Neuro-garbage in education

Pop neuroscience — silly and scientifically inaccurate — has spurred a backlash, writes Alissa Quart in a New York Times op-ed. Among the critics are NeurocriticNeurobonkersNeuroskepticMind Hacks and Dorothy Bishop’s Blog

There’s a lot of neuro-garbage in education, writes Daniel Willingham, a cognitive scientist.

Sometimes it’s the use of accurate but ultimately pointless neuro-talk that’s mere window dressing for something that teachers already know (e.g., explaining the neural consequences of exercise to persuade teachers that recess is a good idea for third-graders).

Other times the neuroscience is simply inaccurate (exaggerations regarding the differences between the left and right hemispheres, for example).

Even when the neuroscience is solid, “we can’t take lab findings and pop them right into the classroom,” Willingham writes.

. . . the outcomes we care about are behavioral; reading, analyzing, calculating, remembering.

. . . Likewise, most of the things that we can change are behavioral. We’re not going to plant electrodes in the child’s brain to get her to learn–we’re going to change her environment and encourage certain behaviors. . . . Neuroscience is out of the loop.

It’s possible to use neuroscience to improve education, writes Willingham. But it isn’t easy.

Teachers who know the most about neuroscience believe the most things that aren’t true, writes Cedar Riener, a psychology professor, in Cedar’s Digest, citing this study. These teachers’ belief in myths is rooted in their values, he writes. People want to believe low achievers just haven’t found the right way to tap their “unlimited reservoir of intelligence” properly. “To dismiss the learning styles myth, we have to let go of equating cognitive ability (or intelligence) with some sort of larger social value.”

Accountable for binder stuffing

“Mrs. Lipstick” teaches special education students who are too disabled to take standardized tests. Instead, teachers assemble binders with worksheets students have filled out to show they’ve been taught the same curriculum as non-disabled students. There’s no time to design and teach meaningful lessons, she writes on Organized Chaos.

I’m supposed to give a child a meaningless worksheet, briefly teach the subject and then re-teach it over and over again until the child can perform it for that worksheet only. Then I put the worksheet into a plastic sleeved binder along with all the other worksheets that have been a complete waste of time and I submit it for a grade. A meaningless grade because the child isn’t actually expected to know the information because I wasn’t expected to actually teach the information. It is a binder just for show.

Parents of intellectually disabled children don’t want this, she writes.

I can’t imagine one of my parents saying, “Oh yes, I want to know that my child can identify the Powhatan Indians on a worksheet. . . . That’s more important than knowing how to safely cross the street, identifying the letters, telling me that they love me, or counting to 10. And make sure it is on a worksheet. Not a fun hands-on activity that can help my child distinguish between American Indians and settlers, but a worksheet.”

Why spend the time on worksheets and binders? It’s supposed to show special education teachers are being held accountable, she writes.

Why should all children be taught the same lessons, regardless of their abilities?

How do you raise a child prodigy?

How Do You Raise a Prodigy? asks Andrew Solomon in the New York Times Magazine.

Chloe Yu’s son, Marc, “picked out a few tunes on the piano with two fingers” when he was “almost 3.” As a preschooler, he began performing at retirement homes. By 5, he added the cello.

At 6, Marc won a fellowship for gifted youth that covered the down payment on a Steinway. By the time Marc was 8, he and Chloe were flying to China frequently for lessons; Chloe explained that whereas her son’s American teachers gave him broad interpretive ideas to explore freely, his Chinese teacher taught measure by measure. I asked Marc whether he found it difficult traveling so far. “Well, fortunately, I don’t have vestigial somnolence,” he said. I raised an eyebrow. “You know — jet lag,” he apologized.

Marc was being home-schooled to accommodate his performance and practice schedule. At the age of a third-grader, he was taking an SAT class. . . . “In America, every kid has to be well rounded,” Chloe said. “They have 10 different activities, and they never excel at any of them. Americans want everyone to have the same life; it’s a cult of the average. This is wonderful for disabled children, who get things they would never have otherwise, but it’s a disaster for gifted children. Why should Marc spend his life learning sports he’s not interested in when he has this superb gift that gives him so much joy?”

. . . Marc sat on a phone book on the piano bench so his hands would be high enough to play comfortably and launched into Chopin’s “Fantasie-Impromptu,” which he imbued with a quality of nuanced yearning that seemed almost inconceivable in someone with a shelf of Cookie Monster videos. “You see?” Chloe said to me. “He’s not a normal child. Why should he have a normal childhood?”

Leon Botstein, president of Bard College, a conductor and a former wunderkind, thinks the U.S. education system has little tolerance for spiky genius. “If Beethoven were sent to nursery school today, they would medicate him, and he would be a postal clerk.”

In Sweden, schooling boosts knowledge

Yep, School Makes You Smarter in terms of knowledge, writes Daniel Willingham.

Swedish 18-year-olds were tested on word meanings and reading technical prose, which uses “crystallized” intelligence (what you know) before military service. They also took spatial reasoning and logic tests, which use “fluid” intelligence (reasoning that is not dependent on particular knowledge).

Students of the same age with more days of schooling performed better on the crystallized intelligence tests; fluid intelligence wasn’t linked to schooling.

Fluent on facts, weak on abstraction

Fluency in addition and multiplication isn’t everything, writes Education Realist.

. . . plenty of solid math students don’t have fluency and—here is the important part—many exceptionally weak math students have strong fact fluency.

Ed Realist’s “math support” students, who are trying to pass the exit exam and graduate from high school, tend to be very literal and easily thrown by symbols. Ed Realist  asked students to read a simple equation as a sentence. When a student turned x + 6 = 14 into “what number do I add to six to get 14?” the answer was clear to most of the class.

One student, Gerry, still didn’t get it.  He said he could only do math if it doesn’t have letters.

 “You need to look at these problems from a different part of your brain.”

. . . “X + 6 = 14. This is when you have to do stuff to both sides, right? I can’t do that.”

“Read it again. But instead of saying x, say ‘what’.”

“What plus 6 = 14? 8.”

Gerry said he couldn’t do fractions. But when he turned x/5 = 9 into “what divided by 5 is 9?” he got 45 right away.  “I feel like a math genius,” he said.

“You know a lot more math than you think you do,” the teacher said. ” You just have to figure out how to ask the question in a way your brain understands.”

Not everyone is capable of understanding abstractions to the same degree, Education Realist concludes.

Some people do better learning the names of capitals and Presidents and the planets in the solar system. They’d learn confidence and competence through interesting, concrete math word problems and situations, and enjoy reading and writing about specific historic events, news, or scientific inventions that helped society. Instead, we shovel them into algebra, chemistry and literature analysis and make them feel stupid.

She quotes psychologist James Flynn on why IQ’s have risen steadily and significantly since the start of the 20th century (the “Flynn effect”).

Modern people . . .  are the first of our species to live in a world dominated by categories, hypotheticals, nonverbal symbols and visual images that paint alternative realities.

. . . A century ago, people mostly used their minds to manipulate the concrete world for advantage. They wore what I call “utilitarian spectacles.” Our minds now tend toward logical analysis of abstract symbols—what I call “scientific spectacles.” Today we tend to classify things rather than to be obsessed with their differences. We take the hypothetical seriously and easily discern symbolic relationships.

Well, some of us do. Flynn has a new book out, Are We Getting Smarter?

Teaching a ‘growth mindset’

Students who believe they can develop their intelligence over time — what Stanford Professor Carol Dweck calls a “growth mindset” — work harder and learn more than classmates who think intelligence is inborn and fixed.  Dweck and colleague Lisa Blackwell talk about Classroom Strategies to Foster a Growth Mindset with Larry Ferlazzo on Education Week Teacher.

Teachers should set high expectations and tell students they have the ability to succeed, say Dweck and Blackwell.

Let your students know that you value challenge-seeking, learning, and effort above perfect performance, and that the amount of progress they make individually is more important than how they compare to others. Make it clear that mistakes are to be expected and that we can all learn from them.

. . . When you introduce a new topic or assignment, tell students they should expect to find some things confusing and to make initial errors. Ask kids to share their “best” mistake of the week with you, and what they learned from it and do the same yourself.

Useful feedback focuses on “the things students can control, like their effort, challenge-seeking, persistence, and good strategies — not on their personal traits or abilities,” they say. Praising students for being smart can be counter-productive.

Neuroscience research shows the brains develop through effort and learning, they say. Tell students they about the “malleable mind.”

Let students know that when they are practicing hard things their brains are forming new connections and making them smarter. Instead of feeling dumb when they struggle, they will learn to “feel” those connections growing.

Dweck, the author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, founded Mindset Works with Blackwell, a former school leadership coach and the principal designer of Brainology.

Ferlazzo’s list of resources on developing a growth mindset is here.

The growth mindset reminds me of research by psychologists Harold Stevenson and James Stigler.  Peg Tyre summarizes in Don’t trash-talk math:  ”In countries that produce a lot of math whizzes, parents and teachers believed math ability is like a muscle you strengthen with good instruction and practice. In the USA, where kids don’t do that well, parents think of math ability as a talent, not a skill.” Chinese parents see a bad grade as evidence their child didn’t work hard enough, while American parents let their kids get away with saying, “I’m just not good at math.”

Can schools raise social mobility?

Can schools spur social mobility? asks Mike Petrilli on Flypaper.

No way, says Charles Murray, who visited Fordham to promote his new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. Murray sees a growing division between well-educated elites, who marry college classmates, and a semi-educated class who are less likely to marry at all.

New York Times columnist David Brooks worries about “the opportunity gap.” College-educated parents spend more time with their children — “reading “Goodnight Moon,” talking to their kids about their day and cheering them on from the sidelines” — than working-class parents. Affluent kids are more active in sports, theater, yearbook, scouting, etc. They’re more likely to go to church and to volunteer. It all adds up.

What to do? asks Petrilli

Our argument, as it goes, is that we’ve never really tried. Because of low expectations, mediocre teachers, a lack of options, ill-designed curricula—name your poison—poor kids have never had a chance to see their talents flourish. Put them into the right educational environment, surround them with supportive adults, and (if you’re of the broader/bolder persuasion) provide them with all kinds of social supports too, and we’ll see our elite college campuses—gateways to the new Upper Class—democratize before our eyes.

But academic ability isn’t evenly distributed. Whether by nature or nurture, successful parents are raising successful children.

“We’ve gotten really, really good” at identifying talented children from low-income and working-class communities and providing scholarships to good colleges, Murray says. Petrilli thinks online learning could provide more access, but there are limits to how many diamonds will be found in the rough.

 The second strategy is to be more realistic about the kind of social mobility we hope to spur. Getting a big chunk of America’s poor kids into the New Elite in one generation might be a fool’s errand—our meritocracy has put them at too great a disadvantage. But getting them into working -class or middle-class jobs isn’t so impossible. Here’s a question for the KIPPs and YES Preps of the world: Would you be happy if, ten years from now, your middle schoolers were working as cops, firefighters, teachers, plumbers, electricians, and nurses? This would be a huge accomplishment, it seems to me, as most poor kids will go on to work in low-paid service jobs a decade hence.

Rewarding people based on “real merit” — skills and performance — rather than credentials — SATs and degrees — would mean less social equality, writes Mickey Kaus. “Web-schooled winners” who rise without a university degree are likely to be smart people who have smart children who do well in school and out. “The social centrifuge separating the meritorious from the less meritorious won’t have stopped spinning. In some ways it will be spinning faster, with greater precision. Sorry.”


Give us your energetic, your geniuses …

To heck with the tired, poor and huddled. Give Us Your Geniuses, write Adam Ozimek and Noah Smith in The Atlantic. From the earliest days, the U.S. has enjoyed “the ability to attract and retain a huge number of the world’s best and brightest,” they write. We drew smart Scots, “the intellectual and technological elite of the British Empire.” In early 1900s and he Nazi era, a “windfall” of Jewish immigrants yielded scientists and entrepreneurs.

In the late 20th Century, a wave of immigration from Taiwan did the same, giving us (for example) the man who revolutionized AIDS treatment (David Ho), as well as the founders of YouTube, Zappos, Yahoo, and Nvidia. In fact, immigrants or the children of immigrants have founded or co-founded nearly every legendary American technology company, including Google, Intel, Facebook, and of course Apple (you knew that Steve Jobs’ father was named Abdulfattah Jandali, right?).

Taking many more high-skilled immigrants is a no-brainer, they argue.

High-skilled immigrants are not just good at their jobs. They create jobs. . . More than half of the start-ups in Silicon Valley, for instance, were started by immigrants, along with 25% of venture-backed companies that went public between 1990 and 2006.

In addition, high-skilled immigrants are innovators as well. Economists Jennifer Hunt and Marjolaine Gauthier-Loiselle find that a 1% increase in the share of immigrant college graduates in the population increases patents per capita by as much as 9-18%, after accounting for the “positive spillovers” by which HSI boost innovation by native-born inventors.

Living in Silicon Valley, I know many high-tech entrepreneurs from the three I’s, Israel, Ireland and India. These are very smart people with very smart children. My husband, who’s helped start several Silicon Valley companies, has worked with many Indians, quite a few Italians, Chinese, of course, and, well, you name it.

Spatial skills can be learned

Training can improve spatial skills, according to new research writes Daniel Willingham. That could increase the odds of success in science, mathematics, and engineering.

Should teachers learn neuroscience?

Educators should learn neuroscience, some argue. From Ed Week:

Dr. Janet N. Zadina, a former high school teacher who is now an adjunct assistant professor in neurology at Tulane University, in New Orleans, said more cross-training of teachers and neuroscientists, including lab work for the teachers and classroom experience for the researchers, would help stop the “telephone game” of half-truths conveyed now in the education neuroscience field.

Starting in the late 1990s, teachers began “sending rising numbers of students to be evaluated for conditions they didn’t have, from attention deficit disorder to epilepsy,” says neurologist Judy Willis. Classroom observations showed high rates of boredom and stress, but teachers were “attributing problems to students’ brain hemispheres or to whether they were drinking enough water.”

Drinking enough water?

Teachers don’t have the time to learn neuroscience, responds Daniel Willingham, a cognitive scientist. “Neuro-myths” should be defused during teacher training, though that doesn’t always happen. Then a central-office administrator should be in charge of evaluating whether a professional development session is legit or snake oil.

The human brain adapts with experience, scientists now say. Very little is hard-wired.

“What we find is people really do change their brain functions in response to experience,” said Kurt W. Fischer, the director of Harvard University’s Mind, Brain, and Education Program. “It’s just amazing how flexible the brain is. That plasticity has been a huge surprise to a whole lot of people.”

Among the “neuro-myths and snake-oil pitches,” Ed Week notes are “programs to improve cross-hemisphere brain communication to teaching practices aimed at ‘auditory’ or ‘visual’ learners.”

I wonder what percentage of teachers believe they should tailor instruction to auditory and visual learners. More than half would be my guess.