Give your brain a break

Give your brain a break and achieve inner peace with Matthew Johnstone’s illustrated guide to meditation. I love the opening graphic.

Over a 24-hour period we can process up to 70,000 thoughts, even as we sleep. Each day contains 86,400 seconds, so that equates to a different thought every 1.2 seconds, or two thoughts for every heartbeat. Basically, your brain never shuts up!

Should kids learn cursive?

Should schools require children to learn cursive? asks the New York Times‘ Room for Debate blog. The new common standards don’t call for cursive. Many think the keyboard has made penmanship obsolete.

Handwriting matters, but not cursive, writes Kate Gladstone, founder of Handwriting Repair/Handwriting That Works.

The fastest, clearest handwriters join only some letters: making the easiest joins, skipping others, using print-like forms of letters whose cursive and printed forms disagree.

I do that! I didn’t know it was the in thing.

Children should learn to read cursive, but that “can be taught in just 30 to 60 minutes,” once kids learn to read print, Gladstone writes.

At a 2012 conference hosted by a publisher of cursive textbooks, only 37 percent of  handwriting teachers wrote in cursive, writes Gladstone. Eight percent printed. A majority — 55 percent — combined print and cursive in an efficient hybrid style.

“Mandating cursive to preserve handwriting resembles mandating stovepipe hats and crinolines to preserve the art of tailoring,” she concludes.

Writing in cursive stimulates the brain, argues Suzanne Baruch Asherson, an occupational therapist in Beverly Hills schools and a national presenter for Handwriting Without Tears, an early childhood education company.

. . . learning to write in cursive is shown to improve brain development in the areas of thinking, language and working memory. Cursive handwriting stimulates brain synapses and synchronicity between the left and right hemispheres, something absent from printing and typing.

Let cursive die out, responds Morgan Polikoff, a USC education professor. “There is little compelling research to suggest the teaching of cursive positively affects other student skills enough to merit its teaching.”

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.”

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.

Brain training: Can it make us smarter?

Can You Make Yourself Smarter? asks the New York Times. Research suggests that training “working memory” and attention carries over to other cognitive skills.

Working memory is more than just the ability to remember a telephone number long enough to dial it; it’s the capacity to manipulate the information you’re holding in your head — to add or subtract those numbers, place them in reverse order or sort them from high to low. Understanding a metaphor or an analogy is equally dependent on working memory; you can’t follow even a simple statement like “See Jane run” if you can’t put together how “see” and “Jane” connect with “run.” Without it, you can’t make sense of anything.

“We see attention and working memory as the cardiovascular function of the brain,” says Susanne Jaeggi, whose research has challenged the consensus that “fluid intelligence” can’t be improved.

Training the brain has shown results for preschoolers, elementary students, college students and the elderly in a variety of studies, reports the Times.  There’s no proof yet that the training leads to “real-world gains in schooling and job performance . . .  but already, people with disorders including attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (A.D.H.D.) and traumatic brain injury have seen benefits from training.”

There are skeptics:

. . . the most prominent takedown of I.Q. training came in June 2010, when the neuroscientist Adrian Owen published the results of an experiment conducted in coordination with the BBC television show “Bang Goes the Theory.” After inviting British viewers to participate, Owen recruited 11,430 of them to take a battery of I.Q. tests before and after a six-week online program designed to replicate commercially available “brain building” software. . . .  “Although improvements were observed in every one of the cognitive tasks that were trained,” he concluded in the journal Nature, “no evidence was found for transfer effects to untrained tasks, even when those tasks were cognitively closely related.”

Others say brain training transfers to other skills, such as reading comprehension for college students.

A Berkeley researchers, Silvia Bunge, compared disadvantaged children who played a reasoning game with those who played games designed to boost response times.

After eight weeks of training — 75 minutes per day, twice a week — Bunge found that the children in the reasoning group scored, on average, 10 points higher on a nonverbal I.Q. test than they had before the training. Four of the 17 children who played the reasoning games gained an average of more than 20 points. In another study, not yet published, Bunge found improvements in college students preparing to take the LSAT.

The Times story is “a bit — but only a bit — too optimistic,” writes Daniel Willingham, a cognitive scientist.

  Fluid intelligence is one’s ability to reason, see patterns, and think logically, independent of specific experience. Crystallized intelligence, in contrast, is stuff that you know, knowledge that comes from prior experience. You can see why working memory capacity might lead to more fluid intelligence–you’ve got a greater workspace in which to manipulate ideas.

“There are enough replications of this basic effect that it seems probable that something is going on,” writes Willingham. But it’s not clear that training working memory will improve performance on a variety of cognitive tasks.

 

Bilingualism strengthens the brain

Being bilingual makes you smarter, writes Yudhijit Bhattacharjee in the New York Times. Juggling two languages gives “the mind a workout that strengthens its cognitive muscles.”

The collective evidence from a number of such studies suggests that the bilingual experience improves the brain’s so-called executive function — a command system that directs the attention processes that we use for planning, solving problems and performing various other mentally demanding tasks. These processes include ignoring distractions to stay focused, switching attention willfully from one thing to another and holding information in mind — like remembering a sequence of directions while driving.

The cognitive benefits may even prevent dementia in old age.

I’m tutoring a bilingual first grader in reading. When she asked if Spanish was bad, I gave her a pep talk on bilingualism making the brain stronger.

“Dogs can’t really talk,” she responded.

“They can say ‘arf’,” I said. She was not impressed. “No, dogs can’t really talk,” I said. We moved on.

This is your child’s brain on TV

This is Your Child's Brain on Television
Via: Online Courses News

Why rich kids do better in school than poor kids

Why do rich kids do better in school than poor kids? Daniel Willingham provides two answers in an American Educator article.

First, wealthier parents can invest more in their children. They can afford “enrichment experiences in the summer, more books in the home, a tutor if one is needed, better access to health care, and so on.”

Wealthier parents are also likely to be higher in human capital–that is, they know more stuff. Wealthier parents speak more often to their children, and with a richer vocabulary, with more complex syntax, and in a way that elicits ideas from the child. Wealthier parents are also more likely to read to their children and to buy toys that teach letters and the names of shapes and colors.

Children who grow up in poverty are prey to “stress caused by crowding, by crime-ridden neighborhoods, by food uncertainty, and other factors.”  Warm, supportive parents can counteract this, but stress may affect parents’ ability to raise their children well, Willingham writes. “Stress also leads directly to brain changes in children. Both of these factors lead to emotional and cognitive disadvantage for kids.”

What can teachers do? Teach academic knowledge and skills that kids won’t get at home, but also teach “how to interact with peers and adults, how to interact with large institutions like a school or a government agency, how to interact with authority figures, how to schedule one’s time, strategies to regulate one’s emotions and so on,” Willingham writes.

A “calm atmosphere” is important for kids who come from noisy, crowded and thratening neighborhoods and homes, he adds. “Kids in more chaotic classrooms show higher levels of stress hormones.”

Researchers: Single-sex ed is ‘pseudoscience’

Single-sex education is based on “pseudoscience,” charge a team of neuroscience and child development experts in a Science article. There is “no empirical evidence” that segregating students by sex improves education, they argue. There’s plenty of  evidence it can increase gender stereotyping among students and adults.

The National Association for Single-Sex Public Education estimates more than 500 schools separate boys and girls for at least some classes, reports Inside School Research.

A new curriculum may yield a short-term gain because it’s evaluated by true believers, the scientists said.

“Novelty-based enthusiasm, sample bias, and anecdotes account for much of the glowing characterization of [single-sex] education in the media. Without blind assessment, randomized assignment to treatment or control experiences, and consideration of selection factors, judging the effectiveness of innovations is impossible.”

“There are some definite brain differences in boys and girls as children, but there are a lot of overlaps, and there’s absolutely nothing to suggest that they learn differently,” Claremont McKenna Psychology Professor Diane Halpern told Inside School Research. “The underlying biology of learning is the same.”

Students in single-sex classes don’t perform significantly better than those in mixed-gender classes, once the students’ prior performance and characteristics are taken into account, the critics said.

Update: If there’s no evidence single-sex education is any worse than mixed classes — and there isn’t — then let parents decide, responds Paul Peterson on Ed Next. Many parents like the idea for a variety of reasons, he writes.

Dyslexia is linked to voice recognition

Dyslexics have trouble recognizing voices, say MIT researchers in a study published in last week’s Science. That suggests the reading problem also is a “problem with how the brain processes speech and puts together words from smaller units of sound,” reports the New York Times.

Adults listened to recorded voices speaking English or an unfamiliar language, Mandarin.  Non-dyslexics matched voices to English-speaking avatars 70 percent of the time and to Mandarian-speaking avatars half the time.  Dyslexics matched voices half the time in both English and Mandarin.

(Cogntive scientist John) Gabrieli said the findings underscored a critical problem for dyslexic children learning to read: the ability of a child hearing, say, a parent or teacher speak to connect the auditory bits that make up words, called phonemes, with the sight of written words.

If a child has trouble grasping the sounds that make up language, he said, acquiring reading skills will be harder.

The research shows that spoken language deficiencies persist even when dyslexics learn to read well. The study subjects were mostly “high-functioning, high-I.Q. young adults who had overcome their reading difficulty,” Dr. Gabrieli said. “And yet when they had to distinguish voices, they were not one iota better with the English-language voices that they’ve heard all their life.”

Reading involves a “circuit, the ability to have all of those components integrated absolutely automatically,” said Maryanne Wolf, a dyslexia expert at Tufts University. “One of the great weaknesses in dyslexia is that the system is not able to integrate these phoneme-driven systems” with other aspects of language comprehension.