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Tuesday, June 26, 2012

What's New in Brain-based Learning


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 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

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.