Welcome to my Professional Learning blog.
My name is Matt Nicoll and I am a high school teacher in New Zealand, interested in improving the classroom experience for my students. I am open to trialing new approaches and hope to use this blog to reflect on my ideas and practices.

Saturday, 26 January 2013

ICOT 2013 - Day Four Reflections

Capturing Attention, Maintaining Attention, Making Memories and Being Creative

On Day One and Day Four, I went to workshops run by Mike Scaddan (http://www.brainstems.co.nz/). He has worked with successful people in a variety of fields and has looked at a lot of research about brain function. He applies what he has learnt and experienced to helping students and athletes pay attention, maintain attention, and make memories. Needless to say, he also has a lot to say about motivation and being 'excellent'. I also had the pleasure of a few candid chats with Mike throughout ICOT; I felt like quite the 'groupie'!!

PAY ATTENTION! Getting their attention focused on the right thing and keeping it there...

When we teach, how do our students know what to pay attention to? We use all of our senses, but filters limit how much we actually pay attention to. In the secondary sector, we are lucky that most of our students' senses are pretty well-developed; our challenge is getting past these 'filters'.

Do we cater for all senses? Do we create filters which turn students off? Too much teacher talk creates filters. Too much sitting creates filters. Sitting for too long creates a major filter - fatigue! "When the bum is numb, the brain is too."

Activate the cerebellum with novelty, movement and excitement/risk taking (low level). This creates enjoyment and experiences.
e.g. Make yourself a map or globe; now point out key geographical features.
e.g. fists to model particles.

99% of stimuli is immediately dropped as being unimportant. How do we overcome this?
Development of using the senses to make sense of the world around us:

  1. Offactory
  2. Gustatory
  3. Kinaesthetic
  4. Tactile
  5. Visual
  6. Auditory
Yet, we primarily (traditionally) teach using visual and auditory cues. How will you use all of these senses to learn in your lessons?

Students have a variety of learning strengths; let them use them!!


USE IT OR LOSE IT! Remembering the Learning

Once we get past the filters, and the students are actually paying attention to the 'right' thing, those memories only go into the short-term memory - sometimes only 15 seconds, then it is gone!! If this is not put into practice or made personally relevant, it will all be for nothing.

Students need to use/experience what they have learnt to start making memories. Initially, the brain stores the learning in a 'working memory'; you remember it so long as you use it, but you lose it (sometimes only temporarily, admittedly) once you stop using it - this is why revision/study works!

The real challenge is making long-term memories. This actually links to the conclusions about capturing attention. If you give opportunities for students to learn using a variety of senses, you will be offering a variety of opportunities to learn the same 'lessons'. This repetition (lots of different experiences based on the same learning outcomes) is not the same as doing the same types of exercises/activities over and over; that is learning by 'rote' - it works, but is not stimulating!

SO WHAT?! Motivating the Learners

I am going to combine what I learnt from a few presenters here, as the same messages seem to be coming through very strongly.
  1. Emotional Reaction/Attachment: pose provocative problems; get learners to make predictions
  2. Personal Sense/Personal Meaning: give flexibilty/variety to choose the context, or the sequence of learning; choose contexts which are real and relevant to the learners (not necessarily to you!)
  3. Respect/Value: make sure every learner's voice is heard and respected as a possibility - how can we be creative if we get 'shot down' when we are not giving the expected answer
The limbic part of the brain (emotional response) is the “home base”.
For boys, this (generally) means:
  1. What’s in it for me?
  2. Why am I doing this?
For girls, this (generally) means:

  1. What's in it for me?
  2. What will it do to/for my relationships?
Keep these in mind when planning lessons/units.Yet again, we see the theme of the brain looking for patterns, and feeling a sense of reward in trying to find valid/correct answers. We encourage this giving students opportunities to take “safe” risks.

Learning Environment

The first way to encourage quality thinking which will lead to more creativity and lateral thinking is to create a "safe" environment for thinking and collaborating.
Traditionally, we had something like this:

The Unspoken Classroom Contract - adapted from Dr Bob Katterns
  1. The teacher talks most of the time
  2. The teacher is right
  3. The teacher does the thinking/directs the lesson
  4. The teacher chooses which students get to answer
  5. The teacher will ask most of the questions
  6. There is only one right answer to the question

Students know they don't know but are scared to admit it. What learning can happen in that environment. This is something I have worked hard to eliminate in my teaching ever since I walked into my first classroom. I never did any research, but I think most educators would agree that a positive, supportive environment and relationships support quality learning a lot.

Also, be aware of the effect of your actions on your students’ amygdala (fight or flight response); don’t make them afraid/uncomfortable to be in the space where learning should occur and be safe.

A Positive Learning Environment:

  1. Create the learning environment (where they do the work and the learning)
  2. Teach the skills and strategies
  3. Have a purpose and transfer for the learning

Overarching these: self-talk and belief; choice and variety; passion, compassion and consistency:

  • Clear Operating Values
  • Sequence to Success (exemplars etc)
  • No blame, I’ll explain
  • Warm-ups, modelling and reviews
  • One thing taught at a time
  • Multiple Repetitions/competition
  • Mixed ability/flexible groups

Human Motivation

  • When you get something for nothing, its worth is limited/nothing
  • Without obligation, learners disengage
  • Obligations may be about behaviour and readiness
  • Obligations must be school-wide to have value

EUREKA! Creative Thinking

People who are encouraged to take risks will surprise you. And yes, you can teach creativity/lateral thinking. I like an analogy that Edward De Bono gave about driving to work. I have adapted it a bit so it makes more sense to me, so I can tell the story better:

You drive the same way to work every day. It is a quick way to get there and you have driven that way so long that you can do it without thinking about it now. There is nothing at all wrong with going to work this way.


Then, one day there are roadworks and you have to look for another way to get to work. You were so conditioned at going your usual way that you do not instinctively know how best to get to work.
Over the next few days you try a few possible routes to get to work until you find another one you like; it may even be better than your original way but you would never had known without the roadworks!
Familiarity with the problem had actually blocked your creativity and ability to think laterally. Even if someone had told you another way to get to work, until the roadworks, you probably had no reason to try it out.

Keeping in mind the story is only an analogy, what does this mean for making my students more creative and opening their minds to other possible solutions? A good thinker will "block" the obvious answer and look for alternatives. Opportunities for this need to be offered in class.
My students tell me I am very good at explaining concepts and processes in a range of ways and giving different ways of approaching a problem. Fine, but who is doing the work? And why should they try my 'other' approaches unless the first one I taught them didn't work for them?
What I should be doing is giving the problem and letting the students find ways to approach the problem, then share their conclusions with each other. Get them to do the work: "the brain that does the work does the learning."
In some cases, I also see the possibility to introduce "roadworks" in their process and challenge them to find another way to solve the same problem. Some of the tasks we do using SOLO HotMaps would work this well. e.g. Analyse how the ear works. The next task to this would be to infer what you would have to do if the hair cells in our cochlea are damaged.

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