Wednesday, February 14, 2018

10 Takeaways from A Mind for Numbers by Dr. Barbara Oakley

When I was editing the second part of our epic* Learning Journey Series, I was excited to come across this article from Mindshift about Dr. Barbara Oakley. Our video series uses a hike as a metaphor for learning, so this quote from Dr. Oakley caught my attention.

“There’s a race car brain and a hiker brain. They both get to the finish line, but not at the same time. The race car brain gets there really fast, but everything goes by in a blur. The hiker brain takes time. It hears birds singing, sees the rabbit trails, feels the leaves. It’s a very different experience and, in some ways, much richer and deeper. You don’t need to be a super swift learner. In fact, sometimes you can learn more deeply by going slowly.”

I watched her TED Talk and immediately was hooked by how she makes the science of learning practical.

I looked up her book, A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra) and recorded my top 10 takeaways below.

Two things to keep in mind before I start my list:

Dr. Oakley hated math when she was in school. She did not feel she was good at that subject or science In her mid-twenties, however, she decided to get a degree in engineering. She learned how to excel at both subjects and now she is a professor of engineering. Her personal experience plus years of studying how we learn best resulted in this book and much of her other work.

Though I'm excited about what I learned from it, I was a little disappointed in the book. I’ve been working in the middle school math class a lot this year. I had high hopes for the book after I read the description. I was let down only because I think a lot of the people who found hope in the book’s title would not finish reading it. It is long, overly repetitious at times and it could use some more concrete examples in parts. I don't know if a struggling learner would press through it to glean the important lessons it holds, especially if they're also trying to keep up in a class. I do recommend it highly to teachers, thought, since they can take the key ideas and bring them to struggling learners.

So let’s get on with those key ideas:

1)  Most importantly, this book continually reminds us that anyone can learn anything. Dr. Oakley’s story is powerful, but so are the many others she highlights throughout. She tells their stories and at the end of the chapters, she lets some people tell their own stories. She says persistence is often more important than intelligence when it comes to learning.

2)  We can get too caught up in following our passions. Dr. Oakley knows from experience that sometimes passion can come after we learn we can succeed at something. It’s a powerful lesson for anyone growing up in this time of rapid change:  Try it. Once you learn it, you might discover you have a passion for it.

3)  There are two types of thinking and we need to employ both when learning complex concepts. There’s focused thinking, which comes to mind for most of us when we consider learning. That’s putting in the hours, with full attention on the task. But there’s also diffused thinking, which takes place in our subconscious, after we stop focusing. I can attest to this, as I often find the right way to organize my paper or the right line for a song after I close my computer and walk out to make tea. Regular breaks in studying is important.

4)  Besides regular breaks, make it a habit to learn math and science steadily, studying and practicing every day. Also review topics over time. Returning to them again and again over time helps move the ideas into long term memory.

5)  Chunking is a major concept in the book. I think of it as compressing a lot of related ideas or a concept. As you need to use those ideas, solutions or procedures, you can unpack the whole concept quickly without holding every piece in your limited working memory. It aids in problem solving.

In my own teaching, I use the trip from our homes to school as an example of a “chunk”. For most of us, that trip involves a lot of roads and turns to remember, but we can just think of it as “on the way home”. We travel it without realizing most of it and minor changes to the plan are easily accounted for. We don’t freak out and forget everything just because one road is blocked or because we have to stop at the post office sometimes.

6)  Practice, understanding the basic ideas and focused attention help build these important chunks of understanding. Learning on your own can also help. Also (as teachers will tell you) this deep understanding can develop from explaining concepts to others. And warning:  Dr. Oakley specifically points out multi-tasking when studying makes it very unlikely you’ll develop this deep understanding.

7)  Our focused approach to learning and even our focused attention can trick us into thinking we know something better than we do. Reading notes or a book over and over, for example, can make us feel we learned a lot, when really it might not stick. Instead, practice recalling the information from memory. At the end of every chapter, she reminds us to look away and try to remember the list of items in the chapter summary.

8)  Get enough sleep. When preparing for a test, if you don’t get your rest, you probably undid any other preparations you made.

9)  Dr. Oakley refers frequently to the Pomodoro Technique when learning or setting any important habit for success. The idea is you set a timer for 25 minutes and ignore all distractions during that time as you work on a task. When the timer goes off, reward yourself with a short break.

10)  Build discipline and fight procrastination by committing to important routines and tasks each day. It helps to write your planned tasks out the night before so your diffused brain can think on them.

And a bonus (unstated) takeaway I couldn't ignore was this:  You have to be intentional about real learning. It’s hard work to learn what doesn’t come naturally, but the good news is that it’s possible.

*That video series I was finishing is only epic by my standards! I think it's worth seeing though. Please watch it and share it if you're so inclined.

Monday, February 12, 2018

A metaphor for K - 8 learning - The Learning Journey

I've been working this year with Brenda June, a math teacher at our middle school. We are completing a MACUL funded project where we and the students created "learning chats". I'm excited to say I just completed the editing on the largest undertaking. (Click here to see some of our free resources related to the project.)

It was a three-part series called the The Learning Journey. Brenda and I have been gathering resources for over a year and trying out many things in her classes. We took what we learned to develop a metaphor for learning. Our hope is that we can use it through through all subjects and grades K - 8 in our district.

While the videos are not perfect, we are very proud of the message they tell. I'll be glad to hear any feedback you might have for us. Just send me an email.

The first video in the series introduces the metaphor and gives "Three Big Questions" for self-assessment. Note that we were perfecting our production process and this is the roughest of the series!



Part two looks at how to identify your next step in learning. It focuses on the first of the Three Big Questions.



Part 3 wraps up with a very important look at the third Big Question. Each possible answer results in different next steps.


Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Is there a good create versus consume ratio to suggest to students?

Whatever you're into, I'm sure you've realized there's an overabundance of new pouring out nowadays. For me it's games. Hundreds of new board and card games come out every month or two. I could never keep up with them. I see it's the same with movies, television shows, books, video games and music.

And it's not just in entertainment. There are loads of good ideas coming out of every area you could think to spend your time and money.

Any amount of free time can be devoted to sorting through the options and trying as many as possible. How much of our lives and our students' lives are spent doing that? Listen to the conversations and it's easy to see this is a huge part of our lives.

But at the same time, we live in a fascinating world of opportunities, where what we create can also reach the world. If you're good enough, you don't need to get picked by a publisher to have your own content reach an audience. For the younger generation, this means it's important to develop creativity skills and learn how to be heard among the millions of others also making some noise. That requires practice which requires time.

So we can devote ourselves to endless trips to the buffet and we can cook up our own dishes to add to the table. I don't know anyone who strictly does one or the other. We can do both.

What I've been wondering lately is what's a healthy balance between the extremes of consuming and creating content? 

Yes, it will vary for each person. Some are more creative than others. But as an educator, I would like to suggest some guidelines for the older students I work with. And I'd like to suggest a guideline for teachers too, since they can be good examples to the students.

It's too easy for young people to get lost in the enjoyable flood of new things to explore. If they put all their time into consuming like that, though, how can they hope to develop those important skills of succeeding as a creator?

You can respond to the question I tweeted about this here or I'd love to hear from you by email.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Teaching Like an Artist - After Four Years

It was the summer of 2013 when I wrote my first Teaching Like an Artist post on another blog. Those were exciting days as I clarified my vision, spread the word and heard from teachers all over the world who were encouraged by my work.

That simplified message quickly developed into "Say inspired to inspire others" and I boiled down the essence of The Way of the Artist to three "not so simple steps:

  • Dream big
  • Do the work to make it real
  • Share it
After four years of embedding this message in my ed-tech conference sessions, my blog posts and my job, I'm still a believer. 

Yes, in 2017 I openly wondered if I was crazy. Still, I know inspiration is what's missing in school and I know those ideas I was discovering are worth repeating. I still used those key ideas word for word in nearly every presentation I made in 2017. I'm always grateful for those insights and the blessing of seeing them connect with teachers.

But if anyone looked at this blog in 2017, they wouldn't know the message still excites me. I wrote only a handful of posts the whole year. And I'm sure even the teachers who work with my each week would think some of the fire has gone out.

 As an important reflection exercise and in case anyone cares to hear it, I wanted to think aloud about some reasons for this.
  • While the truths are vital, the delivery needs an overhaul. I started to see this in early 2016. I gave it everything leading up to a large conference presentation in March that year. It was quite positive, but it didn't catch on as I hoped. It was the best I could do at the one big shot I'd have, but it didn't connect with teachers in a big way. After that, I felt I was knocking on a door that had been closed. Again, the ideas need to be sold, but I haven't found the right package to grab attention.
  • I kept trying some tweaks on the delivery this past year, but admitted by the end of 2017 that most people don't get very excited about being "like an artist". Part of my initial excitement of these ideas was the realization that we're all making art in one way or another. That's a new idea to most people, though, and getting that essential part of the message through takes more than the one to three seconds I'm allowed to grab their attention. By the time I get to the important, practical insights, I've lost them. I might be able to repackage the ideas, but let's face it. The blog is called "Teaching Like an Artist"! It would have to be a complete restart and I haven't had the time or energy to do that.
  • And that's largely because life is steering me in a different direction. Practically speaking, this blog got less attention in the past six months because I've been very busy with an exciting ministry I'm involved with. Just like in the summer of 2013, I had a mini revival in August. It resulted in a bigger leadership role in the worship team at my church. The creative opportunities there and the far more significant results in the lives of the people I serve captivated my attention and energy. The work will not pay the bills, so I'm still working in education. I do still want to solve the problems in school and help as many students as possible, but there's no way around it. My heart has been set on worship. When I first started the Teaching Like an Artist series, I acknowledged right away that God is the great artist. I'm grateful for this latest surprise in His work.
I don't plan on shutting the blog down and I still want to keep the heart of the message in all my work in education. I still get excited when I read  the most popular posts (like this one) or my favorites (like this one). I start to dream big again whenever someone tweets the ideas out at my conference sessions. 

I want to continue the work if it's actually helping. I'm just not sure how to fit that in yet. For now, I'll keep my eyes open for opportunities rather than try to create them.
 

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Just Watching

Before I say much about this, can we agree that it's possible to do too much of something even though that "something" isn't wrong itself? Like drinking a soda. I don't think anyone would say it's really wrong to have one now and then. Is it possible to have too much? Sure.

With that out of the way, I have been pondering something lately that, at first glance, will seem like no big deal. If I act like it's a big deal, some people might be offended. I'll proceed anyway.

Why do we stop doing things in life and instead start being content with just watching other people do them?

When we're kids, we act out what we see. We play house and pretend to have jobs, just because we see our parents do it. Kids want to act on the things that interest them. As they get older, this continues in appropriate ways. With sports, music, art and so much more, teens dabble in their interests. They want to do.

But it seems at some point the constant stream of opportunities to watch takes over and there's not as much time for do.

I suspect there's something going on in our brains that lets us identify somehow with the doing that is going on. We witnessed the big game, the amazing concert or the inspiring church service. Even though it wasn't us taking action, we were there and we saw it. We were somehow in on it. It's not the same, but it's enough.

And this doesn't even have to be real stuff we're watching. Fiction will suffice. An exciting story that never happened captivates our imagination for an hour at a time, week after week.

In a world that has mastered the art of grabbing our attention, this bears some honest reflection. Have we been content watching (or reading about) someone else doing something exciting instead of taking action ourselves?

If so, we are missing out and so are the people we could inspire.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Opening or Closing the Doors of Opportunity

I came across a fascinating summary of a study that was done in 2014. If I summed up the general finding, every teacher I know would nod in approval and ignore it. It's one of those things we know, but I think we forget how powerful it is.

This study really drove it home for me. I'm describing it as Jo Boaler did in her book Mathematical Mindsets. (It's also on her website here.)

Hundreds of high school students were given an essay assignment. The essays were read and comments were written on each one as to how the students could improve their work.

But half the students were given an additional sentence at the end of the feedback. They were selected randomly and the teachers did not know who received this extra sentence.

A year later, those students were receiving significantly higher grades.

So all the kids do this assignment, a random half of them get a single sentence added to their comments. No matter who those students have for teachers the next year, they are performing better.

What was this powerful sentence that made such a difference?

"I'm giving you this feedback because I believe in you."

Do you feel the weight of what that means for us? Doors of opportunity open and close as we communicate to students that we believe in them. Or that we don't.

Boaler explains that the point here isn't to start using that phrase like it's magic. Certainly it would lose its power. The point is that every student we work with must be convinced that we believe in him or her.

Here's the beauty and challenge--the art--of this: The ones who are hardest to convince are also the ones that could be most impacted. That's where we'll change a story and make an impact.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Finding Good Ideas

I'm always intrigued by the question of where ideas come from. Do creative people "come up with them" or are they discovered?

Here's a great TED Talk that addresses that question. It's from the band OK Go. They reveal the thinking behind their amazingly creative music videos.

Besides the points it makes about creativity, there is much to learn about making an engaging presentation. Students and teachers need to watch it.


And while we are on the topic, I'll give my own thought on whether ideas are created or discovered. It is (as you can see in the video, though it isn't explicitly stated) a combination of both. 

I liken it to building your dream house. The ideal location has to be discovered, but then a lot of design and work must follow to make it all you hoped for.