Research Says High Academic Expectations Work (And Your Students Want Them)

Back in high school, Sandra and I would hang out at lunch and swap our homework and our essays. And then we would edit in red ink on them for the fun of it.

The other girls wouldn’t bother us because they were at the mall buying Twizzlers from Bulk Barn, smoking Marlboros and spitting in the woods, or in the wild searching for boys.

Our kind of boys were so good at math they became school tutors. They, like us, stayed at school for lunch. And so, our high school lunches were spent primarily in libraries. There we edited our papers into shiny, beautiful things to hand to our teachers, or in the math rooms crunching numbers that we hoped would turn into a Pride and Prejudice– style love affair.

The numbers never were in our favour.

We may have miscalculated the probability of finding love among the math tutors, but at least we pleased our parents. Both children of immigrants—Sandra’s Chinese, and I’m Polish—we knew the importance of getting good grades. If we got good grades, our parents let us out of the house.

We made fun of our parents’ strictness. Sandra’s mom once locked her into her room to study. Each year, my parents bought me books of the What Your Fifth Grader Needs to Know-style— a great “hobby for summer” my parents called these books. And then there was my mother, who made me write paragraphs explaining why I should be allowed to leave to parties and other events—if the paragraphs were good, I could go.

Both Sandra and I graduated at the top our class, won scholarships, and went to the universities of our choice. And I could write killer paragraphs.

Looking back, I’m convinced that we graduated at the top of our class not because we were better or smarter than the others.  But we desperately wanted to be better and smarter. And we wanted to be better and smarter because of our parents.

By expecting and demanding nothing but the best from them, immigrant parents give their children a priceless gift: the gift of high academic expectations.

We as teachers, in loco parentis, have the same power. In our classrooms, we can set expectations of our students. We can expect them all to learn and perform challenging tasks, or we can expect only some of them to succeed at easier tasks.

If you think you could raise your academic expectations, but you don’t know if it’s worth it or necessary, read on.

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Girls Part I: 10 statistics– Canadian girls’ self-esteem

ibrain technological alteration of student's mindsAfter reading iBrain: surviving the technological evolution of the modern mind, I was struck by facts and ideas that made me see  my students differently.

These facts challenged me, but they did not discourage me. I do not have a  gloomy vision of my Digital Native students’ future. It is not a depressing vision. It is not a dark vision of education gone wrong.

It is just a very different vision.

Brain evolution demands changes in the way we teach. Here’s what teachers should know about their Digital Native students:

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Future Minds Part III: Top 9 stats & facts about Digital Natives

ibrain technological alteration of student's mindsAfter reading iBrain: surviving the technological evolution of the modern mind, I was struck by facts and ideas that made me see  my students differently.

These facts challenged me, but they did not discourage me. I do not have a  gloomy vision of my Digital Native students’ future. It is not a depressing vision. It is not a dark vision of education gone wrong.

It is just a very different vision.

Brain evolution demands changes in the way we teach. Here’s what teachers should know about their Digital Native students:

1. They’re reading less– “studies show that fewer young adults read books for pleasure now than in any generation before them. Since 1982, literary reading has declined by  28 % in 18-34 year olds.” (Small & Vorgan, p. 3)

2. They must learn to use their brains efficientlyIn an earlier post about brain evolution, we looked at how this generation multi-tasks constantly. It’s a negative habit, because “Switching back and forth [between two tasks], like answering email while writing a memo, may decrease brain efficiency by as much as 50%, compared with completing one task before starting another one.” (ibid., p. 68)

3. They really like video games– “Digital Natives constitute the major market for video gaming: more than 90% of all children and adolescents in the United States play these games” (ibid., p. 36)

4. 20% are Internet addicted– “An estimated 20 % of this generation meets the clinical criteria for pathological Internet use– they are online so much it interferes negatively  with almost every aspect of their lives.” (ibid., p. 30)

5. There are gender differences in Internet usage– Females tend to use the Internet for social purposes– to stay in touch. Males feel more comfortable in virtual gaming social networks: “80% of online virtual gamers are young men– and not just teenagers; the average age is 28.” (ibid., p. 57)

6. They are raised partly by TV– The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents “limit their child’s television watching, [and recommend] zero television for children less than two years of age.”TV watching at such a young age can lead to permanently impaired attention abilities. (ibid., p. 67)

The problem is that 20% of children under the age of 5 have a TV in their bedrooms, and 30% of kids ages 3-6 have TVs in theirs. (ibid., p. 67)

7. They need family– “In a 2006 survey of nearly 100,000 teenagers across 25 states,  a higher frequency of dinners was associated with more positive values and a greater commitment to learning. Adolescents from homes having fewer family dinners were more likely to eixhibit high-risk behaviors, including substance abuse, sexual activity, suicide attempts, violence, and academic problems.” (ibid., p. 93)

8. They’re bored in traditional classrooms– “Many students acknowledge that classroom learning and the customary lecture/note-taking system seems boring to them.” (ibid., p. 26)

9. They may benefit from educational games– “we do know that a limited amount of video gaming may enrich some forms of cognitive performance.” Scientists and video game designers are at work to create games that attract Digital Natives and strengthen their minds. (ibid., p. 40)

Did any of these findings surprise you?

This is Part III of a series of posts based on the research of Gary Small, MD & Gigi Vorgan published in their book, iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind.

 If you’d like to read more about this and other social trends affecting education, sign up to follow this blog at the top of the home page.

Future Minds Part II: The good and the bad of our evolving brains

Last post, we talked about the ever-evolving human mind. We found the evolution is so pronounced it has created two different types of brains—Digital Immigrant and Digital Native—each with their own unique strengths and weaknesses.

Today we’ll analyze the emerging iBrain of the Digital Natives for the good and the bad.

Brain evolution: THE GOOD

human brain evolution
These regions of the brain are being strengthened by technology.

Due to constant digital stimulation from ipads, TVs, websites etc., the minds of Digital Natives have been formed certain strengths:

1)      Multi-tasking:

“One third of young people use other media—particularly the Internet—while watching television.” (p. 25) “Their young developing brains,” explain Small & Vorgan, “are much more sensitive to environmental input.” 32

What it means: Digital Natives can do a lot of things at once, and they like it that way. But the downside is they are not completing these tasks efficiently—they are just doing them.

2)      Information-seeking:

Constant email and Internet searching sessions have developed their ability to “sift through large amounts of information rapidly.” (p. 39)

What it means: Digital Natives can find information faster.

3)      Seeing and visualizing:

Video-gaming and other media are just quickly changing pictures. As the Digital Native brains follow these pictures, the visual cortex is strengthened. (p. 39)

What it means: Digital Natives grasp the meanings of pictures quicker. They notice visual changes and react faster.

Brain evolution: THE BAD

The brains of Digital Natives have certain weaknesses:

human brain evolution weakened regions
These regions of the brain are weakened by excessive digital stimulation.

1)       Decreased attention span:  

“Digtial Natives,” say Small and Vorgan, “have shorter attention spans.” (p. 25) According to them, “When a child’s brain is exposed to excessive levels of television, computer, video, and other digital stimulation, it can lead to hyperactivity, irritability, and attention deficit disorders (ADD).” (p. 27) Their multi-tasking strength is therefore a great weakness, for “studies show too much multitasking can only lead to increased stress and attention deficits.” (p. 32)

Consider the evidence: Drs. Philp Chan and Terry Rabinowitz of Brown University studied the amount of time ninth- and tenth- graders spent browsing the Internet, watching television, and playing video games. The found that those who played Internet or console games for more than one hour a day had greater symptoms of ADHD and inattention than those who didn’t. (p. 66)

What it means: Digital Natives have difficulty concentrating on one thing. They start one project then mentally switch to another. They struggle to get things done, or to finish them well.

2)       Weakened social skills:

As Digital Natives tangle themselves in the wires of their digital gadgets; they strangle their social side, for “Without enough face-to-face interpersonal stimulation, a child’s neural circuits can atrophy, and the brain may not develop normal interactive social skills. “(p. 27) [emphasis mine]

Digital Natives after extended digital immersion, especially in the Internet, “display poor eye contact and reluctance to interact socially.” (p. 73). They find it more difficult to read facial expressions and pick up on subtle social cues. “With the digital age evolving our brains, some experts argue that our society in general is becoming more autistic in the sense that people are spending less time interacting directly with others and more solitary time in front of their computers.” (p. 73) Some experts even claim extended TV watching can induce autism in young children.

What it means: Digital Natives have a harder time talking with people and picking up on social cues.  Increasingly, they are more comfortable interacting with gadgets.

3)      Less thinking & planning ability:

The chronic and intense multi-tasking habits of Digital Natives, resulting from their immersion in digital media,  may prevent the adequate development of the frontal cortex, the part of the brain concerned with seeing the big picture, delaying gratification, reasoning abstractly, and planning ahead. (p. 32)

Consider the evidence: Professor Akio Mori of Tokyo’s Nihon University found evidence that video games suppress frontal lobe activity.  His research group found adolescent test subjects who spent more time playing video games used less of the frontal region of their brains. Indeed, “chronic players—those who play two to seven hours each day—sometimes develop video game-brain, a syndrome that essentially turns off the frontal lobes, even when kids are not playing video games. “ (p. 36) [emphasis mine]

What it means: “Are we rearing a new generation with underdeveloped frontal lobes—a group unable to learn, remember, feel, or control their impulses?” (p. 39)

internet addiction dopamine tracks
Internet addictions activate the dopamine tracks and subverts the anterior cingulate– the part responsible for decision-making and judgment. [iBrain, p. 49]
4)      Addictions:

Digital Natives are at risk for developing addictions to gadgets. Constant digital stimulation “has caused young brains to evolve in such a way that each technological invention has an almost irresistible draw.” (p. 39).

Furthermore, video games and other digital entertainment “are often emotionally and intellectually seductive.” They can “ easily become addictive, driving the brain’s dopamine circuitry so that the player craves more and more play.” (p. 38)

Yes, Internet or video game addiction is no different from shopping or gambling obsessions. “Internet addicts report feeling a pleasurable mood boost or ‘rush’ from simply booting up their computer,” say Small &Vorgan.

Consider the evidence: More than 18% of college students are pathological Internet users, and 58% report that their involvement with the Internet has disrupted their studying, lowered their attendance and GPA. (p. 51)

What it means: Digital Natives crave the latest gadget; their brains are hard-wired to. They can be at risk of addiction to Internet or video games, especially if depressed.

5)      Mood disorders:

The most common mental disorders among Digital Natives are likely anxiety and depression.

The root of these emotional problems is the high-tech revolution plunge into a perpetual state of multi-tasking, also known as continuous partial attention.  In this state, we scan the environment for something to connect with (e.g. instant messaging, texting, email, etc.). When paying partial continuous attention, people’s brains are under stresss—our brains “were not built to maintain such monitoring for extended periods.” (p. 19)

brain technology internet addiction
Digital stimulation puts us in a stressed state of continuous partial attention. [iBrain, p. 33]
This new form of stress, or “techno-brain burnout” has been found to cause our brains to secrete cortisol and adrenaline.  “In the short run, these stress hormones boost energy levels and help memory, but over time they actually impair cognition, lead to depression, and alter the neural circuitry in the hippocampus, amygdala, and prefrontal cortex—the brain regions that control mood and thought.” (p. 19) With enough techno-burnout, we “can even reshape the underlying brain structure” and permanently alter our mood. (p. 19)

Depression is counter-intuitively amplified in Digital Natives by social networks. “Despite the availability of social networks, email, and instant messaging, “ explain Small & Vorgan, “these electronic communication modes lack the emotional warmth of direct human contact and often worsen a person’s feelings of isolation.” (p. 77)

What it means:  Digital Natives may be more irritable and prone to depression.

6)       Health problemsDigital Natives are less fit.

Consider the evidence: In 2006, Naoko Koezuka and associates at the University of Toronto studied nearly 8,000 teenagers and found those volunteers who spend more time playing video games or on the computer were less likely to exercise.

More shockingly, “A recent study of children 5-11 years old found that those who watched more than an hour of television each day [were heavier] compared to children who watched less.” (p. 30)

What it means: Digital Natives aren’t physically active enough.

I didn’t plan to write such a long post, but as you can see, iBrain as relevant as it is shocking.

Next post I’ll write about the ugly side of iBrain—the most disturbing alteration of the evolving human mind.

Until then, rest content that it’s not as bad as it seems: Small & Vorgan never say the technological alteration of the human mind is unstoppable, nor do they claim we can do nothing to alter the mind ourselves.

In later posts, we’ll look at how teachers and parents can help their Digitial Natives navigate evolution of the modern mind.

This is Part II of a series of posts based on the research of Gary Small, MD & Gigi Vorgan published in their book, iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind.

 If you’d like to read more about this and other social trends affecting education, sign up to follow this blog at the top of the home page.

Future Minds Part I: Brain evolution 101 for parents and teachers

We are teaching an evolved brain[picture from iBrain, p. 43]
We are teaching an evolved brain
[picture from iBrain, p. 43]
[I wrote this when I was a student teacher]

We teachers spend countless hours reading our students’ minds to build the perfect lesson. We read The Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Twilight, and Harry Potter—why do we torture ourselves? – to get our students so they get us.

But what about our students brains?  Why haven’t we considered the evolution of their minds?

We’re not teaching the old brain

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Does what we teach matter?

Alain de botton
Alain de Botton

I wrote this post when I was studying to become a teacher.

In a BBC talk, philosopher and writer Alain de Botton argues that British humanities professors have only themselves to blame for government cuts to their departments. They are also to blame for declining  interest in their subjects. He explains:

there is a need to acknowledge that at least some of the woes that have befallen academics is squarely their own fault. To put it at its simplest, academics in the humanities have failed to explain why what they do should matter so much. They’ve failed to explain to the government, but this really only means “us” – the public at large.

They have allowed themselves to be offended by the very need to justify their relevance, speaking only in dangerously vague terms about the value of culture in helping people to “think” or they have counted on having just enough respect left not to have to spell out why they should exist at all, other than because what they do is just so important. [italics mine]

In other words, humanities professors haven’t proven the relevance of what they teach. They’re not marketing their subjects well—if at all. Allan de Botton’s view of the humanities:

My personal view of what the humanities are for is simple – they should help us to live. We should look to culture as a repository of useful and consoling ideas about how to face our most pressing personal and professional issues. We should look to novels and historical narratives to impart moral instruction and edification, to great paintings for suggestions about value, to philosophy to probe our anxieties and offer consolations.

It should be the job of a university education to tease out the therapeutic and illuminative aspects of culture, so that we can emerge from a period of study as slightly less disturbed, selfish, unempathetic and blinkered human beings, who can be of greater benefit not only to the economy, but also to our friends, our children and our spouses.

There should be classes in, among other topics, being alone, reconsidering work, improving relationships with children, reconnecting with nature and facing illness. A university alive to the true responsibilities of cultural artifacts within a secular age would establish a Department for Relationships, an Institute of Dying and a Centre for Self-Knowledge.

So, Botton thinks we need to take the abstract concepts of the humanities and make concrete connections to student’s lives. Or, we can ignore his advice and die out.

Does Botton’s advice apply to middle and high school teachers?

Botton’s advice is not only for humanities professors, but for teachers too. If we want to attract students to our electives in high school, if we want our students to remember our classes, if we want to make an impact on our world— we’ve got to teach things that matter.

The irrelevancy of some of what we teach troubles me. For example, as a teacher, I find it hard to answer students when they ask, “Why do we need to know about plot, character, and theme?”, “Why do we keep studying similes every year?” or “Why do we need to write poems?” Similarly, history teachers face a certain question: “Why do all these dead guys even matter?” In social studies class, students may well ask, “Why should I care about marriage rituals around the world?”

All these questions reveal one big, underlying question: “What does concept X add to my life?”

That question is extremely important

When I prepare a lesson now, I ask myself this question: “Why should students care about concept X? What are the real world applications of this concept?”

Next, I make certain my students know why I’m teaching what I do. For example, on Saturday I taught a class how to write a précis. I outlined the concept and asked students to answer this question on the board individually:

Suggest occasions when each of the following might need to write a précis of a report or a series of reports:

a)      The head of a department in a Fortune 500 company;

b)      A lawyer;

c)      A doctor;

d)      An engineer.

Together, we came up with many practical uses of précis writing. I noticed my students, among them a future doctor, engineer, and lawyer, sat up in their chairs and became invested in the material because I answered the question that matters to them: “How is this relevant to my life?”

Important things we could teach

While we must teach the less apparently practical concepts, we can also integrate useful skills into our courses. Here are some real life skills we could integrate into the humanities:

-How to make a phone call

– How to shake hands and make introductions

-How to apologize

– How to resolve conflicts

-How to write a professional e-mail, letter, memo

-How to speak and write clearly (rhetoric)

-How to detect faulty reasoning

-How to dress professionally

-How to manage money

-How to handles stress

-General etiquette

Is it the school’s job?

You may disagree, but I believe it’s the school’s job to teach practical skills for three reasons:

1)       Dual-income households are the norm and these parents are time-starved; they haven’t the time to teach their kids these skills;

2)      Widespread engagement with technology has caused the widespread atrophy of social and writing skills;

3)      If we want social justice, teaching things that will enrich students’ lives and help them deal with real problems, economic, social, and political is not optional.

The reality

Students won’t remember that you taught them similes. But they will remember that you taught them how to write a cover letter, because it won them a job. And that job helped them escape poverty.

Students won’t care that you taught them the Cold War. But they will care that you taught them how to present well, because it helped them get a promotion. And that promotion helped them raise a family

Botton is right: We must teach the important things.

Are there any lessons you wish were taught in schools but aren’t?