Category Archives: Learning and Cognition

Book reviews, lessons, worksheets in English Language Arts and Social Studies, learning supports and other materials that shed light on basic cognitive mechanisms and their effect on learning–and vice versa.

The Flipped Classroom and Its Discontents

A couple of years ago, in a “professional development” (a term I use both loosely and charitably when referring to the role it plays–or doesn’t–in the institution in which I serve) session, a colleague presented a workshop on the concept of the flipped classroom. I confess that my initial reaction was incredulity followed closely by hostility. After all, this person basically confessed (in my view) to turning over direct instruction in his classroom to a series of internet videos. To make matters worse, he presented no research to buttress his assertions about this style of teaching, save a promotional squib featuring a couple of young teachers (or actors playing young teachers) acting like fools as they extolled the virtues of the flipped classroom. I assumed this was the advertisement from the vendor supplying the material;  whatever it was, it was far from the kind of research validation I personally would need to see to consider adopting this method in my own classroom.

More importantly, perhaps, is the fact that during the latest round (over the past couple of weeks) of high-stakes state testing here in New York, while I was proctoring math tests, several students complained that they didn’t understand the material because the flipped classroom didn’t help them to learn it, let alone master it. A couple were particularly disgruntled by their experience with the flipped classroom.

About eighteen months after the presentation I attended on this, while reading Jerome Rekart’s The Cognitive Classroom (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2013),  I came upon this passage, which again aroused my skepticism about this method of instruction:

We know that even with intensive daily exposure to video instruction in language, infants fail to maintain phonemic awareness (i.e. ability to differentiate between the sounds that are particular to a specific language) of the learned language, unlike infants who received face-to-face instruction (Kuhl, Tsao, & Liu, 2003).

Whether such studies have any bearing on older children or adult learning remains to be determined. If similar results are seen with other subjects and age groups, as they have been with the acquisition of English in early childhood, it will seriously squelch the current fervor over ‘flipped classrooms,’ with their reliance of video delivery of lecture material (Sparks, 2011).

The Sparks citation refers to this article, from Education Week, by Sarah D. Sparks. Ms. Sparks ably covers the pros and cons of the flipped classroom approach. Unfortunately, what emerges is a lot of uncertainty about the method in general, and in particular whether it is effective for all students.

As it turns out, there is a plethora of research on the flipped classroom. Even a search on ERIC (Education Research Information Services) limited to peer-reviewed articles with their full text available on that website turns up dozens of articles on the effectiveness of “flipping” a classroom. And a search of the Internet using the term “problems with flipped classrooms” also turns up page after page or articles on flipped classrooms, some of them balanced analyses like this article from Mary Beth Hertz at Edutopia; some are skeptical, as is Robert Talbert’s blog post from The Chronicle of Higher Education. Many, however, are corrosively critical, like this article from Professor Jonathan Rees of Colorado State University.

As both a teacher and a blogger, I really have no horse in this race. Because I serve students who struggle, this method of instruction would be flatly inappropriate for my classroom. What concerns me is the unquestioning acceptance of a pedagogical method that clearly shows mixed results; moreover, I have never much cared for the magpie-like fascination among some teachers and educational administrators for every shiny new thing that comes along.

We owe our students and their parents (the property tax payers who underwrite our salaries, incidentally) better than this. If we want to be treated like professionals, we must actually conduct ourselves as professionals. That means we don’t just uncritically accept every pedagogical fad that comes down the pike. We must review the research, consider methods of application of new pedagogical strategies, and finally and most importantly, consider the needs of our students.

If we fail to do so, there is a nice solid noun to describe what we’re doing: malpractice.

Concept Formation

Process of developing abstract rules of mental concepts based on sensory experience. Concept formation figures prominently in cognitive development and was a subject of great importance to J. Piaget, who argued that learning entails an understanding of a phenomenon’s characteristics and how they are logically linked. N. Chomsky has argued that certain cognitive structures (such as basic grammatical rules) are innate in human beings. Both men held that, as a concept emerges, it becomes subject to testing: a child’s concept of “bird,” for example, will be tested against specific instances of birds. The human capacity for play contributes importantly to this process by allowing for consideration of a wide range of possibilities.”

Excerpted from: Stevens, Mark A., Ed. Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Encyclopedia. Springfield, Massachusetts: Merriam-Webster, 2000.

Matthew Farber on Gamifying Your Classroom

Keeping up with the various themed history months during the year created something of a backlog on other posts here at Mark’s Text Terminal, including this one, which has lingered as a draft for months. A few years ago my Hampshire College pal Gil Roth interviewed, for his podcast The Virtual Memories Show (and if you visit Gil’s site, you’ll see that he has built up an extraordinary archive of shows), a high school friend of his, Matthew Farber, who wrote a book on using video games in the classroom. Mr. Farber was a middle school social studies teacher in New Jersey at the time of the interview posted here, and evidently a talented one at that. He is now Professor Matthew Farber at the University of Northern Colorado.

If you’re interested in his work, here is a link to Matthew Farber’s interview on how he gamified his classroom and how you can too. If you’re interested in his book itself, you can find it here.

Here in New York City, we teachers are vassals to the educational publishers, the tests they make, and the unimaginative bureaucrats who push them on us. So we have next to no latitude to try innovative educational strategies like those Mr. Farber discusses so articulately and passionately. Indeed, while imagination and innovation get talked about in this school system, they are seldom or never actually deployed in the service of teaching and learning.

David Labaree on the Five-Paragraph Essay

Several years ago, one of the assistant principals in this school loaned me a couple of books by the great professor of education, David Labaree. I read both The Trouble with Ed Schools (that link takes you to a review of the book by the esteemed sociologist Nathan Glazer) and How to Succeed in School Without Really Learning; I thought both were excellent.

As I go through old folders in the Text Terminal archives, I found a note reminding me to post this article on the five-paragraph essay by Professor Labaree. It meets his usual standard of excellence in his publications, and has much to say, I think, about the obsession with the five-paragraph essay.

Smart Phones, Self-Regulation, and Attention

[In the school in which I serve, the administration, acting on the instructions of bureaucrats further up the policy chain, has basically, by default, allowed students unfettered and unregulated access to their smart phones. It goes without saying, I assume, that this approach has made teaching and learning all but impossible in this institution. Moreover, it has created serious discipline problems that have led to bitter power struggles between faculty and students, screaming matches in hallways and classrooms, an overburdened deans’ office, and a generally ridiculous and often completely unproductive learning environment. Not that my work is necessarily about me, but I think it’s at least worth mentioning that this situation has rendered a travesty my efforts at helping students become stronger, more proficient readers and writers, and therefore more capable students overall.]

“As Mark Twain said, ‘The two most important days in life are the day you are born and the day you discover the reason why.’

Purpose, however, hinges on self-regulation, the ability to resist impulses in the service of long-term goals. Unfortunately, an entire generation is coming of age absorbed in Facebook and other media that undermine self-regulation, says Larry Rosen, a professor emeritus at California State University and a coauthor of The Distracted Brain. Fully grown adults are no less immune to the dings and pings of feedback that make smartphones so compelling. ‘You may want big ideas, but if your attention is jerked away constantly, they won’t come. There’s no time to process anything on a deeper level,’ Rosen says. Not, he adds, is there time for creative daydreaming, because the brain is often overstimulated.

Rosen has found that young adult students can maintain focus on important work only for two to four minutes on average before checking emails, texts, and social media (older adults are not much better)–and it can take up to 20 minutes to get back on task. The more hours students spend media-multitasking, the lower their grade point average. Even a single check-in on Facebook during focus sessions predicted a lower grade.” 

Pincott, Jena. “10 Life Skills.” Psychology Today, May/June 2018.

Dr. Daniel T. Willingham on Using Context for Building Reading Skills and Vocabulary

“Looking words up in a dictionary will be of limited use—not useless, but, but we must acknowledge that it will be just one context in which to understand the word’s meaning, and it’s possible that the student will misunderstand the definition. Explicit instruction of new words is more likely to be successful the way teachers usually implement it, with multiple examples and with the requirement that students use each word in different contexts. There is a good evidence that students do learn vocabulary this way.

In addition to consistent vocabulary instruction, teachers can make it more likely that students will learn words they encounter in context. They can give students pointers that will help them use context for figure out an unfamiliar word. For example, students can learn to use the clues in the sentence about the unknown word’s part of speech, to use the setting described in the text to constrain the word’s meaning, and to use the tone of the text to help constrain meaning.”

Excerpted from: Willingham, Daniel T. The Reading Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Understanding How the Mind Reads. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2017.

Parents Across America: A Detailed Critique of the Dangers of Screen Time for Young Children

[Here’s something from Diane Ravitch’s Blog that should interest and concern all teachers; I post it here as much for my future reference as anything else, as I am planning to write a couple of lessons on smart phones and screen time and their threat to education.]

Diane Ravitch's blog

Parents Across America (an independent group of parent activists that is critical of the commercialization and corporate takeover of education) has created a valuable resource about the effects of screen time on children. 

It is titled “Our Children @ Risk.”

The paper is 26 pages long. It contains extensive documentation.

It is a valuable resource in light of the profit-driven effort to promote EdTech in the schools without regard to is effects on children.

Here is the introduction:

“Children have a basic right to live in environments that promote their social, emotional and intellectual well-being. They have the right to grow up, and parents have the right to raise them, without being undermined by greed.” Susan Linn

“Parents Across America has developed a position paper and associated informational materials which detail a number of concerns about the invasion of EdTech* into our schools, and which we have collected under the…

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