Am I Smarter than a Fifth Grader?
By Betsy Jardine
Before I answer that question, I need to let you know that I am curious. I have always been curious. Curiosity has led me to surprises in my career in education and I love to be surprised. My latest surprise came as part of a learning trial with BrainWare SAFARI and I want to share both some quantitative and qualitative evidence for what has been an astonishing educational experience!
A couple of years ago, I read an interesting study online about students who changed their intellective capacity following 12 weeks of using BrainWare SAFARI cognitive training software. At first, I thought that it was likely grassroots advertising designed to take in a curious person like me. However, at the back of my mind, I couldn’t help but think … what if it is true? With that idea, I asked to meet with some of the experts in my school board, who might have some background knowledge. Perhaps some teachers were already using it and perhaps they could help me to discern whether or not the program was valuable and who would be the best candidates to try. Although the company offered a free trial, I had no students available at that time to work with.
Roll the clock ahead a couple of years. I moved to a school to do some coaching with teachers. The coaching cycles varied in length from one week to twelve weeks. Now I felt my opportunity was finally at hand as my curiosity was not yet satisfied. The Student-Centered Coaching Approach of Diane Sweeney that I used focuses on growth and change, looking at measurable data. The teacher and the coach determine the targets of the coaching cycle. The teacher had been looking at guided instruction in reading and wanted to focus on integrating language, social studies, math and health in a way that would cover curriculum outcomes and produce results. Thinking that cognitive skills training might complement that focus, I contacted Betsy Hill at BrainWare to see if it might still be possible to have a free trial for this teacher’s class. Ms. Hill agreed and we reorganized the class schedule so that the first twenty minutes after recess each day was spent on Brainware software. Both the classroom teacher and the coach were present in these periods in the computer room.
Students had fun exploring the program and finding the activities that were easy for them. Before long the students had whipped through the easy levels and were beginning to get frustrated on more difficult tasks. The teacher began to change up the games that students worked on every 7-10 minutes. This gave her students a break from the more difficult games and ensured that they moved around to try out various games.
In order to be able to assess changes in the classroom over the 12-Week period of the trial and coaching cycle, we took baseline data before beginning to see where the students were at the start of the intervention. We took two types of baseline data. The first type was a trio of timed tests of math fluency, sentence fluency, and word fluency. The math fluency test measures the speed at which a student can compute simple math facts. For sentence fluency, students read a sentence and determine whether it is true or not, based on the meaning of the sentence (comprehension). In the test of word fluency, a student has to circle two words that were related to each other, again in a 3-minute trial. A class average result was calculated for each test. Since 12 weeks represents approximately 1/3 of a school year and these tests are age-normed and are supplied with grade-level equivalencies, we knew that an average child would be expected to gain 0.3 of a year improvement over the trial period (one grade level in one school year). Anything over this is a bonus.
The results for this class were amazing! In Sentence Fluency, the average gain was 2.155 grade levels, a whopping 7 times greater than the expected gain. In Word Fluency, students made 3.5 grade levels of gain, approximately 11 times the expected gain. In Math Fluency, the gain was 1.4 grade levels. I have to say I was shocked at the huge gains these students had made. The one person who maintained the same fluency and showed no change from the beginning to the end was me. I was not surprised that my results didn’t change but I was beginning to wonder if perhaps Betsy Hill was on to something when she suggested that I use the license the company always provides for the teachers working with the students.
The other type of quantitative data tracked for this trial was the students’ progress on the Fountas & Pinnell Benchmark Reading System, which indicates a student’s reading level. Records of oral reading were taken before the coaching cycle began and then the students were tested again after the 12-week cycle to see how many reading levels they had acquired. Students are expected to gain 5 reading levels in a 39-week school year, therefore in a 12-week period, we would expect an average gain to be 1.5 reading levels. However, at the end of the 12 weeks, these students had gained 3.9 reading levels, more than doubling this expectation!
I was told that the classroom teacher typically begins to notice changes after a few weeks. This is exactly what happened. The classroom teacher came to me to say that she noticed her students were settling a lot quicker during independent reading, and the students would groan when their reading time was over because they were so focused on it. She said that her students had developed greater perseverance at tasks; they were more independent workers with more stamina. When members of our regional school community came to hear the results of the coaching cycle, they watched the students at work in BrainWare. Next, they interviewed the students themselves to ask them first hand what they thought. The students spoke for themselves, telling how they enjoyed the program, how they were now reading a lot more, how they were changed as learners. They seemed much more secure in who they were as learners and were able to note some differences in themselves. There was definitely evidence of the development of higher-order thinking skills.
The librarian was invited to come in and speak to the group. She was very enthusiastic about each child, telling the visitors about how each child had moved on in reading and extended their interests to new materials and series. One student moved from picture books to reading novels over the 12 weeks. Overall the librarian described a class that visited the library frequently to get reading materials that were out of their previous comfort zone.
The librarian and the teachers had high expectations for these students but the students seemed to make greater changes in their reading interests and focus than was normally expected. Everyone was positive, proud and very excited. There was an air that something extraordinary had taken place. Indeed it had!
I thought back to the claims that had originally attracted my attention … 2-4 years of cognitive growth and 1-2 years of academic growth with significant remediation of cognitive skills for students with learning disabilities. What I found out in this trial was that our results surpassed those claims.
In working through BrainWare, our students had not only pushed past their own problem-solving ability through trying, and trying again and not giving up, but they had also pushed past my ability. Unless I decided to dedicate the time to develop my cognitive skills through 12 weeks of repeated hard work without giving up, I would not make the specific gains that these children made in the organization of their brain, the control of impulsivity, the ability to think flexibly and problem solve. Am I smarter than a fifth grader? Not yet, but I’m working on it.
Dr. Betsy Jardine is an educator, literacy mentor, and coach who enjoys the challenge of finding ways to improve the engagement of her students to help to overcome the areas in their intellective capacity that limit their growth. She earned multiple bachelor’s and master’s degrees and holds a PhD in Educational Studies from Acadia University
Sweeney, D. (2017). Student-Centered Coaching: The Moves, Sage Publications, California