Willingham's cognitive principle is that factual knowledge must precede skill. The current mode of thinking nowadays is that only critical thinking is necessary and the actual content, information, or knowledge is merely interchangeable; after all, one can do an Internet search and find information on any topic in seconds. However, thinking processes are intertwined with knowledge, perhaps surprisingly.
READING COMPREHENSION REQUIRES BACKGROUND KNOWLEDGE
One study shows that even poor readers with high background knowledge of the reading understood the text better than good readers with low knowledge. Background information allows chunking (grouping of information), which allows your working memory to have more space to connect ideas and thoughts, leading to better comprehension.
Four ways background knowledge aids comprehension:
The "fourth-grade slump" is a phenomenon that hits underprivileged homes. Up to grade three, most students are good decoders, but reading comprehension becomes increasing important in grade 4 and up. Because comprehension is dependent on background knowledge, privileged kids come to school with more knowledge about the world and a larger vocabulary.
COGNITIVE SKILLS REQUIRES BACKGROUND KNOWLEDGE
Thinking critically or logically often comes from what you know. To solve a problem, you first check your long-term memory to see if your solution already lies there. Think of the world's best chess players; it's not necessarily their reasoning or planning skills but rather their recall of board positions. They may have up to 50000 board game positions in their long-term memory! This goes for chefs, who can look at a kitchen pantry and whip up a delicious meal quickly, while regular folks may end up scratching their heads and end up making macaroni and cheese. In class, someone who has memorized the times tables will be able to solve a problem requiring that information faster than someone who has to figure it out by counting. This saves a lot of room in working memory to solve the rest of the problem.
Einstein said, "Imagination is more important than knowledge." Willingham hopes you realize that actually knowledge is necessary for imagination that leads to problem solving, decision making, and creativity.
Source: Why Don't Students Like School?, Willingham, Daniel T., 2009.
Language-processing problems constitute the largest proportion of learning disabilities. These include hearing sounds and words, understanding meaning, remembering verbal content, and communicating clearly.
The following are just a few examples:
Speech and Language Comprehension
Students tend to process information more slowly than usual. Sometimes teachers move on when they feel a response is not forthcoming. Often these students may be considered unmotivated or lazy. Also, language-processing disabilities affect their thinking. Language (words) are necessary to name people, places and things. Social development is influenced with this disability as they struggle with speaking, so they become fearful, shy and withdrawn; some deal in the opposite manner and become bullies. Others prefer to spend time with younger kids, using simpler language.
Word usage and comprehension is found in the left cerebral cortex. Inefficient neural "networking" can also result in processing issues. Some areas are underworked while others are handling too much. There also appears to be a genetic or heredity link with family members, as well.
The best way to intervene is with early recognition and appropriate and intense instruction. Special education is essential. They can use audio materials or simplified texts to handle the information overload. Extra time is often needed for tests and assignments. Test questions may need to be read to them. Teachers may need to speak slower and with simpler one-step instructions. Technology can assist in many ways with reading texts aloud, dictation, voice-to-text recognition, along with spelling and grammar checking.
Despite reading, writing or verbal problems, students with this language-processing disability can end up achieving amazing things, especially in professions that do not rely on advanced language skills: medical technology, architecture, finance, photography, engineering, mechanics, TV production, fine arts and computer programming, to name a few. The key thing is to maintain understanding and encouragement in order to maintain their self-confidence and enthusiasm for learning.
Source: Learning Disabilities: A to Z; Corinne Smith and Lisa Strick, 2010
Matthew Crawford, a writer and research fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia feels that today's education needs to return to its practical, hands-on roots, not its current state of representation in the virtual world. Crawford worries that since attention is a stimulus-driven, goal-directed and a limited resource, children, in particular, are subjected to and bombarded with continuous stimulus-driven attention of ads and manipulative messages. Social media is designed solely to have users engaged constantly and returning to their platforms. "Distractibility," says Crawford, "might be regarded as the mental equivalent of obesity." He worries that all this clutter of digital noise may dampen imagination, as well as the clear sense of self. Who are we as people or individuals, when so much of our self-image is now being shaped by marketers, friends and followers? Crawford also feels the philosophical movement of individualization and autonomy has gone too far. "I think, therefore I am, " stated Descartes, in the Age of Enlightenment. However, so much of reality, argues Crawford, now resides in our minds as representations, and the physical reality of the world has lost its meaning and value. Crawford wants genuine individuality and agency, which comes from skilled practice and experience affecting objects in the real world.
Professor Guy Claxton of Winchester University feels that attentional habits are a part of good learning habits, such as collaboration or listening. He believes this disposition of attention can be shaped over time, but not explicitly in the form of a workshop or lecture. He suggests approaching it from the point of losing mindfulness. The goal is when students are distracted, how quickly can they return to attention? Some classes work on a scale of 1 to 10, to see how distracted they have been in a week. Other classes will use a show of five fingers: 1 = not distracted; 2= vaguely distracted; 3= minor distraction; 4 = major distraction; 5 = I was the distraction! The goal is to get kids interested in their own distractibility and to gain greater control and assume responsibility. Another method is for students to keep track of their own distractions, marking a tick every time they are off task on a line scale of completely distracted and completely focused.
Source: Attention: Beyond Mindfulness, Gay Watson, 2017
Most of us have heard the analogy that our brain is a thinking machine. But, according to Willingham, our brains are not really designed for thinking, because it is slow and unreliable, and requires much effort. In fact, your brain uses most of its processing power to see things and to move around physically. Nonetheless, the good news is that people are curious, as long as the problem is not too easy or too difficult--the Goldilocks special.
So how do we manage to get through life if we don't think well? Essentially, we rely on our memories. Once we've figured out how to do something once (or twice), then we rely on our memory system to recall that piece of information, so that our brains don't have to work hard and figure it out again. For example, when driving a car, you don't have to relearn how to press the accelerator, apply the right amount of pressure on the brakes for stopping, shifting gears, checking for cars on the side, and much more. All those discrete steps are memorized and now recalled perfectly and efficiently. That explains why travelling to a country with a different language and culture is so tiring: you have to relearn all of the simple rules and customs of that particular place.
How does thinking work in basic terms? There are four factors: information from the environment, facts in long-term memory, procedures in long-term memory, and the amount of space in working memory. If any of these is lacking, then thinking will likely fail.
Therefore, one of the reasons why students don't like school is because the tasks and problems they face are either too easy or too difficult, or the thinking required to solve them breaks down in one of the four key areas. So what can be done to alleviate this conundrum?
Have solvable problems: Make sure students have a variety of cognitive work during the day that pose moderate challenge. Are there cognitive breaks? Consider their suitability.
Respect Students' Cognitive Limits: Do students have the necessary background information to solve the mental challenge? If not, prepare them accordingly. Also, don't overload their working memory. Slow the pace and use memory aids, such as writing on the board.
Clarify the Problems: It's difficult for any problem to be "relevant" to an entire group of diverse learners with unique interests. When planning a lesson, start with the information you want students to learn. Then prepare key questions at the right level of difficulty to engage your students and respect their cognitive limitations.
When to Puzzle Students: Do we start with a thought-provoking question, or conduct an interesting demonstration or present a fact? Which is more effective? Sometimes a startling experiment can capture students' attention, but without the proper background information, the temporary thrill will be akin to a magic trick.
Student variance and differentiation: Because students come to class with varying levels of preparedness, understanding, motivation, it is best to assign work that best suits their current level of readiness.
Change the Pace: If you feel you're losing the attention or interest of the learners, then switch gears, change topics, start a new activity or find out what they are having difficulty with, or if it is too easy.
Keep a Diary: As a teacher to improve professionally, it's important to keep track to successes and failures, in order to build up a library of best practices. What worked best for the students? What failed miserably?
Source: Why don't Students like school? Daniel T. Willingham, 2009
How did such creative and novel ideas such as the iPhone, the Apollo 13 rescue mission, or Picasso's Les Demoiselles come about? Did they merely appear out of thin air, or is there a more logical and replicable explanation? According to Brandt and Eagleman in The Runaway Species, there are three categories (cognitive operations or strategies) that all innovations can fall into: bending, breaking and blending.
Bending takes the original item and then changes one or more aspects of it, such as shape, size, colour, or viewpoint. One basic example is Monet's many views of Rouen Cathedral in the 1890s. A more practical example of bending would be the invention of the polarized windshield. In order to not be blinded by headlights in the past, the idea of glare-resistant windshields were suggested. The problem: a calcite crystal was six inches thick! However, Edwin Land used "orthogonal thinking" and made sheets of glass with thousands of tiny embedded crystals. Miniaturization solved the dilemma. Other examples of bending include umbrellas, cars, jazz, language, architecture and television signals.
Breaking involves taking something whole, taking it apart, and reassembling something new out of the fragments. The first cell phone systems followed in the footsteps of radio and TV broadcasting, a single cell tower transmitting signals everywhere, but only a few people could make calls at one time. Bell Lab engineers then divided the single coverage area into small cells, each with its own tower, thus solving the problem of too many users. Another example of breaking comes from motion pictures. In the early cinemas, scenes in movies were told in real-time. Soon, filmmakers began to cut the beginning and endings of scenes. Then in Citizen Kane, we see time moving rapidly in years, and soon montages of long scenes can be done in seconds. Other examples of breaking include the following: computers, carbon copy, LCD screens, acronyms, and MP3 files.
Blending combines two or more sources in novel fashion. A classic example would be the Egyptian Sphinx, part human, part lion. With advances in genetics, professor Randy Lewis was able to splice the DNA of a spider to a goat to create Freckles the spider-goat; she's a goat but her "superpower" is she can secrete spider silk in her milk. This spider silk will be used to weave ultra-light bulletproof vests in the future. We also have fish and pigs that glow thanks to the jellyfish gene. Creoles are the blending of languages. Children in a remote village in Australia used their parents' baby talk (which combined 3 languages, Warlpiri, Kriol, and English) and then created their own syntax, known as Light Warlpiri. Blending is nearly limitless: a kingfisher + train = Japanese bullet train; soccer + volleyball = futevolei in Brazil; copper + tin = alloy bronze.
Source: The Runaway Species, Anthony Brandt & David Eagleman, 2017
Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
Children with ADHD make up 3 to 5 percent of the school population. There are three forms: predominately inattentive; predominantly hyperactive/impulsive; and the combined type. Inattention includes the inability to sustain attention in tasks or play, great difficulty getting organized or does not follow through on instructions or finish schoolwork or chores. Hyperactivity includes fidgeting and squirming, leaving one's seat in the classroom or talking excessively. Impulsivity includes blurting out answers, trouble taking turns or intruding on others.
Boys and girls are both equally likely to be affected, but girls tend to be less aggressive and disruptive, so are often less diagnosed than boys. Students struggle with attention and disruptive behavior, which leads to academic struggles. When they can't manage their emotions with peers, their social lives begin to suffer, often being left out of playdates and parties. Even at home, children with ADHD can strain the relationship between parent and child, because of their stubbornness or embarrassing behavior. If left unaddressed, these children often end up becoming teens that indulge in more thrill-seeking behavior, more drug and alcohol abuse, and are at risk for mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression. Ultimately, unchecked, their chances for completing school, pursuing higher education and finding satisfying jobs are reduced.
First, determine whether it is indeed ADHD and other factors, such as allergies, hearing or vision problems, stress, diet, inappropriate placement, and maturity level. Generally, students with ADHD require more time and guidance to master information. They may need reinforcing lessons and methods to monitor their own attention, to bring them back on task. Assistive technology can also be a benefit. Parent support and education, as well as family counselling, may be helpful. By their teens, many children show improvement though they remain energetic. Medication may be necessary for some with an extreme condition of ADHD.
Source: Learning Disabilities: A to Z; Corinne Smith and Lisa Strick, 2010
This chapter definitely gets into some practical classroom suggestions related to mindfulness: mindful memory, field of vision, mindful seeing, and taking a pause.
But it starts off with the first thing of the day: attendance, and its value. The authors stress the importance of not only knowing who’s present, but acknowledging their value and their state of mind. It’s important to establish that connection, first thing. I realize that with online attendance, I’m not making that eye-to-eye contact that I normally had in the past (partly because of the way my computer is facing), so I plan on going back to a paper and pen method (along with the online, as well.)
The root of mindfulness is attention, focussing on what’s important. Mindfulness also reduces mind-wandering. Being able to prioritize between relevant and irrelevant information is critical for mindfulness. Learning mindfulness is a useful skill for both teachers and students alike.
Mindful Memory is a technique that stresses process over product. In other words, although the goal of memorizing is important, the process and experience of paying attention while memorizing is equally as important. One activity is the Memory Game. Phase 1: Put a dozen objects on a table and cover them. Then students look for a minute, cover them up, and then recall the items on a piece of paper. Phase 2: Place new objects, but use Take 1 to calm their minds to focus attention prior to seeing the objects. Variation #2: While teaching a regular class, suddenly pull then over to a table and do the Memory Game again. Variation #3: Play music or read a story aloud while the students memorize new objects. This is testing the effects of distraction and multitasking on concentration. Finally, reflect and find out how students felt after each of these three variations of the memory game.
The Field of Vision activity shows where you look affects what you see--a kind of “mental shortsightedness.” What you expect to see affects what you notice. This activity entails going outside, and covering the ground with many little twigs. Pick a short twig about 7cm, and say you will place in amongst the twigs and the students need to find it. They face away and then you pretend to place it on the ground but actually put in behind your ear but with a little bit showing. See how many students actually see the twig in your ear, the “last” place they expect. Finally, ask the students what the point of the activity was.
Mindful Seeing involves simply seeing and looking--and nothing else: no judgements, no opinions, no assumptions. Then apply mindfulness to look for something--”thinking, and deciding or attributing meaning.” The difference is looking at something vs. looking for something. This exercise leads into the notion of first impressions, and how mindful seeing can help you from getting caught up in making quick judgements, which later might be found to be false.
Taking a beat or a Pause aids in mindfulness, even if it’s just one breath in and out. This momentary pause can help you determine four things: 1) the simple facts with no emotion or interpretation; 2) how you feel about it; 3) what you think about it; 4) what might be the best to do. Start with neutral objects, before moving onto objects with more emotion attached. This will give you the best chance to come up with a good plan or idea in any difficult situation or circumstance.
Source: Mindful Teaching and Teaching Mindfulness, Deborah Schoeberlein David, 2009
Chapter 2: mindfulness in the morning
Deborah David believes the morning is the perfect time of the day to begin mindfulness. It’s basically saying “Hello” to the day, and acknowledging and appreciating its value. An intention is another important aspect of mindfulness, as it helps orient your day with a clear focus in mind, like a ship’s anchor in the sea. “Intention focuses attention on a particular objective, and mindfulness harnesses awareness to sustain your focus.” An example would be “to aspire to express more patience today when I work with a particular student.” Five key points about intentions: 1) set the intention; 2) notice your experience while recalling your intention; 3) return to your intention; 4) do something to support your intention; 5) acknowledge later your success with your intention. It’s important to be realistic, especially early on, with your intentions. Start small and be specific. The author feels that since the process of working with intentions is perhaps the most important goal, don’t feel bad on the days that your (best) intentions fail miserably. The author talks about a variation of Take 5, where when you notice during your breathing session a thought or feeling comes to mind, simply say “thinking” or “feeling” and then return to notice your breathing. At the end of the chapter, David recommends trying to be mindful of all the little activities you do, from brushing your teeth to eating breakfast. I tried it for a short while, and I did notice things that I normally would have normally missed completely. I tried to fully “experience” my shower, my shaving, my teeth brushing. Trying to fully be aware and attentive of life is a novel experience, but challenging and wearing on the mind, as well. Ultimately, try to pay attention and be present and live in the moment, and having a good start in the morning helps pave the way for the rest of the day.
Chapter 3: on to school
David recommends modeling your own mindfulness to your students, which supports their social and emotional learning (SEL). The five main competencies of SEL are self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. If teachers can model SEL competencies while implementing the curriculum, that promotes maximum learning. A great intention is to model SEL competencies to your class. During the day, notice when you are becoming distracted or stressed, angry or anxious, steady or confident. Go through the 5 steps of being aware of your intentions, as well as mindful breathing. David also talks about the importance of being mindful and present when students first step into the classroom; they are aware of a calm, welcoming teacher, or a harried, unprepared one. Also, the transition to work should not be a power struggle but rather a shift of their attention and interest to something else as desirable. Introducing Take 1: Mindful Breathing (for students) is a great way to prepare students to become self-aware and attentive to their breathing, as well as their environment. Finally, David describes mindfulness for students as finding that perfect balance between too much attention and concentration and too little. For example, holding a pencil. If you hold it too loosely, it wobbles and creates scribbles; too tightly, and your hand begins to cramp up. Effective learning activities need to find that balance, as well, and the author cites riddles as an example. There is enough ambiguity involved, but complexity and creativity are needed to solve them. Some similar type of morning or brain work would be a good idea to start off the day. So remember to model SEL to students, including times when you are feeling stressed or overwhelmed, and start the class day with activities that require both mindfulness, as well as creative and critical thinking.
Source: Mindful Teaching and Teaching Mindfulness, Deborah Schoeberlein David, Suki Sheth, 2009
Brief Summary of chapter 1
“Mindfulness is a conscious, purposeful way of tuning in to what’s happening in and around us.“ Paying attention and being aware has many benefits: mental focus, academic performance, emotional balance, capacity for kindness, empathy, and compassion. You can’t often change events and people’s actions around you, but you can change how you experience them: respond, rather than react; being mindful presents to you more choices when you are in a calm, focussed mental state. There’s also mindful teaching--being present and fully connecting with the students and their learning; the contrast is mindlessness--completely going through the motions, not really listening or creating flow. Finally, the best way to teach something is to learn it first with practice, then application--”experiential foundation.” Take 5 is a simple but effective start with Mindful Breathing.
Source: Deborah Schoeberlein David, Suki Sheth, Mindful Teaching and Teaching Mindfulness, 2009
Long gone are the days where students sat in rows and learned the same thing at the same time, usually from the authority standing in the front of the classroom. Now, fast-forward in time, and Kallick and Zmuda describe the four key attributes to personalized learning--the clear contrast to learning of the past.
Voice: Students participate in the creation of the learning, because it’s really their learning. Most people do not like to be told what to do, at least not all the time. Instead of being passive passengers heading in one direction, they are often in the driver’s seat, determining their own journey and pathway and destination.
Co-Creation: Students work with the teacher to develop the entire learning plan, from start to finish: what do they want to learn?; how will it be assessed?; how will they learn it?
Social Construction: The notion that “no man is an island” (John Donne) aptly describes student learning in the classroom; it is an social affair and construction of knowledge, according to Vygotsky. Finally, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts (Aristotle), as collaboration and cooperation amongst fellow peers can lead to much greater triumphs and accomplishments.
Self-Discovery: Creating self-aware and self-directed learners is the ultimate goal for teachers. If students can figure out their strengths and weaknesses, and determine how to improve and grow, then they will be set for life.
Differences Between Individualization, Differentiation and Personalized Learning
Students are assigned the learning tasks, and they use technology to accomplish those tasks. Khan Academy would be one such example. In blended learning environments, there may be some co-creation and social construction, but learners still have little say in the work they do.
Today’s classroom houses learners varying in skills, readiness and interest. Students can select topics (content), how to learn (process) and create the final form of learning (product). However, the teacher is still leading the design and management of the learning experience.
Kallick and Costa encourage the use of the 16 Habits of Mind, in conjunction with personalized learning, in order to fully understand their learning, and engage in higher level thinking and performing.
16 Habits of Mind:
What I notice about these habits of mind are the similarities to the core competencies of the BC curriculum: communication, critical and creative thinking, positive personal and cultural identity, personal awareness and responsibility, and social responsibility.
Source: Students at the Center, Bena Kallick & Allison Zmuda, 2017
Daniel H. Lee
This blog will be dedicated to sharing in three areas: happenings in my classroom and school; analysis and distillation of other educators' wealth of knowledge in various texts; insights from other disciplines and areas of expertise that relate and connect with educational practices.