A brain in your pocket — but what’s in your head?

Carrying a brain in your pocket may weaken the brain in your head, writes cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham

Thinking is hard work, so people have strategies to avoid it, known as “cognitive miserliness,” he writes. In familiar situations, they do whatever they did the last time. If memory won’t work, “you can often get away with heuristics—quick, cognitively inexpensive processing routines that provide an answer, often a good one.”

Nowadays, there’s a third strategy:  Look it up online. Currently, 64% of US adults own a smartphone.


According to three studies, “people who are more cognitively miserly are more likely to search information out on their smartphone,” effectively using it as an external memory.

Smartphone use is negatively related to cognitive ability (as measured by brief numeracy and verbal intelligence tests), Willingham adds.  “It may be that low-cognitive-ability people seek information—look up a word meaning, calculate a tip—that high-ability people have in their heads.”

It’s not clear whether smart phones are “making us more cognitively miserly” or whether misers are “simply taking advantage of a new opportunity,” he writes. “What are the costs and benefits of either change?”

Black teachers identify more gifted blacks

Black achievers are about half as likely to be placed on the “gifted” track as whites with similar test scores, according to a new Vanderbilt study.

The teacher’s race makes a difference, reports NPR. Black teachers identify 6.2 percent of black students as gifted in reading, while non-black teachers saw only 2.1 percent of black students as gifted, researchers found.

Because of racial gaps in test scores, many districts rely more on teacher referrals to identify gifted students, researcher Jason Grissom told NPR. “That opens a big potential door as a driver for disparity.”

It’s not clear why black teachers find more gifted black students, writes Hechinger’s Jill Barshay.

Perhaps black teachers are more likely to recognize brilliance in a black student and suggest that the student be screened for giftedness.

Parents also play a big role in lobbying for their children to enter these programs. Another possibility is that black parents feel more comfortable advocating for their child with a black teacher, demanding that their child be screened for giftedness.

And finally it’s possible that black children perform better for a black teacher, and are more likely to demonstrate how brainy they are in these classrooms.

There’s no white-Latino “giftedness gap,” the study found. White and Latino students with the same scores were equally likely to get placed in a gifted program.

Testing every child for giftedness could help close the gap in access to accelerated programs, suggests Grissom.

The Asian advantage

Why do Asian-Americans do so well in school? asks Nicholas Kristof in a New York Times column. What’s the “Asian advantage?”

It’s not IQ, writes Brooks, citing Richard Nisbett’s book about intelligence.

Columbia University’s commencement in 2005. Photo: Peter Turnley, Corbis

Columbia University’s commencement in 2005. Photo: Peter Turnley, Corbis

Chinese-American and white children with the same IQ scores were followed into adulthood by researchers. Fifty-five percent of the Chinese-Americans entered high-status occupations, compared with one-third of the whites, Nisbett writes. Chinese-Americans with a 93 IQ did as well as whites with a 100.

In The Asian American Achievement Paradox, Jennifer Lee and Min Zhou note that many recent Asian immigrants are educated professionals. But working-class Asian-Americans tend to do well in school too. That’s certainly true of the children of the Vietnamese boat people.

The “model minority” may be a myth, but Asian kids walk into a math or science classroom knowing their teachers will expect them to excel.

Kristof credits the Confucian emphasis on education.

Immigrant East Asians often try particularly hard to get into good school districts, or make other sacrifices for children’s education, such as giving prime space in the home to kids to study.

There’s also evidence that Americans believe that A’s go to smart kids, while Asians are more likely to think that they go to hard workers.

Asian-American parents have high expectations for their children. A B is an “Asian F,” kids joke. (Kristof says A-, but I think that’s extreme.) And a B is “a white A.”

Asian-Americans also are likely to grow up in two-parent families.

“The success of Asian-Americans is a tribute to hard work, strong families and passion for education,” he concludes. “Ditto for the success of Jews, West Indians and other groups.”

But their success does not “suggest that the age of discrimination is behind us,” he argues. The “black boy in Baltimore who is raised by a struggling single mom, whom society regards as a potential menace” will not be reassured by the success of Asian-Americans. “Because one group can access the American dream does not mean that all groups can.”

Shouldn’t that kid be reassured by the success of West Indian blacks?

Your child is not special

Your Child Is Not Special writes J.P. Fugler, a speech and debate teacher in Texas. The straight A’s mean nothing.

He had a perfect GPA once because he avoided classes that might be difficult. When he got a 70 in the required keyboarding class — his family didn’t have a computer at home — he asked the teacher if he could come in early or late to practice.

Every day for six weeks, he practiced before and after school. “I went from being the slowest typist in the class to the fastest,” Fugler writes.”My grade skyrocketed to a 100.”

That doesn’t happen today. Blame for a low grade “is shifting from the student to the teacher,” he writes.

Parents think their special child deserves success. Hard work is for those other kids who aren’t gifted.

Flugler requires freshmen to study Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative and understand Greek philosophy.

For the first time in their lives, some struggle in my classroom. Encountering a new feeling of inadequacy, they panic. Then, panic turns to blame. There is no introspection or attempt to change behaviors that led to failure. Parents take up the fight.

Children can fail “now or later,” writes Fluger. Now is better. Later, the stakes will be higher.

Effort isn’t enough: Kids have to learn

Psychologist Carol Dweck’s “growth mindset” theory — students work harder and learn more if they believe they can “grow their brains” — is red-hot in the education world.

Everyone says they believe in the growth mindset, even when they don’t really, Dweck writes in Education Week. A “growth mindset isn’t just about effort.” It’s about learning and improving.

The student who didn’t learn anything is told, “Great effort! You tried your best!”

Instead, a teacher might say, “Let’s talk about what you’ve tried, and what you can try next.”

Dweck has a fear that keeps her up at night, she writes.

. . . that the mindset concepts, which grew up to counter the failed self-esteem movement, will be used to perpetuate that movement. In other words, if you want to make students feel good, even if they’re not learning, just praise their effort! Want to hide learning gaps from them? Just tell them, “Everyone is smart!”

She calls for “telling the truth about a student’s current achievement and then, together, doing something about it, helping him or her become smarter.”

How schools make kids smarter

Schooling makes students smarter largely by increasing what they know,”writes cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham in The Atlantic. That includes “both factual knowledge and specific mental skills like analyzing historical documents and learning procedures in mathematics.”

Intelligence has two components. One is akin to mental horsepower—how many pieces of information a person can keep in mind simultaneously, and how efficiently that person can use it. Researchers measure this component with simple tasks like comparing the lengths of two lines as quickly as possible, or reciting a list of digits backwards.

The other component of intelligence is like a database: It entails the facts someone knows and the skills he or she has acquired—skills like reading and calculating. That’s measured with tests of vocabulary and world knowledge.

Going to school boosts IQ primarily by increasing students’ knowledge, writes Willingham. People with more schooling aren’t faster at mental judgments, research shows.  High-performing schools do little to boost kids’ mental horsepower.

It’s the knowledge, stupid

Adults remember more than they realize about subjects studied years earlier in school, writes Willingham. “Knowledge sticks if it’s revisited.”

“It’s important to get a better understanding of what content will be most valuable to students later on in their lives,” he writes, and to revisit subjects over several years to make knowledge memorable.

Does birth order matter?

Firstborns are supposed to be conscientious, agreeable — and smarter than their younger siblings, writes Ami Albernaz in the Boston Globe.  The youngest in the family is supposed to be free-spirited and outgoing.

However, personality and IQ differences associated with birth order “are so small as to have no practical impact,” according to a University of Illinois study published in the Journal of Research in Personality.

The Illinois study used data on 377,000 U.S. high school students and controlled for factors such as number of siblings, socioeconomic status, family structure, age, and gender.

Among the slight personality differences the researchers found, firstborn children were more conscientious and agreeable, and less sociable and neurotic, than later-born kids. Yet though these differences were statistically significant, they were so small as to be meaningless, the researchers wrote. Firstborns also had slightly higher IQs, but this difference — about one point — was also not enough to be perceptible.

“Parents will often say their firstborn is more responsible,” said Rodica Damian, the study’s co-author. “But unless you have a video camera and can go back to when the firstborn was the age of the second-born or lastborn, you can’t fairly compare. Your personality changes as you age.”

I was the second of four children, but raised as my 15-months-older sister’s twin. People used to ask if we were identical twins, even though she was taller. She also was smarter than me — and not just because she was older. She had more musical and artistic talent. I was the sensible one. It didn’t seem like much at the time, but it’s worked out for me. Growing up trying to compete with my sister was good training too.

If kids can’t improve, bad schools are OK

Is intelligence fixed — or can kids get smarter? The importance of a “growth mindset” applies to educators as well as students, writes Robert Maranto, 21st Century Chair in Leadership in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas.

“If you think that intelligence is a constant, then there is no point reforming schools because schools don’t matter,” he writes in the Baltimore Sun.

“Good” schools and “good” teachers either cherry picked or lucked into smart students. It’s unfair to compare schools or teachers on academic results because student learning is determined by who teachers teach, not what or how they teach.

When right-wing social scientists argue that genetics determines low academic performance, their views are marginalized, Maranto writes. But many on the left also believe some groups of children can’t learn.

I know prominent education professors who have not read any of the eight high quality scientific evaluations of the high poverty/high achievement Knowledge Is Power Program schools, nor set foot in such schools, but know that KIPP must be cheating in some way. They have no more interest in the research on KIPP than a creationist has in paleontology.

Our unwillingness to learn from success goes beyond ignoring successful charter schools. I do fieldwork in a reasonably good school district that has depressingly little success teaching its Hispanic minority; yet no one there bothers to check out a similar school district 10 miles away that has nearly eliminated its Anglo-Hispanic achievement gap. These educators believe, on the basis of no evidence, that Hispanics in the other school district differ from their Hispanics. They cannot imagine different tactics including parental outreach and after school tutoring yielding better outcomes with the same kids.

Urban superintendents aren’t more likely to keep their jobs when achievement rises, Maranto’s research found.

Yesterday, I visited a San Jose elementary school whose students — more than 80 percent are English Learners from lower-income families — excel at reading and math. It’s called Rocketship Brilliant Minds.

Teachers and students dance each day at Morning Launch.

Smarter teachers, smarter students

Should we select teacher candidates for their smarts? asks the National Council on Teacher Quality Bulletin. If so, “can we raise the bar without endangering equitable access to strong teachers or limiting diversity?”

The cognitive skills of a nation’s teachers is linked to their students’ PISA performance, conclude Eric Hanushek and two Germany-based researchers. The study tried to control for “parental cognitive skills, a country’s educational culture, differences in student aptitude” and other factors. 

It assumed places with higher public-sector salaries would draw more academically talented people to teaching. If that’s valid, then “raising average teacher cognitive skills by a standard deviation likely raises student performance in math by 20 percent of a standard deviation in math and 10 percent in reading.”

Another study suggests it’s possible to get more talented teachers into the classroom. Teachers’ academic aptitude has been rising in New York over the past 25 years, concludes a study by Hamilton Lankford and others.

In the late 1990’s, almost a third of New York’s newly certified teachers were drawn from the bottom-third of the SAT scale. Beginning in 1998, the state tightened requirements on teacher preparation programs, eliminated temporary teaching licenses (which tended to be awarded to low-scoring individuals), and allowed selective alternative routes (e.g., Teach For America and TNTP) to begin operating. By 2010, more teachers were being drawn from the top-third of the SAT distribution than any other group.

The sharpest rise came in SAT scores of new teachers at the most disadvantaged schools, especially in New York City.

Average SAT scores rose more for new black and Latino teachers than for whites and Asian-Americans. Yet the state’s teaching force become more diverse.

U.S. teachers are smarter than you think

U.S. teachers are smarter than you think, writes Jill Barshay on the Hechinger Report.

A 2010 McKinsey report spotlighted a “talent gap” in teaching. Almost half of new teachers come from the bottom third of SAT takers, said the report. By contrast, the “world’s top performing school systems draw teachers from the best and brightest.”

But new research argues that quality never dropped that low and is rebounding.  A recently published “study of new teachers in New York state . . . found that at the worst point — in 1999 — almost 30 percent of new teachers came from the bottom third, as measured by SAT scores,” and 30 percent came from the top third, writes Barshay. Ten years later, more than 40 percent of new teachers scored in the top third and fewer than 20 percent in the bottom third.

2013 University of Washington study also found rising test scores for new teachers.

A Stanford study, not yet published, estimates the average SAT/ACT scores of a new teacher declined to the 42nd percentile in 2000 and rose to the 48th percentile by 2008.

Math scores rose strongly, while verbal scores increased slightly.

Back in 1993, the typical hire at a private elementary school had SAT scores that were 4 points higher than her or his public school counterpart. By 2008, they were 5 percentage points lower. . . . Private high school teachers continue to have higher SAT scores than public high school teachers.

It’s not clear why public schools have been able to hire teachers with stronger academic records.

Education Realist critiques a lack of quality in teacher quality reports.