Education Week - January 10, 2018 - 5
testify as historical or literary figures such as Stalin,
Gandhi, Atticus Finch, and even Harry Potter. A jury of
administrators and alumni delivers a verdict. Some years,
Golding is convicted; other years, he goes free.
The day of the trial is a powerful peak moment: a
culmination of preparation and practice, delivered in
front of an audience, with real stakes and immediate
feedback. Every year, the student speaker at graduation
mentions the trial. The prom? It's mentioned sometimes.
Many peak moments fall under the umbrella of "deeper
learning," a term that encompasses project-based
learning, portfolios, and student exhibitions. At High
"What school systems
need is a massive infusion
of peak moments."
Tech High, a network of charter schools in San Diego,
students don't take exams at all; they present their work
at exhibitions open to the public. Their work ranges from
theater performances to robotics to self-published books.
If that sounds crazy-replacing exams with
exhibitions-ask yourself what more closely resembles
work in the real world: the intense collaboration of an
exhibition requiring students to frame and deliver a
project under deadline pressure so that an audience can
view and critique it? Or an exam with 10 multiple-choice
and three short-answer questions?
Worse, the knowledge measured by exams seems to
have a short shelf life. Consider a study cited by Ted
Dintersmith and Tony Wagner in their book Most Likely to
Succeed. Teachers at an elite private high school in New
Jersey found that when students were asked to retake in
September the same final exam they'd just completed in
June, their average grades plummeted from a B-plus to
an F. The students' hard work hadn't culminated-it had
Meanwhile, an American Institutes of Research study
found promising results for schools embracing deeper
learning, including better student-collaboration skills,
higher levels of motivation and self-efficacy, and higher
on-time graduation and enrollment rates. Better yet,
it wasn't just the most academically accomplished
students, or those in one racial or ethnic subgroup, who
benefited from deeper learning. Students benefited across
So how can we feel satisfied delivering the usual
academic experience-one that students, on the whole,
can barely remember? If your family took a weeklong
vacation that didn't deliver a few long-lasting memories,
you'd feel shortchanged. Meanwhile, middle and high
school take up at least seven years of our lives. In how
many of those years do you have even one fond academic
memory, a peak moment that elevated you above the
These moments are worth fighting for. n
BY SARAH D. SPARKS
The Power of Memory
t's one thing to cram for a test, but how can teachers
ensure students really absorb what they learn and
apply it later in life?
For decades, the difficulty of long-term transfer-
applying knowledge and skills learned in one context
and in another context at a later time-has both
frustrated and fascinated educators and researchers.
But from a variety of fields, we are beginning to see
emotional engagement as critical to how students
remember and use what they learn.
Efforts to increase students' emotional engagement
with learning have led to an array of experiments in
project-based learning, badges and "gamification"
of content, and recognition ceremonies of academic
milestones. In their analysis, best-selling authors Chip
Heath and Dan Heath argue all of these can provide
important "moments" of engagement.
Neuroscience research from the Brain and Creativity
Institute at the University of Southern California
suggests that when human beings learn, they engage
not just the logic and critical thinking of the prefrontal
cortex of the brain, but in the networks of the memory
and emotional areas of the hippocampus and amygdala.
"Even our most complex and adult human [thoughts]-
things that are abstract and grounded in huge amounts
of knowledge-they get their power, their psychological
punch by hooking themselves into the low-level
emotional state," said Mary-Helen Immordino-Yang,
one of the study researchers, in an interview. "This is
why things like intrinsic motivation and sense of self
are so incredibly powerful. ... This is why we get sick
from social stress, why we're willing to die for our
ideas. No other species does this."
The science is still evolving on just how a moment
can drive later memory and behavior; meanwhile, much
of the research to date has focused on the effects of
negative moments in a child's life.
But there is at least some evidence that small,
positive moments can make a student more willing
to do difficult or challenging tasks. One series of
Stanford University experiments cited by the Heaths
found students were more motivated to rewrite a
highly marked-up paper when teachers included
an encouraging note indicating that they had high
expectations for the student and that they knew the
student could meet them. Interventions like those
created moments of empathy and mutual respect
between teachers and students.
Educators and researchers alike are exploring ways
to find moments of learning that students remember,
even though they may be difficult to incorporate into an
accountability system. n
10 Big Ideas / www.edweek.org/go/bigideas