Reconciling the Neurosophists and the Neurosnobs, by Betsy Hill

December 2, 2015

A recent article in Brain in the News, a publication of the Dana Foundation (www.dana.org)  lamented the increase in the impressive sounding but empty use of references to the brain in education.  They use the term neurosophism to criticize the use of neuroscientific language to make statements about good pedagogy sound more important or to justify what educators have known for a long time.

I am sympathetic to this argument.  Educators have too often embraced neuromyths and neurofads and neuroscientific terminology without a deep enough understanding.  At the same time, I think the authors of the article are excessively dismissive of educators’ attempts to accept that neuroscience (and other scientific disciplines) may have something to offer their field.  Educators will undoubtedly oversimplify and make mistakes along the way, but rather than dismissing the whole effort as neurosophism – which smacks to me of neurosnobbism – I think a more constructive approach might be in order.

For example, the authors of the article are highly critical of this statement:  You can’t think when you’re stressed, you can’t learn when you’re anxious and that’s one of the primary principles of the neuroscience … Their criticism is that it suggests that teachers were unaware previously of the effects of stress on learning.  If the authors had talked to any of the people who actually educate teachers on neuroscience and its applications to education, they would have heard that we often say – and I always say – “There are many of the things that you will hear that will not be new to you.  In fact, they will reinforce what you already know to be good instructional practice and good ways of working with students.  But understanding the underlying principles of how brains work and why this is the case will be much more helpful to you than simply knowing that students don’t learn as well when they are stressed.”

In fact, it seems to me the height of neurosnobbism to take the position that only the neuroscientists are smart enough or worthy enough of commanding certain principles of neuroscience, and that the field of education should be confined to memorizing examples of instances.  This is exactly what we are told we should not be asking of our students.

In another example, the authors take exception when the type of research that is quoted is not neuroscience research but research from the field of psychology.  One has to wonder what good it does to understand the structure of neurons or the connection of the hippocampus to other parts of the brain if we can’t also connect that to human behavior.  Neuroscience is a relatively new field and many really useful findings are happening at the intersection of neuroscience, cognitive psychology, behavioral economics and a variety of other fields.  Personally, I celebrate the fact that the practice of teaching is becoming more evidence-based and more scientific and that educators are becoming better consumers of research.  I will admit that they have a ways to go, in general.  But please, let us help them and not make them feel that their stupidest fault is their misclassification of a piece of research as neuroscience when it was from the field of psychology.  If it is good research and they are using it appropriately, that is a huge step!

The need for collaboration between neuroscientists and educators is so urgent and important, it’s time to find some common ground among those who are willing to make and forgive some mistakes in the interest of helping improve an educational system that desperately needs all hands on deck.  Neurosnobbism will not help.  The only thing that will rid the field of education of neurosophisms is encouraging educators to understand the research better and to model it for them, not tell them what not to do, which will only encourage them not to do anything.


A True Growth Mindset Requires a One-Two Punch, by Roger Stark

November 17, 2015

People who have a growth mindset believe they can develop their intelligence and their abilities and that’s what enables them to become much more effective learners, according to the groundbreaking work of Dr. Carol Dweck, explained succinctly athttp://ww2.kqed.org/mindshift/2015/11/16/growth-mindset-clearing-up-some-common-confusions/?.

That’s the first punch.

People with a growth mindset who have teachers or trainers who provide explicit opportunities for them to develop their intelligence and their abilities will become even more effective learners.

That’s the second punch.

The combination of those two punches can be a knockout, but we need to figure out how to deliver that one-two combination on a regular basis, day in and day out for our students.

Sometimes as educators and leaders, we get sucked into believing that our students cannot do or learn certain things and we forget to structure opportunities to develop their intelligence.  Even when we know better, we can fall into thinking that there is nothing we can do to change the way our students learn.

Recently, students in Hammond, Indiana were supported by teachers and educational leaders who structured an opportunity for them to develop their intelligence and it changed the way they learn in a dramatic way.  These students, who struggled with reading, and whose teachers had not figured out how to teach them to read, because of their low cognitive ability in areas of processing related to language and reading, increased their learning ability from the bottom third to close the national median in 12 weeks of using BrainWare SAFARI.  A report of the study can be accessed at http://www.mybrainware.com/media/resources/results/BWResearch_BWS_Cngnitive_Skills_Development_in_Before_and_After_School_Programs_with_Low-Performing_Readers_20.pdf

Having a growth mindset means helping children understand that they can change their cognitive abilities – that was the first punch the teachers in Hammond delivered with these students.  And then they threw the second punch — providing BrainWare SAFARI cognitive skills development software to build the abilities these students needed to overcome their struggles.  This was not about more facts, or more content, but about building students’ ability to learn.

Schools should not be about teaching to the test, but developing children’s ability to learn, to grow and prosper.  It should be about empowering them with tools that are engaging and result in sustainable growth that transfers to measurable outcomes and leads to a life of choice, not chance.  Or as Einstein, albeit without the benefit of Dweck’s research, said “Education is not the learning of facts. It’s rather the training of the mind to think.”


Five Tips for a Better Brain, by Betsy Hill

July 6, 2015

Just about every adult I meet wants to know how to strengthen their perception, thinking and acuity.  I believe in practicing what I preach, so here a five things I practice on a daily basis.

  1. Our brains become what brains do, so do wonderful, interesting and beautiful things.  When my youngest son went to college, the dean welcomed parents and shared with us some of the advice he was giving to our children in other meetings … That the mind is like your living room and that your job is to decorate it.  One thing we know is that what decorates our minds best is doing things that are challenging for us – not the just the same old comfortable things.  Sometime this summer, try something you’ve never done before.  BrainWare SAFARI is one great way to redecorate your mind.  If you haven’t tried it, what are you waiting for?
  2. Practice what is called abductive thinking.  You’ve probably heard of deductive thinking – the kind of thinking police detectives are supposed to do – that is drawing conclusions from multiple facts that point in the same direction.  It’s pretty much what happens when you conclude that there can’t be any other cause or reason for what you’re seeing.  You’ve probably heard of inductive thinking – predictive thinking based on a set of facts.  You have also probably engaged in both inductive and deductive reasoning.  But what about abductive thinking?  That is thinking that takes seemingly inconsistent facts and does not insist on choosing among then – but comes up with a brand new truth.  This is the kind of thinking that you need when you hear about the same incident from two different friends whose stories are very different.  What kind of overarching truth can you find that accounts for all of it?  Or consider how to compare things that you initially think have nothing in common … what do you think a triple-decker ice-cream cone has in common with a political campaign?
  3. While this may sound like hard to do, get enough sleep.  Adults with mild sleep deprivation (being awake for 19 hours) perform on cognitive tests like they were legally intoxicated.  Moreover, your brain actually solves problems and consolidates memory during sleep (during the REM cycle) – so an extra hour or two of sleep may make that problem you’ve been wrestling with easier to solve.  Physical exercise is also very important to brain health and stronger cognitive functioning, so get out and enjoy our beautiful summer weather.  Besides, it’ll tire you out so you’ll sleep better.
  4. Challenge your assumptions.  We all make assumptions all the time and we take information for granted.  When you listen to the news or a speaker at a conference, play devil’s advocate.  Think about what would have to be true for that point of view to be accurate?  Is it complete?  Does it jump too far from basic truths to a conclusion.  Ask yourself what evidence you have that it is true and what evidence you have that might tend to disprove it.  Think about the difference between evidence, opinions, and judgments.
  5. Whatever it is that seems like a puzzle, put it down on paper.  If you are a writer, write.  If you are most comfortable with visual images, draw a  mind map.  Writing is nature’s way of showing us how sloppy our thinking is (paraphrased from someone brilliant … but I haven’t been able to track down the source).  Putting things down on paper forces us to be much more specific about the relationships among things, particularly cause and effect relationships, and a mind map can help us keep a large amount of complex information in an order.  Draw a circle on a piece of paper with the main idea or question in the center.  Draw more circles and connect them to the first and so on.  Don’t forget the connections between the second- and third-order circles.  There is likely to be a new insight somewhere in that map.

There’s plenty of time between now and September to make one or more of these a new habit and have a great summer!


Poverty and Schools – A Missing Piece in the Discussion — by Betsy Hill

June 23, 2015

A week-long series this week created by WBEZ Radio and the Daily Herald in Chicago has been focusing on the persistent connection between students in poverty and low academic performance.

What is missing in this discussion is connecting it to the neuroscience of poverty. Recent research was characterized in a New Yorker article this way:  “Poverty perpetuates poverty, generation after generation, by acting on the brain.” Children living in poverty have, on average, less well-developed cognitive skills than their more advantaged counterparts.  This does not mean that they have less ability — the WBEZ/Daily Herald article referred to as “college DNA.”  In fact, we can say confidently that poor children also have “college DNA,” just as more affluent children do.  But DNA is expressed in interaction with the environment.  What it does mean is that, on average, they are cognitively behind (not just academically behind).  If you put a 1st or 2nd grader’s brain into a 4th grade classroom, standards and other external factors are not enough.

The next missing part of the discussion is the growing evidence that the cognitive skills that underpin learning can be developed in a short period of time with the right tools. It is not just a matter of school spending or standards or even instruction — because these skills operate at a non-conscious level. A teacher can’t explain to a student how to sustain their attention, or hold more information in working memory, or process information faster (to name just a few examples). But, with the right tools, teachers can support students in developing their cognitive capacity (distinguishing innate ability from developed capacity) with dramatic results in closing the achievement gap. Research showing these changes is available at http://www.mybrainware.com/safari/research.

To be sure, school funding needs to be fairer, standards need to be high, technology needs to be available, and teachers well prepared.  But we also need to account for the cognitive capacity of the students in our classrooms and our responsibility to develop their capacity to learn and to take advantage of the educational resources we offer them.

 


Here They Are: The BrainWare Brain Awareness Week Grant Recipients for 2015

March 16, 2015

It’s Brain Awareness Week, starting today, and we are very excited to announce the recipients of grants awarded as part of the BrainWare Brain Awareness Week Grants Program.  The grants program supports the purpose of Brain Awareness Week in promoting a broader understanding of the importance of brain research and its contribution to effective learning and cognitive development in schools.

The recipients of BrainWare Brain Awareness Week grants for BrainWare SAFARI cognitive skills development software are:

Saint Luke School, Diocese of Palm Beach – Palm Springs, FL
North Woods Discovery School– Redding, CA
Knights Elementary School, Hillsborough County Schools – Plant City, FL
Riverview School, Silver Lake Jt District Schools – Silver Lake, WI

The recipients of BrainWare Brain Awareness Week grants for SkateKids cognitively based reading software are:

SenPokChin School – Oliver, BC
Briggs Elementary School, Jefferson Township Schools – Lake Hopatcong, NJ
Bnos Ysroel of Baltimore – Baltimore, MD

The recipients of tuition grants for the online course From Synapses to Strategies are:

Elaine Schneider, Broome Tioga BOCES – Binghamton, NY
Jane Johnson, St Mary School, Archdiocese of Washington DC – Bryantown, MD
Henry Bartfield, Hebrew Academy Community School, Margate, FL
Brandi Boysun, Hyalite Elementary School, Bozeman School District 7 – Bozeman, MT
Michael Martin, Pioneer Career & Technology Center, Shelby, OH
Deidre Kibbe, Leblanc Special Services, Ascension Parish Schools – Gonzales, LA
Tara Sladek-Maharag, Port Jefferson Middle School, Port Jefferson Schools – Port Jefferson, NY
Jane Lescarbau, Hubert Olson Middle School, Bloomington Public Schools – Bloomington, MN

Brain research has so much to contribute in education.  These grants will enable hundreds of students to experience education that is better adapted to the way the brain learns, and that helps them build the cognitive skills that they will be able to use for the rest of their lives.

We look forward to working with the successful applicants on their implementation of BrainWare SAFARI and SkateKids, as well as interacting with teachers in the online course.  Congratulations to all of the grant recipients!


Are These Children from Lake Wobegon?, by Betsy Hill

March 5, 2015

A little over a week ago, I was in Canada — Sault Ste Marie, Ontario. to be exact.  It was excruciatingly cold, of course, but that’s not why I was thinking of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon.  The reason I was thinking of Lake Wobegon is that I was remembering the way he closes his Prairie Home Companion show by stating that all of the children in Lake Wobegon are above average.  And the reason that I was in Sault Ste Marie was to share with a school district how the 3rd grade students who used BrainWare SAFARI last year went from pretty much average performance on cognitive tests to way better than average, and how their academic achievement soared as well.

The students who used BrainWare SAFARI in the fall of the 2013-14 school year, had overall scores on the CCAT (the Canadian Cognitive Abilities Test) that were 32 percentile points higher than at the beginning of the year, resulting in 50% of the students scoring at the 70th percentile or above.  At the 70th percentile and above, students are able to thrive in academic work.  Below that, they are likely to need some additional support to reach grade-level expectations.  In fact student performance improved across the spectrum of abilities, as we have seen in numerous prior studies in the U.S. with the CogAT, the U.S. counterpart to the CCAT).  Remarkably, immediately after using BrainWare SAFARI, 70% of students were above the national average.  It sounds a little like Lake Wobegon, doesn’t it?

Often in education, we are in the position of assuming that children arrive in our classrooms with all of the cognitive equipment they need or will ever have.  We need to understand that cognitive ability is something we can actually help students develop.  Shouldn’t every student have an opportunity to be “above average,” as in Lake Wobegon?


Neuroscience and the U.S. Education System, by Betsy Hill

February 16, 2015

Education informed by neuroscience can give new and real meaning to our desire as a nation to leave no child behind.  Moreover, it may offer the only true opportunity for the disruptive change that education needs for current and future generations to be educated to face the challenges ahead.    It can do this in at least three specific ways:

1.  By improving learning at the level of basic cognitive functioning, changing students’ capacity to learn.

Better teaching, better facilities, better technology, etc., are important, but those are external factors.  What about the internal capabilities and stumbling blocks that each student brings to the learning experience?  Neuroscience shows us how to impact the efficiency and effectiveness of the learning process by improving each individual’s underlying mental processing – that is, by changing the experience of learning from the inside out.

One of the things we know from neuroscience is that the brain is plastic, which means it constantly changes, building new pathways and connections.  We also know that every brain is unique – formed and constantly evolving through our experiences.  Experience is not just about facts and declarative knowledge, but about how the brain does what it does.  What one student can do or understand easily escapes another.  Neuroscience helps explain why that is and what to do about it.  Science no longer accepts that intelligence is fixed.  Rather, it continues to document the critical role of experience in developing intellectual ability.

Despite the fact that underlying cognitive skills are essential to all learning, they are not generally taught in schools.  Schools assume that every student brings the necessary cognitive skills to the learning process, or as much of those skills as they will ever have.   The fact that cognitive skills are not explicitly taught in schools does not mean that they cannot be taught, however.  For over half a century, techniques to develop basic cognitive skills have been known and used in various clinical therapies.  Today, these techniques can be delivered via computer-based programs effectively and on a much broader scale, making the delivery of cognitive training programs viable in a classroom setting to all students.  The intellectual gains delivered by a program like BrainWare SAFARI are substantial.

2.  By making schools and teaching more brain-friendly.

Here neuroscience can help us understand and change our practices in a number of ways, including:

  • Better presenting information so that students’ immediate sensory memory lets the right information into the brain.
  • Taking advantage of the relationship between working memory, where we consciously process what we learn, and long-term memory storage.
  • Integrating multiple senses and media to enhance learning, since the brain processes information in multiple ways simultaneously.
  • Incorporating emotion and mnemonics to aid in long-term memory consolidation
  • Making curriculum meaningful, since meaning and relating new information to old are what enable new information to be stored.
  • Understanding the different ways declarative memory and procedural memory are stored and used (retrieved).

The reason to engage students with more meaningful and relevant curriculum and through problems, projects and simulations is not simply because that makes learning more fun, but because it is, in fact, student engagement that results in learning.  And higher levels of engagement result in more and better learning and the ability to apply what is learned in the real world.

3. By helping students develop so-called 21st century skills, the keys to college and career-readiness.

Developing problem-solving ability, communication skills and creativity is fundamentally about developing the brain and its processing ability in each individual student.  These are skills that cannot be taught through pure direct instruction.  One wouldn’t, for example, assume that explaining the principles of pole-vaulting would suddenly imbue a student with the ability to coordinate muscles, brain, strength and balance to clear a bar.  The same holds true for critical thinking and other prized 21st century skills.

While there is broad consensus regarding the importance of these skills, there is much uncertainty about how to help students develop them and over how to measure them.  However, as we move away from measuring content absorbed and toward measuring the effectiveness of mental processes, neuroscience is likely to be indispensable.

Are other ways that you can see neuroscience helping improve the U.S. education system?  Let us hear what you think!


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 80 other followers