Summary of Symposium Round-Table Discussions
Edited by Holly Bennett
Holly Bennett is the English Editor of Education Canada, CEA’s bilingual quarterly magazine. She also works as a freelance editor, writer and researcher, and is the author of six young adult novels.
CEA’s 2015 Symposium, Dropping Out: What Neuroscience Can Teach Us, was held on November 4th and 5th in Québec City. In three “supersessions,” prominent researchers explained their findings and gave practical ways to apply neuro-education research to teaching and learning. Dr. Daniel Ansari spoke about how to build math skills with an integrated approach combining both mastery of math facts and inquiry to build conceptual understanding. Dr. Steve Masson discussed the most prevalent “neuromyths” held by educational practitioners, and offered some valid findings that teachers could apply to help students succeed. Finally, Dr. Lindsay Thornton, Dr. Alex Thornton and Dr. Chris Gilbert reported on the impact of aerobic exercise and fitness on student learning (and overall well-being).
Over 225 people attended these three presentations. At the end of each session, the participants gathered in groups to discuss how to integrate what they had learned into their professional practice. By answering specific questions assigned by the presenters, they were able to identify strategies for sharing neuroscientific knowledge with their colleagues and applying it in their classroom.
Session 1: The Best Way for Children to Learn Math
Dr. Daniel Ansari
Canada Research Chair in Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience
Principal Investigator at the Numerical Cognition Laboratory
Participants in the round tables at Dr. Ansari’s session were asked to consider three questions:
1. How can you translate some of the evidence you have just heard about into your practice?
Participants identified as general goals the need to integrate procedural and conceptual approaches in a balanced way and to bring high schools into this perspective. They also emphasized the importance of a developmental approach, with one table noting that we need to learn how to make a play-based learning environment “math rich” and another asking, “is the brain ready for the type of math we are asking students to learn at that age?” Specific suggestions included:
- weave numeracy throughout various subjects as we do literacy
- build in repetition and recall to strengthen brain wiring (“circle teaching”)
- have a ‘homework club’ where kids can do math homework with support
- in early grades, encourage students through math-based play (board games, dice games, number games) and real-life applications, and encourage this at home
- early literacy programs (such as Literacy Links in Winnipeg) could easily include numeracy
- educate teachers about “foundational competencies” in math so they are understood as well as phonological awareness is in literacy.
- devote more time to early math
- more formative assessment, less summative
- less reliance on the textbooks, more confidence to bring in other materials (as in literacy)
- less emphasis on standardized testing and stressful exam situations, which creates anxiety across the board (students, teachers and parents)
Awareness/Training: Getting the word out to all key parties was discussed at several tables. One table noted that changing math practice seems to be especially difficult and subject to resistance at all levels (parents, teachers, and media), saying, “This is a constant battle, for various reasons,” while another was not so pessimistic, suggesting, “Some teachers may simply need clear directives to help them make the necessary changes to their practice.” Specific suggestions included:
- share this research with key decision makers at our schools, boards and ministries. Ansari’s research will help ministries achieve a balance. Bring today’s presenters to our home board to present research.
- raise awareness with parents of importance of math
- coaching/supervision of teachers to encourage best practices
2. Why do you think that teachers spend less instructional time (in early education) on math, compared to reading? How can we change this?
Common themes in response to this question were teacher math anxiety and/or lack of math proficiency; a possible over-emphasis on literacy in their province/district; and a perception of time constraints and other barriers.
Math anxiety/proficiency: There was widespread acknowledgement that many elementary teachers do not feel as confident teaching math as literacy, and that their math anxiety and/or lack of proficiency could affect not only students’ direct learning but their attitude to math as well. Participants noted that it is harder to teach conceptual math (than procedural) if your own understanding is not solid. One possible strategy to remedy this is to have math specialists in elementary school, but some hesitation was expressed about this. The role of math specialists might be to support and train teachers rather than teach directly.
Teacher training/PD: Many early years teachers do not have a strong background in math, and the time devoted in teacher training may not be adequate. Existing PD opportunities are more likely to attract those who are already interested in math, not those who need it the most. Professional development is needed to address both math knowledge and math pedagogy. PLCs, especially for those with math anxiety to help each other overcome it, may be useful.
One table noted,
“The conceptual knowledge of math is lower for elementary teachers because they are generalists, not specialists. Professional development will be key. The emotional relationship to the subject is a strong influence.”
“Is there a critical point in the elementary curriculum where you need deeper knowledge of math in order to teach it?”
Numeracy vs. literacy: A number of participants came from districts that have put considerable effort and emphasis into literacy initiatives, which included clear directives, a developmental approach, and PD. While successful, this may have squeezed time and attention away from math. Given the inter-relationship between math and literacy and the importance of numeracy to future success, is it time for a similar initiative to strengthen math achievement?
Time constraints: Is enough time allocated? Teachers feel rushed just to “get through” the curriculum.
3. What are some cognitive and emotional factors that lead to students dropping out of math and how can we prevent such dropouts? How can we better serve the diversity of math learners?
In discussing this question, participants mainly addressed student math anxiety, math remediation, and flexible learning options.
Overcome/prevent math anxiety: Addressing math anxiety in parents is important, with one table noting, “Parents fear having to help their children with math.” Can we make parents aware early on of the “contagion” of math anxiety, help them (e.g. through an evening workshop) become more comfortable with the math curriculum and show them how they can support their child’s math success even if their own math skills are not strong (similar to FI parents). Teaching the teachers to be sensitive to math anxiety in students and “not to traumatize students about math” is also important. Make sure we set the child up for a positive, successful early experience of math.
For older students who already have math anxiety, it’s important to encourage a “growth mindset.”
Finally, one table commented that the way we assess math only increases anxiety:
“We should be encouraging our students to learn through play and real-life situations; however, our education system pushes standardized testing and stressful exam situations. This creates anxiety across the board (students, teachers and parents).
Strengthen remediation interventions: The comment was made that awareness of dyscalculia is not so well developed as, say, dyslexia:
“A lot of work on dyscalculia is not part of our schools – it is new. We need to get into the research and bring it to our schools.”
Participants suggested that math problems must be diagnosed and supported as competently as reading issues; that resource teachers need deep knowledge about math remediation and so they are able to give students the tools they need.
Participants also wondered if the “literacy base” of conceptual/inquiry math is compounding problems for students with language difficulties.
Offer flexible learning options: One table noted that absenteeism is devastating in math as it’s traditionally taught. Digital resources could be a great way to help students stay caught up even when they miss class: e.g. adult ed-based online learning modules, digitally available video of teacher explaining the math concepts. Peer tutoring at lunchtime can be another strategy to help kids keep up.
4. Other issues
Several tables brought up the question of bilingual/bicultural education, and what the implications might be for math learning.
RECOMMENDATIONS ARISING FROM THE DISCUSSION TABLES
- Inform educators and parents regarding the importance of numeracy and math proficiency, even to literacy skills.
- Work to heal teachers’ anxiety and strengthen their math knowledge (both conceptual understanding and pedagogy). This needs to take place both during teacher training and through professional development (PD) initiatives.
- Educate parents about how to avoid passing on their math anxiety to their kids; educate teachers about the importance of positive, successful early math experiences.
- Explain and promote a developmental approach to math that integrates procedural and conceptual learning.
- Bring in initiatives focused on math learning similar to recent literacy initiatives.
- Consider math specialists in Elementary: perhaps to coach/supervise teachers rather than teach directly.
- Strengthen remedial capabilities, from early identification of foundational competency gaps onward.
- Devote more time to math in the school day, and weave it into other subjects.
- Use number-based games and other “math play” in the classroom and at home.
- Use more formative assessment; less emphasis on standardized tests.
- Design curriculum to build in repetition and review and to apply math concepts to real-life situations.
- Offer flexible learning options (i.e. digital) to allow youth to catch up on missed classes.
No More Math Wars, by Daniel Ansari
What are the best ways to teach math? Are we currently using all the available evidence from fields such as educational research, cognitive psychology, developmental psychology and neuroscience to guide math pedagogy? Unfortunately, for decades there have been ongoing, fierce, partisan debates over how to teach math which have, for the most part, not been informed by the wealth of knowledge about how children learn math. This article critically discusses one of the central debates in math education and draws attention to the importance of taking an evidence-based and developmental perspective on how to teach math. This article is also available in French.
Session 2: Shattering the Neuromyths in Education
by Steve Masson
Professor, Faculty of Education
Université du Québec à Montréal
Director of the Laboratory for Research in Neuroeducation
Participants had two questions to discuss in this workshop:
1. What can you do to reduce the number of neuromyths at your workplace?
Several tables noted that it would be a challenge to change some of these common practices that teachers and some parents have bought into. Learning styles came up as an especially entrenched myth, with one table going so far as to suggest a “period of mourning.” Others pointed out that it would be important to stress that it’s the concept of “boxing” a child into one specific learning style that is under fire, not the practice of varying presentation methods and learning activities. Neuroplasticity is the concept that may help make sense of this: brains are not wired just one way; they can make new connections and it serves children better to help them access multiple channels of learning.
Key ideas arising from the table discussions included:
Education: Many strategies for sharing symposium learning and expanding the education to peers and parents were proposed:
- start with a survey of staff to see how much they buy into the neuromyths
- post the CEA poster, circulate Steve Masson’s Education Canada article and report to staff on symposium learnings through staff meetings, newsletters, school website, etc.
- post the presentation PPT on school website; show video showing neuroplasticity
- create teams within schools or districts to discuss neuromyths
- share info with parents who campaign for Brain Gym
- needs a centralized education campaign
- don’t say we don’t want to differentiate instruction; say instead that differentiating according to specific learning styles is not effective
- stress neuroplasticity, to teachers and students: there is always a chance to build a strengthen new connections
- talk to students about how their brain works and learns, including sleep, building connections, etc.
This last point was echoed by several tables – that students need to understand why certain kinds of studying or practice are more effective:
Research: The problem of accessing and understanding research came up several times. The point was made that the original scientific articles are not always easy to get access to or easily read/understood by educators. Some ideas:
- create a database of valid journal articles vetted by the school board.
- start with links from the conference presenters
- educate teachers on what makes good research; how books are not necessarily based on valid research
- a list of recommended articles and “readable translations” would be helpful – a portal or something?
To help make sense of the research, one table suggested reading groups or teams to digest and discuss particular studies and then present at team or staff meetings, or to do a quick presentation of one scientifically valid study at every staff meeting. One table summed up the whole process this way:
“We need to have access to the research (through communities, portals?); read the research (alone, in reading groups or teams); digest and appropriate it (PLCs, teams); and then share it (presentations, team meetings, staff meetings). Then we need to provide ongoing support (follow-up training, coaching, consultants).”
Practice: Participants also had several ideas to encourage actual change in teaching practices:
- remove reference to learning styles on student Individual Education Plans (IEPs)
- model better practices; we may not need to try to hard to debunk the myths if we just start doing things that are proven more effective
- find teachers who are already doing some of these things and showcase them
One table asked,
“We were very anxious to pose questions about things like iPad projects in the early years. If handwriting promotes reading capacity, what is the cognitive-neuroscientific impact of tablet interface on very young children?”
2. How could you apply the principle of spreading out learning?
Several tables went beyond this question to also discuss strategies for engaging recall to strengthen learning, which was another key finding Masson discussed.
Spreading out learning: The recurring theme here is curriculum planning that builds in periodic review and loops back to previously taught material. This is variously referred to as “spiralling curricula” or “circle teaching.” The same concept reappears within individual class periods. Specific ideas include:
- every morning do a capsule
- find ways to break up 80 min class period, divide time into blocks with a variety of activities
- schedule review periods into long-range plans
- curriculum mapping is key
- raises question whether 2-semester courses are better; whether long summer break would be better spread out over year
- frequent formative assessment
- give teachers facilitated planning time to ensure concepts are revisited
- start with a few teachers who are open and willing to use class time differently and share results
- model this approach at all levels, e.g. in meetings, team learning
- “Every time, review a concept in a different way to activate the neural pathways.”
- teach students study methods that use this principle and explain why spacing and retrieval practice is effective
- help parents understand the approach: information night/workshop/newsletter
- have students make up questions / quiz themselves
- have kids ask questions for each other: pair and share
- build many opportunities for retrieval within the class period
- more class activities that activate recall, less lecturing. Activities where students need to retrieve previously learned facts and then apply to a more conceptual or practical problems.
Finally, for both concepts the point was made that homework should be used more strategically to provide a spaced opportunity for students to activate recall.
RECOMMENDATIONS ARISING FROM THE DISCUSSION TABLES
- Share CEA Symposium learning with colleagues.
- Educate teachers, students and parents about neuroplasticity and how brain connections are formed and strengthened.
- Share valid research about neuromyths with teachers and educate educators about how evaluate research validity.
- Develop a “curated” reading list of good neuro-education research; better still provide “lay reader translations” of the research.
- Remove references to learning styles on student IEPs.
Neuromyths in Education, by Steve Masson
This article sheds light on the three most prevalent myths about the brain among teachers. The first myth is that individuals learn better when taught according to their preferred learning style (visual, auditory or kinaesthetic). The second myth is that students are either “right-brained” or “left-brained.” The third myth is that short bouts of coordination exercises can improve brain function and help students learn better. Though not supported by research, these neuromyths are widely believed and may lead teachers to use educational practices that are not entirely compatible with their students’ brain function. The full article is also available in French.
Staff Room Poster Now Available!
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Session 3: Exercise and the Brain in the Classroom
Drs. Alex Thornton, Lindsay Thornton and Chris Gilbert
San Diego, CA
Workshop participants were asked to discuss the following three questions:
1. Which of your students will benefits most from an exercise/wellness program?
While a variety of subsets of students were identified as benefitting greatly from incorporating more exercise into the school day — including students with ADHD and other self-regulation difficulties, students under high stress or in demanding programs, and children at opposite ends of the activity spectrum (i.e. both least and most active) — the point was made that exercise is of benefit to the whole school community, including staff.
Several tables were interested in the self-regulation benefits of exercise, with comments like:
“In our junior high we could alleviate some discipline problems with exercise… Our active kids need some release. They act up.”
2. How can you implement cardiovascular exercise with the resources you have available?
School-wide: While the program probably needs to be spearheaded by a few enthusiastic teachers, most participants saw this as, ideally, a school-wide culture shift that includes leading by example on the part of the staff. This can be made visible through school-wide activities like a morning walk (involving staff and students) in the 20 minutes before school starts, opening up the gym for use before school and during lunch hours, etc. As one table noted,
“There are many teachers who could benefit from an exercise program. It would help them with their focus and energy level too!”
The overall note was made that this need not be an expense-heavy initiative; it’s more a matter of devoting and organizing the time and space to make it happen. Exercise bikes and treadmills for classrooms could be donated or bought cheaply second-hand; there is also a $150 bike trainer that bolts onto any bike to make it stationary.
Education: Accordingly, a wide education net needs to be cast, so that everyone – students, parents, teachers and support staff – understands the health and learning benefits of increased activity.
Use Phys Ed class: Phys Ed class can be refocused to incorporate more personal fitness activities and learning about the learning and health benefits of exercise, with less emphasis on sports.
In-class strategies: Many respondents pointed to resources and apps that are easily accessed and can be shown on a SmartBoard screen for in-class exercise, with examples being bitbreaker, Just Dance, and online Zumba classes. Other ideas:
- collect class heart-rate data to track success; use cheap pedometers to raise awareness of number of steps students get in a day
- build in the 4-minute spot exercise routine throughout the day (and before tests)
- “drop everything and exercise” whenever class is losing focus
- 20-minute class walk
- start the morning with something active
- give students ownership – small groups responsible for choosing/planning ways to ‘activate’ the class (“Elementary students love being the classroom helpers, so why not put them into small groups and have them take ownership over their fitness and wellness?”)
- allow kids to use the bike whenever they are getting distracted or ‘antsy’
- don’t take away recess – kids need it
- keep it fun!
Sleep: Several tables were concerned about inadequate sleep and thought this was also important to discuss how schools could address the issue. Ideas include educating kids and parents about the importance of enough sleep and how sleep benefits learning, recommending that screened devices be turned off well before bedtime, and adjusting high school hours to fit better with teens’ sleep rhythms.
Barriers: Barriers to be overcome include the perception that building in exercise takes too much time away from ‘covering the curriculum,’ and the fact that teachers themselves may not enjoy exercise and resist participating.
3. How can you use your program to give students a ‘reason to come to school’ (i.e. have a program that they want to participate in)?
Education, so that students understand the benefits, was mentioned here as well as in earlier sections. Participants also talked about the importance of choice/enjoyability, about redefining success, and about mutual support.
Choice: When kids can choose their activity according to their interests, from sports to dance to walking, they are more likely to enjoy and continue it, and to incorporate it into their lives. Involving students in planning activities creates stronger buy-in.
Success: Focusing on heart-rate means success is possible for everyone. The focus is on health and learning. Build in fast lane/slow lane options for activities like run/walking and competitive/non-competitive options for sports.
“Kids can be successful if all they do is elevate their heart rate… success doesn’t equal being the best athlete in the class.”
Community: The idea that we’re all doing it together, that we succeed together. Foster mutual encouragement.
RECOMMENDATIONS ARISING FROM THE DISCUSSION TABLES
- Educate staff, students, and parents about the learning (and health) benefits of exercise and adequate sleep.
- Introduce a later start time for high schools.
- Focus exercise programs on elevating heart rate.
- Make it a school-wide project; part of school culture.
- Use choice, student input and options (e.g. walk/run) for different fitness levels to make exercise at school enjoyable and allow everyone success.
- Incorporate short “fitness breaks” throughout the school day.
- When possible, build in exercise before demanding classes or tests.
- Work towards having an exercise bike or other exercise option in every class and allow kids to use as needed.
- Avoid taking away recess as a disciplinary or academic consequence – active breaks are essential and especially so for kids with attention and behaviour issues.
Beyond Phys Ed, by Chris Gilbert
There are many applicable findings in cognitive psychology that teachers remain unaware of because they were not covered in teacher’s college. How long can students pay attention in class, and how should lessons be structured to capture attention? What is the best way to study? Once students learn information, how can we ensure that this information is put to use in novel situations, and how can we enhance problem solving and critical thinking? There are numerous studies in psychology addressing these questions that, by and large, have not been widely applied in school settings. This presents a significant opportunity to implement evidence-based solutions in our schools.
The liveliness of the discussions, the fullness of the notes submitted, and the continuing discussions heard in the hallways and lounges after each session confirmed that participants were excited and, at times, challenged by the information and ideas they heard from the Symposium presenters. We also heard thoughtful questions as participants grappled with the implications of this research: How are brain connections strengthened when the material to be learned is more complex and nuanced than simple recall of facts? How can non-neuroscientists be sure what research is worth acting on? How do short fitness breaks affect students who have trouble with transitions and need time to move from one activity to another?
Take-aways from the Symposium include many practical implementation possibilities, along with the main ideas explained by our presenters. Dr. Ansari stressed the importance of early numeracy, the achievement of optimal math learning through a combination of procedural and conceptual learning, and the need to address and support math anxiety. Dr. Masson demystified the three most prevalent neuromyths that educators often believe, and showed how memory retrieval and spaced learning activates and strengthens the neural connections required for learning. Finally, Drs. Thornton and Gilbert demonstrated the impressive impact of aerobic activity, both on learning and on many other indicators of health.
What do you think?
Did these notes inspire you to think of additional ways that we can integrate neuroscience research into classroom practice? Please contact CEA at firstname.lastname@example.org
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