So I know that you must get tired of me bragging about the think-tank, but I'm going to do it again. Throughout the Learning & Brain conference I found myself thinking, "Oh! That's why that works!" or "Yeah, already so on top of that research, my school was transformed from that study", or, "thank goodness now I have actually research to back up what we're doing at school."
But it's not just one thing- not one study or one aspect of our day that is the silver bullet or magic wand, miraculously turning our school around. Listening to speaker after speaker I became more and more aware of all the ways we're doing things "right" at the think-tank- but each project, method, or theory we are using is just one small part of the big picture. The education field keeps looking for that silver bullet- superman- or some magic cost-saving-brain-opening-achievement-making magic wand. But it's not just one magic wand that we need to teach our children successfully- it's lots of them- and the people holding the wands need to be working together, collaborating, determining what works and what doesn't, taking risks, reflecting, and researching.
I was going to try to sum up all of the amazing studies I heard this weekend and how we incorporate them at the think-tank in one post, but I'm beginning to realize that not going to happen, or if I did it, no one would read it. So, I'm going to try to tackle one study a post. Fingers crossed I don't give up half way through...
Magic wand #1- Strategies- teaching planning as a way to facilitate development in the prefrontal cortex
Sunday morning we heard Jack Naglieri speak about the truth behind intelligence and achievement tests. If you're not familiar with Naglieri he created a norm-referenced non-verbal assessment that allows us to assess the potential and intelligence of all our students, not just the ones who speak English. We give this test throughout children's school career and I always love getting the results. There are always a few children whose results make you stop and think. Surprised by their high score you go back over their work in your head, run over some of your interactions with them and slowly begin to appreciate the small sparks of intelligence that were masked by behavior or their limited language. Using the Naglieri test itself and putting emphasis on its results has created a school culture where we look at our children as whole beings and work on teaching to the child's potential.
But more than his test, Naglieri discussed the importance of teaching children strategies as a way to teach them to plan. Other studies presented at the conference discussed how children growing up in low socio-economic status were more likely to show delayed development in their frontal lobe- the area of the brain that promotes critical thinking and planning. By teaching our children to plan and develop strategies for conquering academic tasks we're facilitating their executive function development.
At the think-tank we use the word strategy a lot. We teach reading strategies beginning in kindergarten- or "what to do when you're stuck on a tough word". We teach math strategies, writing strategies, and critical thinking strategies. We even have a strategies lab where students go to play games and then discuss the strategies they used to play those games, and then we scaffold their thinking about game-strategies to real-life strategies.
We do love our strategies at the think-tank.
But they work. They teach our kids to think critically, and allow them to be active participants in their environment. Something's hard? Do you have a strategy to figure it out?
The last session I attended was on how social disparities shape learning in the brain, a recent study out of Children's Hospital in Boston. What did they find when they looked at the association between areas of the brain and socio-economic status in childhood? While there seemed to be no difference in hippocampal volume between high and low SES kids, there was a difference in the function of prefrontal cortex in high and low SES kids.
The hippocampus is the area of the brain that controls memory. We were all surprised by their findings- our assumption was (and I believe theirs too) that children from low SES backgrounds would have a smaller hippocampus that was causing their difficulties in remembering information like school facts, the letters of the alphabet, etc. Instead the study found that the area of the brain effected by a low SES is that prefrontal cortex, the area associated with planning, or executive function.
Applying what we know about brain function and Naglieri's theory on teaching planning through teaching strategies, we're on the right track at the think-tank.
For me? I need to teach Pixie some strategies and encourage her to plan. She has a genetic disorder that typically impacts children's prefrontal cortex development. We've been working so hard on teaching her the rules, the letters of her name, and just enjoying her singing that I hadn't thought about encouraging her to using planning and strategies academically. I'm going to attempt to try to find a way to embed a planning piece into my morning language group.
Tomorrow's wand: Alfie Kohn, Donna Coch and Carol Dweck- Talking to kids to support strategies and planning.