Talk This Weekend: “Kids, Learning, and the Maker Movement”

I’m presenting a talk today at Maker Faire Pittsburgh called “Kids, Learning, and the Maker Movement: Four Top Tips for Parents” at noon today and at 10:30 AM tomorrow in the Education Zone. If you’re around, come see me!

If you saw me speak today, welcome to my website! My slides will be available online here later today. Please feel free to look around: check out my older biog posts, see what I’m reading on Goodreads, and link to my work with Common Sense Media on Graphite and with iQ: smartparent at WQED Multimedia. Also, please follow me on Twitter @PMKievlan so we can continue the conversation we started today. Thanks!

Links from today’s talk:


On Studying Smarter

Studying is hard. I know that statement isn’t earth-shattering, but it’s remarkable to me how tough it can be for people to figure out what it means to study effectively. Recently, I’ve read two books that address this problem in great detail and with great energy. I started to assemble a bunch of quotes, but I realized that the best thing would be to exhort you to run to your nearest bookstore or library and pick them up yourself. They’re terrific. They are: How We Learn, by Benedict Carey, and A Mind for Numbers, by Barbara Oakley, PhD.

Both books have excellent thoughtful, specific tips on how learning works and how different study methods can play to the brain’s strengths. I realized that there were about thirty block quotes I wanted to include, but I realized that the best (and most provocative) might be the one that follows. Instead of characterizing a series of solutions, it captures the problem.

The following passage is from A Mind for Numbers. It’s from the preface by Dr. Jeffrey D. Karpicke, James V. Bradley Associate Professor of Psychological Studies at Purdue University. Dr. Karpicke writes:

What’s surprising is that a lot of learners use ineffective and inefficient strategies. In my laboratory, for example, we have surveyed college students about their learning. They most commonly use the strategy of repeated reading — simply reading through books of notes over and over. We and other researchers have found that this passive and shallow strategy often produces minimal or no learning. We call this “labor in vain”–students are putting in labor but not getting anywhere.

This is exactly the challenge I’m seeing in so many of my students–students who are spending hours reading, re-reading, copying, and re-copying their notes and trying earnestly to internalize insights from their teachers’ lectures and their textbooks. The bad news is, this method will fail them. The good news is, there are tons of other things students can do that will help them learn–and most take a lot less time than transcribing their textbooks.

For an overview of some DOs and DON’Ts, check out these lists of rules for good studying and rules for bad studying from Dr. Oakley’s website.  Then really: go read these books. They’re thoughtful and warm and terrific. You won’t regret it.

“So is the program online? Oh.”

I’ve mentioned my enthusiasm for MBE before: I’m enormously proud of the good work that my program, its leaders, and its alumni are doing in the world to bring educational practice, neurobiology, and cognitive psychology together. MBE is one of the co-sponsors of the annual Learning and the Brain conference, and I’ve been impressed with the conference each year as its tone has evolved. At the first few that I attended, there was a lot more uncritical enthusiasm for “brain science!!” and not nearly enough actual, you know, science. I saw a lot of slides that would quickly show a still from an MRI or an EEG and the presenter would exclaim, “And that’s how learning works!” It made me a little uncomfortable: having trained in MBE, my default is to be skeptical until proven otherwise. The idea is to be a thoughtful and responsible steward of insights from these three key disciplines to better serve each of htem; it doesn’t serve anyone to just get excited about technology without asking what its practical implications might be.

Increasingly, the conversation has gotten more sophisticated. The conference feels more like a thoughtful inquiry into how the mind, brain, and education universes interact. The talks are more conservative in their statements–it’s not that “learning takes place here in the brain”; instead, there’s a lot more cautious language about what certain neuropsychological findings can suggest for learning. While this has meant fewer snazzy multi-colored brain scans, it’s led to deeper conversations about how we as educators can better serve our students. That, to me, is the most worthwhile work that can come out of a conference like this.

The one thing that’s stayed constant, though, is the question that every single person asks at the MBE table here at the conference. It has a few variations:

So is the program online?
When will they be moving it online?
Wait, why not? Doesn’t Harvard know about MOOCs?
Are you sure it’s not online?
Why are you advertising this in San Francisco?

The answer is: nope, not online, and never going online. We’re not here to advertise; we’re here to lend our voice to the conversation here that we consider so valuable. Bringing the best insights from educational practice, neurobiology, and cognitive science together takes lively, committed, and deep conversation. That’s the kind of thing that conferences can foster, and it’s something that thrives on-site in Cambridge in the MBE program. So that’s why I’m here.

Learning Adventures: Your brain is amazing.

Today I had a great experience proctoring a test for a student. She was working on a Spanish test and we were experimenting with having her read large portions of the test aloud. The idea was for her to talk out her thought process as she worked–and I hoped that she would discover that she knew a lot more of the material than she thought she did.

Things started out well, but she hit a speedbump early on in the test on a section about describing her daily routine. “I want to say she brushes her hair with the comb, but I can’t remember the word for ‘comb,'” she said, frowning. A hint of frustration crept into her voice.

“Leave it,” I reassured her. “Come back to it. It’ll come to you.”

We moved on in the test, and she plugged away on writing sentences and selecting answers to multiple choice questions. As we neared the end of the class period, we came back to that one troublesome sentence. More confident and gaining momentum as she neared the end of the test, she chattered away about the task at hand.

“Well, I want to say ‘hair,’ and ‘hair’ is ‘pelo’ because it goes with ‘peine’ which means ‘comb.” Startled, she sat back. “Wait! I know it! ‘Peine’ means ‘comb’!! That was so cool!” She was stunned–and she was thrilled. By letting her brain work on the problem in the background, she was able to finally access the word and use it. She finished the test, feeling suddenly confident that she knew a lot more Spanish than she thought she did.

From a cognitive perspective, there’s a lot going on here–and certainly more than I can adequately describe here. But it’s worth considering what an amazing processing machine the brain is. The human brain is an extraordinary multitasker–just not in the way that we try to look at phones, computers, documents, and other humans all at the same time. The brain can do many tasks at once, from keeping us breathing and blinking to working out complex problems in the background while we do other things. This student had studied hard for this test and she’d encoded some great connections between the things she’d studied. It just took heading down the right pathway (“‘pelo’ and ‘peine’ go together”) for her to access them again.

I’m not sure what grade this student got on her test. I’m mostly just thrilled that she came away from this test confident about her own mind. She studied hard, she knew a ton, and she found a way to show that. And that’s today’s small victory.

Nota bene: I shared this post with the student described herein, and she gave her permission for me to share this story. 

New Book Alert: The App Generation

I’m listening this afternoon to a talk from the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Askwith Forum, its ongoing speaker series with leaders in education research. Tonight’s talk is from Dr. Howard Gardner and Dr. Katie Davis about their new book, The App Generation. According to the Askwith Forum website, the book is a look at “what it means to be ‘app-dependent’ versus ‘app-enabled,’ and how this generation’s life differs from the one before the digital era.”

There are some terrific take-home messages from this talk, not the least of which are the ways that we as adults–or digital immigrants, as I’m loathe to call myself–can help our app-dependent students lean more toward becoming app-enabled. Three recommendations (in my words) are these:

  • Model app enablement: show kids that the options for solving a problem don’t have to live within the boundaries of particular apps. Apps are limited by the imaginations and programming of the people who created them: don’t let your creativity be bound by artificial constraints set by others. Find creative ways to solve problems!
  • Model app disablement: put the device away! Show students when it is and is not appropriate to use a device. Show that there’s value in activities that are completely non-digital and non-app-linked.
  • Promote computational skills! Teach students that apps are created by people and that they could someday be those people! Teach kids that they can learn specific skills for programming and technology design and that they can build their own tools for exploring the world and expressing their creativity.

I can’t wait to read the book and to engage our community in discussion about it. Learn more about the book on its website here. 

TEDxSonoma County talk: Dr. Todd Rose on Variability

I just got a notice from PEN, the Parents Education Network, that this went online. Check it out! — PMK

Click the video above to watch: this is the hilarious, amazing, inspiring Dr. Todd Rose, professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and President of Project Variability. Todd finished his doctorate at HGSE in the year when I finished my master’s degree in the Mind, Brain, and Education program.  I had the pleasure of getting to know him as a mentor to all of us MBE students and especially through a course he taught called Brain 101. This optional course was meant as an introduction to neurobiology and neuroscience for educators. Since then, it has grown into H-107 Educational Neuroscience, one of the most popular courses at HGSE.

Todd was the keynote speaker at PEN’s EdRev events in 2011 and 2013, and they’re proud to promote Todd’s recent TEDx talk that describes his latest work. I think it’s great; here’s PEN’s take on why you should watch it:

At EdRev 2013, Dr. L. Todd Rose introduced us to the emerging science of the individual.  He explained its implications for nurturing talent and developing learning environments that are responsive to all students.

Dr. Rose recently gave a talk at TEDx Sonoma which provides the basis for a deeper understanding of this new science and lays the foundation for our common understanding of  the challenges facing students in our current educational system.

Because we believe it is so important for all of us to be involved in this conversation, we hope that you will take 18 minutes to listen to this talk, consider his perspective and share it with others.

This presentation gives us all the opportunity to ask questions, have conversations, begin to re-imagine education and practice a culture of understanding variability and jagged learning profiles in our homes and classrooms.

Neuroscience under attack!

To follow up on my musings on the Paul Tough event last week, I came across this article in the New York Times this weekend about the seeming backlash that neuroscience is facing in the popular press. I love the tack that this writer takes, since it aligns with my own bias: I try to be cautious and to avoid being overly causation-minded about the connections between mind, brain, and education. I think that her cynicism and caution are useful:

The problem isn’t solely that self-appointed scientists often jump to faulty conclusions about neuroscience. It’s also that they are part of a larger cultural tendency, in which neuroscientific explanations eclipse historical, political, economic, literary and journalistic interpretations of experience. A number of the neuro doubters are also humanities scholars who question the way that neuroscience has seeped into their disciplines, creating phenomena like neuro law, which, in part, uses the evidence of damaged brains as the basis for legal defense of people accused of heinous crimes, or neuroaesthetics, a trendy blend of art history and neuroscience.

I completely agree with the idea that we can’t just point fMRI scanners at children’s brains and make bold claims about the “punctuation center in the brain” or that certain patterns in activation mean certain things all the time.

I don’t, however, think that we have to go so far as to just push neuroscience out of the conversation. It’s critical to be skeptical, to be conservative, and to be thoughtful in consuming media that claims to make sense of the inner workings of the brain. However, I don’t think this means to abandon neuroscience altogether. I think it demands that we as educators and as citizens be willing to have a more nuanced conversation. When we ask questions about whether certain things that happen in the brain have particular connections to behavior, we have to learn to be satisfied with an answer less final than “yes” or “no”. Culturally, we’ve got to get a lot more comfortable with answers like “it’s complicated.”