Dyslexia Fast Facts

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What is dyslexia?

  • It is neurobiological in origin. Simply put, individuals who have dyslexia use different areas of their brain to process language than non-dyslexic individuals.
  • It involves an unexpected discrepancy between an individual’s cognitive ability and reading ability.
  • Is marked by challenges with speed and accuracy of word decoding.
  • Poor spelling and comprehension are also often associated with dyslexia.
  • There are multiple theories of dyslexia but the most widely accepted theories implicate phonological processing and rapid automatized naming (RAN).
    • phoneme is an individual unit of sound (eg: /c/, /sh/).  Phonological processing includes the ability to isolate and manipulate units of sound.
    • Rapid automatized naming is as it sounds: the ability to rapidly identify objects, letters, etc.

 

How common is dyslexia?

Dyslexia has a prevalence of 5-17% in the general population (Ozernov-
Palchik, Yu, Wang, & Gaab, 2016).

The prevalence is higher (50%) for individuals with a first degree relative (parent or sibling) with dyslexia (Vogler, DeFries & Decker, 1985).

 

Can dyslexia be diagnosed before a child is old enough to read?

  • Dyslexia is neurobiological and, as such, indicators of risk can be present regardless of a child’s age or literacy progress. Pre-literacy diagnoses are not common, but researchers such as John Gabrieli and Nadine Gaab are expanding the research in this area.

 

Can intervention begin before a child is old enough to read?

Yes! Intervention can and should begin prior to literacy!

 

Why is early intervention so important?

Language development happens in what is referred to as a “sensitive period.” This can be thought of a ‘window of opportunity.’  Although neuroplasticity enables brains of all ages to continue to change and develop, the most ‘bang for your buck’ happens during a sensitive period.

Think about a child who learns to speak two languages as compared to someone who learns a second language as an adult.  Both the child and the adult are capable of learning another language, but the child, who is still in the sensitive period for language development, will be able to speak this second language without an accent, whereas the adult will not.

The sensitive period for language goes until roughly the end of second grade.  Thus, the more intervention that can be given prior to that, the more long-lasting and far-reaching the intervention will be.  It’s important not to wait for a post-literacy diagnosis before beginning intervention because, by that time, the child will be through or nearly through the sensitive period for language development.  When in doubt, intervene, and intervene early.

 

Who should receive early intervention?

  • Children who have first degree relatives (parents or siblings) with dyslexia. In communication with Dr. Nadine Gaab, she has indicated that for such children she would begin intervention even before warning signs emerge or testing has been done.  This allows for maximum intervention during the sensitive period of language development.
  • Children who have difficulties with sounds of language as indicated in typical preschool interactions (eg: rhyming, identifying words with the same initial sounds, etc.)

As indicated in the prior question, early intervention is essential.  Thus, if in doubt, intervene!

  • Ultimately, rapid automatized naming (RAN) is the best predictor of future reading (Wolf, p. 179) and is helpful for indicating who should receive early intervention.  Difficulties in RAN can be visible at a young age (Wolf, p. 181, suggests three years old).  Unfortunately, determination of RAN skills requires testing and is not visible organically through typical parenting or teaching.

A useful resource for identifying children who are at risk for dyslexia (due to low RAN or other deficits) is the DIBELS test.  It is free and is available online here.

 

What should early intervention entail?

This is a bit difficult to generalize.  Dyslexia can occur due to any of multiple deficits, and within those deficits, there are multiple sub-types.  Dyslexia interventions need to address each student’s specific needs, although there are specific, overarching areas that should be included.

“Intervention for children with dyslexia should address the development of each of reading’s contributing components–from orthography and phonology to vocabulary and morphology–their connections, their fluency, and their integration in comprehension.”

Wolf, p. 195

In general, the more language exposure a child has, the better.  For a pre-literate child, one can’t go wrong with practices such as the following:

  • Practice anything that relates to the sounds. Eg: rhyming, identifying words that begin with the same initial sounds.
  • Segmenting words into sounds.  (Do this with sounds only, not letters.  Once sounds are mastered, then the concept of letter-sound connections can be explored.) eg: What sounds are in cat?  /k/, /ă/, /t/.  How many sounds do you hear in box?  Four: /b/ /ô/ /k/ /s/.
  • Expose the pre-literate child to print. Anything that can help the child begin to understand that there is a connection between sounds and letters is beneficial.  Ultimately, the child will need to understand that words are made of letters and letters represent sounds.
  • Expose the pre-literate child to books. Reading to young children helps develop understanding of concepts like the directionality of print, that books have a right-side-up and an upside-down, and that pages are turned once words are read.
  • Intentionally use rich vocabulary and explicitly teach vocabulary words to the child.  Don’t water down vocabulary or use made-up words for children.

The importance of exposure to literature, of having others read to the child, of seeing others read, and so on, really cannot be understated.  Home literacy practices can play an important role in mitigating the risk of dyslexia (Dilnot, Hamilton, Maughan, & Snowling, 2016; Powers, Wang, Beach, Sideridis, & Gaab, 2016).

Post-literacy intervention is also complex, but this page offers a helpful and brief synopsis.  Interventions should involve systematic and explicit teaching of phonological processing and sound-letter connections (Wolf, p. 175).

Where can I read more?

The International Dyslexia Association is a great resource for current, reliable, and accessible information.  Their fact sheets are nice for a quick look at specific topics, and this handbook entitled Dyslexia in the Classroom: What every teacher needs to know is great!

For an overview of the neuroscience of reading and dyslexia, I recommend Proust and the Squid: The story and science of the reading brain by Maryanne Wolfe.  (See more information about this book in this previous blog post).

For connection with others who “aim to raise dyslexia awareness, empower families to support their children and inform policy-makers on best practices to identify, remediate and support students with dyslexia,” see if your province or state has a branch of Decoding Dyslexia.

 

References

Dilnot, J., Hamilton, L., Maughan, B., & Snowling, M. J. (2016). Child and environmental risk factors predicting readiness for learning in children at high risk of dyslexia. Development and Psychopathology,29(01), 235-244. doi:10.1017/s0954579416000134

Ozernov-Palchik, O., Yu, X., Wang, Y., & Gaab, N. (2016). Lessons to be learned: How a comprehensive neurobiological framework of atypical reading development can inform educational practice. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 10, 45-58. doi:10.1016/j.cobeha.2016.05.006

Powers, S. J., Wang, Y., Beach, S. D., Sideridis, G. D., & Gaab, N. (2016). Examining the relationship between home literacy environment and neural correlates of phonological processing in beginning readers with and without a familial risk for dyslexia: An fMRI study. Annals of Dyslexia, 66(3), 337-360. doi:10.1007/s11881-016-0134-2

Vogler, G. P., DeFries, J. C., & Decker, S. N. (1985). Family History as an Indicator of Risk for Reading Disability. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 18(7), 419-421. doi:10.1177/002221948501800711

Wolf, M. (2008). Proust and the Squid: The story and science of the reading brain. New York: Harper Perennial.

 

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Proust and the Squid: The story and science of the reading brain – Book Review

After having heard about this book in a couple of my classes at HGSE last year, and having read a chapter as a reading assignment there, it most definitely made it onto my reading list for future reading.  It’s taken a bit but I have finally read it and am so glad that I did!

Maryanne Wolf, the author of Proust and the Squid: The story and science of the reading brain, conducts research on the neuroscience of dyslexia at Tufts University in the greater Boston area.  I read some of her research last year and was consistently impressed, and reading the book only furthered my respect and appreciation for her work.

Proust and the Squid: The story and science of the reading brain is a comprehensive but accessible overview of the current understandings of reading and reading disorders, as discovered through neuroscience research, as well as an overview of the history of reading –  a pertinent consideration for providing context for neuroscience research findings.

I recommend this book for anyone who is interested in developing a deeper understanding of and appreciation for the neurological processes of reading, as well as for those interested in learning more about what underlies dyslexia.  A small portion of the book might be a bit too thickly science-based for some people’s preferences, but don’t let this deter you from picking it up.  That small portion of the book can easily be omitted without suffering a distortion of the message of the remainder of the book.

Rather than summarize the book in general, I have chosen here to highlight a few of the points that grabbed my attention.  Some of these are things of which I am well aware, but Wolf managed to articulate in such a clear way that they can’t be overlooked.  Others are points that extended my own knowledge and which I wish to remember for my own future work.

Teaching children to read early is not necessarily advantageous

Wolf cites a study by Goswami, which found that “Children who were asked to begin to learn to read at age five did less well than those who began to learn at age seven” (p. 96).  Wolf ties this in to physical maturation in the brain and the specifics of myelination.  Of course, there are always exceptions and one ought to be careful to avoid the effects of sweeping generalizations, but certainly this is something for educators and parents to know.

“Children who were asked to begin to learn to read at age five did less well than those who began to learn at age seven” (Wolf, p. 96).

As an aside, it is also worth nothing that many studies show the benefits of early literary awareness in general (Dilnot, Hamilton, Maughan, & Snowling, 2016; Powers, Wang, Beach, Sideridis, & Gaab, 2016).  So keep in mind that while later reading instruction might be appropriate, this does not negate the need for early language awareness development through phonological processing exercises (eg: rhyming, identifying sounds, etc.).  Another note of caution is that for a child who is persistently delayed not only in reading but in the accompanying developmental milestones that can be indicative of dyslexia, early identification and intervention is crucial.

Wolf’s main takeaway here is to allow the early reader to read early, but not to rush children to learn to read before their brain has reached the appropriate maturation point for such endeavours.  She states that “there are excellent biological reasons why reading comes in its own good time” (Wolf, p.97).

We are failing our students in reading instruction

This one is straight-forward, but jarring.  Wolf cites information from the National Reading Panel, which indicates that “30 to 40 percent of children in the fourth grade do not become fully fluent readers with adequate comprehension” (Wolf, p. 135).  I am not sure what the statistics on this are in Canada, but I would suspect that they are at least somewhat similar. Considering that most schools give little reading instruction after fourth grade (this is a typical point of shifting expectations from learning to read to reading to learn), this is a troubling statistic.

“30 to 40 percent of children in the fourth grade do not become fully fluent readers with adequate comprehension” (Wolf, p. 135).

We can and must do better, and the onus for this is on us as educators.  Wolf states that “those of use who work with children want them to realize that although they may learn differently, each one of them can and will learn to read.  It is our job, not theirs, to find out how best to teach them” (p. 210).  I would also argue that more responsibility for these statistics needs to be held by teacher education programs.  Wolf indicates frustration with this as well, and writes that “too few teachers know much about the history of dyslexia, and fewer still are aware of current trends” (p. 193).  A large body of research substantiates a) the feasibility of early diagnosis b) that early intervention is possibly and c) that early intervention is crucial.  We need teachers who are well-equipped with knowledge of what to look for and have access to necessary resources to intervene early and to intervene well.

Dyslexia is not a visual problem

This is a common misconception which continues to be propagated but is false.  In new-to-me evidence of this statement, Wolf cites a study by Liberman and Shankweiler which involved testing children who were profoundly deaf (p. 173).  Their reading deficits were similar to what is present in children with dyslexia, where phonological processing skills are implicated.

Wolf also addresses the misconceptions that letter reversals are a) indicative of dyslexia and b) point to it being a visual issue (p. 174).  She cites a study by Vellutino, who connected letter reversals with non-visual breakdowns in processing.

She indicates that “there are now hundreds of phonological studies demonstrating that many children with reading disabilities do not perceive, segment, or manipulate individual syllables and phonemes in the same way as average-reading children do” (p. 174).  Wolf, like many researchers in the field, insists on the importance of explicit, sequential, phonics-based intervention for struggling readers, focusing specifically on the development of phoneme awareness and grapheme-phoneme connections (p. 175).

A simple one-size-fits-all solution does not and will not exist.

There are different subtypes of dyslexia and there are different deficits that can be present in dyslexia (Wolf, p. 188-189).  As such, there is no one, singular approach to intervention that is going to work for all children (Wolf, p. 209).  Dyslexia intervention programs and tutoring can be very costly and the last thing one wants to do is invest in something that doesn’t work.  Be wary of a program or approach that claims to be a ‘catch-all’.

For once and for all, could we please stop perpetuating the belief that people with dyslexia are lazy, stubborn, or unintelligent!

I love the way Wolf addresses this:

“Children with any form of dyslexia are not ‘dumb’ or ‘stubborn’; nor are they ‘not working to potential’–the three most frequent descriptions they endure.  However, they will be mistakenly described in these ways many times by many people, including themselves.  It is vital for parents and teachers to work to ensure that all children with any form of reading problem receive immediate, intensive intervention, and that no child or adult equates reading problems with low intelligence.  A comprehensive support system should be in place from the first indication of difficulty until the child becomes an independent, fluent reader, or the frustrations of reading failure can lead to a cycle of learning failure, drop-out, and delinquency.  Most important, the considerable potential of these children will be lost to themselves and to society.” (Wolf, p. 195-196)

 

There are many, many more gems in Proust and the Squid: The story and science of the reading brain.  It’s a great book and I recommend it to anyone involved in teaching reading or Language Arts or overseeing those who do.

Proust and the Squid

Sound Chaining: A tool for phonemic awareness development

 

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In her book, Proust and the Squid: The story and science of the reading brain, Maryanne Wolf (p. 194) states that intervention for readers with dyslexia should address:

  • orthography
  • phonology
  • vocabulary
  • morphology

Phonology can be divided into further categories, one of which is phonemic awareness.  According to Birsh, phonemic awareness is “awareness of the smallest units of sound in the speech stream and the ability to isolate or manipulate the individual sounds in words” (p. 713).

Phonemic awareness skills can be further subdivided into the following categories:

  • blending
  • segmenting
  • isolating
  • deleting
  • manipulating

Sound chaining can involve each of these subskills.

Sound chaining must be done only verbally, with no writing or reading component, if it is to truly address phonemic awareness.  It involves manipulation of words to arrive at new words.  It’s a lovely tool to have in one’s arsenal because it is easy to plan and it requires little time and no materials to execute!

Here’s an example of a sound chaining exercise.  Note that the letters in slashes represent sounds as opposed to letters.  No letter names are given in this exercise.

Example 1 (initial and final sounds):
Say teeth.
Now say teeth, without the /th/.
            (tee)
Say tee.
Now say tee, but change the /t/ to /s/.

            (see)
Say see.
Now say see, but add a /p/ to the end.
            (seep)
Say seep.
Now say seep, but change the /s/ to a /l/.
            (leap)
Say leap.
Now say leap, but change the /p/ to a /f/.
            (leaf)

In Example 1, the initial and final sounds were altered.  The difficulty can be decreased by using compound words and removing one word (eg: say couwboy without cow) instead of initial or final sounds.  Alternately, the difficulty can be increased by altering interior word sounds (see below).

Example 2 (initial, final, and interior word sounds):
Say freeze.
Now say freeze, but drop the /r/.
            (fees)
Say fees.
Now say fees, but change the /f/ with a /br/.
            (breeze)
Say breeze.
Now say breeze, but drop the /r/.
            (bees)
Say bees.
Now say bees, but change the /s/ to a /ch/.
            (beach)
Say beach.
Now say beach, but change the /b/ to a /t/.
            (teach)

 

 

References

Birsh, J. R. (2011). Multisensory Teaching of Basic Language Skills. Baltimore: Brookes Publishing Co.

Wolf, M. (2008). Proust and the Squid: The story and science of the reading brain. New York: Harper Perennial.

 

Deep Understanding

I currently have the pleasure of taking a course with Tina Grotzer, a cognitive scientist and educator at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.  One of the assigned readings was a piece that she wrote on deep understanding back in the nineties.  Although much time has passed since then, it is still a concept that is met with much resistance in some respects.

For example, in 2010, Alberta introduced a new math curriculum.  Seven years later, parent groups and a political party still take issue with many aspects of the curriculum and put out a steady call to go ‘back to the basics’. (As a side note, this is a concept that always intrigues me in the education realm.  We would be quite distraught if our medical professionals ‘did things the way they always did’ rather than have them advance their practices as knowledge and technology advances.  Why do some people hold opposite expectations for education and not want practices in this field to advance as our knowledge about teaching and learning advances?)  One of the components that was a source of frustration in the 2010 curriculum was that it reduced the number of concepts that were required to be taught, and the assumption was that this would lead to less learning.  In her article, “Understanding Counts!: Teaching for Depth in Math and Science”, Tina explains why this is not true.  She builds a strong argument for deep learning and explains why teaching fewer concepts with greater depth is more beneficial than teaching many concepts superficially.   I believe that this is the intent of Alberta’s 201 0 math curriculum.  Yes, there were problems (particularly that the roll-out of the curriculum was poorly done and that teachers, who themselves lacked deep understanding because they had been taught superficially, were therefore ill-equipped to foster deep understanding in their students), but the curriculum’s intent at deepening students’ understanding of math is not one of those problems.

Tina has graciously allowed me to post the pdf of her booklet.  Take ten minutes to read it through and see why deep understanding matters!

Grotzer: Understanding Counts!: Teaching for Depth in Math and Science (shared with permission from Tina Grotzer)

Research-based vs. Preference-driven Teaching

I recently had a Twitter conversation with a researcher from the Netherlands who was reiterating the importance of using research to guide practice.  He pointed me to this journal article from the mid-90s, which raises concern over educators who have a tendency to use preference to guide their practice, even if their preferences defy research.  The paper identifies this as both (understandably) problematic and (surprisingly?) common.

This brings to mind a relatively recent article from the Edmonton Journal.  Ever since this debacle a few years ago, Edmonton media does a great job of portraying this part of the country as a hotspot of poor assessment practices.  I hope that there is a disconnect between the reports of the media and the actual practice being employed in classrooms there, but their local media sure seem to have a love affair with promoting practice that is based primarily on preference and that laughs in the face of research.  It tends to paint such practice as bold, brave, and desirable.  Equally as concerning are the public comments which further support such preference-driven practice while bashing research.  I find this “if it feels good it must be good” approach to be troubling.  Why does statistical data not have a more prominent role in determining what happens in our schools?  Why is so much left to preference?  (As an aside, I do realize that statistical data can be taken to the extreme and used in places where it doesn’t apply.  Particularly when dealing with people, not everyone fits into typical statistics and I’m aware of that.  I’m looking forward to reading this book for more on that topic).

It’s tough to stay on top of the research.  There is so much to know and limited time to learn.  Educators have a never-ending stream of tasks to be done in any given day, and sifting through journals to find information pertinent to our individual areas of desired growth is a nice wish but not a reality for any educators I’ve ever met.  Not to mention that for many (most?) people, sifting through journal articles doesn’t make it into the “ways I enjoy spending my time” category.  Even if it was something a particular teacher enjoyed, Hardiman et al. point out that “teachers do not typically possess the background knowledge that is necessary to parse research articles and apply findings in appropriate contexts”(p.136). And yet, despite the difficulties that are inherent in being wise consumers of research who use research to inform and drive our practice, I firmly believe that we can do more; we can do better.  There simply must be a way.

Twitter has become such a tool for me, (read more about how I use Twitter for my professional development here), but it has its limitations too.  Twitter can become a venue for groupthink or a means of propagating  preference-based practice if opinions are left unchecked.  With the right connections and knowledge of where to look it can, thankfully, also be a sharing space for research.  Unfortunately the latter is more difficult to find.  There are opinions aplenty but sharing of research among educators seems to be a much less common occurrence.

I’m not sure exactly what this means for educators in general, but I do have some ideas of what I’d like it to mean for me.  I’d like research to take a more dominant role in my practice.  Not the “I think I read it in a book somewhere so I’ll defend my practice by prefacing my conversation with generic ‘research says'”kind of research (oh, I’m guilty of using that tactic!), but the more authentic “these researchers in this study in this year found these findings and this is the conclusion that I’m drawing from that” kind of research.

Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t think that’s the answer for everyone.  I think that most of us, certainly, could benefit from having an increased general awareness of education-related research data and we could be more intentional in sharing that data and in using that data to drive our practice, but I think there’s room for variation in specifically how that looks from one person to the next.  Could we each agree, however, to be a little more intentional in reading, finding, and sharing data that can inform our practice?  I’m willing to venture a guess that the results of this would be noteworthy.

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Photo source

 

Two Common Misuses of Rubrics

Rubrics are not a new concept in education.  Their benefits have been touted for by many and a quick Internet search reveals large amounts of literature on the topic for anyone interested in learning more.  Likewise, one does not have to look far to find examples of rubrics or websites that will create rubrics.  Given this familiarity, it seems a bit surprising that they are still used incorrectly.  While the benefits of rubrics are significant (see information under “Why use instructional rubrics” here), these benefits are not harnessed when they are used incorrectly.

There are two major misuses of rubrics that I see in action on a regular basis and I would like to take a moment to address them:

  1. Rubrics are not assessment checklists.

Itemized lists with point values, like this, are not rubrics:

non rubric

(Source: studenthandouts.com)

One of the dominant benefits of rubrics is that it forces the teacher to have a very clear understanding of exactly what the student did well and what they would need to do to improve and this information is communicated to the student.  If a rubric is used well, the student will have a very clear understanding of what they need to do to improve in each category and will not have any need to ask the infamous, “why did I get this mark” question for any item on the rubric.

Rubrics, then, should have a descriptor for each level of achievement.  On the above example, if neatness is a category on a five point scale (assessing neatness to determine if students know a social studies concept is a whole other topic for discussion), students should have a clear explanation of what category five neatness looks like, what category four neatness looks like, and so on.

In her article, “Using Rubrics to Promote Thinking and Learning”, Heidi Goodrich Andrade provides the following example of a rubric:rubric example

In contrast to the non-example rubric, Andrade’s rubric has clear explanations for each level of achievement.  There is still some degree of subjectivity within the descriptors (as will typically be the case), but it is far more clear how each level of achievement is attained.  Thus, the student knows what must be done to arrive at the next level of achievement for each category and can use this to inform his/her work from this point on.  This is how rubrics become tools for learning.

     2.  Rubric grades and descriptors need to match

Rubrics are often written into a scale of four or five levels of achievement.  Mathematically speaking, five levels of achievement would mean that each category on the rubric is calculated out of five.  If percentage grades are given (another assessment issue that is yet another topic that needs to be addressed), that would mean that the categories compute to the following percentages:

  • 100% (5/5)
  • 80% (4/5)
  • 60% (3/5)
  • 40% (2/5)
  • 20% (1/5)

The problem with this is that the descriptors for the rubric can often be generalized into something like this:

  • 5/5 – great work.  No improvement needed.
  • 4/5 – really good work.  Just a slight tweak needed somewhere.
  • 3/5 – pretty good work.  A bit of a misunderstanding or oversight is present.
  • 2/5 – beginner stages.  On the right track, but at the very beginning of the road.
  • 1/5 – not there yet.  Shows significant lack of understanding, or no evidence of understanding, or this component of the assignment was not included in the project.

The problem here is the disconnect between the descriptor and the grade.  If a 2/5 reveals that a student is in the beginning stages, can we confidently assign a failing grade of 40%?  It seems more logical to assign a grade that is at the lower end of the spectrum of a passing grade.

Just because something can be computed mathematically, does not mean that it should.

The lesson here is that, when designing a rubric, the numeric grades sometimes need to be skewed.  Again, if reporting is done in percentages, the teacher needs to look at the descriptors of the rubric and determine an appropriate percentage equivalent that matches the descriptor, rather than assigning a percentage based on a mathematical computation.  For example, a 90% might be more appropriate for a 4/5 on a rubric, rather than the computational score of 80%.  Just because something can be computed mathematically, does not mean that it should.  When using a rubric, it is often necessary to give each level of achievement a grade that is not mathematically derived.

As a side note, there really is no need to put an actual numeric score on a rubric.  In fact, many would argue that that actually reduces the instructional component of a rubric.  When a numeric grade is written on a rubric, students tend to look at the numeric grade and derive their sense of achievement from that, rather than having to read the descriptors to learn how they did and what they could do to improve.  Putting a word descriptor for each level of achievement (rather than a 5-4-3-2-1) will be more informative for students and parents and will allow the teacher to assign a value for each level of achievement that better matches the descriptors than a grade out of five.

 

Rubrics can be incredibly effective tools to use to assess students, to teach them, and to show them where they are at and where they are heading, but it is necessary to ensure that our rubrics clearly communicate each level of achievement and are calculated in a manner that is fair and accurate.

 

 

What Can Neuroscience Teach Teachers about ‘Aha!’ Moments?

Photo credit: pixabay.com

Photo credit: Pixabay.com

I love it when I can read about research and immediately see some direct implications of that research in my teaching practice.

For the results to be legit, researchers must surrender control of the outcome.  Due to this, sometimes scientists devote a chunk of their life to a project that didn’t reveal what they thought it would, or didn’t reveal what seemed useful.  What a terribly frustrating thing, yet inherently necessary due to the very nature of research.

Gabrieli referred to such unusable research as “file drawer research”. Interestingly, he stated that there are issues with this.  No one wants to publicize research that they’ve done that didn’t work, or that didn’t cultivate useful data, yet if they did, it would contribute to the greater field of knowledge.  At the very least, it would enable others to ensure that they didn’t repeat the same research, but it also would contribute to the pool of studies.  If data reveals that ‘all studies showed X results’, but in reality there were studies that didn’t show those results but they weren’t published, then the full story is not being revealed.

But, I digress.  My point is that sometimes research doesn’t seem to work.  Other times, it generates data but it’s not immediately apparent how that data is useful.  Again, this makes sense given the nature of research.  In light of this, it feels like a treat when there is research done and shared that contains workable, useable data.  I enjoyed such a treat when I read this article about the ‘Aha!’ moments of insight, summarizing some of the work of cognitive neuroscientist John Kounios.  Here is some of the useable knowledge I pulled out of it:

  • Finding: prior to that moment of enlightenment, or sudden ‘knowing’, our brains have been processing the information but at a subconscious level. Thus, it feels like a sudden state of enlightenment but our brain has actually been thinking about it for a while.
    Application: that dreaded “blank stare” that students give when they have no idea what we’re talking about, does not necessarily mean that they are not taking in any of the explanation that is being given.  They might be processing on a subconscious level.  Persevere through those blank stares – they might just be the precursor to sudden insight.
  • Finding: a surge of brain activity happens immediately before sudden insight. One of the changes in the brain during this time is a sudden burst of alpha waves visible on EEGs.  This is interesting because alpha waves inhibit the visual system – the higher the amount of alpha waves, the more the visual system is inhibited.  It seems, from what Kounios shares, that the brain essentially dials down its use of visual stimulus to allow for greater use of other brain activity for that short moment of time.
    Application: teachers often struggle with the concept of ‘wait time’.  It can feel uncomfortable and unproductive to have moments of silence during conversation with a student.  Watching a student’s eye movements could help encourage effective use of wait time.  If a child is looking away, it’s probably a good idea to help with their brain’s attempt at reducing stimulus.  Stay quiet, let them think, and see if a moment of insight arises as a result.
  • Finding: Those who are prone to have moments of insight show different brain function (even when not having ‘Aha!’ moments) than those who have fewer such moments.  Kounios is working on developing “different type of thought exercises” that can be administered to further develop the areas of the brain that are activated for sudden insight, but even with his existing research, there are some implications for teaching.
    Application: Kounios himself gives some application here:
    – He speaks of the importance of having a positive mood. For more learning on developing this in the classroom, a great place to start is to read Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset (#growthmindset on Twitter) or follow the culture of learning chat (#COLchat) on Monday evenings on Twitter.
    – He also speaks of the benefits of large rooms with high ceilings (most classrooms) or, more ideally – the outdoors.
  • Finding: ‘Aha!’ moments cause an emotional rush. It doesn’t matter if the outcome of the problem that was solved has a positive or negative connotation to it, simply solving a problem through sudden insight creates this rush.
    Application: This indicates the importance of working within a child’s zone of proximal development (if you’re not familiar with this concept, I highly recommend reading more on this important work by Vygotsky).  If we give students work that is consistently too difficult or too easy for them, they will not have opportunities for such sudden insights and that emotional rush of learning will not be something that is accessible to them.

Throughout the article, Kounios references his book eureka factorThe Eureka Factor” and explains that it contains much more information about his work (written in lay terms) and many more ideas for the practical applications of it.  The positive feedback loop of reward from sudden insight is something that I greatly value in my teaching – it’s a large piece of what makes the job both meaningful and rewarding.  If there is some way that I can further cultivate such moments in my classroom, I’m all for it.  I’m looking forward to ordering his book and learning more about this.