Monthly Archives: July 2014

The Shocking Truth about Professional Development

Teachers are the Classroom's Chief Learners

Hate professional development days?

Then you’ll love this—research suggests that most PD has no lasting effect on classroom instruction or student achievement. But you already knew that from experience, didn’t you?

The shocking truth is that most teachers come to PD with a book or a computer or a grocery list—anything to occupy their time while they listen to boring, irrelevant information they’ll never apply in their classrooms.

In fact, teachers typically find more value in “common sense, intuition, word of mouth, personal experience, ideologically laden ideas about progressive or traditional instruction, the guidance of mentors, and folk wisdom” than they do in traditional PD programs—regardless of the fact that districts spend millions of dollars on PD each year.

No doubt this explains the phenomenal success of events like EdCamp. These informal, peer-driven “unconferences” cut through the nonsense and give teachers opportunities to share and connect in a rich, meaningful way. Teachers learn from each other, rather than a single presenter, and discuss the questions that interest them.

Why Most Professional Development FailsAppreciate teachers for the learners they are when developing PD programs

Many PD programs fail for the same reason traditional education often fails—neither one takes into consideration the way our brains naturally learn.

Think about it: What is PD if not another classroom environment? And what are educators attending PD if not learners? PD programs need to model the principles of good teaching, yet so often the presentation hinders learning rather than opening minds to new possibilities.

The brain has a natural craving to learn. However, emotions such as boredom, stress, and fear can easily cloud the brain, making it difficult to grasp and retain new information. The role of educators then—whether they are presenting to teachers or to students—is to support the brain so that it is able to do its job.

In this sense, the brain is like a climbing vine. The vine has an innate and tenacious drive to grow vertically, but it needs to be planted near the right kind of support in order to capitalize on that desire.

Teaching to the Brain’s Natural Learning Systems

To make PD more effective and less tedious, we need to teach to the brain’s natural learning systems, just as we would with students. Teachers, like all students, learn best when they are respected as learners and when their social, reflective, cognitive, physical, and emotional learning systems are attended to.

Incorporate motivational posters like these into your classroom and your PD programsHere are a few ways to do this in your district’s PD:

  • Instead of lecturing at teachers, engage them in meaningful conversations with the facilitator and one another.
  • Ask teachers to think deeply about their classroom experiences. What are they already doing well? Where could they improve?
  • Explore the neuroscience behind learning to help teachers understand how to orchestrate a dynamic classroom experience.
  • Give teachers the opportunity to stretch and move around the room at various points in the day.
  • Encourage feedback and questions after each segment.
  • Prepare the room with motivational posters similar to those you would use in your classroom—whatever will affirm teachers’ value and radiate positive energy.

Most importantly, find PD programs that take the expertise and systematic approach of traditional PD and combine it with the dynamic, participation-based approach of programs like EdCamp.

We want teachers to leave PD renewed and energized, with concrete takeaways they can apply in their classrooms—or even schoolwide—right away. PD programs should make a significant difference in the lives of students and teachers and continue to shape the learning experience long after the PD has ended.

How Safe Are Your Students from Bullying?

Fruit BullyingNearly 20 percent of U.S. students report being bullied in the past year according to 2014 data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

With statistics this staggering, it’s no wonder that bullying is a hot topic in education today.

Much of the conversation focuses on what to do after an incident is reported.

We’d like to take a slightly different approach today.

What if, instead of focusing on what to do after bullying occurs, we talk about how to discourage bullying in the first place by empowering students and creating a supportive classroom culture?

Before you laugh this off as pie-in-the-sky thinking, consider how powerful it would be for students to embrace the following truths that we explore with students in our Quantum Learning programs:

1.      Just because someone is offering rejection doesn’t mean you have to accept it.

Students tend to accept rejection without a second thought. That’s because part of them worries the rejection really is valid. Even the student who throws rejection back in the face of a bully has still taken on the rejection and accepted it. Their anger is indicative of their deep hurt.

What students need to hear is that they don’t have to take on other people’s rejections. In Quantum Learning, we teach students that if a bully (or anyone for that matter) doesn’t like them, it says more about the bully than it does about them.

When students realize that they don’t have to accept everything that is said about them, they can choose their response rather than going with their gut reaction that may escalate the conflict. They feel empowered to respond without fear of criticism.

2.      Flash judgments often lead to painful labels and hard-to-shake masks.

bullying quote 2It’s easy for students to forget that they personally contribute to unsafe classroom cultures by making flash judgments about others. Students who have taken a label to heart may wear a “mask” rather than acting according to how they feel.

At Quantum Learning, we invite students to speak openly about the labels they’ve been given and the masks they wear. This is usually a very emotional time for stude

nts and marks a major turning point for many of them.

The awareness that they are not the only ones hurting helps students take the first step toward authenticity in their relationships. It also encourages them to give others space to be themselves, rather than making flash judgments.

3.      Develop resiliency by owning who you are and not letting others define you.

Victims of bullying are never to blame, and we certainly need to address bullying head on. But the reality is that all of us face negative comments from time to time, whether they’re meant to be hurtful or not.

Developing resiliency is critical. When students (or adults) own who they are, they are less likely to be bullied. And if they do become targets of bullying, they will be better equipped to handle the attack without letting it tear down their self-esteem.

4.      Speak with good purpose about yourself.

bullying quoteOne of Quantum Learning’s 8 Keys of Excellence is “Speak with Good Purpose.” When speaking to or about others, we need to do so with honesty, clarity, and in a way that makes a positive difference.

What we don’t typically consider is the importance of speaking with good purpose about ourselves. We become our own worst bully when we feed ourselves negative self-talk.

When students identify negative self-talk, whether spurred by a bully or something internal, they can replace it with a more positive and accurate personal affirmation statement.

These are just a few ways of discouraging bullying. When these principles are embraced and embodied by teachers and their students, students will feel empowered and the classroom culture will shift to one where differences are respected.

Images from Susie Cagle and The Anti-Bullying Blog.

How Fear Prevents the Brain from Learning

Four embroidery hoops of different colors with brains stitched on different colored backgrounds

Have you ever felt your body freeze up in response to a stressful situation? Perhaps your heart began to race and your breathing became fast and shallow. That’s your autonomic nervous system at work, and it’s warning your body that there’s danger afoot.

Physiological changes such as the ones above are triggered in part by the vagus nerve, which connects the brain stem to your bodily organs. Nerve impulses move along the vagus nerve from the brain to the body, but they also move from the body to brain.

This last point is particularly important. Often it’s our body that controls our response to fear, not our brain. We can be in an objectively safe setting, but if something sensory triggers the autonomic nervous system, we may feel fearful.

A Tale of Two Vagus Strands

The vagus nerve consists of three strands, all of which respond to fear differently. Let’s look at the first two, which are more primitive and reactive.

Mule deer in the road practicing his "deer in headlights" look.The first vagus strand produces a freeze reaction. If you’ve seen a deer in headlights—either the real thing or a motionless, terrified person—you’ve seen the freeze reaction in action. In the classroom, the freeze reaction may manifest itself as a momentary inability to speak or move, perhaps in response to an impending exam or a comment from a teacher or classmate.

The second vagus strand produces a “fight or flight” response. A student caught up in a fight mentality may run out of the classroom at inappropriate times, talk back to the teacher, or bully other students. Alternately, a student caught up in a flight mentality may avoid eye contact or sit away from other students.

Traumatic Residue

As mentioned, the first two vagus strands can trigger a fear response even when there is no objective threat. An extreme example is a student who suffers abuse at home. The student may feel unsafe and act out at school, even though there is no danger of harm.

Mugs with the "Keep Calm" logo that say "Now Panic and Freak Out."What’s really going on when a student reacts in fear for no apparent reason?

According to Stephen Porges, the neuroscientist behind the polyvagal theory, the amygdala stores traumatic memories as a kind of emotional “residue.” This residue makes the sympathetic nervous system hyper alert. It goes into continual overdrive, trying to detect danger. The student’s rational side is no longer in control. The student is now subject to a complex interaction of brain chemicals and hormones.

Our Hero: The Third Vagus Strand

If you’re wondering what happened to the third vagus strand, it hasn’t been forgotten. When functioning properly, the third vagus strand overrides the false warning signals and tells the body that it’s okay to relax.

A teacher stands at the front of the classroom while students eagerly raise their hands.It’s only in this relaxed state that deep learning occurs. Students must feel safe—emotionally, physically, cognitively, and socially—before they can think critically and creatively. They must have a well-trained third vagus strand.

Classroom Application

This raises the question: what can educators do to create a sense of safety and stimulate higher-order thinking?

Here are a few suggestions from Quantum Learning:

  • Honor students’ unique contributions. Every child has a hidden genius, and that genius naturally surfaces when talents are celebrated and accomplishments are acknowledged. Some students may naturally gravitate toward math, while others gravitate toward reading. Whatever a student excels in, those talents need to be recognized and valued.
  • Establish expectations early in the semester. Students will feel more comfortable when they know how the classroom will operate and how to interact with others. The 8 Keys of Excellence help accomplish this by giving students a common language.
  • Acknowledge students’ efforts regardless of the outcome. Create an environment where it is safe to try and fail. When a student completes a task incorrectly, give them a chance to fix the mistake and provide positive feedback on what the student did do well.
  • Outlaw putdowns and negative self-talk. The 8 Keys of Excellence are helpful here as well. Speak with Good Purpose encourages students to speak kindly and thoughtfully about others and themselves.

This is just a handful of ideas. Quantum Learning includes many more suggestions for encouraging safe learning environments, and we’re sure you have some of your own. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.

Co-authored by Barbara K. Given, Ph.D., Associate Professor Emerita of Special Education, George Mason University; Author Teaching to the Brain’s Natural Learning Systems.

Images from Hey Paul, Blue Moonbeam, Blue Square Thing, and Audio Luci Store.