Sunday, December 02, 2012

Why Kids Don't Do Homework

Reader Marcia Hall just posted an excellent summary, "6 Reasons Your Child Refuses to Do Homework."  I urge all parents of school-age children to read this.

Homework makes a critical contribution to effective learning. First, it imposes memory rehearsal soon after new learning is presented. This promotes consolidation into long-term memory. Second, homework causes students to think about new learning, and thinking itself is the best form of memory rehearsal.

Unfortunately, too many teachers make homework "drill and kill." To be most effective, homework should require students to think about the learning in new ways and contexts. For example, if they learn some history facts during the day, the homework needs to require them to make an application of those facts, such as relating it to lessons for today's world or evaluating the history to preceding events or those that followed later.

Another kind of homework that is useful is as preparation for what is going to be presented soon in class. This use of homework can help stimulate interest. In any case, it gives students some factual background that will help them get more out of what will be covered in class.

If you or the teachers disapprove of homework, please re-think your position. Homework of the right kind is a time-tested major contributor to learning.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

What Happens to Aging Brain

Deterioration of the brain sneaks up on most of us. The first clue might be hearing loss, especially in the higher frequencies. We may be forced into bifocals, even trifocals. But the most serious signs of deterioration occur in the brain.
As we age, our reflexes slow. We walk and act slower. We even talk slower. Our memory starts to fail, especially the short-term form of memory ability that is so crucial for learning new things.
Brain-scan technology reveals aging can cause the brain to shrink. Nerve tracts in the brain shrivel, making the cerebrospinal fluid cavities larger and even leaving gaping holes in the brain. Shriveling occurs in the neuron terminal branches that form the contact points among neurons. People may lose 40% or more of dopamine neurons causing Parkinson’s disease.
These are brutal truths. Whole societies are being affected in major economic and social ways in countries where the population is aging rapidly, such as Japan (23% over 65), Germany (20.5%), Italy (20.4%), and the U.S. (13%). The countries that show that fastest rate of change in population age, in order, are Iran, Vietnam, Mexico, India, and South Korea. The obvious consequences are a shrinking labor force and shifting of a nation’s wealth to health care.
The challenge for aging individuals is to reduce the rate of their decline. This has created a growth anti-aging industry focused on vitamins and supplements, fad diets, gym facilities, mind training programs, and books like my books on memory.  The good news is that these things can work, if they are begun while people are in early middle age.
A likely cause of mental decline in most people is diminished blow flow in small vessels that are easily plugged by cholesterol and fats or ruptured by high blood pressure. These undetected “mini-strokes” are probably quite common as we age, yet they cause cumulative, progressive damage. Another source of damage is the lifetime cumulative effect of oxidative free radicals that result from energy metabolism. The brain consumes about 20% of all the body’s oxygen, even though it only ways about 3.5 pounds.
When brain cells do die or are damaged for any reason, healthy neurons are assaulted by inflammatory chemicals, like cytokines, that are released by the brain’s immune cell system. Brain inflammation is commonly caused by infections such as colds and flu and by diets deficient in anti-oxidants.
We now know brain function need not decline with age, at least for people who stay healthy and mentally active. By the way, research shows that a lifetime of vigorous learning helps prevent or delay Alzheimer’s disease.
Level of education and lifetime of intellectual stimulus of research seem to protect brain against aging.  Here are some examples:

  • Leo Tolstoy learned to ride a bicycle at 67
  • Queen Victoria began learning Hindustani at 68
  • Giuseppe Verdi was still composing operas in his 80s
  • Somerset Maugham wrote his last book at 84
  • Frank Lloyd Wright designed his last building at 89
  • In their 90s, Robert Frost was writing poems and George Bernard Shaw was writing plays, Georgia O’Keefe was painting pictures, and Pablo Casals was playing cello
  • Oliver Wendell Holmes was still dominating the Supreme Court until he retired at 91
  • Linus Pauling was actively publishing just before his death at age 93.
  • Leopold Stokowski recorded 20 albums in his 90s and signed a six-year contract at 96.
Scientists are particularly noted for being sharp and productive long into the late 80s and 90s. The National Science Foundation reports that at age 69 more than 29% of scientists and engineers with PhDs still work full time, compared to 13% of scientists with a M.S. or B.S. degree. Marion Diamond, an active senior scientist at 75, published data showing that brain cells can grow and learning can improve throughout life.
Of course genes and luck have a lot to do with how well one ages. Even so, gene expression is influenced by things like exercise, diet, and mental activity. Two genes have already been identified that become expressed as new memories are formed.
Too many seniors resign themselves to the ravages of age.  They will find, however, large benefits from challenging themselves in new experiences and competencies. Better yet, learning new things makes you feel good about yourself, especially when accomplishing things other people think you can’t do.

Sources:

1. Discover Magazine (2012). Special issue “2062 World Almanac.” October.
2. Rupp, R. (1998) Committed to Memory. New York: Random House.
3. Diamond, Marian (1993). An optimistic view of aging brain. The Free Library. http://www.thefreelibrary.com/An+optimistic+view+of+the+aging+brain.-a013700953


“Dr. Bill,” Senior Professor of Neuroscience at Texas A&M, is author of a new memory improvement book, Memory Power 101 (SkyhorsePublishing.com) and an e-book in multiple formats for students, Better Grades, Less Effort (Smashwords.com).

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Memory Schemas: the Under-used Approach to Improving Education


I just attended a “memory schema” symposium at the annual meeting of the Society of Neuroscience. The “schema” idea is that memory of prior learning provides a framework or context for new learning. That is, new information is evaluated for relevance to preexisting schema, which may influence how readily new information transfers into memory.

The notion of schema stems originally from Harry Harlow’s ideas back in the 1940s. Harlow showed that when a monkey learns a new kind of problem, he solves it by slow plodding trial and error. However, if he has experience with a large number of problems of a similar type or class, the trial and error is replaced by a process in which the individual problems are eventually solved insightfully. For example, if you learn how to do task A, B, and C, when presented with a new task D, you might say to yourself, “I don’t know how to do this task D, but it is like task B, and I do know how to do that!” Thus, you have a leg up on learning how to do task D. The idea underlies how people become experts in a given field: their accumulated learning of various tasks provides them with a repertoire of what Harlow called “learning sets” that makes it easier to learn new things.

Few of the speakers or audience discussants seemed to be aware of this literature, and their ideas weren’t really all that new, except that the focus is now shifting to memory instead of insight. The basic idea of memory schemas is that associations among learning objects profoundly affect how easily and well a person can remember. Certainly, memory is promoted when learning objects are congruent, that is, have meaningful relationships. Sometimes, however, you can easily remember incongruent items because they are so different. These ideas are important to education, and in the panel discussion at the end of the symposium, speakers were asked to address this matter. But nobody did. And in school systems, few educators do either.

Master teachers have always known intuitively to structure meaningful relationships among learning objects. In principle, this is done by creating associations of word pairs, concepts, spatial locations, and assorted rules and principles. All these things make it easier for students to learn. The problem is that we educators don’t devote enough thought about practical ways to create structured relationships that will promote memory formation and recall. I don’t follow much of the educational research literature, but I suspect that very little of it focuses on the best way to organize the presentation of learning materials. For instance, has anybody conducted an experiment that tests how well students learn the central concepts in the U.S. constitution and its amendments, depending on how the concepts are presented? Or what’s the best way to structure learning objects in the teaching of cell organelles and their functions? Typically, in the latter case for example, a biology teacher considers each organelle in turn and spews out information on what it does. That may not be the most memorizable way to present the information. Maybe it would be better to begin with the biological needs of the cell, how those needs relate to each other, and then how various organelles fulfill those needs. In fact, I took that kind of approach in the on-line biology curriculum I wrote, but no experiment has compared the ease of learning this way versus the traditional approach. I do know from my own experience with trying to learn a little Spanish that the ease of memorizing verb conjugations was greatly affected by how I laid out the words in a table.

To return the schema symposium, the experiments reported made it clear that structured relationships of learning objects improve all aspects of learning: encoding, memory consolidation, and recall. The time has come to develop teaching strategies that exploit the brain’s preferred mode of operation.

One example is the development of a PowerPoint method I developed to create a one-flash card of learning objects that consists of mnemonic icons systematically placed in specified spatial locations. The images represent concepts to memorize, and the spatial locations create spatial relationships that promote memory of the learning objects. For details, see my e-book for students.

In more general terms, the primary task of teachers and students is to develop strategies to enrich the formation of memory schemas. This means finding ways to increase the number and congruence of associations among facts and concepts being taught. The research shows that major benefits can be expected. 

Source:

Harlow H F. 1949. The formation of learning sets. Psychol. Rev. 56:51-65.

Klemm, W. R. 2012. Better Grades, Less Effort. (e-book in all formats at Smashwords.com)

Van Kesteren, M. T. R., and Henson, R. N. A. 2012. The re-emergence of schemas in memory research: from encoding to reconsolidation. Society of Neuroscience Symposium. New Orleans.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Behavioral Therapy Erases Bad Memories: Timing Matters


It has taken 50 years, but memory research has finally put it all together to provide practical guidance to reduce forgetting of what we need to remember and promote forgetting of useless or disturbing memories.

I have blogged before about animal studies showing that bad memories can be erased. Bad memories are often created like conditioned reflexes in Pavlov’s dogs. That is, the situational context in which bad things occur act as associational cues that help cement the memory. If the cues are repeatedly present but the bad event is not, the learned associated tends to go away.
But in both animals and humans, this “extinction” as it is called is not really permanent and the bad memories can recur.  
Memory researchers have recently discovered that when a memory is recalled, whether good or bad, there is a short time where it can be modified by new thought or experience, and then it is put back in storage (called “reconsolidation”). When this phenomenon was discovered, it raised the possibility that timing of extinction trials might influence effectiveness of treatments for anxiety. That is, better treatment results might occur if extinction is attempted during the vulnerable reconsolidation stage. In 2009, Joseph LeDoux and his colleagues demonstrated in rodents that timing of extinction trials did in fact influence the erasure of fear memory.  
This modifiable stage provides a way to treat even really bad memories, like post-traumatic stress disorder. When a soldier, for example, recalls a bomb killing a buddy, that terrible memory is subject to modification before it is re-stored. A typical modern treatment for PTSD is to inject an anxiety-reducing drug just before the bad memory is triggered that interferes with reconsolidation of memory. This process may have to be repeated many times before the bad memory is finally gone. Now a new study from the Uppsala University in Sweden has shown that bad memories can be erased without drug.
Investigators created bad memories in human volunteers by giving them an electric shock each time a certain picture was flashed on a computer screen. They repeated this experience 16 times to establish a conditioned fear response. The next day after such training, the subjects were brought back into the test room, and the fear-of-shock memory re-triggered by showing the picture that had been associated with shock. This was repeated eight times without associated shock, as a way to produce extinction. Half of the subjects received their extinction treatments at 10 minutes later in which the fearful stimulus was repeated without any shock. The other half of the subjects were given the same extinction treatment but delayed six hours, when it was presumably too late to interfere with reconsolidation.
To measure the amount of fear evoked by later presentations of the picture, investigators objectively measured the amount of fear, using a skin conductance test that measured essentially how sweaty the palms were. Signs of fear were absent in the group given extinction trials at 10 minutes when reconsolidation was still in progress. But signs of fear persisted in the six-hour group.
To pursue questions about what was happening in the brain, investigators used brain imaging, and particularly noticed activity changes in the amygdala, a structure deep within the brain that is hyperactive in the presence of fear memories. On the third day, all subjects were brought back to the lab and brain scans run when the fearful image was shown. In those subjects in the six-hour group, activity in the amygdala predicted whether signs of fear (skin conductance) would return. No such prediction occurred in the 10-min group. In other words, people who lost their fear memory, as indicated by skin sweating, also lost the signs of the memory in the amygdala. Similar effects were seen in the network of other brain areas linked to the amygdala in the processing of fear memories.
None of this should have been surprising. Back in the 1960s, I and many others conducted studies in animals that showed memory of a learning event depended on what happened shortly after the learning. We knew that this short window of time was vulnerable to other mental events that could prevent memory consolidation. Implications for education were obvious: multi-tasking, for example, introduces mental events that interfere with memory consolidation. But one wonders why it took science 50 years to apply what we knew about consolidation to the treatment of anxiety disorders. The key was the recent discovery that recall of a memory puts it back in the vulnerable position of having to be reconsolidated.
Source:
Agren, T. et al. (2012). Disruption of reconsolidation erases a fear memory trace in the human amygdala. Science. 337 (6101): 1550-1552. 

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Judging Learning Effectiveness During Learning

When students study, they may monitor their progress during a study session by periodically forming judgments on how well they are remembering the material. Such judgments guide how much further study is deemed necessary. Researchers have studied this matter in the case of paired associate learning (where you learn lists of word pairs like dogs-cats, newspaper-book, etc.).  In particular, researchers looked for correlations between later memory recall either immediately after learning or after a short delay in which judgments about learning are based on a covert attempt to recall. Results indicate that making judgments about how well something will be remembered can be just as efficient as taking an actual test.

In delayed judgments, the student typically makes an initial covert recall effort and then, based on that, judges how well the material was learned. Future recall tends to correlate with predictions on recall on a future test. That is not so surprising, other than the fact that other studies have shown students over-estimate what they have learned and under-estimate how much additional student would be beneficial.

A retrieval attempt directly reveals evidence of how well memory has formed. The act of retrieval itself may enhance learning. Successful retrieval could constitute an additional reinforcing learning opportunity. Indeed, other studies have shown that testing may lead to better final recall than a comparable amount of study. When an item is retrieved in covert recall and leads to a high judgment of learning, the item gets a long-term memory boost.
In the present study, the researchers directly compared final recall and delayed judgments of learning of paired association of lists of 40 words in Swedish (the native language of the subjects) and Swahili under differing testing conditions. One hundred twenty-one Swedish college students were divided into experimental groups: 1) repeated study and testing (study-test, “ST group”), 2) repeated study and termination of testing after the first successful recall test (study-test, dropout,“STd” group), and 3) repeated study and judgments of learning (study-judgment of learning “STjol” group).
Testing involved presenting the first word of a pair to serve as a cue to probe for recall of the associated word. All groups received four initial learning episodes with 5 seconds per item, after which they had 8 seconds to respond to test on the item (ST, STd) or render a judgment on their prediction of cued recall for that item a week later (STjol). All groups were compared for their performance on the same test a week later.

The ST group went through four successive study-test sessions, in each of which they studied all 40 word pairs on a computer screen. Immediately at the end of the list, the students took a 30-second distractor test (math quizzes). Then their recall was explicitly tested by presenting each Swahili word, whereupon they had 8 seconds to provide the Swedish equivalent. Students experienced four such study and test sessions. A similar procedure was used for the STd group, except that on any given test, each correctly recalled item was dropped from subsequent tests; thus the number of word pairs dropped from 40 on the first test to the number of pairs missed on the previous test.

The STjol group experienced a similar process including the 30 second distractor task, except that the test trials were replaced by jol trials. That is, instead of being required to provide the Swedish word that matched the Swahili probe word, the subjects were given 8 second to render a judgment for each word pair by answering this question: “How certain are you that you will recall the Swedish word in a week when we test you again? “ Students used a rating scale of 20% sure, 40%, 60%, 80%, 100%.

During the learning phase, the two ST groups increased their scores at about the same rate from the first session to the fourth. Thus, dropping a pair from testing once it was recalled correctly did not seem a disadvantage to learning. Authors assume the jol groups would have increased scores similarly, but of course they were not explicitly tested during the learning phase. Their prediction scores did, however, increase over the four sessions at a similar rate as recall did in the ST groups.

The key issue was elucidated on the memory test a week later. The ST group had better recall than the STd group, thus revealing that dropping items during study had long-term consequences. This is reminiscent of studies by others on flash cards that showed that best long-term recall was produced by re-testing with all cards in the deck, including those that were
answered correctly in a previous self-test.

The jol group performed better on the final test than the STd group but results were about the same as those for the ST group. Thus, making a delayed judgment during the learning phase about how well one has learned was just as effective for recall a week later as actually being tested during the learning phase.

What do we make of that? It seems that to make a prediction for ability to recall word pairs, a person has to first make a covert recall effort. If you covertly recall a word readily, you would like give a judgment rate of 100%, whereas if you struggled with covert recall, you might judge future recall at only 40%, for example. To make such judgments, the learner has to monitor the learning in real time. Such monitoring in order to render a judgment entails covert self-testing, which these results suggest is just as effective long term as explicit testing.

Such results confirm what we know about memory being promoted by self-testing, whether explicit or covert. As a practical matter for study strategies where it is inconvenient to take actual tests during study sessions, it prudent to conduct covert self-testing wherein a student asks questions like “how well have I remembered this item?” If the answer is “not well,” more study is called for.  Confident judgments will tend to be confirmed when taking a real test later. In other words, making judgments about learning effectiveness during a learning phase helps a student to monitor progress and know how much time to devote to study. In addition, making such estimates seems, in itself, to promote learning because covert self-testing is required.

Sources:

J├Ânsson, F. U., Hedner, M., and Olsson, M. J. (2012). The testing effect as a function of explicit testing of instructions and judgments of learning. Experimental Psychology. 59 (5): 251-257.

Roediger, H. L., and Karpicke, J. D. 2006. Test enhanced learning. Taking memory tests improves long-term retentio

Monday, September 10, 2012

10 Ways to Slow Mental Decline with Age


Deterioration of the brain usually sneaks up on us. By the time we realize it, it may be too late. As we get older, we more frequently start asking questions like “Where did I put the car keys?” “What was it I was supposed to get at the store?” “What’s your name again?” Most of us have had to ask questions like this, and it seems to happen more often as we get older. We can’t turn back our biological clock, but there are things seniors can do to reduce the rate of their mental decline. The time to act is while you are still relatively young.

 I have made a career out of studying brain and behavioral research literature, and I know some of this research is relevant to everyday memory problems. I have summarized these findings in my new book, Memory Power 101 (298 pages, $14.95, Skyhorse.com), and keep readers up to date with my blog (thankyoubrain.blogspot.com).

As people age, beginning in early middle age, many of them experience a brain deterioration that progresses silently over the next decade or two, sometimes ending in devastating senility. Behaviorally, aging can cause your reflexes to slow. You walk and act slower. You even talk slower. Our memory starts to fail, especially the short-term form of memory ability that is so crucial for learning new things.

Now that bran-scan technology is widely available, physicians have discovered that the brain usually shrinks as people get older. The shrinkage increases the space between the brain surface and the skull. The cavities that hold cerebrospinal fluid get bigger. Nerve tracts in the brain shrivel, even leaving gaping holes in the brain. The “dendritic trees” shrivel, and these have major consequences because dendrites are the parts of neurons that form the contact points, and their loss reduces brain circuitry. You may also lose 40% or more of your dopamine neurons, and that may lead to Parkinson’s disease

For aging individuals, the challenge is to reduce the rate of their decline. This has created a growth anti-aging industry focused on vitamins and supplements, fad diets, gym facilities, mind training programs.  The good news is that some of these things work, if they are begun while people are in early middle age. Given that our country now has so many baby boomers in the over-50 category, it seems useful to summarize some things people can do to prevent or slow memory decline as they age. I particularly like the summary at this site.

Here is an expanded list of things I think are especially important for people entering middle age.

1. Get better organized. Many things we try to remember do not have to be remembered if we get better organized. Car keys, for example, should ONLY be in the car, your pocket/purse, or the same place in your house. Ditto for many other objects, such as purse, hat, glasses, etc. Life is a lot simpler when you have a place for everything, with everything in its place. Habit relieves the memory.

2. Make a special effort to pay attention, concentrate. Research shows that aging reduces a person’s ability to focus and pay attention. This also means that seniors have to work harder at filtering distractions, such as when we open the refrigerator door and forget what we are looking for because we thought of something else before we opened the door. New learning has to be consolidated to form lasting memory, and this takes a little uninterrupted time and conscious rehearsal right after you learn it. Seniors are especially susceptible to having temporary memories wiped out by distractions.

3. Challenge yourself mentally. Seek out new experiences, an active social life, and mental demands such as learning a new language, playing chess, or getting an advanced college degree. Learning new things always has the benefit of making you feel good about yourself, and this is especially true for seniors who accomplish things most people think they can’t do. By the way, there is abundant research literature showing that a lifetime of vigorous learning helps stave off Alzheimer’s disease.

4. Reduce Stress. Acute stress helps you be alert, pay attention better, and increase your chances of remembering what is happening at the time of stress. But chronic stress, whether caused by the same or different stressors, clearly disrupts memory formation and recall. Chronic stress and the hormones it releases can actually kill neurons and shrink the brain (which shrinks with age anyway, and only gets worse with chronic stress).

5. Eat foods with vitamins and anti-oxidants. Make certain you have a balanced diet. Supplements usually won’t help memory unless you have a nutritional deficiency. But even with a good died, adding vitamins C, D, and E can be helpful. Several research studies indicate a memory benefit from eating foods loaded with anti-oxidants. Blueberries (especially on an empty stomach). Another potent anti-oxidant is an ingredient in red wine, resveratrol, but there is no way you could drink enough; however, resveratrol supplements are now on the market. There is also suggestive evidence for memory improvement from omega-3 fatty acids and folic acid. Pharmaceuticals to improve memory are in the works, but you may have to wait quite a while before research shows which ones really work.

6. Don’t get obese, especially in middle age.
Confocal microscopy reveals that every added pound of fat adds approximately one mile of capillary tubing. Obviously, all these added vascular tubing puts a strain on the heart. A diet that produces new fat may well contribute to hardening of the arteries, which in turn compounds the added workload on the heart. People who are obese commonly have high blood pressure and other risk factors involving metabolism.

Obesity is a common cause of diabetes, which adds its own toll on blood vessels and the heart, as well as on nerve cells. No wonder then that obese people may develop mental deterioration. The problem may be worse in women. The more a woman weighs, the worse her memory. No, I am not a chauvinist pig. This claim comes from actual research —by a woman, no less. Diana Kerwin and her colleagues at Northwestern University studied 8,745 ages 65 to 79 and found that for every one-point increase in body mass index, the score on a 100 point memory test dropped by one point.

A likely cause of mental decline in most people is diminished blow flow in small vessels that are easily plugged by cholesterol and lipids or ruptured by high blood pressure. These “mini-strokes” are probably quite common as we age, and though they go undetected, they cause a cumulative damage which progressively affects our behavioral and mental capabilities. Brain cells are among the most metabolically active of all cells: they constantly fire electrical pulses and secrete relatively huge amounts of secretions (neurotransmitters). The brain consumes about 20% of all the body’s oxygen, even though it only ways about 3.5 pounds.

When brain cells do die or are damaged for any reason, healthy neurons are assaulted by inflammatory chemicals, like cytokines, that are released by the brain’s immune cell system. Fat deposits not only stress the heart, they also increase the amount of cytokines, which are hormones that can cause inflammation. Brain inflammation is also commonly caused by infections such as colds and flu and by diets deficient in anti-oxidants.

7. Exercise the body. Though exercise doesn’t do much to cause weight loss unless you are a marathon runner of tennis singles champion, it has many other benefits (improved circulation of blood to the brain, improved levels of HDL cholesterol) that can directly benefit memory and cognitive function. Vigorous aerobic exercise can improve your circulation and perhaps blood flow in the brain. But there also seem to be memory benefits from exercise that is independent of blood circulation. We don’t know why. Maybe relief of stress and improved mood are factors. We know that positive emotions help memory, but for unknown reasons.

8. Exercise the memory. The more you make an effort to memorize, the easier it seems to get. Practice the memorization tricks used by “memory athletes” that I describe in my book. I describe in my book specific image-based systems (“peg systems”) for performing astonishing memory feats, such as card counting, remembering long strings of numbers, and remembering the gist of what is on every page of a magazine or book.

9. Get plenty of sleep. Many studies show the brain is processing the day’s events while you sleep and consolidating them in memory. This kind of “off-line” rehearsal occurs just for the learning experiences on the day of sleep. Naps help too! How’s that for good news?

10. Believe in your brain’s ability to get better. Of course genes and luck have a lot to do with how well one ages mentally. But genes and luck seem to be more common in people who do the nine things mention above. Too many seniors buy into the popular myth that old dogs can’t learn new tricks. They resign themselves to defeatism. But the bottom line is that, unless you have Alzheimer’s disease, you can improve your mental sharpness. Getting older has enough frustrations. Don’t compound them by tolerating mental decline. Enjoy an improved brain. 

Thursday, August 09, 2012

A "follower" of this blog just steered me to an important post: http://www.onlinephdprograms.com/the-10-biggest-breakthroughs-in-the-science-of-learning/

It demolishes a couple of popular myths about learning. This is well worth checking out.

And don't forget my books:





Tuesday, July 17, 2012

TV and Education Re-visited


When television first became popular around 1950, it was dominated by such shows as the Milton Berle comedy hour, “I Love Lucy,” and professional wrestling. Those who missed out on the halcyon days of early television might enjoy reading about its history.
The potential for a damaging impact on education was recognized at the outset. In 1950 Boston University's President Dr. Daniel L. Marsh warned that “if the [television] craze continues with the present level of programs, we are destined to have a nation of morons.” Well here we are. Just look at how voters re-elect incompetents, panderers, and demagogues.
Quick to jump into the breach anticipated by the brain-eating monster of TV, a new movement of “educational TV” sprang up. National Educational Television was born on May 16, 1954 and was a non-profit effort to bring educational programs to the masses. The network was not sustainable as such and was transformed into the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) in October, 1970, which continues to the present. Many of the stations are university affiliates that have in modern times made some attempts at education, but the programming now  is devoted largely to music and news. In the early days, if you got up at five AM you might learn a foreign language or something else educationally useful. I remember around 1965 seeing my 5-year-old son looking at test patterns and then a college physics course, while waiting for the cartoons to come on. I’m sure he didn’t learn much physics. Today, educational efforts can still be found on television, but most such programming is distributed over the Internet.
I, among numerous others, am most concerned about how television affects childhood brain development and capability for learning. It steals time away from doing things, such as interacting with others and playing with objects. Language and communication abilities are stunted because TV communication is unidirectional. Kids don’t generate communication, they just receive it. The Raise Smart Kid website cites scholarly reports showing that TV viewing takes away time from reading and improving reading skills through practice.  Kids watching cartoons and entertainment television during pre-school years have poorer pre-reading skills at age 5.
The corrosive nature of television’s effect on childhood intellect has only grown in recent years. The Online College Course’s website has a telling info-graphic titled “This is your child’s brain on television.” Can you believe it―by the age of three, 1/3 of children have a TV in their room. The average child watches 1500 hours of TV a year, but only goes to school 900 hours a year. Only a few of the shows that young children watch have much educational value. There are a few exceptions: Sesame Street and Mr. Robert’s Neighborhood got 5-apple ratings for educational usefulness. But a lot of the other stuff is just plain junk. Moreover, a lot of what kids see is not age appropriate, commonly with sex and violence.
The website points out some of the deleterious effects on attitudes and behavior when young children spend too much time watching television. I want to focus on two issues related to learning to learn. One area of concern is learning to read. Reading, for those who do it well, is the most efficient way to learn. But kids these days tend not to read well. Many don’t want to read, and they were probably conditioned that way by watching too much television. TV is the easy way to get information: you don’t have to do anything―just sit there like a lump and watch.
A study reviewed in the Huffington Post revealed that American high-school students, when they do read, read books that are at the fifth grade level. Of the top 40 books teens in grades 9-12 are reading in school, the average reading level of that list is grade 5.3. Another study established that 67% of U.S. students are reading below grade level. I know these are real problems. I interact with dozens of teachers at professional development workshops, and every teacher I have asked say their students are two or more years behind grade level.
The other problem that nobody seems to talk much about is the learning passivity imposed by television. Young people are being conditioned, much like Pavlov’s dogs, to be passive learners. Learning how to learn well requires active engagement. Good learners must train themselves to generate and sustain interest, to pay attention, to grapple with ideas, and integrate knowledge into ever-evolving learning styles and thinking schema. Reading does that. Good learners do things with their learning: they grow the depth of understanding, they hone creativity skills. “Hands-on” learning activities can help young people develop such skills, although “minds-on” activities are much better. In any case, promoting such skills is something that TV, even educational TV, does rather poorly.
So the next time you get up in arms about our failing schools, remember that a childhood filled with TV is probably a big part of the problem.

* * * *







My new book, Memory Power 101 can be ordered now. It should be at your Barnes and Noble bookstore or you can order online. Power-packed with 298 pages of information, it’s a great bargain for only $14.95.

Friday, July 06, 2012

Brave New World of Gene Change in Brain


In recent years scientists have discovered mobile pieces of genetic material that move around inside cells. These pieces are called retrotransposons. They can copy themselves and insert near and into DNA and thus induce mutations. Australian research recently reported in the journal Nature reveals that retrotransposons can alter the genome of human brain cells. In fact, retrotransposons more effectively penetrate neuron genes than those in blood cells that were used for comparison. Thousands of retrotransposon mutations were seen in two of the five areas examined from brains of human post-mortem donors.

Though these pieces of DNA are not genes, they interact with genes that hop around to different sites within a chromosome (perhaps you heard about Barbara McClintok’s 1983 Nobel Prize winning discovery of “jumping genes”). All cells have enzymes that cut transposons out of a string of DNA, which then insert back in at other locations in the DNA. Sometimes the cut includes an adjacent gene along with the transposon, and thus when reinsertion occurs the gene hitchhikes along to the new location. The jumping around is not random; it occurs preferentially into active protein-coding regions, even sometimes in a different chromosome. The potential for changing function is enormous, yet we don’t know just what functional consequences occur. We do know that the process is most common in humans and higher primates.

We have known for some time that all cells are influenced by epigenetic effects; that is, events in the environment can alter the genome. The mechanism may well involve retrotransposons. Gene manipulation may be especially robust for altering learning and memory. It may be no accident that retrotransposon mutations were seen in human hippocampus, the brain region most directly involved in forming memories and the one part of the brain where new cells are continuously born in adults. Memory of learned events results from more or less lasting changes in the junctions (synapses) among cells in the circuits that processed the learning. These lasting changes are enabled by new protein production in those synapses. That protein is under genetic control (thus a memory can be sustained because the genes can replace any protein that degrades over time). 

Aldous Huxley, 1894-1963

The implications of this discovery for learning and memory―and brain function in general―are inestimable. More importantly, and here is where the “Brave New World” comes in, there should be the potential for manipulating gene functions in predictable and lasting ways by using synthetic transposons (which should be easy to manufacture).  Transport of synthetic retrotransposons into neurons might be accomplished by packaging them with a harmless virus; the basics of “transfection” technology are already well established. The hard part will be in discovering what transposons produce desired changes in brain function. But it seems reasonable to test various retrotransposons in the hope that some can be found that will help to cement or magnify memories and perhaps others that erase unwanted memories, as occur in post-traumatic stress syndrome. There is a potential down-side, however. Some retrotransposons may be a cause of cancer.



Source:

Baillie, J. K., et al. (2011) Somatic retrotransposition alters the genetic  landscape of the human brain. Nature. 479: 534-537.

NOTE: My new book on practical ways to improve memory will be released on August 1. You can order now at http://www.skyhorsepublishing.com/book/?GCOI=60239100060310

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

What's New in Brain-based Learning


              BASED     





In an earlier post, I explained the new trend of “neuro-education.” Science is discovering many things about learning and memory that have not yet been incorporated into school programs. Schools are so focused on teaching kids what to know to pass government-mandated tests that they don’t seem to get around to teaching students how to develop their capacity to learn and remember.

On-line Universities.com has just posted a very nice item on how “neuroscience is changing the classroom.” The post explains nine neuro-education interventions:

1.      Cognitive Tutoring. There is a current system for algebra that employs computer-based AI to adjust to student needs as well as to track student progress and thought processes so teachers can better help them learn.
2.      High School Starts Later in the Day. Because adolescents don’t get enough sleep and are not fully functional in early morning, some schools are starting school later. I agree with this policy and go further to suggest an afternoon nap (recent memories are consolidated in a nap).
3.      Spaced Learning. Students learn more when episodes of learning are spaced out over time rather than pushed into one single episode. Many teachers already do that, but all of them should, because research has clearly established this is the best way to form lasting memory.
4.      Individualized Instruction. This is too labor intensive to be very practical, but digital tools are becoming available to help. In addition, teachers are being encouraged to expose students to novel experiences when presenting information to build entirely new neural connections or to connect new information to previous experiences students have had. A problem in the past, I think, is that teachers have surrendered to the notion that learners should always use their preferred mode (visual, auditory, kinesthetic). I think they should use all three to expand their capabilities.
5.      Less Down Time. The blog used another heading, but two ideas here are well established yet in great need for more implementation. One is to get students to read more.  Research has clearly established that people who read more challenging books often have a greater variety and number of neural connections. Yet, most adolescents notoriously avoid reading, and many teachers let them get away with it. The other sorely needed intervention is to have shorter summer breaks, year-round school, and more frequent short breaks.
6.      Better Identification and Remediation of Learning Disabilities. ADHD and dyslexia are the two big problems. Research is still revealing that we have not optimized remediation practices, but useful things are available that are not always put into practice.
7.      Fun Learning Environment. Positive reinforcement is the most powerful teaching tool there is. A fun environment, even including friendly games and competition, works. More teachers should try it, as long as they don’t get so wrapped up in the games that academic rigor is watered down.
8.      Team Learning. Students remember information better over the long term if they learn in groups. There are well-known formalisms for effective team learning. Doing this over the Internet can be especially useful. Not enough teachers know or use team learning in optimal ways.
9.      Neuro-education Findings. The idea is to spend less time on teaching content and more on strengthening and developing the brain itself. There is a whole lot already known that is not being implemented in schools. More application is inevitable.

I do what I can with my e-book, Better Grades, Less Effort, and with my new book, Power Memory 101, which the publisher is releasing this August.


NOW RECRUITING TEACHERS: I am developing a new teaching resource for middle-school science. The lessons are based on “brain-based” teaching or “neuro-education.” The idea is to teach students aspects of brain function that will help them perform better in school. I have now added some of this material to the brain section of our Organ Systems module of our middle-school website.

In addition, I have invented a new system for teaching, learning, studying, and remembering all in the same visual and conceptual environment. That environment is created as a “one-card” virtual flash card that contains neuro-education material that would cover 1-3 typical class periods. The system is based on a PowerPoint file that contains a table. Icons representing key concepts are placed on the top left corner of a cell, with associated text information placed as bulleted text in the corresponding cell. Each object is then tagged for animated display upon mouse click anywhere off screen. Lectures, study, and self-testing occur in slide-show mode wherein the user navigates the single screen by mouse click from icon to associated text box to next icon, etc.

The system would seem to have the following beneficial features: comprehensive, holistic access to all the information, compact, flexible/extensible, cohesively organized, easily and quickly studied, self-tested in flash-card style, embodied key memorization principles, and easily constructed and modified.

I am recruiting teachers to test this presentation/study card in their class. I will limit participation to the first 50 middle-school teachers who sign up. Details are below:





What I Pledge to You:

1. You get a free e-copy of the flash card and access to the instructional material.

2. My promise to maintain your anonymity, while retaining the right to pool survey data from all participating teachers and their students.

3. An e-copy explaining how to create and use the one-card flash-card invention.
4. Notice of when and where a report of the findings is published, and an electronic copy of the report.



What You Need to Agee to Do:

1. Agree to teach at least one middle-school class period this Fall from the “flash card” and give a study copy to each student.

2. Fill out a simple website survey of your opinions. Have your students fill out a simple website survey of their opinions.
3. Get on the waiting list by sending me your name and e-mail address to wklemmATSIGNcvm.tamu.edu

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Teaching Kids to Think


Learning how to learn is a major objective of schooling. Yet, in my view, the emphasis in most schools is on WHAT to learn, not HOW to learn. My Improve Your Learning and Memory blog is aimed at filling that gap, yet these useful ideas have a hard time penetrating curricula that are designed to teach to government-mandated tests.

Yet another, apparently unmet, challenge in education seems to exist: teaching students how to think. A recent U.S. Dept. Education survey reported in the Nation’s Report Card suggests that science students may be learning how to perform simple investigations but do not do well  in thinking about the meaning and implications of the results and how to use data to make decisions.

About 2,000 students in each grade level 4, 8, and 12 were tested in three real-life science  problem-solving scenarios in an interactive computer test environment. Anybody can take the tests, which are posted on the NRC website; the tests are easy and fun. The test records results of each simulation (you control the test parameters), your answers to the questions, and then provides the average test scores of students who participated in the survey. The test I took (8th grade bottling honey problem) consists of computer simulations where speed of a steel ball dropped into four different liquids is recorded at different temperatures. Students can repeat various temperature conditions at will, and then they answer questions requiring deductive conclusions. The questions were not hard, but you do have to pay attention and think. What is disturbing is that on several of these questions the vast majority of students got it wrong. Even when they got the right answer, many students could not give the proper explanation for why it was right.

Last month, the agency reported results from a paper-and-pencil test given last year which showed that less than a third of 8th graders performed at a “proficient” level.

Results like these are prompting a re-thinking of national science standards, which I discussed in a recent blog. The new emphasis is to shift from rote memorization of subject matter to building students’ deeper understanding of core science concepts, how they connect, and how they can be applied to the real world.

My response to this need is to explore how scientists communicate and share their thinking to solve problems. The answer is that they publish their research in articles that emphasize how and why they conceived of the problem, how they designed experiments, and how they interpreted the results and their implications. The results of research are only one aspect of the report. Yet, in school science, teachers and government tests typically focus on the results of research, and even then after the results have been filtered through multiple layers of re-formatting and condensation.

I asked myself, “Why can’t we teach science more like the way it actually occurs in the real world?” The answer is that of course we could, but scientific journal articles are too difficult for students to understand. Or are they? What if good science writers re-wrote research reports in simple, clear language that even an 8th grader can understand? And then we could require students to critique the paper in terms of rigorous questions that required students to think critically and creatively.

Well, I am trying to start just such an initiative. I have re-written about six published research reports thus far, hopefully at middle-school level, and provided a set of 24 scaffolding questions to guide student thinking.

We will see whether or not this catches on with teachers and educational administrators. 

Friday, May 25, 2012

A Portal for On-line Memory Techniques


A reader of this blog, Bruce Hopkins, recently told me about his new web-site portal for web-sites on memorization techniques. This site (bruce.hopkins@memorymethods.com) is a wonderful resource. I just checked a few of the links and was pleased with what I found. Much of the information I already know, being the “Memory Medic,” but I learned some new things.
 For example, the site that explains the “phonetic system” for memorizing numbers (http://www.got2know.net/) convinced me that you don’t always have to create words that are nouns. I have always thought nouns were essential, because they can be represented in a visual image. For example, I represent the number one with “tie,” but this site also suggests “the, do, and it.” While the latter three words have no visual image, they can be used to construct acrostics. That brings me to the site’s supposed best feature: it claims you can type in any long number and get an acrostic. But I could not get the interactive part of the site to work either on IE or Chrome.
A few sites focus on specific topics, such as medicine or chemistry. The medical site (http://www.medicalmnemonics.com/) has a browsing index that allows you find all their memory tips for a given body function. The chemistry site (http://img.com.tripod.com/mnemonics/chemistry.htm) has some good acrostics for memorizing the periodic table.
Another site has an interesting approach to memorizing text verbatim, as in Bible verses, speeches, quotations, etc. (http://www.productivity501.com/how-to-memorize-verbatim-text/294/). The emphasis is on recalling not repeating. This fits nicely with my view that self-testing is the key to good memorization. In this site’s approach, you re-write the text’s first letter of each word, and then practice recalling the original words by looking at the letters. The site even has dialog boxes where you can type in the text to memorize and it will display the first letters of each word you typed.
Another interesting site generates the equivalent of flash cards (http://fullrecall.com/).  The software is similar to common flashcard programs: knowledge is stored in question-answer pairs. You add the question-answer pairs yourself. In review mode you are presented the questions, one by one. To every question you'll think about an answer, and after a while you'll be confronted with the correct answer. After seeing the correct answer, you'll be asked for a grade that estimates how well you remembered the correct answer.
Another flashcard site (http://www.flashqard-project.org/) is very robust. Each computer generated flash card can accept multiple images (remember images are easier to remember than words) and has a search tool for on-line images. It even has a score tracker.
Some of these sites have links to other sites. For example, I stumbled on Anki, a flash card system that synchronizes your cards across multiple computers, and has a smart-review algorithm that schedules the spacing of self-testing sessions based on how difficult you thought each given card was to answer. See http://ankisrs.net/
In addition, there are links to several mind map programs, dictionaries, repositories of synonyms and rhymes.
I look forward to seeing Bruce’s portal evolve as he finds and adds new memory sites.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

More on Jazz-band Teaching & Learning


I probably need to explain a couple of learning principles mentioned in the original post on jazz-band teaching and learning. One principle is operant conditioning, which is inherent in band classes. It will truly pay off to find creative ways to employ operant conditioning in academic-course classes, because it is the most powerful teaching technique I know of. I assume they teach this in colleges of education, because kindergarten teachers do a version of it all the time with the “gold-star” reward paradigm. Fully implemented, the idea is that little successes bring little rewards, and as the desired behavior becomes established, the bar is raised for further reward, or positive reinforcement as the psychologists call it. A repeated process of “successive approximation” can lead to astonishing results in short order. I think that something like this is operating in band class.

The reward in jazz-band, and that includes orchestra band class, is the immediate gratification a student gets when playing a few new notes or chords, for example. In band, learning something new is usually done in small readily accomplished steps, and there is immediate feedback from hearing what is played and/or comments from classmates or the band director. Contributing successfully to the band effort is also rewarding, because all students know they are “on the team” and making a needed contribution. For emphasis, I repeat the four key elements of operant conditioned learning:

  • learning occurs in small successive steps
  • with each step the student DOES something
  • feedback is immediate
  • positive reinforcement follows.
The second key principle is “deliberate practice,” which is also an inherent feature of band class. The idea is not only to practice but to planning specific strategies and tactics for the practice. Teachers, of course, have a plan for teaching each given content item, but that is not the same as the student having a learning plan. Teaching and learning are not the same, and the problem in schools is usually traceable to inadequate learning.

The best learners bring conscious design, awareness, analysis, and correction of error to their learning efforts. This is exactly what has to be done in band class. For example, the learner, guided by the band director, has to develop an approach to move from each small step of mastery, such as playing a few new bars, to learning the whole sheet music score.

 “Memory athletes” use this kind of memory practice to rise above their own innate memory capability, which is usually not much better than anyone else’s capability. This is the kind of practice performed by superstars in any field: music, art, business, sports, science (and straight-A students and stellar jazz-band players).

Superstars reach that level of achievement by:
                     Having the passion, resources, and time to learn their craft. This means making a commitment to becoming a better learner.
                     Working hard at their craft with smart, intentional planning to improve their basic competencies in very specific ways. In the process of mastering a specific learning task, they are also “learning-to-learn.”
                     Raising their goals to new and more challenging goals. This includes identifying people to compete against.
                     Structuring practice in ways that provide constant and detailed feedback.
                     Continually expanding their knowledge base. This includes learning the tactics others use successfully in study.
                     Focusing on improving weaknesses.
                     Receiving encouragement and help from others. This means having access to a circle of friends and mentors who value achievement. 
The last bullet item comes from fellow students in the band, because they need each other to perform well and share in the applause when they perform in public. Peer support is central to success of athletic teams. Academic classes would surely benefit from finding ways to develop team spirit.
All of these things require students to be motivated. I emphasized this in the original post, in the context of the passions generated by jazz. Passion is harder to generate in academic classes, but it is no less important.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

What All Teachers Should Learn from Jazz-band Teachers

I just came back from a jazz festival at Katy High School in Texas that show-cased student stage bands from ten schools mostly near Houston, but some as far away as Beaumont and Brownsville (the latter band stole the show).

The festival was also a teaching event, with each band or ensemble performing for 30 minutes, followed by 30 minutes of critique from six professional jazz musicians (two of whom were music professors at universities). The critiques were shared with the small audience consisting almost exclusively of family and friends, even though this festival was advertised for the general public. Performances were staggered so that if you didn’t want to hear a critique you could go hear a student combo and vice versa. The facilities were magnificent, highlighted by the presence of a natatorium, impressive athletic fields and stadium, and a Performing Arts Center where the festival took place. If Texas schools are hurting for funds, it certainly wasn’t evident at Katy High School.

I was astonished at how accomplished these students were. I asked myself, “How did those kids learn such complex music? The music played was mostly the big-band music of Goodman, Basie, Kenton, Ellington, and others from the eras of swing and “progressive/modern jazz of the 50s and 60s.” 

Jazz is sophisticated stuff. Yet these 16 to 24 kids in each band could do what a lot of adult musicians cannot do. One band was a middle-school band, and the professional musicians who critiqued each band’s performance were amazed that these 7th and 8th graders “played like adults!” Jazz fans everywhere lament that jazz seems like a dying art form overwhelmed by the simpler music of country, rap, hip-hop, and whatever it is that most kids listen to these days. But the professional “coaches” at the festival reassured the audience that “jazz is in good hands.” Fortunately, many school and university music programs teach jazz.

Learning to playing any musical instrument is hard, but playing jazz is the ultimate challenge. In jazz you not only have to know the tunes, you have to use the chord structure and complex rhythms to compose on the fly. A jazz professor from the University of North Texas counseled in one of his critiques, “I know you have sheet music you have to follow, but when you hear something in your head, play it. That’s what we (jazz musicians) do – improvise!”

Another jazz professor, during a critique session had two bands re-play a number from their performance. About one third of the way through, he silently and casually walked through the rhythm section (piano, guitar, bass, and drums) and picked up the sheet music. The kids went right on playing without skipping a beat, because they had already memorized the sheet music. His point was they were using the sheet music as a crutch and not engaging with each other. Musicians talk to each other with their instruments, and listening is a big part of jazz improvisation. Students needed to be engaged with what each member of the rhythm section was doing, and, moreover, the rhythmic section needed to interact with the saxes, trombones, and trumpets.

Hearing such wonderful music from children raised a nagging question. Why can’t kids master complicated science, math, language arts, or social studies? Why does everybody struggle so mightily to get kids to pass simple-minded government-mandated tests in academic subjects?

And then it hit me. Jazz-band teachers do the right things in teaching that other teachers need to learn how to do.Two things are essential in teaching, the professionalism of the teacher and the motivation of the students. 
Most school jazz programs provide both. Sad to say, this is not so true of traditional curriculum.


Consider professionalism. It was clear that these band directors really knew what they were doing. Some had professional playing experience. Most, I am certain, were music majors in college. Think about what they have to do. They take young kids who know little about music beyond humming a tune and teach them music theory, teach them to read music, and teach them to play the different instruments in a band. And then they have to teach students how to compose on the fly. You can’t do that without being a real professional.

As for motivation, teaching and learning jazz involves clearly identifiable motivating features. Jazz-band teachers can’t take credit for some of these features, but creative teachers in other subject areas can think of similar motivating things they could be doing, based on what is involved in jazz.

First, there is PASSION. Jazz stirs the emotions, from blues to ballads to hot swing. If Benny Goodman’s music doesn’t make you want to jump up and dance, you better check your pulse to see if you are still alive. That brings up this point: jazz is FUN! Learning chemistry, for example, is almost never considered by students to be fun —but teachers should be thinking of ways to make it fun.


Some academic subjects do have intrinsic emotional impact. If, for example, the emotions of history students are not stirred by the Federalist Papers, or the turmoil of the Civil War and the country’s other wars, then history is not being competently taught. If the beauty of the laws of physics and chemistry or the biology of life are not evident in the teaching of science, it is the teacher’s fault. 

Second is that jazz is PERSONAL. A jazz student intellectually owns his instrument. He or she owns the assigned space on the bandstand. One critiquing musician at the festival reminded students they own that space and if the sheet music stand or the audio at their station was not left just right from the previous band, they must fix it. It is now their space.

How well a student has learned jazz is public knowledge. They can’t hide. What you know and can do is on public display, all the time in practice sessions with fellow band members and, of course, in public performances. In marked contrast, it is against the law for teachers in other subject areas to reveal grades on individual performance, even within the more private area of the classroom. The belief system in education these days is that you should not allow an unprepared and under-performing student to be embarrassed. What dingbat policy maker came up with that? I know; it comes from the perverse politically correct movement that ignores the reality that self-esteem needs to be earned.

Third is that jazz is ultimate CONSTRUCTIVISM. All teachers know about constructivism, which is the idea that students have to do something to show they have mastered the learning task. Student jazz bands and combos demonstrate personal accomplishment all the time in rehearsals and stage performances. But in many traditional courses, the main constructive thing students do is fill in circles on a Scantron test answer sheet. In science, “science fairs” encourage constructivism, but these are usually one-time events. Students need to be doing something every day to demonstrate their learning. In English, how often to students write and re-write an essay, poem, or short story? Does anybody write book reports anymore? Do students  spend hours of writing and editing comparable to what a jazz student spends in practice? In social studies, how many students are required to explain and debate capitalism, socialism, fascism, democracy, and republican government? 

Fourth, jazz is SOCIAL Jazz students perform as a group, either in a big band or combo. Recall the earlier example from the festival where the professionals had to emphasize this point by taking away the sheet music. Students had to learn to talk and listen to each other through their instruments. In traditional education, there is a movement called collaborative learning,the idea of learning teams, but many teachers don’t use this approach or do it without regard to the proven formalisms needed for success. Regardless of academic subject, students benefit when they learn how to help each other learn.

Part of the social aspect off jazz is competition. In many schools, many students don’t have to compete to get into a music class. But once in, they have to display learning in order to advance into more prestigious classes (think the “One O'Clock Lab Band” band at the University of North Texas). In whatever music lab they are in, they have to compete for “first chair” in their instrument section. It is like competing to make the varsity and then the first team in sports. Where is the equivalent in science, social studies, or language arts?

Unlike traditional education, where the goal is to meet minimum standards on state-mandated tests, jazz band directors make very clear their HIGH EXPECTATIONS that everybody in each band class should become as proficient as they can. The whole point of their teaching is mastery and excellence. They expect excellence and they get it, as witnessed by festival performances such as I saw. Thanks to the unenlightened thinking of No Child Left Behind law, our public education has degenerated into “No Child Pushed Forward.”

And finally, consider the matter of REWARD. Somewhere in the college courses of teachers they learned about “positive reinforcement,” and most teachers try to use these ideas to shape the learning achievements of their students. But jazz performance provides public reward, in the form of public applause. Is there anything comparable in the teaching of science, social studies, or language arts? Is publishing (inflated) Honor Roll lists in the newspaper the best we can do?

So in a nutshell, the reason jazz students do so well is because their learning environment is built around:
  • Passion
  • Personal ownership and accountability
  • Constructivism
  • Social interaction
  • High Expectations
  • Reward
What I took home from this experience is a renewed feeling that outside of jazz music programs our schools are letting our children down. These young musicians prove that when motivated, challenged, and taught professionally, they can do astonishing things. The printed program for the festival concluded with the comment, “The future belongs to those who are able to capture their creative intelligence. Jazz music education and performance develop the ability to create and produce the ideas that are individually unique.” 

Why doesn’t the rest of education do that?


This festival experience leads me to suggest a "Ten Commandments for Better Teaching:"



Ten Commandments for Better Teaching


1.  Love your students as yourself.
2. Be professional. Know the stuff you teach.
3. Instill passion for the content - especially, make knowing fun.
4. Make learning personal. Show students how to own their learning.
5. Take away the hiding places of unprepared and under-performing students. Let them embarass themselves.
6. Show students they have to earn self-esteem. You can't give it to them. Praise success and do so publicly when it is earned.
7. Require students to do things that show they have mastered what you are trying to teach.
8. Give students opportunities to "strut their stuff" in public, in and out of the class.
9. Help students learn how to work with others as a team.
10. Expect excellence. Do not teach to the lowest common denominator.