Games Not To Play in School

Pop quizzes, strictly timed tests, surprise notebook checks, all seem to be about “Catching Kids Not Knowing.” It is an old game familiar to everyone who has been a student. The idea, I suppose, is to create a state of constant nervousness in students, that apparently will motivate them. I doubt it works.

I don’t want to play that game, and neither do the kids. Let us choose not to.

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Here is another destructive “gotcha game” not worth playing. It is called controlling student technology use: confiscating cell phones, constantly monitoring I-pads and laptops. Students will always be two steps ahead of a teacher in this cat and mouse game.

There are no winners and the class atmosphere is tainted.

Let’s not play that game either.

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A mentor once said to me something like this…

“Play the game you want to play. Don’t get lured into other peoples’ games where nobody wins and everybody loses.”

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Here is the game I like playing with students.

It is the Learning Game.  This game has an informal and yet very important set of “rules” that all of us in the classroom can choose to abide by.

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Here’s how it goes. I  make promises to my students and hope for a commitment from them in return.

I promise to do my best to prepare curriculum that will support you in learning. I promise to give you constructive feedback and to get your assignments and tests back quickly, having tried to mark them fairly and with transparency.

I promise to work with you respectfully as fellow human beings, all of us striving for a common goal. I promise to own my mistakes and to apologize when I unintentionally, although inevitably, do something that hurts feelings or causes embarrassment.

I promise to oversee a classroom atmosphere that is safe and nurturing for your heart and mind.

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Here is what I ask from students. Please keep trying. Giving up is not an option! Help each other.  Collaboration works.

Please engage in class activities. Listen and ask questions. Tell me if you are struggling. Communicate however you can: speak up in class, write an e-mail, send a text, show me by your expression if you understand or are confused.

Be honest at all times.  Your integrity is the only thing you truly own, and is an essential element in human relationships.

Please be sensible in lab so no one gets hurt. Keep your goggles on, please! You only have two eyes, both of which are needed for this primate thing we get to do, called binocular vision.

Tell me if something breaks or spills so we can clean it up safely together.

Most of all be good to each other in all ways, academically and socially.  Kindness is the glue that holds us all together.

Learning, just like life, is a team sport.

We are all on the same team, and together we all win this game.

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A Moment of Clarity

So often when I have written a post for this blog it has felt like a compulsion. The words have been spinning around in my head for several days until at last the pressure becomes so great they burst  through the keyboard. Particularly when I’ve written about my objections to traditional educational paradigms it has felt like exorcising demons.

kids(4)Looking back I have wondered where those demons came from. They came not from my school. That is for sure. In fact there has been nothing but support from my employer for this blog in which I have been questioning everything.

How did I get so lucky to work at Proctor Academy?

kids10 The demons of the traditional educational paradigms were within me, the result of my own experience as a student, the teacher training I received as a young pup after college, and a lifetime immersion in the field of education, that I realize now has been unable or unwilling to examine itself deeply until recently.

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Today I wake up in a new and wonderful place. Having written about what I don’t like about the bell curve concept of testing, or why I felt dubious about the use of valuable educational time this fall for exam week, I feel freed up.

What is left is a sensation of both clarity and peace.

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The demons are gone, for now anyway, maybe forever?  The flavor of this blog may change.  I’m not sure.  It seems to be a journey. There are new things I want to write about.  Perhaps the demons were mountains that had to be climbed and right now the path is through green valleys.

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I know why I’m here and what is my purpose.

I am here for the kids.

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Certainly I’ve always known this, but having processed so much through the writing of this blog, this new clarity is an open space, like a crystalline bright fall day.

kids(5)This is a space to continue to reinvent curriculum for kids, to continue to work on techniques that nurture not just their academic minds, but also their hearts and their souls.

This is what education is about to me.

It is about the kids.

kids(1)After all, what else can each of us do, but attempt to make a small bit of difference in the corner of the world where we find ourselves?

kids(6)Being a teacher is the best job I can imagine!

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Identifying Obstacles to Learning

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Josey: engaged and eager to learn

This post will appear to be about dogs, although it is also about human learners. But if you are a dog lover you will likely get more out of it.  As I have said before, my dogs are a couple of my best teachers.

In our “training” sessions together I probably learn as much from them as they learn from me. Training is in quotes because from the dogs’ perspective it is all a game. I believe in Progressive Reinforcement  training because it is humane and ethical, improves our interspecies communication, is fun for all, and of course it works incredibly well. Ten minutes to learn and a lifetime to master, learning PR training techniques has been well worth the effort, if for no other reason, than the benefit of starting to see the world through the learner’s eyes.  Of course this perspective is very much transferable to working with human students too!

My husband and I have two dogs, both of whom we raised from wee adorable puppies. The male, named “Josey” has a very soft temperament and can read his humans’ body language right down to the direction our eyeballs are pointing.   The female, Tessa, is also extremely perceptive and yet more happy, go lucky, and confident.  Understanding their individual temperaments makes a real difference, just as knowing each of my students well, can help me connect with them better.

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Tessa “retrieving to hand.”

This piece is going to be about “identifying obstacles to Learning” so here are some obstacles to learning my dogs have taught me that have direct parallels in the classroom.

1) Pace and timing is critical. Teaching has a sort of tempo to it, almost a rhythm and that cadence is different for each of my dogs. If things move too quickly for Josey he becomes confused then anxious. Learning stops. Tessa, on the other hand, works best at a fast clip as she gets bored easily and will lose interest. As a teacher, this lesson confirms observations of variations in human students too.  Processing speed differs among learners and it is important to get the pace right for each student.

2) Learners differ in their resiliency. By this I mean, how many “tries” the learner is capable of performing before getting a “right” answer. Josey is very challenging to work with because he usually has only one or maybe two “tries” in him before he starts to feel demoralized. Josey is the student who shuts down when he “gets it wrong.”  This means that the next point is essential.

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Josey practicing the “weave” skill by following the target

3) The size of each step must be just right to provide the correct level of challenge and not lead to too many defeats.  Lately we have been working on the leg weave trick. This is where the dog weaves in and out of the trainer’s legs while she walks. This skill has to be broken down into small pieces which are learned individually then linked together in a long “behavior chain”.  It is the canine equivalent of solving a multi-step algebra problem, or writing a chemical equation. The student needs to know how to do each part before putting it all together, and each chunk must be “bite sized” so it can be mastered.

4) Assumptions about your learners can lead to problems. What I think I know about my dogs is that Tessa is a “fast learner.” Operating out of this assumption I asked her to advance too quickly. She became confused, and as a result lost some enthusiasm for the training game. (Learning is no fun when you are not succeeding.) So I have had to backtrack with her and re-build her motivation and confidence for a few days.  We educators have all seen this phenomenon with kids; push them too fast, set them up to have too many “wrong answers” in a row, and they lose heart.

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Tessa strengthening the step of following the target. Much practice is needed before a successful weave can happen.

5) Bodies in motion create happier, more relaxed brains. The converse of this is that too much intense cerebral work in a static position is stressful. When ever I introduce something new and difficult to my dogs, I’ve learned that they do best if I intersperse this work with something they love that involves whole body movement, such as some rounds of retrieving, or games of “find the hidden toy.” Thus I firmly believe in football, soccer, dance, metal shop, and other activities for our human students. They need to use their bodies as well as their brains to be balanced, happy beings.  In addition, the physical activities make them better at the mental tasks too!

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Josey bringing back a hidden toy. He loves this game .

6) Confidence is everything. Or the converse of this is learning does not happen very well without confidence. This is particularly true with the style of training I’m discussing here, where the dog needs to offer a response to a cue, and if he gets it “right” he gets the reward. It takes some courage to try something and courage starts with confidence, which stems from a history of “getting it right,” building faith that the effort will be worthwhile.  Teachers know students won’t try if they are too afraid of failure.

7) The dynamics between learners can have a significant effect.  With my two canine students, Tessa tends to hog the limelight and Josey stands back, not able to do much with her around.  Tessa is the girl in the front row with her hand up all the time. Josey is the invisible boy in the back.

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Tessa has all the answers. Josey is hanging back. His expression is a true reflection.

This past week I have been asking a lot of my chemistry students. There were times when the size of the steps I asked them to make as they were learning how to write chemical equations were too large and the pace was too fast. There was some frustration expressed in class, for which I am thankful. I need my students to let me know how they are feeling! One difficulty in teaching a class-full of students all at once, is setting up the curriculum to suit a variety of individuals, whose optimal pace, size of  steps, and all the other nuances of the learning environment varies widely.

Perhaps one of the most valuable lessons my dogs have taught me is to listen to my students, not just their words, but also the body language they are displaying unconsciously. Does the kid in the corner look happy, relaxed, confident and engaged, or does he appear a bit overwhelmed, anxious and maybe “out of tries”?

Now as the teacher, how can I adjust the variables for that child, in that moment, to give that student an opportunity to experience a confidence building success? To be honest, I mess this up reasonably often, resulting in awkward moments, rather than a student traveling down a path that leads to triumph. Yet this continues to be one of the most interesting and rewarding parts of my job as an educator, trying to learn from my students, what works best for them as learners.

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Terrariums: Antidote for Winter Blues!

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Our vegetable garden on Thanksgiving day this year.

Here in New Hampshire USA it is certainly wintertime.  The sun does not rise until after 7 am and sets about 4 pm.  On cloudy days, which do tend to predominate during this season, we look out on a palate of white and gray with a bit of dark green peeking out from hibernating conifers.  A foot of snow fell the day before Thanksgiving and more than half the state lost electricity.  Students would soon be coming back to school after the holiday and we needed an antidote for the inevitable upcoming winter blues!

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A new trimester was about to begin and with it would come several challenges for my Climate Science class.  Teaching a course which is all about the outdoor world, with winter temperatures expected to dive well below zero, was one of them.  A greater challenge was how to bring the new group together into an effective learning team.  Of the 16 students enrolled in the course, nine had been in the class during the fall trimester, and seven were going to be new.  We needed an exercise to begin forming our new “Tribal Classroom,” a place where everyone feels a sense of belonging, a place where students are supporting one another in tackling the concepts we will be studying.

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Thrashing around on the internet, looking for neat hands-on Climate Science type projects, I came across this from NASA. OK, it looks like fun!  Taking some inspiration from Atul Gawande’s latest book “Being Mortal” in which he tells the story of the tremendously positive effects on the human psyche from bringing living things indoors, and also envisioning ways terrariums could be used as teaching tools, it was just a matter of gathering the ingredients.

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As luck would have it, our weather here thawed out for several days before the Thanksgiving holiday, enough to collect mosses, lichens, other small forest floor plants and some acorns, all from the local forest. Some suitable containers were available at the pet store in town, potting soil and pebbles in the garage. By the time students arrived back at school all the pieces were ready!

TaylorCatEverything in this class this year is an experiment in curriculum design. I tell the kids this, and ask for their feedback.  So far feedback on this little exercise is quite positive.  One only has to see the smiles to know kids had a blast creating their own little worlds! They worked in pairs to make each terrarium, at a table with another pair, making a group of four. I am hoping these small groups will evolve into powerful learning teams as the term progresses!

Students brought in special objects to put in their terrariums, a toy panda, a small dinosaur, a figurine of a fawn. There was so much enthusiasm for this project that by the end each pair was very much emotionally invested in their terrarium. We hope that the acorns will germinate this winter, and that by spring time they will be ready to transplant out into the forest!

CassieAriMeanwhile our terrariums will serve as a wonderful learning model. We will talk about the interconnectedness of all the living things in the terrarium, the bio-geochemical cycling of nutrients, and especially the all important carbon cycle which is the focus of our first unit.  We will learn the equations for photosynthesis and cellular respiration, and how all the terrariums are dependent on the atmosphere for exchange of these key gases necessary to sustain life. Of course we can talk about the greenhouse effect too.

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Perhaps most important of all is the metaphor of our terrariums,  reflecting the small blue marble of planet Earth in the vastness of space, a lovely, fragile and precious place for us all to live!

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Stepping Off the Treadmill

When one is on a treadmill one has to keep going at a steady pace, with eyes forward. Concentration is required to keep from losing balance and falling off sideways or being flung off the back. There is no chance to stop and consider why one is walking, much less notice that one is not actually moving forward despite considerable and consistent effort.

This week, I stepped off the educational treadmill, the one I have been on for 25 years as a teacher, and 17 years before that as a student.  The ridiculous ritual of exam week proved to be the final tipping point. The traditional educational paradigm suddenly did not make sense to me anymore.

Here is what happened this week.  All my high achieving kids did very well on their exams.  Great job kids! They do indeed deserve to feel good about the fruits of their hard work.  Yet I am left with the question “Was it really  necessary to test them?”  They had already learned the material during the term. In a way, it was somewhat of a waste of valuable educational time for them to prepare for, and sit through, three hours of moderate level suffering  in the exam. Wouldn’t we have achieved more, moved forward in learning and had a better experience doing a cool new lab or other active and collaborative learning experience?

As far as students who have been struggling with the material all along, after giving thousands of exams over the years I can say from the cumulative data,  studying for an exam only rarely results in mastery of material students had not learned earlier. Instead, it usually serves to beat those kids over the head, one more time, in case they don’t already realize it, that they still don’t get it, and are still doing poorly. (Didn’t I write a post about this?)  So wouldn’t these students also have been better served by a well designed, active and collaborative learning experience that might actually have strengthened their foundational understanding?

Why do we do this at all, much less do it three times a year?  (My school is on a trimester system.)

It is becoming increasingly difficult for me to justify the purpose of exams to my students.

Meanwhile I believe we also need to consider the emotional consequences of exam week.  Raise your hand if you loved exam week?  Don’t jump out of your seats all at once with your boundless enthusiasm now! Do I need to state the obvious that this is a week of drudgery and suffering for all, and perhaps even anxiety for many, students and teachers alike?  So we are adding unpleasant associations for kids about school.  This cannot be helpful on multiple levels.

Thrashing around the web for answers or alternative ideas, I found this. Yes, it is longer than the standard 2 minute video, but do click on it. It will take just 11 minutes to transform your perspective on traditional education.

Don’t be like me and wait 25 years to wake up.

Animation courtesy of of  Royal Society for encouragement of the Arts

Quite enlightening, isn’t it?

Well, once you have seen that the emperor has no clothes, it’s pretty hard to convince yourself he is wearing cloth made of golden thread, isn’t it?

The view from off the treadmill is quite startling.

The first thing I noticed is all those nice folks toiling away on the treadmill, not realizing there is a moving rubber belt beneath their feet. We have all been accepting the treadmill like cattle do not fight the barbed wire fence, or my chickens do not wonder about the coop I built for them. We know how to survive on the treadmill. Its demands are comforting in their familiarity. Just keep walking. Do not question it. Stay upright. Look at all the other people walking the same way. We must be doin’ it right… right? 😮

The second thing I’m now realizing is there are in fact, many other people who have stepped off the treadmill too and are also trying to find a new direction. I had never fully understood what these people were wrestling with before, while stuck attempting to keep up on the treadmill myself, but they are out there if you look for them, on Facebook, or twitter, or goodness, right here at Proctor Academy too!

Now here is both the joy and the challenge which seems to come next with stepping off the treadmill. What direction is best to go?  Maybe there are many “correct” answers?

Let us ask ask some young people for ideas, perhaps very young people. After all, 98% of kindergarteners are geniuses at this sort of thing.

Maybe that is because they have not yet spent time on the treadmill?

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Questioning Everything

questionmarkHere we are at the end of the fall trimester of 2014 at Proctor Academy, a small school in rural New Hampshire, my home for nearly half my life,  and I feel more confused, less sure of my role as a teacher and more opened up to new ideas, than ever before.  It is a bit scary, but more than that it is exhilarating. Twenty-five years in the classroom, and today I have no idea how to do the job anymore. It is time to question everything.

For example, yesterday I had to write an “Exam” for my Climate Science class. The trouble is, the course has not been about learning and memorizing the facts, about which later the kids can be “examined.” It’s not that kids have not learned stuff; they have. There is a core of concepts and material with which I hope they all are familiar. However different kids have taken away different things from the course, depending on their previous background (what neuronal circuits they already had, that are ready for new attachments). Also students have found different sub-topics to be most enticing to pursue.

Kids learning different things was the first problem with trying to write a traditional exam. The next problem was that the class itself has not focused on learning-facts-then-being-tested-on-them. Much of the work we have done in the course has been small group oriented, somewhat hands on, doing experiments or activities. We have only had three actual “tests” all term, which in themselves have felt quite awkward to be honest. The rest of the “assessments” (work that has earned credit) have been write-ups for our activities, or study guides in which students are often encouraged to draw sketches as ways to learn and explain the concepts beyond words. What am I supposed to do, have them draw pictures for the exam? How am I supposed to “grade” that sort of thing? It seems unfair to me to test students in some way that we have not practiced during the course.

When students come to my chemistry class saying “I was so lost about the reading last night!” I always say to them. “That’s good! Being confused is the perfect starting place for learning something new!”

Now I must follow my own advice!

Here’s the problem. I’ve been teaching the answers for 25 years.  I have a lot of practice in explaining stuff and teaching basic skills. However, now I’m realizing that might not be the best thing for the future of education. The world today’s students will be entering is going to be entirely different from the one we grew up in.

Starting this blog this fall has been a huge growth enhancer. It has been like putting my brain on steroids. There are two big effects of blogging I’ve noticed. The first is that one is forced to clarify one’s thoughts in order to articulate them. Sometimes I find out exactly what I believe in the process of writing.

Second, one finds new contacts and friends in this on-line world. One of these influential people for me is Mike Crowley at the International School in Brussels Belgium. He is Head of the Middle School there and from what I read on his blog, he is quite an amazing educator. (Go there and read ALL his essays.  They are far better than mine!) His essays have had a profound impact on me. In one of his latest pieces he posted this video. It is a must watch.

This weekend I was asked to do a presentation to our school’s Board of Trustees. I was somewhat terrified, peripheral vision closed in and my sense of time was warped. (Fifteen minutes went by in a heartbeat.) Apparently it went OK, according to people who were there, although I remember very little. If I got across to these nice folks, and they are indeed extraordinarily kind and warm people, my terror being self-induced, I hope it is the idea that education is ready and ripe for a revolution. I’m not at all sure what that will look like, but I’m fairly certain that the way we adults were educated is not going to serve this next generation well at all. It’s no longer about sitting in rows and learning facts, later to be spit back on tests and exams. It’s no longer about knowing a set of answers.

It might be something about working together as the social primates we are.  It might be something about developing students’ neuronal circuitry.  It might have something to do with how all brains respond to stimuli and learn from there.

It might be something about exploring the questions?

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Kids Crave Feedback

feedbackpracticesupportLast week’s cathartic rant on the traditional bell curve approach to testing has left me free to reflect on the tool of feedback which we give to our students, and how crucial it is to them as they learn. This leads me to explore a different vision for tests, one that looks like a triumphant culmination and affirmation of work well done and material mastered.

Two years ago my school went to a 1 to 1 I-pad program and this has opened up unique opportunities for students to get feedback. This last week in chemistry students have been working to master the skill of writing names and formulas for Ionic compounds. As I explain to my students, this is a skill that requires much practice in order to strengthen those neuronal pathways sufficiently to produce flawless results every time. There is no “partial credit” for an almost correct answer because any of them might grow up to be a doctor and he or she sure as heck better be paying close attention to exactly which medication is being administered as I’m put under for that hip replacement twenty years from now! Spelling counts! Practice is essential because it stimulates the nerves in the brain to actually grow connections. Its a physical, biological process and there are no short cuts.

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I-pad work: Carl Hubbard

So this last week a nice dynamic has been taking shape. I’m home on the couch, with husband and dogs, doing teacher stuff, and “ding!” in comes an e-mail from a student. She has sent me her formulas practice sheet in progress. It takes just a few moments to download that practice sheet onto my own I-pad, open it in “Notability” and make a few notes of guidance and encouragement on her work and “swoosh” the work back to her. (“Swoosh” is the fun noise an I-pad makes when sending mail.) Not only is this helpful to keep the student on the right track, practicing the skills correctly (forming the correct neuronal connections, rather then incorrect ones that have to be “unlearned” later), but the very act of this evening communication strengthens our relationship as learner and coach. This is not teacher as the judge and jury waiting to pounce upon mistakes at the end of a unit with a “summative assessment” she is not ready for.  These are two people eagerly engaged in the work of learning, and this scene repeated itself many times during the week. What a wonderful thing, and just one more unanticipated bonus of using I-pads!

The feedback and teamwork continued in class too, with students working together, comparing answers, helping each other, and the teacher there to support the work too. “Sue!, Sue! Come check mine next!” is what I hear all day. These are students who love that little positive jolt they get when there are a lot of “check marks” on their work, and a smile from their teacher. Human interaction really matters. There are also students who are still confused, perhaps even discouraged and need a few tips and their courage bolstered a bit.

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I-pad work: Carl Hubbard

The day before the “big test” students did a “practice quiz” (would not be counted) and we made it as realistic as possible, quiet in the room, work with pencil and paper. As the students finished one by one, they brought me their quiz for a quick grading. Most of them were surprised to find they were still making a significant number of errors. Scores mostly ranged from 30’s to 70’s. Oh dear, they are not ready yet!  Back to their desks they went with urgings to practice more and more. Some of them had not been taking their practice seriously enough!

Every day in class is an experiment for me. What can I say, what emotion can I project that will be the most effective in helping these students to learn and achieve their goals? This time, I raised my voice somewhat sternly to them, quite a change from my usual gentle demeanor. “Mastering this skill is not an IQ test! It is a commitment test! All of you can learn this if you practice enough!” I wanted to impress upon them that it was not OK to make excuses that this subject is too hard for them, that I do, and they must, believe in their ability! Hard work is necessary, work only they can do for themselves. Only they can train their own neurons to connect!

Today was the real test, and much to all our delight, students did very well. Out of 39 students there were only a couple who had not mastered the skill to a high level. Of course I agonize over those two exceptions, and I will be meeting those students for extra help tomorrow evening, because I still do believe they can and will gain this skill. They just need a bit more practice!

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I-pad work: Carl Hubbard

Meanwhile, a positive vision for tests in class is becoming clearer. If the curriculum is well designed, with articulated goals and a map with manageable steps along the way, and if there is plenty of feedback and coaching during the journey, and if the student is willing to put in the work, the final assessment will be a triumphant affirmation that hard work does pay off. The brain will be rewarded with good feeling neurotransmitters, confidence increases and the learner becomes even more “addicted” to the learning process!

Sounds pretty good to me!  What do you think?  Is this a vision worth aspiring to?

Posted in Learning Theory, Neuroscience, Technology, This Week in class... | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments