Sunday, September 30, 2012

Neuroscientists on Whole Brain Teaching

From (thanks, Another Hole Brain Director!)
NORTH CANTON: When Chris Biffle called out the word “Class!” Wednesday morning at Walsh University, 450 teachers and administrators yelled back, “Yes!”

“Class class?” he said.

“Yes! Yes!” they replied.

“Classity classity,” he said.

“Yessity yessity,” they chanted back.

The method might be fun, engaging and popular, judging by teacher testimonials and company-conducted polls.

But the techniques are not validated by contemporary brain research, according to two experts in the relationship between neuroscience and education who reviewed the claims for the Akron Beacon Journal.

“Nothing I see here indicates that there is any neuroscientific backing for anything they’re suggesting,” said Dan Willingham, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Virginia.

The Beacon Journal also asked David Daniel, managing editor of the peer-reviewed science journal Mind, Brain and Education to examine the research page at

“I think he has these ideas that may or may not work, and he’s using brain stuff to market them,” said Daniel, a psychology professor at James Madison University. “The brain stuff on the web page is very cursory, very shallow. That could be just his way of communicating or it could be his level of understanding. Either way, it’s misleading.”

Jeff Battle, a middle school science teacher in North Carolina who says he keeps current on brain research for the company, said teachers aren’t bound by the same level of scientific rigor as neuroscientists.

“I’m not going to give a Ph.D.-level dissertation to a kindergarten teacher who wants to have a vague idea of why this is working so they can explain it if they need to,” Battle said. “We’re not pure science, we’re practitioners who are applying what we’ve learned so far.”

But, Daniel said, when educators misrepresent the science, they make it harder for researchers who are struggling to translate neuroscience into something teachers can reliably use in the classroom.

“It drowns out the softer voice of what’s credible. That’s what’s harmful,” Daniel said. “There are people doing really good work who, if they had a chance, would love to be helping teachers. But they’re getting drowned out by people who are better at marketing, better at speaking and better at selling.”

Notice the completely patronizing tone Jeff Battle takes about kindergarten teachers, as if it's their fault that he's peddling pseudo-scientific crap. Give me a break!

Monday, September 24, 2012

De-emphasizing Grades

Via NPR, here's an interesting interview with a former President of Reed College, Colin Diver.

Diver discusses his efforts to de-emphasize grades and promote the goal of learning for its own sake (there's a radical notion!) Teachers were required to give extensive feedback that did not include grades. The school as an institution withdrew from the college ranking system, so as to prevent the grading game on the larger scale.

Two-thirds of the students at Reed didn't know their GPA.

I think one of the worst aspects of education today is the universal grade-grubbing and credentialism. It's almost impossible for a kid to develop a sincere interest in learning in this toxic environment.

The Honeymoon is Over

Well, this was bound to happen. After a very successful first 2 classes of PREP (catechism), yesterday was a mess. The kids were rowdy even during the little pre-class gathering, and it just got worse once we were in the classroom.

The most enthusiastic response I got was when I inadvertently opened the window at the same moment that a skunk sprayed a dog just outside. Otherwise, the kids were very difficult to engage. A bit of dialogue from the day's proceedings:

Me: "The Church names its councils after the place where the council was held. So, where was the Council of Trent held?"

Kid (shrugging): "I'a'know."

It was like pulling teeth.

The kids were moderately interested in acting out a skit about the good Samaritan that my co-teacher organized. Also, they liked a couple of video clips I brought in; one, a very funny confession scene from a Britcom called "My Family", and the other, historic footage of the election of Pope John Paul I (the one who died after 33 days, possibly poisoned.)

Sigh. Soldiering on to next week --

Monday, September 17, 2012

A Conclave

This school year, I've joined up with a friend of mine to team-teach 4th-grade catechism class at our Catholic church.

Before our first class, we obtained the year's textbook. It stinks. It's all disconnected bits of factoids, word search puzzles, match the word with the definition, dumbed-down, sanitized, dull dull dull. The layout looks like somebody's design program barfed on the page. Yes, our curriculum is the Everyday Math of religious ed. We've even got the dreaded "spiral" effect: as my friend discovered this week, "they've done the Beatitudes for the past 3 years, and they don't know anything about them!"

My friend and I agreed that we could get through the assigned content of a chapter in about 10 minutes, so that leaves us 45 minutes a week to do something else.

I decided that we should try to teach the kids some history in our remaining time. The first week, I presented a brief wrap-up of Vatican II, with the line-up of recent popes. I threw out what I thought was a softball question:

Me: "Who elects the Pope?"

Kid 1: "We do!"

Kid 2: "Priests! ... um, catechists!"

Kid 3 (confused): "I thought we elected Obama ...?"

Her friend: "No, he's the President!"

After some discussion, I explained that the Pope is elected by the Cardinals, who were appointed by previous Popes. The kids were surprised. One asked, "if the Pope appoints the Cardinals and the Cardinals elect the Pope, how did we get the first Pope?" (Excellent question, I thought.) My friend said, "Next week, we're electing a Pope!"

So, yesterday we held a Conclave. I was really hoping we could burn ballots and produce black and white smoke, but my friend talked me out of it (we waved black and white fabric instead.) I gave a brief talk about how the Conclave works, appointed the kids Cardinals, and passed out the first round of ballots (I Elect as Supreme Pontiff ____). Suddenly, the room came alive. The kids were competing to be the one to read out the ballot names or tabulate votes on the whiteboard. After four rounds of balloting, they elected a girl (a historic first.) Habemus Papam!

So, for all you teachers who read this blog, I am now getting some experience from your side of the desk. Wish me luck!

Monday, September 10, 2012

Beam Me Up, Scotty

Aargh! We're less than a week into the school year, and already having homework headaches. The really unforgivable part is that it's with 3d-grade Younger Daughter. Why is she being assigned homework at all?

First she had a math worksheet that took 10 minutes for us to fight about (culminating in my swearing like a sailor with a head injury) and 2 minutes for her to fill out. Then she's got a sheet in her homework folder that looks like this:


Sample Questions for 'Interviewing' Your Grandparents

Where were you born? What year?

What are the names and birthdates of your brothers and sisters?

Did you have a pet when you were growing up?

Did you get an allowance?

Who was more strict, your mom or dad?

What were your favorite games and activities?

What chores were assigned to you?

What did your house look like? Is it still the same?

What traditions did your family have?

Did your family have big reunions?

Did you like school? What kinds of grades did you get?

What were your favorite subjects?

When you were a teenager, what time did you have to be home at night?

How old were you when you met grandma/grandpa?

How old were you when you got married?

What was your first job?

Tell me about my mom/dad when he/she was growing up.

Who writes this crap? Why was I born?

Since there was no indication of what exactly we're supposed to do with this thing, I sent the following e-mail to the teacher:
Ms. Third -- what are your expectations about the grandparents' interview sheet that you sent home? Younger Daughter wants nothing to do with it. I'm not a fan of homework in elementary school and I'm inclined not to fight her about it. Thanks. -- FedUpMom
My devout hope is that this sheet was sent home as one of those allegedly fun family activities, and it's no big deal whether Younger Daughter does anything with it or not. I guess we'll find out.

UPDATE: I received the following e-mail from Ms. Third:
Mrs. FedUpMom, It's actually an assignment from Mrs. Liber, our librarian. My understanding from her is it's something for the students relating to her curriculum. I'm happy to follow up for her if you like. -- Ms. Third.
UPDATE UPDATE: This afternoon, while waiting for Younger Daughter's bus to drop her off, I struck up a conversation with another mother of a 3d-grader. I asked her whether her son had gotten the "Grandparents Day" paper, and she said "Yeah! It just showed up in his homework folder with no explanation of what we were supposed to do with it. I ignored it." (She, by the way, is what the school probably considers a "good" mother, not a fire-breathing ranter like yours truly.) When I looked in YD's homework folder, the Grandparents Day paper had disappeared. I asked YD about it, and she said "she [a teacher] took it away because it was overdue!" I think everyone involved has decided to pretend it never happened. Works for me ...

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

High joy? High discipline?

Over at kitchen table math, Catherine Johnson has written a post promoting high joy/high discipline schools.

Sigh. My first reaction is the same feeling I have about progressive schools: I'd like to see it done well. I've never seen progressive ed done well, with a true respect for students as individual learners. I've only ever seen it done badly, as a thin veneer of mushy curriculum laid on top of a thoroughly traditional authoritarian structure. If I could see it done well, I might be an enthusiastic convert.

I've never seen discipline done well either. I've seen (and heard of) over-the-top discipline systems where behavior becomes the entire curriculum, and learning takes a very distant back seat. I'm not a control freak by nature (I'm a chaos freak instead), and I'm deeply uncomfortable with any system that puts a high premium on unquestioning obedience. I don't think that's a useful lesson for any human being.

So, a system of discipline that I could be comfortable with would first of all have to be minimalist. That is, make as few rules as possible, about things that really matter. (Parallel to my grandfather's advice about buying insurance: "Only insure against disaster.") So, I'm fine with a rule against kids hitting each other, which of course should be supported by laws prohibiting adults from hitting the kids. On the other hand, a rule requiring kids to walk the hallways in an absolutely straight single-file line, in silence, strikes me as unnecessary and dehumanizing. The same is true for any system that punishes kids with "silent lunch".

I'm very opposed to any system that punishes kids for events that are not under their control. For instance, punishing young children for undone homework, at an age when homework is really Mom's job, and you're effectively punishing the kid for having the wrong kind of Mom. The most egregious example of this is punishing the kid for failing to obtain Mom's signature! Another example is punishing kids for getting to school late.

Following our experience with Younger Daughter, I've seen for myself that behavior problems are not easily distinguished from academic problems. All kinds of people were telling us that Younger Daughter was a discipline problem, and needed more "structure" (i.e, rules and punishments), but it turned out the source of her problems was that she had not learned to read, and felt anxious as a result. Once we got her reading, her discipline problems evaporated.

So, I think a well-designed academic program could prevent many discipline problems in the first place. If kids are learning, they're less likely to start acting up out of anxiety or boredom.

As for high joy, I only wish it was an option where I live. I almost wouldn't care what else was going on at the school. We could fill in academics at home, which we find ourselves doing anyway no matter where the kids go to school. Where I live, it seems like the model of education-as-learning has been thrown out in favor of education-as-hazing. If kids are stressed out and overworked, that proves that the school is doing its job. This becomes especially true at the high school level, where the ferocious competition for entry to "good" colleges has resulted in an insane workload and endemic sleep deprivation, which is now considered a normal rite of passage for upper-middle-class teenagers. This is not what I want for Older Daughter.

This evening, we're attending orientation for Older Daughter's first year of high school at Friends Omphalos. 8th grade was not wonderful for Older Daughter, and I'm really hoping high school will be better. Wish us luck!