Books that caused me to think about my teaching- Part 2

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Great Myths of the Brain, Christian Jarrett

Neuroscience; A prophetic acclamation from George W.Bush hailed the 90s as ‘The Decade of the Brain’ and an impending expectation of being able to investigate one of the most complex yet critical facets of sentience. Riding this wave of ideological optimism partly influenced a One Billion Euro investment to build a computer simulation of the brain so detailed, it begins at the microscopic level of ion channels in individual neurons. Yet for all this technology and human investment,Jarrett manages to highlight an alarming level of misconception (& nonconception?) that still ‘infiltrate’ educational discourse. He highlights the common brain myths still endorsed by some teachers and, although we are taken on the now ritual assault on Brain Gym and left-brain and right-brain learners, many more myths are exposed. This takes us on a time travel roller coaster, focusing on the famous cases of Phineas Gage to the seminal study of HM. Further analysis is made of classic brain myths that refuse to evanesce even under intense scientific inquiry; “we use only 10% of our brain” “women lose their mind when pregnant” to the more bizarre “you have in your brain a cell that responds only to the thought of your grandmother”.

Jarret has consulted with many professionals connected to the field of neuroscience, brain research and psychology, including Uta Frith, Tom Stafford and Charles Fernyhough. He has looked at hundreds of research studies and articles and the result is a very accessible and credible book on neuroscience that provides a great storage dump of ammunition against neurononsense. What it also generates is a further interesting question; to better understand human cognitions, is the field of cognitive psychology better suited (at present) to education than the field of cognitive neuroscience? and do we in our eagerness to look for empirical ’definitives’ conflate both? A very enjoyable read that caused me to reflect and examine my beliefs around the how and why I teach the way I do.

Featured imageMake It Stick- The Science of Successful Learning, Brown, Roediger and McDaniel

Learning should be challenging, and attempting to dilute merely as engaging and an axiomatic ‘learning will follow’ maxim, may ignore the science of successful learning. Perhaps echoing the sentiments of Bjork and ‘desriable difficulties’, Brown (a writer and novelist), Roediger (Professor of Psychology) and McDaniel (Professor of Psychology) have collectively written a book that is largely (overly simply also, I accede) summarised by the title-“Make it Stick-The Science of Successful Learning”.

With Chapter contents headed, “Learning is misunderstood” and “To Learn, retrieve” there is an obvious iteration of key aspects of cognitions and cognitive psychology. Perhaps the current ‘sweetheart’ of Psychological appreciation, the meta language is easy to access and gently, yet with a weight of scientific force, nudges us towards confronting myths around how we learn and presenting more effective methods of classroom practice. Among the findings:

  1. Recalling new material from memory is more productive for robust learning and memory than rereading.
  2. Quizzing students on material they have read or that has been presented in class leads to better learning and retention than reviewing that material again.
  3. Interleaving the practice of two or more problem types (for example, math solutions or types of baseball pitches) is more productive than mastering one before moving to another.
  4. Asking students to grapple with solving a new kind of problem before teaching them the solution results in better learning of the solution when they are shown it.
  5. A series of cumulative, low-stakes or no-stakes quizzes over the course of a semester works like compound interest, strengthening retention and updating learning.

Referencing research with practical classroom application, and co-written by the storyteller that is Brown, “Make It Stick” is a highly recommended classroom companion. Perhaps a key challenge as a teacher is to allow such insights to inform classroom practice, yet not merely define. In a world of freneticism and pace, slowing our thinking around what we do on a habitual level can only be good- and this book certainly engenders such dialogic introspection.

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Happiness By Design, Paul Dolan

‘Non-cognitive’ skills (err will leave aside that nomenclature for the moment),GRIT, Resilience, Growth Mindset, all words that seem to walk and breathe in the lives of contemporary UK schools? Yes, to lesser and greater extents and yes, to varying levels of understanding regarding the psychology and research that sits behind such constructs. But everyone has heard of happiness, haven’t they? Everyone has experienced happiness, haven’t they? Is a lens of inquiry on happiness and ‘happy’ schools therefore merely an exercise in highlighting common sense, intuition and human experiences?

Perhaps these are overly imbued with powerful cognitive biases, such as attribution errors and the joys of cognitive dissonance? In an ever-growing world of quantifiable metrics of performance, it seems in some sense, the interfaces between cognitions and emotions are also open to scientific scrutiny. Blending our knowledge of economics and behavioural sciences to investigate Happiness, Dolan identifies the key role of attention, highlighting that we perhaps pay too much attention to what we think may make us happy rather than focusing on what does. This ‘does’ links to a purpose and pleasure balance, key ingredients alongside attention in this happiness formula.

I really enjoyed this book, and with over 30 pages of research references to further investigate, Dolan’s claims are backed up by weaving research to his own personal life events. He identifies the role of cognitive biases and how they may mistakenly frame our ideas of happiness and narrates ‘simple’ tools that may improve our happiness in everyday life. I won’t spoil what these are, read for yourself, but it did make me think’ “How happy are kids when they leave my classes? How happy should they be? And how happy can they be within the locus of my own control? What do I do in my life to increase my own personal happiness?

Couldn’t help thinking happiness by design fits very well as a key piece of a wider Salutogenic jigsaw puzzle. I’m going to read this once again to try and understand even more. But. I liked this book. A lot.

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