Why Kids Shouldn’t Sit Still in Class

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Third- and fourth-graders at Breakthrough Magnet School in Hartford, Conn., participating in a BrainErgizer movement break during the school day. CreditBrainErgizer

Sit still. It’s the mantra of every classroom.

But that is changing as evidence builds that taking brief activity breaks during the day helps children learn and be more attentive in class, and a growing number of programs designed to promote movement are being adopted in schools.

“We need to recognize that children are movement-based,” said Brian Gatens, the superintendent of schools in Emerson, N.J. “In schools, we sometimes are pushing against human nature in asking them to sit still and be quiet all the time.”

“We fall into this trap that if kids are at their desks with their heads down and are silent and writing, we think they are learning,” Mr. Gatens added. “But what we have found is that the active time used to energize your brain makes all those still moments better,” or more productive.

A 2013 report from the Institute of Medicine concluded that children who are more active “show greater attention, have faster cognitive processing speed and perform better on standardized academic tests than children who are less active.” And a study released in January by Lund University in Sweden shows that students, especially boys, who had daily physical education, did better in school.

“Daily physical activity is an opportunity for the average school to become a high-performing school,” said Jesper Fritz, a doctoral student at Lund University and physician at the Skane University Hospital in Malmo who was the study’s lead author.

“Activity helps the brain in so many ways,” said James F. Sallis, a professor of family medicine and public health at the University of California, San Diego, who has done research on the association between activity breaks and classroom behavior. “Activity stimulates more blood vessels in the brain to support more brain cells. And there is evidence that active kids do better on standardized tests and pay attention more in school.”

John Ratey, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the author of “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain,” said: “Movement activates all the brain cells kids are using to learn, it wakes up the brain.”

“Plus,” he added, “it makes kids want to come to school more — it’s fun to do these activities.”

But not all districts are embracing the trend of movement breaks.

“The bottom line is that with only six and a half hours during the day, our priority is academics,” said Tom Hernandez, the director of community relations for the Plainfield School District in Illinois, about 40 miles southwest of Chicago. He said that under state law, the schools provide daily physical education classes and that teachers in the district find ways to give students time during the day to refresh and recharge.

“Kids aren’t meant to sit still all day and take in information,” said Steve Boyle, one of the co-founders of the National Association of Physical Literacy, which aims to bring movement into schools. “Adults aren’t wired that way either.”

Mr. Boyle’s association has introduced a series of three- to five-minute videos called “BrainErgizers” that are being used in schools and Boys and Girls Clubs in 15 states and in Canada, Mexico, Ireland and Australia, he said. A version of the program is available to schools at no charge.

The program is designed so that three to five times a day, teachers can set aside a few minutes for their students to watch a video and follow the cues given by the instructors. In one typical video, the instructors are college students of all shapes and sizes at the University of Connecticut who do a quick warm-up and then lead kids through a mini workout involving movements from several sports: baseball, basketball and a triathlon. That’s followed by a cool-down.

“At the end of the week, kids have gotten an hour or more worth of movement, and it’s all done in the classroom with no special equipment,” Mr. Boyle said. “We’re not looking to replace gym classes, we’re aiming to give kids more minutes of movement per week. And by introducing sports into the videos, giving kids a chance to try sports they may not have ever tried before.”

Julie Goldstein, principal of the Breakthrough Magnet School in Hartford, Conn., said her school has been using BrainErgizers since the spring of 2015.

It’s easy for the teachers to implement, and “easy for the students to follow,” Mrs. Goldstein said. She said the program has “helped them focus and bring up their energy level in the classroom.”

Scott McQuigg, chief executive and a co-founder of GoNoodle, a classroom movement program used in more than 60,000 elementary schools in the United States credits Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative with helping to bring movement and the health of children into the public consciousness.

“We call this the Movement movement,” Mr. McQuigg said. “If we invest three to five minutes for our kids to move in the classroom, we are actually going to optimize the next 45 minutes for learning. That small investment in time has such a big yield for teachers.”

GoNoodle, which offers free and paid videos, aims to entertain kids while they are moving, Mr. McQuigg said. GoNoodle and other “brain break” videos can be found on the website for “Let’s Move! Active Schools,” part of Mrs. Obama’s “Let’s Move!” initiative.

“We have purposely not gone after this as an exercise program,” Mr. McQuigg said. “This is a digital generation that expects to be entertained, and we think we can do more good around getting them to move if they are entertained.”

For example, GoNoodle videos have kids running alongside their desks through a virtual obstacle course or following along with dance moves.

Joseph E. Donnelly, professor of medicine and director of the Center for Physical Activity and Weight Management at the University of Kansas Medical Center, said one of the good things about kids being more physically active in classrooms is that everyone is moving at the same time.

“In physical education classes, there is a lot of standing around, a lot of minutes of kids waiting to do an activity, and sometimes kids are only moving for about 15 minutes during a 50-minute class,” said Dr. Donnelly, who co-authored a statement on the effects of physical activity and academic achievement in children that was published last year by the American College of Sports Medicine. “If you do movement in class a few times a day, that can add up to at least an extra 60 minutes more of movement per week.”

Lindsay DiStefano, an associate professor in the department of kinesiology at the University of Connecticut, said the country is due for a major shift toward appreciating the benefits of physical activity in the classroom.

“In 1961, President Kennedy said school kids needed physical activity to thrive, but in the past 20 years, the pendulum has totally shifted the opposite way because schools are feeling the pressure to have students do well on standardized tests,” Ms. DiStefano said. “We are not thinking about the child as an entire person, how physical activity helps them cope with the stresses of school and actually benefits them in the classroom.”

When Was the Last Time You Took On a New Challenge?

Each January brings a renewed desire to challenge ourselves and learn something new. But by February the energy starts to wane. Becoming proficient at something takes too much time, we lose motivation to practice, we struggle to pay attention in class after a long day at work — the list of reasons goes on.

I recently came across some motivation to stick with a new pursuit. A few weeks ago I read an article in the New York Times about “superagers,” people who function at extremely high levels (academically, professionally, and physically) well into their eighties. Their performance on tests of memory and concentration is comparable to people one-third their age.

All the superagers engaged in difficult physical and mental tasks, such as tennis or bridge, regularly. By pushing themselves into challenging efforts that were outside their comfort zones, rather than engaging in leisurely activities, as others their age did, the superagers seemed to enhance their attention and memory skills. When researchers scanned the brains of 17 superagers, they found unusually large amounts of activity in parts of the brain tied to emotional functioning, including communication, stress management, and sensory coordination. Additional studies are being done to determine which difficult tasks could be the most beneficial for cognitive abilities, but the scientists suggest that mastering a new skill could have the same positive effect on brain development.

I surveyed 260 CEOs and executives in for-profit and nonprofit sectors to find out whether they had recently undertaken a new pursuit. I wanted to learn if they saw any impact on their overall well-being, professionally or personally. 53% of the responses were from men and 47% were from women.

The majority (60%) of respondents reported that they had begun a new challenge in the past two years. The most common pursuit was a sport or a physical activity (38% of people). The other top responses were: starting a new work-related project (11%), studying something new (10%), and teaching or writing (10%). Other options, including playing music, creating art, and playing games such as bridge, were cited by 8% of people. And 34% reported devoting 10 hours or more a week to their new activity.

All respondents found their new endeavor “hard,” but half of them characterized it as “mentally” challenging, while the other half called it either physically challenging or a combined mental and physical effort. Two-thirds rated the difficulty as outside their comfort zone.

When asked how the new activity was impacting their lives, most people said it was positive. 88% of the survey group reported experiencing a beneficial impact. More than half the respondents considered the impact on their work life to be positive, and 83% said that the new activity had improved their well-being. Only 11% admitted to being slightly less productive at work due to their new activity, while 52% reported being more productive.

As to the effect of their pursuits on their relationships, 34% felt it benefited their relationships with colleagues. The majority reported that through their endeavor they had met people with whom they might work with professionally in the future.

I asked if this effort helped them develop a better understanding of their job. While 42% said there was no effect, 58% felt that they had gained a better understanding of or appreciation for their professional role. Some of the benefits related to their own well-being, to acquiring new technical skills, or to spending time with colleagues outside of work.

Other research has shown that learning something hard can help expand our creativity. And although it seems unlikely that swimming an open water race or learning to paint would help in one’s job of writing software or managing employees, the broader benefits of pushing ourselves may be positive for colleague relationships, productivity, and task comprehension. Plus, acquiring new skills is enjoyable.

So, if you are considering giving up on your latest effort at self-improvement because it’s just too hard or you don’t have enough time, these survey results might offer a new incentive to stick with it. Even the respondents who had not embarked on a new activity seemed to perceive a benefit – over 26% said they would likely begin one next year.


Karen Firestone is the President and CEO of Aureus Asset Management, an asset management firm which serves as the primary financial advisor to families, individuals, and nonprofit institutions. She cofounded Aureus after 22 years as a fund manager and research analyst at Fidelity Investments. She’s the author of Even the Odds: Sensible Risk-Taking in Business, Investing, and Life (Bibliomotion, April 2016).


Try Monotasking

Stop what you’re doing.

Well, keep reading. Just stop everything else that you’re doing.

Mute your music. Turn off your television. Put down your sandwich and ignore that text message. While you’re at it, put your phone away entirely. (Unless you’re reading this on your phone. In which case, don’t. But the other rules still apply.)

Just read.

You are now monotasking.

Maybe this doesn’t feel like a big deal. Doing one thing at a time isn’t a new idea.

Indeed, multitasking, that bulwark of anemic résumés everywhere, has come under fire in recent years. A 2014 study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that interruptions as brief as two to three seconds — which is to say, less than the amount of time it would take you to toggle from this article to your email and back again — were enough to double the number of errors participants made in an assigned task.

Earlier research out of Stanford revealed that self-identified “high media multitaskers” are actually more easily distracted than those who limit their time toggling.

So, in layman’s terms, by doing more you’re getting less done.

But monotasking, also referred to as single-tasking or unitasking, isn’t just about getting things done.

Not the same as mindfulness, which focuses on emotional awareness, monotasking is a 21st-century term for what your high school English teacher probably just called “paying attention.”

“It’s a digital literacy skill,” said Manoush Zomorodi, the host and managing editor of WNYC Studios’ “Note to Self” podcast, which recently offered a weeklong interactive series called Infomagical, addressing the effects of information overload. “Our gadgets and all the things we look at on them are designed to not let us single-task. We weren’t talking about this before because we simply weren’t as distracted.”

Ms. Zomorodi prefers the term “single-tasking”: “ ‘Monotasking’ seemed boring to me. It sounds like ‘monotonous.’ ”

Kelly McGonigal, a psychologist, lecturer at Stanford and the author of “The Willpower Instinct,” believes that monotasking is “something that needs to be practiced.” She said: “It’s an important ability and a form of self-awareness as opposed to a cognitive limitation.”

This is great news for the self-identified monotaskers out there.

Jon Pack, a 42-year-old photographer in Brooklyn, was happy to hear that his single-minded manner might be undergoing a rebrand. “When I was looking for jobs and interviewing, they’d always want me to say, ‘I’m a great multitasker,’ ” he said. “And I wouldn’t. My inability to multitask was seen as a negative. Now I can just say, ‘I am a monotasker. I am someone who works best when I focus on one thing at a time.’ ”

And the way we work can have effects that kick in long after we clock out.

As much as people would like to believe otherwise, humans have finite neural resources that are depleted every time we switch between tasks, which, especially for those who work online, Ms. Zomorodi said, can happen upward of 400 times a day, according to a 2016 University of California, Irvine study. “That’s why you feel tired at the end of the day,” she said. “You’ve used them all up.”

The term “brain dead” suddenly takes on a whole new meaning.

A good sign you’ve task-switched yourself into a stupor: mindlessly scrolling Facebook at the end of the night or, as in Ms. Zomorodi’s case, looking at couches on Pinterest. “I just stuff my brain full of them because I can’t manage to do anything else,” she said. “The sad thing is that I don’t get any closer to deciding which one I like.”

But monotasking can also make work itself more enjoyable.

“I can multitask — and do, of course; it’s kind of essential — but I prefer to do one thing at a time,” Hayley Phelan, a 28-year-old writer, wrote in an email. “If I keep looking at my phone or my inbox or various websites, working feels a lot more tortuous. When I’m focused and making progress, work is actually pleasurable.”

Ms. Phelan isn’t imagining things. “Almost any experience is improved by paying full attention to it,” Ms. McGonigal said. “Attention is one way your brain decides, ‘Is this interesting? Is this worthwhile? Is this fun?’ ”

It’s the reason television shows we tweet through feel tiresome and books we pick up and put down and pick up again never seem to end. The more we allow ourselves to be distracted from a particular activity, the more we feel the need to be distracted. Paying attention pays dividends.

This is why, according to Ms. McGonigal, the ability to monotask might be most valuable in social situations. “Research shows that just having a phone on the table is sufficiently distracting to reduce empathy and rapport between two people who are in conversation,” she said.

Twenty-five thousand people participated in Ms. Zomorodi’s Infomagical project, which started the week with a single-tasking challenge. Upon completion, respondents agreed overwhelmingly that single-tasking was the No. 1 thing they wanted to carry into their post-Infomagical lives. “But they also said it was really, really hard,” Ms. Zomorodi said.

Parents of young children found it difficult for obvious reasons, as did people with jobs that permit them less control over their time. In those cases, try monotasking in areas where you can: conversations with your children, reading a book in bed before they go to sleep, dinner or drinks with friends. After all, monotasking is a good skill to incorporate into all aspects of your life, not just work.

Even those with more flexibility can find themselves going to great lengths for a little bit of focus. Nick Pandolfi, who works in partnerships at Google, once traveled to northern Sweden in what he described as an “extreme” effort to monotask.

“I had to write my business school application essays, and I was having no luck spending an hour here and there after work and on the weekends,” Mr. Pandolfi said. “I just wasn’t inspired. After spending a few days hiking in the Arctic by myself, I was able to get all of them done in just a few days.”

Transcontinental trips aside, Ms. Zomorodi stressed that it was important to find ways to practice. “Start by giving yourself just one morning a week to check in, and remind yourself what it feels like to do one thing at a time,” she said.

Mr. Pandolfi and Ms. Phelan use exercise to aid them, albeit in different ways. “If I need to get through a big project and don’t want to get distracted by my inbox and the minutiae of the web, I hop on the treadmill desk,” Mr. Pandolfi said. Ms. Phelan makes a point of running outside, weekly, “without listening to music or anything else.”

Monotasking can also be as simple as having a conversation.

“Practice how you listen to people,” Ms. McGonigal said. “Put down anything that’s in your hands and turn all of your attentional channels to the person who is talking. You should be looking at them, listening to them, and your body should be turned to them. If you want to see a benefit from monotasking, if you want to have any kind of social rapport or influence on someone, that’s the place to start. That’s where you’ll see the biggest payoff.”

So is monotasking a movement? “It’s not there yet,” Ms. Zomorodi said. “But I think it will be.”

If enough people pay attention to it, that is.

Leave Your Laptops at the Door to My Classroom

When I started teaching, I assumed my “fun” class, sexuality and the law, full of contemporary controversy, would prove gripping to the students. One day, I provoked them with a point against marriage equality, and the response was a slew of laptops staring back. The screens seemed to block our classroom connection. Then, observing a senior colleague’s contracts class, I spied one student shopping for half the class. Another was surfing Facebook. Both took notes when my colleague spoke, but resumed the rest of their lives instead of listening to classmates.

Laptops at best reduce education to the clackety-clack of transcribing lectures on shiny screens and, at worst, provide students with a constant escape from whatever is hard, challenging or uncomfortable about learning. And yet, education requires constant interaction in which professor and students are fully present for an exchange.

Students need two skills to succeed as lawyers and as professionals: listening and communicating. We must listen with care, which requires patience, focus, eye contact and managing moments of ennui productively — perhaps by double-checking one’s notes instead of a friend’s latest Instagram. Multitasking and the mediation of screens kill empathy.

Likewise, we must communicate — in writing or in speech — with clarity and precision. The student who speaks in class learns to convey his or her points effectively because everyone else is listening. Classmates will respond with their accord or dissent. Lawyers can acquire hallmark precision only through repeated exercises of concentration. It does happen on occasion that a client loses millions of dollars over a misplaced comma or period.

Once, a senior associate for whom I was working berated me for such a mistake and said, “Getting these things right is the easy part, and if you can’t get that right, what does it say about your ability to analyze the law properly?” I learned my lesson. To restore the focus-training function of the classroom, I stopped allowing laptops in class early in my teaching career. Since then research has confirmed the wisdom of my choice.

Focus is crucial, and we do best when monotasking: Even disruptions of a few seconds can derail one’s train of thought. Students process information better when they take notes — they don’t just transcribe, as they do with laptops, but they think and record those thoughts. One study found that laptops or tablets consistently undermine exam performance by 1.7 percent (a significant difference in the context of the study). Other studies reveal that writing by hand helps memory retention. Screens block us from connecting, whether at dinner or in a classroom. Kelly McGonigal, a psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University, says that just having a phone on a table during a meal “is sufficiently distracting to reduce empathy and rapport between two people.”

For all these reasons, starting with smaller classes, I banned laptops, and it improved the students’ engagement. With constant eye contact, I could see and feel when they understood me, and when they did not. Energized by the connection, we moved faster, further and deeper into the material. I broadened my rule to include one of my large upper-level courses. The pushback was real: A week before class, I posted the syllabus, which announced my policy. Two students wrote me to ask if I would reconsider, and dropped the class when I refused. But more important, after my class ends, many students continue to take notes by hand even when it’s not required.

Putting aside medical exemptions, many students are just resistant. They are used to typing and prefer it to writing. They may feel they take better notes by keyboard. They may feel they know how to take notes by hand but do not want to have to do so. They can look up material, and there’s no need to print assignments. Some may have terrible handwriting, or find it uncomfortable or even painful to write.

To them, I’ll let the Rolling Stones answer: You can’t always get what you want, but sometimes you get what you need. My students need to learn how to be lawyers and professionals. To succeed they must internalize an ethos of caution, care and respect. To instill these values and skills in my students, I have no choice but to limit laptop use in the classroom.

How to Become a ‘Superager’

Think about the people in your life who are 65 or older. Some of them are experiencing the usual mental difficulties of old age, like forgetfulness or a dwindling attention span. Yet others somehow manage to remain mentally sharp. My father-in-law, a retired doctor, is 83 and he still edits books and runs several medical websites.

Why do some older people remain mentally nimble while others decline? “Superagers” (a term coined by the neurologist Marsel Mesulam) are those whose memory and attention isn’t merely above average for their age, but is actually on par with healthy, active 25-year-olds. My colleagues and I at Massachusetts General Hospital recently studied superagers to understand what made them tick.

Our lab used functional magnetic resonance imaging to scan and compare the brains of 17 superagers with those of other people of similar age. We succeeded in identifying a set of brain regions that distinguished the two groups. These regions were thinner for regular agers, a result of age-related atrophy, but in superagers they were indistinguishable from those of young adults, seemingly untouched by the ravages of time.

What are these crucial brain regions? If you asked most scientists to guess, they might nominate regions that are thought of as “cognitive” or dedicated to thinking, such as the lateral prefrontal cortex. However, that’s not what we found. Nearly all the action was in “emotional” regions, such as the midcingulate cortex and the anterior insula.

My lab was not surprised by this discovery, because we’ve seen modern neuroscience debunk the notion that there is a distinction between “cognitive” and “emotional” brain regions.

This distinction emerged in the 1940s, when a doctor named Paul MacLean devised a model of the human brain with three layers. An ancient inner layer, inherited from reptiles, was presumed to contain circuits for basic survival. The middle layer, the “limbic system,” supposedly contained emotion circuitry inherited from mammals. And the outermost layer was said to house rational thinking that is uniquely human. Dr. MacLean called this model “the triune brain.”

The triune brain became (and remains) popular in the media, the business world and certain scientific circles. But experts in brain evolution discredited it decades ago. The human brain didn’t evolve like a piece of sedimentary rock, with layers of increasing cognitive sophistication slowly accruing over time. Rather (in the words of the neuroscientist Georg Striedter), brains evolve like companies do: they reorganize as they expand. Brain areas that Dr. MacLean considered emotional, such as the regions of the “limbic system,” are now known to be major hubs for general communication throughout the brain. They’re important for many functions besides emotion, such as language, stress, regulation of internal organs, and even the coordination of the five senses into a cohesive experience.

And now, our research demonstrates that these major hub regions play a meaningful role in superaging. The thicker these regions of cortex are, the better a person’s performance on tests of memory and attention, such as memorizing a list of nouns and recalling it 20 minutes later.

Of course, the big question is: How do you become a superager? Which activities, if any, will increase your chances of remaining mentally sharp into old age? We’re still studying this question, but our best answer at the moment is: work hard at something. Many labs have observed that these critical brain regions increase in activity when people perform difficult tasks, whether the effort is physical or mental. You can therefore help keep these regions thick and healthy through vigorous exercise and bouts of strenuous mental effort. My father-in-law, for example, swims every day and plays tournament bridge.

The road to superaging is difficult, though, because these brain regions have another intriguing property: When they increase in activity, you tend to feel pretty bad — tired, stymied, frustrated. Think about the last time you grappled with a math problem or pushed yourself to your physical limits. Hard work makes you feel bad in the moment. The Marine Corps has a motto that embodies this principle: “Pain is weakness leaving the body.” That is, the discomfort of exertion means you’re building muscle and discipline. Superagers are like Marines: They excel at pushing past the temporary unpleasantness of intense effort. Studies suggest that the result is a more youthful brain that helps maintain a sharper memory and a greater ability to pay attention.

This means that pleasant puzzles like Sudoku are not enough to provide the benefits of superaging. Neither are the popular diversions of various “brain game” websites. You must expend enough effort that you feel some “yuck.” Do it till it hurts, and then a bit more.

In the United States, we are obsessed with happiness. But as people get older, research shows, they cultivate happiness by avoiding unpleasant situations. This is sometimes a good idea, as when you avoid a rude neighbor. But if people consistently sidestep the discomfort of mental effort or physical exertion, this restraint can be detrimental to the brain. All brain tissue gets thinner from disuse. If you don’t use it, you lose it.

So, make a New Year’s resolution to take up a challenging activity. Learn a foreign language. Take an online college course. Master a musical instrument. Work that brain. Make it a year to remember.

Teaching the Teachers

Teaching the teachers

Great teaching has long been seen as an innate skill. But reformers are showing that the best teachers are made, not born

TO THE 11- and 12-year-olds in his maths class, Jimmy Cavanagh seems like a born teacher. He is warm but firm. His voice is strong. Correct answers make him smile. And yet it is not his pep that explains why his pupils at North Star Academy in Newark, New Jersey, can expect to go to university, despite 80% of their families needing help to pay for school meals.

Mr Cavanagh is the product of a new way of training teachers. Rather than spending their time musing on the meaning of education, he and his peers have been drilled in the craft of the classroom. Their dozens of honed techniques cover everything from discipline to making sure all children are thinking hard. Not a second is wasted. North Star teachers may seem naturals. They are anything but.

Like many of his North Star colleagues are or have been, Mr Cavanagh is enrolled at the Relay Graduate School of Education. Along with similar institutions around the world, Relay is applying lessons from cognitive science, medical education and sports training to the business of supplying better teachers. Like doctors on the wards of teaching hospitals, its students often train at excellent institutions, learning from experienced high-calibre peers. Their technique is calibrated, practised, coached and relentlessly assessed like that of a top-flight athlete. Jamey Verrilli, who runs Relay’s Newark branch (there are seven others), says the approach shows teaching for what it is: not an innate gift, nor a refuge for those who, as the old saw has it, “can’t do”, but “an incredibly intricate, complex and beautiful craft”.

Hello, Mr Chips

There can be few crafts more necessary. Many factors shape a child’s success, but in schools nothing matters as much as the quality of teaching. In a study updated last year, John Hattie of the University of Melbourne crunched the results of more than 65,000 research papers on the effects of hundreds of interventions on the learning of 250m pupils. He found that aspects of schools that parents care about a lot, such as class sizes, uniforms and streaming by ability, make little or no difference to whether children learn (see chart). What matters is “teacher expertise”. All of the 20 most powerful ways to improve school-time learning identified by the study depended on what a teacher did in the classroom.

Eric Hanushek, an economist at Stanford University, has estimated that during an academic year pupils taught by teachers at the 90th percentile for effectiveness learn 1.5 years’ worth of material. Those taught by teachers at the 10th percentile learn half a year’s worth. Similar results have been found in countries from Britain to Ecuador. “No other attribute of schools comes close to having this much influence on student achievement,” he says.

Rich families find it easier to compensate for bad teachers, so good teaching helps poor kids the most. Having a high-quality teacher in primary school could “substantially offset” the influence of poverty on school test scores, according to a paper co-authored by Mr Hanushek. Thomas Kane of Harvard University estimates that if African-American children were all taught by the top 25% of teachers, the gap between blacks and whites would close within eight years. He adds that if the average American teacher were as good as those at the top quartile the gap in test scores between America and Asian countries would be closed within four years.

Such studies emphasise the power of good teaching. But a question has dogged policymakers: are great teachers born or made? Prejudices played out in popular culture suggest the former. Bad teachers are portrayed as lazy and kid-hating. Edna Krabappel of “The Simpsons” treats lessons as obstacles to cigarette breaks. Good and inspiring teachers, meanwhile, such as Michelle Pfeiffer’s marine-turned-educator in “Dangerous Minds” (pictured), or J.K. Rowling’s Minerva McGonagall, are portrayed as endowed with supernatural gifts (literally so, in the case of the head of Gryffindor). In 2011 a survey of attitudes to education found that such portrayals reflect what people believe: 70% of Americans thought the ability to teach was more the result of innate talent than training.

Elizabeth Green, the author of “Building A Better Teacher”, calls this the “myth of the natural-born teacher”. Such a belief makes finding a good teacher like panning for gold: get rid of all those that don’t cut it; keep the shiny ones. This is in part why, for the past two decades, increasing the “accountability” of teachers has been a priority for educational reformers.

There is a good deal of sense in this. In cities such as Washington, DC, performance-related pay and (more important) dismissing the worst teachers have boosted test scores. But relying on hiring and firing without addressing the ways that teachers actually teach is unlikely to work. Education-policy wonks have neglected what one of them once called the “black box of the production process” and others might call “the classroom”. Open that black box, and two important truths pop out. A fair chunk of what teachers (and others) believe about teaching is wrong. And ways of teaching better—often much better—can be learned. Grit can become gold.

Multipliciamus

In 2014 Rob Coe of Durham University, in England, noted in a report on what makes great teaching that many commonly used classroom techniques do not work. Unearned praise, grouping by ability and accepting or encouraging children’s different “learning styles” are widely espoused but bad ideas. So too is the notion that pupils can discover complex ideas all by themselves. Teachers must impart knowledge and critical thinking.

Those who do so embody six aspects of great teaching, as identified by Mr Coe. The first and second concern their motives and how they get on with their peers. The third and fourth involve using time well, fostering good behaviour and high expectations. Most important, though, are the fifth and sixth aspects, high-quality instruction and so-called “pedagogical content knowledge”—a blend of subject knowledge and teaching craft. Its essence is defined by Charles Chew, one of Singapore’s “principal master teachers”, an elite group that guides the island’s schools: “I don’t teach physics; I teach my pupils how to learn physics.”

Branches of the learning tree

Teachers like Mr Chew ask probing questions of all students. They assign short writing tasks that get children thinking and allow teachers to check for progress. Their classes are planned—with a clear sense of the goal and how to reach it—and teacher-led but interactive. They anticipate errors, such as the tendency to mix up remainders and decimals. They space out and vary ways in which children practise things, cognitive science having shown that this aids long-term retention.

These techniques work. In a report published in February the OECD found a link between the use of such “cognitive activation” strategies and high test scores among its club of mostly rich countries. The use of memorisation or pupil-led learning was common among laggards. A recent study by David Reynolds compared maths teaching in Nanjing and Southampton, where he works. It found that in China, “whole-class interaction” was used 72% of the time, compared with only 24% in England. Earlier studies by James Stigler, a psychologist at UCLA, found that American classrooms rang to the sound of “what” questions. In Japan teachers asked more “why” and “how” questions that check students understand what they are learning.

But a better awareness of how to teach will not on its own lead to great teaching. According to Marie Hamer, the head of initial teacher training at Ark, a group of English schools: “Too often teachers are told what to improve, but not given clear guidance on how to make that change.” The new types of training used at Relay and elsewhere are intended to address that.

David Steiner of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy, in Baltimore, characterises many of America’s teacher-training institutions as “sclerotic”. It can be easier to earn a teaching qualification than to make the grades American colleges require of their athletes. According to Mr Hattie none of Australia’s 450 education training programmes has ever had to prove its impact—nor has any ever had its accreditation removed. Some countries are much more selective. Winning acceptance to take an education degree in Finland is about as competitive as getting into MIT. But even in Finland, teachers are not typically to be found in the top third of graduates for numeracy or literacy skills.

In America and Britain training has been heavy on theory and light on classroom practice. Rod Lucero of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE), a body representing more than half of the country’s teacher-training providers, says that most courses have a classroom placement. But he concedes that it falls short of “clinical practice”. After finishing an undergraduate degree in education “I didn’t feel I was anywhere near ready,” says Jazmine Wheeler, now a first-year student at the Sposato Graduate School of Education, a college which grew out of the Match charter schools in Boston.

This fits with a pattern Mr Kane’s research reveals to be “almost constant”: new teachers lack classroom management and instruction skills. As a result they struggle at first before improving over the subsequent three to five years. The new teaching schools believe that those skills which teachers now pick up haphazardly can be systematically imparted in advance. “Surgeons start on cadavers, not on live patients,” Mr Kane notes.

“We have thought a lot about how to teach 22-year-olds,” says Scott McCue, who runs Sposato. He and his colleagues have crunched good teaching into a “taxonomy” of things to do and say. “Of the 5,000 or so things that go into amazing teaching,” says Orin Gutlerner, Sposato’s founding director, “we want to make sure you can do the most important 250.”

The curriculum of the new schools is influenced by people like Doug Lemov. A former English teacher and the founder of a school in Boston, Mr Lemov used test-score data to identify some of the best teachers in America. After visiting them and analysing videos of their classes to find out precisely what they did, he created a list of 62 techniques. Many involve the basics of getting pupils’ attention. “Threshold” has teachers meeting pupils at the door; “strong voice” explains that the most effective teachers stand still when talking, use a formal register, deploy an economy of language and do not finish their sentences until they have their classes’ full attention.

But most of Mr Lemov’s techniques are meant to increase the number of pupils in a class who are thinking and the amount of time that they do so. Techniques such as his “cold call” and “turn and talk”, where pupils have to explain their thoughts quickly to a peer, give the kinds of cognitive workouts common in classrooms in Shanghai and Singapore, which regularly top international comparisons.

Trainees at Sposato undertake residencies at Match schools. They spend 20 hours per week studying and practising, and 40-50 tutoring or assisting teachers. Mr Gutlerner says that the most powerful predictor of residents’ success is how well they respond to the feedback they get after classes.

This new approach resembles in some ways the more collective ethos seen in the best Asian schools. Few other professionals are so isolated in their work, or get so little feedback, as Western teachers. Today 40% of teachers in the OECD have never taught alongside another teacher, observed another or given feedback. Simon Burgess of the University of Bristol says teaching is still “a closed-door profession”, adding that teaching unions have made it hard for observers to take notes in classes. Pupils suffer as a result, says Pasi Sahlberg, a former senior official at Finland’s education department. He attributes much of his country’s success to Finnish teachers’ culture of collaboration.

Mr Schneebly needs his feedback

As well as being isolated, teachers lack well defined ways of getting better. Mr Gutlerner points out that teaching, alone among the professions, asks the same of novices as of 20-year veterans. Much of what passes for “professional development” is woeful, as are the systems for assessing it. In 2011 a study in England found that only 1% of training courses enabled teachers to turn bad practice into good teaching. The story in America is similar. This is not for want of cash. The New Teacher Project, a group that helps cities recruit teachers, estimates that in some parts of America schools shell out about $18,000 per teacher per year on professional development, 4-15 times as much as is spent in other sectors.

The New Teacher Project suggests that after the burst of improvement at the start of their careers teachers rarely get a great deal better. This may, in part, be because they do not know they need to get better. Three out of five low-performing teachers in America think they are doing a great job. Overconfidence is common elsewhere: nine out of ten teachers in the OECD say they are well prepared. Teachers in England congratulate themselves on their use of cognitive-activation strategies, despite the fact that pupil surveys suggest they rely more on rote learning than teachers almost everywhere else.

It need not be this way. In a vast study published in March, Roland Fryer of Harvard University found that “managed professional development”, where teachers receive precise instruction together with specific, regular feedback under the mentorship of a lead teacher, had large positive effects. Matthew Kraft and John Papay, of Harvard and Brown universities, have found that teachers in the best quarter of schools ranked by their levels of support improved by 38% more over a decade than those in the lowest quarter.

Such environments are present in schools such as Match and North Star—and in areas such as Shanghai and Singapore. Getting the incentives right helps. In Shanghai teachers will not be promoted unless they can prove they are collaborative. Their mentors will not be promoted unless they can show that their student-teachers improve. It helps to have time. Teachers in Shanghai teach for only 10-12 hours a week, less than half the American average of 27 hours.

No dark sarcasm

In many countries the way to get ahead in a school is to move into management. Mr Fryer says that American school districts “pay people in inverse proportion to the value they add”. District superintendents make more money than teachers although their impact on pupils’ lives is less. Singapore has a separate career track for teachers, so that the best do not leave the classroom. Australia may soon follow suit.

The new models of teacher training that will start those careers have yet to be thoroughly evaluated. Early evidence is encouraging, however. Relay and Sposato both make their trainees’ graduation dependent on improved outcomes for students. A blind evaluation that Relay undertook of its teachers rated them as higher than average, especially in classroom management. At Ark, in England, recent graduates are seen by the schools that have hired them as among the best cohorts that they have received.

Mr Steiner notes, though, that it is not yet clear whether these new teachers are “school-proof”: effective in schools that lack the intense culture of feedback and practice of places like Match. This is a big caveat: across the OECD two-thirds of teachers believe their schools to be hostile to innovation.

If the new approaches can be made to work at scale, that should change. Relay will be in 12 cities by next academic year, training 2,000 teachers and 400 head teachers, including those from government-run schools. This year AACTE launched its own commission investigating ways in which its colleges could move to a similar model. In England Matthew Hood, an entrepreneurial assistant head teacher, has plans for a Relay-like “Institute for Advanced Teaching”.

This way, reformers hope, they can finally improve education on a large scale. Until now, the job of the teacher has been comparatively neglected, with all the focus on structural changes. But disruptions to school systems are irrelevant if they do not change how and what children learn. For that, what matters is what teachers do and think. The answer, after all, was in the classroom.

‘Brain-hostile’ education: how schools are failing adolescents

Here’s an interesting brain research based article that supports so much of what we’re doing at Sacred Heart – especially our concentration on student-centered learning.

The Washington Post

By Valerie Strauss September 26
When people talk about making sure that curriculum is “developmentally appropriate,” they are often talking about the work young children are given to do at school. Increasingly, in this era of standardized test-based school reform, very young children are being asked to do things — such as read and write and analyze — before many of them are able to it, and kids can feel like failures before they get to first grade. But it isn’t just young kids for whom developmentally appropriate material is vital.
Modern neuroscience is presenting revelations about how the brains of middle and high school students develop and how best to engage them, but, as the author of this post says, “Regrettably, these proactive practices in middle and high school appear to be the exception rather than the rule. In this post, educator Thomas Armstrong discusses how schools are ignoring what science is telling them about how older students learn — and how they can fix it.

Armstrong has been an educator for more than 40 years and is the executive director of the American Institute for Learning and Human Development. He is the author of sixteen books related to learning and human development, including his newest, “The Power of the Adolescent Brain: Strategies for Teaching Middle and High School Students,” from which this selection was excerpted.

By Thomas Armstrong

The last 15 years of neuroscience research on the adolescent brain reveals that it is still under construction and amenable to influence from the environment. While there are a wide range of factors that educators have no control over, the one place where educators can have a high impact on adolescent brain development is school. Students in the United States spend about 1,000 hours in school each year (not counting extracurricular activities and before-school, after-school, and summer programs). This time, which amounts to about 15 percent of students’ waking lives, presents a golden opportunity for educators to create instructional activities that can change brain functioning in positive ways.
My new book, “The Power of the Adolescent Brain,” presents “brain-friendly” strategies that secondary schools throughout the United States (and the world) are currently using that dovetail with the way the adolescent brain works. Regrettably, these proactive practices in middle and high school appear to be the exception rather than the rule.

Evidence has been mounting to suggest that too many secondary schools are “brain-hostile” at worst, and “brain-ignorant” at best in their use of outdated practices that fail to take advantage of the neuroplasticity of the adolescent brain. These practices might even be termed “brain-damaging” to the extent that they create stress, apathy, and resentment among students that negatively affect brain functioning.

A large-scale national survey of middle and high school students revealed that more than half of all 10th grade students were bored in class and less than half enjoyed being at school, while another survey of 14- to 15-year-olds revealed that only 33 percent of girls and 20 percent of boys were seen by their parents to be actively engaged in school. A 2013 national Gallup Student Poll found that 75 percent of elementary school students were actively involved and invested in school, while only 44 percent of high school students had the same level of engagement.

“If we were doing right by our students and our future,” says Brandon Busteed, executive director of Gallup Education, “these numbers would be the absolute opposite. For each year a student progresses in school, they should be more engaged, not less.’’ Even students who appear engaged may in many cases just be going through the motions by providing teachers with responses that are least likely to cause them harm or exposure.

At a time when adolescents’ emotional brains are jacked up to the max, the middle and high school curriculum suddenly “gets down to business” and becomes emotionally flat in tone. This has only become more common during the last few years. One recent study revealed a strong pattern of emotional suppression in students’ relationships with teachers at urban high schools. The authors wrote:

As teachers come under increasing pressure to produce demonstrable student achievement gains because of newly developed teacher evaluation systems and enact challenging pedagogy because of the implementation of the Common Core State Standards, they may be more likely to think about understanding and improving emotion related interactions as a distal goal—one that diverts time and energy from the primary task of fostering student learning.

Owing to challenges from interest groups and other factors, such as the “committee” authorship of most textbooks, the textbooks that dominate so much classroom time lack any real zip, as former U.S. Assistant Director of Education Diane Ravitch points out, referring to high school history textbooks: “There seems to be something in the very nature of today’s textbooks that blunts the edges of events and strips from the narrative whatever is lively, adventurous, and exciting.’’

At a time when the adolescent’s brain increasingly craves stimulation from peers, education becomes more teacher-centered, offering less small-group interaction and cooperative learning than elementary classrooms. In addition, teachers promote student embarrassment by posting students’ grades and test results for everyone to see, and ban or restrict social media that could facilitate interpersonal learning in the classroom.
At a point when students’ decision-making skills are at a critical stage of development and the prefrontal cortex is going through a process of fine-tuning, zero-tolerance discipline policies run roughshod over students’ capacities to learn from their mistakes. In addition, schools heap required courses on students to prepare them for college, some actually requiring students to declare a major or course of study in ninth grade or even earlier. This approach deprives students of opportunities to take electives that are interesting to them and that might lead to a vocation in adulthood.

During a point when students are entering the developmental stage of formal operational thinking and are able to engage more deeply in metacognition, the curriculum begins to devote more attention to lower-order skills, such as recall of facts, formulas, and details.

Finally, at a time when adolescents have a huge appetite for rewards, teachers start employing higher standards in judging student competence and tend to give lower grades than elementary school teachers.

It’s clear that substantial reform is necessary to align classroom and schoolwide practices with the mountain of research now available on how the adolescent brain develops. One professor has gone so far as to suggest that we need a Head Start program for adolescents.

The guiding principle in reforming secondary education should be to craft educational programs and instructional strategies that link the evolutionary advantages of the adolescent brain to socially appropriate and constructive learning outcomes . So, for example, although risk taking can lead the adolescent to engage in unsafe driving practices, it can also lead him or her to try out new, challenging activities that promote learning, such as a poetry slam.

As one 16-year-old commented after competing in a poetry slam, “It’s really scary. You’re nervous and shaking. Then afterwards you get that same feeling you get coming off a roller coaster. You want to go again.’’
Similarly, adolescents’ need for bonding with peers might propel them into membership in a violent gang—or it could drive them to get involved in a service learning project that benefits the whole community. The sensation-seeking behavior that can lead adolescents to drug abuse could alternatively be directed toward a highly engaging student-centered learning project. The reward-seeking behaviors that might lure teens into Internet addiction could be tapped through a game-based learning experience in the classroom.