Music hath charms …

Music hath charms to close the achievement gap, writes Lori Miller Kase in The Atlantic. At least, researchers hope so.

Several times a week, a group of at-risk youth in Los Angeles reports to makeshift music rooms at Alexandria Elementary School near Koreatown for lessons in violin or cello or bass—and to Saturday ensemble programs where they learn to play with bands and orchestras. As the students study their instruments, researchers study the students’ brains.

The children, who devote at least five hours per week to their music, are participants in the award-winning non-profit Harmony Project, which provides free instruments and instruction to kids in underserved areas of the city if they promise to stay in school. The scientists, who hail from Northwestern University’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory, travel from Evanston, Illinois to a satellite lab in Hollywood for a few weeks each year to examine the impact of the music lessons on the children’s language and cognitive skills. What they are finding, according to Dr. Nina Kraus, a professor and neuroscientist at Northwestern and lead researcher of the study, is that music instruction not only improves children’s communication skills, attention, and memory, but that it may even close the academic gap between rich and poor students.

The Harmony Project students were compared to similar students on wait lists for music classes. In second grade, Harmony participants improved in reading, while controls who had not studied music fell farther behind in reading.

SIMPHONY (Studying the Influence Music Practice has On Neurodevelopment in Youth) is a five-year San Diego study focusing on how music training influences connections in the brain.

Public schools teach just as much music (and art) as ever, according to a 2012 U.S. Department of Education report. Nearly all elementary schools and 91 percent of secondary schools offer music classes. Students in low-poverty schools get higher-quality music instruction, writes Kase. I assume that means more opportunities to play an instrument.

Make science tell a story

When science tells a story, students remember more, writes Daniel Willingham.

In a recent study, 7th and 8th grade students read texts about the discoveries of Galileo OR the discoveries of Marie Curie. The texts were “as similar as possible in terms of syntactic complexity, vocabulary, accuracy, and other measures,” but varied in whether the information was presented in an expository fashion or as a story about the scientist.

For example, one section of the expository text included:

And with this simple, powerful tool [Galilean telescope], we can see many details when we use it to look up into the night sky. The moon may look like a smooth ball of light covered with dark spots, but on a closer look through this telescope, we can see deep valleys and great mountain ranges. Through the telescope, we can now see all the different marks on the moon’s surface. 

The narrative version read:

When Galileo looked through his new telescope, he could see the surface of the moon, and so he began his first close look into space. He slept during the day in order to work and see the moon at night. Many people thought that the moon was a smooth ball with a light of its own. Now that Galileo had a closer look through his telescope, he realized that the moon’s surface had  mountains and valleys.

Students who’d read the story remembered and understood more when tested immediately and retested a week later.

Narrative doesn’t have to be the story of an individual or group of people, adds Willingham. A narrative can show conflict, complications and the eventual resolution of conflict. In this broader sense, narrative is “more flexible, and gives teachers more options, and also better captures the aspects of narrative structure that I suspect are behind the advantage conferred.”

When I was in fourth grade, the advanced reading group read a biography of Marie Curie. It started with Curie learning Polish in a secret class because tsarist Russia wanted to stamp out Polish national spirit. I remember quite a bit and it’s been 50+ years.

Don’t count on the ‘cone of learning’


The “cone of learning, aka the “learning pyramid” or the “cone of experience” is popular — and unreliable — writes cognitive scientist Dan Willingham in Cone of learning or cone of shame?

Many variables affect memory retrieval:

what material is recalled (gazing out the window of a car is an audiovisual experience just like watching an action movie, but your memory for these two audiovisual experiences will not be equivalent)

the age of the subjects

the delay between study and test (obviously, the percent recalled usually drops with delay)

what were subjects instructed to do as they read, demonstrated, taught, etc. (you can boost memory considerably for a reading task by asking subjects to summarize as they read)

how was memory tested (percent recalled is almost always much higher for recognition tests than recall).

what subjects know about the to-be-remembered material (if you already know something about the subject, memory will be much better.

Taking practice tests and spreading out study sessions is effective, researchers conclude. In Why Don’t Students Like School?Willingham advises: ”Try to think about material at study in the same way that you anticipate that you will need to think about it later.”

A walking ray of sunshine (and failure)

“This year, I have been blessed with a student who may be the nicest kid I’ve ever taught,” writes Exasperated Educator, who teaches in New York City.

Always prepared with an ear-to-ear smile and enormous enthusiasm, he is friendly to everyone even the mean kids. . . . No matter how challenging the lesson is for him, he works hard to understand. He is a walking ray of sunshine.

She’s also got a student who can process information in the moment, but can’t retain anything.

I model it. I give him manipulatives. I’ve had other students tutor him. I’ve given him extra homework. I’ve given him no homework. I’ve let him investigate the topic using videos or computer games. I’ve kept him at lunch for private tutoring. If he does understand the lesson, it lasts only a short while and certainly not into the next day.

It’s the same kid. As much as she likes him, she worries his inevitable failure will make it harder for her to be labeled an “effective” teacher. She resents that — and hates herself for thinking of this warm-hearted boy as a problem.

Value-added analysis is supposed to account for this kind of student: He’s maintaining his previous rate of growth — none — in her class. Whether it actually works like that is another story.  Exasperated doesn’t say if he’s been diagnosed with a learning disability. Inability to retain information should qualify him for an Individualized Education Program, though that’s no magic cure.

Good math students use rote memory

Students who excel at math use rote memory to solve simple arithmetic problems, while weak students calculate, concludes a new study, Why Mental Arithmetic Counts, published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Researchers scanned students’ brains while they were solving problems.

Higher-level mathematical skills are built on “arithmetic fluency, the speed and efficiency with which correct solutions to numerical computations are generated,” researchers wrote.

This “buttresses the Common Core’s call for ‘automaticity‘ of math facts in the early grades, writes Education Gadfly.

The wrong word

Poet Robert Pinsky praises memorizing poetry badly.

Smarter homework

Students don’t need more homework or less homework, writes Annie Murphy Paul in the New York Times. They need smarter homework assignments that use what we know about how people learn. A new discipline called “Mind, Brain and Education” has produced useful insights, she writes.

For example, “spaced repetition”  — repeated, brief exposure to information — is more useful than studying it once in a large block.  “Retrieval practice” uses the pressure of a test — it can be a self-test — to help students remember more.

When we work hard to understand information, we recall it better; the extra effort signals the brain that this knowledge is worth keeping. This phenomenon, known as cognitive disfluency, promotes learning so effectively that psychologists have devised all manner of “desirable difficulties” to introduce into the learning process: for example, sprinkling a passage with punctuation mistakes, deliberately leaving out letters, shrinking font size until it’s tiny or wiggling a document while it’s being copied so that words come out blurry.

Teachers can use “interleaving” — mixing different problems in one assignment — to create desirable difficulty. “When students can’t tell in advance what kind of knowledge or problem-solving strategy will be required to answer a question, their brains have to work harder to come up with the solution and the result is that students learn the material more thoroughly.”

This is your brain on Google

People are outsourcing memory to the Internet, concludes a new study, Google Effects on Memory, published in Science.

Harvard students were asked to type 40 pieces of trivia, such as “an ostrich’s eye is bigger than its brain,” into computers. Those told the information would be erased remembered more than those told it would be saved.

“No longer do we have to make costly efforts to find the things we want. We can ‘Google’ the old classmate, find articles online, or look up the actor who was on the tip of our tongue,” the authors write.

Columbia undergrads remembered where they stored their information better than they were able to recall the information itself.

The Internet has become our primary external storage system, researcher Betsy Sparrow says. “Human memory is adapting to new communications technology.”

Education theorists disagree on whether memory matters, writes Forbes’ columnist Olga Khazan.

Author Don Tapscott advocated the no-memorization agenda back in 2008, saying that rote learning should be phased out of schools because, “teachers are no longer the fountains of knowledge; the Internet is.” Instead, he and others argue that children should be taught to better parse the constant feed of information they’re bombarded with. (He’s somewhat late to the game, however, since the popularity of memorization has been declining in schools since the early 1980s – nearly a decade before most kids would be getting on the Internet at home.)

. . . Of course, for every education reformer there is an equal and opposite education reformer. Recently, there have been some fairly convincing arguments coming from the other side – that kids need more memorization training so that society can become more innately knowledgeable, not less.

William Klemm, a neuroscience professor at Texas A&M University, has written several screeds decrying teaching methods that leave out a critical component of intelligence: memory. “Creativity comes from a mind that knows, and remembers, a lot,” he says, arguing that memorization both improves thinking and arms us with the facts to defend our arguments.

The more you know, the easier it is to seek out new information, evaluate it and do something with it.  And remember it.

To learn more, take a test

To learn more, don’t study. Take a test, advises the New York Times.  College students who read a passage and took a test on the content, remembered 50 percent more of the information a week later than students who studied the material or drew “concept maps,” according to research published online in Science,

“I think that learning is all about retrieving, all about reconstructing our knowledge,” said the lead author, Jeffrey Karpicke, an assistant professor of psychology at Purdue University. “I think that we’re tapping into something fundamental about how the mind works when we talk about retrieval.”

Students read about a scientific subject, such as how the digestive system works. One group read the text for five minutes, a second group studied the passage in four  five-minute sessions, a third group “arranged information from the passage into a kind of diagram, writing details and ideas in hand-drawn bubbles and linking the bubbles in an organized way.” The final group read the material and wrote what they remembered in a free-form essay for 10 minutes; then they reread the passage and took another retrieval practice test.

A week later, the test takers aced a short-answer test on their ability to recall facts and draw logical conclusions. The other groups were more confident but less competent.

The second experiment focused only on concept mapping and retrieval practice testing, with each student doing an exercise using each method. In this initial phase, researchers reported, students who made diagrams while consulting the passage included more detail than students asked to recall what they had just read in an essay.

But when they were evaluated a week later, the students in the testing group did much better than the concept mappers. They even did better when they were evaluated not with a short-answer test but with a test requiring them to draw a concept map from memory.

Struggling to remember information helps people learn, psychologists say.

Handwriting helps the brain

Writing by hand is good for the brain, reports the Wall Street Journal.

Using advanced tools such as magnetic resonance imaging, researchers are finding that writing by hand is more than just a way to communicate. The practice helps with learning letters and shapes, can improve idea composition and expression, and may aid fine motor-skill development.

. . . Some physicians say handwriting could be a good cognitive exercise for baby boomers working to keep their minds sharp as they age.

“New software for touch-screen devices, such as the iPad, is starting to reinvigorate” handwriting.

I fill in crossword puzzles by hand, so maybe I’m getting an anti-Alzheimer’s twofer.

Motherhood also leads to brain growth, a study finds. New moms who gush the most about their baby’s wonderfulness show the most growth in brain cells.