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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Today's guest blogger is Judy Willis. A former neurologist, Judy is now is an elementary and middle school teacher as well as the author of numerous books on the brain and learning. This post is an excerpt from her latest,

Learning to Love Math.

Before children can become interested in math, they have to be comfortable with it. They must perceive their environment as physically and psychologically safe before learning can occur. Students build resilience and coping strategies when they learn how to use their academic strengths to build math skills and strategies. Your intervention helps them strengthen the networks that carry information through their brains' emotional filters to the area where higher-order thinking skills are concentrated, the prefrontal cortex (PFC). With practice, they will be able to use the highest-level analytical networks in the PFC to evaluate incoming information and discover creative solutions to math problems (in addition to problems in all subject areas). To better understand how your students learn, it is important to first learn how to propel information through those filters and begin building math positivity.

STRATEGY: Arrange Family Conferences

No one wants to add to student pressure, especially when you suspect that a student will suffer emotional or even physical abuse if he or she does not meet certain parental expectations in math. Parents with extremely high expectations for their children are usually motivated by a desire to see their children have more than they have themselves. Unfortunately, when children internalize these expectations and don't fulfill them, they can suffer depression, anxiety, physical illnesses (high levels of cortisol associated with chronic stress lowers the immune response), or psychosomatic illnesses, or they may even inflict physical injury on themselves and others. Family conferences can help parents learn some of the scientific evidence linking the effects of stress to academic success. These interventions will also allow you to explain that the first step to math success is a positive attitude toward the subject matter, not just to the grades associated with it.

You can also suggest ways for these parents to be involved in a positive way. Explain that the brain is most receptive to learning about a topic when there is a clear link between that topic and something the child values. Parents can act as "math allies" if they find ways to integrate real-world math into their child's hobbies and interests. For example, they can encourage their children to calculate how long it will be until their special television show begins if it is currently 3:00 and the show starts at 5:30. They can also help their children compare the costs of things they like (e.g., bicycles, toys, computers) in newspaper ads that offer various percentage discounts off different base prices.

STRATEGY: Retest to De-stress

Reassure all students that if they want to achieve high grades, they will have opportunities that will allow them to regain some sense of control, such as retests. Because progress in math is so strongly based on foundational knowledge, students need to achieve mastery in each topic?which forms the basis from which students can extend their neural networks of patterns and concepts?before they move to the next level. Retests provide opportunities to reevaluate answers and make corrections, as necessary. To ensure mastery, I require that students take a retest when they score under 85 percent. My primary goal is to have students learn the appropriate material so they can move forward with an adequate background for success.

Incorporating accountability into retesting allows students to build skills related to self-reliance, goal planning, and independent learning. Parents or colleagues may voice concerns that students might not act responsibly or seriously once they realize that they'll have a second chance. Accountability increases when you require students to provide evidence of corrective action, such as participating in tutoring, doing skill reviews, or finding textual examples that correctly demonstrate how the type of problem is solved. If the original test and retest scores are averaged together, students understand that they remain accountable for that first test grade. Compared with cheating (an unfortunate response to grade pressure that further decreases confidence and self-esteem), the option of taking retests is a more positive approach to low grades. Retesting takes time on your part, but it shows your students that you respect their capacity to be responsible, successful learners.

STRATEGY: Demonstrate the Value of Math

Key to developing students' interest in math is to capture their imaginations. Instead of allowing them to think of math as an isolated subject, show the extended values of math in ways they find inspiring. If you teach elementary school, find opportunities throughout the day to show students the ways they benefit from mathematics and how it is applicable to their areas of interest. For example, students can use math to determine the number of absent students by counting the students present and then "counting back" to subtract.

In upper grades, cross-curricular planning is a way to achieve this goal. Older students, for example, can solve meaningful problems related to the quantity and price of tickets they need to sell in order to cover their expenses for an upcoming field trip. When you increase your students' positive feelings toward mathematics, you unlock their brains' math-blocking filters, promote long-term memory, and foster greater understanding beyond rote memorization.

What are some techniques you've used to build positivity in your students in math or other subjects?

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Paul Bogdan's picture
Paul Bogdan
Student-Centered Secondary Math Teacher
Blogger

If you build your class and lessons into a series of opportunities for a student to learn the material it increases their confidence and they feel more comfortable because they control their learning. This is very different from a series of opportunities to teach the material.
Quizes and tests can also be viewed as additional opportunities for the student to learn rather than just assessment. Retesting becomes another opportunity to learn the material.

Judy Willis MD's picture
Judy Willis MD
Neurologist/Teacher/Grad School Ed faculty/Author
Blogger

Understanding by Design Meets Neuroscience: Teaching to the Test and Rote Memory Tests as Measurement of Achievement are Not Neuro-logical for Successful, Joyful, Learning

Consider the Best Computer Game Model: In the most compelling computer games, think about what the player gets after working through the challenges of each successive level. When they succeed at mastering the skills of the new level, they don't get prizes, money, hugs, or teacher approval. They get recognition of their incremental progress by being promoted to the next level of play - which is actually MORE CHALLENGING WORK! These game attributes, applied to teaching, can have the same motivating and successful effects on learners.

What makes computer games so captivating?
The successful computer games promote goal orientation, perseverance (even after failure), scaffolding when needed (just in time teaching theory), clear tasks, opportunities to practice, and recognize one's own incremental goal progress. The best games are broken up into levels so reaching the next levels provide opportunities for players to recognize their progress on their way to the final goal of "winning the game".
Ability appropriate level of challenge. The most popular computer games provide increasingly challenging levels as players become more and more skillful. As skill improves, the next challenge is at again at an appropriate level of achievable challenge that the player can reach with practice, effort, and perseverance.
This game model correlates to using achievable challenge, motivating goals, and feedback about incremental progress in the classroom, with the scaffolding provided for support, as students are motivated to strategically build mastery.

Achievable Challenge and Student Awareness of Incremental Progress
The most successful instruction is designed to incorporate core concepts into meaningful and authentic contexts with student opportunity to use the learning throughout the acquisition process.
The likelihood of information being maintained in long-term memory increases when the learning experience is directed to students' preassessed (through a variety of formative and authentic evaluations) for prior knowledge and misconceptions. This allows learning to be customized to the student's levels of achievable challenge. With authentic, desirable opportunities to apply and transfer learning, throughout the unit, such as with authentic performance tasks, students want to learn what they have to learn.
When I recognized the compatibility of the computer game model with the correlations of my area of specialization as a neurologist, and later during my ten years of teaching elementary and middle school, I sought models though which the computer game model could be best applied to curriculum and assessment planning as well as to classroom instruction.
What I found was the work of Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins in their Understanding by Design and Planning by Design books. They propose a curriculum and assessment model of backward planning and formative, ongoing assessments for ongoing student feedback along with as a variety of summative assessments (to inform teachers as to what parts of their units of instruction need to be redesigned as evidenced by what is revealed from the essential knowledge not evident in students' assessments).
Collaboration of Neuroscience, Cognitive Science, and Education:
For the past year I have had the privilege of collaborating with Jay McTighe to develop ways to plan and teach that incorporate the best computer game models into planning and instruction in education.
Our work together has further convinced me that achievable challenges are motivating when student interest is developed and opportunities for achievement are supported by clearly structured goals, frequent feedback, and opportunities for students to recognize their own incremental progress toward goals throughout units of instruction, instead of their receiving feedback only by summative test scores of rote memory at the end of units.
Individualized realistic challenge connects students to knowledge by communicating to them high expectations while insuring that they have the capacity to reach these goals. The confidence base is established when students know that they will have access to the tools and support they need to reach the high expectations differentiated for them. These are the classrooms where the bar does not need to be lowered or challenge eliminated in the name of access.
Achievable challenge set students on appropriately challenging paths increases maximum brain engagement. The extra planning time is rewarded by increased student engagement such that less time needed for behavior management and students have increased motivation to participate in class and on homework.
The additional brain-memory bonus, as I've written about previously, is the dopamine-reward cycle activation where students' pleasure-reward response responds to more frequent opportunities to recognize their own incremental goal progress. In addition of this perseverance promoting effect of dopamine released by intrinsic motivation, students develop the concept that effort does bring goal progress, and regardless of past experiences, they can succeed with effort and opportunities to get the support and tools they need to promote their success.

Judy Willis MD's picture
Judy Willis MD
Neurologist/Teacher/Grad School Ed faculty/Author
Blogger

http://www.edutopia.org/neuroscience-brain-based-learning-relevance-impr...
This is the link to "Science Shows Making Lessons Relevant Really Matters: Personal relevance is as vital to the learning brain as it is to the person learning"by Sara Bernard in her recent Edutopia blog

Her blog included an interview with me and incorporates references to my recommendations and neuroscience correlations about the importance of personal relevance to learning. This is one of the critical tools for teaching for learning and understanding to counter the test-score focus of the No Child Left Behind high stakes testing.
Keep Igniting,
Judy
www.RADTeach.com

Judy Willis MD's picture
Judy Willis MD
Neurologist/Teacher/Grad School Ed faculty/Author
Blogger

Understanding by Design Meets Neuroscience: Teaching to the Test and Rote Memory Tests as Measurement of Achievement are Not Neuro-logical for Successful, Joyful, Learning

I am happy to respond to the very important points made in the respoinses to the section of my book selected by Betty Ray for this blog. I understand why readers may read this section of the book, out of context, and think my topic of retests implies my support or validation of the current high financial stakes, test-driven educational emphasis.

As one example of the greater focus of my ideas and why I left neurology to become a classroom teacher and taught school for ten years, is my goal of helping educators turn student negativity into motivation. To that end I offer another topic from my work: Consider the Best Computer Game Model!
In the most compelling computer games, think about what the player gets after working through the challenges of each successive level. When they succeed at mastering the skills of the new level, they don't get prizes, money, hugs, or teacher approval. They get recognition of their incremental progress by being promoted to the next level of play - which is actually MORE CHALLENGING WORK! These game attributes, applied to teaching, can have the same motivating and successful effects on learners.

What makes computer games so captivating?
The successful computer games promote goal orientation, perseverance (even after failure), scaffolding when needed (just in time teaching theory), clear tasks, opportunities to practice, and recognize one's own incremental goal progress. The best games are broken up into levels so reaching the next levels provide opportunities for players to recognize their progress on their way to the final goal of "winning the game".
Ability appropriate level of challenge. The most popular computer games provide increasingly challenging levels as players become more and more skillful. As skill improves, the next challenge is at again at an appropriate level of achievable challenge that the player can reach with practice, effort, and perseverance.
This game model correlates to using achievable challenge, motivating goals, and feedback about incremental progress in the classroom, with the scaffolding provided for support, as students are motivated to strategically build mastery.

Achievable Challenge and Student Awareness of Incremental Progress

The most successful instruction is designed to incorporate core concepts into meaningful and authentic contexts with student opportunity to use the learning throughout the acquisition process.
The likelihood of information being maintained in long-term memory increases when the learning experience is directed to students' preassessed (through a variety of formative and authentic evaluations) for prior knowledge and misconceptions. This allows learning to be customized to the student's levels of achievable challenge. With authentic, desirable opportunities to apply and transfer learning, throughout the unit, such as with authentic performance tasks, students want to learn what they have to learn.
When I recognized the compatibility of the computer game model with the correlations of my area of specialization as a neurologist, and later during my ten years of teaching elementary and middle school, I sought models though which the computer game model could be best applied to curriculum and assessment planning as well as to classroom instruction.
What I found was the work of Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins in their Understanding by Design and Planning by Design books. They propose a curriculum and assessment model of backward planning and formative, ongoing assessments for ongoing student feedback along with as a variety of summative assessments (to inform teachers as to what parts of their units of instruction need to be redesigned as evidenced by what is revealed from the essential knowledge not evident in students' assessments).
Collaboration of Neuroscience, Cognitive Science, and Education:
For the past year I have had the privilege of collaborating with Jay McTighe to develop ways to plan and teach that incorporate the best computer game models into planning and instruction in education.
Our work together has further convinced me that achievable challenges are motivating when student interest is developed and opportunities for achievement are supported by clearly structured goals, frequent feedback, and opportunities for students to recognize their own incremental progress toward goals throughout units of instruction, instead of their receiving feedback only by summative test scores of rote memory at the end of units.

Individualized realistic challenge connects students to knowledge by communicating to them high expectations while insuring that they have the capacity to reach these goals. The confidence base is established when students know that they will have access to the tools and support they need to reach the high expectations differentiated for them. These are the classrooms where the bar does not need to be lowered or challenge eliminated in the name of access.
Achievable challenge set students on appropriately challenging paths increases maximum brain engagement. The extra planning time is rewarded by increased student engagement such that less time needed for behavior management and students have increased motivation to participate in class and on homework.
The additional brain-memory bonus, as I've written about previously, is the dopamine-reward cycle activation where students' pleasure-reward response responds to more frequent opportunities to recognize their own incremental goal progress. In addition of this perseverance promoting effect of dopamine released by intrinsic motivation, students develop the concept that effort does bring goal progress, and regardless of past experiences, they can succeed with effort and opportunities to get the support and tools they need to promote their success.

Harry Keller's picture
Harry Keller
President at Smart Science Education Inc.

I found a slight discordance between Dr. Willis's two posts. On the one hand, she promotes the game approach. On the other, she promotes relevancy. Few would call games relevant. How can these two views be resolved?

I'm not so much criticizing as asking. As online education becomes more automated, these issues will become critical design issues. Certainly ideas from games can make a difference. I suspect that although making material more relevant only helps if it's already hopelessly irrelevant. How much relevancy is required?

Paul Bogdan's picture
Paul Bogdan
Student-Centered Secondary Math Teacher
Blogger

Trying to convince students that they are going to use what they are learning in high school is a loosing battle that I choose mostly not to fight. I do argue that some of it will be very usefull. I also point out that when their children come to them with math questions they will be glad they learned what they did. I think that my most compelling point, however, is that whenever two people meet, they evaluate each other. They wonder how smart the other person is. People who know math are considered smart. The more higher math you know, the easier the lower math is, and the lower math is more useful and relevant. The brain is similar to a muscle in that the more you work it the stronger it gets. The more you fill a glass of water the less room there is for more. The brain is exactly the opposite, the more learning you put in, the more capability there is for more. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. We are teaching them to be smart.

Shannon McCoy's picture
Shannon McCoy
5th Grade Teacher from Douglasville, Georgia

I think we should allow students to retest if they do not come within a certain grade of passing. I have given my students plenty of opportunities to take tests home to correct to improve their scores. I also have them to get the test signed by a parent so they will know how their child is performing in class. Once the test is returned the next day, I rescore the test and average both scores together which is their final grade that is written in the gradebook. I have noticed that many students improve tremendously the second time with corrections.

Paul Bogdan's picture
Paul Bogdan
Student-Centered Secondary Math Teacher
Blogger

Thanks Judy.
The most satisfaction from beating a game level occurs when you do it with no help at all. On the other hand, when you have to go to game help dot com and be told where the secrets are, or how to solve the puzzle, or how to kill an extra mean bad guy, it is less satisfying.
This is why students are bored by a well-meaning teacher who is leading them by the nose through every step of the learning. We teachers need to develop learning opportunities, organize them into a lesson plan and then give the lesson plan to the students. This is how project-based learning works, how student-centered learning works, and how minimalist learning theories coming from the hole-in-the-wall experiments work.
For example, in a science class have the students write p1pa1 in the far left margin of a piece of paper. This stands for page 1 paragraph 1. The students read the paragraph and then write a little something about what they read. Repeat with pa 2 etc. After a few pages, when the questions come up they will be amazed at how much they have learned. When the teacher hands out a worksheet they will be amazed how their paragraph notes lead them directly to the answer. The idea is the same as winning the level of the game by yourself. You get the credit for beating the game (not game help dot com). The student gets the credit for learning the science (not the teacher). And, they are eager for the next level (or book chapter).

Judy Willis MD's picture
Judy Willis MD
Neurologist/Teacher/Grad School Ed faculty/Author
Blogger

You make some excellent points Paul and I'm certain your students benefit greatly. I plan to share your margin notes with the folks in my future professional development workshops. Here's something else I have students do in a similar vein, to promote reading with a goal and interacting with textbooks and literature homework. I call it "Talking back to the book" and have students write the beginning of each post-it in class and fill them in when they read for homework. Some questions are prediction questions the student will answer before reading. Other questions and prompts will be answered while the student is reading:

Although I've not used it for math, I can imagine an adaptation that would be useful even in mathematics.
* Before reading the students writes and answers prediction questions:
o What do I think you'll be telling me?
o I already know things about YOU so I predict.....
o
* During reading students can complete the following questions or prompts:
o You are similar to what I have learned before, because you remind me of...
o I would have preferred a picture of...(or sketch or download your own)
o I didn't know that and I like what you have to say (or I'll bet this will be on the test)
o I disagree
o This is not what I expected
o This gives me an idea
o I want to know more about this than you have to offer and I know how to find out
o I know there is more than one way to interpret this information
o I won't let you get away with anything, so I'll check your source
o What clues do you have to help me answer the Big Question? Ah, this could be one right here.

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