Brain-friendly Teaching in Practice: Nick Bilbrough Introduces Memory Activities for Language Learning

Memory, or rather its quirks and limitations, in language education is sometimes like the weather in that old joke: everyone talks about it but no one does anything about it. Yet memory limitations affect every aspect of what we as teachers and programs are trying to do. In the last few years, “brain-friendly” teaching, “brain-targeted” teaching and “neuroscience-informed” teaching have all been tossed around. In this blog, I’ve covered several books that deal with this (here, here, and here, for example). There are programs and resource sites like the Neuro Education Initiative at John Hopkins University, The NeuroLeadership Institute (associated with author  David Rock), USC’s Brain and Creativity Institute,  Harvard’s Mind / Brain / Behavior initiative, and an Annenberg Learner Resource called Neuroscience and the Classroom.  But none of these are by or for language teachers specifically. I’m sure there are  teachers who putting all this new knowledge to good practical use in the classroom, and I’m equally sure that much of what is being sold as “brain friendly” is what has always been done by good teachers anyway. But if you visit a lot of language classrooms, you might be amazed at how brain unfriendly some are.

In my job as a teacher trainer, I just don’t see all that many approaches and activities that show an appreciation for the finickiness of human memory. There are, as I see it, two possible reasons for this. One–a failure to take note of the mountain of research and how it sometimes screams out the need for pedagogical change–I would like to lay squarely at the feet of language teachers and language teaching programs. The other–a general lack of published materials and accepted classroom techniques–has and continues to be a problem; but Nick Bilbrough’s 2011 book Memory Activities for Classroom Learning begins to correct this problem. Much of what has worked in language classrooms over the years has done so because it has been sensitive to the cognitive limitations of learners and has leveraged the affective and social elements of content and classrooms. What is needed is a new lens, a new way of interpreting  successful activities that will inform the selection of activities in a task sequence or syllabus. That’s what this book does.


Memory research has advanced greatly in the past few years and Mr. Bilbrough does a good job of summing up and presenting what you need to know in short executive summaries at the beginning of each unit. If you don’t know why Ebbinghaus, or Craik & Lockhart, or Sweller are important for  your job, or  if the terms phonological loop, visio-spatial sketchpad, and episodic buffer don’t mean much to you, this book will provide a good introduction. And if you are familiar with all these, you’ll find the way Mr. Bilbrough turns this theory into actual classroom activities very interesting. It is my belief that even if you don’t use any of the ready-made activities directly from the book (most of which are very well-chosen by the way), your perspective on your own approach in your classes will change. Because once we start to think of why some things are better held in working memory or why some things are more likely to be stored in long-term memory, we’ll naturally feel the need to adjust our explanations, our pace and timing and selection of activities. Learners and teachers both want variety in lessons; but they both also want to see learning happening. This book will help you understand and apply some ideas for making things easier for learners to remember, which means easier to learn.

I think Mr. Bilbrough has done a very nice job identifying the key points connected to memory and how it affects the learner and the classroom. If you look at his unit headings, I think you will agree. There is enough flexibility here in the topics covered to meet the needs of teachers who are wedded to textbooks and those who use a more Dogme-ish approach.

  1. Mental Stretching
  2. Making Language Memorable
  3. Retrieving
  4. Repeating and Reactivating
  5. Memory Techniques and Mnemonics
  6. Learning By Heart
  7. Memory Games

This book is a nice start. I think that Cambridge may want to revisit many of the wonderful old books in the Handbooks for Language Teachers series and reorganize some of the content in line with more recent research and pedagogy. Books on affect , arts integration, skill mastery and transfer,  learning environments, challenge, fun, formative assessment, etc. are all needed. But for the time being, Memory Activities for Language Learning is a step in the right direction. And if I may be permitted to expand on my suggestion a little, a little more attention to relevant research would be a good idea, I think. One problem with this book is its sporadic use of citations. Some areas provide good references, others are devoid of references, and at least one reference is kind of puzzling. I love Chip and Dan Heath’s books, but calling them “educational psychologists” gives them more academic gravitas than they warrant. Teachers who are interested in finding out more about research and findings in memory will get precious little help from this volume beyond those good unit introductions to the basics, I’m afraid. The choice of online resources is also disappointingly limited.

But these criticisms are very minor. I highly recommend this book. Every language teacher should read the chapter intros and browse through the extensive list of suggested activities.

A year ago I wrote this post on working memory that you may find interesting if you are looking to further explore the topic of memory and learning.


Thinking or Not: Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow

Thinking, Fast and Slow book cover

What you see is all there is, WYSIATI, is one of the problems you have. It’s one of the problems we all have. It has to do with the  way the brain shows too strong a preference for information available in the immediate environment over information not in the immediate environment. Ever been stuck in a meeting where you are trying to to generate ideas and the same things keep popping up? That’s just our brains spinning their wheels in the immediate environment. It’s one of the heuristic techniques our brains are prone to rely on. It’s one–one of many–of our foibles as a species. And the fact that we keep running meetings in the same way suggests that we have a desperate need to become more aware of it.

But we probably won’t.

Daniel Kahneman has been researching the way way people think and make decisions for years. As a young officer in the Israeli Defense Forces armed with a fresh B.Sc. in psychology, he screened recruits for officer training using the leaderless group challenge. As they struggled under the hot sun to complete some sort of task involving getting over a barrier, he watched them and took notes on the performance of the individuals. He checked boxes and gave high ratings to kids who took charge and organized their fellow soldiers. But the artificial nature of the test, and the fact that all ratings were based on one observation made him suspicious of the limitations–or more correctly, the tendencies, the bad habits–of our minds. As a rater, he began to suspect how powerful WYSIATI is and how it muscles aside any doubts of how things could be with the same recruits on a different day. For a while he was very happy and very confident with his ratings. But that confidence itself made him suspicious. He began to see it an an illusion, an illusion of validity the mind presents us  with. It is seductive because hey, we’re busy and we’ve got an important job to do. We let our brains go with their little shortcuts. We avoid the hard work, the hard thinking. This was the first of many illusions he uncovered or encountered in his career and he goes through his experiences with each one in delightful and insightful detail.

It has been a long and illustrious career  (including a Nobel prize), and the amount of research and discovery here is impressive. This book  is more than just a pop psychology best seller. There really is a lifetime of wisdom here and you would be well to read it. A lot of the content has been covered elsewhere, that’s true (see my reviews of The Invisible Gorilla and Why Everyone Else is a Hypocrite, for example, or take a look at  You are Not So Smart by David McRaney). But I don’t know of any book that is as comprehensive as this one in explaining our limitations. In a series of five units he covers a lot of ground and a lot of years of research. He introduces us to the two thinking systems of the brain, the fast, automatic System 1 and the slow, careful, and reluctant (lazy) System 2. In the second part, he talks about the ease with which some thinking occurs (metaphorical thinking, associative thinking, and causality) and why it is so difficult for us to think in different ways (statistically, for example). In the third part, he really dresses humanity down. Our bad habits,  ignorance, and unwarranted overconfidence get addressed nicely and this section is great fun to read. Later sections take the book in a different direction–economics. I found them to be  less engaging than the earlier parts after a while, with the exception of the part about the experiencing self and the remembering self near the end, which is also the topic of a TED talk he made in 2010.

As a teacher and as a human I found a lot to think about here. Awareness of the tendencies we have is really our only weapon against the habits of our thinking processes. Each chapter ends with little lines of dialog, little bits of wisdom or little rules for being diligent. Print them out and pin them all over your cubicle or kitchen. It might be ultimately a little hopeless, but there are much much worse ways to make use of paper. This book will convince you of that.

The New Normal


I’ve been thinking a lot recently. And that has been changing me. It’s the same for everyone–an amazing ongoing transformation, an alteration of thought patterns and perceptions as we go about our daily lives and our brains try in their own quirky ways to make sense of things.

I’ve been reading Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. It’s a wonderful  book that reminds me a little of In Search of Memory by Eric Kandel in that it is written by a giant nearing the end of his career. There is wisdom and balance and a lifetime of knowledge in it. I previously posted on a TED talk he gave about a year before Thinking, Fast and Slow was first published on the experiencing self and the remembering self. But something jumped out at me from the book the other day–the idea of how the brain makes things seem normal, even things that are very unusual. In the book he tells a story that reminded me of one of my own experiences. I was travelling around Europe, a 20-year-old kid on break from uni, with a Let’s Go guide. I moved along a fairly worn path at one point: Venice-Florence-Rome-Naples-Pompei-Corfu-Athens-Istanbul. I met a guy–I don’t remember his name so I’ll call him Guy X–in Rome, at a youth hostel we were staying at. He told me how he kept on meeting the same people as he traveled through Europe. His story sort of freaked me out. It was full of weird coincidences with different people in different parts of his trip. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was to become another paragraph in a story I’m pretty sure he’s been telling ever since. You see,  I later met him again at the youth hostel in Naples. Nothing strange there. The Let’s Go guide only listed 5 or 6 accommodation options for a city. But a few weeks later, I was sitting in a cafe in Athens, and there he was at the next table. And a week or so later, I took a ferry up the Bosphorus toward the Black Sea. And there he was, sitting in the seat beside me as we chugged past the Rumelihisari Castle. Mr. Kahneman, in describing a somewhat similar experience, notes that although it was unusual to meet Guy X a second (then a third, then a fourth time), it is even weirder to think about how normal it became to do so. When I met him on the ferry in Turkey, I was not in the least bit surprised. Guy X had become The Guy I Meet Unexpectedly. Indeed had I met someone else on that ferry that I had previously met once in my travels, it would have felt infinitely more surprising. Because that’s what brains do–they adjust to new events and make them seem normal.

And this got me thinking about culture again. Not culture in some quasi-national sense. And not culture in some don’t-stick-your-chopsticks-in-your-rice kind of nuggets of behavior. But culture in the sense of what we find acceptable; what we choose to include and what we choose to embrace, and what we decide we don’t need. That is to say, what we think is normal at any given time. Culture is the water we fish swim in. We notice changes, pause for a moment to let it register, and then swim on. The changes just become part of the environment if they are not life-threatening or similarly significant. But to go back and see what was normal before can be very shocking. A  kind of a Holy-cow!-Were-we-really-like-that? feeling arises because the new normal has become, well, so very normal. Watching the wonderful  drama series Mad Men makes this clear. In the early episodes, it is shocking to find people smoking in office meetings, or in offices at all for that matter. Men smoke, women smoke (even a pregnant woman!), and men drink in the office (“Should we drink before or after the meeting–or both?” one character asks). It was shocking for me to see this, and yet I when I thought about it, I do remember my father smoking in the car with the four of us kids in the back, unbuckled and inhaling almost as much as my dad. I remember my parents putting out cigarettes at parties the way my wife and I put out plates of olives. I remember smoke rising here and there at cinemas, the light of the projector catching it, or people smoking on airplanes. And I remember people doing almost everything with a cigarette in their hand or lips. You just don’t see that anymore. And we’ve all gotten very used to not seeing it anymore.

At my job, I often think of teaching as a collection of cultural activities. What is normal in the world of teaching is highly relative, but there are general trends and practices that are part of the ebb and flow of English teaching culture. And Japan has a lot of peculiarities when it comes to teaching culture. The widespread acceptance of of communicative language teaching, coupled with an almost equally widespread lack of implementation of its methodology, is one of the most glaringly peculiar, for example. I am always suspicious of teachers who make the claim that what they do in class is the “way Japanese teachers teach.” That’s because I have seen that change, and I know it will change again in the future, even if I am not happy about the speed (or tack) of that change. I once watched a teacher teach two back-to-back English lessons, one an English I lesson and the other an Oral English lesson. For the first, the teacher spoke almost completely in Japanese, and focused on explaining the words and grammar of the text. In the second, the same teacher spoke almost completely in English and led the students through a mostly communicative lesson. This seemed perfectly normal to the teacher in charge; yet it seemed very strange to me. At some point, this teacher will likely gravitate to one type of teaching–a type which is both effective and matches the needs of her learners and her own personality and style–and forget that she ever thought it was necessary to use two completely different approaches in two different classes. It’ll probably be proceeded by a change in the curriculum that acknowledged that a four-skills course like English I and a listening and speaking course like Oral Communication should be such separate critters. And then it will seem as natural and normal as anything ever was.

That’s how the new normal will feel, I’m sure. But getting there is still going to take some time.


The Social State of the Union: David Brooks Recounts the Life Story of The Social Animal

Like  New York Times columnist David Brooks, I have read a lot of books and articles on evolutionary psychology, social psychology, behavioral economics, and neuroscience in the last couple of years. Their influence seems to be everywhere, even if not recognized as such. There is a sense of a paradigm shift, particularly in education, but in other areas as well. People are talking now about learning as a social process influenced by–if not driven by–emotion, for example. So I’ve been listening to podcasts (The Brain Science Podcast, Radiolab, All in the Mind, etc.), following websites (Mind/Shift), following certain people on Twitter (BJ Fogg, for example), and reading books (Brain Rules, The Invisible Gorilla, Incognito, Why Everyone Else is a Hypocrite, etc.).

But David Brooks has read more.

And in The Social Animal, he attempts to summarize all of what he has read in a narrative following two people of different backgrounds and temperaments–from before birth right up until death. Along the way, he weaves in research findings from quite a dizzying amount of disciplines. The life stages and experiences of the two characters allow him the opportunity to expound the new insights researchers and philosophers (let’s be generous here; though we could call the authors of some of the books he cites armchair social and political critics). He talks about physical attraction, attachment, learning, self-control, culture, intelligence, choice, morality, and more. While he is an excellent writer and insightful critic, some sections are better than others. His passion and expertise just come through better. But along the way, we encounter little nuggets of research wisdom, clever descriptions of characters and character types, and a forceful argument that often challenges conventional wisdom. If you’ve read a lot in the field, you’ll see a lot that is familiar. But Mr Brooks’s historical background will help you situate these concepts in the landscape of ideas. That alone makes the book worth reading.

In the end, the book was for me the equivalent  of  a State of the Union address. It told me where we are, how it is different from what was thought before, and–in a way–how widely these ideas are being accepted. I say “in a way” because the book’s very existence is a kind of testament to the last question. The book is a welcome overview at a time when a lot of new ideas and new perspectives are coming onto peoples’ radar screens.  Its acceptance (bestseller) and the status of its author (TED talk here, for example), make this book a high-profile publication. That in itself says a lot.

I feel like a should warn non-Americans who are considering this book to be aware that this book is firmly rooted in American culture. Immigrants, the American school system, and business, and American politics are all covered in significant detail. People looking for something universal or global, may find that that they get a lot of American culture along with human universals.

I bought this book almost a year ago. I let it sit on my shelf too long before I finally got around to reading it. But once I started I found it pleasant enough to get caught up in. The reviews on Amazon are not all together positive, but I thought this book was well worth reading. It is a comprehensive overview demonstrating the extent to which neuroscience and related disciplines have permeated thought in the last few years. The story structure works, and Mr Brooks is a good enough writer with enough to say as he bounces from topic to topic. Oh, and he also manages to mention the chick sexers again!



Mariele Hardiman’s The Brain-targeted Teaching Model for 21st Century Schools

As a teacher, it is impossible to not be aware of the recent wave of influence that neuroscience is having on our profession. Everyday you see articles on the web, often in respectable magazines, about the role of emotions, for example, or the importance of social connections for learning.  A whole new world seems to be opening up, one that has a direct impact on our professional lives.

Brain-friendly teaching–it sounds vaguely alchemistic and scientific at the same time. If you search for it at Amazon or some other bookstore, you  find more books than you could possibly read, with titles that sound more like they belong on the covers of magazines near supermarket cash registers. It’s hard to decide which ones are solidly based on research, written by real experts, are understandable, and have practical applications for the classroom.

Rather than the bookstore, a better place to look is online for programs or initiatives set up by groups of researchers or institutions. In a post back in spring, I mentioned several that I’d stumbled across and found useful. There’s the Neuro Education Initiative at John Hopkins University, The NeuroLeadership Institute (associated with author  David Rock), USC’s Brain and Creativity Institute,  Harvard’s Mind / Brain / Behavior initiative, and an Annenberg Learner Resource called Neuroscience and the Classroom.   Mariele Hardiman is the director of the Neuro Education Initiative at John Hopkins University. They do research, provide resources, and run programs for teaching development. And out of that has come this book:

It comes with a slightly steep price tag, that’s true. And one might be tempted to give it a miss and just browse around on the many websites mentioned above and assemble the bits and pieces of rationale and practices. But that would be a mistake. This book is written by someone who knows her stuff–and knows her audience and their needs. It is comprehensive, it is well-explained, it makes a very clear case for introducing the model into your classes, and it gives you lots of examples for how this can be done and how it is being done by other teachers. The book is organized as a model for addressing 6 brain targets: emotional climate, physical environment, learning design, teaching for mastery, teaching for application, and evaluating learning. In each unit Ms Hardiman explains the target, gives ideas, and then turns over the last part to two teachers who are applying the model in their classes. One teacher is a literature teacher making her way through a novel, and the other is a biology teacher going through a series of lessons on genetics.


Along the way, other teachers of other subjects and age groups are given sidebars to talk about what they are doing and what the results are. It’s an appealing structure and the clear connection between theory and practice is certainly one of the strengths of this book. It also feels more like a course than a book at times with so many perspectives included. Unfortunately, this is also a weakness for some teachers of some disciplines–EFL for one–that are not as well represented. One of my own lingering concerns is that some of the theory here may not be so applicable to EFL in different cultural contexts. It will take time to sort that out, but in the meantime, Ms. Hardiman gives us a lot to think about and a lot of ideas for how we can make our classes more brain friendly.

Making Teaching and Learning More Effective: Julie Dirksen’s Design For How People Learn

This wonderful book by Julie Dirksen (New Riders, 2012) manages to do something that is very difficult: it is compact yet comprehensive, and it takes some fairly difficult topics and makes them clear and memorable. It is aimed at online instructional designers, but only in the most general way. It is a book about human learning–goals, gaps, memory, attention, skills, motivation, and environmental considerations–and it organizes and explains those topics in a way that will entertain you, refresh your memory, and help you to put knowledge to effective use, whether you are going to apply that knowledge or explain it to others. It covers the basics, but I’m pretty confident in saying that it has just the right level of detail to appeal to almost any educator. Even seasoned instructional designers will find something for them in it. Different people will enjoy it for different but overlapping reasons: for it’s readability, for its “stickiness“, for its concise explanations.

I teach EFL teachers, or at least I try to, and I often find myself trying to distill research findings in such manner that our session participants can “see” it. That is, I want the teachers who come to our sessions to understand the concepts and recognize how they work in a class. Ms. Dirksen’s book does that brilliantly well. She has a genius–yes, genius–for explaining things and I am going to borrow some of her metaphors for upcoming training sessions this year. At the end of each chapter there is a Summary section, as there is with other books. But here, instead of working my way through the list trying to recall the various points, I found myself jumping from point to point–check, got it, check, check, check, got’em. I could mentally have written the points myself, that’s how well they had stuck with me. There is a lot of Kathy Sierra (Creating Passionate Users blog) in this book and in Ms. Dirksen’s approach, something that she clearly acknowledges, and that is not a criticism. (If you like her blog posts, you’re pretty likely to enjoy this book. And if you have never visited her blog, go take a look).

If I ran the circus, I would make this book mandatory for all teachers. At this point in time, I do believe there is not a better summary of current understanding of the psychology of learning as it applies to teaching situations. Do yourself a favor and get this book. I promise you won’t be sorry. Ms. Dirksen’s blog is also very good, and she is a very dependable Twitterer. In the world of educational design, she’s a good person to have in your corner.

Playful and Powerful: Stephen Anderson Makes You Think About Seductive Interaction Design

I found Seductive Interaction Design: Creating Playful, Fun, and Effective User Experiences (New Riders, 2011) through a post on Julie Dirkson’s blog, where she introduced a set of cards that Mr. Anderson had developed to help designers in a pinch. Each card contains a design feature (he calls them Mental Notes) you can use to influence users. You flip a card over and think about whether you can incorporate that feature into your design. Perhaps piquing curiosity will help, one card suggests. Or maybe the bystander effect could help you. I went to Mr Anderson’s website to find out more and saw this book. Assuming that the cards would be contained in the book–they aren’t, though you do get an introduction and a few examples, and if you shake the content of the book up and reorganize it, you can probably replicate the content of the cards–I ordered the book. And even though I didn’t get the cards, I’m really glad I ordered the book.

The metaphor used to organize the content is a relationship–a couple at the beginning of a relationship flirting and playing as they try to get to know each other better. There is a dollop of uncertainty and a dash of excitement. It is a social process and a psychological process. It is a process of discovery played out with heightened attention to detail. It is a two-way process and each side has goals and needs and is trying to influence and motivate the other to do something. If we remove the sexual part of the metaphor–and Mr Anderson carefully does in the first unit–it is a good metaphor for advertisers attempting to influence buyers, web designers trying to influence clickers, and teachers trying to influence learners. It also highlights the focus in the book on those first few critical stages in engagement with content. The first interaction with a website is Mr. Anderson’s particular area of expertise, but much of what he says can be applied to any interaction with something new, particularly in educational settings. Indeed, he begins his book with a design feature that got people to use the stairs more at a train station in Sweden.

The book is primarily aimed at web interaction designers, but there is enough educational psychology here to keep any language teacher busy in the 25 chapters arranged in 4 sections. Teachers are not used to thinking of our (mostly) captive learners as needing to be “seduced” into doing what they need to do to learn a language, but the reality is that learners in classrooms vote with their attentional resources and behaviors as much as fickle web surfers do with their mouse clicks. This book will help you to make lessons more fun and effective, with an emphasis on fun because lessons will not be so effective if they are not fun first.

This book is not going to give you an overview of how to construct a complete user/learner experience (for that see my review of Julie Dirksen’s book). It is more about tweaking the details–though they are often fundamental details–to make things more attractive and effective. But it is a very thorough look at the details, with thought-provoking ideas. His section on gamification is particularly good, for example, and you will come away with a more complete understanding of the concept, I’m sure. In many other parts of the book, he deals pretty much with particulars that he has found important, using lots of examples and drawing on his rich experience.

It’s a fun ride, brilliant in many places, and my mind lit up with ideas as I read it. I just wish it had a deck of those cards attached to the back cover…

Make Yourself Smarter?

An article in the New York Times on the weekend called Can You Make Yourself Smarter?, mentioned the double n-back training that is being done to increase working memory (formerly known as short-term memory–Susan Gathercole can fill you in if you need an update on working memory). It’s a little long, but quite interesting, and a little controversial, too, it seems, as I found when I visited Larry Ferlazzo’s ESL/EFL Website of the Day blog, where he had posted his comments on this article (which he didn’t like) and another on exercise and the brain (which he did like–link below). I had stumbled across the double n-back a few months ago when I was doing a little research into working memory and the phonological loop, even trying the online version, which I recommend before you read the Times article or Larry Ferlazzo’s critique of it, or even before you read any further into this post.

Here it is, at a site somewhat appropriately labelled Soak Your Head. Go ahead, give it a try. I’ll wait……….

The Times article is more balanced than Mr Ferlazzo’s comments lead you to believe. The author, Dan Hurley (currently writing a book on intelligence, BTW), reports mostly on the finding of Susanne Jaeggi and Martin Buschkuehl, now at the University of Maryland, in a paper from 2008. They used the double n-back system to train people to improve their working memory and found improvements in their fluid intelligence as well. The claim that you can improve performance on a specific memory task doing it 25 minutes a day for between 12 to 17 weeks is not controversial. The claim that you can improve general working memory across the board is somewhat controversial. The claim that you can improve intelligence–reasoning, abstract thought, problem-solving intelligence–well, that causes a lot of controversy (see Randall Engle’s Attention and Working Memory Lab site for a truckload of blowback).

Many people agree that working memory capacity, especially phonological loop capacity, is critical to good performance at school, particularly for foreign language learning (see some of the many articles by Gathercole). But whether sitting at a computer screen for 25 minutes a day for what amounts to a semester of colored square and audio letter memory practice in increasing levels of difficulty (remember the last one; remember the one before the last one; remember the one 3 stimuli back) can help you, is questionable. It might help your working memory, but it is without doubt the closest thing to torture that I have ever seen in education. A person might elect to do it themselves, but I would not want to be responsible for imposing it on people, particularly at this time when researchers are finding different things.

But in Chicago they are doing it in a school system. And Torkel Klingberg, who invented the technique that  later modified and did their experiments with, well, he formed a learning company and later sold it to Pearson Education. And all sorts of other researchers are moving ahead with similar projects to stretch working memory and improve intelligence. A lot of people apparently see something there… A lot of people also like the work done by Jaeggi and Buschkuehl, according to the article. They just seem to want to move in a slower and less grandiose way forward I guess.

One researcher mentioned in the article, Adrian Owen, is quoted as saying the following after his attempts to replicate J and B’s study:

No evidence was found for transfer to untrained tasks, even when those tasks were cognitively closely related”

Yup, it’s the transfer problem again. You learn what you do in the way that you do it. I can think of a lot of other things I would rather my students be doing for 25 intensely focused minutes per day for 17 weeks. But I have to admit, I really wouldn’t mind if they went home and instead of playing Temple Run for two hours, they played for one and a half hours after they spent half and hour “exercising” their working memories. Or better yet, do aerobics for half and hour, stretch working memory with the double n-back for half an hour, and then run in the game like a madman for the last hour, with malignant demonic monkeys forever hot on your heels.

Jan. 2014 Update: Here is a Guardian article on the same topic. It covers some of the same ground (gaming, computer-based brain training), but also electrical stimulation of the brain, specifically the headset. The article ends with advice to take Andrea Kuszewski’s advice and just try to challenge yourself more.

June 2017 Update: This study found no effect when training adults. Here is the reference: Clark CM, Lawlor-Savage L, Goghari VM (2017) Working memory training in healthy young adults: Support for the null from a randomized comparison to active and passive control groups. PLoS ONE 12(5): e0177707.



Where is the Joy?



We have been trying to come up with a checklist we can use in teacher observations ( for HS teachers of English in Japan). It’s been harder than I imagined. We want to help teachers and their students. But any list of criteria always reflects the preferences of its creators. It reflects an assessment. It reflects an agenda.

After observing many classes last year, I came away with a few depressing impressions, one of which–sorry–was that I am so glad I am not a student in any of those classes. OK, not all, but many…um, no…most. The classes that were pleasant experiences generally achieved this through the power of the performance personality of the teacher. It was the teacher’s jokes, movement in the classroom, and energy that drove the lessons. The same syllabus taught by another teacher would probably have resulted in another snoozer.  I know it is difficult to separate  teachers from their lesson plans, but if we do that and stand back, some rather distinct features emerge.

  •  Teachers don’t have enough confidence in their own English; and/or have great difficulty effectively using English in the classroom even when their English skills are extremely good (more on this in a future post…)
  • There is a clear preference for efficiency at the expense of process (that is, activities are tweaked to make them faster, smoother, and more efficient to set up and conduct in the classroom, to get all learners to move quickly at the same pace)
  • Control is always with the teacher (it is full-frontal presentation and explanation-based instruction)
  • Learners are not given opportunities to experiment with the language (meaning-focused output-based activities are extremely rare; there are always clear correct answers in activities)
  • And there is very little joy in the classes (with many sleeping or distracted students and very low levels of student energy or participation); emotions are rare ( rarely are textbook stories milked for their emotional resonance); and only briefly did I get any sense of the shared journey of learning the class was making
In a single sentence, there is a preference for teacher-centered cognitively efficient classes. So when we tried to make our observation checklist (dripping with our own preferences and agenda, and functionally short), these are the categories we went with:
  1. Viscerally Engaging?
  2. Cognitively Engaging?
  3. Communicative?
  4. Pedagogically Sound?
  5. Creative?
  6. Secure?
You might disagree with some of the items or the weighting of some concepts, but this list represents a view that classes should be more interesting and fun and communicative. Some of the sections are very general, to be sure. Each one would really take a book or a course or two to understand. And feedback is not addressed. So, yes, it is still a work in progress.
There is more and more recognition of the role of affect in education. There is also greater recognition that learning should be a joyful experience. A recent article in the Mind/Shift blog looked at some recent research from Finland. The authors of a study described in the article (Rantala and Määttä) tried to identify what produces joy in the classroom:

No doubt many pupils would agree with this example of their findings: “The joy of learning does not include listening to prolonged speeches.” Such teacher-centric lessons are much less likely to generate joy than are lessons focused on the student, the authors report. The latter kind of learning involves active, engaged effort on the part of the child; joy arrives when the child surmounts a series of difficulties to achieve a goal.

They also mention there is greater joy when learners are allowed to work at their own level and when they are allowed to play more (the study looked at elementary school students).

This is hard to do. It is hard to set up an activity that is a doable challenge for learners and then let them experience achieved success. It is especially hard when probably no one in the room–teacher or student–has ever experienced this kind of lesson before. It also hard to let learners work at their own pace when exam periods are fixed. And making things playful or game-like is also more difficult than just assigning points and keeping score (as Stephen Anderson makes clear in this presentation or his book, Seductive Interaction Design).

For a more scholarly approach to the topic of emotions, google Antonio Damasio, Helen Immordino-Yang, or Kurt Fischer to get a wide variety of articles, or look at any of the neuroscience and learning initiatives that have come online recently). There is also  this article on Cognition Affect and Learning by Barry Kort. It looks at stories and emotions among other things. And here is a link from the Eide Neurolearning blog that gives a nice summary of humor and affect in learning and links to several other resources.

Changing from an approach that focuses on cognitive efficiency to one that focuses on greater learner control of the process of learning will not be easy. But the increasing number of studies  coming out that highlight the need for greater consideration of emotions and the social nature of learning are pointing to a shift in pedagogy. Adding humor to lessons is much easier to do right away. Taking inspiration from Apple’s slogan: Think quirky, think playful.



Two Articles on Innovation: The Blue School and Sony

Innovation is the creation of better or more effective products, processes, services, technologies, or ideas that are accepted by markets, governments, and society.

The above quote comes from Wikipedia. It came up as I checked the spelling of “innovation”. What sent me looking for the spelling of innovation was an encounter with two articles from the New York Times, one from April 13 called At the Blue School (from which I also borrowed the image above), and the other from a day later called How the Tech Parade Passed Sony By. Both of these articles are very interesting and worth a few minutes of your time if you are interested in education and Japan. And both are focused on topics getting a lot of coverage recently.

Articles on neuroscience appear almost daily in the news, and several groups/sites/schools/programs have come into existence in the last few years. There’s the Neuro Education Initiative at John Hopkins University (mentioned in the article), The NeuroLeadership Institute (associated with author and Blue School board member David Rock, and also mentioned in the article), USC’s Brain and Creativity Institute,  Harvard’s Mind / Brain / Behavior initiative, and an Annenberg Learner Resource called Neuroscience and the Classroom, to name some that I’ve come across in the last half  year or so.

Sony has also been in the news, partly for the transfer of power to a new CEO (from Howard Stringer to Kazuo Hirai), and partly for making a record loss ($6.4 holy smoke billion!). The Times article focuses on Sony’s problems, the subject of so many books (here and here in Japanese), TV spots, and articles that there are probably families who discuss it at the dinner table regularly. Well, maybe not dinner table, but certainly it is present at the heart of the debate about what is “wrong” with Japan economically and what can/should be done about Japan, Inc., the economic model many people grew up with.

Seeing these two articles on the same day got me thinking, wondering if there is any connection we can make between a school that tries a new initiative, garnering both academic praise (my neuroscience Twitter gallery went quadruple post on that link) and serious parental acceptance (it costs more than $30,000 a year to send your young elementary-age child to the Blue School), and a company that seems to have forgotten how to innovate. It is tempting to make the leap that schools in Japan, like their business compatriots, are resistant to change and are struggling to find their way in the face of a changing global environment (blah they can’t lose money but they can certainly waste it on ineffective English language lessons blah blah). It is tempting, but probably a gross (as in icky) generalization, and mostly incorrect. It is tempting because in my job as a teacher trainer for a local government in Japan, lack of innovation is something I see quite a lot of. It is tempting because the Sony article makes the following claim that seems to hook the two articles together:

Sony’s woes mirror a wider decline in Japanese electronics. Though executives here are quick to blame a strong yen, which hurts exports, a deeper issue is that once-innovative companies seem to have run out of ideas. And when a nation can no longer compete on abundant labor or cheap capital, ideas and innovation are paramount.

It is probably incorrect to make these connections too quickly because a single boutique school does not represent a nation, and while applying neuroscience findings to classroom settings is something I am obsessing about myself recently, I’m not sure a) people have completely figured out how to do so effectively yet, and b) good teachers probably do a lot of what neurofanatics say teachers should be doing anyway. Compare the Blue School classroom depicted in the article with this elementary school classroom in Kanazawa, for example. It may very well be true that the focus on creativity and the process of learning practiced at the Blue School may be exactly what more Japanese need educationally to get out of the past and into the global future. Certainly I would like to see more of that, more application of skills and less rote learning, in language classes in Japan. And I think we can say that adding more fun, personalization, emphasis on affect, and the collaborative, social side of learning, would make lessons more bearable for a lot of learners. But how well these things can be instituted, and how effective they can be when they are instituted, is still not certain.

When I read the definition from Wikipedia, that last part really stood out: “…that are accepted by markets, governments, and society.” I copied it and pasted it here because it raised a few questions, both inward and outward. Like most people (I think anyway…) I had always sort of assumed that innovation was all about creativity and newness. But acceptance is a crucial part of innovation, not necessarily at first, but at some point, or else it is not innovation. Innovation is the process of  social acceptance of creative initiatives. That makes me feel better about my job (where I do face  rejections of my initiatives). Change is a process, not an event (a quote I found attributed to Barbara Johnson, but repeated often). Yup. What the Blue School and Sony have in common is they have to go through the same process. Size, culture, structure, personalities, and the power of the idea behind the initiative all impact on this process.