Tag Archives: LEARNING

It has been a long time since I last posted – too long!


IMG_5504I  have been busy because I have decided to write a book on education.  My subject is research-based education and does it exist?  Here in Ontario we are big on research based or brain based education.  I am always a bit dubious about this as there are at least three things that need considering in implementing education based on research.

The first is the reliability of the research For readers like me who don’t always remember the difference between those two important pillars of good science, reliability and validity, I will explain.

Reliability refers to whether an experiment can be done more than once and by other researchers and still get the same result.  If your dog eats a tablespoon of peanut butter and then lies down and rolls over twice, can you get the same effect the next day when you feed him peanut butter?  If you can, can your friend in the next city get her dog of a different age to lie down and roll over twice after he has eaten a tablespoon of peanut butter?  Will it work with different breeds or only black dogs weighing more than 60 lb.?   The more often replications of the experiment end up with the same result, the more likely it is to be reliable.

The second pillar of research is validity.  This is not as simple a concept to explain.  Validity requires that the thesis and experiment make sense i.e. they are designed using both logic and fact.  The conclusions must be interpreted logically, too.  As the saying goes: “data is not the plural of anecdote.”

One mistake we often make is confusing correlation and causation: a classic example is the woman who believed that it was the sign “deer crossing” that caused deer to cross at that particular spot on the road.  She thought this was very dangerous as she had hit a deer three times just after passing the spot.  Her solution was to move the crossing.

The mistake this woman made was to mistake the correlation of a deer crossing sign and the deer crossing the road with the sign causing the deer to cross the road.   Some careful thinking about the nature of deer and their abilities would have brought the realisation that deer can’t read or follow traffic rules.  The deer’s preference for crossing the road at that point was the reason the sign was posted, not the other way around.

We can laugh at this person’s logic, but how often do we see similar thinking in

World Health Organization building from the So...

World Health Organization building from the South-East, Geneva (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

our lives.  Think of your friend who won’t get her child vaccinated because she believes that vaccinations kill children.  The World Health Organization (WHO)

clearly outlines the faulty logic as it applies to the DPT i.e. Diphtheria, pertussis (whooping-cough) and polio:

Diphtheria-Tetanus-Pertussis (DTP) Vaccine And Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)

One myth that won’t seem to go away is that DTP vaccine causes sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). This belief came about because a moderate proportion of children who die of SIDS have recently been vaccinated with DTP; on the surface, this seems to point toward a causal connection. This logic is faulty however; you might as well say that eating bread causes car crashes, since most drivers who crash their cars could probably be shown to have eaten bread within the past 24 hours.

If you consider that most SIDS deaths occur during the age range when three shots of DTP are given, you would expect DTP shots to precede a fair number of SIDS deaths simply by chance. In fact, when a number of well-controlled studies were conducted during the 1980s, the investigators found, nearly unanimously, that the number of SIDS deaths temporally associated with DTP vaccination was within the range expected to occur by chance. In other words, the SIDS deaths would have occurred even if no vaccinations had been given.

In fact, in several of the studies, children who had recently received a DTP shot were less likely to get SIDS. The Institute of Medicine reported that “all controlled studies that have compared immunized versus non-immunized children have found either no association . . . or a decreased risk . . . of SIDS among immunized children” and concluded that “the evidence does not indicate a causal relation between [DTP] vaccine and SIDS.”

Looking at risk alone is not enough however – you must always look at both risks and benefits. Even one serious adverse effect in a million doses of vaccine cannot be justified if there is no benefit from the vaccination. If there were no vaccines, there would be many more cases of disease, and along with them, more serious side effects and more deaths. For example, according to an analysis of the benefit and risk of DTP immunization, if there was no immunization program in the United States, pertussis cases could increase 71-fold and deaths due to pertussis could increase four-fold. Comparing the risk from disease with the risk from the vaccines can give us an idea of the benefits we get from vaccinating our children.

A plot of SIDS rate from 1988 to 2006

A plot of SIDS rate from 1988 to 2006 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For more information on vaccines and childhood illnesses go to Global Vaccine Safety:

Six common misconceptions about immunization.  This is a much more serious case of correlation = causation than the Deer Lady’s confusion.

The sample used should be a reasonable size and reflect the population in question.  How many samples, people, classrooms or animals are needed can’t be defined theoretically, but scientists and most sensible people should know when the sample is not enough.   For example if one wants to know the death rate from measles, the best sample would be all the reported cases of measles in an area or all the confirmed cases of measles.  The latter would be better, unless one can safely assume that doctors are generally accurate in diagnosing measles and therefore their reports won’t skew the data.

One of the cruellest results of poor research is the myth that the MMR (mumps, measles and rubella) vaccine causes autism .  The research was published in 1988 and retracted by the eminent medical journal, Lancet in 2012.  Not only was the research retracted but the author was also reprimanded by Britain’s General Medical Council and stripped of the right to practice medicine in Britain.

The doctor used only 12 children for his research, taking the blood samples from children at his son’s birthday party.  There were other flaws in his work; for more information see the sites below.

After his results were published in 1988, some British parents refused to get their children immunized with the MMR vaccine and the incidence of all three diseases increased.  Measles is highly contagious and can lead to more serious illnesses or death.  For example: one in twenty will develop pneumonia (a common cause of death from measles) and one in a thousand will develop encephalitis, putting them at risk for convulsions, deafness, mental retardation or death.  By 2008 there were enough measles cases in Britain to declare it an epidemic.  See web sites in the bibliography below for a discussion of MMR vaccination from at least two opposing perspectives.

Even when research is well done, there are two more pits for the unwary: drawing conclusions and applying the results correctly. If your dog rolls over repeatedly after eating peanut butter, is it to please you in order to get more peanut butter or does peanut butter put his belly in such agony that he needs to roll over more than once to relieve it?  One might argue that the dog’s motivation doesn’t matter; the important thing is that the dog rolls over.  It does, however, make a difference to dogs and to dog lovers.  They care whether pain or delight is causing the new tricks.  This is another case where the researcher will have to explore the connection between the incidents in order to do good science.

Research intent on testing the results of other studies is not glamorous and doesn’t get the headlines (or the grants, sometimes) but it is as important as the initial work.  In fact, without it, we would have more drugs with disastrous side effects, more collapsing structures and poorer educational systems.

The third thing that needs considering, besides reliability and validity and the conclusions draw by the researcher, is the interpretation of research by the layman – or woman.  It is easy to misunderstand research if we don’t read the work or summaries without a critical eye.  I find myself increasingly wondering who did the original research, how valid and reliable it was, if the researcher had a bias towards the results and what other research has been done. Education needs good research to inform good teaching practices and teachers need to know how to read the research, question it and implement what has been learned.

I have not covered everything you need to know about scientific methods and the methods of science.  My intention here is to draw attention to the layman’s need to understand scientific thinking and reflect critically on research before applying it in the field.  For a more thorough analysis, go to:  The Scientific Method vs. Real Science at http://www.av8n.com/physics/scientific-methods.htm.  It does require some thoughtful reading but it is worth the effort.

So, I am writing a book about the relationship between education and what we really know about the brain and relevant psychology.  I am still in the research stage.  Instead of doing my own original research, I am reviewing other peoples’ studies to understand the results and their relevance to education.

My blog will probably have a different flavour, as it is likely to reflect my thoughts and discoveries as I learn.  I hope you enjoy accompanying me on this journey.

Bibliography

Donna, The Deer Lady

http://www.webpronews.com/donna-the-deer-lady-learns-what-deer-crossing-signs-are-for-2012-10

The MMR Vaccine Discussion.

Autism-vaccine study retracted Tuesday, February 2, 2010 | 10:08 PM ET CBC News  http://www.cbc.ca/news/health/story/2010/02/02/autism-mmr-lancet-wakefield.html

http://www.cdc.gov/vaccinesafety/concerns/autism/index.html

http://www.infection-research.de/infectious_diseases/measles/

http://www.vaccinationnews.com/why-do-pediatricians-deny-obvious

http://www.vaccinationnews.com/measles-united-kingdom-wakefield-factor

http://www.who.int/vaccine_safety/initiative/detection/immunization_misconceptions/en/

 

Scientific Method:

http://www.av8n.com/physics/scientific-methods.htm.

Summertime and the Camps are Expensive: How to Keep our Kids Thinking and Learning on a Dime …


Kids playing in a lake at a church camp

Kids playing in a lake at a church camp (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We bemoan the summer holidays as a time when students forget everything they learned in school and then need to spend September reviewing.  Research, and I can’t remember which and with the summer haze in my brain am too lazy to look up, suggests that middle class children don’t lose too much through the long summer holidays.  These kids go to camp, visit relatives, take classes and generally keep their brains ticking over.  If they aren’t precisely reviewing what they have already learned, they are at least adding to it.

Who is really hurt by the long summer holidays?

On the other hand, kids with lower socio-economic status do lose out.  Their parents are likely to both be working and are hard pressed to find care for their children, much less something stimulating.  If a parent is at home, then money to do anything extra is unavailable.  When these kids return to school, they are behind the eight ball.  They have not just forgotten over the long holidays, but they have not had any enrichment to enhance what they have already learned.  What to do?

The thing is that if you are reading this, you may be poor but you are unlikely to be lower SES.  Graduate, medical and law students may have very low incomes, the economic part of the SES, but their social status is high.  Even people who have gone off the grid or simply work the streets to help the homeless may have a minimal income but high status socially.  Even on a low income it is possible to afford a computer, second-hand or refurbished – or access one at the local library.

On the other hand, drug dealers may be rolling in dough but low in social status, although that may depend on the society they are mixing with.  They may have a computer, even a high end one with all the bells and whistles, but I doubt they are reading my blog or this post.

It is those folks who have minimal incomes and minimal status who are less likely to be able to provide camps and classes and stimulating activities for their kids.  It isn’t impossible but it is difficult.  I’m going to offer advice here, but how many people who need it, will read it?

Free Camps, Lessons and Stimulating Activities:

The best place to find a free summer camp is at a church.  They aren’t sleepover camps, they are usually half days and some do push their religion.  However, your children will learn something about Christianity, which will be an enormous aid as they study English literature.  It will also give them some insights into Judaism, Islam and even Mormonism.

My daughter went to one themed on Paul.  One day we were chatting about Paul as I walked her home from camp.  I confessed that I was not a fan of Paul as he was a bit of a misogynist.  After I explained that a misogynist was someone who didn’t like women, my daughter was quiet for a bit.  Then she pointed out that no one except Christ was perfect.  Perhaps misogyny was Paul’s flaw.  After all he did have other wise things to say.  My jaw dropped.  As I said, it is an opportunity to learn a bit and stimulate some thought.

Scouts and guides are another place for almost free camping and lessons.  One of my sons got a lot out of scouts including a couple of long camping trips.  He learned the usual skills and benefitted from the guidance of adults who weren’t parents or teachers.

Some camps will trade a child’s camping fees for a parent’s skills.  It won’t work with every camp, but it is worth trying with alternative or church over night camps.  If you can cook, do office work or general maintenance, ask.  Ask your local Y about groups that help send kids to camps or have programs for families to go to camp.

Learning New Skills

Can’t afford lessons?  Canvas other families in the same situations.  Maybe among you there are a few experts such as knitters, musicians (singers or drummers are ideal), dancers, artists (they don’t have to be famous or sell their work), woodworkers or bakers.  Arrange to have lessons for the children in your group of families.  Your kids will learn a new skill and learn to appreciate another adult.  You will get to know some other children well.

Seeing and Stimulation

            On the street where you live

Learning and stimulation are often right at your feet or your children’s feet.  Get in the habit of going for walks with your kids.  Teach them how to walk safely

Wabush Manhole Cover IV

Wabush Manhole Cover IV (Photo credit: ManHole.ca)

in their neighbourhood.  Go at their pace. They will get you seeing things you haven’t really looked at before.  The obvious things are construction sites and big trucks.  It’s always amazing how many workers don’t mind taking a couple of minutes to explain what they are doing.  My kids found manholes fascinating, too.  They were a great place to practice reading.  I also learned a bit of local history when I realised that the same foundry that made the manhole covers, made stoves in our area.

Those walks are also good exercise and an opportunity for you to continue street-proofing your children. Point out street signs, landmarks, public building and telephones. Get them to tell you how to get home.  Children who have wandered their neighbourhoods on their own by the age of ten will have a better directional sense and more confidence.  People who walk with confidence are less likely to be victimized.

            It’s a walk in the park

Having fun!

Having fun! (Photo credit: ucumari)

Of course, parks are a great place in the summer.  You take your kids to play on the playground or splash pads or swim but as a by-the-way you can get them in the habit of observing the life around them.  Try going to different parks and point out different plants and trees, birds and animals.  You don’t have

Observing

Observing (Photo credit: Adalberto Gonzaga)

to know what they are.  Keep a sketchpad or camera tucked in your bag to record what they see and make notes. Jot down their observations or if they are old enough, give them their own note pad and encourage them to keep

their own notes.  Show them how to just write down the minimum number of words necessary to remind them. When you get home, you can look them up or take another trip to the library.

            Go shopping, but leave your wallet at home

Shopping streets can be full of information.  Why do stores have big windows?  Which way do doors open?  Why?  Which colours do they see most in

a child

a child (Photo credit: sogni_hal)

store windows?  Which store windows are the prettiest?  Most dramatic?  Most interesting?  Why are there people sitting on the sidewalk asking for money?  Depending on your city, the street and the person, your child might want to talk to them.  It’s an opportunity to learn that people are people no matter how they live.

If you visit a small store when it is quiet, you could talk to the proprietor about what it is like to run a business, where his wares come from and why he decided to open a store.  You could get your children to keep track of the different kind of stores on different streets.

            Museums

Museums are most wonderful when they are free.  If they are free in your town, pop in with the kids for only half an hour at a time.  Even if they aren’t free,

Young hands

Young hands (Photo credit: jepoirrier)

there is usually one day a week when they are, so that is the day to drop by.  Do a little research; sometimes there are tiny museums that are free.  Sometimes there are amazing little stores that are almost as good as museum, but first you must carefully train your children to look only with their eyes.

The best museum for kids is a science and technology museum.  Get them pushing the museum’s buttons instead of yours.  If you don’t have a zoo, the next best is an art gallery but pick the exhibit carefully.  Children enjoy bright energetic abstracts or meticulously realistic art to start with.  Let them ask the questions and make the comments before you get helpful.  You can borrow books about art from your library if you

Russell Coates Art Gallery Bournemouth

Russell Coates Art Gallery Bournemouth (Photo credit: Martin Beek)

don’t have the answers. When they get home they might want to try the kind of art they have seen.

An Exhibition

Your children might want to go around their home to pick out art and oddments worthy of display.  They can create cards explaining what each thing is and why it is so special.  Perhaps your network of teaching and learning families could add a demonstration of the skills the kids have learned over the summer.  Of course, that will call for an exhibition to which they can invite their friends, family and neighbours.

I am going to do it ALL

You aren’t going to do all of these things.  Just writing about it exhausts me.  It is a frame of mind that says there is a world of learning and fellowship and fun and excitement out there free if I open my eyes and my mind and my heart that is important.  I don’t have to be rich or educated to give my child a summer she will enjoy and will keep her mind ticking over.  I can send her back to school ready to continue learning.  It just takes some thought, imagination and planning on my part.  And maybe a little help from my friends.

Parenting

Parenting (Photo credit: Leonid Mamchenkov)

From CTV Edmonton


Edmonton teacher suspended for handing out zeros

CTV News Video

CTV Edmonton: Does no-zero policy coddle kids?
Veronica Jubinville reports on an Edmonton, Alta. teacher who was suspended after giving students a grade of 0. Some say the policy is fair, but others are worried kids won’t learn if they can’t fail.
CTV Edmonton Morning Live: Career likely done
An Edmonton teacher who was suspended for the remainder of the school year for handing out zeros feels he will likely be terminated permanently come next September. CTV’s Laura Tupper reports.
CTV Edmonton: Teacher shares his side of story
An Edmonton teacher is speaking out after he was suspended from a local high school, reportedly because he gave his students zeroes.
Physics teacher Lynden Dorval spoke with CTV News on Thursday, May 31.Physics teacher Lynden Dorval spoke with CTV News on Thursday, May 31.

Photos

Physics teacher Lynden Dorval spoke with CTV News on Thursday, May 31.

Physics teacher Lynden Dorval spoke with CTV News on Thursday, May 31.

View Larger Image

CTVNews.ca Staff

Date: Fri. Jun. 1 2012 9:07 PM ET

An Edmonton high school teacher said he’s been suspended for handing out zeros to students who didn’t complete their work, bucking a “no-zero” policy at the school.

Lynden Dorval said he doesn’t agree with the school’s behavioural code that bans awarding a grade of zero for incomplete work.

Instead, the policy introduced at Ross Sheppard High School almost two years ago treats unfinished work as a behavioural problem and not an academic one.

“So of course the student’s marks are only based on the work they have actually done,” Dorval told CTV Edmonton Thursday.

“It’s just like in real life, there are always consequences for not doing things,” the 35-year veteran teacher said.

Dorval’s marking system didn’t sit well with the school’s principal Ron Bradley, who sent a letter to the Edmonton Public School Board asking for a replacement teacher.

The letter cites three incidents where Dorval reportedly went against the policy, dating back to 2011.

It also outlines a meeting where Bradley told Dorval to remove the zeros and replace them with the school-sanctioned codes.

The school board wouldn’t confirm the reasons for Dorval’s suspension. It did state it was a staff discipline issue.

However, Schmidt said teachers are expected to follow assessment plans.

“When an assessment plan has been put in place at a school level, it’s my expectation that every staff member will stick to that plan,” he told CTV Edmonton.

Dorval told CTV the zeros he gave to students weren’t permanent, saying it’s important for students to learn about the “real world.”

“The students know that in my case they’re not permanent zeroes, it’s just an indicator that they have to do something about it because this is how their mark is going to turn out if they don’t,” he said.

Dorval’s suspension has prompted a wave of reaction from parents who are calling into radio stations, penning opinion columns, as well as calling the school, the board and the Education Department.

Many have dubbed Dorval the “Hero of Zero” who has stood up to those who allow children to get away with not doing their work.

“We’re hearing from parents. They’re seeing this in a very over-simplified kind of way,” Schmidt said.

“What we’re trying to explain is that students can fail courses if they don’t do the work. Kids are not given the opportunity to game the system.”

Meanwhile, students are somewhat perplexed by Dorval’s suspension.

“If the student didn’t do their work, why should they get any mark at all, so a zero sounds fine to me,” Dimitri Muzychenko told CTV Edmonton.

Another student, Mohamad Al-Jabiri, thought the punishment was too harsh.

“What is he supposed to do? Like he’s not going to run after the kids, it’s high school, right?” he said.

While Alberta Education Minister Jeff Johnson is keeping an eye on the situation, he does not plan to get involved, according to his spokeswoman, Kim Capstick.

“We don’t have a policy on grading. Albertans elect school boards for this,” said Capstick.

Dorval plans to appeal his suspension on the grounds that the principal went beyond his authority. The teacher also hopes to ignite a discussion on caring versus coddling.

With a report from CTV Edmonton’s Veronica Jubinville and files from The Canadian Press

Read more:http://www.ctv.ca/CTVNews/TopStories/20120601/teacher-suspended-marking-zeroes-120601/#ixzz1wvfJvauT

What are the Implications for Teachers and Parents? How do you get to Carnegie Hall part four


Attention is arguably the most important ingredient in learning.  In order to map a skill, a concept or a new way of doing things, a child must work with it attentively the first few times.  Attention happens when we are engaged in a struggle to do or understand; Emma’s fierce concentration as she climbs on to the baby gym demonstrates her attention.

To retain what the child has learned, she needs to practice it next.  It is not sufficient to understand or do; the newly learnt word, concept or skill must be worked regularly so it goes from the explicit memory into implicit memory.

Children initiate much of their learning. Parents and teachers who are aware of that and ready to support it will also support the child’s enthusiasm for learning.  Children delight in novelty so will often respond to being taught new things if they are ready to learn them.  They will also learn things that their parents and teachers insist on, assuming the new skill is within their abilities and taught carefully.

“…the only ‘good learning’ is that which is in advance of development”    

(Vygotsky 1934/1986)

When Vygotsky, the Russian psychologist, stated that learning really takes place in advance of development he meant the area where a child can learn if supported by a more knowledgeable peer or teacher.  He called this the Zone of Proximal Development or ZPD.  Climbing up is Emma’s achievement; climbing down safely was in Emma’s ZPD.  The support (in this case provided by her parents) is also known as scaffolding. There are lots of academics running around defining it and publishers selling books to hapless teachers about it.  I prefer to think of scaffolding as spotting with appropriate instruction as needed.

Scaffolding: Not just for construction workers...

Scaffolding: Not just for construction workers anymore (Photo credit: kevin dooley)

Do you remember gym class when you were doing tricks on a trampoline, trying to do a handstand or vault over a horse?  There was always someone there to spot you, with a hand ready to put under your back to stop you from falling awkwardly and doing serious damage.  The trampoline required several spotters holding both hands palm outwards in case they had to push the jumper back.

This, to me, is probably the best example of scaffolding; the athlete is not protected from scrapes and bruises but is protected from a broken neck so she can take the risks necessary increase her skill.  She may fail many times, and that’s fine, because if it is a matter of technique, the instructor will come by to correct her.  If it is just a matter of training the muscles, her classmates will call out the occasional word of encouragement as they spot her and await their turn.

This is what a more knowledgeable person can do for a child in her ZPD.  It does require teaching a child to deal with failure.  I see that word on the page and I realise how stomach clenching it is.  Failure.  For most, the connotations are unpleasant: failing a grade, a business failing, a person who is a failure.  We need to put that stigma aside and think of a child learning to walk.  How often does he end up on his well-padded bottom after a few steps?  He has failed to walk, but do we think of it as failure?  No, because we believe that within the year he will be walking and running.  Plumping down to a startled sit is just part of the process.

learning to ride a bike - _MG_2933

learning to ride a bike - _MG_2933 (Photo credit: sean dreilinger)

If we allow failure, we develop children who persist. They will regard mistakes as part of the learning process.  These children will ask for help, figure out what went wrong and then move forward.  They will be comfortable with struggling on occasion with new ideas.  Eventually they will become that current cliché, but truly important ideal, an independent learner.

If a student is not learning in their ZPD, they are not moving ahead.  They may be moving sideways, collecting more information, but they are not learning new skills, new concepts or new patterns.  They may be reinforcing their learning so it moves into implicit memory. Students need to spend time consolidating new learning and building on it.  Teachers need to be conscious of which kind of learning is going on.

In practical terms, when you teach multiplication or three-digit division to students, you are not done when they grasp the concept and the time allotted for the unit is over.  Your goal is to get them to the point where they can do the work automatically without stopping to think about how to do it.  This requires practice, drills, homework, games or whatever it takes to keep them practicing until the skill is in implicit memory.  Some will argue it is more important for children to understand mathematical theory than memorise arithmetic and they would be right.  They do not say, however, that the children should not be able to do the arithmetic, and that requires practice.

How would this apply to history? Teaching the war of 1759, I would use overheads to show how the French lost the battle of Louisbourg in 1758 and how Wolfe successfully repeated the tactics a year later in the Battle of the Fields of Abraham at Quebec.  Then I would ask the students to hand-draw both battlefields, the surrounding geography, the troop movements and gun emplacements.  Why? The physical act of drawing and labelling practices and reviews the material. I would not allow students to trace diagrams, because tracing would not focus student attention on the locations of fortifications, cliffs, homes and cannon.

As the students work over their diagrams, questions will come up.  The ensuing discussion is another form of reinforcement.  I might show an excerpt from a Hornblower movie (Napoleonic wars – 40 years later but similar issues) to show the importance of shore guns in keeping harbours safe – or isolated, depending on whose guns they were.  I might play music from the era when the students grow weary.  The students might choose to compete in the accuracy and neatness of their diagrams.

Depending on earlier training, drawing and labelling accurate diagrams might be the ZPD for most students. Drawing troop movements and understanding what that would look like in real life or vice versa is very likely to be within their ZPD.  As a combined history and phys ed class, it would be a great opportunity to take students into the schoolyard to deploy their troops and see the translation of plans to real life.

Freehand drawing seems a very old fashioned way of learning and yet it is an excellent way to use visual and kinaesthetic intelligences to learn in a discipline which is far too often taught only through reading, writing and lecturing. (Gardner 1983)

If attention is the most important ingredient in learning what does it say our classrooms and study areas should be like?  Think about what distracts you and then ask yourself if you could work in your classroom or wherever your child does homework.

A quiet hum of activity is acceptable, but unnecessary movement, music, raised voices and interruptions through phone calls and announcements are disruptive.  When I couldn’t persuade our office to leave messages or send emails, I took the classroom phone off the hook when the students needed to pay careful attention.

Should classrooms be papered with bright visuals demanding the attention of the children as our administrators encourage?  It certainly looks charming, but is it conducive to children paying attention well enough to learn?  Instead, should classroom walls be painted in soothing colours only occasionally punctuated with a helpful poster?  Should there be plenty of study carrels or nooks where students can wrestle with ideas?  Should the group work area be strategically placed so the gentle murmur of discussion doesn’t disturb the other scholars?  Should a primary goal be to teach children consideration of each other’s learning environments?  Should we teach our children how to pay attention?

In some homes all the kids do homework at the dining room table.  For some children that works, especially if a parent is available to keep everyone on task.  It doesn’t work for all.  Figure out what works and put that in place. Many students complain homework takes too long.  When I asked questions, I realised many were texting, chatting on line, receiving phone calls on their cells, listening to music and being interrupted by younger siblings and sometimes parents – all while they were ostensibly doing homework.  None of this was conducive to any but the most mindless and useless of homework.  As I don’t assign that kind of homework, I was not surprised they were taking so long to get it done.

What about students with learning disabilities?  We sometimes think that accommodations mean letting them learn less.  Would they do better if we first worked to improve their ability to pay attention?  They could start with one minute and keep adding as they succeeded.  We could also work to improve their areas of weakness. If the brain changes naturally in response to attentive learning followed by practice, what couldn’t we do for our students who learn differently?

To sum up, a student begins to learn when he is paying attention.  The initial learning is mapping in the brain.  That mapping is not sufficient; practice is needed to ensure the mapping remains. It is like walking through a field; it takes a lot of walking over the same line before there is a trail that will last a month, more to last a year and so on.

How to do mapping and reinforcement is another story, but it is a normal part of a teacher’s repertoire. Reconsider the organisation of your classroom and the structure of the day, but the actual techniques are at most teachers’ fingertips.  It may be necessary to stand back while your students wrestle with their understanding of a concept but you will be rewarded with triumphant smiles as they eventually master it. While your administrator talks brain-based education, you will actually walk it.

Bibliography

Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of Mind.

LeDoux, J. (2002). Synaptic Self; how our brains become who we are. London, England, Penguin Group.

Schwartz, J. M., Begley, Sharon (2002). The Mind & the Brain: Neuropasticity and the Power of Mental Force. New York, HarperCollins

Vygotsky, L. (1934/1986). Thought and Language. Cambridge Massachusetts, London  England., MIT Press.

Walsh, S. J. (2010). Recognition Memory: Brain-Behaviour Relations from 0 to 3. Human Behaviour, Learning and the Developing Brain: Typical Development. D. F. Coch, Kurt W.; Dawson, Geraldine.

Negotiating Learning: how do you get to Carnegie Hall part three


Emma’s parents are clearly in charge but they give her opportunities to make her own decisions.  They love to introduce her to new things: lambs, flying above her daddy’s head, swings, carrots, croissants and sandy beaches.  They are careful to keep the first contact with a new experience brief and pleasant. Should Emma show real signs of distress, they distract her with something else and remove the new experience.  They do, however, give her time to figure out what she thinks.  A first grimace does not mean distaste or fear.

Emma approaches most new things with enthusiastic caution.  At first contact, her face remains solemn as she assesses the taste or the experience.  Her expression upon her first taste of potato was comical. She remained serious as she ate most of it but she wasn’t unhappy.

Soon after first contact with a new experience, Emma usually starts to smile.  The potato didn’t rate a smile but it wasn’t rejected, either.  When Emma becomes comfortable with new activities, she often chuckles, sometimes in anticipation.

The local playground is designed for young children.  It has tough rubber flooring, many gentle angles and slopes, steps that are wide and go quite high, different kinds of slides and different challenges for the climbers including big nets.  There are lots of physical challenges but some for the imagination as well.  The gate opens into a large grassy field that is also toddler friendly.  Emma visits it nearly every day and here she has a lot of freedom to determine her own agenda.  For the most part, her parents follow her, reserving the right to exercise a veto.  The veto is seldom employed because usually they can negotiate a solution as they did with the swing.

Emma knew she wasn’t ready to swing solo but she does like the feeling of independence of being on the swing by herself. She isn’t ready to get on the swing and she doesn’t try but she is happy to sit on the swing with Mum’s help.  She gets to feel what it is like to be on a big-girl swing with the independence of holding on and balancing.  On the other hand, she is not anxious about falling, as she trusts her mum.

When she does fall in the course of her experiments, Emma rarely cries.  She looks up with surprise and the parent in charge usually calmly comments “That was a good bump, wasn’t it?” or “You didn’t see that coming, did you?” and they laugh together.  If a bump causes tears, then Emma gets picked up and comforted while her parent casually inspects the bump to see if needs more treatment than a kiss.  Eventually, Emma wiggles to get down and goes back to what she was doing.

Letting Emma fall is part of her education in consequences; taking risks can result in a delightful new experience or a bump.  She has to assess where the dividing line is.  Since her parents don’t intervene unless she is likely to get really hurt, she gets lots of practice in making that assessment.

So Emma often pushes herself to learn new things, but her parents also expose her to new experiences.  They support her ventures. They don’t fuss over a bit of dirt or a skinned knee.  Emma and her clothes are washable.  Emma’s scrapes and bruises heal quickly and are forgotten quickly. Usually Emma is the one who determines the pace at which she learns to do things, although, like most parents, hers can’t resist the temptation to occasionally coax her into trying something.  Who hasn’t tried to persuade a baby to take a step?

Wisely, her parents also teach her how to do things important for her own safety, such as getting down from a perch. Theirs is an approach of “if you are going to climb, you need to know how to get down safely.”  Her parents taught her to turn around and get down feet first.  When she first started climbing, they would have physically put her in the position to climb down.  Later, she heard a lot of

Turn around, Emma.  That’s it.  Now get down.”

Later comments were:

That’s not safe, please move… Thank you”

Or

Remember what happened last time you did that?”

Climbing, with the exception of climbing on cabinets and the computer desk, is not discouraged.  Her parents have always spotted Emma’s early climbs, even if she wasn’t aware of it.  However, potentially dangerous antics such as crossing the bouncing bridge require a parent holding her hand.  Since her parents don’t restrict most adventures, she accedes more readily to having her hand held.  Emma practices her balance on the bridge, but safely.

Today Emma climbs steps, kitchen chairs and other furniture with the same confidence as she walks.  While her eyes glint with mischief when she is admonished not to do something dangerous, she understands perfectly both the request and that she might get hurt doing it.  She might continue once or twice to tease her parent, but she is usually obedient. In this family, the toddler’s growth is a pragmatic and joyous negotiation between her and her parents.

The negotiation between Emma and her parents and their willingness to let her take some risks have brought her to the point where she wants to climb on the baby gym.  The task requires concentration, strength, balance, some risk-taking and confidence; she has enough of each.

Currently, the estimate of what goes into Emma’s growth would be roughly 40% nature, 60% environment or what we used to call nurture. Emma was unusually active even before she was born.  How would she have developed if her parents had not been active themselves?  Would they have responded to her need for physical activity or would she have become a little less active – or would they have met in the middle?

You often hear parents comment that their child sleeps better if they have a walk in the afternoon – or they need some quiet time after their bath and before bed to settle down to sleep.  Most parents are pretty good at figuring out what their babies need.  Most parents figure it out without thinking too much about it, too, and manage to negotiate something that works both for them and their child.  When you think about it, this isn’t really a surprise.  Parent and child is the oldest human relationship and they have been working it out for a long time.

Emma’s Brain: how do you get to Carnegie Hall, part two


Preceding article:  How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall?   Part One
NATURE AND NURTURE    

I am a teacher by trade; my interest in the brain stems from trying to understand how we learn. I have tried to make my understanding of a complex and not thoroughly understood topic, clear and simple. All the mistakes are mine, but I am grateful to those who took the time to check it over and answer my questions while I was writing it. Readers who wish to pursue this subject should check out the books in my bibliography below.

EMMA’S BRAIN     

Contrary to common ideas as expressed in this ...

This map of the brain suggests that specific and static areas are responsible for specific functions. In fact it is more complicated, less static and less specific than that. Image via Wikipedia

What is happening inside Emma’s brain and body?  She was born with a good genetic mix.  We can make that assumption because not only does she have smart, healthy parents but she is also a bright healthy baby who has hit all the milestones, except for size (she is on the small side), on time.  As far as anyone can tell she has the tools she needs to learn and grow successfully.

A brief word about genetics and the brain:  the current understanding is that the brain is too complex and the genetic code too limited to allow the brain to be directly blueprinted by genes.  What is probably in the genetic blueprint is the timing of brain growth and which area is responsible for what. The rest is experience pruning and encouraging growth of synapses. (Schwartz 2002)

This is a fairly simplistic explanation of memory and learning.  I should also note that there is considerable disagreement among the experts as to which does what where, when and sometimes how.  With that caveat, you can see the difficulties a mere amateur faces.

Gross Motor Learning

Most of the learning I have been describing is called gross motor as Emma is largely using her big muscles.  She learns through constant repetition of movement until both muscle and brain remember the movement.  Both are needed to move her leg as undirected muscle, no matter how strong, is useless and skilled direction to the muscle without a trained muscle is, at the very least, frustrating.  Each movement Emma makes is retained in the neocortex in an area that deals with gross motor movements and as she practices, it becomes more firmly embedded in her memory until she can do it without thinking about it.  It is probable that the area storing this memory is not as specifically located as maps of the brain might lead us to believe.  In fact, at this age the area may change day to day.

Explicit Memory

I am looking at two kinds of long-term memory here. (LeDoux 2002) One is the kind of memory we have of events.  If we remember an event such as a birthday party, we remember through a number of sensory images such as smells, pictures, tastes, sounds and touches, and we remember them in the areas that originally received them.  We patch them together (or blend them, depending on

English: hippocampus. Images are from Anatomog...

Hippocampus Image via Wikipedia

the most recently accepted theory) through the hippocampus (among other areas of the brain) to create a memory of the birthday party. Neuroscientists call these kinds of event memories explicit or declarative memories.  Others call it “knowing that” as in you know that red wine was spilt over your favourite cream shirt and the stain has never come out.  Because we assemble declarative memories, they are seldom as accurate as we think or identical to those of other witnesses.

Implicit Memory

Most of Emma’s memories of learning to get her knee up on the level where she wants to climb are called implicit or non-declarative memories. (Walsh 2010) It might be easier to understand if you think of it as “knowing how” as in knowing how to ride a bicycle (which one apparently never forgets). These tend to be muscle memories, skill memories or memories which Emma will eventually recall and employ without consciously doing it.  She probably isn’t conscious of most of her later efforts to get her knee up on a step any more than you remember specific incidents of lifting weights or steps in going for a walk.  You will still strengthen your arms or your heart.  She may remember specific attempts: the feel of the step under her knee and hands, the sound of her mother’s voice and the smell of detergent on her clothing. Those will be declarative memories.

Mapping and Practice:  they’re brain changers

Emma’s constant practice does not just build muscle.  It also changes her brain.

Motor cortex

Motor Cortex Image via Wikipedia

Somewhere in the motor cortex, synapses have been alerted that this kid is into climbing and needs the brain involved more in the legs. The brain grows in the area of moving a leg onto a step because Emma is paying attention to what she is doing.  It isn’t just that she exercises her muscles in a novel fashion but that she also gives it her attention as she learns how to do it. The growth Emma causes in the brain is called mapping.  It takes very little attentive repetition to effect the mapping.

The Great Importance of Attention in Learning

Mapping is a little bit like the difference between driving (or cycling) somewhere yourself or sitting in a cab that is taking you there.  If you are the driving force, you are more likely to remember.  If you are sitting in a cab, looking out the window, you will find it harder to remember the route.  The same is true as Emma gives attention to the skill of getting that leg up on a step and then pushing with her knee and her arms.  She is the driver and she is not likely to forget this new skill.

That’s worth repeating: attentive exercise, in this case of the legs, will strengthen the legs and the area in the motor cortex that is involved with this movement of the legs.  The difference is, and it is a big difference, the change in the brain requires Emma’s attention to what she is doing. (Schwartz 2002) This is only one small example of how Emma’s will and interaction with her environment shapes her brain. Even more interesting is that the brain will continue to be plastic enough to be shaped by her will throughout her life, although probably never as effectively as now:

The motor cortex …is hardly a static layout.  From day to day and even moment to moment, the motor cortex map changes, reflecting the kind of movements it controls.  Complex movements result in outputs from the motor cortex that strengthen some synapses and weaken others, producing enduring changes in synaptic strength that result in those things we call motor skills.  Learning to ride a bicycle is possible, in likelihood, not merely because of something called muscle memory but also because of motor-cortex memory.(Schwartz 2002)

The Equal Importance of Practice in Learning

The non-declarative memories won’t do more mapping in the brain but will reinforce the mapping Emma has already laid down in her brain through her earlier attention to getting her knee on a step.  She needs to do a lot of practice to get this skill into her implicit memory.  Emma didn’t just climb the big steps outside.  Her apartment is on the third floor and ever since she learned to climb steps, she has climbed the two stories to her home.  A parent patiently walks behind ready to catch her if necessary but mainly chatting with Emma about what she is doing, what her trip to the park was like and what they will do when they get home.  All that climbing has created strong arms, legs and strong implicit memory about climbing.  None of this is special to Emma; every child maps new skills in the brain and reinforces the skill with practice.

English: diagram based on Squire and Zola (199...

Image via Wikipedia Click to see details of chart and sources.

Not all of this learning is just about gross motor movement and therefore intrinsic memory.  Her parents deliberately teach Emma how to climb down safely.  Teachers call it explicit teaching. The headfirst dive her mother caught her doing off the couch is not safe and so not acceptable. Emma is not allowed to

ever get down from a height without turning around and lowering her legs first. This practice will eventually end up in her muscle memory and in implicit memory.  She will not think about how to get down safely; she will just do it. I suspect it gives her confidence as she learns because she knows her escape route.

Were her parents thinking this way?  Probably not.  More likely, they were thinking about making sure Emma knows how to be safe even when they aren’t watching.  It is just as well, as who wants to think child–rearing from first principles?

When Emma is ready to move on, she builds on the implicit memory of putting her knee on the big outdoor step, by using her hands to pull herself up on that knee. She doesn’t learn to climb onto the baby gym and balance there immediately after standing.  She learns to put a knee on a step, pull herself on the step and so on to each stage in the process.  Usually when she starts a new stage, the previous stage has been mastered to the extent that it requires little or no thought, (i.e. it is in implicit memory) but the new stage will require her attention.

Some Questions

Emma’s ascent of the baby gym brings up the question of how much planning was involved. It’s hard to believe that she hadn’t thought about getting up there.  The question is how long had she been thinking about it?  Had she been thinking about it on and off for a couple of days, perhaps every time she saw it?  Had she thought of it just that day or just before the attempt?  Did she think about how she was going to get on it, or did she just attack it the way she attacks a big step or the couch?  Did she get one knee and two hands firmly on the gym, balance, and then realise that getting the next knee up was going to be a bit tricky?  These are questions worth answering.  Have they have been answered? How could they be answered?

Whenever or however Emma planned her ascent, there must have been a point when Emma had to start thinking as well as doing. From the expression on her face, you can see the concentration that does not come from doing something learned and mastered.  This is something new.  Her concentration is fierce as she balances and brings the second knee to rest on the gym.  When she is climbing steps, she will look around to see who is watching or taking a picture but this particular feat has all her attention and there is none left over for an audience.  This feat will probably be in her explicit memory as it is the first time and she is very pleased with herself.

Many thanks to Dr. J. P. Thivierge and Dr. Vanessa Taler, both of the School of Psychology, University of Ottawa for suggesting books, clarifying concepts and reading these four posts for errors in neurology.

NEXT:  NEGOTIATING LEARNING BETWEEN PARENTS AND CHILD

Bibliography

LeDoux, J. (2002). Synaptic Self; how our brains become who we are. London, England, Penguin Group.

Schwartz, J. M., Begley, Sharon (2002). The Mind & the Brain: Neuropasticity and the Power of Mental Force. New York, HarperCollins

Vygotsky, L. (1934/1986). Thought and Language. Cambridge Massachusetts, London  England., MIT Press.

Walsh, S. J. (2010). Recognition Memory: Brain-Behaviour Relations from 0 to 3. Human Behaviour, Learning and the Developing Brain: Typical Development. D. F. Coch, Kurt W.; Dawson, Geraldine.

Mistakes: Consider Them a Learning Experience,


            I visited my aunt when I was a gawky long-limbed twelve-year-old.  We were going to the Exhibition in Toronto and I was very excited, as were her two small children.  In the middle of breakfast I dropped the large china pitcher of milk into my bowl.  Cereal, milk and shards of china went everywhere.  I looked up at my aunt, sure she was going to scold her clumsy niece, or fuss about how we might miss the train or at the very least scowl.  “Oh dear”, she said and fetched a rag to sop up the milk while she picked up the shards. The anticipated scowl was a reassuring smile.  I don’t remember what happened next but I do remember my gratitude that she understood it was a mistake, an accident like tripping on an unseen rock.           

The incident had a profound effect on how I raised my own children.  I took to heart, too, Dr. Spock’s advice that cups or food dropped by babies be treated as a signal that they were finished with their drink or meal.  I said “uh-oh”, cleaned up the mess with a smile and lifted the baby down from the high chair.  When the children were old enough, I handed them a rag so they could help me clean up, never mind that at first they made a bigger mess.  Eventually they knew where the rags were and simply cleaned up the mess.  The point was that a mistake was something to be fixed or cleaned up, not a sin.  If you were lucky, it was also a learning experience as my favourite English teacher, Miss da Costa, used to say.

            This is one kind of attitude that encourages children to take risks.  The second is the attitude that praises effort, not ability.  We cannot help the tools we were born with but we can help what we do with them; praising a child for the effort they make with their tools is to give them confidence that they can achieve regardless of setbacks.  As a teacher of the gifted I saw far too many children who were reluctant to take risks because their academic talents had been praised, but not their willingness to try and then try again after they had made a mistake.  The work they had not done was always going to be better than any work they actually did.

            The third important attitude to mistakes is to let go of perfectionism.  There are times when mistakes are dangerous.  I would not want the surgeon operating on my eye to make a mistake with her scalpel or engineers to make mistakes in designing a bridge, however many mistakes are either tools that will further learning or simply trivial.  When excellence, not perfection, is the goal a student can use the mistake as a cue to learn something. I’m sure the surgeon practices and makes a good number of mistakes before she is ready for the operating room. A mistake when driving is a cue for me to pay more attention to a certain aspect of my driving.  A perfectionist might be panicked by a mistake or try to ignore it; a learner adds it to the information she needs to become excellent at her task.

            I once had a student who rarely tried in class; she was talented, had no apparent difficulties, got on well with her peers and teachers and did want to succeed.  Try as I might I could find no insight into the cause of her minimal effort until the day she sat down with me and her parents to fill in her high school options form.  When she had finished filling it out, her mother took it from her and proofread it, literally dotting I’s and crossing t’s as she reread the form. 

As I watched the mother, I reflected that had she left the form alone, the worst that could have happened had her daughter made a mistake would have been that the girl might have found herself in the boys’ gym class or in music instead of art.  From that she would have learned to pay attention when she filled out forms.  Instead what my student learned was that she could do nothing good enough for her parents.  No wonder she was so reluctant to try.  Her mistakes were not a learning experience, but an embarrassment.

            If you want children and students who happily work and are unfazed by mistakes, praise their efforts not their talent, encourage and teach them to correct their mistakes and let go of your own perfectionism.  Ask yourself if your expectations are about your wants or your child’s needs.  It is nice to hear your child praised but it is even better so see him happy and confident as he works towards goals he has chosen with the insight that comes from being allowed to learn from his mistakes.