Behave! The neuropsychology of misbehavior and 8 tips on how to remedy it

Give me a child and I’ll shape him into anything

This quote, attributed to BF Skinner, although no one really knows if he uttered these exact words, is certainly bold. Rather optimistic too, I’d say. As a teacher who has dealt with thousands of students of different ages, I wish I could have this power. At least that’s my first thought. However, how much can we control what goes on in the classroom, particularly when it has to do with students’ behavior? What can neuroscience and psychology tell us about why we behave the way we do? That’s what I intend to explore ahead, focusing on some of the causes os misbehavior and what we might try to do in order to avoid or minimize this problem.

Neuroscience of behavior

We could say we have two systems that guide our decisions to do or not do things. The first system is what generally drives animals and is related to what Daniel Kahneman would classify as Thinking Fast. It is the ability that our brain has to make quick judgements based on automatized frameworks that we’ve acquired throughout evolution and reinforcement. It doesn’t require too much effort and it happens naturally. The second system is Thinking Slow. This one requires effortful thinking, analytical skills, pondering, and reasoning. It has to do with the “rational” part of our brains, particularly the Prefrontal Cortex.

Let’s say you have a cat. A new element that this cat had never seen before is introduced to the environment. What happens? The cat gets incredibly suspicious of this new element and may avoid it, hide from it, or get curious about it, however, in a catious way. The cat doesn’t have to think much about it. It’s an instinct that has been “hard-wired” in the cat’s brain. This is the dominant system of animals because they haven’t developed a sophisticated cortex, the outermost part of the brain, particularly the frontal areas, as we have. There’s something interesting, though: both cats and humans are creatures of habit. Very similar mechanisms are at play when we do something out of pure habit. It’s like an instinct.

Image result for striatum
The Human Brain showing the STRIATUM in red

Whatever we do that doesn’t require much thought is directly connected with the subcortical structure known as the striatum. It is related to habit formation, goal seeking, and reward in the brain. So, to put it simply, whenever we learn something new, let’s say a new behavior, we can see a lot of activation in the conscious areas of our brain, the frontal lobes where the working memory systems are. That means our brain is making effort to learn that new skill, which is good and expected. The more we repeat that new behavior, the less activation we’ll see in the frontal region of the brain and the more activation we’ll see in the parietal lobe, the area of the brain that is directly below the top of our heads. That means that behavior is being automatized or, in other words, becoming a habit. And guess what? The striatum mediates that process.

That’s why doing something habitual does not require conscious effort. When you first learned how to drive a car you had to pay attention to every little detail and consciously think of every step. Adjust the seat and the mirrors, put on the seat belt, insert the key, check the gear, start the car, step on the clutch, change to first gear, release the handbrake, step gently on the gas and release the clutch softly, steer the wheel, etc. It’s a monumental task that requires a lot of conscious effort and attention. Once it’s automatized, you can drive and brush your teeth at the same time, check your GPS, and even text (don’t do it, though).

What does that have to do with misbehaving?

Well, maybe not much depending on how often the student does it. Let’s say you have a kid, teen, or even adult who rarely misbehaves in class, but, to your surprise, they do it once or twice. Chances are they were disengaged in the lesson and had to act it out. There could’ve been a number of reasons. When I asked WHY DO STUDENTS MISBEHAVE IN CLASS? on my social media, I got many replies and most of them focused on lack of interest and boredom, bad parenting, problems at home, seeking attention, and lack of respect or rapport towards the teacher. These things are bound to happen in many lessons and the individual perceptions of each student are quite different.

What about those who always, or at least almost always, misbehave? Now this has a lot to do with habit formation. You know who I’m talking about. That one student who has a lot of trouble staying on task. The one you have a hard time managing and that has made you consider giving up your profession. This student might need special attention because of ADHD, autism, and/or dyslexia. But these conditions need a proper diagnosis and I won’t discuss them now. I’m referring to students who are neurotypical and yet cannot manage their behavior.

What can I tell you from a neuroscientific perspective? This behavior, or lack thereof, might have become a habit and they might not even know they’re doing it. It’s embedded in their brains. From a psychological perspective, the reinforcement of certain behaviors through repetition and reward may cause them to stick and make it difficult to remedy. As a matter of fact, going back to Skinner and behaviorism, learning can only be assessed by observing behavior after a stimulus is given to the subject.

In short, students without Special Educational Needs (SEN) who fail to keep on task systematically in most lessons may be doing so because misbehavior has become a habit.

What can we do then?

We can help them develop what Daniel Goleman calls emotional intelligence. If they work on their self-regulation skills, with our incentive, we might be able to make them better control their behaviors. You can read more about this here.

How exactly can we do that?

Ever heard of Charles Duhigg and his book The Power of Habit? In it, Charles describes a well-known mechanism in psychology that relates to habit formation. It’s a loop that starts with a trigger (the CUE), which leads us to the ROUTINE, or the habit itself, because that gives us a REWARD sensation. In other words, whenever the cat sees a strange object (CUE) this activates the suspicious/cautious behavior (ROUTINE) and ultimately leads to the REWARD (staying alive and clear of danger).

Image result for cue behavior reward
The Habit Loop

What about your misbehaved student? One possible way to see it would be like this: The CUE is boredom, which leads to misbehavior, and buys the student a few minutes off the lesson because you stop what you’re doing to bring the student back to the task. Or maybe misbehaving gets the student a little bit of fun with his/her peers.

As the respondents of my poll kindly shared, there can be many factors that contribute to triggering misbehavior. It could actually be related to learning difficulties, lack of role models, impulsiveness, and all the other things they mentioned. What can we do then? I’ll share some strategies below:

  • 1 – Use brain breaks. Negotiate with the students some time off task in every lesson so that they can do whatever they want or do something more fun and engaging. When they know that there will be a brain break in every lesson, they’re better able to manage their behavior and it becomes a habit. I can’t tell you how much better my lessons were after I implemented the brain break practice. Give it a try. Read more about it here.
  • 2. Breaking a habit normally means identifying the CUE and replacing the BEHAVIOR with something more useful. Whenever you feel that one student is about to misbehave, you can make him/her in charge of something a little more engaging, like writing on the board, sharing something, checking if the other student are on their task, etc. I realize that we often have more than one chronic misbehaved student and that it can be hard to offer them differentiated activities, but you’ll have to come with ideas to address this difficulty. Read about differentiation here.
  • 3. Students who misbehave chronically might be suffering from the inability to pay attention. Mindful meditation might be an allied in this case. You can set up a few minutes each class to ask all your student to sit comfortably on the ground and guide them through a fairly easy breathing technique that you can basically copy from an app called Headspace. Again, the idea is to make this a habit.
  • 4. Reflection can also become a habit. We often do what we do because we’re on autopilot. When we’re forced to reflect, that is, access the Thinking Slow system, we might be able to change the value we give to certain behaviors and start the real changing process. Reflection might be hard, but we can help our students do it. Have you ever tried asking that student who misbehaves in a non-threatening way why he/she does that? Don’t settle for silly or superficial answers. Ask the student to think about it and use the Socratic method to ask more and more questions to try to get to the bottom of the problem and help them realize their behavior is not benefitting anyone.
  • 5. Instead of focusing on the CUE, you can focus on the REWARD. Praising and honesty can be quite rewarding if you use it strategically to let students know what type of behavior you expect of them. Setting the bar high when it comes to expectations and acknowledging when they were able to meet these expectations might be enough to break the bad habit cycle. Read more about REWARD here.
  • 6. Incorporate movement and choice in your lessons. When dealing with kids and teens, we should be aware that misbehavior might be the need to act out because of the lack of movement. Many of our students had been sitting for hours before our lessons and can take it anymore. Allow them to stretch or stand sometimes.
  • 7. Be patient. Breaking a bad habit or developing a new one unfortunately takes time. There are some estimates in the literature (between 21 and 90 days, 28 days, 10,000 hours, etc), but I fail to see how these deterministic recommendations can fit in every scenario. What I believe in is that it is hard to change a habit and it requires a lot of willpower and reinforcement. Be the one who provides the reinforcement your students need. Encourage them to stay on track. Read something related here.
  • 8. Keep your promises and hold your students accountable. If you promise to reward your students for their behavior (or even punish them), do as you said. They need to understand the value of accountability. Also, make sure you remind them when they did not keep their promise to you. It helps a lot when they have respect for you as their teacher and when they admire you. That’s why it’s worth putting some time into developing rapport with them. Read about the importance of emotions here.

WARNING, REALITY CHECK AHEAD!

The truth is: even if you try all the things on my list (you may have tried them already), it might not work perfectly. It might be the case that your student really hates your subject, going to school, even you. It might be more serious and out of your hands. You might need to involve their families. Read about it here. It might be something at the heart of our educational system. However, the good news is that habits can be unlearned and replaced. Give the strategies above a try and let me know if you have others that have worked well for you.

Again, I’m not as optimistic as Skinner might have been about conditioning people, but I also know that students who are misbehaving chronically can actually become the professionals who break some of our paradigms in the future. I know now that I don’t want to shape my students into what I’d like them to become. Rather, I’d like to help them shape themselves into what they’d like to become and hopefully into what will bring them the most joy in their lives. When we realize that sometimes their disruptiveness is a rebellion against something we cannot control rather than against us personally, we might give them the room they so desperately need to grow into freer human beings who are accountable for their actions.

You can also check out Christopher Walker’s video about this topic here.

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Inovació, si us plau!

I attended for the very first time the amazing InnovateELT conference in Barcelona. I was honored to speak for 30 minutes about the Mind, Brain, and Education science to a full house in room 10 at Oxford TEFL, the incredibly charming venue with a lovely garden, wonderful people, great talks, and craft beer (yes, this part is important).

The name of the conference is quite catchy, I admit. InnovateELT caught my attention since the first time I heard about it. Innovation is something we never stop chasing, isn’t it? It seems to me that innovation is still and may always be l’ordre du jour. Digging a little bit about the meaning of this word, innovation, made me think about why we want to go after it. A quick look in most dictionaries will tell us that innovation is about new ways, methods of doing things or new ideas, products. It’s all about the word NEW.

New ways of doing things or thinking about things were definitely present at the InnovateELT conference. I myself proposed to integrate the news of cognitive neuroscience, and cognitive psychology with the tradition of pedagogy to teach our students in more “brain-friendly” ways. Many of the presenters discussed new ways to do things we’ve been doing for a long time. The whole conference was about new ways to teach, metacognitive teaching, native-speakerism, storytelling, videomaking, etc.

Then it struck me.

INOVACIÓ!

I noticed that I could read most of the signs written in Catalan everywhere in the lovely city of Barcelona. I remember thinking how weird it was to understand that language that I had almost no contact with except for Netflix series Merlí. Merlí was a rebellious philosophy teacher who provoked his students to think harder about things. He was a nonconformist. The series was shot in Barcelona and they used the Escola Mare de Déu de Montesserat as one of the shooting locations.

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I instantly fell in love with the series because it made me realize that what is new is still quite old. You see, Merlí is the embodiment of Socrates, a man who challenged paradigms, who proposed different things, who urged for innovation, one might say. Socrates’ methods, as described in my blog post, asked students to get to the bottom of things, to question their own assertions. Isn’t that the foundation of innovation?

The funniest thing is that, the way I see it, the innovation we want might not be a new idea at all. Sure, it might be a new way of doing something but it might as well keep its core, its original source so vividly that it’s hardly anything that new. That explains why I understood the signs in the subway:

Atenció – Attention – Attention – Atenção

Tren – Train – Train – Trem

Plataforma – Plateforme – Platform – Plataforma

They are new ways of writing Latin or Greek.

INOVACIÓ – INNOVATION – INNOVATION – INOVAÇÃO

Inovació. Not that hard to understand when you know a little French, lots of English, and even more Portuguese. It’s really the same thing being written slightly differently. In every conference I attend or present at, the same ideas are repeated again and again but slightly differently. It made me come to a realization. Do you want to know what the biggest innovation in the classroom is? To me, it is still what Socrates taught us more than two thousand years ago: it’s us, the teachers. But not just that. It’s our relationship with our students and what we can make of it.

If you had 10 thousand dollars to invest in your school, what would you do? Buy iPads, computers, interactive whiteboards, a 3D printer? Those are all great things, but what really makes the difference according to the Education Endowment Foundation and John Hattie’s comprehensive research put together in his Visible Learning book is the teacher. And great teachers respond to students’ needs. Maybe, a wiser decision would be to put most of that money into teacher training, into CPD.

The next time you think about making a positive impact on your school or classroom, why don’t you try this:

  1. invest in your teacher;
  2. attend conferences and learn new ideas;
  3. embrace the old critical pedagogy;
  4. use technology as an ally, not as the main player;
  5. welcome mistakes and promote creativity;

Innovating is a process. It requires a lot of looking back rather than looking forward. I think Scott Thornbury’s talk about Innovation and his question if it would be the death of us explained well what I feel about the future. No matter what technology we create, be it simultaneous translating earpods, robot teachers, holograms, virtual reality, many of the things that are already here, innovation, no matter how it is spelled, is rooted in human creativity.

As long as we have inventive people making decisions and being allowed to make mistakes, we’ll be able to innovate and make progress. Bet on the human resources and conquer the world. That’s what I say, anyway.

Speaking of CPD, why don’t you give one of my online courses a try? Click on the button below for me to send you more information about them. I promise you won’t regret.

Neuromyths and potential classroom implications: Part 2 – Learning Styles, Fixed Intelligence, Forget about Arts

This is the second part of the 4-post series on how neuroscience can be used in the classroom. If you missed the first blog post, read it here.

Let’s get down to business, shall we? What are some of the most commonly spread neuromyths in educational settings? Here’s my list with 3 of them:

1. Learning Styles

By now, you must have heard that the whole learning styles thing is a neuromyth. If you haven’t or even if you don’t agree, no need to change the way you teach. Well, not necessarily. Let’s look at how it started and what it actually means for us, teachers, and our students.

Origin

It was in the 70s that the idea gained popularity and, in the following decades, many authors either supported it or created their own models. The two most famous were perhaps Walter Burke Barbe with his Visual-Auditory-Kinesthetic (VAK) model in 1979, reinforced by Neil Fleming, and David Kolb’s with his Accommodator-Converger-Diverger-Assimilator (look at what happened in The Divergent Series, labeling people like that!)

Even Howard Gardner’s Frames of Mind: Multiple Intelligence Theory in 1983 has contributed to the myth. He has, however, explained on many occasions that

[…] by the middle 1990s, I had noticed a number of  misinterpretations of the theory—for example, the confusion of intelligences with learning styles […]

Howard Gardner (2003, p. 8)

Why is it a myth?

Many studies (look at this metanalysis by Paschler et al. 2010) have demonstrated that we do not learn best if we learn through our preferred learning style (they tested mostly VAK). In fact, there are subjects or activities that rely heavily upon just one of those modalities and would be quite hard or impossible to learn for certain types of learners, which doesn’t happen. How to teach physical geography without using maps, for example? Also, we know that our working memory capacity is quite limited and that memory retention benefits from multiple representations of the information we’re learning. That means that taking a lot of aural (auditory) input at once without anything visual to relate it to is likely to cause cognitive overload and be quickly forgotten.

What does that all mean in the classroom?

It means that it’s better to listen to and look at something than to do just one of the other. It’s the concept of dual coding (Paivio, 1991). It also means that teaching as if everyone had all three VAK learning styles is actually a good thing because you’re varying your input. But, assigning homework or teaching a one-to-one lesson, for example, based on a specific learning style and neglecting the others will most likely be bad for the students.

2. Fixed Intelligence

Ever heard?

I have no talent for this

I wasn’t cut ou to be that

I don’t have that gene

These are common sentences people who are struggling use to justify why they can’t seem to learn something. But is that really the case?

Origin

Most likely the IQ test fever originated after the publication of Alfred Binet and Théodore Simon’s book in 1905. It became possible to “quantify” kids’ intelligence or mental age using a score that varied from 90 (normal intelligence) to over 140 (genius). Many schools, parents, and institutions adopted the IQ test and started labeling kids and giving prognoses.

Why is it a myth?

The intelligence of an individual in not a fixed quantity

The scale, properly speaking, does not permit the measure of the intelligence, because intellectual qualities are not superposable, and therefore cannot be measured as linear surfaces are measured.

Alfred Binet

That’s right. Binet himself said it was not possible to quantify people’s intelligence. Psychology now knows that there are individual differences (not actually multiple intelligences as discussed in Gardner 1983 and reviewed by Gardner in 2003) and neuroscience brings the notion of neuroplasticity, which, simply put, means that the brain can always learn and change itself through experience.

Perhaps the most popular author discussing this nowadays is Carol Dweck (2006) with the concept of Growth Mindset. She says that students who have a more Growth Mindset, that is, the belief that they can improve with effort and that their intelligence is not fixed, will likely achieve more than those who have a more Fixed Mindset, which refers to those who believe their intelligence is limited.

PS: we all have a little bit of both (Growth and Fixed) and it depends on what we are doing. A more Growth Mindset can be developed.

What does that all mean in the classroom?

If students’ intelligence can be improved, we must be careful about labels. A “weak” student does hold the potential to become the “strongest” in class. It all depends on having the right ingredients. An emotional connection with the teacher and the class, constructive feedback and adjusted practice, the clear notion that his/her intelligence is not static, the knowledge that our brains are plastic and constantly changing, some idea of metacognitive strategies (learning how to learn) and support are some of the ways we can make sure we develop our students’ intelligence. Also, a focus on the learning process over the product, and praising effort and dedication are great ways to develop a more Growth Mindset.

3. Forget about Arts: STEM over STEAM

In some countries, mine included, it feels like arts have become secondary in the curriculum. Why is that?

Origin

There’s a widespread notion that academic subjects are the best chance a kid will have at finding a job in the future. The rapid increase of Sciences, Technology, Engineerings, and Maths (STEM) and its potential to generate wealth for a country seem to have shifted schools’ focus. The whole thing probably goes back to a rather discriminatory view that musicians, painters, and dancers were bohemian people who produced nothing of added value. Even worse, artists have been persecuted in authoritarian regimes for the danger they offered their respective governments because of their “free-thinking minds” or potential connection with riots and a revolution. Two examples are the Nazis burning books that opposed their ideology or the Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China forbidding western musical instruments.

Let’s go even deeper. During the medieval Dark Ages, artists who opposed the views of the Catholic church or the king were also considered dangerous, even heretics, and were often imprisoned or executed.

Why is it a myth?

Arts are known to promote critical thinking and creativity, which may more easily lead to innovation (Boy, 2013; Madden et al., 2013). Focusing exclusively on STEM may lack the interdisciplinarity that is at the foundation of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS), described in Bloom’s Taxonomy (1956). There are studies showing that long-term artistic experiences make our brains more plastic, that is, with the ability to constantly change structurally and learn, for a longer time (Münte et al., 2002, Schlegel et al., 2015). And, perhaps the most compelling evidence, several studies have found that integrating arts in the curriculum improve academic performance as they improve attention, memory, executive functions, and self-regulation (Gullatt, 2007; Diamond, 2012; Respress & Lufti, 2006)

What does that all mean in the classroom?

As the image at the beginning of this post indicates, art is essential for humans.

The “EARTH” without “ART” is just “EH”

Unknown

I’d go further and say that education without art is also boring. That is precisely why we must integrate arts in the curriculum. It’s not stealing time from your students, time they could be using to practice more. It’s giving them the tools to be higher achievers, innovators, creative and free thinkers.

Use projects that involve photography or painting. Have students act in a play or sing and dance in a musical. Listen to music and analyze the lyrics, get them to compose their own and play their own instruments. Have a book fair or a reading club. Get your students to write their own tales or poems. Teach them how to build models or sculpt. Join the Maker Movement and create makerspaces in your school.

In short, put the “A” back in STEM.

That’s it for today’s neuromyths. If you’re eager to know more, follow me on Instagram (@edcrocks) and sign up for my asynchronous online courses here. You get 15% off in July!

Next week I’ll write about Drilling, Multitasking, and Emotions in Neuromyths part 3. Don’t miss it!

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REFERENCES

Learning Styles

Barbe, Walter Burke; Swassing, Raymond H.; Milone, Michael N. (1979). Teaching through modality strengths: concepts practices. Columbus, Ohio: Zaner-Bloser.

Coffield, Frank; Moseley, David; Hall, Elaine; Ecclestone, Kathryn (2004). Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning: a systematic and critical review (PDF). London: Learning and Skills Research

Gardner, H. (2003). Multiple intelligences after twenty years. American Educational Research Association, Chicago, Illinois21.

Kolb, David (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Paivio, A. (1991). Dual coding theory: Retrospect and current status. Canadian Journal of Psychology/Revue canadienne de psychologie45(3), 255.

Paschler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D. & Bjork, R. (2010). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9, 105–119.

Fixed Intelligence

Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY, US: Random House

Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York: Basic Books.

Gardner, H. (2003). Multiple intelligences after twenty years. American Educational Research Association, Chicago, Illinois21.

Kaufman, Alan S. (2009). IQ Testing 101. New York: Springer Publishing

Forget the Arts

Bloom, B.S. (1956) Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Handbook: The Cognitive Domain. David McKay, New York.

Boy, Guy A. (2013). From STEM to STEAM: Toward a Human-Centred Education, Creativity & Learning Thinking. In Proceedings of the 31st European Conference on Cognitive Ergonomics, 3:1–3:7. ECCE ’13. New York, NY, USA: ACM.

Diamond, A. (2012). Activities and programs that improve children’s executive functions. Current directions in psychological science21(5), 335-341.

Gullatt, D. E. (2007, September). Research links the arts with student academic gains. In The Educational Forum (Vol. 71, No. 3, pp. 211-220). Taylor & Francis Group

Madden, M. E., Baxter, M., Beauchamp, H., Bouchard, K., Habermas, D., Huff, M., … & Plague, G. (2013). Rethinking STEM education: An interdisciplinary STEAM curriculum.
Procedia Computer Science, 20, 541-546

Münte, T. F., Altenmüller, E., & Jäncke, L. (2002). The musician’s brain as a model of
neuroplasticity. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 3(6), 473-478.

Respress, T., & Lutfi, G. (2006). Whole brain learning: The fine arts with students at risk. Reclaiming children and youth15(1), 24.

Schlegel, A., Alexander, P., Fogelson, S. V., Li, X., Lu, Z., Kohler, P. J., … & Meng, M. (2015).
The artist emerges: Visual art learning alters neural structure and function. NeuroImage,
105, 440-451.

 

Neuromyths and potential classroom implications: Part 1 – Not a recipe for success, merely a framework for reflection

It seems that the word of the day in education conferences is the overly repeated term NEUROMYTH. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing at all. As a matter of fact, I’m benefitting from all this fuzz since this is one of my favorite topics, something I’ve studied for a couple of years, and quite possibly the main reason why my speaking proposals have been accepted in four international conferences this year (Spain, Montenegro, Romania, and Hungary)

The first conference was InnovateELT in Barcelona (read my account of it here). It was superb and my session was so appealing, apparently, that I had a full house. I remember joking about it with some of the participants who complimented me on the session. I said:

The topic is interesting in its own right. It could’ve been anyone else presenting

Me

1
My session on Mind, Brain, and Education at InnovateELT Barcelona 2019

I do believe that. Anything with the terms NEURO, BRAIN, SCIENCE, MYTH, is quite catchy and calls a lot of attention. We’ve actually discussed that in my Cognitive Neuroscience and Classroom Practice unit at the University of Bristol where I study MSc Psychology of Education. My professor Paul Howard-Jones, a big reference in the area, even said:

Neuroscience is sexy

Paul Howard-Jones

Indeed it is and the idea of offering quick fixes or way-too-simple solutions is also very sexy and potentially misguided, even dangerous. But that’s what many authors and scholars in the field of neuroscience or psychology have been proposing.

Father, I have sinned. I confess

Me

I myself have believed in these quick fixes for some time and wrote about them on this blog at the beginning of my ignorance. I suppose I could go back and edit some of the posts to seem a little less deterministic or fatalistic, but I like the fact that this will become a record of my educational journey and my reflections as I grow older. I’ll just leave things as they are and write about what I know that I don’t know now. You can still check out the tips of my early posts and find a lot of useful stuff here.

So, I suppose this introduction is only to say that cognitive neuroscience and psychology are still making important discoveries. That’s what makes this journey so exciting. There will always be something to explore, discover and reflect on. Nevertheless, I can say that many of the things the field has already discovered can help us reflect on how learning occurs more or less effectively. I believe in that so much that my dissertation is digging a little deeper on this topic.

Which things have scientists discovered that we can use? How does knowing those things apply in the classroom? Do they offer straightforward strategies that can guarantee a more successful learning experience?

Possibly. And this is the first step: to reflect on how useful the contributions of neuroscience and psychology might be and how they link with educational practices. That’s why I believe in the power of Mind, Brain, and Education (MBE). You see, according to Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa, when MBE puts together cognitive neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and education (pedagogy) and looks at their contributions as being equals, on the same level, it creates a new and relevant field that can draw from these realms and potentially narrow the gap between scientific theory and educational practice. The element of transdisciplinarity adds a challenge but also more accountability.

Tokuhama-Espinosa also says that far too many neuromyths are still quite present in educational settings and perhaps that’s the mission of MBE, to debunk them. Simply said, neuromyths are false statements about the brain and how it works. However, knowing some (or even many) of the neuromyths per se doesn’t immediately translate into knowledge that can be applied in the classroom to make lessons more conducive to learning. Take the following for instance:

We only use 10% of our brains

My answer to this claim on InnovateELT Blog goes like this:

“No, Samuel Norman, we do not use just 10 or 15% of our brain capacities. In fact, we use most of our brain most of the time, even when we are sleeping. A simple task such as drinking coffee will require many areas of your brain to activate synchronously.”

Me

Knowing this may sound great, but how does it translate into something useful for the teachers to apply and/or reflect on? Maybe knowing this will stop teachers from buying the idea that we might use certain techniques to boost brain capacity or something like that. But, to be quite honest, it would probably not affect teachers’ everyday decisions in the classroom.

That’s why I invite you to reflect with me on the possible benefits of using this science and will write two more blog posts with 10 neuromyths and their implications in the classroom. I will describe them, discuss their origins and tell you what they might mean for the teacher and the student in the classroom.

This is my mission on this planet. That’s why I’ve been sending out proposals to speak about this, I’ve been writing blog posts about this, I’ve been pursuing the proper qualifications on this topic and why I’ve created my new online course. I want to share what I’ve learned and give you something to reflect on.

It is essential to remember that what I’m proposing is not a recipe for successful teaching, though. There are so many variables to consider that we can’t say “Do this and everyone will learn”. The authors who have written about this say that we need to be careful with such bold claims. Rather, if we look at it as just a framework that may help us think about how we teach and how our students learn, I think the potential is huge.

If you got this far, you might want to consider signing up for my asynchronous Neuroscience and Learning Course. I try my best to show you some of the principles of learning through the perspective of MBE and help you reflect on what this knowledge might mean in the classroom.

I’d love to have you as one of my students and add you to the legion of teachers around the world fighting against potentially harmful neuromyths.

Stay tuned for part 2 of this series. I’ll discuss learning styles, fixed intelligence, and arts.

#edcrocks

online

 

References

Dekker, S., Lee, N., Howard-Jones, P., & Jolles, J. (2012). Neuromyths in education: Prevalence and predictors of misconceptions among teachers. Frontiers in Psychology, 3, 429-429. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00429

Howard-Jones, P. (2018). Evolution of the Learning Brain: Or how you got to be so smart. Taylor & Francis Group

Tokuhama-Espinosa, T. (2014). Making classrooms better: 50 practical applications of mind, brain, and education science. First Edition. New York: W.W Norton & Company.

Brené Brown, vulnerability and courage: why we should step out of our comfort zone and be seen

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Brené Brown on being vulnerable at TEDx Houston

The first time I heard about Brené Brown was probably around 2 years ago back in Brazil. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a big TED Talks fan and have literally watched over 100 of them. They do deliver a powerful message in just a few minutes. Brené’s talk wasn’t any different. In fact, it was so inspiring that millions of people watched and loved it. Nevertheless, the bad and the ugly also came to the surface. Before I share why and what, let’s take a look at the message of her presentation and what it provoked in me.

Brené Brown is a researcher at the University of Houston Texas but, above all, she’s a storyteller. Her stories were about courage and connection. As a social work researcher, she wanted to investigate how wholehearted people were made. To make things clearer, her intention was to find what made people connect, love, be happy with their lives and be courageous, live to the fullest. After years working with and interviewing people, collecting data, she came to a rather controversial conclusion. People who had a better sense of belonging and who felt more fulfilled about their lives were also the ones willing to be seen for who they are. They embraced their vulnerability. They embraced their imperfection.

Vulnerability is at the heart of courage

Paraphrasing Brené Brown

She certainly didn’t like her findings. As many of us would agree, feeling vulnerable is not comfortable at all. In fact, we do almost anything to avoid feeling like that. Most of us believe that vulnerability makes us weak. But for Brené, after years struggling with her findings, vulnerability is what makes us strong, what makes us truly connect and understand. Without vulnerability, there would be no empathy. But vulnerability brings shame and, be honest, how many of us want to feel shame?

Someone once said that the magic happens outside our comfort zones and I’d like to share something I’ve never shared with anyone. Many people would look at me and think I’m a very confident guy. They could not be further from the truth. I am incredibly insecure. It may not show that much when I’m delivering a lecture, teaching, or writing. Or even when I’m having a conversation about the topics that I love. But I am. Oh gosh, am I… I don’t feel comfortable in my skin. I don’t like the way I look, my body, many of my attitudes, how I deal with money, routine, family and, particularly, my relationship with wife sometimes. Also, I’m pretty convinced I have a mild type of ADHD, the inattentive sort. I have so much to improve about myself. But here’s the thing:

I have.

And I’m proud of where I got. Don’t get me wrong. My concern is that I rarely open up about these things because, like Brené before, I don’t want to feel vulnerable.

In vulnerability lies opportunity

Not sure who said that, maybe it was me 🙂

Indeed it does. Being prepared to do something challenging and new, knowing that you might feel ashamed, afraid, and possibly fail, kind of frees you, doesn’t it? It’s scary but also liberating.

Here’s another story for y’all. I felt incredibly sad yesterday after talking to my mom on the phone. She had been crying because this is the first time she celebrates (not really) her birthday without my dad who passed away in January (read his story here). I felt lonely for a moment but didn’t let myself think too much about it. I started scrolling down on Facebook to find something else to distract me. I came across an interview with Sir Ian McKellen about his role as Sir Anthony Hopkins’ character’s dresser in the acclaimed The Dresser. It was funny. I was instantly drawn to Anthony Hopkins’ recommended interviews because I truly admire him and he reminds me so much of my dad (physically, especially as Odin in Thor.  I just wanted to rewatch him talk about his story.

You bet your ass I am. Well, that’s being human

Sir Anthony Hopkins, Interview with Larry King

That was his answer to people being surprised to know that this incredible actor is still insecure. Not only is he an award-winning actor with brilliant performances but he is also a very talented painter and, even more impressively, a composer. As a matter of fact, Anthony Hopkins composed a beautiful waltz called And the Waltz Goes On some 50 years ago and only heard it played live by an Orchestra when the Dutch maestro and violinist, André Rieu, played it for him in Vienna (watch it here, it’s superb!). Watching it made me cry and think about all of this for an instant. How vulnerable we are and how stupidly hard we try not to look like we are.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that I’m glad my mom didn’t try to hide what she was feeling when I called her. I’m glad that I’ve been more able to connect with people and try to be true to myself in the last months. I’m glad that I have a wonderful wife who loves me (and I love her very much!) and has supported and invested in me, in our relationship showing that despite all my insecurities, I’m worthy of love and connection too. I’m glad that I’m stepping out of my comfort zone and working on a project that I’m in love with (my online courses which you can check out here). And I’m really glad that people I admire and the participants of my courses are giving me feedback and allowing me to think about the things I can change.

Being vulnerable means that you can be yourself and that will be enough. You don’t need to always be awesome, amazing, phenomenal. You can simply be yourself.

My final message here is: Step out of this feeling of security and strength and allow yourself to be vulnerable. Find your courage within your vulnerability. Cry, be honest with your feelings as much as possible, be truly seen and don’t be afraid to fail because at oftentimes, life goes on and you learn from whatever happens.

Remember the bad and the ugly I brought up at the beginning? In Brené Brown’s lovely Netflix special, she shares with us what the reactions to her TED Talk were. Some were just awful. Many people made fun of her weight and couldn’t see why she was talking about worthiness if she wasn’t worthy. Others said she was the right person to talk about imperfection and that we should only look at her to see why. Some people called her bad names, said something about her being a bad mom and wife, someone even said she was what’s wrong with the world today and that she should be killed. She said that this was exactly the situation she had feared her whole life, this criticism. But it was also what made her stumble across Theodore Roosevelt’s incredible speech, while she was avoiding reading the comments like I avoided thinking about my dad’s death

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Theodore Roosevelt

Sir Anthony Hopkins’ interviews and lovely video in Vienna were my Ted Roosevelt’s speech. If you relate to this and want to make real change, to make life worthy, dare greatly.

I think this was an excuse to put everything out of my chest. But it was also a way for me to thank all the amazing teachers who took part in my online courses and gave me feedback to improve what I believe to be my most current way to dare greatly. You are stars! For being live with me on the weekends or watching the recordings, for doing the readings and sending me the mini-projects, for asking me questions I hadn’t thought of before. But, above all, you’re starts because even though you have good jobs and you have too much on your hands, very little time left, you took the time to leave your comfort zone, become students again and do professional development with me to learn more.

Cris, Patricia, Rebecca, Stephan, Antonina, Rodolfo, Giovanna, Rafaela, Ana Carolina, Dhesirée, Bárbara, Caio, Fernanda, Paula, Priscila, Élida

I admire you and I saw you. I hope I was seen too and I hope I succeeded in what I proposed or at least failed gracefully.

Some useful resources:

My online courses

My new Bilingualism course with Rodolfo Mattiello

My blog post about my dad

My blog post about CPD

My blog post about Tabata Amaral and Self-Efficacy

My blog post about how I got a Chevening Scholarship

Avengers Endgame, Game of Thrones, and Spoilers: how to work with expectation and reward in the class

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This is definitely a great year to be alive if you’re a Marvel Universe fan. After watching the exciting Captain Marvel movie on the big screen (check my blog post about it here), the Avengers saga comes to an epic end this month. More than 20 films later! Nothing has been more epic than that in the history of cinema, one may think. The same might be true of the incredible Game of Thrones journey if we change the focus to television. As promised by the director and the producers, they delivered a memorable third episode in this 8th season. An hour and a half of tension, horror, despair, low visibility, relief, and utter joy and surprise.

If you are like me, and most people I suppose, there was a problem, though. You see, everyone involved in producing these two monuments of modern cinema and TV put a lot of extra effort into not letting anyone know what was going to happen. Contracts with clauses about spilling the beans, shooting scenes without telling the actors who they were performing with, redacted scripts, the whole nine yards. Poor Tom Holland (actor who plays Spiderman) for blurting out some of the secrets of the Avengers franchise. He had a hard time giving interviews and needed someone to supervise him.

Spoilers, ladies and gents, that was my problem.

It was hard to dodge them and one or two eventually made their way onto my screen. As their name gives away, spoilers may spoil the fun (and quite honestly, they often do). But what does that have to do with what happens in the classroom? Before you read any further, just think about how you’d feel if you knew a major plot twist of any of these franchises before watching the movie or the episode? Some of you (and I do admire you, folks) may have answered:

“I wouldn’t care at all”

Well, I do care!  And I the reason is quite simple: dopamine.

According to neuroscience, one of the most important neuromodulators in our brains is dopamine. It is involved in motivation, feeling good, happy about things. If you’re a fan and you know you’re gonna watch the movie you’ve been expecting for so long, your brain is filled with dopamine. The expectations you have about the movie, all the theories of what might happen to your favorite characters and the villains, also release dopamine. When you go to the movies and watch it and see for yourself what happens, and even get completely surprised by some unexpected events, your brain releases even more dopamine (as long as the surprises are not disappointing). However, when someone spoils the action for you, those expectations you had go down the toilet and so much for that dopamine sensation.

This is very similar to what happens in the classroom (except that Avengers and Game of Thrones make our students and ourselves produce much more dopamine hahaha). When students go to class and something unexpected happens and there’s a reward at the end, their brains are releasing dopamine not once, but twice. Going to class knowing that there will be a reward kills the unexpected and gives them a dopamine rush when they get the reward. Going to class and not knowing there will be a reward, but being told in class that they’ll get one, and finally getting it will give them two dopamine spikes, when they realize they’ll get something (unexpected) and when they actually get it (reward).

What does that tell us about planning our lessons? Well, here are a couple of tips:

  1. Try to bring a surprise. It could be a fun activity, a story about your life, a special guest, a new game, a funny video, anything. To make sure it’s really a surprise, try not repeating the same things over and over;

  2. Reward your students. It doesn’t need to be something that may cost you a lot of money (or any money at all!). Our reward systems are happy with praising, recognition or a simple token. Of course, if you want, give them something pretty cool and they’ll be more than happy.

  3. Don’t always tell them that there will be a reward or, in other words, don’t spoil the class. Unexpected rewards are better because students stay more motivated.

  4. Use rewards that are highly emotional. A touching short video or song, a story about something incredible or someone amazing. These are the types of rewards we love.

At the end of Avengers Endgame, I felt incredibly emotional and it was very satisfying. It was definitely an epic ending to all those years with such phenomenal characters. As for Game of Thrones, after the last episode, I can’t wait to see what happens next!

If anyone spoils it for me, it doesn’t mean I won’t watch episode 4, but I won’t be as motivated as I am now. And I can guarantee that if my expectations are met (I have high ones), I’ll be excited, but, if something completely unexpected and incredible happens, I won’t be able to forget it for years to come.

So, I suppose my final message is:

Be nice! No spoilers, ok?

What kinds of rewards do you use in your classrooms? I’d love to know!

What can Tabata Amaral’s story tell us about Self-Efficacy and opportunity?

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Tabata Amaral addressing the Brazilian Congress. Photo from PDTnaCamara

I write this blog post on Easter Sunday. A time for renewal, for new beginnings. It is true that in many parts of the world this is the period, after New Year’s eve, that most makes reference to starting anew. I, for one, particularly like this metaphor. Whatever your beliefs, your religion, or lack thereof, I’m sure some of this tradition affects you. Egg hunting, exchanging chocolate eggs, getting dressed up or painted as a bunny are some of the sweetest memories I have. But, most importantly, spending time with my family in our house.

A young woman who now sits in the Brazilian Congress as one of the youngest congresswomen of our History may have a different perspective of this holiday. You see, even though I have lived many Easter celebrations with my family and I understood the symbology, I never really thought of it as a chance to rethink my life and grow. I was a lucky kid with loving parents who had the means to raise me and was brought up in a high middle-class household, having attended private schools, for the better part of my childhood and adolescence. Life wasn’t that hard at all. That was not the case for Tábata Amaral.

She was born in a poverty-stricken area of São Paulo, where she spent her entire childhood, and attended public schools. Her family never had the chance or conditions to pay for her education as her father worked as a bus assistant (fare collector) and her mother was a housemaid. That didn’t stop her, however, from winning a maths olympiad (second place) and going to international maths, chemistry, astrophysics and astronomy olympiads. Her efforts gave her a scholarship to attend a private school when she was 13, and, quite impressively, 5 years later she received a scholarship to attend Harvard University. She even got a scholarship to study English in a Brazilian school.

Tabata’s story gets even more impressive when we learn that she lost her father to drugs before he could witness her daughter graduate from Harvard with honors. She started as an astrophysics student and ended up graduating in political science. You can read more about her story here.

Maybe I’m wrong about Tabata’s feelings about Easter. I suppose I am, to be honest. Maybe she looks at it the same way I do: as a happy moment with her family. Maybe it was moments like this that she really treasured and kept her going. I have the feeling, though, that Tabata has always been a dedicated student and thoughtful daughter who allied two great tools to get where she is now: self-efficacy and opportunity. Why do I say that? Well, first allow me to introduce the concept of self-efficacy developed by Albert Bandura (see references at the end).

A self-efficacious person is someone who has the skills and beliefs to achieve what they need or want. Self-efficacy relates to being able to organize one’s time and resources, acquire knowledge and, consequently, accomplish what is asked. It’s a concept that can be applied in many different arenas of our lives. Tabata is an example of an academically self-efficacious person. Someone who not only studied hard but also got the grades needed to be successful and was acknowledged for her efforts. And all of that in a difficult setting, with a harsh background, where the statistics show that almost no one gets to achieve what she did.

Bandura argues that there are four sources of self-efficacy:

bandura

  1. Enacted Mastery: the idea that individual experience (trying something out) will help us become more self-efficacious. Many students don’t thrive because they don’t even try.  Example: being afraid of swimming and then trying to see that you can actually do it, thus, getting the confidence to keep going.

  2. Vicarious Learning: observing others do something and realize that we can also do it. If they can, why can’t we? Example: feeling intimidated on your first day of class when the teacher asks something but noticing that the other students are contributing, which gives you the confidence to contribute as well

  3. Verbal Persuasion: the idea that receiving encouragement orally or in writing from someone or even ourselves can give us the confidence to try a new task. It’s the famous scenario of looking in the mirror and saying: “You got this. You can do it”. Another example: being told before a presentation, for which you are really nervous, that you can do it by someone that you trust and that has done it before.

  4. Arousal/ emotional state: It is the notion that not being able to do something might be related to the lack of excitement or based on the current mood or emotional state we are in. Some kids might be feeling sad, afraid, intimidated and not even try the task at hand. Example: suddenly feeling excited about painting, which was never your forte, because of the way it was presented to you by the teacher and wanting to learn it

The great news is that we can practice these sources. I have no doubt that along Tabata’s journey there were moments she thought of giving up. Her long-term vision, some mentors (her family and teachers) on her path, and the courage to take the opportunities that presented themselves to her got her this far. And now she is fighting for a good quality educational system in Brazil.

I’m not here saying that everyone can be like Tabata. I see a little bit of her in me but I confess she must’ve been much more self-efficacious than I’ll ever be. It may be because she had fewer opportunities and she knew that if she hadn’t taken them, she would’ve been conditioned to what our sad statistics show. Or maybe her parents and way of life have taught her to be determined, to have grit and a growth mindset. Or all of the above. What inspires me is that she is the living proof that when we prepare ourselves and an opportunity pops up, we can make change. Like what happened to me that brought me here to the UK as a Chevening scholar (you can read about it here)

So, based on Bandura’s sources of self-efficacy, here are a few tips to help your students (and yourself) to become more self-efficacious:

  1. Talk about them. Metacognition is great and discussing Bandura’s theory is a great first step to make them realize that people have thought about these things, conducted experiments, and seen people change;

  2. Create an environment that welcomes trial and error. Let students feel safe and confident to try things out and see that they can actually do them. If they struggle or can’t, it’s not the end of the world, they just need more practice;

  3. Be positive but realistic. Encourage them constantly and tell them what they need to do to accomplish that task. Give them the tools. Give them specific feedback in a loving way (or firm but kind when needed); Apply some of the strategies to develop a Growth Mindset. You can read about them here.

  4. Make a real-world connection. Show your students that what they are learning will be applicable in their lives. Whether they use it to get a job or a scholarship, make sure they see why what they’re learning is relevant;

  5. Get them excited about what they’re learning. Raise their interest in the topic you’re teaching and, most importantly, get to know their emotional state, their struggles, and offer to listen to them and care about their problems. Develop their emotional intelligence. Check out this blog post;

All of these tips are great but perhaps something more effective that might do the trick would be sharing Tabata’s story with your students. Use the second source of Bandura’s self-efficacy theory (vicarious learning) and show your students that a poor girl from a poor neighborhood got a scholarship to go to Harvard and is now trying hard to transform Brazilian education. I believe in her and get inspired by her work. So, in this time of renewal, I simply wish I can join her efforts and be part of this much-needed endeavor of securing every Brazilian good quality education for generations to come.

I honestly believe that more self-efficacious kids, with more access to opportunities, will be leading the way and making things better in the future.

I’ll leave you with her inspirational speech at the One Young World forum and an invitation to use her as your source of inspiration for your new beginnings and those of your students’.

Happy Easter!

References

Bandura, A. (1982) Self-efficacy mechanism in human agency. American Psychologist, 37(2), 122-147.

Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York:W. H. Freeman.

Bandura, A. (2000) Exercise of human agency through collective efficacy. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 9(3), 75-78

Including inclusion in your classroom: a lesson from diversity

I’ve had two incredibly stimulating weeks. Last week I attended, for the very first time, the IATEFL Conference in Liverpool. It was a wonderful chance to meet old friends and, particularly, learn from great references in ELT. One of those references is John Gray, professor at UCL and an expert in LGBTQ+ issues in ESOL.

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He opened the day with his plenary  (watch it here) on Gender and Sexuality in ELT and talked about representation, in class, in the way we teach, and, especially, in ELT materials. One of the questions he raised, and quite a valid one, was why ELT books have almost no reference to homosexuals, transgender, and queer people. He answered it himself:

They’re taboos and don’t go well with publishers as they would probably reduce sales in certain countries

Paraphrasing John Gray

This week I went to London to attend Teaching House Presents at Oxford House College where not only did I get the chance to meet the great author John Hughes again and learn precious tips on how to write materials, but was also pleasantly surprised by Simon Dunton and his incredibly insightful presentation on how to deal with diversity issues in the classroom. Simon started by saying how multicultural London is and that issues related to diversity are bound to be brought up in the classroom. Be it because students feel free to discuss them or because of what they see on the streets, in the pubs, the Tube and, honestly, basically everywhere in the city.

This family tree did not represent my family

Simon Dunton

Diversity goes beyond sexuality and ethnicity. A simple example was the family tree activity you see in most traditional books. Just like Simon, and myself, the family depicted there was of a man who married a woman and had children who got married to someone of the opposite sex and had children and so on. Simon’s parents got divorced and he had half-siblings, just like I do. My dad was married in Sweden before he got married to my mom in Brazil.

How many wheelchair users do we see in ELT materials? How many Muslims, Hindi, or other easily recognizable religious people because of what they wear? How many nonbinary people or gay couples? The problem with lack of representation is the lack of references or role models. As John Gray shared in his plenary, the queer Indonesian poet, Norman Pasaribu, put it:

As a kid, the books I read portrayed typical heterosexual love. When you don’t see yourself on the page, it’s harder to imagine yourself as a person

Norman Pasaribu

You might be asking yourself how neutral/biased you should be, especially if you come from a country where it is illegal to be homosexual, or if your family values go against some of the things I’ve mentioned, or if people with a disability or different races are considered inferior. The truth is: the world is diverse, it’s a reality, and I say we should embrace it. If not embrace it, at least make your students aware that this diversity exists and you could do it in the most discrete and “normal” way possible: Including Inclusive Models.

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Student’s question to Simon Dunton’s Inclusive model

One way you could do it is simply by bringing pictures of people in wheelchairs, from different races or writing examples on the board of people from a diverse background. In this example (picture above) Simon had written on the board

He went out with his husband

One of the students got confused and asked his/her pair if that was a mistake. The peer had a brilliant answer she had copied from one of the many posters spread out in the school to promote diversity awareness. She said:

He has a husband. You have to get over it!

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Poster in school

So, some of his tips, and a couple of my own are:

  1. Don’t avoid PARSNISPs. Politics, Alcohol, Religion, Sex, Narcotics, -isms, and Pork. Challenge them instead. Here’s a video lesson I created about how I welcomed them in my classroom.

  2. Include inclusive models. Use examples like: She went shopping with her wife; They’ve just returned from the synagogue; Amir is going to the mosque; Also, use photos of people with disabilities and don’t make a big deal out of it.

  3. Increase of characters’ portfolio. Why should all our characters be so stereotypical? Why use a man as a doctor or engineer or scientist? Why always caucasian? Check out my Captain Marvel blog post about female role models.

  4. Create a safe environment. This is key! Make sure everyone is welcome to share their thoughts and feel safe to discuss these things. You don’t have to challenge their views and, even more important, impose yours. But a nice conversation in a welcoming environment can go a long way and make some of your students put down their defenses to actually start learning more effectively

  5. Decorate the school with posters with diverse people.

  6. Listen, don’t judge.

Let me share an example. One of the greatest moments I had in my own teaching experience was about 3 years ago when diversity was brought up and, I’d like to believe this is the reason anyway, I had created such a welcoming and safe environment that one of my students came out as bisexual. A 15yo student felt safe enough to share this with me and the class. We talked about it as, and that’s my personal opinion, it should be: NORMAL! This student had never truly engaged in the activities before, but after seeing that we were OK with it and that we accepted it, things completely changed.

We do live in a multicultural and diverse world but we fail to find role models and examples. It will take publishers and many teachers, school managers, parents a very long time to give this issue the status of normality it deserves, but we can certainly do our part. Some people are doing more than their fair share. Here’s an example of a wonderful initiative by two people I’m lucky to know in person. Ilá Coimbra and James Taylor

Their book Raise Up is an example of what materials should look like if all the wonderful diversity we see in the real world would actually be depicted in ELT materials. Click here to find out more and help raise money for CASA 1, an LGBTQIA+ shelter for young people.

Raise up

It’s high time we started challenging some issues and embracing how wonderfully colorful and multicultural our world is. If you think your job is not to deal with these issues as a teacher but just to teach English, I may have bad news. You’re missing out on a great opportunity to teach about what’s out there in the real world by using authentic materials and really reaching out to students like mine, who needed to get something out of their chest and feel accepted. Maybe, the reason why some students are not learning is because their minds are so busy being afraid and feeling they’re not normal that if you reflect on the tips mentioned above, their world, and hopefully everyone else’s, would transform.

 

Part 3. Consolidation

We finally got to the end of this three-post series on how to use the Science of Learning to make learning more effective! Check out Parts 1 (ENGAGE) and 2 (BUILD) right here and here. Don’t forget to sing up for my Nat Geo Learning webinar here.

Engage

Ok, so we’ve discussed how you need to first ENGAGE your student (or yourself as a learner) and BUILD on PRIOR KNOWLEDGE to achieve the INTENDED LEARNING OUTCOME (ILO). That sounds great and, to be fair, we can pretty much check if our students have indeed learned by the end of that lesson, right? We normally set up a PRODUCTION phase or do a quick review by asking questions or even have them answer a quick activity or survey. There’s just one problem. I can’t remember how to calculate Torricelli’s Equation or how to explain the different layers of our planet from the surface to the innermost part. Any organic chemistry left? Nah…not much. History? More than any other subject. English? Well, I still remember a lot of that.

Catch my drift? At one point in my life I actually used to know how to apply Bhaskara’s formula (I love this example because it kinda shows how much “useless” stuff we learn at school). I could build long chains of organic compounds and discuss in detail how the Earth’s crust had been formed. And my teachers asked me a bunch of questions about those topics and I was able to answer them. They were assessing learning. It turns out that now I’m pretty much hopeless in any of those topics.
What is consolidation then? How does knowledge consolidate in the brain and what does it take? Let’s take a look at some principles and go back to the examples above. If we search the word CONSOLIDATION on Google, that’s what we get:

consolidation

/kənˌsɒlɪˈdeɪʃ(ə)n/

noun

1. the action or process of making something stronger or more solid.

2. the action or process of combining a number of things into a single more effective or coherent whole.

Great, but how long does a particular knowledge last in our memories? I guess the examples I mentioned before didn’t consolidate properly in my brain since I am unable to retrieve them, right? I mean, I know I once learned them, but I can’t really apply them. The English language, on the other hand, is still here. I started learning it when I was around 7 and I’d say it’s pretty much consolidated. What made a difference?

1. REHEARSAL

Rehearsing is basically repeating or practicing a new piece of knowledge in different contexts for a long period of time. After high school, I did not have to use my knowledge on tectonic plates or the structure of benzene, erm… like… ever again! Even though these facts might still be there, I can’t really access them. The problem with rehearsing is that it must be continuous or else we really do forget. Neuroimaging studies show that people who have just learned some arithmetic (like multiplication) have a lot of activation in different areas of the brain, including the frontal areas, responsible for the WORKING MEMORY. However, after training (or REHEARSAL), less activation occurs (especially in the frontal areas) as the new knowledge becomes more automatic and, thus, more easily retrieved.

I do remember a cool physics class we had in which we observed the water volume in a tube before and after we added an ice cube in it. The level raised a little and our teacher asked us what would happen after that ice cube melted. Most of us answered that the water level would go back to where it was before adding the ice cube or that it would increase a little but not reach the level it had with the ice cube inside. We were surprised to learn that the level between a) tube +water + solid ice cube = b) tube + water + melted ice cube (also known as water). We had that experiment and discussed why it happened in class and told our parents about and, and, and… We applied that knowledge in different contexts and our brains created different representations of it, which is quite useful as we have various paths to access this memory. By the way, if you don’t believe the water level doesn’t change, do the experiment yourself or check out this explanation. That brings me to:

2. APPLYING KNOWLEDGE

This has to do with using that knowledge in several different ways and contexts so that you can access it more easily in the future. “Learning things over and over again” is a great way to add NEURAL HOOKS (different cues or associations) to help you find that information in your memory. It’s kinda finding your way to your favorite camping spot in the woods. If you have only one path memorized, what happens if you don’t go back to that place for many months or years and the bushes grow over it, covering the path? If you go back, it’ll be hard to find your way there. Now, if you have walked different paths to get to that same spot and you can’t remember one, you’ll be able to pick up another. In a study conducted on subjects learning a second language, there was a lot of activation in very specific areas of the brain in very similar patterns when they were at the initial learning stages, indicating that they were using various strategies to learn, however, once they became more familiar with the vocabulary over the course of their classes, areas in the parietal lobe were more activated (much less activation in the frontal areas) but with different patterns this time. This means that that knowledge had become more automatic and that they had multiple representations of it as the patterns changed, making it easier for them to retrieve that information.

Ok, this next step is probably one of our favorites! It’s what we spend 1/3 of our lives doing and it feels we’re not getting enough of it. You’ve guessed it right:

3. SLEEP

For those of you who thought sleeping was for the weak, well, I have great news. Sleeping is for the ones who want to learn effectively. Both our SLOW WAVE and RAPID EYE MOVEMENT (REM) SLEEP play a very important role in DECLARATIVE MEMORY (ideas, concepts, facts) and PROCEDURAL MEMORY (abilities, habits) CONSOLIDATION. If you want more information on that, check this great TED-Ed video. What does that tell us about when to do HOMEWORK or REVISION? If they are types of REHEARSAL and we need sleep to help consolidate memories, should they be done on the same day that we learned that new knowledge and not revisited in the next class? Think about it.

4. EMOTIONS & STRESS

STRESS is one of those words that got a really bad reputation, nevertheless, it is an important learning tool. Being slightly stressed, in a good way, means you’re alert and attending to the instruction. If it arouses you because it’s interesting and fun or even creepy and bizarre, this will help you consolidate that memory in a more effective way. The problem is when FEAR, for instance, takes over and our cognitive resources attend to trying to keep us alive or not exposed to something that might embarrass or harm us in any way. Having a strong emotional connection with our teacher and feeling excited about what we’re learning is a great way to make sure we are in fact learning well.

To wrap up our the last blog post in our series, let’s use the construction analogy again. Imagine a pickup truck driving to the construction site carrying bricks, concrete, wood, screws, nails, buckets, etc. The driver always takes the same route. What happens if that route is closed and no GPS, Google Maps, Waze or whatever is available? The driver might get lost trying to find another route. The pickup truck is our WORKING MEMORY and it can carry only a limited amount of things to the construction site, our LONG-TERM MEMORY. In order to get to the construction site effectively, the driver will certainly need to repeat it a few times (REHEARSAL) and, to make sure they won’t get lost, they should certainly find other routes (APPLYING KNOWLEDGE). Driving without enough SLEEP will likely cause an accident and stop those materials from reaching their destination. If the driver is excited about getting there, or even a little pressed for time (just the right amount of STRESS), they will probably pay more attention and drive more effectively to make sure they arrive OK and on time.

In neurosciencetish (the language of neuroscience), we need to give our students the chance to REHEARSE the new knowledge, APPLYING it in different contexts over a long period of time, to both automatize it and unload the WORKING MEMORY to be free for more knowledge, in an environment with the right amount of STRESS and AROUSAL, to make sure we have their attention and hold them accountable for their learning, and get a good night’s SLEEP to consolidate those memories more effectively.

So, to be fair, I’m not hopeless in any of those subjects I mentioned and neither are your students. We can always learn. We just need to REHEARSE, APPLY, SLEEP well, and be a little STRESSED and AROUSED about the right things at the right time.

The final weapons for improved consolidation and retention (and you can read them on my blog with some references):

SPACED REPETITION

POMODORO TECHNIQUE

MEMORY PALACE TECHNIQUE

Tough job, isn’t it? That’s why we chose to be teachers. The good news is: some types of knowledge do can be forgotten depending on the path you chose and it won’t really affect your life. Do you remember all those formulas you learned in physics and maths?

You can check out my lesson plan here and also access the Science of Learning – Engage, Build, Consolidate website.

Part 2. Build knowledge

This is the second part of a three-post series on how the Science of Learning can be used to inform your practice as a teacher or a learner. If you’ve missed the first blog post about ENGAGE, click here and check it out before you read this. Also, sign up for my Nat Geo Learning webinar here.

Remember that cycle I showed you on my last post? It was based on the material I received in my Cognitive Neuroscience and Classroom Practice class and meant for you to think about the general three steps that make learning more likely to happen. The reason why the arrows are dual is simple: every step of the way feeds off of each other and contributes to each other. But if you were engaged while reading the other blog post and looking at the image below, I believe it’s safe to assume that ENGAGE is the first step of our sequence. Think of it this way: before we can start building a house, we need to get the workers to be able and willing to do it, right?

Engage

Now allow me to use some of the strategies I want you to try out on your own students in your own classes. That’s why the analogy of construction serves us well. Picture a group of people building a school. You’ve already gotten their attention, they know what they’re supposed to do, they’re paid, rested and well-fed. Time to start working. All the materials they need are right in front of them. They have their safety gear, yellow helmets on, gloves, boots, the works! Let’s get down to it then. First things first. But, what is the very first thing to do again? Maybe I should give you some specifics before.

The school will be a 4-floor building. It’ll have a sports center, a cafeteria, a playground, a computer lab, a library, offices for the director and coordinators, a teachers room, a storage room, a kitchen, bathrooms. Erm, am I forgetting anything? Oh yeah, and classrooms! Many of them. A parking lot as well. I suppose you get the picture. Where should the construction start? What needs to be built first? Give yourself a couple of seconds and try to answer that.

If you chose any of the places I mentioned before, you skipped a fundamental part of the building process. You can’t start building anything if you don’t have a FOUNDATION. And you can’t build from the roof down either. These two seemingly obvious remarks bring us to two not always obvious concepts that need to be well developed in the classroom: PRIOR KNOWLEDGE and SCAFFOLDING.  The first assumes that for a new knowledge to be learned, it must be built on a foundation. Piaget called it schema in 1926. If you teach math, you know students who don’t know multiplication can’t begin to learn how to calculate percentages. You see, first, you need to learn multiples, then division, finally percentages. SCAFFOLDING, Vygotsky’s contribution to education, on the other hand, means gradually increasing knowledge by using the “platforms” to build up. These platforms are often provided by us, the teachers. We set them up so that the students can gradually climb them and achieve their potential.

Both PRIOR KNOWLEDGE and SCAFFOLDING are essential to make sure learning is happening in a more effective way. But there’s something else we need to keep in mind. Imagine our workers have built the foundation, started working their way up on the main school building and are finally moving on to the very last floor. You can see them going up, climbing the scaffolds to reach the top floor, carrying the main piece of material they need: bricks. The thing is, how many bricks can they carry? All at once, maybe? Should they carry bricks, plaster for the wall, glass for the windows, paint and the like on just one go? They can’t, can they? Too heavy and too much stuff at once. For the process to be effective, they need to carry only what they’ll need up there with them depending on the stage of the construction. The same happens to our students when they try to put too many things in their working memory. It’s like a bucket or a bag. The more bricks you put in it, the heavier it gets and the more complicated it is to get it to the top. To avoid this MEMORY OVERLOAD, we need to make sure we keep the unnecessary stuff (irrelevant information, distractions) at a minimum and give clear instructions, just what they need.

See what I did? I used an analogy to try and tackle all of those items. I gave the example of a construction because I’m pretty sure you’ve seen a construction site before. That means I was activating your PRIOR KNOWLEDGE. After setting the foundation for this new knowledge, I tried to explain things step-by-step, provide lots of mental images and ask questions to make sure SCAFFOLDING was happening. By eliminating wordy explanations, too many definitions, and using a familiar situation (construction), I’ve also taken some of the MEMORY LOAD off your mind. At least that’s what I hope. Now if I were teaching you this in a lecture, workshop or class, I’d be doing something else that definitely helps. I’d be gesticulating, using my arms, hands, and whole body, to be honest, especially when using the words FOUNDATION (hands waving low near the ground) or SCAFFOLDING (hands going up one on top of the other), etc. This would tap into everyone’s MIRROR NEURONS SYSTEM. You see, when we watch someone doing something, the neurons that would activate if we were doing that something actually do activate just by watching. It helps us learn through observation.

Isn’t our brain incredible? I think it’s fascinating.

Your sense of curiosity may have you thinking right now: what exactly is PRIOR KNOWLEDGE or SCHEMA, or what does SCAFFOLDING really mean? Maybe you’re thinking about how our WORKING MEMORY actually works or what the heck the MIRROR NEURONS do. I promise I’ll write a blog post with all these definitions very soon. You can also do a little research about them, but, for now, I hope this suffices:

PRIOR KNOWLEDGE = Foundation
SCAFFOLDING = Platform, support
WORKING MEMORY = Bucket/ bag of bricks
MIRROR NEURONS = Observe others building and imitate them (even if just in your head)

All of those are nothing but steps to building a school or, in our case, knowledge. If we overlook any of those steps, we may never actually build anything or just build it on top of very weak foundations and doom the whole thing to collapse. To help you build knowledge with your students (or yourself) more effectively, think about the questions below:

1- Do all my students know what is necessary before I teach this? Do they have a foundation for this new knowledge? (PRIOR KNOWLEDGE)
2 – If they do, did I make sure I ACTIVATED their PRIOR KNOWLEDGE? Did I set the scenario, ask questions, made sure they were thinking about it? (PRIOR KNOWLEDGE)
3 – Did I provide enough support (schemes, vocabulary, tables, images) so that they could use it as PLATFORMS to climb? (SCAFFOLDING)
4 – Did I give them just the information they needed, breaking things down into bits, so that they could avoid too much information? Did I give them time and the tools to process that information? Did I use analogies to simplify this information?(WORKING MEMORY)
5 – Did I make gestures when I explained the concepts? Did I use my body to convey my message? (MIRROR NEURONS)

If you reflect on these questions and think of ways you can implement that in your class, I’m sure you’ll be helping a lot of students. Going back to our math example, what do you think works best:

1. Teacher enters the classroom and says they’re gonna work with percentages that day. The first thing the teacher does is write on the board “50%” and say:” this symbol means that 50 is being divided by 100. That means that it’s…” Someone shouts: “0.5”. The teacher says: “Well done”. Then the teacher writes new examples on the board: 30%, 40%, 90%. The same student shouts again: “0.3”. Another student, very clever, notices the process and says: “0.4”. The teacher is happy and says: “Well done, everyone! Now let’s do the activities on page 10”. Most students can do it. A few days after, the teacher applies a test and more than half of the class passes. A job well done, she thinks. But have they really learned what percentages mean and how they work? Another test, this one with problems such as: “3 girls in every 4” or “2 out of 6 men”. Most of them fail.
2. Teacher enters the classroom and says the same thing and writes “50%” on the board. She asks if anyone knows what that is. Nobody answers. She then says that it means that 50 is being divided by 100. She asks everyone to try to make that division in their notebooks. She sees that some students are struggling. She approaches them and sees their problem is that they don’t remember how to divide. She implies that their real problem is with multiplication. She helps them through the problem and asks for volunteers to make divisions on the board. Everyone watches and try themselves in their notebooks. She says: “Here’s a good explanation on how we can multiply and divide”. She assigns that as homework and welcomes everyone to do it, but it’s actually optional. They do it, she checks, some students are still struggling. She decides to use more practical examples. She uses a paper circle as a pie chart and asks students to use a ruler and draw a line cutting it in half vertically and horizontally. They repeat the process and end up having 8 slices. She asks them to cut up the slices and demonstrates that if they remove 4 slices out of the pie chart, they’ll have 4 slices left and that is 4 divided by 8 which equals 50%.

See the difference? In which situation do you think the students were learning better? If she applied a test in situation 2, would you say students would have a better chance at scoring a higher grade? This is actually a simple example. Can you think of an example when you made assumptions and leaps that led to a lack of understanding? Can you maybe fix them now with what we’ve built together? I’d love to know. Leave a comment here.

The only problem is that building a school is much more than just building a school. It keeps changing and we need to add and remove things all the time. Sometimes it just needs some painting or renovation. Sometimes it needs to be demolished because the foundation is weak and we need to rebuild it. Keep that in mind and happy teaching!

Don’t forget to check out my lesson plan here and the Science of Learning – Engage, Build, Consolidate website