Why Students Forget—and What You Can Do About It

Edutopia

Our brains are wired to forget, but there are research-backed strategies you can use to make your teaching stick.

Teachers have long known that rote memorization can lead to a superficial grasp of material that is quickly forgotten. But new research in the field of neuroscience is starting to shed light on the ways that brains are wired to forget—highlighting the importance of strategies to retain knowledge and make learning stick.

In a recent article published in the journal Neuron, neurobiologists Blake Richards and Paul Frankland challenge the predominant view of memory, which holds that forgetting is a process of loss—the gradual washing away of critical information despite our best efforts to retain it. According to Richards and Frankland, the goal of memory is not just to store information accurately but to “optimize decision-making” in chaotic, quickly changing environments. In this model of cognition, forgetting is an evolutionary strategy, a purposeful process that runs in the background of memory, evaluating and discarding information that doesn’t promote the survival of the species.

“From this perspective, forgetting is not necessarily a failure of memory,” explain Richards and Frankland in the study. “Rather, it may represent an investment in a more optimal mnemonic strategy.”

The Forgetting Curve

We often think of memories as books in a library, filed away and accessed when needed. But they’re actually more like spiderwebs, strands of recollection distributed across millions of connected neurons. When we learn something new—when a teacher delivers a fresh lesson to a student, for example—the material is encoded across these neural networks, converting the experience into a memory.

Forgetting is almost immediately the nemesis of memory, as psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus discovered in the 1880s. Ebbinghaus pioneered landmark research in the field of retention and learning, observing what he called the forgetting curve, a measure of how much we forget over time. In his experiments, he discovered that without any reinforcement or connections to prior knowledge, information is quickly forgotten—roughly 56 percent in one hour, 66 percent after a day, and 75 percent after six days.

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So what can be done to preserve the hard work of teaching? After all, evolutionary imperatives—which prune our memories of extraneous information—don’t always neatly align with the requirements of curriculum or the demands of the Information Age. Learning the times tables doesn’t avail when running from lions, in other words, but in the modern world that knowledge has more than proved its mettle.

The Persistence of Memory

The same neural circuitry appears to be involved in forgetting and remembering. If that is properly understood, students and teachers can adopt strategies to reduce memory leaks and reinforce learning.

MIT neuroscientists, led by Richard Cho, explain the mechanisms for synaptic strengthening in a 2015 article, also published in Neuron. When neurons are frequently fired, synaptic connections are strengthened; the opposite is true for neurons that are rarely fired. Known as synaptic plasticity, this explains why some memories persist while others fade away. Repeatedly accessing a stored but fading memory—like a rule of geometry or a crucial historical fact—rekindles the neural network that contains the memory and encodes it more deeply.

Researchers have also learned that not all new memories are created equal. For example, here are two sets of letters to remember:

  1. NPFXOSK
  2. ORANGES

For readers of English, the second set of letters is more memorable—the more connections neurons have to other neurons, the stronger the memory. The seven letters in NPFXOSK appear random and disjointed, while ORANGES benefits from its existing, deeply encoded linguistic context. The word oranges also invokes sensory memory, from the image of an orange to its smell, and perhaps even conjures other memories of oranges in your kitchen or growing on a tree. You remember by layering new memories on the crumbling foundations of older ones.

5 Teacher Strategies

When students learn a new piece of information, they make new synaptic connections. Two scientifically based ways to help them retain learning is by making as many connections as possible—typically to other concepts, thus widening the “spiderweb” of neural connections—but also by accessing the memory repeatedly over time.

Which explains why the following learning strategies, all tied to research conducted within the past five years, are so effective:

  1. Peer-to-peer explanations: When students explain what they’ve learned to peers, fading memories are reactivated, strengthened, and consolidated. This strategy not only increases retention but also encourages active learning(Sekeres et al., 2016).
  2. The spacing effect: Instead of covering a topic and then moving on, revisit key ideas throughout the school year. Research shows that students perform better academically when given multiple opportunities to review learned material. For example, teachers can quickly incorporate a brief review of what was covered several weeks earlier into ongoing lessons, or use homework to re-expose students to previous concepts (Carpenter et al., 2012; Kang, 2016).
  3. Frequent practice tests: Akin to regularly reviewing material, giving frequent practice tests can boost long-term retention and, as a bonus, help protect against stress, which often impairs memory performance. Practice tests can be low stakes and ungraded, such as a quick pop quiz at the start of a lesson or a trivia quiz on Kahoot, a popular online game-based learning platform. Breaking down one large high-stakes test into smaller tests over several months is an effective approach (Adesope, Trevisan, & Sundararajan, 2017; Butler, 2010; Karpicke, 2016).
  4. Interleave concepts: Instead of grouping similar problems together, mix them up. Solving problems involves identifying the correct strategy to use and then executing the strategy. When similar problems are grouped together, students don’t have to think about what strategies to use—they automatically apply the same solution over and over. Interleaving forces students to think on their feet, and encodes learning more deeply (Rohrer, 2012; Rohrer, Dedrick, & Stershic, 2015).
  5. Combine text with images: It’s often easier to remember information that’s been presented in different ways, especially if visual aids can help organize information. For example, pairing a list of countries occupied by German forces during World War II with a map of German military expansion can reinforce that lesson. It’s easier to remember what’s been read and seen, instead of either one alone (Carney & Levin, 2002; Bui & McDaniel, 2015).

So even though forgetting starts as soon as learning happens—as Ebbinghaus’s experiments demonstrate—research shows that there are simple and effective strategies to help make learning stick.

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To Boost Higher-Order Thinking, Try Curation

APRIL 15, 2017


JENNIFER GONZALEZ

Curation-Pin

If no one has ever encouraged, pushed, or insisted that you build more higher-order thinking into your students’ learning, it’s possible you’ve been teaching in a cave.

Higher-level thinking has been a core value of educators for decades. We learned about it in college. We hear about it in PD. We’re even evaluated on whether we’re cultivating it in our classrooms: Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching, a widely used instrument to measure teacher effectiveness, describes a distinguished teacher as one whose “lesson activities require high-level student thinking” (Domain 3, Component 3c).

All that aside, most teachers would say they want their students to be thinking on higher levels, that if our teaching kept students at the lowest level of Bloom’s Taxonomy—simply recalling information—we wouldn’t be doing a very good job as teachers.

And yet, when it’s time to plan the learning experiences that would have our students operating on higher levels, some of us come up short. We may not have a huge arsenal of ready-to-use, high-level tasks to give our students. Instead, we often default to having students identify and define terms, label things, or answer basic recall questions. It’s what we know. And we have so much content to cover, many of us might feel that there really isn’t time for the higher-level stuff anyway.

If this sounds anything like you, I have a suggestion: Try a curation assignment.

WHAT IS CURATION?

When a museum director curates, she collects artifacts, organizes them into groups, sifts out everything but the most interesting or highest-quality items, and shares those collections with the world. When an editor curates poems for an anthology, he does the same thing.

The process can be applied to all kinds of content: A person could curate a collection of articles, images, videos, audio clips, essays, or a mixture of items that all share some common attribute or theme. When we are presented with a list of the “Top 10” anything or the “Best of” something else, what we’re looking at is a curated list. Those playlists we find on Spotify and Pandora? Curation. “Recommended for You” videos on Netflix? Curation. The news? Yep, it’s curated. In an age where information is ubiquitous and impossible to consume all at once, we rely on the curation skills of others to help us process it all.

In an educational setting, curation has a ton of potential as an academic task. Sure, we’re used to assigning research projects, where students have to gather resources, pull out information, and synthesize that information into a cohesive piece of informational or argumentative writing. This kind of work is challenging and important, and it should remain as a core assignment throughout school, but how often do we make the collection of resources itself a stand-alone assignment?

That’s what I’m proposing we do. Curation projects have the potential to put our students to work at three different levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy:

  • Understand, where we exemplify and classify information
  • Analyze, where we distinguish relevant from irrelevant information and organize it in a way that makes sense
  • Evaluate, where we judge the quality of an item based on a set of criteria

If we go beyond Bloom’s and consider the Framework for 21st Century Learning put out by the Partnership for 21st Century Learning, we’ll see that critical thinking is one of the 4C’s listed as an essential skill for students in the modern age (along with communication, creativity, and collaboration) and a well-designed curation project requires a ton of critical thinking.

So what would a curation project look like?

A SAMPLE CURATION TASK

Suppose you’re teaching U.S. history, and you want students to understand that our constitution is designed to be interpreted by the courts, and that many people interpret it differently. So you create a curation assignment that focuses on the first amendment.

The task: Students must choose ONE of the rights given to us by the first amendment. To illustrate the different ways people interpret that right, students must curate a collection of online articles, images, or videos that represent a range of beliefs about how far that right extends. For each example they include, they must summarize the point of view being presented and include a direct quote where the author or speaker’s biases or beliefs can be inferred.

Here is what one submission might look like, created on a platform called eLink (click here to view the whole thing).

Because they are finding examples of a given concept and doing some summarizing, students in this task are working at the Understand level of Bloom’s. But they are also identifying where the author or speaker is showing bias or purpose, which is on the Analyze level.

MORE PROJECT IDEAS

Ranked Collection: Students collect a set of articles, images, videos, or even whole websites based on a set of criteria (the most “literary” song lyrics of the year, or the world’s weirdest animal adaptations) and rank them in some kind of order, justifying their rankings with a written explanation or even a student-created scoring system. Each student could be tasked with creating their own collection or the whole class could be given a pre-selected collection to rank. This would be followed by a discussion where students could compare and justify their rankings with those of other students. (Bloom’s Level: Evaluate)

Shared Trait Collection: This would house items that have one thing in common. This kind of task would work in so many different subject areas. Students could collect articles where our government’s system of checks and balances are illustrated, images of paintings in the impressionist style, videos that play songs whose titles use metaphors. It could even be used as part of a lesson using the concept attainment strategy, where students develop an understanding of a complex idea by studying “yes” and “no” examples of it. By curating their own examples after studying the concept, they will further developing their understanding of it. (Bloom’s Level: Understand).

Literature Review: As the first step of a research project, students could collect relevant resources and provide a brief summary of each one, explaining how it contributes to the current understanding of their topic. As high school students prepare for college, having a basic understanding of what a literature review is and the purpose it serves—even if they are only doing it with articles written outside of academia—will help them take on the real thing with confidence when that time comes. (Bloom’s Levels: Understand for the summarization, Analyze for the sorting and selecting of relevant material)

Video Playlist: YouTube is bursting at the seams with videos, but how much of it is actually good? Have students take chunks of your content and curate the best videos out there to help other students understand those concepts. In the item’s description, have students explain why they chose it and what other students will get out of it. (Bloom’s Levels: Understand for summarization, Evaluate for judging the quality of the videos)

Museum Exhibit: Task students with curating a digital “exhibit” around a given theme. The more complex the theme, the more challenging the task. For example, they might be asked to assume the role of a museum owner who hates bees, and wants to create a museum exhibit that teaches visitors all about the dangers of bees. This kind of work would help students understand that even institutions that might not own up to any particular bias, like museums, news agencies, or tv stations, will still be influenced by their own biases in how they curate their material. (Bloom’s Level: Understand if it’s just a collection of representative elements, Create if they are truly creating a new “whole” with their collection, such as representing a particular point of view with their choices)

Real World Examples: Take any content you’re teaching (geometry principles, grammar errors, science or social studies concepts) and have students find images or articles that illustrate that concept in the real world. (Bloom’s level: Understand).

Favorites: Have students pull together a personal collection of favorite articles, videos, or other resources for a Genius Hour, advisory, or other more personalized project: A collection of items to cheer you up, stuff to boost your confidence, etc. Although this could easily slide outside the realm of academic work, it would make a nice activity to help students get to know each other at the start of a school year or give them practice with the process of curation before applying it to more content-related topics.

FOR BEST RESULTS, ADD WRITING

Most of the above activities would not be very academically challenging if students merely had to assemble the collection. Adding a thoughtfully designed written component is what will make students do their best thinking in a curation assignment.

The simplest way to do this is to require a written commentary with each item in the collection. Think about those little signs that accompany every item at a museum: Usually when you walk into an exhibit, you find a sign or display that explains the exhibit as a whole, then smaller individual placards that help visitors understand the significance of each piece in the collection. When students put their own collections together, they should do the same thing.

Be specific about what you’d like to see in these short writing pieces, and include those requirements in your rubric. Then go a step further and create a model of your own, so students have a very clear picture of how the final product should look. Because this is a genre they have probably not done any work in before, they will do much better with this kind of scaffolding. Doing the assignment yourself first—a practice I like to call dogfooding—will also help you identify flaws in the assignment that can be tweaked before you hand it over to students.

DIGITAL CURATION TOOLS

It’s certainly possible for students to collect resources through non-digital means, by reading books in the library or curating physical artifacts or objects, but doing a curation project digitally allows for media-rich collections that can be found and assembled in a fraction of the time. And if you have students curating in groups, using digital tools will allow them to collaborate from home without having to meet in person.

Here are a few curation tools that would work beautifully for this kind of project:

  • Elink is the tool featured in the sample project above. Of all the tools suggested here, this one is the simplest. You collect your links, write descriptions, and end up with a single unique web page that you can share with anyone.
  • Pinterest is probably the most popular curation tool out there. If your students are already using Pinterest, or you’re willing to get them started, you could have them create a Pinterest board as a curation assignment.
  • Symbaloo allows users to create “webmixes,” boards of icons that each lead to different URLs. Although it would be possible to create a curated collection with Symbaloo, it doesn’t allow for the same amount of writing that some other tools do, so you would need to have students do their writing on a separate document.
  • Diigo is a good choice for a more text-driven project, like a literature review or a general collection of resources at the beginning stages of a research project, where images aren’t necessarily required. Diigo offers lots of space to take notes about every item in a collection, but it doesn’t have user-friendly supports for images or other media.

SHARE YOUR CURATION IDEAS

I’m so excited about all the different ways we can use curation in the classroom, and I would love to hear your ideas as well. Please share them in the comments below. If you have links to student samples, share those, too! ♦


WANT TO LEARN DIGITAL CURATION?

Curation is just one of the modules in JumpStart, my new online technology course created especially for educators. I thought carefully about what specific skills teachers need to make the most of classroom tech, chose 9 of them, and designed hands-on projects that will show you exactly how to use them.

If you’re ready to take your tech skills from so-so to rock solid, this course will change everything for you.

 

 

Why School Sucks (hint: it’s not because it’s “boring”)

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Isabella Bruyere

(Google Images)

Read the title. Now notice that I said school, NOT education. Yes, there is a difference.

This fall I’m going to be a Sophomore in high school, and although I’ve only had one year of high school so far, I kind of hate it. It’s cliche really; the high school student who hates school, texts all day, goes to parties, etc. Well, really only 1 out of 3 of those things applies to me but let’s rewind for a second to when I didn’t completely hate school: kindergarten-5th grade.

Hate is a strong word, I don’t hate school. I’m only comparing my feelings now for the ecstasy of my elementary days. Back then I loved school. It was my favorite place, simply because I’ve always had a love for learning. I had a great childhood (well I mean, I’m technically still in my childhood, but let’s ignore that); I grew up reading every day, going on Zoo adventures to learn about animals, hiking up to the observatory to star gaze, visiting every museum possible, and etc. A seed of curiosity was planted in my mind at an early age, and continues to grow today. There is something about having a question and finding the answer that satisfies me, but what really excites me to the core is being able to do something with that answer. It’s the difference between knowledge and wisdom.

Now imagine little kindergarten me, sitting in a room (on a rainbow rug that only added to the excitement of it all!) where all (well, most) of my questions could be answered. I was able to learn how to read, write and count. I was able to understand things about different animals, plants, and the world. I was able to learn about my ancestors and the history of everything. Not only that, but everything was fun! Why just read about the different parts of the plant when you could label the construction paper parts and glue them together like a puzzle? Better yet, watch your very own plant grow! To me, school was some sort of paradise.

So how did my love for school change? Simple: school stopped being about learning. As I entered high school, and even middle school, everyone around me, teachers and students alike, had the mindset of “cram cram cram, A’s, A’s A’s”. They’ll shove useless information into your head as fast as possible, “it’s okay if you don’t understand it, just memorize it and get an A on your exam!” The exam? An hour in a room of no talking, just bubbling in multiple choice answers while bubbles of anxiety grew in your stomach. School slowly became a place of memorizing facts just long enough to get the A, doing the bare minimum to get into the best college. Everything was just to get into college, to be better than your peers. Why help your classmate? Why not sabotage them so you have less people to compete with when it comes to applying to Harvard, Stanford, Yale. That is the mentality that I hate, yet it is the mentality of everyone around me, and maybe even myself.

Why can’t school be a place where teachers taught slowly, treating their students as equals and engaging with them in meaningful conversations. I once had an algebra teacher yell at anyone who asked a question because “we are in algebra, we are supposed to be smart enough to know these things”. Why can’t school be a place that welcomes questions of all kinds, and actually allows time to ask them? I’m so tired of cramming for exams only to forget everything the next morning. In real life, we have unlimited resources. The internet, the library, our peers. Instead of sitting in a room for an hour bubbling in a Scantron, why don’t we get together with our classmates and use our resources to work through a complex critical thinking question that relates to the real world as well as the subject. That is how you grow minds fit to solve world hunger, and etc. That is how you engage students, and cause them to be enthusiastic about a certain subject. I’m not saying schools should take away testing and homework, I’m saying they should make it more about the learning experience, and more like real life. Testing should use a combination of critical thinking and prior knowledge; it shouldn’t isolate the part of the brain that memorizes facts, because half of the time students don’t understand them!

I too have fallen prey to this harsh reality. I’ll stay up late to study, knowing that I’m only going to forget everything after I test. I’ll get the A, I’ll push myself, but at what cost? I’ve fallen into a hole, developed anxiety and OCD, and if I don’t stop soon I can add depression to that list. School is encouraging me to continue to push myself, but how long is it until I reach my breaking point? These days the only things I do are homework and studying. I stressed out so much my freshman year, I not only landed in the hospital, but I didn’t read a single outside reading book all year, and to me, that’s even more tragic. I am only in 10th grade, and I feel like I’m barely clinging on.

So yes, school sucks. But that doesn’t mean that learning has to. I’ve made myself a promise that from this day forward, no matter what college I go to, no matter what job I end up doing, I will always love learning, and always strive to know more. And despite all I have said in this article, I still enjoy going to school, and I wouldn’t trade my education for anything. I have always been the type of person to read a book about ‘Ancient Greek Mythology’ or ‘A-Z animal facts’, simply because I want to learn, and I hope to continue being that person.

Your Face Scares Me: Understanding the Hyperrational Adolescent Brain

Take off your snarky hat. Adolescents get a bad rap, says Dr. Daniel Siegel, and he should know. He’s a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, founding co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center, Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association, Executive Director of the American Psychiatric Association, and author of many books, videos, and articles on the mind. Despite his endless awards and titles, Siegel displays in lectures the warm avuncularity of James Taylor in an off-the-rack suit as he urges parents and educators to stop viewing adolescence as a grim and crazed space that kids need to cross through quickly. Why? Because teens will perceive these attitudes and act accordingly.

Siegel’s recent and sobering book, Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain, relies on recent neurobiology research to explain how the mind works during adolescence, the ages between 12 and 24. It’s not just adding five years onto a ten-year-old’s brain, he says. Teenagers get a whole new brain. More to the point, his book sensibly frames how adolescents’ brain developments and concomitant personality traits serve a grand purpose — preparation to leave the nest.

According to Siegel, there are several unique features of the adolescent mind that deserve the awareness of teachers who “alloparent” (perform parenting duties without technically being a guardian).

Wait 90 Seconds

Fact:

The brain’s emotional system is more active during adolescence than at any other stage of life. So what? Shown a photo of a neutral face, an adult’s reasoning prefrontal cortex is activated, whereas the same photo lights up the emotional amygdala of the teen brain. Consequently adolescents may feel complete conviction that a neutral face is hostile or that an innocent remark is aggressive. It’s the lower limbic system getting braced to face the outside world.

Application:

When a teen over-reacts and blows attitude your way, try not to take it personally. Matching a student’s fire with our own — “Jeremy! Take that attitude outside!” — can escalate the threat level, thereby triggering the adolescent’s “fight, flee, freeze, or faint” response. Instead, wait 90 seconds — the amount of time it takes for spiky emotions to subside. Then say, “I felt some heat back there. Can you name what you were feeling?” Brain studies show that naming emotions activates the prefrontal cortex and calms emotions. So name it to tame it.

I’m So Bored . . . That’s Fantastic!

Fact:

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps to control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. Baseline levels of dopamine are lowest during adolescence, but its ecstasy-triggering release in response to “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” and novelty, giggling, texting, chocolate cake, rugby, and risk, is higher than at any other stage of human development. If adolescents didn’t experience such grinding boredom living in mom’s Tribeca brownstone, they’d never leave to major in ecogastronomy, be all they can be, climb Mt. Rainier, and ride a bus for two days to see Deadmau5.

Unfortunately, increased reward drive can lead to what is often incorrectly categorized as impulsivity. A better term would be “hyperrationality,” or examining the facts of a situation and placing more “weight on the calculated benefits of an action than on the potential risks of that action.”

This played out for me in the 1980s when my parents took a trip, leaving me home for the summer. My teen brain decided that eating nothing more than three cups of Rice Krispies with skim milk each day would be a good way to lose weight. I realized this was not a healthy choice, but the benefits and originality of my solution for quickly shedding pounds overrode the headaches, mouth lesions, and two contiguous bouts of strep throat that followed. When my parents returned home, they found me woozy with hunger, and ordered me to eat a PB&J sandwich. I protested for an hour because, duh, my plan was working — and then finally relented.

Application:

Saying “no” does not counter hyperrationality. Scare tactics, admonishments, and medical information didn’t curb teen smoking, says Siegel. “The strategy that worked was to inform them about how the adults who owned the cigarette companies were brainwashing them so they could get their money.” Instead of negatively directing adolescents to abandon their risky plans, Siegel says, respect their goals, and then suggest alternative boundary-pushing actions. Example: “Todd, wanting to modify your appearance is natural, but how about swimming for an hour every day this summer? Most of your friends would find it too challenging, but they’d be impressed by how you accomplished your goal and grew muscle.”

Siegel also recommends having adolescents put their hands on their chest and their stomach to become aware of the neural networks surrounding intestines (“gut feeling”) and the heart (“heartfelt feelings”), and counter hyperrationality with intuition. Ask, “What does your heart and gut tell you about that plan?”

The Holy Grail of Brain Development

Neural integration, linking areas of the brain so that more sophisticated functions emerge, writes Siegel, is the most important concept in brain development. But 98 percent of schools don’t use one of the most effective strategies for achieving this integration, as well as recalibrating adolescents’ emotional reactivity and countering hyperrationality. Through mental trainingfor 12 minutes a day, adolescents can stimulate the growth of myelin sheaths that make their neural networks more efficient. Mental training can also lead to feeling more engaged, receptive, resourceful, and adaptive — ideal traits for learning how to develop resilience and efficacy.

What unique features of teenage brain activity have you experienced at your school?

6 Traits of Life-Changing Teachers

Edutopia

We asked our community what makes teachers unforgettable. Here’s what they said.

 

Michael Foley, my high school Shakespeare teacher, was a known tyrant. As underclassmen, my friends and I would walk past his closed door, peer in the narrow vertical window, and see him gesticulating wildly at some hapless senior, blood vessels popping in his forehead.

We were genuinely terrified.

I would eventually discover that Foley wasn’t up there tearing into a student. He was channeling Othello, consumed with jealousy and demonstrating how pettiness can destroy even the most powerful of leaders. Foley did this with all of Shakespeare’s works, pulling out the most impactful bits and pouring his heart into them: impish Puck, Juliet at death’s door, and the gravedigger, woefully regarding Yorick’s skull.

For me, at least, terror became inspiration. I’ve never forgotten him.

In education there’s a lot of talk about standards, curriculum, and assessment—but when we ask adults what they remember about their education, decades after they’ve left school, the answers are always about their best teachers. So what is it about great educators, like the theatrical Michael Foley, that leaves such an indelible impression? If the memory of curriculum and pedagogy fades with time, or fails to register at all, why do some teachers occupy our mental landscape years later? We started getting curious: What are the standout qualities that make some teachers life changers?

To answer this question, we asked our Facebook community directly. Over 700 responses poured in from teachers, parents, and students. When we analyzed the responses, some clear patterns began to emerge, across all age ranges and geography—even subjects.

Life-Changing Teachers Help Their Students Feel Safe

The research is unequivocal: People can’t learn if they’re anxious, frightened, or in trauma. Safety is part of the education starter kit. Unsurprisingly, many of our readers recalled that the best teachers establish a culture of safety and support in their classrooms, whether it’s physical, emotional, or intellectual.

Kristina Gorsuch Modaff describes her third-grade teacher, Mrs. Hilier, as having “a calming presence. She made me feel safe. She made me feel confident.” And when a student’s home life is less certain, school can be a welcome oasis: Jacqueline McDowell fondly remembers that her sixth-grade teacher “was constant and stable—she saw the whole me and was steady when other things in my life were not.”

And there were numerous stories of children with learning disabilities who found a haven and encouragement with a supportive teacher. Amy Rottmann’s high school creative writing teacher, Mrs. Harris, “made the quiet girl in the back with dyslexia realize she had a voice through poetry.”

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Life-Changing Teachers Possess a Contagious Passion

A passion for education is in the blood of the best teachers—the word passion showed up 45 times in our audience responses—and the best teachers pass it on to students.

Math teacher Dave Bock’s passion for his material was “contagious,” recalled Jennifer Reese. “He delivered engaging lessons that piqued our curiosities, and gave us time to puzzle through solutions in our own ways.” Far away from math class, Lisa Maree Wiles thanked David Sidwell, her music teacher who gave his students “a love for music, a respect for our craft, and the passion to always be the best we could be!” And at least one teacher’s passion was ahead of its time: Jessica Chiado Becirovic remembers her senior year English teacher, Anne Godin, who “staunchly advocated for introducing her classes to multicultural literature before it was seen by many as important and valuable. She was a pioneer with a rebellious spirit.”

Life-Changing Teachers Model Patience

Learning can be slow and messy. Classrooms are filled with students—sometimes more than 30 at a time—who arrive each day with different emotional needs, and learn at wildly different speeds. Remarkably, life-changing teachers find a way to stay calm amid the chaos and play the long game, giving their students the time and support they need to learn.

Judy Barrera remembers Bernie Griff, her third-grade teacher. “He… went to the high school to get me books to read, and was the most patient teacher I have ever had. He gave me so much while I probably gave him a headache!” Some teachers don’t just model patience, but teach it as a life skill: “As a student I was always in a rush to see results and I made lots of mistakes,” said James R. Lamb. “Mr. Ingram taught me to slow down and keep my thinking ahead of the work.”

And long before learning from mistakes was supported by research, high school algebra teacher Susan Gilkey calmly taught her students that it was “OK to make mistakes, learn from them, and try again. She never made kids feel bad about it,” recalls Karen Spencer, a former student. “I hope I make her proud now that I carry on that same thinking with my middle school math students.”

Life-Changing Teachers Know When to Be Tough

If life-changing teachers are patient, they also know when to change gears and get tough. They’re the teachers who challenge us to be better students and better humans—and then up the ante and demand that of us.

For Claire Bush, that someone was Mr. Zimmermann, her 12th-grade English teacher. “I’d finish my work and then goof off. He was the only one who actually called me on my crap and challenged me. Being challenged actually helped me reach my potential. Now I’m an English teacher. I wish I had the chance to thank him.”

Tough teachers don’t just hold students to high standards in the classroom—some kick their students out of the nest. Heather Miles remembers teacher Allan Edwards, who expanded her horizons and always “gave his English students rigorous content and pushed us to see beyond the small town in which we lived. He believed that we could always do more, and taught us to never settle.” And Barbara Minkler praises French teacher Mr. Smith: “He respected us, yet challenged us to reach our potentials. He stretched us with French existential literature. We had to give speeches, put on plays, and individually meet pronunciation and writing goals. He laughed with us, got mad and frustrated with us, and celebrated with us.”

Life-Changing Teachers Believe in Their Students (and Help Them Believe in Themselves)

The power of a teacher’s simple, unequivocal belief in a student was mentioned almost 70 times by respondents. Most of us have had some sort of self-doubt, but many students are crippled by it. Life-changing teachers have the gift of seeing potential in kids when others don’t, and then have the perseverance to help the children find it within themselves.

High school biology teacher Mr. Kyriakos was the one who helped Rachel Poff find her strengths: “He taught me that I was smart. I just needed to believe in myself. He died while I was his student and I cried like he was family. He changed my life.”

Laura Reilly Spencer’s teacher Libby Sciandra Cowan not only helped build her confidence as a student, but inspires her teaching practice to this day. “She believed that I could do great things, and I came to believe that, too. I hope I am half the teacher to my students that she was to me.”

Supportive advocates aren’t always teachers. Counselors and coaches can play this pivotal role as well. Nick Tutolo’s former coach, Jeff Ewing, continues to inspire him nearly 20 years later. “He valued teamwork, hard work, and pride. For a kid who was struggling to figure out where I fit, this went a long way.”

Life-Changing Teachers Love Their Students

Respondents used the word love a whopping 187 times (and that’s not counting an additional 157 heart emojis). Showing love for students—through small but meaningful gestures of kindness—is far and away the most impactful thing life-changing teachers do.

When Michelle Moyle was sick in bed, her fourth-grade teacher, Liz Thomas, arrived at her house with a stack of books to cheer her up—a gesture Michelle remembers some 38 years later. (If home visits are too hard, a positive phone call can do the trick.)

Kayla McNeil’s second-grade teacher, Kathy Nygren, showed her feelings for her students through her playful spirit. “She really loved all us kids. You could tell in the way she taught us, making learning fun by dressing up as a dinosaur or pilgrim. You never knew what was in her bag of tricks.”

Students can also feel a teacher’s love in something as simple as pronouncing their name correctly. Jena’ Lowry’s family moved all the time; she remembers how teachers used to constantly mispronounce her name. She was dreading it yet again on the first day of her 11th-grade English class, but her new teacher, Mrs. Holman, pronounced her name perfectly. “I was speechless,” Jena’ recalls. “She addressed us as if we each meant something to her. She captured our hearts, therefore she had our minds.”

Taking a step back, it appears that the most direct and longest-lasting way to reach a child—to really make a difference in his or her life—is through so-called noncognitive dimensions like passion, patience, rigor, and kindness. And when students are lucky enough to find a life-changing teacher, the benefits last a lifetime. In many cases, those students take up the vocation themselves: 145 of the people who responded to our question had become teachers, passing the gift of education forward to the next generation.

As the Fool in Twelfth Night says, “There is no darkness but ignorance.” Thanks to all who are bringing the light.

The Way We Teach Math Is Holding Women Back

Time

March 29, 2017

A Stanford math professor encourages a different teaching approach

First Daughter Ivanka Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos toured the National Air and Space Museum with a group of middle school students Tuesday, encouraging girls to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics — even while President Donald Trump’s administration put forth a budget proposal that suggests cutting funding for education and research. There is nothing more important than advancing the STEM fields — and those groups who are underrepresented within them.

One area in desperate need of examination is the way we teach mathematics. Many Americans suffer from misconceptions about math. They think people are either born with a “math brain” or not — an idea that has been disproven — and that mathematics is all numbers, procedures and speedy thinking. In reality, mathematicians spend most of their working lives thinking slowly and deeply, investigating complex patterns in multiple dimensions. We sacrifice many people — women and students of color, in particular — at the altar of these myths about math.

Math is a prerequisite for most STEM fields, and the reason many students abandon STEM careers. In higher levels of mathematics, gender imbalances persist: In 2015, about 76% of math doctorates were awarded to men. This figure should prompt alarm in mathematics departments across the country — and encourage focus on an area that is shockingly neglected in discussions of equity: teaching methods in classrooms.

At Stanford University, I teach some of the country’s highest achievers. But when they enter fast-paced lecture halls, even those who were successful in high school mathematics start to think they’re not good enough. One of my undergraduates described the panic she felt when trying to keep pace with a professor: “The material felt like it was flying over my head,” she wrote. “It was like I was watching a lecture at 2x or 3x speed and there was no way to pause or replay it.” She described her fear of failure as “crippling.” This student questioned her intelligence and started to rethink whether she belonged in the field of math at all.

Research tells us that lecturers typically speak at between 100 and 125 words a minute, but students can take note of only about 20 words a minute, often leaving them feeling frustrated and defeated. “I’ve essentially given up in my math class right now,” another student of mine wrote. “In such a fast-paced environment where information is constantly coming at you, there just isn’t time to think deeply about what you are learning.”

The irony of the widespread emphasis on speed in math classrooms, with damaging timed tests given to students from an early age, is that some of the world’s most successful mathematicians describe themselves as slow thinkers. In his autobiography, Laurent Schwartz, winner of the world’s highest award in mathematics, described feeling “stupid” in school because he was a slow thinker. “I was always deeply uncertain about my own intellectual capacity; I thought I was unintelligent,” he wrote. “And it is true that I was, and still am, rather slow. I need time to seize things because I always need to understand them fully.”

When students struggle in speed-driven math classes, they often believe the problem lies within themselves, not realizing that fast-paced lecturing is a faulty teaching method. The students most likely to internalize the problem are women and students of color. This is one of the main reasons that these students choose not to go forward in mathematics and other STEM subjects, and likely why a study found that in 2011, 74% of the STEM workforce was male and 71% was white.

Women are just as capable as men of working at high speed, of course, but I’ve found in my own research that they are more likely to reject subjects that do not give access to deep understanding. The deep understanding that women seek, and are often denied, is exactly what we need to encourage in students of mathematics. I have taught many deep, slow thinkers in mathematics classes over the years. Often, but not always, they are women, and many decide they cannot succeed in mathematics. But when the message about mathematics has changed to emphasize slower, deeper processing, I’ve seen many of these women go on to excel in STEM careers.

When mathematics classes become places where students explore ideas, more often than they watch procedures being rapidly demonstrated by a teacher or professor, we will start to liberate students from feelings of inadequacy. In a recent summer camp with 81 middle school students, we taught mathematics through open, creative lessons to demonstrate how mathematics is about thinking deeply, rather than calculating quickly. After 18 lessons, the students improved their mathematics achievement on standardized tests by an average of 50%, the equivalent of 1.6 years of school. If classrooms across the country would dispel the myths about math and teach differently, we would improve the lives of many students and enable the creation of a more diverse STEM workforce. It will take a generation of young, creative, adaptable and quantitative thinkers to tackle our society’s problems — thinkers that we are currently turning away from mathematics classrooms and lecture halls in droves.

Jo Boaler is a Stanford professor, co-founder of youcubed.org and author of best-selling book, Mathematical Mindsets: Unleashing Students’ Potential through Creative Math, Inspiring Messages and Innovative Teaching.

Stanford research shows pitfalls of homework

Stanford News

A Stanford researcher found that students in high-achieving communities who spend too much time on homework experience more stress, physical health problems, a lack of balance and even alienation from society. More than two hours of homework a night may be counterproductive, according to the study.

Denise Pope

Education scholar Denise Pope has found that too much homework has negative effects on student well-being and behavioral engagement. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

A Stanford researcher found that too much homework can negatively affect kids, especially their lives away from school, where family, friends and activities matter.

“Our findings on the effects of homework challenge the traditional assumption that homework is inherently good,” wrote Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Education and a co-author of a study published in the Journal of Experimental Education.

The researchers used survey data to examine perceptions about homework, student well-being and behavioral engagement in a sample of 4,317 students from 10 high-performing high schools in upper-middle-class California communities. Along with the survey data, Pope and her colleagues used open-ended answers to explore the students’ views on homework.

Median household income exceeded $90,000 in these communities, and 93 percent of the students went on to college, either two-year or four-year.

Students in these schools average about 3.1 hours of homework each night.

“The findings address how current homework practices in privileged, high-performing schools sustain students’ advantage in competitive climates yet hinder learning, full engagement and well-being,” Pope wrote.

Pope and her colleagues found that too much homework can diminish its effectiveness and even be counterproductive. They cite prior research indicating that homework benefits plateau at about two hours per night, and that 90 minutes to two and a half hours is optimal for high school.

Their study found that too much homework is associated with:

• Greater stress: 56 percent of the students considered homework a primary source of stress, according to the survey data. Forty-three percent viewed tests as a primary stressor, while 33 percent put the pressure to get good grades in that category. Less than 1 percent of the students said homework was not a stressor.

• Reductions in health: In their open-ended answers, many students said their homework load led to sleep deprivation and other health problems. The researchers asked students whether they experienced health issues such as headaches, exhaustion, sleep deprivation, weight loss and stomach problems.

• Less time for friends, family and extracurricular pursuits: Both the survey data and student responses indicate that spending too much time on homework meant that students were “not meeting their developmental needs or cultivating other critical life skills,” according to the researchers. Students were more likely to drop activities, not see friends or family, and not pursue hobbies they enjoy.

A balancing act

The results offer empirical evidence that many students struggle to find balance between homework, extracurricular activities and social time, the researchers said. Many students felt forced or obligated to choose homework over developing other talents or skills.

Also, there was no relationship between the time spent on homework and how much the student enjoyed it. The research quoted students as saying they often do homework they see as “pointless” or “mindless” in order to keep their grades up.

“This kind of busy work, by its very nature, discourages learning and instead promotes doing homework simply to get points,” Pope said.

She said the research calls into question the value of assigning large amounts of homework in high-performing schools. Homework should not be simply assigned as a routine practice, she said.

“Rather, any homework assigned should have a purpose and benefit, and it should be designed to cultivate learning and development,” wrote Pope.

High-performing paradox

In places where students attend high-performing schools, too much homework can reduce their time to foster skills in the area of personal responsibility, the researchers concluded. “Young people are spending more time alone,” they wrote, “which means less time for family and fewer opportunities to engage in their communities.”

Student perspectives

The researchers say that while their open-ended or “self-reporting” methodology to gauge student concerns about homework may have limitations – some might regard it as an opportunity for “typical adolescent complaining” – it was important to learn firsthand what the students believe.

The paper was co-authored by Mollie Galloway from Lewis and Clark College and Jerusha Conner from Villanova University.