Grading Your School? How do They Rate in the Science of Learning?
By Betsy Hill and Roger Stark
A number of state departments of education are working to remove the grading systems for schools that were established in the No Child Left Behind era. The idea behind those systems was that parents needed a simple way to understand how the schools their children attended were performing. They would then be able to make more educated decisions about where to send their kids to school.
If the question is whether the A-F system of rating schools were helpful and easy for parents to understand, then you’d have to ask why there are millions of students still attending schools with D and F grades. A second question is: Does a single letter grade tell a parent any more about a school than it does about a student?
The A-F system is based, as many other things that have happened in education, on an effort to standardize the processes in schools. But all this standardization is misplaced when we really take a look at how learning happens and realize that providing a single standardized approach to instruction is doomed to failure since every child learns differently.
Most schools are still designed on an industrial model. That model says that the most efficient system is one that has identical inputs, the same processes, and identical outputs. But children are far from identical in how they learn, what they want and the level of skills they have developed. Trying to process diverse inputs through a common process has resulted in only about 35 percent of students performing proficiently at grade level in the U.S. There can’t be many manufacturing plants in our nation that would be content with a 65 percent failure rate. But that’s what happens when you impose an inapt model on how students learn.
What’s missing in all of this is a focus on the science of learning. Most teacher preparation programs never address the brain, the neuroscience of learning or the cognitive skills that are how we learn, and that account for a full 50 percent of the variance in education outcomes. If we don’t focus on the biggest factor that contributes to learning, we shouldn’t be surprised that it is so hard to move the needle. The problem is not the measurement system, it’s the way the system itself is designed.
Some Innovative schools are now adopting a program that directly targets each child’s cognitive and emotional readiness to learn. They do this by using a nationally normed, scientifically valid and reliable cognitive assessment to help teachers and students understand their cognitive strengths and weaknesses, and by providing cognitive training to the students. The cognitive training incorporates techniques developed over more than 40 years of multi-disciplinary clinical collaboration and is delivered in a highly engaging video-game format. The program can be implemented in-person or in a distance-learning environment. Cognitive growth is demonstrated by administering the cognitive assessment again following training. Academic growth is also assessed using existing formative and summative assessments.
The cognitive assessment is designed to provide deep insights into how students learn and enables teachers to more effectively support student learning with differentiated and personalized, evidence-based learning strategies. Cognitive training develops the mental processes that are needed for efficient and effective learning, accelerating the acquisition of academic knowledge and skills.
In addition to strengthening cognitive skills and improving academic results, teachers and parents typically observe improvements in students’ perseverance, confidence in their learning ability, willingness to take on challenging work, relationships with others, and other characteristics of capable, confident learners.
Unfortunately, teachers have not generally been educated in the therapeutic techniques to develop a student’s attention or memory or visual-spatial processing skills. A teacher can’t explain to a student how to hold more information in their mind (increase working memory capacity) or to visually process more information at a glance (visual span). Nor do teachers generally have the time to work one-on-one with individual students in the ways trained therapists do.
This is where technology is invaluable to educators. Computer-based cognitive training has opened up the opportunity for dramatic improvement in learning capacity to virtually any student. Bear in mind that all computer-based brain training is not created equal. To be truly effective, the training program must be comprehensive in the range of skills developed, it must integrate skills as they are developed so that they work together (like cross-training), and it must be engaging, among other factors. Programs that don’t incorporate these characteristics are likely to be limited in effectiveness and in the ability of the skills being developed to transfer to improved academic performance and other aspects of everyday life.
Cognitive skills are the foundation for learning, the processes our brains use to take in, store, organize, comprehend and retrieve information, as well as to make decisions and take action. This includes processes like different types of attention, various aspects of visual and auditory processing, short-term and long-term memory and executive functions, including working memory, inhibitory control and cognitive flexibility, among others. Each cognitive skill contributes to the learning capacity of the individual, as does the degree to which they work together. Everyone has cognitive strengths and weaknesses or stronger and weaker learning skills.
It’s not enough to know that a student struggles in math or is a slow reader. Students may struggle in math for many different reasons, including limited working memory, underdeveloped visual-spatial skills, or problems with sequencing. In reading, visualization, verbal reasoning and working memory often play key roles. When students struggle, the root cause is frequently not a matter of instruction or curriculum; it is because the student has a weakness in one or more cognitive skills.
When we understand how various cognitive processes contribute to or impede learning for an individual student, we can identify strategies that help that student leverage their strengths and support weaker processing areas. When we know a student’s learning profile, then determining the best strategies is not a matter of conjecture; it is directed at root causes, rather than surface symptoms.
Want an example of a personalized learning strategy? Consider a student who has difficulty getting started on a writing assignment and whose writing is disorganized and has gaps in it. Many teachers would recommend that this student start with an outline. However, if we know that this student has strong visual-spatial reasoning and weaker verbal reasoning, a traditional outline may not be very helpful. Instead, we might recommend using a mind map (semantic map) as an outline so that he or she can more easily capture the ideas, connections among them, and sufficient detail.
Instructors no longer need to fly blind. The tools exist to help teachers peer into the learning process. The science of learning has come a long way, and the technology is readily available to help every learner be in a better position to learn. And then, let the fun begin!
About the authors
Betsy Hill is President of BrainWare Learning Company, a company that builds learning capacity through the practical application of neuroscience. She is an experienced educator and has studied the connection between neuroscience and education with Dr. Patricia Wolfe (author of Brain Matters) and other experts. She is a former chair of the board of trustees at Chicago State University and teaches strategic thinking in the MBA program at Lake Forest Graduate School of Management where she received a Contribution to Learning Excellence Award. She received a Nepris Trailblazer Award for sharing her knowledge, skills and passion for the neuroscience of learning in classrooms around the country. She holds a Master of Arts in Teaching and an MBA from Northwestern University. Betsy is co-author of the new book, “Your child learns differently, now what?”
Roger Stark is Co-founder and CEO of the BrainWare Learning Company. Over the past decade, he championed efforts to bring the science of learning, comprehensive cognitive literacy skills training and cognitive assessment, within reach of every person, and it all started with one very basic question: What do we know about the brain? From that initial question, Roger Stark pioneered the effort to build an effective and affordable cognitive literacy skills training tool, based on over 50 years of trial and error through clinical collaboration. He also led the team that developed BrainWare SAFARI, which has become the most researched comprehensive, integrated cognitive literacy training tool delivered online anywhere in the world. For more, follow BrainWare Learning on Twitter @BrainWareSafari. Roger is co-author of the new book, “Your child learns differently, now what?”