Knocking Them Down At ASCD

Dina Strasser and Patrick Higgins both rock recaps of sessions at the ASCD… which stands for “Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development,” a title which hits just about every one of my sweet spots. annual conference.

Dina took requests and reviewed a session called Decriminalizing Homework, during which Dr. Cathy Vatterott launched cherry bombs into the crowd (quoted from Dina):

  1. Eliminate grading homework.
  2. Homework that cannot be done without help is not good homework.
  3. A building which has a range of homework weights from 10 percent to 89 percent of a subject grade is “just stupid,” Vatterott stated flatly.

Meanwhile, Patrick, whose unease in his position as technical overlord at his school has inspired some precious reflection recentlyDay 72: No eats lunch with me anymore., attended Brain-Friendly Presentation Skills. I’m prepping my first speaking engagement since August, on entirely new material, and Patrick’s notes were useful:

One of the most powerful things she did was move us. Not the kind where we were emotionally moved, but rather we physically moved around the room. In the 90+ minutes we were there, we moved over 15 times. We conversed, we shared information and discussed the topics in the handout on our own terms, but in ways that she dictated.

The presenter swerves across a fine line and then back again, though, when she implores her audience to “simply walk around the room and touch something blue,” strategies for “engagement” only one degree removed from dosing out amphetamines to dozing attendees.

Pay close attention to the suggestions involving collaborative reflection. Ignore anything that looks like the presenter’s buying her audience’s engagement on the cheap. That’s what engaging content is for.

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. “The presenter swerves across a fine line and then back again, though, when she implores her audience to “simply walk around the room and touch something blue,” strategies for “engagement” only one degree removed from dosing out amphetamines to dozing attendees.”

    Well, sometimes you need amphetemines (think staff meeting or late night graduate courses) …and sometimes a pause where you are moving allows you to think and reflect much better than just sitting in that same uncomfortable seat and ‘taking a moment.’

    Obviously you shouldn’t have all 15 breaks be of this type, but I think too often as teachers we just pay lip service to the learning styles/modalities/multiple intelligences concept and only deal with the ones (writing, verbal, math) we feel are “important. Sometimes you need to pace while you think.

  2. I actually got quite a rethink going on this topic at the conference. On my blog I’ve railed against engagement on the cheap a lot, esp. within the context of novel technology. I think my core argument on that still stands.

    However, Kelley King pointed out in her presentation on the brain science of boys that sometimes, a completely blank, context-free “brain break” is necessary to proceed with effective learning (in both boys and girls). And truthfully, we all do and need this. It’s just that we as adults have the privileged status to do it as we see fit. Our kids need permission.

    Her management parameters on this were quite clear– tell kids why you’re doing it, how you’re doing it, keep it short (30 sec- 2 min), and if kids abuse it, they sit it out. Even if they choose not to participate (I’m too sexy for this brain break), the very act of standing gives 7% more oxygen to the brain, so it still counts.

    I’ve done this vaguely and intermittently in the past, but tried this explicitly in all my classes yesterday and today. Put simply, it works.

  3. This is from a guy who shows a video at the halfway point of a two-hour period. It isn’t impossible to make these brain breaks meaningful and relevant, even if the meaning and relevance isn’t bound up in your content area objectives for that day.

    My question isn’t, “What does touching something blue have to do with the presentation content?”

    My question is, “What does touching something blue have to do with anything?”

  4. Well, if you are thinking of it as a “brain break” – it shouldn’t have to do with anything…not to be all zen-like…but sometimes you need to take the engine out of gear and let it cool down…and different engines need this at different times. Or think of it as a “digestive pause” in a meal instead of cramming in that last wafer-thin mint!

  5. Hm. So does tossing a beach ball around devalue the 30 seconds I spend doing it as “having nothing to do with anything?”

    You raise an excellent point, Dan, but honestly, I don’t know if I would consider reading a chapter of Doestoevsky a true brain break from writing my Ph.D dissertation, if you understand my parallel here.

    I’m remembering those bits of trivia you throw at kids. These obviously are fun/meaningful/relevant. But perhaps these are not the only kind of learning break a kid needs.

  6. Dan,

    Although amphetamines would have made the afternoon fly by, I took her “brain breaks” to be more significant than just a trick to get us to buy in based on the good feeling she had going. But there it is: the feeling she created in the room did as much to engage us as anything else. So, whatever you are doing to keep your audience there, whether it be kinesthetic or showing a video midway through your block, how does it contribute to the environment you are setting up for learning?

    Personally, I needed to see ways in which I could encourage my audience (in my case teachers and administrators) engaged in the content I am presenting them. What I have been doing just wasn’t getting people to take much away with them. Building in some reflection with the other audience members, especially if they are colleagues or fellow students, helps people chew on the info at least for a little while longer.