of achievement in reading and math. As the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development pointed out in a recent report, “The evidence points to differences in cognitive skills as an explanation of a majority of the differences in economic growth rates across OECD countries.”

In fact cognitive skills are more than just a complement to academic skills. They are foundational, and in many respects they are precursors to educational success and the learning process itself. In the last several years, an awareness of the connection between cognitive skills and educational success has grown and research is showing that cognitive abilities contribute to academic achievement.

Many researchers have illustrated how brain development can impact school readiness and achievement, including cognitive control, visual-spatial skills, planning, attention, simultaneous and successive processing and a variety of other cognitive processes. As a result of these and other research efforts, educational and developmental psychology researchers are starting to see the need to find ways to add training of cognitive skills to the education system.

While the principles of cognitive skill training have been developing over several decades, only recently has there emerged a practical and scalable approach to the development of cognitive skills that can rapidly improve cognitive capacity and a student’s potential for success. The effectiveness of cognitive skills training in a video-game format was shown in research published in 2007. The software program that was the subject of the study was, of course, BrainWare SAFARI. Since then, we have worked with public, private and charter schools across the U.S. to replicate and extend the findings from the original research. While the initial study and much of the subsequent field research has examined the impact on elementary and middle-grade students, what is known about the plasticity of the brain and the essential principles of cognitive development would suggest that positive results could also be achieved in a college-age population.

The evidence suggests that it is time to rethink remediation in higher education and make sure that college students have access to cognitive skills training to address their lack of preparedness, academically and cognitively. Doing so may provide an opportunity for many students to achieve their dreams of a college education and the advantages that entails by giving them the foundation and the capacity for academic success at the post-secondary level.

If you’d like a copy of a more expansive and referenced white paper on this topic, please click here.

Deal with the Big Rocks First … Prioritizing — by Betsy Hill

May 27, 2014

This activity is one of several End Summer Brain Drain activities available at

Have you ever noticed that some people just drift through life dealing with each problem as it comes along and then wonder where all the time has gone, and why they haven’t accomplished more?

Other people seem to live lives that are very well organized and are able to accomplish a great deal.

You can do this activity just by imagining it, but it will be even more memorable if you actually try this with your child.  Assemble a large jar, a pile of big rocks (ones that will fit through the mouth of the jar), a pile of medium-size rocks, a bunch of pebbles, some sand and some water.  Your job with your child is to get all of the rocks, pebbles, sand and water into the jar.

It is good to let your child experiment with different ways to do this, even if they decide they need to start over several times.  What your child will discover is that If they start with the sand and then add the pebbles and then the medium-size rocks, the jar will fill up before they can get to the big rocks.  But if they start with the big rocks, they can get them all in and the smaller items will fill in the spaces in between.

You can point out to your child that it’s the same with things in your life.  You can begin to take charge of your life a lot more if you take the time to decide what is most important to you.

It’s not that you have to decide once for all time.  What’s important can change from minute to minute, or at least from day to day.  But at a particular time, it’s good to know what is important and what isn’t.  That way, you can take care of the important things first and let the less important ones fill in the cracks.

One way to get started on prioritizing with your child is for you each to make a list of things in some category that you both enjoy or know about.  For example, you could make a list of your friends, books that you like, things around the house that you want to change, events that have happened in the past few weeks or that are expected to happen in the next few.

Try to get at least ten items on your list, but you can still do this if you have only three or four.

Once you each have your list, number the items in order of importance.

Then take turns telling each other why you have put them in that order.  What makes one thing more important than another?

If you and your child continue to practice prioritizing from time to time, referring back to your experiment with the jar and the rocks, you will probably find that it becomes a way to focus everyone’s attention on the important things.  Maybe next time, your child is worried about something trivial, all you will have to say is, “Is that one of the big rocks?”

Emphasize the “Learning” in “Extended Learning Time” – by Betsy Hill

May 6, 2014

There seem to be a lot of people talking about extending the school day lately.

On the pro side of the argument are those who believe that our students’ ability to compete in a global economy requires more time devoted to academics.  In some cases, the champions of the longer day identify the need as remedial; some students need more time and more instruction, they say.  In other cases, the need identified is enrichment – and extending the day is about restoring time that has been removed from the school day for arts or foreign language or other enrichment activities focused on 21t century skills.

Opponents of an extended school day tend to focus on the increased costs and on the lack of clear direction for what exactly is supposed to be achieved in that extra time.  Some critics of the concept assert that the time in the current school day could be better used.  And often teachers are not supportive of extending the school day, for all the reasons that one might imagine.

There can be a variety of reasons for extending the school day, but the critical thing according to most of the schools that have taken the step is to not just to offer more of the same in the extra time. If you combine all those different inputs, what schools need to fill the time of the extended day is something that:

  • Is different that what typically goes on in the school day
  • Serves as enrichment
  • Serves as an intervention, for students whose progress is lagging
  • Will enhance all students’ academic performance
  • Gets students motivated and engaged in learning
  • Does not require a significant amount of additional teacher preparation or lesson planning

It may seem strange, but there actually are such things – perhaps not a lot, but cognitive skills development is one of them.  Programs like BrainWare SAFARI, SkateKids and Ramps To Reading are ideally suited to make “learning” the focus of “Extended Learning Time.”  They will challenge students who need more challenge.  They will help students who are behind to catch up.  They are fundamentally and demonstrably about helping students learn to learn.

If you have questions or thoughts about how cognitive skills development fills the bill for an extended learning time environment, I invite you to comment on this blog or email me directly at

Cognitive Skills Development in an Accelerated Curriculum – by Betsy Hill

April 10, 2014

Much of our work has dealt with helping struggling students — those who are behind or have identified cognitive deficits — but it is important to remember that very bright students can also benefit from developing their cognitive skills and executive functions.  Here’s a story that explains what this can look like:

Dr. Sara Fraser, a clinical psychologist and Director of Students Services at Curtis School in Los Angeles, California, had been following the literature on executive functions for some time before she encountered BrainWare SAFARI at a Leaning and the Brain Conference in 2012. What she had seen up until that point was not all that encouraging – training on working memory that didn’t seem to transfer beyond short-term memory. It was also labor-intensive and would require a pull-out approach in their school setting.

What appealed to Dr. Fraser about BrainWare SAFARI was that its video-game format would appeal to their students, that it was supported by research showing that the breadth of cognitive skills developed meant that they could expect to see transfer to academic tasks, and that it could be implemented by teachers within the classroom.

The next step was to bring some teachers into the process – enter Joan Cashel and Susie Sobul, two of Curtis School’s third-grade teachers. Following a webinar demonstration, both teachers used BrainWare SAFARI themselves over the summer, with Joan finishing all but a few levels (we’re impressed!). An implementation webinar in the fall prepared them to kick things off with their students, which they did by reading Your Fantastic Elastic Brain and talking about brains as a learning muscle. The students heard that getting better at something means going for the sense of frustration that is inevitable when you’re moving up a learning curve.

Later, students would get the opportunity to learn that lesson at a deeper level. After building confidence as they passed the early, easiest levels of BrainWare, they would each find an area that was truly difficult for them. Joan found it fascinating to see some of her students easily complete levels she had struggled with and struggling with others.

Knowing that it was important that their students move around through the different games and taking to heart the admonition in their implementation webinar not to let students avoid the hardest games*, Susie and Joan had a timer running on their SmarBoard to help students switch games every ten minutes and came up with a chart that let the students plan and keep track of their own progress and. During each of their thrice-weekly sessions, students would pick one of the Key 5, and then ensure that they rotated through all the other games before repeating. The students used the program over 14 weeks, completing 30 or more sessions, the kind of usage that has been shown to drive substantial growth in cognitive skills.

A second cohort of students is using BrainWare SAFARI during the second half of the year. While the school won’t see the data on impact on student’s cognitive and academic skills until the end of the school year, a couple of things already apparent. First, the students started talking with each other outside of class … “How far did you get?” “Isn’t it fun?” The program became a real conversation piece. The other observation relates to the fact that the Curtis School offers an accelerated curriculum and serves high-level learners. As Dr. Fraser explains, many of those students haven’t experienced much in the way of frustration by the time they get to third grade. Giving students the experience of something where everyone gets challenged and learns to understand and tolerate frustration as a part of learning, has been, in her words, “incredibly helpful.”

Congratulations to all the third grade students at Curtis School for working hard at BrainWare SAFARI (and it’s ok if you think its fun!), and for learning that vital lesson – that challenge and frustration are essential in learning, and that persistence is key to accomplishing their goals.


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