2013 Big Ideas in Education

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It might feel overwhelming to keep track of the latest education trends, jargon, and ed-tech products. But for many educators -- and most MindShift readers -- the topic of focus that stays top-of-mind above the chatter is learning. A look through the most popular MindShift posts this year reveals that, despite all the news about iPad rollouts and Common Core, the strongest thread of interest for our readers remains the topic of learning: student-directed learning, inquiry-based approaches to teaching, and the desire to help students learn how to learn in a changing world.

POSITIVE CONDITIONS FOR LEARNING

Adults can make a big impact on how students view their own learning process and capabilities, as described in the article Giving Good Praise to Girls: What Messages Stick. Research by Stanford professor Carol Dweck has shown that students who demonstrate a “growth mindset” about their abilities fare much better than those who believe their abilities in any given area are fixed -- that either they're smart or they're not. Educators and parents can help encourage a growth mindset by praising the effort children put into their work, not the byproduct.

“What we've shown is that when you praise someone, say, ‘You’re smart at this,’ the next time they struggle, they think they’re not,” Dweck said. “It’s really about praising the process they engage in, not how smart they are or how good they are at it, but taking on difficulty, trying many different strategies, sticking to it and achieving over time.” Her research also shows that girls are more susceptible to the fixed mindset than boys, especially when it comes to math. Dweck’s research asks educators and parents to think carefully about the messages they're sending to children, even at a young age. The praise a parent gives her child between the ages of one and three affects that child’s ability to overcome challenges five years later.

Just as adults should be careful how and what they praise, they may also want to spend concentrated time helping kids ignore distractions and focus on a single task. In the article Age of Distraction: Why It's Crucial For Students to Learn How to Focus, Daniel Goleman presents compelling research suggesting that the ability to focus has more impact on future success than socio-economic background or IQ. “The more children and teens are natural focusers, the better able they’ll be to use the digital tool for what they have to get done and then to use it in ways that they enjoy,” Goleman said.

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If children don’t learn to tune out distracting deluge of texts and online messages, they may not develop the neural pathways that lead to empathy, as well as the ability to stay on task and self-regulate. “The circuitry for paying attention is identical for the circuits for managing distressing emotion,” Goleman said. Even as he advocates a “digital sabbath,” regular time away from devices to help gain balance, he recognizes devices themselves aren’t the enemy. “What we need to do is be sure that the current generation of children has the attentional capacities that other generations had naturally before the distractions of digital devices,” Goleman said. “It’s about using the devices smartly but having the capacity to concentrate as you need to, when you want to.”

The same premise comes up again in the article How Does Multitasking Change the Way Kids Learn? The article describes a study that showed that students stayed on task only 65 percent of the time in a 15-minute period -- even with the knowledge that researchers were watching their study habits. That has big consequences for learning. When students multitask while studying, they come away with a shallower and spottier understanding of the material. And while checking a quick text doesn’t seem like a big deal, neuroscientists point out that reading email and texts are complex mental tasks that use the same parts of the brain as listening to a lecture or reading. Neuroscientists don’t believe it’s possible to multitask two complicated tasks at the same time.

STUDENT INQUIRY AND INTEREST

Educators are finding that student-driven learning based on interests and passions is one of the best ways to help students develop intrinsic motivation, and that theme has been shown to resonate with tens of thousands of MindShift readers.

Perhaps one of the most basic elements of inquiry-based learning -- though a crucial one -- is knowing when to step back, according to educator Diana Laufenberg, the primary source in the article Creating Classrooms We Need: 8 Ways Into Inquiry Learning. “There are vastly creative minds that are capable of doing intensely wonderful things with their learning but often we don’t let that live and breathe,” said Diana Laufenberg who taught history at Science Leadership Academy for many years. “Thankfully I got out of their way and let them do the work they were capable of.”

It’s also important to know when to step in. The inquiry process can provoke feelings of uncertainty, optimism, frustration, satisfaction, and disappointment, and in the article Tools to Help Students Learn How to Learn, it becomes clear that educators are aware of key moments when a small intervention or offer of guidance can help mitigate emotions that might derail the student’s commitment to the project. One of the most difficult things about helping students learn how to learn is recognizing those small shifts in enthusiasm and energy and helping students to get beyond emotional roadblocks.

One of the most tried-and-true tactics -- learning through doing -- is the focus of another hugely popular article this year, What Project-Based Learning Is -- And Isn't. The best kinds of projects, the article argues, allows discovery that's embedded in the project, not offered before it begins or after it ends. Many teachers have found the best way to achieve this goal is by connecting learning to the real-world problems and experiences of students. “If you inspire them to care about it and draw parallels with their world then they care and remember,” said Azul Terronez, eighth-grade Humanities teacher at High Tech High. This process takes a lot of teacher planning, but doesn’t require any “teaching,” just a lot of guidance and an authentic audience as motivation.

In the article How Teachers Can Sell Love of Learning to Students, author Dan Pink says helping student find their own interests and passions resembles the job of a salesman. Pink, the author of To Sell Is Human, argues against policies that standardize education and erase the power of individuals from the system. Standards-based learning and assessment make it easier for adults to evaluate children, Pink claims, but don’t necessarily lead to learning.

Busting open the standardized education system is the focus of another popular article, A School With No Teachers, Where Students Teach Themselves. Launched by telecommunications magnate in France, the school, called 42, is for young people between 18 and 30 and is based on the idea that no educator can foresee problems of the future, so students need to become self-sufficient, independent learners who are used to problem-solving without any parameters. The school hopes to develop creativity and innovative skills by remaining outside the standard French education system, and achieve a more equitable environment by doing so.

LISTS

MindShift readers love a meaty, informative list. One of the favorites this year, 10 Ways To Teach Innovation, goes into detail about how teachers can inspire students by demonstrating a willingness to innovate themselves, by encouraging teamwork and by emphasizing skills and concepts over facts.

And for teachers always on the look-out for tech tools that will foster innovation, inquiry, and creativity, 13 Free Web Tools Students and Teachers Should Know About offers some smart ideas and strategies.

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