What will the coming year bring in educational innovation? Will trends like gamification, neuroeducation, and iPads get even bigger or fade away entirely?
To get an outside opinion of what’s on the horizon, I called up Dr. Jeff Borden, Vice President of Instruction & Academic Strategy and Director for the Center for Online Learning at Pearson. The largest education publisher in the world runs this as a research center, similar to Microsoft Research, says Dr. Borden: “All that we do is look for academic problems and solutions, we make recommendations, we try to get research published in journals, and I also go around the world speaking.” Dr. Borden is also working on a book on the intersection of neuroscience, cognitive science, and learning.
Here are his top predictions for trends coming in the new year:
1) Gamification: A major upswing in creation of, use of, and integration of games into curricula at all levels in 2014. What makes games wonderful, says Borden, is that they’re safe zones for failure, “While playing, students are failing 80% of the time and enjoying it.”
For Borden the game trend isn’t as much about short casual games to teach simple spelling or math, like the ones that dominate the Apple “Education” apps store. It’s about a few different types of “serious games”:
a) Massive, online, alternate-reality, roleplaying games of the type popularized by Jane McGonigal, where participants around the world take on topics like hunger, poverty, climate change, or global peace.
“My center is running a research experiment that simulates a Contagion-style global pandemic. We create a network of experts, professors, and teachers who will provide the clues, backdrop, framework and game elements over Skype and a learning LMS.” The game is being played in different ways, with different goals, by students in journalism, biology, and other disciplines.
b) “Off the shelf, plug and play” games like Glasslab’s SimCity EDU that can drop into the curriculum in a variety of ways.
c) Games with real-world outcomes like the protein folding game Foldit.
Borden recommends the 2012 book The Gamification of Learning and Instruction, by Karl Kapp, for more on this trend.
While I’ve written that many attempted applications of neuroscience to the classroom are premature or ill-supported by evidence, Borden is bullish on the trend. In a sign of the growing interest, he is seeing education organizations hiring people who are conversant with the science. “Just look at some of the things that science knows that have not made their way into education,” he says, citing an experiment that showed that if you expose students to a certain scent while teaching a particular topic, then present that scent again while they sleep, test scores jumped by 11 percent.” Another example, he says, is the growing research on spaced repetition, or the art of re-presenting people with information at the moment that they would potentially forget. Headmagnet.com is a smartphone flashcard app created by a group of neuroscientists that measures your individual “forget curve,” the rate at which you assimilate new information and then stuff it down the memory hole. “It allows you to take items you tell are important, and they will pop it up on your screen device at the appropriate time. It gives you essentially the ability to learn in a way that is personalized–everybody’s forget curve is completely different.”
Borden says to check out Dr. John Medina’s books for more on the connections between neuroscience and learning.
3. Speech to Text:
Will Siri be increasingly welcome in the classroom?
“The students will embrace it first,” Borden says, as part of the growing use of tablets. It’ll be a handy (and fun) way of interacting with apps that simulate dissection, say, or exploring the solar system.
4. Learning Spaces:
This, says Dr. Borden, is NOT a great trend. “I think we’ll see a lot of money dumped into learning design,” he says. “But having carbon fiber desks or lots of natural light or glass so it looks like the deck of the Starship Enterprise doesn’t change learning if the practitioners don’t know how to use it. It doesn’t mean students will collaborate, or have deeper memory penetration. What helps students are the methods used in those spots.”
Tune in next week for the forecast of four more trends in the year to come!
What have I missed? Shout it out in the comments!
I took over this blog in March 2013 and it’s been an incredibly enjoyable–and educational!–experience so far. Thanks to all of you who have read, linked, and commented on the blog. I hope you’ll stay with us into 2014!
At the suggestion of my editors at the Hechinger Report, I’ve compiled a list of the top ten most popular stories of the year. This list gives me a couple of great reminders about what to focus on. Readers love breaking news, as I did with the iPad in LA and Comcast Internet Essentials stories. (Both of these stories came from chance encounters–don’t hesitate to email me at diyubook at gmail dot com with any tips!) You also love counterintuitive or critical takes on the role of technology in education, perhaps as an antidote to all the hype that’s constantly flowing out there. And–this is human nature–you love lists.
So I hope you like this one! I’ve added any updates or additional insights that have come since I first posted these stories earlier in the year.
This September post quoted two Los Angeles Unified School District contractors giving their insights about what went wrong with the district’s high-profile iPad rollout–ranging from the rushed timeline, to a lack of professional development. Due to the growing controversy and negative feedback, the LA school board is currently wrestling over implementing the next phase of the technology project in time for standardized testing in the spring.
iPads are the dominant tablet in education, with 94 percent of the market, so it’s little surprise that posts about them draw a lot of attention. This was an interview with Neil Virani, a middle school special ed teacher in the LA Unified School district, about his creative and inspiring use of iPads to help unleash the capabilities of his students.
“In at least one case, a $500 iPad, with its intuitive swipe interface and pop-up onscreen keyboard, is replacing a $15,000 assistive technology setup for a student with control over only one finger. ‘He had a special chair so he can hold his arm in a certain position–a custom chair that cost a fortune. It’s useless now. He’d try to type on the keyboard, get the cursor in the right place, and he’d have an involuntary muscle movement and erase it all. He’d cry, he was so frustrated. In one hour from opening the iPad, he wrote his name [for the first time].’”
One of my first posts, about the attempt of Gates Foundation-backed nonprofit startup inBloom to create a shared data collaborative for student information systems in different states, was also the most popular, touching a huge chord with educators and others worried about the impact of “big data” on student privacy.
This issue has not gone away. Over the rest of the year several states left inBloom due to political concerns. Most recently 75% of school board members in New York State expressed opposition to the company’s data collection practices; it was defeated in Colorado, and Chicago Public Schools decided against using it.
This post was based on an interview with Eric Sheninger, principal of New Milford High School in Bergen County, NJ. He talked about how technology and innovation had opened his school to the world, led to a highly engaged workforce, and even helped improve the culture of the school by raising awareness of issues like cyberbullying.
Sheninger is representative of a generation of educators who are getting connected on social media, especially Twitter, and forming networks to advance best practices for student-centered, innovative learning with technology. I spent the year talking to folks like these–like Brendan Campbell, in Detroit and Jennie Magiera in Chicago.
What’s so great about disruptive innovation, anyway? Did you know there’s zero scientific evidence to support the idea of “learning styles”? And behind that “digital natives” characterization lies a generation that uses the Internet in simple, passive ways without direct instruction. It’s important to apply critical thinking to the buzzwords that surround us; More recently, I took on the ideas of right vs. left brains, grit, and neuroplasticity.
Data. Games and adaptive learning. MOOCs. Makers. Back to the classroom. Most of these trends will continue into 2014, while others, notably MOOCs, may be fading. And new ones are coming too–to find out more, tune in next week for my two-part post on 2014 predictions.
A tip from a reader alerted me that Comcast, which has signed up 250,000 families for its $9.95 a month Internet program, doesn’t support wi-fi. This week, Comcast announced a marketing partnership with Khan Academy to further tout this program and burnish its image as a partner for families. Will they take the necessary steps to allow families to support multiple and mobile devices?
This blog is about best practices for technology in education–not innovation for its own sake or merely to make education more efficient, but technology that supports creative and student-centered learning. This post expands on that distinction.
A recurring theme in this blog is how the exciting new prospects of things like blended learning intersect with the very real and enduring social problems of poverty and lack of resources that our schools face every day. One of the most controversial questions is whether schools can actually find ways to use their limited resources more effectively with technology. I plan to delve into this question even more in the year to come.
One of the delightful ironies that I’m finding as I report for this blog, as well as research my new book on the future of assessment, is that science and technology are leading us toward a concept of education that takes in all the social and emotional aspects of being human. In this vision teachers use technology and data to maximize the individualized attention and interaction time they get with each student.
Last week I interviewed a self-proclaimed expert on the application of brain research to the classroom. Within minutes this person had mentioned the ideas of “mirror neurons,” and the “right and left brains.” Among brain scientists, both of these concepts have been widely criticized and undermined by current research.
Right and left-brain dominance, it can be stated flatly, does not exist. While it provides a wonderful metaphor for different intellectual styles and strengths–creative vs. logical, visual vs. verbal–a recent analysis of over a thousand subjects concluded that while certain functions are indeed localized to different sides of the brain, “our data are not consistent with a whole-brain phenotype of greater “left-brained” or greater “right-brained” network strength across individuals.”
Mirror neurons, meanwhile, were first observed in studies of monkeys’ motor cortexes. In the original experiment in the early 90s, the same neurons fired when the monkey picked up a banana, and when it watched an experimenter pick up a banana. Neurologist Vilayanur Ramachandran trumpeted the idea that mirror neurons were the key to empathy, learning by imitation, and even what makes us uniquely human, comparing their importance as a scientific discovery to that of DNA.
Mirror neurons have more recently been called the “most-hyped concept in neuroscience”, and a new review of the literature concludes that there is far more that we don’t know about them than that we do. There are different types of cells with mirror properties in different parts of monkeys’ brains, and while they definitely activate with movements and observations of movements, there’s been no actual research results connecting them with emotions or with learning and no direct observation of their existence in humans.
I mention these two concepts not to pick on this expert, but to highlight the danger in rushing to apply any nascent science to classroom practice. A piece by neuroscientist Steven Rose published yesterday in Times Higher Education makes this same point.
“The seductive appeal of those ubiquitous false colour images of the brain, showing the regions that “light up” when solving a maths problem or learning a new language, cannot be denied. They seem to offer a certainty that mere psychological or educational insights cannot. So it is unsurprising that neuroeducation is becoming a growth industry (a Google search records 50,900 hits for “neuroeducation” and 250,000 for “brain-based learning”).”
The problem, as Rose argues, with neuroeducation is not only that much of the research is brand-new and constantly evolving. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing–all too often, preliminary discoveries or unproven theories take root and lead to bad practices. The best example would probably be learning styles. I have had students at the college, high school and middle school level tell me that they are “visual learners,” or “kinetic learners.” What they really mean is, “I’d rather watch a video than read something” and “I get fidgety when I’m bored.” Guess what? Pretty much everybody feels that way. And there is neither brain research to back up the “learning styles” idea, nor classroom research that supports the idea that presenting students with information in their preferred medium leads to faster acquisition. In fact, some studies show the opposite--that if you take students out of their comfort zone they end up learning more. Even Howard Gardner, whose theory of multiple intelligence is often cited as the basis for learning styles, calls the idea “not coherent.”
In general, “brain-based learning” doesn’t necessarily tell us anything useful, or non-obvious, about how to teach and how we learn. For example, brain science tells us that people learn better when they are well rested, had a good breakfast, get regular exercise, and feel safe and happy. So does common sense. Memories are formed through regular repetition and practice, and mnemonic devices like songs and rhymes can be good ways to encode them. Teachers have known this for decades or centuries–although the concept of “spaced repetition” may prove useful in accelerating memorization.
Brain science is wonderfully convincing and impressive to the layperson. The idea of basing education in science has been seductive to Americans since at least the 19th century. But you are not your brain, and as Rose writes, the more we focus on the brain the more we exclude the crucial social context of education.
“By instrumentalising teaching instruments, by focusing on the brain and not the child or student, these advocates seem oblivious to the fact that both teaching and learning are not timeless and isolated activities but in their very essence socioculturally embedded.”
Joe Bower, an educator and blogger in Canada, made a very similar point last week in reaction to the concept of grit. Psychologist Andrea Duckworth just won a MacArthur Genius Grant for her work isolating and focusing on the importance of the personal quality of grit or perseverance to childrens’ success.
Grit is related to Harvard psychologist Carol Dweck’s popular concept of “growth mindset,” which has its scientific roots in the widely hyped neuroscience theory of “neuroplasticity.” Briefly, brain imaging studies over the last decade have highlighted the fact that the brain forms new neural connections, rearranges connections and even grows new neurons throughout life. Dweck’s research documents improvements in academic performance that can be induced by informing students about neuroplasticity, giving them the “mindset” that ability is not fixed early on and through effort they can improve. Grit or perseverance could be seen as the adoption of growth mindset as a character trait–the presence of individual determination to improve through effort.
Bower’s gripe is that “grit” sounds too much like an up from your bootstraps, Horatio Alger exhortation:
“too often the argument for more grit in children is an abdication of the system’s responsibility to make things more equitable. I’m all for growth-mindset and resiliency, I teach it everyday, but they are not systemic solutions to inequality and inequity.”
I don’t see a big problem with introducing a little bit of brain science into the classroom, however simplified, in the hope that it will improve students’ eagerness to learn. If brain scans convince policymakers and the public to support recess, so be it. But it would certainly be ironic if the neuroeducation approach, on a policy level, diminished our compassion and empathy for students’ full and varied experience. Students are human beings, not brains in a jar.
Melissa Loftis is a third-grade coteacher at Albemarle Road Elementary in Charlotte, NC. Her class of 40 includes many English language learners, some from Salvador and Mexico, others refugees from Nepal, Burma and Congo resettled in the area by Catholic charities.
This week her students are among ten million (and counting) around the country participating in the Hour of Code, an initiative by the nonprofit Code.org of unprecedented size and scope designed to promote the teaching of computer science in public schools.
Wait, why don’t schools teach computer science?
Despite a steady drumbeat about the STEM disciplines and the job opportunities available in the field, between 1990 and 2009, the percentage of high school students who earned credits in computer science actually fell, to less than one in five. It was the only technical subject to see a decline. Very few classroom teachers are trained in computer science. Some schools don’t have sufficient connectivity or devices. And the field is so new, there’s a lack of up-to-date curricula, even at the college level. When it comes to elementary school, forget it: the big learning publishers don’t offer textbooks or teachers’ guides in coding.
Code.org, founded by twin brothers Ali and Hadi Partovi, have mobilized a huge amount of star power behind the push, with a coalition of over 100 organizations. ” Our biggest and most important challenge is that computer programming is not cool,” Ali Partovi told me. “We’re going to make it cool.” Free classes are being held in every Apple retail stores in America. Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates recorded video tutorials for the online, game-like curriculum. Politicians, celebs and athletes from President Obama on down have been putting up videos and tweeting encouragement. Google, Yahoo, YouTube, Apple, MSN, Bing, and Disney have all featured the Hour of Code on their home pages. “Our goal for next year is to have 100 schools in US add CS as a class, the year after that, a thousand. And by the end of the decade we want Computer Science taught in every school in America,” Partovi.
For Loftis, however, the appeal of participation is a lot simpler. Right now, her class of 40 shares five computers and four tablets, which she got by appealing through the web site DonorsChoose. In addition, the entire school of 1300 has a computer lab with only 30 machines. But she and her school’s technology teacher won a $10,000 grant by pledging to have every kid participate in the Hour of Code, money they’ve used to order 30 low-cost Chromebooks. That in itself, she says, will make a difference in the way she teaches for the rest of the year. “We’ve been trying to drive more project-based learning,” she says. “Things that involve speaking, listening and doing research.”
The first Hour of Code is definitely engaging. The first series of 20 lessons took me 25 minutes to complete. Based on characters from well known video games Angry Birds and Zombies vs. Plants, it simplifies the coding process from a series of endless runline commands into lego like “blocks,” written in plain English, that snap into place. The first hour gently introduces the idea of if/then commands, loops, functions, and other basic computer logic which you use to move the game characters through a series of mazes towards their goals.
Loftis says her students’ enthusiasm level is high, and the curriculum is surprisingly open-ended in its applications. “They’ve been in our country some of them a month–that’s amazing. It’s been eye opening for us as teachers, that they can build their reading, listening, speaking, and math skills and technology all at the same time. Seeing them engaged with more than just the social media aspect of technology–the math and the code and really thinking how to create and manipulate–it’s exciting. And I feel like it’s rigorous for them. They’re having to do something they’ve never really done, but they enjoy it.”
Not everyone agrees that computer science belongs front and center on our nation’s educational agenda. There’s no mention of it in the new Common Core State Standards, for example. Some would call coding a distraction from our mediocre basic math and literacy skills, which just got called out on the international PISA test. Others argue that calls for universal code literacy betray a self-servingly narrow, vocational concept of the purpose of school. After all, having members of the Silicon Valley elite push for programming to be taught in every school is not too different from having members of the fossil fuel industry plump for universal teaching of geology.
Nevertheless, Code.org is getting a rapturous political reception. In six months of lobbying they’ve managed to help get laws signed in three states updating educational standards to recognize computer science. This week, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced a partnership with the organization to introduce computer science as a core subject in Chicago Public Schools, and the New York City schools chancellor announced a $1 million investment in teacher training to bring CS into more schools there as well.
On the ground, there’s reason to hope that this push will bring broader benefits to the classrooms headed by teachers like Loftis. “This is the 21st century. They need to know technology. They need to know how to communicate, but also create and collaborate. [Programming] might not interest everyone, but I really think it’s good for students and even adults to explore and see what goes into making and building computer code.”
Yesterday, the iPotty, a potty seat that comes with an iPad holder (“Parents can give children a comfortable and fun place to learn to use the potty with the child-friendly iPotty from CTA Digital,” claims the marketing material), was voted the worst toy of 2013 in a parent poll sponsored by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.
“Throughout history, kids have mastered toilet training without touch screens,” said CCFC’s Director, Dr. Susan Linn, in a press release. “The iPotty is a perfect example of marketers trying to create a need where none exists. In fact, the last thing children need is a screen for every single occasion.”
Reviewers on Amazon have weighed in, too: “Seriously, I can’t believe this is not a joke. Does anyone else find this ethically wrong to cut down human interaction with a toddler in this aspect of their lives?”
The kerfuffle over the iPotty, and similar items like a Fisher-Price iPad holder clearly directed at infants, represent a deep ambivalence that parents feel about exposing their kids to ubiquitous electronic media.
When I talk to other parents of young children, we express a lot of guilt and most of all, confusion about the role of screen time in our family lives. iPad apps and videos are so useful for occupying young children on long plane flights, through illness, or when a single parent needs 10 minutes to take a shower. Some parents see their kids learning reading and math skills, and other positive behaviors–even toilet training!–through apps and videos. But on the flipside, we don’t like how obsessed our children get with screens, how they constantly whine for more screen time as though each pixel were a sugarcube. And as parents we struggle with setting limits ourselves for texting at the dinner table or checking our phones at the playground. There’s a movement of “hands free parenting” exhorting parents to give up all these distractions while they’re with their kids.
Recent research shows that 75% of kids under age eight have regular access to mobile devices, and 38% of babies under age two have used the devices. The trend lines are mixed, though: overall daily screentime is down slightly from two years ago, to just under two hours, driven by a decrease in DVDs, video games, TV, and computers.
Another announcement yesterday spoke to parents’ anxieties with a fantasy of complete control over electronic exposure. Amazon has updated its parental control features on the Kindle Fire tablet, allowing parents to dictate both overall time spent on the device and a distinction between “education” and “entertainment” uses.
With the “Learn First” and “Educational Goals” features, parents can force kids to spend a fixed time, say 30 minutes reading, or 45 minutes playing math games, before they can access any old regular games or cartoons. Or they can limit kids to one 20-minute TV show while permitting unlimited ebooks. Bedtime, Weekday, and Weekend settings cut off all access, depending on the time of day or time of week. Amazon offers a subscription service featuring children’s multimedia content that is age-graded, pre-sorted into “educational” or “entertainment,” and offered without in-app purchases or ads.
Electronic controls like these are similar to those offered teachers by the “one app” mode on the iPad, or the Amplify tablet’s “eyes on teacher,” “app controller,” and timer modes. The idea is to use technology to fight the most pernicious effects of technology–an “Odysseus at the mast” strategy.
There are two cautions here.
One is that the distinction that Amazon is pushing, between “good” educational content and “bad” entertainment content, may be a false one. Initial research indicates that the important metric for child development is the overall time spent with screens versus interacting with people in 3D space, not the individual choice of media within that screen time.
The other, bigger issue is that by arming themselves with an elaborate set of behind-the-scenes controls, parents–and educators–may be abdicating the responsibility to assert overt control and authority in their children’s relationships with technology. It feels uncomfortable to deny my two-year-old daughter’s repeated requests to watch her favorite Little Mermaid clip, but I’m learning to set boundaries, which is important for me as a parent and important for her to internalize as she gets older. I want to raise a kid who passes the marshmallow test, and is able to actively delay gratification, not one who needs to put a lock on the refrigerator door.
It’s 2013. Ebooks have been around since 1971. Yet tens of millions of students in kindergarten through college are still hauling around piles of heavy, quickly outdated paper textbooks that cost anywhere from $30-$200 per subject, per student.
Open educational resources provide a free digital alternative to traditional books. Boundless, a startup that’s two and a half years old, offers students an easier way to find and access these materials. Boundless has organized free digital resources aligned to popular textbooks in 21 common subjects. Students just have to look up the ISBN of their assigned book, and instead of paying $100-$200 they pay $19.99 to access equivalent material plus interactive study aids like flashcards and quizzes from their tablet, smartphone and laptop. Two million students use the platform each month, at the high school and college level.
Today, Boundless is launching a set of tools to speed adoption by educators. The Boundless Teaching Platform is free for teachers. They can customize content by chapter or section, assembling virtual “packets” for their students, and access a set of features such as assigning readings or quizzes and monitoring students’ progress, or creating presentations with shareable content.
There are a lot of new and old companies offering new takes on textbooks, from digital versions to renting used books, but Ariel Diaz, founder and CEO of Boundless, says that most of his competitors are still pegged to the old business model, preventing real change for students.
“The structure of the market doesn’t allow for much innovation. It’s a traditional oligopoly–the top five publishers have 80% of the market and control the distribution.”
Most of the new startups, like Kno, Inkling, Chegg, or Benchprep, are licensing content from the big publishers, so price points remain high–$80-$100 for an ebook, say. Flatworld Knowledge, a startup that initially offered free books under open license, abandoned the openness in favor of traditional copyright and a $19.99 price point. Boundless’s relationship to the market incumbents is clear: The startup is currently fighting a lawsuit alleging “copyright violation, unfair competition and false advertising,” by three of the big five textbook publishers.
On the other hand, in the “open” category alongside Boundless, Lumen Learning offers consulting services to districts to help them adopt open materials, and the Saylor Foundation and CK-12 offer free and open educational resources for K-12 teachers to adopt.
“We haven’t seen a lot of product innovation in the textbook world,” Diaz says. “But I do believe we’re on the cusp of it.”
In order for free and open digital textbooks to really penetrate the K-12 market, some serious public policy change is needed. The public school textbook and materials market was estimated at $5.5 billion in 2010, the second-largest category in publishing after general trade books. But 90% of the books are bought using taxpayer money through the lengthy and bureaucratic procurement process, as opposed to higher ed where textbook adoption is up to the professor. Some innovative K-12 teachers may already have the wherewithal to do an end run around the traditional textbook, and startups like Boundless will make this easier. But the long term solution will require public initiatives like those in Utah, California, Florida and elsewhere to promote, and perhaps even require the use of open textbooks.
A recent paper published in Developmental Science reinforced how tactile experience is important to learning in the developing brain. The experiment looked at how toddlers in a high chair learned the names of novel (edible) substances. Those who were allowed to get their hands dirty, quite literally, exploring the texture of the different samples, picked up the names more quickly and remembered them longer.
How could this apply to the world of video games? Games are drawing wide interest as a tool for both learning and assessment, as I’ve written about here and here. But while they engage the senses of vision, hearing, and hand-eye coordination, they usually have left out the sense of touch. Until now.
CogCubed is a video game startup that uses Sifteo Cubes, an interactive game system developed at MIT that consists of a set of small cubes that look like tiny TV sets, each with a screen. When you move, stack or tap the cubes they communicate wirelessly and the image on the screen changes in response. This system is known as a “tangible user interface,” a takeoff of “graphical user interface,” which is the term for the icon and window image navigation we are all familiar with from most computer operating systems.
The thought is that interacting with the cubes in three dimensions will be more engaging for both children and adults than using a keyboard, mouse, or other controller. According to CogCubed founder Kurt Roots, TUIs have been shown to be easier to learn than traditional GUIS, and they also tend to increase problem solving behaviors and improve spatial cognition.
CogCubed has created a game called Groundskeeper that looks a little bit like the old arcade game Whack-a-Mole. The company holds several patents relating to the capture and analysis of behavioral information while players are interacting with the game system.In a pilot study at the University of Minnesota, the game demonstrated surprising power to diagnose ADHD as people play. It could accurately detect the condition 75% to 78% of the time, an improvement over other existing methods. The success is not surprising given the level of detail: the system takes note of what the player is doing every one-tenth of a second for 30 minutes, for 30 different variables.
Clinical trials are continuing; CogCubed is pursuing FDA approval as a medical device to diagnose, and eventually treat, not only attention disorders, but other conditions affecting what is called “executive functioning” in the brain: anxiety, depression, autism spectrum disorders, traumatic brain injuries and Alzheimer’s. Clearly this is a growing area of research; how long do you think it will take before these devices and games are part of mainstream classroom practice?
In America, 6.4 million children have been given diagnoses of attention disorders. That’s 11 percent of the school-age population. Annual production of Ritalin-like drugs has quadrupled since the 1960s, and millions of children are taking these powerful stimulants every day.
Some argue that this “epidemic” is in fact an artifact of a test-driven, high-stakes, high-pressure school culture. Parents are eager to diagnose kids to get them extra resources, extra time to take tests, or simply an educational edge, and schools can exempt themselves from test targets if they have more kids classified as “disabled.” A.D.H.D. diagnoses spiked 22 percent in the first four years after No Child Left Behind.
Regardless of the broader context, kids and families are clearly suffering. Sandra lives in Newton, Massachusetts and is the mother of a 9 year old boy who’s had trouble in school, both with behavior and grades, since kindergarten.
“It’s painful when your kid comes home and says, I feel like the dumbest kid in the class because all the other kids know the answers,” she says. “He tells me, Mom, when I’m in school I have a really hard time paying attention. I go into the clouds and I miss what the teacher said and I have to ask my friends to tell me what just happened.” Despite these problems, Sandra has been reluctant to medicate her son. She was happy to have the opportunity to enroll him in a clinical trial of a new technological solution, Atentiv.
Atentiv is, essentially, a video game with a brain-computer interface component. To play the game, children strap a headband around the forehead that uses an EEG to measure the brain’s pattern of electrical signals and transmits them wirelessly to the computer via Bluetooth. First, the player goes through a calibration process that measures the unique “signature” of the individual’s brainwaves in concentrating and distracted conditions while completing the Stroop Task, a common test of concentration.(Previous studies support the presence of unique EEG patterns for children diagnosed with ADD).
Once the system is calibrated the user plays a game that involves a character running through a landscape to complete tasks. When the player is distracted, the character slows down; the more she concentrates the faster the character moves. The result is something like a form of biofeedback–young children get an object demonstration of “growth mindset.” They grow in awareness of what distraction and concentration feels like, and they also grow in their sense of being able to control their mental state for better performance.
For Hayden, Sandra’s son, who took part in the clinical trial three times a week for 8 weeks, the results were dramatic. “I really saw a tremendous difference both at home and at school. I was thrilled.” Hayden’s handwriting got neater. His sleeping habits improved. His homework got better. His teacher was no longer calling with discipline problems. He got along better with his sister and with friends. He was easier to get out of the house in the morning.
Hayden is not alone. Trials of the Atentiv System have shown sustained improvements in 75-85% of children, as rated by parents, standardized tests, and direct measures of the brain waves. In this study, parents noticed significant improvement in inattentive and hyperactive-impulsive symptoms six months after the treatment began.
It’s hard to say how much of this is due to the futuristic wonders of neurofeedback technology, and how much of it is a placebo effect. The researchers in this independent study noted that the study did not have a control group that, say, played a regular video game, and the parents all knew that their kids were in the treatment condition, which may have caused them to exaggerate the positive effects.
Atentiv’s founders are not initially seeking FDA approval for their technology, so they can’t make outright claims about ADHD. Instead they are launching early next year with a consumer product aimed at parents who want a solution for their kids without drugs. CEO Eric Gordon is confident that the technology will eventually lead to clinical products for treating not just ADHD but memory and abstract reasoning, in children, adults and the elderly.
Sandra’s explanation for her son’s improvement is not about the technology itself, but about the broader message of the game.
“It’s all about self-esteem,” she says. “For Hayden, it helped him realize he was capable. And also, just the way the game and training materials talked to him about it: saying there’s nothing wrong with you, you’re not dumb. Look, your brain is like a Ferrari and we’re going to teach you to look at the green and red light.”
Brendan Campbell teaches at Southeastern High School in Detroit, which is under the Education Achievement Authority of Michigan, a statewide recovery district for schools consistently in the bottom five percent according to test scores. In other words, it’s a failing school in a violent, poor, bankrupt city. But this fall, Campbell and his collaborators have used meager resources to construct a new approach to truly student-centered learning that is drawing interest and acclaim from educators and reformers all over the country: The Preparatory Academy at Southeastern, or PASE.
PASE students spend five hours of their school day in a big open space that’s been designed to feel like a college library, with quiet spaces for individual work, and places to meet with teachers or in groups. This time is theirs to prioritize and allocate over their core courses and up to two electives. The curriculum, based on the Common Core, Next Generation Science Standards and Michigan state standards, has been broken into manageable chunks–a set of learning targets in each subject, written in student-friendly “I Can” statements. Students move at their own pace towards mastery of each target through a sequence of “learn, practice, apply, assess.”
On a given day, students could choose to attend a “scheduled learning opportunity,” such as a lecture or a science demonstration; watch a video of a previously recorded lecture by their teacher or a curated resource from elsewhere on the web; work on a group research project; or review peers’ work with reference to a rubric. At the “assess” stage of each target, they take a 3 to 10 question formative assessment. They must score at least 75% to get their “exit ticket” and move on to the next target; otherwise, they’ll conference with a teacher on what went wrong, and go back to pursue mastery. Over the course of each unit, the students also work in groups to complete interdisciplinary performance assessments. In this first semester, students researched the science, ecological, health, and community benefits of planting a garden on campus and presented the case to the administration.
The planning process for teachers within PASE is novel. “When I used to make lesson plans it was focused on: I have 50 minutes to fill, if an activity takes 40 minutes, what happens for the last 10? That can mean a lot of busywork or wasted time,” says Campbell. “Now we’re only concerned about what is necessary in order to truly learn and master the content. Really, that’s a more productive use of student and teacher time.” Each student will be getting a different combination of direct instruction, reading, video, and more, so all the resources, and assessments, must be carefully curated to ensure that each student has access to what they need.
Each student has a laptop, and the program uses an online learning management system to help everyone keep track of students’ progress, but online is not the main focus. “We wanted it to be truly blended so there would be online and in-person components,” says Brendan Campbell. “Students always have a choice.” Students have the choice of up to two online electives during their PASE time, and have chosen from dozens from Psychology to Art History.
PASE isn’t designed for the strongest students in the school. Many must use their elective time to retake failed classes online–the average incoming reading level at the school is 4th or 5th grade. Students were asked to apply, and teachers were also asked to help identify those who they thought could benefit from the flexibility of the program and the chance to take ownership over their learning.
“One thing we’re struggling with is, do we hold all students to the same pace even thought they’re at different ability levels?” says Campbell. “Right now we’re at uniform pacing, and we want to create individual pacing for each student.”
I think what intrigues me most about this model is the sense of autonomy, respect and trust. Urban public schools like this one, majority minority and poor, have been criticized for forming a “school-to-prison pipeline.” When someone’s experience of an institution is primarily about being forced to sit in a certain seat, to quietly listen to authorities speaking, to move from place to place at the sound of a bell, to be labeled as a discipline case if you don’t do it, and you’re never asked what you’re interested in or what you want to do, it’s hard not to see how that could interfere with motivation and learning at one’s best.
“We’re trying to build students’ understanding of how they learn, and what they need in order to be effective learners,” says Campbell. “We talk to them all the time about, ‘in college there’s not going to be a teacher telling you to be quiet.’ I’ve been blown away with how students have reacted to the level of trust and respect. They give it back to you almost all the time.” He says that students wear their PASE lanyards with pride, and are particularly proud of the many national and state visitors that the brand-new program has hosted.
On the other hand, it must be recognized that the PASE model is taking place within a grim economic and political context. They started this September with 70 students in grades 10 through 12, and ten weeks into the semester, because of staff cuts, they had to nearly double the size to 115 students. That’s with just four teachers presiding. If this model succeeds, it is possible that it might be used as an blueprint to lower student-teacher ratios in the name of hyper-efficient blended learning, which would certainly be an unintended consequence. In either case, the nation has a lot to learn from PASE’s first year.
I listened to a presentation today by the, well, brilliant Annie Murphy Paul on her new book Brilliant: The Science of How We Get Smarter. While you can read more on her blog, a big theme of the book is the idea that cognitive performance is situational. Everything from our physical environment, to how much sleep we got the night before, how distracted we are, how we feel about the person we’re talking to, and the presence or absence of electronic devices can all have huge impacts on our “intelligence,” in the context of a given task, and the variations between people from day to day can be far larger than the differences from person to person.
Of course these are ideas that most classroom teachers understand from their experience, but we don’t put these insights into practice when we are designing environments that are meant to be dedicated to learning. A big study came out recently about the drawbacks of open-plan offices, the cubicle farms that most of us are familiar with. A survey of over 42,000 workers indicated that people with individual offices were more satisfied in every possible way, from cleanliness to the visual surroundings, than those working without walls. The lack of sound privacy, or the fear of being overheard bothers 60% of open-plan office denizens, while 30% complain about the noise. Previous research shows that the sound issue hurts concentration and productivity (classroom teachers know this issue well!) Even collaboration isn’t any easier in a bullpen-style office. That’s probably because most workers resort to earphones to get anything done, and they have nowhere to hold a private conversation if they do want to talk to each other.
Of course, open-plan classrooms are the norm for kindergarten through 12th grade. A new study (sponsored by an office-furniture company, Steelcase, so take it with a grain of salt) compared students in classrooms designed for “active learning,” including dynamic grouping of seats in small and large groups, multisensory engagement at different stations around the room, as well as the use of screens and other technology, to the more traditional “rows of seats” classrooms that are all but disappearing now. “90.32% of students perceived an increase in their engagement in the class with layouts designed for active learning, 80.65% said the new layout increased their ability to achieve a higher grade, and 70.04% their motivation to attend class.”
But even with these trendier layouts, the open-plan office research indicates that something may be missing: the opportunity for students to be alone with a teacher or with their thoughts. In many schools, one-on-one tutoring has to happen in a hallway or another “accidental” space. So much classroom management effort is really spent on managing the noise-pollution issue, while sound privacy matters when a teacher needs to give a student critical feedback or just time to reflect on a question.
Where do digital devices fit into this picture? We could see students using tablets or laptops the way adults do, as a way to create zones of sound privacy via earbuds while doing solo work. But we also have to be wary that they are simply exchanging one source of distraction for another.
My fifth-grade classroom had a loft bed in the back that was a coveted spot for quiet reading and reflection time, and we would work hard to earn the chance to climb up there for a well-deserved break.What would it look like if more classrooms–or schools–built in these semi-private spaces?