Learning and the Brain Redux

4fingersFriday 4: September 13

For this week’s edition of the Friday 4, I would like to share a few more brain-related links and articles that I have run across in the past week or so. The topics of cognitive science and brain research informed teaching and learning have certainly been hot of late. My Twitter feed has been loaded with links to articles and blog posts about neuroscience since the start of the summer and has not seemed to wane in recent days.

The last piece is not quite a learning and the brain piece directly but does relate to the topics we have been discussing in faculty meetings of late.

If you are at all interested in the neuroscience of learning, this has certainly been a stretch with plenty to add to your reading list! Keep passing along any items you find and enjoy!


Spring – A time to reflect and hone your skills

Spring in the education world is a frenetic time filled with final preparation for AP exams, honors teas and events for our best and brightest students, countless meetings and the final “push” to the end of the year in all of our classes. As busy as the final weeks can be, it is also an excellent time to actually take some time and reflect on the year that has past and consider how it has gone and how we might improve what we do the next time around. In that spirit, I have assembled a few items (more than the usual 4) that I ran across this week that will hopefully inspire you to think about some of the fundamental aspects of teaching and learning, and with some serious reflection, might help you to become a better teacher in the long run.

 I welcome comments on any of this week’s “finds” and welcome suggestions for future editions of the Friday 4. Enjoy!

Planting seeds

Friday 4 – March 1

With spring and baseball season right around the corner, (or so I hope!) I thought I would plant a few intellectual seeds with this week’s missive. With a little watering, care and time, perhaps the ideas in this week’s pieces will germinate into new and exciting possibilities for you.

I hope that these seeds germinate and sprout for you and that you are willing to share the harvest.

Belated Friday 4 – Google Goodies and more

 Friday Four – Jan 27

The end of the week snuck up on me, as it sometimes does, and prevented me from posting my weekly Friday 4 on Friday. I guess I will have to ask for an extension and hope for some leniency! I am pretty sure that the your life went on just fine in the absence of the Friday 4, but I did not want to completely let you down, so here is my somewhat belated Friday 4 for the week that will in all likelihood end before I finish typing this post.

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know that I am a big fan and user of Google Drive (formerly Google Docs) in the classroom and with my students. I ran across 2 great resources this past week having to do with Google Drive that I wanted to pass along.

  • The first is a post from Richard Byrne (@rmbyrne), who writes the FreeTech4Teachers blog, titled “Five Essential Google Drive Skills For Teachers.” If you are a new user of Google Drive, this is the post for you. If you are already a user of Drive, you may still be able to pick up a tip or two from this post.
  • The second Drive-related item is a short video explaining how you can use a neat Chrome plugin called WeVideo with your Google Drive to create, edit and share videos all for FREE.

The last two items for the week are more reflective in nature.

  • Tom Whitby (@tomwhitby) wrote a post recently “Building a professional learning network on Twitter” that explains how educators can harness the power of Twitter for their own ongoing professional development. If you are new to Twitter and have not yet “found” Tom, I would strongly recommend that you add him to your “follow” list.
  • Marc Seigel (@DaretoChem) is another person I follow on Twitter who is a fellow flipped-classroom teacher. He recently wrote a blog post that resonated with me that I hope you will find interesting.

Enjoy and have a wonderful final week of January!

New Year’s resolutions for me and my students

I have never been a fan of New Year’s resolutions. I have made them in the past, and like most people, ended up breaking them by the end of January in the best of cases. Why should this year be any different?

Over the recent break, I finally got a chance to read Carol Dweck’s book Mindset and as a result, decided to incorporate some of her “growth mindset” ideas into my own life. If you have not read the book, I highly recommend it; my wife and I read the book together and both found it to be enlightening and inspirational. Here is a link to a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education about Dweck. I was so inspired that I decided to make a few New Year’s resolutions with respect to my teaching despite my previous less than stellar experiences with resolutions. (Growth mindset at work!)

So, here are my resolutions for 2012 with respect to the classroom:

  1. Praise students more for their efforts and not their “innate” abilities. The research on the impact of how we give praise and feedback may surprise you and has a great deal to do with creating a growth vs fixed mindset. Here is a link to one study.
  2. We at Loomis Chaffee are engaging in a community-wide discussion about homework and our current homework policy. Academic departments are meeting to discuss the role of homework in their disciplines and the faculty as a whole are also discussing the topic. As a result of this school-wide initiative, I plan on asking myself the following questions about each homework assignment for my students: 1) What is the specific goal of the assignment? If I can not articulate the specific goal, then it is unlikely that my students will know why they are doing the assignment. 2) How will the students and I know if the goal was met for the assignment? Feedback and assessment (not always grades) are integral parts to a well-designed homework assignment.
Given my limited success with New Year’s resolutions, I figured that two would be plenty for me to take on. I plan on coming back to this post on the 1st and 15th of each month to assess how I am doing. I will let you know how I am doing! Do you have any resolutions you would like to share? Please feel free to post your comments here or contact me via e-mail or Twitter.

The Evolution of an Assignment

In the past couple of years I have done a great deal of thinking and reading about the topic of homework and wrestling with the design of homework in my classes, particularly in light of what I have learned about how people learn from attending several Learning and the Brain conferences. I have also become a huge fan and user of a “flipped classroom” model which necessitates rethinking the role and purpose of homework entirely. As a result of my new knowledge and new pedagogical approach, most of the assignments I have used in the past have undergone significant change and hardly resemble what they looked like even two years ago. I wanted to share one example with the hope that my experience may encourage others to rethink how they are using homework.

I currently team teach a Molecular Biology course at the Loomis Chaffee School that is a two term course for seniors and juniors who have already taken biology and chemistry and are looking to continue their study of biology at an advanced level. Since the students are coming from very different chemistry backgrounds, in the first couple of weeks of the course, we review basic acid/base chemistry, weak acid equilibria and then apply these concepts to the study of amino acids and proteins. In the past we have given the students a problem set to work on during this first unit that includes problems on all of the basic concepts and several that require some extension and transfer to new situations. The students were encouraged to work collaboratively on the problems and frequently small groups of them did get together and helped each other to understand and solve the problems. Ultimately, each student was required to hand in his/her own set of solutions to the questions. Here is where the problem came in…we really had no way knowing for sure who had truly mastered the concepts and who had not. A high grade on the problem set was not a good indicator of mastery since we had little way of knowing anything about the path each student took to his/her answers. Did they solve them on their own with no outside assistance? Did they work with a peer who did most of the “heavy lifting?” If they got a problem wrong, can we figure out where they are stuck conceptually and help them see their mistake? Not likely.

The next year, we tried a different approach with the same problem set to try and gain more insight into where the students were getting stuck and to better monitor who was doing the work and who was “along for the ride” when it came to actually solving the problems. We had the students work in small groups on the problem set in class where we could go around and listen in and assist when needed. This was certainly better because it allowed us a chance to clear up misconceptions before they became “permanent” and guaranteed that the students would spend at least the amount of class time we dedicated to working on the problems. While this format was “better”, it was far from perfect. We still had no way to make sure that all of the students were mastering the concepts along the way since we did not collect and correct their work until the end.

This year we tried a third approach that has gotten us closer to our goal of knowing that each student has mastered the concepts and at the same time allowed us to monitor the path to mastery so that we could clear up misconceptions early and provide feedback often. Here is what we did: We looked at all of the problems on the problem set and first scaffolded them so that the problems were ordered by difficulty level and built better on one another. We had to rewrite several and scrap other ones we have used in the past. We then divided the students up into groups of 3 and instead of giving each group the entire problem set to work on, we handed the problems out one at a time on slips of paper. Each group only received one copy of the problem. They were instructed to work together on it and let us know when they thought that they had solved it. In order to get the next problem, one person from the group (selected randomly by the teacher!) had to explain the group’s answer. If the answer was incorrect or the selected person could not adequately explain how they had gotten to their answer, they had to go back and make sure of their answer and make sure that everybody understood it since the second attempt might have to be explained by a different person. Once the group had the right answer and could adequately explain it, they were given the next problem to work on. As the groups were working, we circulated around and were able to answer questions or clear up any misconceptions. As a result of this approach, the groups were frequently working on different problems and at different paces. Because we were asking different students to answer for the group each time, there was a built in mechanism to encourage collaboration and mastery from every member of the group. We also were able to hear from each and every student at some point and have a better sense of which students are struggling to master the material.

I have to point out that this approach takes significant class time and would not be nearly as easy for us to do if we were not also using a flipped model for instruction. We rarely use class time for content delivery, instead the students watch short video lessons we have prepared to introduce them to the content for “homework.” As a result, we can structure our class time as I have described above and learn much more about how the students approach the concepts and how they wrestle with coming to mastery.

While it is not perfect, it is definitely different. We have been pleased with many aspects of the change and are looking at all of our assignments and asking if there are ways in which we can improve them and how we can better use them to reach our goals for the students. Please feel free to post your thoughts or comments. I would love to hear what others out there are doing with respect to homework in their classes.

Friday Four 10/28

Friday Four 10/28
Here are four of my “favorite” finds from the past week.
  1. Recent article from the NYT (10/23) on several New York City private schools that are easing up on the amount of homework they are assigning.
  2. Article from the Wall Street Journal (10/26) on strategies that students can employ to maximize performance on high-stakes tests.
  3. Interesting post on the Psychology Today website “The Toxic Race to Perfection is Damaging Our Teens.” A good reminder for those of us who work with teens in high pressure independent schools.
  4. Blog post by Tom Whitby (@tomwhitby) “Social Media, More or Less” in which he makes the argument for inclusion of social media in the toolbox of all educators.