Cognitive Science of Teaching and Learning


I recently read a book by Daniel Willingham titled Why Don’t Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom.  The title itself is misleading — the book says very little about why students don’t like school — but the subtitle nails it. This volume surveys the breakthroughs in cognitive science from the past 2 or 3 decades, and identifies the implications of these results to teaching and learning.
There are insights, for example, into the neurological process of building memories, and ways to enhance this process in the classroom.  These involve the role of repetition, story-building, and tying in emotions in some way. It can also be said that memory follows cognition; rather than memorize a formula by rote, a student is more likely to retain it after applying it in a series of practice problems.  The learning experience is enhanced further if the subject matter could be engaged at a deeper emotional level.
There are perhaps some surprises in these findings.  Studying with the music on, for example, is detrimental to learning, contrary to the often held view that it promotes concentration.  In fact, any kind of multi-tasking has a similarly adverse effect.  This tells us that the TV shouldn’t be on when doing homework, even with the sound turned off.  Even having one’s cell phone nearby interferes with the learning process to a small degree.
There is a great deal of information in this book that could be used by teachers (and sufficiently mature students) to make the most of learning opportunities.

Students, parents must be accountable for discipline problems

The following article by Paul Day appeared in the Virginian-Pilot on October 29, 2017.


I APPRECIATE The Pilot exposing the student discipline problems in Virginia Beach schools. As a retired police officer and now a substitute teacher in Virginia Beach City Public Schools, I have witnessed firsthand the discipline problems in our schools.

I have seen students curse out teachers and threaten them with physical harm without any ramifications.

Technology can be a useful tool, but the use of cell phones and computers during class time has become a big problem. Students text each other during class, watch movies and more, yet teachers feel powerless to enforce discipline.

As The Pilot’s story said, teachers are fearful. They are fearful of reprisal if they speak out against the administration because they have been told to reduce the number of student referrals.

A recent teacher survey conducted by the Virginia Beach school division indicated that nearly one-third of students in Virginia Beach middle and high schools do not know the consequences of misbehavior. The survey also found that one-third of middle and high students do not respect their teachers. If boundaries are not set and consequences not given for breaking the rules, discipline problems will continue to worsen.

Teachers have an increased workload due to larger class sizes. They are required to take more professional learning courses, and they have testing requirements that can be overwhelming. Recently, teachers were required to complete cultural awareness training, which is part of the administration’s effort to reduce suspensions of minority students.

“Restorative justice” is the term used for the new discipline procedures being used in Virginia Beach schools and in other school systems across the country. It focuses on mediation and agreement rather than punishment. Teachers become counselors, along with all the other tasks they have been assigned. It’s amazing that teachers have time to actually teach lessons, grade papers and assist students with their educational needs.

On Nov. 13, 2015, the Virginia Department of Education issued a directive for schools to implement different strategies for student discipline. These strategies include PBIS (Positive-Behavioral Intervention and Supports). This directive states that exclusionary discipline practices (punishment and suspensions) have a negative impact on the learning environment.

I wholeheartedly disagree with Virginia Beach School Board member Trenace Riggs’ opinion that teachers need more training in developing relationships. I would counter that not providing punishments to unruly students has a very negative effect on the ability of teachers to teach effectively and for well-behaved students to learn. I also disagree with Superintendent Aaron Spence’s statement that “the discipline process should not be about punishment.” There must be consequences for misbehavior when students break the rules.

It is not the role of government to counsel students and teach them how to behave. That is the role of the parent. If the parent is notified of a student discipline problem and the behavior does not change, then ultimately the parent is the one responsible for the student’s actions, not the government. It is the role of the government to provide a safe learning environment for all students and to enforce the rules set forth by the School Board.

These problems are only getting worse because local officials are not addressing them and are not holding students and parents accountable. Parents need to speak out and get informed about what is happening in our schools and demand that discipline be enforced.

I encourage Pilot readers to write to the Virginia Beach School Board and demand that its members come up with a solution to these concerns shared by teachers. Student discipline and safety should be a priority.

VB SPARK Education Association, a new organization, allows the voices of parents, teachers, staff, students and community members to be heard on issues that affect the city’s students. Addressing student discipline problems in our schools is at the top of SPARK’s agenda.

Shaking Up Public Education

Last week Kris Allen wrote an intriguing article for the Richmond Times Dispatch titled “What Public Schools Could Learn from Amazon’s Move into Groceries.”  Allen, who is President of the Virginia Education Coalition, wrote that

“Education and grocery stores are different businesses, but both have much to learn from Amazon. Like traditional grocers, public education’s business model is based on a command-and-control, geographically based, product delivery system that has worked the same for decades. Both take advantage of technology to improve their business model, but in different ways. Grocers use technology to minimize product delivery costs to the store, squeeze 2 percent profit margin from high-volume sales, and compete on price. Public education uses technology to expand and enable its administrative state, increase cost, and compete as a geographic monopoly…

“Amazon’s disruption of the grocery industry is possible because, in a free market, competitive advantage depends upon product differentiation and the lowest cost to deliver the value proposition; firms that provide complementary or substitute products are allowed; and competitors’ barriers to market entry and exit are low. Unlike public education competitors, Amazon entered the grocery industry without being required to build a chain of brick-and-mortar stores, which were required by law to serve a specific zip code — nor was it subjected to compliance with ubiquitous and ever-growing requirements imposed upon it by the industry it disrupted.

“…A similar positive disruption in public education is possible, if the barriers-to-entry are eliminated and parents are allowed to choose their child’s mode of education.”

Allen then cites the example of Summit Public Schools, a charter school with operations in the San Francisco Bay area and in Washington State.  Summit’s pedagogical model is individualized, project-based, and self-directed.  Teachers, mentors and technological resources provide support and content delivery.

The article concludes

“The Summit model is scalable, inclusive, and effective. Today, nine schools are in operation, serving 2,500 students in grades 6 through 12. Eighty percent of [the students] are non-white; 42 percent are low-income; and 12 percent are English language learners.  Per pupil expenditure is $7,000, compared to Virginia’s $11,745. Ninety-six percent of Summit’s graduates are accepted to four-year colleges.  If Virginians want educational outcomes like Summit’s, they must demand that elected representatives remove the barriers to entry for non-traditional educational solutions.”

This is definitely something to consider as we approach the Virginia gubernatorial election.  Read the whole thing here:

Taking a Knee

     In the football pre-season of 2016, then Forty-Niners quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat through the national anthem before the games, instead of standing attentively with hand over heart.  Later he went further and kneeled during the Star-Spangled Banner.  He did this to protest police brutality and the oppression of people of color; he stressed that (despite appearances to many observers) he was not being anti-American or disrespectful of the military.  In the following weeks and months, some of his colleagues throughout the NFL joined in the protests, as did other athletes, such as Megan Rapinoe of the U.S. National Women’s Soccer Team.
     This “taking a knee” has become a major point of controversy, with NFL fans, coaches, owners, advertisers, and sportscasters weighing in on the matter.  Other sports figures, celebrities, and politicians — including President Trump — have also taken sides.  In the meantime, Kaepernick has become a free agent and hasn’t been hired by another team, and NFL viewership has plummeted.   In some sense, things are as they should be:  These are adults  expressing their beliefs, taking action, and bearing the consequences.
     On the other hand, we have seen in the news that high school students have taken a knee in Brunswick, Ohio;  Cincinnati;  Bossier City, Louisiana; Cedar Grove, Georgia; New Brunswick, New Jersey;  Houston, Texas; Buffalo, New York; Hillsboro, Tennessee; and numerous other locations.  Players at a Texas middle school took a knee before a game, and were threatened with expulsion from the team.  A middle schooler in New Mexico took a knee while performing the national anthem.  A ten-year-old in Texas kneeled during the Pledge of Allegiance before the start of the school day.  In Belleville, Illinois, an entire team of eight-year-olds and their coach took a knee before their game.
     People of good conscience will differ on this issue, but perhaps we can all agree on the following.  Children should not be used as pawns or props for political reasons.  Furthermore, this is an opportunity for parents to talk to their children in an age-appropriate way about the substance of the controversy.  This is also a chance for everyone to be reminded that we can disagree about something, and still get along as friends, relatives, teammates, neighbors and co-workers.

The Downside to Recent Disciplinary Reforms at VBCPS

An article in today’s Virginian-Pilot ( informs us that “Virginia Beach schools see a drop in suspensions. But teachers feel less safe.” These changes have followed the adoption of certain disciplinary practices that have already been implemented in numerous other school districts throughout the country. Termed “restorative justice,” these practices seek to reduce the number of suspensions by employing alternative interventions. Such an intervention could range from a teacher-student dialogue to a more formal conference involving students, staff, teachers and family members; in any case, the goal is to encourage students to reflect on their actions, take responsibility for them, and resolve to be better behaved in the future.

Although the number of suspensions has gone down in the past year, this reduction has come at a price. According to the Pilot, “more than 1 in 8 teachers said their school did not provide a safe and orderly place to learn,” about double the ratio from the previous year. The article continues, “Some students are more comfortable acting out…because they’re not worried about punishment.”

Let’s have a look at the effects that these disciplinary policy changes have had in other school districts. In New York City, according to a study published by the Manhattan Institute, there have been fewer suspensions; however, there have been dramatic increases in violence, drug and alcohol use, and gang activity. Furthermore, the non-elementary schools with the greatest percentage of minority students have suffered the worst declines in climate. The same study reports that in Chicago, a teacher told the Chicago Tribune that the new disciplinary policies resulted in “a totally lawless few months” at her school. Says Max Eden, the study’s author, students in Denver threatened to harm or kill teachers “with no meaningful consequences” under the new practices. A teacher is quoted as saying “classes are being disrupted, student learning is being decreased…in all grade levels” in the Omaha World-Herald. In Oklahoma City, “Good students are now suffering because of the abuse and issues plaguing these classrooms.” (See the full report here:

It is clear that these are not trends we would like to see in the Virginia Beach schools. Disciplinary policy reform for reducing the number of suspensions is a laudable goal. The challenge, as ever, is to reduce the number of disciplinary cases by getting to their organic causes. This should not be done at the expense of school climate and classroom safety. Let us work with the school administration, teacher advocacy groups, our elected officials, and other concerned members of the community to ensure that these policy reforms are truly in the best interests of our children and teachers.

Welcome to Virginia Beach SPARK

We are here to promote policies for Virginia Beach City Public Schools (VBCPS) that hold students to the highest possible academic and civic standards of excellence, and to ensure that the resources and programs that are necessary to enable and motivate students to meet those standards are provided in the most fiscally responsible manner possible. We expect students, teachers, parents, administrators, and public officials to be accountable for meeting and sustaining these objectives. We believe that all students are entitled to a world-class education that prepares them to excel in college, the workforce, and or the armed forces.

We believe the community at large should be encouraged to participate in the education of our students; therefore, we would like each and everyone of you (students, parents, grandparents, guardians, community members, and school employees) who has a desire to see VBCPS continue to excel, to join us in making the Virginia Beach Public school division the best in the nation.

VB SPARK Leadership