How To Scaffold Empathy For Kids: Practice Makes Proficient

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Key points

  • Empathy is a teachable skill. Based on repeated practice, synaptic plasticity is key to teaching empathy.
  • What we do or do not practice will shape the neuroarchitecture of our brains as we respond to things in our environment.
  • Parents can scaffold difficult social concepts by breaking situations into small chunks and providing tools to make learning easier.

I perched on the edge of an undersized plastic chair across from my daughter’s teacher at our first elementary parent/teacher conference of the year. “Your daughter listens well and is so well behaved, but her reading level is not exactly where it needs to be, and she’s having trouble with some math skills. But she is very sweet and kind, and that’s so important too—you can’t teach those things, but don’t worry, we can teach her the math and reading.

It’s the Oreo cookie approach to giving parents bad news—They sneak the negative in as white filling surrounded by thin wafers of good. But as a neuroscientist, I was stunned by the complete inaccuracy of the last statement.Of course, you can teach those things. You can teach empathy, teach kindness, and respect. These are not innate talents or solely genetic gifts. They are teachable skills.

We understand how learning works for things like 2+2=4 pretty well. Teachers typically use active participation and frequent practice spaced out over a period of time to teach classroom content. But there aren’t special neuroscience rules to help learn empathy, creativity, or countless other life skills–they follow the exact brain mechanisms as learning math facts.

There are spines on the edges of neurons that mediate synaptic connections between neurons and govern how we learn. In kids, the spines are super dynamic. They appear or retract based on experience and how frequently they are used. If you keep using a pathway, the spines are more likely to stick around. This results in the reshaping of synapses and long-term learning.

That school conference was a moment of profound insight into the bare-bones social skills my daughter was (not) learning at school, and it explained a lot about why her perfect classroom presence was completely train-wrecked when she got home from school.

I knew the social landscape of this classroom was terrible. A girl in my daughter’s class plays a game called “bus,” where the other girls line up to take rides on her back at recess. The girl is the bus, and she carries passengers around. It looks benign to the teachers who stand and monitor play at recess. But in this game, the girl charges for rides. Usually, the fare is an imaginary five cents, but my daughter gets charged $100 to take her ride every time. Why? Because the girl said, my 20th percentile weight daughter is just too heavy.

I knew complaints were flowing in about the class social situation—It wasn’t just the “bus” game. Another parent, fed up with her daughter being picked on, made T-shirts that said the girl was a bully and tried to pass them out at school. This is the real reason I was at the parent/teacher conference. Yet, when I brought it up, I quickly detected a relatively new teacher overwhelmed with classroom dynamics who was grateful for an “easy,” compliant kid. I saw a classroom in which my daughter was figuring out how to react to bad social situations on her own and failing.

It’s here that parents need to think carefully about the qualities we want our children to possess and then consistently and purposefully create opportunities for our kids to practice those skills. Deliberate parenting will make children who live deliberate lives. In my daughter’s classroom, I could see that math was being practiced—there were even memorized arithmetic songs.

But they were not teaching kindness, conflict resolution, or even problem solving, which are the things I prioritize as a parent—the building blocks of empathy. The school is not just relying on parents to teach empathy at home. They are actually assuming that kids either come in with these skills, or they don’t get them. If, in turn, parents think kids are getting social skills at school, then all our kids drop through a crevice.

My daughter saw two choices with the bully in her class: Confront her or tell on her. Unable to do either, she felt completely stuck when the girl price gouged her on the playground. With repeated practice, she is learning to stand there and internalize it.

Those are not the synapses I want firing in her, so I taught my daughter how to practice empathy. It’s not just the queen bee who needs to be taught empathy. Cognitive empathy is a powerful skill, and it’s the underdog that needs powerful skills.

First, I asked my daughter to explain the girl’s actions as if she were her best friend. “I guess she feels like she doesn’t want to be alone on the playground, so she’s in charge, and if she’s in charge, she can decide which friends to have.”

Next, my daughter became a detective, looking for body language to find motivation and predict patterns in the girl’s behavior. Even at age seven, becoming a social sleuth enabled her to understand the situation better. This gave her back a measure of personal control, and eventually, the power to speak up for herself, instead of standing there, glued to the asphalt, feeling terrible.

Then, we learned conflict resolution skills the same way as math, using active participation and frequent practice spaced out over time. I became the girl, and in our living room, I rudely charged my daughter $100 a ride until her reactions to it were second nature.

We came up with a system so she could be heard in these situations: STAFF:

  • Say how you feel.
  • Tell them it’s not okay.
  • Ask for what you want to have happened.
  • Find a friend.

She wasn’t frozen—she knew what to say, and it rolled off her tongue. There was a scaffolding to cling to. We used these social skill pathways repeatedly—on our terms—until spines had formed between newly used neurons, the pathways were solidified, and learning had happened.

Since neuronal connections that have been used are more likely to fire the next time, it’s second nature for her now. If we expect our children to be socially independent and to do it well, they need tools to do it with.

Neuroscience tells us that practice defines us as people, that the pathways we choose define our nature. Activity influences the brain’s architecture, and this neural plasticity is constantly occurring, even when they are still watching TV, eating dinner, or choosing which birthday present to open first. These spines are actively growing and shrinking, and the experiences are actually turning on and off genes that support this process.

Eventually, the neuronal pathways we use most become more likely to fire as our “default” setting. In essence, we practice being ourselves until we become who we are. Viewed through this lens, every moment is a critical period to teach critical skills important to us—skills like creativity, self-control, social awareness, and compassion.

Several proven social learning curricula target empathy, social learning, and conflict resolution skills in the classroom that have gotten great results that last for years, including roots of empathy (K-8), positive action (K-12), and responsive classroom (K-5). Still, you don’t have to wait for the teachers to do it. The window for explosive synaptic formation doesn’t close when children hit elementary school or even high school.

Social connections are being formed even more so in tween and high school kids, continuing into adulthood. Your child’s critical period for development is now. There’s no bad age to start working on these skills, and there’s no one correct way to do it, as long as you’re consistently practicing and folding it into your everyday life.

Find a way that works for your family, and if you’re consciously empathetic in spirit, then it will seep into your child.

By: Erin Clabough, Ph.D.

Erin is a neurobiologist, author, mother, and professor interested in understanding neurodevelopment in children.

Reviewed by Vanessa Lancaster

Source: How to Scaffold Empathy for Kids: Practice Makes Proficient | Psychology Today

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Game of Tongues: How Duolingo Built A $700 Million Business With Its Addictive Language-Learning App

Slack off on your daily Spanish lesson and a cellphone alert will auto-generate at the same time you used the app the day before. Duo appears on your screen as an emoji, nagging you to keep up with your drills.

Millions obey Duo’s commands. Created seven years ago by MacArthur “genius” computer geek Luis von Ahn, 40, Duolingo has hooked everyone from Bill Gates, Khloe Kardashian and Jack Dorsey to Syrian refugees in Turkey.

“The moment I felt proudest was when I realized, Wow, the richest man in the world is using the same system as the lowest people on the economic scale,” says Von Ahn. “That is for me really special and pretty big.”

Duolingo has lots of room to grow bigger still. More than 2 billion people worldwide are studying a foreign language, and increasingly they are doing it online. Digital language-learning generates $6 billion in revenue, and that number is projected to rise to $8.7 billion by 2025. But it’s a highly fragmented market with dozens of players scattered around the globe, and it’s begging for a dominant one.

Von Ahn certainly knows how to execute on a grand scale. When he was a 21-year-old grad student he gave the world CAPTCHA—better known to billions of internet users as those annoying squiggly letters that you have to transcribe to prove that you are not a bot. Later he sold two inventions to Google, netting more than $20 million.

He splurged on a Lamborghini and a Tesla Model S but otherwise leads a modest life, remaining in the six-bedroom house he bought with his ex-wife in Pittsburgh’s Point Breeze neighborhood, close to Duolingo’s offices. “I could have gone to Guatemala to live in a villa, but I didn’t want to,” he says. Instead, he has thrown himself into building the world’s most downloaded education app.

Duolingo already offers more languages than its competitors do, 36 at last count. They include little-spoken tongues like Hawaiian, Navajo and Gaelic and the fictional language High Valyrian from the HBO blockbuster Game of Thrones (1.2 million users are studying it). À la Wikipedia, Duolingo enlists volunteers to help create its more obscure courses.

Seven years after its launch, it has nearly 30 million active monthly users, according to its own figures. Venture capitalists have pumped in $108 million, ballooning Duolingo’s valuation to $700 million in 2017, $150 million more than the market capitalization of Rosetta Stone, its 27-year-old publicly traded rival.

Along with teaching more languages (Rosetta Stone offers 25), Duolingo attracts users because its basic ad-supported version is free, compared with the $120 a year Rosetta Stone charges its 500,000 subscribers. Another competitor, Berlin-based Babbel, says its revenue of more than $115 million comes from the $85-a-year subscription fee it charges its million-plus subscribers.

Only 1.75% of Duolingo’s users pay for its ad-free version ($84 a year), but because its base is so huge, revenue hit $36 million last year. Von Ahn says that will climb to $86 million in 2019 and $160 million in 2020 as more users sign on and pay for the premium app, which will attract them with new features. Employee head count will rise from 170 to 200 by year’s end.

Duolingo’s headquarters, in a converted furniture store in East Liberty, a gentrifying neighborhood not far from Google’s Pittsburgh office, is set to expand to a second floor. The company isn’t profitable, but Von Ahn says it will be cash-flow positive this year. He is planning an IPO by 2021.

He likes to say that the money he forfeits giving away the app is equivalent to the cost of his rivals’ bloated marketing budgets. He also boasts that users are less likely to quit Duolingo than they are to bail out of competing language apps. “Our retention is comparable to games,” he says.

The comparison is apt. Duolingo grabs users with gamification tricks like points, treasure chests and “streaks” for continuous use. The app’s three-minute lessons are designed with a simple interface. In a typical exercise, the sentence “I eat bread” appears above seven bubbled words. Drag the words onto a line, hit “check” and “You are correct” appears at the bottom of the screen with a satisfying chime. Fans tweet about funny sentences generated by the software, like “I am selling my mother-in-law for a euro.”

Duolingo has gotten bad press from writers who try the app and don’t learn much. But Von Ahn promises only to get users to a level between advanced beginner and early intermediate. “A significant portion of our users use it because it’s fun and it’s not a complete waste of time,” he says….Read more

In February 2018, I took on a new job managing and writing Forbes’ education coverage. I’d spent the previous two years on the Entrepreneurs team

Source: Game of Tongues: How Duolingo Built A $700 Million Business With Its Addictive Language-Learning App

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Teachers Are Not Prepared For Students With Special Needs

Students in Montclair State University’s dual-certification program (Jackie Mader / Hechinger Report)

Strong progress has been made to integrate students with disabilities into general-education classrooms. Educator instruction hasn’t kept up. When Mary Fair became a teacher in 2012, her classes often contained a mix of special-education students and general-education students. Placing children with and without disabilities in the same classroom, instead of segregating them, was a growing national trend, spurred by lawsuits by special-education advocates.

But in those early days, Fair had no idea how to handle her students with disabilities, whose educational challenges ranged from learning deficits to behavioral disturbance disorders. Calling out a child with a behavioral disability in front of the class usually backfired and made the situation worse. They saw it as “an attack and a disrespect issue,” Fair said.

Over time, Fair figured out how to navigate these situations and talk students “down from the ledge.” She also learned how to keep students with disabilities on task and break down lessons into smaller, easier bits of information for those who were struggling.

No one taught her these strategies. Although she earned a bachelor’s degree and teaching certificate in math instruction for both elementary and middle school, she never had to take a class about students with disabilities. She was left to figure it out on the job.

Many teacher-education programs offer just one class about students with disabilities to their general-education teachers, “Special Ed 101,” as it’s called at one New Jersey college. It’s not enough to equip teachers for a roomful of children who can range from the gifted to students who read far below grade level due to a learning disability.

A study in 2007 found that general-education teachers in a teacher-preparation program reported taking an average of 1.5 courses focusing on inclusion or special education, compared to about 11 courses for special-education teachers. Educators say little has changed since then.

A 2009 study concluded that no one explicitly shows teachers how to teach to “different needs.” Because of time constraints, the many academic standards that must be taught, and a lack of support, “teachers are not only hesitant to implement individualized instruction, but they do not even know how to do so,” the report stated.

Fair says teacher-preparation programs should be doing more. At the very least, “You should have a special-education class and an English language learner class,” she said. “You’re going to have those students.”

Between 1989 and 2013, the percentage of students with disabilities who were in a general education class for 80 percent or more of the school day increased from about 32 percent to nearly 62 percent. Special-education advocates have been pushing for the change—especially for students who have mild to moderate disabilities like a speech impairment—in some cases by suing school districts.

Some research shows as many as 85 percent of students with disabilities can master general-education content if they receive educational supports. Supports can include access to a special-education teacher, having test questions read aloud, or being allowed to sit in a certain part of the classroom.

Students with disabilities who are placed in general-education classrooms get more instructional time, have fewer absences, and have better post-secondary outcomes. Studies also show there is no negative impact on the academic achievement of non-disabled students in an inclusion classroom; those students benefit socially by forming positive relationships and learning how to be more at ease with a variety of people.

Alla Vayda-Manzo, the principal of Bloomfield Middle School about 30 miles outside of New York City, said she’s seen the benefit of inclusion for students. The school serves about 930 students, nearly 20 percent of whom have a disability, according to state data. When students with disabilities are included in classrooms with their peers, Vayda-Manzo said the high expectations and instructional strategies “lend themselves to those students being more successful than they would be had they been in a separate, self-contained environment.”“It’s not just getting a child included … that is only a small portion of the battle.”

But as more districts move to make classrooms inclusive, they’ve been caught flat footed when it comes to finding teachers prepared to make the shift. Academic outcomes for students with disabilities have remained stagnant for years, even as more students with special needs are integrated into general-education classrooms. Students with disabilities are less likely to graduate and more likely to earn an alternate diploma that is not equivalent to a general diploma in the eyes of many colleges and employers. And year after year, they score far lower than their peers on standardized exams.

Experts say the problem is that it takes much more than just placing students with disabilities next to their general-education peers: Teachers must have the time, support, and training to provide a high-quality education based on a student’s needs.

Mike Flom, a parent and co-founder of the advocacy group New Jersey Parents and Teachers for Appropriate Education, said many factors impact inclusion’s effectiveness. His twin sons, now in seventh grade, were placed in an inclusion classroom beginning in fifth grade. Initially, Flom said his sons had “mixed reviews” on whether inclusion was beneficial.

“I think the teachers were really motivated to be helpful,” Flom said. “I don’t know the extent to which they were permitted to do the things, or had enough training to do the things, that were required to be more effective.”“It’s not just getting a child included … that is only a small portion of the battle,” he added.

These days, Mary Fair navigates her classrooms with ease. She has learned through experience how to teach students with a variety of disabilities and works with a veteran special-education teacher to modify lesson plans and tests.

On a recent morning in a seventh-grade math-inclusion classroom at Bloomfield Middle School, Fair and her co-teacher, the special-education teacher Christina Rodriguez, started a lesson on the order of operations.

Fair stepped up to the front of the classroom as Rodriguez circulated to make sure students were on task.“We’re starting order of operations,” Fair said. “It’s something you did in sixth grade, but today we are doing it differently.”“Ms. Fair, I want to see if they remember,” Rodriguez said to Fair, who smiled and nodded.“Put your hand up if you remember what the order of operations is,” Rodriguez said.More than half of the students raised their hands

“Who remembers ‘PEMDAS’?” Rodriguez asked, referring to the mnemonic device used to remember order of operations (Parentheses, Exponents, Multiplication and Division, Addition and Subtraction). More students eagerly shot their hands in the air.

Fair cut in and explained that although they learned PEMDAS in sixth grade, they were going to learn a new rule about the order of operations today. “Take your yellow paper and fold it horizontally,” Fair said, referring to a yellow sheet of paper that sat on each student’s desk.“Like this,” Rodriguez said, holding up a piece of paper and demonstrating how to fold it horizontally.“Like a hamburger,” Fair added.

To an outsider, it’s impossible to tell who is the general-education teacher and who is the special-education teacher. Both Fair and Rodriguez have desks at the front of the room. They switch off during lessons, effortlessly picking up where the other has left off. They both give directions and explain content. They are careful not to fall into what educators say is a common trap: seeing general-education students as the responsibility of one teacher, and special-education students as the responsibility of the other.

That’s how a good inclusion class should be, Rodriguez said, but it takes practice and time. Like Fair, Rodriguez didn’t receive any training in special education before she entered the classroom. She became a teacher through an alternate program. When she got a job teaching special education six years ago, she relied on strategies she learned while working as an aide in a class for students with autism. In 2014, she received her master’s degree in teaching students with disabilities from New Jersey City University; she now teaches a class for Montclair State University’s dual-certification teacher-preparation program.

Although most traditional teacher-preparation programs nationwide do include some training on students with disabilities, usually in the form of one course over the entirety of the program, educators say this course is often generic and perfunctory. Aspiring teachers also may be given assignments in other classes that require them to adapt a lesson for a hypothetical special-education student.

Fair said she had some assignments like those, but “we didn’t really know what we were talking about, because we weren’t taught it.” Her colleague, the science teacher Jessica Herrera, said she was only offered one class in special education—called “Special Education 101”—when she went through a traditional teacher-preparation program in New Jersey.

“A lot of my training was for that ‘middle of the road’ kind of kid,” Herrera said. “I was prepared for the regular ed student.” In her 13 years as a teacher, Herrera has taught some inclusion classes; she said she picked up strategies from working with “good special-education teachers.” When she earned her master’s degree from Montclair State, she was finally taught how to teach a “range of learners,” she said.

Fair and her co-teacher Rodriguez say there are certain things they wish were included in all teacher-education programs, like an explanation of the different kinds of disabilities and ways to address the various struggles students may encounter. They also say teacher preparation should include more classroom management and “subtle ways” to keep students focused and on task.

Mimi Corcoran, the president of the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD), said teacher preparation should better address topics in special education. “We do a disservice to the teachers we’re sending [to schools] in the way we’re training, and we’re doing a disservice to kids,” Corcoran said. “We’ve got to step up to the plate and think differently and act differently, and that’s hard because everybody gets comfortable and systems are hard to change.”

Some teacher-preparation programs are trying to better prepare graduates to teach students with disabilities, especially in inclusion classrooms. At Syracuse University, George Theoharis, a professor and the chair of Teaching and Leadership, said the school’s elementary special-education program has been one of the leaders nationwide in training educators for inclusive education.

Every teacher who graduates from Syracuse’s Early Childhood or Elementary Education program is dual-certified in special education and spends time in inclusion classrooms. Theoharis says it’s an approach that more preparation programs should take. “All of our programs need to be inclusive,” Theoharis said, referring to teacher preparation. “Regardless of what job teachers get, people need to be prepared to work with all children and see all children as their responsibility.”

At Montclair State, students can receive a dual certification in special education and a subject-level or grade-level range. The school also offers a unique concentration in “inclusive iSTeM,” which specifically prepares science, technology, engineering, and math teachers for inclusion classrooms. Students in the program receive a Master of Arts in Teaching, a certification in math or science, and are endorsed by the state as a teacher of students with disabilities.

Jennifer Goeke, a Montclair State professor and the program coordinator, said the dual-certification program prepares teachers to be hired as either a general- education or special-education teacher. “They know how to perform both roles easily and effectively,” Goeke said.

On a recent afternoon, Goeke was holding class in the Bloomfield Middle School media center. She asked her 17 students to first discuss issues they were having in their “fieldwork classrooms,” where they are currently observing and working with general- and special-education teachers. She listened to a few descriptions of struggles and then reminded her students that part of their job is to be an example for other teachers.

“I’m not trying to minimize or trivialize what you might be learning in your content area,” Goeke said. “It’s very important that you have a strong grounding in the methodology and the philosophy of your discipline … and know how to teach your content.” But, Goeke added, “You have to remember that most people do not have any diverse learners in mind. Their training did not teach them to take those students into account.”

In Montclair’s program, students work with two mentor teachers for a year in an inclusion classroom and in small-group settings. They receive extensive training in how to work with students with disabilities as well as how to effectively teach content, like math and science, or grade levels, like early education or elementary education.

Bloomfield chose to partner with the iSTeM program in 2012, and has hired two graduates of the program, and offered teaching positions to several more, who eventually chose jobs in other districts. The Bloomfield Principal, Vayda-Manzo, says the graduates of the program are “like unicorns in the field,” as it’s rare to find teachers who are dual-certified in general and special education.

Current teachers at Bloomfield have also benefited from iSTeM, Vayda-Manzo said. The program provides professional development for inclusion teachers at the school who agree to be mentor teachers for iSTeM students, and those teachers also observe each other and work with professors from Montclair State. Vayda-Manzo said the school makes sure co-teachers have the same planning periods so they have time to plan lessons together each day.

Herrera, who mentors iSTeM teachers, said the professional development provided through the program has improved her ability to teach students with disabilities. “I feel like I got a lot of additional strategies through that,” Herrera said.

On-the-job training is essential to ensure teachers have the skills needed to teach all students in their classroom, especially those teachers who may have attended teacher preparation years ago or missed out on training about disabilities, according to Mimi Corcoran of NCLD. “We have to be fair for the educator,” Corcoran said. For “many that are already in field, the concepts of special education and how to include kids has shifted, and [teachers] need the supports.”

Vayda-Manzo said it has been an easy choice to continue the program.“I saw the impact that it made in our inclusion classes,” Vayda-Manzo said. “We saw tremendous gains.”

By Jackie Mader

Source: Teachers Are Not Prepared for Students With Special Needs – The Atlantic

Related contents:

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5 Myths About Classroom Management in PBL

I want to make something clear before we dive into this topic. I made huge mistakes in classroom management as a teacher. I let certain disruptive behaviors go unchecked because I was tired and I didn’t want to put out another fire. I had moments when I shamed a student or yelled at a class.

I won’t even use the term “raise my voice” which sounds nicer. I yelled. Each time, I apologized and continued to grow. But the reality remains: I had tons of moments when I failed in this area. So, I feel a certain reticence when tackling the question, “How do I handle classroom management in a PBL unit?”

And yet, I also realize that my mistakes, as cringe-worthy as they may be, were also learning experiences. Teaching is an iterative process filled with experiments. I believe we can learn as much from the failures and mistakes as we can from the successes. So, with that in mind, I’d like to share what I learned about PBL and classroom management from my twelve years teaching middle school and my last three years working with new teachers who want to try out PBL but are nervous about the classroom management implications.

Why Classroom Management Matters

When I was new to project-based learning, people told me to “embrace the chaos.” I tried my hardest to embrace this mindset. Our class would be a vibrant space filled with noise and chaos and movement. I told students that during our project time, they could go wherever they wanted to go and talk whenever they wanted to talk.

This lasted three days.

I had students wandering around the classroom for the entire class period, socializing with friends and never actually working on their projects. The room became ear-splittingly loud. Meanwhile, I became edgy. The chaos felt off-task at best and unsafe at worst. At one point, another teacher walked into my classroom and said, “Why did you kick Alejandro out of class? He’s normally so quiet.” But the thing is, I hadn’t kicked Alejandro out. He had walked away because he felt anxious in the chaotic space.

Alejandro wasn’t alone. I printed up a quick survey (these were the pre- Google Forms days) to see how students felt about the classroom environment. Two-thirds described having a hard time concentrating on their work.

The next morning, I had coffee with my mentor and lamented, “I thought the project was authentic. I thought I could create a student-centered environment. I thought they would just know how to behave during a project like this. But, I don’t know, maybe I’m not able to create that kind of environment.”

He furrowed his eyebrows and said, “You ever work on a project when you’re at Starbucks?”

I nodded.

“Okay, watch the people in Starbucks. What trends do you see?”

I described people sitting at the tables and occasionally standing at a tall table. They moved to get coffee, to use the restroom, and to order items. However, they weren’t running around. Instead, it was relaxed.

Although the environment was noisy, it was mostly due to the work of grinding coffee and blending beverages. Most people were talking at a reasonable volume. They followed unspoken norms that allowed for communication and work. He then challenged me to think of all the spaces where I had done my best individual and collaborative projects. These were spaces designed for communication, deep thinking, and deep work. Some of these spaces were silent and others were loud. However, they were all spaces where I could focus.

I realized something critical at that moment. If we want students to engage in authentic projects, we need to design systems and structures that facilitate collaboration and creativity. For all the talk of “embracing chaos,” it turns out classroom management is a vital part of authentic PBL.

Myths About Classroom Management and PBL

The following are some of the common myths about classroom management and PBL.

Myth #1: Structure ruins creativity

This was the myth I bought into when I first embraced the PBL process. Like I mentioned before, I created a classroom environment free of constraint. Go where you need to go. Be as loud as you need to be. Take the John Mayer route and run through the halls of your high school and scream at the top of your lungs (yes, I just paraphrased John Mayer).

This came from a genuine recognition that school structures are often arbitrary and overly restrictive. However, I had gone to the opposite extreme of classroom management anarchy. I mistakenly believed in a false dichotomy between student ownership and classroom expectations.

Reality: Well-designed structures facilitate creativity

Architects often design spaces with two competing goals: craft spaces to reflect the way people will use them (starting with empathy) and create spaces that will create desired behaviors. Take Panera, for example. The physical layout reflects the need for both open and closed spaces with plenty of “breathing room.” They designed it to reflect the way people actually like to collaborate (the empathy-driven approach). However, they also have visual cues and physical structures that lead you toward specific locations the moment you walk in the door.

The same should be true of the structures in a PBL classroom. As educators, we can work like architects designing the structures that will facilitate creativity. We can start with the empathy-driven approach by asking “What would this be like to experience this as a student?”  It can help to imagine you are a student and spend some time thinking through what you might think and feel during an entire PBL Unit. You might even create student surveys to gauge what students need in order to thrive in a PBL environment.

From there, we can design systems that fit the needs of our students. For example, students need to move and they need to have the chance to stand up. However, they also need the opportunity to focus without distraction. So, we can create standing centers at the edges of the classroom. We can create physical pathways that allow for movement of materials.

However, we can also embrace the ideas of UX Design to guide students through the process. Students should be able to know where to find materials and where to go to get help. This goes beyond the physical structures. Students need to have pedagogical structures for things like brainstorming, ideating, research, and collaborative decision-making.

Myth #2: You need tons of transitions or students will be off-task

This was one of my biggest fears when starting out on my PBL journey. I had always transitioned every 15-20 minutes to prevent students from getting bored and checking out. I kept my lessons fast-paced with tight deadlines. So, when I switched to a project-based approach, I initially broke tasks down for students and kept the same tight time deadlines.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was creating a stop-and-go approach to projects. Although I wanted students to work quickly, they never truly hit a place of deep concentration because we were frantically moving from task to task, only to stop, wait for directions, and move on.

Reality: Students need to engage in deep work to hit a state of flow

Students actually accomplished more when we took out the transitions and focused on longer stretches of time to engage in the project work. This is a key idea behind what Cal Newport describes as “deep work” (I highly recommend the book), where people spend 1-3 hours without distractions. Here, they often hit a state of creative flow, where they attain hyper-concentration and fixate on their work. When this happens, they learn at a deeper level and they retain more of their knowledge.

But these moments of flow, whether they are in groups or individually, can also work as preventative classroom management. When students focus on their projects, they are less likely to disrupt the learning.

Myth #3: An engaging project means you won’t have discipline issues

When I look back at my worst moments as a teacher (those times when I shamed a student or yelled at a class), it was almost never during a project. A well-constructed project is one of the best preventative classroom management strategies. However, it’s a myth to think that you can focus on the pedagogy and ignore classroom management. Even in your best PBL units, you will have discipline issues you need to deal address.

Reality: You need clear expectations

When you first launch a PBL unit, you will likely have students who have never experienced project-based learning. They will need to know how it works and what they are expected to do. Because it’s so different (more collaborative work, more creativity, and often more hands-on learning) you will need to clarify the expectations.

You might need to generate a list of rules or norms together with your students. You will likely need to model and practice procedures with your students. The goal is to make it clear, visual, and memorable for students. Although this can feel less exciting than the actual project, it’s actually a vital part of the process.

Myth #4: PBL classrooms are noisy all the time

I get it. Some tasks are inherently noisy. It’s hard to have students doing physical prototyping in silence. The class is going to get noisy during the collaborative part of ideation. However, a project-based classroom doesn’t have to reach a deafening volume all the time.

Reality: The noise should never get in the way of the learning

It’s easy for one group to get louder and then other groups start talking louder until it slowly creeps to a level that prevents groups from working effectively. This is why it’s okay to have expectations of a general volume level during collaborative work. I’ve seen teachers use volume level charts (like a noise meter). When I taught middle school, I would do a thirty-second silent time-out when the noise got too loud. It worked like a reset button.

It also helps to create moments of strategic silence throughout a project. You might start the class period with a silent warm-up and end with a silent reflection. Or you might break up the project process to have students engage in silent thinking or quick writes to boost metacognition. You can also embed quiet individual tasks into the project process.

For example, students can engage in individual research to gain extra background knowledge. During the ideation process, students can brainstorm in isolation before meeting with their groups. They can also create their own SWOT assessments on their own before meeting with their groups to test and revise prototypes.

Myth #5: You need a system of punishments and rewards to keep group members accountable

We’ve all been there before. You do a group project and suddenly one member disappears. Another member has tons of opinions and ideas but doesn’t want to do any of the work. So, you end up doing the entire project by yourself. For this reason, it’s tempting to create rigid rules and consequences for group members in PBL units.

Reality: The best accountability is interdependence

There is a time and a place for external accountability. PBL expert Trevor Muir has students sign group accountability contracts at the start of each PBL unit. However, I’ve found that students are more accountable to one another when they have to work interdependently on their projects. Take, for example, this brainstorming strategy. Students actually benefit from listening to one another depending on each other for new ideas.

I often think of the LAUNCH Cycle as a roadmap for interdependent student ownership in creative projects. Here’s what this looks like:

  • Students tap into their own awareness and background knowledge during the Look, Listen, and Learn phase. Here, each member has the opportunity to share what they already know.
  • Students own the inquiry process as they ask specific questions in the Ask Tons of Questions phase. Each member can contribute their own questions to the entire group’s set of questions. Each member can add questions, regardless of their skill level or prior knowledge.
  • Students work interdependently to find specific facts in the research phase.
  • Students are generating their own ideas individually before engaging in the Navitage Ideas (group ideation) phase.
  • Each member of the group has a different role in the project management process and they all discuss progress collectively as a group
  • Every student has the opportunity to engage in assessment in the Highlight and Fix phase. I love the interdependence of the 20-minute peer feedback system here.
  • Being Proactive About Classroom Management
  1. Think about the procedures you will need to teach ahead of time.  What procedures and expectations will you need to teach ahead of time? How will students get materials? How will you handle noise? How will you handle movement? Are groups allowed to talk to one another? If so, what does that process look like? How will you handle students finishing at different rates? What kinds of “brain breaks” will you offer to students who need to walk away from their projects? How will you help students define these expectations together as a classroom community?
  2. Think about the space. How will you differentiate the space for different tasks? How will you design spaces for different types of learning? What will you do to encourage a free flow of movement? What visual cues will you create to help students navigate the space? What materials will you use? Where will you store these materials? Where will students put their physical products when they leave the class period (or move on to a new subject)? It helps hear to do an empathy exercise where you picture yourself as a student and ask what a student might be feeling or thinking.
  3. Think about the roles within the classroom. What types of group roles will you have?  How will your role change as a teacher? How will you spend your time when students are in the prototyping phase?
  4. Consider how you might communicate this shift to stakeholders. Are you comfortable having administrators and other leaders walking into your classroom during the prototyping phase? What kinds of fears might certain teachers face if they saw something that looked chaotic? What do you need to do to communicate the PBL process to parents/guardians, fellow staff members, and administrators?

Classroom management can actually be easier in a PBL classroom. With increased engagement and clear expectations, you often find yourself doing student-teacher conferences rather than redirecting behaviors. However, this requires an intentional, proactive classroom management plan. When this happens, all students are able to work collaboratively and creatively on the epic projects you have designed for them.

By: John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me

Source: 5 Myths About Classroom Management in PBL – John Spencer

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10 Things That Happen When Students Engage in Project-Based Learning

We often hear about the need for students to learn how to program in order to be ready for STEM fields and the Information Economy. It’s what we’ve been hearing for over a decade. However, there’s a fascinating piece from the Washington Post that explores how the so-called “soft-skills” might be even more vital than ever.

For years, Google focused on hiring the best computer science students who excelled in their core content area, positing that innovation required the best computer science minds in the world. But when they tested this hypothesis, they were shocked by the results.

According to the article:

In 2013, Google decided to test its hiring hypothesis by crunching every bit and byte of hiring, firing, and promotion data accumulated since the company’s incorporation in 1998. Project Oxygen shocked everyone by concluding that, among the eight most important qualities of Google’s top employees, STEM expertise comes in dead last.

The seven top characteristics of success at Google are all soft skills: being a good coach; communicating and listening well; possessing insights into others (including others different values and points of view); having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues; being a good critical thinker and problem solver; and being able to make connections across complex ideas.

Don’t get me wrong. Students need to master content standards. But Google’s survey proves that many teachers have been saying for years: that the so-called “soft skills” aren’t soft at all. Fortunately, when students engage in PBL, they develop these skills and disciplines needed to thrive in the Creative Economy.

But it goes beyond economics. When students engage in PBL, they experience the sheer joy of learning. They are able to hit a state of creative flow and learn that there’s something deeply profound about creativity. They become self-directed, independent thinkers.

The following are some of the trends that I notice when students engage in project-based learning. This is not a scientific study so much as observations I’ve noticed from my own experiences. However, I am currently working on a larger literature review on the benefits of PBL. I’ll be sharing it out within the next month. Many of the ideas in the following video are backed up by research (like the soft skills, the “stickiness” of information, and the moderate increases in student achievement).   

#1: Students learn how to engage in meaningful collaboration.

When students engage in PBL, they often get the chance to work on collaborative projects, where they work interdependently to solve problems. Initially, this was really challenging for me as a teacher because I hated group projects as a student. I hated doing all the work and then watching everyone else get the credit. But then I realized something. Collaboration isn’t just a skill.

It’s a discipline. It’s something that takes years of practice. So, I started to embed structures that would help guarantee that every student participated in collaborative projects. It didn’t work every time but slowly, I watched students learn how to engage in meaningful collaboration.   

When students genuinely collaborate in PBL, they learn how to speak up and listen. They learn how to ask incisive questions, how to contribute to the team, and how to give and receive critical feedback. Which leads to the next point . . .

#2: Students learn to see nuance and multiple perspectives.

When I did that History Day Project in the eighth grade, I encountered perspectives on the integration of baseball that I would have never experienced in reading a textbook. The same thing happened with my eighth grade students. When they were immersed in a PBL environment, they got to wade into the nuance of multiple perspectives.

Teachers can tap into this idea by specifically asking students to consider new perspectives. During the initial inquiry phase, it can help to let students ask multiple questions on their own and then share their questions together. When they engage in research, it can help to ask students to find sources from various perspectives and deliberately wade into the nuance of the ideas. As they ideate together, you can utilize a structured brainstorming approach that encourages them to examine ideas from multiple angles.

#3: They become divergent thinkers.

The best project-based learning units encourage students to tackle problems from a unique perspective. This is at the heart of divergent thinking. It’s the ability to explore problems from different angles, use materials in different ways, and ultimately grow into innovatorsHere’s where creative constraint comes in. Teachers often have to work with limited resources or tight schedules. They have to hack the standards to tie them into a PBL unit. But in the process, they are helping students to think outside the box by “thinking inside the box.” Here’s what I mean:  

When students learn to “think inside the box,” they are practicing the type of divergent thinking that they will need in the future. This is the type of thinking that can’t be replaced with artificial intelligence or automated with a machine.

#4: They learn project management.

When I talk to people in business, in the arts, and in the STEM fields, I often hear people mention that they wished they had learned how to do project management when they were younger.  If we want students to think like artists, entrepreneurs, and engineers, they need the chance to engage in project management. When students have full ownership of the project process, they learn how to engage in project management. Here, they are able to set goals, monitor progress, make adjust, and reflect on their learning.

Project management is about more than just setting a schedule. It’s the idea of following through on your plans and continuing with tasks even when nobody is looking over your shoulder. It’s what happens when you learn how to set meaningful, realistic goals and break those down into tasks.

#5: They develop a maker mindset.

One of the most tragic things I hear students say is “I’m just not the creative type.” I don’t buy it. I don’t believe there is a “creative type” out there. We’re all creative. Every one of us. And PBL is a great chance for students to own the entire creative process, leading to a maker mindset where they can think like designers, artists, and engineers. When this happens, students are able to embrace a larger definition of creativity and value the creative contributions of those around them.   

We often hear that our current students will work in jobs that don’t exist right now. But here’s another reality: our current students will be the ones who create those jobs. They will have to rewrite the rules.  Some students will be engineers or artists or accountants. Some will work in technology, others in traditional corporate spaces and still others in social or civic spaces. But every single one of them will need to think creatively in their jobs.

As students work through PBL, they are able to experience a broad spectrum of creative thinking. They learn how to think like an artist but also think like an engineer or a hacker. At one moment, they might be building empathy by doing an interview. In another moment, they might be doing prototyping in an engineering project and or engaging in information literacy for a publishing project.

Over time, they see that creative work is interdisciplinary. And this ultimately leads to a maker mindset, where students learn to view the world differently and find new solutions to complex problems. Which leads to the next point . . .

#6: They become problem-solvers and critical thinkers.

PBL encourages students to solve complex problems by engaging in inquiry, research, and ideation. This is the kind of work that you don’t accomplish in filing out a packet or doing a worksheet. It requires students to view problems from multiple angles and sometimes even navigate multiple systems in order to solve these complex problems.

Not only are they solving the problems but they are taking it to the next level and actually creating the solutions. So, they are able to see that problem-solving actually connects to real-world contexts. I remember when we were doing our Tiny House projects and a student said, “I get it now. I understand why people need to know proportional reasoning.” He needed a complex problem, rooted in a real-world experience, for that concept to make sense.

Note that this doesn’t always work. There are moments when it gets frustrating. However, that’s also part of the problem-solving process. Students get the opportunity to fail forward. Which leads to my next point . . .

#7: They develop iterative thinking.

Project-based learning includes a phase for revision. In some cases, it’s more about feedback and revision while other projects require testing and revision. But the idea is the same. Students test, revise, and iterate. This is one of the areas where I see a big disconnect between school (where you are graded once and move on) versus life (where you are constantly improving and iterating).

I want students to learn how to figure out what’s working, make sense out of what’s failing, and then create a better iteration.  But this requires a shift toward mastery-based grading as well as the freedom to make mistakes. For all the talk of “high standards,” iterative thinking only works when students experience slack. And yet, when they have this permission to fail, they can then improve their work and develop endurance.

#8: They are more likely to develop a growth mindset.

Iterative thinking ultimately leads to a growth mindset. It’s counterintuitive but the best way for students to have higher standards is to experience the permission to fail. This doesn’t mean we embrace failure but that we treat failing as a part of the learning process. After all, fail-ure is permanent and fail-ing is temporary.

Note that failing isn’t fun. It actually sucks when stuff doesn’t work out. And that’s an important reminder. Sometimes PBL isn’t fun. Sometimes it’s really, really frustrating. I have had students cry when something didn’t work. It wasn’t because of a grade, either. They were simply so into their project that they wanted it to work. But eventually, when it did work, they were able to develop a growth mindset.

#9: They grow more empathetic.

One of the PBL approaches we will explore is design thinking, which is centered around the idea of empathy. In some models, empathy is the starting point. Other times, it occurs in the research and ideation phases. But regardless of when it happens, if students are going to launch heir work to an audience, they need to design products out of a place of empathy.

This is one of those areas that goes far beyond the corporate world. We have a crisis of empathy in the U.S. I see it every time I go to Facebook. People talk over one another and lob easy insults at the opposite side. Trapped in their echo chambers, they move into a place where they miss the pain that others are experiencing. But I think we can change this as educators when we ask students to engage in empathy-driven design thinking.

#10: They increase in metacognition.

When I first saw the metacognition cycle, I thought, “Man, this seems so similar to aspects of PBL.” This is because PBL encourages students to plan, monitor, and reflect throughout the entire process.

So, if we want this for students, they need to work on projects. Real projects. The kind of projects that they get to own. And ultimately that requires a teacher who is wiling to take the leap and make PBL a reality.

Source: 10 Things That Happen When Students Engage in Project-Based Learning – John Spencer

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High Converting Emails  https://jvz3.com/c/202927/386305/
Holistic Self-Care   https://jvz6.com/c/202927/387524/
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Hostley Domain Creator   https://jvz1.com/c/202927/379223/
Human Synthesys Studio  https://jvz8.com/c/202927/367353/
ImageX   https://jvz6.com/c/202927/363237/
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Insta Keyword    https://jvz6.com/c/202927/351606/
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