The education and parenting world has a new buzz word - Neuroscience. Neuroscience is the science behind understanding how the human brain works. Its concepts and messages have underpinned a whole industry of foods, toys, supplements, exercises, meditations, music etc. These all claim to make people smarter or promote brain development.
After listening to Nathan Wallis, I set about learning as much as I could about the latest and most reliable research of how the brain works. Many people often refer to "the research" but are often unable to say where it came. Given the implications of decisions that are being made based on "the research" I wanted to have a firmer foundation of what scientists are confidently saying about how the brain works to inform the work we are doing as a school.
The most informative work that I came across was a semester of University Lectures on how the brain worked from a world leader in Neuroscience Professor Indre Viskontas, PhD https://www.thegreatcourses.com/courses/brain-myths-exploded-lessons-from-neuroscience.html
This work was fascinating (from a geeky point of view) and gave me an understanding of the brain that I never knew. It blew apart lots of misconceptions that I had of the brain that I had always assumed to be factual based on "the research" so many people had quoted.
In short, what did I learn?
The answer is this - scientists do not confidently know how the brain works! There are many working theories about how the brain works. These theories work in some cases, but not in most cases. Dependent on age, gender, left or right-handed, upbringing, career, etc., each brain is unique.
Warning - I am about to get a bit geeky; but stay with me, as the key takeaways will be worth the wait.
The reason scientists have such difficulty trying to figure out how the brain works is relatively simple - the brain appears to be infinitely complex and unique. There are currently three ways we can understand what the brain might be doing. The first is either through MRI and fMRI scans. These give us some working theories about how the brain works. But until we can make these devices portable to allow us to see what is happening in real life, and in real-time (rather than in a hospital or laboratory) and we can create a full three-dimensional scan of the brain to see what is happening within seconds, we can only make educated guesses.
The second way we create theories about how the brain works is by comparing dead brains. The problem with this method is it is like looking at a body at the bottom of a cliff then guessing what might have caused the person to fall.
The third way is by putting probes in animals like rats to try and understand what is happening. This method works on the theory that the human brain and the rat brain might work in similar ways.
So, what do almost all scientists agree on?
Neuroscientists generally all agree on four things that make a significant difference in helping to create sharp, healthy brains.
3. Exercise feeds the brain - Scientists are not entirely sure why exercise benefits the brain, but they all agree that regular exercise year upon year is an advantage. Some speculate that exercise helps the body to create the fuel the brain needs to be most effective. Numerous studies show that those who exercise tend to have an advantage across a range of cognitive and mental tasks compared to those who do not remain physically active. This becomes more pronounced in old age, which leads scientists to speculate that the advantage of exercise is just as pronounced in brain development but is less obvious.
4. Social Interaction - Numerous studies show that social interaction is critical for the human brain. Some scientists speculate that it is one of the things that set us apart from all other forms of life. This is one of the reasons why solitary confinement is considered one of the worst torture techniques. The complexities of interaction seem to have benefits on a wide range of learning and memory tasks. The language that we use when interacting forms our perception of the world. What we see, hear, smell touch is all understood through social interaction that tells us if we are safe or in danger, accepted or rejected. Numerous studies demonstrate that the vocabulary range that parents use in front of their children significantly influence how a child's brain develops. Environments that are loving, accepting, rich in exploration all have high levels of social interaction which tend to create stronger brains.
So what does this all mean?
Ironically, none of the above is new! Getting enough sleep, a healthy diet, exercise and hanging out with parents and friends are essential to create healthy brains.
Unfortunately, this is where the poverty cycle kicks in.
We live in a world where it is cheaper to buy sugar drinks than milk. Fatty foods cost less than healthy foods. Processed food often tastes better than natural food. Often families that live in poverty have cold, damp homes which affect sleep. These families often have less education and a smaller vocabulary range. This means the quality of interactions and experiences parents have with their children wires brains differently due to the vocabulary range they expose their children. Violence in the home affects their understanding of social interactions. Exercise, adventures, holidays and interaction are replaced with Netflix and trips to Fast Food venues. Poverty can create a cycle where the things that develop vibrant brains are out of the reach of generations.
The other elephant in the room when raising children is technology and screen time. Technology is changing the way that our children interact with the world around them, which tends to lead to the question about screen time. However, the question we should be asking about screen time might be taking us down the wrong path.
Perhaps a better question would be to ask if children are getting enough exercise, sleep, social interaction and healthy food. The neuroscience is really clear that it is a healthy dose of these four things, rather than too much of other things that inhibit the development of strong, healthy brains.
Over the weekend a couple of members of Team Leamington attended the TEDxAuckland event. It was a very interesting experience as it is one of the few opportunities that allow professionals from a wild range of different fields globally to come together to talk about some of the things that are being worked on. And a range of different topics was indeed explored! From listening to top NZ scientists talk about breakthroughs they are exploring in the pursuit of curing cancer, to environmentalists trying to save NZ birds, different ways to treat timber to reduce pollution, deep technology innovations, startups that cater for people with disabilities, right through to a group of elderly people who have started a global phenomenon called "Coffin club" - the range and contrast of ordinary people looking for ways to make a difference in our world was both humbling and inspiring.
How easy it is to think that the bubble that we live in is the same bubble as others
If there was a common take-a-way that I took from the experience it was how easy it is to think that the bubble that we live in is the same bubble as others in our community, in NZ, in the world.
It also reminded me that the bubble that we live in currently is standing on shaky ground as a new generation don't just talk about some of the challenges our world is facing - they are doing something about it. Pollution, climate change, energy, the environment, hierarchical corporate structure, global economies, automation, artificial intelligence, family violence, etc etc are all things that cannot be ignored any longer. There are many everyday people working on some creative and world-changing things in each of these spaces that are just around the corner.
Motivated by a purpose which led them to action
Another common theme was how each person was motivated by a purpose which led them to action. In almost every situation, it was when they were forced into discomfort that they stretched themselves to find new solutions. Not motivated by money or status or climbing the corporate ladder, it reinforced the growing trend that working for the "the man" to pay the bills to one day retire is a global mindset that is no longer applauded.
If you get the chance to go to a TED event - it is a worthwhile experience. It forces each of us to think outside the bubble we make for ourselves. To watch some of the top global TED talks of all time click on this link.
"Would you be happy if you were in a court of law, and the evidence that is used against you was of the quality that the author used to justify their opinion in this article?"
"The US Department of Health has revealed that 48 per cent of children who use electronic devices, like smart-phones, for five or more hours a day have suicide-related thoughts. The rise in teenage depression in the USA between 2010-16 was 60 per cent."
This opinion piece (disguised as an informative research article) is a template of the poor quality of information most people receive about the impact of technology on children and teenagers and the conclusions that are subsequently drawn.
Which parent with a child who uses an electronic device would not be concerned about these statistics?
However, the way the article is written leads the reader to come to certain polarising conclusions based on information it does not include, and it accuses those who are not concerned about the statistic to be disregarding the mental health of children.
Rather than enter into the debate again about the proposed harms of technology on people, I wanted to ask the question "Would you be happy if you were in a court of law, and the evidence that is used against you was of the quality that the author used to justify their opinion in this article?"
What information is lacking to allow the reader to come to an informed and objective conclusion?
I would want my lawyer to ask specific questions...
"What percentage of children who do not use electronic devices have suicidal thoughts?" (We are led to assume it considerably less based on how the article is written. We know this is not the case!)
"Specifically, what electronic devices were being used?" (The last significant study by the US Dept of Health was based on TV viewing usage from which most of the conclusions about the impact of interactive electronic devices has been drawn.)
"How were the devices being used?" (Were the children passively watching TV, were the children playing age-inappropriate games, doing homework on their computer etc.?)
"Is it normal for people to have suicidal thoughts (what is the definition) and how is this different from having suicidal tendencies?"
"Five hours a day, every day, is a significant amount of time. What percentage of people surveyed had five hours or more a day of continuous use and how did this reflect the home life and the choices the parent condoned?"
So what is my point? When we read articles like this, we need to be careful to avoid jumping to conclusions based on crucial information that is omitted either through lazy research or deliberately avoiding contrasting information to substantiate personal opinions.
We have just been "EROed!"
ERO defines children experiencing success primarily as documentation demonstrating that students who were "underachieving" are now making "accelerated progress" (defined as more than one years learning in a year.) The review criteria does not value the emotional, social, cognitive or cultural richness within a school (unless there is a problem with bullying.)
The criteria to receive a 4-5 year ERO review (which Leamington received previously) is now reserved for those schools who can demonstrate via documentation there is no disparity in achievement between boys and girls, or between ethnicities, in reading, writing and math. While Leamington can show that by the end of year six there is no disparity for boys and girls, because it is not across all year levels or ethnicities we do not qualify for a 4-5 year review - the top prize from an ERO review!
Are we ok with our children having great learning experiences but feeling a lack of emotional connections with peers or their teachers?
In fact, ERO now reserves the statement "high-quality teaching happening in every class" for only those schools where there is no disparity in achievement. It is their position that high-quality teaching can only be declared if it is bringing equity to all students - irrespective of attendance, health, learning disabilities, transience, prior attainment, home life, cognitive development or a child's attitude, readiness or effort at school.
The argument is of course flawed in logic!
By the same rationale, car seat belts have to be classified as ineffective as when they are not put on they do not prevent many injuries. Gym memberships have to be classified as ineffective as they do not bring the same benefits to all members - irrespective of attendance, effort or dietary habits. Prescribed medication has to be classified as ineffective as when it is not taken it does not bring the health benefits promised. The list goes on! (In fact, the ERO office can only describe themselves as being ineffective as despite the suggestions they have given to schools over the years -they have not caused the disparity in achievement to reduce either!)
The experience has provoked a sense of purpose and realignment within me that will not be quickly quenched. The children at our school are more than just learners - vessels ready to be filled with learning irrespective of anything else. They are not only learners or students - they are children who we are partnering with to co-author futures.
"What are the indicators of success for our children at primary school?"
We need to ask some questions that will ignite answers that will impact and give clarity for the way we do school into the foreseeable future.
Are we ok with our children making accelerated progress but being unhappy at school? Or would we rather our children be happy at school and making ok progress?
Are we ok with our children having great learning experiences but feeling a lack of emotional connections with peers or their teachers?
Naturally, if we had one, then surely the other should follow? But which one begets the other?
But what if it does not? If we had to choose, what would we prioritise? This question is one that over the next period of time is essential that we answer in partnership with our community to be able to answer the question "What are the indicators of success for our children at primary school?" The answer will dictate the choices we make as a school and community together to help co-author the futures of the children at Leamington.
I recently attended a workshop with 50 other primary (and one secondary) educators from across Cambridge to learn more about the positive impact and critical role that “play” has on not just children, but people of all ages. As a school, we have made an educated choice to introduce play into parts of our day for our junior classes (and extending into some other classes also) - and I am not talking about break times.
As a society, “play” conjures up a very different picture than how educators now understand "play." When most people say to children “go and play” we are often saying “go and burn time before dinner” or “go and do something to give me a break,” or “go and have a rest from the hard task you have been doing” etc. None of these things are bad - it just does not accurately describe the value of play for children.
When children play, there is sophisticated high-level neurological learning taking place. Children are learning to create, to problem solve, to negotiate, to compromise, to apply past learning to new situations, to craft words for purpose to suit the audience, to adapt, control impulses, initiate solutions to problems they have identified, to imagine, to learn new skills relevant to the task they are trying to solve. It encourages curiosity, discovery, inquiry, uniqueness. It helps children to learn what they are passionate about, about the sort of person they are and how to interact with others in situations where there are no set parameters. Who knew that "play" was so powerful!
One of the problems with the word "play" is that despite it being used so frequently, coming up with a nice succinct one-line definition is difficult because of the individualness of how each person plays. This also makes measuring the impact of play so difficult in a society and education system that is infatuated with “Taylorism” and that for anything to have value it has to be able to be measured. Measuring the cognitive and creative benefits play is having on children is nigh on impossible to measure.
Despite this complexity, play does have some common characteristics.
Among the most essential characteristics of play is that the activity they become involved with may not have established rules - the people involved in the play set the rules and they change them as they go and as the play evolves (which often drives adults mad because we like to have set rules which everyone follows!). This is what separates play from any involvement in adult organised sport, or a traditional game outside.
Another characteristic of play is that it is self-chosen, self-directed and allows children to quit at any time. The freedom to quit the play or change it is critical in the development of impulse control, to be able to concede if the task gets too tricky, or if someone tries to change the rules. All too often as adults we interfere in the play and try to organise the rules or manage disputes rather than allow children to do their play work and solve these things themselves. Of course, there are times when adults need to become involved, but sometimes children use adults as their tool to resolve a dispute or problem, rather than have to develop other skill sets to solve it themselves!
Play is process focused rather than product driven. Children do not have to have something to show for how they have spent their time, nor is what they have done or how they have spent their time going to be measured or assessed. As soon as there is measurement or judgement, the creative tangents that allow players to go in wonderful new directions are extinguished because failure becomes an option. Think about the frustrations that children encounter when they are following a set lego model as opposed to trying to find a solution to a Lego car they are building from their imagination. To be clear, I am not suggesting that there is no place for having a finished product that is assessed against some set criteria. If our society worked that way, nothing would get done! Who would hire a contractor who did not complete the task that needed to be done to an agreed on standard!? The important thing to keep front of mind is that in play the process, working through challenges, resolving frustrations, the personal wins, the skills learnt is what is of value.
To learn more about the characteristics of play, this is an interesting blog post from one of the most respected experts in the child development space - www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/freedom-learn/201610/the-culture-childhood-we-ve-almost-destroyed-it
So what does all this mean?
In addition to continuing to have targeted and specialised reading, writing, math groups etc. that focus on targeting the next step learning needs of each learner, we need to build in and value more the educational advantages that come from opportunities that allow children to “play”. These opportunities should be available not just during break times, during the weekend and after school once the “real work” is done - but as part of a well rounded, balanced education system that allows children to find and develop their hidden potential as we partner with them to co-author their future.
(I also wonder about the busy lives our children have outside of school and how there is less opportunity to play with friends or explore the paths of their imagination. Imagine setting homework where children are asked just to play! - But those are wonderings for another day!)
As I write this, I am at school on a Sunday morning looking out the window and watching different groups of children who have come down to school to play. Some have formed games with new friends - they have set up some rules and are having a great time, some are on the swings and talking away about who knows what, some have found some sticks and are doing something with them as they run around, and others are challenging themselves to do new things on the playground. Knowing the value of what they are doing, the benefits it is bringing them socially, emotionally, developmentally, and cognitively, it is time to stop writing, and go home and play with my kids!
Many great adventures start with the vacuum of time!
Over the last few months, I have been incredibly privileged and lucky to witness first-hand the education systems in NZ, China, America and Australia. It is always enlightening to experience how education is perceived and manifested in other countries as it highlights parts of what we do that are hidden from us in "plain sight" - because we see it every day, we take it for granted that it is the norm for all.
A responsibility that weighs heavily on me through all of these opportunities is a term that Jim Collins has coined as “Return on Luck and Opportunities” (Great by Choice.) In its purest form, this concept accepts that everyone has good luck and bad luck - things that go their way and things that don't. The critical difference between organisations that rise above those around them is how successfully they use lucky breaks and opportunities to propel them forward, and how successfully they minimise the unlucky breaks to hamper momentum.
For me, these experiences spotlight elements of what a growing number of schools in NZ, Australia and America are doing to rethink the possibilities of education. These are schools and communities who are no longer OK with doing school the way it was designed following the second world war (the vast majority of these 60-year-old ways of thinking about education and society remain unchanged in many classes and schools around the world today.) We know these changes make a difference, but experiencing schools not thinking about or doing some of these things helps to deepen our understanding of their impact and importance.
So what are the main things that stand out the most for me as hiding in plain sight as I contrast these different experiences?
The first area that stands out most clearly for me is the engagement of students and the contrasting ways that schools work with students. Engagement is a word that is overused and widely misunderstood. Educational researchers break engagement into three separate strands - behavioural, cognitive and emotional.
This shift does not mean that behavioural engagement is not essential, but it is not enough, particularly as children move into middle school and high school. The compliance that comes with well behaved younger children erodes with teenage hormones and the cumulation of years of being compliantly bored! We have been noticing the impact on valuing the whole child within our school to ramp up cognitive and emotional engagement - finding ways to use their interests, gender, values, experiences, culture etc. as vehicles to develop the skills, knowledge, attitudes needed for success in learning to entice more emotional and cognitive engagement. This is something at Leamington I think we take for granted as being the norm. In these other countries, and also in many schools in NZ, the emphasis is on teaching reading and maths from the moment the children start school with little or no regard to using their interests, curiosity, experiences, family values as tools to help teach these essential skills. Experiencing schools where this inclusive nature is not deemed as critical for engaging learners contrasts how crucial it is, and how much emphasis we must place on ensuring it stays at the forefront and be further advanced.
The second is how much value we place on partnering with families in the education process. I have assumed that all teachers and schools strive to partner with families, valuing their perspectives and culture. While in America, Australia and NZ this is undoubtedly a shared, espoused value. However the expectation of the depth and benefits this partnering brings to the education process varies widely. I was surprised at how schools were satisfied with gaining a 10% response rate from their community, how low their expectations were for parents to support their children in student-led conferences or parent/teacher meetings etc. In contrast, anything smaller than a 70% response rate at Leamington we consider to be a poor turnout. (Some might believe this to be an inadequate response.)
This expectation of partnering comes at a cost with ever increasing complexity - particularly with a larger school community and a more extensive range of views to place into the mix. Additional to the complexity is the changing generational expectations of parents of what a quality educational experience is, and how this differs from their children and those of younger parents. Generally speaking, parents whose youngest children are about to leave the primary sector have different life experiences and views about what comprises quality educational experiences, teaching, engagement, technology use and partnering than those whose eldest children are in the earlier stages of primary schooling (Levy and Murnane, Harvard University, 2013.) The absence, or lack of genuinely valuing the partnership and how that benefits the learner stood out as a contrast. Again, it is something that I knew was important, but it has been highlighted how essential it is to maintain and deepen.
The last area that stood out for me, hiding in plain sight, was the importance and urgency of a developing the skills, knowledge, attitudes, values needed for our children to equip them for a world and workforce that is going to experience relentless evolution and revolution. This is a theme I would like to explore in more depth in a subsequent blog post.
A few weeks ago there was yet another "chicken little" education article about MLE's claiming the sky is falling. These opinion pieces fuel emotions about education and perceptions about the alleged harm to children as many schools shift the discussion away from “what should a classroom be like?” to “how do children learn best?”
It may seem like semantics, but the contrast in that key question seems to lie at the heart of peoples experiences and perceptions about how schools and classrooms should and could function.
With such a one-sided perspective continually placed into mainstream media - a place many in society generally rely on for factual information (weather details, sport results, holiday road tolls, political information etc.), it is not surprising that anything we hear, watch or read from a reputable news source is received the way it is. And with the way we use social media more and more to receive news that is of interest to us - we can find ourselves in what former president Obama calls a “bubble.”
However, it might surprise many people that I do not doubt that the experience of the parents and teachers reported in these articles is probably accurate. I do not doubt that when they describe concerns about noise, children falling through cracks, lack of relational connection with the teacher or children having no direction or support for their learning etc. could very well be accurate.
However, it would be equally easy to find as many, if not many, many more examples of parents with children in single cell classrooms who also have recounts of those very things happening!
Is the argument that noise is not an issue in any single cell environments?
The answer, of course, is no. My experience of over 16 years is these concerns, queries, wonderings from parents, teachers and school leaders alike is not a new occurrence and did not emerge with the arrival of MLE!
My experience has been that when any of these discussions are raised, it always relates directly to;
The point is the issue is not the physical space or the different ways of working that causes these issues; the issue is teacher practice.
One of the rationale pieces for Leamington moving to co-teaching spaces is that our experience has been they amplify the effectiveness of teacher practice. My experience, and that of many of my colleagues, has been that since moving to co-teaching spaces I now field far fewer concerns from parents about any of the above concerns. Parents generally raise concerns about the idea of a co-teaching space at the outset, but do not return saying “I told you so!”
As a school, we receive many visitors to learn about how our classrooms function, the routines that are in place for the children and the way that the teachers operate. The first question I ask them is “what is your shared understanding of how children learn best?” Almost all visitors are completely undone with this question. And this is the issue as I see it.
When there is no clear understanding of;
As a school, we have spent considerable time researching and developing clarity across our team about how children learn best and how children both individually and collectively best engage in learning. Our classroom environments, no matter how they look, are then built from the ground up from this DNA and then continually calibrated against these key drivers. (Look at our Cogs, our virtues, our progressions, our use of Technology to magnify the potential of the learner, contextualised and targeted task design, our commitment to learner agency and culturally responsive practice, the commitment we have to relationships and getting to know the children in our class, opportunities to learn independently, inter-dependently, from both adults and peers alike, the way we scaffold children to have choice about their learning, making learning and progress visible, including more and more authentic learning contexts, having a bias towards creativity, curiosity, problem-solving, self regulation, resilience etc.)
The reason we have moved to co-teaching spaces is that our experience has been that within co-teaching spaces these learning opportunities and relational experiences are amplified for more learners more often when teachers collaboratively work together to meet the needs of individual learners.
So what has been the impact for our school?
In addition to our achievement data continuing to trend upwards, when we look at our engagement data from the Me and My School Survey designed by the New Zealand Council for Educational Research (NZCER) we see that the Leamington results are superior to those seen across NZ in single cell environments across all criterion. These include:
Again, the point is this - the concerns that these articles raise are valid - but they point to concerns about the impact on children as a causal environmental issue when it is, in fact, a teacher practice issue. And just like in single cell environments, teacher practice is the greatest variable within any school (ERO, Hattie). This is also the case within MLE environments, particularly when there is no clear rationale from the school about how an MLE amplifies learning for children, rather they focus primarily on the physical space and how teachers work together. Therefore it is no wonder that children fall between the cracks, because from the outset they were not the centre of the discussion!
To lump all MLE and single cell classes together in all-encompassing statements and articles is not only misleading and inaccurate, but it is also damaging and in my opinion slanderous on the many, many teachers who run extremely effective learning programs for our children, no matter in what space they may work.
At Leamington, our commitment to our community, our learners and each other is to avoid the personal and professional attacks that are misguided in many of these discussions. Our commitment is to discipline ourselves to focus our time, energy, blood, sweat and tears (literally) and attention on how children learn best and how they are most readily engaged; to do our part in helping to create futures.
Our commitment is to discipline ourselves to focus our time, energy, blood, sweat and tears (literally) and attention on how children learn best and how they are most readily engaged; to do our part in helping to create futures.
What is learning through play?
We are excited to be exploring this learning path for our students and will certainly keep you informed of how this progresses.
Links to research and articles around Learning through play
Play-based learning can set children up for success at school and beyond.
Article from NZ Herald - Setting Up children is Child's play
I last visited California in 2013 to explore their educational setting to get a compass as to what technological trends were emerging and how these trends might impact what was happening in NZ. The visit in 2013 was hugely beneficial for our school. Our Leamington Learner concept significantly developed, and the 6 C’s of our technologically capable learner evolved as a direct result of what we learnt. In fact, a large number of infrastructure decisions and concepts about the use of technology came from the 2013 experience.
My latest trip to California I have no doubt will be as beneficial and influential on helping to shape and provide clarity about critical paths we are walking as a school.
It was an incredible privilege to spend two weeks talking with very switched on school leaders and teachers, unpack their thinking and understand the influences that have shaped the decisions they have made about their school direction. To see first hand what errors they have made, the successes they have won, and speak with students about the impact these decisions have had on their learning has been invaluable. It has allowed me to separate educational window dressing from some compelling educational possibilities which has left me in a fog that has taken some time to clear and gain further clarity. These lessons will save us months of discussions, errors, deadends and has provided a spotlight on concepts we are starting to talk about as a country that will no doubt be sticky concepts (ideas that will stand the test of time and become more and more significant over time.)
But why go to California?
So what has changed?
The most significant thing I noticed as having gone through rapid change is America is quickly becoming a cashless society. I recall from several years ago everything being cash. Now, every vending machine has apple pay, google pay, Garmin pay, paywave etc. Many eating establishments now have tablets on the tables where you order what you want, when you want it, you then swipe your “pay” system and the food or beverage just arrives - there is no need to ever go to the counter.
Taxis are non-existent with Uber and Lyft cars everywhere and ordered from an app that tells you how much your fair will cost before you confirm your journey. It even shows you in real time the car coming to your location.
Electric cars are noticeably present with charging stations for cars occupied more times than not.
So what has changed educationally?
The overarching takeaway theme from 2013 was California was exploring ways to use technology to transfer a “paper-based textbook centred” education system to a digital textbook format.
Of the schools we visited, a significantly new direction has emerged. The discussions from each of the schools we spent time in centred around the urgency to have an education system that;
The children still needed to know "stuff" to get a space in college, but the way of teaching children has started to change significantly.
Two quotes from teachers stood out for me
“I used to be the smartest person in the room. Now, with the technology the children have at home, they are the smartest person in the room. They can now learn most of the things I used to teach them without me. My role now is to help them ask really good questions and connect with smart people outside of our classroom.”
“Don't try and predict what opportunities the children may be missing out on today, rather help them to learn the skills that means they don't have to worry about what tomorrow brings.”
For some of the schools we visited, these conversations are still in the early phases, while others are well down this track and are receiving a lot of attention and visitors from all over America - some even globally. A big takeaway is that the juggernaut of American educational culture is being reexamined and reimagined.
Many of the educational improvements we are exploring as a country and school - they are now actively developing and are bringing considerable financial resources and personnel to bear to bring about shifts with urgency. Based on their district schooling model, when a district starts exploring an issue they often represent 30 000 students across 20 - 30 schools from Primary to Secondary (the number of districts we visited alone would have represented over 100 000 American students.) Flexible seating, teachers working together to exploit their strengths, learning through play, maker spaces, not teaching children based on one grade level, children having choice about their learning and being able to talk about their learning, being skills based rather than content driven, communicating across a range of mediums, using technology as an enabler rather than thinking of it as a magical tool that will cause children to learn better and make good choices etc. are just some of the big concepts that were not there five years ago and will likely be significantly more developed in another 5 years.
So what does this mean for our School? None of these concepts are new to our school. We have been exploring these pedagogies for different periods of time. However, now we have more clarity about what is likely to be sticky, what deadends we can avoid, what errors we can leapfrog, what opportunities we need to amplify etc.
Many conversations with a wide number of people need to take place to unpack many of these ideas and breath life into them within Leamington so we do not "splatter" new ideas recklessly.
Exciting and challenging times ahead - it's going to be an every interesting next few years!
This documentary movie was made about one of the schools we visited. It has been shared with me to be viewed by members of our school community exclusively.
In recent times there has been a lot said, and a lot claimed about the impact of mobile devices and the impact of screen time on children. And rightly so, screens and their impact on our society are still in their infancy. However, the discussion about the negative impact of new technology on children is not new. The previous generation of parents had the same concerns about TV, the generation before Rock and Roll. In fact, the discussions we are having today has a literature base indicating that similar discussions were taking place with the advent of the street lamp and also all children required to attend school in the 1800's.
It might surprise some people that when it comes to the impact of technology on children and their development, there is very little agreement among experts about if technology has a positive, neutral or negative impact.
There are many pieces of research that point to correlational links between the use of technology and the positive, negative and neutral impact findings that follow. Unfortunately, in most instances, only the negative correlational links of the impact of technology are reported and capture our attention.
However, there is a body of research literature that most experts agree on regarding the negative impacts of screens on young people. This literature base does not relate to the use of mobile devices directly, rather to the impact of TV. It is surprising that since studies conducted in the 80's about the impact of TV on young people, the vast body of research, including the more recent studies that include brain scans still study "passive screen time" impacts.
It is widely agreed by experts in their field that passive screen time probably needs to be considered differently to interactive screen time. Passive Screen time is when children view a screen, like the TV, that requires no input from the viewer. Interactive Screen time requires the user to make decisions and cognitively respond to the stimulus on the screen.
So what do most researchers agree on?
If screen time causes reduced sleep, then that will have a negative impact.
If not managed correctly, screens can affect sleeping patterns and the amount of sleep one has. There is a body of literature that shows a correlation between children having a TV in their room and reduced sleep, and a reduction in the amount of deep sleep. There is over 50 years of literature that documents the effects of sleep deprivation, including the negative impact on children. A major study in the 1980's indicated a strong correlation of screens in bedrooms or sitting close to a TV screen and reduced sleep.
It is believed that when our eyes are close to screens, the light they emit and the amount of light our eyes then collect affects our internal body rhythm which causes us to think we should stay awake. Also, when what we are viewing on screens contains a lot of stimuli before sleeping, it also affects the amount of dopamine and cortisol in our system which again does not help sleep. Most experts agree that minimising the impact of screens before sleep will reduce any possible negative impact. This is not limited to screen use however, it includes anything that causes an increase in dopamine and cortisol. However, the dose is the poison. One-off events are not going to cause harm, rather ongoing occurrences do. Anything that causes a cumulative sleep reduction is a bad thing.
When children are involved in prolonged sedentary activities two things happen. The first is children do not move as much which affects muscle and bone development as well as the number of calories burnt. The second is they tend to eat more than they normally would. This applies to any sedentary activity that is prolonged over a cumulative period.
Change to reaction when exposed aggression - coming in my next post!
Be cautious of any statement that includes "the research says..."
For those of us in the education profession we continually look to educational, phycological, medical and neuroscience research to guide and inform what we do within our school. With the availability of research allowing people to "self diagnose" through a google search there is no shortage of "the research says" claims!
Pshycology tells us that only research that paints a negative picture, captures the most shares on Facebook, populates the first pages of a google search or causes people to talk with others, gains attention. Unfortunately any literature that gets the most "likes" quickly carries influence, no matter how accurate it may be. If others think something is a risk, then it must be a risk - right? Just like the 6 o clock news, the positive or inconclusive stories never make headlines because they do not capture or easily hold attention.
This is a biological necessity that has helps us survive the dangers around us. As a species, those who did not pay enough attention to dangers around them did not survive. (You can only afford to make a mistake spotting the sabre tooth tiger once!) Coupled with this, if others tend to think something, we tend to also, as again, we relied on those around us to inform us of any dangers we might have missed. This predetermination to pay attention to dangers or sudden movements or unexpected sounds is essential even today and can be seen in babies from the earliest days. Driving a car for instance relies on the driver continually scanning for dangers, quickly moving over and disregarding the vast majority of things that pose no risk. Shopping at the supermarket relies on us searching for and focusing on those things we are after and disregarding the thousands of other products on the shelves.
As a person who looks to research almost daily to inform our practice, it is important to be able to navigate "research claims" and "research evangelists" and ask certain questions before paying too much attention to any claims. What makes the whole "the research says" debate more difficult is that the vast majority of research that is considered valid, rather than popular or feed our predetermination to seek things that cause harm, will not appear on a google search. These research findings sit behind paid subscriptions to onlline journals, University libraries, paid online papers etc and are invisible to normal search engines.
The most important words to look for in any research literature is "cause" vs "correlation" vs "indicates" vs "suggests." Researchers use the word "cause" differently to the rest of us. From a research lens, a causal effect means that A causes B without any shadow of doubt. Researchers use the word "cause" very carefully. Anything with a causal effect means that all the experts agree that A causes B. Its a claim of absolute certainty.
Correlation by contrast means that there might be a link, in some cases, in some conditions, but there are many variables that are as yet unknown and their influence is unclear. Most of the research that we come across reveals correlational links that then relies on the researcher to infer what variables has caused the correlation. For instance, there is a correlational link between the amount of ice cream sold and crime rates. Does eating ice cream cause more crime? Or is it that during the summer months people tend to eat more ice cream, be outside more, be away from home and leave windows open?
We like to say cause as it helps to simplify complex and hard to understand concepts that makes it easier for us to understand!
The questions I find most helpful in helping to consider any research claims or findings are below. Hopefully these might help the next time anyone says "the research says" to help us be more equipped to make up our own mind about its validity.