Teacher spends two days as a student and is shocked at what she learns

October 24, 2014

Do teachers really know what students go through? To find out, one teacher followed two students for two days  and was amazed at what she found. Her report is in  following post, which appeared on the blog of Grant Wiggins, the co-author of “Understanding by Design” and the author of “Educative Assessment” and numerous articles on education. A high school teacher for 14 years, he is now the president of Authentic Education,  in Hopewell, New Jersey, which provides professional development and other services to schools aimed at improving student learning.  You can read more about him and his work at the AE site.

Wiggins initially posted the piece without revealing the author. But the post became popular on his blog and he decided to write a followup piecerevealing that the author was his daughter, Alexis Wiggins, a 15-year teaching veteran now working in  a private American International School overseas. Wiggins noted in his follow-up that his daughter’s experiences mirrored his own and aligned well with the the responses on surveys that his  organization gives to students.

By Alexis Wiggins

I have made a terrible mistake.

I waited 14 years to do something that I should have done my first year of teaching: shadow a student for a day. It was so eye-opening that I wish I could go back to every class of students I ever had right now and change a minimum of ten things – the layout, the lesson plan, the checks for understanding. Most of it!

This is the first year I am working in a school but not teaching my own classes; I am the High School Learning Coach, a new position for the school this year. My job is to work with teachers and administrators to improve student learning outcomes.

As part of getting my feet wet, my principal suggested I “be” a student for two days: I was to shadow and complete all the work of a 10th grade student on one day and to do the same for a 12th grade student on another day. My task was to do everything the student was supposed to do: if there was lecture or notes on the board, I copied them as fast I could into my notebook. If there was a Chemistry lab, I did it with my host student. If there was a test, I took it (I passed the Spanish one, but I am certain I failed the business one).

My class schedules for the day
(Note: we have a block schedule; not all classes meet each day):

The schedule that day for the 10th grade student:

7:45 – 9:15: Geometry

9:30 – 10:55: Spanish II

10:55 – 11:40: Lunch

11:45 – 1:10: World History

1:25 – 2:45: Integrated Science

The schedule that day for the 12th grade student:

7:45 – 9:15: Math

9:30 – 10:55: Chemistry

10:55 – 11:40: Lunch

11:45 – 1:10: English

1:25 – 2:45: Business

Key Takeaway #1

Students sit all day, and sitting is exhausting.

I could not believe how tired I was after the first day. I literally sat down the entire day, except for walking to and from classes. We forget as teachers, because we are on our feet a lot – in front of the board, pacing as we speak, circling around the room to check on student work, sitting, standing, kneeling down to chat with a student as she works through a difficult problem…we move a lot.

But students move almost never. And never is exhausting. In every class for four long blocks, the expectation was for us to come in, take our seats, and sit down for the duration of the time. By the end of the day, I could not stop yawning and I was desperate to move or stretch. I couldn’t believe how alert my host student was, because it took a lot of conscious effort for me not to get up and start doing jumping jacks in the middle of Science just to keep my mind and body from slipping into oblivion after so many hours of sitting passively.

I was drained, and not in a good, long, productive-day kind of way. No, it was that icky, lethargic tired feeling. I had planned to go back to my office and jot down some initial notes on the day, but I was so drained I couldn’t do anything that involved mental effort (so instead I watched TV) and I was in bed by 8:30.

If I could go back and change my classes now, I would immediately change the following three things:

  • mandatory stretch halfway through the class
  • put a Nerf basketball hoop on the back of my door and encourage kids to play in the first and final minutes of class
  • build in a hands-on, move-around activity into every single class day. Yes, we would sacrifice some content to do this – that’s fine. I was so tired by the end of the day, I wasn’t absorbing most of the content, so I am not sure my previous method of making kids sit through hour-long, sit-down discussions of the texts was all that effective.

Key Takeaway #2

High school students are sitting passively and listening during approximately 90 percent of their classes.

Obviously I was only shadowing for two days, but in follow-up interviews with both of my host students, they assured me that the classes I experienced were fairly typical.

In eight periods of high school classes, my host students rarely spoke. Sometimes it was because the teacher was lecturing; sometimes it was because another student was presenting; sometimes it was because another student was called to the board to solve a difficult equation; and sometimes it was because the period was spent taking a test. So, I don’t mean to imply critically that only the teachers droned on while students just sat and took notes. But still, hand in hand with takeaway #1 is this idea that most of the students’ day was spent passively absorbing information.

It was not just the sitting that was draining but that so much of the day was spent absorbing information but not often grappling with it.

I asked my tenth-grade host, Cindy, if she felt like she made important contributions to class or if, when she was absent, the class missed out on the benefit of her knowledge or contributions, and she laughed and said no.

I was struck by this takeaway in particular because it made me realize how little autonomy students have, how little of their learning they are directing or choosing. I felt especially bad about opportunities I had missed in the past in this regard.

If I could go back and change my classes now, I would immediately:

  • Offer brief, blitzkrieg-like mini-lessons with engaging, assessment-for-learning-type activities following directly on their heels (e.g. a ten-minute lecture on Whitman’s life and poetry, followed by small-group work in which teams scour new poems of his for the very themes and notions expressed in the lecture, and then share out or perform some of them to the whole group while everyone takes notes on the findings.)
  • set an egg timer every time I get up to talk and all eyes are on me. When the timer goes off, I am done. End of story. I can go on and on. I love to hear myself talk. I often cannot shut up. This is not really conducive to my students’ learning, however much I might enjoy it.
  • Ask every class to start with students’ Essential Questions or just general questions born of confusion from the previous night’s reading or the previous class’s discussion. I would ask them to come in to class and write them all on the board, and then, as a group, ask them to choose which one we start with and which ones need to be addressed. This is my biggest regret right now – not starting every class this way. I am imagining all the misunderstandings, the engagement, the enthusiasm, the collaborative skills, and the autonomy we missed out on because I didn’t begin every class with fifteen or twenty minutes of this.

Key takeaway #3

You feel a little bit like a nuisance all day long.

I lost count of how many times we were told be quiet and pay attention. It’s normal to do so – teachers have a set amount of time and we need to use it wisely. But in shadowing, throughout the day, you start to feel sorry for the students who are told over and over again to pay attention because you understand part of what they are reacting to is sitting and listening all day. It’s really hard to do, and not something we ask adults to do day in and out. Think back to a multi-day conference or long PD day you had and remember that feeling by the end of the day – that need to just disconnect, break free, go for a run, chat with a friend, or surf the web and catch up on emails. That is how students often feel in our classes, not because we are boring per se but because they have been sitting and listening most of the day already. They have had enough.

In addition, there was a good deal of sarcasm and snark directed at students and I recognized, uncomfortably, how much I myself have engaged in this kind of communication. I would become near apoplectic last year whenever a very challenging class of mine would take a test, and without fail, several students in a row would ask the same question about the test. Each time I would stop the class and address it so everyone could hear it. Nevertheless, a few minutes later a student who had clearly been working his way through the test and not attentive to my announcement would ask the same question again. A few students would laugh along as I made a big show of rolling my eyes and drily stating, “OK, once again, let me explain…”

Of course it feels ridiculous to have to explain the same thing five times, but suddenly, when I was the one taking the tests, I was stressed. I was anxious. I had questions. And if the person teaching answered those questions by rolling their eyes at me, I would never want to ask another question again. I feel a great deal more empathy for students after shadowing, and I realize that sarcasm, impatience, and annoyance are a way of creating a barrier between me and them. They do not help learning.

If I could go back and change my classes now, I would immediately:

  • Dig deep into my personal experience as a parent where I found wells of patience and love I never knew I have, and call upon them more often when dealing with students who have questions. Questions are an invitation to know a student better and create a bond with that student. We can open the door wider or shut if forever, and we may not even realize we have shut it.
  • I would make my personal goal of “no sarcasm” public and ask the students to hold me accountable for it. I could drop money into a jar for each slip and use it to treat the kids to pizza at the end of the year. In this way, I have both helped create a closer bond with them and shared a very real and personal example of goal-setting for them to use a model in their own thinking about goals.
  • I would structure every test or formal activity like the IB exams do – a five-minute reading period in which students can ask all their questions but no one can write until the reading period is finished. This is a simple solution I probably should have tried years ago that would head off a lot (thought, admittedly, not all) of the frustration I felt with constant, repetitive questions.

I have a lot more respect and empathy for students after just one day of being one again. Teachers work hard, but I now think that conscientious students work harder. I worry about the messages we send them as they go to our classes and home to do our assigned work, and my hope is that more teachers who are able will try this shadowing and share their findings with each other and their administrations. This could lead to better “backwards design” from the student experience so that we have more engaged, alert, and balanced students sitting (or standing) in our classes.

Activating STEM Lessons With Project-Based Learning (and Zombies)

edweek

Think about a traditional sit-and-get lesson:

“Today’s lesson will be about map skills: landforms, climate, elevation, migration, and population density.”

You can practically see the students decaying in their seats.

So what’s a better way to engage students? As a social studies teacher, I’ve begun to use STEM and Project-Based Learning(PBL) to cross content boundaries and create new connections to content. Here are six ways teachers can do this for any subject:

1. Pick the right driver for the learning

Michael Fullan got it right. Teachers need to think about choosing the right driving question for learning—so work with your colleagues and take your time. Teaching students can be like trying to wake the dead if they’re not motivated to learn.

I start by asking students an essential driving question and then let them focus on finding their answer. They begin sharing their voice with questions, what-ifs, and solutions. They are suddenly in control of their learning—and they run with it!

I recently tapped into pop culture by creating a zombie-based project for students. My essential driving question was, “Will you survive?” It got students out of their stupor… and got them to respond with a resounding, “YES!”

Here is how I set the project up: “You are a tourist in a European capital city. You must prepare a plan to survive a zombie attack. Suggest two possible safe places to go so you will be prepared. But before you can share this information, you have to research the major cities, their population density, climate, elevations, major transportation routes, main bodies of water, food and water resources, and anything else that can aid you in escaping and riding out the attack.”

Picture it: students are now in their learning zone. Their brains are engaged.

2. Collaborate with others to give students voice and choice

Engaging students to become more involved in their learning has become a passion of mine. To do this, I decided to use a popular topic—zombies—to liven things up.

But a good project has to be more than me working on an idea. I have to build capacity with other stakeholders.

Giving students a choice in their learning can be scary. Administrators, parents, and even your colleagues may question exactly how students are learning. You might face questions like: How can you give choices when there are specific standards that need to be met? How do you assess that these standards are achieved? How do you manage a classroom when students are all doing something different?

But students need to claim ownership of their work. It needs to matter to them. Giving students a voice—and choice—in their learning is what will create a meaningful project.

3. Create clear expectations that expand with the driving question

Handing a unit over to students is at the heart of project-based learning. But remember: giving students direction is different than giving them directions. The essential driving question should guide every checkpoint during learning. The unit will then become a critical thinking process that integrates technology and uses powerful reflection time.

Assessment for such projects also includes open-ended rubrics that give students a learning target. What that specific target looks like depends on your content standards as well as students’ skills.

My open-ended target project rubric included the following:

  • Research: Create four or more reasonable, insightful, creative questions you feel you need to know the answers to in order to survive.
  • Information Organization: Organize this information so it is easy for others to understand your plan.
  • Quality of Information: Answer the original questions. Give details and support your plan. Cite the information using reliable sites.
  • Data Included: Show why your plan should work. Include four or more reasons, examples, or pieces of data.
  • Amount of Information: Share your original question and geographical topics with at least two sentences about each.
  • Presentation: Present the survival plan in an accurate and interesting presentation. Peers will evaluate survival possibilities based on your presentation.

4. Go beyond your own classroom silo

Share your unit with colleagues and identify cross-connections. For example, my team has already started creating an interdisciplinary unit for next year. Through our classroom Twitter account @OMS6th, we have connected with classrooms around the world, sharing activities and information. Students spreading the Zombie-based unit content made these relationships even stronger. Most exciting of all, many new ideas came from students—an infectious outcome, in fact.

Here are a few ways this particular project can be adapted for different classes:

  • Science and math: exponential growth, STEM experiments, and infectious disease concepts
  • Art, English, journalism, and foreign languages: graphic novel creation, journaling, and creating public service announcements
  • Physical education: shuffling to Thriller, a zombie obstacle course
  • Drama and music: costume/make-up design, Garageband creations
  • Technology integrations: YouTube clips, Google Maps and Google Earth, Google Presentations, National Geographic Interactive Mapping, Prezi, Voki, and iMovie

5. Be authentic and adaptable

While researching this unit, I quickly found that I wasn’t the only one with zombies on the brain. The first source I bit into was Zombie-Based Learning. Their focus on teaching geography skills while engaging students in project-based learning was perfect. I adopted the ZBL resources into my current eastern hemisphere geography unit, thus not changing my curriculum but enhancing it. I also consulted other online sources such asCenters for Disease Control and Prevention Zombie Preparedness, which helped students start digging into the project. It also prepared them for emergency procedures, such as a bug-out bag in case of fire or extreme weather.

6. Celebrate!

Make sure to share these final projects with a broader audience. YouTube, Twitter, infographics, and student blogging are just the beginning. This is one example of astudent-created video introducing the unit.

Students ate this unit up! And I realized that this short unit has so much potential to spread. Students’ focus switched from surviving the end of the school year to surviving their own zombie-infected European vacation—and they even met core standards that I hadn’t considered implementing.

Creating a project-based learning unit is a lot like surviving a zombie attack. It isn’t going to be easy, but with a cool head, the right tools, and a good plan, you can tilt the odds in your favor and engage the brains in your classroom.

American Schools Are Training Kids for a World That Doesn’t Exist

Wired

Architect and designer Neri Oxman sits in her “Gemini” chaise, which was 3D-printed by Stratasys using a Connex Multi-Material printer, CNC milled by SITU Fabrication and designed in collaboration Prof. W. Craig Carter (Dept. of Materials Science, MIT). The chaise is part of the interactive creative learning environment at the author’s Le Laboratoire in Cambridge, Mass. It uses cutting-edge materials and technologies to provide an unexpected insight into the experience of being in the womb.

Are Americans getting dumber?

Our math skills are falling. Our reading skills are weakening. Our children have become less literate than children in many developed countries. But the crisis in American education may be more than a matter of sliding rankings on world educational performance scales.

David Edwards

David Edwards is a professor at
Harvard University and the founder of Le Laboratoire.

Our kids learn within a system of education devised for a world that increasingly does not exist.

To become a chef, a lawyer, a philosopher or an engineer, has always been a matter of learning what these professionals do, how and why they do it, and some set of general facts that more or less describe our societies and our selves. We pass from kindergarten through twelfth grade, from high school to college, from college to graduate and professional schools, ending our education at some predetermined stage to become the chef, or the engineer, equipped with a fair understanding of what being a chef, or an engineer, actually is and will be for a long time.

We “learn,” and after this we “do.” We go to school and then we go to work.

This approach does not map very well to personal and professional success in America today. Learning and doing have become inseparable in the face of conditions that invite us to discover.

AGAINST THIS ARRESTING BACKGROUND, AN EXCITING NEW KIND OF LEARNING IS TAKING PLACE IN AMERICA.

Over the next twenty years the earth is predicted to add another two billion people. Having nearly exhausted nature’s ability to feed the planet, we now need to discover a new food system. The global climate will continue to change. To save our coastlines, and maintain acceptable living conditions for more than a billion people, we need to discover new science, engineering, design, and architectural methods, and pioneer economic models that sustain their implementation and maintenance. Microbiological threats will increase as our traditional techniques of anti-microbial defense lead to greater and greater resistances, and to thwart these we must discover new approaches to medical treatment, which we can afford, and implement in ways that incite compliance and good health. The many rich and varied human cultures of the earth will continue to mix, more rapidly than they ever have, through mass population movements and unprecedented information exchange, and to preserve social harmony we need to discover new cultural referents, practices, and environments of cultural exchange. In such conditions the futures of law, medicine, philosophy, engineering, and agriculture – with just about every other field – are to be rediscovered.

Americans need to learn how to discover.

Being dumb in the existing educational system is bad enough. Failing to create a new way of learning adapted to contemporary circumstances might be a national disaster. The good news is, some people are working on it.

Against this arresting background, an exciting new kind of learning is taking place in America. Alternatively framed as maker classes, after-school innovation programs, and innovation prizes, these programs are frequently not framed as learning at all. Discovery environments are showing up as culture and entertainment, from online experiences to contemporary art installations and new kinds of culture labs. Perhaps inevitably, the process of discovery — from our confrontation with challenging ambiguous data, through our imaginative responses, to our iterative and error-prone paths of data synthesis and resolution — has turned into a focus of public fascination.

Discovery has always provoked interest, but how one discovers may today interest us even more. Educators, artists, designers, museum curators, scientists, engineers, entertainment designers and others are creatively responding to this new reality, and, together, they are redefining what it means to learn in America.

At Harvard University, where I teach, Peter Galison, in History of Science, asks his students make films, to understand science; Michael Chu, in business, brings students to low income regions to learn about social entrepreneurship; Michael Brenner, in Engineering and Applied Science, invites master chefs to help students discover the science of cooking; and Doris Sommer, in Romance Languages, teaches aesthetics by inviting students to effect social and political change through cultural agency. Similarly, in the course I teach, How to Create Things and Have Them Matter, students are asked to look, listen, and discover, using their own creative genius, while observing contemporary phenomena that matter today.

Because that’s what discoverers do.

Learning by an original and personal process of discovery is a trend on many US university campuses, like Stanford University, MIT, and Arizona State University. It also shows up in middle school, high school and after school programs, as in the programs supported by the ArtScience Prize, a more curricular intensive version of the plethora of innovation prizes that have sprung up in the last years around the world. Students and participants in these kinds of programs learn something even more valuable than discovering a fact for themselves, a common goal of “learning discovery” programs; they learn the thrill of discovering the undiscovered. Success brings not just a good grade, or the financial reward of a prize. It brings the satisfaction that one can realize dreams, and thrive, in a world framed by major dramatic questions. And this fans the kind of passion that propels an innovator along a long creative career.

Discovery, as intriguing process, has become a powerful theme in contemporary culture and entertainment. In art and design galleries, and many museums, artists and designers, like Olafur Eliasson, Mark Dion, Martin Wattenberg, Neri Oxman and Mathieu Lehanneur, invite the public to explore contemporary complexities, as in artist Mark Dion’s recent collaborative work with the Alaskan SeaLife Center and Anchorage Museum on plastic fragments in the Pacific Ocean. Often they make visitors discovery participants, as in Martin Wattenberg’sApartment, where people enter words that turn into architectural forms, or sorts of memory palaces. In a more popular way, television discovery and reality programs, from Yukon Men to America’s Got Talent, present protagonists who face challenges, encounter failure, and succeed, iteratively and often partially, while online the offer is even more pervasive, with games of discovery and adventure immersing young people in the process of competing against natural and internal constraints.

All this has led to the rise of the culture lab.

Culture labs conduct or invite experiments in art and design to explore contemporary questions that seem hard or even impossible to address in more conventional science and engineering labs. Their history, as public learning forum, dates from the summer of 2007, when the Wellcome Collection opened in King’s Cross London, to invite the incurably curious to probe contemporary questions of body and mind through contemporary art and collected object installations. A few months later, in the fall 2007, Le Laboratoire opened in Paris, France, to explore frontiers of science through experimental projects in contemporary art and design, and translate experimental ideas from educational, through cultural, to social practice. And in the winter 2008 Science Gallery opened in downtown Dublin to bring contemporary science experimentation to the general public (and students of Trinity College) with installations in contemporary art and design. Other culture labs have opened since then, in Amsterdam, Kosovo, Madrid and other European, American, Asian, African and Latin American cities. In the USA, culture labs especially thrive on campuses, like MIT’s famous Media Lab, Harvard’s iLab, and the unique metaLAB, run by Jeffrey Schnapp within Harvard’s Berkman Center. These will now be joined by a public culture lab, Le Laboratoire Cambridge, which opens later this month near MIT and Harvard, bringing to America the European model with a program of public art and design exhibitions, innovation seminars, and future-of-food sensorial experiences.

The culture lab is the latest indication that learning is changing in America. It cannot happen too fast.

We may not be getting dumber in America. But we need to get smarter in ways that match the challenges we now face. The time is now to support the role of learning in the pursuit of discovery and to embrace the powerful agency of culture.

Want to Ace That Test? Get the Right Kind of Sleep

Originally posted on Convent of the Sacred Heart Greenwich Middle School Parent Blog:

Motherlode - Adventures in Parenting
Photo
Jillian Dos Santos studies at her home in Columbia, Mo. In 2013, she <a href="http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/03/13/to-keep-teenagers-alert-schools-let-them-sleep-in/">successfully advocated for a later start times at her high school</a>.

Jillian Dos Santos studies at her home in Columbia, Mo. In 2013, she successfully advocated for a later start times at her high school.Credit Dan Gill for The New York Times

Sleep. Parents crave it, but children and especially teenagers, need it. When educators and policymakers debate the relationship between sleep schedules and school performance and — given the constraints of buses, sports and everything else that seem so much more important — what they should do about it, they miss an intimate biological fact: Sleep is learning, of a very specific kind. Scientists now argue that a primary purpose of sleep is learning consolidation, separating the signal from the noise and flagging what is most valuable.

School schedules change slowly, if at all, and the burden of helping teenagers get the sleep they need is squarely…

View original 853 more words

Making Sense of Makerspaces

Edtechmagazine

Do-it-yourself ed tech opportunities abound for some schools.

Many school leaders carve out room for “makerspaces,” which encourage hands-on learning through the use of tools — anything from glitter and glue to homemade circuits, 3D printers and computer-aided design (CAD) software.

But not Aaron Vanderwerff. “The whole school should be a makerspace,” insists Vanderwerff, Creativity Lab and science coordinator for the K–12 Lighthouse Community Charter School in Oakland, Calif. “We don’t want kids to think that making things is something you have to do in a separate area.”

Tools of the Trade

The makerspace toolbox includes technology, of course, but Vanderwerff’s students also rely on sewing, soldering and woodworking to learn. He’s open to any method that helps students more deeply understand concepts, noting that he recently helped students studying electricity create paper circuits that could be used in greeting cards, for example.

Alex Podchaski also has started creating a makerspace at Oak Knoll School of the Holy Child in Summit, N.J.

According to Podchaski, director of technology, a sixth-grade student studying ancient Egypt recently used the makerspace’s MakerBot Replicator 2X experimental 3D printer to design, print and decorate a cosmetic case to resemble an archeological dig discovery. Other students have used the technology to print sarcophagi, mummies and even pyramids.

“The teacher makes the material lively and interesting,” Podchaski explains. “Technology then can provide additional meaning to what goes on in class.”

It’s important for educators to understand the impact that makerspaces can have on the community at large, adds Sarah Boisvert, founder of FabLabHub, which helps teachers launch digital fabrication makerspaces. “Makerspaces foster innovation across industries in entrepreneurship, design, art, manufacturing and education,” she says.

During Black History Month, for example, students used a fab lab at one high school to design and fabricate quilts. “They not only learned the history, but also incorporated math and CAD” —skills that are essential for economic growth in markets such as prosthetics and dental molds, Boisvert says.

Vanderwerff couldn’t agree more. “We’ve been teaching STEM in a traditional way for a long time,” he says. “If we integrate what we’re doing in the maker world, we are sure to attract more students.”

Can we change the professional development culture of communication?

eschoolnews

October 9th, 2014

In other cultures, constructive criticism is accepted without emotional offense

pd-critiqueOne of my first activities as an Outstanding Educator in Residence with the Academy of Singapore Teachers two winters ago was to observe elementary school students using laptops in a “hands-on” digital storytelling activity. At the front of the classroom stood a twenty-something teacher, only six months into her profession. At the back of the room were 20 observers–yes, 20–led by the principal of the school and including department heads, curriculum leaders, and several Singapore Ministry of Education representatives.

As I watched this young teacher work in front of this large group, I thought about how I had never been observed by a total of 20 educators in my entire 15-year teaching career. Yet, despite the size of the group and the potentially intimidating presence of the principal and Ministry of Education admins, this energetic young teacher showed no noticeable signs of nervousness, or signaled that this was some unusual event.

Because it really wasn’t. Foreign visitor aside, regular classroom visits by colleagues and formal discussions of pedagogical practices are the norm in the Singaporean system. In each Singaporean school, classroom visits and pedagogical analyses are often led by the principal of the school, who, in each and every case, has been a classroom teacher. As such, this gravitas earns them almost immediate respect and recognition from their faculty in pedagogical matters. It’s telling that Singaporean teachers will refer to the principal of their school as their institution’s “instructional leader.” It’s an apropos title that denotes the primary responsibility of the head of any Singaporean school.

Yet, even more striking than this large congregation of observers was the conversation that ensued afterwards. All of the observers, as well as a few additional participants, gathered in a room immediately after the class to discuss it. The principal gave a brief opening evaluation of the lesson and then asked us to critique it point-by-point. (We all received a copy of the lesson beforehand.)

And critique it we did: the teacher’s stated instructional goals, her preparation, her instructional strategies, her pacing, her interactions with the students, her technology guidance, her wrap-up, and other facets of her lesson. While we were impressed with this young teacher’s poise and skill, we identified many areas for improvement. Furthermore, the educators in attendance were quite pointed in their criticisms of the teacher’s performance, while always measured and objective in tone. As the “special guest” of the day, it also became clear that they expected me to critique her lesson in detail.

Then the teacher showed up. Whoa. If this were an American school I’d be hesitant to critique a colleagues’ work out of fear that they would take the criticism personally. I’d be concerned that it might damage our working and personal relationships and create an awkward situation for years to come. I’d likely be obtuse in leveling any criticism at the teacher’s practices and instead spend most of the time lavishing praise on the teacher’s pedagogical strengths.

Actually, this is what I sometimes did when I served on my former school’s teacher evaluation committee. Each time I had to deliver a 45-minute face-to-face performance evaluation, I would nervously anticipate how the teacher might respond to a few minutes of constructive criticism. I’d take out as many sharp edges as I could and hope that I wouldn’t offend my colleague.

But here in this Singapore classroom, the air was totally different. This teacher–younger than my eldest stepdaughter–did not look particularly anxious when facing me. Since the other observers were not retreating from the criticism they leveled before she arrived, I also told her what I honestly thought of the lesson. I extended deserved praise, but I also delivered pointed constructive criticism. At the end, she appeared genuinely appreciative.

Could we in the United States create school cultures in which instructing colleagues on how they might improve performance is not a rare and emotion-laden event, but rather an accepted and valued mechanism in the development of desirable professional practice?

Tom Daccord is the director of EdTechTeacher, a professional learning organization.

How Exercise Can Boost Young Brains

Photo

Researchers studied participants in an after-school exercise program.

Researchers studied participants in an after-school exercise program.Credit L. Brian Stauffer

Encourage young boys and girls to run, jump, squeal, hop and chase after each other or after erratically kicked balls, and you substantially improve their ability to think, according to the most ambitious study ever conducted of physical activity and cognitive performance in children. The results underscore, yet again, the importance of physical activity for children’s brain health and development, especially in terms of the particular thinking skills that most affect academic performance.

The news that children think better if they move is hardly new. Recent studies have shown that children’s scores on math and reading tests rise if they go for a walk beforehand, even if the children are overweight and unfit. Other studies have found correlations between children’s aerobic fitness and their brain structure, with areas of the brain devoted to thinking and learning being generally larger among youngsters who are more fit.

But these studies were short-term or associational, meaning that they could not tease out whether fitness had actually changed the children’s’ brains or if children with well-developed brains just liked exercise.

So for the new study, which was published in September in Pediatrics, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign approached school administrators at public elementary schools in the surrounding communities and asked if they could recruit the school’s 8- and 9-year-old students for an after-school exercise program.

This group was of particular interest to the researchers because previous studies had determined that at that age, children typically experience a leap in their brain’s so-called executive functioning, which is the ability to impose order on your thinking. Executive functions help to control mental multitasking, maintain concentration, and inhibit inappropriate responses to mental stimuli.

Children whose executive functions are stunted tend to have academic problems in school, while children with well-developed executive functions usually do well.

The researchers wondered whether regular exercise would improve children’s executive-function skills, providing a boost to their normal mental development.

They received commitments from 220 local youngsters and brought all of them to the university for a series of tests to measure their aerobic fitness and current executive functioning.

The researchers then divided the group in half, with 110 of the children joining a wait list for the after-school program, meaning that they would continue with their normal lives and serve as a control group.

The other 110 boys and girls began being bused every afternoon to the university campus, where they participated in organized, structured bouts of what amounted to wild, childish fun.

“We wanted them to play,” said Charles Hillman, a professor of kinesiology and community health at the University of Illinois who led the study.

Wearing heart rate monitors and pedometers for monitoring purposes, the children were guided through exercise that doubled as romping. The activities, which changed frequently, consisted of games like tag, as well as instruction in technique skills, such as how to dribble a soccer ball. The exercise curriculum was designed to improve both aerobic endurance and basic motor skills, Dr. Hillman said.

Each two-hour session also included downtime, since children naturally career about and then collapse, before repeating the process. In total, the boys and girls generally moved at a moderate or vigorous intensity for about 70 minutes and covered more than two miles per session, according to their pedometers.

The program lasted for a full school year, with sessions available every day after school for nine months, although not every child attended every session.

At the end of the program, both groups returned to the university to repeat the physical and cognitive tests.

As would have been expected, the children in the exercise group were now more physically fit than they had been before, while children in the control group were not. The active children also had lost body fat, although changes in weight and body composition were not the focus of this study.

More important, the children in the exercise group also displayed substantial improvements in their scores on each of the computer-based tests of executive function. They were better at “attentional inhibition,” which is the ability to block out irrelevant information and concentrate on the task at hand, than they had been at the start of the program, and had heightened abilities to toggle between cognitive tasks.

Tellingly, the children who had attended the most exercise sessions showed the greatest improvements in their cognitive scores.

Meanwhile, the children in the control group also raised their test scores, but to a much smaller extent. In effect, both groups’ brains were developing, but the process was more rapid and expansive in the children who ran and played.

“The message is, get kids to be physically active” for the sake of their brains, as well as their health, Dr. Hillman said. After-school programs like the one he and his colleagues developed require little additional equipment or expense for most schools, he said, although a qualified physical education instructor should be involved, he added.

Extended physical education classes during school hours could also ensure that children engage in sufficient physical activity for brain health, of course. But school districts nationwide are shortening or eliminating P.E. programs for budgetary and other reasons, a practice that is likely “shortsighted,” Dr. Hillman said. If you want young students to do well in reading and math, make sure that they also move.