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.


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.


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.


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.