Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Importance of Creating a Social Community Within a Classroom

Today's review comes from an article found in The Proceedings of the Twentieth Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1998, edited by Morton Ann Gernsbacher and Sharon J. Derry:

Students' Sense of Community in Constructivist/Collaborative Learning Environments, by Helen V. Bateman, Susan R. Goldman, J. R. Newbrough and John D. Bransford.

I will start with a quote that nicely describes what the researchers are referring to when they say that a classroom or school fosters a sense of community, as this is important to the whole article: "McMillan and Chavis (1986) proposed four criteria for defining a sense of community: a) Membership--a feeling of belonging and acceptance, of sharing a sense of personal relatedness. Personal investment and boundaries are important elements of membership. b) Influence--a sense of mattering, of making a difference to a group, and of the group mattering to its members. Influence is bi-directional. c) Integration and fulfillment of needs--a feeling that the needs of the individual will be met by community, as well as a feeling that the needs of the community can be met by the individual. d) Shared emotional connection--an emotional bond that gradually builds as members of a community share events that require high investment of time, energy and effort."

Students in the inner-city tend to not have a full-fledged social community to support them at home; hence, the special school program being studied here is trying to make up for the lack of healthy social instruction found outside of school. A handful of studies done prior to this one indicate that strong group membership in a school can improve academic performance and decrease the incidence of drugs and gang-joining. This study is trying to delve further into this line of research.

The Study
Inner-city students at standard middle school classrooms were compared with those in experimental classrooms in a program called "Schools for Thought." At the beginning of the 6th grade year, all of the students were given a battery of tests and were found to be equivalent in academic achievement in reading, math and science.

The regular classrooms were teacher-led, standard fare. The Schools for Thought classrooms were quite different: The teachers gave the students complex, real-world problems to solve and some guidance, but each student was required to become an expert on some small facet of the subject area, which they then taught to the others and used as necessary. The students did independent research to become experts, and a self-assessment feedback system was put into place. All of the students had to give it their best for the class as a whole to solve the problems assigned by the teacher.

At the end of the school year, another battery of tests was given to the students. The Schools for Thought students had a significantly higher sense of community and of cooperative skills as measured on self-assessment tests. The Schools for Thought students had significantly lower levels of fighting based on reports from the students on their own behavior and on their classmates' behavior. The Schools for Thought students performed significantly better on the testing battery that was used to determine their ability to use collaborative thinking skills to solve social problems.

Significance for Waldorf Education
Except for those Waldorf schools located in third world countries, the students in Waldorf schools generally are not from such a deprived environment as the inner-city kids in this study were. However, that being said, there is much to learn from this study. Waldorf schools use many community-building tricks starting from the very first week of first grade as the class is guided into a healthy, cooperative community. The parents are also led into a community of support for the children of the class (an advantage not available for the Schools for Thought participants). At no point in 1st-8th grade are the children given as much personal leverage in the design of the lesson plan as the Schools for Thought kids, but given the fact that the community-building has been going on for years in a Waldorf school, this does not seem to be a problem at all. The Waldorf high school kids are given something that approximates this amount of control. Cooperation and collaboration are hallmarks of the Waldorf curriculum, and are a very important part of a healthy relationship with the world at large and with fostering a lifelong love of learning.

It would be quite interesting to see testing done on Waldorf students using the same social-talent metrics used in this study.

I really think that the world might be a much better place if Waldorf schools were opened in inner-cities! Imagine the good that could be done if the children were taken into a classroom where they felt like they belonged and could constructively contribute from day one, not just in middle school. The kids were able to build a community within their classroom in a single year, at a point in their school career in which a lot of them are ready to give up (or have already given up) and the benefits were already being seen by the close of the school year.

Humans are social creatures; we crave instruction in this arena. Any curriculum that encourages and supports social learning, cooperation, and community-building is going to provide a valuable tool for its students for years to come.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Definition: Lateralization

The brain is divided into two hemispheres; for many tasks, either one side or the other is in charge. So when neuroscientists say things like, "Linguistic function is lateralized in the left hemisphere," they are basically saying, "The talent of language happens on the left side."

Thus far, it is pretty straightforward. However, there are some nuances that are worth mentioning here.

The Motor Cortex
This section of the brain is special: first of all, part of it resides on each side of the brain (i.e. there's a bit of it in each of the two hemispheres), which does not happen with most other functions. It is what controls our movements. The fascinating bit is that the left motor cortex controls the muscles in the right side of the body, and visa versa.

How does that happen? It comes down to brain development before birth. In the early fetus, there is a brain attached to what will be the spine in a nice, straight line. Then, as the brain folds on itself (making all of those curvy, wiggly lumps), it flips over. It does a somersault. Pretty wild, eh? The result? The left side of the brain is attached to the muscles on the right side of the body (and the right to the left muscles). So, when you wiggle your left thumb, you are using a particular set of neurons in the right motor cortex.

The senses of the skin (such as touch, temperature, pain, etc) do this as well.

Right-Handedness Versus Left-Handedness
All claims of lateralization are always made based upon right-handed subjects, because they are all wired the same way. So, the statement above about language being on the left only applies to righties. Another typical left-brain item is logical reasoning. Many studies have shown that emotional reasoning and music are both housed in the right brain. Again, these things only apply to righties.

And what about the lefties? I'll have to do this more thoroughly later (I need to find an article to review that covers all of the details), but here is the basic gist: a simple majority of lefties (about 60%) are exactly the reverse of righties (so language and logic are in the right brain while music and emotions are off in the left); about 10% are built like righties; and the remaining lefties do not show lateralization at all! They have language and logic in the left and the right; they have emotions and music in the left and the right.

This is why brain scientists are not interested in left-handed subjects when doing studies to determine where in the brain certain functions are located. There are some researchers who are trying to figure out what exactly is going on in lefties' heads, but they could not get started until much of the brain had been mapped out in righties: this makes sense, since they could not possibly be able to understand anything without a base-line map.

Lefties' motor cortices work exactly like those of righties: the right motor cortex makes a person move their left thumb.

It is not too hard to understand why it is that forcing a lefty into being a righty can cause permanent brain damage!

In sum
Lateralization at its most basic is about which bits of thinking are located in which places of the brain. However, the generalizations only apply to right-handed people. Also, certain functions happen on both sides, but each side of the brain controls the opposite side of the physical body.