Category Archives: Learning Supports

The complexity of memory

As deeply committed as we are to curiosity here at McREL, we recognize that in the absence of knowledge, curiosity wouldn’t do anybody much good. That’s why we’ve also been doing some digging into the nature of memory, hoping to guide teachers toward practices that maximize the acquisition and retention of knowledge.

As explored more deeply in our recent white paper, Student Learning That Works: How Brain Science Informs a Student Learning Model, the human brain works quite hard to help us filter out and forget extraneous information. This probably made good sense in the hunt-or-be-hunted days, but in the information age, forgetting is not a recipe for success.

Fortunately, once teachers know the stages of memory—and what happens between them—they can use some clever workarounds to help students strengthen recall. Essentially, we need to trick our brains into forgetting to forget.

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The measurement gap: Advocating for a new generation of assessments

By now it’s a commonplace observation that academic success alone isn’t generally adequate to ensure success in college and career. Without minimizing the importance of academic skills, it’s also important to recognize that personality traits like intrinsic motivation, persistence, resilience, and curiosity play a huge role in how far students ultimately advance. Yet, because academic skills are relatively easy to test for, that’s what schools keep measuring—and thus what society seems to keep valuing, potentially depriving students of meaningful growth and learning opportunities.

McREL CEO Bryan Goodwin uses his Research Matters column in ASCD’s February 2018 Educational Leadership magazine to advocate for expanding student assessments to develop a fuller understanding of the causes of success.

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“Specials” may help traumatized students succeed in academics

Some of the best-known therapeutic techniques for people suffering the after-effects of trauma include art therapy, music therapy, and exercise. Sound familiar? These also happen to be the “specials” that we sometimes think of as distinct from academics. However, for traumatized students who have trouble concentrating, they could hold the key to accessing learning throughout the school day, McREL CEO Bryan Goodwin proposes in the December 2017 issue of Educational Leadership magazine.

Goodwin recalls that it’s been 20 years since the director of a popular weight-loss program revolutionized our understanding of the long-lasting impact of emotional trauma by observing that nearly half his patients had experienced such difficulties in childhood as being abused, witnessing domestic violence, or having an incarcerated parent. Perhaps these “adverse childhood experiences” contributed to their overeating—and other risky behaviors—as adults.

Brain research has supported this proposition, uncovering brain abnormalities that would make it hard to regulate emotion and concentration—and thus make it hard to learn—in people suffering from chronic stress or post-traumatic stress disorder.

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Solving problems? Good. Developing problem-solving skills? Priceless

Solving a problem is great. Even better is when solving one problem helps students form a schema that they can use to solve future, more complex problems, McREL CEO Bryan Goodwin writes in his “Research Matters” column in the October 2017 issue of Educational Leadership.

Schema is the researchers’ term for the experience required to innovate solutions to new problems, Goodwin writes, offering two examples of careers that require the instantaneous meshing of learning, experience, and new data: airline pilot and chess master.

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Does your school have a guaranteed and viable curriculum? How would you know? (Infographic)

A few months ago, we began working with a new principal who was in the process of getting to know her school. She knew that students came to school ready to learn, teachers were prepared to teach, and families were supportive of their school. The school was a welcoming place that served as a focus for community activities. But despite these positive supports, she explained, students were not meeting learning expectations. Academic progress in both English language arts and mathematics were below the state average, and she was concerned that families might soon lose confidence in the school’s ability to prepare students for the next level of learning.

During our consultation with this principal, we asked her if she knew whether the school has a guaranteed and viable curriculum (GVC). She wasn’t sure how to answer, so she responded with a question, “How would I know if the school has a guaranteed and viable curriculum?”

To determine whether a school has a GVC, we must first describe it. A “guaranteed” curriculum is often defined as a mechanism through which all students have an equal opportunity (time and access) to learn rigorous content. This requires a school-wide (or district-wide) agreement and common understanding of the essential content that all students need to know, understand, and be able to do. The word “all” needs emphasis; a guaranteed curriculum promotes equity, giving all children equal opportunity to learn essential content, and to provide this opportunity, curricular materials and instructional approaches must be grounded in research, implemented with fidelity, and must include vertical as well as horizontal alignment.

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Differences, not disabilities

Students who learn differently from most have often been defined as having disabilities, which has a profound effect on their experiences in school, their relationships with others, and even their sense of identity. But a growing movement is seeking to shift the paradigm from learning disabilities to learning differences—recognizing that no two students learn exactly the same and that all students deserve an education based on their strengths, not their deficits.

In the April issue of Educational Leadership, McREL’s Bryan Goodwin and Heather Hein examine these differences through the lens of learning styles, which focus on the ways students gather, process, and evaluate information—and how that can inform curriculum, instruction, and assessments.

Learning styles have been around for decades, the authors explain, but little hard evidence proves their existence, let alone their impact on learning. However, the concept continues to influence educators. The Every Student Succeeds Act, for example, calls for states to apply the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL)—a framework for developing flexible learning environments that accommodate individual learning differences—when planning assessments and instruction. Why?

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Four tips for using nonlinguistic representations

Today’s learners are continually fed linguistically presented information, such as lectures, videos, directions, math chants, and reading assignments. Most opportunities for students to interact with peers happen primarily with words.

It’s all too easy, while employing various aspects of instructional design and delivery, to overlook ways that students might also engage in learning through nonlinguistics.

When used intentionally and consistently, nonlinguistic representations are powerful instructional tools that can have a positive effect on student achievement. They provide varied ways for students to process new information without solely relying on language.

McREL’s analysis of research for the second edition of Classroom Instruction that Works (CITW) provides these research-based classroom recommendations for use of nonlinguistic representations:

Use graphic organizers.
Use physical models or manipulatives.
Generate mental pictures.
Use pictures, illustrations, and pictographs.
Engage in kinesthetic activities.

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Unrealistic expectations for ELLs reflect deeply ingrained “deficit thinking”

Despite years of trying various approaches to reduce the achievement gap between English language learners (ELLs) and their non-ELL peers, the gap has remained virtually unchanged since the late 1990s. Why? Bryan Goodwin and Heather Hein examine this question—and what can be done about it—in the February Research Says column for Educational Leadership magazine.

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A step-by-step guide to building your intervention system

The vast array of intervention programs is staggering, and sifting through the options to determine which will be most successful can be overwhelming. School and district leaders often feel paralyzed by the intricacies of selecting and implementing interventions in their settings as they contemplate myriad options.

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Student identity in the classroom: Building purpose, potential, and persistence

We often think that identity—both our present- and future-oriented conceptions of the self—motivates and predicts behavior. In education, when we think of student identity, most of us would agree that we want all students to believe a positive future self is both possible and relevant, and that student belief in this possible future self motivates their current behavior. But, when we really investigate that belief, is it actually true? When I see data that shows 95 percent of students say they want to go to college, but only 80 percent actually graduate from high school, I see a disparity between what students want for their futures and the behaviors in which they engage.

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