Wednesday, May 4, 2016

When old news inspires open-ended assignments

In a recent article in Edweek, Sarah Sparks reports on a new book by affiliates of USC's Brain Creativity Instistute, Emotions, Learning, and the Brain. In this book, Immordino-Yang et al

found that as students learn new rules during a task, such as the most efficient way to answer a math problem or the best deck to choose in a card game, they show emotional and physical responses long before they became consciously aware of the rules or are able to articulate them.  
This emotional response—think of a student having a "gut feeling" that a particular answer was right—was the first sign of a student learning from her experience with the task.
Why the rediscovery of the gut feeling is worth an article in Edweek is thus far unclear. But there’s more:
Immordino-Yang and her colleagues [at UCS’s Brain Creativity Institute] have found that even abstract academic concepts can inspire an emotional connection if people understand their context. For example, mathematicians show the same pleasure response in the brain when they see an efficient equation as others have shown when viewing a beautiful piece of art.
If Immordino-Yang et al had delved a little deeper, they might have found that “abstract academic concepts,” including mathematical ones, have a long history of inspiring emotions--even in the absence of whatever is meant here by “context.” But perhaps, for those who steer clear of abstractions, this finding is nonetheless newsworthy.

Also apparently newsworthy:
…separate studies… suggest that negative emotions can interfere with learning in part because they compete with normal engagement with new concepts.
You mean if I think about death--or taxes, or how anxious I am about math--while I’m trying to learn math, it might actually interfere with my learning process?

Other startling findings:
"What happens when thinking is devoid of emotion is you don't remember it or think deeply about it," Immordino-Yang said.
You mean the stuff I think about the most and remember the best tends not to be stuff I’m completely indifferent to?

What’s not so obvious is Edweek’s takeaway: that schools should “support students’ emotional development.” Why not instead make sure the stuff they’re learning is actually engaging? Engagement, after all, is inherently emotional: a combination of excitement, curiosity, inspiration, and ambition.

Sparks reminds us that
Prior studies have shown children become less positive over the course of elementary school, and new German studies suggest academic engagement and achievement—or the lack of them—could create feedback loops for young students. 
… A student who was anxious in math class in 2nd grade was likelier to have lower math achievement at the end of the year; lower math achievement at the end of 2nd grade made it likelier that the student would be even more anxious in 3rd grade, increasing the risk of even lower math performance, and so on through elementary school. Boredom also produced a negative cycle, while early enjoyment in math created a positive feedback cycle.
But is the answer to tinker with students’ emotions, or with the assignments we subject them to?

Yang’s answer, refreshingly, involves both. First, encourage students to use their cognitive intuitions while learning. Second, make content meaningful rather than distracting students with jokes and prizes. So far so good. But then comes recommendation number three:
Give students open-ended problems that force them to dig into the definition of the task itself.
Where did this come from? What does being forced to "dig into the definition of the task" have to do with positive emotions and learning? Open-ended problems are already all the rage, and many of them, for many students, lead not to positive feelings, but to disengagement and anxiety.

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