From TED talks to neuroscience journals, the consensus on improving memory is clear: make information fun, meaningful, and visual-spatial, while training the brain to focus. Most of the videos I’ve watched emphasize memory of facts, dates, spelling, and playing cards (Not sure that minors need to memorize decks of cards in less than 5 minutes but it might help with Hearts or Spades.) Did you know that there are memory athletes who compete in how quickly they can memorize hundreds of names?
While we are not only teaching facts to be memorized, these athletes do have some useful tips for the load of information required at each grade level. Multiplication.com, for example, effectively uses a story-mode with unusual characters to support memorization of times tables.
An ancient Greek strategy uses places (“loci”) to help store information. For example, you picture the words or concepts you want to recall in familiar places, attached to a vivid story. To memorize the six syllable types, I could walk up my front steps to find the door has turned to glass. It is CLOSED so I whack the glass to OPEN it. As soon as I walk inside, I see an unfamiliar band playing in the hallway but can’t hear anything. And how did they get in my house? I step closer and notice they are all wearing band tee shirts saying SILENT E, which is weird, right? I run to the kitchen and grab my phone to call the police, keying in my cLE password (c for consonant). The police send a special V-TEAM to sort things out, but those guys end up in the hallway playing with the Silent Es! I’m about to give up when some lady on a motorcycle revs out of the living room! The loud RRRR sound scares everyone away!
Okay, that’s a bit lame, but I guarantee that if a student or class create a picture story using spaces in the school building, they will remember all of the syllable types. And just imagine the fun they’ll have! Where does the meaningful part come in? Guiding students to understand the benefits of learning those syllable types or multiplication facts. Learning about memory and how to improve it. Helping them make connections with previously learned material. Practical and social applications, like being a student memory jock. And maybe some of your kiddos will end up in memory triathlons!
What? How can goofing off be good for you- and your students? Lea Waters has written a powerful book called “The Strength Switch: How the New Science of Strength-Based Parenting Can Help Your Child and Your Teen to Flourish.” Despite its cumbersome title, “The Strength Switch” has the potential to change you, dear readers, as well as other teachers, parents, and kids. I am encouraged that it is already changing me!
This post will address the goofing off research and I’ll go into more detail on strength-based teaching after I finish reading the book. (What I’ve read so far is awesome!)
Research shows that certain kinds of “goofing off,” where the brain is doing something habitual, physical, and/or requires little effort or concentration, helps the brain percolate information. Waters likens it to a bridge (no pun intended, I’m sure) between direct attention or focus and “free-form” attention (sometimes called mindfulness). We can only concentrate for a certain period of time before the brain is overloaded with processing. Shifting gears, or effective goofing off, allows our brains to rest and make sense of what we’ve just heard. An interesting fact is that the brain is not really resting; this downtime allows the brain to store information, problem solve, and make room for more information. Researchers from Columbia University saw marked improvement in attention and cognitive functioning when kids were routinely allowed this effective downtime.
Waters suggests that kids can build their attention skills by practicing this shift between focus and “goofing off.” It makes sense to me that we can all do better with this approach to tasks and breaks. You know how that name you were trying to remember pops up when you’re not even thinking about it? How you come up with a clever idea or solution to a problem when you were least expecting it? Those are perfect examples of how you’ve given your brain a chance to work more effectively.
Goofing off is “softly focused inward attention,” according to Waters. It is not texting or talking on the phone. It’s doing the mundane, so that your brain can become more brilliant.
Give yourself goofing off time and see what happens!
ASCD, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, has a lot to offer teachers as well as administrators. The organization was founded in 1943 and has continually provided high quality professional development, current research and issues, along with a commitment to improve education, one child at a time.
How does this play out for special needs kids? ASCD supports a positive approach to neurodiversity, which means celebrating learning differences and improving students’ ability to understand their unique strengths. This also means less emphasis upon labeling/pathology, less test-driven assessment, and more technological support for struggling students. With state and federal monies dependent upon labels, is this possible? Certainly! Most elementary students are oblivious to the behind-the-scenes labeling process. As they mature, students can participate in that process with a secure awareness that there is no average learner.
Check out the membership options for ASCD. You’ll be glad you did!
In the latest edition of Stanford, an alumni publication, atomic physicist Carl Wieman examines the differences in student performance between sit-and-listen versus hands-on, problem solving. (Sam Scott writes the article entitled “Should We Lose the Lecture?”) No question about the results. Students who actively participated in classes FAR outperformed their peers, even when the teacher was much more highly qualified.
So here’s the kicker: These studies were conducted at the graduate level of education! Research at the elementary, middle, and high school levels confirms that our brains simply can’t absorb such lengthy chunks of information. And we also need to actively interact with information (and our peers) to get the most out of instruction.
As teachers and students, we intuitively know this to be true. Yet in our practice, it feels expedient to lecture, lecture, lecture. Unless we are quite deliberate in structuring short chunks of information followed by authentic student interaction, we will overload our kids’ brains. Being a highly qualified teacher means losing the lecture.
… And have fun with programming at the same time! This is the game board for a ThinkFun game for preschoolers called Robot Turtles.
It’s never too early to play logic (aka coding) games and if you are trying to steer clear of screens with your younger ones or even introduce the joys of hands-on games to older kiddos, ThinkFun is a terrific resource. A local toy store keeps us supplied with some of their classics, but you’ll probably have to go online to check out their wealth of problem- solving games. The availability of non-screen games is shrinking, so it’s ironic that you need your screen to purchase hands-on fun.
I highly recommend ThinkFun as a source of individual and group entertainment, with brain challenges galore. Does your kiddo have social skill challenges? The structure of a group game can provide a satisfying, well-defined opportunity to engage with others. Try Escape the Room mystery game (ages 10+). where you are transported back to 1869 to save a local astronomer. These games are terrific for parties as well as family night fun. Have a long car trip in your future? ThinkFun has a number of fascinating 1 player games, too.
Thanks, Jennifer Nicole Wells, for your Color Your World challenge featuring desert sand.
In a not-so-recent post, I mentioned that I’m using the awesome Tobii Dynavox I-12 device with Communicator 5. One of Com 5’s cool features is the creation of page sets that allow links to even more links. This means the homepage can be simple, but each link allows more choices. Here’s a look at a home page (sorry for the picture quality):
Before UMMY, “brain break” in the school page has been linked to pictures of a student’s favorite YouTube videos, but then we have to open YouTube, etc. Brain breaks are serious business and support improved student learning, but they also need to be efficient. This is where UMMY makes good things happen! I just discovered the Ummy video downloader, which allows me to access and create links to the actual YouTube videos. Wow! For $14.95, I now have unlimited downloads, it’s a snap to use, and allows me to choose from a variety of formats. I love the HD quality as well as the sound. [I had a free trial with another downloader, but it was going to cost a big chunk every month and in 5 days, I couldn’t get one video downloaded. Granted, my brain has had its challenges this past week, but even a digital novice can get Ummy to work!]
If you want easy and cheap access to unlimited and high quality video downloads, Ummy is a winner. It’s going to make school transitions easier and my student’s life more fun. For classroom teaching, you can ALWAYS access your Ummy videos with a simple click, even without internet availability. Be sure to check it out!
What does neuroscience tell us about spelling instruction? An excellent resource for understanding brain-friendly teaching in this area is “The Best of Corwin: Educational Neuroscience,” edited by David Sousa. (Corwin has been at the forefront of educational research for many years; click on the link to access webinars, free resources, and more.)
In her chapter on The Literate Brain, Pamela Nevills reiterates what we already know. Memorizing a set of words each week is NOT the way to develop capable spellers. Instead, she suggests a sequence of skills by grade level. These are also paired with reading instruction on the same skills.
- Kindergarten- letter-sound associations
- First grade- vowel sounds with decodable words, along with exceptions
- Second grade- complex vowel and consonant patterns
- Third grade- multisyllabic words, the wonderful schwa (unaccented syllables), and common prefixes and suffixes
- Fourth grade- Latin-based prefixes, suffixes, and roots
- Fifth through eighth grade- Greek roots and content vocabulary.
Nevills asserts that only about 4% of English words cannot be spelled using predictable spelling patterns and those are best learned through repetition and memory. My experience confirms that estimate. For struggling readers and writers, this is great news! Students who learn spelling and syllable rules early and systematically actually change the structure of their neural pathways.
What are the implications for classroom and special education teachers? Learn these rules and patterns for yourself and your kiddos. There are many available resources online. Encourage your PLC or grade level team to incorporate these skills into reading instruction. Reading instruction, especially decoding words, does not end at third grade! A bonus for teachers in Educational Neuroscience: Each section provides student demystification of our brain processes for that topic, including a scripted discussion starter.
I’ll share more about this terrific resource in later posts.
I’ve been asked how to keep a young’un attentive during summer tutoring, especially one with special needs. My nephew, Christopher, is such a joy to teach, but he does get tired, off track, antsy, and frustrated at times. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, he’s an ASD (A Sweet Dude) kiddo . Here’s what I do:
- Keep a visual schedule so he knows when we will take brain breaks.
- Take a variety of brain breaks, including going outside for a few minutes to toss a minion (below) or to attempt hula hooping.
- Encourage him to stand up as we work, if he looks fatigued.
- Give him something to fidget with.
- Keep the activities focused on his special interests.
- Tally every off-task remark and praise him for the improvements he’s made as we work. Many times, simply tallying or graphing is sufficient with kids. No need for a reward, but…
- Establish a small reward of his choice for each of our 3 major activities (thinking/language, writing, reading). For example, he loves a sour small candy, so he’s gotten 3 miniature pieces after each session of working hard. He DOES work hard all the time anyway, which I find very typical of kids on the autism spectrum.
- Provide a larger reward for longer and more difficult assignments which may take a week to earn. These are typically the “thinking” activities related to problem solving.
- Stay playful. We DO get off track and although I sneak in some language work as we banter, he needs to enjoy himself with those wild and crazy thoughts of blowing noses, beating Super Mario Bros, or endless discussions of “comic mischief.”
(Hover mouse to read captions.)
He came roaring in today, declaring “The dude is here!”
Gotta love the mohawk look!
Minions are perfect for uncoordinated kids because they have so many edges to grab. Also, they don’t roll as far, since we hardly ever catch him!
Will playing video games improve working memory? Neuroscientists are examining the claims made by a number of cognitive training programs, with an eye to improving working memory in aging adults as well as youngsters with learning challenges. Why working memory? It is a strong predictor of educational success. (And it helps me remember why I trekked upstairs.)
A recent article in Brain in the News (written by Lisa Munoz for the Cognitive Neuroscience Society) reports that scientists have shocking news: apparent long-lasting benefits in working memory when a mild current (tDCS) is passed through the brain. John Jonides, one of many researchers exploring how video games might improve working memory, reports that they tried the tDCS current “as a lark, not expecting to find much, but the fact that the training effect lasts as long as months is both surprising and very provocative because it opens up the use of tDCS for long-term learning enhancement.”
Jonides’ team is now studying two currents “to boost plasticity in the underlying brain cortex.” His goal is to “accelerate the learning process that occurs during game play, especially for those individuals with damage.” This is encouraging news, giving me hope that some day, weaknesses in working memory may be addressed efficiently and permanently.
Sign me up! I am tired of wandering around, wondering what I was doing in the first place. I might even start playing Hearts again!
Speech Therapists! That’s a slight exaggeration, but not far from the truth. I have been blessed by the advice and mentoring of many excellent speech and language pathologists. Why has their advice been so crucial? They understand and work at the deepest levels of understanding, helping kids process information. Speech therapists demonstrate how systematic and carefully sequenced instruction transforms language, which is at the core of most academic and social learning.
It was a speech therapist who first shared the TOPS 3 Elementary Tests of Problems Solving with me. This test assesses critical thinking based on students’ language strategies, logic, and experiences. For students with dyslexia and those on the autism spectrum, these language-based skills are sometimes assumed to exist and therefore receive cursory instruction. For this reason, I’ve used the Tasks of Problem Solving workbook by Bowers et al. for social skills and reading comprehension instruction (see related post), as well as for specific skill remediation.
This workbook includes a description of the following skills with useful tasks of increasing difficulty. Many of the lessons include visual cues (or these can be easily created). It is quite simple to adapt any lesson to student interests and needs:
- Identifying problems
- Determining causes
- Negative questions
- Making inferences
- Problem solving
- Justifying opinions
- Generalizing skills
One caveat: Years ago, after observing me in the classroom, a speech therapist strongly advised me to speak more s-l-o-w-l-y. I’m still working on that skill!