Showing posts with category Reading & Learning Show all posts >
You can teach your students 10 vocabulary words the usual way – one at a time – or you can teach them 100 vocabulary words with little extra effort. The second approach seems like the obvious choice, and in Dr. Tim Rasinski’s recent webinar, Comprehension – Going Beyond Fluency, he makes the case for greater adoption of the accelerated approach.
Going Beyond Fluency
Rasinski is known as a passionate advocate for teaching fluency as a bridge to reading comprehension. But there’s more to comprehension than just fluency. Vocabulary plays a big part as well, and Rasinski talks about how to teach students “the meaning of words,” knowledge that is not only practical for everyday and academic life, but is also required by the Common Core.
Morphology is a technical term that refers to the part of a word that carries meaning. It’s the Latin root “spect,” for example, in words like “introspection” or “spectacle,” that signals not only a commonality in spelling but also a kinship in meaning.
Knowing that “spec” means “look” makes it relatively easy for a student to understand (or figure out) that “introspection” means “to look inward” and “spectacle” means “an eye-catching occurrence.” The list of words built on the root “spec” is long, and by learning just one root, a student knows or can more easily interpret the meanings of many new words.
Rasinski calls this the “generative” or “multiplier” effect of morphological vocabulary study: the fact that Latin and Greek roots, prefixes, and suffixes have a one-to-many correspondence that dramatically increases access to vocabulary. And it’s not just Rasinski’s opinion that this approach gets results. Research has shown that during the early grades, morphological knowledge is a better predictor of reading comprehension than vocabulary levels.
The more you do something the better you get at it. It’s how the brain works – practicing a skill rewires the brain to perform that skill more efficiently and effectively the next time. The online Fast ForWord® intervention program has the capacity to give students much more intensive, targeted practice in most aspects of reading – including morphology – than other programs or methods. That’s because Fast ForWord delivers nearly 35,000 learning “trials” in the same amount of time that other software programs deliver just over 5,000 trials. The result is often significant learning gains for even the most struggling students.
Rasinski hands the webinar over to Cory Armes, who demonstrates Hoof Beat, an exercise in Fast ForWord Reading 4 that develops morphological skills such as recognizing and understanding Greek and Latin roots, suffixes, and prefixes. It also works on word analysis, synonyms, antonyms, analogies, and more. With a fun video game style format that keeps students engaged while challenging them with in-depth practice.
Armes goes on to present statistically significant results from several studies of students using the Fast ForWord program, including increased reading achievement for elementary learners, improved comprehension for secondary learners, and over 2 years of improvement in reading grade level for ELLs.
The Nitty Gritty
Check out the full webinar and get all the rich details:
If you’re not yet using roots, prefixes, and suffixes as a mainstay of vocabulary instruction – or if you’d like to explore how technology can help – don’t hesitate to watch the webinar. Your students will thank you…someday.
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Close the achievement gap. Fix learning problems. Solve all our education problems! Educators are faced with increased responsibility and pressure – like never before. It’s no wonder that summer learning loss becomes another challenge that’s rarely addressed sufficiently.
The role that summer learning loss plays in the achievement gap is borne out by decades of research. According to research by Karl Alexander and colleagues at Johns Hopkins University, the disparity in summer learning opportunities is responsible for more than half of the achievement gap. More than half. That should mean that we could improve the problem by at least half by providing equal access to summer learning opportunities for disadvantaged students – and yet the creation of effective summer learning programs for lower-income students has not been a significant focus of literacy efforts in the U.S. Let’s look at some of the latest facts on summer learning loss:
While federal programs are not yet making summer reading programs a focus in addressing the achievement gap, it makes sense that districts should. The research has shown that at-risk students need affordable access to significant and effective summer learning opportunities with an emphasis on reading books that interest students, at the correct reading level.
Districts can take steps today toward applying a known solution to fix a known problem, or can wait for federal policy to catch up with the research and take the lead. The thing is, as long as students are not involved in effective summer learning programs, the summer learning gap – and as a result, the achievement gap – isn’t going away. Even if disadvantaged students make great progress during the academic year. It’s really a no-brainer.
How should districts pay for it? Here are some sources that can help get district-driven summer learning programs going:
Alexander, K.L., Entwisle, D.R., Olson, L.S. (2007). Lasting Consequences of the Summer Learning Gap, American Sociological Review, 72, 167-180. doi:10.1177/000312240707200202
Hur, J.S., & Suh, S. (2010). The Development, Implementation, and Evaluation of a Summer School for English Language Learners. Professional Educator, 34(2). Retrieved from: http://www.theprofessionaleducator.org/
Vanderhaar, J.E., & Munoz, M.A. (2005). Limited English Proficient Intervention: Effects of a Summer Program in Reading and Mathematics. Retrieved from ERIC database. (ED491400)
Smink, J. (2011, July 27). This Is Your Brain on Summer. [Op-Ed]. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/28/opinion/28smink.html
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Learning disabilities can be tough to talk about and even tougher to understand. Some parents and educators prefer to call them learning differences in order to avoid negative labeling that can affect self-esteem, but the term disability is tied to special education funding by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and is a requirement for identifying and qualifying learners to receive special education services.
Regardless of what we choose to call them, learning differences or disabilities are frequently misunderstood. Pinpointing a student’s precise learning challenges can be difficult, and individual outcomes can be hard to predict. What’s more, symptoms of specific learning disabilities can be complex and confusing, and may look more like behavioral problems than learning problems to some. But some of the most common myths about learning disabilities are easy to dispel with a look at the facts.
Myth #1: Learning disabilities are intellectual disabilities.
First and perhaps most important to understand is that learning disabilities are communication differences that are completely separate from physical, developmental, and intellectual disabilities. In the same way that a hearing impaired student might need assistance in the form of a hearing aid, students with learning disabilities need assistance in the form of alternative learning methods.
When learning disabilities are identified early and dealt with effectively, students can function more or less on par with their peers in school and grow up to be self-reliant adults. Students with intellectual disabilities, on the other hand, have significantly reduced cognitive ability and usually need lifelong support from others.
Myth #2: ADHD is a learning disability.
Perhaps surprisingly, ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) is not considered a learning disability, although it is estimated that 20-30% of people with ADHD have a learning disability as well. Learning disabilities include learning differences such as:
It is possible to designate ADHD as a disability under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), making a student eligible to receive special education services. However, ADHD is categorized as “Other Health Impaired” and not as a “Specific Learning Disability.”
Myth #3: Dyslexia is a visual problem.
Dyslexia is one of the more commonly misunderstood learning disabilities. Many people think of it as a vision-related disorder, but it is actually rooted in differences in how the brain hears and processes spoken language. The ability to read is dependent upon the reader making accurate letter-sound correspondences, so when the brain processes spoken language atypically, it can be hard for readers to make sense of the connections between printed words and the sounds they make. The good news is that some studies have shown dyslexia to be effectively remediated by training the brain to process language more effectively.
Myth #4: The incidence of students with learning disabilities in US schools is on the rise.
The incidence of students with learning disabilities has actually declined over the past 20 years. However, other learning differences that may qualify a student for special education - such as autism and ADHD - have risen during the same time period, for reasons that are not well understood.
Food for Thought
Students with learning disabilities make up a large portion of students receiving special education services in schools - education outcomes and employment prospects for many of these students are disappointing, to say the least. Twice as many students with learning disabilities drop out as compared with their peers, and only half as many go to college. They are also twice as likely to be unemployed as adults.
With statistics like these, it’s clear that more needs to be done. Students with learning challenges need to be identified early, diagnosed accurately, provided appropriate assistive technologies, and given the right targeted interventions to help them become the best learners they can be, ready to take on new challenges with the confidence that they can succeed.
Williams, D., Kingston This Week, [Letter to the editor]. Retrieved from:http://www.kingstonthisweek.com/2011/01/20/differences-between-learning-and-intellectual-disabilities
Learning disabilities and ADHD. Retrieved from: http://www.girlshealth.gov/disability/types/learning.html
ADHD. Retrieved from:http://ldaamerica.org/types-of-learning-disabilities/adhd/
Dissecting Dyslexia: Linking Reading to Voice Recognition. Retrieved from: http://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=121226
Smith, H., Auditory Processing Skills & Reading Disorders in Children. Retrieved from: http://www.scilearn.com/blog/auditory-processing-skills-reading-disorders-in-children.php
NCLD Editorial Team, Learning Disability Fast Facts. Retrieved from: http://www.ncld.org/types-learning-disabilities/what-is-ld/learning-disability-fast-facts
For Further Reading:
Attend one of our popular webinars with thought leaders in learning. Live and pre-recorded webinars are available. Register today!
For many teachers, the words “flipped classroom” are nothing more than a synonym for having students watch pre-recorded lesson videos at home and then do related assignments – formerly homework – during class time. There’s no doubt that that is exactly what the flipped classroom typically looks like on the surface. But when flip teaching is done right, what matters is that it uses time differently and more effectively, in ways that can profoundly benefit all learners, including students with learning disabilities.
The flip teaching model:
Extends the learning day.
The ability to extend instructional time is a huge benefit for learners who grasp new concepts more slowly, or who aren’t able to process information as quickly as it’s presented. With flipped learning, they can rewind and re-watch a video as many times as needed until they understand the material – or perhaps until they understand what they don’t understand so they can get help in that area the next day.
Makes precious teacher time more available to students.
With instruction now happening at home on students’ time, teachers have more time to observe students as they apply what they have learned. As a result, teachers have more opportunities to watch students at work, so they can better identify student learning challenges and support struggling students with differentiated activities or targeted intervention.
Levels the playing field.
Flipped instruction puts students with learning disabilities on more equal footing for effective classroom participation. Learners who formerly may not have immediately grasped their teacher’s in-class instruction may now feel empowered to contribute to classroom discussions and ask informed questions instead of worrying about “looking dumb.”
The Naysayers and Their Challengers
Critics of the flipped classroom approach to blended learning say that access to videos can be a problem, especially in communities with a large number of learners from low-income households. Students may not have a computer or internet connection at home, may have to share already-limited computer time with other family members, or simply may not have time at home to watch lessons for the next day. The concerns are valid, but one visionary school is demonstrating that they can be overcome.
Clintondale High School, just outside of Detroit, is the first U.S. high school to move to a flipped model of learning school-wide. With a large population of economically disadvantaged learners, the school dealt with access concerns head-on by making extra time available in computer labs during the school day for learners who need it. One student who has limited time at home because of a long bus commute watches most of his lesson videos on a smartphone as he rides home from school. In just a few years, standardized test scores have gone up and the school’s failure rate has dropped dramatically from 52% to 19%.
Clintondale’s teachers note that the process is not as simple as just rearranging where and when direct instruction takes place; it’s essential that teachers get on board with mastering the technology and creating great lessons and learning activities. That way, students can get the most from every moment they spend learning and teachers can get maximum results for the time they spend creating content and supporting learners in the classroom.
Where Gen Ed & Special Ed Meet
A big boon for schools that move to flip teaching is that general ed technology can do double time as assistive technology for special ed. It’s a benefit for everyone, helping to reduce technology expenditures, the cost of managing technology, and the time that teachers spend adapting to learners’ assistive devices.
Still, flipped classroom veterans warn that setting high behavior standards for students is a must. Students need to know how they are expected to use their time at home and at school, and what specific behaviors will enable them to achieve their learning goals. Some students with learning disabilities may need additional help allocating their time and using it effectively. But when teachers, students, and parents are all on board, flipping has the potential not only to move more students to proficiency, but also to take more students beyond proficiency to the desired goal of mastery.
For Further Reading:
Are some of us “left-brained” and some “right-brained”? Dr. Paula Tallal will be presenting in person (and online via webinar) on this exact topic during our upcoming annual Visionary Conference in her session “Hemispheric Dominance: Myth or Reality?” The conference offers ASHA CEUs and will be 2 days of the most up to date information on the brain, the Fast ForWord/Reading Assistant programs and what’s coming down the line (did someone say iPad®?). You won’t want to miss this event – best of all, it’s both online and in-person.
New Brain Research
In addition to Dr. Tallal’s presentation, we are fortunate to have Dr. Martha Burns on board with us sharing the latest research on the brain and learning. Dr. Burns will kick off the conference on Friday morning with a professional development session that will focus on the latest findings related to disconnection patterns associated with communicative-cognitive disorders of CAS (childrens apraxia of speech), APD (auditory processing disorders), ASD (autism spectrum disorders), and dyslexia – as well as the genetics of neuropathology, cognitive challenges after concussion, and evidence-based interventions. To start us off on Day 2 on Saturday, Dr. Tallal will weigh in on the half-century old debate about brain hemisphere dominance with new evidence. If you have ever seen Drs. Burns and Tallal present, you know that these sessions are not to be missed!
What’s Happening with Fast ForWord in Australia? Singapore? Brazil?
We are excited to announce that some of our international partners will be joining on Friday, February 21st, to participate in a discussion panel. We will have a combination of newer and long-time providers who all share the same enthusiasm about providing the programs in their respective countries with their own unique models. If you ever wondered how our programs are implemented in other countries, this session is for you. Countries to be represented are Australia, Singapore and Brazil.
Evaluation Before and After?
Three of our clinicians based here in the United States will share and discuss best practices in their evaluation protocol for use of and placement in the Fast ForWord and Reading Assistant Intervention Programs. We will hear from Dana Merritt with Merritt Speech and Language and from Julie DeAngelis and Summer Peterson with Scottish Rite Language Center.
Product Training & News
Additional sessions will address interpretation of MySciLEARN learner progress data, integration of other commercially available programs with Fast ForWord intervention, what’s on the horizon for the Fast ForWord and Reading Assistant products (exciting developments!), and much more.
Be There or… Join us Virtually!
If you’ve been to an onsite Visionary Conference with us before, then you know how energizing the event is going to be. As in past years, we are offering a virtual option if you can’t be with us in person. For 2 full days, we will be broadcasting the conference live. It will feel like you are there with us! Virtual attendees will receive copies of the presentations and ASHA Participant forms before the start of the conference. Enjoy the conference from the comfort of your own home!
ASHA CEUs offered – whether you are on-site or virtual…
We are planning to offer up to 1.4 ASHA CEUs for the entire conference – whether you are onsite with us or virtual (pending ASHA review). We can also offer partial credit if you can’t attend the entire conference. Contact Carrie Gajowski at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions.
If you’ve never been, don’t miss out – it’s the highlight of the year!
Meeting the needs of students with learning disabilities can be a challenge. Students newly identified with a learning disability are likely to need immediate help to fully benefit from the curriculum, and this help often takes the form of accommodation. But for maximum long-term benefit, educators need to address the learning difficulty at its core, remediating it with a carefully targeted, intensive, individualized intervention.
Weighing the Options
In the real world, remediation is typically a time- and personnel-intensive undertaking, and without simultaneous accommodation, students with learning disabilities may continue to experience an ongoing cycle of failure. However, an over-reliance on accommodation can sap a student’s motivation to learn how to perform without accommodation.
Typically, then, educators find themselves balancing intensive intervention with accommodation and fitting the combination to the individual learner. Finding the point of equilibrium is a process that involves both informed decision-making and trial and error.
Dr. Dave Edyburn, a leading expert in assistive technology for students with learning disabilities, recommends that reliance on accommodation should be based in part on a student’s age. Younger learners, for example, whose job is focused on learning to decode and building reading fluency, might need less accommodation for reading. A 4th grader who still struggles with decoding, on the other hand, urgently requires greater accommodation to be able to comprehend and benefit from the curriculum.
Regardless of the degree of accommodation a student receives, effective and intensive intervention should remain a priority. One option for addressing a learning challenge at its core is Fast ForWord software. At a biological level, Fast ForWord actually helps learners build new neural connections to support more efficient information processing and learning. It’s also been proven to help learners with dyslexia and auditory processing disorder, improving their ability to pay attention, process information, and remember what they have learned.
In some cases, completing one or two Fast ForWord products is all it takes for a learner to test out of special education. For other learners, the Fast ForWord program can be the difference maker in staying out of special education altogether. In many districts, any students referred for a learning disability in language or math are required to use Fast ForWord before undergoing further testing. One district saw a 30% drop in special education referrals.
When it comes to student learning, any tool or technique that helps has a potential role to play. Many students need accommodation and should rightfully receive that help as guaranteed by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). But the gold standard for students with learning disabilities will always be effective remediation. Learning disabilities may not be “fixable,” but they can often be overcome.
Edyburn, D.L. Assistive Technology: Getting the Right Supports for Your Student. Retrieved from: http://www.ncld.org/students-disabilities/assistive-technology-education/assistive-technology-getting-right-supports-for-your-student
The Common Core standards are considered challenging for general education learners - and they’re meant to be. But given that challenge, many educators wonder what it means to hold special education students to the same standards. These are students, after all, who have already been performing well below grade level on standards that in many cases are weaker than the Common Core standards that replace them.
Meeting High Expectations Under the Common Core
How are educators expected to get these underperforming students to proficiency with the Common Core standards? A document on the Common Core State Standards Initiative website, “Application to Students with Disabilities,” outlines the supports and accommodations required for special educations students, including:
The Standards-Based IEP guides instructional planning for students with learning disabilities. It outlines an individualized learning experience matched to student needs and appropriate accommodations, and sets annual goals aligned with grade-level academic standards.
Instructional Supports & Accommodations
Instructional supports and accommodations that must be provided students include:
Qualified Teaching & Support Personnel
Students must receive high-quality, evidence-based instruction and support, delivered by qualified teachers and specialized instructional support staff. Some experts predict that the role of special education teachers will grow under the Common Core as they support general education teachers in understanding how to scaffold their teaching to fit the needs of different learners.
There are parents and educators who argue that holding students with learning disabilities to the same academic standards as general education students is unrealistic and unfair – for reasons of ability or practicality. Some parents of students with severe cognitive disabilities, for example, prefer that their children focus on life skills over academic skills, reasoning that life skills are more valuable for their children in the long run.
Others are more concerned about accurately measuring the performance of students with learning disabilities than they are about the standards themselves. For one thing, special education students may require 30 to 40 more days of instruction than general education students to learn the same material. If all students have the same number of instructional days, special education students would likely find themselves being tested on material they had never been taught.
Then there’s the added challenge of agreeing on a common set of accommodations, such as assistive technologies that could be built right into the tests. Some experts argue that students need to able to use the equipment they're accustomed to using every day in the classroom rather than encountering unfamiliar technology at test time when the stakes are high.
Computer-adaptive tests are also a concern because they adjust the difficulty of questions based on how a student performs on previous questions. The feature is intended to accommodate the full range of learners taking the test, but special education advocates worry that students with learning disabilities may end up being served questions below their grade level if they have a string of a few incorrect answers.
So, while the new PARCC and Smarter Balanced assessments are being designed up front to accommodate special education students – rather than having accommodations tacked on as an afterthought - many educators remain skeptical.
Raising the Bar for Special Education
Many educators see the implementation of the Common Core standards as a historic opportunity – at last – to give students with learning disabilities access to the same academic rigor and high expectations as mainstream students, as mandated by IDEA.
Only time can tell how special educations students will fare under the Common Core. As with any large-scale shift in K-12 education practices, there are loud and persuasive voices on both sides of the issue and a lot of folks in the middle who are simply moving forward with the adopted standards and aren’t sure how things are going to turn out.
But at Scientific Learning, we know – because we’ve seen it again and again with our own eyes – that the majority of students with learning disabilities are capable of much more than they and others realize. Committed educators, a correct diagnosis, and an appropriately targeted intervention can be all that’s needed for dramatic learning gains.
Application to Students with Disabilities, Retrieved from: http://www.cde.ca.gov/sp/se/cc/
For further reading:
Teaching persistence in the classroom is an important part of setting up learners to succeed. Students who have mastered persistence are able to work through challenges, deal constructively with failures and adversity, and achieve the goals they have set for themselves.
It’s a lot like running a marathon. The runners who make it to the finish line are the ones who persist in showing up for practices and trainings, learn to anticipate slumps and pace themselves, engage in positive self-talk during tough times, take steps to effectively prevent and treat injuries, and adjust expectations to fit reality – even if “finishing” means having to crawl the last mile.
Like a runner who has not trained to run longer distances, learners can’t persist in their learning if they haven’t developed the stamina they need to keep going when things get tough. Teaching persistence depends on first developing student stamina as a way of conditioning learners to handle sustained effort.
To help learners build stamina and persistence, it’s important to create the right learning environment:
Help Learners Develop a Growth Mindset
Learners need to know that they have the ability to grow and change, and that effort is the key. Praise them when they focus their efforts toward specific, clearly defined goals. When you say things like, “Those extra 10 minutes of reading each day are paying off – you are decoding unfamiliar words much more easily now,” you help learners make the connection between effort and achievement. The goal is for learners to become intrinsically motivated to engage in effortful learning now and in the future.
Push a Little Bit – and Know When Enough is Enough
Sometimes learners just need a little bit of encouragement to get past a hurdle. A few supportive words, like, “Think of how good you will feel when you finish those last two addition problems and you know you did the whole worksheet all by yourself!” can make all the difference. On the other hand, a learner may need to know that it’s okay to take a break and come back to a particular task when he’s feeling less frustrated. In that case, it’s important that the learner really does come back and complete the work to get the experience that he truly can “do more” when he persists.
Most learners love to hear personal stories from their teachers. Telling your learners about your weekend plumbing project that didn’t go as planned – and how you got through it and completed it – is a great way to help learners see that everyone feels like giving up sometimes. It also models for them how to overcome those feelings and reach a goal – without coming off as preachy.
Teach Positive Self-Talk
Some learners need a lot of help knowing what to say to themselves to stay motivated. If a learner’s typical internal dialogue consists of statements like, “This is too hard,” or “I don’t know how to do this,” it may come as a revelation to discover that there are other options. Giving learners specific wording, like, “I know I can do this if I keep at it,” or, “If I’m really stuck I can ask a friend or my teacher for help,” can begin to change the way they think and act when faced with a challenge.
Let learners know that you have high expectations and that you have confidence that each and every one of them can meet those expectations. Be sure they have access to the tools they need to be successful, and that they know how to use them.
Make the Most of Technology
Online tools like the Fast ForWord program can help learners make the connection between effort and achievement. The Fast ForWord program gradually builds learner stamina for enduring increasing degrees of cognitive load. The exercises develop reading and language skills at the same time as they boost memory, attention, processing, and sequencing ability. It gives learners immediate feedback on their performance and automatically adjusts the difficulty level for just the right degree of challenge. Fun reward animations help learners see when they have achieved a goal to help them stay motivated.
Call Out the Brain
It’s never too early – or too late – to teach your students about how the brain learns. Introduce the concept of brain plasticity – the idea that the brain changes in response to how it’s used – as a way of reinforcing the idea that learning is achieved through focused, sustained effort. Help them understand that every brain is capable of making dramatic changes and leaps in learning.
Repeat, Repeat, Repeat
Students learn persistence in the same way that they learn sight words or multiplication tables – through repetition. Strategies like modeling persistence, connecting effort to achievement, and pushing students to do a little more than they think they can aren’t a one-time deal. But when repeated over time, the cumulative effect will likely be increased stamina, improved persistence, and intrinsic motivation for ever greater learning.
For Further Reading:
A brand new year certainly has a way of getting us thinking about the future. The holidays are behind us, the first term of the school year has wrapped up or soon will, and New Year’s resolutions beg for action. It’s a natural time to look forward.
So why not get out our crystal ball once again and look into the future of education? What trends are predicted for 2014?
The inclusion of listening standards in the Common Core heralds a new focus on listening instruction in the classroom. The Common Core raises up listening as a literacy skill, giving it equal weight to the more traditionally emphasized reading, writing, and speaking.
In 2014, teachers will spend more time demonstrating what listening “looks like;” explaining what students should be doing with their eyes, ears, and bodies while listening; directing learners to notice when they haven’t been listening; and measuring how well learners apply what they’ve been taught.
More schools are shifting toward project-based learning as a way of increasing engagement and creativity in the classroom. It’s not a matter of simply marking the end of a lesson or unit by making a book or a diorama; instead, project-based learning engages students in meaningful, long-term projects that are themselves the learning experience.
Fourth-grade students might conceive, coordinate, and run their own semester-long weekly farmer’s market. They then learn as they go – how to market their goods, how to anticipate what will sell, how to total a purchase and make change, and what it feels like to accomplish all that and contribute the cash earned back to their classroom or school.
Davis, M.R., (2013, June 11), Computer Coding Lessons Expanding for K-12 Students. Education Week, Retrieved December 5, 2013, from http://www.edweek.org/dd/articles/2013/06/12/03game-coding.h06.html
Fairbanks, A.M., (2013, May 20). Digital Trends Shifting the Role of Teachers. Education Week, Retrieved December 5, 2013, from http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2013/05/22/32el-changingrole.h32.html
Lynch, M. (2013, November 22). Future Trends in K-12 Classroom Management and Discipline. Education Week, Retrieved December 5, 2013, from http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/education_futures/2013/11/future_trends_in_k-12_classroom_management_and_discipline.html
Murphy, A.P. (2013, October 29). Ready to Learn? The Key Is Listening With Intention Annie. MindShift, Retrieved December 5, 2013, from http://blogs.kqed.org/mindshift/2013/10/ready-to-learn-the-key-is-listening-with-intention/
Schwartz, K., (2013, January 2). What Project-Based Learning Is — and What It Isn’t. MindShift, Retrieved December 9, 2013, from http://blogs.kqed.org/mindshift/2013/01/what-project-based-learning-is-and-isnt/
Schwartz, K., (2013, October 14). Five Research-Driven Education Trends At Work in Classrooms. MindShift, Retrieved December 5, 2013, from http://blogs.kqed.org/mindshift/2013/10/five-research-driven-education-trends-at-work-in-classrooms/
Vangelova, L. (2013, November 13). Subverting the System: Student and Teacher as Equals. MindShift, Retrieved December 5, 2013, from http://blogs.kqed.org/mindshift/2013/11/subverting-the-system-student-and-teacher-as-equals/
A friend of mine once described her brain as a washing machine, tumbling and tossing the requests and information that hit her at work from every direction. Many people I know feel the same way—overwhelmed by the onslaught of knowledge and to-dos that accompany the always-on smartphone era.
The situation is not that different for most kids these days, with high expectations in the classroom, fewer opportunities to unwind with recess and the arts, busy social calendars, and a seemingly limitless supply of extracurricular activities—like circus arts and robotics—that weren’t available to previous generations. That’s unfortunate, because research shows that time off-task is important for proper brain function and health.
The idea that the brain might be productively engaged during downtime has been slow in coming. Because of the brain’s massive energy consumption—using as much as 20% of the body’s energy intake while on-task—most scientists expected that the organ would default to a frugal, energy-saving mode when given the chance.
Recently, however, brain researchers have discovered sets of scattered brain regions that fire in a synchronized way when people switch to a state of mental rest, such as daydreaming. These “resting-state networks” help us process our experience, consolidate memories, reinforce learning, regulate our attention and emotions, keep us productive and effective in our work and judgment, and more.
The best understood of these networks is the Default Mode Network, or DMN. It’s the part of the brain that chatters on continuously when we’re off-task—ruminating on a conversation that didn’t go as well as we’d hoped, for example, or flipping through our mental to-do list, or nagging us about how we’ve treated a friend.
Many of us are culturally conditioned to think of time off-task as “wasted” and a sign of inefficiency or laziness. But teachers and learners can benefit from recognizing how downtime can help. In addition to giving the brain an opportunity to make sense of what it has just learned, shifting off-task can help learners refresh their minds when frustrated so they can return to a problem and focus better.
The Productive Faces of Idleness
Sleep is the quintessential form of downtime for the brain. All animals sleep in some form, and even plants and microorganisms often have dormant or inactive states. Sleep has been shown in numerous studies to play a major role in memory formation and consolidation.
Recent studies have shown that when the human brain flips to idle mode, the neurons that work so hard when we’re on-task settle down and the surrounding glial cells increase their activity dramatically, cleaning up the waste products accumulated by the neurons and moving them out via the body’s lymphatic system. Researchers believe that the restorative effects of sleep are due to this cleansing mechanism. Napping for 10-30 minutes has been demonstrated to increase alertness and improve performance.
Teachers might consider reminding parents of the importance of adequate sleep for learning in the classroom – especially if learners are visibly sleepy or have noticeable difficulty focusing in class. As many as 30% of K-12 learners don’t get enough sleep at night.
AWAKE, DOING NOTHING
Idleness is often considered a vice, but there’s growing evidence that there are benefits to “doing nothing.” Electrical activity in the brain that appears to solidify certain kinds of memories is more frequent during downtime—as when lying in the dark at bedtime—than it is during sleep.
Meditation is another way of giving the brain a break from work without fully surrendering consciousness. Research has shown that meditation can refresh our ability to concentrate, help us attend to tasks more efficiently, and strengthen connections between regions of the DMN.
Experienced meditators typically perform better than non-meditators on difficult attention tests, and may be able to toggle more easily between the DMN and those brain networks that we use when we’re actively on task.
There’s evidence as well that the brain benefits from going offline for even the briefest moments—as when we blink. Every time we blink, our DMN fires up and our conscious networks take respite for a moment, giving the conscious mind a bit of relief.
It’s not uncommon to experience a sudden flash of insight while engaged in mundane activities like doing a crossword puzzle or cleaning the house. There’s a famous anecdote about Archimedes, a prominent scientist in classical Greece, solving a problem in just this way.
Archimedes needed to determine whether the king’s new crown was made entirely of the gold supplied to the goldsmith, or whether inferior metals like silver had been mixed in—and he had to do it without damaging the crown. He puzzled over how to solve the problem, without luck. Then, as he stepped into a bathtub one day and saw the water level rise, he realized in an instant that he could use the water’s buoyancy to measure the density of the crown against a solid gold reference sample. He conducted the experiment and found that the crown was less dense than the gold sample, implicating the goldsmith in fraud.
Scientists who research “unconscious thought” have found that activities that distract the conscious mind without taxing the brain seem to give people greater insight into complex problems. In a study of students who were asked to determine which car would be the best purchase, for instance, the group that spent their decision-making time solving an unrelated puzzle made better choices than the group that deliberated over the information for four minutes.
Brief windows of time spent on routine, mundane activities in the classroom—like feeding the class pet, putting books back on a bookshelf, or rearranging desks—can give learners a much-needed break from the sustained concentration required for academic time on-task.
Standing Up for Downtime
With so much to do and so little learning time in a school year—fitting in downtime is easier said than done. But take heart. Even closing your eyes, taking one deep breath, and exhaling can help to refresh the brain and takes practically no time. Offering more downtime in moment-sized bites might be just the thing for keeping ourselves, our students and our children on schedule and giving our brains that little bit of freedom to turn off for just a minute.
Holiday breaks and vacations are a perfect time for all of us take a break. I’ll be finding some time to unplug, unwind, and turn off. Will you?
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Insufficient Sleep Is a Public Health Epidemic. (2013). Retrieved December 8, 2013 from http:www.cdc.gov/features/dssleep
Jabr, F. (2013, October 15). Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime. Scientificamerican.com. Retrieved November 30, 2013, from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=mental-downtime
Sabourin, J. Rowe, J.P, Mott, B.,W. & Lester, J.C. (2011). When Off-Task is On-Task: The Affective Role of Off-Task Behavior in Narrative-Centered Learning Environments. Artificial Intelligence in Education, 6738, 534-536. doi: 10.1007/978-3-642-21869-9_93
Welsh, J. (2013, October 17). Scientists Have Finally Found The First Real Reason We Need To Sleep. Businessinsider.com. Retrieved December 2, 2013, from http://www.businessinsider.com/the-first-real-reason-we-need-to-sleep-2013-10