Mind games

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How do you make learning genuinely student-centred when today’s young brains are Einstein-like in their complexity? asks Julie Nightingale

Most teacher training begins with some reassuringly homely advice: remember what you were like at that age. It’s a good way to show rookie educators their young charges aren’t so different. But it’s also inaccurate because today’s students aren’t much like those who went before them.

Advances in neuroscience, psychology and sociology have led to a quantum leap in our understanding of neural structures and responses. We are better informed about how children process information, develop skills and are motivated to learn. The bottom line: they’re smarter than you.

In the past 20 years, neurotransmitters [the way information is processed in the brain] have become faster explains Dutch psychologist and IB parent Liesbeth van Weert. This is partly a result of the vast amounts of information students are getting through all kinds of media. The more stimuli they get, the faster the brain has to work to digest it. So today’s students are better able to multi-task: they can learn, use Twitter and listen to music at the same time. The challenge is to find out how much they can endure before becoming over-stimulated. It’s not just media: the influence of role models and peer groups, family background and even the design of a school can shape children’s thinking. All of which means the case for a student-centred approach to learning which sees understanding how young people learn, and are motivated and enabled to retain and apply understanding, as the best route to effective teaching has gained widespread acceptance.

Student-centred learning gives the student a voice says Carol Van Vooren, Assistant Professor at the College of Education, California State University, USA, and a former Principal at an IB World School. It stimulates them to get going and get motivated

The IB is widely acknowledged as a leader in student-centred learning, but it certainly didn’t invent the idea. A century ago, influential psychologists such as Jean Piaget were talking about the importance of child-centred education, while several pieces of ground-breaking research from the 1970s onwards have influenced practitioners and policymakers worldwide.

The identification of different visual, auditory and kinaesthetic (VAK) learning styles in the late 1970s has been absorbed into government policy in some countries, where teachers are encouraged to offer student-specific teaching methods in class. Howard Gardner’s well-known work on multiple intelligences has translated into a broader vision of education, in which teachers target seven distinct intelligences.

In 2001, Stella Vosniadou, an expert in cognitive, developmental and educational psychology, explored the shift to student-centred learning. Her research shows that active, constructive involvement of the learner in learning is key. Learning at school requires students to pay attention, to observe, to memorize, to understand, to set goals and to assume responsibility for their own learning. These cognitive activities are not possible without the active involvement and engagement of the learner Vosniadou says social participation via group work is a vital element, with students acting as coaches or coordinators and sharing resources. Prof Van Vooren agrees: The more social education is, the more motivated students tend to be. Vosniadou also identifies the importance of children being reflective learners who can plan and monitor their own learning and who, through inquiry, discussion and debate, are encouraged to express their opinions and defend them. This is the benefit of learning that is organized around general principles and explanations, rather than based on the memorization of facts and procedures. Many of these principles will be familiar to IB teachers, particularly the emphasis on the active involvement of the learner. But that doesn’t mean their practice is widespread across the educational world.

According to PYP teacher Vani Veikoso Twigg, writing in the Journal of Research in International Education in 2010, teachers can be reticent to implement inquiry-based teaching methods. Reasons given include lack of exposure to these methods during their training and the perception that inquiry-based learning does not work for some students. This, says Veikoso Twigg, may be the fault of the school rather than a failure of the method itself.

Plenty of IB World Schools are showing that student-centred learning can pay off. Peter Bajer, an IB Visual Arts Teacher at Geelong Grammar School in Australia, set his Year 11 students a 24-hour challenge, where they were briefed to notice anything that grabbed their attention as they moved through time during their study break, from people in transit terminals to billboards flashing through a window of a moving vehicle. Some students aimed to capture a whole 24 hours on film, others documented the same hour over 24 consecutive days. One student shot 24 Polaroids of a friend sleeping.

Back at school, the task became a subject for investigation and a stimulus for creativity, with innovative works produced exploring subjects as diverse as the beauty of decaying objects and the neurological condition synaesthesia. The crucial point of the two-term project, says Peter, was that students took full ownership of their learning. The focus was solely on them

In Mexico City, the notion of the reflective learner is being explored by Simon Clark, PYP Teacher at Greengates School. Each Friday, children complete School News, detailing what they have done during the week. They discuss the IB learner profile and how they have demonstrated its traits. Simon also holds a debriefing session at the end of each Unit of Inquiry, where the children are at liberty to say what they learned, what they enjoyed, and what they were less keen on. He says: The children are expected to share their reflections in a number of ways.

It could be an acrostic poem, a picture or a rubric on how they feel they demonstrated certain attributes

But involving students in learning is only half the battle. Prof Van Vooren warns that it is possible for a school to become too child-centred. School is a mini-society she says. You need to have rules. At the moment, the IB isn’t student-centred to excess, which is a good thing. The students are active learners, but the teachers are still in charge of designing the outcomes

Relevant developments in neuroscience, psychology and sociology are taking place all the time, which leads to the question of whether another breakthrough will render today’s educational pedagogy outdated.

For Bob Burden, Emeritus Professor of Applied Educational Psychology at the University of Exeter in the UK, the most important challenge for researchers is to explore more comprehensively the role that motivation plays in learning.

He suggests that one of the most common myths about success at school is that it mainly depends on IQ: Countless studies have shown that, while undoubtedly a significant factor in contributing to academic success, IQ contributes no more than 40 per cent to the final outcome. Most psychologists agree that, when it comes to individual learning, motivation is the key Prof Burden points out that traditional views of motivation in school are based on behaviourist principles of reinforcement and deterrent, such as offering gold stars as an incentive and punishing bad behaviour. However, motivation is actually much more complex. It’s about people’s interpretation, about how meaningful a particular activity is to them and what they stand to get from it he says. Prof Burden terms this development the cognitive revolution. Its recognition, he says, that people are not merely automatons who unthinkingly respond to carrots or sticks.

Van Weert concurs. With a daughter studying the MYP, she believes that curiosity is one of the largest motivators, and that the IB is good at stimulating it. Reams of facts that don’t apply to student’s daily lives are not the answer she says. The questioning aspect of the IB programmes the fact that students learn how to think is a great motivator Prof Van Vooren says applying learning to the students experiences is key: Research shows that when students can tie their learning to their own experience, the brain is more active and more endorphins are released Prof Burden’s prototype for schools includes learning how to think reflectively, critically and creatively, and using these skills to develop the curriculum. He says: Before you think about what information you give to kids, you teach them the principles of how to be an effective learner how to be a problem-solver, independently, in pairs and in groups.

You teach them the skills of analysing a particular argument or piece of work, and creative skills.

He advises that at primary level this means choosing a topic and expecting students to carry out their own research rather than instructing them about it.

At secondary level, it is about different departments sharing ideas, working together and encouraging students to employ their thinking tools widely across the curriculum.

Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa, Professor of Education and Neuropsychology at the University of San Francisco in Quito, Ecuador, points to the importance of primacy and recency in reinforcing learning: the start and end of a class are the best times to impart vital information. The middle of a lesson is better served by students working among themselves on tasks. As she explained at the recent IBAEM conference in the Netherlands, good teachers also understand how analogy can work to their advantage. Giving students reference points based on their past learning or experiences makes education relevant but it also means teachers need to take the time to understand their students as people.

Prof Tokuhama-Espinosa also sounds a warning over the relevance of much research to classroom practice. More than 80 per cent of the scientific information teachers are exposed to is based on neuromyths or overgeneralization, she says. It is easy to sell books on such assertions, but it may not aid genuine understanding. In particular, differences in learning styles between the genders are often overstated, and there is little evidence to suggest some people are left- or right-brained.

For Van Weert, the key issues are simpler, and rooted as much in sociological as psychological factors. The current generation of students presents a unique and rewarding challenge to teachers. They are known as the Einstein generation, she says. They are confident, independent, stubborn and want respect from their teachers. In fact, they need less of a teacher and more of a mentor figure. If all this sounds like it demands a lot from teachers, it’s because it does.

The teacher needs to be able to find a balance between being a tutor, a guide, a supporter, a mirror and a disciplinarian says Van Weert. They need to be able to leave their comfort zone and experience new behaviour.

As understanding continues to develop, she advises educators to keep abreast of research, helping them prepare for future challenges: We don’t know what the next generation will need, but we can anticipate it and adapt our teaching methods accordingly. The better we understand the student brain, the better placed we are to guide them into adulthood.