By Deborah Williams
A number of education models are being explored to meet the needs of America’s diverse student population. One of those concepts is the democratic school like the Fairhaven School in Maryland. A recent blog post on the KQED public broadcasting website explains the features of democratic schools.
The school’s philosophy is “to strike that balance between freedom and responsibility.” Students must buy into rules, community responsibilities, and related meetings, but they have a lot of freedom to decide how their day progresses. The diverse population share a learning space with the following at their disposal: “a large meeting hall, a workshop, two kitchens, several smaller meeting rooms, a library, and rooms dedicated to art, computer gaming, digital arts, and play. The grounds include a stream, a forest, playing fields, a basketball court, a playground, and lots of porches.”
The five staff members—two former schoolteachers, an artist, a former nature center interpreter, and a movie sound engineer–support students as they become more self-directed in their learning. “The entire school community—staff and students alike—votes each year to decide whether or not to extend each staffer’s contract.” They are facilitators as the 60 students practice life skills.
Students are “in charge of what and how they learn” about skills that will help them in life. They have no tests or grades and no assigned homework. They have freedom of movement and “the ability to devote themselves to projects for as long as they want.” Students often choose to “shift their main focus to academics after they leave Fairhaven, or during the hours they’re not in school.” Ultimately, students graduate when the defend a thesis that they write that explains how they have “prepared themselves to become effective adults in the larger community.”
View this clip about this school here:
By Deborah Williams
A recent radio broadcast on NPR’s Science Friday program centered on techniques to improve memory. The guests shared their expertise on the brain:
- Distraction helps when you try to solve a problem or remember material. When you are focused, you can’t think of the answer, but when you relax, the answer comes to you. Professor Barbara Oakley, Ph. D., author of A Mind for Numbers, explains that when we try to solve a problem, our brains go into a focused mode that “actually blocks the neural networks that we might need to actually answer that problem.” She further explains that our brains have two states: a focused neural state and a resting neural resting state. Just as Salvador Dali and Thomas Edison used to do, it often helps to take a short break to relax a bit; this puts your brain into a neural resting state.
- New York Times science writer Benedict Carey, author of How We Learn, explains that forgetting is learning’s best friend. It acts as a sophisticated spam filter. Once you retrieve what you forgot, it becomes more firmly ingrained into your memory.
- Both authors assert that repetition helps us to learn. Oakley explains, “You need to practice and repeat in order for it to become one protected, neural chunk.” Using flashcards is still a great technique.
- Get away from the problem for a while. It is not helpful to study a subject “hour after hour.” Doing something else allows the brain to work on the problem “offline.” We can eliminate a tendency to see or approach a problem in one way only; we can gain a new perspective to learning or to solving a problem. Often, when you come back to the problem, the new brain connections will give you a fresh mind to tackle a problem or new learning. This is also why you need at least six hours of sleep before a test since sleep shrinks the brain and permits fluid to flush the metabolic toxins in the brain as you sleep, and you wake up with an “upgraded” mind.
- Study in a different place. Learning is enhanced when you move around.
- Incorporate regular physical activity. Exercise allows the new neurons to be better implanted into your brain. As a matter of fact, it helps to move around (e.g., pace, walk, etc.) when studying or trying to solve problems.
See how good you are at learning by taking Benedict Carey’s five-item quiz: http://sciencefriday.com/blogs/09/03/2014/quiz-how-good-are-you-at-learning.html?series=33
By Deborah Williams
Let’s face it: Shuttling children from activity to activity and monitoring homework sessions are exhausting parts of parenting. It’s no wonder that some parents wonder if they shouldn’t cut out some of it. New research suggests that perhaps all of this activity is helpful to their child’s future—as long as the child has good math skills!
Harvard Business Review assistant editor Nicole Torres reports the findings of University of California, Santa Barbara researchers compared two groups of white male high school seniors—1972 and 1992—to see the impact of their social and math skills over time. “The analysis found that while math scores, sports, leadership roles, and college education were all associated with higher earnings over the 1979-1999 period, the trend over time in the earnings premium was strongest among those who were both good at math and engaged in high school sports or leadership activities. In other words, it pays to be a sociable math whiz, more so today than thirty years ago.”
It seems that the social skills that children develop through participation in extracurricular activities help to make them more likable. These extracurricular activities include “teamwork, communication, and general interaction with others.” Developing these skills when they are children make it more likely that they will be employed “in an occupation requiring higher levels of responsibility for direction, control and planning.”
Technology may be the reason for the demand for math skills in the workplace; however, employers need workers who can work with others well. So, parents, make sure that your children have good math skills, and know that your children’s extracurricular activities will most likely benefit them in the workplace.
By Deborah Williams
The new school year has begun all across the country, and responsible parents know that good communication between home and school helps to ensure a good year for their children. Many times, however, parents are at a loss for how to find out exactly how they can help their children. An article on the Edutopia website offers some suggestions for doing just that.
Parents usually try to glean information from their children by doing things like the following:
- “Ask them what they did today.”
- “Help them with homework.”
- “Help them with separation anxiety.”
- “Talk to them about their struggles.”
- “Get them a tutor.”
These activities, while well-intended, often lead to frustration for parents—especially when their children’s performance is not up to par. They are more likely to learn more during a parent-teacher conference. The website offers 19 questions that might help them zero in on what is really happening with their children at school. While it is not advisable to ask all of these questions at once, certainly, there are several from which to choose. Here is Edutopia’s 19 Questions Your Child’s Teacher Would (Probably) Love to Answer:
- What academic standards do you use, and what do I need to know about them?
- How will you respond if or when my child struggles in class?
- What are the most important and complex (content-related) ideas my child needs to understand by the end of the year?
- Do you focus on strengths or weaknesses?
- How are creativity and innovative thinking used on a daily basis in your classroom?
- How is critical thinking used on a daily basis in your classroom?
- How are assessments designed to promote learning rather than simple measurement?
- What can I do to support literacy in my home?
- What kinds of questions do you suggest that I ask my children on a daily basis about your class?
10. How exactly is learning personalized in your classroom? In the school?
11. How do you measure academic progress?
12. What are the most common instructional or literacy strategies you will use this year?
13. What learning models do you use (e.g., project-based learning, mobile learning, game-based learning, etc.), and what do you see as the primary benefits of that approach?
14. What are the best school or district resources for students and/or families that no one uses?
15. Is there technology you’d recommend that can help support my child in self-directed learning?
16. What are the most common barriers you see to academic progress in your classroom?
17. How is education changing?
18. How do you see the role of the teacher in the learning process?
19. What am I not asking but should be?
By Deborah Williams
Those adorable drawings that your preschooler produces may provide a hint of that child’s future cognitive ability. A post by Maanvi Singh on the NPR Your Health blog reports that researchers have found “an association, though a modest one, between how a child draws at 5 and her thinking skills at 14.”
The King’s College London researchers asked 7,700 four-year-old identical twins to draw pictures of a child. The researchers gave each drawing a score between 0 and 12, depending on how many body parts were included. Additionally, those children were given intelligence tests at 4 and 14 years old.
While it’s not always accurate, “kids with higher drawing scores tended to do better on the intelligence tests, though the two were only moderately linked.” Rosalind Arden, lead researcher for this study, explains that artistic and cognitive ability appears to be genetic, but there are many things that impact what a child can do.
By Deborah Williams
Whether or not it’s your first child, each stage of development can be puzzling. Hank Pellissier, writer for the Great Schools website, explains the insights from neuroscience about your child’s mind at different grade levels. After clicking on a grade level from the index page, go through the slideshow. Each grade shows the uniqueness of children at that grade level.
A few guidelines from the site follow:
- Ideally, talk, sing, and read to your child in a voice that varies in pitch and rhythm and emphasizes important words.
- Play structured, melodic music for them and sing songs.
- Your child’s fixation on fairness is developmentally positive.
- They hate making mistakes, not finishing tasks, and especially losing.
- Many eight-year-olds are hypercritical, particularly of themselves and their efforts.
- Friendships often emerge as extremely important in fourth graders, an alarmingly trend if it’s accompanied by peer group pressure, cliques, bullying, and fierce jockeying for popularity.
- The upgraded analytic ability also enables fifth-graders’ noggins to become keenly, painfully aware of how they fit, or don’t fit, into certain social groups.
- Repeated firing up of reptilian zones can “hardwire” a developing brain for less self-control, which is not great in middle school or in adulthood.
- High school children need 8.4 – 9.2 hours of sleep per night; missing just 40 minutes per day can cause learning difficulties in school.
By Deborah Williams
Research has shown educators a way to combat obesity and to enhance attention among its students. An article by Alison DeNisco on the District Administration explains that many schools have put standing desks in the classrooms.
We have heard the statistics about obesity: In 2012, more than one-third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese. Obese children have an 85 percent chance of being obese as adults.
Texas A & M university associate professor Mark Benden studied the effect of using standing desks by studying four fourth grade classrooms in Texas. Two classes received the standing desks and stools while the other two classes had standard desks. For ten days, students in all four classes wore arm bands that measured calories burned.
The research findings were interesting:
- Students in standing-desk classrooms chose to stand for most of the class time,
- They expended 11 more calories per hour and about 300 more calories per week than those in the control group.
- The difference was even larger among overweight students, who burned about 23 more calories per hour and 575 more per week than did their seated peers.
- Teachers said the desks had a positive impact on student behavior and classroom performance, and that students were more focused on schoolwork.
Standing desks are more expensive than standard desks, but Benden anticipates standing desks to be more common in classrooms across America. View this video about standing desks in classrooms:
By Deborah Williams
Many parents of elementary school aged children are surprised that heir children do not receive consistent handwriting instruction. Unless they happen to have a teacher who makes it a priority, most students will never get instruction on how to form manuscript or cursive letters correctly. It’s quite common that many graduate from high school without knowing how to sign their own names! The availability of technology and the emphasis on state or national standards make handwriting instruction a very low priority for teachers. Schools may want to rethink that notion if they want more learning to take place. In a recent post on the PBS’s Nova Next blog, Allison Eck reports that the results of a study indicate, “students who write out their notes by hand actually learn more than those [who] type their notes on laptops.”
The study’s researchers, Princeton University’s Pam Mueller and UCLA’s Daniel Oppenheimer, tested students’ memories after half took notes by hand and half took notes on computers for the following: factual detail, conceptual comprehension, and synthesizing capabilities. They found that even though the students who took notes on computers had more words than those who took notes by hand, they had weaker “conceptual understanding across the board.”
Some scientists are skeptical. Taking notes on a computer allows the quick organizational formatting that allows students to “delete, reorder, and build ideas” can be done in an instant. Those things cannot be done quickly if students are taking notes by hand. On the other hand, taking notes by hand engages the note taker in mental work—organizing, synthesizing, and analyzing—that supports learning. Cognitive psychologist Robert Bjork asserted that taking notes by hand creates “desirable difficulty”: If learning is made harder, students will retain information better.
There are some times when students should use computers to take notes and times when they should take notes by hand:
By Deborah Williams
In an effort to close the achievement gap, many schools implement a “double dose” of math for middle school students who need remedial help. This means that those students have two math classes instead of one. This requires the student to miss taking other courses—usually electives such as foreign language, physical education, art, or music.
Liana Heitin reports on the Education Week’s Curriculum Matters blog that a study of this practice shows that this is helpful at first, but, over time, the benefits decrease. Eric Taylor, a doctoral student at Stanford, studies sixth graders who were taking two math classes—one regular and one remedial. Here are his findings:
- End of Sixth Grade Year: Students scored substantially higher than their peers who took just one math class.
- End of Seventh Grade Year: Students (now taking only one math class) showed about half of their gains.
- End of Eighth Grade Year: Students showed about one third of the original gain.
- End of Ninth Grade Year: The gains all but diminished completely.
These results seem to contradict the “positive and substantial” gains of Chicago’s double-dose algebra policy for some of its ninth graders.
By Deborah Williams
You may have heard of “The Fourth Grade Shift.” It’s the developmental milestone that typically occurs in the fourth grade. It is when students no longer learn to read but switch to reading to learn. The Shift includes “a change in automatic word processing, a crucial component of the reading shift theory.” The report on the Science Daily website seems to shut this theory down.
Dartmouth researchers have analyzed elementary students’ brain waves and have concluded that the word processing of fourth graders does not automatically change at that time. “Automatic word processing is the brain’s ability to determine whether a group of symbols constitutes a word within milliseconds, without the brain’s owner realizing the process is taking place.” Actually, the researchers found that some of the word processing becomes automatic before fourth grade while others happen after the fifth grade. That means that fifth and sixth grade students are continuing to develop their “neurological reading system.”
Lead researcher, Donna Coch, found evidence that “…at least through the fifth grade, even children who read well are letting stimuli into the neural word processing system that more mature readers do not.” She asserts “teachers and parents should not expect their fourth-graders, or even their fifth graders, to be completely automatic, adult-like readers.”
Many states and localities use this time in children’s education to establish policy and interventions. This video speaks to the issue and provides some tips for parents to help their children read better: