Developing Smarter Students

Have you ever thought you knew something, then tried to explain it to someone else and realized you didn’t? Researchers call this the illusion of explanatory depth: We humans think we understand the world better than we really do. This is a problem. “When you teach something to someone else, that’s when you really learn it,” said Arthur Markman, Ph.D. “Because you discover all the pieces you didn’t understand.”

Markman, a psychology professor at the University of Texas and the executive editor of Cognitive Science, spoke at the Learning & the Brain Conference yesterday in New York. He argues that acquiring real knowledge—a true understanding of how something works—and being able to communicate that knowledge are among the most important skills a student can have.

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April 10: Learning & the Brain New York

Learning & the Brain will hold a one-day symposium in New York City on April 10 that will explore the mindsets and motivation in student success. According to the website,

This one-day symposium will bring cognitive scientists, psychologists and educators together to explore the role that mindsets, attitudes, anxiety, goals, optimism, dopamine, intentions, resilience, persistence and character play in student success and achievement in life and school. Learn strategies you can use to make students more successful, motivated and resilient.

Regular registration ends April 5, so be sure to sign up before then to avoid paying an additional fee.

The Dana Foundation is a co-sponsor of the symposium, and will have a table at the event. Please stop by and say hello and pick up some of our free literature.

Hope to see you there!

–Ann L. Whitman

ADHD, Multi-Tasking, and Reading

This weekend, more than 900 teachers, researchers, and other education experts met to share what they know about how we learn. At a session of the Learning & the Brain conference titled “The Web-Connected Generation: How Technology Transforms Their Brains, Teaching and Attention,” we heard a lot about multi-user virtual environments, enhanced reality, the myth of multitasking, and individualized web-based learning. But the tech story that most caught my attention was a slightly older one: reading.

Why do many kids with ADHD “suddenly” start to lag in reading comprehension by the fourth grade? They seem to have acquired the basic skills at the same rate and competence as their peers; they recognize and use phonemes, they can recall words at sight. One part of the reason is that we’ve been assuming that once kids master all the basic language skills they need, fluency just comes naturally, but that doesn’t always seem to be the case. Another is that the act of reading itself is a form of multitasking, and in some ways kids with ADHD have a harder time doing it.

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Are we fostering a generation of anxious learners?

    What is up with kids today?

    I recently attended back-to-back
conferences on learning and the brain, the first on “Attention and
Engagement in Learning” in Baltimore (see my story for more), the second the three-day Learning & the Brain conference in Washington, DC, also focused on the topic of attention
and motivation in education (look for the story, by writer Aalok Mehta,
later this week).

    At each conference, I heard from both the speakers and from teachers about an apparent tsunami of stress among students.

    "In
the last 10 years of my 40 years of practice, I have been so bowled
over by the amount of anxiety I'm seeing in children," said Martha Bridge Denckla,
a clinician and researcher at the Kennedy Krieger Institute and a
member of the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives, during the Baltimore
conference. "We're bathing our schoolchildren in an anxious
environment," she said. She argued for stopping the push to teach
everyone algebra in eighth grade, and suggested we not teach
handwriting until a child actually has the motor skills to do
handwriting. She suggested that inattention (the topic of the
conference) might be secondary or a response to this "anomalous
emotional environment."

    Her remarks and those of others at
the Learning & the Brain drew a lot of response from attendees. The
teacher in my break-out group during the Baltimore session said kids,
without prompting, tell her how they worry all year long about the
mandatory end-of-year state exams.

    “Anxiety is a tremendous
stimulator of ADHD,” Denckla continued during her lecture at the
conference in DC. Children may show symptoms of the disorder, such as
failing to sit still or focus on a task, when their true trouble is
that their minds are diverted by excess worry, often caused by adults
asking them to perform activities they are not cognitively ready for,
she suggested. “We’re making pseudo-diagnoses of everyone because we’re
asking too much of them at an early age.”

    The next day, William Stixrud,
a clinical neuropsychologist who also sees children in his practice,
seconded Denckla’s observations. “Kids seem to be increasingly less
ready than years ago, and yet we’re asking them to do so much more.
From the developmental point of view, this is absurd.”

    “Virtually
everything is easier to learn at a later age” during childhood, he
said. For example, for most children, learning to read at seven years
old is easier and makes better readers than learning at five. “You pay
a price if you rush,” including the chance that a child’s frustrations
at not meeting expectations lead to acting out.

    “The level of
stress in kids, Stixrud said, “is a similar crisis to global warming.”
He recommends movement and meditation to offset daily anxiety and
chronic sleep loss (he said children today sleep an hour less each
night than children in the 1970s did). “If we take care of the nervous
system, if we take care of development, we get better results.”

    Along with Stixrud and Denckla, other speakers, including Judy Willis,
a neurologist turned middle-school teacher, reinforced the idea that
children need to feel safe before they can be completely ready to
learn. “Safety first, then stimulate their curiosity,” she advised
during a teacher-skills lecture.

    I don’t remember feeling
stressed-out very often during my early grades, at least about school,
and I am the sort who does worry about things. I took standardized
tests in third, seventh, and eighth grades, and didn’t fret about them
for a moment; I don’t remember my teachers worrying about them.

    The
idea that young children today do fret about such things, and that we
may be pushing them beyond what their bodies can perform worries me.
Nobody wants a generation of stressed-out adults with cramped-hand
handwriting and trouble paying attention. And if, as Stixrud suggests,
we don’t get good results from all this pushing, shouldn’t we stop?

    –Nicky Penttila

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