Category Archives: Book Reviews
A focus on oneself, on others, and on larger trends in one’s environment are the three key patterns of thinking that Daniel Goleman suggests are necessary for being successful in any endeavor. Goleman, a science writer, author of Emotional Intelligence, and an expert in the field of social and emotional learning, details inner, other, and outer focuses, how we can cultivate a focused mind, and why these three focuses are critical to success in his 2013 book, Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence. With the smooth integration of psychosocial and neurobiological attention research and practical examples of ways to cultivate focus in everyone (from kindergarten children to doctors, monks and top executives) this book is ideal for anyone who is burdened by today’s persistent distractions in our technology-imbued world or who works with others in need of focus.
Inner focus is the ability to understand and capitalize on one’s own strengths and emotions. Accomplishment comes to those with the discipline to engage in deliberate practice by concentrating during training, correcting errors, and following the advice of an expert coach. Goleman sites Walter Mischel’s famous marshmallow test in which nursery school age children who were able to reallocate their attention from a sweet treat at hand so that they could receive a larger reward later were found to have more executive control. The related Dunedin study found that young kids who could resist temptation were healthier, wealthier, and more likely to be law-abiding citizens decades later than the kids who did not have this self-control. When Mischel’s original marshmallow test participants’ brains were scanned years later while they resisted temptation, those who delayed gratification had more activity in the right inferior frontal gyrus of the brain, a region associated with controlling thoughts and actions. Those who succumbed showed activity in the ventral striatum, which is a key part of the reward pathway.
Goleman describes aids to help children cultivate inner focus. For example, some students are given a “biodot” to wear during tests. This device changes color as blood flow underneath the skin changes to alert kids when they have become anxious and thus may need to take a calming break to think more clearly.
Cognitive empathy (reading others’ thoughts) and emotional empathy (understanding people’s feelings) help us build rapport with others and feel compassion. This other focus is a critical skill across professions—executives who listen to their coworkers are less likely to be resented; surgeons with more caring and less domineering voices are less likely to be sued. Goleman sites Tania Singer’s work showing that when we empathize we feel the other person’s pain on a physiological level; the same brain region that is activated for feeling our own pain—the anterior insula—responds to feeling the pain of others.
Successful people hone what Goleman refers to as outer focus. They are forward-thinking, and they make decisions to increase efficiencies across whole, interconnected systems—even when the components of those systems are distant from one another in space or time. This kind of system thinking generally does not come naturally. Some of the most intractable problems we face today, such as global warming, are ones that require system thinking. Because outer focus is so critical, Goleman argues for teaching children systems thinking in schools. For example, an integrated lesson about pollution and environmental issues could be taught across science and social science disciplines.
Goleman emphasizes the importance of attention that is deliberate and effortful (top-down) because in a focused state people are generally happier, and they produce better work. However, he does acknowledge the value of fast-paced automatic attention (bottom-up). Mind wandering, our default mode of thinking, can offer flashes of insight that solve complex problems we are passively pondering. It has been associated with creativity.
Every person is or can be a leader, whether of a giant corporation or of one’s family. Goleman argues that to lead effectively we must integrate inner, other, and outer focus. We must be able to listen to our own instincts and to be able to push ourselves to engage in high-quality practice. We must be able to read others’ thoughts and emotions to ensure that those we lead feel satisfied and fulfilled. Finally, exceptional leaders vigilantly monitor emerging trends. They understand how their organization affects and is affected by those trends. They see the critical goals, direct others’ attention to those goals, and possess the courage to look past the immediate in order to make the decisions that are best in the long run. A brilliant leader utilizes his focused mind to lead with passion.
Goleman, D. (2013). Focus: The hidden driver of excellence. Bloomsbury Publishing.
The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age, by Catherine Steiner-Adair and Teresa Barker
The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age, by Catherine Steiner-Adair and Teresa Barker, provides insights about managing family life and rearing healthy children from infancy through teenage years amidst the omnipresence of technology. Steiner-Adair recognizes that technology can be a constructive learning and socializing tool—it allows us to see and speak to faraway family and enables us to learn at any time and from anywhere. However, she urges parents to be measured about their own use of technology and about the influence they let technology assert in their children’s lives. Steiner-Adair draws on her experience as a clinical psychologist, school consultant, and clinical instructor at the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School to sprinkle The Big Disconnect with illuminative personal stories from her clients.
Steiner-Adair labels technology and media as addictive, ubiquitous, laden with damaging content, fast-paced, permanent, and invasive. We are all hyperconnected all the time, and yet we are also less present in the moment and less comfortable with face-to-face interactions. Intimacy gives way to superficial social connections, which (among other problems) facilitates more vicious bullying. Children may perceive parents who are distracted by technology as emotionally unavailable. Children who get less practice with in-person interactions get less training in interpreting conversational nuances, and those with an iPad always in-hand get less practice in learning to play creatively on their own. Further, technology makes cynical, stereotype-ridden, violent, and sexual adult content intrusively present to even the most innocent children. Finally, technology assumes quick decision-making. These decisions, however, can have serious and permanent consequences (e.g., kids making expensive purchases online without their parents’ knowledge or posting cruel content about a peer that can go viral and damage that person’s reputation). The incessant blinking and buzzing in modern technology may contribute to the increased prevalence of ADHD as technology cultivates children who are more distracted.
Steiner Adair outlines the risks and challenges associated with technology usage for five age groups of childhood. She believes that there is absolutely no productive role technology can play in the life of a baby under two years old, and she goes so far as to suggest that electronics should come with warning labels stating that they may be hazardous to a baby’s development. For preschoolers, Steiner-Adair says that some technology can contribute positively to development (e.g., Sesame Street), but most shows, even those targeted to this age group, contain harmful messages. Technology use among children five and under can make them less persistent learners, less creative in their free play, less facile and empathic communicators. It can have an addictive quality to it. Steiner-Adair says that media consumption among non-white and female children ages six to ten negatively impacts their self-esteem and introduces gender-stereotypical, homophobic, and violent messages. For children under ten a vital message a parent can impart is that her child should always tell her what she has seen online, even if the child feels embarrassed.
Tweens and teens are consumed by their social media personas during a time when their real-life identity is developing. The Internet has emerged as the primary, albeit deficient, source of sex education for tweens. The average American child sees pornography by age 11. The media teach tweens and teens about a problematic “friends with benefits” model of romantic relationships that separates physical intimacy and interpersonal social interactions. Teens send sexually explicit texts (“sext”) as a way of courting one another. In response, Steiner-Adair offers a script that parents can use with male and female tweens and teens to discuss how to form healthy romantic and sexual connections and how to avoid being “friends with benefits.” Given the pervasiveness of technology in tweens and teens’ lives, Steiner-Adair argues that more important than limiting adolescents’ use of technology, is teaching them about appropriate use. The same questions that parents might ask a teen before he is allowed to use the car (who, what, where, and when) should be asked of a teen about his technology usage.
Steiner-Adair offers recommendations about how to be an approachable parent (i.e., how not to be a parent a child would describe as “scary, crazy, or clueless”). She recommends creating an “amnesty policy”: parents will not get mad if the child admits to having gotten in trouble online. Parents should model for their children the tech rules that their children should follow. Steiner-Adair ends by saying strong families are those that are deeply connected. These families play together across generations, have conversations about feelings and values, learn how to disagree constructively, appreciate each family member for his or her unique qualities, and spend time with one another with and without technology.
The Big Disconnect is an insightful guide for parents that offers advice about using technology to our advantage and knowing when to unplug.
Steiner-Adair, C., & Barker, T. H. (2013). The big disconnect: Protecting childhood and family relationships in the digital age. Harper Business.
The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand The Unconscious In Art, Mind, and Brain From Vienna 1900 to The Present by Eric Kandel
Artists and neuroscientists alike will be drawn to The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand The Unconscious In Art, Mind, and Brain From Vienna 1900 to The Present. Author Dr. Eric Kandel, a Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics at the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University and Nobel Laureate in Medicine, argues that the time is ripe to pursue questions in a new, interdisciplinary field of neuroaesthetics. This field would address neuroscientific questions about how the brain processes perceptual information, especially when that information carries emotional salience. Also, neuroaesthetics would help artists understand more deeply the critical aspects of emotion and the perceptual information that captivate the mind and brain. The field could ultimately lead to new and creative art forms.
Kandel uses turn-of-the-20th century Vienna as an exemplar of the productivity of a cultural and intellectual milieu that facilitates cross-pollination among painters, writers, psychologists, doctors, and other intellectuals. Using the tools of their respective disciplines, Vienna’s elites began exploring unconscious human mental states. They turned inward to grapple with their own internal emotional and thought processes. Social gatherings at salons, like those hosted by Berta Zuckerkandl, were fertile ground for the exchange of ideas. Among the Viennese intellectuals Kandel examines are: Carl Von Rokitansky, a doctor who espoused the view that medicine should be rooted in sciences (rather than philosophy) and pioneered the practice of literally looking inside a person to understand disease; Arthur Schnitzler, a Viennese writer whose works focused on themes of eroticism and relied on stream-of-conscience and inner monologues; and Sigmund Freud, who is well-known for delving into deeply rooted human motivations and desires.
Kandel focuses in particular on three Viennese modernist painters: Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoscka, and Egon Schiele. Through their portraits they showed what an emotion feels like and how it is experienced. They depicted faces, often with emotionally ambiguous expressions. The brain’s processing of faces is well researched. Nancy Kanwisher’s research from about a decade ago suggested that there is a particular region in the inferior temporal cortex of the brain, known as the fusiform face area, that responds strongly and specifically to viewing faces. Kandel draws on the fact that both art and neuroscience have a deep understanding of the importance of faces in order to help illustrate the ways in which art and psychological and brain sciences can learn from one another. Portraiture may serve an evolutionary purpose by offering practice in reading faces, a skill that psychologists suggest is important for using clues about avoiding threats and finding rewards.
Alois Riegl, an art historian in Vienna, introduced an idea now known as the “beholder’s share”. Riegl believed that there is a collaboration between an artist and the viewer of his art; without both parties, the artwork is incomplete. This idea is compatible also with the German Gestalt psychology movement, which created abstruse images in which it is possible to see two different objects (e.g., the Rubin Vase that depicts either a vase or the profile of two men facing one another). In this way, the viewer’s mind fashions the image that he sees as much as the image’s creator chooses the subject of the image. Kandel states that what we perceive about the outside world is as much inferred as it is observed.
Kandel details the brain and neuronal bases for our perceptual abilities. Vision begins in the eye and the optic nerve and involves several brain areas (including the lateral geniculate nucleus of the thalamus and the primary visual cortex in the occipital lobe). He describes the function of photoreceptor cells called rods and cones; rods detect light and the three different types of cones facilitate color discrimination. Kandel describes the cues we instinctively use to understand depth, like comparing the relative size of objects or comparing the size of an unfamiliar object to a familiar one. Artists draw on these visual habits and use lines and contours to help viewers perceive three-dimensional shapes on a two-dimensional surface.
Just as the modernist artists explored how people experience emotions, so too have biologists, psychologists, and neuroscientists examined how the brain and body process emotions. Klimt, Kokoschka, and Shiele were able to reveal their subjects’ internal feelings. Neuoroscience suggests that mirror neurons help us imitate another person’s behavior, which is a first step in developing a theory of mind—the ability to understand another’s internal thoughts and goals.
Kandel argues that through various means artists and scientists try to reduce the world to its component parts in order to make it more comprehensible. This newly proposed field of neuroaesthetics might shed light on the nature of conscious and unconscious thought, the nature of creativity, and the relation between consciousness and creativity. Kandel calls for the recreation of environments like the Zuckerkandl salon with the fluid exchange of ideas across disciplines. Neuroscientists, artists, and beholders of art alike will benefit from attempting to bridge the chasm between science and art.
Smart Thinking: Three Essential Keys to Solve Problems, Innovate, and Get Things Done by Art Markman
In Smart Thinking: Three Essential Keys to Solve Problems, Innovate, and Get Things Done, Art Markman draws on psychological and cognitive scientific principles to provide a general audience with techniques for changing mental habits, improving memory formation, and refining decision-making skills. Smart thinking, he argues, is based upon the wise use of the information one possesses to pursue a goal. Smart thinking is not raw intelligence or test taking ability.
Effective habits are key to smart thinking. Repetition, environmental cues, and distinctive actions facilitate habit formation. Eliminating bad habits by relying on willpower is extremely taxing; rather, one should replace bad habits with good behaviors through changes in the environment. A “habit diary” can help a person track her progress toward habit change.
A person cannot process—let alone remember—all the information to which he is exposed, but he can use a few techniques to be strategic about what he will remember. For example, whether preparing oneself to remember written or oral information or preparing others to remember the information one will present, we can aid memory by providing a preview, sticking to three main points, and reviewing key information. Also, being mentally present and resisting the cultural habit of multi-tasking are important for remembering. Markman asserts that we are more likely to remember information if it is meaningful and related to already known concepts. It can be recalled most easily when we are in a state similar to the state we were in when we learned it originally. If upon initially learning new information we experience some “desirable difficulty,” we are more likely to retain that information since we had to work to understand it.
We can bolster our ability to learn, remember, and innovate by asking the question “why” and answering this question when teaching others. It is important to ask oneself “why” questions given that people overestimate the extent to which they understand a concept. In the spirit of learning and with a friendly and non-accusatory disposition, people should ask others “why” when that speaker explains a new concept or uses new, unique terminology.
Effective decision-making is the third key component of smart thinking. Markman suggests his readers familiarize themselves with their decision-making style or their “need for closure” in deciding among options. Swift decision makers may need to take time to fully consider potential creative solutions and cool-off before committing to a course of action; painstakingly deliberate decision makers should learn to commit to a solution and recognize the futility of generating endless options. Decision makers should ensure that they clearly understand the situation about which they need to make a decision, which may require recasting the problem in different terms. People should elicit help from others in identifying issues they may have overlooked. Analogies are a powerful way to structure people’s beliefs and projections about situations. Proverbs (and stories and jokes) are a pithy and effective way of drawing an analogy. Markman even suggests his readers study lists of proverbs to improve their understanding of the key relations in a situation. Diagrams and gestures can be a more effective way of expressing a problem or the steps to a solution than words alone.
Finally, in the interdependent culture in which most people will find themselves (including in the corporate world), an organization’s “smart thinking” is critical. People tend to adopt the goals and actions exhibited by those around them. Accordingly, organizations should help their members reflect on how they think, stretch them to learn, be encouraging of new ideas and questions, probe for deep explanations, discourage multitasking, and encourage an attitude of “we” not “I.”
In addition to improving habits, memory, and decision making, Markman scatters throughout the book “instantly smarter” tips that one can implement immediately to improve thinking. Among his suggestions are: get a good night’s sleep; listen to your emotional reactions when making decisions; if you do not know something important, then identify the people who would possess that information; and if you struggle to remember something, stop thinking about it and the solution may come to you.
With a clear structure and relatable examples, Markman provides easily digestible tips to improve our habits of mind and to execute Smart Thinking.
Scott Barry Kaufman, the author of Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined, is a cognitive psychologist and was a student in special education classes. As a student enormously impacted by intelligence testing and labels, he presents the enduring emotional impact that a learning disability diagnosis and IQ testing had on him; as an Intelligence researcher, Kaufman traces the history of defining and testing intelligence, delineates other personal qualities key to success, and ultimately proposes a new definition of intelligence that aims to help each individual thrive.
Kaufman presents the continuing disagreement about what constitutes intelligence. Some intelligence scholars, such as Charles Spearman, conceived of intelligence as a single entity, a general intelligence. Others, like Howard Gardner, believe that there are in fact multiple (seven or more) independent “intelligences” that a person might posses.
Since Alfred Binet’s first modern IQ test there have been numerous iterations of IQ tests, but all are imperfect measures of intelligence. There is substantial variability in an individual’s IQ score both between two administrations of the same IQ test and among various different IQ tests. Kaufman challenges the practice of summarizing a person’s intelligence based on a test that lasts only a few hours, that asks decontextualized questions that may be dissimilar to an individual’s everyday experiences, and that offers little opportunity for practice. In addition, a test-taker’s score can be affected by her anxiety or by stereotype threat (the phenomenon in which a person’s fear of confirming a culturally relevant stereotype can make him perform in a stereotype consistent manner).
There is variation in conceptualizations and determinations of giftedness. While our federal definition includes 6 distinct abilities (intellect, academic aptitude, creativity, leadership, artistic skill, and psychomotor ability) states vary considerably in how they operationalize giftedness. Most states rely on IQ tests to determine giftedness, and no state includes measures of motivation in giftedness determinations. This perpetuates a view that intelligence is fixed and that giftedness is a trait one does or does not possess rather than that a student can act gifted. The Matthew Effect sets in; those labelled as gifted become genuinely more gifted. Conversely, students with a learning disability may become less interested in school and perform less well than they would otherwise.
Kaufman’s examples of people with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), dyslexia, ADHD, Bipolar disorder, Schizophrenia/schizotypal traits, prodigies, and savants speak to the problem of relying on IQ measurements to determine a person’s strengths or potential. For example, a boy known as NP, was an extraordinary musical savant, and yet he had an IQ in the 60s. The deficits in social skills that people with ASD typically display can virtually disappear if the person discusses a topic of special interest. People on the schizophrenia spectrum are more creative than people without these diagnoses. All students, Kaufman argues, should be given resources and opportunities to demonstrate their strengths, even if they are atypical gifts.
Study after study finds that various personal characteristics and beliefs are better predictors of success than intelligence alone. Kaufman embraces Adele Diamond’s argument that a student will reach his highest academic potential when schools invest in his full development as a social, emotional, and physical being. A person’s motivation to succeed and persistence in working towards a goal even in the face of set-backs (grit) best distinguishes and predicts the highest achievers. Those with a growth mindset, a belief that their skills and intelligence can be improved, are indeed more likely than those that believe intelligence is fixed to seek out challenging tasks and to process deeply feedback from these tasks. Kaufman sites research suggesting that more so than IQ, hope was related to academic success. Self-regulation skills are critical for success as early as preschool and are predictive of important later life outcomes like substance abuse, financial prudence, and criminal convictions.
Kaufman believes that intelligence must be redefined. He offers the Theory of Personal Intelligence, that is, “Intelligence is the dynamic interplay of engagement and abilities in pursuit of personal goals.”
Intelligence, he argues, should be measured relative to one’s self and one’s aims, not relative to other people. We can recognize each student’s gifts without diminishing the greatness of any other student’s talents. Any behavior that helps a person achieve her goals is an intelligent behavior; as such, personal characteristics like grit are included in Kaufman’s Theory of Personal Intelligence. All students should be encouraged to set lofty goals. Fostering the skills (i.e., perseverance, communication, emotional intuition, self-regulation, creative thinking) required to achieve these ambitious goals will benefit all learners more than enforcing strict test score thresholds. When all students are provided with the academic and social skills necessary for success, when students are no longer deemed gifted or not, and when our educational structure is “ungifted,” we will help the most students reach their fullest potential.
In World Class Learners, Dr. Yong Zhao stresses the dire need of today’s schools to branch out from the required curriculum of core standards to introduce the entrepreneurial skills needed to succeed in the modern world. He explains that the school system originated as a way to train a community of people to work in a local setting, usually requiring the same skill set for each person. In contrast, today’s students need diverse skills to succeed in a global and technologically-connected community, particularly the skills of creativity and innovation. Yet schools are doing the opposite and are focusing on international benchmarks such as the PISA test. Countries worldwide are enforcing assessments that are becoming the new gold standard. In doing so, content is homogenized and teachers are confronted with curriculum narrowing, or fewer opportunities to expose students to diverse content as they are forced to “teach to the test”. As a result, instructional quality declines and teachers as well as students become disengaged in school.
Zhao provides significant evidence displaying the decline in creativity in the United States. The abilities of producing unique and unusual ideas, elaborating, reflecting, as well as intellectual curiosity and open-mindedness have all decreased over the past twenty years. Recently the focus has been on creating common core standards in order to raise the quality of education, but Zhao believes that diverse opportunities for individual learning and innovation create a true, worthwhile education. This focus on innovation will scaffold students to become future entrepreneurs, like Steve Jobs or Suhas Gopinath. Zhao clarifies that entrepreneurs are not just necessary for capital gain but can benefit society as social or policy entrepreneurs. Additionally, there are intrapreneurs working within a company or infrastructure to make radical changes through innovation and cogent risk-taking.
Enter the rise of entrepreneurship education. Harvard offers an entrepreneurial manager course as part of its MBA program. Fortunately. our students need not attend Harvard nor get their MBA, though both would be commendable. Classroom teachers of any age range can offer students the opportunity to learn entrepreneurial skills, but, as the author warns, without making it a forced part of the curriculum and crushing the entrepreneurial spirit. Zhao recommends student-centered learning in which the student is a “purposeful agent” of learning. Education should then pertain to what each student is interested in, capable of and curious about.
Zhao recognizes the difficulty for teachers to move away from the prescribed, easily controlled curriculum to which they are accustomed. And, in the age of accountability, teachers who give students freedom in learning or allow children to do what they want are seen as irresponsible or lazy. But when students become responsible for their own learning and study what they are truly interested in, they become engaged in their own education. They learn to create “work that matters”.
Zhao focuses on project or problem-based learning (PBL) to allow students the autonomy to manage their own learning. He categorizes PBL into three models: the traditional academic model – focused on standards; a mixed model – focused on content and skills via different media; and the entrepreneurial model – focused on a high quality end-product or service to meet an actual need of the class or community. The significance of the entrepreneurial model is to celebrate students’ creativity and individual talents as well as to prepare students for real world situations and becoming global entrepreneurs.
In World Class Learners, Dr. Zhao unfolds all aspects of entrepreneurship, ranging from crowd-sourcing to genetics. He provides a worldwide look at the current educational climate, the entrepreneurial skills needed to be successful in life, as well as the “how” of making it happen in your classroom.
Boosting Executive Skills in the Classroom: A Practical Guide for Educators by Joyce Cooper-Kahn and Margaret Foster
All teachers must deal with students who are unable to get organized, meet due dates, and plan ahead. Boosting Executive Skills in the Classroom: A Practical Guide for Educators is a concise, explicable guide that provides the necessary background and strategies for teachers to help these students. The root of these issues lies in the brain’s Executive Functions (EF), also known as executive skills. These skills are the controlling processes we use to organize, plan, and make decisions, all to achieve a specific goal. Cooper-Kahn and Foster explain the complex concept of EF in terms applicable to the classroom environment, and provide countless approaches to strengthen these skills in students with executive weaknesses.
In Part I of the book, the authors break down EF and its components. Though neuroscientists would describe these terms differently, Cooper-Kahn and Foster organize the categories of EF in observable, classroom terms which include: planning and organizing, emotional control, self-monitoring, (task) initiation and shifting, task monitoring, inhibition and working memory. Someday these categories may be included on report cards under study skills or behavior. In typical children, their EF skills generally grow over time at the same rate as their level of academic challenge. In lower elementary school, younger children are building basic skills to manage themselves. With maturation, older students learn to absorb and process what is going on around them and, with practice, respond appropriately and independently to their environment.
Even with maturation, paying attention to the world around them can be difficult for some students. Effortful, selective attention is a resource that can be depleted. As a student uses his or her energy to pay attention to accomplishing a goal, the energy stores decrease. With unforeseen challenges, the energy may be used up faster than anticipated and it may be harder to regulate some executive functions. This effect is especially salient for children with certain conditions. The authors discuss common executive weaknesses observed in children with ADHD, ASD, specific learning disabilities, chronic stress, depression and anxiety. The given descriptions are key characteristics that teachers will encounter from year to year.
Regardless of existing conditions, Cooper-Kahn and Foster stress the importance of healthy habits to support proper EF development. They clarify that healthy habits will not miraculously alleviate all EF troubles, but poor health choices can worsen certain problems. Daily exercise, sound sleep, and good nutrition can create an optimal environment for the brain to carry out executive skills. Other healthy behaviors allow for “brain breaks” to de-stress. One example is ART (attention restoration therapy) which can include taking a walk in nature or meditating to decompress.
The essence of Part II is the How, i.e. how to successfully implement practices that support EF growth. The authors first target general classroom practices to help about 80% of students improve in EF. With consistent use of a purposeful combination of techniques, each student will make vast improvements. The foci of implementation are on classroom culture, mindful planning, dependable routines and classroom design. Though these may sound familiar to teachers, Cooper-Kahn and Foster offer fresh evidence from current studies to support the practices they advocate. For example, the authors discuss the essential use of planners throughout the book. Providing the planner for students is important but explicitly telling them how to use the planner is the true key to developing strong EF. Discussing the difference between a DUE date and a “DO” date prepares students to plan in advance and organize what needs to be done. This technique applies to projects, tests, and papers as well. Utilizing the planner lowers cognitive load by freeing up working memory capacity and simultaneously reducing anxiety. Therefore more brain energy can be used for higher-level thinking of concepts.
In later chapters, more targeted techniques are discussed for students who need extra support. These activities can be conducted in small groups or one-on-one by the teacher or a specialist. Suggested school-wide changes for administrators are given in the section titled “The EF-Smart School”. While the authors claim to be “old school” in school organization and practice, they offer modern strategies involving useful websites, software, and Apps for students and teachers alike! Moreover, Cooper-Kahn and Foster thoughtfully provide planning pages and graphic organizers for teachers and administrators to get started on their own plans to implement EF strategies. Finally, every scientific article is available in the endnotes for those educators desiring more involved reading.
Joyce Cooper-Kahn and Margaret Foster provide the perfect balance of neuroscience and pragmatic classroom application in Boosting Executive Skills in the Classroom: A Practical Guide for Educators to effectively improve students’ executive skills.
Daniel Goleman is an expert in the area of Emotional Intelligence (EI). His book is ideal for educators trying to understand the emotional system of students as well as their own. Goleman uncovers the defining characteristics of EI, which separate it from general IQ. He lays out his Emotional Intelligence model comprised of four domains: Self Awareness, Self-Management, Social Awareness, and Relationship Management. Based on his own and other leading scientists’ research, Goleman identifies the correlating brain areas and emotional traits to each of these domains.
The first concept of self awareness necessitates an enriching mood in order to process information. To be acutely aware, the mental stage needs to be set. Positive moods indicate increased creativity, problem solving, mental flexibility and efficiency in decision making. One’s mood affects thoughts and decisions. This is especially true for students. Any classroom teacher has seen an upset child unable to work or focus. A disruptive emotional state impacts the processing of information and can be detrimental to learning. While being in a good mood is the general preferred state, negative moods elicit challenges and benefits. Goleman affirms that negatives moods tend to lessen the ability to focus and make sound decisions, stay on task, and create pessimistic bias. Yet with this sour mood comes a greater ability to pay attention to detail, be skeptical, and ask probing questions. Being aware of one’s internal state builds a stronger self awareness.
The next domain, self management, is intrinsically tied to self awareness. By first being aware of emotions and then managing them can lead to being focused and, thus, achievement of goals. Coupled, the two compose self-mastery. Concern arises when emotions are not controlled and self-management is not suitably developing. Goleman states two vital areas of the brain are involved: the amygdala which is the trigger point of emotion and arousal, and the prefrontal cortex which helps in reasoning, inhibition and decision making. An amygdala hijack can occur when a threat is detected and this region takes over the brain. The focus is on that threat and no reasoning or learning can take place. When the amygdala is in overdrive with multiple, concurrent threats, chronic stress ensues. This is termed allostatic load. Significant life changes can cause this, but even social interactions such as negative feedback, facial gestures, and criticism can yield these detrimental effects.
Fortunately, the prefrontal cortex can help regulate emotion by inhibiting the amygdala’s signals. This can be achieved by various techniques ranging from taking the dog for a walk to mindfulness sessions of meditation. Additionally, educators can reduce chronic stress by creating optimal levels of challenge for students, as opposed to stressful levels. The ideal level would move students beyond boredom, into a level of “good stress” where they are engaged and can perform at their best. These findings are reinforced with brain studies. When a person is bored, there is scattered brain activity. When engaged, the relevant brain areas of the task are activated. And when stressed, much of the activity is in irrelevant emotional centers of the brain indicating distractedness.
Goleman suggests three simple techniques to ensure optimal performance. Those in charge can create accommodations to adjust the work demands. This may include increasing work load to raise students into the healthy challenge zone, or reducing the workload and providing more support. Additionally, the scaffolding of developing skills and attention training are pivotal steps to meet the benchmarks required for that level. How to easily detect stressed students? Goleman recommends paying attention to students’ demeanors. If they seem “off”, cranky, bored, unusually inattentive, they may be experiencing anxiety and cannot concentrate.
The final areas of EI, social awareness and managing relationships, are influential in group dynamics and building rapport. As essential as these concepts are, much of these domains are founded on emotional, unspoken feedback between individuals that can exist without words or gestures. Emotions can be passed from person to person and, in a sense, are contagious. Individuals must take responsibility when interacting with others, and ideally, contribute to building a positive rapport in the workplace. Goleman states that three key elements are needed for rapport: full attention, non-verbal synchronization and positive flow. These ingredients bolster overall Emotional Intelligence by supporting increased social awareness and positive relationship building.
In The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights, Goleman provides the perfect balance of current research on brain circuitry with practical application to boost any educators’ prowess about the emotional state of others. He succeeds in proving that Emotional Intelligence is a function separate from IQ, which needs to become public knowledge and be imparted in social/emotional learning curriculums. Many more essential topics of emotion are discussed in this book: the age old question of left vs. right “brained” people, motivation, emotional interactions online, empathy, gender differences and more.
The Learning Brain, Memory and Brain Development in Children by Torkel Klingberg is a great introduction to neuroscience for any teacher interested in the working capacity and memory of her students. Just as teachers learn from their students when problems arise, scientists learn about brain function limitations through injuries, lesions, and viruses. These aberrant cases cover a range of topics on growth and development as well as gene activity in typically developing children and those with ADHD, Asperger’s, dyscalculia, dyslexia and more. Klingberg cites cases from the classroom and from neuroscience’s history to demonstrate the different memory processes and problems that occur in The Learning Brain.
Klingberg begins by explaining the important concept of Working Memory, the brain’s online, active part of our memory system used to do work in the present moment. Klingberg notes that Working Memory and Attention go hand in hand, as one cannot be working on a task without paying attention to it. Both of these functions utilize the front part of the brain located above the eyes, the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex plays an important role in interpreting what the five senses take in as well as associating those sensations with prior experience. Therefore working memory includes holding information in the front of your mind, processing it and relating it to past experience by accessing long-term memory. This complicated process is part of our students’ daily lives during almost every hour of the day.
Teachers typically are most interested in semantic long-term memory, or fact learning. A vital brain structure of working and long-term memory is the hippocampus. Located in both hemispheres of the brain, the hippocampus is responsible for growing new brain cells, or neurons. These new neurons connect to existing ones strengthening the intricate web of connections. The more new cells, the more strongly connected the memories are in long-term memory. Yet long -term memory encompasses different categories: declarative memory, which can include episodic (personal experience), semantic (factual knowledge), and motor (muscle memory).
While lessons may be intriguing to students in the moment, Klingberg points out that neuroscientists have discovered it takes only a few days to forget about 80% of what was initially learned. Reviewing helps refresh memories, but an exact time sequence for review has not been determined. What has been discovered is the “spacing effect”, an prompt review soon after the original concept has been taught, along with repeated reviews spaced out evenly over time until about 90% of the input can be remembered consistently. Another important discovery for educators is that self-testing is one of the best ways to study, so instilling procedures for students to independently review information can be helpful to maintain concepts long-term. These practices strengthen neural connections and build a larger store of prior knowledge.
In addition to building long-term memory, Klingberg discusses the core concepts of math and reading and how they relate to working memory. Multiple, overlapping areas of the brain are active in math, reading, and working memory. Therefore children with strong working memory can have strong reading and math skills. Conversely, children with low working memories often have problems with math, reading and possibly attention. It has been found that about 50% of children with dyscalculia also have problems with reading and writing. Though there is great variation within these populations, Klingberg discusses cognitive training options and resources for teachers and parents to use. For example, the Number Race is a simple, online tool that can be used to detect dyscalculia in children aged 4-8 (www.thenumberrace.com). Other resources and topics to pique interest include stress, stimulating environments, brain training, music, and exercise.
Klingberg offers clear explanations of cognitive processes, practical resources, and foundational research articles for educators intrigued by the complicated processes of The Learning Brain.
Published by Oxford University Press, 2013
Make Your Brain Smarter: Increase Your Brain’s Creativity, Energy and Focus by Sandra Bond Chapman with Shelly Kirkland
Dr. Chapman establishes the critical concept of Brain Power by first and foremost defying the common misconception that intelligence is inherent and cannot be changed over one’s lifespan. She explains that predetermined intelligence is an antiquated concept that does not apply to building a powerful brain. In actuality learning to use one’s brain advantageously, as a resource, will make one smarter. A phrase coined by Chapman, “brainomics” refers to the high returns gained from maximizing brain performance through strategic thinking. There is a detrimental cost associated with low brain performance and, with Chapman’s brain habits, any youth, adult, or elder can avoid this and have better mental productivity.
Throughout the book, Chapman provides thoughtful questions for the reader to assess his or her own brain power. Many of these questions relate to productivity, creativity, and innovation. For example, ‘What is distracting you from being more productive?’ Answering email, unfocused meetings or use of time, as well as constant interruptions are typical answers that deprive people of efficient use of brain power. Creativity and innovation related questions may include ‘Do you think of new ways to find solutions to problems?’. All of these questions target the brain’s executive functions of inhibiting distractions, task switching, manipulating information in working memory, and the flexibility of incorporating new data into previously learned concepts. By answering her prompts, the reader can address the core executive functions that need attention to yield the most “brainomic” reward.
Chapman classifies her nine brain habits into three comprehensible themes: strategic attention, integrated reasoning, and innovation. Strategic attention addresses the issue of focusing on one topic at a time. In a world of multi-tasking pride, blocking distractions and irrelevant information has become challenging. Throughout the book, Chapman provides “Boost your brainpower” tips and one recommendation is attending to an important task for a minimum of fifteen minutes without interruptions. Improved brain power results from training your brain to ignore irrelevant information and focus on the task at hand. To help with strategic attention, Chapman also suggests utilizing 1) the Power of None – quieting your mind to reveal fresh solutions, 2) the Power of One – working on one, and only one, task at a time to build endurance and block distracters, and 3) the Power of Two – identifying the two most important tasks to dedicate a significant amount of time to.
These main tasks are the “elephants”, or the top priorities that will have the biggest long-term impact, or perhaps as in the elephant in the room that one may be avoiding. It is important to allocate the most productive time to these elephants, and not be side tracked with rabbits, or trivial tasks that simply want to want to be check off the list. Chapman suggests that the rabbits always have a way of finding their way back, but the elephants are what need true attention and maintenance.
Integrated reasoning refers to synthesizing information and applying it to new contexts. To be successful at work or in school, a person must absorb new information and transfer it various applicable situations. Chapman explains this ability can be trained and is your brain’s most fundamental asset to success. Some brain training techniques include setting original goals for self and/or workplace, synthesizing new information and summarizing the main ideas from wide-ranging sources, detecting new problems to create effective solutions, and reconsidering outdated principles that inhibit entrepreneurial design. She refers to these features as zooming in (learning the facts), zooming out (summarizing the main ideas), and zooming deep and wide (originate expansive, novel applications) Chapman notes the important distinction between integrated reasoning and disadvantageous routine patterns of thinking; generating unique ideas by incorporating new and old information is a key feature to increase Brain Power.
Innovation requires changing old ways of thinking, practicing imagination and experimentation. You can increase your brain’s power to create by seeking out new perspectives and changing parts of your routine to meet new people, ideas and ways of thinking. This includes not giving in to failure but revamping your outlook and undertaking a new challenge. In turn, creating pivotal changes and insightful ideas will become part of one’s approach to brainstorming and working. Chapman identifies the Brainpower of the Infinite (knowing endless possibilities exist), the Brainpower of the Paradox (learning from mistakes), and the Brainpower of the Unknown (probing and seeking new reasons) as the means to enhance your brain’s creative and innovative capabilities. These brain strategies can be transferred to diverse situations to increase overall brain power no matter the age. Chapman discusses in detail how different life stages have distinct strengths and limitations which can be targeted and manipulated to increase overall brain power.
Make Your Brain Smarter opens the door for enhanced brain function to reach the highest potential in an individual’s Brain Power.