Neuroplasticity and Schooling – The Thing that Hurts is the Thing that Helps

While classrooms are about as far from brain surgery as a person can get, it hasn’t seemed like that in the past few years. Increasingly, the world of teaching is infused with seminars, books, techniques, and staff room banter about neuroscience. Most of this activity is just the usual idle chat, but to the extent that we really listen, our world is about to change. For the better.

Few writers in the field have had the impact that Norman Doidge has had. His book, The Brain that Changes Itself, has (beyond selling millions of copies) began to alter the way we think about our brains. Beyond Doidge, there are few issues of important periodicals like the New Yorker that go by without any reference to neuroscience. And in our age, romantic notions of ‘mind’, the ethereal, intangible version of consciousness has all but died. The brain is our mind, the consensus goes, and we just use sentimental language when we speak otherwise. All of this might be true, but the relationship between consciousness and our brains is not one way: our brains are often subject to the power of our directed, conscious thoughts. We are not computers that merely respond to our programming.

An example: the placebo effect has always bedevilled medical researchers. In order to determine whether or not any particular medication has the desired effect, it is important to establish a double-blind study – neither the subjects nor those administering the medication know which is getting the placebo, and which is getting the real medication. In this way, we can determine if the medication is having the desired effect. When the study is concluded, we take a list at the patient lists, see who got better, see who didn’t, and we can determine if the drug works. The placebo effect – the tendency of patients to report better symptoms even on a sugar pill – can be separated from the ‘real’ effect.

Setting aside the sometimes unscrupulous behaviour of pharmaceutical companies, this double-blind system works quite well. There’s no way to game the system. We can tell if real change has occurred. There are, in addition to patient reports, observable data we can draw on to know if the drug worked or not. Did the tumour shrink? Did the cholesterol decrease?

But with matters of brains, this isn’t so neat and tidy. There has been a remarkably high placebo effect in anti-depressant medication trials. Sometimes nearly as high as the group who got the actual medication. So what, we might say. So some people convinced themselves that they were feeling better – the underlying reason for their depression must have remained unchanged.

And yet, that is sometimes not the case. Generally speaking, brains of patients who suffer depression look different under an MRI than those who are not suffering depression. You would imagine that those in anti-depressant trials who received the placebo medication would see no physical changes in brain operation, and yet they sometimes do. Not only have they ‘tricked’ themselves into feeling better, but by doing so they changed the physical operation of the brain. Recent research into mindfulness meditation has hinted at the same thing: those who meditate begin to see changes in the physical and electrical and chemical structures of the brain. And the list goes on: those who have suffered strokes and lost a capacity (say, the use of their left arm) because of brain trauma (the area of the brain responsible for the activity) find that with the right therapy, other areas of the brain change and grow to take over for the damaged area. The oldest evidence of all: London cabbie’s brains have overdeveloped regions of the brain responsible for spatial awareness, having had to memorize great swaths of one of the most labyrinthine cities in the world. And then there’s the remarkable story from Atul Gawande in the New Yorker about scratching an itch.

If we are a computer, we are a computer that can reprogram ourselves.

And yet, in schooling, we continue to do something that has often puzzled me. When a student presents with a difficulty in one area (say, writing), we often reduce that very activity. The thinking goes like this: if Steven’s brain is wired in such a way as to make him a kinaesthetic learner, not a verbal or logical-mathematical learner, then he should do more dancing and running and less reading and writing.

The following has no support but resonates with me, at least.

The oldest paradigm: just try harder. If that doesn’t work, ‘you must not be built right’. Give up. This led to a tremendous amount of unused human capacity.

Now: You are a visual learner? Don’t even try listening to your peers or teachers in your classes. Hard time reading? We’ll get you the audiobooks for all your texts. A second-language seem tough? We’ll exempt you from it. After all, if you were paralyzed, we would never ask you to run the 100m dash. Asking you to violate your unique brain is potentially abusive.

Except that if stroke victims can repurpose areas of the brain to speak again and to walk again, why can’t the same logic work on remediating dyslexia? (It does, as it turns out – dyslexics who have been exposed to the right sorts of interventions have fundamentally different brain processes after the interventions.)

Perhaps the simplest conclusion is this: Our brains are more similar than they are unique. To the extent that they are unique, most of that variation is a positive good and leads to interesting, creative possibilities. For a smaller group of us, our brains don’t do as easily what other brains can do. When those areas overlap with skills our society prizes, like reading(!), we ought to do more of that hard thing, not less, to remediate, to actually change our brains for the better. The model of physiotherapy applies well, I think. When our backs are stiff, we stretch and exercise. We no longer advise bed rest for (the majority) of sore backs. The thing that hurts is the thing that helps.

Of course, we need to do so in ways that are suitable (more of a useless remedy does not achieve the desired result), but I worry that the vast majority of our interventions are akin to taking someone with a sore back and putting him in wheelchair until his legs atrophy to the point where we validate the very thing harming him.

Here’s Norman Doidge on Allan Gregg and Company.

Rigour – All Hail the Orphan Child

The Globe and Mail has recently been addressing an old chestnut: the question of rigour in schools. A few recent articles and letters-to-the-editor appeared in the past week or so. The general tenor: schools aren’t what they should be, technology is a distraction, and we should refocus our efforts on a conservative approach to teaching and learning. The excerpted editorial on texting here sums it up:

De shud b HHIS – which may be translated as “They should be hanging their heads in shame.”

Such is the scolding that some parents and teachers may want to give children and teenagers after reading the state of their homework, because a new study by a graduate student in linguistics at the University of Calgary confirms what some fear: that text messaging has a negative impact on language skills.

Ever since text messaging took off – Canadians send 154 million texts a day – linguists have debated the impact it has on the English language. Some experts insist that texting encourages creativity and writing, that asking “wot r u doin 2nite” isn’t laziness, but rather another way in which English is naturally evolving, as it has done for centuries. Besides, young people know the difference between communicating to make plans for Friday night and writing a formal essay. In New Zealand, educators certainly thought so when in 2006 they approved the use of text speak in high-school exams.

But the naysayers now have some ammunition on their side.

In the Calgary study, a group of university students were asked about their reading habits. Those who read widely in traditional print media such as books and magazines were able to identify more words on a checklist than students who said they did not read as much, but sent and received texts a lot.

Some of the words on the list were real, and others were fictitious. The conclusion was that traditional reading material exposes people to variety and creativity in the language. It helps develop skills that allow the interpretation of new and original words. This is not found in colloquial text speak, which actually constrains the use of English and caused the students to reject many words on the checklist.

It is a triumph for the traditionalists.

To which a teen’s flippant answer might be “wateva DBEYR,” or, Don’t believe everything you read.

You would be hard pressed to find a teacher who argued against rigour. Indeed, all teachers think they’re pursuing rigour in their own ways. But there is little shared agreement on what constitutes a rigourous program. And therein lies the rub. What goals should we be pursuing in our classrooms?

The usual turn of events goes like this: various groups (teachers, administrators, consultants) and different members within them, all argue for different end results. We should teach through games to build critical thinking; we should return to the basics; we should spend more time on math; no – more time on community service; and rest of all the old refrains.

There is obviously much by way of merit in debate, but unless we ask what the purpose of schooling is there is little point in persisting; no possibility of progress exists. One thing is clear, though – until we get a better answer to it, we’ll likely continue to work against ourselves.

The article below, in the same edition of the paper as the editorial above, argues – again – for a more conservative approach to education. At the very least, the purpose of schooling is hinted at: students should be able readers, writers, and adept at the classical subjects. I don’t find myself disagreeing with all of it.

The note is written in the shaky, giant letters favoured by children just learning to hold a pencil: “I am sorry for distracting the class too day,” the boy says. He goes on to apologize to his teacher for his disruptive behaviour; he knows the teacher wants more for him, because she has told him so, over and over. “I want to do good in life,” he adds. “I do not want to be a failier.”

The teacher has framed the note, and now, sitting in her south London living room, jabs a finger at it. “How old do you think that boy is?” Without waiting for an answer, she barks: “That boy is 15. He’s about to leave school. How is that possible?” She shakes her head. “I loved that boy. I saved his note. But really – how can this be?”

You don’t want to be disrupting Katharine Birbalsingh’s class, or misspelling words at 15, or indeed trying to prevent her from reaching her goal. That goal, depending on where you stand, is either to fix Britain’s broken schools or to rip apart a perfectly good system from within.

The Oxford University graduate is one of the more controversial figures in British education circles, and she’s not even from here. She was raised thousand of kilometres away, in a rich country where she never locked her bike when she went to the store, and where, to her dismay, she was taught woodworking in high school. That is, in Canada.

What exactly has she done to annoy the teaching establishment and a good section of middle-class London parents? Simply, she is setting up a “free school” – a secondary school that is free to set its own curriculum. At the Michaela Community School in Tooting, a rough-and-ready part of south London, the emphasis will be on discipline, competition and rigorous, back-to-basics instruction.

Students as Horses?

Anyone who loves horses has probably already seen the documentary “Buck,” about Buck Brannaman, horse whisperer extraordinaire. He talks candidly about the importance of earning respect, about the emotional sensitivity of horses, about how you don’t “break” horses through force, but you “start” them through care and attention. Unkindness can cause the whole teaching and learning process to break down – horses respond to the intention of the trainer, opening up to progress, or shutting down entirely.

The same logic applies, more of less, to teaching and learning with humans. Anyone who’s stepped into a classroom can see that the process is highly emotional. Consider his comments in the clips below with humans, not horses, in mind. And think of two teachers you might have had: one, seemingly cruel and unkind; and the second, fair, humorous, warm and understanding. Now recall in your history which one of these had the more profound effect on you. Undoubtedly, the cruel teacher, with enough energy, can achieve a certain kind of result with anger and hostility underpinning his actions, but the kind teacher produces a deeper and more permanent change – even if it doesn’t immediately look that way.

Listening to Buck, you can hear echoes of an educational consultant, Ronald Morrish – a man who has spent much of his life thinking about student behaviour and motivation. And while Morrish isn’t always right, he placed as a central concern student psychology.  We have lots and lots of literacy coaches, and of course those positions are valuable – but how many teachers would benefit from learning more about student behaviour?

A Perfect Misery

We often forget what an emotional place schools can be, and how students’ own emotional states can influence their learning.  Worse still, we forget that as teachers our own behaviour can (often?) be so alienating to students, we are the very reason they struggle.  Thankfully, few teachers today are as cruel as the Mr. Broome described in the letter below, but we should all bear in mind the words of Hippocrates: “First, do no harm.”  It applies to teachers as well as it does to doctors.

Mr Broome

Dear Sir

I write this letter for the good of myself and other boys. Instead of you teachers making school a pleasure you make it a perfect misery to those who happen to be a little backward. Referring to myself, I can say that I never did like school but since I came to Rockdale I have just dreaded the thought of school. This, may I say, has all come from your sneering and poking fun at those who are not quite so well on as others. If a boy happens to have a few mistakes instead of you trying to help him in his difficulty you look over his slate, you either cane him, or spell out aloud his foolish mistakes before over 100 boys who are always ready to make fun. This is why there are so many boys who are always ready to play the truant. And therefore instead of me looking forward to school days I just long for the time when I shall receive a sitificut saying that I may leave school. And as manhood draws on I shall look back on my schooldays as a period of misery instead of a period of happiness.

A Margett

Scholar at (Inferior?) Rockdale Public School

(This letter is taken from one of the most fascinating blogs around: Letters of Note.)
Schoolboy Athel Margett’s Unhappy Letter

The Wire on Teaching – Part Two

As I’ve said before, HBO’s The Wire is a careful study of human nature, and that includes, at least in one of its seasons, the nature of the classroom.    Inner-city-cop-turned-teacher Roland “Prez” Pryzbylewski gets it right when he says, “Trick them into thinking they aren’t learning, and they do.”

We often forget that unless students aren’t interested, they won’t learn.  Novelty and engagement are so crucial to the process that it is a shame we teachers, often obsessed with ‘adult’ ideas, forget about them.

Even though most teachers don’t teach kids in these dire circumstances, the wisdom of these clips applies to all students, I think.  Doubt it, and ask yourself: what goes on in staff meetings when adults aren’t engaged?

The Spacing Effect

The Globe and Mail recently ran a story on a psychological phenomenon called “the spacing effect”; the tendency for our brains to remember more of what we’re taught if the material taught is spread out over several sessions.  Essentially the opposite of a cram session, the spacing effect points to subtleties in our brains’ ability to store and recall important details.

The researcher profiled is Nick Cepeda, a York University professor.  He wants to study this well-known effect in the classroom and develop a list of suggestions for practicing teachers.  His work has already begun to show some promise.

From the Globe:

In one experiment, (Cepeda) found that Grade 5 students in an Ontario school remembered significantly more words in a vocabulary list they learned in two sessions spaced a week apart than in a single lesson. But he said he understands that many teachers may not have the time or inclination to teach the same thing several times.

“Quizzes could offer a quick and easy way to tap into the power of the “spacing effect,” he said. Research has shown that taking a test is a more effective way to learn than extra study or review time. It is important, however, that students learn the correct answers after they take the test.”

He said it is frustrating how little research is done to translate the discoveries psychologists and neuroscientists make about memory and learning into effective teaching strategies. In the United States, the Institute of Education Sciences funds this kind of research, but there is no equivalent agency in Canada, said Dr. Cepeda, who has applied to the U.S. institute to do more studies in Toronto classrooms.

“As psychologists, we are sometimes scared to tell teachers what to do because we may end up telling them to do something that works in the lab that doesn’t work in the real world. We really do need to be testing these things in the classroom.”

The Wire on Teaching

The celebrated HBO series The Wire is regarded by many pundits to be the best show ever created – and for good reason. It combines a fierce dedication to reality, including the grim underbelly of North America’s urban areas.

When one of the characters, a police officer, Roland “Prez” Pryzbylewski, quits the force to take a job teaching in an inner-city school in Baltimore, the careful attention of the writers gets focused on the problems inherent in teaching and learning. This clip demonstrates a tremendous range of challenges for both students and teachers, most of which are emotional.

This clip also shows an unalterable truth: no matter his or her talents, no teacher can have complete control over the learning process. Despite our best intentions, the process is fraught with factors beyond our control.

Early Bird, Meet Worm

One high school in Toronto, Eastern Commerce, has embraced the experiment so often lusted-after by contemporary youth: a late start to allow students to sleep in.

The experiment, which began in the fall of 2009, is an acknowledgement by educators that the biological clocks of teenager leave them sluggish in the morning. The Canadian Pediatric Society reported in 2008 that high school students need nine to 10 hours of sleep a night and may struggle in school if they don’t get it.The Toronto District School Board is monitoring Eastern’s experience carefully, comparing marks, attendance and lateness before and after the project started. It is a small school, with only 450 students, 80 per cent of whom come from out-of-district, which can mean long commutes. Many are drawn by Eastern’s stellar basketball teams.Early indications are that there have been some positive changes.The school reports the Grade 11 math failure rate has dropped from 45 per cent to 17 per cent.

All good news – though, the sample is too small and the duration too short to declare a success beyond this institution.  And probably this is the sort of more flexible thinking that would benefit schools of any sort on a range of issues.  Many of our assumptions about schooling are untested – most of the things we do, including our start times, are merely historical accident.

But I wonder: while it is true that sleep helps teens, and it is true that teens don’t get enough sleep, is it a sustainable answer to merely start later in the day?  Won’t the teens who went to bed at 2:00 am now just go to bed at 3:00am?  While historical accident is not a good enough reason to persist with something that doesn’t work, the burden of proof typically resides on the side of change.  I’m not sure I’m convinced there is something substantial at work here, though given the cost of the experiment – nothing – I’d like to see this tested more widely.

The Curse of Giftedness

In the minds of most people, including many teachers, being gifted is something to celebrate – being gifted means school will be easier, you’ll excel beyond your peers, and maybe even enjoy remarkable success in the world beyond school.  But to teachers who have spent much time teaching students who are gifted, the reality is not always so charming.  Students who are gifted often stagnate (or worse) in a mainstream classroom, becoming disruptive and surly and not learning very much.  Yet, whenever money or personnel are assigned to teaching gifted students, there is usually a hue and cry from the parents of students who suffer learning disabilities.

Two recent articles bear out this debate.  The Globe and Mail reported on the perils of being gifted, providing some compelling evidence that gifted students need much in the way of support.  Tralee Pearce reports that “a growing group of parents, educators and critics say striving parents should be careful what they wish for. The downsides of both special gifted programs and of childhood giftedness itself are leading some to question the logic behind the label…. In many cases giftedness is not a badge of distinction so much as a life problem that needs solving. And in the struggle over definitions and scarce educational resources, they are the ones who could get left behind.”
“Parents of gifted children are calling the new Primary Gifted program, which is currently being piloted at Charles R. Beaudoin Public School in Burlington and due to roll out to other schools in September 2011, “fabulous”.
But parents of children with learning disabilities, behavioural issues or autism spectrum disorder say the board is giving unfair advantage to gifted children at the expense of their kids.
“I think it’s creating a two-tier system,” says former school board trustee Philippa Ellis, who voted against the new program at a November board meeting. “It’s saying that some children’s needs are more important or worthy of more service and attention than other children’s needs.”
If we are to say, as most do, that not all students fit into one mold, that we need to ‘reach every student’ (the Government of Ontario’s new educational slogan), then we need to be serious about helping students of all sorts.  Case in point: every faculty of education in this province has special education certification classes for teachers – tailored for students who suffer learning disabilities.  There is only one that currently has a course on how to teach gifted students.    And Ontario’s largest faculty of education and educational research institution, OISE, has one instructor who specializes in gifted education – and she only teaches one course.  Under such a set of assumptions and educational biases, there is surely something cruel in our (legal) insistence that gifted students go to school and learn exactly like the rest of us.
It shouldn’t be special education just for those who struggle with disabilities – if we want to embrace special education, it should be for all those who are not being served by the system.

I Can’t -Yet

Anyone who has ever tried to teach someone anything has had the one experience universal to all teachers: the difficulty of finding that intellectual meeting place where the teacher can impart something to the learner.  It is a moment fraught with peril; the idea is vulnerable in its transference, and the receptive mind can barely hold it without losing grasp.  But on occasion it holds.  And it becomes, with each use or repetition, more permanent and capable of being passed on once more.

That is the story of most learning and teaching; even more experimental versions of the craft ultimately rely on the same process.  And it has been this way since time out of mind.  But sometimes this already delicate process is made more complicated by an impediment, either specific or general, either inborn or circumstantial, and the learning process breaks down.  It does not hold, and the harder the two minds try, the least likely it is to do so.

Anyone who has worked in a school in the last fifty years has had the has seen a more formal version of this – something called a learning disability.  These are so common now that teachers routinely use shortforms: students have LDs (learning disabilities) ranging from ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), to NVLD (non-verbal learning disabilities) and myriad others.

Some have suggested that as many as 20% of Americans suffer from a learning disability.  And what are these disabilities?  Some brains are structured in such a way that learning is constitutionally difficult at best, and possibly disabled at worst.  And in order to ensure learning takes place, teachers should favour approaches that correspond to a student’s particular disability.

This way of thinking tends to provoke the following analogy, common among many parents and student advocates: a learning disability is akin to a physical disability, and in an effort to be sensitive to the abilities (and disabilities), we shouldn’t ask students with learning disabilities to do things beyond their capacity, just as we wouldn’t ask someone in a wheelchair to run a marathon.  Asking a student with a weak memory to remember details in a history class, for example, might, by this light be considered abusive – or at least, unkind and unfair.  A student with a non-verbal learning disability might be asked not to read a text, but to use speech software to hear it aloud.

And while every teacher wants to do right by his or her students, I am troubled by this line of thinking; it presupposes that any given student’s ability is fixed, that it is resistant to change, and that the solution to a weakness is less practice, not more.  The way I understand the human brain, as flexible, as plastic, as capable of growth, suggests that for students with learning difficulties more effort may be required than for others.  And the analogy, in my view, is incorrect: how can a learning difficulty be akin to paralysis?  If it is, if our brains are as fixed as the model suggests, why bother with school at all?

I’m currently reading Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck.  Drawing on a long list of modern research, she argues that all humans are possessed of a mindset somewhere on a spectrum with two poles: one that believes abilities are capable of increase, and one that suggests they are fixed.  She makes the case that greater things can be achieved with a growth-mindset, and through hard, slogging effort, than with a mindset suggesting our abilities are unchanging.  As I understand her argument, a growth-mindset would dictate that students with difficulties shouldn’t see their capacity as limited – at least, the limits of anyone’s mind are unknown, so any and all effort is beneficial towards the goal of developing our abilities.  It suggests students with challenges would benefit from more practice, not less.  She argues that phrases like “I can’t,” a phrase often used by students identified with disabilities, should become, “I can’t – yet.”  (Incidentally, she claims in passing that there are only a handful, perhaps a few per cent of students, who would, by virtue of their brains, be subject to a fixed mindset.)

Being sensitive to students’ individual needs and frailties is perhaps the greater part of being a teacher.  But I think that in the desire to be sensitive, and in the desire to explain unusually difficult learning processes, we might have sent the message that “when learning is hard, perseverance is pointless.”  I don’t like that message, and I don’t think it corresponds to (an admittedly immature and sometimes shaky) neuroscience.

And sure, well-meaning types might say: “Of course we want students to grow – these aren’t labels, per se, but helpful diagnoses of learning disabilities.”  Perhaps.  But I wonder if with the diagnosis comes a mindset that states, subtly otherwise, the student will always be inferior.  I wonder if, as Jacques Barzun argues, we have put our faith in the identification of learning issues rather than their remediation. The more we focus on what can be done, what messages of resilience we can instill rather than impossibility, the richer our students will be.