Saturday, November 30, 2013

STEM: Making Transdisciplinary Connections

Research has shown that approximately 13% of pupils in an average classroom are auditory learners, who learn best by listening to others (typically the teacher). The dominant teaching method of most schools is likely not meeting the learning needs of 87% of our students. Our brains do their best work when we are learning in by doing, not by passively listening.

Scientists, engineers, mathematicians and others STEM professionals spend a great portion of their day applying skills and concepts that fall outside the boundaries of their discipline. The National Research Center found that reading and writing comprise over half of the work of scientists and engineers (NRC 2011).  Speaking, listening, reading, writing, computing, sketching, collaborating with others, etc., make up the typical day for most professionals, where we use these competencies on an as-needed basis throughout the day. It is natural for us to engage in STEM daily if we participate in any brand of regular problem-solving.

By completing the chart below, we are reminded of this important academic reality.
By filling in the appropriate boxes of this chart with students, parents and educators, hopefully, we can reduce the number of times we hear, “Why do I need to know this?”  and “When will I ever use this?” It is through these “aha” moments that students not only appreciate STEM, but they also understand the value of a truly “interconnected” curriculum that provides a multidimensional backdrop for understanding their transdisciplinary world.
The connections their young brains make reach across numerous academic borderlines fostering what we first refer to as knowledge, and subsequently as creative thinking.

Failure IS an Option!

In keeping with our current assessment obsession, educators have unwisely borrowed the popular mantra “Failure is not an option” from the business community (where failures are forgiven, because they are “too big to fail,” but small children should pay a hefty emotional fine.) A deeper examination of this maxim reveals its glaring inaccuracy when applied to both how young brains learn and how inventors innovate.

Students may struggle in school with reading, they often fall short of a perfect score in mathematics, they will frequently misinterpret cause-and-effect relationships in science, it is not uncommon for them to repeatedly make the same spelling errors, and display developmentally-appropriate academic missteps. Occasionally, our students appear to be impervious to the best efforts of well-trained professionals.
The goal of academic “rigor” becomes almost rigor mortis for them. In nearly all cases, each learning difficulty is indicative of a naturally occurring neurological under-investment in the necessary brain wiring that is mandatory for successfully demonstrating a specific skill.
When we refer to a concept or skill that is not “developmentally-appropriate” to children of a given age, the reference we are making is to their brain development not our curriculum development. With this backdrop, certain academic shortcomings are highly anticipated outcomes.
However, these events foster teacher, parent and student frustrations in the meantime, since the child “doesn’t get it”. With time, maturation, and most important, the proper brain circuitry, he/she will surely "get it" quickly and with apparent ease.
When it comes to learning, failure is a predictable prerequisite during the lengthy course of converting new information into personal knowledge. This is particularly true when learners lack similar prior learning experiences, which prevents the new information from readily merging with neural pathways that don't yet exist. If there is nothing with which to integrate new knowledge, the conceptual development process must begin from an earlier starting point and new learning can be quite a lengthy process for some children, who are not “slow,” the brain-building process is frequently slow.
If learning occurred effortlessly, error-free, easily, and occurred without any naturally occurring obstacles, then wouldn't formal education from the pre-school years to graduate school fall somewhere between pointless and redundant?

In science, technology, engineering, mathematics, architecture, and the myriad other science-related fields, mistakes are not just prerequisites, they are nearly requirements for future success.
Most inventors and creative geniuses have a long history of failures leading to their ultimate triumph – the success that they were after from the beginning. Along the road to success, the greatest inventors looked into the face of failure for most of their journey to achievement.
Below are several famous failures, who are only known for their famous successes. Failure was an option, but they became icons for persistence and success, following their early failures.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

STEM: Leveling the Playing Field for Struggling Students

One of the first revelations for STEM teachers has been that STEM tends to level the academic playing field quickly for students who are typically struggling learners. Distinguishing them from the high achievers in the STEM classroom is frequently difficult. These classroom events become peak motivational experiences for the less-academically proficient student.
For many students, feeling a sense of competence through STEM lessons can constitute the first in-school learning occasion that has a tendency to conceal their “low-achiever” stigma rather than to broadcast it. More importantly, this motivational boost can thwart the tendency toward “performance avoidance,” where academic insecurities entice struggling students to dodge classroom participation at any cost in order to mask their well-known history of learning failures.

Auditory Learners

Research has shown that approximately 13% of pupils in an average classroom are auditory learners, who learn best by listening to others (typically the teacher). The dominant teaching method of most schools is likely not meeting the learning needs of 87% of our students. Our brains do their best work when we are learning in by doing, not by passively listening.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Brain Needs to “Wander and Wonder”
(Part 2)

Visual spatial thinking is facilitated most readily through the development of art, imagination, and exploration. Art and visual imagery have been key contributors to the human experience considerably longer than the printed word has. Nearly 2.5 million years ago, hand tools surfaced as an integral part of the daily life for primitive mankind.

The first evidence of prehistoric art forms did not appear until roughly 80,000 years ago.

There is an abundance of signs that the earliest art forms were “manuports.” These naturally-formed or man-made portable artifacts were valued for having an appearance that was similar to any well-known object, particular those that were personally important or appealing. These visually attractive objects were saved and carried about, due to their striking likeness to a fertile woman (e.g., the Venus of Wilendorf), a horse or a bison.

A massive cognitive leap took place with the introduction of tools, language, art, and large-groups living. Coincidentally, a threefold increase in hominid braincase also occurred during this same time period. Each of these new human competencies appears to have significantly impacted the fast-paced evolution of the others. The milestones highlighting man’s evolution include the rapid and sudden advances in human intelligence.
The survival imperatives of 2 million years ago dictated that our ancestors cultivate a keen ability to distinguish a potential opportunity from an impending danger, which meant developing visual memory systems coupled with an awareness of the broad categories that could be used to classify objects in the environment. Upon encountering an object or animal, (1) it could be an animal or object that clearly falls into a particular category, (2) it could concurrently enjoy membership in more than one category, and (3) at first glance, its initial identification could be in error. Being cognizant of the three possibilities prompted the evolution of flexibility in one’s responses, which contributed to our ancestors’ survival.

Our startled reaction to a snake-like vine on the walkway has the precautionary benefit of alerting us to a potentially fatal encounter with a poisonous reptile. In 1915, Edgar Rubin gave the above “is-it-a-face-or-is-it-a-vase?” conundrum a permanent place in visual perception research. Mother Nature can be most unforgiving allowing us only one life-ending miscalculation of this type. Cases of fortuitous multiple identifications of this sort determined if one lived to see another day, and reveals how the mind developed a propensity to look for glaringly conspicuous characteristics in objects, which allows us to place them into one category or another.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Schools Must Allow More Time for the Brain to
Wander and Wonder”

(Part 1)

Approximately 30% of our waking hours are devoted to time where our minds make a sudden shift from "concentrate" to “wander and wonder."

Scientists have estimated that 99.99% of the species that have ever lived on planet Earth have gone extinct. An extensive list of natural causes posed insurmountable environmental hazards, leading to their demise. Human beings, on the other hand, not only learned how to solve problems, but we became the only animal on the planet that looks for problems, that invents “practice problems” to solve (imaginary problems in a carefully controlled environment called “school”), and even anticipated means by which we can solve future problems.

With an ability to think with high degrees of flexibility (“imagine”) and with the development of an increasingly robust repertoire of problem-solving strategies, human beings evolved as the only species that could run away from a problem, swim away from a problem, climb away from a problem, talk our way out of a problem, and design solutions to our problems. Mastering a broad range of possible solutions promoted the survival of our species. What, one might ask, constitutes the most effective educational path to creativity, inventiveness and innovation?

Our current global challenges require that we develop well-trained creative minds that will craft novel strategies and innovative solutions to those problems and challenges. Spawning new inventions to sustain the worldwide economies translates into developing fine-tuned young minds from Kindergarten through graduate school.

We can facilitate visual spatial thinking, as well as general learning, by guiding the creative brain process of making neural connections. As young learners build on their experiences, the brain moves easiest from simple concrete experiences to increasingly more complex levels of abstractions and abstract thinking.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Precision in Language

According to Stahl, “Words are used to think.  The more words we know, the finer our understanding of the world.”  (Stahl, 1999)
As an instrument of thought, we cannot think in any other context than language.
Language allows…
·         you to clarify your own thinking
·         the person next to you to understand what you are thinking.
·         you to understand what I am thinking.
·         all of us to transfer our thoughts and accumulated information from one generation to the next generation.
Most important, the most effective of all “shared public language” is (1) well constructed, (2) precise, (3) specific, and (4) provokes mental images. These should be practiced often in schools and at home.  
A concise summary of written language is that language is a remarkable form of “recorded thought” allowing us to defy both time and distance. Yet precision in language is priceless – think of the consequences that can result from a careless usage of language in the operating room, the pharmacy, or the air traffic controllers’ tower.
Through language we articulate thoughts, describe events, connect ideas, make inferences, and ultimately make sense. However, everyday language, surface grammar, and imprecise word selection can lead to oral or written misunderstandings.
Are the words disinterested and uninterested synonymous or interchangeable? Most individuals would equate the two terms although “unbiased” would be a more precise definition of “disinterested.”
In school, it is the misuse, imprecision, and under-specification that we see in language that leads to the hazardous results. In a field like science, each of these can deny children access to ideas, concepts and key principles.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Visualization and the Human Brain
(Part 4)

Several states have responded with an “innovation index” to address the uneasiness expressed by American business leaders concerning the lack of innovative thinking in today’s young job-seekers. “What if...?" and "Ah-hah!” have become unwelcome academic intruders treated with derision and disdain, and subsequently have been suppressed in our schools, where "filling in the bubble" and “teaching to the test” reign supreme. Standardized testing is quite unforgiving to creativity, although a student’s unconventional answer may reflect far more insight than the multiple-choice options presented. Even scientists don’t always agree. The novel ideas from some of the most celebrated scientists were initially rejected and those perspectives subsequently, remained unpublished for decades.

Inside the brain, there are over 1,000,000 miles of nerve fibers (the “white matter” connections), with over one quadrillion connections that can link brain cells one another. Through these connections, we develop a remarkable ability to create and invent -- the byproducts of teaching students to visualize multiple unique solutions to a stated challenge.

The European Union designated 2009 as the "European Year of Creativity and Innovation." In support of that declaration, conferences on the neuroscience of creativity, real-world inquiry, and teacher training took place. Korean students ranked first in the world in reading, first in the world in math, and third in the world for science achievement in the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) report. The former South Korean Minister of Education Byong-man Ahn, said recently “…the current administration of President Lee Myung-bak has focused its policy efforts on creating the type of education in which creativity is emphasized over rote learning.” 

The #1 “leadership competency” of the future, as identified by 1,500 CEOs, will be “creativity.” Continuing educational practices designed for top ranking in the Industrial Age should not be our national goal, when the leading nations have stepped up to the next plateau in the advancement of our species -- the Innovation Age. Global economic viability in the decades to come will be the ultimate report card for educational accountability. Even more important, Professor Yong Zhoa released a new study recently indicating that there is an inverse relationship between test scores and entrepreneurship globally.
So much for "No Child Left Behind" as a means of laying the foundation for our nation's future economic success.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Visualization and the Human Brain
(Part 3)

Recent research has shown that we learn a great deal from making errors, particularly when we can later analyze those mistakes and correct our errors. Thinking differently or creatively seldom goes unpunished in school today’s assessments for “accountability.” Regrettably, our current assessment methods have given students a perception that only plan A or “answer A” can ever exist as the single definitive “right answer.” Independent thinking today is comparable to escaping the shackles of slavery in the early 1800s. In both cases, one might pay dearly for seeking his independence.
We often arrive at an optimal answer after thoroughly considering numerous possible ideas and methods for problem resolution. Our high-stakes tests reward speed over intrinsically-motivated perseverance and the time-consuming, slow-burning creative processes that have historically driven imaginative minds to conceive of the incandescent light bulb, a vaccine for polio, the Hubble telescope, brain-imaging, the i-Pad, mind-reading computers, and brain-controlled prosthetics, each expanding human knowledge and revolutionizing life as we know it or once knew it. (Imagine the marketing challenge facing the creative salesmen charged with consummating the first sale of these new inventions!) Thinking constitutes one of the best ways to learn. There is no evidence-based research available today indicating that worksheets or standardized tests stimulate creativity although 
The future portends new models and methods for teaching, learning and assessment. Technology will increasingly influence the “classroom of the future.”

The broader goal of education should be to teach our students how to think their way through any problem, because the problems that will confront them in the future have yet to come into existence, although a wealth of feasible solution strategies can be taught today. Rather than teaching a student to solve the same problem five different times as we do in traditional textbooks, it is far more important to teach him to solve that problem five different ways.

While the 3Rs make a contribution to educational success, linking together (1) relevance, (2) visualization, and (3) creativity are the new educational essentials for future inventors now and future economic success. As educators and parents, it is our ultimate responsibility to assist our children and students in building the best brains possible by helping each of them develop a "cognitive tool chest” replete with imaginative as well as everyday solution strategies. Creativity is what intelligent people use when the problems are unconventional and the answers are both clearly unknown at the outset. The answers sometimes remain elusive and must be pursued for a significant amount of time before they reveal themselves to the learner.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Visualization and the Human Brain
(Part 2)

The Wright brothers were able to make heavier-than-air objects do precisely what they are not supposed to do. Leonardo da Vinci, Francis Crick, and Albert Einstein are time-honored men who designed and built new inventions, who made earth-shattering discoveries, and who offered fresh new ways of thinking. They found ways to solve problems that led to advancements benefiting all of mankind. In his book, Sparks of Genius,” McArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” recipient Robert Root-Bernstein, detailed an astounding discovery-- many of history’s most prominent scientists and inventors were also accomplished in the arts, where abstract and creative thinking complemented innovative traits. Creative thinking is immobilized by standardized thinking although creativity is three times stronger as a predictor of lifetime accomplishment than IQ. It is most revealing that no statue has ever been erected out of admiration of a single "standardized" thinker.

Instead of placing a spotlight on innovative and creative thinking, "standardized" thinking (making for easy assessments) has been our primary educational focus over the past two decades. Consequently, most American 8th grade students know how to multiply 9x5, but the vast majority does not know when to do so, exposing the hazardous nature of high-stakes tests masquerading under the cloak of "accountability." An important distinction must be made between possessing specific skills or knowledge, and knowing when, where, and how to apply them under routine and non-routine circumstances. Otherwise, the knowledge is of no practical long-term value.

Dynamic changes are occurring daily in an interconnected, information-rich, highly visual and complex world at unprecedented rates requiring inventive (not standardized) ideas to address our current and future challenges. The old "tried and true" approaches we embraced from the 1960s, 70s and 80s are no longer adequate in 2012, although we have held tightly onto them for decades. However, the world has changed. The world is "flat." Unfortunately for many of us, progress only goes in one direction –forwards, not backwards. In their best moments, contemporary educational practices cannot stretch far enough to cover future classroom realities.

 Teaching students (1) to understand, analyze, and visualize problem-based scenarios, (2) to explain those situations effectively in words and through models, (3) to solve problems by blending together multisensory and multidisciplinary strategies, (4) to evaluate the quality of multiple convergent solutions, and (5) to identify the criteria for selecting the best solution to a problem, as well as knowing how and when to deploy a viable "plan B," or "plan C," if “plan A” does not appear to be working.