Monday, November 25, 2013

Improving the Educational Odds

As a whole, we teachers are constantly working on our craft because we know that a successful educational experience can be life changing for our students and is a critical element for success in their lives.  In his book Visible Learning for Teachers, John Hattie shares some wonderful insights that I personally align with wholeheartedly. Hattie has conducted one of the most comprehensive meta-analysis in education. He has studied the results of nearly every possible educational intervention and then compares their impact on student achievement.  He finds that the two most significant factors in student success are the student’s self-expectation of and the effectiveness of teachers.
How can we help students develop a positive image – an expectation – of accomplishment and mastery? Carol Dweck (2006) proposes that it may be a simple matter of mindset.  A growth mindset (which posits that intelligence can be continually developed) leads to a desire to learn, embraces challenges, persists in the face of setbacks, sees effort as a path to mastery, learns from criticism and find lessons and inspiration in the success of others. A fixed mindset (which conversely adheres to the belief that intelligence is static) leads to a desire to only “look smart” and therefore leads to a tendency to avoid challenge, become defensive or give up, see effort as fruitless, ignore useful or negative feedback and feel threatened by the success of others.   A positive, growth oriented mindset must be fostered.

So, how do we do that?  The expectancy x value model (Barkley 2010) can be used to define student motivation.   She states, “The effort people are willing to expend on a task is the product of the degree to which they expect to be able to perform the task successfully (expectancy) and the degree to which they value the rewards as well as the opportunity to engage in performing the task itself (value).”  In other words, students must be interested and must believe that they can be successful if they only try. A “can do” attitude is more important to success than ability or difficulty of the task. So how do we get students interested and willing to try? Enter the teacher.

Strategies that provide extrinsic rewards such as high grades, praise or bonus points may increase motivation for the short term but may inhibit students from developing the intrinsic motivation to experience truly engaged learning.  (Barkley 2010) Our goal should be to create opportunities for deep intrinsic motivation (deep engagement) or flow. When the interest and success expectancy of students are sparked, they become so absorbed in the task that it becomes work worth doing for its own sake. (Csikszentmihalyi  1997)  Students are no longer simply attempting to complete a task.  They are on a mission.
To foster a sense of flow teachers need to provide a safe, positive environment,  clear goals, sufficient feedback to communicate how well students are doing but not before they have opportunities to think and problem solve independently.  Tasks should stretch students just beyond their existing capabilities, but not be overwhelming.

To improve the odds of educational success, teachers must work to foster a positive learning mindset in their students and teach with intention and purpose.

Hattie, John. Visible learning for teachers: maximizing impact on learning. London: Routledge, 2012. Print.
Dweck, Carol S.. Mindset: the new psychology of success. New York: Random House, 2006. Print.
Barkley, Elizabeth F.. Student engagement techniques: a handbook for college faculty. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Intrinsic motivation and effective teaching; A flow analysis. In Bess, James L.. Teaching well and liking it: motivating faculty to teach effectively. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997. Print.


Friday, October 11, 2013

Maintaining a Positive Online Reputation

Unfortunately, many people do not realize that postings to the Internet are not private. We forget that data is being collected and shared about each of us as we participate on various social media and internet sites. For example;, the Facebook “Like” button, Pandora and even will share our likes, clicks and preferences. My feelings are often hurt as I continually encounter wrinkle cream ads and weight- loss advertisements via my Facebook page due to my age even though I am very careful about my personal online profile.

We have all heard of at least one example of poor decision making regarding online posting like the Taco bell employee who was fired a day after his shell licking photo was posted to the company’s Facebook page, the Greek Olympian Voula Papachristou who was booted from her country’s Olympic team after posting a racial joke to Twitter or the numerous political figures who just don’t seem to get it. Clearly, once we post content online we have no control over how or where the content is shared or the subsequent consequences. All of us need to consider the importance of protecting our online presence or reputation.

This has become an important educational issue as well as a parental one. How can we help our children and students consider the importance of thinking before they post content that they will later regret?
First of all we must realize that all children and young adults are not equally at risk. If a child engages in risky behavior offline it is more likely he will make poor choices online.  There seems to be a parallel between children with a history of physical or sexual abuse or low self-esteem and risky behavior online.  
Children today are often quite tech savvy and may know more than many adults about the technology tools and devices available to them.  After all,  they consume an average of 8 hour sof digital media a day.  They are not, however, necessarily  “life savvy” and need our guidance and involvement as they learn to make decisions and manage their online activity.

To that end, parents need to devote the time to becoming more knowledgeable and comfortable with the tools our children use. We should teach our children how to block users from various communication tools and how to save screen shots when they feel uncomfortable with an online interaction. Their biggest fear, and the reason they are hesitant to tell parents about inappropriate interactions online,  is that the technology will be taken away.  It is important to never overreact and to calmly respond when they share sensitive information. Keeping the lines of communication open is critical.

For younger children, an internet filter such as K9 Web Protection (free download) or using  Open DNS on your network can be helpful in restricting explicit content. A family generated contract can also be used to communicate  Internet behavior expectations. The contract also provides an opportunity for family dialogue to openly talk about the issues. I do think that our children will only learn to make good choices if they are gradually given opportunities to make choices for themselves.   As they get older, they should be given more and more freedom as they demonstrate the ability to manage themselves online. Conversely, we must be willing to parent and enforce the rules.  The goal is to help them develop.

Our children are going to make mistakes online. We can help them by making sure they understand the viral nature of online content, keeping an eye out for questionable behavior and at risk children, becoming more tech savvy, keeping the lines of communication open and utilizing available filters and controls.

Helpful sites:

Common Sense Media - - Excellent reviews, recommendations and parent tips for movies, games, apps, websites, books and music.
My Wiki – I have shared dozens of links to help parents with setting up parental controls, family contracts, plagiarism resources and much more. - Anne Collier does a wonderful job of keeping parents and educators informed and engaged on a variety of topics related to our young people’s use of technology.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Drop and Give Me 20 - The Importance of Physical Activity to Learning

In this blog I thought I would share some of the things I’ve learned about how important movement and exercise is to learning. This topic is particularly relevant at this point in the evolution of education because many schools are choosing to eliminate physical education and recess in order to spend more time on subject areas that will be tested on standardized tests.

The science supporting the positive effect of movement and exercise on learning is real.  Research shows that physical activity catalyzes a biological process that causes brain cells to bind to each other.  These connections are directly related to the brain’s ability to learn.  In her book The New Science of Teaching and Learning, Tracey Tokuhama-Esponisa refers to substantial studies which support alternating movement activities and thinking activities as a means of focusing and re-focusing attention in the classroom to enhance learning.  Further, she details studies which support the theory that increased blood flow from physical activity enhances concentration and memory. 
When in early elementary school, our oldest son could simply not sit still. He had a horrible time paying attention and was later identified as having ADHD.  There was a large gap between his exceptionally high IQ and his academic performance. We struggled through the years until he took a summer course at Riverside Millitary Academy.  When he would be distracted, fidgety, unable to concentrate and off task, his teacher would command “drop and give me 20.”  He learned that after doing 20 push-ups he could again focus.  His classroom performance skyrocketed.  Our daughter, now a junior in High School, can often be seen studying while performing gymnastics routines around the room.  It seems unorthodox, but it’s effective!    
There are probably many things to which a general decline in classroom performance across the country can be attributed.  Perhaps, chief among them is the insistence that our children sit down, sit still and pay attention.

In response, some schools are adding exercise balls as chairs in classrooms or allowing fidgeting children to stand behind their chairs instead of making them sit in them.  Others are intentionally adding movement to the class experience. Naperville Central High School in west Chicago has gained national attention for emphasizing fitness at their school. They believe that physical education class should be used to instruct kids how to monitor and maintain their own health and fitness for the rest of their lives. The students develop healthy habits, learn how their bodies work and have fun. These educators also know how important physical activity is to learning.  In addition to being fit, the academic performance of the Naperville students in the classroom and on standardized tests has improved exponentially.  As one innovative NCHS physical education teacher put it, “It’s not really my job to teach them anything.  It’s my job to get them ready to learn.”   

There is a correlation between physical movement and academic achievement. Research also supports the idea that exercise may help improve the effects of addictions, stress, depression, anxiety, ADHD, menopause and even Alzheimer’s .  For more on this topic, read “Spark” by John J. Ratey, MD. 
Bottom line…movement can improve our ability to think and function well.  I think I’ll take that morning walk I’ve been putting off.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Seeing is Believing...

I was teaching Physics in North Carolina when the state first implemented End of Course Testing.  The test results revealed that my students had performed quite poorly on the unit pertaining to light and diffraction.  It was a humbling and eye-opening experience for me, a new teacher.  I remember reflecting on the fact that I had “covered” the unit rather quickly and admitted that I had done so because I lacked self-confidence in teaching the material.  I understood the material but did not know how to effectively teach it. 

Fortunately for me, North Carolina State University offered an on-campus course the summer following my students’ poor performance.  It was designed to help physics teachers sharply focus on particular topics using an instructional strategy called “the station approach.”  Basically, the strategy suggested that students rotate through various classroom “stations” in order to experience and interact with a given topic in a variety of ways.  I needed help and decided to attend.  My group set out to design stations that would help students gain mastery of light and diffraction using the technologies that were available in 1995.  We designed an experiment using lasers which allowed students to actively measure first and second order diffraction.  Another station design utilized a ripple tank so students could study waves in a tangible, hands-on way.
Shelby City Schools was one of the first systems to purchase IBM computers for classrooms.  The one in my classroom became an exploration station loaded with real-world trial and error simulations.  I would serve as a facilitator rather than a lecturer as my students worked through stations where they encountered a variety of interactive, problem solving experiences.  To my delight, my students engaged and began to enjoy the challenges the material presented to them.  They were motivated.  They were learning.

I eventually began to use this model with other physics units. My goal was to present difficult material in ways my students could understand and internalize. I built an air track out of PVC pipe and a vacuum cleaner.   We used gliders to create frictionless collisions.  I used data collection probes, built a “bed of nails” to demonstrate physics principles. Our class became the place to be!

Not surprisingly, my students scored extremely well on the light and diffraction unit the next year (as well as the other areas!)  In fact, they did so well I was asked to write questions for the End of Course test.
After all these years, much of what I learned in 1995 still holds true.  When students are given meaningful problems to solve, are allowed to think for themselves, are allowed to work collaboratively through a variety of experiences, are allowed to experiment, to touch, to feel, and are allowed the time to reflect – learning and retention increase.

The idea was formalized in 2006 with the introduction of the TPACK model of instruction (Mishra and Koehler.)  It involves combining technology, pedagogy (teaching strategy) and content knowledge to reach that sweet spot of instruction which fosters learning. 

The world has changed, our students have changed, and college and workplace expectations have changed.  One thing holds true. When teachers use available tools, resources, and creativity in classroom environments where students are allowed to engage, experiment and problem solve – learning happens.        

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Brain Science and Learning

Reading, writing and arithmetic.  From yesterday’s one room schoolhouse to today’s virtual classroom and from high school campuses that look like small towns to the desks of home school students, the driving questions in education remain the same.  “How do students best learn?” and “How do teachers best teach?”   Answering those questions has been my life’s work for over 20 years both in and out of the classroom.  My passion is to help teachers incorporate strategies, methods and techniques that foster student engagement and learning.  Further, I help students understand how they learn and empower them to take control over their learning.   

A great deal of attention has been paid to how the brain works in recent years.  Some of the research findings offer new information and possibilities, some simply affirm what has long been accepted as true, and some findings completely dispel previous assumptions about the brain and learning.  Experts in the field of brain research and education such as Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa (The New Science of Teaching and Learning), Mariee Springer (Brain-Based Teaching in the Digital Age), Gary Small (iBrain), David Sousa (How the Brain Learns) and John Hattie (Visible Learning for Teachers) are helping us understand how students learn and how teachers, in response, should mobilize.  A number of noteworthy facts and strategies have emerged.

For instance, learning is largely an emotional exercise.  Two of the most important factors in learning are whether the student thinks the teacher likes or cares about him and whether the student thinks the teacher believes in him and his abilities.  If a teacher expresses a lack of confidence in the ability of the student, learning declines dramatically and failure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

Research has also concluded that the brain is a “use it or lose it” organ.  Parts of the brain that are unused wither.  The parts of the brain that are used, however, become stronger.  This is good news for learners of all ages.  With activity and use, neural circuits grow and re-wire.  Neuro-pathways and connections become stronger and information is stored and retained.  It can also be more readily retrieved.  Neuroscientists call this process brain plasticity.   Contrary to popular belief, one can grow his brain function.  It is not static.
Learning is also increased and retrieval made easier when different types of memory pathways are incorporated when teaching.  In addition to auditory and visual strategies, kinesthetic pathways should be activated to incorporate as many of the senses as possible.

Another key component to teaching and learning is relevancy.  How many times have you heard it said (or said yourself), “Why do I need to know this?”  If learning experiences are designed to solve real world, meaningful problems the information is more likely to make it to long term memory.  If the learning is tied in some way to something the student is interested in or cares about, the likelihood of long term memory and retrieval increases even more.  It takes time and careful planning, but delivering content in engaging, experiential and relevant ways is critical to successful teaching.

Additional findings include the concept of “chunking.” Since the brain can process a maximum of four items at a time, which is much fewer than previously thought, it is helpful for information to be grouped together in manageable “chunks.”  “Chunking” occurs when working memory processes a set of data as a single item. (like memorizing stanzas of a poem)We can then access large amounts of relevant knowledge from long-term memory.

Finally, time considerations are important.  The average attention span of a child is 10 to 20 minutes.  Any learning experience should change person, place or topic frequently.  Adding a component of reflection to the learning experience will yield tremendous gains as well.  When students are given an opportunity to simply think about what they have just taken in, learning is deepened.

Other factors such as nutrition, exercise, hydration, sleep and even laughter are important. While teachers have little control over these a strong partnership between parents and teachers will help tremendously.