iTunes Logo subscribe new

Are schools guilty of peddling myths about the brain?

Understanding how children learn is a critical part of the studies teachers undergo in order to qualify in their field. For decades researchers have studied the science of learning and have tried to bring some level of deeper understanding to the complexity of the learning process from birth through to ongoing learning as adults. What are the factors that produce greater learning? Why are some people able to learn more in certain subjects than in others? What role does social interaction play in learning? How can teachers provide optimal conditions for learning to occur? Can we really train our memory? What causes us to remember some things and not others? The list of questions is endless!

 

Over the last few decades, the field of neuroscience has blossomed and the education sector has sat up and taken a keen interest. As a profession whose work revolves around learning, it makes sense that teachers continue to develop their understanding of how the brain learns. Unfortunately, along with excellent insights and understanding, has come a plethora of neuromyths which have unfortunately been peddled by schools as neuroscience. Parents and teachers have taken these ideas and embraced them in homes and classrooms as if they are absolute fact without due consideration given to the truth of the science behind them.

 

Have you ever heard these before?

 

– A child is either a visual, auditory or kinaesthetic learner.
– We only use 10% of our brain.
– A child is either left-brain or right-brain dominant.
– Playing brain games make you smarter.

 

The attraction of these myths is that they make the complex simple; the confusing clear. It is tempting to latch onto one or more of these and to categorise our children according to what seems to be their learning style or area of brain dominance. What we know is that teaching children using a variety of senses results in stronger learning and that children sometimes choose not to give of their best in certain learning areas as they’ve been told it doesn’t fit with their right or left brain dominance. False science runs the risk of preventing our children from fulfilling their God-given learning potential. When we learn more about how the brain actually does learn, we can provide the best possible opportunity for real learning to occur.

 

In her book, Brain Matters, Patricia Woolfe lists eight ways we can optimise learning based on what we know about how our brains learn:

 

– Provide as much experiential learning as possible
– Build on prior knowledge
– Use rehearsal strategies appropriate to what is being learnt
– Provide many opportunities for children to revisit information
– Emphasize concepts over facts
– Assist children in understanding information and how it can be used in the ‘real’ world
– Provide a safe psychological environment
– Provide positive emotional events

 

While not neuroscientists or brain researchers, teachers continue to grow in their understanding of how the brain learns. Great teachers work diligently at using research and data to provide the best possible opportunities for their pupils to optimise their learning.

 

As science continues to shed new light on how the brain learns, teachers need to continue to use this information to provide the best possible learning experiences for their pupils.

 

iTunes Logo subscribe new

Teacher Stretch

I recently came across this statement in the book ‘Leadership for Learning‘ by Carl Glickman. I love the sentiment and challenge expressed:

If, as a teacher,

  • I present the same lessons in the same manner that I have used in the past;
  • I seek no feedback from my students;
  • I do not analyse and evaluate their work in a manner that changes my own emphasis, repertoire and timing;
  • I do not visit and observe other adults as they teach;
  • I do not share the work of my students with colleauges for feedback, suggestions and critiques;
  • I do not visit other schools or attend particular workshops or seminars or read professional literature on aspects of my teaching;
  • I do not welcome visitors with experience and expertise to observe and provide feedback to me on my classroom practice;
  • I have no yearly individualised professional development plan focused on classroom changes to improve student learning; and finally,
  • I have no systemic evaluation of my teaching tied to individual, grade/department, and schoolwide goals;

THEN

I have absolutely no way to become better as a teacher.

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that if we truly to create learning environments which teach children to love learning, to engage creatively with the world around them and to develop the skills needed for them to be successful adults in our ever-changing world, every teacher in every school will need to create a culture of continual learning and a commitment to a growth mindset. There is simply no more place in our schools for teachers who believe that they can no longer adapt their practice through professional learning and feedback.

Glickman also states,

“Successful schools stand in great contrast to mediocre and low performing schools where faculty work apart from each other, and without common purpose, and with self-centered beliefs that they are doing the best they can.” – Glickman, Carl D. Leadership For Learning. 1st ed. Alexandria: Assn Supervn & Curr Dev, 2002. Print.

This is such a powerful challenge and one which those of us working in schools need to take seriously if we are to provide places of dynamic and relevant teaching and learning.

iTunes Logo subscribe new

10 Day Twitter Challenge

Twitter is my number one source of new information, challenging thinking, teaching and leadership resources as well as the medium through which I share my own online discoveries and thinking. I cannot imagine why any teacher would not use Twitter to connect with other professional educators for shared learning and resource sharing.

Some folk to whom I have spoken feel that Twitter is too complicated for them or that it is simply too much of a time-waster. These people have not spent enough time learning how Twitter works (very simple actually!) nor have they developed the discipline of 10 minutes a day browsing Twitter to discover what is actually available. There is rubbish on Twitter (as with any other online network) and there are those who use the medium to self-promote and certainly don’t add value through their inane commentary on the world. Those seeking to use Twitter as a professional tool need to be given the tools to do so and the support and encouragement to persevere.

This is why I really like the idea put forward by @SeanHCole who has issued a 10 Day Twitter Challenge for South African teachers. The graphic below explains how the challenge works. I will be putting this to my staff on Thursday morning and running this as an internal staff challenge. I encourage you to do the same. Let’s build the South African education community on Twitter so that we can all learn from each other. Those on Twitter already may wish to share this challenge. Follow the #10STCSA hashtag to find those teachers who have taken up the Twitter challenge.

Follow me on Twitter too – @artpreston

iTunes Logo subscribe new

Global Classroom Project – The Travelling Rhinos

I love it when a member of our school team follows through on an idea or project about which they are passionate. Passion drives innovation and this is certainly the case for our school’s Digital Learning specialist, Mrs Karen Stadler.

During the course of 2012, Karen visited the wonderful Kruger National Park with her family. A trip to a watering hole was to be a defining moment as she witnessed five magnificent rhino arrive to drink the water and wallow in the mud. She realised that within a year there was a possibility that some, if not all, of these gracious creatures may have been killed by poachers.

This realisation moved her into action and she set up a Global Classroom Project known as The Travelling Rhinos which involved having five small rhinos made and covered in traditional African Shweshwe fabric. Karen ran a competition at school to have the rhinos named. Our pupils rallied to the cause and came up some wonderful names. The winning names were: Lilitha, Lesedi, Siyanda, Zindzi and Makulu (Xhosa, Setswana and Zulu names).

The rhinos were sent to schools in South Africa, Australia, Canada, Ireland and the USA where schools have been encouraged to teach their pupils about the plight of the rhinos in Africa. It has been so encouraging to read about what these schools have been doing and how they have embraced this project. Even more encouraging has been the impact this has had on the pupils as many were unaware of the seriousness of the rhino poaching onslaught in South Africa. (See this blog post from the Global Classroom Project about a small rural school in New Zealand whose children made news in the local newspaper because of their activism as a result of involvement in the Travelling Rhinos Project.) At the time of writing, the number of schools involved stood at 36 (see the left margin of the home page here for the list of schools). This represents a significant number of children across the world who have become aware of the plight of the rhino and who have, in many cases, been moved to action.

I applaud Karen for the effort she has put into this project. Her passion for the plight of rhinos in Africa, particularly in South Africa, has allowed her to channel this energy into a project which is uniting children and their teachers across the globe.

For more information about this project please go to the Travelling Rhinos Project wiki and consider signing up your school or class.

***Karen has been nominated for the 2013 Stars In Education Award for this project – please consider voting for her at this page – Entries for 2013 Stars In Education Award***

iTunes Logo subscribe new

A Teacher’s Load

When I decided on teaching as my career of choice, I was under no illusion that this was an easy career path. I grew up around schools as my mother was a successful teacher who received several accolades over the course of her career. The hours of dedicated preparation, the weekend and after-hours events, the challenge of helping pupils reach their unrealised potential, the late afternoons of school-imposed professional development and the effort required to build positive relationships with parents, were ingrained in me as a child and teenager. I grew to love the idea of one day teaching in my own classroom and perhaps even one day leading my own school.

Many years later I now find myself as principal of a well-resourced independent school and am now in a position where I am able to set expectations of delivery from my team of teachers and ancillary staff. Over the past few months I have been challenged to examine those expectations in light of various discussions had in either one-on-one meetings or comments made in staff meetings.

Upon reflection I have had to examine my own thinking on staff commitment, the professional life of teachers and my own assumptions about the profession and individual staff members. It seems the busyness of life has taken its toll on teachers who regularly remark on how little time they have. I want to have a team of well-balanced professionals who are able to teach with enthusiasm and energy each day and who are also able to enjoy life with family and friends outside of school. How then to make this happen?

The reality is that teaching is not an easy profession. The physical and emotional demands are very real and it can become easy to become bogged down in the day-to-day pressures of the job. Perhaps the challenge then is to help teachers learn to work smarter not harder (a cliché perhaps but real nonetheless). We also need to re-examine the curriculum and stop chasing marks (grades) but rather aim at authentic assessment which reflects true learning. The CAPS documents make this increasingly difficult but I still believe it can be done despite them. Add to this the extra-mural commitments of teachers and the expectation that they take ownership of professional growth, as well as other school commitments such as attendance at sport festivals and professional development seminars and one begins to understand concerns about time and achieving life-balance. Many teachers are also under pressure from parental expectations and this needs to be managed carefully as well.

That all said, I believe that our school provides a caring and supportive environment for our teachers. One of our strengths is the sense of community which prevails in our staffroom.There are always going to be times in the year which are more stressful than others. That is the nature of any profession. I would far rather be in a school which sets the bar high for its academic professionals than be in one in which anything goes. In order for us to remain a leading school we have to realise that change, hard work and high expectations are par for the course. Achieving mediocrity takes work but who wants to be mediocre? Achieving excellence is a much harder task and demands more of everyone in the team. My job is to ensure that every member of our team is supported, encouraged and given the tools and skills they require to remain excellent at what they do. It is also to be the sounding board for when the pressure is on!

As a school principal, I believe in what I do. I still hang on to the idea that teaching is the noblest of professions and that teachers have arguably one of the most important jobs in the world. I am passionate about leading our school towards more effective 21st century education and about developing a team of teachers who are leading educators. The example set to me by my mother and other outstanding teachers and school principals with whom I’ve come into contact, continues to burn deep inside me. I know that lots of hard work lies ahead and that I need to manage the workload of my team well so that we can build our preferred future together.

iTunes Logo subscribe new

Connect!

This is the presentation I delivered on 4 October at the Innovate 2012 conference. It deals with why and how teachers can connect and develop a professional learning network.

 

iTunes Logo subscribe new

Cellphones in the classroom – an African perspective

{EAV:ef116cb4c642f69f}
Through the network of teachers in my PLN I have the privilege of meeting some amazing educators from all over South Africa. One such teacher is Robyn Clark of Sekolo sa Borokgo, an independent school in Johannesburg. We met up at a conference in Pretoria last year and met up again at a conference in Durban last month when we both shared as speakers. What I love about Robyn is her willingness to embrace challenge and change as well as her drive to be a teacher who makes a real difference in her pupils’ lives.

Robyn’s innovative and open approach to the use of cellphones in her classroom is evident of her desire to use the tools available to her pupils to teach them more effectively. The recent call to ban cellphones from schools in South Africa (a short-sighted and, quite frankly, ridiculous call) by the National Association of School Governing Bodies elicited a great deal of response in the media. With emotional responses on both sides of the argument, it is good to see a piece of balanced journalism from China Network Television who recently visited Robyn’s school to see how they were using mobile phones as a tool for learning.

Televised insert available here: http://english.cntv.cn/program/africalive/20120518/100250.shtml

I wonder how the National Association of School Governing Bodies would respond to this?

Well done Robyn!  You are an inspiration to your fellow-educators. Thank-you for being a difference-maker!

iTunes Logo subscribe new

All In A Day’s Work

My wife and I recently attended a rather special show at Sweet Valley Primary in Meadowridge, Cape Town. What made this school concert different was that no children were involved in the show. All parts were played by members of the school staff. It was a wonderful evening’s entertainment and was certainly value for money.

I could not help wondering as I watched these academic professionals perform their hearts out in music, dance and song, how many other professions would happily give many, many extra hours of after-hours time to prepare costumes, decor, sets, practise lines and perfect dance steps so that they could perform in front of 300 people (many of whom may be unknown to them) for three nights running with no extra remuneration other than the applause of the audience and the knowledge that they have contributed to a greater sense of esprit de corps.

One must remember that this was done in addition to the ongoing responsibilities of lesson preparation, marking of assessments, extra-curricular activities such as sport coaching, parent meetings and all the other responsibilities inherent in teaching.

I salute the Sweet Valley Primary staff and all other teachers who continue to give way over the expected time and effort they are paid for in order to improve the school experience for pupils, parents and community.

iTunes Logo subscribe new

What Teachers Make – World Teachers’ Day 2011

Today is World Teachers’ Day – have you hugged a teacher today? 🙂

This poem by Taylor Mali is now a few years on and many have seen it. I still think it is outstanding and worth another listen!

 

iTunes Logo subscribe new

What Happened To Professionalism?

Local school teacher to a pupil in her class: “Where did you go to school before you came to this school?”

Pupil: “I went to {insert name of another local school here}.”

Teacher: “You are so stupid to have wasted half your schooling at {insert name of another local school here}. Only idiots go to that school.”

This is unfortunately a true story…

It never ceases to amaze me that a teacher can be so small-minded and insecure in herself that she is forced to make this kind of comment in front of a class of 11 year olds. Not only is this a ridiculous thing to say, it also reveals an astonishing lack of professionalism. There is also a lack of judgement evident in what is appropriate to say to children and what is not.

Teachers such as this have no place in a classroom in a society in which we are striving to develop children who have the emotional intelligence to seek first to understand before judging others and who have the core value of respect for others. How many other teachers like this are in our schools today? Whatever happened to teachers being the pillar of society and those to whom our children turned for moral and ethical guidance in an often confusing world? Call me naive, but I believe its time to bring honour back into our profession.