Brain Matters: Sleep Tight, Sleep Right

Do middle school educators spend enough time considering the implications of brain science when constructing their learning environment? Recent articles in the New York Times reminded me how understanding, or at least considering, brain development can impact not only the learning environment but also the teacher-student relationship.

The first article, Want to Ace That Test, Get the Right Kind of Sleep recapped the essential role that sleep, and the appropriate amount of sleep, can play in student learning and performance. Scientists have demonstrated that deep and full sleep is an essential element of adolescent brain development and learning. The research is so dialed in, students can actually, if warranted, change their sleep patterns to accommodate learning in different academic areas. “Studies have found that the first half of the night contains the richest dose of so-called deep sleep — the knocked-out-cold variety — and this is when the brain consolidates facts and figures and new words. This is retention territory, and without it (if we stay up too late), we’re foggier the next day on those basic facts.”¹ In other words, if you want to keep those facts in your memory, go to sleep at the regular time. The article goes on to describe how different sleep patterns can result in different learning performance outcomes. As a teacher, these kinds of insights can help inform our practice and but also the information we can relay to students about health benefits related to rest and sleep.

Reading the article reminded me of a chapter in Nurtureshock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman called “The Lost Hour”. In that chapter the authors describe the detrimental impact that lost hours of sleep can have on student performance. Unfortunately, the research also shows that those lost hours, over the course of a week, can have a cumulative impact. In a nutshell, students need to be constantly reminded to get enough sleep. Not doing so can have huge impacts on performance and as everyday educators know, attitudes and academic disposition.

The second article related to adolescent development was somewhat more tangentially related to education. In Interrogations, Teenagers are Too Young to Know Better the subjects were adolescents charged with crimes. What makes the study relative was the insights gained regarding adolescent decision-making. The teenagers charged were considered “more vulnerable at the gates to the criminal justice system” and demonstrated serious flaws in their ability to make effective decisions. From the article:

Teenagers, studies show, are not developmentally ready to make critical decisions that have long-term impacts.

“Adolescents are more oriented to the present, so they are less likely than adults to be thinking about the future consequences of what they’re saying,” said Laurence Steinberg, a professor of psychology at Temple University who writes about teenagers in the justice system and was not involved in this study.

Furthermore:

Moreover, research shows that teenagers aged 15 and younger will unwittingly comply with authority figures. They are very suggestible, so that during an interrogation, they are more likely than adults to change their answers in response to interviewers.

Teachers and adults who work with adolescents benefit from these insights into brain development as they relate directly to the classroom environment. Through an increased understanding of the adolescent brain and its stages of development (and vulnerabilities), we can improve our educational offerings and the health and well-being of our students.

Resources

  1. Carey, Benedict. “Want to Ace That Test? Get the Right Kind of Sleep.”Motherlode Want to Ace That Test Get the Right Kind of Sleep Comments. New York Times, 16 Oct. 2014. Web. 28 Oct. 2014. <http://parenting.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/10/16/want-to-ace-that-test-get-the-right-kind-of-sleep/?src=xps&gt;
  2. Also from the New York Times Motherlode Blog: Read more about sleep on Motherlode: On Sleep Research, My Children Didn’t Get the Memo; We Tell Kids to ‘Go to Sleep!’ We Need to Teach Them Why.; and ‘What Do Students Need Most? More Sleep.
  3. Hoffman, Jan. “In Interrogations, Teenagers Are Too Young to Know Better.” Well. New York Times, 13 Oct. 2014. Web. 28 Oct. 2014. <http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/10/13/in-interrogations-teenagers-are-too-young-to-know-better/?src=xps&gt;.

The Power of Visualization and Student Learning

A busy week has precluded me from doing much digging into this topic but classroom reality demonstrated how fundamental visualization is to our classroom.

On Wednesday, our school lost power for approximately twenty minutes. When the power came back on, the surge blew out our LCD projector. That quickly, our use of multimedia and visual instruction was eliminated. Out came the chart paper, easel, and Sharpies. The lesson continued but my immediate realization was how crucial, even elemental, our use of visual imagery is to our classroom instruction.

I know, master of the obvious. However, in our technologically immersive learning environments, what role is visualization playing to improve student learning? And how are teachers utilizing visuals effectively to promote the understanding of concepts to students of all abilities?

Simply writing this sends me down memory lane: chalkboards, filmstrip projectors, reel to reel movie projectors, overhead projectors – remember when schools had audio-visual clubs? Do you recall the feeling of absolute joy when your 9th grade teacher announced that a movie would be shown in class?

Why did we enjoy those movies so intensely? Was it merely the fact that it represented a break from “book learning”? Or was there something more deeply recognized; perhaps that actually “seeing” the learning was somehow a more consumable activity for our brains?

As I’ve thought about how the loss of video projection has eliminated a palette of visual offerings, the absence of technology has also caused me to reflect on three key points.

  1. What role do visualizations and visual learning techniques play in improving student learning? Furthermore, are we measuring these impacts effectively to continually improve our teaching?
  1. How much of our current curriculum and teaching depends on visual elements? In my classroom, everything from the daily agenda, reading comprehension activities, instructional videos, and navigation of the internet are displayed for students. Am I thinking through those visual elements in a manner that best supports learning objectives?
  1. Finally, should we be reducing our visual “screen time” to encourage students to recognize visualization as an important addition to their learning, and not as the primary delivery system of information. Just as families want to minimize the amount of TV time at home, should we be considering limitations on visual media in the classroom?

Hopefully, our LCD projector gets replaced in short order.

Personalized Learning Plans and Motivation

Do Personalized Learning Plans encourage self-motivation for middle level learners? This was the question that came to mind after watching a group of 8th grade students work on their PLP projects for an incredibly focused and productive class period.

But let’s start at the beginning.  Last year Team Summit piloted Personalized Learning Plans. Seeking to get a bit ahead of the curve, the team volunteered to experiment with the project under the guidance of Dr. James Nagle, education professor at St. Michael’s College, and using the Agency of Education’s Personalized Learning Plan resources. Across the academic year, students developed biographies, identified their principles and values, reflected on their relationships, and curated examples of academic and extracurricular achievements. Furthermore, students were given the opportunity to explore educational opportunities at the local, regional, and national level.

The PLP process was designed not with an end in sight, by rather as a continual process monitored by both the students and teachers. Because it was a pilot program, both teacher and students were free to experiment with formats, activities, and collaborative ideas. At the end of the academic year, students were given the opportunity to respond to their PLP experience.  77% of students indicated that they were “interested” or “very interested” in exploring growth, learning, and future opportunities. 90% of students answered “sometimes” or “yes” when asked if completing structured PLP activities helped them to think about their future.

Using these results, Team Summit committed to developing Phase 2 of the project.  In Phase 2, students would reflect on their PLP achievements from Phase 1, develop an action plan for Phase 2, and place themselves in the PLP process through an action plan.  Again, the idea was not to reach some pre-determined end point but to develop a sense of the process. More importantly, students were encouraged to self-evaluate progress and make autonomous decisions about their PLP development.

Flash forward to last week.

Wandering through the staff room, an educational article referencing Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan, psychologists and long-time researchers on principles of motivation caught my eye. In particular, the author noted the importance of autonomy, connectedness, and competence. A quick search using Google Scholar produced a link to an article titled: Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions by the aforementioned authors.

It was an interesting read and concluded with this, “We pointed out that in schools, the facilitation of more self-determined learning requires classroom conditions that allow satisfaction of these three basic human needs—that is that support the innate needs to feel connected, effective, and agentic as one is exposed to new ideas and exercises new skills.”¹

Perhaps then, the value of Personalized Learning Plans goes far beyond simply having students thinking deeply about their activities, their challenges, and their future. Based on observations of my own students, it seems that PLPs can be utilized for a wide range of important educational applications.

Perhaps PLPs can be utilized as a tool to engage students, increase motivation, and help to develop the strength-based educational environments that will provided all students with a foundation for the future. Only time, research, observation, and reflection will tell.

Resources:

  1. Ryan, Richard M., and Edward L. Deci. “Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions.” Contemporary educational psychology25.1 (2000): 54-67.