Brain calisthenics

Brain calisthenics” — such as computer-based exercises in quickly linking graphs to equations –  help students internalize abstract ideas and see patterns intuitively, say cognitive science researchers in a New York Times story.

Now, a small group of cognitive scientists is arguing that schools and students could take far more advantage of this same bottom-up ability, called perceptual learning. The brain is a pattern-recognition machine, after all, and when focused properly, it can quickly deepen a person’s grasp of a principle, new studies suggest.

In a 2010 study, UCLA and Penn researchers used perception training to teach fractions to  sixth graders in a Philadelphia public school.

On the computer module, a fraction appeared as a block. The students used a “slicer” to cut that block into fractions and a “cloner” to copy those slices. They used these pieces to build a new block from the original one — for example, cutting a block that represented the fraction 4/3 into four equal slices, then making three more copies to produce a block that represented 7/3. The program immediately displayed an ‘X’ next to wrong answers and “Correct!” next to correct ones, then moved to the next problem. It automatically adjusted to each student’s ability, advancing slowly for some and quickly for others. The students worked with the modules individually, for 15- to 30-minute intervals during the spring term, until they could perform most of the fraction exercises correctly.

In a test on the skills given afterward, on problems the students hadn’t seen before, the group got 73 percent correct. A comparison group of seventh graders, who’d been taught how to solve such problems as part of regular classes, scored just 25 percent on the test.

Notice how few students understand fractions.

Reading the comments reminded me of the parable of the six blind men and the elephant. Every reader seems to think the research proves their theory: Kids need more practice; kids need to construct knowledge, kids need real-world examples, kids need visuals.

I’m not doing well with abstract ideas this week, due to a horrible cold and a racking cough, but here’s UCLA’s graphs ‘n equations module.

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.

Thinking and learning

Dan Willingham’s new book, Why Don’t Students Like School?, gets a rave review in the Wall Street Journal.

A cognitive scientist, Willingham explains how teachers can use what we know about thinking to enhance learning.  For example: Is drilling worth it?

The answer is yes, because research shows that practice not only makes a skill perfect but also makes it permanent, automatic and transferable to new situations, enabling more complex work that relies on the basics. Another question: “What is the secret to getting students to think like real scientists, mathematicians, and historians?” According to Mr. Willingham, this goal is too ambitious: Students are ready to understand knowledge but not create it. For most, that is enough. Attempting a great leap forward is likely to fail.

. . . Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, is not in favor of merely making learning “fun” or “creative.” He advocates teaching old-fashioned content as the best path to improving a student’s reading comprehension and critical thinking.

Why Don’t Students Like School? is “one of the most important education books of our time,” writes Bill Evers on his Ed Policy blog.

See more here on what Willingham thinks teachers should know about cognitive science.