Category Archives: Education

Finland: Educational Principles That Work

Schools with Shorter Days, No Homework and Better Outcomes

 

I’m not a fan of Michael Moore, but I thought his video about education in Finland would get your attention.

Finland, which has ranked at or near the top of countries in international testing, has discovered principles that we at NACD have known and been implementing for almost fifty years.

Finland’s international ranking was based on the PISA test, which is the Program for International Student Assessment test. When the test was administered in 2015, the United States ranked 41st in math, 25th in reading and 26th in science internationally—not so hot! However, we have been close to the top relative to how much we spend per child.

For the past forty-plus years at NACD we have been working with families to help develop and educate their children, applying some of the same basic principles that have helped turn around the educational system in Finland.

For starters, Finland has learned that less can be more. We have always preached neuroplasticity and the associated principles of frequency, intensity and duration, acknowledging that as you increase duration, you generally decrease intensity and as such push too long and less goes in. Finland also has shorter school days. In Finland, elementary students only attend school for twenty hours a week and don’t even start school until they are seven years old. Older students go to school from about 9:00-9:30 a.m. until 2:00-2:45 p.m. and receive no homework or very minimal homework. When able to really individualize, we can generally accelerate a student at home in about half that much time. The more we can individualize, the more we can target the input and educate efficiently and effectively.

In Finland, they give students many 15- to 20-minute breaks during their school day. We encourage parents to work with their children for short periods, followed by breaks. The younger the children, the shorter the work/attention periods—starting literally from seconds and minutes.

Finland has learned to stop teaching to standardized tests. They are not following a ridged, set curriculum and then testing based on that curriculum. Their system gives teachers much more autonomy to individualize and actually teach until the students have learned something. They are also now starting to use what they call phenomenon-based learning, which means that they are exploring a more holistic approach involving students and encouraging them to explore their interests and talents. We incorporate a child-centered approach as much as possible, using the child’s interests and passions to produce more globally-associated knowledge that sticks, while still focusing on the core, accelerating reading and math. We believe in less curriculum/stuff and more in building the educational foundation and creating a more meaningful education. Establish the educational base, turn the children into readers and turn them on to learning.

Finland also has more children receiving special education services than perhaps any other country in the world. But, it is done differently. Just as we do at NACD, they believe that educational issues can and should be addressed and fixed, not labeled and used as an excuse for failure. Children receive what special services they need so that their issues can be resolved and they can move forward unencumbered.

What neither Finland or any country has learned

The real foundation that we at NACD have been building in children is the neurological foundation—short-term memory, working memory and executive function. What the world has yet to realize is that education alone is not enough. If we build the neurological foundation, we make people smarter—much smarter! And smarter is better!

And now for the rest of the story. . . 

—Bob Doman

 

May I Have Your Undivided Attention? Fidget Spinners

 

Let’s just install ceiling fans in every classroom.

Ban Fidget Spinners with Bob Doman of NACDFidget spinners—what a wonderful invention—as though our children need something else to distract them. Let’s give children mini ceiling fans to carry around to help them pay attention—what a great idea! If spinning things help children concentrate, let’s just install ceiling fans in every classroom.

I have been arguing against giving kids on the Autism Spectrum fidgets for years. Do some kids on the spectrum like and want fidgets? Absolutely—they’re addicted to them. A fidget feeds their sensory addictions and helps keep them seated in their classroom chair when what is being presented quite possibly doesn’t fit them and goes on way past their auditory attention span. You attend to what you can process and if the input doesn’t fit your ability to process the information or what is being presented doesn’t match your knowledge/educational base, then you don’t pay attention to it (sadly this describes most children in most classrooms). Unfortunately, the operational definition of educational inclusion for children with developmental problems has really just come down to the kids sitting in desks and not making a fuss while surrounded by typical children. The special needs children then leave the classroom for a resource room where the instruction is hopefully more targeted and appropriate for the child. So, enter the fidget. The theory is that the fidgets help the children on the spectrum pay attention and avoid being distracted. As far as I know, there has been no good research to substantiate this, but I would suspect that if the research were directed at whether a fidget would keep a child sitting for longer periods the results would quite likely be positive. If, however, the study was testing whether the children learned more or if it helped their sensory issues, I believe the answer would be no. There has, however, been extensive research on the effects of any and all distractions while driving (paying attention) and the conclusion is that they are all bad. Try driving and watching your fidget spinner spin. You can give it another twirl if it stops and tell me if it makes you a safer driver.

One of the first things we recommend parents who have children on the spectrum do for their children who engage in visual DSAs (Debilitating Sensory Addictive behaviors), is to remove or a least not turn on any ceiling fans. As most parents with children on the spectrum with visual issues know, the kids will stare at ceiling fans endlessly if given the opportunity. None of these parents will tell you that their child is paying better attention or is more present while staring at the fan. The fan takes them away—it doesn’t help them focus or concentrate. Most visual stims or DSAs involve the child playing with and stimming with their peripheral vision. Your peripheral vision picks up movement and edges, both of which are stimulated in a negative fashion by ceiling fans, fidgets, waving fingers, staring at edges, etc. Fidget spinners not only distract with the visual aspect, but also with an audio and a tactile component—they hum and vibrate while they spin. So let’s have the child’s brain distracted with extraneous visual, auditory and tactile garbage and simultaneously help build a new addiction.

I’m sure to hear from “professionals” out there, particularly occupational therapists who just discovered that children have sensory issues, but having worked with Autistic children for fifty years and having learned how to help normalize their sensory issues, I am confident that feeding their addictions is not in their best interest in the long term. If the motivation and goal is to keep them content, in their seats and quiet at the cost of their development, then. . .

Now, enter the logic that begins with the erroneous premise that if fidgets help kids on the Spectrum pay attention, then perhaps they will help typical kids pay attention. Sadly many, if not most, children have successfully learned not to pay attention already and the last thing they need is another distraction. Parents and teachers often mistake the child looking in your general direction and apparently listening as attending. At best, we often mistake listening for paying attention. Listening is something you do when you’re watching your favorite sporting event and the game is tied with seconds to go and someone talks to you about the weather. Listening is something you do when you’re talking to someone on the phone while you’re checking your email. Ask the child who appears to be “listening” to repeat the last sentence of something you just said or read to them. When we talk about learning we are talking about changing the brain and to change the brain we need to put in specific appropriate input with sufficient frequency, intensity and duration. Of the three components, intensity is the most important. Intensity means focus and focus means that I have your undivided attention. We need to help teach children to focus and give undivided attention, otherwise parents and teachers are largely talking to themselves.

If we want to be proactive and improve focus and attention, we need to do a better job of targeting the input to fit the child. Teaching algebra to a child who still is struggling with basic math isn’t going to work. Speaking in paragraphs to a child who has difficulty following a two- or three-step direction doesn’t work. Making many children sit in a chair and attend for more than ten minutes without letting them get up and move around a bit generally doesn’t work either. We need to pay attention to the individual and teach to their knowledge level so they have some context within which to associate the information. We need to be aware of the child’s processing ability (short –term and working memory) and target the structure of the input to fit them. We need to provide educational environments as free of extraneous distractions as possible—not contribute to them—and we need to focus upon the neurodevelopmental foundation and help build the child’s ability to learn, communicate and function.

Many children across the county are learning not to attend, not be present and sadly are learning that learning itself isn’t fun, isn’t exciting and that it doesn’t work for them.

Ban Fidget Spinners!

—Bob

What is Natural? I Thought I Knew and Still Think I Know

“Breast Feeding is Unnatural.”

That was the headline I saw the other day when perusing the news. My first reaction was, “WHAT? What is this country coming to?” An article/study in Pediatrics entitled, “Unintended Consequences of Invoking the ‘Natural’ in Breastfeeding Promotion,” written by Jessica Martucci and Anne Barnhill, essentially claims that “referencing the ‘natural’ in breastfeeding promotion—may inadvertently endorse a set of values about family life and gender roles which would be ethically inappropriate.” I’m sorry, but “natural” actually does fit my set of values. How extreme can the obsession with sexuality and gender get?

When I saw this headline, it immediately took me back to UCLA in the early ‘80s. I was doing an early morning news show that was being filmed at UCLA’s Child Development Center. The station brought me to UCLA so I could provide an opinion about UCLA’s daycare perspectives. We did the interview in a huge room that was full of babies, toddlers and lots of noise. The children were on mats and in various cribs and there were students interacting with some of the children, while others slept, cried or expressed varying degrees of displeasure. As we began the interview, the head of the department made a statement that literally left me in a state of shock. She said that young children being home with their mother was UNNATURAL!

To gain a bit of historic perspective, common use of daycares and preschools is really a relatively new phenomenon. Daycares actually date back to the late 1800s as facilities for working mothers. But even back in the ‘50s it was rare for a child to go to daycare. There weren’t yet preschools and the majority of children didn’t start school until they were five or six. To further put things in perspective, back in the ‘50s when we were having air-raid drills in school and were hearing “better dead than red,” we were traumatized hearing stories about Russia, where little children were put in schools as early as two or three years of age—horrifying!

Back at the time of my interview at UCLA, formal daycare was still rather rare. Working moms generally relied on family members or informal situations where stay-at-home moms would take care of another child or two.

In 1964 President Lyndon Johnson created Head Start, a program that was initiated as part of his “War on Poverty” to help meet the needs of preschool aged children from low-income families. Head Start was and is a good thing. Providing early educational opportunities for children from disadvantaged homes is a good thing. Children from disadvantaged families absolutely do better with early childhood educational opportunities.

Today, however, educational propaganda has created the distorted perspective that all children are better off in daycare and preschool and that they are, in fact, being deprived of opportunities if they do not attend. Economic reality is such that many mothers need to work when their children are under five. There are mothers who choose to have careers and need nannies, daycare and preschools, which is fine. Certainly, the better the daycares and the preschools, the more opportunities those children have. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. An involved dedicated mother, who after all knows her child better than anyone else on the planet and who can provide her child with individual attention throughout the day, is not only doing something that is quite “natural,” but is probably optimizing her child’s first critical years of development. An informed, dedicated parent given the right tools, can do absolute wonders—quite naturally.

—Bob Doman

 

 

What Do Behavior Development, Social Skills and Maturity All Have in Common?

NACD Blog Behavior, Social, Maturity & Splinter SkillsA great deal of time and effort is spent attempting to teach children, particularly children with developmental issues, skills that will assist in their daily life. Many of these attempts are actually attempts to teach splinter skills. Splinter skills are specific skills that do not generalize because they are not developmentally based. To generalize means that something taught specifically can be used and incorporated throughout overall function. If something cannot be generalized, it has very limited value and more often than not fades away. Whenever possible we want to dedicate the majority of our time and efforts to building the neurological foundation.

As children advance in their global development and function, they will generally acquire a vast array of associated skills commensurate with the advanced global/cognitive function. If we look at children from birth to five, where the development is typically the fastest, we see that the children over the course of each year acquire a broad range of new abilities that cover the full range of human function. These include the development of receptive and expressive language, gross and fine motor functions and skills, along with social interaction. In typical development, we essentially start with an infant who cannot control any part of their body and cannot interpret anything they see, hear, feel, smell or taste. In five short years, this same individual can run, jump, climb, take care of most and possibly all of their personal needs, carry on a conversation and interact socially. They have knowledge of everything from the name of an insect to the quarterback for the Rams.

Most of what the typical child has learned they were not specifically taught—they have learned what they have simply because they could. As their brains have developed—as their processing, short-term memory, working memory, and executive function have improved—their brains have simply been able to absorb more, understand more and do more.

If we are intelligently and wisely teaching a child or a young adult, whether they are two or twenty-two, we are teaching them things that are commensurate with their global neurological function or maturity. If we are attempting to teach specific skills that are not appropriate for their global function, we are actually attempting to teach splinter skills. Splinter skills are very specific situational skills that do not generalize. To some degree this can be done, but rarely well or quickly and rarely does it stick.

Many of the functions that we would love to see change, the appropriate behavior social skills we would be delighted to see emerge and the maturity that we hope for, are really reflections of what is termed executive function. If we understand executive function and how it develops and is built, we can dedicate more of our time to what works and not so much to what doesn’t.

If we are to be successful in helping a child develop and gain foundational skills including behavior, social skills, and maturity, we must first establish the neurological and cognitive foundation.

And now for the rest of the story…

—Bob

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Discussion of the Relevant Perception, Structure, and Application of NACD’s Model of Working Memory and Cognition (NACD.org)

“It Appears That”—I’m in Rather Good Company

NACD Bob Doman's Blog - Ben FranklinI chose this statement to be the title of my blog as a representation of my strong belief that, as a scientist, every statement or opinion I make is stated as, or assumed to be, preceded or qualified by the simple, but incredibly important modifier—“It Appears That”. As such, I am communicating that based on the information I have at this moment, it appears that such-and-such is accurate and I will act on that assumption until additional welcomed information indicates otherwise.

I just read Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, and in his discussion of virtues, he added “humility” to his list. Having admired Franklin as an incredible man with a very long list of virtues (and a rather large ego), I was amused by his statement in referring to humility:

“I cannot boast of much success in acquiring the reality of this virtue, but I had a good deal with regard to the appearance of it…I even forbid myself agreeable to the old laws of our Junto,* the use of every word or expression in the language that imported a fix’d opinion, such as certainly, undoubtedly, etc., and I adopted instead of them, I conceive, I apprehend, or I imagine a thing to be so and so, or it so appears to me at present.”

My education and involvement with “experts” has been littered with emphatic opinions stated as “facts” that I have often rejected out of hand. Not a few of these have had to do with what you supposedly can’t do. Not a few of these expert statements involved the “powers that be” declaring that something couldn’t be done. I spent years changing IQ’s when the experts said you couldn’t change IQ’s and decades changing working memory when virtually every “expert” said you couldn’t change and build working memory. One of my first, but many major conflicts with the system and the experts involved my getting in trouble with the State of Pennsylvania for educating trainable children in the early 70’s. It appeared to me that if I were in fact teaching children to read, write and do math that they obviously were educable. But, the brain-injured children, children with Down syndrome, autism, etc., who they proclaimed to be uneducable, and thus were denied an educational opportunity back in the 60’s and 70’s, were the victims of the “experts” self-fulfilling prophecies and not their lack of potential. I must admit it was then, as it is now, very fulfilling proving them wrong over and over again, as it was with the “blind” children who would “never see” who learned to see, the children who would “never talk or learn” who talk you ear off and academically do better than many of their “typical” peers and the countless number of children who would “never walk” who learned to run—not to mention all of the “average” children who became truly exceptional.

I was literally raised with my father, a renowned but very humble physician, teaching me that the foundation of all brain development is neuroplasticity and if you understand neuroplasticity there are virtually no limits to how you can grow and develop every brain.

Throughout my career, I have been rather astonished by how slowly things change; how it is that educators, psychologists, therapists, physicians and other “experts” are often so slow to question and challenge their beliefs and practices and accept limited expectations and often failure. If we could just accept that in all science, there really are no facts and accept that it just “appears that”.

* Junto refers to a club that Franklin established in 1772 for the purpose of debating morals, politics, philosophy and to discuss knowledge of business.