5 ways teachers can improve student learning based on current brain research

The brain is an experience-dependent organ. From our very earliest days, the brain begins to map itself to our world as we experience it through our senses. The mapping is vague and fuzzy at first, like a blurred photograph or an un-tuned piano. However, the more we interact with the world, the more well-defined our brain maps become until they are fine-tuned and differentiated. But each person’s map will vary, with some sensory experiences more distinct than others depending on the unique experiences and the clarity and frequency of the sensations he or she has experienced.

Educators can positively influence students’ learning by understanding how the brain is shaped by their early experiences—and how it can be rewired and reorganized to work more quickly and efficiently.

The Plastic Brain and the Critical Period

Brain plasticity, or neuroplasticity, refers to the brain’s ability to change with experience. In infancy and early childhood, a brain is so “plastic” that its structure is easily changed by simple exposure to new things in the environment. This time is sometimes called “the critical period,” or “the sensitive period.” [NOTE: the term ‘critical period’ although popular a couple of decades ago it is rarely used anymore because we understand plasticity better and realize new skills can be acquired long after the early developmental period, hence it is not really “critical”.]

Consider, for example, how babies easily learn the sounds of language and words by listening to their parents speak. Inside the brain, what this learning looks like is the brain actually reorganizing itself to change its own structure and create new sound maps that reflect the sounds of their native language. These sound maps are then interconnected with other maps and nodes to form interconnected networks so sound can be linked to meaning.

Networks can be expansive. For example, the sound map needed to recognize the word “pen” might first be connected to the meaning connoting a writing instrument, but over time, “pen” might be part of a network for comprehending “pen” as a verb meaning to write, then part of a word referring to legibility, “penmanship” and perhaps later to farm regions, like a pig pen.  Networks will also develop to allow words to be used in grammatical sentences then organized for reading.

Building neural maps and networks can be thought of like building cities: first, neighborhoods are mapped out and constructed then they become interconnected with other neighborhoods into towns and cities through a complex highway system.

(Next page: How student poverty affects the plastic brain)


K-12 is undergoing a purchasing renaissance—and it has massive implications for educators

As education innovation advances, so does the frustration of all parties involved in K-12 purchasing due to out-of-date processes, poor communication, and difficulties identifying new opportunities.

In “The K-12 Purchasing Renaissance,” presented by Nicole Neal, CEO, Noodle Markets, and hosted by Lisa Schmucki, founder and CEO, edWeb.net, Neal discussed not only why K-12 purchasing matters, but how the purchasing process must be improved.

K-12 purchasing is not just about the purchase of a product—it involves many interactions to get to that decision. “When I think about K-12 purchasing, I’m thinking about all of the things that happen before you get to a point where you award a vendor or select a product,” said Neal.

This could include:

  • Identifying what’s in the market
  • Finding the right vendors
  • Making sure the product works with the school’s tech stack
  • Being able to evaluate vendors
  • Getting to the best price (although the cheapest isn’t necessarily the best)
  • Selecting a product and getting it into the hands of teachers and students

Changing What’s Antiquated

Rules and Regs

Neal also shared important lessons she learned from observing the K-12 purchasing process. For example, many schools and districts are stuck using archaic practices that slow the purchasing process down and make it difficult to get products into the classroom.

“Many of the current state procurement rules and regulations have remained the same for more than two decades.  I am sure that the lawmakers of years past did not anticipate that we’d be in the midst of a digital revolution,” explained Neal. “So requirements like mailing 10 copies of a 100 page RFP remain unchanged.”

(Next page: Getting teacher and IT input for K-12 purchasing)


As expected, Trump’s education budget prioritizes school choice

President Donald Trump on May 23 released details of his proposed FY 2018 education budget, which adamantly supports school choice and slashes funding for other major education programs and initiatives.

Under the education budget proposal, the Department of Education would see a 13 percent decrease in funding, down $9 billion to $59 billion in discretionary funding.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos called the budget a “historic investment in America’s students,” noting that Trump is focused on giving more power back to states.

An official budget fact sheet identifies five major themes around the education budget:
• Expanding school choice, ensuring more children have an equal opportunity to receive a great education
• Maintaining strong support for the nation’s most vulnerable students
• Simplifying funding for postsecondary education
• Continuing to build evidence around educational innovation
• Eliminating or reducing department programs consistent with the limited federal role in education

Next page: What does the education budget cut, and what gets a funding boost?


5 major ways Trump’s proposed education budget would impact schools, students

If “near-final” documents obtained by The Washington Post are true, education would see deep cuts to the tune of more than $10 billion under President Donald Trump’s education budget. The budget is set to be released as early as Tuesday.

The Washington Post reports that funding for federal K-12 and higher-education initiatives and programs would vanish or be redirected.

The education budget documents indicate that the administration would direct some of the savings from large cuts to various programs to school choice programs instead.

“Funding for college work-study programs would be cut in half, public-service loan forgiveness would end and hundreds of millions of dollars that public schools could use for mental health, advanced coursework and other services would vanish under a Trump administration plan to cut $10.6 billion from federal education initiatives,” Emma Brown, Valerie Strauss and Danielle Douglas-Gabriel wrote in the May 17 article.

As talk about department cuts and a focus on school choice ramp up, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is expected to reveal more details about the administration’s focus on school choice during her speech at The American Federation of Children summit. DeVos is the the former chairwoman of the organization, which supports tax credit scholarships and vouchers.

(Next page: 5 ways the budget would impact education, students)


Is writing education vital to emerging technology?

In an age of technological advancement, it’s easy to feel obsolete.  I feel confident that education will always be needed; but, occasionally I wonder if writing education has value in a computer-driven world.

Students enter my English classrooms and see the course as a requirement for advancement.  They look at is as one of many “basics” they need until they can study their actual interest.

Katherine Schwab recently wrote an article that not only put my fears at ease, but declared the written word as vital to emerging technology. Schwab profiles a report titled “2017 Designs in Tech” which references writing as among the unicorn skills in design. Paralleling writing with the rare and sought after creature who displays great power dismissed any questions I had about professional relevance. She outlines some critical and practical ways writing is needed when designing user interaction with technology.

Writing as Job Market Differentiator

First, being fluent in writing code and traditional writing is a rarity. Both are acquired skills, and Schwab highlights the report’s author John Maeda’s trouble with finding designers who also know the importance of words. Both are relevant to a user’s experience with technology.

Designer Susan Stuart discusses that designing a user interface is a response to “a complete set of ‘what-if’ scenarios.” This is what writers do. Stuart distinguishes fiction, technical, and screenwriters in particular, but anyone who has written knows that the process is about anticipating questions of your audience and preemptively answering them. The best writing seamlessly puts these together so the audience does not even realize they had a question.

Writing for Great UX

This is similar to the best user experiences with technology.  Paul Woods states this clearly when he says, “we all know a great UI (user interface) is an invisible UI.”  And the best argumentative essay is the one where you don’t even realize you are being convinced until you are, in fact, convinced; the best narratives are the ones you don’t even realize you are being drawn into until you are craving an ending; and the best technical manuals are the ones where you don’t fully realize you are learning a technical skill until you have learned it.

Writing for AI

In addition to the design phase, Schwab highlights the use a mastery of language has in a world being ever-tailored to the masses. As artificial intelligence (AI) becomes ubiquitous, users will be communicating more with each other and with their own products through language.  Being clear and concise has never been more important.

Technology reaches into every sector. As an educator, sometimes I feel like I have left my subject behind just to become an expert in technology. Yet, I don’t even feel like an expert in that. Schwab’s article was uplifting.  It reminded me that transformation does not necessarily mean destruction. My success is based on my ability to put my skills to good use. I define my relevance.

This message should be universally displayed in English classrooms throughout the country.  Students walk in seeing a credit requirement that the world is leaving behind; what they should see is a skill requirement without which they will be left behind.


App of the Week: A new way to learn coding

Ed. note: App of the Week picks are now being curated by the editors of Common Sense Education, which helps educators find the best ed-tech tools, learn best practices for teaching with tech, and equip students with the skills they need to use technology safely and responsibly. Click here to read the full app review.

What’s It Like? 

Available on the web or as an app, Human Resource Machine is a programming puzzle game that lets you play as an office drone — a cog in a machine performing simple tasks and trying to avoid having robots take over your job. On each level, your boss gives a command, and you automate the task by moving items from your inbox to the outbox. Moving items is achieved through simple, drag-and-drop commands in a sidebar.

Price: $4.99 (app), $9.99 (Steam)

Grades: 6-12

Rating: 4/5

Pros: Entertaining, addictive, and enjoyable puzzles make programming come to life.

Cons: Very little in-game instruction or help; students might give up or just search the internet for the solution.

Bottom line: A novel way to learn programming that will require student collaboration and extra adult support.


Brace yourselves: AI is set to explode in the next 4 years

A new report predicts that artificial intelligence (AI) in the U.S. education sector will grow 47.5 percent through 2021.

The report, Artificial Intelligence Market in the U.S. Education Sector 2017-2021, is based on in-depth market analysis with inputs from industry experts.

One of the major trends surrounding AI and education is AI-powered educational games. Because games have the potential to engage students while teaching them challenging education concepts in an engaging manner, vendors are incorporating AI features into games to enhance their interactivity.

Educational games that include adaptive learning features give students frequent and timely suggestions for a guided learning experience.

Machine learning technologies in the AI field are designed in such a manner that they can interact directly with students without any human intervention, according to the report, and such technologies are capable of teaching varied subjects, such as mathematics, languages, physics, law, and medicine.

They are different from traditional computer-aided instruction systems owing to their ability to interpret complex human responses while simultaneously teaching. This system can analyze student learning patterns and they can adjust their content focus and feedback.

(Next page: What the experts say about artificial intelligence)


How a sheriff’s department and a school teamed up for SEL

School has always been a place for learning math, science, history, and art, but now it’s also becoming the place for students to learn other skills that are crucial to their future success and happiness, no matter where they end up. Social-emotional learning (SEL) is not about grades, but about teaching students to solve their own problems, take pride in their efforts, and develop strong relationships within their community.

I am the principal of Chattahoochee Elementary School in Cumming, GA. When our district began the push towards SEL, each school chose a program to support it based on their needs and budget. At Chattahoochee, we chose 7 Mindsets, because it best aligns with our school’s goal to raise respectful, responsible problem-solvers.

Because the families in this area have very limited disposable income, fundraising in the community wasn’t an option, so Debbie Smith, the director of Student Support Services for Forsyth County Schools, asked our local Sheriff’s Department for help funding the program.

The department purchased the program for our district’s Northern Cluster: four elementary schools, two middle schools, and one high school. The Sheriff’s Department ended up using funds from assets confiscated in local drug busts. It was a powerful thing to see that money, which was a result of something harmful to the community, being funneled back into that community for a program that will benefit it.

Changing Students’ and Teachers’ Mindsets

During the first year, our implementation was modeled after what another Forsyth County elementary school, Mashburn Elementary, had done. At Mashburn, they set up clubhouses where K–5 students get together and go to different locations in school to take part in mindset-based lessons and activities.

These clubhouses were effective, but it still didn’t feel like enough. The kids weren’t talking about living out the 7 Mindsets as much as we needed them to be.

So last year we went deeper, with teachers beginning to integrate the mindsets into their individual classes. This year we’re focusing on the teachers themselves, who are all meeting and working through the Educator’s Life Plan together. We believe that in order for our teachers to teach the mindsets to their students, they need to look at how they apply in their own lives first.

At Chattahoochee Elementary, rather than taking a punitive attitude to discipline, we focus on teaching our students life lessons from their mistakes, as well as their successes. We use discipline opportunities as teaching opportunities.

Every month teachers give awards for attendance, acts of kindness, or having an “attitude of gratitude.” These awards use the same language as the 7 Mindsets curriculum, and foster students talking about the mindsets in class, pointing out when they see an attitude of gratitude or an act of kindness, for example.

(Next page: Social-emotional learning with the Sheriff’s Department)


6 steps to strengthen early STEM learning

Although STEM education is inarguably essential in today’s economy, it is not always seamlessly incorporated into early childhood education–and the barriers to inclusion are more pervasive than many educators might realize.

“Just as the industrial revolution made it necessary for all children to learn to read, the technology revolution has made it critical for all children to understand STEM,” according to the report.

After a 2013 STEM workshop targeted to early childhood educators, those who attended said they were excited by evidence-based STEM education practices and tools, but many also noted various barriers to implementation, including feeling limited by existing school structures and policies; the misapplication of new education standards; disconnects between preschool and elementary school practices; and an underprepared workforce.

The NSF-funded report, STEM Starts Early: Grounding Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Education in Early Childhood, is the product of an effort by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop and New America to respond to those educators’ concerns about STEM education and also to:

  • Gain a better grasp of the challenges to and opportunities in STEM learning outlined in a review of early childhood education research, policy and practice
  • Offer recommendations to stimulate research and policy agendas
  • Encourage collaboration between pivotal sectors to implement and sustain needed changes

(Next page: The critical role families play in STEM education)


Principal: Real school transformation starts with a magical triangle

Every child deserves the opportunity to lead, learn, grow, and succeed. It’s only through a 360-degree approach to learning that we can provide these necessary opportunities to all children. At E.A. Cox Middle School, we are committed to a “whatever it takes” approach to success for each student entrusted to our care. In order to truly dedicate ourselves to this method, my staff and I decided two years ago to develop a three-tiered approach for our curriculum and instruction.

The model we created focuses on achieving proficiency in reading and math for our entire student body, along with proficiency in identified social-emotional skills. This model was developed out of a needs assessment that we conducted in 2015–2016, the first year I was principal at Cox Middle School.

It became very clear, very soon that we had to find a solution to combat the inordinate rate of disciplinary referrals and infractions across the school. Concurrently, it was clear from the academic data that the school was academically low-performing and that reading and math proficiency rates were far below acceptable standards. As a result, we developed a 5-Year Strategic Improvement Plan aimed at improving each of these areas.

Taking on an initiative that had far-reaching impact for all students felt intimidating at first, but we were pleasantly surprised by the overwhelming support and external encouragement we received.

Our community, we learned, was hungry for change and eager to see our school turn around. In addition, changes at the district level brought new leadership and vision at nearly the perfect time. Further, our school had recently been assigned Title I status, so funds were available to help address the areas of need.

The district and community were behind us, but Cox Middle School was still experiencing a relatively high rate of personnel turnover. Our first steps were to stabilize our staff and set teaching expectations at an appropriate level.

(Next page: Specifics of the magical triangle approach to middle school transformation)