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An increase in the incidence of autism is changing the landscape of our classrooms and challenging our knowledge of how best to educate all students. Fortunately, recent technology is providing some ways to help - a cast of characters including robot teachers and video games is helping unravel the mystery of how best to reach students with autism.
At the most basic level, autism is defined as a childhood-onset developmental disorder. Deficits can include social reciprocity, communication, over-focused interests, and repetitive behaviors, and can occur at differing levels of severity. The social reciprocity and communication challenges lay the foundation for what can become a challenging school environment for some.
Some schools have started using tech tools in creative ways to break down the communication barriers with students with autism. In Birmingham, England, a program in which students with autism learn from robot teachers has shown promise. The instructors and researchers believe the robot teachers are less threatening than human teachers—possibly due to the robots’ lack of emotion and much smaller size. Whatever the reason, students are showing a desire to connect with the robots, and once that connection has been developed, learning in different forms can begin to take place.
Video Game Technology
The use of video games with autistic learners is also gaining traction, reaching students on their own terms via a fun and familiar technology. Researchers have found that video games create an environment that is less threatening than the real world—much like robots—and one that is more predictable, allowing the students to feel more at ease. As a result, breakthroughs can sometimes be made more quickly with video games, as in the case of a student who finally moved his arms up and down together while playing XBOX—after a therapist had worked with him on the movement for months without success.
Video games enable the delivery of educational content—from math and language arts instruction to behavioral modeling and physical coordination exercises—while keeping students engaged, a combination that can be harder to achieve with more traditional methods of instruction.
The Way Forward
These two applications of technology in the classroom are paving the way for additional research into how our education systems can better interact with students on the autism spectrum. Robots and video games are most definitely not the full answer, but if they give us a glimpse into a solution, then they are a great start.
There are a lot of questions still to explore, but like a mystery novel with an unknown ending, we must follow the clues and solve the riddles to open our eyes.
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As an educator I spend a considerable amount of time providing advice to parents whose children are finding it difficult to be inspired with reading! Parents will describe their child as “struggling,” “disinterested,” or ”anxious” about reading and are searching for ways to instill the love of reading, when it is such a tedious task for their child.
It’s really quite simple: Children who do not read well will not be inspired to read, or to practice reading more. So, how do we get our reluctant readers to find reading fun?
As the director of a school that specializes in working with students with reading disorders—and a parent of a youngster who was diagnosed with dyslexia in 3rd grade—I see this issue from both sides. Some suggestions that I share with our parents (and that I used with my own son) can create a safe haven for reading for the emerging reader, gifted reader, or a student who needs more direct instruction to improve reading skills.
The Practice of Reading Skills
Keep the work of developing reading skills separate from pleasure reading. Students who require reinforcement in their decoding or vocabulary should practice those tasks for a short time (15-20 minutes) several times per week. Use some of these ideas to make the reading fun!
Reading for Pleasure
Children who are behind in their reading abilities, such as decoding, vocabulary, or comprehension, may not always select independent reading material that “matches” their age and grade. In fact, many children who struggle with the mechanics of reading may be interested in topics that are way above their independent reading level. To meet their intellectual interests and instill the “habit” of reading for pleasure, consider these ideas:
Above all, BE PATIENT and ENCOURAGING with your child as they develop independent reading habits. The “art” of reading is quite complex. Some children will require more support, individualized instruction, and continued practice, and may benefit from the services of a reading specialist. Your positive influence, patience, and support can make your child feel safe to take the “risk” of reading new words or selecting more challenging material. Celebrate the small steps, and keep positive so your child will become more confident!
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In my five years in the classroom, I was often the teacher who wrote the least amount of discipline referrals in the school. Some of my colleagues would say it was because of the students I taught (mostly advanced classes, with roughly half of the students being classified as gifted), to which I responded that talented kids are just as capable at problem behavior as traditional students. They just tend to misbehave in more creative ways.
The real reason for my lack of paperwork was that I could usually relate to why a particular student was acting out and tried to address the problem at the source. I credit that approach for a lot of the success I experienced in the classroom.
As anyone who has spent more than five minutes with a middle school student would tell you, the cause was usually a lack of self-discipline. I simply did not see how getting a student suspended from school would solve a student’s lack of self-control.
Why the traditional approach no longer works
To me, the traditional approach of working up a discipline ladder that usually ended with a suspension was contrary to what most of these children actually needed. Think about it. A kid lacks the social skills to be successful in a class group, so we’re going to make sure he gets less practice in working within the class by sending him home.
Let’s face it: society is providing us with more and more students that simply are not prepared socially to be successful in the traditional classroom setting. Debating the causes of this situation is outside the scope of this article, except to say that the role of the modern teacher is now equally defined by social as well as academic instruction.
The social skills that these students lack, and which we fail to address through traditional discipline, are skills that will haunt them throughout their lives. They will not “just grow out of it”. The same skill deficiencies that affect their success in school will affect their success in the workplace, if they make it that far.
So what do we do?
Instead of blaming society for forcing us to be parents to these children, we should embrace the role. Because, frankly, we don’t have a choice. It’s easier to change a classroom than change a society. We need to recommit ourselves to empowering students rather than entering in a power struggle with them.
Just as parents would, we should provide more social opportunities for students. The days of “sit down quietly and copy the notes on the board” are over. That approach just invites more anti-social behavior. Give them opportunities to help and be helped. Embrace a classroom culture of ideas and sharing. There are wonderful, restorative practice ideas on how to make this happen in the Further Reading section down below.
My most important tip: just listen. We all have our least-favorite students, and there are hundreds of things we would rather do than talk to them, which is where the majority of referrals come from. But just hearing their perspective on things could yield the largest return on investment of anything you do all year.
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When it comes to dynamic, busy environments, today’s school classroom is one of the busiest. Most teachers must manage upwards of 25 learners, sometimes 30 or more, and help them all move together towards specific learning goals. In such environments, academic ability is only one part of the equation determining a student’s ability to function and succeed. The rest depends to a significant degree upon aspects of temperament, such as whether the learner is an introvert or extrovert.
Extroverts – simply because they are outgoing, social, and talkative – tend to be more visible to their teachers and classmates. They shine brightly. They are often natural leaders and may be the first ones to raise their hands and speak up with quick answers. While such a desire to interact is an excellent asset, it can also result in responses that are not fully thought through. The extrovert might be the first one to enthusiastically jump into a project, but may do so before gaining clarity on direction and goals. But when it comes to staying energized to learn, interacting with others gives them a real, palpable boost.
But what about introverts? Because they can be quiet in a bustling group setting, they may not be as visible to their teachers and classmates. However, they bring much to the table. In fact, the introverts’ perspective has the potential to bring quiet leadership and methodical perspective to the classroom dynamic that – if we’re not tuned in to it – can go untapped. The more we can understand their outlook on the world, the more effectively we can implement strategies to nurture their strengths.
Often described as having sensitive temperaments, introverts need to find comfortable ways into stimulating social situations. In classrooms, such students take their time to get acclimated to new settings or new people. They might not speak up in large discussions, but they work well on their own and often excel in small groups. Unlike extroverted individuals, introverts recharge by taking quiet time to process their experience away from the group. Their reflectiveness can be a significant strength, taking learning deeper.
According to neuroscience researcher and psychoanalyst Marti Olsen Lany, Psy.D., there is a biological basis for the differences between introversion and extroversion. She explains that the dopamine that our brains produce in situations like parties tends to give extroverted people a pleasurable feeling. In introverted people, on the other hand, the same stimulation can create a sensory overload.
Is one type more common than the other? Education Week reports that 50 percent of us are extroverts and 50 percent are introverts – an even split. Thus, the essential question for educators to consider is how can we help harness the hidden strengths of both kinds of students in the same learning environments?
So, how can we best support all students – introverted as well as extroverted – in the classroom?
Although our culture values extroversion, introverted students cannot simply change the way they experience and interact with the world. As educators, we need to learn to recognize them and to focus our energies on seeing their strengths, so that we can teach them to harness and cultivate their abilities. In doing so, we will help our introverted learners develop the self-confidence and self-knowledge they need to successfully pursue their dreams. And that’s a benefit for all of us.
For further reading:
Categories: Reading & Learning
According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the number of school-age English Language Learners (ELLs) more than doubled between the years 1980 and 2009, rising from 4.7 million to 11.2 million. ELLs currently represent one in nine students ages 5 - 17 in US classrooms, with the majority found in the primary grades.
In a recent webinar, Dr. Virginia Mann, Professor of Cognitive Science at UC Irvine in Southern California, confronted the barriers that ELLs face, and outlined the pathway to success for these students. In order to develop into fluent readers, she explained, ELLs rely on a couple of basics:
The good news is that building these skills in a learner’s first language can help build skills in English, as phonemic awareness generalizes across languages and it’s a short hop to understand new English words that sound similar in both languages. The bad news is that many ELLs also grow up in poverty and research shows that young children living in poverty often do not get enough early language experience and exposure to develop strong early language skills.
Because early language skills are so critical for ELLs, if parents take the time to "become teachers" for their children and immerse their children in language by having conversations with them and working with them on listening and speaking activities, learners can make significant gains.
Students whose first language uses an alphabet system have some advantages over those whose first language use an orthographic system, but the bottom line is that when students engage frequently in language-oriented activities and build oral skills, vocabulary, and phonemic understanding in any language, they are on the pathway to successful English language learning.
Mann is quick to note that while parent involvement is crucial, one-shot programs are not sufficient. Parents of ELLs need coaching and support, not just instruction. Dr. Mann references numerous studies and gives examples of the enduring programs that she has created and implemented to support parents in helping their children succeed.
To learn more about why early immersion in any language is so crucial to future academic success, view Dr. Mann's webinar here.
Research performed in the past few decades has demonstrated that we can improve reading skills by teaching students “metacognitive strategies.” By metacognition, we refer to enhancing one’s awareness of “what one believes and how one knows.” (Kuhn, 2000). In other words, the more we can teach students to be actively thinking about thinking as they learn, the more effective their learning will be.
In fact, we can teach students to become what Marcia Lovett of Carnegie Mellon University calls “expert learners.” According to Lovett (2008), teaching metacognition involves three specific processes:
According to Lovett’s research, an experimental group of students who used metacognitive strategies more strongly believed themselves to be effective learners, demonstrated greater motivation to learn, and achieved better academic performance than the control group. (2008)
What exactly do such metacognitive learning strategies look like in the classroom? Diane Dahl, in her blog post at The Educator’s PLN, shows how these ideas can be implemented in any number of ways, many times by simply tweaking existing instructional strategies. Here are a few recommendations based on her list.
While it might be easiest to imagine implementing these kinds of strategies in reading instruction, they can be adapted for teaching any subject. The idea is simply to get students to be consciously aware of, and take charge of, their own learning. The more we can do that, the more effective we will be as teachers.
Ever since the letter K was a baby, she loved to make her signature sound: ka, ka, ka. K knew that the only other letters in the alphabet that could make her “ka” sound were the letter C (when he didn’t sound like an S) and the letter Q. K enjoyed making her “ka” sound as often as possible in as many words as she could. Soon, however, K also learned that whenever she stood in front of the letter N at the beginning of a word, it was impossible to make her signature sound. At first, K was very sad about this, but after working with N and other letters to make fun words like knot, knob, kneel, and know—words that the other letters could only make with her help—K learned that staying silent sometimes was an important job for a letter, and that many of her alphabet friends also had to be silent from time to time. After a while, K was just as comfortable being silent as she was making her signature “ka” sound.
Scientists have long known that human beings are storytelling creatures. For centuries, we have told stories to transmit information, share histories, and teach important lessons. While stories often have a profound effect on us due to emotional content, recent research also shows that our brains are actually hard-wired to seek out a coherent narrative structure in the stories we hear and tell. This structure helps us absorb the information in a story, and connect it with our own experiences in the world.
Educators can create memorable learning experiences for their students by harnessing the power of storytelling in the classroom. A 2010 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed an intimate connection between the brain activity of speakers and listeners in conversation, demonstrating how the brain of an engaged listener “syncs up” with a speaker. By engaging students with compelling stories that impart important material, teachers reach students both emotionally and biochemically, increasing the potential for rich learning experiences.
Creating a compelling story with a coherent narrative structure requires attention to detail, descriptive language, and a beginning, middle, and end of some sort. Different kinds of stories produce different kinds of reactions: personal stories from the teacher’s own experience can help create and solidify strong bonds between educator and student, while stories of pure fiction may stimulate imagination.
Spending a little extra time on storytelling during lesson planning and actual classroom time keeps the learning experience highly engaging, creative, and truly, dynamically human. A story-filled classroom also encourages students to relate their own stories (whether factual or fictional), which helps grow their critical thinking, memory, and vocabulary skills.
Melanie C. Green. Storytelling in teaching. Association for Psychological Science. April 2004.
Many a study has laid out the innate physiological differences between the male and female brain. Michael D. De Bellis and his team of researchers, for example, clearly showed how the maturing brain differs between boys and girls, and how those differences vary over the course of regular development.
Based on the work of De Bellis et al., we know, for example, that the proportions of white matter to grey matter predictably vary between the genders. We also know that the volume of the corpus callosum area is proportionally different between males and females. And of course, we know that the varying levels of testosterone and estrogen create behavioral differences, especially during pre-adolescence and adolescence. (2001)
With these findings in mind, the question arises: Can such information help us better educate our young people? And maybe more importantly, should it be used to differentiate instruction based on gender?
Caryl Rivers and Rosalind C. Barnett, authors of The Truth About Girls and Boys: Challenging Toxic Stereotypes About Our Children (Columbia University Press, 2011), argue that boys’ and girls’ brains and ways of thinking are actually much more the same than they are different, and that “the differences that do exist are trivial."
Nevertheless, there is a current trend of well-meaning educators and parents citing these brain differences to support gender stereotypes—a trend that is damaging to learners as individuals and to our society as a whole, says Catherine A. Cardno in her recent EdWeek review of the book. The following are a few of the stereotypes often expounded:
She cites a caution the authors make in their introduction, that "Today, parents and educators are being fed a diet of junk science that is at best a misunderstanding of the research and at worst what amounts to a deliberate fraud on the American public."
In her book Pink Brain, Blue Brain, Lise Eliot, associate professor of neuroscience at the Chicago Medical School, discusses her conclusions after comprehensively reviewing the research on the child through adolescent brain. Her conclusion is that there is “surprisingly little evidence of sex differences in children’s brains.” (2009) The real differences, she says, arise from the neuroplastic nature of the brain and how children’s ways of thinking differentiate along gender lines over time as a result of the input they receive via parents, friends, relatives and educators – NOT because of any innate physiological variations between the sexes.
It is thus our role and responsibility as educators to be aware of the pitfalls of gender-based – and all – stereotyping in our classrooms that we may be perpetuating. Only through completely supporting each learner – regardless of their skin color, SES, gender or any other difference – can we ensure that they will reach their greatest potential.
Rosalind C. Barnett and Caryl Rivers. Why Science Doesn't Support Single-Sex Classes. May 20, 2012. http://www.edweek.org.
When searching for an expert on learning look no further than the crib. The infant brain is innately curious and without assistance, quickly begins to apply strategies for learning that help to make sense of the world around it. No one worries that a baby will be too lazy, uncooperative or unmotivated to learn; they know nothing of the sort. We are born with a built-in desire to acquire new information and will do so without fear of making mistakes or failing [i]. It’s this type of discovery that stimulates our natural love of learning and allows us to explore life in enriching and meaningful ways.
Yet with such a strong impetus for learning, research demonstrates that a lack of motivation to study and learn is widespread among youth in the United States, and that love of learning declines steadily from third through ninth grade [ii]. A number of views suggest that the structure of school (i.e. required attendance, school-selected topics/curriculum, and constant checking on student’s progress) assumes that children are not natural learners, but must be compelled to learn through the efforts of others. These structured approaches may in fact inhibit learning because they can avert a child’s natural curiosity, enthusiasm and intrinsic motivation.
So how can parents and educators help rekindle the love of learning? Incorporating these 5 strategies into your daily activities with students is sure to help. Not only are they important drivers for effective learning but they help to convey appropriate expectations for both you and the students.
[i] Alison Gopnik. “The Scientist in the Crib: What Early Learning Tells Us About the Mind”. William Morrow & Co., 2000
[ii] Deborah Stipek and Kathy Seal. “Motivated Minds: Raising Children to Love Learning”. New York: Henry Holt & Co., 2001
"Creating a New Culture of Teaching and Learning" is a Scientific Learning webinar presented by Alan November, proposing that educators make the most of today's "small world" by turning classrooms into global communication centers and collaborating with fellow teachers and students from all over the world.
November's ideas about a new culture of teaching and learning are plentiful, as are his suggestions for further research. In this webinar, November proposes a pathway to a 21st century educational paradigm that is centered around information, collaboration, and empathy. Here are just a few of his thoughts on the subject:
Schools ought to abolish their "technology planning committees," which focus on "stuff" (wires, boxes, hardware). Alternatively, educational institutions should simply understand technology as the "digital plumbing" that works hand in hand with what November calls the "real revolution": the large amounts of information that flow through technology.
The educational experience can and should be supercharged with true collaboration. Collaboration can take place in the classroom itself, such as when certain students are tasked with the daily documentation of classroom activities via collaborative note taking, videography, and photography. Or, collaboration can take place across thousands of miles if teachers take the time to find classrooms in other parts of the world that are willing to work with a partner classroom on a given project. For example, a classroom in the US studying the American Revolution partnering with a classroom in the UK studying the same thing could help learners understand and respect differing perspectives.
When he asked the CEO of HSBC Bank in England what the most important "21st century skill" is, November received the surprising reply, "empathy." Empathy, the ability to identify with others and value their perspectives, is a crucial life skill in today's small world, for both students and teachers. Empathy helps teachers build relationships with educators in various parts of the world and encourages young people to become fearless global communicators who are able to work with anyone.
More than once during his presentation, November states that he hopes his ideas are "good enough to critique." He clearly sees the ideas he proposes as a jumping-off point for further exploration and conversation about how to make the most of our era's hyperconnectivity.
No matter where you are in today's small, small world, you’ll want to check out the entire webinar…and you can. Click here.
Alan November is an international leader in education technology known for his compelling thought leadership. He passionately challenges teachers and administrators to harness 21st century technology and create learning opportunities to prepare young people for an open, connected, and engaged future.