Are Schools Killing Creativity

A thought provoking video from Sir Ken Robinson, who makes an entertaining and moving case for creating an education system that nurtures (rather than undermines) creativity.

Why don’t we get the best out of people? Sir Ken Robinson argues that it’s because we’ve been educated to become good workers, rather than creative thinkers. Students with restless minds and bodies — far from being cultivated for their energy and curiosity — are ignored or even stigmatized, with terrible consequences.

“We are educating people out of their creativity,” Robinson says. It’s a message with deep resonance. Robinson’s TEDTalk has been distributed widely around the Web since its release.

A visionary cultural leader, Sir Ken led the British government’s 1998 advisory committee on creative and cultural education, a massive inquiry into the significance of creativity in the educational system and the economy, and was knighted in 2003 for his achievements.

His latest book, The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, a deep look at human creativity and education, was published in January 2009.

Are Learning Styles a Big Hoax? What Does the Latest Science Say About Different Learners?

MSc eLearning: Essay Wordle

Before we begin, I want to address a study that was published in the prestigious scientific journal Nature, and on the mainstream news. It claimed that “brain-training” is not effective. Huh? In spite of the quality of the journal, don’t swallow the study results. Why?

Three reasons: 1) the “brain training” was only 10 minutes a day – way too short for the brain to change. You need 20-60 min./day. 2) a small sample size was used, not a large random one, so you can’t generalize, and 3) there was no monitoring the brain training; all was done at home, where presumably, people are talking to family, spacing out, and not highly vested. Listen: the brain can change, but you have to follow the rules!

Okay; I got that off my chest. Now, let’s focus on something I ordinarily NEVER focus on.

There are many so-called “truths” that float around in education. Some actually are true, and others are a big, smelly pile of doo-doo. For example, if you’ve been to any of my workshops lately, you know why you should NEVER buy into the myth of the “normal” kid.But for today’s newsletter, we’d got another shocker: neuroscientist Susan Greenfield said that from a neuroscience point viewpoint, the whole idea of using learning styles for teaching is nonsense. By the way, she’s not alone in believing there is no such thing as a learning style.

But wait, there’s more…

The Association for Psychological Science (APS) commissions panels of leading psychologists and cognitive scientists to evaluate topics of public interest, and publishes their reports in Psychological Science. In late 2009, the panel concluded that an adequate evaluation of the learning styles hypothesis – the idea that optimal learning demands that students receive instruction tailored to their learning styles – requires a particular kind of study – AND IT HAS NOT BEEN DONE.

How could you “prove” learning styles.

Here’s what you’d have to do: group students into the learning style categories that are being evaluated (e.g., visual learners vs. verbal learners), and then students in each group must be randomly assigned to one of the learning methods (e.g., visual learning or verbal learning), so that some students will be “matched” and others will be “mismatched.”

After the learning and consolidation time, all students must sit for the same test. If the learning style hypothesis is correct, then, for example, visual learners should learn better with the visual method, whereas auditory learners should learn better with the auditory method. But Massa & Mayer, 2006 have found that this has not been done.

So what does this mean?


Brain-based education is here to stay.

Today, as a result of years of work by brain-based educators, educators are a far more informed profession. They are more professional, they look more at research, and they are increasingly more capable of understanding and incorporating new cognitive neuroscience discoveries than they were 10 years ago.

More schools of education are incorporating knowledge from the brain sciences than would have done so if we had followed the critics’ advice and crawled into an intellectual cave for 25 years. Many forward thinkers have stayed tuned to such sources as Bob Sylwester’s monthly column in Brain Connection, Scientific Learning’s Internet journal that’s regularly read by thousands of educators and parents. Sylwester, formerly a professor at the University of Oregon and a widely published authority on brain-based education, has been “connecting the dots” for educators for a decade.

10 years after the mudslinging criticism of brain-based education, it’s appropriate to say, “We were right.”

In fact, because of the efforts of the brain-based community to inform educators, thousands are currently using this knowledge appropriately to enhance education policy and practice. There are degree programs in it, scientific journals, and conferences; and peer-reviewed brain-related research now supports the discipline.

There are countless neuroscientists who support the movement, and they demonstrate their support by writing and speaking at educational conferences.

As an author in the brain-based movement, I have reminded educators that they should never say, “Brain research proves . . .” because it does not prove anything.

It may, however, suggest or strengthen the value of a particular pathway.

What educators should say is, “These studies suggest that XYZ may be true about the brain. Given that insight, it probably makes sense for us, under these conditions, to use the following strategies in schools.” This approach, which is a cautionary one, sticks with the truth. When one is careful about making causal claims, the connections are there for those with an open mind.

The science may come from a wide range of disciplines. Brain-based education is not a panacea or magic bullet to solve all of education’s problems. Anyone who claims that is misleading people. It is not yet a program, a model, or a package for schools to follow.

The discussion of how to improve student learning must widen from axons and dendrites to the bigger picture. That bigger picture is that our brain is involved with everything we do at school. The brain is the most relevant feature to explore, because it affects every strategy, action, behavior, and policy at your school.

New journals explore such essential topics as social conditions, exercise, neurogenesis, arts, stress, and nutrition. A school cannot remove arts, career education, and physical education and at the same time claim to be doing what’s best for the brains of its students. These are the issues we must be exploring, not whether someone can prove whether a teacher’s strategy was used before or after a neuroscience study provided peer-reviewed support for that strategy.

Today, there is still criticism, but the voices are no longer a chorus; they’re a diminishing whine. For the critic, it’s still “my way or the highway.”

That’s an old, tired theme among critics; the tactic of dismissing another’s research by narrowing the discussion to irrelevant issues, such as whether the research is cognitive science, neurobiology, or psychology. They’re all about the mind and brain.

The real issues that we should be talking about are what environmental, instructional, and social conditions can help us enrich students’ lives. To answer that, it’s obvious that everything that our brain does is relevant and that’s what should now be on the table for discussion.

Yes, we are in the infancy of brain research — there’s so much more to learn. But dismissing it is not only shortsighted, it’s also dead wrong. At this early stage, that would be like calling the Wright Brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk a failure because it only went a few hundred yards.

And let’s remember, the Wright Brothers had no credibility either; they were actually bicycle mechanics, not aviators. The future belongs not to the turf protectors, but to those with vision who can grasp interdisciplinary trends as well as the big picture. Nothing is more relevant to educators than the brains of their students, parents, or staff.

Brain-based education is here to stay.

Excerpted from Eric Jensen’s article in Kappan Magazine…. You can read the full text here.

4N6K3G7VQE6D Creative Commons License photo credit: Ryan Somma

Physical Education Is Supported by Brain Research

While many schools are reducing physical activity because of time constraints created by the No Child Left Behind Act, a large group of studies has linked physical activity with cognition.

The researchers have come at the topic from a wide range of disciplines. Some are cognitive scientists or exercise physiologists. Other advocates are educational psychologists, neurobiologists, or physical educators. The applied research, which compares academic achievement between schools where kids have physical activity and those where they don’t, also supports the hypothesis.13

Like six blind men describing different parts of an elephant, they are all addressing the same issue but from different viewpoints. They are all correct in revealing how physical experience affects the brain. Each of their viewpoints is valid, yet incomplete by itself.

Now let’s add the neuroscience perspective.

It reveals information that other disciplines cannot reveal. For example, we know that exercise is highly correlated with neurogenesis, the production of new brain cells.14 We know exercise upregulates a critical compound called brain-derived neurotrophic factor.15 We also know that neurogenesis is correlated with improved learning and memory.16 In addition, neurogenesis appears to be inversely correlated with depression.17

While careless policy makers reduce physical activity, many administrators are unaware of the inverse correlations with adolescent depression. It’s scary, but each year one in six teens makes plans for suicide, and roughly one in 12 teens attempts suicide.18 Yet there is considerable evidence that running can serve as an antidepressant.19

These data would suggest that educators might want to foster neurogenesis with physical education. But educators and policy makers can’t see the new brain cells being produced. That’s one reason to know the science, to show everyday, easy-to-influence school factors that regulate neurogenesis and, subsequently, cognition, memory, and mood. Those are the kinds of connections that should be made. They are not careless; there’s little downside risk and much to gain.

To verify this hypothesis, we check the applied research to find out what happens to student achievement in schools where physical activity is either added or strengthened.

The research in this arena is mixed because there are no broadly established protocols. For example, there are questions about when and how much physical activity is needed, what kind, and whether it should be voluntary. These are not trivial issues; our brains respond better to meaningful activities with appropriate duration and intensity over enough time to make changes. Voluntary activity is important, too. If the activity is forced, it is likely to generate distress, not cognitive or health benefits. But when the studies are well designed, there is support for physical activity in schools.

So the interdisciplinary promotion of physical activity as a “brain-compatible” activity is well founded. Again, we see the brain involved in everything we do at school.

Thus a brain-based perspective strengthens the case for maintaining or enhancing physical activities in school.

Was all of the research from the realm of neuroscience? No, it was from a wide range of sources. But every source still comes back to our brain. Is our brain enhanced or impaired by physical activity? The answer is clear: brains benefit from physical activity in many ways. The brain is involved in everything we do at school. How you measure it (basic science, cognitive science, psychology, applied research, sports research, neurochemistry, etc.) will still require the brain.

While critics are trying to narrow the discussion of brain-based education to a “turf war” over where the science comes from, the bigger picture is simple: the brain is involved in everything we do at school. To ignore it is irresponsible.

Excerpted from Eric Jensen’s article in Kappan Magazine…. You can read the full text here.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Beneteau Sailor

Captivating Students

How to make class fun… enjoy.

Matthew’s April 1st class:

Matthew’s Halloween class:

If you’d like to learn how Matthew Weathers did this, you can find out more here.

Student Engagement Tips: Student Interaction

Transparent Teaching.

You present a key point, using an overhead as a
 prompt for yourself. Now it’s the student’s turn to put it in his or her own words. 
You can number sentences, so that each student takes the odd ones. You can
 also color-code them so one takes those in blue and the other takes those in red. 
Everyone stand, mix up to find a partner. On cue, one person translates the
 sentence into their own words, creating meaning for themselves and maybe 
others. This is a good way to ensure that everyone understands the material.

Voting With Their Body.

This strategy is a kinesthetic affirmation based on
 others taking an action to respond by doing something with their body.

As an
 example, first ask your students to stand up. Ask them to vote with their body. 
Say, “If you believe this is true, go to that side of the room. If you disagree, go to
 this side of the room.” Then, they might do an activity such as a pair share.

Before they go sit down, you might say, “Now take in a slow deep breath and 
hold it…good. Now let it out. If you feel more confident, have a seat.

Or, “If
 you’re ready to learn something new, please have a seat.

Filling “Holes”.

Good for students using a notebook 
or those with any collection of pages with notes.

Each student finds the
 weakest page (one he or she’d like more info on) from his or her workbook
 from the last unit or learning segment. They open that up and leave it 

This activity works best with a “set-up” beforehand. Talk to the students
 about learning from others and the fact that we all value other’s opinions and that
 no one can know everything. Remind students in advance, that his is a chance to
“give ideas and get ideas,” and it’s not the time for rude comments or love letters.

Students stand up and walk around the room (use music for this one). Make it 
mandatory that they stop and write on at least one open notebook page. Give
 students about 3 minutes and keep them focused. Once students have returned 
to their seats, you can evaluate how many actually did get comments. If they are
 seated in a cooperative learning group, you can also have students pass their
 notebooks or the pieces of paper to solicit comments. Then they can share with 
their team what they learned from the comments.

Be sure to check out our summer workshop on Tools For Maximum Engagement here. It’s filling fast and is one of our more powerful teacher workshops.

Creative Commons License photo credit: woodleywonderworks

Student Engagement Tips: Getting Students Started

Anticipatory traditions.

Doing something once is okay, but creating a 
positive, predictable and practical tool repeated enough to be called a ritual is
 even better.

Many are as simple as raising your hand and asking others to 
raise their hand once they see your hand is up. This simply means you want 
the group’s attention.

When others see that other’s hands are up, they too 
raise their hand. Soon, they entire group has their hand up and the room is

Also: 1) You clap once, then say, “If you can hear me, clap twice.”
Then you clap twice and say, “If you can hear me clap three times.” Then
 you clap three times and say, “If you can hear me, clap four times.” Then you
 clap four times. By this time, all your audience will be clapping with you and
 ready for you to jump in and start talking with complete attention.

Comeback Response.

These are strategies that are used the moment the 
group is back from: 1) yesterday’s class 2) the previous class 3) a break 4)

Almost any tool, vehicle or group response activity can be used if it is:
 a) short, b) solves the “return to seats” problem, c) ends in a positive state,
 d) engages everyone.

An example would be if, when the group’s back, you said, “If you made it back on
time, raise your hand and say, ‘Yes!’ Now, turn to your nearest neighbor and say, 
‘Welcome back!’”

This aligns the group, reorients them to you and their social
 structure and quiets them for a couple of seconds. Naturally, you’ll need to jump
in right after that moment and begin the class before the noise starts up again.

Inhale Slowly.

Breath is affects us powerfully. Stretching helps engagement.

Taking in a deep breath is often a precursor to taking on a challenge or knowing
 something is coming up. You might say, “Let’s pause for a minute. Take in a slow
 deep breath… inhale, inhale and hold it. Now, slowly release it out. Very good.
 Now, one more time. Breathe in slowly, as if you’re taking in a divine gift. A
 little more… very good. Now, hold it ….and slowly exhale as if you’re
 releasing all the stress of the day.”

After the breath, there’s a pause in
anticipation of the next thing.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Thomas Hawk

Student Engagement Tips: Getting Students Physically Engaged

Demonstrate with the Body.

Say, “We’re going to do something very
 interesting in just a moment. But first, please stand up.” This raises heart rate 
and arousal states.

Ask your audience to take in a deep breath and let it out
 slowly. Now you, a group leader or assigned person can lead a team, group or
those at a small table in some slow stretching.

Now, take a math problem and ask students to use their hands and body to act 
out the numbers. Use the body to demonstrate connections, links, relationships 
and key ideas. Your body can make a number, a movement or a show a plant,
rock, mineral, cloud or river. They can show prefixes, suffixes or periods (stomp).

Who is Doing the Work?

Any time you have materials to get to the students, 
get lazy. Under 90% or more of the circumstances, your students should be
 passing out papers, materials, handouts or any other item.

Organize this through 1) the team leader 2) a volunteer 3) assigned in-class delivery students 4) a
 quick vote 5) form small impromptu groups, then ask those in them to pick the
“fastest runner” or other fun designation.

In other words, if you want more
 engagement, stop doing the student’s work for them.

Peer Drawings.

They can stand up and use their elbows to draw out a key
word for the lesson. Spell out or they can use their head, knee or toes. This gets
 the epinephrine up!

There are other types of drawings. For example, keep a bag, bowl with some or
 all of the student names on cards or paper slips. The students do a drum roll on
 their tables for added suspense. At a point during each class let one student
 come up to the container and draw out two student names. One of the
 names gets a standing ovation (pure fun!) and the other gets to answer two 
questions from the group and they get one “lifeline” (ask another student, or they
 can look it up on the spot.). The peer pressure is both fun and stressful! If both
 answered correctly, then win a silly prize or favor.

Creative Commons License photo credit: jackdoc101

Musical Arts As An Educational Tool

“Musical arts” or “music-making” means much more than playing music or listening to it. Singing, rap and musicals are also part of the musical arts. In addition, the musical arts include composing music, reading music, analyzing, arranging, notating and creating music.

Neurobiologist Mark Jude Tramo of Harvard Medical School says, “Music is biologically part of human life, just as music is aesthetically part of human life.” Compelling evidence supports the hypothesis that musical arts may provide a positive, significant and lasting benefit to learners. There is no single piece of evidence, but the diversity and depth of supporting material is overwhelming. If this were a court case, the ruling would be music is valuable “beyond reasonable doubt.”


Music is part of our biological heritage and is hard-wired into our genes as a survival strategy. If Darwin was right, traits and behaviors which enhance the survival of a species will be selected by nature because they’ll better insure the perpetuation of a species from one generation to the next.

Could the use of music increase survival chances? Cave paintings depicting the use of music go back 70,000 years. Flutes have been found in France dating as far back as 30,000 years. Music, vocalized or played by an individual or sung as social chorus (birds, whales or ape choruses) may have been used to attract a mate. It’s possible others were attracted to those producing louder,better or more pleasing sounds. In addition, music was often used for intra-group communication which increased group safety and identification. Likely, robust vocalization improved notification of pending threat or environmental changes.

Music may be used to increase harmony and social bonding among those playing it or listening to it. Music may have also contributed to changes in the brain (i.e. verbal memory, counting and self-discipline), which may have enhanced survival. And, finally, making music probably strengthened listening skills, certainly a valued trait when hunting game or escaping predators. In fact, the human brain appears to have highly specialized structures for music: For instance, melodic contour, has corresponding brain cells that process it. Other cells in the mammalian auditory cortex have been found that process specific harmonic relationships (Sutter & Schreiner 1991). The rhythmic, temporal qualities have been linked to a specific group of neurons in the auditory cortex.

Music Enhances Cognition

Music-making contributes to the development of essential cognitive systems which include reasoning, creativity, thinking, decision-making and problem-solving. It does this by activating and synchronizing neural firing patterns that orchestrate and connect multiple brain sites. The neural synchrony ensembles increase both the brain’s efficiency and effectiveness. These key systems are well-connected and located in the frontal, parietal, and temporal lobes as well as the cerebellum. The strongest studies support the value of music-making in spatial reasoning, creativity and generalized mathematical skills. The activation between family groups of cortical neurons assist the cortex in pattern recognition. (more…)

The Science Behind Why Arts Should Be In Every Kid's School Experience

So many who work in the arts have asked me if the arts are good for learning and the brain. It is common knowledge that arts can arouse passions.

The brain-based approach is to check out how it interfaces with the brain. Some believe that arts should be in school simply because many students thoroughly enjoy them. Others advocate a higher curriculum standing for arts on equal footing with math, science and language arts.

There’s real science behind why arts should be in every kid’s school experience, every day. There is now substantial evidence that arts are a stand-alone discipline. I would argue that arts support the neurobiological development of the brain in ways that enhance the social and academic performance of our students.

You’ll see that arts alter the neurobiological trajectory of the brain in ways that strengthen the academic and social skills unlike any other intervention. Arts change the brain like no other discipline. When schools reject arts, kids lose out. For students to do well in school, their brain must function in ways that are academically and socially useful.

What do the arts bring to the table?

The teachers are constantly trying new classroom strategies learned from books, trainings and conferences. The administrators are constantly inspiring, motivating and coaching their staff in endless ways to sharpen their collective saw. Unfortunately, this approach of trying to get better performance from students and staff can become overwhelming.

There seems to be no limit to the quantity of available strategies, so it becomes very much of a hit or miss approach. This results in a dizzying and endless stream of programs, themes, missions, projects and, ultimately, burnout among many educators.

But what if there was another way to go about this process. What if you could do less and get more? What is actually different in the brain that matters in the school context? The brain-based approach is to find out what works in the brain that runs academic achievement.

I suggest the existence of multiple operating systems in the human brain, each of which actually determine success in school. These operating systems (e.g. academic, social, athletic, survival) contribute towards your student success. But ultimately, since schools are all expected to reach performance goals, the academic operating system is of most relevance. Understanding this system is critical to a school’s success. (more…)

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