Professional Development: Blog

The Science of Learning

February 14, 2020
Disrupting the Myth about “Mediocre” Students

How one teacher turned an underachiever into an overachiever by teaching executive function. In early elementary school, Louise (all names in this story have been changed) was a sweet child who never caused trouble. She was also an average student who was rarely chosen for special duties or called on in class. Louise’s parents were concerned about her progress in school, given that her siblings were exceptional students. The school principal assured them that she was a bright little girl, but she would never get an ulcer worrying about school achievement. Children like Louise are often described as underachievers. But this description of Louise began to change in third grade under Mr. Stevens. He was a stickler for neatness, organization, planning, paying attention, and punctuality. He referred to himself as “Hurricane Stevens” because, without warning, he would check students’ desks for disarray or confiscate potentially distracting items. One day, Louise was admiring a yo-yo she had won during recess when the yo-yo suddenly became part of Mr.  Stevens’ “cyclone stash” of toys and comic books. These items were all returned each Friday with a wry smile and gentle warning that sometimes objects get lost in cyclones. “Class time is your job,” Mr. Stevens extolled her, “you can think about recess during recess. During class, you need to focus on learning.” "Fun Facts" Mr. Stevens also had a memory game he called “fun facts.” He started each day with a list of new history or science facts, vocabulary words, or current events details that would end up relating to class, and more information about the fun facts would be part of the daily lessons. Students were told to pay close attention, but they were not permitted to write anything down. Mr. Stevens would later quiz the class on the fun facts and how […]

January 31, 2020
How to Foster Executive Function in Every Grade

What does executive function look like? When I taught English to middle school students, I learned what executive function looked like firsthand. Sasha was the model student. She followed instructions after hearing them once. She concentrated on her work without being distracted by the girls giggling next to her or the occasional chatter leaking in from the hall. I could always count on her to remember every step of a class activity or homework assignment. When chaos reigned in the classroom and I, a young teacher, questioned my own abilities, Sasha was my rock. Brendan, on the other hand—well, he was what you might call easily distracted. Somehow, he didn’t get started on a class assignment until 5 minutes after everyone else was settled in, and then he would lean over to a neighbor to ask what to do. In group discussions, he would steer the conversion off-topic or be unable to help himself from pulling up a funny video on his phone. He made teaching eventful, to say the least. If you are a teacher, I’m sure you’ve also had versions of Sasha and Brendan in your classes. These aren’t their real names, of course, but their behavioral differences are plenty real—and common. It’s not that Sasha was inherently a good student, and Brendan was a bad one. They just had different levels of executive function. There’s a lot at stake when it comes to executive function skills. Executive function determines a student’s academic achievement throughout their time in school, and it even affects success in the workplace and life more generally. But some students, like Brendan, need extra support to reach their full executive function potential. Fortunately, executive function is a skill set that can be developed, and educators can do a lot to help students along the […]

January 15, 2020
2020 Education Trends

With the passing of another year—and decade—educators have exciting education trends to look forward to in 2020. Here are 5 trends in K-12 education research and policy to keep an eye on this year.

December 3, 2019
The Overlooked Third Domain of Social-Emotional Learning: Cognitive Skills

SEL Goes Viral A few months ago, a Facebook post by an Oklahoma middle school teacher went viral. It was a simple photo of a plastic bag full of crumpled paper, but its accompanying caption moved hundreds of thousands of strangers. Karen Loewe described an “emotional baggage” activity, in which students wrote down sources of their pain that they literally left at the door in a bag. “I have never been so moved to tears as what these kids opened up about and shared with the class,” Ms. Loewe wrote. While this story surprised and delighted the public, educators across the country already knew that such classroom practices that foster social-emotional learning (SEL) have become increasingly common in K-12 schools. In fact, NewSchools goes so far to say, “Enthusiasm for social emotional learning has reached a fever pitch” in their 2019 report on SEL. The widespread acceptance of SEL is also indicated by the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act’s (ESSA) federal funding provision for schools’ SEL programs. The RAND Corporation, one of the foremost nonprofit research organizations, even published a 2019 research brief on the state of SEL in schools. As this new dimension of learning continues to be shaped and defined by educators and education researchers alike, one important component of SEL is too often overlooked: cognitive skills. The invisible third prong of SEL, cognitive skill development should take on a bigger role in SEL models in schools. Here is what educators should know about why and how to target cognitive skills in their SEL practices. What is SEL, really? If someone asked you what SEL was, you would likely describe social and emotional learning—they’re right there in the name, after all. You might give classroom examples like the emotional baggage activity from the viral Facebook post. Or you […]

October 1, 2019
3 Reasons Why Neuroscience Should Be Important to Title 1 Educators

Under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), schools need to be more transparent than ever about how they use government funds. With higher accountability, administrators and school boards, especially at Title 1 schools, who want to make the most out of their funding should consider what neuroscience research can contribute to their programs. “Wait a minute!,” you say. “What does neuroscience have to do with Title 1?” Below are the top 3 reasons why neuroscience should be part of the Title 1 conversation, along with corresponding action items for educators. What is Title 1? Title 1 (officially Title I) is a federal program that provides funding to K-12 schools with children from vulnerable populations, including those impacted by poverty or homelessness. To close the achievement gap, Title 1 funding can be used for supplementary reading or math instruction and for after-school or summer programs, among other resources. High-poverty schools with 40% or more of the student population receiving reduced or free lunches are designated Title 1 schools and use their funding for school-wide programs. Other qualifying schools support specific students with targeted-assistance programs. Title 1 is the nation’s oldest and largest federally funded program and distributes over $15 billion annually to schools across the country. Why should neuroscience be part of the Title 1 conversation? When we discuss the urgent needs of children from low-socioeconomic (SES) families, we focus on state test scores, social-emotional learning (SEL), and adverse traumatic experiences (ACEs). What we need to talk about more is neuroscience. Scientific research on the brain offers insight into effective strategies for educators teaching vulnerable students. Here are 3 reasons why neuroscience should be at the center of the Title 1 conversation. 1. The most important learning tool is the brain. All learning happens in the brain. So, a better understanding of it allows […]

September 18, 2019
4 Little-Known Facts about Poverty and the Brain (And What Educators Can Do about Them)

A little girl wearing too-small sandals and no coat on a freezing January morning. A boy sick from eating nothing but potato chips and Kool-Aid. An eight-year-old raising himself and sleeping at night with 3 younger siblings. These are children of vulnerable populations that Linda Ann H. McCall recalls teaching at a Title 1 school, or federally assisted low-income school, in urban America. In her 2018 article in National Youth-At-Risk Journal, McCall recounts what teachers across the country witness every day: the challenges that students from low-socioeconomic (SES) families bring with them to school. Dr. McCall reflects, “I was reminded over and over of Abraham Maslow’s classic Hierarchy of Needs when I asked myself ‘how could I expect a child to focus on the concepts of long division and sentence structure, for example, if he or she was being abused and/or feeling hungry, afraid, and/or unloved?’ (p. 41-42). What worked? What worked in Dr. McCall’s classroom, and what many other educators at Title 1 schools are increasingly implementing, is brain-based teaching and learning. Dr. McCall argues that brain-based learning is especially important for teaching children impacted by poverty. What do Title 1 educators need to know about the impact of poverty on the brain? More importantly, how should school leaders apply brain-based learning to teaching? Keep reading to learn 4 little-known facts about poverty and the brain. What is brain-based learning? All learning happens in the brain, so isn’t all learning “brain-based learning”? In a way, yes. But “brain-based learning” means the application of brain science to teaching—what happens when neuroscience meets education. As Great Schools Partnership defines brain-based learning, the practice builds on “scientific research about how the brain learns, including… how students learn differently as they age, grow, and mature.” Brain-based learning is crucial for children from low-SES […]

January 17, 2019
Building a Foundation for School Readiness for Low-Income Children

As educators with experience in child development, we understand the essential nature of being responsive to a child. Children who do not receive enough attention do not develop in the same way as those who receive consistent nurturing and feedback. Research has demonstrated how, at a physiological level, their brains simply wire themselves differently as they develop. This deficit in early childhood experiences often manifests itself as developmental delays across a wide spectrum of behaviors. These behavioral delays appear in parallel with delays in brain development. Imagine a child growing up in a home where sensitive, responsive caregiving is rare. Maybe mom and/or dad work more hours and are simply not available. Maybe they come home too tired to read or play or simply snuggle with the child. Or, this is an environment where sensitive, responsive nurturing is not valued very highly. While it is not the case in every situation like this, at its extreme, the parent or parents may be truly neglecting the child’s needs at this early stage. Even moderate differences in these important parent-child interactions have important longer-term consequences for development. Research has shown that in these situations a child’s brain development quickly gets derailed. Children who do not receive enough of what is known as “sensitive-response caregiving” and cognitive stimulation do not develop executive function skills as readily as their counterparts in more caring, stimulating environments. (Lengua et al., 2007; Li-Grining, 2007) In other words, children may not be encouraged to be aware of and interact with the world around them (cognitive stimulation). They also may not be encouraged to engage or develop planning, decision-making or troubleshooting skills (executive function). Executive functions, also known as “domain-general” functions, are those called upon in various types of learning opportunities; these include such functions as working memory, regulation […]

January 26, 2016
10 Facts About How Poverty Impacts Education

Education reform has been a hot topic in recent years, and leaders across the political spectrum have championed measures such as increased testing and results-based evaluation of teachers and school districts. But one of the most pervasive problems affecting public schools is rarely discussed as an education issue at all. With the recent news that a majority of K-12 students in the Southern and Western United States now live in low-income households, it is time to take a serious look at how poverty affects education. Here are 10 surprising facts you may not know about poverty and its impact on children in our schools: 1. Disadvantaged even before birth. Cognitive capacity is not just a matter of genetics, but can be strongly influenced by external factors like prenatal drug use, environmental toxins, poor nutrition, and exposure to stress and violence. All of these are more prevalent in low-income households, and affect cognitive development from the prenatal stage through adulthood. 2. Less verbal exposure. A famous 1995 study by Hart and Risley demonstrated that by the age of four, children from poor households hear 32 million fewer spoken words than their better-off peers. More recent research has shown that quality of conversation differs as well. Parents with higher education and income are more likely to engage children with questions and dialogue that invite creative responses, while parents in poverty often lack the time and energy for anything more than simple and goal-oriented commands. 3. Poor sense of agency. Children growing up in poverty often experience life as a series of volatile situations over which neither they nor their caregivers have any control. Thus they fail to develop a conception of themselves as free individuals capable of making choices and acting on them to shape their lives, instead reacting to crises that are […]

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