July 2009

Middle School Brains: Teaching the Distracted

by Alan Haskvitz


Middle School help sites


The middle school years are very interesting in that students are making that difficult transition into adulthood while still being confined and confused by their minds and bodies. These easily distracted students are all the more difficult to reach because their brains are allegedly going through a brain spurt and they are also dealing with the onslaught of puberty.

Despite the physical and metal challenges the research does provide some insights and recommendations that can help clarify the teacher’s challenge.

There appears evidence that teenager’s who exercise their synapses more keep what they have learned better. Any teacher or parent who has dealt with a middle schooler clearly knows that their brain is not only a work in progress, but one that at times to appear to be regressing.

An interesting study by Dr. Judith Rapoport found that there was a fresh growth in the brain for girls at age 11 and boys a year later. Of note is the possibility that students have a more difficult time learning new languages after this development has taken place, which is prior to high school. In other words, middle school would be a better time for a second language program to be instituted.

As for emotions, middle school age students in a study done at McLean Hospital, reacted strongly to facial emotions instead of using a more mature, reasoned reaction. In other words, these young teens might be quicker to anger when exposed to stimuli that older students would ignore.

Since the prefrontal cortex, the area that deals with moods and control, is the the last region of the brain to mature, usually around age 18, those things that the student does most are the ones that are going to stay with him or her longest. So teachers are going to be competing for brain space with music, sports, and whatever else is rattling around in the teenager’s brain. Thus it is important to eliminate distractions in the classroom as a way to improve retention of data. Equally important is the need for teachers to retain the middle schooler’s attention by using the senses and emotions and asking thought provoking questions. Encouraging the students to use a variety of ways to solve a problem also helps build memory.

Here are some additional strategies that work with young teenagers. Develop integrated lessons that have a multitude of possible answers. Connect what is being taught to the student’s personal life and making lessons relevant. Understand that stress is treated differentially be males and females. Males seem to enjoy the challenge and females tend to show negative results in similar situations. Games and other competitive strategies should be used, but not overused.

Here are eight steps to creating middle school related lessons based on experience and brain based publications:

First, research from the federal government indicates that students remember material best when it is given in small amounts and repeated at later intervals.

Secondly, listening to music has never proven to improve study skills or memory. Indeed, research has shown that the brain cannot multitask. It can listen to music for a second and switch back to reading, but not at the same time. Although I have heard of some Gregorian chants having a positive effect, the research seems to indicate that using music in the classroom and at home while studying does not appear to have a positive impact on learning.

Third, active learning where the student participates in the process either by presenting or taking part in an activity is highly favored by most teenagers. But be aware the peer pressure is very dominate at this time. Thus having a teen working with those who are not motivated or do not honor work can reflect poorly on a child’s likelihood for success. Peer pressure is of more value to a teenager than a teacher or parent on the whole. That is why it is so important to check on their friends both in person and online.

Next, I use a form of teaching called linking. This means that any new information presented to a child must be linked to previously learned material before it can be considered mastered. I use a drill called three transfers which requires that the student use the information in three different ways. For example, any new fact can be made into a poem, put on a card, used as a mnemonic devise, told to a parent, by part of an art work, or written in code beside being used in their notes.

Drill and kill have been downplayed as good learning tools, but I disagree. They can be very comforting for some students when used within reason. Teens enjoy showing mastery of a subject and if that requires them to memorize a fair amount of information the challenge can be very invigorating. My students feel quite pleased with themselves when they know the 50 states and capitals and like to quiz each other on them. They feel a sense of accomplishment with such concrete forms of learning. However, this is not the best way to learn for those who have not developed the ability to control their concentration patterns. For those a more active approach is better such as creating songs and drawing large maps and labeling them.

Fifth, providing lessons and activities that require problem solving and critical thinking can provide for a better way to individualize and differentiate learning as it provides different styles of learners the opportunity to acquire knowledge. An active classroom is best and the use of a variety of methods is best. However, the recently published book by Daniel Willingham indicated that the brain was not really good at thinking without a substantial knowledge base. This book is a must read for teachers whether or not you agree with what he writes in Why Don’t Students Like School.

Sixth, students need to learn how to study. This requires routines and help in establishing organizational methods. In my class the first thing the students learn is how to study, organize, and develop study methods that best suit them. It is like coaching. You start with the basics.

Seventh, a student needs to understand the essence and importance of metacognition. In other words, knowing about knowing. The strategies for solving problems, evaluating how well that solution works, and having the stamina to complete the task are the basis of education and intellectual growth. A teacher who helps students develop the tools necessary to learn and apply what was learned has truly impacted the future. Especially, when those skills are broad and extend outside the reach of one subject area, which is domain general. Thus the middle school student needs to know both how to learn and how to evaluate if he or she has learned and how to correct weaknesses. That is why teachers who stress end of term or mid-term test over more frequent testing may be allowing to much time to pass between the evaluation of learning and the correction of errors.

Finally, perhaps the greatest need in teaching middle schoolers is “under-explaining.”The rise of the 64 count crayon coloring box from the basic eight and 16 reflects an interesting reflection on decision making for students. With fewer colors students learned how to use tints, tones, and shades of colors as well as mix new ones. With the advent of larger boxes of colors that need became one of choice and creativity pretty much was nipped. Like the small box of crayons, the simpler the assignment details the more the student can show what they have learned and be creative and personalize the learning more. Every teacher has heard the refrain, “How many sentences, words, pages, paragraphs?” This is essentially a request by the student to limit his or her thinking. That is why I recommend that assignments be more general with an an objective that can display the student’s acquired knowledge can be used correctly to identify what they know and offer the teacher an insight into what the pupil needs to learn.

Prius vs. Insight: Battle of the Compact Hybrids


The Car Family

for a list of vehicle websites go to


for more views go to


As much alike as these two Japanese products look, they are almost totally dissimilar in all aspects save that they are hybrids and get about average fuel mileage. The Honda Insight is good handling and less expensive. The Prius is larger and gets better fuel mileage. Go figure.





Because they are so different selecting one to buy is easy providing you know how you are going to use the sedan. For example, if you love to drive on two lane roads, aren’t too tall, have a slow commute, and seldom need to carry four people the Honda is ideal. It is a good handler, for a hybrid that is. On the other hand, if you want a bit more frisk from the accelerator pedal, more room, and the ability to travel the expressways welcome the Prius into your life.

The fuel mileage for both are fairly close in daily driving. We got about 50 mpg in mixed driving with the Toyota and about 45 with the Insight. Mind you, the Prius has a power button you press that enables you to combine the torque of the electric motors and engine to make it easier to pass and to pull on busy freeways and it is addicting. We found that both vehicles got nearly the same fuel mileage on the open highway with the more powerful Toyota achieving about two miles per gallon more.

The interiors of these rigs are very different. The backseat of the Prius has three more inches of legroom and it is much more comfortable to sit there. With the rear seats folded down the Prius has eight more cubic feet of storage space. In other words, by any stretch the Prius is more user friendly.

Prius dash

Prius dash

Insight dash

Insight dash

Price, on the other hand, clearly goes to the Insight. It is nearly $2000 less expensive even when loaded with options such as a navigation system. The cost cutting is evident in the interior materials as well as the less sophisticated hybrid system. There are two models, the EX and LX of which the former is the more well equipped model. With the more expensive models you get a stereo upgrade, steering wheel mounted paddle shifters, vehicle stability assist and traction control, and alloy wheels. The top of the line EX with Navigation models adds Honda Satellite-Linked Navigation System with Voice Recognition, Bluetooth, HandsFreeLink, illuminated steering wheel-mounted audio, navigation and phone controls. Look for loaded models to cross the $25,000 barrier.

The Prius starts at nearly $23,000 and quickly escalates to over $29,000 loaded. There are four versions of the Prius, starting with the basic II. The basic model and Prius III, IV, and V all offer the same powertrain, but add a variety of features that are very interesting. You can have water repellent side windows (don’t ask), a GPS system that uses DVD and voice activation, a JBL stereo with four CD disc changer, XM radio with traffic updates, dynamic radar cruise control, intelligent parking assist, the solar roof package with sliding moonroof, a pre-collision system, LED headlamps, and 17-inch tires.

On the road neither car is quiet, but the tires and ride on the Honda are much more sporty. The Toyota’s tires followed every grove in the road and the steering wheel shook mightily at times. I attribute that to the tire choice. We had the optional larger tires. I would drive the PriusII, with its smaller ones and compare the two. Personally, even though we were the only automobile journalists who selected the Prius as family car of the year when it first came out and also when the newer version arrived, we found that the tire characteristics and noise levels on the 2010 models are really not to our liking. We would gladly pay a mile or two less for better handling footwear. No question, the Insight is the more sporty of the two.

Mom’s view: Safety wise the Prius has front, side, and head curtain airbags, active head restraints, ABS, a knee airbag, and electronic stability control. The Insight lacks the knee bag and only makes the stability control available on its more upscale EX model. Crash testing on the Honda has not been done yet, but the previous generation Prius results were good.

Driving these cars is best described as boring. Except for the playful use of the Power button in the Prius they were bland and appliance like inside and out. The less expensive Smart cars were more fun, but they didn’t get past that magic 40 mpg barrier. I felt more comfortable in the Insight and liked the seats better, but the cargo capacity of the Prius was very useful. Getting into Honda was more difficult for me as the Insight sits lower. Neither car has a make-up mirror that would meet the approval of anyone over the age of 15, but the glove compartments and other storage areas in the Prius were more useful. You don’t feel as if you are in a small car while driving either hybrid, but if you need to make quick moves the Honda’s steering is more sensitive.

From a mommy standpoint, the Prius makes more sense so I would choose the Toyota.

Dad’s view: So alike and so different continues our theme. The cars both have four cylinder engines, but the Toyota’s is much more powerful, if that’s the word. The Insight has an 88-horsepower, 1.3-liter engine and a 13-hp electric motor, for a total of 98 hp whereas the Prius boasts of a 1.8 liter engine with 98-horsepower and an 80-hp electric motor that yields 134 hp.

Prius engine

Prius engine

Honda engine

Honda engine

If all goes well, both cars can drive a limited amount of time on battery power, but they have different systems. The parallel design of the Honda insight versus the Parallel/Series design of the Prius. For the non-engineering types these mean little and a real life both do extremely well. At stop lights the both automatically shut down the engines except in temperature extremes where keeping the engines running is necessary for safety and creature comfort.

What enables the larger engined Prius to get better fuel mileage is that the Prius can move using just battery power and the Insight does not have this feature. It takes a very gentle touch to keep the Prius from starting the engine from a stop sign or light. The other feature is the larger engine does not have to work as hard and can produce useful acceleration at lower rpms. The Insight engine does have the ability to shut off its engine when coasting in some cases. The simplicity of the Insight’s system makes it less costly to produce and thus the less expensive pricing.

What we all treasured about the Prius was its driving mode buttons. You have a choice of Eco or Power and the Prius always starts in the Eco setting. There is also another fun button to press and that is the EV control. That enables the Prius to use only electric power when possible. In every traffic jam we used the EV and it gave us miles of quiet progress without using the gasoline engine. After 25 mph the Prius abandons the EV for the Eco setting.

The battery packs for both models should be good for many years and they utilize the more traditional nickel-metal-hydride cells. We have a lot of qualms about the new lithium ion batteries having extensive experience with them on our electric assist bicycles. They appear to be more efficient, but the longevity is what we question.

The handling on the Prius is improved with better aerodynamics and a better under tray that helps defuse the wind better. The Honda is much better and almost playful. On a smooth highway both vehicles are easy to drive, but you really need to plan your passing in advance as neither is going to flatten your innards. As much as I like the grown-up appeal of the Toyota, the tossable nature of the Honda is more to my liking. However, the Insight greatly needs another ten horsepower.

Young business woman’s view: The Insight troubles me. I love the Honda Fit and consistently achieve around 33 mpg. You get great handling, a lot of cargo room, and it costs less nearly $5000 less than an Insight. Of course, if your daily commute is well under 40 mph the Insight could save you on fuel. The Prius and the Insight looked so much alike, especially from the side, that I don’t think many people are even going to recognize the Insight. However, I liked the look of the Insight better, especially from the side and front, where it looked far more futuristic. Neither car appeals to me other than its “greenness” and to marvel at the gas mileage read out in the 40 to 50 mpg range. I would rather have a Toyota Corolla or a Honda Fit. Of course, if I had to choice between these two hybrids the Toyota would win mainly because it offers more room and I love its acceleration.

An interesting option on the Prius is the sunroof with a solar panel that generates electricity for running fans inside the car can help keep the interior cooler on hot days. You can also order leather surfaced seats and a GPS unit. Beware, if you do order this ensemble, the cost could top thirty grand. Talking with sales people at several dealerships I was surprised that the high line model was a big seller along with the model that is not the base, the model three. Apparently, the Prius has crossed over from trendy hybrid to nice compact sedan.

Both have good GPS systems, but the screens are small and they greatly add to the cost of both vehicles. The Honda’s was quicker to react and a touch easier to master. Parking was a cinch with the Prius with a turning radius of 34 feet, it was nearly two feet tighter than the Honda.

As for my choice, the Toyota was the winner. I would go with the Prius III, I don’t need all those extras on the fancier models, but do appreciate the larger tires and other features that Prius II does not have. The Insight was a nicer drive, but I like more power and room.

Young working male’s view: It might not sound like much, but the Insight only has a ten gallon tank. Although yields about 400 miles, the fact that the fuel gauge looks close to empty at just past 320 miles makes it unfun. Statistically, you have about a gallon in reserve and so each quarter of tank reflects a little over two gallons of gas. That does not bode well for confidence when traveling long distances. The other concern about the Insight is that it does not respond well to calls for acceleration at any time. It sort of leans forward more. It is not that getting onto a crowded expressway is so frustrating, it is passing in the mountains. Can you say VW bus? The stereo reception in the Prius is poor and the quality of the base unit disappointing. The Honda was slightly better, but clearly not great. As for the Prius, no one knew it was the new one. Even the color selection is dull and the interior selection is duller. As for babe magnets, I would say not a chance for either model. Would I buy one, nope. I like the Ford Fusion and Ford Escape hybrids better, but mainly what I would like to see is a Honda Element hybrid. If family impeded I would wish for the new Toyota Sienna van to have a hybrid version.

Prius engine control buttons

Prius engine control buttons

Family conference: The Prius continues to be our favorite and it is greatly improved over previous models. The Insight would be a star if not compared to the Prius. It is fun to drive, wonderfully entertaining, and steady on the highway. The tilting point was the Prius Power button that called on all of that Toyota technology into action and made you feel that you were sitting in a turbocharged vehicle. Most fun, and most for your money if you can lay off the sweet options. There is clearly a difference in these two vehicles that extends beyond similarities of shape and purpose. The Honda is clearly going to appeal to Honda owners with its ride and frugality. Just as clearly, the Toyota with its softer ride and more goodies is going to continue to attract previous Toyota owners. For those new to hybrids, the Toyota has the greater mainstream appeal.

Honda Insight                                             Toyota Prius

Engine 1.3 liters                                          1.8 liters

Horsepower 98 hp @ 5800 rpm    134 hp @ 5200 rpm

Torque 88 ft-lbs. @ 4500 rpm         105 ft-lbs. @ 4000 rpm

Tires P175/65R15 84S                          P195/65R15 V
Cargo Capacity 32 cu. ft.                   40 cu. ft.

City 40 mpg.                                               51 mpg.

Highway 43 mpg.                                   48 mpg.

Top range 456 mi.                                 571 mi.

Tank Capacity 10.6 gal.                   11.9 gal.

Length 172.3 in.                                   175.6 in.

Width 66.7 in.                                       68.7 in.

Height 56.2 in.                                     58.7 in.

Weight 2723 lbs.                                3042 lbs.

Wheel Base 100.4 in.                       106.3 in.

Front Headroom 38.4 in.             38.6 in.

Rear Headroom 35.9 in.               37.6 in.

FT. Shoulder Room 52.7 in.     54.9 in.

Re. Shoulder Room 50.4 in.     53.1 in.

Ft. Hip Room 51.6 in.                   52.7 in.

Re. Hip Room 48.7 in.                 51.2 in.

Front Leg Room 42.3 in.           42.5 in.

Rear Leg Room 33.5 in.             36 in.

Trunk Space 15.9 cu. ft.            21.6 cu. ft.