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Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The Mental Edge in Teaching and Learning

I just picked up a copy of Kenneth Baum’s The Mental Edge. Baum is a premier sports performance consultant. He has worked with Olympic and professional athletes. His book is all about maximizing your athletic performance, but I think it has a lot to say about teaching and learning. Early in the book, Baum outlines "10 Perception Stretchers" that have a direct application in the classroom.

  1. “A loss becomes a gain if you change how you trained.” So, if your students aren’t doing well on assessments, examine your approach and make the appropriate modifications. Teach your students to do the same. Have them examine their deficiencies as a means to lean about themselves and modify their learning.

  2. “If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.” I have heard this one a million times, but Baum is right. When we resist change we are refusing to admit that there is a path to improvement. However, being able to change and adapt is critical to increasing our performance and the performance of our students. This means taking risks and trying new approaches in the classroom. In essence we all need to become educational explorers. The added benefit in teaching this way is that it gets us outside the monotony loop. Each day we are energized. This approach to teaching fights off burnout and the desire to phone it in. Of course we should encourage our students to discover new ways of doing things too. If you’ve ever watched a kid play a video game, then you know that kids are natural explorers. We need to harness this curiosity in our classrooms.

  3. “The imagination is more powerful than the will.” This is all about visualization. Teaching ourselves and our students to visualize an experience before they actually encounter it. Walk them through visualization exercises. I used this type of preparation when preparing kids for numerous assessments. I even had students compare their actual experiences to the visualized ones. An added benefit is that visualization strategies go a long way toward preparing students for stressful situations like testing.

  4. “The mind gets in the way.” The student who knew it all, but didn’t execute on the high stakes exam is an example of the mind getting in the way of optimal performance. Remember that brain research indicates that students who perform well on high stakes tests have more efficient brain activity than those who don’t perform well. Doubt is a killer distracter for our students. It feeds anxiety and impedes focus. Unfortunately, when it comes to performance it appears to be all about focus.

  5. “Limitations are temporary.” Teach kids that there are no limits to what their minds can do. When students understand that they can always forge new neuropathways, then they are more open to learning. Feelings of intellectual inferiority are replaced with feelings of hope. In essence, teaching kids that limitations are temporary teaches them to be resilient. That’s why it is important that students have a basic understanding of the brain. It is time to create a nation of little neuroscientists.

  6. “Anyone can improve.” That’s right even the best can get better. Despite being the best in the world, Tiger Woods still works on his game. We can always improve our teaching and learning if we are willing to work on the weak points. This is an inspiring lesson for students. A taste of improvement goes a long way toward sustaining increased academic achievement.

  7. “Events have no meaning except what you give them.” This is all about mindset and flow. We create meaning. Our perception of things is the reality we live. Therefore, education should not be a zero-sum game, but a continuous improvement game. Think about the meanings we attach to things and how that frames our experience. Think about how kids perceive our classrooms. Perception makes us negative or positive people. We can help students manage their perception of learning by helping them framing it as positive, neurobic experiences.

  8. “Getting better is more important than winning.” I remember telling my baseball team that the real accomplishment will be when we play the “perfect game”. We never did, but it gave us a focus beyond zero-sum thinking. The same holds true in the classroom. The key is to persuade the students that improvement is better than “winning”. After all who improved more the student who comes in knowing everything and cruises to an “A” or the student who struggles overtime and improves to an “A”?

  9. “Practice like you play.” If we want students to perform well on high stakes assessments then it makes sense to give them plenty practice that mirrors the big day. This is essential if we want to break students of self-defeating test-taking behaviors like answering the questions in numeric order. The “practice like you play” mantra holds true for performance assessments too. All too often students are required to give oral reports in school with out as much as a mini-lesson in public speaking. The solution is to scaffold the oral report with mini-lessons that introduce public speaking and require students to practice public speaking with critique. One method of scaffolding is to have students talk to the duck. It is time to put the meat in the “learn by doing” approach to education.

  10. “The more you expect from a situation, the more you will achieve.” Yes, Baum is all about internalizing high expectations. Remember, it is one thing for us to have high expectations for our students; it is quite another thing for students to have high expectations for themselves.
Of course there is more to Baum’s book than the "10 Perception Stretchers" outlined above. I strongly recommend reading The Mental Edge, because it complements the latest in brain research and learning theory in a reader friendly way.

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