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Which is Better?

Brain Based

That’s how one of my favorite TV commercials starts out. There’s a guy in a suit sitting on a low chair, with preschoolers seated around him. He asks questions like, “Which is better, faster or slower?” This month’s question is, “Which is better, more fun or less fun?”

The answer may surprise you!

You could have guessed that your students would say, “More fun!” Many teachers would answer, “Less fun, but better learning!”

So, which one is right?

Actually, you can get the best of both worlds. How? It’s time for the research. Read more

Teachers: Why You Should Stop Telling Kids to Pay Attention

Why You Should Stop Telling Kids to Pay Attention and What You Should Do Instead

I am embarrassed to say that I am as guilty as a convicted felon.

As a former middle school teacher, I often used the phrase, “Pay attention!” Now you hear me telling you to never, ever say that.

Why? It seems innocent enough.

Well, first of all, it’s terrible teaching. It’s NOT at all “brain-based teaching.” In fact, it’s one more example of why many kids learn to dislike school more, every year they go. First graders are so pumped up, but by the time some kids make it to their last year in school, they’ve learned that school is not for them. If we do not count the high school certificates and equivalencies, only 70% of our nation’s kids graduate overall. The rates for Hispanics, African-Americans and Native Americans are under 50% in most areas of the US.

If we do not count the high school certificates and equivalencies, only 70% of our nation’s kids graduate overall. The rates for Hispanics, African-Americans and Native Americans are under 50% in most areas of the US.

If you think you know brain-based teaching, there’s a lot to learn! But, now that I’ve “taken away” from you one of the most commonly used attention-getters (“Pay attention!’), what should you do instead?

I’m glad you asked… I just happen to have the answer…

The Research

You’re driving over to a friend’s house. But it’s the first time and you’re looking for street signs. You slow down to a crawl, turn down the music, stop talking, and stare at every sign. Why is that? Neither the music nor talking affects your vision. Or, do they?

YES! They all demand resources.

When kids pay attention, they focus better, learn and remember more.

First, paying attention protects the quality of working memory (Jie Huang, J. and Sekuler, R. (2010) and Zanto, T. and Gazzaley, A. (2009) This is critical because working memory is the DRIVER of cognition. WHAT? Here’s an example: try to remember yourself solving a problem at the same time you are asked to meet new people. Working memory and attention are co-factors in the learning process. And, both are teachable.

Second, the ability to pay attention is regulated by many factors. For example, there are sex differences in sustained attention, and they are task specific (Dittmar et al. 1993). Your frontal lobes are highly susceptible to stress (Galinsky et al. 1993), emotions (Dolcos, F. and McCarthy, G.), training and caffeine (Smith, et al. 2003). But the key thing is that attentional skills are not random. We can “train” our own brain through mindfulness practice, playing musical instruments, martial arts, reading, meditation and writing.

Finally, when we “pay” attention voluntarily, our brain is more likely to encode and remember the information (Kilgard, M., & Merzenich, M., 1998). Our goals direct our brain to activate acetylcholine (the neurotransmitter for formation of memory) via pathways such as the nucleus basalis. So, why stop telling kids to pay attention? Read more

Help Your Students Score Higher on Your Upcoming BIG Tests

Can Relevant Research Help Your Students Score Higher on Your Upcoming BIG Tests?

Let’s focus on something I ordinarily NEVER focus on: testing. As much as I dislike the types, timing, policies, content and uses of existing state and national tests (is there anything I left out?), the reality is, we’d rather our students get higher than lower scores.

I’ll focus on three things that can help your students improve their chances to score up to their potential.

By the way, kids never score above their potential; they’re just not going to randomly make enough lucky right answers time after time after time. (In statistics, it’s called regression to the mean.) But, they often underperform for a host of reasons, even when they should perform much better.

While we could focus on dozens of variables that influence standardized testing, we’ll focus on 1) brain chemistry 2) priming and 3) episodic memory triggers.

Brain Chemistry and Testing
There are three chemicals to focus on for optimal testing results: 1) dopamine (It generally facilitates informational transfer within limbic and cortical networks to promote working memory and reward-seeking behavior, says Luciana, et al. 1998), 2) noradrenaline (It generally promotes a more narrowed focus, sharper attention and improved memory. This system plays a specific role in the regulation of cognitive functions, including sustained attention, working memory, impulse control, and the planning of voluntary behavior.), and 3) glucose (It provides short term energy and, in low to moderate doses, promotes enhanced memory. (Krebs DL, Parent MB., 2005.)

The Power of Priming and Positive Suggestion
Can you influence testing outcomes by “prepping” their brain for success? It has long been proposed that motivational responses that were subtle could serve as priming to affect academic performance. A recent study showed that yes, priming can help students do better. You can prep the brain several ways. One is by showing and asking the students to write them the letter “A” in advance in a certain way. We’ll tell you “how” in a moment. The other one of our two “prepping” strategies is to give peppermints to all kids for your final review, then use peppermints again at the time of the big test (Barker, et al. 2003.) This raises attentional levels and provides glucose for learning and memory.

Location of the Test Itself
We feel stressed when we are in a novel location. Not surprisingly, stress impaired memory when kids were assessed in an unfamiliar surrounding, but not when assessed in the original learning location. (Schwabe L., and Wolf OT., 2009.) In short, if your students can’t be in the test-givers room to learn the material, at least bring them into the testing room and do a review in that room days before the event.

In the paragraphs above, we’ve offered three “angles” for improving the testing outcome. First, the science is solid when you consider each strategy separately. But combined, these strategies may help you get to the next level. The chef, Emeril, would say they could give you “BAM!”… Power. Read more

Poverty and Its Effects on Learning: Why it Matters

A huge base of literature shows the inverse relationships between poverty or low socioeconomic status and health, but very few understand the connections with poverty. You can get help teaching kids in poverty. How? Start by learning about poverty and its effect on learning and behavior.

Multiple studies have examined longitudinal relations between duration of poverty exposure since birth, cumulative risk exposure, and cognitive performance. One measure of cumulative risk exposure is basal blood pressure and overnight cortisol levels. Typically cortisol is lowest in the early morning and levels pick up during the day. In kids from poverty, the levels are elevated 24/7.

This is pretty easy to understand, since many from poverty are exposed to poor housing conditions, crowded conditions, unsafe conditions, etc. Typical risk exposure is measured by multiple physical (e.g., substandard housing) and social (e.g., family turmoil) factors. The greater the number of years spent living in poverty, the more elevated was overnight cortisol and the more dysregulated was the cardiovascular response (i.e., muted reactivity).

As a teacher working with kids from poverty, why should you care about this?

There are two reasons, both with enormous consequences. First, cumulative stress is HIGHLY correlated with behavior issues at school. In our in-depth workshop on Teaching with Poverty in Mind, we’ll give you 7 priceless solutions for this challenge. Never, ever, give up on these students. You can learn exactly HOW to deal with behavior issues in simple, strategic ways.

Second, cumulative stress is associated with worse academic performance. Why? Chronic levels of stress inhibit working memory, process speed, sequencing capacity and attentional skills. Every one of those factors is a major determinant of underachievement. You’ll get specific, practical, easy-to-implement strategies that can mitigate the effects of stress. Eric Jensen’s new book, “Teaching with Poverty in Mind” offers specific strategies you can use, too.

Join us each year for our in-depth workshop on Teaching with Poverty in Mind, we’ll give you the exact research-based solution for this challenge. Remember, you don’t usually get to select the kids you teach, but you can choose HOW you teach. Brains are designed the adapt to experience. If the experiences you are giving them in school are strong, focused, and “on point,” they will change the brain for the better.

Teaching kids in poverty

Creative Commons License photo credit: break.things

Student Engagement Tips to Try

Each week we’ll publish tips on Sunday to hep jump start and stimulate your classroom. The tips will also demonstrate how simple engagement strategies can pay big dividends in the classroom…

Stop reading information to students.

Give them a role. Every day, multiple students can have the roles of morning announcements, previews of coming attractions or reviewing key points from the day. When they do the reviewing, other students can repeat after them to boost recall.

Instead of you reading it, condense it into a short paragraph. Then show the information, followed by a simple question. For quick recall, use a multiple choice. For more in-depth processing, use open ended Qs. Our frontal lobes release dopamine when we complete challenging problems. It’s nature’s way of
rewarding us for doing well. Plus, the dopamine that is released will then support tasks that require working memory.

Repetitive gross motor movement.

You may have noticed that when you go for a walk, it’s hard to return in a bad mood. Activities that stimulate repetitive gross motor movement include swimming, walking, cycling and marching. In general, it takes from three to ten minutes to get the dopamine going, depending on a host of variables. If students need a “pick-me-up” send them out on a ten-minute walk with a structured positive conversation. They’ll return in better state of mind. Add music to the student’s marching time. Great marching music includes: Anchors away or the Triumphal March (Verdi).

Look on Your Neighbor’s Paper

Many of the tools of engagement are, rightfully so, tools for increased accountability. This one is simple, “Look on to your neighbors paper. If they wrote down all three points we just mentioned, congratulate them and raise your hand.” Or, “Look on to your neighbor’s paper. If they have less than the last three items we’ve just reviewed, tell them what their missing ones are.”

Also, 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: Martin Tod

Working Memory: Time for a Research Update

“Could you remind me, what did you just say?

Part 1: Research

Have you ever been in one room of the house and started walking towards another room with a goal in mind… Usually, you’re thinking of a task such as, “Ive got to get that file or book from the bedroom.” Halfway to the other room, you forget what you were going to get! Then you have to go back to the original room to remind yourself!

All teachers have heard of our working memory or short-term memory. By the way, even researchers act confused when I ask for the difference. The best I can get is this: working memory refers to the “cognitive load” (or the amount of “stuff”) that your brain is holding in your brain while you do a task. But short-term memory refers to the time element of that cognitive load. Usually, short-term memory is from 5-20″. If we do not process that content, it often vaporizes. But, does it necessarily have to disappear? The answer is no.

Among the many amazing things about our brain is its plasticity. This refers to the capacity to change through neural reorganization. Memory (working OR short-term) can be enhanced through several strategies. Why would you care? There are many reasons: kids follow directions better they solve problems better, make better decisions and score higher on achievement tests. But generally, class is more fun to teach. Besides, you can enhance working memory for very little effort. I’ll bet you’d like to know how…

The OLD school of thinking, based on George Miller’s classic 1956 study suggested we can hold 7 _/+ 2 items in our head. That’s out of date and you want to be up to date, right? The new research suggests 2-4 (at the most) for chunks in our working memory (Cowan, et al.). If you are not currently strengthening the working memory of your students, don’t complain about it. No one else is going to do this, so it’s your choice: improve it, or you lose the right to complain about kids not having it.

Working memory can be enhanced two ways. Strengthening neural networks (through practice) and strengthening the efficacy of the “real-time” holding capacity with chemicals are your only two choices. The neural networks get strengthened through practice. That means the use of games and activities that build this skill. As an example, if you want to get good at playing cards, a strong working memory is a must. But, how about if we set aside gambling for a moment? There are better choices we’ll get to later. Read more

Factors that Contribute Most to Student Achievement

Brain Based Learning

What Does the Neuroscience Say Are the Factors that Contribute Most to Student Achievement?

Almost every teacher I meet has a theory about kids. Well, actually, he or she has many theories.

But if I ask the million dollar question, “What is it that contributes most to student learning?” the teacher usually gets quiet. I like that response. It’s good to be thoughtful about questions like that. The great news is that recent neuroscientific studies are opening up the brain of the student and telling us what matters most in learning. You might be surprised at what they’re finding.

While a HUGE numbers of variables may influence the brain on the macro level (physical environment, food, safety in the classroom, interest in the content, etc.) it turns out that very few factors influence student learning inside our head at the micro level. In fact, the number of factors is so few, I highlighted them in the new ASCD book, Teaching with Poverty in Mind. But let’s say you want just a few goodies from the book. I trust you; I know you’ll want to buy it soon!

Let me share just four with you.  Let’s start with how we learn.

While we naturally and accidentally “pick up” millions of bits of information daily, our focused attention is what tells our brain to “log this in and save it.” Part of the brain tells you to “save” the learning, the nucleus basalis. This skill, locked in attention, can be taught. Second, our brain has to be able to process what is occurring, making the processing and reasoning pathways highly valuable. This skill can be, and must be, taught. But much of these tasks ask you to juggle more than one item in your working memory.

The strength of the working memory is another critical variable in learning. This must also be taught. Each of these neural events has to occur in a sequence, so it turns out that the temporal ordering of every step is critical.

Now, I’m the first to admit that other variables come into play. We know that students need to feel safe to take risks and a host of other variables. But the so-called environmental factors each influence these neural events. For example, unless I feel safe in the classroom, I might not be able to pay attention. So, for the moment, trust me. Those four neural events would be near the top of any neuroscientist’s list for learning. How do I know that? What makes me so sold on those four? Well, you know I love the research, so here it is.

First, the science is solid when you consider each system separately. But they work synergistically. When one of them is off, others falter. That’s why kids with serious AD/HD (low executive function) struggle in all areas academically.

Now, the information I’m going to share with you is exceptionally powerful. However, only 1 in 100 educators who reads email this will actually implement these findings. Why? In spite of the solid science behind what I am sharing with you and, in spite of the “miracles” that these applications can produce in your kids, many of the policy-makers have gotten so lost in filling out forms, inept mandates, feel-good “professional” communities, that they forgot the real goal of education: prepare kids for the real world with social skills and thinking skills.

OK, enough of that. What can you do to boost these four brain functions? Read more