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.”

Teachers: Technology cuts attention spans

Diverted and distracted by technology, students can’t focus or persevere, say teachers in two new surveys.

In a Pew Internet Project survey, nearly 90 percent of teachers said digital technologies are creating “an easily distracted generation with short attention spans.”  Although the Internet helps students develop better research skills, teachers said, 64 felt technologies “do more to distract students than to help them academically.”

Seventy-three percent of teachers said entertainment media has cut students’ attention spans, according to Common Sense Media, a San Francisco nonprofit. A majority said it hurt students’ writing and speaking skills.

“Distraction” could be seen as a judgment call, Pew’s Kristen Purcell told the New York Times. Some teachers think education “must adjust to better accommodate the way students learn.”

But teachers worry about that too, the Times reports.

“I’m an entertainer. I have to do a song and dance to capture their attention,” said Hope Molina-Porter, 37, an English teacher at Troy High School in Fullerton, Calif., who has taught for 14 years. She teaches accelerated students, but has noted a marked decline in the depth and analysis of their written work.

She said she did not want to shrink from the challenge of engaging them, nor did other teachers interviewed, but she also worried that technology was causing a deeper shift in how students learned. She also wondered if teachers were adding to the problem by adjusting their lessons to accommodate shorter attention spans.

“Are we contributing to this?” Ms. Molina-Porter said. “What’s going to happen when they don’t have constant entertainment?”

Both younger and older teachers worried about technology’s impact on their students’ learning.

It’s not likely students have lost the ability to focus, responds cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham. But flashy technology with immediate rewards may have eroded students’ willingness to focus on mundane tasks.

Kids learn early that very little effort can bring a big payoff, he writes.

When a toddler is given a toy that puts on a dazzling display of light and sound when a button is pushed, we might be teaching him this lesson.

In contrast, the toddler who gets a set of blocks has to put a heck of a lot more effort (and sustained attention) into getting the toy to do something interesting–build a tower, for example, that she can send crashing down.

“It’s hard for me to believe that something as fundamental to cognition as the ability to pay attention can moved around a whole lot,” Willingham writes. “It’s much easier for me to accept that one’s beliefs–beliefs about what is worthy of my attention, beliefs about how much effort I should dispense to tasks–can be moved around, because beliefs are a product of experience.”

The best bang-for-the-buck colleges

The University of California at San Diego tops Washington Monthly‘s list of the top colleges for social mobility (enrolling and graduating low-income students at an affordable price), research and service. Next in line are Texas A&M, Stanford, University of North Carolina and Berkeley.

Only one of U.S. News‘ top ten schools, Stanford, makes the Washington Monthy’s top ten. Yale fails even to crack the top 40. New York University, which has floated to national prominence on a sea of student debt, is 77th. NYU does particularly poorly on the new “bang for the buck” measure.
Thirteen of the top 20 Washington Monthly universities are public, while all the top-ranked U.S. News colleges are “private institutions that spend more, charge more, and cater almost exclusively to the rich and upper-upper middle class.”
Also in the Washington Monthly, Stephen Burd calls for Getting Rid of the College Loan Repo Man who fails to distinguish between deadbeats and people who just can’t pay.

When to trust (or not) the experts

Dan Willingham’s new book, When Can You Trust the Experts: How to Tell Good Science from Bad in Education is out. (Download chapter 1 here.)

Every new program claims to be “research-based,” writes Willingham. Teachers and administrators don’t have the time to evaluate everything and there are no credible summaries to help.

 The first half of the book focuses on what cues we use to tell us “this is probably true,” and how they can be misleading.

. . . (It also describes) how when can know when science might help with a particular problem and when it can’t.

The second half of the book gives Willingham’s four-step short cut for evaluating research claims: Strip it (of verbiage), trace it, analyze it and should I do it?

 

$1.1 million to test ‘galvanic’ bracelets

The Gates Foundation is spending $1.1 million to test “galvanic skin response” bracelets that measure students’ engagement in lessons, writes Valerie Strauss on Answer Sheet. Clemson and the National Center on Time and Learning will research the idea’s feasibility.

Strauss sees it as a “nutty” waste of money that could be spent on books, teachers and librarians.

Is it foolish? Let’s say research shows that students learn more in the X state than when their bracelets record Z’s. Teachers could analyze the high-X and high-Z portions of their lessons to figure out how to reach students more effectively. Of course, the idea could be a dud. Maybe too many students X up or Z out for reasons that have nothing to do with learning. But we don’t know that yet.

Using science to improve the art of teaching

Is Teaching an Art or a Science? Cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham discusses how science can be used to improve the art of teaching.

Teacher assigns ‘oppo’ research for Obama

Eighth graders at a Virginia public school were told to research the weaknesses of Republican presidential candidates, write a paper on how to exploit the weaknesses and identify who to send the paper to in the Obama campaign.

“This assignment was just creepy beyond belief — like something out of East Germany during the Cold War,” one frustrated father, who asked for his family to remain anonymous, told The Daily Caller.

Michael Denman divided his honors civics class into four groups, all assigned to do “oppo” research on Republicans. After parents complained, the principal told the teacher he should have let students research a candidate from either party, a Fairfax County Public Schools spokesman said.

Duh.

Allegedly, the teacher never told students to send their research to the Obama campaign, but why assign two students in each group to figure out the name of the right “oppo” person?

 

Feds delay, twist Head Start research

Head Start’s benefits fade quickly, writes Jay Greene, but Health and Human Services is “up to its old tricks of delaying research whose results are likely to undermine their darling program, Head Start.”

In a letter to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, five senators asked “why the latest round of results of the congressionally mandated study have not been released four years after data collection was complete and one year after the report was scheduled to be released.”

In 2010 I told you about how the Department of Health and Human Services delayed the release of the previous round of disappointing research results about the lasting effects of Head Start.  When the extremely high quality study, involving a random-assignment design on a representative sample of all Head Start programs nationwide, was finally released three years after the data collection was complete, it found that students randomly assigned to Head Start performed no better on cognitive measures by the end of kindergarten and first grade.

Despite this, HHS declared the program a huge success.  “Research clearly shows that Head Start positively impacts the school readiness of low-income children,” said Sebelius.

 

Review: 75% of charter studies are flawed

Seventy-five percent of charter school studies are flawed because they fail to account for charter students’ differences in academic background and performance, according to a meta-analysis published in Science.

High-quality research is emerging from charters that use lotteries to pick students, write Julian R. Betts, a professor of economics at the University of California, San Diego, and Richard C. Atkinson, a former president of the University of California system who once served as director of the National Science Foundation. Students who apply to a charter but lose the lottery represent a sound control group, they write.

The relatively small number of lottery-based studies of charter schools have generally shown that they either outperform or perform at the same level as traditional public schools, according to the authors. But those studies cover only a small fraction—about 2 percent—of charter schools nationally.

However, charters that need lotteries for admission may be unusually good schools, the authors warn.

NEPC: Base productivity ideas on research

The U.S. Department of Education’s Increasing Educational Productivity project, which provides dollar-stretching advice to school districts, isn’t backed by solid research, charges a National Education Policy Center report.

Researchers have ignored efficiency and productivity “over the last half-century,” responds Rick Hess. “Most cost-saving efforts in most sectors are based on sensible intuitions and experimentation rather than “rigorous science.”