Posts Tagged learning

Brains, homework, more tests and marbles

Did you know there was an International Mind Brain and Education Society? And that its nifty acronym is IMBES? And that they have this nifty logo?

It’s a whole new discipline founded on cross-collaboration between biology, education and cognitive/developmental science. It looks like it takes a scientific, research-driven approach to finding out how kids learn. I first heard about in this piece in the New York Times Sunday Review by Annie Murphy Paul.

There’s a journal and a conference and Harvard even has a master’s program.

The easily-inspired and optimistic part of me looks at developments like this and sees a possible solutions to all problems in education. So much of neuroscience is so new, relatively, that it seems sensible and feasible to expect that we will be able to teach better as we learn more about how kids learn.

Don’t worry, I’ll get cynical in a bit. First, some highlights from the article.

Murphy Paul’s Times piece focuses on the application of MBE findings to homework, which is what I’ve been thinking about lately as I wrestle with my students over getting them to actually do any homework. That so few of them complete it has been leading me to think that I may not be assigning the right work (it’s easier to say they’re lazy, yes, and they are, but still).

There’s the idea of “spaced repetition,”which would have students “encounter the same material in briefer sessions spread over a longer period of time.” We know that exposing ourselves to new information over and over again will cement it in our brains. But I often give homework based on that day’s lesson, then move on. If they learned anything at all, it’ll be gone by the next week. But I think my teacher-gut steers me away from giving students the same task over and over again. I may need to check that.

Then she talks about “retrieval practice,” and this one is really interesting. It calls for using tests as a way to reinforce learning, not  to assess it. So more tests? That throws me for a bit of a loop, given my general attitude toward tests (which is strongly influenced by the nature of our state tests and the weight they carry), but it makes sense. Murphy Paul: “Every time we pull up a memory, we make it stronger and more lasting, so that testing doesn’t just measure, it changes learning.”

That also gets me excited about the explosion of online test and quiz generators. Sites like Veri (still in beta), Quizlet, QuizBreak, and all these sites that Larry Ferlazzo put together could help us cash in on the value of retrieval practice.

And then there’s the finding that when we work harder to understand information we can recall it better. Apparently, psychologists have even found that the following techniques help learning: “sprinkling a passage with punctuation mistakes, deliberately leaving out letters, shrinking font size until it’s tiny or wiggling a document while it’s being copied so that words come out blurry.”

That makes me feel really good about my budget-saving practice of reducing the size of my handouts to fit four pages of text on one sheet of paper.

I know I promised to get cynical, but now I don’t feel like it. I’m excited about this strategy of making myself harder to understand to my students. I might put marbles in my mouth tomorrow before a lecture. Is that cynical?

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Shifting Paradigms

A friend just showed me this video, an RSA Animation take on highlights from one of Sir Ken Robinson‘s talks (upon accepting the Royal Society of Art’s Benjamin Franklin Medal in London in 2009). Some of his main points, if you don’t have 12 minutes, seem to be:

  • our model of schools is supremely outdated, as it is emerged from Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution ideals
  • ADHD may not be so real, or at least it is causing too many kids to be over-medicated and “anesthetized” to school
  • we need to work on developing divergent thinking
  • we need to change the way we think of “academic” vs. “non-academic”
  • we need to change schools to make them more of a natural learning environment

I don’t know about his claim that ADHD may or not be a real thing – I thought it was – but I agree that the medications that work for some kids are tragic for so many others, and that they are prescribed to way too many.

The divergent thinking study is too depressing. Basically, kids start out as geniuses, and school makes them dumber, or forces them to forget how to think in that creative way.

He says, “We should be waking them up to what they have inside of themselves” instead of putting them to sleep.” He says, “Collaboration is the stuff of growth.” I like both of these.

I watched this directly before my 9th graders came into my classroom. And things like this, while inspiring on one level, also often have the converse effect on me. How am I, one teacher in one classroom, supposed to successfully teach my students if the whole paradigm of our school system is dysfunctional? I can’t change the whole system. I can’t ignore the standardized tests (whose rise in popularity, he notes in the talk, has coincided with the explosion of ADHD diagnoses). I can’t reorganize all the students in the school so they are grouped by ability instead of by age (which, according to Robinson, is proof of the school system being “modeled on the interests of industralism, and on the image of it….It’s like the most important thing about them is their date of manufacture”). I can’t ignore the bells and the school’s tardy consequences (which he points to as another example of schools being “organized along factory lines”).

But still, with his argument fresh in my mind, as I embarked on some dreadfully boring but collaboratively-agreed-upon grammar exercises, I felt like I did have some significant power to change things up within my own classroom. I saw them sitting their in their ridiculous little desks, and it seemed all wrong. It seemed like one of the things that Robinson says “isn’t because teachers want it this way; it’s just because it happens that way. It’s because it’s in the gene pool of education.”

So it’s not like what I did was so brilliant, but it worked. To review the grammar exercise (identifying subjects and verbs…yay!), I projected the document on the white board and told the whole class to stand up (this was with my small class. For my large class I did this in groups of 10). Each student took a turn identifying the subject or verb with a dry-erase marker while the rest of the group, huddled around them at the front of the room, gave encouragement or advice like they were on “The Price is Right.” It was kinda fun. One student even said, “We should do every grammar exercise like that,” and several others agreed.

And my first instinct was, “No, we can’t do that every time, only once in a while.” And then I thought, why am I saying that? Is that the gene pool of education speaking? Is that a vestige of Industrial Revolution-era, assembly line values?

Here’s one of his TED talks from 2006. And here’s the follow-up.

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