Just Listen: When Kids Think About Their Thinking

Thinking back on his development, Elijah remembers imagining, “I’m always gonna think this way.” But not much later, he said, his perspective had changed—and it was writing that made that happen.

Reflection and self-assessment play a big part in any student’s growth as a thinker and a person. Here, students talk about developing a new awareness of themselves in relationship to others, in school and life.


Take 10 minutes to watch the full series — and if it strikes a chord, please share it!

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Falling asleep over homework

I’ve been working a lot with teachers recently, holding up their homework assignments to the criteria for “deliberate practice.” (Since that’s the only kind of practice that actually helps us get better at things, it’s a good guide to whether homework is worth doing.)

But all that thinking about homework has also brought on that irresistible urge to sleep that I used to feel as a teenager. As Vivian, a student contributor to Fires in the Mind, said:

I’m like, “Okay, what’s more important, math or history?” My eyes are closing, but I just push myself to stay up late. Sometimes I drink coffee, so it’s unhealthy, too! . . . And it shows: I’m always tired in class, because I spent all my night doing my homework!

Vivian has a point. Across the board, researchers report the same thing as did this study done in 1998 by Amy Wolfson, M.D.: “Altogether, most of the adolescents surveyed do not get enough sleep, and their sleep loss interferes with daytime functioning.”

Specifically, there is mounting evidence that “sleep deprivation has its greatest negative effects on the control of behavior, emotion, and attention, a regulatory interface that is critical in the development of social and academic competence.”

Dr. Wolfson’s studies reveal disturbing results in adolescents who get insufficient sleep. One study concluded:

Students who described themselves as struggling or failing school (C’s, D’s/F’s) reported that on school nights they obtain about 25 minutes less sleep and go to bed an average of 40 minutes later than A and B students.

Maggie Jones’s fascinating article in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine discusses the effects of too little sleep on our cognitive performance—and the many ways in which we fool ourselves about it. For example, after just a few days of getting four or six hours of sleep, one group of lab subjects reported:

Yes, they were slightly sleepy. But they insisted they had adjusted to their new state. Even 14 days into the study, they said sleepiness was not affecting them. In fact, their performance had tanked. In other words, the sleep-deprived among us are lousy judges of our own sleep needs. We are not nearly as sharp as we think we are.

Might teachers actually be hurting their students’ performance, not helping it, with the homework they assign? What might such studies mean for how, and when, to give homework? What solutions can you propose?

I’ll send a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind to the best answers I receive.

'Where Baghdad At?'

Why is it so hard to retain a mental picture of where countries fall on the map?! Although geography has been considered a core subject for generations, still the scandalous fact remains that at the height of our war in Iraq, only 37 percent of Americans ages 18 to 24 could locate that country on a map.

The only kids I ever met who were outstanding at recalling their geography had learned it by playing with big wooden jigsaw puzzles, on the floor of a first-grade class in a public Montessori school in St. Louis, Missouri. (Hmmm, now just where is Missouri?) When I was introduced as a visiting journalist from Massachusetts, kids shot up hand from all over the room to name my neighboring states and their relative positions. One can speculate, as journalist Joshua Foer did recently in the New York Times magazine, that we’re wired to remember such information because our ancestral hunters and gatherers needed to find their way home.

Foer’s article goes on to describe in hilariously lewd detail a tried and true set of memory-skills techniques that the Romans used, and which may date back to 500 BC. His takeaway:

When we see in everyday life things that are petty, ordinary and banal, we generally fail to remember them. . . . But if we see or hear something exceptionally base, dishonorable, extraordinary, great, unbelievable or laughable, that we are likely to remember for a long time.

One U.S. high school decided to try that out in this video posted the other day on SchoolTube, “Where Baghdad At?” It’s SchoolTube, so it’s not exceptionally base, dishonorable, or even unbelievable. But it did make me laugh–and it stuck in my mind.

What’s your best success with a “sticky memory” exercise? I’ll send a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind to the one that works best for me!

‘Where Baghdad At?’

Why is it so hard to retain a mental picture of where countries fall on the map?! Although geography has been considered a core subject for generations, still the scandalous fact remains that at the height of our war in Iraq, only 37 percent of Americans ages 18 to 24 could locate that country on a map.

The only kids I ever met who were outstanding at recalling their geography had learned it by playing with big wooden jigsaw puzzles, on the floor of a first-grade class in a public Montessori school in St. Louis, Missouri. (Hmmm, now just where is Missouri?) When I was introduced as a visiting journalist from Massachusetts, kids shot up hand from all over the room to name my neighboring states and their relative positions. One can speculate, as journalist Joshua Foer did recently in the New York Times magazine, that we’re wired to remember such information because our ancestral hunters and gatherers needed to find their way home.

Foer’s article goes on to describe in hilariously lewd detail a tried and true set of memory-skills techniques that the Romans used, and which may date back to 500 BC. His takeaway:

When we see in everyday life things that are petty, ordinary and banal, we generally fail to remember them. . . . But if we see or hear something exceptionally base, dishonorable, extraordinary, great, unbelievable or laughable, that we are likely to remember for a long time.

One U.S. high school decided to try that out in this video posted the other day on SchoolTube, “Where Baghdad At?” It’s SchoolTube, so it’s not exceptionally base, dishonorable, or even unbelievable. But it did make me laugh–and it stuck in my mind.

What’s your best success with a “sticky memory” exercise? I’ll send a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind to the one that works best for me!

A piece of your mind

Researchers at George Mason University (one a former K12 special-education teacher) have asked your help as they seek to learn more about how teachers apply, or might apply, brain-based research. They write: “We’d like to understand more about what teachers think, and what questions they’d like asked by the researchers (as one issue is that neuroscientists don’t pose the most useful research questions for teaching pedagogy).” You can contribute to this useful work by taking this fascinating 10-minute survey.

It’s the third time this week that I’ve heard this kind of sentiment from educational neuroscientists (who in my opinion are second only to teachers in the intellectual fascination of their field). From the Royal Academy on Neuroscience and Education in the UK, a newly published report in its series “Brain Waves” makes a plea for a “common language” that would bridge the gulf between educators, psychologists, and neuroscientists. (May we suggest starting with, “What does it take to get really good at something?”) The report also recommends a greater role for neuroscience in educational policy (yes!) and more training of teachers in its concepts, and it discusses the challenges of applying neuroscience principles to the classroom. Definitely worth a look!

Along precisely those lines, the Practice Project has just entered into a fascinating dialogue with a group of master teachers who serve as an advisory panel to a National Science Foundation Science of Learning center at the University of California, San Diego. We spent part of our Saturday yesterday mulling over the essential questions that teachers might ask scientists (and vice versa), if they hope to connect the everyday challenges of the classroom with cutting-edge work in the field. “How does a teacher light a fire in the student’s mind?” one teacher mused. “And what’s the science behind that?”

We’d love to hear your own questions about that! I’ll send a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind to the best comments we receive.

Learning by heart

What can you still recite that you learned by heart (yesterday or years ago)? Justin Snider in the HechingerEd blog makes the case for memorization that reflects my views in many ways. He writes:

Among the countless catchphrases that educators generally despise are “drill-’n-kill” and “rote memorization.” In keeping with their meanings, both sound terrifically unpleasant. To learn something “by rote,” according to the Random House dictionary, is to learn it “from memory, without thought of the meaning; in a mechanical way.” But is it possible that memorizing things is actually underrated in modern American society? Could one make a convincing case that it’s not just useful but vital for people of all ages to memorize things?

Snider’s answer, along with that of cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham, is yes. And I agree:

Because “rote” learning and “memorization” have negative connotations for most people, it might be better to speak of learning things by heart. And, as Willingham points out in our discussion, learning things by heart is something children automatically do. That is, it comes naturally to them — whether it’s being able to recall all the words to a nursery rhyme or knowing the plot of a story (if not the story itself, word for word) before one is actually able to read. Willingham says that the key is engagement: “If you’re really engaged, memory comes pretty automatically.”

Like Snider, I’m a particularly big fan of memorizing poems by heart, whether it’s the Canterbury Tales in the original Middle English or the Billy Collins “Litany” recited by a three-year-old boy in this video. But I would never call the child’s feat “rote memorization”—because (as Willingham implies) “rote” implies the lack of engagement, attention, focus. Snider is right when he observes:

Notice what the young child’s intonation on certain lines reveals: he hasn’t learned this poem “without thought of the meaning; in a mechanical way” — Random House’s definition of “rote” learning. He’s wiser and more aware of what he’s saying than many of us might initially think.

In my view, memorizing poems deepens one’s sense of language so effectively that I see it as central to the work of becoming a good writer. It lodges beauty in the brain and at once in the heart, if you’ll allow me that romantic view. Do mathematicians make the same case for memorizing the first 100 digits of π? Is it, for them, a kind of play, which could even come in handy sometime (as with Tom Lehrer’s “The Elements” song listing the periodic table)? Do only some things qualify as worth the trouble and other not? Is it actually about winning at Jeopardy?

Snider sets out his case for memorization. It’s a challenge that’s satisfying to meet. (He credits Broadway actors with that satisfaction, but not their Hollywood counterparts.) It’s good exercise for your brain, like crosswords, and comes in handy when you lose your smartphone. But here’s the one I agree with most:

Most importantly, new insights are gained in the process of memorization. You see things to which you were previously blind; you uncover a play on words, assonance, alliteration, analogies. It is for this reason, I believe, that the great Russian-American novelist Vladimir Nabokov declared that there’s actually no such thing as reading — there’s only re-reading. (“Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader,” Nabokov wrote in his Lectures on Literature.)

The same holds for TV shows and movies: you see so much more on a second, third and fourth viewing. You don’t truly see anything the first time you watch it. And, in my experience, this applies no less to music: hearing something for the first time is more akin to hearing it not at all than to truly hearing it. The work is too new, too unknown, to us; we can’t make heads or tails of it because we suffer from sensory overload. Quite simply, there’s too much going on for us to get anything but a glimpse of the work’s essence.

It’s only with multiple readings, viewings and hearings, then, that we actually begin to understand, see and hear. We’re deaf and blind in our first encounters with things.

And this is why practice matters so much as well. It’s our chief hope for transcending mediocrity.

So I’m all for memorizing, whether in service of deep understanding or fun. (Want me to rattle off the seven capital sins and their contrary virtues, learned at six before my first communion?) But can’t people choose the things they want to memorize, as long as it’s something? Can’t we please honor the learning that engages us that way, by calling it “learning by heart”? And couldn’t we throw that regurgitative “rote” word out to rot, along with the tests that rely on it?

Please, wiser minds out there, educate me on this.

Run along and learn!

Want to help your kids use their minds well? Take them out for a 20-minute run! More aerobic exercise produces specific growth factors and proteins that stimulate young people’s brains, according to several new studies of the effect of exercise described in the New York Times this week.

One study centered on how such exercise affects young people’s complex memory function (associated with the hippocampus in the brain). Another looked at its effect on the part of the brain that aids in maintaining attention and “executive control.” Together, those two brain areas enable some of the most intricate thinking, researchers pointed out. And they saw a difference in kids after even a short period of vigorous walking.

These findings arrive at an important time, points out Gretchen Reynolds in the Times:

For budgetary and administrative reasons, school boards are curtailing physical education, while on their own, children grow increasingly sluggish. Recent statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that roughly a quarter of children participate in zero physical activity outside of school.

Photo courtesy of Will Okun