Dr. Todd Rose advice to school teachers

Recently Parents Education Network (PEN) in San Francisco sponsored a lecture for school teachers given by Dr. Todd Rose. Dr Rose is on the faculty at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where he teaches a course on Educational Neuroscience. He is also co-chair of the summer institute for Mind, Brain, and Education sponsored by Harvard.  Add to these credentials is his work as a research scientist with CAST, a nonprofit research and development organization that works to expand learning opportunities for all individuals, especially those with disabilities, through a program called Universal Design for Learning.

According to the Society for Neuroscience, neuroscience is the study of the nervous system which advances the understanding of human thought, emotion, and behavior. The focus of his talk was neuroscience and its relationship to learning.  He emphatically stated new learning science information is emerging.  “We are confronting what do students need for future learning, especially those with learning differences.” 

After showing us a view of the brain networks and their broad distribution encased in our head, he cautioned that it’s not just about knowing the networks, it’s the context that’s important.  It seems that the networks are variable in all persons and surprisingly most are not relevant to learning. The context refers to what is happening in the environment in which one is learning. 

Next he added the component of working memory which is the ability of the brain to actively hold information in the mind. Without this retention complex tasks such as reasoning, comprehension and learning become next to impossible.  Again it is important to remember that working memory is very variable.  In a classroom of thirteen year olds, the variability might include a student with the working memory of an eight year old  as well as a student who has a working memory like a dolphin.   It’s no wonder that teachers are challenged as they teach! 

When the student is under stress or threat the emotional component compounds the difficulty for one’s working memory.  On the other hand, the same student when feeling confident can do many tasks. The challenge for the teacher is to leave space in the teaching process for this variability.   

If a student can’t hold a goal in mind, it means that the working memory is no longer in operation.  Kids who are not able to automate the core basic skills are sending a signal that he or she is probably a learning challenged child.  

Next Dr Rose addressed the topic of Executive Functions: His definition includes:  the ability to plan, organize, be goal directed and a self motivator.  He feels planning is a skill.  It involves working memory.  A child/student who struggles with this task needs to be given the tools to learn it.  Goals really matter.  Focus on one goal only. A secondary goal often means the child will get lost.  Teachers need to be careful not to ask more than what the child can handle to be successful. 

He re-iterated that working memory really matters now.  Adolescents are increasingly not able to organize their time because there is so much information.  They have to be taught how to use it. e.g:  Twitter and Facebook.  

These two following important skills are what teachers must take the time to teach. 

1.         Search:  It’s not simply a matter of finding the information, just as important is

discovering what to do with the information.  Kids with poor working memory get lost with the second step. 

2.         Organization:  We are past the point where kids can do stuff in their own heads.  We have to get better at cognition/working memory. Students need to learn how to better leverage  their environment and the numerous technologies. 

Other drawbacks to a good working memory.

Writing notes is a huge task for working memory.  Any kind of motion is distractible and a hindrance to working memory.

Tools that help a good working memory.

Meditation does help some.  Mindfulness exercises are important because the individual has to settle down and be quiet.  Exercise in the classroom can make a child comfortable and has a major effect on increasing the ability to succeed.  

Finally, the educational process has to improve so that new information reaches teachers and it includes details on how to use the information.  

Dr. Todd Rose can be reached at http://isites.harvard.edu/todd_rose or todd_rose@gse.harvard.edu