Monday, January 31, 2011

Fordlandia: What Happens When We Work Against Nature? (Part II)

Most of the heveas brasilis trees succumbed quickly to a local fungus that would have normally been curtailed by the natural vegetation, which was now absent. Healthy trees also need space between one anther, which they also lacked in Fordlandia. The subsequent flooding, caused by depleting the area of vegetation, washed away the few surviving trees.

Almost no trees were harvested, since they could not reach maturity. In the unforgiving nature-driven rainforest, manufacturing schedules and carefully planned production levels were the priorities, in spite of what nature had in store. The results were physically and financially disastrous.

Ultimately, Ford's $20 million agricultural fiasco was terminated and the now-useless land was sold back to the government of Brazil for $250,000. This relegated Fordlandia to the classic "case studies" list of prime examples of the high price paid for ignoring, rather than working with, nature.

On countless occasions in our human history, we have demonstrated how defying Mother Nature can be a sin that is accompanied by severe punishment. Contemporary classrooms are not exempt. Force-fitting more than 4 million years of brain evolution into a 150 year-old American classroom model has also been punished by conspicuous academic shortcomings. This is evidenced by an abundance of "brain antagonistic" educational practices that yield consistently poor learning results.

As the 20th-century British leader Winston Churchill once said, “Success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing one’s enthusiasm.” Many of the instructional failings about which we’ve been most enthusiastic for several generations should be substituted with “brain-considerate” approaches that reflect how our brains have developed over the past 4 million years of evolutionary enhancements.

Fordlandia: What Happens When We Work Against Nature? (Part I)

In 1927, Henry Ford negotiated the purchase of 2.5 million acres of lush tropical land in the Brazilian jungles. That land became the home site of a massive Ford Motor Company rubber plantation aptly named “Fordlandia.”

Thousands of fertile acres of rich rainforest land were slashed and razed as the first step in creating Fordlandia. Since time was of the essence, rubber tree saplings were immediately planted. But, they were unwisely crammed together in neat (but extremely narrow) little rows in the now-barren stretches of rich soil. To maximize production yields, the customary planting distances between trees were abandoned so space usage could be maximized.

In their native surroundings, rubber (heveas brasilis) trees thrive best in wide patches of roomy green terrain. However, the production techniques utilized in carefully-controlled, crowded, man-made, factory-like conditions were forced upon Mother Nature with a less than comparable success to put it mildly.

The assembly-line models, which were effective for automobile production, were met with an extremely hostile reaction by the biological principles governing rainforest environments.These models were no match when put to a test of wills with Mother Nature.

What do you think happened to Fordlandia? Do you see any parallels with our schools?

Fordlandia: What Happens When We Work Against Nature? Part II will appear tomorrow.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Attention Span Revisited

There have been numerous formulas proposed for calibrating the attention span of children, adolescents and adults.

Some contemporary researchers advocate gauging children’s attention spans by multiplying chronological age by 3 to 5 minutes for each year of age. Others have set the human attention span at a maximum of 20 - 22 minutes of learning time for upper adolescence and adulthood.

Still other child development researchers have concluded that a child’s attention span is typically equivalent in minutes to the chronological age of that young boy or girl.

However, from working with educators, parents, and children over the past four decades, the following instructional attention spans seem most accurate and useful.

Attention Span: Under Optimal Conditions*
• Between ages 2 and 3 children have an attention span ranging from 3-4 minutes
• When children begin Kindergarten (approximately age 5), attention spans rise to a maximum of 5 to 10 consecutive minutes
• Between ages 6 and 8, the maximum time for focused attention, during instructional time, can stretch to 15-20 minutes when children are engaged in a single learning task.
• From age 9 to 12, the best estimates of an adolescent’s “focused attention” do not exceed 22 to 35 minutes, when they are engaged in learning.

*Caveat: Attention spans for children at play and when socially engaged will often exceed the maximum figures established for formal instruction.

Given today’s technological toys and tools for entertainment and productivity, sizeable increases in attention spans correlate with interactive involvement and far exceed traditional figures for customary instructional time spans. Extensions in attention spans are correlated with children are
• challenged (eustress)
• emotionally engaged (“fun”)
• receiving on-going feedback and support

Anyone with just a modest degree of experience working with children has noticed that when children are fully “immersed in enjoyment,” they frequently lose track of time and our chart-based expectations are repeatedly obliterated.

Technology and the Internet have prompted a new phenomenon referred to as “CPA” -continuous partial attention - where children and adults devote less-concentrated attention to two or more tasks that are attempted simultaneously without one’s full attention committed any single one of those endeavors.

As an expected outcome, the quality of execution in each task frequently suffers significant performance erosion. For example, a five-year-old can talk and he can also tie his shoe, but talking while tying his shoes concurrently can even lead to “performance paralysis.” One of the two tasks must reach the perform threshold of “automaticity” (where one task can be performed without actively and consciously thinking about each step in the process of execution) before we can successfully engage in the second task with some degree of expected roficiency.

Consequently, many American states have recently passed laws intended to curtail the hazardous practice of driving while using a cellular phone (and texting). Even the most reliable statistics on attention spans are meaningless when the brain is distracted. The charts presented here are most applicable under optimal conditions in the learning environment. They become distorted once distractions become a factor whether in a car or in a classroom.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Human Brain

The human brain the most complicated multifaceted organ in the human body and composed of over 150 different types of cells -- the largest number of diverse cell types found in any single organ. It is the most adaptable and the most complex single object in the known universe. If a more complicated entity exists on Earth, no one has broken its confidence.

At the drop of a hat, most bodily systems and organs quickly divulge their fundamental duties during the most cursory examination. Watching the repetitive expanding and contracting of a muscle reveals its primary purpose. The pipe-like arteries and vessels that enter and exit a blood-pumping heart, leave little wonder as to the heart’s basic function. Our lungs inflate and deflate in perfect synchrony with each breath, as we respectively inhale and exhale –no mystery there either. Each of these organs honors a “transparent anatomy policy,” where vital organs avoid any disguise of their labors.

However, inside the human cranium lies a brain whose inner operations have remained tightly classified secrets housed in the best-protection (hair, skin, muscles, and solid skull bones) our bodies are capable of constructing.

Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), a leading thinker of his day, was an advocate of a cardiocentric view of human learning. The heart at that time was believed to be central to all cognitive responsibilities including higher intelligence. Taking a backseat to the heart in this theory, the brain was relegated to the more humble undertaking of cooling the warm blood circulated by the heart – demoting the brain to a menial “radiator” status. Contemporary phraseology continues to reflect vestiges of that early perspective.

Nearly 2400 years later, we still refer to successfully memorized content as information we know “by heart.” However, it is the hippocampus that serves as the primary brain structure that permits us to learn from experience based on stored memories.

Vocabulary Development is Key to Learning

The human sense of hearing begins to function two months prior to birth in a full-term baby. During those last eight weeks, fetuses are learning the essential sounds of the local language into which they will soon be born. All human competencies become fine-tuned following birth depending on the richness of the environmental in which they find themselves. Following delivery, infants begin a quest to perfect their language abilities based on the supportive verbal interactions that newborns and infants with their primary caregivers.

While reading to children is considered indispensable in language development, it is the supplementary verbal give-and-take (the questions, comments, related prior experiences, etc.) taking place during the informal sidebar conversations that are as important as the reading itself. Hart and Risley’s research on language development found that from ages zero to 3, children are dependent upon their immediate families for developmental experiences, including language.

When tests of language fluency are administered during second and third grade, those exams are better reflections of (1) the richness in the vocabulary a child hears in the first three years of his/her life, and (2) the quality and quantity of language interactions that have taken place with and around him/her, than anything the schools may have achieved during formal language instruction. According to science writer Ron Kotulak, the average number of words spoken daily in professional, middle-class and low-income homes are as follows:

• A professional household = 1500-2500 words
a total of 3.5 million words heard by age 3
• A middle-class household = 1000-1500 words
a total of 2.0 million words heard by age 3
• A welfare-recipient’s household = 500-800 words
a total of 1 million words heard by age 3

What is the most reliable predictor of vocabulary development and reading comprehension for children in 3rd grade? His/her verbal abilities at age three. What is the most accurate means of forecasting 11th grade reading scores? Merely using a teenager’s 3rd grade reading and language test scores.

The academic challenges facing children with limited vocabularies are compounded over time. These children are correspondingly limited in their ability to think, due to a limited database from which to select words needed for speaking, thinking, listening, understanding, reading, and writing with accuracy. Although it is often said that we use words primarily for interpersonal communications, according to Stahl’s research, “Words are used to think. The more words we know, the finer our understanding of the world.”

A robust “vocabulary tool chest,” or conversely, an extraordinarily barren one, will determine the language to which that child has access for interpreting a concept, discussing an experience, or writing about an event. His/her recollection of any of these experiences is largely dependent on the development of linguistic precision.

Making Connections: Connect and Reflect

Author Joseph Epstein stated that, "We are what we read." Neuroscience would contend instead that “We are what we experience,” neural circuits are constantly reorganized and rerouted based on the quantity and timing of our experiential transactions.

We have 100 billion neurons (the "gray matter" consisting of neural cell bodies). Their primary purpose is to link brain cells together into the circuits that represents who we are and what we know. Inside the brain, there are over 1,000,000 miles of nerve fibers (the “white matter” connections), linking together over one quadrillion neurons with one another. Through this process, we access a remarkable ability to make sense of an extraordinarily complex ever-changing world. In his book The Mind's Best Work, Harvard educator David Perkins says, "Good thinking is a matter of making connections, and knowing what kinds of connections to make."

As parents and educators, the sequence of “cognitive rehearsals” below shows that making connections is not just a useful description of the dynamic learning process, but is indeed quite a natural progression for constructing how we think. The distinguished educator John Dewey once said, “We don’t learn from experience, we learn by reflecting on it.” In the following series of learning events each sets the stage for the next level of thinking.

Doing is a rehearsal for thinking
• Thinking becomes a rehearsal for dialogue and discourse
Discourse becomes a rehearsal for writing
• Playing with objects and ideas, exploring and experimenting, thinking, talking, and writing become rehearsals (developing the necessary background knowledge) for reading comprehension.
• Writing and reading clarify one’s thoughts, generate coherent thinking, cultivate precision for expressing one’s thoughts, and prepares a youngster for abstract thinking
• Discourse, reading, and writing become rehearsals for eventual formal assessment

If we are to build meaningful conceptual links for students (and connect “meaning” with "print") we must make the most of opportunities to foster "good thinking" with logical connections. When students later hear the target word in context, or if they encounter it while reading, they are capable of relating that word back to the family of concepts and words to which it belongs based on the student’s experiences with the meanings, interpretations, and connections they have already learned.

The repeated use strengthens the verbal, visual, auditory, tactile and abstract interconnections that are physically represented by specific intricate brain circuitry.