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.

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.

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.”

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.


Brain Training Programs: Neither Silver Bullet nor Scam, by Betsy Hill

February 4, 2015

A recent article asked the question: Are Brain Training Programs a Scam? Like many articles on the subject these days, the analysis was right in some respects, but missed several key points. The numbered statements below in italics are from the article. The comments following each point are mine.

1.  Most brain training programs are based on well known neuroscience and cognitive science research tests.

This is a fundamental flaw of many brain training programs. They involve training on the tests themselves. We know that our brains become better at what they do over and over. So, if we practice the very same skills that we will be tested on, you will get better at them and perform better on the test. The real question is how you train skills so that they will be available in everything you do in life.

2.  Brain training companies may claim unique or revolutionary training techniques, but they typically are offering more complex and appealing variations of these basic neurocognitive tests.

This is one of the important ways BrainWare SAFARI is different from other brain training programs. It was built on clinical therapy practices from multiple disciplines over several decades designed to help people function better in school or the workplace or in life, not to perform better on a test.

3.  Cognitive training relies on the process of neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the biological method for how the brain responds to its environment – learning the skills and adaptive behavior necessary to survive. This pattern of learned behavior, skill acquisition, and memory encoding is also known as experience and wisdom.

Neuroplasticity is the basis for all brain training; that is clear. Neuroplasticity is not a method; it is an attribute or property of brains and means that they are constantly changing. Everything we do changes our brains physiologically. Every interaction with the outside environment changes our brains. The purpose of a brain is survival. Brains learn from experience, but I think that the word “wisdom” is misapplied here. Does being able to walk or drive a car connote wisdom? Most brain training programs are about skill acquisition and automaticity, not about judgment, perspective, complex analysis and other hallmarks of wisdom. In discussions of these topics, it is very important to use terminology correctly.

4.  The more specialized a cognitive training program can be will increase the likelihood of effective skills transfer. A good example is immersive cognitive training for military and commercial airline pilots. This is true in one sense. When skills are very specific to a situation, like knowing how to land a plane, then it is important to practice that skill. However, another analogy is executing a football play. Football players do training of basic skills and then apply them in a variety of situations so that the skills generalize. There is a distinction between transfer and generalization.

But will immersive cognitive training in a simulated flight deck improve the pilot’s ability to learn a foreign language faster or be better at playing blackjack? This is an excellent question. Another question is, are there skills that can be developed that are more basic than landing a plane or speaking a language or playing blackjack that, if developed, will help performance in all those activities? That doesn’t mean that training of basic cognitive skills is sufficient to be able to land a plane, but the right kind of training in visual-spatial processing, visual span, oculomotor skills, attention, reaction time, etc., might, and probably would, drive improvement in landing a plane … AND taking off … AND changing course during flight … AND dealing with a sick passenger … AND communicating with passengers when there is a delay  … AND …

5.  Highly specialized cognitive training (for highly specialized occupations) can be effective, and also tends to be very expensive. DARPA, the research and technology arm of the US Department of Defense is working on several cognitive training efforts to boost focus, coordination and control for drone pilots as an example. 

R&D is expensive. That doesn’t mean that it will be expensive to deliver once they develop it, and in fact will probably result in tremendous cost savings once developed because everything else they do will be more efficient and effective.

6.  Structured cognitive training holds the future promise of addressing a host of neurocognitive and neuropsychiatric conditions. There is a substantial amount of venture capital and government research dollars flowing into this area, but independent research validation for most structured cognitive training is still lacking and off in the future.

It is true that independent research validation is not conclusive yet for many training programs. Different programs are at different stages of proof. Research reports on BrainWare SAFARI, which include both peer-reviewed published research and field studies, are available at http://www.mybrainware.com/research.

7. The brain training industry as a whole faces a serious problem that will be hard to solve, namely, the barrier to market entry for brain training services and products is very low. Any company can create a few online brain games “based on neuroscience” and then market them as a cure-all for Alzheimer’s or dyslexia, or as a quick and easy way to raise your IQ.

This is very true. This is why I take this time to clarify some very important points.

There is new territory for all of us. Consumers, educators, health care practitioners and the media themselves will need to become educated in this area so that they can make appropriate judgments. It will require that people be open but skeptical. And it will require some standards or principles of how to make decisions about brain training programs. For a list of criteria for an effective brain-training programs, click here.

Curing Educational Indigestion – Three Solutions to Overly Full Plates, by Betsy Hill

January 21, 2015

“Our district is currently doing a lot of work to implement STEM (Common Core, new technology, etc.), and our teachers feel like they are constantly having things added to their plates while nothing is removed.”

If I have heard that comment once in the past few years, I have heard it hundreds, if not thousands, of times.  It is as if our education system has confused more with better.  In the hope of better results, we seem to be piling on more and hoping for the best: more work, more standards, more subjects, more of everything.  When we pile more on our plates (think supersizing), indigestion is one likely result (to carry the metaphor to the next step).  Most educators agree that more is a recipe for burnout, feelings of failure, and poor performance.

If education were a business, then any thoughtfully strategic manager would say to herself/himself:  There are three ways to combat this problem of overly full plates and unsatisfactory outcomes.

  1. Make our processes more efficient (reduce redundant efforts, streamline processes).
  2. Focus on the most important things, those with the most leverage in achieving our goals.
  3. Increase the capacity of our employees to manage the work.

Now let’s translate this from a business to an education framework*:

Make Processes More Efficient = Teach More Effectively and Eliminate Non-Value-Added Activities

Teaching more effectively is about teaching in a way that takes best advantage of how brains learn.  Teaching more effectively is taking advantage of what we know about attention, how brains process information, what is required to get information into long-term memory, what is required for memory consolidation, etc.  When we teach more effectively, we can get more learning to happen in less time, without costly rework.

When it comes to non-value added activities in a business setting, one that comes to mind is shutting down the business for three weeks to take inventory.  Most businesses have now realized that we don’t need to do that, that inventory control systems and other less invasive strategies can be more effective.  What is inventory-taking in an educational context?  Standardized testing.  We shut down the business of learning for weeks of every school year to “take inventory” of student learning, when taking inventory could be integrated into the learning process.

Focus on the Most Important Things = Prioritize, Don’t “Cover”

Coverage (covering all the material, covering all the topics, covering the curriculum) is the bogeyman of new standards, and teachers are rightly terrified at the prospect.  Not everything in every standard is equally important.  Some concepts or skills transcend subject matter and, therefore, have more leverage.  It does no good to try to teach everything and have students perform poorly on everything, when some things are less likely to be foundational for future learning.  If we teach the most important things, and teach them well, our students will be better served.  If we spend more time on what’s most important, rather than insufficient time on too many things, our students and teachers will feel, and actually be, more accomplished.

Increase Employee Capacity = Build and Strengthen Students’ Learning Skills

Students actually do the work of learning, and, as any teacher will attest, students have widely varying cognitive capacity and learning skills.  Research over the last decade is increasingly showing that building students’ cognitive skills – including processes like working memory, flexible attention, self-regulation, visual-spatial processing and sequential or simultaneous processing – can dramatically accelerate student learning and academic performance.  We can think about this as akin to expanding intellectual bandwidth; students can simply learn more in less time.

I started this blog with the metaphor of educational indigestion from teachers having too much on their plates.  There is a cure for this indigestion (and it isn’t a pill).  It is time to look strategically at menu planning and not just keep trying to rearrange the items on teachers’ plates.  The three approaches above could make a big dent in educators’ enormous case of indigestion.

*I acknowledge that some educators will be uncomfortable with comparing business and education, but I hope the utility of the comparison will be evident, and I equally hope that educators find value in being strategic.