Friday, December 27, 2013

The Postage Stamp Link

    If you have been employed in education or even hung around educators for a while, you’ve likely heard this question: “Why can’t the students remember what I’ve taught them?”  I was guilty of asking this question when I was in the classroom. I remember the frustration of sitting in on a scholars bowl event when my students were not coming up with the correct answer to simple history questions.  Afterward I came up to the kids and groaned, “We covered that information last year in our history class!”  I whined, “I can't believe you guys don't remember that information!”  I’m not sure who felt worse, the students missing the information or me in not creating an environment that would allow them to retain and apply the information in their lives.
     After spending several more years in the classroom and then moving into administration, I learned more about instruction and how the brain works.  The key to students learning and retaining what is taught is getting the information that enters the brain indexed in the correct category so it can be pulled out at the right time.  So how does this process work for the students?
     Above the right eye everyone has an area of their brain about the size of a postage stamp that serves as a scratch pad.  This area of our brain holds pictures, smells, and sounds for a few seconds and then will discard them into the long term memory of the brain.  As a person remembers something, such as someone's face, the postage stamp area will send a signal to the long term memory of the brain to retrieve that information. When these signals are sent, a new link to neurons are made.  If the link has already been established, then it is strengthened.  
      The key for educators in getting students to remember information is to put more emphasis on retrieving it from the long term memory than sending it to the long term memory.  How can we do this?  Let me give you example.  Most educators do a very good job of explaining how their content can be used in real life.  Some teachers will tell students that they will need to know this information in order to balance a checkbook, or measure the square footage of a room for carpet, or serve on a jury, etc.  Doing so is great way to relate the content to real world experience.  The problem is that just explaining it doesn’t strengthen the neuron link to the long term memory.  We are just filing information into the long term memory.  If it is not filed correctly, however, students may not know when or how to use what they've learned in the future.  
      If a business class is teaching students how to run a business, why not actually run a business to reinforce the neuron strands?  If a math class is teaching students algebra that applies to some type of engineering feat, why not have them design and build a bridge in the classroom?  Same thing in a government class.  Set up a mock government or have the students have a mock trial.  Better yet, implement the skills they’re learning into the school system and have court proceedings over disciplinary issues.  These are just a few ideas of my own.  I’m sure classroom teachers could design far better lesson applications than what I have covered.  
      The brain is just like any other organ in the body.  If it isn't used properly or usefully, then it won't function the way it was intended to function.  The good news is that the brain has a great ability to bounce back.  Through practice it can grow stronger in retrieving information properly.  As educators we should be at the forefront of this development in our students’ brains.  The key is setting the table for our students to continually pull the information has been covered in the classroom from their brains for use in real life situations.  Let our motto be "Strengthening the Neuron Link" for our students. 

Monday, December 2, 2013

When Do You Need Fed?

    There are certain times in our lives that we just can't do specific things for ourselves. Eating is something we all must do, but at one time or other, we are unable feed ourselves and need someone else’s help. Being fed as an infant or as an elderly person is something nearly every human being on this earth will go through. Other situations that would prevent us from feeding ourselves include crippling disabilities or physical trauma in our lives.  Either way we have to eat to live a healthy life or to live period.
     The same can be said with our professional development as an educator. Early on in our development as a student, we all had to be "fed" by the teacher. This can be at any level of school – Kindergarten year, freshman orientation at high school and college, or even the first year on the job. It can also be said in specific situations – first days of class, the beginning of a unit, or the start of a lesson. As educators we fall into the same circumstances. Our professors may have fed us, a mentor teacher may have fed us, and the building principal may have fed us.  Sooner or later the phase of being "spoon fed" information has to stop. In order to grow, we have to learn to feed ourselves.
     How successful people are from that point on comes down to how strong their personal learning network (PLN) is. How strong is your PLN? If you don't remember what a PLN is, be sure to check out my blog Got PLN? It does an educator good!  An educator's development is only as good as the PLN they are involved in. This might leave you thinking a couple of things. How do I know if I'm part of a quality PLN? If I find out that I'm not in a good one, what do I do? These are both good questions and I have some suggestions on how to measure your PLN and what to do if it's not measuring up.

  • Is the information coming from my PLN keeping up with the current trends? We have to stay current in education. There is always something new coming out in any business and education isn't and shouldn't be shielded from change.  
  • What if my PLN isn't currently up on the trending education topics? You don't ditch anyone or anything in the PLN, because you never know when you need the information at some time in your professional life. Plus that would just be rude to listen to people only when you need something from them. This is when you add to your PLN. Your PLN should always have trending sources to insure that you are staying up on the changes in education.  
  • Spend some time honestly reflecting on yourself. When it comes to development who are you relying on? Are you depending on others to feed the information to you or are you going out to get it? There are two kinds of people in this world: those that have something done to them most of the time and those that are doing something. Don't sit back in your classroom or office and wait on someone to bring you an idea, article, solution, etc. Be the one that does something or at least part of the something within your PLN.
  • Is my PLN diverse? Add something that allows you to think differently.  I like to get an entrepreneur’s perspective. It gets my mind thinking in an abstract way. I can then come back to my education world and problem solve better. The general rule is if it makes you a better educator, it's a good addition to your PLN. If it's enjoyable but sucks time away from your profession, then don't mess with it until after hours or on weekends.
These are just a few suggestions to make your PLN better and, in turn, to make you a better educator. It's not called SELN (Someone Else's Learning Network). It's your personal network. Someone else isn't going to read trending articles or visit with colleagues that are on top of their profession, or stop by the principal's office and ask "how can I become a better educator" for you. You have to do it. If you don’t, someone else will be feeding you and you may not like the taste of it.