Here’s an idea for an invention that might revolutionize teaching.
I’m picturing a small machine that is hooked up to each student’s cortex—the thinking, logical part of the brain. As students access their cortex during lessons, teachers would now see different sections of those kids’ forehead light up as they process, ponder, and reflect on the information being presented.
However, if students are stuck in the primitive parts of their brain, teachers would now just see black, empty screens on those kids’ forehead.
So how would this nifty invention make a difference? Well, what if teachers, for example, note that 75% of their students have a black, empty screen? Yikes.
I’m thinking that’s going to make it a lot harder to continue with the lesson as planned. I’m also thinking there’d be more understanding and incentive to implement teaching techniques that address the probability that some (or many) students in a classroom have underdeveloped lower centers of the brain.
But, in truth, we don’t really need that invention. We already know there are kids in the classroom without complete lower brain development—those who have to juggle between paying attention to the lesson and finding ways to compensate for missing automatic brain functions.
We already know that when such underdevelopment is present, it doesn’t take much to trigger a “primitive brain response”—and once kids are in that state, no learning at all is going to happen (i.e. we’re back to the black, empty screen).
So why not forge ahead with various actions to ensure learning is accessible to everyone? Here are some simple ways to do just that.
1. Toss the idea that kids have to “sit up and be still” in order to pay attention.
When the vestibular system is not functioning properly, movement wakes up the brain. So when such kids rock or wiggle in their chair, this actually helps—not hinders—their ability to focus. Similarly, when kids have retained primitive reflexes, they’ll slouch or sit in chairs in odd positions but that, too, actually make it easier for them to pay attention.
2. Provide opportunities for kids to get up and move within lessons.
We all need to move to stay focused. The irony is . . . the classroom teacher is often the one who moves the most in the classroom.
3. Ask questions instead of issuing directives.
Kids with underdeveloped lower centers of the brain may not process directives the same way others hear it. In such case, a directive may become distorted and trigger a response that often seems disproportionate to what was actually said.
For example, a simple statement, such as, “Thomas, put away your book,” may be heard as: “THOMAS! PUT AWAY YOUR BOOK!” In such case, Thomas now responds as though someone had just threatened and yelled at him.
On the other hand, if we forgo directives and ask questions, we avoid this possibility altogether. Here, the teacher would say, “Thomas, did you think we wanted your book on top of your desk or inside?”
In short, questions are always processed in the cortex (where we want students to be at all times).
4. Reduce visual stimuli on the walls, ceilings, desks, and around the white board.
Some kids with an underdeveloped midbrain also have what’s called a visual figure-ground problem. Here, the brain has difficulty relegating information to the “background” and keeping what’s important in the foreground. So all those extras (that we thought were providing a stimulating room environment) are just sensory overload for many kids.
5. Keep directions short. Model both what you do and do not want to happen.
Kids with an underdeveloped midbrain don’t often process speech at the same speed as the rest of us. So, when teachers fire off multi-step directions, these kids are still processing the first part while teachers are now explaining the next step. We also increase the probability of kids comprehending directions if we take a few seconds to model what we don’t want to happen. Such contrast helps to make the desired action crystal clear.
6. Pass out materials only after the directions have been given.
When the midbrain is underdeveloped, it’s often like we have a magnetic draw to touch whatever is in front of us. So, by waiting to pass out materials, we automatically ensure that such kids are not playing with materials when directions are given.
7. Refrain from requiring kids to make eye contact.
If kids’ don’t have good peripheral vision (which is often the case with underdeveloped lower centers of the brain), they’re not going to be able to sustain good eye contact, whereas kids with poor eye teaming may actually see multiple images if forced to look directly at the person talking.
In short, kids with limited peripheral vision and poor eye teaming will be able to pay better attention to what the person is saying if they’re not required to make eye contact.
8. Honor the act of thinking, rather than getting the “right” answer.
If teachers deem an answer “wrong” in front of the whole class, kids with underdeveloped lower centers of the brain are likely to shut down or respond negatively (i.e. we see the black, empty screen when we’re in the survival part of the brain). That’s because such kids are “wired” to go into fight-or-flight behavior as soon as they feel threatened or fearful or uncomfortable.
So what can teachers do instead? Well, they can thank the student for giving the question “a whirl,” as well as acknowledge the thinking that went into the response.
Just eight simple tips . . . yet they can radically change many kids’ learning experience. What would it take to make these changes in every classroom?
Somewhere along the line, we’ve come to associate slouching with being inattentive. That’s why we often hear adults telling kids, “Sit up, and pay attention!”
Yet, I know many kids who actually pay less attention when made to sit up straight.
How can that be?
Well, some kids have retained primitive reflexes. In such case, sitting upright in a chair isn’t as automatic as it should be.
For example, a child with a retained Tonic Labyrinthine Reflex will experience difficulty doing movement that goes against the pull of gravity. So these kids can only sit upright for a very short period of time before being “pulled down” (i.e. gravity wins).
This then explains why such kids sink lower and lower into their chair, or they sprawl across the desk when reading and writing. At least, in these positions, they can start to concentrate on the task as hand (they’re no longer distracted by fighting gravity) . . . that is, until they’re, once again, told to sit up straight.
Some teachers mistakenly think the child who always puts his head on the desk while writing is not going to bed at an appropriate time. She may even call the parent about this.
If the parent does not also understand the connection between retained primitive reflexes and difficulty sitting upright in a chair, she may now put her child to bed earlier (even though she’s a little miffed about the call because her child does go to bed at a decent hour).
Yet that mom can put her child to bed at noon or earlier—and he’s still going to go down, down, down when sitting in a chair. He’s wired to do so.
But now, the teacher may think the parent is ignoring her bedtime concern or lying about his real bedtime. After all, the child is still always sprawled over the desk. Since the mother is putting the child to bed earlier, she may start to think the teacher is just out to get her son. And all the while, no one understands the real reason the child slouches.
We’ve actually all experienced fighting gravity while sitting up. Think when we’ve had a bad flu. Suddenly, trying to sit up (let alone straight) is very cumbersome. We’d much rather be lying down, right? Imagine, then, how difficult this is for kids with primitive reflexes, who have to deal with this all the time.
So, maybe the next time we see a child slouching . . . we let it be.
Is our reaction to our kid’s next year’s teacher based on personal experience, or is it coming from what we’ve heard on the soccer field, walking around the neighborhood, or playing cards at Bunko?
If it’s the latter, how many of those parents actually had first-hand experience with our child’s assigned teacher?
For example, one of my daughter’s absolutely best elementary school teachers was believed to be (by the neighborhood gauge) so dreadful that many parents considered changing schools rather than have their child enrolled in that class. In contrast, my child’s worst year was with a prior “teacher of the year” who was the neighborhood favorite. Go figure.
But my point: It’s only your child’s experience with the teacher that matters. So, why not keep an open mind for now?
Some schools post class lists a few days prior to the start of school, while others send home a letter with just the teacher’s name and room number.
Of the two scenarios, the latter creates the most angst since parents (and kids) immediately get on the phone to see who else is in the same class. But what’s the message here? The school year is going to be terrible if our child’s best friend is in another classroom? Thought the classroom was . . . a place to learn. And what about making new friends?
People don’t move into a neighborhood per criteria that ensures the right number of kids for each class at each grade level. So, sometimes administrators have to create combination classes (two grade levels in one classroom). That means some kids have to be in those classrooms, including . . . maybe ours. Before we start dwelling on problems a combo class might present, why not wait to learn how the teacher plans to meet different grade level expectations?
The Portable Classroom
Sure, portables may be not as cozy and attractive as the main buildings, but what’s the alternative? Would we rather the school ban portables and bus our kids to another school?
The First Morning
Is our send-off showing we’re confident the day will go well, or is it long and laced with a subconscious message that reflects our own doubts and worries?
The truth is . . . none of us know how the first day of school will go. So if worrying made a positive difference in the outcome, then I’d say . . . worry away! But it doesn’t. In fact, the more anxiety we have over our child’s first day, the more likely whatever we’re “putting out there” may even happen.
So why hold on to any first-day-of-school anxiety? Why not just look forward to the possibility of a new, wonderful school year?
Parents often rely on the latest buzz around the neighborhood, soccer field or baseball bleachers to learn who’s the best teacher for next year.
But I never found those sources reliable. That’s because the real question is: Who is the best teacher for my child? So, here’s a set of questions to ask prospective candidates:
1. How do you honor kids in your classes? We’re hoping teachers rattle off a list of concrete examples that show how they find ways to make each child shine (regardless of their current academic level), how they peel back, as needed, to ensure kids don’t shut down, how they hold kids accountable for what they can do, and how they set challenges that are within reach of every child.
2. What percentage of the day are kids expected to be seated and quiet? How many opportunities to move are included within daily lessons (and can you give some examples)? If teachers stumble on providing specific ways movement is integrated into their curriculum or if there is a high percentage of seated, quiet time, this classroom may be problematic for kids who really need to move.
3. Are the majority of your lessons multisensory in nature? If so, can you give me some examples? Most traditional classroom lessons rely heavily on visual pathways. So good to know whether auditory, tactile, vestibular, and proprioceptive sensory stimuli are also included, especially if kids are not strong visual learners.
4. How do you create a “safe” learning environment? Ideally, teachers respond that they focus more on thinking (rather than just getting the right answer) and more on the process than the end product. So it may be a red flag if the teacher immediately refers to a set of classroom rules when answering this question.
5. How do you handle kids who are viewed as uncooperative or who do not finish their work? Looking to determine whether: a) the teacher views classroom problems as his or her responsibility to address or expects parents to bring about change; b) the teachers’ response to such kids could be considered punitive or “branding” the child (i.e. every student in the classroom can quickly name who always gets “in trouble”); c) withholding recess is used as a consequence for unwelcome behavior or not finishing work.
6. Do you assign homework that can be done independently by the child? How much time a night do you expect kids to do homework? Since parents seem to differ in regards to what’s an acceptable amount of homework and how much parents should be involved, good to know if the teacher’s homework policies are in sync with parents’ expectations.
7. How do you make learning joyful? (See Why Schools Fail for a list of ways to do this.)
But what if your school doesn’t allow parent input for teacher selection? Well, just a quick look around the classroom can be very telling. Parents can also answer the above questions as they hope their next year’s child would respond, and then give that to whoever is responsible for their child’s class placement.
The bottom line: Each year, kids spend more than a thousand hours in a classroom. Seems worth the time to ensure that environment is a good fit and one where the child can succeed.
Bill Gates, along with other well-known philanthropists, has now contributed billions of dollars to improve education.
What kind of change has all that money created? Well, Newsweek recently gave the overall results a disheartening B-minus to C-minus grade.
So I guess money wasn’t the simple answer.
But what if, before ever donating a dime, all those philanthropists had first answered this straight-forward question: How can we make learning joyful?
Yep, when we answer that question, we may be surprised at how much everything else falls into place. Here is how I believe we can make learning enjoyable.
1) We rewrite standards.
I’ve yet to read a state standard that includes the word joy as part of any criterion. Somewhere along the way, we decided that it’s only, for example, important to learn how to read—but it’s irrelevant whether we ever enjoy reading. But I don’t think you can separate the two.
So I want to see the words “with joy” tacked onto whatever skills are spelled out in existing standards. Think we’d see a change in classrooms if such qualifying words were part of how we measure success?
2) We present lessons that trigger a positive physiological response in the brain.
When we provide opportunities to move, engage multiple senses, and interact with peers while learning, the brain is able to process information efficiently and stay alert. It may even release dopamine, a neurotransmitter related to pleasure and motivation.
In contrast, if the brain becomes frustrated or feels “threatened” (e.g. “I can’t do this”), it immediately shuts down, going to the survival part of the brain. With repeated failure, the child then additionally creates a general brain map that says: I can’t learn. I’m not smart.
3) We present curriculum that parallels natural brain development.
For example, since there’s a growth spurt of dendrites in the right hemisphere during ages 4-6, we should be engaging these kids in activities that include lots of movement, music, creative thinking, fantasy and other activities reflective of the right side of the brain. We actually used to do that with our youngsters.
But without any research to back up the change, we switched to a left-brain focus (e.g. reading, writing) that begins as early as kids start school. Any surprise that so many children are now struggling?
4) We encourage and honor thinking over finding the “right” answer.
Not sure how getting it “right” ever came to rule in the classroom. But it’s a completely different learning environment when kids feel as though their ideas and reflections and questions are valued more than getting the correct answer.
Decades ago there was a “just say no” campaign against drugs. Well, how about parents “just say no” to stressful learning. Starting today, let’s make learning without joy . . . unacceptable, unpopular, offensive.
I’m lucky. I think learning is one of the most blissful experiences. That’s why it makes me sad that so many kids have no idea what I’m taking about.