Deficits in Executive Functioning

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Executive function is a set of mental skills that help you get things done. These skills are controlled by an area of the brain called the frontal lobe. Executive function helps you: Manage time. Pay attention.

Slacker2You know what drives me absolutely bonkers as a teacher? The student who comes into class and starts chatting with a neighbor no matter if she is early, on time, or late. Once seated, she doesn’t take anything out of her bag. And, when pens, pencils, notebooks, or computer is needed, she doesn’t have it. That frustrates me to no end, but this student could very well have a deficit in executive functioning.

A closer look at executive functioning skills shows that they can be organized into two broad categories. First, organization helps you gather, structure, and evaluate information. And, second, regulation helps you to adapt to your environment.

  1. ORGANIZATIONDisorganizedStudent
    1. flexible thinking: People who are flexible thinkers can cope when the unexpected happens. People who don’t, have difficulty. The unexpected can include disruptions to schedules and using items in novel unintended ways.
    2. working memory: Working memory encompasses several important aspects of our thinking selves: (1) attention, (2) interpreting information, (3) encoding memories, and (4) retrieving memories. Because working memory directs our attention, it selects the items in our environment and inner selves that we focus on. Attention also requests information from long-term memory as it is needed, so it controls what gets recalled. Working memory allows us to assemble information into a larger whole and assign meaning to it — we use it to process information. Information that is deemed important is encoded in long-term memory. Consequently, information like multi-step directions can easily disappear without making it to longer term storage and even the memory of having written the steps down can disappear.
    3. self-monitoring: Students that have difficulty monitoring themselves can be unaware of their emotional or physical reactions to their surroundings. They can also be unaware of how they measure up to external expectations like rubrics and progress towards goals.
    4. planning & prioritizing: Have you ever set out to open a can in your kitchen OldStainedNotebookand realized that you have everything but the can opener? The forgotten can opener is an example of a lapse in planning. When given a complex task or project, students with poor planning skills may not realize everything that is required to complete the project. In addition, they may not be able to distinguish between the vital steps or tasks, the important ones, and the less important ones causing them to waste time on unimportant steps that could be skipped.
    5. task initiation: Task initiation is closely related to procrastination, but it is more insidious. Procrastination is knowing what you need to do and not doing it. In fact, people do other things instead. However, when the root of your procrastination is a deficit in executive functioning, you are more like frozen simply being unable to begin.
    6. focus & attention: Deficits in focus and attention mean that the student is easily distracted by things going on in the environment or internally. These students can get stuck on one of their own thoughts being able to move on or returning to an activity over and over again.
  2. REGULATION:
    1. poor impulse control: Signs of weak regulatory skills would include blurtingmarshmellow out inappropriate remarks at inappropriate times. These people will simply say what they are thinking. These people will also seem to have poor judgment doing things that are ill advised. They will simply do what they are thinking.
    2. poor emotional control: Overreaction is the classic sign of poor emotional control, but it may also include slowly recovering from the over reaction. In addition, under reacting can also be a sign of poor emotional control because the person has not realized they should be reacting.
    3. Taken together, these two aspects of impaired executive functioning skills can mean that these individuals have poor social relationships. Because they are having difficulty maintaining equilibrium, they can act rashly, hyper focus on a reaction to them, and end up becoming withdrawn or inhibited. These overreactions can include being intolerant of frustration and reacting badly to perceived criticisms.

If we return to our unprepared and disruptive student referred to at the beginning of the article, we can recognize several ways that the situation can go wrong. First, the student isn’t fully aware of her environment; she’s focused on what is most important to her, her friends. Next, she doesn’t remember that her teacher wants her seated and with her things out ready to go at the beginning of the lesson, so she drops her book bag and plunks herself down in her chair not realizing that she is being excessively noisy. Then, she over reacts to her teachers frustrated exacerbated correction of her causing her to sulk for the first half of the class. When notes and in class exercises are needed, she has to take her pencil case, notebook, or computer out of her bag, but she’s forgotten something important like her charger at home. So, she must borrow one, and then hasn’t turned her computer on, so must wait for it to boot up. Later, she doesn’t know what the individual assignment is because she was distracted by her computer or neighbor. And, even when she does understand the assignment, she spends too long on the reading not realizing that skimming it is all that is required. Of course, this means she doesn’t complete the assignment in the allotted amount of time.

IsolatedStudentTeachers lament that we are too lax with these students that we haven’t held them accountable and let them get away with too much. If we would be allowed to use the methods that our teachers had used with us, then these students would behave exactly as I did in high school: withdrawn, disengaged, silently suffering, constantly fearful of the next thing that would go wrong.

 


 

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Low, Keath (2014) What are Executive Functions? about.com 
http://add.about.com/od/adhdthebasics/a/Execu-Functions.htm
Morrin, Amanda (2014) At a Glance: 8 Key Executive Functioning Skills. 
Understood.org https://www.understood.org/en/learning-attention
-issues/child-learning-disabilities/executive-functioning-issues/
key-executive-functioning-skills-explained
Executive Function Skills and Disorders - WebMD www.webmd.com/add-adhd/guide/executive-function

If Students Aren’t Lazy What Are They?

If no student is lazy, then what are those students who aren’t prepared for class, don’t complete their assignments, and haven’t used their abilities to their fullest extent? What is the cause of those lazy-like behaviors that drive every teacher crazy? The answer lies in the brain.

PrefrontalParalimbicIt is well-known that the brain doesn’t reach full maturity until about the age of 25, and that the last part of the brain to develop is the prefrontal cortex. If this part of the brain has yet to reach maturation, then the functions it is responsible for or contributes to won’t be available to the individual. But, it does not mean that those functions won’t be available later on when they do develop. This fact is important when considering our students.

The prefrontal cortex is the area of the brain that distinguishes us from other primates. It is responsible for many complex tasks: focusing attention and noticing changes; monitoring and anticipating consequences and stimuli; setting, planning, and monitoring tasks; initiating and sustaining activity; and regulating emotions. Any of this sound familiar? All of these are tasks that a successful student does, but that “lazy” students struggle with.

I have two personal examples to share since I was considered to be one of those lazy students who consistently underperformed and did not rise to my ability.

lang-labI started studying German as a freshman in high school and continued all the way through university. Frau Shope, my high school German teacher, would have us bring a picture once a week and explain it to the class. It was a great exercise for developing vocabulary and fluency. I don’t think I brought a single picture to class. I would get to school; one of my friends would ask about it; and I would quickly make a drawing to stumble through.

It wasn’t because I didn’t want to do it. It was because I didn’t remember it when I got home. Literally. It was a regular weekly assignment, and I never remembered it. Not once. Every week it was the same thing… another drawing from Jon. And every week, Frau Shope had the same comment, We will expect better next week, her voice dripping with condemnation and echoing with hollow conviction. We both knew full well, there wouldn’t be anything better. I felt like a schmuck.

HomeworkPlannerOften we recommend homework planners for students like me. Write it down so you can look at it at home, we tell them. By writing it down, you’re more likely to remember it, we continue. Remember to check your planner when you get home, we call to the student cheerfully as he or she leaves school for the day.

By the time I got home from school, I could barely remember anything that had happened at school that day much less any homework assignment. If I had a homework planner, I wouldn’t remember to check it; it would remain in my book bag forgotten, unused, and unopened until I got to school the next day.

Do you have any homework? my mother would ask. I would think for a minute, and nothing would come to mind. I couldn’t remember anything that had happened in class. I couldn’t remember the topic of the lessons. I couldn’t remember what had been said, the section of the textbook we were studying. Nothing. Why not?

JohnJayHallMostly, it was because there were no environmental cues at home to spark my memories of school. School and home were very different. The appearance, the sounds, the smells, the emotions, all were very very different. Without the environmental cues of the school and classroom, I couldn’t recall much of anything. But, as soon as I walked into the classroom, though, I would remember the assignment that I hadn’t done at home.

How did Frau Shope and other teachers describe me? Lazy, apathetic, indifferent, sleepy. What did they think would help? Punishment. Shame. Embarrassment. Humiliation. Contempt. Did any of those strategies help? No. Those reactions just increased my anxiety, which made it more difficult to form memories. They just caused homework to be associated with anxiety and made it more difficult to both remember and complete homework.

I knew something was wrong, but instead of seeking help to resolve it, I just tried to cover it up. Hide it. Feared it. I developed an anxiety of forgetting. With every forgotten task, I felt like a failure. Every time one of my forgotten tasks was exposed, I knew I was a failure.

I’m better now as an adult, but it is still a struggle to remember the things that I have to do. I’m always surprised at how quickly the screen can become blank. I’ve developed some techniques that help me, but all of them take awareness that this is something I’ll likely forget before taking steps to ensure that I won’t.

I inherited low self-esteem and a tendency towards anxiety. My environment reinforced my poor self perception, deepened my already low self-esteem, and heightened my anxiety. I was awash in anxiety and had to swim upstream against its almost overwhelming current. The harder I swam; the more anxiety I produced; the worse I felt.

EuklidThe other incident was geometry. I took geometry (Euclidean for all of you nerdy-types out there who know what that is) between my freshman and sophomore year in high school in an attempt to graduate a year early and escape the cesspool of anxiety that I was floundering in. Be that as it may, the course was just a confusing mess of lines and angles and protractors. It made absolutely no sense to me no matter how hard I worked at it.

During graduate school, I worked at a residential treatment center for adolescents. The residents would transition out of the treatment center when they reached 18 and their parent’s insurance coverage was terminated, so we provided one-on-one support in the community as they got established. I was following one of these kids, and he was taking a Euclidean geometry course in university. Why any university was offering a geometry course then, I don’t know, but his was, and he was struggling with it. So, I had a look in an attempt to help him.

Euclid_Elements_Book_3_Proposition_35_cI read his book, and it made perfect sense. I understood everything. It was simple!

What had changed? Euclidean geometry hadn’t changed substantially in a millennia much less in the decade that I struggled with it. My brain had changed. What had my high school geometry teacher (and my university calculus teachers) think of me? I was lazy, apathetic, indifferent, sleepy. But, I wasn’t. I was struggling with the functions that my as yet undeveloped prefrontal cortex was supposed to help me with. Until my brain developed fully, I didn’t have the neurological real estate necessary to think abstractly enough to understand Euclidean geometry, remember my assignments, or initiate and sustain work on my assignments.

High school students that appear to be lazy, aren’t lazy. It doesn’t help to punish them. It doesn’t help to up the stakes and threaten them with failure now and forever more. These students are struggling with prefrontal cortex issues that often resolve themselves through maturation. And, if you realize this, then your goal is to ensure that negative associations with school, assignments, and accomplishing tasks are not produced. Your goal is to support them to produce the best work that they can. And, trust that when they get into university, their performance will improve.

It really is all about the development of the prefrontal cortex, and its relationship with the rest of the brain. The brain is a complicated organ with 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion connections between neurons. With such complexity, it is easy for things to go wrong. When things go wrong in the wiring of the prefrontal cortex and its connections to the rest of the brain, then these students can need even more help.

The Ugly Child

UglyDucklingI was fortunate enough to be asked to be on the panel of parents of students receiving support at the New Frontiers Inclusion Conference being held at ISK this week. We were to answer questions from the 85 or so attendees about what it was like to be the parent of a child with special needs attending an international school.

Being a teacher at an international school can mean that you must wear several hats. On this panel, I was a father, a colleague (many of the ISK faculty and staff were in attendance), a HS psychology teacher, and a past teacher of several of the students whose parents also sat on the panel. It was a complicated social intersection to occupy. Not that I had anything negative to say about anyone, anything, or any organization, but that I had to be genuine and accurate and sort out from which angle I was approaching a question from. It wasn’t easy to be open in front of colleagues and the parents of your students as it would’ve been had I just been a parent appearing before a room of relative strangers.

Be that as it may, it was a very moving experience. The single greatest emotion from all the parents present was gratitude. We were all thankful for an inclusive school that openly accepted our children for who they are, nurtured their strengths, and helped them compensate for their challenges. Being a member of such a school community means that you are supported. That you are confident that your child is being well looked after. That you have the resources that you need every day.

As an educator, though, several very important points were made.

I was pleased to be able to quote my late sainted mother-in-law. She was a preschool teacher for her entire career, and when I became a teacher, she gave me this advice: Always pay attention to the ugly students. Now, that could be very outrageous advice, but she was French Canadian and was translating. She meant, pay attention to the less capable students, the ones who struggle, the ones who are less charming, the ones who have the greatest need.

PrinceCharmingShe pointed out that the charming, capable students would always have someone helping them. Indeed, when I became a teacher, I realized how easy it was to cater to those students who seemed to get it. And, how difficult it was to reach for and help the ones who didn’t. Partly, this is because teachers lack time. Partly, it is true because it is much more difficult than helping those who don’t really need help or only need a little help. Partly, it is true because I know how to help the capable students — I was taught how at my how-to-be-a-teacher school. They tried to teach us to differentiate, but it seemed so abstract that once I hit a classroom, I struggled to apply it. Of course, differentiation is like sprinting and teaching the capable is walking: you have to be able to walk before you could run.

There are several techniques that I have developed and adapted and borrowed that I use to help reach those who struggle in the class, but those are the topic of another post.

Another take away was being positive. I feel like my background in social work and psychology has helped me in so many was as a teacher. I realized almost immediately after I began teaching that nothing worked like success. Teaching with success is more than scaffolding. It is more than being optimistic. It is more than being encouraging. It is more than differentiating. It is looking for ways to praise your students for something they have done well or right.

RewardCircuitReward your students when they are achieving. When I was a social worker working with severely disoriented older adults, I learned to focus on the small improvements, the incremental steps that would leave a disoriented person less agitated and more capable of coping with their environment on a daily basis. It has paid off in the classroom. I recognize that students often make progress in small steps and that part of my job is to be alert to those small steps and jump in and say  way to go! What’s more, students often don’t realize when they’ve made an improvement. Or they do something better this time, only to do it worse the next. My job is to be recognize their achievements and keep them working at improvements. Praise is an important motivational tool.

Praise activates the reward circuit in the brain. The reward circuit is the same one that is activated when you win or anything else good happens to you. It is also activated by a variety of illegal recreational drugs namely cocaine. So, by praising your students, they begin to associate these good feelings with school and your class. It is a tremendous antidote to anxiety.

A caveat of being positive is to communicate successes to their parents, especially if you are a high school teacher. Teenagers won’t go home and talk to their parents much less tell them about something they did well. So, with those struggling students, I take a moment to write an email — thank goodness for technology; it makes these things so much easier! — praising their student.

Parents of students who struggle are used to getting bad news from school, so much so, that they pretty much assume any communication from a teacher is going to be bad. When I’ve written about long overdue assignments or misbehavior, I’ll get a response promising to follow up… if I get a response at all. But, when I write with news that the presentation was terrific, or the student was nervous but spoke well nevertheless, or that the latest essay showed great improvement in the use of factual knowledge to support an argument, I always hear back and there is joy jumping off of my screen. And you know what? That parent’s day is just a little better because of it.

SITxRoomMel Randall, a sensory integration specialist, once said, if they could do it any differently, they would, meaning that the struggling child is doing the best he or she can with what he or she has. To me, this is a packed statement almost as profound and textured as my mother-in-law’s.

At one level, it means that no one sets out to fail. No one wakes up in the morning thinking, You know what? Today, I don’t do a darn thing right! Today, I’m going to screw everything up! However, many of us do not believe that we can succeed at a particular task and often that conclusion is made before the teacher is done making the assignment. But, no one wants to fail. Everyone wants to succeed. And, everyone can succeed.

ShatteredAnother meaning here is that students who are struggling would give almost anything to do it differently. But, such a swap is not possible, so those who struggle do the next best thing: they find ways to compensate and cover up their deficits.

For what seems like an easy everyday interaction often requires two or three times the energy to complete for those that struggle than it does for most everyone else. For example, to sit quietly and focus on what the teacher is saying can be exhausting after fighting your urge to squirm or chat. Now, imagine how exhausting or impossible it would be for eight solid hours. Other examples, many of these students have to focus consciously on social cues to interpret what most people do unconsciously can be exhausting. Trying to blot out the noise of a rambunctious class so that you can participate can be exhausting. Trying to focus in a silent room where the loudest sound is the clock ticking can be exhausting.

We don’t realize and appreciate the effort that it takes some of our students just to make it through the day. To face another day of discouragement, failure, seeming invisibility, or an irritating sensory environment can take everything a student has.

Lazy Students

Screen Shot 2016-02-10 at 9.27.46 PM
There is something pejorative about the adjective lazy. It’s not a nice word. No body likes to be described as lazy. No one is motivated to be willing to work after being described as lazy. While we rarely tell a student that he or she is lazy unless we’re having a really really bad day, we often think it, and we often describe a particular student as lazy to other teachers.
I feel like we must guard our thoughts regarding students lest we fall into a cognitive trap. Actually there are several that we must beware of:

LazyWarningSignThe Framing Effect:

The framing effect is a decision-making phenomenon in which the words used to describe an object, person, or options has a tremendous, yet unconscious, affect on subsequent decisions or choices. In her famous study, Elizabeth Loftus showed participants filmed footage of a minor car accident. One half of the participants she asked, How fast were the cars going when they bumped into each other? and the other half, How fast were the cars going when they slammed into each other? Not surprisingly, the second group of the participants estimated the speed of the cars as much faster than the first group. The only difference was the words used to describe the accident. One word, slammed, is much more evocative than the other, bumped. What’s more, the participants didn’t realize the effect of the descriptor on their estimation. So, if we frame our thoughts of a student with a pejorative term like lazy, then we are far more likely to see that student as disinclined to work or exertion regardless of whether he or she is being lazy in that moment or not.

PrimingCapPriming:

Priming is the cognitive phenomenon in which schemas or concepts are activated by an environmental factor.  John Bargh et al. conducted a series of studies on the “automaticity of social behavior” after participants were primed. In one experiment, participants were primed for rude behavior and the number of times and how quickly they would interrupt the experimenter was compared to those participants who were primed for polite behavior. Those that were primed for rudeness were far more likely to interrupt and interrupted much more quickly than those primed for polite behavior. So, if we are describing a student as lazy, are we priming ourselves and others to see their behaviors as indolent?

ConfirmationBiasConfirmation Bias:

Confirmation bias is the cognitive tendency in which a person searches for or is aware of information that supports a belief. For example, if you believe that your knee pain will predict rainy weather, you are far more likely to make the connection between my knee hurt and now it’s raining than you are my knee hurt but it didn’t start raining or it’s raining, but my knee didn’t hurt before hand. Every time it rains after your knee hurt, there is a tendency to say, See! My knee hurt and now it’s raining! while never becoming aware of the other conditions. If we believe a student is lazy, every time a student fails to complete a task, we are far more likely to think, See! That kid is lazy! He never does his work!

WoolworthSitInPrejudiced Norm Theory:

Norms are the accepted behaviors that are displayed by a group. An injunctive norm is a perception of a behavior in which approval or disapproval is conveyed. Ford and Ferguson formulated prejudiced norm theory in which they assert and support with the research findings that making using disparagement humor essentially affirms prejudicial behavior to those already predisposed to it.  Greenberg and Pyszczynski found that overheard ethnic slurs negatively affected subsequent evaluations of members of that ethnicity by those who were exposed to them. By describing a student as lazy, aren’t we then creating and perpetuating an injunctive norm and influencing others to treat this student as lazy?

 

“lazy”. Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. 10 Feb. 2016. <Dictionary.com http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/lazy>.

What is learning?

Navajo_students_learning_penmanship_in_day_school_-_NARA_-_295150What is learning? If you have learned something be it factual, semantic, episodic, or procedural — you can see where I’m going with this right? — then you will be able to recall it when you need it and more importantly to the degree you need it. If something has been learned, you should be able to recall it. If something is learned, you should be able to recall it when it is needed. And if something is learned, you should be able to recall it when it is needed and in as much detail that is required.

A simple common example is remembering the names of acquaintances. On the first day of classes this year, I was standing outside the door to my classroom as students and teachers walked by. I greeted many of them as they passed by calling some by name. I looked down the passageway and saw a very striking tall young woman. I recognized her immediately. Her appearance is not one that you easily forget: tall, slim, fashionably dressed. She had been in the school as long as I had: four years. I had seen her nearly every day during those four years, but I had never had her in a class. But, she had been on a week-long adventure learning trip with me the previous year — a mere four months previous. Of course, I couldn’t recall her name.

I wanted to. I tried to. I could get the first letter, J. I could get that it had two or three syllables. I could tell you it wasn’t Jackie or Jacqueline or Jessica. I knew she was a gifted athlete and champion runner. I could recall specific conversations with her about the “lovely” nature of camels (our trip was the infamous camel safari) and the dress she had worn to the prom the previous year. But, I could not for the life of me recall her name in the seconds it would take her to traverse the distance between us.

This is a facet of learning. Compare my experience with this young woman with that of unexpectedly seeing my brother-in-law, let’s say in Constantinople International Airport. If I had a long layover in Constantinople International Airport and as I wondered the concourses awaiting the eventual departure of my next flight, and I passed my brother-in-law, I would know his name instantly even though I only see him every other year or so because I know his name and face so well. I know his name and face so well that I do not need environmental cues to help me recall his name.

We can say, then, that I know my brother-in-law’s name well, and the student’s, not so well. My brother-in-law’s name I can recall at anytime I need and in it’s entirety. The student’s I could recall — the facets of her name show that I recalled suggest that I know her name — but not to the degree I needed it.

The same holds true for critical thinking or reasoning skills. These skills would constitute procedural memory in that you have to “remember” to do them even if we rarely have the experience of consciously remembering that we need to apply them. For example, a student should be able to link the repetitive exercises given as homework in the course of REBT or CBT psychotherapy to brain plasticity, but few students do. In my IB Psychology course, the two topics are covered approximately a year apart. And, we haven’t had any priming of brain plasticity when we cover psychotherapy. To link the two would be evidence of critical thinking, but to make that leap requires practice in linking disparate ideas together.

How is that learning? Searching for something similar or related to a new item that we are learning is a habit or a procedure. And just like any other habit or procedure, the more often you do it, the more likely you will do it the next time the situation warrants. And just like any other habit or procedure, the more often you do it, the easier, smoother, more efficient it becomes. The more automatic it becomes. All of these are features of procedural memory.

imagesLearning is inextricably linked with memory. The better we understand memory, the better we can take advantage of it when learning. What are some of these factors? From this post and in the Educational Approach post, we can distill several factors that have been well-researched in cognitive psychology that improve or strengthen memory:

Association:

We have evolved to be associative machines in which we associate an environmental cue to a reaction or event. For example, every time Pavlov rang his bell, the dogs were fed. Soon, the bell was associated with food, and the dogs salivated in anticipation. The bell was an environmental cue signaling the arrival of food. But, these associations can be more subtle and sophisticated.

When my students learn the parts of the neuron, I ask them to list them in the same order every time because the elements of the list will begin to become associated with each other and the recall of the first element on the list will lead to the next. We also draw and label the neuron so often that it becomes automatic. By having a clear understanding of the anatomy and physiology of the neuron, we can relate subsequent events like manipulating serotonin to treat depression back to this material making it easier to learn, i.e. recall when needed to the degree needed.

Similarly, if I ask my students to consistently link new information with previously learned information, this too will become habit and be performed automatically when new information is encountered.

 Depth of Processing

DiverSilhouette2As Craik and Lockhart demonstrated quite convincingly in 1972, the way information is processed has a tremendous effect on the strength of the memory that is formed. They recognized three-levels of processing:

  • Shallow processing focuses on the structure of the information for example the typeface or other appearance of the information. Little understanding of the information is present in the interaction between the learner and information.
  • Phonemic processing focuses on the sounds of the information, i.e. when spoken. This ties into the importance of language in processing information. All language is based on audition. Reading is an auditory process. The parts of the brain used in processing the reading are the same as those used when hearing someone speak. It also ties to the structures in working memory using the phonological loop (phonological store and articulatory control) to process information and maintenance rehearsal.
  • Semantic processing focuses on the meaning of the information and relate it to similar information. It extends phonemic processing from sound to the meaning. It also sounds like association a LOT! These associations between pieces of information is called elaboration rehearsal. But, it also relates directly to the benefits of storytelling or conversation to learning. When you must explain information to someone else, you enter into a depth of processing in which information must be organized into a narrative that will be understandable. When speaking how often do you have insights that you hadn’t had previously? Encouraging students to explain to one another information that we’ve covered in class helps them take advantage of this aspect of depth of processing.

 Retrieval Practice

RetreiverAny recall of a memory strengthens that memory. So, any exercise that causes a memory to be retrieved will strengthen that memory including those that require the use of a procedure. The act of retrieval causes the memory to reconsolidate. Consolidation is the process of encoding a memory which includes time for the processes that take place below the level conscious awareness.

But there is a caveat here, there is solid evidence that the harder you work to recall concepts, facts, or events, the stronger the memory. If you think of memory as a web of interconnected concepts, words, qualities, facts, events, and procedures, and we add to this design, the rule that the more times we traverse a route between two nodes in that network, then the more times we activate that route, the stronger it becomes. It is almost like the more times you drive between two places, not only do you know the route better making it less likely that you’ll get lost, but that the road becomes wider, straighter, smoother, and less congested with traffic! And, to continue the analogy, it is as if you could move two points along the route closer together!

The next idea to be aware of in retrieval practice is that the practice should be spaced out. The distance between the present act of recall and the last act of recall will require more effort to be successful. Cumulative summative assessments supported by frequent cumulative formative assessments have strong empirical support for its effectiveness in forming strong enduring memories.

Learning is the ability to recall information and procedures when you need them to the degree that you need them. The more we can support the development of strong memories for the information and procedures we want them to know, the better our students will have learned.

Educational Approach

BeachArchI am not so much concerned about an educational philosophy as I am an approach to education. My BELIEF is that human beings evolved to do several things:

  1. Learn. We learn best through association. As has been oft repeated, we are associative machines. Associating danger with environmental cues equaled survival on the vast savannahs of East Africa where human kind first arose.
  2. Brain plasticity. Given focus and repetition and our brains change to make doing that thing whatever it is more efficient and automatic.
  3. Storytelling. As language developed, we began to tell each other stories. Our brains had evolved to use language, and our language caused our brains to change and eventually evolve. Not a Lamarckian inheritance, but those whose brains could manage the sophistication of the language had a greater chance of reproduction.
  4. Succeed. Everyone wants to succeed; no one wants to fail, but we live in a cruel world that has taught many of us that failure — especially at certain tasks — is inevitable.
  5. Play. It has been well demonstrated that play is one of our strongest motivators and reinforcers.

My APPROACH to education is take advantage of these tendencies in the classroom.