What Neuroscience Does and Doesn’t Contribute to Teaching and Learning, by Betsy Hill

October 5, 2016

It has become popular lately for neuroscience experts to disparage the efforts of educators to understand and apply what neuroscientists have been learning about the brain (as a recent article published by PBS does).  Sometimes they even seem to wonder why we would be interested.

  1. We’re interested because that is where learning happens.  Learning doesn’t happen in our big toes or left elbows.  It happens when neurons connect and form neural networks … in our brains.
  2. We’re interested because our brains develop in interaction with our environment. We don’t develop knowledge and skills that our environment doesn’t expose us to and convince us are important.  So, to the extent that we can find ways to make the environment we provide for our students more conducive to having learning take place, the more effective we can be – which is our job as professional educators.
  3. We are aware of the dangers of neuromyths, such as believing that some people are right-brained and some are left-brained. But telling a teacher that that belief is wrong is like telling a child that ice cream is not good for them.  When we have come to believe something (which we can also refer to as having a mental model) and behave accordingly, we need a replacement explanation and practice to change our behavior.  We should understand why that neuromyth became popular and what the consequences are.  That, too, would seem to be our job as professional educators.

Another complaint of what I have referred to in a previous blog as “neurosnobs” is that neuroscience isn’t anything new – that what we present as new and grounded in neuroscience is just what teachers already knew.  That is certainly true of great teachers.  And I find that great teachers are invariably very excited to learn something about why the things that they know work actually work.  But more importantly, it can help convince misguided teachers and administrators to change ineffective practices that are all too common and to adopt practices that are brain friendly.

It seems an odd position to me to suggest that educators “eschew neuroscience” rather than becoming better consumers of neuroscience research and understanding what does and doesn’t translate.    There are some wonderful resources for teachers that are careful to examine what neuroscience can and can’t contribute to teachers.  One such resource is the book Brain Matters, written by Dr. Patricia Wolfe.  When widely respected neuroscientists come to present to the annual gathering of those who have been trained by Dr. Wolfe, they invariably comment on how knowledgeable and competent the group is.

We have enough “we and they” in our world today.  There is too much good that can come from the solid application of neuroscience to teaching and learning to run away from it when we encounter a bump in the road.

Every Day is Election Day — Even in Your Classroom, by Betsy Hill

August 30, 2016

As I was driving to work this morning, I listened to an interview with Rebecca Sive, the author of Every Day is Election Day.  While Sive focuses specifically on women in elective office, my first thought when I heard the title of the book was, “Yes!  This is what I have been saying for years.”

To be precise, what I have been saying for years is that we are all elected to our office (job/role) every day.  Every day, the people around us decide whether to listen to us, to follow us, to imitate us or to ignore us.  They decide whether to step up and join us in championing what we want to accomplish, or they join the opposition or they just decide to “sit this one out.”

At one time in my career, I was working for an organization in a consulting role.  The vice president of sales was the number two person in the organization.  But that VP was a poor role model; he didn’t make logical decisions; he didn’t have a vision that he could get people behind; he wasn’t proactive; and he didn’t encourage others in the organization to come to him with ideas or challenges.  In short, he didn’t get things done.  People started coming to me.  Several months later, I was named chief operating officer and was the clear number two in the company.

Why?  Because I ran for my office every day.  I worked to build trust.  I created a vision and worked to get buy-in.  I worked hard, never asking anyone to do anything I wouldn’t do myself (and they could see me doing it).

The application to the workplace is so obvious that I started to consider another environment I spend a lot of time in – a classroom.   What does it mean to think about every day as election day?  Are students voters?  You bet!

One piece of advice in Sive’s book is “you can’t care too much.”  That reminded me of another true statement I heard from a school district superintendent several years ago:  “Students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”  Caring builds trust and trust is critical to an environment in which students choose to learn.  In fact, students vote (decide) every day, in every class, whether to engage, whether to strive, whether there is anything of value to pay attention to.

Teachers, of course, do have some authority from the outset, just as that vice president of sales did in the company I worked for.  But our ability to create a vision, to engage students’ minds and hearts, to inspire trust, and to show how much we care, are what keeps us in the role of teacher, not just somebody at the front of the classroom.

I’m running for election again today.  How about you?

When Brain Training Works – Points of Controversy, by Betsy Hill and Roger Stark

August 23, 2016

Pre-publication publicity for a new book on the value of brain training claims that there are 5 conditions that make it effective.  While it surfaces some important considerations, it is likely to disappoint anyone who adheres strictly to the five conditions.

Here’s where the advice falls short:

  1. It must engage and exercise a core brain-based capacity or neural circuit identified to be relevant to real-life outcomes.

Response:  First of all, if there is a brain-based capacity or neural circuit that hasn’t been identified as relevant to real-life outcomes, then it probably doesn’t exist.  The purpose of our brain is survival, so all mental capacities are arguably relevant to real-life outcomes.  But more importantly, it is insufficient to say that training must target a mental process shown in research to be relevant to real-life performance.  The training should actually be able to demonstrate improvement in whatever that real-life performance is.   This is actually where much brain training falls down.  It’s not that the training doesn’t connect the exercise to a specific neural process, but that it can’t demonstrate actual change in real life application.

2.  It must target a performance bottleneck.

Response: The issue here is the model of brain functioning that underlies the statement.  A bottleneck is relevant for a linear process.  If step 2 of 10 in a manufacturing plant is slow, then that produces a “bottleneck.”  Speeding up step 2 will speed up the whole manufacturing process.  But our brains are not manufacturing processes.  Rather, they are complex systems with multiple processes occurring simultaneously (and hopefully in coordination).  In fact, recent research supports the idea that multiple mental processes are involved in just about everything we do and they have to work together.  While there is some truth to targeting weaker functions, it is at least as true that brain training, to be effective, is about integrating multiple systems.

3.  It requires a minimum “dose” of 15 hours total per targeted brain function performed over 8 weeks or less.

Response:  It’s refreshing, actually, to see a consensus emerging that a few minutes or hours of training here and there won’t do much for cognitive fitness.  But there is a fundamental flaw in the implication that each brain function must be trained independently.  If that were the case, then a training regimen of 150 hours would be required to address 10 targeted brain functions.  In our research, we have found that a dramatic impact on multiple brain functions is achieved in 35 to 50 hours of training multiple cognitive skill areas in an integrated fashion (using BrainWare SAFARI 3 to 5 times per week, in 30-45 minutes sessions over about 12 weeks).  We can agree that noticeable differences start to appear at the 6-8 week mark, but much more can be accomplished than this description of the book suggests.

4.  Training must adapt to performance, require effortful attention, and increase in difficulty.

Response:  This is all true, but it neglects what we know about what actually motivates effortful attention and persistence in training.  Parents and clinicians we talk to tell us, over and over, that most other brain training programs they have experienced are BORING.  Even when they are adaptive, increase in difficulty, and require focus (effortful attention).  Human beings don’t expend effortful attention when things are not engaging.  Students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.  The design of the training program needs to be motivational, engaging and reward, not just demand, persistence.

5.  Continued practice is required for continued benefits.

Response:  This condition suggests that one needs to continue training essentially forever.  First, we want to say, “Wrong,” but then we want to relent and acknowledge that, “It depends.”  It also requires that we consider what “practice” means.

When children complete a brain training program (which we think is better termed cognitive training), they bring their improved attention skills, working memory, or visual-spatial processing to an educational environment that, in most cases, continues to put demands on those very cognitive skills.  In other words, they are using and practicing those enhanced cognitive skills every day.

If you are an adult in the workplace, the same would be true, by and large.  You are in an environment where you “practice” your improved skills constantly.  After all, if they haven’t transferred to real life, what’s the point?  If your goal, as an adult, is not to perform better, but to be a “high functioning couch potato,” then that is another story altogether.

One situation where continued benefits may require ongoing training is for those who want to build cognitive reserve and/or mitigate the effects of the declining demands of everyday life as they age.  For many individuals who are not as active as they used to be in intellectually demanding activities, ongoing training makes sense.

The idea behind brain training is that getting skills to the level of automaticity so that they are used in real life, means that real life becomes the practice.  While continued training may be useful for some, the better the training, the better the transfer, the better the individual applies their stronger cognitive functions in everyday life, the more challenges they take on, the more problems they solve … and the less need they will have for ongoing training.

We welcome the opportunity to explore the fascinating topic of brain training – and everything we know and don’t know – with you.  Please comment or feel free to email us at bhill@mybrainware.com or rstark@mybrainware.com.

Cognitive Skills Development as a Supplement to Vision Therapy, by Betsy Hill

July 7, 2016

I am a graduate of vision therapy myself.  And I will never forget the moment when my vision, which had been blurry my entire life, suddenly became clear, following many months of hard work with a vision therapist.  At the time, I thought it was a miracle.  Today, I know that the “miracle” is the ability of our brains to “rewire” themselves with the right kind of training.  When our eyes work together, or when visual focus improves, it transforms our ability to function in the world.

For some individuals, vision therapy is a vital first step, but there may still be more work to be done to integrate stronger visual skills with other mental processes, such as selective attention, working memory, sequential processing, directionality and other foundational cognitive skills and executive functions. That integration is what enables the stronger visual skills to be used directly in reading and math and other academic and life tasks.

BrainWare SAFARI is a cognitive skills training program that evolved from multi-disciplinary clinical therapy.  It is different from other cognitive training programs because it is both comprehensive and integrated.  In peer-reviewed published research, gains of 2 to 4 years of cognitive growth, and 1 to 2 years of academic growth, have been shown when the program is used 3 to 5 times a week for 12 weeks.

Once someone has completed (or has made sufficient progress in) a course of vision therapy and it is time to integrate their stronger visual processing with other cognitive processes, BrainWare SAFARI can provide that additional boost towards strong academic performance and success with everyday tasks.

Clinicians have found a variety of ways to work with clients using BrainWare SAFARI.  While the recommended protocol is 3 to 5 times a week, that doesn’t mean 3 to 5 office visits.  Because it is a software program, clients can use the program from any computer that has the program installed.  BrainWare captures and reports real-time data on progress in the program, to help clinicians check on compliance with the recommended protocol, and weekly or biweekly visits can assess and reinforce progress and the application of newly developing skills.

Clinicians can learn more about using BrainWare SAFARI in conjunction with vision therapy at: Cognitive Skills Training Webinar.

The Mystery of Reading Comprehension, by Betsy Hill

June 18, 2016

Many students can read a passage,but afterwards are unable to tell you what they read.  Or perhaps they can answer simple factual questions (regurgitate), but it really has no meaning for them and will be forgotten the next day.

How students make the leap from decoding to understanding is something that has challenged teachers since the very beginning of reading and writing (I don’t really have a reference for comprehension problems with the Dead Sea Scrolls, but I suspect that I’m not far off the truth).

And what is reading comprehension, anyway?

The way our minds comprehend what we hear or read is to connect what we are hearing or reading to knowledge and information we already know.  Regurgitating is not comprehending.  Regurgitation only involves short-term memory.  Our brains are designed to discard what is held in short-term memory if we haven’t found a way to make it meaningful.  So, of course, we can “read” but still not have understood a darn thing.

Comprehending involves making meaning, by visualizing and applying the information from the text being read, relating ideas to what is already known, and holding ideas in mind while we think about them.  But most reading instruction doesn’t address “visualizing”, or “holding ideas in mind.”  In fact, those mental processes are only two, although a very important two, of the cognitive skills (or mental processes) that must be working efficiently and accurately for comprehension to take place.

More importantly, these are the very skills that stand int he way of that leap to comprehension for many students.  It isn’t enough to hope that students will magically solve the mystery of comprehension themselves and make that leap.  Reading comprehension requires a mind prepared for that challenge.

Learn more at http://www.mybrainware.com/Skate-Kids-and-Ramps-to-Reading.


What Great Teachers and Great Salespeople Have in Common – by Betsy Hill

March 28, 2016

For some, this comparison will seem obvious.  For some it will seem curious, at first blush.  For some it will seem preposterous, or even insulting.  I hope that, like most good analogies, the aptness of the comparison ultimately enlightens.

My interest in revisiting this topic was prompted by two events.  The first (which was really the second chronologically) was reading the words of a professor quoted in What the Best College Teachers Do (Bain, 2004).  ‘Teaching is “above all,” about commanding attention and holding it.  Our task is not unlike that of a commercial for a soft drink or any other product.’  The book goes on to suggest that professors and salespeople might do different things once they have that attention, but more on that later.

The second (which was really the first chronologically) was watching well-meaning educators become interested in a new technology and then reject learning more about it because of too much “salesmannship.”

These two events caused me to reflect again on the parallels between the two professions and what would have to be true for the analogy to hold.  I came up with the following:

Both the great teacher and the great salesperson believe in the value of their subject.  They believe deeply in the importance of understanding what they have to convey about it.

Both the great teacher and the great salesperson spend considerable effort to understand their audience.  In teaching, we call it identifying prior knowledge and students’ motivation.  In selling, we call it “knowing your customer.”

Both the great teacher and the great salesperson have a hook to get our attention.  Unless there is a hook, we won’t pay attention and the message will be lost.

Both the great teacher and the great salesperson manage to convince is that we have a personal stake in what they are saying and that makes us want to know more about it.

Neither the great teacher nor the great salesperson want anyone to “buy” anything unless it is relevant, important and fills a need.  In fact, the key element to each of their interactions with their audience is to support the thinking process, to see how what they are teaching/selling applies to things we care about.

Both the great teacher and the great salesperson use a variety of communications techniques – including visuals, audio, music, mnemonics, simulations, experiments discussion (and, yes, sometimes lecture) to help us learn and understand.

Both the great teacher and the great salesperson encourage questions and probing.

Neither the great teacher nor the great salesperson wants the end result of their efforts to be a return and a refund, to hear, “that wasn’t worth the time or money spent on it.”

So what is it that might be different, once the salesperson and the teacher have our attention?

In the case of salesperson, we might buy something.  If the salesperson is not ethical or doesn’t really understand us, or just pushes too hard, we might possibly buy something we don’t need or can’t afford.  But that wouldn’t be the intention of a good salesperson because they too care about keeping the sale.

In the case of a teacher, we might become interested in some topic we didn’t know we would be interested in.  It’s possible we might later regret pursuing that interest or feel that we didn’t fully understand the consequences (e.g., problems finding a job).  But that wouldn’t be the intention of a good teacher because they too care about their students.  In fact, if the great teacher is successful enough, we might end up devoting our life to it.  We might not have known we needed it, but the need to understand, to master, and to share with others was engendered by that teacher.

We only have so much time.  We only have so much money.  Thanks to all the great teachers and salespeople in the world for helping us spend well.

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.