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.

 


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.

 


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.


Deal with the Big Rocks First … Prioritizing — by Betsy Hill

May 27, 2014

This activity is one of several End Summer Brain Drain activities available at http://www.mybrainware.com/how-it-works/end-summer-brain-drain/

Have you ever noticed that some people just drift through life dealing with each problem as it comes along and then wonder where all the time has gone, and why they haven’t accomplished more?

Other people seem to live lives that are very well organized and are able to accomplish a great deal.

You can do this activity just by imagining it, but it will be even more memorable if you actually try this with your child.  Assemble a large jar, a pile of big rocks (ones that will fit through the mouth of the jar), a pile of medium-size rocks, a bunch of pebbles, some sand and some water.  Your job with your child is to get all of the rocks, pebbles, sand and water into the jar.

It is good to let your child experiment with different ways to do this, even if they decide they need to start over several times.  What your child will discover is that If they start with the sand and then add the pebbles and then the medium-size rocks, the jar will fill up before they can get to the big rocks.  But if they start with the big rocks, they can get them all in and the smaller items will fill in the spaces in between.

You can point out to your child that it’s the same with things in your life.  You can begin to take charge of your life a lot more if you take the time to decide what is most important to you.

It’s not that you have to decide once for all time.  What’s important can change from minute to minute, or at least from day to day.  But at a particular time, it’s good to know what is important and what isn’t.  That way, you can take care of the important things first and let the less important ones fill in the cracks.

One way to get started on prioritizing with your child is for you each to make a list of things in some category that you both enjoy or know about.  For example, you could make a list of your friends, books that you like, things around the house that you want to change, events that have happened in the past few weeks or that are expected to happen in the next few.

Try to get at least ten items on your list, but you can still do this if you have only three or four.

Once you each have your list, number the items in order of importance.

Then take turns telling each other why you have put them in that order.  What makes one thing more important than another?

If you and your child continue to practice prioritizing from time to time, referring back to your experiment with the jar and the rocks, you will probably find that it becomes a way to focus everyone’s attention on the important things.  Maybe next time, your child is worried about something trivial, all you will have to say is, “Is that one of the big rocks?”