Codecracker, Exercise and Brain Power

Exercise boosts brain power.png

One minute and 53 seconds.  100th out of 513.  The simple pleasure of trying to beat the clock, oneself, and others by completing the NZHerald’s codecracker puzzle as fast as possible every morning .  During the week, it happens just before 6am.  Today, Sunday, it’s going to be more like 9am.  I keep telling myself it is good for my brain health as I take the last sips of morning coffee before rising to face to day. The little daily puzzle is keeping those synapses forging new neural pathways through my grey matter, which might just promote the longevity of my memory powers into old age.

Could be true.  To discover more, this year I’ve joined a new PLG (that’s Professional Learning Group to non-educators), all of us gathered around a common interest in the brain and memory as it pertains to learning.  Each is following a genuine interest and developing a mini research project related to particular students or classes on our timetable.  This in turn is a satisfying, collaborative and self-directed way to tick one of the boxes leading to teacher registration, the one that requires proof of professional development.

So I have chosen to work on a memory strategy with my Year 9 Latin class.  Two weeks ago I attended a public lecture at the University of Auckland’s Centre for Brain Research. It featured Professor Martyn Golding, a molecular neurobiologist from San Diego’s prestigious Salk Institute, who shared his work on the role of the spinal cord in the brain’s fulfilling of its primary role of facilitating the body’s movement, whether that be to open the mouth to form a vowel or to jump a hurdle and win a race.  The lecture was largely over my head but the emphasis on the brain and movement reminded me of John Medina’s book, Brain Rules.

John is also a molecular biologist who wrote his book to quash the many myths that we educators have developed around the brain and learning.  He established twelve research-based facts about the brain and learning, triangulated through publication in three or more peer-reviewed journals.  In his book, Medina dedicates a chapter to each brain rule, a rule being something that scientists know for sure about how our brains work.  He then suggests way that this rule might improve our daily lives.  One of those research-based rules states that exercise boosts brain power and improves cognition. It does so in two ways:

Firstly, “(e)xercise increases oxygen flow into the brain, which reduces brain-bound free radicals. One of the most interesting findings of the past few decades is that an increase in oxygen is always accompanied by an uptick in mental sharpness… (Secondly), (e)xercise acts directly on the molecular machinery of the brain itself. It increases neurons’ creation, survival, and resistance to damage and stress.”

Given Martyn Golding’s lecture which spurred my memory of John Medina’s book, I have decided to research the effect of exercise on my Year 9 students’ retention of Latin vocabulary.  Next term, every Thursday, I will introduce ten new vocabulary items and give the students ten minutes of class time to learn them, the first five weeks in silence, on their own, while seated at their desks, and the second five weeks in silence, on their own, while they walk up and down the flagstones or the field outside our classroom.  I’ll try and keep everything else constant (minimise variables) then test their retention via a vocab test immediately after the ten minutes, one the next day, and one before learning a new set of ten words a week later.  It will be interesting to see whether the brain rule stands for 13 year olds learning Latin in New Zealand.

Unfortunately, there is no mention in the brain rules about connecting synapses by doing word puzzles.  Oh well, I’ll just have to enjoy my morning codecracker simply because I enjoy the competition of beating myself and the clock.

Off the Boil and Nervous


On 27th January I submitted my thesis to the bindery and on 2nd February the soft cover version was accepted by the School of Graduate Studies.  Yesterday I received an email from my supervisors to say that the two-hour oral would probably be in about six weeks as two examiners have now been found.  Yet I can’t help but worry that I have gone off the boil.  Will I remember all that I need to remember for those two hours when I am quizzed on my work?

On 26th January I returned to full-time teaching and administration at the school where I had previously taught and attended as a teenager.  We really do hit the ground running. Little thought for prior activities.  Summer break long gone.  Year of study leave nothing but mist. Instead my head is full of mentoring first year teachers, analyses of variance on last year’s exam results, preparing national moderation materials, NZALT excellence certificates, navigating new text books, learning eighty new names, rekindling the contacts with our sister school in France, orienting myself to a new but second hand computer where all my tabs and favourites have disappeared, enrolling eight hundred girls on Language Perfect, Friday morning tea roster, professional learning groups, appraisal partners, schemes, professional development sessions, learning area meetings, athletics day, lunchtime field duties, school centenary celebrations, professional association membership payments etc, etc.

So now the pending oral date.  I have to say that I’m more than a little anxious at my changed focus of attention.

Final Steps

Portrait Of Man Reading Book at a libraryImage from:

Last week I followed a supervisor’s advice to read my ready-to-submit thesis aloud as a final editing step before going to print. My goodness!  I should have done this much earlier. I was amazed that after so many reviews, I still found typos and poorly formed sentences.

I therefore recommend this excellent strategy. It might be  good to use it at least twice during the final stages of writing, firstly before submitting the first draft of all thesis chapters, and then once again before going to print.

I was surprised, however, just how time consuming this exercise is and just how much energy it takes. I was exhausted afterwards even though it was undertaken over several days.

An added bonus is the production effect, that is, what we read out loud we remember better.

Good Parenting


Great article in the Business Insider May 6th 2016. To quote, summarise and comment:

“Good parents want their kids to stay out of trouble, do well in school, and go on to do awesome things as adults. And while there isn’t a set recipe for raising successful children, psychology research has pointed to a handful of factors that predict success. Unsurprisingly, much of it comes down to the parents. Here’s what parents of successful kids have in common:”

  1. They make their kids do chores
  2. They teach their kids social skills
  3. They have high expectations
  4. They have healthy relationships with each other
  5. They’ve attained higher education levels
  6. They teach their kids maths early on
  7. They develop a relationship with their kids
  8. They’re less stressed
  9. They value effort over avoiding failure
  10. The mother works
  11. They have a higher socioeconomic status
  12. Their parenting style is  authoritative rather than authoritarian or permissive
  13. They teach perseverance and grit

Against all the fashions and trends and veiled criticisms of what has gone before that fashions and trends imply, I feel vindicated!  Psychology research is catching up with common sense. Apart from the obvious, some points need comment.

Firstly, definitions: The article quoted researcher, Diana Baumride, who described the three parenting styles quoted in point 12 as Permissive, where “the parent tries to be nonpunitive and accepting of the child,” Authoritarian: where “the parent tries to shape and control the child based on a set standard of conduct,”  and Authoritative, where “the parent tries to direct the child rationally” and where “the kid grows up with a respect for authority, but doesn’t feel strangled by it”.

Secondly, good parents teach their kids maths early on. From Northwestern University one coresearcher, Greg Duncan, said: “Mastery of early math skills predicts not only future math achievement, it also predicts future reading achievement.” I wonder how many early learning skills they studied? Does early tuition in other subjects, for example, language learning, have a similar effect?

Thirdly, the mothers work. Interesting. As most mothers work these days, this may be a context factor rather than a cause. However the researchers interpreted their findings as a modelling issue. The lead researcher said: “Role modeling is a way of signaling what’s appropriate in terms of how you behave, what you do, the activities you engage in, and what you believe,” and “There are very few things, that we know of, that have such a clear effect on gender inequality as being raised by a working mother.”

Finally, the issue of higher socioeconomic status. Hekia Parata, New Zeaand’s current Minister of Education, needs to be listening to this. The researcher from Berkeley, Sean Reardon, stated that there are between 30 to 40% more students from higher socioeconomic contexts in the higher achievement levels. Hekia, instead of bashing teachers who work themselves to the bone, how about working at raising the socioeconomic status of those students at the tail?

Qualified to Serve


Wisdom will enter your heart, and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul        (Proverbs 2:10 NIV).



My years of reading and thinking and writing for my EdD are coming to an end. I have a submission date now and am already planning my return to the big smoke from my seaside sabbatical in Tairua.

At the meeting with my supervisors last week, I raised what I might do with the knowledge I have gained so I don’t slide into a depression after completing such an opus as so many others say they have done. The fact that I have a job waiting for me makes a difference for certain but I will have to find ways to ease back into the ordinary again with its workload and stress without it destroying me. During this year of study leave, I have been able to create my own timetable, a luxury for most but especially for a teacher who has had bells ringing change of period and change of direction every hour for four decades. I have been able to sleep till I wake in the morning or work till the wee hours following an interesting idea. No more! In three months I return to the tiring and stressful work reality of the classroom teacher, having tasted the peaceful and pensive reality of  retirement to come.

With these anxious thoughts churning at the back of my mind for some time now, it was comforting to be reminded in this morning’s devotional about personal growth with a CV-like description of Daniel, of lion’s den fame:

Showing aptitude for every kind of learning, well informed, quick to understand, and qualified to serve (Daniel 1:4 NIV).

It was also a good reminder of my life’s goal, wisdom, and a fresh modus operandi for moving forward.

Kindred Spirits

Today I read an article entitled How to Break Up with your PhD by Lara Skelly and couldn’t resist posting a reply:

Hi Lara. So affirming to read your words. Thank you! I am currently in my final year (I hope) and am so pleased to read your article. Like you, I already have a career which I will return to and my doctorate sprang from my work not the other way round. Even my supervisors have asked me where I want to go next. I will be returning to the position I had before which was held open for me. However, nothing much will change, least of all my salary. I am often asked, especially by family, why I am doing this. It’s because, like you, I love to study, to write, to check in to the spa-like pleasure of an academic retreat. And I have more than a passing interest in my topic, which I have been experimenting with in my career for several years. My doctorate is just making my results and findings official. Like you, I have been concerned about feeling let down when I complete in a few months time. What will I do with all that extra time? It is really helpful to read your article. All the best for your next steps. Anne

Dr Deborah M. Netolicky commented on my response.

“Anne my PhD totally felt spa-like and retreat-like to me, too. And I wrote a blog post about how to make your PhD seem like a holiday 🙂 It’s nice not to be the only one!

Thank you, Deb.

Such a great quote from Baudelaire in Deborah’s blog and name.  Love it, Deborah! I am now a follower.

the édu flâneuse

“For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate observer, it’s an immense pleasure to take up residence in multiplicity, in whatever is seething, moving, evanescent and infinite: you’re not at home, but you feel at home everywhere, you’re at the centre of everything yet you remain hidden from everybody.” Baudelaire

Time to Write Again

Brain Stretching

It’s been almost two months since I ‘put pen to paper’ and recorded what I have been thinking.

It’s because over that period I have been brain stretching. I have been teaching myself how to use IBM SPSS (thank goodness for Youtube!) and conducting various referential stats investigations.

After being offered help from a private contractor, a lecturer and a fellow student, none worked due to their misunderstanding my work and my location so I was on my own.

All for the best. What a learning curve! More a steep learning slope than a curve, I’d say!

So now I have climbed the heady heights of a first draft quantitative chapter. Such a sense of achievement. I now understand standard deviations, levels of significance and effect sizes, Levene’s tests for homogeneity of variance, t-tests and Mann-Whitney U tests.

For this long time linguist who hasn’t studied maths since 1967, I think that’s not too shabby.

No Longer an Ostrich


It was not a conscious decision but a fuzzy avoidance in hope that it might not need to happen. Unfortunately, my side-stepping of inferential statistics has been outed by my supervisors.  They have unceremoniously yanked my head out of the sand I had snuggled it comfortably into.

So, now this unmathematical linguist must face means, standard deviations,  and significant differences with conscientious and meticulous enthisiasm.  Yay!

Analysing Data and Writing It Up


Such a slow, laborious, process, analysing data and writing it up. I am bored yet concerned that I will never find anything worth saying.  And if I am bored, how about those who have to read this stuff?

But then through the cold misty haze shoots one small pinprick of light, then another, and another.  Each not enough to guide the wise men to the stable but enough to make a small, pretty formation in the night sky.


“Matariki is the Māori name for the cluster of stars also known as the Pleiades. It rises in mid-winter – late May or early June. For many Māori, it heralds the start of a new year. Matariki literally means the ‘eyes of god’ (mata ariki) or ‘little eyes’ (mata riki).”

Te Ara Encyclopaedia of New Zealand


Plodding Boredom


I love to write.

I also love to plan for and teach secondary school age students.

However, the core duties of that job can be divided  into three stages:

planning, teaching, and marking.

It’s that last step that irks me.

I actively dislike marking.

I would rather do grounds duty than grade papers.  I know colleagues who have left the job and do relief teaching rather than grade papers.  It’s the tedium and boredom but also the responsibility of it.

So here I am released from the classroom with time to write my thesis.  A wonderful privilege. I have thoroughly enjoyed reading and writing my first four chapters over the past three months.

Now the time has come for me to plough through hundreds – literally – of papers that are being graded from every angle in order to provide data for my thesis.  And I am bored witless.  It is such hard work.

And it’s ironic.  I began studying to allay the boredom of decades of teaching.  Now my studies are full time and I am faced with the very boredoms that brought about the original decision to study.

Can’t wait for this grading and findings stage to be over.