Category Archives: Book Reviews

World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students by Yong Zhao

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.

The Brain and Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman

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 by Torkel Klingberg

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.

inGenius: A Crash Course on Creativity by Tina Seelig

What is the mysterious talent that creative people possess? Tina Seelig answers this question in inGenius: A Crash Course on Creativity.  To some, creativity is an elusive characteristic that is difficult to acquire. But Seelig defines creativity as an innate ability within each person that can be refined, sharpened, and made into a tool. Much like the scientific method, Seelig provides a set of variables that can increase one’s natural creativity.

Seelig initially observes that in today’s world the focus is on being prepared for the future, instead of living in and exploring the present. She suggests that innovative people live in the present, are mindful, and do not fear nor dismiss any new idea. Seelig’s approach, called the Innovation Engine, is centered on six basic concepts looped together with purposeful steps within each concept. Each of these aspects can be cultivated and nurtured.

Three parts of this model reside within any one person: knowledge, imagination, and attitude. Teachers have abundant opportunities to build up knowledge, provide activities for imaginative thinking, and be role models of positive, explorative attitude to help foster creative work in students. With low pressure and high creativity, work is seen as an exciting expedition. Teachers can construct learning expeditions by cultivating engagement and inventiveness within the scope of their lessons. The feedback teachers provide will promote creativity and show that it is valued, thus improving mind-set and attitude.

Three complementary components lay outside an individual: resources, habitat and culture. This habitat design is particularly important for teachers because, as Seelig points out, over the years classroom environments become less inspiring for students. Imagine a kindergarten classroom full of opportunity to create and explore compared with a high school classroom full of bare walls and rows of desks.  Teachers have control over these habitats to develop opportunities for innovation by providing resources and establishing an encouraging classroom culture. On a grander scale, these strategies can also apply to administrators whose faculty works on curriculum design or pedagogical strategy. Seelig provides countless examples on how to arrange spaces to bring about inventive, collaborative brainstorming.

Full of anecdotal stories, inGenius provides real life examples of how to implement the Innovation Engine as it lays out concrete steps adaptable for any environment. Seelig also shares an informal bibliography consisting of motivating books on everything from gaming to writing to venture capitalism for those interested in further study.

inGenius instructs leaders how to liberate their own creativity, as well as advance creative evolution in others.

Why Don’t Students Like School? by Daniel Willingham

                  In Why Don’t Students Like School? Daniel T. Willingham bridges the gap between isolated, laboratory research and busy, chaotic classrooms. He takes a systematic and sympathetic approach to addressing educators’ concerns about daily classroom activities. He sees the responsibilities that educators have to undertake and directly speaks to today’s realities of standardized testing, time constraints, and varying levels of ability in the classroom. Willingham not only provides teachers with current findings in neuroscience, but also validates their own activities and lesson plans. Additionally, there are real action plans that educators can apply in the Implications for the Classroom segment provided at the end of every chapter.

                  Each section begins with a relevant question that could be asked by teachers, principals, school psychologists, specialists, and classroom aides, for example: “Why Is It So Hard for Students to Understand Abstract Ideas?” (Chapter 4), “How Can I Help Slow Learners? (Chapter 8).”  He then links the neuroscience research with the question at hand providing a multitude of examples and explanations.

Willingham introduces Working Memory and Long-term Memory and, like an effective teacher, he scaffolds these ideas into more complex concepts over the course of the book. He discusses how the mind is not made for thinking because the connections are not yet in the brain to solve a problem presented to a student. So each child must think and connect the dots, and therefore the neurons! The next few chapters build upon each other to explain how introducing factual knowledge is necessary for building a foundation before higher order thinking skills can be asked of students.

Willingham goes on to reveal why background knowledge, a.k.a. prior knowledge, is fundamental to critical thinking, reading comprehension, and improving memory by connecting new material with prior knowledge. He covers a multitude of important topics such as forgetting, mnemonic devices, discovery or group learning, teachers’ personal style, practicing drills, and transfer to underscore a few. Particularly useful is the discussion of the visual-auditory-kinesthesia theory as it addresses the ever-popular multiple intelligences from a cognitive viewpoint.

While Daniel Willingham does not have years of personal K-12 classroom experience, his analyses and suggestions for educators are pragmatic and profound. He successfully reaches his goal of providing fundamental cognitive principles that are true in the laboratory and the classroom. Additional resources on a plethora of topics from Daniel Willingham can be found online at: http://www.danielwillingham.com/daniel-willingham-science-and-education-blog.html.

Why Don’t Students Like School? by Daniel T. Willingham, published by Jossey-Bass, 2009.