What does music do to our brains, or did Einstein really know what he was doing?

August 16, 2016

Einstein playing his violin in 1931, aboard the S.S. Belgenland, travelling from New York to San Diego. Vintage Everyday image.

Einstein playing his violin in 1931, aboard the S.S. Belgenland, travelling from New York to San Diego. Vintage Everyday image. Einstein claimed to get great joy from his violin. Did it also help his physics work?

Albert Einstein played a mean violin. I don’t think any recordings exist, but some say he was good enough to have earned a slot in a decent symphony.

Albert Schweitzer made money to support his work for health in Africa by offering organ recitals.

Thomas Edison liked to hire men in his lab who played instruments. In the midst of high pressure experimentation, they would often take a break as a group, and do a performance just for themselves.

People who make music often claim they do it to relax, but there may be more than mere relaxation going on when we play an instrument or sing. It’s possible making music makes us better at doing other things, too.

Should we be surprised this showed up from the World Economic Forum?

It’s an article by Assal Habibi who is a researcher at the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California, at the website of WEF, explaining where his group is going to find out how music training affects the way we think and work.

Over the past two decades, several investigators have reported differences in the brain and behavior of musicians compared to nonmusicians.

Music training has been found to be related to better language and mathematical skills, higher IQ and overall greater academic achievement. Also, differences between musicians and nonmusicians have been found in areas of the brain related to hearing and movement, among others.

However, the interpretation of the findings remains unclear. For example, the differences reported between adult musicians and nonmusicians might be due to long-term intensive training or might result primarily from inherent biological factors, such as genetic makeup.

Or, as with many aspects of the nature-versus-nurture debate, the differences may well result from contributions of both environmental and biological factors.

One way to better understand the effects of music training on child development would be to study children before they start any music training and follow them systematically after, to see how their brain and behavior change in relation to their training.

It would involve including a comparison group, as all children change with age. The ideal comparison group would be children who participate in equally socially interactive but nonmusical training, such as sports. Follow-up assessments after their training would reveal how each group changes over time.

Go take a look.

If you’re a teacher, ask whether you should be incorporating more music into your social studies, language or science classes. If you’re a manager or employer, ask whether you should be encouraging your team members to find musical outlets.

If you’re just curious, ask whether you wouldn’t be better off to volunteer in a local choir or band.

Maybe we should all dance to beats of different drummers, and violinsts, and guitarists, and clarinetists and . . .

Three years of this study remain. But these interim results are promising. They support previous findings on the positive impact of music training on brain development.

Our findings suggest that music training during childhood, even for a period as brief as two years, can accelerate brain development and sound processing. We believe that this may benefit language acquisition in children given that developing language and reading skills engage similar brain areas. This can particularly benefit at-risk children in low socioeconomic status neighborhoods who experience more difficulties with language development.

Should we be using this tool to better educate our kids?


Practice, even with failure, more important than talent – update

October 25, 2012

WordCrafter.net links to this story from an excellent page on picking a topic for an essay — English teachers, social studies teachers, you should probably make this page a part of your syllabus for essays, really.  A few teachers use the page, and when they assign essays this post starts rising in the hit count.

But that was five years ago.  There’s more information, and even an update at Stanford Magazine.  So, we’ll update here, too:

Carol Dweck, author of Mindset

Carol Dweck, Stanford University

Every teacher needs to get familiar with the work of Carol Dweck. She’s a Stanford psychologist who is advising the Blackburn Rovers from England’s Premier League, on how to win, and how to develop winning ways.

Your students need you to have this stuff.

A 60-year-old academic psychologist might seem an unlikely sports motivation guru. But Dweck’s expertise—and her recent book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success—bear directly on the sort of problem facing the Rovers. Through more than three decades of systematic research, she has been figuring out answers to why some people achieve their potential while equally talented others don’t—why some become Muhammad Ali and others Mike Tyson. The key, she found, isn’t ability; it’s whether you look at ability as something inherent that needs to be demonstrated or as something that can be developed.

What’s more, Dweck has shown that people can learn to adopt the latter belief and make dramatic strides in performance. These days, she’s sought out wherever motivation and achievement matter, from education and parenting to business management and personal development. [emphasis added]

I can’t do justice here, in short form, to Dweck’s work described by Marina Krakovsky.  See this story in Stanford Magazine [2007].

Update from Stanford Magazine:

Psychology professor Carol Dweck has spent her career figuring out why some people give up in the face of failure while others are motivated to learn from their mistakes and improve. It’s all about fixed mindsets versus growth mindsets (“The Effort Effect,” March/April 2007)

Now Dweck has formed Mindset Works, which “helps human beings reach their full potential.” Its signature product is Brainology, software developed by Dweck and educational researcher Lisa S. Blackwell and now available at www.brainology.us following successful pilots in the United States and abroad. The program aims to motivate middle school and high school students to do better in all their subjects by teaching them how the brain works and how to boost their intelligence.

Also, no discussion of this topic can be complete without at least a mention of Malcolm Gladwell‘s work.  In a recent book, Outliers, Gladwell notes what has come to be called the “10,000 hour rule.”  Gladwell observed that most experts were made by practice at a skill, rather than talent — and that mastery was achieved after about 10,000 hours of practice.  Wikipedia describes the idea Gladwell outlines:

A common theme that appears throughout Outliers is the “10,000-Hour Rule”, based on a study by Anders Ericsson. Gladwell claims that greatness requires enormous time, using the source of The Beatles’ musical talents and Gates’ computer savvy as examples.[3] The Beatles performed live in Hamburg, Germany over 1,200 times from 1960 to 1964, amassing more than 10,000 hours of playing time, therefore meeting the 10,000-Hour Rule. Gladwell asserts that all of the time The Beatles spent performing shaped their talent, and quotes Beatles’ biographer Philip Norman as saying, “So by the time they returned to England from Hamburg, Germany, ‘they sounded like no one else. It was the making of them.'”[3] Gates met the 10,000-Hour Rule when he gained access to a high school computer in 1968 at the age of 13, and spent 10,000 hours programming on it.[3]

Does Gladwell mention Dweck’s work?  Is Dweck’s work confirmed by Ericsson’s?  There’s a lot of room for discussion there, especially in an essay.

For writing, for writing essays, practice provides dramatic improvement for students — that much is certain.

More:


“Smart” can be learned, and practiced — but probably not born

October 5, 2011

“I just can’t learn — my memory just doesn’t work.”  Third time today I heard that excuse.

It’s not true.  A lot of what we do in education is based more on tradition than any kind of research — school in the winter, start in the morning, quit in the afternoon, 30 kids sitting at desks in rows, testing for mastery, bells to change shifts classes — but here’s something we do know:  Practice brings mastery; practice makes perfect, more than talent does.

This is an encore post from 2007:

Every teacher needs to get familiar with the work of Carol Dweck. She’s a Stanford psychologist who is advising the Blackburn Rovers from England’s Premier League, on how to win, and how to develop winning ways.

Your students need you to have this stuff.

A 60-year-old academic psychologist might seem an unlikely sports motivation guru. But Dweck’s expertise—and her recent book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success—bear directly on the sort of problem facing the Rovers. Through more than three decades of systematic research, she has been figuring out answers to why some people achieve their potential while equally talented others don’t—why some become Muhammad Ali and others Mike Tyson. The key, she found, isn’t ability; it’s whether you look at ability as something inherent that needs to be demonstrated or as something that can be developed.

What’s more, Dweck has shown that people can learn to adopt the latter belief and make dramatic strides in performance. These days, she’s sought out wherever motivation and achievement matter, from education and parenting to business management and personal development. [emphasis added]

I can’t do justice to Dweck’s work. See this story in Stanford Magazine.

Still true. In short, kids, you can learn the material, and you can learn to learn better — with practice.

Are you practicing?

More, and fun resources: 


Optical illusions, and “Bloody Mary” images

October 24, 2010

Take a look at this.  Focus on the “+” in the middle, and describe what you see.

Troxler Effect, the purple chaser

Troxler Effect image

No, the purple dots don’t disappear, though that’s probably what you “see.”  Worse, there’s no green dot.  Your brain sees green when the purple disappears — and even when your brain refuses to let you know the purple dots are still there, it will tell you you see a green dot when the purple dots you can’t see, disappear.

So, is it so hard to understand that people might see weird things in the mirror, if they stare at their own faces for a while?

Cortical Hemming and Hawing has the full story, with a history of the Bloody Mary story.  Go see.


Quote of the moment: David Brooks, books vs. internet

July 12, 2010

Wisdom comes in keen insights:

These different cultures foster different types of learning. The great essayist Joseph Epstein once distinguished between being well informed, being hip and being cultivated. The Internet helps you become well informed — knowledgeable about current events, the latest controversies and important trends. The Internet also helps you become hip — to learn about what’s going on, as Epstein writes, “in those lively waters outside the boring mainstream.”

But the literary world is still better at helping you become cultivated, mastering significant things of lasting import. To learn these sorts of things, you have to defer to greater minds than your own. You have to take the time to immerse yourself in a great writer’s world. You have to respect the authority of the teacher.

Right now, the literary world is better at encouraging this kind of identity. The Internet culture may produce better conversationalists, but the literary culture still produces better students.

It’s better at distinguishing the important from the unimportant, and making the important more prestigious.

David Brooks, “The Medium is the Medium,” New York Times, July 9, 2010, page A23


Educating for a creative society

June 29, 2010

Just as a reminder about what we’re doing in education, I hope every teacher and administrator will take three minutes and view this video (that allows you some time to boggle).

Surely you know who Tom Peters is.  (If not, please confess in comments, and I’ll endeavor to guide you to the information you need.)

Technically, Texas’s early elementary art standards are not so bad as Peters describes them.  But, check this document, from the Texas Education Code (§117.1. Implementation of Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills for Fine Arts, Elementary).  Do a search of the Texas standards and count how many times students are expected to stay “within guidelines.”


iPhone apps for a three-year-old’s education? What hath Steve Jobs wrought?

January 22, 2010

You gotta admire the bravery of this guy, who came to fatherhood a little late (he claims), and struggles with the fatherliness expectations of a precocious child:

When my wife returned [from a vacation], we settled back into our routine, consisting of 1-2 days per week when we eat dinner out as a family. These events can also be challenging, as our daughter is one of those kids who just cannot sit still for anything. She seems well connected to her surroundings and engages with us and others, but she is perpetual motion personified. So imagine my surprise when the littlest tornado actually sat in her chair for an entire meal!

My wife’s new secret weapon was a series of iPhone apps created especially for toddlers that one of her California girlfriends had recommended. The most popular with our daughter is Letter Tracer, which works as the name suggests. So my daughter was occupied by learning to write her letters. The device and screen provided the engagement that pen and paper hadn’t, and she delighted at being able to successfully trace all the letters of the alphabet, smiling and exclaiming “Look Daddy, I did it!” each time she completed a new tracing. My daughter was having a blast learning how to write her letters, and her parents were enjoying not just her growth but a nice restaurant experience as well.

So, he got his daughter a de-activated iPhone.  Seriously.

I’d love to see what Checker Finn would have done in that situation, or Diane Ravitch, or even dear old B. F. Skinner.

Is three too young to get your own iPhone?

Go read the piece.  Patrick Hunt at The Apple Blog, “I Gave My Daughter an iPhone – Have I Created a Monster?”

The discussion is good, too.  Why can’t this guy be our tech director, in a district where getting technology is like asking for a French dictionary at Republican Party HQ?


Best optical illusion of the year

July 12, 2009

I like to use optical illusions for warm-ups and bell ringers, to get students thinking and looking at things a bit differently.

Richard Wiseman said this is the best new optical illusion he’s seen so far this year:

Image by Prof. Kitaoka, 2009

Image by Prof. Kitaoka, 2009

What’s the illusion?  Well, you see those green stripes?  See the blue stripes?  Actually they are the same color.

You don’t think so?  Zoom in.  Or click over to Wiseman’s blog site and see what happens when all the other colors are turned to black.

I know you think you know what you see; what you think you see may not be what you actually see.  Your brain modifies what you think you see, in order to make it appear sensible, and in doing so, it sometimes makes you see things quite differently from what they are.  Don’t forget that.

So, how do we know what we know?  How do we know that what we know is correct?


Cognitive Science Network, new at SSRN

April 14, 2009

Unedited press release follows:

We are pleased to announce the creation of the Cognitive Science Network (CSN). It will provide a worldwide, online community for research in all areas of cognitive science, following the model of other subject matter networks within SSRN.

We expect CSN to become a comprehensive online resource for research in cognitive science, providing scholars with access to current work in their field and facilitating research and scholarship.

CSN’s founding director is Mark Turner, Institute Professor, Case Western Reserve University – Department of Cognitive Science.

Initially, CSN will begin with the following 7 subject matter eJournals, and subscriptions will be free during the start-up phase until October 2009.

COGNITION & CULTURE: CULTURE, COMMUNICATION, DESIGN, ETHICS, MORALITY, RELIGION, RHETORIC, & SEMIOTICS

View Papers: http://www.ssrn.com/link/Cognition-Culture.html
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Editor: Todd Oakley, Associate Chair, Associate Professor of Cognitive Science, Case Western Reserve University – Department of Cognitive Science

Description: Cognition & Culture focuses on the cognitive study of cultures as creations of human minds in environments. Its scope includes research on cultural manifestations, their differences and incommensurabilities, and their expressive and semantic regularities and universals. This eJournal announces working papers, meetings, and events associated with interdisciplinary research projects and aims at encouraging collaboration across disciplines. It presents research in cognitive science having to do with such fields as design, ethics, history, jurisprudence, morality, philosophy, politics, religion, sociality, science, and technology.

COGNITION & THE ARTS

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Editor: Mark Turner, Institute Professor, Case Western Reserve University – Department of Cognitive Science

Description: A publication dedicated to the artful mind and its relationship to the full range of higher-order human cognition. All scientific approaches are welcome, including developmental, evolutionary, linguistic, and comparative. Cognition & the Arts construes artistic behavior broadly, to include not only the various recognized genres of the arts but also design, style, and performance, throughout the lifecourse.

COGNITION IN MATHEMATICS, SCIENCE, & TECHNOLOGY

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Editors: Gilles Fauconnier, Professor, Department of Cognitive Science, University of California, San Diego, and Mark Turner, Institute Professor, Case Western Reserve University – Department of Cognitive Science

Description: Mathematical insight, scientific discovery, and technological innovation are hallmarks of higher-order human cognition. Cognition in Mathematics, Science, and Technology is dedicated to the cognitive science of mathematics, science, and technology – in phylogenetic descent, ontogenetic transformation, and historical action.

COGNITION LINGUISTICS: COGNITION, LANGUAGE, GESTURE

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Editor: Mark Turner, Institute Professor, Case Western Reserve University – Department of Cognitive Science

Description:Cognitive linguistics goes beyond the visible structure of language and investigates the considerably more complex backstage operations of cognition that create grammar, conceptualization, discourse, and thought itself. The theoretical insights of cognitive linguistics are based on extensive empirical observation in multiple contexts, and on experimental work in psychology and neuroscience. Results of cognitive linguistics, especially from metaphor theory and conceptual integration theory, have been applied to wide ranges of nonlinguistic phenomena.” – Gilles Fauconnier. 2006. “Cognitive Linguistics.” Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science. John Wiley & Sons.

COGNITIVE NEUROSCIENCE

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Description: Cognitive Neuroscience is dedicated to research on the neurobiological substrate of higher-order human cognition. All methodologies are welcome – philosophical to physiological, modeling to mapping, statistical to individual case study – in forging a research initiative that transcends the limitations of any one discipline or paradigm.

COGNITIVE SOCIAL SCIENCE

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Editors: Mathew D. McCubbins, Professor of Political Science, Chancellor’s Associates Chair, University of California, San Diego – Political Science, Adjunct Professor & Co-Director of the USC-CalTech Center for the Study of Law and Politics, University of Southern CaliforniaGould School of Law, and Mark Turner, Institute Professor, Case Western Reserve University – Department of Cognitive Science

Description: Mental events, however distributed, provide the defining problems of the social sciences. What are our basic cognitive operations? How do we use them in judgment, decision, action, reason, choice, persuasion, expression? Do voters know what they need to know? How do people choose? What are the best incentives? When is judgment reliable? Can negotiation work? How do cognitive conceptual resources depend on social and cultural location? How do certain products of cognitive and conceptual systems come to be entrenched as publicly-shared knowledge and method? Economists, political scientists, sociologists, anthropologists, and all other social scientists refer as a matter of course to mental events and typically must assume some general outline of what those mental events can be and how they can arise. They explore networks of mental events in social systems and in social cognition. Given this convergence of cognitive science and the social sciences at their intellectual cores, and the increasing body of research activity at their intersection, the Cognitive Science Network provides an eJournal to track and distribute new and classic research in the emerging field of cognitive social science.

EMERGENCE OF COGNITION

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Editor: Mark Turner, Institute Professor, Case Western Reserve University – Department of Cognitive Science

Description: Dedicated to the study of the emergence of cognition, especially human higher-order cognition, phylogenetically and ontogenetically, in evolution and development.

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Synesthesia? In every school

February 28, 2009

Do the math:  930,000 U.S. kids with synesthesia, out of 60 million students.  (Okay, “synaesthesia” for the British search programs.)

You might have one. A pyschologist in Britain did the research.

For the first time, psychologists have documented the prevalence of a form of synaesthesia – the condition that leads to a mixing of the senses – in a large sample of children. Over a twelve month period, Julia Simner and colleagues tested 615 children aged six to seven years at 21 UK schools and conservatively estimated that 1.3 per cent of them had grapheme-colour synaesthesia, in which letters and numbers involuntarily trigger the sensation of different colours.

“[This] implicates over 170,000 children age 0–17 in the UK alone, and over 930,000 in the USA,” the researchers said, “and suggests that the average primary school in England and Scotland (n = 168 pupils) contains 2.2 grapheme-colour synaesthetes at any time, while the average-sized US primary school (n = 396 pupils) contains 5.1.” Inevitably, the prevalence for synaesthesia as a whole, considering all the sub-types, would be even higher.

A hall-mark of grapheme-colour synaesthesia is that the colour triggered by a given letter or number is always the same – a fact the researchers exploited to identify the condition in school children.

Indeed, when asked to associate letters with colours, the children identified as synaesthetes showed more consistency over a 12-month-period than the other children did over a ten second period!

Researchers calculated about 5 such students in the average U.S. school, assuming a student population of about 400.

400!  In Texas that’s a tiny high school that may have difficulty fielding a football team.

In Brain, a journal of neurology (abstract available, full text with subscription).

ResearchBlogging.orgJ. Simner, J. Harrold, H. Creed, L. Monro, L. Foulkes (2008). Early detection of markers for synaesthesia in childhood populations. Brain, 132 (1), 57-64 DOI: 10.1093/brain/awn292


Tip of the old scrub brush to Research Digest Blog.

Resources:


Robert Zajonc, and what he revealed to teachers, politicians, and propagandists

December 23, 2008

The Situationist brings the sad news:  Psychologist Robert Zajonc died on December 3. (It’s a repost of a story by Adam Gorlick from Stanford News Service.)

Zajonc wasn’t a household name (I didn’t even know it rhymes with “science”), but his research was.

Psychologist Robert Zajonc, pioneer of social psychology

Psychologist Robert Zajonc, pioneer of social psychology

Plus, he led a stunning, dramatic and sometimes wonderful life, surviving horrors in the Holocaust and contributing great things to science.

Gorlick’ s memorial may be best read there, and I encourage you to click over there to read it.

Several of  Zajonc’s articles are listed as “Classics” at Science Magazine, including his 1981 defense of research spending, in the first year of the Reagan administration.

I also urge you to consider what teachers might do with some of Zajonc’s findings, things that propagandists and dastardly politicians (and a few nice politicians) have already used:

  • People like images they see over and over, the “mere exposure” effect  (It’s important what pictures you post in your classroom, yes?)
  • Parental contact with older children can raise their IQs — well, parental contact does raise the IQs of older children, but having less time for younger children tends to keep the younger kids’ IQs from developing as much.  (Did you read to your youngest kid last night?)
  • Challenging kids to tell why things work the way they claim makes them smarter. (This was the same research:  The younger kids’ challenging the older kids made the older kids smarter.  Heck, their challenging of the parents probably make the parents smarter, too.  Do we make students defend their views to other students?)
  • Facial expression affects emotions (“Emotions and Facial Expression,” Zajonc, Science 8 November 1985: 608-687; DOI: 10.1126/science.230.4726.608-b)
  • People who perform tasks well, perform them even better in front of an audience.
  • People who perform an unknown task before an audience tend to make more mistakes than they would if they practiced it in private.

Some of Professor Zajonc’s most influential work concerned “social facilitation” — the effect of the presence of others on a person’s performance of a specific task. Previous research on the subject appeared contradictory, suggesting that spectators helped performers in some cases but not in others. But in which cases?

What Professor Zajonc found was that when performers have mastered a skill at a high level, they are helped by the presence of an audience. (Think of professional musicians or athletes.) But he also found that when a performer has mastered a skill only imperfectly, the existence of onlookers is a hindrance. (Think of Sunday duffers in any arena.)

Elsewhere in his work, Professor Zajonc explored the nexus between psychology and physiology. In one widely reported study, he found that smiling or frowning can alter blood flow to the brain as facial muscles relax or contract. This in turn affects the parts of the brain that regulate feelings, helping induce happy or sad emotional states.

And do you ever wonder about why old couples tend to resemble each other so much?  Zajonc worked that out, too.

Why didn’t he get a Presidential Medal of Freedom?

Resources:


Tom Chapin, “It’s Not on the Test”

October 18, 2008

A couple of recent studies show the moral, intellectual and educational bankruptcy of the so-called No Child Left Behind Act.  The groundswell necessary to scrap the thing has not caught up to the urgency of doing so, alas.

Tom Chapin, the youngest of the musical Chapin Brothers who once included Harry Chapin, worked in advanced childhood education before we knew what it was.  As host of ABC Television’s “Make A Wish,” Chapin significantly contributed to one of the finest education programs ever broadcast.  It’s a sin that it’s not on DVD for kids now.  “Make A Wish” demonstrated what television could do, in that era before the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) turned its back on the public interest requirements of the Communications Act of 1934, and before commercial television pulled the plug on dreams that commercial television might be a great engine of education and cultural enrichment.

Chapin is back, with a modest poke at the NCLB balloon, and a more powerful vote for arts education in public schools:  “It’s Not on the Test”:

I ponder the research I’ve seen over the years, both inside the Department of Education and out, and the statistical and anecdotal stories that show art training and education (not the same thing) improve academic performance, and I wonder what squirrels have eaten the brains of “reformers” who kill arts programs for the stated purposes of “improving test performance.”  Einstein played the violin.  Feynman drummed.  Churchill painted, as did Eisenhower.  Edison and his team had a band, and jammed when they were stuck on particular problems, or just for fun.  When will education decision makers see the light?

May this little spark ignite a prairie fire of protest.

Where are you protesting this week?


Even babies chunk data

July 21, 2008

How do you apply this information in your lesson plans?

Even babies chunk data for memorization. That is, even babies find it easier to remember things if the new items include chunks of already familiar information.

Not Exactly Rocket Science discusses new research that shows infants as young as 14 months use this memorization trick.

Which of these strings of letters is easier to remember: QKJITJGPI or BBCITVCNN?

Chances are, you chose the latter string, where the nine letters are the combined names of three television networks. This neatly illustrates a fundamental property of human memory – that we remember long strings of information more easily if we can break them down into bite-sized chunks. In this case, a nine-letter string can be divided into three lots of three letters. You probably use similar strategies for remembering telephone numbers, credit card details, or post codes.

Now, Lisa Feigenson and Justin Halberda from Johns Hopkins University have found that infants just 14 months old can use the same technique, delightfully known as “chunking” to increase the limited scope of their memories. Their work suggests that this technique isn’t something we learn through education or experience – it’s more likely to be a basic part of the way our minds process information.

Much more, here.


Does gender-separated schooling work better?

June 16, 2008

Even public school districts toy with the idea of separating genders in the primary and secondary grades.  Some people argue that there is experimental evidence to support the plan, plus there are the arguments about physical differences between the genders, which suggest different educational strategies for girls than for boys.

The No Child Left Behind Act requires schools to implement programs that are supported by research.  Is there solid research to support separating the genders?

Apart from the hoaxes, such as the much ballyhooed “Crokus” in boys brains, the evidence for separating the genders based on physical differences may be a lot slimmer than advocates claim.

For example, do boys really hear differently from girls?   Are the physical differences so great?  Consider the opening paragraph for a lengthy article on the issue by Elizabeth Weil, in The New York Times Magazine last March:

On an unseasonably cold day last November in Foley, Ala., Colby Royster and Michael Peterson, two students in William Bender’s fourth-grade public-school class, informed me that the class corn snake could eat a rat faster than the class boa constrictor. Bender teaches 26 fourth graders, all boys. Down the hall and around the corner, Michelle Gay teaches 26 fourth-grade girls. The boys like being on their own, they say, because girls don’t appreciate their jokes and think boys are too messy, and are also scared of snakes. The walls of the boys’ classroom are painted blue, the light bulbs emit a cool white light and the thermostat is set to 69 degrees. In the girls’ room, by contrast, the walls are yellow, the light bulbs emit a warm yellow light and the temperature is kept six degrees warmer, as per the instructions of Leonard Sax, a family physician turned author and advocate who this May will quit his medical practice to devote himself full time to promoting single-sex public education.

Mark Liberman, who writes at Language Log, deals with these issues dispassionately, and scientifically.  He started a policy of publishing on the blog questions that he gets from journalists on the issues.  Here’s his first published answer, for example, and as you can see, it’s a bit of an information-loaded doozy:

1. I’ve read a few posts on Language Log, but please tell me more about what you think about Dr. Sax’s arguments about sex-based differences in the brain?

In his books, Leonard Sax is a political activist using science to make a case, not a scientist evaluating a hypothesis.

Science is sometimes on his side, sometimes neutral or equivocal, and sometimes against him. He picks the results that fit his agenda, ignoring those that don’t; and all too often, he misunderstands, exaggerates or misrepresents the results that he presents.

There’s detailed support for these assertions in some Language Log posts from 2006:

David Brooks, cognitive neuroscientist” (6/12/2006)
Are men emotional children?” (6/24/2005)
Of rats and (wo)men” (8/19/2006)
Leonard Sax on hearing” (8/22/2006)
More on rats and men and women” (8/22/2006)
The emerging science of gendered yelling” (9/5/2006)
Girls and boys and classroom noise” (9/9/2006)

This doesn’t mean that his conclusions are false, but it does mean that his appeals to science are not trustworthy.

More nuance than some policy groups might be able to deal with, but enough information to direct a genuinely interested person to some good sources.

You’ll also want to read “Retinal Sex and Sexual Rhetoric,” and “Liberman on Sax on Liberman on Sax on Hearing.”

In our weekly staff meetings with then Assisstant Secretary of Education for Research Chester W. Finn, at the old Office for Educational Research and Information, Finn often opened the meetings by turning to the Director of Research and asking whether, in the past week, we had learned how people learn.  When satisfied that this key breakthrough had not been achieved in the previous week, which would change much of what we did, Finn would say something like, “Now that we know we don’t know what we’re doing, let’s go through the agenda.”

Keeping an appropriate sense of humor about the issue, Finn still provided sharp reminders that the science behind learning, for all of the volumes available, is very tenuous and thin.

When science is so thin, the policy side of the discipline can be waved around by a good presentation coupled with plausible sciency-sounding material.  “Plausible” does not equal “good,” and often it doesn’t even equal “accurate.”

Liberman’s critiques are detailed, and they point out questions that the average school board member or principal is probably ill-equipped to realize, let alone ask from an “expert” or consultant selling a program to the district.

Before we teach critical thinking to the kids, we need a lot more critical thinking from administrators.  Liberman tries to light the path to that critical thinking.

What do you think?  Does gender-separate education work better?  Are there such great differences in the learning abilities and methods of boys and girls that we ought to separate them?

What about other shibboleths we hear?  Classroom size?  Testing?  Delivery of material?  Difficulty of material?   Where is there good research for reforming our schools, for the better?


Jill Bolte Taylor in the NY Times

June 2, 2008

Jill Bolte Taylor’s inspiring story of stroke and recovery in a brain function specialist got a nice treatment in the New York Times a week ago:  “A superhighway to bliss.


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