GUEST BLOG: "School of the Future" -- How Are Schools Evolving?
By: Syeda Nizami
Syeda Nizami (@sniz77) is currently a junior doing BAs in English and Psychology at UMass Lowell, and working as a research assistant on several projects while planning a career in Law and Psychology.
Inequity is rampant in America, with children in low-income households starting at a disadvantage and falling further behind throughout their schooling. Nova’s School of the Future Segment highlights how research and technology can help close the achievement gap and create a more individualized and engaged education experience. In this blog post, I summarize some of the highlights and provide references for those who are interested in exploring the research more thoroughly. You can also watch the 2-hour segment at this link, but you won’t find any journal references in the program itself!
Pre-school: Improving Selective Attention [9:20-19:28]
First, we begin with pre-schools, where children need the following skills to become successful learners: concentration, focus, and self-regulation. At the University of Oregon, Eric Pakulak conducted a study with 141 children enrolled in the Head Start program (1). His research team assessed the effectiveness of a family training program to help preschoolers with selective attention. They measured brain functions associated with selective attention through EEGs, parental reports of children’s behavior, and standard measures of cognition. The results indicated that the eight-week program helped children improve on all three measures – especially on the parents’ reports and the standardized measures. Furthermore, parents also reported that their children had improved social skills and less frequent problem behaviors after the intervention. This study shows the crucial importance of working with parents in order to improve their child’s school readiness and skills, as well as how working with children and especially parents only over the course of eight weeks can reap significant benefits.
Combatting the Summer Slide [20:09-28:14]
Another major problem facing children of low socioeconomic status is the “summer slide.” The summer slide is a term that describes gap that emerges after a summer away from school that causes children in poverty-ridden households to fall behind compared to their classmates. To address this problem, Alejandro Gac-Artigas started Springboard Collaborative, a program that targets the reading achievement gap by helping teachers, teaching parents reading strategies, and rewarding families based on attendance and student growth with educational tools (books/tablets). Through these initiatives, the program tries to help parents get involved in their child’s education. Children in the intensive summer program showed on average a 3 month reading gain, compared to the typical loss of 3 months, according to the Springboard Collaborative website (though note that I was unable to find peer-reviewed research on this intervention).
Middle School: Learning to Learn [35:02-54:17]
By middle school, we can start to ask the question: How can we help students learn academic material? Patrice Bain, a teacher at Columbia Middle School, wanted her students to remember things from throughout the year, so she implemented low-stakes quizzing. These quizzes make students practice retrieval on things they learned the day, but don’t entail the same pressure that high stakes tests do. As regular readers of this blog already know, active retrieval allows students to improve long-term encoding of the information they are learning. A research study conducted at Columbia Middle School by Roediger and McDaniel found that these low-stakes, active retrieval quizzes led to material being remembered better on later exams (2).
One important predictor of academic success is perseverance, or grit. When Beverly Hills Middle School was declared “failing” because they were not meeting scores on standardized tests, the school called in grit expert Angela Duckworth who studies the concept of grit, or sticking with something even when it’s tough (3). An example of an activity that targets grit is to have students write a few lines about something and then rewrite them, trying to do better each time. This push to keep trying to improve is crucial. Sal Khan is trying to do just this with Khan Academy and his new math challenge, LearnStorm: encourage students to keep trying when they fail, and break down the stigma associated with failure.
High School: Real Life and Real Stress [1:02:43-1:20:32]
Finally, we reach high school, where students are dealing with not only education-related learning, but also learning about themselves and about their passions. The experiences of students living in different circumstances strongly diverge at this point. The more affluent Palo Alto and the disadvantaged East Palo Alto make an interesting contrast. Students in East Palo Alto contend with crime and violence, making it hard for them to achieve academically. East Palo Alto Academy, a charter school, hopes to address this problem by creating an education that relates to the students’ everyday lives in order to engage students with what’s known as “culturally responsive instruction”. The counselors at the high school also make it clear that it’s important to check in with the students and to advocate for them, to make sure they are aware that there are people who believe in them.
In contrast, Palo Alto experienced a surge in learning after the Silicon Valley boom in the 1990s. This increased the pressure on students in this area to do better, and this pressure sometimes overwhelms the students. These students have school, extra-curricular activities, jobs, and homework. All of these things pile on until they are working late into the night, causing a great deal of stress. It almost becomes a competition, pitting student against student and adding to the stress. At the extreme, this stress can sometimes lead to suicide – the leading cause of death in teens. These troubling consequences inspired students Cole and Chloe Sorenson to start a Wellness Committee involving students, teachers, health administrators and practitioners. The goal of this committee is to reduce stress among students and improve the overall emotional health of the school.
One change that was implemented by the Wellness Committee was to get rid of optional early morning classes, as studies show that teenagers are simply not getting enough sleep. This is due to a change in the circadian rhythm when entering adolescence, which makes them fall asleep later. That combined with waking up early for school creates a constant cycle of sleep deprivation. But circadian rhythms can be altered: a study from Brown University’s Bradley Sleep and Chronobiology Lab found that exposing students to a bright blue light early in the morning helped to decrease melatonin levels and helped them wake up faster (4). This type of technology could help improve students’ quality of life – and, potentially, their academic achievement.
Schools of the Future – or Fads of the Past?
Postscript by Yana Weinstein
Advances in technology are certainly changing the way we look at education. The research described in the “School of Future” PBS segment highlights some of the positive impact that technology can have on education. But not everyone welcomes these developments with open arms; skeptics are weary of “trendy” interventions and overeager applications of brain science to the classroom. In our chapter of the aptly named book “Neuroscience in Education: The good, the bad, and the ugly”, we argued that while cognitive psychology has produced various solid findings that can readily be applied to the classroom, neuroscience as it stands today is still too much of a reach (5). But as cognitive psychologists ourselves, maybe we were just showing our own bias.
What’s your view? We’d love to hear from you.
(1) Neville, H. J., Stevens, C., Pakulak, E., Bell, T. A., Fanning, J., Klein, S., & Isbell, E. (2013). Family-based training program improves brain function, cognition, and behavior in lower socioeconomic status preschoolers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110, 12138-12143.
(2) Roediger, H. L., Agarwal, P. K., McDaniel, M. A., & McDermott, K. B. (2011). Test-enhanced learning in the classroom: Long-term improvements from quizzing. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 17, 382-395.
(3) Duckworth, A. L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 1087-1101.
(4) Sharkey, K. M., Carskadon, M. A., Figueiro, M. G., Zhu, Y., & Rea, M. S. (2011). Effects of an advanced sleep schedule and morning short wavelength light exposure on circadian phase in young adults with late sleep schedules. Sleep Medicine, 12, 685-692.
(5) Roediger, H. L., Finn, B., & Weinstein, Y. (2012). Applications of cognitive science to education. In S. Della Salla & M. Anderson (Eds.), Neuroscience in education: The good, the bad and the ugly, (pp. 128-151). Oxford: Oxford University Press.