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  • New Studies Link the Arts to Crucial Cognitive Skills

    Posted by Jenny Fox on 2/11/2020 4:00:00 PM

    What happens to our brains ‘on art’? New studies—often backed by brain imaging technology—are beginning to dial in on the answers.

    Art education

    Click here to watch a brief video.

    New research reveals that the arts may prime our neural circuitry for a broad range of activities, boosting crucial cognitive and social skills like spoken and written language, focus, self-control, and empathy. In a 2016 study, for example, T. Christina Zhao and Patricia Kuhl demonstrated that babies exposed to simple melodies in a social setting developed a greater sensitivity to the rhythms of spoken language. More surprisingly, they noted, the processing of music was traced not just to the auditory cortex of the infants, but to the prefrontal cortex as well—the seat of higher-order cognitive faculties like attention and self-regulation.

    “We can see that the babies who have been through the music experience have greater abilities to...hold attention when that’s important, and to switch attention when it’s  appropriate to switch,” Kuhl explained in a TED talk. “In other words, music is affecting executive function.” 

    2019 study reached similar conclusions with professional musicians, finding that “executive attention is more efficient in musicians than non-musicians,” and improves as musical training progresses. 

    But those weren’t the only surprises in store for researchers. A major 2019 study tracked over 10,000 students in Texas as they participated in arts programs, concluding that they performed better on state writing tests, were better behaved, had more compassion for fellow students, and were more engaged in school. And a 2018 study showed that drawing had a dramatic effect on memory, outperforming writing, visualizing, and other retention techniques.

    We also referenced other studies, reports, and news stories as we produced this video: A comprehensive 2017 American Institutes for Research study on arts integration; 2016 and 2014 research on executive function; a 2013 study on the value of field trips to museums; a 2019 news story on the recent discovery of ancient cave paintings; along with the following older research: a 2009 report; this 2011 research; this 2008 research; and this 2004 research, among others.

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  • Six Scaffolds That Deepen Independent Learning

    Posted by Jenny Fox on 1/28/2020 12:00:00 PM

    When teaching problem-based lessons, use thinking scaffolds to propel students toward greater expertise and deeper learning.

    Scaffold Image

    When you want to conduct a problem-based unit, or push students to engage with a project or investigate a challenging topic more independently, thinking scaffolds—by way of targeted prompts, supports, and modeling—can be an important tool in your arsenal.

    In a recent, small-scale study, featured in a report by Emily Boudreau on the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Usable Knowledge website, researchers identified a few intriguing scaffolds teachers can use to help students progress toward more sophisticated, deeper-level learning. In the study, which examines a high school STEM curriculum, cognitive scientist Tina Grotzer and a team of researchers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, “noticed that as their problem-based curriculum progressed, students changed the way they approached problems. Rather than waiting for the teacher to give them answers, they made hypotheses based on existing knowledge, discussed their thoughts with their teams, and took risks—all signs of deeper-level learning,” Boudreau writes.

    Researchers concluded that the thinking scaffolds provided by teachers played an important role in encouraging this shift. “We know that experts pay attention to a very different set of patterns than novices often do. Novices get caught up in the surface features and can’t necessarily see the deep principles,” Grotzer told Boudreau. “It’s really important to think what kind of scaffolding helps people take steps towards greater expertise in their thinking and reasoning.”

    Here are the six scaffolds Boudreau identifies:

    1. Encourage students to think about context: Pose questions that push students to think about what they know—and what they don’t yet know. This helps them become more inclined to seek out new connections, patterns, and possibilities. For example, ask: What information did you base your conclusion on? Are you sure—what don’t you know yet about this?

    2. Make questions open-ended: Draw out their thinking by using generic probes, or targeted questions, to help students rethink ideas without correcting them outright. For example, ask: Can you tell me more about that? Can you explain that?

    3. Tap into students’ knowledge base: Encourage students to dig into what they already know from school, their own experience, and what’s happening right now. Notes study author Grotzer: “[This is a] pedagogical move that says all of the information and experience you have is useful and you can bring it to bear.” Ask: what do you already know that could help you here?

    4. Let students own it: Let students know that they should make their own choices. “The role of the teacher is not to make decisions about what to do next or execute,” Boudreau writes about working in this mode of independent inquiry. Teachers can model the way an expert might approach the problem, and ask: What’s next? How are you going to handle this?

    5. Cultivate risk-taking: Encourage a classroom risk-taking culture—where students are willing to try new things—by not immediately shooting down incorrect answers and being patient before you jump in and guide students back to a more productive course. For example, say: that’s an interesting idea, let’s explore it.

    6. Leave time to debrief: To encourage students to see themselves as active learners, rather than mere participants, encourage regular student reflection with questions about performance, results, and students’ thought process. For example, ask: how do you think your team is doing? How are you managing your learning? 

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  • A De-escalation Exercise for Upset Students

    Posted by Jenny Fox on 1/17/2020 7:00:00 PM

    A simple technique that takes just a few minutes can help an agitated student regain the state of mind needed for learning.

    A De-Escalation Exercise for Upset Students

    So often we find students in a stressed or anxious state of mind. The most telltale signs are inappropriate behaviors or outbursts, negative comments, and anxiety-ridden movements such as fidgeting, leg shaking, and fist clenching. These signals should raise immediate concern and indicate to educators that a response may be needed. The goal is to guide the student to a self-regulated mindset, but how does a teacher do that?

    First let’s review what is going on with a student in the middle of an outburst. Cortisol, which is responsible for keeping people alive in the face of danger, is being released. Often referred to as the stress hormone, cortisol plays a crucial role our ability to protect ourselves. When we experience stressful situations, the release of cortisol helps us respond rapidly, but it comes with a cost, as it negatively affects the brain’s ability to function at an optimal level.

    Think of it like this: You’re in the ocean on a surfboard waiting for the perfect wave. A short distance away, you see a shark fin pop out of the water, heading your way. Immediately two chemicals—cortisol and adrenaline—are released and you enter the fight, flight, or freeze response: You can fight the shark, flee by paddling as fast as you can, or freeze and hope the shark loses interest in you. Whatever your response, you find yourself in a moment of stress, anxiety, uncertainty, and fear due to heightened cortisol levels.

    Now let’s consider how this might look in a learning environment. At the end of a class, two students learn that they have received a poor grade on a science test. This is not a life-or-death situation like the approaching shark, but the physiological response is the same. The students’ cortisol levels are high and they are anxious, a state of mind that doesn’t support clear, conscious thinking. Upon entering their English class, the two students are visibly upset. One heads straight for their seat and begins to cry, while the other throws their book bag on the floor and punches the desk. For the teacher, recognizing these signs before beginning class is important.


    The young brain can be confusing, complex, and often misunderstood, not only from the perspective of adults but more importantly from that of the students themselves. In order for students to understand how their brain functions, it’s important to teach them about a few parts of the brain and their functions. To keep it simple, teach them about the amygdala, prefrontal cortex, and hippocampus.

    The amygdala directs rapid responses when necessary—the fight, flight, or freeze response. When the amygdala detects a threat, it responds faster than the prefrontal cortex, which directs the ability to make decisions and problem-solve, and the hippocampus, which is responsible for remembering details and storing memories. The two areas of the brain most needed for academic work are thus bypassed. As a result, an anxious, stressed, or fearful state of mind can lead to poor decision-making, inability to think with clarity, and impulsive behaviors.

    Learning how to calm ourselves is imperative for our well-being, and the following technique, which is designed to decrease negative impulses and emotions, can be shared with students. The goal is to lead them to more regulated thinking and learning.


    Let’s go back to the two upset students in their English class. They aren’t ready to work, but the teacher can help by taking a few minutes to guide them back to a state of calm.

    This process should take anywhere from four to six minutes and be centered on the student. I’ve provided a sample of what a teacher might say at each stage, but you should modify those statements so they feel natural to you.

    If you have a paraprofessional or in-class support teacher, you can ask a student who seems upset to step out into the hallway or into an area of the classroom set aside for de-escalation. Or you can do this as a whole-class starter activity for anyone who might have something worrisome on their minds. Students can either choose this de-escalation technique—thinking over their answers instead of sharing them out loud—or engage in a warm-up activity connected to the class such as completing a journal entry or worksheet.

    Give the student time to regain their calm: Say, “I notice you’re really upset. Let’s work together on breathing slowly for one minute in order to manage your impulses.”

    Direct the student to be aware of their thoughts and feelings: Say, “What’s going on in your brain and body right now? Tell me how you feel and what you’re thinking, and if you’re ready to focus on moving forward with getting calm.”

    Have the student redirect their thoughts: Say, “Take a minute, close your eyes, breathe slowly, and think about something that makes you happy. I know you told me how much you love your grandma’s fresh-baked cookies. Think about walking into grandma’s house in a calm state of mind as you smell the cookies, taste the cookies, and feel the warmth of them right out of the oven.”

    Give the student positive feedback on becoming calm: Say, “Now open your eyes. How are you feeling? If you need more time to settle down, let me know. You should feel happy and excited about your work in getting to this point.”

    Give the student a little more time to refocus: Say, “Take a minute and do something for you. Go for a walk and get some air, or tell me about your baseball game the other night.”

    Have the student reflect for the future: Say, “The next time you’re feeling this way and I’m not with you, what can you tell yourself in order to take charge of your thinking and behavior, and get yourself to a regulated place?”

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  • What is a blog?

    Posted by Jenny Fox on 1/7/2020 2:00:00 PM




    noun: blog; plural noun: blogs

    a regularly updated website or web page, typically one run by an individual or small group, that is written in an informal or conversational style.


    Is blogging still relevant, and if so, how could it benefit parents and the PTA?

    At the start of the year a lot of people ponder whether a blog should be part of their plans for the new year, and every January there is a spike in Google searches where people are looking up “How to Start a Blog” and “Is a Blog Right for You?” For us, the most important reason to be introducing a blog to our page is that it opens the opportunity for community, friendship and collaborations. The goal is for you to relate to some of what we will be sharing and to realize that your thoughts and opinions matter. 

    Please check back each week for our latest blog post from edutopia! 

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