“As the kiddos go back to school, knowledge of science, technology, engineering and math are certainly important, but their imagination, creativity and how they interact with others is critical.”
Would you like schematics for our Big Brain Logic Boxes? Of course you would! (Click on the link above to get them.)
The BBSC recently rolled out a prototype field trip request form, which asks our young BBSes what they want to learn on their desired field trip. Our very first question comes from a 10 year-old BBS: “How does science work?”. The very second question from a 12 year-old BBS: “How do science and math work together?”.
This is what the kids these days are asking. And sadly, while the places we go may be equipped to effectively communicate some science facts, science processes are another matter entirely. Making our field trips yet another way in which we’re reminded that focusing on process (a true Big-Brained Superhero imperative and moving up our priority list almost daily) is still a fringe ideal. Hopefully, Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos reboot will help us out:
In the meantime, Hank Green can lay down some scientific method on us:
“Can I have a math problem?” is, as we mentioned on Twitter recently, probably our favorite big-brained superhero FAQ. How this tradition got started we don’t recall, but we’ve pretty much given up on making it through the halls of Yesler Community Center without being stopped by this question at least once (mostly at least thrice). And having zero interest in looking a gift horse in the math, roll with it we do. Even if it means scheduling an extra 20 minutes for a trip to the bathroom.
Why do we love this question so much? Well, we know that number talk is important in our early years, and apparently, ready access to basic math knowledge correlates with success on the PSAT. But our love of this question goes much deeper than that. This question, for us, is all about our superpowers:
- Sense of Adventure: Anytime big-brained superheroes are eager to solve a problem, they’re exercising their Sense of Adventure. And it all begins with a Sense of Adventure.
- Kindness, Empathy, Teamwork: Somehow some way we’ve learned to use math as a means of communication. A point of connection. Contra approaches like this one, our hallway math is a group effort. We suspect this cooperative approach may be good for all our big-brained superheroes but most especially for our girls (who, BTW, are our most frequent inquisitors by far).
- Critical Thinking, Creativity, Adaptability, and Persistence: Hallway math, sans pencil or paper, creates an interesting challenge for us. How difficult can we make it for our big brains and still keep it achievable? How far can we test their boundaries and even their sense of themselves? How can we, ever so briefly and subtly, blow their minds? While it may sound ridiculous, these really are the questions we ask ourselves. All in this quintessentially transitory space.
We love these indisputable reminders that thinking, learning, and connecting can and should be happening everywhere, maybe even especially on the way to the bathroom.
Little Rascals aficionados may have noticed a vaguely familiar cadence in The Big-Brained Superheroes Club nomenclature. Some may consider our name silly. We, however, take it quite seriously.
One of the raisons d'etre of The Big-Brained Superheroes Club is to provide a place for those of us who don’t necessarily have a place. We sometimes affectionately think of ourselves as “the riffraff”. Consequently, there are no major signup requirements—no parental signatures needed—for admission to the club. The only real requirement is that we adhere to The Big-Brained Superheroes Club Oath at all times. And if any of us fails to adhere to the oath, we get expelled from that evening’s meeting. Expulsion can be a harsh sentence, as one of our young big-brained superheroes discovered recently (see the above artist’s rendering of real-life events). So, we try to avoid it at all costs.
Why we’ve devoted ourselves to this particular model has to do with the opportunity gap that others have studied (and that we, ourselves, have observed):
Wealthy families can and do spend more money on music and art lessons, tutors, and summer camp for their children that help them get ahead, while low-income kids often go home after school to unsafe neighborhoods, with little supervision and fewer positive outlets for their time and energy. The extended time movement is meant to correct those inequalities by offering the same diverse array of activities and adult mentors to disadvantaged children.
And while Yesler Community Center houses fabulous art activities for kids who wish to drop in (courtesy of The Nature Consortium), we see value and interest in throwing some science and superpowers into the mix. The challenges inherent in such an endeavor are vast and varied, but one of the benefits is that it forces us to exercise our superpowers in some fairly extreme ways. In particular, our Creativity and Sense of Adventure are constantly getting a workout while we're searching for ways to tap into the hidden strengths that all (young) humans have.
In theory, it could work, she says, but it’s often resource intensive and takes the space and time for creative outside-the-box thinking.
Indeed. As observed in the above artist’s rendering of real-life events, we’re not always successful. However, in the rare moments we have considered ourselves successful, we’ve identified a few of our, what we in the big-brained superhero biz call, “assets”. So, in the interest of anecdotal science, here are some of the things that we think have helped us tap into some of those hidden strengths:
- We are where the young people want to be. When we were kids we probably would have rather shot our eye out than remain an extra second at school. And we consider it probable that our young big-brained superheroes feel similarly. Yesler Community Center is currently our home, and it’s a huge asset in that kids go there willingly. Because they want to.
- We are always trying to maximize opportunities. Recently, Yesler CC provided accommodations for a holiday party where hundreds of kids lined up in the hopes of procuring some loot from a jolly old fat man in a red suit. Lined up kids (and parents) = opportunities. So, while other (real) volunteers were handing out stickers and posing in Disney costumes, we riffraff were working the insanely long line administering “The Big-Brained Superhero Test”. It’s amazing how many varieties of math problems you can do without pencil and paper: “What’s 6 x 3? What’s 6+6? What’s 12+6? What’s 18/3? What’s 1/3rd of 18? What’s 2/3rds of 18?…” It’s also amazing what kids will do voluntarily in order to avoid staring blankly around them or talking to their parents.
- We are utterly shameless in our use of almost any motivational tool. Shop smart; shop BBSmart! And though we haven’t used food as a direct motivator (and have no immediate plans to do so), we do provide snacks.
- We are profoundly enthusiastic about what we’re doing. We are big-brained superheroes, and a big-brained superhero’s credo is to Always Be Superpowering. If we’re not living it, we’re not teaching it.
- We have a handbook. And handbooks are for heroes.
- We are them; they are us. It may be obvious by now that The Big-Brained Superheroes Club truly is a group endeavor. We the experienced (aka old) big-brained superheroes are there to provide opportunity, adventure, and minimal boundaries. When young ones come to us for help, we want them to do so mostly because they value our ideas and suggestions…not necessarily because we’re authority figures. And while we do drop the hammer from time to time (have we mentioned the above artist’s rendering of real-life events?), it’s only ever in the interest of the group. Trust and goodwill are our most valuable currency—we don’t squander those on delusions of grandeur.
Now, we’re sure there’s more where these six assets came from, but those will have to come in due time. Finally, here’s your reward for making it this far:
So, in early October—in spite of extreme busyness—a couple of us exercised our Sense of Adventure and attended a talk by math wizard Steven Strogatz at Seattle’s Town Hall. Toward the end of the talk, our Empowerment superpower was revved up enough for us to be the first at the microphone to ask Mr. Strogatz for his opinion on the state of math education in the US today and whether he had any good resource suggestions for our young Big-Brained Superheroes. After a lengthy, vigorous, and thorough condemnation of current common practices, he mentioned that, sadly, he did not have any alternative resource suggestions. However, at the conclusion of the scheduled event, an attendee seated in front of us turned around and gave a lengthy, vigorous, and thorough commendation of a program we had never before heard of: JUMP Math.
At this point, contacting the folks at JUMP Math was a no-brainer. Our Sense of Adventure and Empowerment superpowers had already been developed enough to enable us to put finger to keyboard and shoot off a simple email: Can you help us?*. Apparently, yes, yes they could. The JUMP Math staff connected us with a Seattle-based donor who would generously fund JUMP Math’s introduction into The Big-Brained Superheroes Club. Because math is a core subject for us and one with which many of our BBSes seem to struggle, this development is indescribably momentous. In short, we’re so excited that we’re feeling punny enough to JUMP for joy! Thank you, Steven Strogatz, Lara who sat in front of us, folks at JUMP Math, Seattle-based donor, and of course, Sense of Adventure, Empowerment, and as always, Kindness!
OK, puns over. Here’s an excellent JUMP Math video as some small recompense:
* For some of us big-brained superheroes—big and small—asking for help is one of the more daunting challenges in life. We see this every day in our young BBSes, and we see it in ourselves. So, be prepared for it to become a bit of a recurring theme around these parts.
Here's a good way to exercise our Empowerment superpower:
Think about the things that are important to you. Perhaps you care about creativity, family relationships, your career, or having a sense of humour. Pick two or three of these values and write a few sentences about why they are important to you. You have fifteen minutes. It could change your life.
This simple writing exercise may not seem like anything ground-breaking, but its effects speak for themselves. In a university physics class, Akira Miyake from the University of Colorado used it to close the gap between male and female performance. In the university’s physics course, men typically do better than women but Miyake’s study shows that this has nothing to do with innate ability. With nothing but his fifteen-minute exercise, performed twice at the beginning of the year, he virtually abolished the gender divide and allowed the female physicists to challenge their male peers.
The exercise is designed to affirm a person’s values, boosting their sense of self-worth and integrity, and reinforcing their belief in themselves. For people who suffer from negative stereotypes, this can make all the difference between success and failure.
Closing the achievement gap a few sentences at a time!
So, we’ve documented at least some of the story behind the “superheroes” part of The Big-Brained Superheroes Club, but what’s with all this “big-brained” stuff? Well, the answer isn’t as obvious as you might think…
We here at The Big-Brained Superheroes Club believe in science. And as of now, science says teach kids about their brains:
“If we gave students a growth mindset, if we taught them how to think about their intelligence, would that benefit their grades?” Dweck wondered.
So, about 100 seventh graders, all doing poorly in math, were randomly assigned to workshops on good study skills. One workshop gave lessons on how to study well. The other taught about the expanding nature of intelligence and the brain.
The students in the latter group “learned that the brain actually forms new connections every time you learn something new, and that over time, this makes you smarter.”
Basically, the students were given a mini-neuroscience course on how the brain works. By the end of the semester, the group of kids who had been taught that the brain can grow smarter, had significantly better math grades than the other group.
“When they studied, they thought about those neurons forming new connections,” Dweck says. “When they worked hard in school, they actually visualized how their brain was growing.”
Dweck says this new mindset changed the kids’ attitude toward learning and their willingness to put forth effort. Duke University psychologist, Steven Asher, agrees. Teaching children that they’re in charge of their own intellectual growth motivates a child to work hard, he says.
“If you think about a child who’s coping with an especially challenging task, I don’t think there’s anything better in the world than that child hearing from a parent or from a teacher the words, ‘You’ll get there.’ And that, I think, is the spirit of what this is about."
OK. Maybe the answer was obvious. But the point is that we here at The Big-Brained Superheroes Club aren’t just using our big brains…we’re using our big brains to learn about, visualize, and embiggen our big brains. We’re very meta that way.
“You are looking a visual reconstruction (from array-tomography data) of synapses in the mouse somatosensory cortex, the part of the cerebral cortex that is responsive to sensation. Neurons are depicted in green; multicolored dots represent separate synapses.”
According to a study conducted at Yale University and published online in the Journal of Educational Psychology earlier this year, emotional connection in the classroom can have a major impact on students’ success in school. Students tend to thrive in classroom environments in which teachers are sensitive to students’ needs; teacher-student relationships are warm, caring, nurturing, and congenial; teachers take students’ perspectives into account; teachers refrain from using sarcasm and harsh disciplinary practices; teachers express warmth towards, respect for, and interest in students; teachers encourage student cooperation; and teachers are aware of the students’ emotional and academic needs.
This phenomenon has been very apparent here at The Big-Brained Superheroes Club when our Empathy superpowers are in full effect. For instance, when one of our Big-Brained Superheroes was briefly engaged in an unproductive interaction with another one, rather than immediately criticize his behavior (it’s not as if he didn’t already know it was wrong), we expressed some understanding. We told him that we understood where he was coming from and that it was ok for him to “hang out in his limbic system for a bit” before reciting The Big-Brained Superheroes Club Oath, which he did. And instead of having the incident devolve into a power struggle (as these things so often do) with hurt feelings and moping all around, our young Big-Brained Superhero came back to us ready to re-engage in the activities we were all enjoying. Everybody learned.
However, the big challenge we’ve had is finding the right balance between the more prescriptive style of authority that a lot of our Big-Brained Superheroes are far more versed in and the more cooperative approach outlined in the study described above. One of the benefits of being an after-school program is that we have an even greater opportunity to make these emotional connections than we might have as conventional school teachers. But one of the drawbacks is that we lack the institutional authority that conventional school teachers can typically assert, and this lack of institutional authority does present its own set of challenges.
Respect is one of the superpowers we’re working to build and exercise. The need to demonstrate Respect to generally recognized authority figures has a certain—somewhat obvious—logic inherent in it; the need to demonstrate Respect to everyone and everything else may require a bit more abstract reasoning. One method of getting our young Big-Brained Superheroes to consistently demonstrate respect to us might be to assume an air of authority even without the institutional backing. But even if that suffices for us, we still aren’t addressing the deeper, more abstract, problem of Respect for all things that we all need to build. And this is where we come full circle…can we eventually get to Respect through Empathy? If so, is that the better (if not the most direct) path?
There’s no shortage of evidence that stress inhibits learning.
Maybe we should do something about that.
Listen to On Point’s discussion of Social and Emotional Learning and how (as the science suggests) it may help solve the problem of stress and improve learning:
Or read about it in Scientific American:
“Even more important than your achievement test score is this idea that if you fail, you’ll try again, that you don’t need people to bail you out, that you’ll persevere in the face of difficulty,” says developmental psychologist Dale Farran of Vanderbilt University. “These are the key to the grades you get in school.”
Where experiential learning meets science:
If we want to empower students, we must show them how they can control their own cognitive and emotional health and their own learning. Teaching students how the brain operates is a huge step. Even young students can learn strategies for priming their brains to learn more efficiently; I know, because I’ve taught both 5th graders and 7th graders about how their brains learn.
More superheroes; fewer zombies.
Why we semi-banned the word “smart”:
“Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control,” she explains. “They come to see themselves as in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to a failure.” [emphasis added]
Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics instructors have been charged with improving the performance and retention of students from diverse backgrounds. To date, programs that close the achievement gap between students from disadvantaged versus nondisadvantaged educational backgrounds have required extensive extramural funding. We show that a highly structured course design, based on daily and weekly practice with problem-solving, data analysis, and other higher-order cognitive skills, improved the performance of all students in a college-level introductory biology class and reduced the achievement gap between disadvantaged and nondisadvantaged students—without increased expenditures. These results support the Carnegie Hall hypothesis: Intensive practice, via active-learning exercises, has a disproportionate benefit for capable but poorly prepared students.
Just a little of what we have to learn about math:
…studies show that “number talk” at home is a key predictor of young children’s achievement in math once they get to school. Now a new study provides evidence that gender is part of the equation: Parents speak to their daughters about numbers far less than their sons.
How can we make best use of this information?:
Bilingual children outperform children who only speak one language in problem-solving skills and creative thinking, according to research led at the University of Strathclyde.