Thursday, March 21, 2013

Improving Motivation to Learn


When it comes to improving learning and memory, motivation is way ahead of whatever is in second place. From my own experience and from observing hundreds of students, it is clear to me that people will learn when they WANT to learn. Even in the face of bad textbooks, bad schools, bad teachers, … whatever, motivated students will learn. If people with few learning resources, like Booker T. Washington or Abe Lincoln could do it in their day, our kids can certainly do it with all the information available in the millions of books in public libraries and web sites on the Internet.

One of my blog readers called my attention to a recent post on NannyPro.com web site, entitled “24 Blogs Filled with Ideas on How to Motivate Your Kids to Finish the School Year Strong.” As author Michelle points out, motivation of students in school commonly falls in the Spring sinkhole of Spring break and end-of-year doldrums.

Advice to parents includes specific ways to set goals, tips for getting kids to do homework, and ideas for pumping up motivation. Michelle’s blog has links to other useful sites. Those I checked that looked promising to me included one on “21 Simple Ideas to Improve Student Motivation.” Another helpful site is titled “Reward Effort Before Test Day.” Other site topics you might want to check out include:
  •         “Homework That Motivates”
  •          “Lighting A Fire: Motivating Boys To Succeed”
  •       "The Secret of Setting Successful Goals”
  •       “Top Tips: Getting kids to do their homework”

Michelle also lists some ideas for schools to do. Parents ought to take a look at these and make suggestions that could be appropriate for their local school.

If you haven’t gotten your child a copy of my “Better Grades, Less Effort” you have denied them of a possible school-life-changing opportunity. It may be the best $2.99 you ever spent.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Cursive Writing Makes Kids Smarter


Ever try to read your physician’s prescriptions? Children increasingly print their writing because they don’t know cursive or theirs is unreadable. I have a middle-school grandson who has trouble reading his own cursive. Grandparents may find that their grandchildren can’t read the notes they send. Our new U.S. Secretary of the Treasury can’t (or won’t) write his own name on the new money being printed.

When we adults went to school, one of the first things we learned was how to write the alphabet, in caps and lower case, and then to hand-write words, sentences, paragraphs, and essays. Some of us were lucky enough to have penmanship class where we learned how to make our writing pretty and readable. Today, keyboarding is in, the Common Core Standards no longer require elementary students to learn cursive, and some schools are dropping the teaching of cursive, dismissing it as an “ancient skill.”[1]

The primary schools that teach handwriting spend only just over an hour a week, according to Zaner-Bloser Inc., one of the nation's largest handwriting-curriculum publishers. Cursive is not generally taught after the third grade (my penmanship class was in the 7th grade; maybe its just coincidence, but the 7th grade was when I was magically transformed from a poor student into an exceptional student).

Yet scientists are discovering that learning cursive is an important tool for cognitive development, particularly in training the brain to learn “functional specialization,”[2] that is capacity for optimal efficiency. In the case of learning cursive writing, the brain develops functional specialization that integrates both sensation, movement control, and thinking. Brain imaging studies reveal that multiple areas of brain become co-activated during learning of cursive writing of pseudo-letters, as opposed to typing or just visual practice.

There is spill-over benefit for thinking skills used in reading and writing. To write legible cursive, fine motor control is needed over the fingers. Students have to pay attention and think about what and how they are doing. They have to practice. Brain imaging studies show that cursive activates areas of the brain that are not affected by keyboarding.

Much of the benefit of cursive writing comes simply from the self-generated mechanics of hand- printing letters. During one study at Indiana University to be published this year,[3] researchers conducted brain scans on pre-literate 5-year olds before and after receiving different letter-learning instruction. In children who had practiced self-generated printing by hand, the neural activity was far more enhanced and "adult-like" than in those who had simply looked at letters. The brain’s “reading circuit” of linked regions that are activated during reading was activated during cursive writing, but not during typing. This lab has also demonstrated that writing letters in meaningful context, as opposed to just writing them as drawing objects, produced much more robust activation of many areas in both hemispheres.

In learning to write by hand, even if it is just printing, a child’s brain must:
  •            Locate each stroke relative to other strokes.
  •            Learn and remember appropriate size, slant of global form, and feature detail characteristic of each letter.
  •       Develop categorization skills.

Cursive writing, compared to printing, is even more beneficial because the movement tasks are more demanding, the letters are less stereotypical, and the visual recognition requirements create a broader repertoire of letter representation. Cursive is also faster and more likely to engage students by providing a better sense of personal style and ownership.

Other research highlights the hand's unique relationship with the brain when it comes to composing thoughts and ideas. Virginia Berninger, a professor at the University of Washington, reported her study of children in grades two, four and six that revealed they wrote more words, faster, and expressed more ideas when writing essays by hand versus with a keyboard.[4]

There is a whole field of research known as “haptics,” which includes the interactions of touch, hand movements, and brain function.[5] Cursive writing helps train the brain to integrate visual, and tactile information, and fine motor dexterity. School systems, driven by ill-informed ideologues and federal mandate, are becoming obsessed with testing knowledge at the expense of training kids to develop better capacity for acquiring knowledge.

The benefits to brain development are similar to what you get with learning to play a musical instrument. Not everybody can afford music lessons, but everybody has access to pencil and paper. Not everybody can afford a computer for their kids−maybe such kids are not as deprived as we would think.


Take heart. Some schools just celebrated National Handwriting Day on Jan. 23. Cursive is not dead yet. Parents need to insist that cursive be maintained in their local school.

Readers who want an easy way to acquire a neuroscience background will want to know about the 2nd Edition of my e-book, “Core Ideas in Neuroscience.” Check my web site for available formats and sources (thankyoubrain.com/neurobook). Also check out the Neuro-education discussion group I just created on Linkedin (type “Neuro-education" in Linkedin’s search field).



[1] Slape, L. “Cursive Giving Way to Other Pursuits as Educators Debate Its Value.” The Daily News, Feb. 4,
2012. http://tdn.com/news/local/cursive-giving-way-to-other-pursuits-as-educators-debate-its/article_c0302938-4f94-11e1-af3a-0019bb2963f4.html
[2] James, Karin H. an Atwood, Thea P. (2009).The role of sensorimotor learning in the perception of letter-like forms: Tracking the causes of neural specialization for letters. Cognitive Neuropsychology.26 (1), 91-100.
[3] James, K.H. and Engelhardt, L. (2013). The effects of handwriting experience on functional brain
development in pre-literate children. Trends in Neuroscience and Education. Article in press.
[4] Berninger, V. “Evidence-Based, Developmentally Appropriate Writing Skills K–5: Teaching the
Orthographic Loop of Working Memory to Write Letters So Developing Writers Can Spell Words
and Express Ideas.” Presented at Handwriting in the 21st Century?: An Educational Summit,
Washington, D.C., January 23, 2012.
[5] Mangen, A., and Velay, J. –L. (2010). Digitizing literacy: reflections on the haptics of writing. In Advances in Haptics, edited by M. H. Zadeh. http://www.intechopen.com/books/advances-in-haptics/digitizing-literacy-reflections-on-the-haptics-of-writing

Friday, March 01, 2013

Cold Dead-Fish Education


You have heard the saying, “Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach him how to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.” Well, when it comes to education, we commonly feed our children cold dead-fish curricula, which they mostly soon forget. The problem is not so much the curriculum as that it is too often delivered at the expense of teaching students how to learn on their own and become lifetime learners. What a lot of them do learn is to shun learning and even hate school enough to drop out.

Fads come and go in education. There was “new math.” Then it was the self-esteem movement. There is the recent heavy emphasis on “hands-on” learning. Now the whole educational enterprise is obsessed with high-stakes testing.

None of these things are bad in themselves. It is just that they disturb educational balance and emphasize teaching students WHAT to learn as opposed to WANT to learn and HOW to learn.

The body politic stills insists we need to throw more money at education and that will fix things. Numerous studies show a lack of correlation between per pupil funding and educational achievement. The school district that spends the most, Washington, D.C., has the poorest educational achievement. Politicians and educators want more money. These are the same folks who think the cure for the federal deficit is to incur more debt so we can “stimulate” the economy. They don’t see the structural problems that are the real causes of economic stagnation. Likewise, they don’t see the real causes of educational stagnation.

Consider this: in terms of inflation adjusted dollars for education, there has been a drastic increase in spending on education in recent years, with very little evident benefit.  As for spending on education, see chart below.



But I recently had an experience suggesting that teachers in the trenches do “get it.” I gave a presentation on Feb. 28 at the Texas Middle School Teachers Association meeting. My session was in a time slot that competed with eight other presentations, yet every chair in my room was taken, while the other sessions had relatively few attendees. It’s not that I am a celebrity. These teachers didn’t know who I am. But they did relate to my topic, “Teach Students How to Remember What You Teach.”[1] I gave the same talk again an hour later and expected few to attend because I assumed that most teachers who were interested in this topic attended the first session. But in the second session, also competing against eight others, the room was again filled and teachers were bringing in chairs from other rooms.

Experienced teachers know that our schools neglect cognitive development. That’s psychology talk for teaching kids how to learn, remember, and think. I have been teaching first-semester college freshmen the last couple of years, and it is apparent that these students have a conspicuous lack of cognitive development, even though my university is highly selective in its admissions. Most of the freshmen lack strategy and tactics for learning and memory. Analytical and creative thinking are typically superficial.


I am doing what I can to help students learn how to learn and remember. Until my recent experience, I doubted that educational policy makers were interested. Maybe now there’s hope.


[1] I am available for speaking engagements or consultation on this topic. You can email me at billATSIGNthankyoubrainDOTcom.