iNACOL Day 3: Relationships are Key

Relationships are key to learning and equity. This has been one of the most frequently discussed themes of the past few days.

I feel like most people know and understand this on an implicit level. Personally, when I think of my high school experience and when people would ask me what my favorite part about my school was, I’d almost always first say something about the relationships I had with my teachers. I asked some of my peers today, who are also alums from my high school, “What are the top 3 things you liked most about high school?” and they also all said something about relationships as number 1. (And this is three years after graduating high school – the relationships are still what sticks with us.) Granted this was a small sample size, but I was just curious, so I texted a few people I knew I could get quick responses from. This little mini survey confirmed my hypothesis that as learners we definitely value relationships, but what has really intrigued me the last few days is learning about how relationships aren’t just valuable because we like them, there is actually ample scientific research that states strong positive relationships are critical to the learning process and to creating equity in education.

Equity is about every learner getting the resources to meet their specific needs. It’s important to distinguish that “equity” is different from “equality.” Equality is where every learner is given the same resources despite their individual needs. Our closing keynote speaker, Dr. Pedro Noguera, discussed how bullying, sleep deprivation, depression, and suicide are all examples of equity issues. These issues also bring us back to the topic of mental health and the need to educate the whole child which I discussed briefly night 1 of the conference as it has been another major trend of the week. Furthermore, these are issues that often are ignored in schools especially if students are making good grades in spite of these additional challenges in their lives. And the crazy thing is that we have the tools to combat these issues – people that care.

The  prefrontal cortex, amygdala, and hippocampus are some of the primary parts of the brain involved with learning and development. What I learned this week from Dr. Pamela Cantor with Turnaround for Children is that these parts of our brain are affected by two main hormones: cortisol and oxytocin. The former is the hormone associated with stress and the former is released due to trust and love. It turns out that oxytocin, the trust and love hormone, is actually the stronger of the two hormones and can even help protect against future stress. Therefore, these relationships we all value so much because we feel good having them – true relationships that are built on trust and consistent interaction/support –  also help our brains stay healthy and create positive neural connections that enhance learning. Strong relationships are one of the most helpful positive enrichments for the brain so they are absolutely necessary to have in school.

This is the “why” behind the need to educate the whole child. So if you were skeptic about the movement to educate the whole child, which makes sense from purely an engaged citizen leader mindset in my opinion, then listen to the science which also says relationships are key to learning and equity.

 

Punishment Paradigm in Education

In psych class, we are currently learning about “learning.” In particular, I was reading tonight about reinforcement and punishment.

I was really surprised by how much of what I was learning directly refuted the way our school system operates in regards to discipline.

The short summary of my reading is that punishment only really works if it occurs right after the undesired behavior. If it is delayed, then there could be mixed associations about what behavior caused the punishment. For example, if a child cheats and then days later admits to cheating and gets punished for it, then the kid is being encouraged to not admit to cheating in the future and instead lie because their goal always is to avoid punishment. The kid is not actually taught how to improve by being punished, instead, they are taught what not to do, and therefore, are basically just being taught to learn how to not get caught.

I can’t think of many times in education where punishment is not delayed from the time of the undesired behavior; therefore, punishment almost always is not going to do the best job at teaching a child to change the behavior.

Instead, psychology would suggest reinforcing desired behavior oppose to using punishment techniques. This can be hard to do because punishment is a more natural response, which my family has experienced while trying to use this technique to train our puppy… However, despite the challenges, it seems odd to me that I don’t see more prototypes of this technique being experimented with in schools. I’ve heard of a few ideas, like yoga instead of detention, but on the whole, it seems that most schools tend to stick with traditional punishments like missing recess, suspension, detention, busy work, etc.

Furthermore, only slightly related, but very interesting to me, the textbook also discussed the ineffectiveness of physical punishment; spanking being the primary focus of the material.

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We were provided with this visual of the locations where spanking has been made illegal in school and homes. What I found interesting is that if I was asked to name areas I consider to have better public school systems, there is a correlation to the extent which spanking is not tolerated. It was one of those things I read and thought, “Well I’m not surprised, but I can’t believe it!” The idea that in the US children can still be legally spanked in school just feels wrong… (Must be honest, I’ve not done further research on this fact and the study in our book was conducted 2015-16, so perhaps this is not up to date information, but still only two years ago feels crazy enough.)

We know so much about learning that it constantly baffles me when I discover more and more ways that our education system doesn’t incorporate concepts we know to be true.

 

The Brain Myth

When you ask a random person to tell you what they know about the parts of the brain, often times they’ll say, “The right brain is the creative side and the left side is analytical.”

Well this is mostly true in terms of strengths, but the idea of people being “left or right brained” is kind of a myth… From what I’ve learned in psych class it seems that while the left and right brain do have dominant skills, both parts of the brain have to communicate and work together for virtually every task. Very few functions are restricted, “localized” as they say, to one specific part of the brain and people don’t actually use just one side of their brain unless they are a split-brain patient. In actuality, it’s mostly the media that has tried to make some of these discoveries about parts of the brain into overarching generalizations.

It’s always funny to me when you’re sitting in class and you just feel the whole room have a “Wait what? We’ve been lied to?” kind of moment. It wasn’t really that dramatic, and I had already vaguely known this, I just didn’t realize truly how much the media had skewed these findings.

This also had me thinking how it can be kind of problematic for people to try and label themselves as left or right brained. When people start to think like that they are inavertible limiting themselves by claiming they aren’t good at the functions dominant on one side of the brain compared to the other, and chalk it up to biology. In reality, though, the brain can constantly restructure itself throughout a lifetime in order to create new neuron streams and new brain cells. We truly never stop learning as long as we keep trying to.

I wish we more often embraced how both sides of the brain, both creative and analytical thinking, must be used to do really rich problem-solving.

Decreasing Choking Under Pressure

I love when homework is actually really interesting!

We didn’t have psych class today because our teacher was out to due to religious reasons, so instead she had us watch two videos on our own and write an essay about what we found interesting and do some critical thinking about the two. I found one of the videos pretty annoying, and honestly still a bit annoyed that all of this work took almost three times as much time as the class normally would’ve; however, the second video I actually really enjoyed.

It was called “Power of the Human Brain” and some of the video I had already learned about before, like the concept of using a “memory palace” to better remember long random lists which is a technique mental athletes use. But I also learned some new stuff that really closely ties in with learning and memory and education practices in general which I found particularly interesting.

For example, there was a study done to see if we can train our brain to be less likely to “choke” under pressure. Turns out, the emotional part of our brain is right next to the working memory part. So when we get overly anxious or stressed, the emotional part of our brain can literally cloud up the working memory by overwhelming it with too many signals that take up brain power. Therefore, the study had half of a class take 10 minutes to reflect before taking a test about how they were feeling and get all there worries out, and the other half of the class just sat there. The half of the class who did the pre-writing ended up on average outperforming the control group by half a letter grade. The theory is that the kids who did the writing essentially “out loaded” their worries onto the paper and therefore, lessened the space they were taking up in the brain which allowed for the working memory to work more optimally.

Now I didn’t spend the time to look any deeper into this study or others about this topic after watching the video, but I still think the findings are pretty awesome- especially as a kid who is not the best test taker compared to what I feel my understanding of information is. I’m definitely going to try this pre-writing technique out and believe teachers should really try implementing this practice in classrooms as well. Getting learners to practice reflecting, creating a less stressed out environment, and having better performance result; sounds like a lot of wins for so little work.

Even if it’s a Game…

There’s a recentish trend in education around trying to “gamify” certain lessons to make them more engaging to students.

Personally, I’m a fan of this concept, I even use the tool myself when teaching gymnastics sometimes by making conditioning into competitions or basics on beam into a repeat after me game as I did today. I think it can definitely be a useful tool for any teacher’s toolbag.

However, I also learned today that doing a poor job at gamify-ing actually makes things worse from a user end.

As part of my psych class requirements, I participated today in a research study. If it wasn’t giving me class credit I would say that it was the biggest waste of an hour and a half I’ve ever had; it still quite possibly could be. Some part of me hopes that the researchers can benefit from my involvement in the study, but I’m pretty sure I’ll be an outlier in their study.

The study description was:

The purpose of this study is to assess how information is valued when it comes at a cost and how time pressure influences information foraging. In this experiment, you will play a medical diagnosis game where you will select information to aid in your diagnostic decision-making. 

So I come in, sign my release form, and then I was put at a desk with a computer in a small room that had a divider between me and the other participant. When I read that this study was being conducted in the form of a game I got excited thinking it was going to be a fun mental challenge with interesting rewards system; you know- game like.

Turns out this was not a fun game. The game worked by a patient “coming in” and telling you their symptoms. Then you could see the results of different tests like an MRI or Cat scan, etc. There were four symptoms, four tests each with three possible outcomes, and four potential diagnoses. Upon correctly diagnosing a patient you’d get $1000/points. Then there were different rounds that added different factors like time and hidden information which were meant to help get at what the study was trying to test.

In theory, you would have to guess at the beginning of the game and then would slowly recognize patterns to help you make informed decisions on how to diagnose each patient. The problem for me was that I never learned anything. To be honest, I got really annoyed with myself because I could not figure out the correct connections. It didn’t help that half of the test results looked the same and I didn’t realize during the instructions would be the only time they tell you the difference between the “positive, neutral, and negative” test results looked like.

What I do know though is that my feeling of “failure” to learn what I was supposed to be learning lead to exactly what you’d expect: I stopped caring to try. I just continued to guess and honestly, it made things faster and I was still having decent success in my opinion, though I have nothing to compare my game score against. At that point, I really just wanted to get out of there but knew I had to finish the study for my credit (and for feeling like a decent person purposes and helping with their study despite being bored out of my mind).

I couldn’t even tell you how many times I almost fell asleep out of boredom. This “game” turned into my clicking a mouse twice in two spots then clicking the space bar. Repeat. Over and over again. I then got to that point where I felt jumpy from sitting in one place for so long and trying not to think about going to the bathroom because I was just wondering how long I would have to keep playing the stupid game.

I’m pretty confident that there are a lot of other students out there like me in this story and even more that may have not even tried as long as I did to figure out the learning lesson. Students where if they were in the situation of feeling like they were never going to learn something, they stop trying to learn it if no one gives them a new way to approach the topic. I think people intrinsically know when a certain style of teaching is not going to work for them, so why keep trying to put the square into the circular hole when you know it will never fit?

And this goes even for exercises that seem “fun” and “game like”; they still may not work for everyone, no matter how excited you are about a new activity for teaching a topic. There always needs to be options and adjustments if we want everyone to succeed; we talk about that all the time in gymnastics. When we teach a new drill, we say it, show it, have the kids try it, and still sometimes need to give a few kids a spot through it for a little; it doesn’t matter how they get the information, but they need to be able to all safely try on their own.

It was honestly a big MoVe moment (moment of visible empathy) for me walking out of that room realizing how some students may feel fairly often at school when they just aren’t getting it and don’t know what to do about it.

Frozen Learning

I’ve been really interested in psychology and the science behind learning for a long time. Today though, I finally got to have my first official psych class and I’m already loving it and my professor!

In our overview of the course today, our professor made a comment: “Memory is really just frozen learning.”

I found this weirdly profound and I’m not fully sure why. I guess it’s because it made me think of how pointless it is when we talk about just trying to get kids to memorize things for school. Short-term memory will get you through a test – I say from experience… But if we truly want knowledge to get to the long-term memory, the key is to teach how to learn. The frozen screenshot of the learning moment is what will be remembered.

I’m excited for my own frozen learning moments in psych especially this semester as we learn about learning, memory, thinking, intelligence, perception, and so much more.