Saturday, September 28, 2013

Brainstorming is broken

Dear all,

 Hope you have had a good week and are having a relaxing weekend. I believe it is very important that when you work hard during the week that you do relax and allow yourself time for those things that bring passion to your life at weekends. Enjoy!

 My food for thought this week raises a question that is applicable to all levels within our school and to us as teachers in our own meetings and teacher sessions. It is something I read on a blog before moving to Vietnam, Barking up the Wrong Tree, by Eric Barker, but kept so that I could share it with you.


Brainstorming is broken.

We all know the standard method of brainstorming:
1.    Get a bunch of people together.

2.    Generate lots of ideas.

3.    Don’t be critical.

There’s one problem with this system.
It’s totally wrong
1) Don’t work in a group

The research consistently shows that individuals who generate ideas on their own and then meet afterward come up with more (and better) ideas.

There’s just one problem with brainstorming: it doesn’t work. Keith Sawyer, a psychologist at Washington University, summarizes the science: “Decades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas.” In fact, the very first empirical test of Osborn’s technique, which was performed at Yale in 1958, soundly refuted the premise. The experiment was simple: Forty-eight male undergraduates were divided into twelve groups and given a series of creative puzzles. The groups were instructed to carefully follow Osborn’s brainstorming guidelines. As a control sample, forty-eight students working by themselves were each given the same puzzles. The results were a sobering refutation of brainstorming. Not only did the solo students come up with twice as many solutions as the brainstorming groups but their solutions were deemed more “feasible” and “effective” by a panel of judges. In other words, brainstorming didn’t unleash the potential of the group. Instead, the technique suppressed it, making each individual less creative.

Performance gets worse as group size increases.

The results were unambiguous. The men in twenty-three of the twenty-four groups produced more ideas when they worked on their own than when they worked as a group. They also produced ideas of equal or higher quality when working individually. And the advertising executives were no better at group work than the presumably introverted research scientists. Since then, some forty years of research has reached the same startling conclusion. Studies have shown that performance gets worse as group size increases: groups of nine generate fewer and poorer ideas compared to groups of six, which do worse than groups of four. The “evidence from science suggests that business people must be insane to use brainstorming groups,” writes the organizational psychologist Adrian Furnham. “If you have talented and motivated people, they should be encouraged to work alone when creativity or efficiency is the highest priority.”

2) Don’t generate as many ideas as possible.

Don’t write down every idea “no matter how crazy.” Rules help.

Focusing your efforts on being as creative as possible reduces the number of ideas but increases the number of good ideas.

Researchers next looked for idea-generating rules that would work even better than Osborn’s. They told their subjects: “The more imaginative or creative your ideas, the higher your score will be. Each idea will be scored in terms of (1) how unique or different it is— how much it differs from the common use and (2) how valuable it is— either socially, artistically, economically, etc.” These instructions are very different from those given for classic brainstorming because people are being told to use specific directions in judging which ideas they come up with. Groups working with these instructions have fewer ideas than brainstorming groups, but they have more good ideas. What’s most important is being explicitly told to be imaginative, unique, and valuable; then, it’s okay if your critical faculties are still engaged. Osborn had one thing right: Most people use the wrong criteria to evaluate their ideas; they think about what will work, about what worked before, or about what is familiar to them. This discovery— that when subjects are told they’ll be evaluated for creativity, they’re more creative than when they’re told not to use any criteria at all— has been reproduced repeatedly in the laboratory. When groups are asked to suggest good, creative solutions, they have fewer ideas but those ideas are better than those generated by groups using the brainstorming rules.

3) Be critical and fight.

Don’t be open and accepting. Fight. When people debate, they are more creative.

Which teams did the best? The results weren’t even close: while the brainstorming groups slightly outperformed the groups given no instructions, people in the debate condition were far more creative. On average, they generated nearly 25 percent more ideas. The most telling part of the study, however, came after the groups had been disbanded. That’s when researchers asked each of the subjects if he or she had any more ideas about traffic that had been triggered by the earlier conversation. While people in the minimal and brainstorming conditions produced, on average, two additional ideas, those in the debate condition produced more than seven. Nemeth summarizes her results: “While the instruction ‘Do not criticize’ is often cited as the [most] important instruction in this appears to be a counterproductive strategy. Our findings show that debate and criticism do not inhibit ideas but, rather, stimulate them relative to every other condition.”

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Can we be the School?

Dear all,

Hope you have all had a good week whether in school or away on secondary field trips.

My food for thought this week starts with this TED talk that will take 18 minutes to watch…it is provocative but hopefully will make you think about the question, What is school for? The question that  we have basically been asking since orientation at the start of the year with our brainstorming on 21st Century classrooms.


This flipbook was shared with me by a Primary school teacher and fits perfectly with what you have just watched as it builds it perhaps provides an answer to the vdo. My question coming from this would be, can we do more than imagine? Can we be the School where all these things take place every day in every classroom or am I dreaming?

Have a good weekend,


Motivating Student Learning

Dear all,

Hope you are all having a good weekend. This weekend you will receive two bulk emails from me, this one my food for thought and one regarding our in-service PD day on October 11th.

This morning’s Stingray breakfast was another great event bringing together all corners of our community, so a big thanks to the PTO, Bob, Connie, Rick and everyone else involved.

Last week I certainly felt a step up in spirit and buzz around the School, so thanks to you all for your contributions and getting involved. I strongly believe that if students see school as the “best party in town” (a quote attributed to Peter Kline) it makes it easier and easier for us to engage and motivate them as learners in our classrooms. The following list of 6 ways to motivate students also fits nicely with the 5 Pillars for a  Culture of Achievement, IB pedagogy and our Professional Learning Community, all of which was talked about during orientation and we will be gradually built upon over the next few years.

Key links that I noticed from the brief article were:

Good IB pedagogy ” start with the question, not the answer” essential for all teachers encouraging higher order thinking and creativity in their student’s learning

For Pillar 4, Never too late to learn, “upping the difficulty as they improve” relates to our need as teachers to constantly be building upon student competencies and moving all our students forward.

For Pillar 5, The Best School in the Universe, “encouraging students to compete against themselves” where we want everyone in our community to be the best that they can be with our students setting goals that challenge them and push them to higher levels.

Teaching generation Y students , “analyze and make sense of situations involving real people and real stakes” because if we don’t they will either ask why are we learning this or drift off into their own world of thought.

By making it social we are building collaborative learners and skills of team work and communication that will be important for their futures. Collaboration is also an essential criteria of a successful Professional Learning Community and an area that we still have lots of work to do at ISHCMC.

And the last point links well with Daniel Pink’s work on motivation and provides a useful strategy to utilize one of Pink’s three elements of motivation ‘mastery’ in our lesson planning.

Six Ways To Motivate Students To Learn

Scientific research has provided us with a number of ways to get the learning juices flowing, none of which involve paying money for good grades. And most smart teachers know this, even without scientific proof.

1.   Fine-tune the challenge. We’re most motivated to learn when the task before us is matched to our level of skill: not so easy as to be boring, and not so hard as to be frustrating. Deliberately fashion the learning exercise so that students are working at the very edge of your abilities, and keep upping the difficulty as they improve.

2.  Start with the question, not the answer. Memorizing information is boring. Discovering the solution to a puzzle is invigorating. Present material to be learned not as a fait accompli, but as a live question begging to be explored.

3.   Encourage students to beat their personal best. Some learning tasks, like memorizing the multiplication table or a list of names or facts, are simply not interesting in themselves. Generate motivation by encouraging students to compete against themselves: run through the material once to establish a baseline, then keep track of how much they improve (in speed, in accuracy) each time.

4.   Connect abstract learning to concrete situations. Adopt the case-study method that has proven so effective for business, medical and law school students: apply abstract theories and concepts to a real-world scenario, using these formulations to analyze and make sense of situations involving real people and real stakes.

5.   Make it social. Put together a learning group, or have students find learning partners with whom they can share their moments of discovery and points of confusion. Divide the learning task into parts, and take turns being teacher and pupil. The simple act of explaining what they’re learning out loud will help them understand and remember it better.

6.   Go deep. Almost any subject is interesting once you get inside it. Assign the task of becoming the world’s expert on one small aspect of the material they have to learn—then extend their new expertise outward by exploring how the piece they know so well connects to all the other pieces they need to know about.


If you have read this far I also wanted to share this 2 minute Youtube video on the consequences of the troubles in Syria that you might want to share with students in homerooms. Instead of focusing on the fighting or US discussions about bombing it highlights the enormity of the refugee problem for the survivors and the neighbouring countries. It uses simple graphics to make its point. It is not visually disturbing so could easily be used by upper primary through to Grade 12 homerooms to provoke discussion and deeper thinking about the consequences of war and broaden our student’s understanding of their world.





Making Homework Smarter

Dear all,

As you have probably guessed now I try to send you all an email each weekend that will make you think about what you are doing in your classroom and our thinking about 21st century education. Firstly I hope that you find time to take a minute or two to read them and that you find them interesting. I know this is an old fashioned way of sharing and a link to a blog might be better but this way you only have to open one thing to get to the content.

If you read an article/ blog post or something that you feel I should read and share please do not hesitate to share with me.

This link below is a little sentimental but hopefully reminds us of our social and emotional side as we are away from home and often neglect those who are closest to us in our daily rush. It is a nice reminder and I know it is something that I regret in my life with my father.

The article below is my educational thought for the week. It comes from the newly formed school of researches linking MIND, BRAIN and EDUCATION and raises the question about what is the objective of homework we set and what form should it take to achieve the our objective.

Making homework smarter

Do American students have too much homework, or too little? We often hear passionate arguments for either side, but I believe that we ought to be asking a different question altogether. What should matter to parents and educators is this: How effectively do children’s after-school assignments advance learning?

The quantity of students’ homework is a lot less important than its quality. And evidence suggests that as of now, homework isn’t making the grade. Although surveys show that the amount of time our children spend on homework has risen over the last three decades, American students are mired in the middle of international academic rankings: 17th in reading, 23rd in science and 31st in math, according to the most recent results from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).

In a 2008 survey, one-third of parents polled rated the quality of their children’s homework assignments as fair or poor, and 4 in 10 said they believed that some or a great deal of homework was busywork. A new study, coming in the Economics of Education Review, reports that homework in science, English and history has “little to no impact” on student test scores. (The authors did note a positive effect for math homework.) Enriching children’s classroom learning requires making homework not shorter or longer, but smarter.

Fortunately, research is available to help parents, teachers and school administrators do just that. In recent years, neuroscientists, cognitive scientists and educational psychologists have made a series of remarkable discoveries about how the human brain learns. They have founded a new discipline, known as Mind, Brain and Education, that is devoted to understanding and improving the ways in which children absorb, retain and apply knowledge.

Educators have begun to implement these methods in classrooms around the country and have enjoyed measurable success. A collaboration between psychologists at Washington University in St. Louis and teachers at nearby Columbia Middle School, for example, lifted seventh- and eighth-grade students’ science and social studies test scores by 13 to 25 percent.

But the innovations have not yet been applied to homework. Mind, Brain and Education methods may seem unfamiliar and even counterintuitive, but they are simple to understand and easy to carry out. And after-school assignments are ripe for the kind of improvements the new science offers.

“Spaced repetition” is one example of the kind of evidence-based techniques that researchers have found have a positive impact on learning. Here’s how it works: instead of concentrating the study of information in single blocks, as many homework assignments currently do—reading about, say, the Civil War one evening and Reconstruction the next—learners encounter the same material in briefer sessions spread over a longer period of time. With this approach, students are re-exposed to information about the Civil War and Reconstruction throughout the semester.

It sounds unassuming, but spaced repetition produces impressive results. Eighth-grade history students who relied on a spaced approach to learning had nearly double the retention rate of students who studied the same material in a consolidated unit, reported researchers from the University of California-San Diego in 2007. The reason the method works so well goes back to the brain: when we first acquire memories, they are volatile, subject to change or likely to disappear. Exposing ourselves to information repeatedly over time fixes it more permanently in our minds, by strengthening the representation of the information that is embedded in our neural networks.

A second learning technique, known as “retrieval practice,” employs a familiar tool—the test—in a new way: not to assess what students know, but to reinforce it. We often conceive of memory as something like a storage tank and a test as a kind of dipstick that measures how much information we’ve put in there. But that’s not actually how the brain works. Every time we pull up a memory, we make it stronger and more lasting, so that testing doesn’t just measure, it changes learning. Simply reading over material to be learned, or even taking notes and making outlines, as many homework assignments require, doesn’t have this effect.

According to one experiment, language learners who employed the retrieval practice strategy to study vocabulary words remembered 80 percent of the words they studied, while learners who used conventional study methods remembered only about a third of them. Students who used retrieval practice to learn science retained about 50 percent more of the material than students who studied in traditional ways, reported researchers from Purdue University earlier this year. Students—and parents—may groan at the prospect of more tests, but the self-quizzing involved in retrieval practice need not provoke any anxiety. It’s simply an effective way to focus less on the input of knowledge (passively reading over textbooks and notes) and more on its output (calling up that same information from one’s own brain).

Another common misconception about how we learn holds that if information feels easy to absorb, we’ve learned it well. In fact, the opposite is true. When we work hard to understand information, we recall it better; the extra effort signals the brain that this knowledge is worth keeping. This phenomenon, known as cognitive disfluency, promotes learning so effectively that psychologists have devised all manner of “desirable difficulties” to introduce into the learning process: for example, sprinkling a passage with punctuation mistakes, deliberately leaving out letters, shrinking font size until it’s tiny or wiggling a document while it’s being copied so that words come out blurry.

Teachers are unlikely to start sending students home with smudged or error-filled worksheets, but there is another kind of desirable difficulty — called interleaving — that can readily be applied to homework. An interleaved assignment mixes up different kinds of situations or problems to be practiced, instead of grouping them by type. When students can’t tell in advance what kind of knowledge or problem-solving strategy will be required to answer a question, their brains have to work harder to come up with the solution, and the result is that students learn the material more thoroughly.

Researchers at California Polytechnic State University conducted a study of interleaving in sports that illustrates why the tactic is so effective. When baseball players practiced hitting, interleaving different kinds of pitches improved their performance on a later test in which the batters did not know the type of pitch in advance (as would be the case, of course, in a real game).

Interleaving produces the same sort of improvement in academic learning. A study published last year in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology asked fourth-graders to work on solving four types of math problems and then to take a test evaluating how well they had learned. The scores of those whose practice problems were mixed up were more than double the scores of those students who had practiced one kind of problem at a time.

The application of such research-based strategies to homework is a yet-untapped opportunity to raise student achievement. Science has shown us how to turn homework into a potent catalyst for learning. Our assignment now is to make it happen. (You can browse past issues of the Brilliant Report by clicking here.)

Finally I have started a blog for ISHCMC parents to try to update their thinking about education from posts I have read or been sent. It is not provocative in that it shares articles that they might find interesting and think about at home. I make no comment in anyway about the content. If you are interested here is the link.

Have a good weekend,