Pedal power raises math grades


Students can choose to pedal during class. Photo: Paul Cory/Wake County Public Schools

Pedal power is helping kids pay attention and learn more math at a North Carolina middle school, reports BBC News.

Bethany Lambeth’s students had trouble sitting still. She put 10 bike pedals under desks and let them try to burn off energy quietly during lessons.

Students said it improved their focus.

“They were able to recall a lot more of what I was saying and because they participated more they understood more and they did better in tests.”

As a result she says their test grades demonstrably improved from when the pedals were introduced in April compared to earlier in the school year.

The school hopes to buy bike pedals for more classrooms.

To cure ADHD, kids play video games

Soaring through a jungle on a hover platform, the player must avoid roadblocks while collecting the red birds and ignoring those distracting blue birds. Instead of medication for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), some day doctors may prescribe specially designed video games, writes Lizzie Thompson on The 74.

Akili Interactive Labs’ Project:  Evo tries to help children learn to focus their attention and filter out distractions.

While guiding the Evo Explorer through an obstacle course, the player must “tap on the screen when a red bird appears, and make the decision not to tap if a bird of any other color appears.”

Once the child masters red birds, it’s on to a new challenge.

. . . no two games are going to be exactly alike. Rather, the game calibrates and changes the complexity, challenges, and difficulty at a pace determined by the data collected as child plays it in real time, adapting second-by- second ever so slightly to the player’s ability.

Test subjects play the game on an iPad five days a week, for 30 minutes a day, for a month. Then Akili evaluates any changes in their cognitive functions.

The goal is to get FDA approval and persuade physicians to prescribe the game to kids with ADHD.

Listen to the ‘sage of the stage’

College lectures are under attack by advocates of “active learning,” writes Molly Worthen, a University of North Carolina history professor.  There’s nothing new about that. “The lecturer pumps laboriously into sieves,” warned Charles Eliot in his 1869 inaugural address as president of Harvard.

However, “in the humanities, there are sound reasons for sticking with the traditional model of the large lecture course combined with small weekly discussion sections,” Worthen argues. “Lectures are essential for teaching the humanities’ most basic skills: comprehension and reasoning, skills whose value extends beyond the classroom to the essential demands of working life and citizenship.”

Learning to pay attention is a “crucial first step in the ‘critical thinking’ that educational theorists prize,” she argues.

A lecture is not the declamation of an encyclopedia article. In the humanities, a lecture “places a premium on the connections between individual facts,” Monessa Cummins, the chairwoman of the classics department and a popular lecturer at Grinnell College, told me. “It is not a recitation of facts, but the building of an argument.

Absorbing a long, complex argument is hard work, requiring students to synthesize, organize and react as they listen.

This is difficult for many students — and perhaps more difficult for first-generation, black and Latino students, recent research suggests.

In a 2014 study, science and math scores improved after professors replaced lecture time with “active learning” methods such as group work and student-led discussion. “It’s almost unethical to be lecturing,”  said Eric Mazur, a Harvard physicist.

“Humanists have been beating back calls to update our methods, to follow the lead of the sciences, for a very long time,” responds Worthen. If “active learning” works best in science classes, that’s fine. The humanities still has a place for the “sage on the stage.”

Fidgety boys, sputtering economy

Fidgety boys end up as unemployed men, writes David Leonhardt in the New York Times.

The gender gap in school readiness is wider than the gap between low-income and middle-class kids, researchers say. Boys are more likely to struggle in school, college and the workforce.

By kindergarten, girls are substantially more attentive, better behaved, more sensitive, more persistent, more flexible and more independent than boys, according to a new paper from Third Way, a Washington research group. The gap grows over the course of elementary school and feeds into academic gaps between the sexes.

The gender gap in school readiness is wider than the gap between low-income and middle-class kids, researchers say. Boys are more likely to struggle in school, college and the workforce.

In the last 25 years, the portion of women earning a four-year college degree has jumped more than 75 percent and women’s median earnings are up almost 35 percent. Men’s earnings haven’t risen at all, writes Leonhardt. “Men are much more likely to be idle — neither working, looking for work nor caring for family — than they once were and much more likely to be idle than women.”

Some blame the surge in single-parent families for the “boy crisis.” Girls who grow up with one parent — usually a mother — do almost as well as girls from two-parent families. Boys do much worse.

Others say schools aren’t boy friendly. In elementary school classrooms, fidgety boys are expected to sit still and pay attention to the female teacher.

It’s hard to be the ‘sage on the stage’

“Sometimes I wonder whether student-centered learning is driven not just by Progressive ideology and Constructivist learning theory, but also by plain old expedience,” writes Katharine Beals on Out in Left Field.

On Thursday, she teaches writing fundamentals to disadvantaged 11-year-olds in an afterschool program. The kids are restless, hungry and easily distracted.

And so, as my voice gives out and my energy drains and as my ability to keep the kids focused on my questions diminishes, I think to myself, wouldn’t it be less exhausting if I stopped being the Sage on the Stage and instead become the Guide on the Side?

And then I wonder: how many teachers choose guidance over stagecraft . . . because it’s so much less exhausting?

“Sage on the Stage instruction is quite often the most efficient way to teach and to learn,” Beals writes. Furthermore, “attention is a muscle that atrophies if unused.” Every year with a “guide” will make it harder for the next teacher to be a “sage.”

Kids who lose recess need it the most

The sort of students who are kept in for recess are the ones who need it the most, writes Jessica Lahey in a New York Times parenting blog.

“Recess offers cognitive, social, emotional, and physical benefits” that are “crucial” to growing children, states the American Academy of Pediatrics. 

Elementary principals overwhelmingly agree that recess helps academic achievement and social development, yet 77 percent take away recess as a punishment, according to a Gallup survey.

Self-control is not an unlimited resource, writes Lahey.

. . . by the time unstructured play rolls around, most children have depleted their reserves. They have had to resist the temptation to wiggle, eat the piece of cookie someone left on the carpet or talk to their friends in favor of focusing on math facts.

Recess provides an opportunity to refill children’s reserves of self-control through play and expression that’s free from structure, rules, and rigorous cognitive tasks. . . .  Several studies have found that students who enjoy the benefit of recess are more attentive, more productive and better able to learn when they return to the classroom from a period of free play.

“As our children’s schedules become more regimented and structured, and free-play time retreats indoors in favor of video games over kick the can and stickball, recess is the only opportunity many children have to learn” important social skills, Lahey concludes.

Music hath charms …

Music hath charms to close the achievement gap, writes Lori Miller Kase in The Atlantic. At least, researchers hope so.

Several times a week, a group of at-risk youth in Los Angeles reports to makeshift music rooms at Alexandria Elementary School near Koreatown for lessons in violin or cello or bass—and to Saturday ensemble programs where they learn to play with bands and orchestras. As the students study their instruments, researchers study the students’ brains.

The children, who devote at least five hours per week to their music, are participants in the award-winning non-profit Harmony Project, which provides free instruments and instruction to kids in underserved areas of the city if they promise to stay in school. The scientists, who hail from Northwestern University’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory, travel from Evanston, Illinois to a satellite lab in Hollywood for a few weeks each year to examine the impact of the music lessons on the children’s language and cognitive skills. What they are finding, according to Dr. Nina Kraus, a professor and neuroscientist at Northwestern and lead researcher of the study, is that music instruction not only improves children’s communication skills, attention, and memory, but that it may even close the academic gap between rich and poor students.

The Harmony Project students were compared to similar students on wait lists for music classes. In second grade, Harmony participants improved in reading, while controls who had not studied music fell farther behind in reading.

SIMPHONY (Studying the Influence Music Practice has On Neurodevelopment in Youth) is a five-year San Diego study focusing on how music training influences connections in the brain.

Public schools teach just as much music (and art) as ever, according to a 2012 U.S. Department of Education report. Nearly all elementary schools and 91 percent of secondary schools offer music classes. Students in low-poverty schools get higher-quality music instruction, writes Kase. I assume that means more opportunities to play an instrument.

Poverty is linked to poor planning skills

Low-income students aren’t as good at planning, focus and attention as more advantaged classmates, concludes a study in Child Development.

Third graders’ ability to solve a puzzle predicted fifth-grade math and reading achievement, even when IQ was taken into account, reports Education Week.

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Cornell researchers asked children to play  “Tower of Hanoi,” which requires rebuilding a stack of rings of decreasing size on one of two other poles, moving only one ring at a time and always keeping a smaller ring on top of a larger one. “The puzzle requires students to plan their steps out in advance to avoid backing themselves into a corner, and being able to complete the puzzle quickly and with the minimal number of moves also requires focus and attention skills,” Ed Week.

The greater the level of poverty students experienced in their early childhood, the worse they performed on the puzzle.

Researchers blamed the stress of growing up in poverty.

“Low-income families are bombarded with numerous psychological and physical risk factors: … chaotic living environments, relentless financial pressure, familial disorder and instability, and social isolation,” the authors noted. “These circumstances could lead to an inability to focus on everyday tasks necessary for the development of planning skills.”

Surely, there’s also a correlation between poor planning skills, school failure, poorly timed pregnancy and poverty.

I’m not sure I could solve that puzzle.

The boys at the back

“Boys score as well as or better than girls on most standardized tests, yet they are far less likely to get good grades, take advanced classes or attend college, writes Christina Hoff Sommers in The Boys at the Back in the New York Times.

Elementary teachers give boys lower grades than their test scores would have predicted, according to a study in The Journal of Human Resources. Boys can’t keep up with girls in “attentiveness, persistence, eagerness to learn, the ability to sit still and work independently,” the researchers say.

. . . one critic told me recently, the classroom is no more rigged against boys than workplaces are rigged against lazy and unfocused workers. But unproductive workers are adults — not 5-year-olds. If boys are restless and unfocused, why not look for ways to help them do better? As a nation, can we afford not to?

In a revised version of her book, The War on Boys, Sommers hits “boy-averse trends like the decline of recess, zero-tolerance disciplinary policies, the tendency to criminalize minor juvenile misconduct and the turn away from single-sex schooling.”

As our schools have become more feelings-centered, risk-averse, collaboration-oriented and sedentary, they have moved further and further from boys’ characteristic sensibilities.

Male underachievement in school is a global phenomenon. The British, the Canadians and the Australians are experimenting with ways to  help boys do well in school, Sommers writes. That ranges from “boy-friendly reading assignments” to single-sex classes.

At Aviation High School in New York City, students spend half their day learning traditional subjects and the other half on aviation mechanics.

. . .  I observed a classroom of 14- and 15-year-olds focused on constructing miniaturized, electrically wired airplane wings from mostly raw materials. In another class, students worked in teams — with a student foreman and crew chief — to take apart and then rebuild a small jet engine in just 20 days.

The school’s 2,200 pupils — mostly students of color, from low-income households — have a 95 percent attendance rate and a 90 percent graduation rate, with 80 percent going on to college.

. . . “The school is all about structure,” an assistant principal, Ralph Santiago, told me. The faculty emphasizes organization, precision, workmanship and attention to detail.

Aviation High is co-ed, but only 16 percent of students are girls. The school has received the district’s “A” rating six years in a row.

“Vocational high schools with serious academic requirements are an important part of the solution to male disengagement from school,” Sommers concludes.

Ilana Garon couldn’t control a nearly all-male special ed class, until her female co-teacher was replaced by a male teacher, she writes on Ed Week‘s View from the Bronx.

We need more helicopter parents

It’s fun to make fun of helicopter parents, but we need more of them, writes Brink Lindsey in The Atlantic.

Today’s hyperventilating “helicopter parents” are comic fish in a barrel. Playing Mozart to their babies in utero and dangling Baby Einstein gewgaws over their bassinets. Obsessing over peanut allergies, turning school science fairs into arms races of one-upmanship, and hiring batteries of private tutors to eke out another 10 points on the SAT.

But better too much parental attention than too little, Lindsey writes.

College-educated parents are spending significantly more time with their children then they did before 1995. Less-educated parents spend more time too, but the “parental attention gap” is growing.

There’s also a class divide in parenting styles, according to sociologist Annette Lareau.

 Among the poor and working-class families she studied, the focus of parenting was on what she calls “the accomplishment of natural growth.” In these families, “parents viewed children’s development as unfolding spontaneously, as long as they were provided with comfort, food, shelter, and other basic support.”

College-educated parents have taken on a much more ambitious role – one that Lareau calls “concerted cultivation.” “In these families, parents actively fostered and assessed their children’s talents, opinions, and skills,” Lareau writes. “They made a deliberate and sustained effort to stimulate children’s development and to cultivate their cognitive and social skills.”

In addition, college-educated parents are much more likely to marry before having children and much less likely to divorce.

As of 2011, 87 percent of children who have a parent with a bachelor’s or higher degree were living with two married parents. The corresponding figures for high school grads and high school dropouts were 53 and 47 percent, respectively.

. . . since the ’70s, divorce rates among the highly educated have fallen significantly; among non-college grads, by contrast, they have stayed high. Specifically, only 16.7 percent of women with at least a college degree experienced a marital dissolution within 10 years of a first marriage between 1990 and 1994 – a 31 percent drop from 20 years earlier. For other women, though, the marriage breakup rate in the latter period was now 35.7 percent – 6 percent higher than 20 years before.

So most children of the college-educated — about a third of the population — grow up in stable, child-centered families with two parents determined to cultivate “the skills they will need to thrive in today’s highly complex knowledge economy.” It’s not really the violin, karate or Kumon classes that give them an edge. It’s Mom and Dad.