Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

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Title of course:  Neuroscience and the Classroom: Making Connections

Neuroscience and the Classroom: Making Connections

Unit 5: Building New Neural Networks

Sections

Section 4:
Levels of performance vary with context

Previous: Section 3  |  Next: Section 5

Q: How can I get students to do their best?

A lot of what happens in school involves measuring student understanding or performance, and most people view performance as a simple linear progression, a straight line that should rise steadily each time we perform. But it is important to consider the variability introduced by changes in context: Performance will vary as conditions change, so what does performance actually look like when elicited in a context? Kurt Fischer offers some useful models for understanding context-dependent skill fluctuation. The first captures the variability in performance over a relatively short period of time, whether 20 minutes, a week, or a few months.

Backward Transition
Backward Transition
We continually regress to low levels to build new skills. This is normal and...  
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Backward Transition

© Adapted by Kurt Fischer, Harvard University Gradute School of Education.

Backward Transition

We continually regress to low levels to build new skills. This is normal and essential.

When the context supports performance, our skill level increases. The context includes external factors (like the environment, the materials we have to work with, the amount and quality of help available) and internal factors (like motivation, mental and physical readiness). As these factors fluctuate, so does performance. In a context offering high support (either scaffolding that actually does some of the work for us or the optimal conditions for performing a particular skill), we will perform at high skill levels. At the scaffolded level (like Jeff's classroom), the amount of sustained support leads to intermittent, unsustainable breakthroughs in the level of skill performance. At the optimal level (providing the most supportive conditions for a given task), the amount of support results in a high level of fairly sustainable but effortful and varying performance. In contexts of low support (the conditions of normal daily life with all its distractions and imperfections), we perform at a level that reflects the degree to which a particular skill has become stable and automatic—our functional level, the level that most resembles a linear progression.

Optimal and Functional Level
Optimal and Functional Level
At the optimal level (providing the most supportive conditions for a given task), the amount of support results in a high level of fairly sustainable but effortful and varying performance. In...  
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Optimal and Functional Level

© Adapted by Kurt Fischer, Harvard University Gradute School of Education.

Optimal and Functional Level

At the optimal level (providing the most supportive conditions for a given task), the amount of support results in a high level of fairly sustainable but effortful and varying performance. In contexts of low support (the conditions of normal daily life with all its distractions and imperfections), we perform at a level that reflects the degree to which a particular skill has become stable and automatic—our functional level, the level that most resembles a linear progression.

The functional level is how we perform a skill in our daily lives in the world, without any special support and without any major impediments. For example, once we have learned to drive a car, the various skills involved—steering, pushing the pedals, knowing what's around us and the traffic laws—become largely automatic and stable. Over time, we become increasingly skilled, so our change in ability level, from a long-range view, resembles a steady linear improvement. However, if conditions change sufficiently—a blizzard, a fight with someone sitting next to us—our driving can suffer, and we will have to concentrate more to compensate for the change in conditions and to maintain our skill level. When conditions change dramatically, for example, if we are asked to drive a backhoe (to transfer the skill from the car domain to the backhoe domain), the new condition may prove so challenging that our ability to drive virtually disappears and must be rebuilt, with great effort, in the new context.

The optimal level reflects our best performance, the best we can do, because the conditions are the most supportive. Consider Joan, who is just learning to drive. At her functional level, she is able to start the car, put it in gear, and slowly drive from her garage 100 straight feet to the point at which her driveway meets the street, where cars whiz by in both directions. So, she stops, shifts the car into park, and lets her father take over. When her father creates the most favorable driving conditions by taking her to a clear, fairly straight, dry, well-lit, empty road and adjusts the seat and mirror to her needs, Joan can drive more skillfully—a bit faster, able to steer gradual turns and to vary her speed accordingly. It is these experiences of practicing the skill in the most supportive (top)

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conditions that most improve her performance when she returns to the functional level. At the scaffolded level, we are really just beginning to learn a skill or understand a concept that is beyond our current ability. Joan might have started to learn to drive as a young child by sitting on her father's lap and turning the key while he worked the gas pedal. She might have shifted into drive while he braked and then placed her hands over his as he steered. "Wow, look at you driving," her father might have said, but her functional level at that point was to sit in the car with the engine off and turn the steering wheel from side to side while making engine noises with her lips.

So, performance is always dependent on the context in which learners perform. The better the conditions, the better the performance—whether the performance is driving a car, regulating our emotions, writing an essay, or understanding a concept. In school, teachers constantly work to improve student performance; so, they tend to create conditions that result in optimal or scaffolded performance in the classroom in order to improve functional performance in the world. However, it's essential that teachers understand the differences in these performance-context relationships, and it is helpful for students to understand them, as well. Much of the frustration experienced by both teachers and learners results from failing to distinguish between what can reasonably be expected in each situation.

It takes time for a learner to build a new skill or understanding and become able to move from requiring scaffolding to performing skillfully without scaffolding. Teachers see this variability between optimal and functional frequently in the classroom. The teacher comes close to the student, gives a hint or two, and the student's performance rises to optimal level. Then the teacher moves away, the hint-effect dissipates, and the student's performance drops to a lower level. Understanding the process by which skills gain stability—understanding why students appear more able when teachers provide support and expecting regression when they withdraw the support—can greatly reduce frustration.

In scaffolded conditions, the teacher is actually doing some of the work for the learner—whether it's steering the car, writing the paragraph on the white board, or providing the reasoning that produces an understanding of a concept like emotional thinking. The scaffolded skill level is barely sustainable even when the scaffold is in place, falling and rising wildly and sharply, and it collapses completely once the scaffold is removed. Skilled teachers remove the scaffold slowly both by transferring more and more of the actual work to the learner and by providing practice in multiple contexts. In essence, these teachers transform scaffolded performance into optimal performance.

For example, Jeff might have continued having his students write paragraphs in class, weaning them from dependence on him. After the white-board exercise, he might have asked them to work in small groups or pairs to create a paragraph. Then they might have worked alone, though still in the optimal conditions of the classroom, where they could ask a question and where others around them were engaged in the same sort of work. During this weaning process, their homework might have been simply to write topic sentences or to write a simple idea and illustrate it ("My brother is mean. Yesterday, for example, he tripped me when I..."), something they could successfully achieve at their functional level. In short, Jeff's students might have been more successful had they transitioned more gradually from scaffolding at school to soloing at home.

When performing at the optimal level, the learner is doing all the work, but the conditions are the best they can be to support that work. That is, the key components of a complex performance are supported or primed. During a 50-minute class, the students' performance will fluctuate because the skill hasn't become stable; the students are still learning; and as the priming varies over the 50 minutes, so will the performance—though, unless all support disappears, the performance is unlikely to drop down to the functional level. When the class is over and the support conditions are missing (say, at home that night), the students fall back to their functional level.

Over several classes in conditions supporting optimal performance, the students' skill becomes more stable; so each time they drop back to the functional level of performance, that functional level shows improvement. They become more skillful. The result is that, to those seeing these students performing over time, without any special support, the skill level appears to be improving gradually in what seems to be a linear fashion. Eventually, their functional performance becomes as skilled as their optimal performance used to be, but now they don't need those earlier supports. It's important to understand that this steady line of modest functional improvement over time results from more skillful practice at the scaffolded and optimal levels.

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