Friday, April 24, 2015

What To Assess

This week’s article summary is Seven Things Every Kid Should Master from The Boston Globe

When I was a student and later as a teacher and administrator, I was always dissatisfied with the traditional grading system, especially end of term/year grades where one letter or percentage supposedly captured how I did in a class or course. Sometimes I received (or gave) two grades—one for content mastery and the other for effort. In private schools, a narrative comment typically accompanies the grade(s) to provide a more holistic picture.

Some schools have moved—ever so slightly—to trying to measure areas other than content mastery and effort.

As I read the article, I imagined a new type of progress report system and a whole new way of teachers monitoring and measuring student growth and progress. It’s not that these are the seven perfect areas to assess: it’s more a challenge to all of us to think beyond the traditional manner of assessing student progress, success, and accomplishment


Here’s a list of seven educational outcomes, which can be ascertained through sample testing.

Reading: The goal should be the ability to read an essay or book and understand it well enough to use the information in some practical way or to talk about it with another person. This won’t happen unless students are reading on a regular basis, using books and other texts for pleasure and information, and continuously developing their grammatical complexity, vocabulary, and thinking ability. What’s the best way to measure all this? By analyzing random samples of students’ essays and stories.

Inquiry: Young children enter school with a natural disposition to inquire. However, one of the great ironies of our educational system is that it seems to squelch the impulse most essential to learning new things and to pursuing scientific discovery and invention. Maintaining childish inquisitiveness and curiosity should be a major goal of schools, and the best way to keep track of progress is keeping track of the number and quality of questions a child asks in a given period of time – Can they be answered with data? How does the child go about getting answers? And how persistent is the child when answers are hard to find?

Flexible thinking and use of evidence: College students are assessed on their ability to think about a situation in several different ways. Why not get this information on K-12 students and use it to fine-tune the curriculum? Kids might be asked to respond to a prompt like this: “Choose something you are good at and describe to your reader how you do it” or “Write a description of yourself from a friend’s (or enemy’s) point of view.” 

Conversation: Teachers are given scant training in how to encourage, expand, and deepen children’s conversations. How can conversational skills be assessed? By listening in on children’s chats, it’s possible to code:
- The length of exchanges and turns taken;
- How many of these turns are in response to what was just said;
- How attuned each speaker is to what the other person is saying and thinking;
- Number of agreements and disagreements.
- Variety and depth of topics;
- Points of view articulated;
- Amount of information exchanged.
 If teachers knew that their students’ conversations were valuable and that they and their 
students were being measured by their conversations, they might get more help learning how to scaffold or enrich children’s talk.

Collaboration: One of the most robust findings in developmental psychology is that kids learn how to treat one another by watching the way adults treat them and treat each other. The habits of kindness and teamwork need time, effort, and attention to develop. Teachers need to be more attentive to this hidden curriculum and measure the levels of helpfulness and mutual support within the student body and faculty. For example, some popular students lord it over their cafeteria tables while socially isolated students don’t know where they can sit.

Engagement: The educational philosopher Harry Brighouse believes that one of the most powerful cognitive skills children can acquire is the ability to remain focused on something for 20 minutes at a time. Schools should look for this ability and work to get all students to at least that level of engagement. This means frequently observing everyday classroom activities and seeing if teachers are providing opportunities for students to become fully absorbed in and energized by specific activities. 

Well-being: One way to measure if the six preceding elements are in place is asking students questions like these:
- How often do you enjoy being in school?
- What are you working on? Does it interest you? Do you care about it?
- Do the adults in this school know you?

Friday, April 17, 2015

Academic Versus Intellectual Goals

While the article’s focus is on the optimal curriculum for preschool, the tension between “academic goals” versus what the article terms “intellectual goals” is present at any grade.

Research clearly leans towards schools and classrooms focusing more on “intellectual goals,” which to most of us include Information Age skills, Tony Wagner’s 4 Cs, SEL standards, Bloom’s higher-order thinking skills, executive function skills/habits, etc.

The key for all of us as educators is finding the proper balance of “academic versus intellectual” emphasis in the classroom. Those of us who lean a little more traditional educationally most likely give more time to “academic goals” while those who are a little more progressive provide more classroom time to “intellectual” development.

I have spoken and written about how prior to the Information Age we now live in the principal goal of education was knowledge acquisition stored and readily accessible in our brains. Today, however, with the ubiquity and availability of knowledge at our fingertips (Who was the eleventh President of the United States, what are secondary colors, what’s an isthmus, did Bogart ever win an Oscar?), the balance in the classroom between academic and intellectual goals favors more time for intellectual.

Today, an essential question teachers, not only in preschool, need to ask is how much time do they devote to academic goals and how much time to intellectual goal development?



The debate about appropriate curriculum for young children generally centers on two options: free play and basic activities vs. straight academics (which is what many kindergartens across the country have adopted, often reducing or eliminating time for play).
A new report, “Lively Minds,” offers a new way to look at what is appropriate in early childhood education.
The report says that beyond free play and academics, another major component of education – is to provide a wide range of experiences, opportunities, resources and contexts that will provoke, stimulate, and support children’s innate intellectual dispositions.
As the title of the paper indicates there is a distinction between academic goals and intellectual goals for young children.

Academic goals are those concerned with the mastery of small discrete elements of disembodied information, usually related to pre-literacy skills in the early years, and practiced in drills, worksheets, and other kinds of exercises designed to prepare children for the next levels of literacy and numeracy learning.

The items learned and practiced have correct answers, rely heavily on memorization, the application of formulae versus understanding, and consist largely of giving the teacher the one, correct answer.

These bits of information are essential components of reading, writing, and other academic competencies useful in the later school years.

The question is not whether academic skills matter; rather it is about both when they matter and what proportion of the curriculum they warrant, especially during the early years.
Intellectual goals, on the other hand, are those that address the life of the mind in its fullest sense, e.g. reasoning, predicting, analyzing, questioning, and the range of aesthetic and moral sensibilities. The formal definition of intellectual emphasizes reasoning, hypothesizing, posing questions, predicting answers to the questions, predicting the findings produced by investigation, the development and analysis of ideas and the quest for understanding and so forth.

An appropriate curriculum for young children is one that includes the focus on supporting children’s in-born intellectual dispositions, their natural inclinations.

An appropriate curriculum in the early years, then, is one that includes the encouragement and motivation of the children to seek mastery of basic academic skills, e.g., beginning writing skills, in the service of their intellectual pursuits.

In-depth investigation projects in preschool and kindergarten children has clearly supported the assumption that the children come to appreciate the usefulness of a range of basic academic skills related to literacy and mathematics as they strive to share their findings from their investigations with classmates and others.

It is useful to assume that all the basic intellectual skills and dispositions are in-born in all children, though stronger in some individuals than in others.

Longitudinal studies of different kinds of preschool curriculum models debunk the seemingly common-sense notion that “earlier is better” in terms of academic instruction.

While formal instruction produces good test results in the short term, preschool curriculum and teaching methods that emphasize children’s interactive roles and initiative may be not so impressive in the short run but yield better school achievement in the long term.

That reflects a finding in a report released earlier this year, titled “Reading in Kindergarten: Little to Gain and Much to Lose,” which says that there is no evidence to support a widespread belief that children must read in prekindergarten or kindergarten to become strong readers and achieve academic success. You can read about that report here.

“Earlier is better” is not supported in neurological research, which does not imply that formal academic instruction is the way to optimize early brain development. Rather, the research suggests that preschool programs are best when they focus on social, emotional and intellectual goals rather than narrow academic goals and provide early experiences that provoke self-regulation, initiative and sustained synchronous interaction in which the child is interactive with others in some continuous process, rather than a mere passive recipient of isolated bits of information for stimulation.

“Intellectual dispositions” of young children may actually be weakened or even damaged by excessive and premature formal instruction and that they are not likely to be strengthened by many of the mindless, trivial if not banal activities frequently offered in child care, preschool and kindergarten programs.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Brain Myths

This week’s article summary is 9 Stubborn Brain Myths That Just Won't Die, Debunked by Science.

I have certainly fallen prey to some of these myths. 

In the late 90s I taught a summer course called “Writing from The Right Side of the Brain” (Myth 1)—I even used a textbook that included activities to help writers stimulate creativity and right-side brain stimulation.

In one of my English classes I used to play classical music during journal writing time (Myth 6) to stimulate creativity and deep thinking when all I probably did was distract most of my students.

I’ve lectured my own kids on Myths 3 and 4—even if they’re myths, they ideally scare kids into working harder and limiting alcohol intake.

I also confess to playing “brain games” like Lumosity (Myth 7) in the hopes of preventing early-stages of dementia.

Clearly in the past twenty to thirty years we have learned much more about the brain, including debunking the long-held myths below, yet the brain remains one of the most mysterious organs.

Also, here is a link to an article of short YouTube videos and various books on the brain.


--Myth 1: Left-Brained People Are Organized, Right-Brained People Are Creative

This myth began in the 1800s, where doctors discovered that injury to one side of the brain frequently caused loss of specific abilities. Brain scan experiments, however, show that the two halves of the brain are much more intricately linked than was originally thought, so problem-solving or creative tasks fire up activity in regions of both hemispheres of the brain, not just half. It is true that the right side of the brain controls the left side of the body and vice versa, so a right-brain injury can cause disability on the left side of the body.

Myth 2: Your Memory Is An Exact Account of What You See and Experience

Our memories don’t recall anything we see, hear, sell, taste, or touch with much detail at all. Instead, our brains record the seemingly necessary details and fill in the rest when it’s time to remember. The elaborate tapestry of our experience is not stored in memory--at least not in its entirety. Rather, it is compressed for storage by first being reduced to a few critical threads, such as a summary phrase (“Dinner was disappointing”) or a small set of key features (tough steak, corked wine, snotty waiter). Later, when we want to remember our experience, our brains quickly reweave the tapestry by fabricating--not by actually retrieving--the bulk of the information that we experience as a memory. This fabrication happens so quickly and effortlessly that we have the illusion that the entire thing was in our heads the entire time.

Myth 3: You Only Use 10% of Your Brain

If we only used 10% of our brains, what’s the point of the other 90%? Brain imaging studies using PET scans and functional MRI show that any mentally complex activity uses many areas of the brain, and over a day, just about all of the brain gets a workout. A study found that seniors who stay mentally active--through activities like reading the paper, going to the theater, or playing chess--are less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease--even if they have the characteristic physical brain changes typical of dementia, suggesting that mental function has a “use it or lose it” component.

Myth 4: Alcohol Kills Brain Cells

If you were actively killing brain cells when consuming alcohol, you’d notice some permanent side effects pretty quickly. Although alcohol does have a significant effect on your brain and body, brain damage isn’t a given. You’ll have to drink yourself into a coma to go that far. The proof comes from a 1993 study that matched brain samples from both (deceased) alcoholics and non-alcoholics and found no difference in the density of brain cells.

Myth 5: The Internet Is Making Us Dumber

Claiming that the Internet is making us dumber could have the glimmer of truth under specific circumstances, but so far no research points to any significant dumbing down of the sort. The reason we find it easy to believe the Internet is making us dumber is because, in some ways, it’s making us less self-reliant. Our GPS devices navigate for us and we neglect to remember things because we have Google search. That doesn’t make us dumber, necessarily, but rather causes us to rely more on transactive memory. This type of memory is actually very useful because it allows us to, in essence, store more data in less space. Instead of remembering the contents of an entire article, we can simple remember the name or a few key words that we can entire into a search engine to pull it up. This comes with the obvious downside of lacking the full recall for actual information in your brain, which is why many people feel the Internet is turning us into idiots.

Myth 6: Listening to Classical Music Turns Babies into Geniuses

This myth began with a study conducted in the early 90s. Preliminary results suggested that a specific piece of music composed by Mozart boosted the spatial-temporal reasoning skills in young children. This made for big headlines and the creation of entire businesses surrounding the sale of Mozart-based products. The full study, however, eventually showed no significant result from classical music. It is unfortunate that the media and commercial ventures have taken the initial modest, unverified study and conjured up a pseudo-science which gave rise to a full-blown industry. This remains one of the more stubborn myths today.

Myth 7: Brain Games Make You Smarter

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could actually boost our brain power by playing a few games daily? Studies reveal there is no cognitive benefit to brain games. Look at any brain games you play, e.g., Lumosity, as specific practice. You’ll get better at that game(s), but don’t expect any boost in your general intelligence.

Myth 8: Your IQ Is Fixed and Stays the Same Throughout Your Life

Your IQ is a score that’s supposed to quantify your level of intelligence. What defines intelligence is still up for debate, so a high IQ isn’t necessarily an accurate measurement, but it has long been assumed that our scores don’t change—we’re stuck at the level of intelligence we were born with. That’s not true. Studies show changes in IQ after just a few weeks of effort. There’s a lot of research supporting this theory. Since IQ can change, these studies may not relate so much to people with higher scores but rather hardworking, studious individuals.

Myth 9: Your Brain Works Better Under Pressure

At some point in your life, you may have experienced a moment where you had an impossible deadline and somehow managed to finish your work—perhaps even exceptionally well. When the pressure is on, sometimes we find it in ourselves to pull through. Although a ticking clock can be an excellent motivator, as the looming consequences of missing a deadline can certainly get you working fast, it doesn’t result in better brain performance. In fact, pretty much any kind of stress makes it harder for your brain to function. As science gains greater insight into the consequences of stress on the brain, the picture that emerges is not a pretty one. A chronic overreaction to stress overloads the brain with powerful hormones that are intended only for short-term duty in emergency situations. Their cumulative effect damages and kills brain cells. In the end, if you believe you work better under pressure it’s simply because the end result seems to justify that belief. Stress isn’t enabling you to work better, but simply providing the motivation to get you to work in the first place.