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The Question Formulation Technique: 6 Steps to Help Students Ask Better Questions

Question formulation technique

The ability to ask questions is the genesis – the “big bang” – where learning really starts. It is that moment where information that has entered the brain mixes with other ideas and begins to synthesize new ideas. Questions demonstrate curiosity. Questions represent the beginning of discovery and innovation. The first step of the scientific method itself is the careful formulation of a question.

But how often do we focus on teaching our students how to formulate good, well-considered questions? Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana have focused their work on exactly this skill, developing an approach they call the Question Formulation Technique (QFT). The two are co-directors of The Right Question Institute (RQI), a non-profit organization that focuses on helping people learn to better advocate for themselves and participate more in decision-making processes by teaching them how to ask questions. While the RQI applies their techniques across health care, community service, public agencies and community-based organizations, their ideas represent an excellent tool that we can use in our classrooms every day.

Recently published in the Harvard Education Letter, their article “Teaching Students to Ask Their Own Questions,” describes the Question Formulation Technique, a way for educators to present material in ways that encourage students to take a more active ownership role in their learning. There are six steps to the technique, as follows:

1.      Find a focus - The “QFocus,” as it is called by Rothstein and Santana, is a prompt that serves to focus student questions so they can explore more expansive ideas. The authors offer an example presented by a teacher after covering the causes of the 1804 Haitian revolution: “Once we were slaves. Now we are free,” With a clear, direct thought like this to focus their thinking, the students begin formulating and posing questions around this idea.

2.      Brainstorm - Constrained by a few simple rules to help people stay focused, students formulate as many questions as possible. At this point, they are asked not to judge the quality of the questions, nor pursue any answers. This is much like the classic “brainstorming” process, where ideas are generated in a free, uninterrupted flow.

3.      Refine - The students work with the questions they have created, reformulating them as open- and closed-ended questions. They categorize them and make them clearer, more focused and more apt to yield the desired answers.

4.      Prioritize - Using lesson plans and teaching goals, the teacher helps students select their top three questions and use them to zero in on the most important aspects of the material.

5.      Determine next steps - Students and teachers together review the priority questions and make decisions about how best to use them for learning. The questions can be used to drive experimentation, further reading, research and/or discussion.

6.      Reflect - The teacher and students review their questions in the context of the six steps they have worked through to produce them. According to Rothstein and Santana, “Making the QFT completely transparent helps students see what they have done and how it contributed to their thinking and learning. They can internalize the process and then apply it in many other settings.”

Note the key word in that last sentence – internalize. Through this process, students add question formulation to their cognitive toolbox, making it a part of how they address information and problem-solving going forward. The authors note a number of benefits to the QFT, including increased group participation and better classroom management. But more importantly, they found that students were more apt to delve deeply into topics on their own, posing well-considered, critical questions that not only help direct their learning, but allow them to take more effective ownership of that learning as well.

As a “habit of mind,” the Question Formulation Technique demonstrates beautifully how the brain is built for pattern recognition. It also represents research that holds great promise for helping students form thinking patterns early on that will yield lifelong benefits.

Related Reading:

Teaching Creativity in the Classroom

Inspiring Students to Dream, Learn and Grow

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Categories: Education Trends, Reading & Learning

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BrainFit Studio Accelerates English Learning with Brain Fitness

BrainFit Studio

BrainFit Studio is a Singapore-based network of learning centers designed to build brilliant brains and keep them fit. More than 8,000 children have passed through its classes over the past 10 years accelerating their learning, building fitter brains, and achieving continued academic success.

Five Brain Pillars

BrainFit Studio has designed a total brain fitness training program that builds five brain “pillars”:

  1. SMART Moves enhances the Sensory Motor Pillar
  2. SMART Vision strengthens the Visual Pillar
  3. SMART Focus develops the Attention Pillar
  4. SMART Emotions builds the Socio-Emotional Pillar
  5. SMART Listening (the Fast ForWord® program from Scientific Learning) optimizes the Auditory Pillar

SMART Listening, SMART Vision

In May 2011, BrainFit Studio launched the first of its four BrainFit Classrooms in Singapore. BrainFit Classrooms provide brain fitness training in fee-based learning centers to students from 4 to 12 years old who seek to improve their English language learning. 

The threefold English learning course curriculum is aligned with the Singapore Ministry of Education’s English Language Syllabus, brain fitness training activities, and the Fast ForWord and Reading Assistant™ products.  Students learn via a blended approach including both instructional contact time and online learning.  Just six months in, students are already showing improvements, including an increase in school examination grades.

BrainFit Studio’s latest offering, the Brainy Programme for preschoolers, was launched in September 2011.  BRAINY SAM and BRAINY TAD are two modules which, using an early childhood education approach, bring little ones through BrainFit Studio’s hallmark SMART programs.

BrainFit Studio has eight BrainFit Studios and ten school collaborations across Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines. The work of training fitter brains continues each day through these centers, with parents and teachers reporting significant changes and improvements in their children.

BRAINY SAM and BRAINY TAD are trademarks of BrainFit Studios.

Related Reading:

Scientific Learning Around the World

Unlocking the Potential of English Language Learners

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Categories: Brain Fitness, English Language Learners, Fast ForWord

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Sara’s Story: From 6 Months Behind In Reading to the Accelerated Reading Class

This post is the sixth in a series aimed at sharing the success stories, both personal and professional, that Scientific Learning employees witness every day.

Sara’s story:

"I was a Fast ForWord coach before I came to work for Scientific Learning and I absolutely loved the program, which is one of the reasons that I came to work here.

I have one story about a young man who was in first grade and was struggling a little bit with reading.  He was about sixth months behind by the time he got through first grade and his mom recognized that immediately.   She had always read to him, but there was just something he was missing and she couldn’t figure it out.

She came and talked to me one day and asked about the Fast ForWord program. We had just started working with the kids at school and I said, 'Put him in.  We’ll see how he does.'  He finished Fast ForWord Language and when back to the regular classroom, within two months he tested again with a reading test in his classroom and he was up to grade level, which was excellent.  We were so excited and he was excited because school was easier. 

The next year when he came back, he was a second grader.  His mom said, 'I want him to do Fast ForWord again because I want him to stay with the rest of the class or even go a little bit above it.'  He worked really hard, got through another two programs, finished for that year and the next year when he came back in for third grade, he tested into the gifted class. 

Now this young man is a fifth grader and he’s been in the accelerated reading class ever since."

Related Reading:

Joel’s Story: My Nephew’s Reading Skills Improved 1½ Years in 3 Months with Fast ForWord

My Son Announced He Was Dropping Out of High School: Mary’s Story

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Categories: Brain Fitness, Family Focus, Fast ForWord, Reading & Learning

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Creating Safe Learning Environments: How Classroom Management Influences Student Performance

Safe learning environments

Think back to your grade school days. Did you ever experience a class where a bully ruled the roost? Were you ever bullied yourself?  Did you ever have a teacher who frightened you or who made you feel bad for underperforming? Or was there simply a disruptive class clown who constantly broke the classroom rhythm the teacher was trying so hard to create?

To varying degrees, all of the above situations can create what we might consider an unsafe learning environment. The teacher must take unquestionable ownership of the classroom, but do so in a positive, caring, constructive manner. The class succeeds or fails on his or her decisions and management of the entire learning experience.

Why is managing that classroom and creating that safe environment where learning can happen so essential? In her article on the value of safe learning environments, Lora Desautels, Ph.D., reminds us that during adolescence, the part of the brain that controls emotional responses—the amygdala—develops faster than other centers of the brain while the prefrontal cortex, a center for logical thought and rational response, develops later. Thus, our students are more effectively wired for emotion than logic. Their systems are primed to react to situations with feelings and they have not yet fully developed the ability to apply logical thinking to keep those feelings in check.

It follows that the stimuli within and surrounding the learning environment can have great effects on these emotional responses and can serve to either support or impair the learning process. The bully, the clown, and the teacher can all have a profound effect on how well a student learns.

So what can we as educators do to bring down the levels of stress in our classrooms and make sure that our learning environments are safe places where optimal learning can take place? How can we create spaces that keep the emotional responses as positive and free of stress and anxiety as possible so that we can most effectively engage fresh young minds?

Rebecca Alber has written a wonderful list of twenty ways to create a safe learning environment for Edutopia, which I highly recommend. Her advice for educators includes building community, setting clear boundaries, smiling and laughing a lot, and getting to know each individual student, as well as allowing them to get to know something personal about you. She says we should sit with our students. We should keep our expectations for student performance and behavior high. And we should incorporate art and music into the day.

I agree with Alber’s top twenty. I find it wonderful that she strikes a balance between creating a space that is fun and welcoming and full of laughter, but also one where expectations are set and failures become learning opportunities. All of them can do wonders when it comes to creating a space where students can let go of their stresses and anxieties and free their minds to absorb all the wonderful learning we have in store for them.

In the end, the responsibility for implementing these kinds of principles and removing the stressors that can impair learning lie with us, the educators. Creating that safe learning environment is a multifaceted challenge that, when done well, allows students to flourish.

Related Reading:

Tapping the Source: Finding and Using the Innate Student Passion for Learning

Inspiring Students to Dream, Learn and Grow

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Categories: Brain Research, Education Trends, Reading & Learning

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Modeling Healthy Choices: Three Habits for Optimal Brain Health

Brain habits

Isaac Asimov said, “The human brain…is the most complicated organization of matter that we know.”[i] And it’s true.  Our amazing brains are both a product of biological evolution and a reflection of the world around us.

First, the stuff of the brain – grey matter, white matter, fluids, blood vessels – is made up of nutrients from the plants and animals we consume from the world around us.

Second, in terms of brain function, our interaction with our environment has a major impact on both brain structure and brain health. Extensive and ongoing research into “brain plasticity” has proven that everything we experience, everything we see or touch or hear, creates a perception that changes the wiring of the brain itself.

Given that our brains are a product of evolution (which is outside of our control) and environment (which is only partially under our control, and often less than ideal), how can we keep our brains as healthy as possible, from birth all the way through old age?

The pathway to optimal brain health comes from the small choices we make every day. By making healthy choices on a regular basis, and particularly by turning those choices into habits, we can help our brains stay healthy while also helping the young people in our lives learn positive self-care skills that can last a lifetime.

Here are three important steps everyone can take toward optimal brain health:

  • Eating more healthy foods and minimizing unhealthy foods. Eating foods that provide nutrients to build healthy brain tissues is essential. Foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon, avocados and nuts, along with foods high in potassium like bananas promote brain function. Also, lowering our intake of sodium can reduce blood pressure, a factor that can, if left unchecked, lead to stroke.
  • Engaging in regular physical exercise. Like every other organ and tissue in the body, the brain needs healthy blood flow to function at its highest possible levels. Physical exercise helps improve and maintain cardio vascular health, allowing the body to efficiently and effectively deliver oxygen and nutrients to the brain. But it can do more for us. In students, educators have reported physical exercise resulting in less disruptive behavior, higher self esteem, less anxiety and greater attentiveness. Dr. John Ratey of Harvard University describes exercise as “food for the brain.”
  • Giving your brain practice in the activities you want it to be good at. The neural pathways that our brains create over time, as we have said, are a direct result of the stimuli that we receive. That’s why through practice and training, a child can work to shape their brain into that of a great musician or mathematician or martial artist. At the same time, we must remember that negative input also affects our wiring. For example, excessive amounts of watching television and playing video games has been shown to have concerning chemical and biological effects, such as the suppression of melatonin release, elevated blood cholesterol and an increased chance of coronary heart disease – and these effects should be taken into consideration as we make decisions about how we spend our time.

The brain might be the most complicated organization of matter we know of, but that doesn’t make it difficult to keep healthy. By learning to choose the right foods, the right activities, and the right input, we can each take control – at any age – of building the brains we want. 

Children can begin learning to make good choices from the earliest ages, but it is up to parents and teachers to model these healthy habits of mind.  

Yes, that means you.

References:

[i] J. Hooper and D. Teresi. The Three-Pound Universe. Macmillan Publishing Company. 1st edition 1986.

Related Reading:

Lifelong Learning and the Plastic Brain

5 Paths to Brain Health: Tips from Dr. Paul Nussbaum

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Categories: Brain Fitness, Brain Research, Family Focus, Reading & Learning

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2011 Virtual Circle of Learning Wrap-Up

This year’s annual customer conference, Virtual Circle of Learning 2011, took place online last Friday with over 800 registrants.   The keynote speakers—Eric Jensen, Dr. Martha Burns, and Andrew Ostarello—addressed opportunities for customers to maximize the impact of their implementations of Scientific Learning products.

Much of the content from these keynotes can be seen in our Twitter stream with the hashtag #VCOL11, as we live-tweeted the keynote sessions and linked to articles relevant to each speaker’s presentation.

Virtual Circle of Learning wrap up

The articles provide further reading on increasing student motivation and engagement, maximizing the results of using Fast ForWord and Reading Assistant products, and more:

Customers who missed a keynote or breakout session can watch it on Customer Connect (customer login required).  Feel free to share the link with others at your school who were not able to attend. 

Also, be sure to complete your survey to let us know what you enjoyed and what we can improve for next year.  And, if you have an iPad, be sure to include your iTunes email address so we can give you our new iPad app, Eddy’s Number Party!

And now, off to start planning for Virtual Circle of Learning 2012!

Related Reading:

Building Fluent Readers: How Oral Reading Practice Helps Reading Comprehension

How Learning to Read Improves Brain Function

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Categories: Education Trends, Fast ForWord, Reading & Learning, Reading Assistant

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Shaming Some Kids Makes Them Aggressive

Aggressive behavior

Many people believe that youth who are aggressive and violent towards other children have low self-esteem. Youth programs are often designed to boost self-esteem in kids at risk. Does the research support this belief? A team of researchers designed a study on young teens to examine their responses to feeling shame.

The subjects were asked to compete in an easy, timed task against a competitor.  Some of the youth experienced shame when they were shown a fake list of competitors’ times and saw their own times at the bottom of the list.  The group that did not experience shame was not shown competitors’ times or their own rank.  Then all participants were given an opportunity to act aggressively by blasting their opponent with loud noise through headphones.  All participants also completed self report measures of narcissism (grandiose views of self, inflated sense of entitlement) and self-esteem a few weeks prior to the competition. 

The results of this experiment showed no evidence that the kids with low self-esteem were more aggressive.  Instead, kids with narcissistic traits were most likely to react to shame with aggression.  This is interesting to think about from the perspective of educators who want to support learning through optimizing a collaborative atmosphere as opposed to promoting a highly competitive environment.

References:

The Cracked Mirror: Features of Narcissistic Personality Disorder in Children. 2009.

Related Reading:

Of Rats and Men: How Stress Affects the Brain

Adolescence: What’s the Brain Got to do with it?

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Categories: Family Focus, Reading & Learning

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Of Rats and Men: How Stress Affects the Brain

How stress affects the brain

You have probably experienced that feeling of not being as mentally sharp as normal when you are under a lot of stress. Recent research has demonstrated that the human brain functions less well under stress, and we now know that stress causes actual physical changes in the brain, and those changes are directly associated with a decrease in brain function.

The original research in this area was first performed with rats as subjects. Later tests with human subjects generated similar results. Let’s take a quick look at each case:

Case #1: The Rats. Bruce McEwen and John Morrison at Mount Sinai Medical Center found that in the rat’s brain under stress, nerve cells of the prefrontal cortex shrink, resulting in slower performance on attention-shifting tasks. On the other hand, neurons in the orbital frontal cortex used response-reversal tasks actually grew larger. A response-reversal task is one where a subject is reinforced for giving response A to stimulus A and response B to stimulus B. Then, they are placed in a reversed situation where they must give response B to stimulus A and response A to stimulus B. The test measures how well they can “reverse” their responses. In the face of such tasks, the plastic brains of the rats adapted to the stress stimuli and physically changed to address the conditions.

Case #2: The Humans. Conor Liston and B. J. Casey of the Sackler Institute used brain imaging to study male medical students preparing for their board exams and compared them to healthy students who were not experiencing the stress of studying for exams. The students were asked to perform two different mental tasks while their brains were being scanned with MRI. The stressed students were less able to shift their attention from one task to another and showed changes in the prefrontal cortex. Interestingly, their ability to perform response-reversal tasks was not impaired by stress; subjects were still able to “change their minds” when presented with information that changed their responses to a certain situation.

In both cases, we see experiments producing similar results when it comes to attention-shifting tasks and response-reversal tasks. Not only that, tests showed that the physiological effects were temporary in the rats as well as the humans. When Liston and Casey repeated the brain scans in their med students one month after the board exams were over -- and the stress was gone from the equation -- they found that the attention shifting ability and the brain scans of the stressed students had returned to normal.

So we are able to conclude that while stress causes changes to the brain and decreases some brain functions, the brain is able to recover fairly quickly. Once again, the research demonstrates how the plastic neural network of the brain – whether rat or human -- is constantly changing to address the stimuli it experiences and function at optimal capacity for its given external environment.

Further research on the effects of stress on the brain may help us to better understand how people respond to stress and could help in the understanding and treatment of stress-associated psychiatric disorders.

References:

Stress disrupts human thinking, but the brain can bounce back. January 27, 2009.

Related Reading:

Separating Brain Fact from Brain Fiction: Debunking a Few Neuroscience Myths

Left vs. Right: What Your Brain Hemispheres Are Really Up To

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Categories: Brain Research, Reading & Learning

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