Brain power

Young children can learn more than people used to think, says a New York Times story on cognitive neuroscience.

The teaching of basic academic skills, until now largely the realm of tradition and guesswork, is giving way to approaches based on cognitive science. In several cities, including Boston, Washington and Nashville, schools have been experimenting with new curriculums to improve math skills in preschoolers. In others, teachers have used techniques developed by brain scientists to help children overcome dyslexia.

And schools in about a dozen states have begun to use a program intended to accelerate the development of young students’ frontal lobes, improving self-control in class.

The story looks at the Building Blocks program for preschoolers.

In a Building Blocks classroom, numbers are in artwork, on computer games and in lessons, sharing equal time with letters. . . . children play creative counting games; but it also focuses on other number skills, including cardinality (how many objects are in a set) and one-to-one correspondence (matching groups of objects, like cups and saucers). Teachers can tailor the Building Block lesson to a student’s individual ability.

Children who learn math basics early do better than those who aren’t taught the basics.

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  1. One of the interesting things about this article is that they’re recreating what the Direct Instruction guys came up with in the 1960s and 1970s. For example, on triangles, the article reports a researcher as criticising introducing the idea of triangles with the example of a pizza slice, and says that kids get confused because a pizza slice has a rounded end, while mathematical triangles don’t. Instead the guy is introducing kids to a variety of triangles, skinny ones, fat ones, etc. This matches with the Direct Instruction guys’ principle that when introducing a new concept the teacher should provide examples that cover as much of the variation in what is covered by this concept as possible (eg skinny triangles, fat triangles, triangles that are filled in, triangles that are just lines, triangles in different colours).

  2. Sigfried Engelmann’s first book, I think, was Give Your Child a Superior Mind, written in the ’60’s.

  3. Doesn’t seem like such a big surprise. It is well established that brains grow faster in children – especially young children than in adults. It also seems like many preschool curriculums (as well as parents) already integrate numbers and number concepts into activities. Not really seeing what is unique about this research or this program.

  4. We lost years (decades) of progress because of the State-monopoly school system. “What works?” is an empirical question which only an experiment (in the case of education service, a competitive market) can answer. A State-monopoly school system is like an experiment with one treatment and no controls: a retarded experimental design. As P. J. O’Rourke observed: “evolution doesn’t work on things that don’t die.”

    The $500 billion+ that US taxpayers throw down the K-12 rathole every year may be the least cost of the NEA/AFT/AFSCME cartel’s exclusive position in receipt of the taxpayers’ education subsidy. Two larger costs are (1) the lost information about education innovation and (2) the opportunity cost of the time students spend in the cartel’s wretched schools. This cost appears as reduced lifetime earnings, reduced life expectancy, losses due to crime, and the cost of prison for the poor minority kids whose lives we trash.

  5. Deirdre Mundy says:

    With my own kids, I’ve found they’re ready for Math at a MUCH younger age than they are ready for reading… I think a big problem is that our schools have it backwards right now…

    We push phonics and reading on Pre-K and K kids who may NOT be cognitively ready for them, but neglect math until grade 1 or 2.

    Really, I think we’d do better to hold off on reading until their brains have developed a bit more (as per the book “Proust and the Squid”) and start on Math earlier—

  6. Malcolm-
    Without the State-monopoly system we wouldn’t have had the opportunity to lose progress because we wouldn’t have made any in the first place.
    The decades of lost progress have more to do with the anti-establishment movement of the sixties, where schools effectively lost the power to decide what to teach and instead the power was given to activists, hacks, and parents for the supposed reason of focusing on individual students’ needs.


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