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?

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.”

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!

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.