Top Issues Capturing the Minds of Educators and Parents This Year

Every year there are some topics and conversations that grab readers’ attention more than others. In 2016, MindShift readers engaged most often and deeply with stories about the tricky job of motivating learners, especially when circumstances like poverty, learning differences and trauma complicate classroom dynamics. Educators are looking for ways to reach all facets of the complicated learners that sit in their classrooms, diving deeply into research about self-control, mindfulness programs and teaching strategies to give students structures for their thinking. And, since educating a child is a partnership between schools, families and communities, many classroom teachers and parents alike are increasingly concerned about the role parents play in nurturing and supporting students.

MOTIVATION AND ENGAGEMENT

Motivating students is a perennially difficult aspect of teaching, so it’s no wonder that there is robust interest in the neuroscience behind motivation. Researchers found that when test subjects could see how their brains were reacting to different motivational strategies on MRI images, they got better using successful approaches. But they also found it exhausting. While not yet applicable to the classroom setting, this neuroscience does offer educators insights into strategies that did and didn’t work, as well as how tiring the process can be.

On a more practical note, an article featuring 20 tips to engage even the most seemingly reluctant students also grabbed readers’ attention. No teaching approach is going to reach every student, so teachers need lots of strategies. When teachers have many ways to present information, to offer varying points of entry, and know how to demonstrate concepts from multiple viewpoints, they can better serve the different needs of their students.

SELF-REGULATION AND TRAUMA

Increasingly, teachers are being asked to do far more than deliver content, and that shift requires a new set of strategies and a compassionate approach to the job. Often educators are looking for guidance on how they can help kids improve self-control and behavior, as well as address their social and emotional needs.

Managing the behavior of 30 kids in an enclosed space is one of the most difficult aspects of teaching, so it’s no surprise that no teacher knows exactly how to respond to every situation. Yet acting out is a form of communication that can easily be misinterpreted as intentional disobedience or malice. That’s why tips to de-escalate situations with anxious or defiant students, presented by an experienced behavior analyst, was so helpful to educators.

Similarly, more and more educators are beginning to realize how much trauma their students have endured and how their behavior is often a symptom of those experiences. Educators are gravitating to workshops on how to teach with a trauma-informed lens, and are seeking support as they deal with the taxing work of educating children who are suffering intensely.

One school turned to a program that combines mindfulness and education about the brain to deal with residual trauma from a school fire, as well as the daily trauma of poverty that many students experience. The program has helped shift the culture of the school into a more positive place for students and staff with mindfulness baked into most school processes.

Early research on mindfulness has found that practices like focusing on one’s breath or intentionally showing gratitude can positively influence executive functioning skills that are also crucial for focusing in class, organizing work and many other cognitive functions. The importance of self-control on life outcomes has been well documented by psychologists, research that educators are now taking advantage of in classrooms.

DEEPENING TEACHING PRACTICE

Alongside discussions about how to instill character, improve school climate and motivate students to do their best work, educators are also continually trying to hone their craft, learning from research about the most effective ways to pull the best thinking out of every child. Often the articles that stimulate the most excitement and debate are not about specific curriculum or tools, but instead grapple with how to improve students’ metacognition. Researchers at Harvard have studied educators who focus on “teaching for understanding” for several years and have narrowed in on some practices that help improve the depth of student thinking.

In math classrooms a similar discussion is raging, with many math teachers looking for strategies to provide multiple entry points into the underlying conceptual topics in the curriculum. At the same time, most math curricula are stuffed with so many standards that teachers struggle to cover them all well. Math teachers are balancing trying to both prepare students for tests and give them the space and time to explore the foundations of math, a key practice to future math success.

CAN PARENTS BE TOO INVOLVED?

Parents are crucial partners for teachers in the academic and social development of children. Many parents take that responsibility seriously, reading up on how they can prepare their kids for academic success through the myriad of small interactions that happen daily. But the obsession with doing everything right is taking a toll on parents and may not be that great for kids either.

Teachers at the K-12 and university level are beginning to notice a worrying trend of overinvolvement from parents — while well-intended, it is actually depriving kids of crucial learning experiences. Parents, too, are noticing this tendency in themselves and are trying to pull back, with varying levels of success.

Reporting about education so often comes down to examining how humans interact with one another. Many of the themes that caught MindShift readers’ attention this year deal with how a bureaucratic system filled with well-intentioned people can nurture the whole child, paying attention to their academic minds, of course, but also recognizing that success in life rests on so much more. The trajectory of a life is a complicated interplay of opportunity, psychology, mentors and skills. The parents and teachers that help young people down this path have a very difficult job, but it can ultimately be one of the most rewarding ones, too.