Saturday, September 25, 2010

Creative Brains Tend to Work More Slowly - Good to Know for Educators

A post by the Drs. Eide points out research that shows the most creative brains work slower than other, less creative brains. There seems to be convergence of data and studies that show students who are creative, gifted, or who have ADHD or dyslexia, all have thinner prefrontal cortex patterns. The areas of the brain where, say, creativity depend, have numerous side-roads and neural branches that differ from pure intellectual pathways, that are described more as superhighways. The extended branching off of that 'superhighway' allows for a variety of different neural connections that can produce new thoughts and ideas. To me it seems like the situation where you are sitting in a meeting, very focused and engaged in the flow of information being presented (i.e. the superhighway of the brain is engaged with information flowing and being processed rapidly), but then for a few seconds or minutes you suddenly find yourself daydreaming or having new thoughts not related to the exact information of the presentation (i.e. taking an exit off the superhighway to some off-the-beaten path side-road). You find yourself 'snapping back' to attention to re-focus on the meeting. I suspect this is related to the model being proposed in this new research, where the daydream or new, distinct but unconnected idea comes from the off-road pathways in the brain.

The analogy then makes sense in terms of understanding why creative thought requires more time. It is quicker to travel on superhighways than going on side-roads.

Now put all this in the context of how schools are run. Our education system, more often than not, is focused on getting through content. Often there are fixed standards that need to be covered, or a fixed number of chapters in a textbook that have to be completed during the school year, and this is typically done regardless of the ability of the students to comprehend all that information. It is a race where not covering lots of material determines the losers of the race. But as a teacher, I am well aware of the effect of this - sure, lots of material is covered. But a good portion of that material is not learned. Many have questioned the logic of this approach in education: depth or breadth, which is more important? It is an endless debate.

With studies of creativity showing present students being significantly less creative than past generations of students, this may be a key step into understanding why. In our sprint to teach content, we are preventing young brains from having the time to take off-road excursions. Here is a case where we need to sit down, take a deep breath, and put all the various studies and research on the table to sort it out and determine how it all connects. What is the big picture brain research is trying to tell us when it comes to the education system? I don't think this has happened yet, but it absolutely must happen. I suspect there is a great deal classroom teachers can do differently to enhance and unleash creativity while still getting to content, but perhaps not as much content as we presently teach. In a world where creativity is one of the absolute essentials, educators need to get this right so students are prepared for their futures.

Are Students Prepared for Community College, Let Alone 4-Year College?

Through my School Board Association, I read an article pertaining to the necessity of vertical alignment between high schools and community colleges. With even state schools such as my alma mater University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign costing some $25,000 per year for in-state students, community colleges will continue to play a vital role in education and the training of our future work force. For many, going for two years to a community college is the only feasible way of affording college. Many students go for two years, while working full-time, to save for two years at a four-year institution, allowing the student to get a bachelors degree.

What is disturbing about the article is that 58% of students in community colleges are enrolled in at least one remedial course. When a majority of high school graduates, who are supposed to be prepared for basic college courses, are in fact behind standards and need to repeat high school material, there is a glaring issue that needs to be resolved sooner than later. The same issue exists at the K-8 to high school transition here in Illinois. For years it been known that the Illinois elementary and middle school test, ISAT, has standards that are not properly aligned with the high school standards as defined by the Prairie State Exam (PSAE). Half of the PSAE is the ACT exam, meaning every junior in Illinois is taking a primary college entrance exam. Many eighth graders who meet ISAT standards are being fooled that they are ready for high school, since high school standards are set higher. It is insanity at its finest. Now it appears as if the same is true for high school to community college transitions.

How difficult is it for the powers that be to sit down and align curriculum so that students have a clearly defined path through the entire education system? Everyone is off in their own little worlds, doing their own thing, and the students are the ones who are affected. By the way, the same study, which was done by Prof. Debra Bragg of the U. of Illinois, also found that 30% of students who attend non-selective four-year schools are also enrolled in at least one remedial course. These are discouraging numbers. And anecdotally, the many professors I know from top, selective schools (such as Northwestern, UIUC, UIC, U. of Chicago, etc) state almost unanimously that there are noticeably large numbers of students who lack basic skills in areas like science, to the point where they have had to modify their curriculum. The downturn in science skills is not a total surprise, however, since science has not been part of K-12 AYP tallies in No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Many districts have cut back on science, as well as social studies, because of NCLB.

The lack of preparation for community college is yet another issue that needs to be not only addressed, but fixed. It is not a well-publicized issue, but an important issue for the future.