Velcro-ing to the Positive

There is a cognitive principle that psychiatrists call negativity bias, which has powerful implications for the work we do in schools: with children, and together as adults (parents, teachers, administrators, etc.). I believe an awareness of and active work against this cognitive instinct of ours can shift the sometimes inevitable slumps in mood and perspective, and ultimately create an even richer culture of trust and positivity amongst colleagues and between school and home.

What it boils down to is that our brains are wired to instinctually react to negative stimuli more often than the positive. And not just a little more often: upwards of three times more often. As neuropsychologist Rick Hanson puts it,

“The human brain is like Velcro to negative experiences and Teflon to positive ones.”

In fact, research shows that it takes three positive things to counteract one negative. Moreover, this ratio increases to five positive interactions to counteract one negative when it comes to interpersonal relationships. Schools thrive on a foundation of healthy interpersonal relationships: those that exist between colleagues, administration, students, and their families. Our profession involves a thoroughly interwoven web of human connections.

“When it comes to enjoying life and making use of who we are, all of us can; it’s just that some don’t…It’s sometimes referred to as the Snowball Effect, which can remind you of the time you pushed that little ball of snow along, and it got bigger and bigger until it got so big you couldn’t stop it, and it rolled all the way down the hill and flattened the neighbor’s car, and soon everyone was talking about the Huge Snowball that you let get completely out of control…Now the principle can work negatively or positively. It can promote cynicism as easily as it can encourage hope…the important thing is to make it work for yourself and for the benefit of others.” – Benjamin Hoff

 

 

Children Want To Be Understood

notebookThis New York Times article, Helping Parents Deal With Learning and Attention Issues, gives an overview of a new ad campaign promoting the website Understood.org. The website is an incredibly useful resource for parents, and by extension educators, as we strive every day to understand children’s experience, make learning and growing accessible and engaging, and walk the balance between protecting our children/students and allowing them the valuable experiences of struggle, failure, and perseverance with an eye towards students who develop both quality intellect and excellent character. Our children and students move through a world that is largely organized, scheduled, structured, and geared towards adults. The website provides a multitude of resources in the areas of: brain research, learning & attention (executive functioning skills), friends & feelings (social emotional skills), and support systems for families. Understood.org seeks to make the experience of different kinds of learners more transparent and accessible for parents and teachers so that we might better support and inspire the next generation.

For THEIR Future

“We need to prepare students for their future, not our past.” – Daniel Pink

Daniel Pink’s oft-repeated words serve as a constant reminder of our work as educators and parents. This video states:

“We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist…using technologies that haven’t been invented in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet.”

It is our role to provide children with skill sets that go beyond information – skill sets that are transferable and can be relied on for whatever challenges, problems, and careers lie ahead in their future. As parents and educators partner in this quest – here are a couple useful resources. The first is a small booklet titled 101.3 Ways to Build Creativity. Within you’ll find numerous creativity, construction-based, collaboration-requiring activities that may prove useful in your work with students. Some samples:

  • Place a yardstick across six people’s index fingers parallel to the floor. Try and lower the stick to the floor, you will be surprised how difficult it is!
  • Create a tabletop game for two people using a pin pong ball, paper clips, and tape. Define the rules and scoring and how to wine the game.
  • Make a device that can place a penny in a cup without allowing any team member to be within 30 inches of the cup. You may use popsicle sticks, paper cups, string, tape, straws, spaghetti, and marshmallows in your solution. See how many pennies can be put in the cup in two minutes.
  • And 98.3 more!

The second resource is an article from the latest issue of Independent School magazine titled Education for Innovation: Teaching Children How to Change the World. The authors write,

“Students need to feel empowered to go out into the world and solve its problems. In essence, we want to figure out how to produce future innovators.”

The article highlights some key qualities that characterize innovation. Qualities of innovation are nurtured not just through STEAM activities, but throughout the large and small moments of children’s days and in many of the things you do with your students/children. Innovation is a habit of mind, not a discrete set of facts that can be memorized. It is a muscle, and as such must be worked and practiced to be strengthened and honed for the work that lies in both the near and long term. The article references Google Vice President Susan Wojciciki’s eight pillars of innovation, the conditions which need to be present for innovation to flourish and thrive:
Have a mission that matters: “If we want our students to not only have big ideas but also to learn how to run with those ideas, we need to start talking about things that matter.”
Think big, but start small: “By seeking volunteers and not issuing a top-down mandate, we assembled a team who were not only interested in integrating creative problem solving into their lesson plans, but who also wanted to re-envision our campus culture.”
Strive for continual innovation, not instant perfection: “If we want our students to become innovators, we have to inspire them to continuously improve upon their work. That’s hard to do when so many young people are programmed to work for the highest grade possible, achieve it, and move on to the next assignment.”
Look for ideas everywhere: “If we really believe that good ideas can come from anywhere, we’ve got to be open to listening to even the smallest voices.”
Share everything: “Our goal is for the way we teach innovation to affect our entire community.”
Spark with imagination, fuel with data: “We want our students to learn to listen to their hearts and their heads in equal measure.”
Be an open platform: “Rather than protect our intellectual property, let’s layer our ideas on top of each other and see if we can produce a generation of innovators who make breakthroughs that matter.”

 

Play Hard. Learn Better.

In his book Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life, author Peter Gray, an evolutionary developmental psychologist, examines the nature of play and the scientific research associated with it’s powerful educational benefits. It is simultaneously a very engaging and highly informative read. It’s worth buying a hard copy, it’s worth reading, and it’s worth taking seriously as we work as parents and educators to create environments, learning experiences, and opportunities for our children to become smart of mind and good of heart. Some quotes to highlight:

“Imagine that you had omnipotent powers and were faced with the problem of how to get young humans and other young mammals to practice the skills they must develop to survive and thrive in their local conditions of life. How might you solve that problem? It is hard to imagine a more effective solution than that of building into their brains a mechanism that makes them want to practice those very skills and that rewards such practice with the experience of joy. Perhaps play would be more respected if we called it something like ‘self-motivated practice of life skills’…”

“Playing with other children, away from adults, is how children learn to make their own decisions, control their emotions and impulses, see from others’ perspectives, negotiate differences with others, and make friends. In short, play is how children learn to take control of their lives.”

“In play…children bring the realities of their world into a fictional context, where it is safe to confront them, to experience them, and to practice ways of dealing with them.”

 

What is a “morning message”?

Morning MessagesThe morning message is a daily letter written from the teacher/s to students highlighting one or more elements of the day ahead. These messages are written before students arrive at school. As students enter the classroom, among the first things they do are to visit and read (or attempt to read) the morning message. In early grades, morning messages are read chorally aloud as students gain familiarity with words/phrases that show up often in the letters. In older grades, students read the morning message independently, and often respond in some way as well. Responses might involve writing a word or phrase in response to a question, solving a mathematical problem posed, or adding information to create a chart or graph of class data. Morning messages provide an anchor for each classroom community to generate excitement around learning for the day, kick-start morning routines, and practice critical learning skills across the curriculum. Teachers can use morning messages to assess where each student needs additional enrichment or support and build confidence of their learners prior to new and challenging skills and concepts that might lie ahead in the school day. Morning messages build community in developmentally appropriate ways at each grade level. Morning messages are a small component of each child’s day (approximately 5 minutes), yet with over 170 school days in the year they are a repeated opportunity for practicing critical learning and demonstrating quality growth.

How do you do all that you do?

Executive function is a set of processes your brain undergoes to help connect past experience with present action. The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University calls the executive function portion of the brain its “air traffic control system”. Children and adults of all ages use it to perform activities such as planning, organizing, strategizing, choosing focus, paying attention to and remembering details, and managing self and environment.

Executive function includes the external management skills of time, materials, & space. Internally it includes the cognitive management skills of filing away information, retrieving it at the appropriate time, inhibiting impulses, selecting appropriate focus for attention, maintaining focus, and flexing that focus when needed.

Whether you are a student, educator, administrator, parent or a combination of the above, below are some articles that give some additional insight and perspective into cognition & executive function skills….unraveling some of the mystery behind how it is you do all that you do:

Building the Brain’s “Air Traffic Control System”: How Early Experiences Shape the Development of Executive Function

“Being able to focus, hold, and work with information in mind, filter distractions, and switch gears is like having an air traffic control system at a busy airport to manage the arrivals and departures of dozens of planes on multiple runways. In the brain, this air traffic control mechanism is called executive function, a group of skills that helps us to focus on multiple streams of information at the same time, and revise plans as necessary. Acquiring the early building blocks of these skills is one of the most important and challenging tasks of the early childhood years, and the opportunity to build further on these rudimentary capacities is critical to healthy development through middle childhood, adolescence, and into early adult life.”

Fresh Ideas About School Success: What Every Parent Should Know

Think school success is mostly a matter of IQ? Think again. Worried that your child’s learning disability is a doomsday diagnosis? It doesn’t have to be. Think being an “average” kid will prevent your child from excelling in school? Not necessarily. Natural ability to learn is only part of the equation for academic success; motivation is another key. And neuroscience is shedding light on another group of mental capacities called executive functions — the self-governing, goal-directed skills that enable children to meet academic challenges and become independent learners.…Through patience, monitoring, guidance, and collaboration with teachers, parents can aid their children in developing their own executive strategies, move toward self-supervision, and soar.” – Aden A. Burka

Supporting Diverse Learners

“Our students are the center of what we do and what we want to accomplish. We do not simply teach a subject, we teach children. We teach them how to learn and also to value the process of learning whether it be the process of writing a book report, completing a project, or preparing for a test. Our students are incredibly unique and yearn for us to know and value their strengths as learners and their qualities as people. When we appreciate our students’ diversity as learners and promise to stretch their capabilities and minds, we ultimately prepare them for independence from us, which allows them to mature as individuals.” – Greensboro Day School Learning Resource Department

Grounding Our Vision

“Educators, collectively, have a strong sense of what works for students, and what schools can and should do for their charges. The challenge, in order to attract and justify the allocation of precious and limited resources, is to ground our vision in research that is both substantiated and inspirational. The visionary aspirations of a school should be anchored in the science of learning, and done in a way that unleashes creative organizational and curricular possibilities that reflect what it is emerging in this exciting field of neuro-education.” – Mike Walker

How To Learn Absolutely Anything

In this article and video from Khan Academy‘s founder, Salman Khan, he explains why he will never tell his 5-year-old son he is smart. Khan’s article expounds on the research of Carol Dweck and others on the “growth mindset” – or the habits of mind that believe that intelligence is not predetermined. Rather, with effort, perseverance, and resilience you CAN learn new things. Khan writes,

I am more convinced than ever that mindsets towards learning could matter more than anything else we teach…The research shows that just being exposed to the research itself (­­for example, knowing that the brain grows most by getting questions wrong, not right­­) can begin to change a person’s mindset…when my son, or for that matter, anyone else asks me about learning, I only want them to know one thing. As long as they embrace struggle and mistakes, they can learn anything.

The trick to learning absolutely anything…is to think you can.