How can psychology help improve teaching and learning?

Pupil not enjoying schoolDespite huge advances in neuroscience over the past twenty years not much has seeped through to impact day to day learning in classrooms.  This is the problem that Daniel T Willingham Why Don’t Students Like School: A  Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What it Means for the Classroom starts with in his  intriguing  new book.  He explains that the main issue is learning is memory and short term memory at that.  People just don’t have a lot of capacity in their short term memories so all learning should keep this in mind.  To overcome this teachers need to ‘chunk’ information together into pieces that can then reside in the students’ long term memories and then be called on when needed.  Chunking means combining several separate things into a single unit: so a whole word takes up the same amount of space in working memory as one letter or number.  Chunking therefore allows us to have more capacity in are working memory to use for problem solving.  The example that Willingham uses is learning the following letters:

  • XCN
  • NPH
  • DFB
  • ICI
  • ANC
  • AAX

When the same letters are reorganised to this format:

  • X
  • CNN
  • PHD
  • FBI
  • CIA
  • NCAA
  • X

All of the initials in the second list refer to organisations that American children might recognise. So their memory of the list would be much easier as they can simply rely on information already stored in their long term memories.  How we present things therefore helps understanding by helping children’s cognitive functions related to the structure of their short term memories.

The other over riding issue that teachers should be aware of is that human beings are not naturally interested in learning information that is not related to a problem they are trying to solve.  People tend to be interested in new things in the context of what they already know.  Building broad contextual knowledge is therefore a key issue for teachers and in many ways the difficulties for children are that they simply do not have much in the way of wider knowledge to draw upon.  So lessons need to be problem focused and learning should take place within the context of trying to solve a problem.  But to make this effective, first build the broader knowledge base.

Next Willingham tackles the issue of teaching  pupils skills and makes the point that skills cannot be taught in a vacuum.  They must be related to problem solving and knowledge content.  Here shallow knowledge is better than no knowledge and encouraging students to read is an essential part of all of this.  Of course student retention (memory) is always an issue.  Students remember best when there is an emotional element as well as cognitive problem solving involved, so teachers need to think about using attention grabbing techniques and to try to enable students to focus on the wider (meta cognitive) meaning of what is being taught.

Learning  can also be enhanced by using curiosity, conflict, complications and character all within the context of a story to enhance understanding.  People respond powerfully to stories, so if we use lessons as opportunities for story telling we normally see better understanding taking place.  Teachers should encourage students to become expert by simply getting them to focus on the subject nd to practice their understandings.   An expert is simply someone who has invested a great deal of time in learning about something.  We should encourage habits of work amongst students to promote expertise.

Students find abstract ideas difficult to grasp so teachers should provide concrete examples to illustrate the concept. Next teachers need to adjust their questioning techniques to encourage students to think about abstract concepts.  Too much teacher questioning is often superficial and confined to factual recall.  Yet this does not indicate if students have understood conceptually.

Somewhat controversially perhaps, Willingham argues that practising the gaining of information by drilling (repeating it) is not such a bad idea for some basic information like language sounds and number tables.

Most teachers are aware of multiple intelligence ideas and the literature about preferred learning styles (auditory, kinaesthetic and visual).  Willingham dismisses most of this as illusory and notes that ‘Children are more alike than different in terms of how they think and learn.’  So when thinking of learning styles teachers should focus on content not the students: it may help students better understand if information is presented in multiple ways such as visual and auditory.  Linked with this is the idea that intelligence is difficult to define.  There is no evidence of Gardener’s eight intelligences as being separate and distinct.  But there is growing evidence that intelligence is malleable and can change over time.  We should tell both teachers and students this fact.  However this is not the same as telling a student that they are smart. Evidence suggests that when children are told about their ability, it immediately declines.  It is far better to compliment children on  the efforts they are making.

The book contains a lot more information than has been covered here. It is the first from a research scientist that demonstrates why teaching in certain ways actually helps understanding and learning.

 

Chris Gerry

December 2012

 

It’s Character That Matters

SuccessA new American book by Paul Tough How Children Succeed:  Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character is turning the education world upside down by arguing that the endless pursuit of better test scores for children is in fact a false God.  Across the US it has been noticed that many students who have good test scores and get a university place don’t actually finish their degree.  They drop out.  In fact drop out rates make the US the second worst performer within the OECD, just ahead of Italy.

So what is going on?  The backdrop to all of this is a changing view of poverty and how to deal with it.  Capitalist nations vary with regards to income inequalities and the extent of poverty within their societies.  The National Centre for Children in Poverty estimates:

‘ Nearly 15 million children in the United States – 21% of all children – live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level – $22,350 a year for a family of four. Research shows that, on average, families need an income of about twice that level to cover basic expenses. Using this standard, 44% of children live in low-income families.’

In recent years in the US and other OECD countries there has been a shift away from remediation of influences of poverty via income redistribution towards a view that where children achieve good exam results they appear to do better in terms of life chances.  It had been noticed that some schools had achieved high test scores with poor children. So, the logic went, if the whole school system could be transformed in terms of test scores, then the effects of poverty could be eliminated. All those people who had been poor would go on and get decent jobs and make their contributions as citizens.  Hence the new political mantra of all parties in the West that poverty is not an inhibitor of social mobility.

If only things were so simple.  New research paints a more complex picture.  Poor children with good test scores do not go on and do especially well.  Only twelve per cent of KIPP* schools’ graduates actually completed their degree courses.  Most dropped out and took rather mundane jobs.  This suggests that there is something else that is crucial to long term success.  It is best described as character.

Non cognitive skills are critical for doing well both academically and intellectually.  These are best  described as self control, empathy, and the ability to stick at things despite adversity.  This has been variously described as work ethic or, more recently by Angela Duckworth at the University of Pennsylvania, as ‘grit.’  Riding on the back of these ideas are concepts like emotional intelligence and  resilience.  The problem for children from poor families is that their ability to develop these character traits has often been impaired by Adverse Childhood Experiences.   The situation of being the child in a poor family likely increases stress levels for all family members.  However the effect on children can be catastrophic and this has been described at the neurological level through the workings of the HPA Axis.

HPA stands for Hypothalamus, Pituitary,  and Adrenal.  During stressful situations the hypothalamus triggers hormonal responses from the pituitary and adrenal glands to prime the body for ‘fight’ or ‘flight’.  The evolution of this response was well suited to our species when we had to run for our lives from wild animals intent on eating us, but is far less effective today when the level of challenge is less threatening.   The continuous production of glucocorticoids can have  a devastating  impact on the  developing pre frontal cortex – that part of the brain responsible for self control  and higher order functions.  Children from these contexts may never develop the necessary skills for life and learning unless they are taught.  Such children suffer from what has been termed,  high Allostatic load where their brains are continuously subjected to the chemical impact of acute stress.  From this we learn that poor behaviour is a product of neuro chemistry that has gone awry.  Good parenting during the first year of childhood that de stresses children is critical for future development.

So what can educators do?  First, pay attention to non cognitive skills and think about ways that these can be strengthened.  If you tell children that their skills can improve – both cognitive and non cognitive – they actually do.  This is a point made by Carol Dweck at Stanford University – just telling people they can improve makes it so.  However we need to encourage teachers to see their students as possibilities not as already pre moulded indivduals.

Second, there are now tests that can identify which children suffer most from ACE (adverse childhood experiences).  So we can identify these children in our schools and build additional programmes around them.  Such programmes might focus on self control and children working in groups or teams.

New scientific research now leads us to understand that character skills are critical and that schools really can make a difference in this area.

 

Chris Gerry

November 2012

*KIPP – Knowledge is Power Schools.  American independent ‘charter’ schools that cater for poor urban children and achieve very high test scores with such children.

Classroom Practice in Brief – The Importance of Character

Personal attributesOnce teachers have grasped the idea that academic success is dependent upon non cognitive skills the next question is how can we influence these.  A recent paper by James Heckman implicity makes the point that most successful interventions have been with younger, primary aged pupils and not older ones.  However the problem with such programs in the US – and elsewhere – has been their sustainability.   Culturally – in the west at least – we seem eager to start new ventures but less keen to sustain them.  There is a consequent need therefore to do something for secondary age pupils – but what?  Emotional intelligence and resilience programmes have come and gone and again suffered from sustainability. Ahost of more modest local attempts at improving pupil skills comprising nurture groups, motivational programs and the like have likewise swept through our schools. So, it is not as if such approaches have not been tried.  They have.  But what is missing is evidence of a programme that works consistently with challenged adolescents.

There are broadly three reasons I think for this which need to be addressed if we wish to make a difference and begin to teach character skills in an effective way.  These are school culture,  school data and curriculum. 

School Culture

School cultures are complex. Teachers lead very busy lives and operate mostly in their own in classrooms.  Introducing new ideas to 60, 70 or 80 or more people and expecting them to implement these successfully on their own is difficult.  We are probably expecting too much in continuing to believe in this model.  In most places work is a group activity so change can be implemented more easily when a team of people try something new.  They can support one another and problem solve difficulties more easily.  Less so teachers working in isolation.

So to generate the change we are seeking we need to establish a  team of teachers who want to do this and set them up as work group. In an ideal world the school principal would lead this and generate the kind of team culture that is needed by developing a team approach across a school.  The first thing the team needs to believe in is the point made by Carol Dwek (see Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential),namely to act upon the belief that intelligence (both cognitive and non cognitive) is plastic and open to change.  Dispersing this idea consistently to adults and students in a school provides a framework within which we can start developing a character model of learning.

School Data

In many ways schools are quite data light.  Descriptions of schools tend to focus on the age and sex of the students and perhaps a statement about how many of them have special educational needs of one sort or another. But within a group of 1000 or more there must be many sub groups but at present the use of business intelligence techniques to understand these groups remains limited.  Businesses are able to describe their customers in quite sophisticated ways.  Less so schools.  It is not a matter of software but it is a matter of building a culture that asks questions rather than relies on simple judgements.  This is a vast topic but within the realm of character development teachers could use the Angela Duckworth ‘grit’ survey as a means  of finding out which students in a year group may suffer from difficulties with work ethic – a key social and academic skill.

This simple technique is one starting point for developing an inquiring approach to student skills and results in a schema of different groups.  Rather than focus on a long list of social skills which is largely unmanageable, I suggest focusing on building skills with regards to work ethic (grit and resilience), self management and ability to work with others.

Talk to students about their Grit scores and suggest the need to improve.  A remediation program outside of the classroom might focus on habit formation through sports or any activity (cooking, acting) that requires effort and consistency.  There is evidence that skills learnt in one area have a positive impact more generally.  To reinforce the program think of providing feedback to students every lesson.  In each lesson a student receives a default of one point for each of our three domains (grit, self management and working with others).  This is itemised in a spread sheet.  Those students who default in one of those areas lose a point in whatever domain they are deficient in.  From this we can then calculate the class average and feedback to those who have not achieved it their own average.  If information is collected across all classes then a profile of students’ social skills can be built up over time and it gives the teacher an objective way of talking to students causing concern.  In an ideal world feedback would be provided privately on line and this is something that might be worked towards.

Curriculum

Social skills are obviously best taught within an embedded curriculum model.  This requires attention to be paid to the skills that are being learnt in any one topic and ensuring that students work together as appropriate.  Key is the providing of feedback and assessment regarding skills.  A useful starting point might be departments agreeing on their approach to this important topic.   The best advice is start small  but think big. Writing reports that include our three skills will naturally generate a student culture that begins to regard them as important.  In schools it really is all about the language of expectation that we use.

Conclusion

This topic is vast and I have only skimmed the surface in suggesting ways forward for class room practitioners.  Mostly my own work is with whole schools in designing approaches to skills development.  If you would like more help please email me at: chris@theskillslab.com

 

Chris Gerry

January 2013