How the Brain Learns—A Super Simple Explanation

“In his book, The Art of Changing the Brain, Dr. James Zull , notably suggested how David Kolb’s famous four-phase model of the learning cycle can be mapped into four major brain processes. He believed that better understanding the learning processes that occurs in the brain encourages a more flexible approach to learning. It does, by extension, help us become better eLearning developers and learners. After all, it’s what’s going on in the learners’ brains that matters the most.”


Bonuses paid to top teachers keeps them in low-performing schools

A teacher-retention bonus helped keep top teachers in Tennessee’s low-performing schools, a new study finds.


Tennessee Teacher-Retention Bonus Paid Dividends, Study Finds

A teacher-retention bonus helped keep top teachers in Tennessee’s low-performing schools, a new study finds.


School leaders, math anxiety is negatively impacting the math achievement of your students!


“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t–you’re right.” – Henry Ford

With the adoption of new, more rigorous college and career ready math standards principals and math teachers across the country are putting in a lot of time and effort to not only understand the new standards, but to change the way we teach mathematics.

The primary implication of these new standards is that the current predominant practice of didactic-only instruction, with some guided practice of rote procedures, must give way to more well-rounded approaches to instruction that give students the opportunity to make deep sense of the content they are to learn and the practices in which they are expected to engage.

In other words, instead of simply working problems, students are expected to apply math concepts to unique situations and to explain their thinking—in writing—using higher-order thinking skills. According to veteran math teachers, the emphasis on application to real-world problem solving “will completely change the way math is taught.”

However, new evidence suggests that the monumental effort required to change math instruction may pale in comparison to what will be needed to change another invisible yet formidable barrier to improved student math achievement—an irrational, culturally induced fear of mathematics that is further complicated by our “number naming system” (Gladwell, 2008, p. 229) and the widespread overreliance on the use of calculators for simple mathematical computations that students should know how to do mentally.

Notice to school leaders: Math anxiety among students has been found to be widespread and tied to poor math skills. “Math anxiety means, unsurprisingly, that one feels tension and apprehension in situations involving math.”

While we have always known that some students had doubts about their ability to do math, I had no idea to what extent those attitudes permeated our schools. Here is what researcher and author Dan Willingham has discovered:

  • “Half of all first and second graders feel moderate to severe math anxiety.”
  • “Many children do not outgrow math anxiety.” Note: In other words, math anxiety does not go away, and, from my experience as a principal, may actually get worse and infect more students as they advance through the grades.
  • “25 percent of students attending a four-year college suffer from math anxiety.”
  • “Among community college students, the figure is 80 percent.”

After thinking about this research from the perspective of a high school principal, I would assume that at least half of my students were experiencing at least some level of math anxiety that was significantly diminishing their math performance. Most if not all of these students have the ability to do much better, but their mental and emotional state is detracting from their capacity to learn.

Distressingly, we could successfully change math instruction over the next five years and still not see significant improvements in student achievement. Overlooking student math anxiety may guarantee that all our hard work would go for naught.

stuObviously, this is a huge obstacle for students, teachers and schools. However, I know from experience that this can be changed. As Math Department Chair and author, Stu Singer, describes in The Algebra Miracle, our school completely turned around our math achievement. However, we did it the hard way—through trial and error learning. But if you are willing to learn from other peoples’ experience, our arduous, decade-long trial-and-error learning experience can pave the way for a much less strenuous pathway to success for your students.

Stu and I did not have benefits of researchers like Dan Willingham, Alan Schoenfeld, or Carol Dweck. We had to use logic, trust our intuition, and sometime rely on good old-fashioned blind faith. We made mistakes.

Today, I can confidently say that if I were starting all over again knowing what I now know, I would do things the same way—collaboratively and collectively with one exception. I would now be much more intentional in my focus on changing the expectations of our teachers and students.

By chance, Stu and I had a similar set of beliefs when it came to students and learning. We believed that work and effort determined ability. We were also willing to take risks and try new things. We treated our school like a math laboratory, we believed that given time and support, all students could learn at high levels, and our students proved that they could.

“School leaders and teachers need to create schools and classroom environments in which error is welcome as a learning opportunity, in which discarding incorrect knowledge and understandings is welcomed, and in which teachers can feel safe to learn, re-learn, and explore knowledge and understanding.” (Hattie, 2012)

Raising math achievement required a lot more than believing in the benefits of hard work and effort. We had to change our attitudes and expectations. We had to change the way we approached math instruction. Finally, we had to change the expectations of our students.

We had a plan and we were willing to work that plan over the span of a decade. Every decision we made was based on whether or not what we were considering would help our students learn, and we said “no” as often as we said “yes.”

We had a comprehensive short and long-term plan to improve student math achievement. What is your plan?

Next: A plan to relieve math anxiety and raise student math achievement.

Teacher Evaluation: Test-and-Punish is more about perception than reality!


“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” – Franklin Roosevelt

The June 10 announcement by the Gates Foundation, which is one the “country’s largest donors to educational causes and a strong backer of the academic guidelines known as the Common Core, calling for a two-year moratorium on states or school districts making any high-stakes decisions based on tests aligned with the new standards” caught many by surprise.

The “high-stakes” decisions referred to in the announcement relate to accountability sanctions levied on schools as well as to new teacher evaluation systems currently being implemented in a number of states. These teacher evaluations systems now require that a significant portion of a teacher’s evaluation (up to 50 percent) be based on test scores related to the new, more rigorous standards. These evaluations are meant to inform teacher retention and hiring decisions.

The simultaneous implementation of the Common Core Standards, new state data systems for measuring school progress, and new teacher evaluation systems, which include student test scores, has overwhelmed school leaders and teachers and has resulted in considerable pushback from educators nationwide, particularly in Race to the Top states like New York, which fast-tracked its Common Core implementation and new teacher evaluation system. The perceived lack of fairness has driven a number of organizations like NASSP, NEA, and AFT to recommend a moratorium on the consequences related to the assessments tied to the new standards.

Vicki Phillips, the director of education for the Gates Foundation, wrote that “the best new ideas aren’t self-fulfilling; they have to be put into practice wisely.” She added: “No evaluation system will work unless teachers believe it is fair and reliable, and it’s very hard to be fair in a time of transition. The standards need time to work. Teachers need time to develop lessons, receive more training, get used to the new tests and offer their feedback.”

Punishment is a Phantom

In Much Ado About a Phantom: Education Brouhaha over Test-and-Punish is a State of Mind, Not State of Reality, Anne Hyslop makes that case that our lack of awareness about the reality of accountability is causing us to overreact to alleged threats of punishment and sanctions, particularly those related to teacher evaluations.

“It’s that the “punish” part of “test-and-punish” doesn’t exist. At least not right now. Thanks to the Obama administration’s No Child Left Behind waivers, there don’t have to be stakes, for anyone, on upcoming state tests. None.”

In fact, high stakes don’t have to enter the picture until Spring 2017.

Teacher Evaluation Timeline


“Under the current guidelines, teachers could get two ratings and two rounds of “support and improvement” before any stakes are involved (and even then, federal leverage is limited in terms of how much evaluations must inform personnel decisions). And don’t forget, the Department has also let states apply for an extra year to use evaluations to “inform” those decisions. That delays full implementation until as late as Spring 2018. Simply, the debate over whether there should be consequences for teachers during the transition to new assessments often obscures the fact that a no-stakes period is already standard federal policy. And now that the Department is relaxing its review process for extending the waivers, they could be opening the door to even more delays.”

The reality of current federal policy is that our reactions have much more to do with our perceptions than with the actual policy.

“Accountability systems under NCLB waivers aren’t perfect, and we must continue to refine their design and execution. But they aren’t responsible for the test-and-punish culture at work in far too many schools and districts. What really warrants a transformation isn’t accountability… it’s our response to it.”

Income Gap Predicts Dropout Gap

“In a research paper to be published next week by the National Bureau of Economic Research, Ms. Kearney and Mr. Levine detail robust evidence that young men of low socioeconomic status are more likely to drop out of high school, where the gap between families at the bottom tenth of the income distribution and families in the middle is wider.

They challenge their results in many ways, but find nothing that could explain away inequality’s effect. The dropout gap is not because of differences in school spending or differences in incarceration rates. Measures of segregation by income or race don’t account for the difference. Nor, interestingly, does the spectacular acceleration of inequality between the richest and the rest.”

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“schools are getting safer”


“The rate of non-fatal incidents in which students felt victimized at school decreased to 35 per 1,000 students in 2010, from 181 per 1,000 students in 1992, according to the 2013 School Crime and Safety Report. The rate rose to 52 per 1,000 students in 2012, the report found. Any type of school crime, the report noted, increases the likelihood of dropouts, teacher turnover and student transfers.

“Over the long term, schools are getting safer,” said Thomas Snyder, the report’s project officer. “That doesn’t mean there’s not a lot of room for improvement.”

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Are these 8 skills just as important as reading, writing, and math?

See on Scoop.itLeading Schools

This year’s “The Learning Curve” report from Pearson takes a look at education across the globe. One of the main things the report does is rank the world’s educational systems (which we’ll talk about in a different post). What I find even more interesting is the focus on what skills current students need to meet …

Mel Riddile‘s insight:

Necessary Skills For The Future

  1. Leadership
  2. Digital Literacy
  3. Communication
  4. Emotional Intelligence
  5. Entrepreneurship
  6. Global Citizenship
  7. Problem Solving
  8. Team-Working

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Teacher Attendance and School Culture


“Culture eats strategies for breakfast.”–Peter Drucker

Great schools can be average in some areas, but great schools cannot have a glaring weakness and be considered great. Great schools find a way to solve the problems that stifle or debilitate good schools. Teacher absenteeism and substitute teachers are problems faced by every school. Like every school, the solution is in the culture—attitudes, beliefs, mindsets, expectations, and relationships—of the entire school.

Here is the reality. When teachers are absent, students lose valuable instructional time. No matter how qualified they are, substitute teachers do not improve student achievement. “When I was absent I knew that my classes would regress no matter who was the substitute or how well I planned.” – Stuart A. Singer

A new study indicates that teacher attendance is an overlooked factor in improving student achievement. “Given the time and attention spent on school programs, new curriculum and strategies to strengthen teacher quality,” the report’s authors wrote, “we may be overlooking one of the most basic, solvable and cost effective reasons why schools may fail to make education progress.”

The study goes on to point out the following:

  • One in six teachers in some of the country’s largest public school districts are out of the classroom at least 18 days, or more than 10 percent of the time, for illness, personal reasons and professional development.
  • Overall teacher attendance rate is 94 percent.
  • Districts spend an average of $1,800 per teacher to cover absences each year.
  • No measurable relationship between teacher absence and the poverty levels of a school’s students
  • No difference in absentee rates among districts with policies meant to encourage attendance, such as paying teachers for unused sick time, and districts without those incentives.

A study by the Columbia University School of Business offers some interesting findings:

  • Substitutes are worse than the regular teacher. “In teaching, the person with whom

Connecting the Educational Dots


By Stuart A. Singer, Author of The Algebra Miracle

Random and contradictory thoughts can sometimes coalesce into a cogent answer. Here are a few to consider:

The breathtaking rise in student debt has led many to believe that college degrees may not be worth the time and expense.

The stubbornly high unemployment rate juxtaposed with the reality that there are also millions of unfilled jobs leads many to wonder how the two numbers can concurrently exist.

Dropout rates decline but still translate into nearly one of every four American students.

According to the U.S. Department of Education only 18% of Community College students receive an Associate’s Degree within three years. One in four (25%) of Community College students enroll in a four-year college within five years. Overall less than 15% will ever attain a diploma.

And the drumbeat goes on and on and on…

Making sense out of nonsense

While no one has found the magic potion for ensuring academic success, it is apparent that there are plenty of persistent problems in education that simply refuse to go away. It would appear that much of the problem resides in the refusal of policy-makers to look at new perspectives such as lengthening both the school day and calendar. But there are other ways to address the aforementioned concerns.

Despite some arguments to the contrary based on the available data in 2014 possessing a college diploma is of significant value. According to Labor Department statistics in December, 2013, the rate of unemployment for high school dropouts was 9.8%, those with a high school diploma 7.1%, anyone with some college 6.1% and those with at least a four-year degree 3.3%. Of course in addition to the disproportionate joblessness tremendous (and parallel) differences in average earnings exist among these groups. With all of those figures in mind there is one other very troubling pair of numbers.

In the United States the high school dropout rate is consistently at about 25% and the percentage of Americans with a college degree has ranged from 25% to 33% over the past 20 years. When taken together that leaves nearly half of all U.S. citizens somewhere in between. Unfortunately too often that large group is ignored as the two major policy goals of education continue to be lowering the dropout ra

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