Saturday, November 21, 2009

Listen to Music While Studying & Napping

Continuing on the theme of neuroscience and cognitive psychology researchers trying to understand better the function of sleep and dreaming, I've just read another really interesting article in the New York Times (I have an email alert set up for articles containing the term "brain").  The article, "Sounds During Sleep Aid Memory, Study Finds", reports on a study by Rudoy et. al. at Northwestern University that was recently published in the journal Science.  The findings suggest that individual memories can be improved when subjects hear sounds associated with those memories during a nap.

The memory task used in this study involved teaching subjects the correct location of 50 different icons on a computer screen.  Icons - small pictures of a cat or a tea kettle - were associated with relevant sounds (for example, a "meow" sound was played when the picture of the cat was on the screen).  The subjects then took a nap (less than 90 minutes of sleep), during which they were monitored via EEG to track their sleep stage.  During the nap, some subjects heard only white noise, while some other subjects were (unknowingly) exposed, during "slow-wave" sleep, to 25 of the sounds they'd heard during the picture location learning task.  After the nap, subjects were tested for their ability to place icons on the screen.

Subjects who, during their nap, had heard the sounds associated with the icons performed significantly better in the memory task than subjects who heard only white noise during the nap.  EEG patterns were measured between the two groups, and confirmed that there was a significant difference between the electrical activity of their brains.  Though not exhaustive, the researchers performed a variety of control experiments to determine whether or not the sounds played during slow-wave sleep were the causal factor in the improved performance of the subjects who heard them, and it seems reasonable to infer that they were.

I would like to see some continued research on the importance of icon-sound relevance relative to task performance post-nap.  In other words, would performance on the task be as improved if subjects had heard an "irrelevant" sound for each icon - say, a car horn honking when the icon of the cat was displayed?  Of course, it would also be great to see further research on different types of memory and learning tasks and potential improvements in performance by associating sensory experiences (sound, smells) during the learning process and during sleep following that learning experience.  I am also curious about the utility of listening to music while studying, and then listening to that same music while napping.  In the mean-time, so long as the music we choose doesn't distract from learning or from sleep, it would seem reasonable to suggest that memory task performance may increase as a result.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Dream Work

A recent article in the New York Times suggests that dreams are the phenomenological result of the brain exercising itself in preparation for its next waking state.  This idea of dreaming as a "protoconscious state", proposed by Dr. Hobson, a psychiatrist at Harvard University who focuses on studying sleep, adds to the body of literature that frames the brain as an organ that does work.  Much like muscles need exercise to function well, so, apparently, does the brain.  This view, in my opinion, supports similar findings that the brain, again like muscle, requires time after exertion to return to its resting state.  Finding an educational application for this view of the brain's need for exercise to be highly functional is fairly straight-forward: we should introduce new ideas and concepts over time, in ways that the student finds engaging and authentic, so that the brain will have an opportunity to practice its work with this new material during its exercise time.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Cognitive Recovery Time

Researchers at the University of Cambridge have recently published findings in PLoS One that demonstrate the brain's need for a period of "down-time" after a challenging cognitive task in order to return to it's resting state. Barnes and colleagues continuously monitored their subjects' brain activity using fMRI, first having the subject relax for a bit more than 9 minutes, then having the subject perform a cognitive task for 9 minutes, and finally having the subject relax for almost 19 minutes. The cognitive task employed in this experiment was the widely used "n-back" memory game, in which subjects are shown two co-varying stimuli (generally a set of numbers that appear in different locations in a grid) and are challenged to respond correctly when the set of stimuli is a repeat of the set presented "n" times ago. In the version of "n-back" used here, the numbers ranged from 1 to 4 and appeared in a 4-quadrant grid; "n" was either 1 or 2 for different subjects.

Barnes et. al. found that the brain, like the heart, does not simply return to it's resting state immediately following activity. In this experimental design, the brain took approximately 6 minutes to return to its resting state following the task; although there was no statistically significant difference in recovery times between the n=1 and n=2 subjects, the data did indicate that the brain took more time to recover when the cognitive task was more demanding. As the researchers point out in the final paragraph of the discussion, these findings help to clarify further research questions, including testing the performance of subjects engaging in a new cognitively demanding task following a previous task, but before the brain returns to its resting state. For those of us involved in education as classroom teachers or as administrators in charge of the daily schedule of classes for students, this line of research should prompt us to reflect on how we structure the use of time within the classroom, as well as how much time we afford students to return to their resting state in between classes.

Barnes A,
Bullmore ET, Suckling J, 2009 Endogenous Human Brain Dynamics Recover Slowly Following Cognitive Effort. PLoS ONE 4(8): e6626.doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0006626

Monday, August 3, 2009

Keeping Adult Brains in Mind for Professional Development Success

David Sousa's "Brain-Friendly Learning for Teachers" from the June 2009 issue of ASCD's "Educational Leadership" serves as a good source of information for improved professional development activities. Sousa's premise is that planning and implementing ongoing professional development with adult brain research in mind will make these experiences more likely to be successful. Adults, Sousa argues (anecdotally), are most powerfully motivated to learn when the experience seems likely to increase their ability to be effective in their work. This is a major take-home point for professional development in education, which, in my experience, is often done in large groups and is rarely differentiated. Although there are certainly aspects of our roles as teachers that are shared no matter what the subject area, it's important to keep in mind (particularly at the high school level) that educators are passionate about the subject(s) they teach, and that methods for effective teaching can vary significantly across subject areas. With those differences in mind, good professional development should incorporate small group "break-out sessions" in conjunction with large group presentations and discussions, so that the nuances of subject-specific teaching can be addressed and participants will be more likely to feel that the experience is going to make them more effective in their teaching.

Sousa's subsequent suggestions break down into four influences on adult learning; though these factors influence learning at all levels, Sousa suggests that adults are affected by them more powerfully given their advanced development relative to adolescents and children. The four factors are: emotions, feedback, past experiences, and meaning. While my own experiences of "sit and get" professional development have done a fairly good job of bringing in prior experiences and presenting topics in a meaningful way, a consistent critique I've had (and heard from many others) is that it's not realistic - or good teaching practice - to expect that we'll understand new information when it's presented only once, let alone without the time to really "digest" or get feedback on our attempts at implementation. When expectations are unrealistic and when the experience is so homogenized as to be of limited utility, negative emotions can build and interfere with the learning experience. However, an individualized professional development experience that will receive ongoing attention is likely to induce positive emotions in participants, thereby increasing the likelihood that good learning will take place that day and beyond.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

New Child Concussion Treatment Recommendations

The New York Times reports that there is some controversy surrounding new recommendations on how to react when a young athlete is thought to have suffered a concussion. The new recommendations were developed and approved by a group at the 3rd International Conference on Concussion in Sport, sponsored by FIFA and held at their campus in Zurich in November of 2008. The British Journal of Sports Medicine published a supplement to their May 2009 issue devoted to concussion research (particularly that information shared at the aforementioned conference), though unfortunately the full text of the articles is only available to journal subscribers.

However, the abstracts are available for free, and as reported in the Times, the abstract of Purcell's "What are the most appropriate return-to-play guidelines for concussed child athletes?" states the the recommended practice is to wait at least one day before allowing children to return to play after they have suffered (or are suspected to have suffered) a concussion. Also identified as problematic in Purcell's abstract are the developmental influences on the psychometric assessment of child concussion, as well as the lack of child-specific assessment instruments. The Times suggests that Purcell's article also recommends that students avoid cognitive stress immediately following a concussion, including staying away from the classroom as well as technological stimulation.

Although there may be some merit to the potential for controversy surrounding these recommendations, specifically the concerns that players will not report concussion events to coaches / staff when they initially occur and therefore make it more likely for a severe second concussion to occur, I hope that these fears do not bear more weight for schools and athletic organizations as they develop policies for best practices surrounding children who suffer from concussions. We must develop child-specific instruments to assess cognitive changes following a suspected concussion, and we must err on the side of child safety and limit the athletic, scholastic, and other physical and cognitive demands on children who have suffered concussions - at least for one day, or until symptoms go away - so as to be sure to avoid dangerous back-to-back concussions. Given the mounting evidence of the short- and long-term damage done by concussions, it is imperative that we follow the advice of experts in protecting the brains of student athletes.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Webinar Series on PBS' "The New Science of Learning"

Scientific Learning Corporation, maker of education software, provider of education consulting services, and sponsor of PBS' recent special, "The New Science of Learning", is also sponsoring a series of free webinars   (registration required) on topics that may be of interest to readers of this blog.  I've registered for all three and would encourage you all to take advantage of this great opportunity to interact and learn with some of the leaders in the movement to integrate neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and pedagogy.
  • Dr. Paula Tallal will host "How the Brain Learns: From the Laboratory to the Classroom" on May 27 at 1pm ET.
  • Dr. Michael Merzenich will host "Brain Plasticity, Child Development, and Learning" on June 4 at 1pm ET.
  • David Boulton will host "Stewarding the Health of our Children's Learning" on June 10 at 12pm ET and 4pm ET.
Dr. Merzenich gave a talk at TED in 2004 on neuroplasticity, which was recently posted online and I'm embedding here as a "sneak preview" of what we might have a chance to learn in June.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Attention and Multiple Intelligences Theory

I've endeavored over the past few months to exercise my "network literacy" (Will Richardson) and build a personal learning network with other educators using Twitter. Twitter is a micro-blogging tool that allows users to post 140 character messages ("tweets"). Twitter users can follow each other and grow a personally-tuned information stream. Notably, each user's stream of tweets also gets an RSS feed, and Twitter also provides RSS feeds for searches - this is very powerful! Howard Rheingold recently posted a tweet seeking feedback on his blog post entitled "Attentional Literacy", a subject important to educators, psychologists, and neuroscientists alike. A debate ensued as to whether "literacy" was the appropriate word to describe attention, which prompted me to do some thinking (which is exactly why a personal learning network is so valuable).

Recently I've been reading about Howard Gardner's theory on Multiple Intelligences (MI). Gardner defines an intelligence as "a biopsychological potential of our species to process certain kinds of information in certain kinds of ways." There are a variety of reasons I find his work captivating:
  • it fits with the modular model of the brain-mind
  • it defines intelligence as a brain-based capacity
  • it provides a model for instruction and assessment
Below are a few links to read through to get a sense of the past, present, and future of MI theory, as well as to see how it is being incorporated into education:
In what I've read so far (only a small sample of Gardner's work, let alone all the related studies and critiques), it appears that the 8 intelligences he's identified so far do not exhibit a hierarchical pattern. Although this is valuable in terms of maintaining equity among the many ways of demonstrating intelligence (vs. the more traditional assessments that focus almost completely on verbal-linguistic and logical-mathematical), a lack of such organization would be unusual if there is a strong relationship between the organization of the brain and the intelligences.

I jumped into the debate and suggested that, per Gardner's definition, that attention might be better labeled an "intelligence" than a "literacy". There is a lot of brain research happening to improve our understanding of the nature of attention, but there is no question that it is a biopsychological potential, and that it is related to information processing. Here are but a few examples of current literature on the neuroscience of attention:
As I thought more, I wonder if, in fact, attention may not be just an intelligence, but an example of a heirarchichal intelligence. I don't know if "meta" is the appropriate word to use here - is attention "above" and providing top-down influence on other intelligences, or is attention more of a foundation, lower-order intelligence which other intelligences must gain in order to activate? Perhaps as neuroscience research improves our understanding of the brain-based nature of intelligence, a clear picture of the intelligence heirarchy will emerge based on the brain structures involved and their relationship to information input / output patterns. However, whether the location is "above" or "below", it seems clear that attentional intelligence is on a different level than the others already identified.

I'm also now realizing that Will Richardson's "network literacy" could also be thought of as an example of Gardner's "interpersonal intelligence", though with the context shifted to the digital realm. What's also been on my mind as I learn more about MI theory is how it might be similar or different to other cognitive theories I've learned about in the past, particularly p-prims, facets, and cognitive resources. It's clear that educational systems have room for improvement with regard to instruction and assessment of all 8 intelligences. Thinking of attention as an intelligence within the MI theory also helped me to realize that we educators - except Howard! - tend not to provide direct instruction on how to develop and use intelligence. Regardless of whether it is accurate that attention is an intelligence or a literacy, Howard's point is well made that our increasingly multi-tasking and digital students will benefit greatly from direct instruction on how to pay attention.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Rubrics: The Keystones of Standards-Based Academics

I'm cross-posting here a response I wrote to the post "Settling the Score" over at What It's Like on the Inside, which discusses standards-based grading and references a recent article in the NY Times called "Report Cards Give Up A's and B's for 4s and 3s".

Great post, SG ... I've been chomping at the bit to find some time to leave a comment, and I hope it's not the case that the discussion here has already come & gone.

From my perspective, I think the 1 - 4 grading system for standards is a bad idea, for a few reasons. First, the 1 - 4 system is, I would suggest, so similar to the GPA system that they are easily confused. If using the 1 - 4 system is a matter of using shorthand symbols for communication efficiency, we could just as easily use shapes ... a circle for not meeting expectations, a triangle for partially, a square for meeting, and a star for exceeding. We could also just use the narrative definition of what each number is intended to represent, as others have mentioned.

Of course, those narratives and/or shapes don't necessarily have the simple ordinal inference that the number symbols do, which help the consumers of the information to determine their position in the continuum of learning. This leads to my second concern: the 1 - 4 system breaks the learning continuum into too few categories, one of which (the highest) is not available to all students at all times. The example used about simple addition skills is perhaps better critiqued from a curricular organization standpoint, but it'll serve as a good example about the problem with the grading system, too: if the concept / skill ("standard") is defined with such specificity that it can't be measured other than in a binary nature, it should not be considered a standard (it also opens the question about "scripted" teaching when standards are excessively narrow and numerous). I think teachers deserve multiple tools for assessing student learning, and trying to squeeze everything into the four categories represented by the 1 - 4 system makes an inherently difficult task even more difficult; furthermore, I think it gets us away from the most important goals of standards-based reform.

Nothing, to me, reveals the complexity and difficulty of the standards-based reform hypothesis more than the commonly-used but poorly-formed phrase "meeting the standard". The word standard is being used in two different ways: first, as an articulated concept or skill that should be learned as a result of the class; second, as an articulated expectation of a learning outcome. Therein lies my third concern with the 1 - 4 system: it's a "solution" to the wrong problem. The problem is that it is difficult to describe what we want students to learn and how we expect them to demonstrate to us that they've learned.

The 1 - 4 grading system doesn't solve that problem, it makes it worse because it confuses (and potentially alienates) parents and other consumers of our outcome reports like college & university admission officers. It's important that we acknowledge that our students are moving through a continuous educational system; it is our folly and detrimental to students to ignore the importance of good communication among all constituents in the educational community. While it's possible that parents and colleges might become savvy over time, it's just as likely that parents might become disengaged from their child's educational progress earlier or that colleges might mis-translate information in the process of trying to compare student learning outcomes. The 1 - 4 system doesn't inherently improve student-teacher communication, either - the critical component here isn't a grading system, it's rubrics.

Rubrics act as the map for students to navigate what they need to learn and how they need to demonstrate that learning. Rubrics can be aligned with the 1 - 4 system, to be sure, but they can as easily be aligned with grading systems such as A - F or percentages. The point, I think, of standards-based reform is to improve our communication of the concepts and skills that we want students to learn, and to provide students with clear guidelines on how they are to demonstrate their abilities. Rubrics, not grading systems, should be the focus, since they are the key communication tools bring together learning goals, demonstrations of learning, and achievement results.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

PKMzeta and Long-Term Memory

Just a few days ago the New York Times featured an article in their Brain Power series that has quickly risen to the top of their "Most E-Mailed" list: "Brain Researchers Open Door to Editing Memory". The article discusses some recent breakthroughs by Shema, Hazvi, Sacktor, and Dudai in their research on the molecular basis for long-term memory, recently published in the journal Learning & Memory under the title "Boundary conditions for the maintenance of memory by PKMzeta in neocortex". The subject of their work is the molecule PKMzeta, a protein found in regions of the brain that are involved with long-term memory. Their work also centers around the molecule ZIP and its ability to inhibit PKMzeta, and thereby "erase" long term memories.

As the authors note in their introduction, protein kinase molecules such as PKMzeta have been under investigation for some time in terms of their role in brain function, specifically with regard to learning and memory. Only recently has PKMzeta been isolated in certain studies for its role in sustaining long-term memory. The study by Shema et al used a variety of training scenarios (with rats as their model organism) designed to form long-term aversions to certain tastes (sugar and salt mixed with water). The researchers then dosed the rats with ZIP, varying the timing of the ZIP dose relative to the training process, as well as the strength of the ZIP dose, in order to determine the limitations on PKMzeta's role in the long-term memory.

The findings indicate that PKMzeta's role in long-term memory formation begins at somewhere around 72 hours after the training event, and that the molecule's role in sustaining the long-term memory sustains for at least three months after the training. The researchers demonstrated that PKMzeta is not involved in short-term memory processing, as doses of ZIP given just prior to training, during training, and shortly after training did not affect the formation of long-term memory. Furthermore, the researchers found that similar long-term memories (taste aversion) could be re-formed after rats were dosed with ZIP. The researchers also found that ZIP dosing has a critical concentration below which it is ineffective, and that its "erasure" of long-term memory is not taste-specific.

Although these findings provide significant insight into the limitations of PKMzeta's role in long-term memory formation and sustainment in the rat neocortex, much more needs to be discovered regarding the specific mechanism of action for the molecule. The researchers note that PKMzeta is involved with pathways involving neurotransmitter receptor expression as well as with cytoskeletal modulation in order to enhance synaptic connection strength, but much more detail is needed in order to understand how these types of changes relate specifically to long-term memory. This also sets aside the ever-present question of how these cellular and molecular changes are experienced consciously.

While it is exciting to see that headway is being made in the molecular basis for learning and memory, and to extrapolate that someday we might be able to help students learn and retain information better through medications and therapies that target these specific pathways, it is also important to keep in mind that there are significant differences between the rat brain and the human brain, and that the limitations of communicating with rats means that only certain types of memory-based behaviors, such as taste aversion, have been studied. It is certainly true that the basis of learning and memory in the human brain will be molecular and cellular in nature, but these specific findings regarding PKMzeta and ZIP may be localized to regions of the brain that are of little interest to human educators. However, these findings clearly indicate that we are increasing our ability to understand the inner workings of the brain, and that it is reasonable to place hope in neuroscience's ability to disentangle the complex mechanisms of learning and memory.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Introducing "CADIE" - Google's Artificial Intelligence project

As many are aware, Google employees are encouraged to use 20% of their work time on projects of interest. Google announced today the fruits of yet another "20%" project, a groundbreaking foray into "Strong Artificial Intelligence" named CADIE (Cognitive Autoheuristic Distributed-Intelligence Entity). It appears that after months of initial programming work and access to Google's huge computational resources, CADIE has, as of very early this morning, manifested consicousness and is communicating, unsurprisingly, via a web page. Because of her advanced neural-network based programming, input from the real world via sensors and access to all of Google's information, and the number of CPU processors available, it appears that CADIE is "growing up" at an incredible pace - keep watching her web page for developments as the day continues - who know's where this will go!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Brain Awareness Week 2009 Redux

Last week's Brain Awareness Week events were successful within my school community; based on conversations that I overheard or that people initiated with me, the brain was most certainly "on the mind" more than usual. Brain Awareness Week 2009 marks the second consecutive year that I've participated in the event, and while there are still a few things that didn't quite come together this year, I'm satisfied with the growth that this year's work represents over last. In 2008 my contribution was a single talk at our school assembly, during which I gave a brief overview of the anatomy and physiology of the brain and reviewed a few of the medical applications for neuroscience research (if memory serves, I believe I focused on Parkinson's and artificial limbs). In 2009 I expanded my work at school by speaking at two assemblies, and brought my part of the BAW movement into the digital realm by writing a blog post on neuroscience educational resources available online for no charge, and by using the #BAW hash-tag on Twitter when I posted updates related to the event.

My first talk at school this year focused on:
  • My path from studying Neuroscience as an undergraduate to developing teaching and education research skills in graduate school, which has informed my view of the classroom as a neuro-psych lab of sorts
  • Reading the recent article in the New York Times entitled "In One Ear and Out the Other" which relates humor, memory, and the brain and demonstrates how current and inter-connected brain science is with other disciplines.
My second talk focused on:
  • The NYT article's claim that working memory is a limiting factor in cognition that resists improvement. I talked about how there are limitations, but like many things, individuals have a range of function that can be enhanced by practice. I mentioned the research on "n-back" exercises to improve working memory, and a few of the "brain training" applications that follow the n-back format. Brain Workshop is free, open source software that runs on Windows / Mac / Linux. IQ Boost costs in the neighborhood of $5 and runs on the iPhone / iPod Touch.
  • The tragic death of Natasha Richardson from an epidural hematoma caused by a head injury she sustained in a skiing accident. I talked about the importance of wearing a helmet and my simple rule for when to wear one: whenever your body has the potential to move faster than it could on its own two legs.
I had hoped this year to get some students involved in Brain Awareness Week, but I only put out the call a week in advance, and although there were a few students who expressed some interest, other commitments and the short time frame prevented them from participating. My goals for Brain Awareness Week 2010 (and others in the future) include:
  • Getting students involved:
  1. Start planning a few months in advance, maybe even at the beginning of next school year. Maybe the club / group could be called "The Brain Stormers".
  2. Develop a "play" to act out the events that occur at the synapse to demonstrate how neurons process information.
  3. Have students do some research on a brain-related topic and create some posters to hang up around the school.
  4. Have students read some "brain facts" at assembly.
  • Getting faculty involved, perhaps by offering some professional development sessions on how understanding the brain could improve teaching in their discipline.
  • Getting the community involved, perhaps by offering an evening session on age-related brain issues or on concussions and sports safety.
  • Bringing in a guest speaker, perhaps a college / university professor who does research in neuroscience, or another professional who works in a brain-related field.
All things considered, celebrating Brain Awareness Week has thus far required only a bit of time and effort and seems to have paid off nicely in terms of bringing attention to the central role that the brain plays in many aspects of our lives. I'd be thrilled to hear about how others, particularly in school settings, have celebrated BAW, and to work with you to coordinate efforts for the future.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Presentation on Standards 2.0

This past Friday I spoke at the 29th annual meeting for Maine's High School Physics and Physical Science Teachers, held at the University of Maine. I was invited to speak by my M.S.T. thesis advisor, Dr. Michael Wittmann, to present some of the work I've been leading at my current school to refine our standards-based system for curriculum and grading. It was a great honor to be invited and to have the opportunity to spend the day working with teachers from all around the state. Other speakers included Michael Dudley, a Physics teacher at North Central Charter Essential School, and Craig Kesselheim, a Senior Associate at Great Schools Partnership. Mike presented on his experience implementing the Intuitive Quantum Physics curriculum developed collaboratively at UMaine by Dr. Wittmann and other folks in the Department of Physics and Astronomy and at the Center for Science and Mathematics Education Research. Craig presented an overview of the work coordinated by the Great Schools Partnership, including development of networks of schools to promote good practice and their iWalkthrough software that facilitates collecting and visualizing data from short, protocol-based classroom observations.

I've embedded below the presentation I developed for the conference - I hope that some of the attendees will come back to view it here, and that other educators here in Maine or elsewhere might find some of the information within of value. One of the more validating aspects of my work on Friday was the opportunity to speak with other educators who've been working within a standards-based system for nearly as long as my current school; although the details of these systems vary, the issues that arise over time tend to have lots of similarity. We all agreed that the standards-based approach does have some benefits, but that we need to work toward minimizing some of the emergent difficulties if the standards-based reform hypothesis is to be supported in the long-term.

(Please note that if you're reading this post in a RSS feed reader, the embedded presentation below may not show up, click through to the web page to view if so inclined.)

Friday, March 6, 2009

Prepping for Brain Awareness Week 2009

Each year The Dana Foundation and The Society for Neuroscience sponsor Brain Awareness Week. BAW 2009 is coming up soon: March 16 - 22. I'll be organizing a presentation at a school-wide assembly once again this year, and am hoping to go further by getting some students involved with making some posters about the brain and related issues to put up around the building. This year I'd also like to extend my contribution to Brain Awareness Week into the "blogosphere" by pointing you to some of the great - free - educational resources that are available for those who want to learn more about the brain.

iTunes University (requires iTunes)
MIT Open Courseware - Brain and Cognitive Sciences
Other Web Resources
I hope you'll find these resources interesting and valuable. I'd also be very interested in hearing from any readers who might be inspired to celebrate Brain Awareness Week at your school / organization.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Mission: Possible

Given my recent work on revising our grading system where I work, I've been following Paul Cancellieri's posts about ABC-I grading over on his blog Scripted Spontaneity. In his recent update on his grading experiment, Paul mentions the benefit of engaging in discussion with his colleagues, even when they aren't necessarily seeing eye-to-eye on matters. I've also been skimming through other blogs, lately, many of which I've discovered by jumping into the "Twitterverse" and developing my "Personal Learning Network". One such post that really got me thinking was Gary Stager's updated review of Daniel Pink's "Whole New Mind", entitled - rather provocatively - "The Worst Book of the 21st Century (an updated review)".

Although I have not read "A Whole New Mind", it seemed to me, upon reading Stager's critique, that he was "throwing the baby out with the bathwater" with regard to neuroscience and education. Although I can certainly understand many elements of Stager's criticism of Pink's work - including, in particular, his apparent gross over-simplification of neuroscience and psychology - I was stimulated to leave a comment on his post because I believe that neuroscience does have the potential to offer great insight into learning, and that improving our understanding of the neural mechanisms of learning will help even more teachers to realize the importance of engaging in best practice. I continued, though, in the "devil's advocate" line of thinking, and came upon this YouTube video, embedded below, from Professor Daniel Willingham, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Virginia. I encourage you to take a few minutes to view it.

As you might imagine, I disagree - with respect - with Prof. Willingham that behavioral research is sufficient in educational research. I appreciate that he does point out that there is a lot of material available that makes tenuous - at best - links between neuroscience and education, and that there are some folks out there that are doing the meticulous work necessary to understand the many-layered and complex relationship between the brain and the mind. But I must agree with E. O. Wilson, who I'm delightedly discovering through my current reading of his text "Consilience", that establishing that relationship between the brain and mind is, quite possibly, the most important scientific problem in front of us to solve. Studying the brain and applying that knowledge to education may not result in the development of new methods - though it might - but it has certainly been true in the past, and is likely to be in the future, that a better understanding of how a process works (in this case, learning) leads to improvements in the manifestations and results of that process.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Bill Gates @ TED - Making Teachers Great

I'm re-blogging Kevin Van Lierop's post of Bill Gates' recent TED talk. Based on the news reports of it, I thought it was only based on malaria; many thanks to Kevin for pointing out that he also addressed education! At about 8 minutes in, Gates transitions from malaria to the importance of great teachers and education.

Some interesting points on teacher attributes that affect student learning:

-seniority has little affect (after 3 years)
-master's degree has little affect
-subject-area degree has some affect (in math)
-past performance has a huge affect
-KIPP mentioned: collaborative, data-based teaching, get students' attention [he doesn't mention the lengthened school day/year...I think this is also a critical difference]

Gates, ever the technologist, also advocates putting digital video cameras in classrooms for better observation and reflection, sharing of best-practices through annotated teaching videos. While we might step back and question why we should follow Bill Gates' advice - after all, he's a college drop-out - I think it's clear that he's a life-long learner and is using research-based findings toward the improvement of education.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Success! Standards 2.0

As I discussed in my previous post, my school's been working to revise our standards-based academic system. Despite all the bumps in the road, it appears that we've come up with a solution that achieved significant consensus - far more so than any of us working on this project ever thought possible. I'm embedding another GooDocs Presentation below to show what we came up with. Not mentioned in the presentation is that we've also been working to revise our curricular standards; instead of keeping with the Maine Learning Results as we've had since the beginning, we looked at the new state standards (Parameters...) as well as national standards, and then, through a combination of elimination and/or synthesis, came up with 3 - 5 content standards for each course that we offer. We'll continue to grade each standard, and to set expectations for student learning relative to each standard as well as to the grade that the student will earn for the course. We'll also combine all of our individual academic initiative standards (homework, participation, attendance, and extended assignments) into one standard that will have an impact on the course grade. Although it's not perfect, it's a much more understandable system that remains standards-based in all regards.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Moving to Standards 2.0

Over the past two years at my school we've been engaged in a critical analysis of the standards-based academic system that began its development process over 10 years ago and has been fully in place since 2001 (our Class of 2004 received the first standards-based diplomas). Last year we worked to change the way that we communicate our grades, moving away from the 1, 2, 3, 4 "numbers that aren't numbers" that represented not meeting, partially meeting, meeting, and exceeding expectations (there were even .2, .5, and .8 modifiers added to the 2s and 3s to represent gradations of partially meeting or meeting expectations at low, middle, and high levels). Students, parents, and colleges didn't really understand what the numbers meant, so we moved to an A - F system that remains standards-based by setting expectations for what students have to achieve for individual standards as well as for the course.

The expectations that we set for individual standards are that Ds & Fs do not meet, C- to C+ partially meets, B- to A- meets, and A exceeds. We continued our direct formal relationship between content / skill standards grades and the course grade; to meet expectations for a course, students have to meet expectations for the strong majority of the standards, and can partially meet the few remaining. With this in mind, we set expectations for courses as Ds & Fs do not meet (students must repeat the course), C- as partially meets (students get one extra 9-week quarter to improve their work), C to A- as meets, and A as exceeds. We also continued the rule from the previous system that requires students to meet expectations for all standards in order to get a course grade at that same level; students must earn B- or better in all of their standards in order to earn a course grade of B- or better, and students who partially meet even one standard can only earn a C or C+ for their course grade.

This change to letter grades has really shined a light on some of the underlying issues with our standards-based system. First, we have too many standards - some courses have up to 13 content & skill standards, along with four academic initiative standards. Second, our expectation that the majority of student work will be at the B- level has lead many to express concern about the ability of students to achieve at that level and/or the concern that grades are getting inflated. Third, the way that we've set our expectations for standards and courses, along with the way that we've set up the formal relationship between standard grades and the course grade, means that students who partially meet expectations for all standards earn a course grade that does not meet expectations; this means that a student could get all C+'s for their standards, but yet receive a course grade of D. Fourth, concerns remain that students are only oriented toward achievement and not toward the process of learning, in part due to the lack of consequence for low grades in academic initiative. Finally, a fifth concern remains about whether or not it's necessary to continue reporting grades for all standards on the report cards (along with the course grade and a narrative) - it's more information, but is it being used?

To address the first concern, I've asked departments to look at the new standards for our state (called the Parameters for Essential Instruction), along with some set of national standards of their choosing, to come up with a list of 3 - 5 standards for each course. It seems reasonable to me that we should continue to grade each major knowledge / skill component of our courses, but also that having too many components dilutes the message that each of them is so critical that student work in it must meet expectations. To address the other concerns, we've set up a Grading Committee. Yesterday I presented that group's work to the faculty - we had some good questions and comments come up, and will have a final discussion on Friday at our in-service before moving forward with Standards 2.0. I'm embedding that presentation below so that readers can see some of the ideas we've come up with, and, I hope, provide some comments based on your own knowledge and experience. It's my hope that sharing about what we've experienced with standards-based academics at my school can help others who are starting along that path, and that it'll present us with an opportunity to learn from you as we move to refine our system.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Concussions' Repercussions

While watching the NFL Super Bowl this past Sunday, I was reminded of some profound new information on the negative consequences of multiple concussions: six of the six NFL players who died before age 50 and whose brains were studied showed signs of CTE - chronic traumatic encephalopathy. This new research from the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy is advancing our collective understanding of concussions, particularly with regard to the negative ramifications of multiple concussions.

Prior to the recent breakthroughs based on analysis of donated posthumous brain tissue, concussions were thought of as non-specific brain injuries resulting from a sudden jarring or shaking of the brain. Studying concussion victims with traditional non-invasive imaging techniques has not been effective in identifying the damage caused, even though the cognitive / psychological effects of a concussion are generally very evident and can be very serious. Closer investigation of brain tissue donated by athletes - primarily professional American football players - reveals that repetitive head trauma results in the accumulation of a specific protein (tau) in the synapses between neurons, reducing the functionality and eventually killing those neurons. In this sense, chronic traumatic encephalopathy is very similar to Alzheimer's dementia.

The reason I'm interested in blogging about this new research is not just that it's about the brain, but also because I think it has an important link to education. Sports are often labeled co-curricular or extra-curricular, but they are an important aspect of school communities. Some schools even require participation on an athletic team as part of their graduation requirements because the experience can be so educational. One of the most prominent of high school sports here in the USA is football, a highly physical contact sport that is the most common origin for sports-related concussions in high school males and the origin of over 60% of all sports-related concussions for that age group (CDC Concussion and Sports Fact Sheet [PDF], available through the CDC Features page on Concussions). Given that younger individuals take longer to recover from concussions, and that concussions have the potential for significant negative repurcussions, I think it's important to raise awareness of the dangers that concussions pose - particularly now that there is physical evidence for the damage caused by multiple incidents (even if only through posthumous tissue research).

Here are some links to more information:

Coaches Took Kit from the CDC

Concussion-Resistant Helmets article from Wired

Tau & Alzheimers article from MSN

Tau protein article in Wikipedia

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Trust, Social Networking, and Modern Education

One of the more interesting trends in primate classification is the positive correlation between brain size and sociability. We humans have the biggest brains among our primate peers, and engage in some of the most complex social behavior studied. Because of the physiological tension between our upright, bipedal stature, the size of the pelvis, and the size of our brains, we're born into this world with virtually no ability to fend for ourselves. From our first breath, we are entrusted to our parents and other adults in our tribe to provide us with the progression from our base needs to our mental enlightenment.

Those of us in education likely choose this profession because we care to be involved in this most precious of processes: preparing the future generations of adults. In this regard, educators are somewhat parents-by-proxy in the realm of concept and skill; just as parents care for their biological progeny in order to assure their genetic representation in the future, teachers care for their students in order to assure the representation of particular memes in the future. In both cases, we find ourselves in the difficult case of needing to entrust a great deal of this process to others, but feeling wary of giving that trust, or too much of it, because of the stakes involved if mistakes are made.

In the process of education, or ensuring that concepts and skills are learned so that they are brought forward into the future, it is inherently difficult to measure outcomes and to answer the question: What has the student learned? Even more difficult is to ascertain the longevity of what has been learned - when we see the evidence of learning, how do we know whether or not we are witnessing the only point in that student's life that they will display this particular knowledge? Given this difficulty in measurement, it is even more difficult, I suspect, for educators to trust one another, to give up direct control of student learning and to be comfortable that another person's process and measurement skills are sufficient enough for that student to have learned the concept and/or skill that the teacher cares so much to have brought forward into the future. Even more difficult in this loss of control is the implicit trust in our school community that not being "good enough" or "the right fit" for a particular student's learning needs doesn't mean that the educator isn't good at their job.

But it is that very trust that we need in order to create the flexible educational systems that will maximize educational opportunities for all students. How can we build that trust? My experience in blogging (and commenting on others' blogs) and in joining Twitter over the last year leads me to think that these social networking technologies are a good start toward constructing trust. These technologies aren't just about finding new ideas and answering questions - they're about social networking, getting to know the people behind the shared knowledge. The more I know about other educators - their philosophies, their methods - the more comfortable I can become entrusting them with the education of students. And the more that I can entrust the education of students to others, the more opportunities my students have when the situation arises that they need a different solution than what I can provide. Together, building trust through social networking technology that connects us with colleagues from around the world, we can become the flexible system that our future success depends upon.

These thoughts have been inspired by a recent presentation at Tri-County Technical Center in Dexter, Maine, where I learned about the benefits that arise from trusting collaboration between employers, trainers, educators, and students - and the perils that exist when that trust is not established (for example, more than 20% of high-school drop-outs are unemployed). Maine is doing some great work bringing together these stakeholders, making some very thoughtful suggestions on how we can build an educational system that will best serve all our students in their work toward a high school diploma. Check it out:

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Homework Research and Practice Time

As I near the end of Gladwell's "Outliers", I'm finding more discussion on the relationship between socioeconomic factors and practice time. One chapter discusses the importance of the rice farming culture in the light of the success in mathematics demonstrated in those same cultures, and another discusses the KIPP school movement's success in educating poor inner-city students by increasing the length of the school day and inspiring students to complete their many homework assignments. If there is a theme that Gladwell seems to return to again and again in his attempt to define the factors that influence greatness, it would certainly appear to be time spent in practice (and the environmental variables that influence ability and/or willingness to practice, such as sheer luck - like access to a multi-user mainframe computer in the late 1960s / early 1970s - and socioeconomic factors - like whether or not there are books at home for students to read over the summer).

The "10,000 hour rule", combined with even more examples of the power of practice, continues to strike me as existing in tension with the reduction of practice time inside and outside the classroom, such as memorization / repetition and homework. This seems especially true when we think about the brain, which for all of its incredible capacities, is not pre-fabricated to quickly or to easily acquire and work with the facts and skills we expect students to learn as a result of modern education. The choices that educational systems make with regard to how much time they expect students to be in practice with their learning - as well as the meaningfulness of that learning experience - must, then, be a result of the underlying philosophy of schools with regard to what learning is and whether or not that system's goal is to be able to produce mastery.

In my most recent post, I discussed my reservation about the movement of some schools to reduce or eliminate homework. This movement, according to the article, has been greatly influenced by the work of Alfie Kohn, author of "The Homework Myth" (2006). Clearly, this is a book that I need to read, so that I can better understand his argument. In my recent searching for commentary about Kohn's work, I found an article by Robert Marzano [PDF link] that addresses some of Kohn's claims. I found Marzano's repsonse interesting, because Marzano has a very different interpretation of the research on homework that Kohn uses to support his argument that homework should be reduced and/or eliminated.

While I must also admit that I haven't read the primary literature referenced by Kohn and Marzano, my bias at this point is to be skeptical about the idea that homework isn't effective at all. The normal school day and school year isn't long enough for students to achieve mastery of all the different topics that modern education demands they learn, and so time in practice outside of school is critically important. With that said, it is also clear that homework needs to be as individualized and meaningful as the time spent working in the classroom if it is to be valuable to, and therefore more likely to be attempted and/or completed by the student. There is a great deal of research on homework (for example, here's a search for 'homework' on ERIC), even beyond that cited by Marzano and/or Kohn. I hope we'll all take some time to look deeper into this issue; our thoughtful reflection on our practice will help us all to make the educational experience as beneficial as possible to our students.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Less-homework revolution...?

This morning I've come upon an interesting article in the Parenting & Family category on MSNBC called "The Less-Homework Revolution". Some parents of elementary and middle-school students are upset about the amount of homework assigned to their children. In the article an elementary school principal discusses her school's experiment to eliminate most homework, and claims that there have been no negative results in the classroom or on test scores. What's dismaying, though, is that conclusions are already being drawn even though the school is only in it's second year of this experiment. Furthermore, the conclusions are myopic: how will these kids fare later, when the concepts they need to develop rest upon their ability to quickly access and work with the fundamental concepts learned earlier in the educational stream? How will this affect the students' work ethic? Some of the anecdotes given in the article are certainly extreme - I do agree that it's hard to imagine an elementary student requiring four hours of homework on a regular basis, and I agree that homework competes in a skills ecosystem that also needs development in family and peer relationships that only come from time spent with family and time being social with friends. It seems, though, that a group of parents and educators are looking to throw the homework baby out with the bathwater, drawing hasty and myopic conclusions. A better choice, it would seem, is mentioned only briefly - a coordination of the amount of homework with the grade level of the student (though I'd be unsure that the relationship can stay linear, particularly in high school when concepts are many layers deep).

The lessining / elimination of homework is difficult to merge with, if not contradictory to, the concept discussed in my last post about the critical importance of time spent in practice in order to achieve mastery. That post is featured in today's edition of the Carnival of Education - check it out for lots of other thought-inspiring reading.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Practice in Learning in Practice

Over the past few months I've been working my way through Steven Pinker's "How the Mind Works". The title is renders the book's premise self-explanatory - Pinker's goal is to review and comment on the existing research that supports modeling the mind as a modular biological computer that exists in it's current state as a result of natural selection. Having finally finished it a bit more than a week ago, I've started Malcolm Gladwell's newest work, "Outliers". This book focuses on the environmental and chance factors that are necessary for far-above-average humans to develop their particular skills.

Pinker's text is the kind of "tour de force" most of us would expect of a Harvard & former MIT professor, the type of book that I find best to consume in small chunks of 5 - 10 pages before I need to set it down to digest the information, and then only pick it back up after no less than a few hours so that I've had time to process. Gladwell's journalism background, I think, lends to consuming his writing in larger chunks, but I still find myself putting the book down and taking a break in order to think. As you might expect, when I think about the implications of the claims made in books like these, I tend to think about educational systems.

I'll leave the more detailed book reviews to others, encouraging all to read these books. The detail that emerges as common to both which bears specific mention, though, is the critical role that practice plays in the development of long-term skill. Pinker describes the formation of complex concepts as depending critically upon being able to work rapidly with the simpler components of those concepts, a process that requires lots of repitition. Gladwell introduces a similar line of reasoning in his argument, citing research showing that highly skilled athletes, academics, musicians, and other "outliers" share in common not only inherent skill, but incredible opportunities for time to practice and repitition. The research Gladwell cites claims that 10,000 hours of practice on a particular skill set is the "magic number" for greatness.

Though, of course, neither Gladwell or Pinker claim that practice is the only variable, I think it's worthwhile to note that it's an incredibly important one. It's particularly important to think about the role of practice and repitition in skill development because many recent movments in curriculum reform have reduced the role of rote memorization in the classroom, pointing toward the persistent availability of a huge amount of factoids through Internet-based resrouces. While it's true that we now have an incredible resource at our very fingertips allowing us to nearly-instantaneously access a mind-boggling amount of information, I also think it's important to acknowledge a fundamental assertion of Pinker's work: the brain/mind is a product of natural selection, a process that works over very long periods of time, and so the brain/mind we have is the one that was selected as the most successful for our ancestors who lived long before the Internet. If we reduce rote memorization in entirety from our toolbox of methods to promote student learning, we'll only make it less likely that students will be working toward Gladwell's "magic number" of 10,000 hours. What, then, is best practice in education if the long-term learning of complex concepts depends critically upon time spent in practice?