2014 in review

29 12 2014

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The Louvre Museum has 8.5 million visitors per year. This blog was viewed about 77,000 times in 2014. If it were an exhibit at the Louvre Museum, it would take about 3 days for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Debunking the Genius Myth

21 12 2014

| August 30, 2013 |


Picture a “genius” — you’ll probably conjure an image of an Einstein-like character, an older man in a rumpled suit, disorganized and distracted even as he, almost accidentally, stumbles upon his next “big idea.” In truth, the acclaimed scientist actually said, “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.” But the narrative around Einstein and a lot of accomplished geniuses — think Ben Franklin, the key and the bolt of lightning — tends to focus more on mind-blowing talent and less on the hard work behind the rise to success. A downside of the genius mythology results in many kids trudging through school believing that a great student is born, not made — lucky or unlucky, Einstein or Everyman.

Harvard-educated tutors Hunter Maats and Katie O’Brien began to notice that this belief about being born smart was creating a lot of frustration for the kids they tutored, and sometimes unwittingly reinforced by their parents. “We had sessions working with a student where the mom would walk by and say, ‘Oh, he didn’t get the math gene!’” said O’Brien. “And I’d think, Gee, give the kid a reason to never even try.”

“Try,” it seems, is the magical and operative word that has the possibility to transform how well a student does in school — once they understand a little about how to try, and a little about how learning and the brain works. How students think about learning makes a difference in what they’re able to achieve. Groundbreaking research conducted by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck has shown that when students take on a growth mindset – one in which they believe that the brain is malleable, and they can improve at a task with effort – they handle setbacks better and improve academically.

“Kids are sent to school with no manual on how to use their brains. Not what to learn buthow to learn.”

Maats and O’Brien knew about all the research, and began sharing information about learning and the brain with their students. They turned their one-on-ones into a book, The Straight-A Conspiracy, to show teenagers that they had control, for a large part, over how they did in school, and that believing certain kids were born talented was a grand conspiracy to keep them down and stressed out (with tongue planted firmly in cheek). The authors use the latest research in psychology and neuroscience to try and convince teens, with lots of pop culture references and humor thrown in, that understanding how their brain learns can help them “totally rule the world.”

Maats explained that often students he tutored had watched another kid in class blow through an assignment and assumed they were just naturally good at it, that they didn’t even have to try. But he began clarifying the real reason they worked so fast; the student knew the answer right away because “it had become automatic,” he said. “They looked effortless, but they only became effortless through hard work.” Unlike sports or music, where students can see others practicing, much of schoolwork practice happens at home, builds slowly over time, and goes unseen. “You don’t see the work others are doing, so it looks like it never happened,” Maats said.

[RELATED: Eight Ways of Looking at Intelligence]

O’Brien said that “geniuses” also know how to focus their attention, and that’s why they may appear calm. “That overwhelmed feeling is coming from attention being focused on too many things that are not automated at once,” she said. “You can’t focus on two things you don’t know – but neither could Einstein!” Explaining one of the largest conspiracies they face with students, and parents’ biggest complaint, student multitasking, they disseminate the research for the teenage brain:

“Your attention can only deal with one unautomated task at a time. The idea that your attention can multitask is a major myth… When you’re trying to do all four of these tasks – walking, chewing gum, talking to your friend and reading Huckleberry Finn – the first two won’t be affected, because you’ve automated them. You can keep walking and chewing gum without even noticing they’re happening. But each of the new activities – holding a new conversation and reading a new book – requires your full attention in order to go well… But the more important point is that you just don’t want to put yourself through that! It’s totally manic!… The more stuff you pile on at once, the more time pressure you add to the situation, the more you start to feel really overwhelmed.”

By using concrete research in a way that speaks directly to teenagers, Maats and O’Brien hope to dispel the image of the rumpled genius, being brilliant in spite of himself. Instead, they want students to know that there are proven techniques that can improve their school performance and get parents and teachers off their back (a particular favorite is “Go Cyborg on Your Mistakes,” an extended “Terminator” metaphor that relates the idea of focused practice). And they seem to relish explaining that the straight-A student is working harder than kids think.

[RELATED: Can Everyone Be Smart At Everything?]

“You would never put a child into the driver’s seat of a car, with no license and no drivers’ ed, and expect him to be able to cruise down the highway successfully, with no fear or hesitation,” said O’Brien. “And yet kids are sent to school with no manual on how to use their brains. Not what to learn but how to learn. The result is that everyone spends their days in school guessing what might be the best approach, the most effective technique…and the questioning about the how takes a lot of time and attention away from what needs to be learned.”

Six Ways To Motivate Students To Learn

21 12 2014

Annie Murphy Paul


Scientific research has provided us with a number of ways to get the learning juices flowing, none of which involve paying money for good grades. And most smart teachers know this, even without scientific proof.

1.   Fine-tune the challenge. We’re most motivated to learn when the task before us is matched to our level of skill: not so easy as to be boring, and not so hard as to be frustrating. Deliberately fashion the learning exercise so that students are working at the very edge of your abilities, and keep upping the difficulty as they improve.

2.  Start with the question, not the answer. Memorizing information is boring. Discovering the solution to a puzzle is invigorating. Present material to be learned not as a fait accompli, but as a live question begging to be explored.

3.   Encourage students to beat their personal best. Some learning tasks, like memorizing the multiplication table or a list of names or facts, are simply not interesting in themselves. Generate motivation by encouraging students to compete against themselves: run through the material once to establish a baseline, then keep track of how much they improve (in speed, in accuracy) each time.

4.   Connect abstract learning to concrete situations. Adopt the case-study method that has proven so effective for business, medical and law school students: apply abstract theories and concepts to a real-world scenario, using these formulations to analyze and make sense of situations involving real people and real stakes.

5.   Make it social. Put together a learning group, or have students find learning partners with whom they can share their moments of discovery and points of confusion. Divide the learning task into parts, and take turns being teacher and pupil. The simple act of explaining what they’re learning out loud will help them understand and remember it better.

6.   Go deep. Almost any subject is interesting once you get inside it. Assign the task of becoming the world’s expert on one small aspect of the material they have to learn—then extend their new expertise outward by exploring how the piece they know so well connects to all the other pieces they need to know about.

For more about the science of learning, go to AnnieMurphyPaul.com

Is Executive Functioning the Missing Link for Many Gifted Students?

15 12 2014

Written by Alyssa Coburn on October 8, 2013. Posted in Executive Functioning

taking a testDean’s Story

Let me share with you a story about a gifted child I know named Dean whose story might be familiar to some of you. At three, Dean could correctly identify every Thomas the Tank character that ever appeared on the show.  At four, he figured out how to read on his own and by five, his obsession with presidents meant he could soon tell you the name, birthday, and interesting facts about every president.  At seven, he was memorizing all of the chemical elements for fun. Dean has always had a voracious appetite for reading, enjoys reading the same books over and over again, and could tell you detailed facts about everything he has ever read.

Now that Dean is eleven, it’s puzzling to his parents that he can’t keep up at school. His papers are a mess, riddled with dog-ears.  He brought home three missing assignment slips just last week. He usually aces quizzes and tests, but when he doesn’t get an “A”, he’s more likely to get a “D.”  While he completes homework in record time, it’s a mystery as to how his teacher can decipher his illegible work.  His mom is struggling to understand, “Why is my bright child struggling at school?”  The answer can be found in his executive functioning skills.

What is executive functioning?

When we think of traditional learning, we think of taking in facts and developing skills. These are both examples of input. In Dean’s case, his strength is input.  In fact, his father has often described his mind as a “steel trap.”  Executive functioning (“EF”) skills are an opposite set of skills: they include everything that has to do with acting on knowledge, or output. This means that “EF” includes organizing papers, writing down assignments, taking notes, studying, and even writing with structure. It’s the output that Dean struggles with. Information goes in his mind very easily and thoroughly, and he has no trouble understanding what he’s learning. When he tries to share that information or get through a homework list, however, the work product comes out very scattered.

Is this common in gifted children?

Not all gifted children struggle with executive functioning, but gifted children are often more likely to encounter these struggles than other students.  Why?  For starters, gifted children like Dean find learning and school to initially be very easy, sometimes even boring.   When it comes to developing executive functioning skills, though, there really is a downside to school being “too easy.”  If you are able to easily understand your lessons, memorize the key details, and recall them later, there is no need to develop a set of study skills.  Justin, a former student of mine who is now in high school, found this out the hard way. He breezed through elementary school and middle school. He consistently earned A’s without ever studying.  That also meant that Justin was not practicing these skills.  Even though his developing brain was primed and ready to learn these types of skills, he wasn’t getting opportunities to learn, practice, hone, and master studying. When he transitioned to high school and encountered a rigorous American history course, he had no idea how to approach that class. He floundered for the first time in his academic career.

This phenomenon isn’t limited to studying either.  If Susie can memorize all of her assignments throughout grade school and never needs to write them down, she never has the opportunity to learn and practice assignment management.  If Alex can fly through his homework each night in twenty minutes, he doesn’t have to learn to prioritize and organize his time.  If Cheryl memorizes the details of a lecture right as she hears it, she’s not likely to learn good note-taking skills for when the lectures become much more advanced later on.  Having a talent for taking in information can actually hamper the development of these output skills.

Don’t wait for disaster

Every executive functioning skill can be broken down, taught, practiced, and mastered.  The key is to learn these skills before they are critically needed for success in a tough class.  If your child is going to be taking a heavy course load in the future, make sure that executive functioning skills are being learned early.  The middle school years (grades five to eight) offer the ideal window for this.  Even if your child doesn’t “need” to write everything down or study for his or her current classes, a tutor or teacher can help get these habits firmly established and set the stage for the future.  At a minimum, every child should learn to organize school papers/materials, track and prioritize assignments, take notes on a textbook, study effectively (not just “look over” material), and write responses and paragraphs with structure.  These skills are just as important as learning to solve equations or punctuate a sentence!

 Executive functioning needs also provide another reason for you to work with your teachers and school to ensure that your child is being adequately challenged.  “Too easy” is a problem that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Children who are not challenged enough miss out on an opportunity to practice critical executive functioning skills.  They are also more likely to become risk-adverse and not tackle challenges that are out of their comfort zone.  When kids are regularly challenged with work that pushes their intellectual limits, without putting them in a constant state of frustration, a lot of development can happen: both in terms of input and output!


Amanda Vogel is the Vice President of Nurturing Wisdom Tutoring and the director of Nurturing Wisdom Academy, a private school in Hinsdale.  She has a Master’s degree in special education and over twelve years of experience in teaching, writing curriculum, and supporting educators.  She developed Nurturing Wisdom’s extensive executive functioning curriculum for both their tutoring and school program

Important to cultivate young academic talents

12 12 2014
Nobel Prize 2014
May-Britt and Edvard Moser

“ I skipped a class when I went to school and was also given books by my mother. She also said that if you do not work hard, you will have to become a housewife, and then I was really afraid,” May-Britt Moser said, laughing. Photo: Gunnar K. Hansen

2014 NOBEL PRIZE: Teachers need to recognize students who burn with curiosity and cultivate that inquisitiveness, 2014 Nobel Laureates May-Britt and Edvard Moser said Monday in a special panel discussion on Science in Scandinavia organized by the Norwegian Embassy in Stockholm.

Published 08.12.14

The event also featured a panel discussion with the Mosers and rectors from a number of Scandinavian universities, including Rector Gunnar Bovim from NTNU, along with people from Norwegian and Swedish academia.

The Mosers say it’s not so much a matter of having elite schools, but of fostering teachers who can recognize and encourage students with exceptional talents.

“We come from families with dreams, but not so many successes. My parents wanted an education, but could not go to university because of the war. My parents gave me many books, but I did not know anyone who had a university education. There was a strength in the sense that we had to have our own ideas,” said Edvard Moser.

The debate over PISA

Bojs raised the question of how Scandinavian schools can be more competitive because the PISA results for Swedish children have been declining in recent years. PISA is a test of European 15-year-olds’ competencies in mathematics, reading and science and, in some countries, problem solving and financial literacy.

The panel discussion addressed how Norway and Sweden can improve their global competitiveness by developing and retaining more talents in Scandinavia. Both May-Britt and Edvard Moser stressed the importance of skilled teachers in school.

Free to ask stupid questions

“All children are born with stars in their eyes, and they are curious. It is important for teachers to be careful not to kill this curiosity. A lot can go wrong. Children can be teased, even by teachers,” May-Britt Moser said. “It is so important to allow children to bloom and to be driven by their curiosity. I was the youngest child. I got to be myself and ask stupid questions because I was the youngest. It is so important to listen to the questions children have, and reward them for the wondrous questions they ask.”

Edvard Moser added that if schools are going to cultivate and encourage academic talents, teachers must be allowed to teach differently to different students.

Could  have easily been bored

“When I was a schoolchild there was no differentiation in the way students were taught. I went to good schools, but I had to do the same thing as everyone else,” said Edvard Moser. “I was motivated on my own, so everything went fine, but it could have been boring because I was ahead of other students in many subjects. I believe that if we want to cultivate academic talents, we need to allow teachers to differentiate between students. The Norwegian school system must have enough resources so that teachers can work with kids at different levels.”

But neither Edvard nor May-Britt Moser sees the need for elite schools.

Teachers who can motivate

May-Britt Moser says instead of special, elite schools, the Norwegian school system should try to make sure there are teachers in each school who can motivate kids.

“These could be professors from universities, for example. Children need teachers who have stars in their eyes themselves, and who treat them with respect,” she said.

NTNU Rector Gunnar Bovim NTNU added that it is important to let people feel free to be ambitious, no matter where their ambitions lie.

“We have to give people permission to be ambitious,” he said. “Athletes are allowed to be ambitious, but it is un-Norwegian to allow people to have intellectual ambitions. We have to allow people with intellectual ambitions to bloom.”

The Delicate Balance

8 12 2014

By Jill Jenkins

With school turning out more runners, jumpers, racers, tinkerers, grabbers, snatchers, fliers, and swimmers instead of examiners, critics, knowers, and imaginative creators, the word ‘intellectual,’ of course, became the swear word it deserved to be.”
Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

                What is important for students to know?  What should our schools be teaching? If you listen to media, all the schools should be focused on is STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. Just like in the 1950’s our society is demanding that education provide more STEM education to provide a technological suave population who can produce a profit for our corporations. Are schools created to serve our corporations or the individual needs of our students?  Society certainly rewards students who perform well in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, but not every student has the desire or the aptitude to do well in those areas.  Are we doing those students a disservice? Since girls have stronger verbal skills and brains wired for an education in communications is this a subtle form of prejudice?  Before we write our curriculum, it is important to determine what is important to know to help our students become both productive citizens and principled people.  We need a more balanced approach to serve all of the needs of all of the varied students in our classes?

                Schools need to prepare students to be productive citizens, but to be honest with as rapidly as technology is changing that is not an easy task.  As a child, I remember laughing at Maxwell Smart and his shoe telephone.  Now, all of us carry telephones around in our pockets that are not only communication devices, but small computers.  The truth is there will be careers that we can’t even imagine, so we have to give students skills to be life-long learners.  To achieve they must be willing to learn new skills through-out their lives. We need to prepare students to adapt to world that we cannot conceive existing. 

                Research shows that females learn differently than males. According to the article, “How Boys and Girls Learn Differently” by Dr. Gail  Gross from the Huffington Post,boys have less serotonin and oxytocin which makes girls more sensitive to other’s  feeling subtly communicated through body language and they can sit still for longer periods of time.  Girls have larger hippocampus, where memory and language is stored.  This means they develop language skills, reading skills and vocabulary much sooner than boys. On the other hand, boys have a larger cerebral cortex which means they learn visually and have better spatial relationships.  This could improve their ability in engineering and technology.  These differences become less dramatic as the child grows older.  Perhaps schools need to focus on presenting a broad spectrum of disciplines in a variety of ways to serve all of students.

Even though our society does not value careers where communications rather than subjects like science, technology, engineering and mathematics are the primary focus, they may still be important careers for our society.  For example, teachers are essential if we want to continue to produce an educated workforce, but if pay is the measurement of value, they are not valued by society.  In the state where I taught science, engineering, technology and math teachers were all paid $5000.00 a year more than any other kind of teacher.  Still, if we want to be realistic students’ need a balance of both to be successful.  For example, my daughter is a journalist; however, she also needs to know how to write computer coding because the magazine that employs her is on-line. Most scientists must document whatever they do which means they need writing and reading skills. Furthermore, who is to say who will be the next poet laureate .   The arts, history and language arts are all equally important skills for students to master as math, science and technological based skills.

Even more important, the humanities:  literature, history and the arts force people to ask “why.”  Certainly, we can’t think about Nazi Germany without realizing, there was a reason that Hitler banned books.  We can’t read a Michael Critchton book without discussing ethics in science and medicine.  We can’t read Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twistwithout questioning the social problems caused by poverty and homelessness.  Reading, writing, history, the arts are all connected to science, math, technology and engineering. A quality education is a balance.  All of it is equally important.  Teachers should be compensated equally and students should be provided with an equal balance.  Teachers should help students develop their own individual talents, so they can become all that they can be.  Schools should prepare each student to become “all that they can be,” not a product to serve the needs of industry.

Why Storytelling in the Classroom Matters

8 12 2014

What is “storytelling”? Telling stories, of course! In 2014, there are so many diverse, wonderful, and sometimes overwhelming ways to do this. What I want to explore is traditional, oral storytelling, which has been a part of human life since we first left Africa 200,000 or more years ago. Perhaps storytelling was the reason language developed in the first place, as our minds began to inquire, wonder, think.

Why Do We Tell Stories?

Whether in caves or in cities, storytelling remains the most innate and important form of communication. All of us tell stories. The story of your day, the story of your life, workplace gossip, the horrors on the news. Our brains are hard-wired to think and express in terms of a beginning, middle and end. It’s how we understand the world.

Storytelling is the oldest form of teaching. It bonded the early human communities, giving children the answers to the biggest questions of creation, life, and the afterlife. Stories define us, shape us, control us, and make us. Not every human culture in the world is literate, but every single culture tells stories.

Can You Be a Storyteller and a Teacher?

You already are. Teachers are storytellers, and storytellers have been teachers for millennia. In reality, teachers don’t see themselves as storytellers. Or rather, they see the occasional storyteller and think it’s a theatrical, exaggerated show more akin to acting. But hang on a minute — being a teacher definitely involves acting and theatrics.

Interactive Storytelling

It is important at this stage that I describe my particular style. I don’t rely on just “speaking” the story. I don’t sit still in a chair. I talk slowly, with alternating rhythm. I walk around. I use my hands a lot. And, most importantly, I invite children from the audience to act out the story as I tell it. They dress up in funny hats and other props, and they follow the instructions in the story and repeat the dialogue I say. I stop and start the story a lot, asking the audience to contribute sound effects, to answer questions, to make suggestions.

The Many Benefits to Storytelling

When you tell your first story, there is a magical moment. The children sit enthralled, mouths open, eyes wide. If that isn’t enough reason, then consider that storytelling:

  • Inspires purposeful talking, and not just about the story — there are many games you can play.
  • Raises the enthusiasm for reading texts to find stories, reread them, etc.
  • Initiates writing because children will quickly want to write stories and tell them.
  • Enhances the community in the room.
  • Improves listening skills.
  • Really engages the boys who love the acting.
  • Is enjoyed by children from kindergarten to the end of elementary school.
  • Gives a motivating reason for English-language learners to speak and write English.

That last point has really proven powerful this year. My school is 97 percent English-language learners, and I have many children in my class who arrived speaking little or no English. The single biggest factor to their incredible progress in English has been their wanting to become storytellers.

So How Do You Become a Storyteller?

I recommend the following:

  1. Read as many different world folktales, fables, myths, and legends as you can.
  2. Watch professional storytellers and take notes about how they do it. Every storyteller is different, and you can learn something from them all.
  3. Build your confidence by reading your students picture books or chapter books with an interesting voice. Stop to ask questions. Make the book reading interactive. It will help you create a shared event with a story.
  4. Pick stories with small numbers of characters and repeating events, as these are easiest to remember. Having said that, pick any story you like — no, that you love! If it captivates you, it will captivate the younger ones, too.
  5. Write the stories down in a notebook. Writing helps you remember a story, and it models the same to the children.
  6. When you start “telling” your story, it’s OK to have the book nearby and to take a look at it if you forget a part. Don’t be too hard on yourself. You are a student again.
  7. Get yourself a “prop box” made of old bits of linen, and fill it with hats from charity shops and random objects that children can use imaginatively. I got a lot of my materials from recycling centers.

So What’s Next?

Sure, becoming a storyteller takes effort and inclination on your behalf, but with so many benefits, isn’t it worth trying? You might surprise yourself. You will certainly surprise your students. In relatively little time, you can be telling stories, running storytelling clubs, capturing the attention of the whole school assembly, contributing to school events and PD training schedules. I never thought I would be doing any of this when I started my teacher training seven years ago.

So what’s stopping you? The next story starts with you . . .