Peter Doolittle’s TED Talk entitled, How your working memory makes sense of the world, has some important takeaways for classroom teachers. Here are some of the ideas I learned from his work on working memory.
- Working memory has four components
- Store some immediate experiences
- Store some knowledge
- Retrieves information from long-term memory
- Mixes and processes things from memory in light of our current situation
- Working memory capacity is our ability to leverage the above components to accomplish our current goals. People with good working memory capacity are often good:
- Problem-solvers with strong reasoning skills
- Working memory is what allows us to process things as we move forward in our daily work.
- It allows us to make sense of the world.
- It allows us to communicate with others.
- It allows us to process what we learn, evaluate the things we learn, and ask questions about our learning.
I found it interesting to think about how do we as teachers help our students exercise their working memory in strategic ways. Are we intentional in designing our lessons or using instructional strategies in such a way that our students’ working memory is challenged? I would propose that one of the goals of a classroom teacher should be to build the working memory capacity of his or her students.
As Doolittle points out, working memory is “awesome,” but he suggests that is has limitations. It is restricted in its capacity, duration and focus. We can remember only a few things (four to seven), for short durations (20 seconds), and often forget them from one moment to the next. As I listened to his talk, it was clear to me that all of these restrictions of working memory are at play every day for me. Doolittle gives some obvious examples that most human beings experience. “Have you ever walked from one room into another (you were going to get something) and then forgot why you’re there?”
What is it like for our students who have to navigate five or more courses requiring things from their working memory? Do they understand how to maximize the use of their working memory? What are we as their teachers doing to promote strengthening their working memory? Do we understand the pressure put on working memory when we expect them to learn mountains of content and be assessed on what they learn constantly? As I think about these questions, I am left wondering if we do enough to support our students through the challenging experience of “learning.” I mean support in the broadest sense of the word. However, I also believe it is about us (teachers) learning techniques to help students build a strong working memory. We need strategies at our disposal to help students.
Doolittle gives some examples of what we can do to build working memory capacity.
- Practice: we need to process our experiences immediately and repeatedly.
- Application: we need to apply what we learn in ways that help move working memory into long-term memory. Process what is going on in our world so that we can use it later.
- Variety: we need to interact with our experiences in diverse ways; (1) write about them, (2) communicate them to others, and (3) intentionally review and reflect on them.
- Organization: we need to organize things we experience into sets, categories, topics, or themes.
- Meaning: we need to make the things we learn and experience have meaning. The more meaning ideas have for students the more learning takes place.
- Visual processing: we need to think “elaboratively and illustratively” about our experiences.
- Help students make connections.
- Use mapping strategies to visualize connections
- Use imagery
- Use visual thinking strategies (VTS)
- Support: as learners we all need support.
Doolittle points out that we all start as novice learners. We only get better at using our working memory to our advantage if we engage all seven strategies listed above. He ends his talk with the statement: “What we process we learn.”
Do we teach our students how to process what they experience? Do we use instructional strategies that align to the seven principles listed above? Finally, do we intentionally help our students develop their working memory so that they can navigate the challenging work of school?
In schools, we are continually engaged in conversations about how to integrate technology into our schools’ curricula. Many schools invest heavily in new technology platforms, hardware, and software. If we intend to spend money wisely, we should be prepared to search for answers to these questions:
- What is the school’s “scope and sequence” describing what students need to learn and do, as well as how they are expected to apply different technologies, hardware and software, in developmentally appropriate ways? Does the school have a coherent and actionable plan?
- Do school and technology leaders have a firm grasp of how technology is used beyond school so they have a clear understanding of their responsibility to prepare students for the 21st Century?
- What are authentic ways students can use technology to solve more complex problems?
- What software tools can students use to more closely mimic the way technology is used in the workplace to augment learning?
- What procedures and policies are in place in schools to help students understand and navigate through a complex technological world? Are they being educated to become informed, digital citizens?
- Teachers comfort using technology in traditional and novel ways is critical to its effective integration. Does the school have a comprehensive and actionable professional development plan focused on effective integration of technology at all levels?
These questions, as well as other thoughts regarding technology integration, came into my view after watching a series of talks about novel uses of technology to solve complex problems. After viewing them, I wonder if students leave school with the knowledge, skills and abilities to be these kind of innovators. Are they prepared to be the next Greg Asner or Henry Evans and Chad Jenkins? What kind of education does it take to become a creative innovator of this caliber? I realize it is not only about the education a person acquires over time. It is also about a passion that drives a person’s curiosity to explore the unknown, fail a few times, get up and try again, and prototype until a workable solution comes about. Perseverance, determination, knowledge, skills, and ability all play an integral part.
But I wonder if using typical software tools to word-process, surf the internet, make spreadsheets, or design presentations is sufficient to prepare students to think outside-the-box when it comes to application of technology to solve complex problems. Using programming software in a robotics class or club to direct a complex set of robotic movements that solves a task is a more authentic scenario (watch the TED talk by Henry Evans and Chad Jenkins). Using computer software linked to a digital probe to collect real-time data in a chemistry experiment mirrors how technology might be used in a chemistry laboratory. No doubt, you could suggest other examples illustrating relevant technology integration in different curricula that give students the tools they need to become innovative problem-solvers.
The three videos below inspired me to think about these questions. The first is the recent launch of a rocket that carries the first satellite, TJ3Sat, designed by high school students, which will be able to convert text messages to voice and transmit them back to Earth using radio frequencies. The second is Greg Asner’s work designing, building and using advanced technologies to map and illustrate changes taking place in complex global ecosystems. It shows how technology is an indispensable tool. His work has the potential to transform how we see and understand change in ecological systems like rainforests. The third illustrates how one person’s imagination comes alive when given technology tools that extend his reach. In partnership with Chad Jenkins, an engineer of advanced technology tools, Henry James, a quadriplegic, is able to explore the world in new ways when given access to these tools. This piece illustrates the collaboration between one person’s imagination to create the tools and another person’s vision for how the tools can be used.
If you have the time to watch these three pieces in sequence, see if they stimulate you to wonder whether your school is preparing students to become creative users of technology.
As Westminster Lower School teachers bring Project-Based Learning (PBL) to life, their students tackle real-world issues and see meaningful connections in their learning while building 21st century skills.
Beyond the limits of traditional instruction, PBL encourages students to take a more active role in their learning and to research in-depth while choosing to create products that interest them. In the process, PBL integrates the content of various disciplines, shows meaningful connections among them, and enables students to use cutting edge technology.
As such, The Westminster Schools embraces the project-based approach as a key learning strategy in support of our Living for Life vision. With Project-Based Learning, students learn to think critically and creatively, and problem-solve. They become intrinsically motivated, which improves their understanding of the concepts covered in the project. The outcome: meaningful learning.
Each PBL topic provides a platform for significant content and stresses the importance of developing 21st century skills through technology and research, while intentionally developing skills in the areas of Critical Thinking, Communication, Collaboration and Creativity. Developing computer skills is critical to student learning; moreover the use of technology increases the quality of their learning as well.
Finally to make the learning visible to all, class bulletin boards showcase student work and highlight the process of each PBL: research, problem-solving, and reflection (see the Buck Institute for Education for more details about PBL).
A well-developed PBL includes Eight Essential Elements
All Lower School grade levels and several special area classes have chosen a topic to study in-depth using Project-Based Learning. Students research their topic through field trips and other in-class or library opportunities. Their learning culminates in the presentation of a project that shows understanding of the process and concepts embedded in their course of study.
First Grade PBL: All About Bees!
Driving Question: Why are all the Bees Dying?
First grade students created a buzz at Westminster in their PBL about bees. Students deepened their inquiry by laying out a research path with questions such as: What do we know about bees? What do we need to learn about bees? Why are bees important to us?
To find the answers, student first began with an in-house field trip complete with a beekeeper, an active beehive, honey tasting and learned all about harvesting! Research drew upon the efforts of teachers from several disciplines. Math and art were integrated into the study of bees as students explored the six-sided shape of honeycombs their bees made and learned about hexagons, and polygons. Homeroom teachers created twelve lessons including: music, physical education, technology and art.
To cap off their PBL project, the first grade students presented their newfound knowledge before a live audience – they dressed like bees, acted in a skit about bees, shared facts, and read aloud ibooks they wrote about bees. A visiting expert, Dr. Jennifer Leavey from Georgia Tech shared her expertise, helped make plans for the future, and joined in the fun as well.
2nd Grade PBL: Our Westminster Community Heroes!
Driving question: Who are the people who make our Westminster community work and how do they do this?
Second grade students created new and lasting relationships through their PBL by searching out the answer to their driving question. To begin this research, every second grade homeroom class walked the campus to learn about the different and important roles that people in our community fulfill, from campus security, to kitchen staff, to grounds crew and more. Students learned and perfected their interviewing skills with the staff members on our campus. They wrote and reflected about the importance of each individual’s role, purpose and value to our community.
To highlight their completed PBL, every student became an expert and shared information about a particular staff member (and department) with classmates from another homeroom in a jigsaw activity. In this way, all the students became teachers and learners in all aspects of the Westminster community. The final event culminated with students sending out invitations to their community heroes and by hosting them with a reception in their honor.
Third Grade PBL: Georgia On My Mind
Driving Question: As Ambassadors of Georgia, how can we help the Georgia Board of Tourism solve the problems of declining visitors to our state?
Teachers created a real world role for third graders in their PBL. Students were informed that tourism had fallen off in the state of Georgia. With guidance and support, students decided it was important that they serve as ambassadors to help attract visitors to our state! After determining what they needed to learn in order to direct their research, students began an in-depth exploration into the geography, communities and historical events unique to the state of Georgia.
A field trip to the Consolidated Gold Mine in Dahlonega provided a glimpse into Georgia’s past. In their final product, students chose the medium in which they wished to share their information with visitors–either in the form of a digital brochure on an iPad or a hand-crafted one illustrating the different regions and attractive options available for tourists when visiting our fine state of Georgia!
Fifth Grade Science PBL: That’s So Bad For You!
Driving Question: How can we as students create awareness about the effects of water pollution in the Atlanta area?
In this PBL students become activists and educators who research and present their findings about water pollution in the Atlanta area. Since most pollutants are spread via water, which directly connects to their ecosystems studies, their study focused on storm water run-off, erosion and dissolved oxygen levels. Students first built and then observed eco-columns. As part of the research phase, students went on a field trip to Elachee (Aqualand Marina) and water treatment plant. As they dig deeper into this work, students become much more aware of how little water there is in the world and how important it is to conserve it! In an effort to share this understanding and make a difference, students participate in a variety of different final products including: Public Service Announcements, iMovies, PowerPoints, Logos (to promote conservation), and a water lesson the fifth grade students will teach to the second grade students.
COLLABORATION AND COMMUNICATION
PBLs serve as opportunities for teachers to work together and share ideas while creating lessons that cross disciplines. To the casual observer, it may seem that students do all the work, but that’s only because the teachers have planned and prepared behind the scenes to ensure the work is ready FOR the students–when they get there. To share the demands of such intense preparation, many teachers have discovered that dividing up the work among themselves allows them to delve more deeply into the topic. For example, in one PBL, teachers divided the content topic into four separate parts. Each teacher researched and developed lessons for one part and taught quality content lessons on that topic to all four classes in their grade level. Teachers also met regularly to ensure delivery of additional content was consistent within the grade level, and to stay on schedule. Such collaboration brings teachers together to discuss and share their varied perspectives and interests, which in turn, raises the number and kind of options for students.
By researching authentic, curriculum-based and often interdisciplinary topics, students learn through experience. They decide how to approach a problem and what process to pursue. They gather information from a variety of sources and synthesize, analyze, and derive knowledge from it. Students practice collaboration and reflection as they work, both of which are critical skills necessary to adult life. Teachers act more as facilitators than teachers in guiding and advising students in their work. This approach highly motivates and engages students in interdisciplinary work. More importantly, it empowers them to take responsibility for their own education in ways unheard of in most traditional classrooms–just what they need to learn in the 21st century!
Pre-First: Investigation of Sound
Students will explore how sound is made with pipes and strings, learn which make high or low sounds and why, and ultimately will create their own instruments!
First Grade: So Now You’re a Wildcat!
Students will research what it means to be a Wildcat at Westminster and create a first grade book to inform incoming Pre-First students all about our campus!
Fourth Grade: Fundance!
Students will write an inspirational documentary about something meaningful to them, ultimately producing a documentary on iMovie, using Garage Band to inspire others to make changes within their community.
Foreign Language: Restaurant Menu
Students will research and write in either French or Spanish an authentic menu highlighting food indigenous to the culture studied.
Fifth Grade: Civil Rights Movement Museum
Students will research the significant people and events of the Civil Rights Movement, focusing intensively on the role Atlanta played in this period. In small groups, students will create museum displays, culminating in an exhibition highlighting Atlanta as the cradle of the Civil Rights Movement.
Guest blogger: Cynthia Montgomery
Lower School Instructional Coach & Coordinator for Project Based Learning
The Westminster Schools
1424 West Paces Ferry Road, NW
Atlanta, Georgia 30327
Ask a room full of administrators why they evaluate their faculty? Compliance might be the first response of many administrators. But once they put aside what they are required to do, I think we would find unanimous agreement that a process for evaluating faculty is designed to examine their effectiveness in the classroom, as well as the impact they are having on their students. I would assume that most educators would agree with this basic idea.
The challenge with connecting student achievement data to faculty evaluation is that assessments of student learning, such as high-stakes assessments, evaluate the collective impact of a student’s learning history, the many teachers he or she has had over the course of his or her schooling, the school environments in which they were raised, their parents’ influence, resources at their disposal, and many other factors. We think we get around this challenge by using value-added achievement data. Does anyone really believe that value-added achievement data or any other aggregation of high-stakes assessment data will be a true reflection of how well a single teacher taught a single student or a classroom full of them.
I believe that one of the quickest ways to minimize our assessment efforts in school is to use results from these assessments to evaluate faculty. Don’t get me wrong, I think faculty should be evaluated and the performance of students should be a variable. However, I think the assessment data that we use should include the wealth of assessment data on achievement, behaviors, and dispositions that most teachers collect. The achievement assessment data should include all the work of the student throughout the year, not merely the results of a student’s performance on a single high-stakes test, especially when these tests are designed to assess in a very narrow range of student learning styles.
What many states who have adopted the use of student achievement data to evaluate faculty are doing is penalizing a faculty member if his or her students do not achieve to “satisfaction.” Again, it seems that the only fair way to use student achievement data would be to aggregate the data for a group of students and assess whether a group of teachers at a grade-level or in a discipline are successfully meeting the needs of their students. Aggregating data based on groups of performers minimizes the influence of the variables that could impact any one student.
This conversation will be difficult to resolve, especially if educational policy makers continue to place greater value on accountability than they do student learning. If teachers are not at the table influencing the direction of this work, then I have little hope that we will find a solution that is in the best interest of students. My experience is that teachers are more likely to worry about student outcomes tied to learning than are educational policy makers or politicians. We should focus our attention on building capacity within our schools not on accountability. If we build capacity in our teachers, administrators, and schools the performance indicators will improve substantially and accountability will take care of itself.
Arthur Benjamin, described as a mathemagician, may be a person math educators know. Clearly, he gets around. Benjamin advances the idea that mathematics is about calculation, application, and inspiration. Most of us would probably not argue that mathematics is about calculation and application. In fact, Benjamin points out that its too bad that those two characteristics are often the only ones that students leave school understanding. When I reflect on my own math experiences from early grades through graduate school, most of which were very positive, I remember them being predominantly about the calculations. Maybe a little bit of application, especially in chemistry. I have very few memories about mathematics, or a math teacher, that I would identify as inspiring.
With regard to inspiration, I would guess some of us might wonder why inspiration is Benjamin’s third element of a good math experience. I know I did. But when I watched the magic unfold in his TED talk on Fibonacci numbers, it was clear. He was energized, alive, and concise in telling a compelling story about why these numbers and patterns are beautiful. Benjamin sees beauty in math. He sees it as a gateway to understanding the beauty of patterns that exist all around us. So maybe math educators should spend more time trying to inspire their students by showing them the beauty of math. Math can be used to answer perplexing questions, but it can also be used to inspire us the way a good piece of art does.
On TED’s site they write: “Math is logical, functional and just … awesome. Mathemagician Arthur Benjamin explores hidden properties of that weird and wonderful set of numbers, the Fibonacci series.” For me, he not only explored the properties, but he illustrated in ten minutes how beautiful these numbers are and WHY we should care about them.
I think his TED video could be used to hook or engage students in the beauty of math.
An interesting article appeared in the September issue of Phi Delta Kappan about the value of public performance in motivating students to pursue learning outside of school. The article, Learn More Show What You Know,: Can the Prospect of Public Performance Motivate Student Learning was written by David Bergin and colleagues from the University of Missouri. They report on the results from a study conducted at a K-5, inner city urban school in Missouri about the “Above and Beyond” program, conceived to encourage students to go above and beyond the curriculum through engagement in self-guided, creative projects outside of school. Project ideas were self-generated, implemented outside of school, and completed on a schedule the student created. The unique piece of this program was that students were given space and time within the school day to perform or share their project with their peers and the school community. The school conceived of the above and beyond program to fulfill two important goals: (1) an avenue for expanding a student’s writing skills; and (2) an avenue for increasing student motivation so that they would take more ownership of their learning. While participation in “Above and Beyond” was voluntary, by the program’s second year almost 70% of students participated in creating 783 projects.
In the design of the program, the school created a variety of ways in which students would receive feedback on their project work: (1) stickers in their passport for learning book; (2) one-on-one meetings with the principal to receive feedback; (3) photo display of their work around school; and (4) public performance of their project idea at school assemblies. Since the public performance method of feedback took time, the school decided to pull back on its commitment to giving students time to perform their work during the third year of implementation. As a result, the number of projects completed by students dropped from 783 to less than 50. The point the authors make is that without the public performance component to the feedback, students’ motivation to design and implement a creative project idea dropped off considerably. They make the case that research into motivation theory suggests that when people have the opportunity to share their ideas and work in a public arena, they are motivated to put their best foot forward. The authors describe four specific aspects of public performance in the Above and Beyond program that contributed to positive student motivation.
- students ability to choose to participate in Above and Beyond allows for autonomy
- students ability to choose performance in an area that interests them.
- students ability to choose the methods they use to share or perform their project work
- students setting performance goals to prepare for sharing their work
Student opportunities for performance in traditional schools are generally limited to extra-curricular programs like sports, performing arts, and some club activities. It is unusual for schools to think creatively about structuring time and space for students to share their achievement in the academic arena, especially in areas that tap into what interests students outside the standard curriculum. The critical lessons learned in this Missouri school was that the public performance needed to be free from normal grading constraints, as well as competition which can be a barrier to students taking risks.
After reading this article, I come back to the value of project-based learning (PBL) as an instructional strategy that puts students at the center of the learning. Designing a need to know or driving question that is relevant and of interest to students, giving them voice and choice in creating their project idea, and providing a public audience for students to share their work are hallmarks of well-designed PBL. In addition, PBL can serve as an instructional strategy to integrate disciplines and assess students in authentic ways. The PBL movement in schools is growing as we collect more information about its efficacy. Look at the New Tech Network of 130+ schools and the research they provide for why this method works to engage students in their learning. Also, look at the work being accomplished at High Tech High and Edvisions schools. There is compelling evidence that PBL puts students at the center of the learning and gives them the chance to perform in front of an authentic audience.
(See the Buck Institute for more information on research to support the use of PBL as an instructional strategy.)
There is a MUST read piece by David C. Berliner in the October edition of Educational Leadership. In a short and simple reflection, Now or Never, he asks very compelling questions. Here are a string of questions he asks that are his attempt to get teachers to “step to the plate,” be part of the solution, and come out from the sidelines to participate fully.
- Do you really mean to be silent when they instituted high-stakes tests because your state needed to know how it was doing?
- What did you learn that you didn’t already know about your students?
- What did the state learn that couldn’t have been predicted from zip codes?
- How much does all that test data inform your teaching compared to your own classroom tests and knowledge of your students?
- Are you going to remain silent now, as they get ready to fire you because your test scores are not as high as someone wants them to be for your poor kids and your English-language learners?
He makes the point that teachers need to stop taking the blame for:d
a society that has allowed a 30-year drift into poverty for so many families.
I would add that the drift has extended into families not taking responsibility for the education of their children and not entering into a deeper partnership with their child’s school. Many families opt out of responsibility to encourage, support, and guide their child’s education through early reading, rich conversations, and explorations of the world around them. Families often let their children drift into electronic play while not encouraging creative play with other children.
It’s Now or Never! Berliner writes:
Today’s teachers can no longer afford to be pawns.
(Berliner’s piece is a insert in the article written by Roland Barth, The Time is Ripe. I would recommend both pieces as a call to action)