Tag Archives: student success

Quality Teaching

It’s not a surprise to anyone that our education system is in trouble. Many of us have been its victims, and there’s a fresh generation of youngsters in the process of getting their curiosity, imagination, and natural talents sterilized in school right now. Increasingly schools have been saddled with the responsibility of child rearing, intervening on poor performance, and preparing graduates for the job market.

Is it any wonder students are failing?

Another victim in the middle of all of this, together with the student, is the teacher.

Teachers are expected to manage this education pipeline from preschool and early childhood through adolescence and young adulthood: following the curriculum, designing lesson plans, managing the classroom environment, assessing student progress, and doing all of it on a shoestring salary with restricted latitude for using their own curiosity, imagination, and natural talents.

If some of them felt a “calling” to the profession of teaching originally, they quickly undergo disillusionment and feel the burnout of being held responsible for something over which they have little or no control – nor does it match what they feel most passionate about. This anxiety depletes their spirit, and an astonishing number of them are leaving to save their sanity, health, and hope for a more meaningful life, probably in a different profession altogether.

How do I know? I work in higher education and see it all around me. For a while we tried to blame students for lacking the motivation, discipline, and intelligence – the diagnostic slide typically follows that order – required for success. Then we blamed “the system” and its abusive obsession with standardized testing.

Despite its worthy intention of defining standards for grade-level achievement and helping students be course-ready for their next step, standardized testing soon shaped a culture where instructors “teach to the test” to ensure that students pass and move on.

Getting the right answers has become more important than thinking well and deeply in a given subject, selecting for students who have a knack for memorizing and recalling information. The only thing that really counts is that students can recall the correct answer for the test (the what), not necessarily how to get there or why it even matters.

We have to wonder whether this costly gauntlet of education – measured in the net loss of money, time, imagination, and hope – can be fixed. Or does it just need to be replaced? Are we simply doomed?

A meaningful and productive education has always depended on what I will call Quality Teaching. This gives a large responsibility to the teachers themselves, although I must pull back on blaming them for our current situation. As Whitman and Kelleher state in NeuroTeach (2016), “Ultimately, what research shows is that there is no greater influence on student outcomes than teacher quality.”

Today, fewer colleges are screening for new instructors who understand and practice the art of Quality Teaching. Increasingly colleges are hiring part-time instructors (called adjuncts), which keeps the institutional obligation negligible in terms of healthcare, retirement, and other benefits. Class sections are opened and more of these instructors are hired to fill the vacancies. Rarely anymore is a prospective new hire auditioned for a fluent understanding of Quality Teaching.

So what is Quality Teaching? We can thank our most effective teachers for demonstrating its salient ingredients. While a blog post doesn’t afford the space for expounding on them, I will at least introduce these ingredients here by using the acronym R-E-C-I-P-E as our framework.

Quality Teaching is Relevant

Relevance is a special type or facet of meaning, connecting not only to the course curriculum but just as importantly to the student’s experience and personal world. A Quality Teacher is careful to make these connections so that students can understand the real-life applications of what they are learning. The most valuable application of knowledge is not passing a test, but rather in using new knowledge to expand the student’s worldview, deepen self-understanding, strengthen critical and creative thinking skills, and to participate constructively in the contemporary discourse of human culture. Quality Teaching seeks to establish meaning for the student.

Quality Teaching is Enriched

Humans learn best in real-life situations, but most of a student’s time in school is spent inside boxes called classrooms. Specialized knowledge is by definition highly processed – isolated, analyzed, refined, clarified, and abstracted – which removes many of its essential nutrients. The human brain is “wired” to pick up and interpret information along visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile, and kinesthetic channels. In traditional classrooms, however, students sit in rows and receive instruction primarily through their eyes and ears. Enriched Quality Teaching uses a variety of sensory modalities and metaphors to “embody” the more abstract concepts students need to learn.

Quality Teaching is Creative

Perhaps the most essential function of a Quality Teacher is to collaborate with students in the construction of meaning. Knowledge itself is a mental construct, a translation of what is purportedly independent of our minds into the signs, symbols, and codes of meaning. It is in our very nature to be creative, to compose elaborate webs of significance that serve to explain what we think we know, explore what we don’t yet fully understand, and to imagine what’s possible. The Quality Teacher is not merely a docent for students through the current catalog of knowledge, but a co-creator with students in the ongoing dialogue between mind and reality.

Quality Teaching is Interactive

This dialogue or construction of meaning happens not only between the mind and reality, and between teacher and student, but also between and among the students themselves. When what really matters is getting the right answers on standardized tests, these creative exchanges of dialogue are at best only secondary to education, if not needless distractions. Quality Teachers, on the other hand, understand – if not intuitively, then at least from what is turning up consistently in the research – that the best education is about priming our imagination with questions, putting these questions to reality, sharing discoveries and perspectives, and holding these under the light of evidence.

Quality Teaching is Personalized

Our current culture of standardized mass education turns students into data. The individual life experiences, unique talents, and types of intelligence represented in the students themselves are largely ignored as inconsequential to the ultimate objective, which is to turn out graduates for the workforce. Large class sizes mean that an instructor might never even learn the faces that go with names on the class roster. But while the current system is essentially a pipeline or conveyor belt to graduation, Quality Teachers respect education as a sacred enterprise whereby human beings are awakened to their creative spirit, empowered to actualize their deeper potentials, and inspired to become lifelong learners. Quality Teaching takes time to get to know the unique person of each student.

Quality Teaching is Engaging

Our current education system cultivates a mindset of disengagement – of depersonalization, abstract knowledge, standardized metrics, and “distance learning.” Instructors are the experts who get paid to replace their students’ ignorance with a multiple-choice mastery of something that means nothing to them. To make learning relevant, enriched, creative, interactive and personalized, the Quality Teacher expects a student’s full investment. Engagement is not about entertaining students or bribing them to show up and participate. Rather, it’s about convincing students – by personal example and not just as words on the course syllabus – that education really is about their transformation, about becoming more fully and gloriously human.

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Posted by on December 10, 2019 in Education, Timely and Random


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How Schools Make The Problem Worse

In the field of higher education where I work as a manager of instructional support, a priority has been placed on “critical thinking” as the skill-set graduates most need in order to be productive at work. Consequently, it is the one thing that instructors are expected to teach and test for in their students. Just as graduates who can’t think critically presumably won’t be successful in the world, students who can’t demonstrate this ability on standardized assessments aren’t allowed to succeed in school.

Yes, I do mean to say that they aren’t allowed to succeed, since the system either penalizes creative thinking outright or else refuses to recognize it as a legitimate pathway of intellectual development.

My concern here is not over the institutional prejudice in our schools against creative thinking, but rather over the damage that our methods of teaching and testing for critical thinking are actually causing. Despite our stepped-up efforts at inculcating these skills in students, they just aren’t getting it.

The tactic up to this point has been to push even harder: test more frequently, set up interventions and accommodations that will improve test outcomes, and pressure instructors to stay up on new techniques as student academic performance continues to slide in the wrong direction. Everyone is more anxious, and the desired results keep eluding us.

This is what I’m calling “the problem.” It includes not only the fact that success and graduation rates are falling, but the way schools are actually making it worse in their attempts to stop the leak and improve outcomes.

Briefly stated, it is the combined assault of assessment pressures on students and institutional pressures on teachers, along with an increase in accommodations to help students pass and interventions to keep them from failing, that is making the problem worse.

In the bigger picture, which I’ll try to develop here, it is all fueled by a fundamental misunderstanding of critical thinking by the schools themselves, and the various ways they actively undermine the very thing they are demanding from students.

I should say that this misunderstanding is not really about which skills comprise the skill-set of critical thinking, but rather how the skill-set itself depends on a deeper system of other skills not directly addressed in formal education. Schools simply assume that students come to the task with this deeper support in place, and it is this assumption – along with many of the methods, strategies and tactics employed to make critical thinking stronger – that is making the problem worse.

What is this deeper system? My diagram illustrates its components and their relationships in the model of a pyramid. Each layer or stage of the pyramid depends on those underneath, as it provides the necessary support to stages higher up. Critical thinking is indeed at the apex of skills that students need to learn in school, but ignoring and jumping past the other skills on which it depends, in the effort to make it stronger, is predictably having the opposite effect.

With a general understanding of this structural dynamic among the cognitive skills now in place, let’s begin at the base and work our way up.

We’ll start with what should be obvious: Students are more successful at the academic challenge of higher learning when their brains are optimized (i.e., functioning optimally). Of all the body’s organs, this one is most profoundly implicated in the process of learning new skills and building knowledge. And yet, just as we can’t treat critical thinking in isolation from the other cognitive skills, we can’t ignore the fact that a healthy and optimized brain depends on a healthy body.

If students come to the challenge of learning when they are tired, hungry, in pain or stressed-out, their brains can’t perform well. They won’t be able to concentrate attention and sustain focus. They won’t be able to bundle information and store it in memory for retrieval later when they need it. They won’t be able to discriminate between highly similar concepts or solve complex problems.

A brain that can’t focus, remember, or make judgments is a brain that won’t be able to think critically – no matter how hard we push it. In fact, the harder such a brain is pushed, the more degraded these cognitive abilities become.

The most important thing for students and schools to realize, then, is that the entire business of higher learning is an enterprise scheduled for failure if students – but let’s also include school teachers and administrators! – are not committed to getting the rest, nutrition, exercise, and meditation their bodies and brains require to successfully meet the challenges they face.

Are we teaching this in our schools, from the beginning grades and throughout students’ educational careers? The answer is decidedly “No.”

Students who are tired, hungry, in pain or stressed-out simply cannot learn, or will have difficulty learning. Which begs the question: If they can’t learn and end up getting poor grades on assignments and assessments, what exactly are those grades measuring?

Neuroscience has discovered that a majority of the skills required in learning are located in a highly specialized brain region called the prefrontal cortex (PFC) – behind the forehead and between the eyes. A fully functioning PFC, then, is the virtue of an optimized brain, which in turn is the virtue of a healthy body. Health is the foundation of everything else.

It will help to imagine a student about to engage the work of critical thinking while sitting at a desk in a study with a door. When she first sits down to her work, the door to the study is open to the noise and activity in the hallway outside. Inevitably – and with scientific certainty we can say, predictably – her focus will be attracted away (or distracted) from the work in front of her.

What she needs to do is get up from her desk, walk over to the study door, and close it. That way, she will minimize the risk of getting distracted from her work.

One of the more basic executive functions of the PFC is named impulse inhibition. As a cognitive skill it can be strengthened with practice, just like every other skill. If we think of the student’s study room on the analogy of her brain, then this all-important function serves to suppress or screen out nerve impulses coming to the brain from her body and its environment, in order that attention can be focused where it needs to be.

When the skill of impulse inhibition is strong, the student is able to maintain mental focus, our second (and higher) executive function of the PFC. In addition to her commitment to nurturing a healthy body and brain, her consistent practice of “closing the door” and protecting the mental space of her study will dramatically elevate the likelihood of her success in learning. By directing and holding focus on what needs her attention, the student will be able to engage the work of critical thinking.

As we advance our reflections from the door (impulse inhibition) and the study room itself (mental focus), we come to the “desk” where critical thinking will need to happen. Among the cognitive skills and executive functions of the prefrontal cortex, this is what neuroscience names short-term memory, or more commonly working memory. Think of this as the workspace (hence a desk) where the student collects and manipulates bits of data in her progress towards understanding.

Working memory enables her to hold on average seven bits of information for somewhere between 20 and 30 seconds – just long enough to perform the requisite logical operations involved in critical thinking.

Just as impulse inhibition and mental focus are reciprocally related (each strengthening the other), so are the cognitive skills of concept formation and critical thinking similarly related. A simple way of distinguishing these higher executive functions is to define critical thinking as the performance of logical operations on the concepts it is forming. And so, each skill strengthens the other as concepts are formed, factored, and reconstructed in the process of understanding.

The eight logical operations of critical thinking are:

  1. Analysis: from whole to parts
  2. Synthesis: from parts to whole
  3. Induction: from specific to general
  4. Deduction: from general to specific
  5. Abstraction: from example to idea
  6. Concretion: from idea to example
  7. Inference: from premise to conclusion
  8. Prediction: from cause to outcome

It’s important for students to distinguish these logical operations from the concepts they are trying to learn. Critical thinking is thus “how” their minds work on “what” they are learning. Mastering the eight operations of critical thinking is to possess the ability for constructing meaning at higher levels of complexity. This shows us that critical thinking and creative thinking are not independent of each other after all, but intimately connected and complementary.

Stepping back for the bigger picture again, we can see that critical thinking is not something we can treat in isolation, but is rather nested in a deeper system of cognitive skills. And because cognitive skills correlate directly to the executive functions of the prefrontal cortex, we must eventually return our conversation to the crucial responsibility of schools in helping students appreciate how healthy bodies and brains translate into academic success.

As long as they keep pushing on the problem, schools will just keep making it worse.

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Posted by on December 17, 2018 in Education


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