(203) 453-5067 Laura@HandleEducation.com

Attending to Attention: Providing “Brain Breaks”

According to Cal Newport, author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, the ability to focus is imperative to mastering cognitively demanding tasks. Certainly, absorbing challenging academic content requires deep work. Trying to do so in an environment that provides a multitude of distractions such as a classroom can be a daunting undertaking.  The first step a teacher can take to optimizing the classroom environment involves communicating clear and fair behavior guidelines before content instruction begins.  Once the teacher establishes and reinforces desired classroom decorum, students can pay attention, and the essential work of instruction can begin. A recent article in Edutopia by Dr. Desautels, a professor of education, highlights the importance of attention, because students need to be calm and focused in order to absorb new material. Breaking content into smaller segments is an effective means to absorb content.  When instructing students on time management at home,  I suggest that they spend no more than 45 minutes on any particular task without taking a short three to five minute break. Physical movement like stretching or going to the kitchen for a drink of water can help avoid fatigue. It can also avoid overstimulating the brain, which can lead to a loss of attention. Dr. Desautels suggests providing brief “brain breaks” in a classroom. “We can use brain breaks and focused-attention practices to positively impact our emotional states and learning. They refocus our neural circuitry with either stimulating or quieting practices that generate increased activity in the prefrontal cortex, where problem solving and emotional regulation occur.”  This short break can actually help process the information. Incorporating brain breaks… Read More »

The “Old MacDonald’s” approach to teaching

Teaching, a crucial profession, entrusts educators with developing not only their students’ academic skills but their interpersonal competence as well.   Few experiences rival a teacher’s excitement witnessing the expansion of minds eager to learn. It is a truism that individuals learn best from people they like. As Madeline Hunter stated: “Teaching is not telling and learning is not having been told. Thus, engaging young minds in meaningful activities provides them with experiences that will endure far beyond their time in a classroom. I like ascribe to what I’ve coined as the “Old MacDonald’s” approach to the teaching profession. The chorus,”e-i-e-i-o” provides a framework to traits that can enhance both teaching and learning. E- EMPATHIC  Teaching is personal.  Teachers who  relate well to their students demonstrate that they value them as individuals. They take a special interest in each student. They engage in both contingent and non-contingent interactions with them.  Contingent interactions are reactive. They provide valuable  feedback to students. For instance, if a student performs well on an assignment or is is attentive in class, the teacher responds appropriately. Non-contingent interactions are pro-active: they promote personal relationships. Asking students about their interests outside of school shows them that the teacher cares. Teachers can show students that they are valued for who they are rather than how they behave. I-INSPRIING   Teachers who stimulate curiosity impart much more than content.  They should be experts in their subject matter. They also realize that they provide a springboard for independent learning far beyond the classroom experience.  Teachers who  inspire students are role models. E-ENTHUSIASTC Teachers who demonstrate that they enjoy their chosen profession… Read More »

The Right Questions

The essential mission of any classroom teacher involves the dissemination of knowledge.  Whatever the subject matter, the teacher serves as a guide to the development of cognition, or the process of thinking.  The key word in that definition is “process.”  True learning involves understanding. In fact, the ultimate goal of education is to lead the learner on a journey of inquiry. As such, it employs higher order thinking skills.  It results in much more than a simple regurgitation of facts about a particular subject. It includes examining one’s own thinking or “metacognition:” Teachers can help students to embark on their  crucial discovery by asking the “right” questions. Detail questions( who, what, when, where) demonstrate that students can refer to a text, story, or process to find the answers. These types of factual questions do not necessarily involve understanding.  On the other hand, “how” and “why” questions encourage learners to analyze and reflect. In his book, Now That’s a Good Question, Eric Francis provides a variety of questions for a range of academic subjects that lead to higher thinking processes.  For example, he provides contrasts between a number factual questions and analytical ones. Notice the different phrasing. “What is Poe’s philosophy of composition?” vs. “How does (the author) convey his philosophy of composition in his own works?’ What is the date of the Declaration of Independence vs. “How and why is the Declaration of Independence written like a formal legal document?” “What are the properties of of equality?’ vs. “How do the properties of equality determine the equivalence of equations?” (58) Reflective questions . . . “teach students to analyze why and encourage them to be evaluative as they do the following: inquire and investigate.”(73) Once students become familiar with… Read More »

The Effect of Digital Devices on Children’s Brains

A recent article on the Market Watch site features a disturbing headline: “Screens are hooking kids on ‘digital heroin.’”  The article chronicles the case of a young child who became disengaged from his previous physical activities like outdoor play and sports in favor  of his digital device. In fact,  he became so addicted to his iPad’s Minecraft game that he exhibited signs of catatonia.  While that instance provides an extreme situation, research now demonstrates that excessive use of digital devices has a detrimental effect on brain development. “Those iPads, smart phones and Xboxes are a form of digital drug. Recent brain imaging research is showing that they affect the brain’s frontal cortex—which controls executive functioning, including impulse control—in exactly the same way that cocaine does.” According to a 2013 Policy Statement by the American Academy of Pediatrics, 8- to 10 year-olds spend 8 hours a day with various digital media while teenagers spend 11 hours in front of screens. Years ago, I advised parents to “Kill your television” in order to promote creative thinking and physical activity. Now the list of undesirable devices has grown: computers, smart phones, and tablets, to mention a few.  A number of tech designers such as Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos,  and Silicon Valley tech executives and engineers enroll their kids in no-tech Montessori or Waldorf Schools.   Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, has a foundation called Vroom that addresses this digital problem. The foundation report found that screen time is no substitute for one-on-one spoken interaction and play that nurtures babies’ language development. Rather than plopping a digital device into a baby’s hands, parents should read to them or engage them in conversation.  Susan Neuman, Professor of Early Childhood and Literacy Education at New York… Read More »

Soft Skills and Mindsets-Essential for Learning

How a person approaches life  certainly says a great deal about him or  her.  In fact, history provides many examples of individuals who overcame seemingly insurmountable odds to surpass everyone’s expectations.  One such historical example is currently being lionized  on the Broadway stage: Alexander Hamilton. This West Indian orphan  abandoned at an early age, sailed across the Caribbean to became the right hand man of George Washington and  the first Secretary of the US Treasury. What accounted for this seemingly miraculous transformation? The many documents he  left behind, demonstrate that he had an almost insatiable appetite for learning. Furthermore, he appeared to embody personal  traits such as Work ethic, attitude, communication skills, emotional intelligence, and a whole host of other personal attributes that are the soft skills that are crucial for career success.  In short, he appears to have possessed a “growth mindset.” What is a mindset?  In her book by the same name, Carol Dweck defines it as “the view that (a person) adopts of himself.”(Dweck p. 25)  People can exhibit either a fixed or  growth mindset.  Students who believe that they are born with a certain ability that nothing can change, being either smart or dumb, have a fixed mindset. The fixed mindset appears to be quite detrimental to learning.  These individuals have labeled themselves and may avoid learning anything that interferes with this perception. Thus, children who are labeled as “smart” often refuse to work on challenging material.  The task may be “dumb,” so they throw up their hands and walk away. they don’t learn. On the other hand, a growth mindset allows people to believe that they can… Read More »

Get a “Handle” on Learning with Active Reading.

    Reading comprehension is essential for academic and professional success. Reading can be  as relaxing or stimulating as the subject the reader chooses.  However, in order to study effectively, a reader must employ certain strategies.  This process of becoming immersed in reading material in order to fully comprehend and absorb the information is called “active reading.”  Learners benefit from reading with a purpose; active reading engages mindfulness and provides the strategies that identify the intention. Once a learner internalizes the process, it can yield significant rewards. According to an article in Edutopia, “Adults forget all that they do while reading. We are predicting, making connections, contextualizing, critiquing, and already plotting how we might use any new insights or information. . . .teachers need to train students in each of these skills, and begin to do so early on.”  Teachers can incorporate these strategies in the classroom to equip their students with effective learning techniques. The emphasis here is on the “active” portion of the process. Writing assists learning, so prefer marks like brackets or symbols or words on the material rather than simple highlighting. Steps in the Active Reading Process- 1) Pose questions that will aid learning. When finding the answers in the text, mark them with words or symbols. Questions: Why am I reading this? What do I already know about this topic? What am I trying to learn? What does this mean? Why is this important? How and why questions are particularly helpful, as they require more detailed explanations. 2) Pay particular attention to the beginning and end of the pages. 3) Paraphrase the material in short sentences.… Read More »

Motivation: paving a path to success

Motivation, or “the state or condition of having a strong reason to act or accomplish something” has enabled mankind to accomplish wondrous feats, from harnessing the power of fire to exploring the wonders of the universe. But what are the underlying mechanisms of motivation?  What are the hallmarks of intrinsic motivation, and can educators impart conceptual abilities that will provide learners with the motivation to succeed in a course, in an academic career, and in life? First, let’s distinguish extrinsic from intrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation deals with motivations that are outside of (a person’s) passions and personal self-esteem.  The “if-then rewards”  that define extrinsic motivation appear to have severe limitations.  Extrinsic motivation appears to operate under conditions that center upon mechanical skills.  When cognitive skills are the goal, extrinsic motivators hinder the outcome. Numerous studies have demonstrated that externally incentivizing students for academic achievement doesn’t work. “There are two main types of incentives: economic, and social or moral. The fine and the stipend backfired because they substituted an economic incentive for a moral incentive.” In short, throwing money at a problem is short-sighted and ineffective in education. On the other hand, the more effective method to engender success in an endeavor involves intrinsic motivation, which is internal. It involves joy in work and  learning.  It is an internal rather than external force. In fact,  according to a study funded by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, once a task called for “even rudimentary cognitive skill, a large reward led to poorer performance.” So then, how can teachers help students develop intrinsic motivation?  Incorporating the following three components, autonomy, mastery, and purpose. into lessons can help students learn intrinsic motivation.  … Read More »

Who Teaches Cognitive Skills?

Cognitive skills  are essential for memory and learning. Yet these skills are not often assigned to any particular grade or subject. Thus, students may graduate from high school without ever having learned how to learn.  I encountered this situation first-hand while teaching at a community college last fall. The seminar course that I taught had focused on preparing these students to build the skills they will need to succeed in pursuing their academic and employment opportunities.  Topics included study skills, critical reading, time management, fact versus opinion, and much more. I continually questioned if my students had encountered any of these topics in elementary or secondary school. Their responses were a resounding NO! Surely that was a glaring disservice. The first objective of education is to learn HOW to learn. Before embarking on the specifics of any content area, students must learn HOW to think. This includes being able to focus and memorize.  Yet no one subject department claims responsibility for this critical component.  The essential goal of public education is the development of an educated citizenry.  How can anyone be an informed citizen if he cannot think critically, discern truth from fiction, or fact from opinion? The College Board’s new entrance professes to complement the Common Core. The test, which debuted in March, places a premium on critical thinking skills and application of concepts. Who is responsible for teaching these skills? The answer is-every teacher in every grade from the time a student enters first grade until he graduates from high school.  To ignore this responsibility is to undermine the very goal of the education system. For a glimpse… Read More »

Improving Critical Thinking

How important are critical thinking skills? College professors and business leaders complain that their students and employees lack these skills. Developers of the ACT and the SAT are reacting to these concerns by altering the current  forms of the tests, so that they l emphasize mastery of critical thinking skills. Available samples of the new SAT indicate that the “plug and chug” method of answering multiple choice questions math questions will not be enough to attain a high score. One section of the new format will disallow calculator use.  Instead, students will have to  apply concepts rather than perform simple computation of formulas .Furthermore, both the ACT and the SAT are placing more emphasis on critical thinking for the essays.  Both exams will require students to read texts (some of which are historical documents) and then analyze the writer’s methods of achieving the argument. In addition the other sections of both exams  will include charts and graphs that a student must analyze. But how and where are students learning these skills? One way of helping students to develop critical thinking is through writing. Providing students with opportunities to produce informational writing that analyzes, criticizes, or explains helps them engage in “”meta-cognition” or thinking about thinking. A recent abstract in “Life Sciences Education“ indicates, “As an instructional method, writing has long been perceived as a way to improve critical thinking.”  Students enrolled in a general biology laboratory course who wrote about the experiment outperformed those in the same course who were in the “non-writing” group.  “Results indicated that the writing group significantly improved critical thinking skills whereas the non-writing group did… Read More »

For Better Sleep, SHUT those Gadgets!

Many parents, educators, and physicians are concerned about the sleep patterns of teenagers. In previous articles, I have cited the recommendation of the Center for Disease Control that teens sleep at least nine hours to function at an optimal level. When I canvass my students, I find that their average nightly sleep reflects the troubling pattern of between six to seven hours.  School districts are beginning to respond to the call  to alter the daily class schedule and avoid early morning class times.  Districts that have initiated later starting times report positive results: fewer fatigued students, fewer auto accidents, and higher SAT scores.  In fact, Guilford is in the forefront of Shoreline towns that will establish later school starting times in the near future. However, despite the best efforts of adults, teens are ultimatelly reponsbile for their personal well-being.  Later class times should not be an invitation to stay up engaged with their electronic gadgets. A recent study from Norway reveals the detrimental effects of having a smart phone or tablet on the night table.  The results, as reported by NBC, indicate that the screens emit a light that may affect sleep hormone production.  Communicating online at bedtime also contributes to less sleep time. The study followed 10,000 boys and girls from ages 16-19.  Those who had four or more hours of daytime “screen time” had an almost 50% higher risk of taking more than an hour to fall asleep. Teens who engaged with their gadgets for at least two hours after school experienced more tossing and turning and shorter sleep time as well. Furthermore, teens who used two… Read More »

If schools were permitted to have just one training, this is the one!

This training will help to raise test scores for your students, decrease discipline challenges, and improve classroom rapport. You will learn how to meet students where they are and lead them where they need to be, capture attention, and promote deeper learning.