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?


Does mood affect how well you do homework?

September 22, 2008

Interesting discussion around how a student’s mood affects retention of material covered in homework, from the students at Extreme Biology.

What is your experience?


Let your students blog

September 22, 2008

One way to get better use out of technology is to let your students use it.  How about having students make posts to a blog, for credit?  They learn how to write, they learn technology, and they learn the class material.

Here’s a great example of a classroom-driven blog, where the students do most of the work: Extreme Biology. Miss Baker’s Biology Class holds forth from a school in the northeast, with 9th grade and AP biology students doing most of the work.

Here’s another good example, from another biology class (in Appleton, Wisconsin — close to you, James!):  Endless Forms Most Beautiful (every biologist will recognize the title from biology literature).

The idea is attracting some attention in science circles, especially with an idea that working scientists ought to drop by from time to time to discuss things with students.

How do your students use technology to boost their learning?


No one believes it. Is it so?

August 9, 2008

One of the great mysteries of history is how an entire nation of people can follow a leader into tragedy — a stupid war, economic morass, cultural suicide, genocide, or other tragedy — without appearing to notice they were going against their national values, against reason, against morality.

I wonder if part of the answer can be found by studying the way our brains perceive things, in particular, the way our brains force us to see things that are not so.

Some things are just so unbelievable, our brains tell us we’re seeing something different, something more believable. Here are two examples, the Charlie Chaplin mask illusion, and the Einstein mask illusion.

Chaplin — you know it’s concave, but the nose sticks out every time:

Einstein — is Big Brother really watching you? What do your eyes say?

Here’s a nasty little kicker: Even when most people know that it’s an illusion, they can’t perceive the illusion-in-action; as Paul Simon wrote, “Still a man sees what he wants to see and he disregards the rest.” See Stephen Fry’s discussion about the illusion from BBC2:

Historical applications

  • CIA chief William Colby was involved in Operation Phoenix during the Vietnam War. When investigations revealed that the operation involved torture, many people refused to believe the U.S. would be involved in torture (good!). And even after he admitted to Congressional committees that he had personally authorized the torture, people had difficulty believing it. David Wise wrote an article about Operation Phoenix for the New York Times Magazine, July 1, 1973: “Not one of Colby’s friends or neighbors, or even his critics on the Hill, would, in their wildest imagination, conceive of Bill Colby attaching electric wires to a man’s genitals and personally turning the crank. “Not Bill Colby… He’s a Princeton man.'”
  • “[T]he Russians are finished. They have nothing left to throw against us,” a confident Adolf Hitler told Gen. Franz Halder in July 1941. Russia mired down the German army, making the phrase “the Eastern Front” a dreaded death sentence in German commands. In the end, it was the Soviet Army that first got to Berlin, and captured Hitler’s command bunker where der Führer had committed suicide a short time before. Adding to the historic irony, twice over: First, Stalin refused to believe his intelligence service reports that the Nazis were massing on the border of Russia, just two years after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which pledged neither nation would invade the other. Second, Hitler’s generals had studied Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812, working to avoid all the mistakes Napoleon made. So sure were the Nazis of their superiority to Napoleon in every way, they invaded Russia on the anniversary of Napoleon’s invasion, June 22, 1941. Great shades of Santayana’s Ghost!
  • Bush administration historians will wonder why Bush was able to do what he did, in the Iraq war and other situations foreign and domestic, with even members of his own party who saw him close up believing he’d do something different. See this story by Ron Susskind, “Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George Bush,” New York Times Magazine, October 17, 2004.
  • The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, based on an incident in the Gulf of Tonkin near Vietnam.  (See also documents from the National Security Agency archives.)
  • Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq.

Richard Feynman discussed at length how scientists know their experimental results are accurate, and how to keep science honest. He pointed out that most of the time, errors creep in at the start, and some people just refuse to believe they exist. It is easiest to fool ourselves, Feynman said — and so a good scientist understands that, and protects against self-deception. If only other disciplines could adopt that philosophy, strategy and tactics!

Faith can get us through troubled times, but often gets us into troubled times in the first place.

Do you have other examples of self-delusion by illusionary means?

Tip of the old scrub brush to Vous Pensez.


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.


World’s best graphs

May 14, 2008

I miss Headrush.  Here’s why — and if there’s not a graph or other good idea here you can steal, you’re not thinking.  Get another couple of cups of coffee.


TED Talks: Neurologist describes her stroke

April 20, 2008

From Think or Thwim, a TEDS Talk video of neurologist Jill Bolte Taylor, describing in that brief, TEDS way, the morning when she had a stroke on the left side of her brain. It’s a stirring talk, as she describes the loss of functions, the loss of the ability to hear, the loss of the ability to talk, and the great insights she got from the experience in her 30s — more than a decade later, after what must be described as a full recovery.

Caution to the skeptics — she veers into a bit of wooishness. It’s still worth the look. Caution to the squeamish: Yes, that’s a brain.

Psychology teachers: Can you use this in class? What a great piece in discussion of brain physiology.

Also, her book: Jill Bolte Taylor | My Stroke of Insight

Vodpod videos no longer available. from www.ted.com posted with vodpod

*

Okay, if the TEDS version doesn’t show above (I’ve had good experiences posting them before . . .) here’s the YouTube version


Science funding: Kicking our future away

April 9, 2008

Drat.

We get Charlie Rose’s program late here — generally after midnight. I’m up to my ears with charitable organization duties (“Just Say No!”), work where I came in midstream, family health issues, and other typical aggravations of trying live a well-examined life.

I caught most of an hour discussion on science in America, featuring Sir Paul Nurse, president of Rockefeller University and Nobel laureate, Bruce Alberts, editor of Science, Shirley Ann Jackson, president of  Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Harold Varmus, Nobel winner and president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and Lisa Randall, the Harvard nuclear physicist (string theory).

It was a great policy discussion. It had great humor, and great wisdom. And at the end, Rose thanked Nurse and others for helping him put on a 13-part seminar on science policy.

Thirteen parts? And I caught just the last few minutes of #13?

There is the Charlie Rose archives! Here’s the show I caught, “The Imperative of Science.” Great discussion. Scary — Lisa Randall notes that the action in physics has moved to CERN, in Europe, and the search for the Higgs Boson. Varmus and Nurse talk about restrictions in funding that bite at our ability to keep the world lead in education and science. Educators, especially in science, should watch.

Are we kicking away our ability to lead in technology, health care, and other vital economic areas? One cannot help but wonder in listening to these people discuss the difficulty of getting support for critical research during the Bush administration. They each stressed the hope that the next president will be one literate in science.

Pfizer underwrote the series. The entire series is available for viewing at a site Pfizer set up(Signs of change:  Notice that physics is represented by two women; there are signs of hope in American science.)

Go see, from Pfizer’s website on the series:

The Charlie Rose Science Series

  • Episode 1: The Brain — Exploring the human brain from psychoanalysis to cutting edge research.
  • Episode 2: The Human Genome — Exploring the contributions that have been made to science through the discovering and mapping of human DNA.
  • Episode 3: Longevity — An in-depth discussion of longevity and aging from the latest research on calorie restriction, anti-aging drugs, genetic manipulation to the social and economic implications of an increase in human life span. (Longevity News Release)
  • Episode 4: Cancer — A discussion of the latest advances in cancer, from the genetics to cancer prevention, early detection, diagnosis, treatment and management of care. (Cancer News Release)
  • Episode 5: Stem Cells — A roundtable discussion on the latest advances in embryonic and adult stem cell research, their implications, and potential to change the way medicine is practiced.
  • Episode 6: Obesity — An informative dialogue on the growing obesity epidemic, its impact on overall health and the latest research to help understand, treat and prevent obesity. (Obesity News Release)
  • Episode 7: HIV/AIDS — A panel of leading experts addresses current treatment and prevention strategies, and new medical breakthroughs being used in the fight against HIV/AIDS. (HIV/AIDS News Release)
  • Episode 8: Pandemics — An exploration of factors that could create a global pandemic and how the science and public health leaders are addressing the crisis. (Pandemics News Release)
  • Episode 9: Heart Disease — A panel of experts explores the biology and genetics of cardiovascular disease, prevention and treatment, the development of medical, surgical and interventional therapies and steps individuals can take toward a heart-healthy lifestyle. (Heart Disease News Release)
  • Episode 10: Global Health — A roundtable discussion on initiatives aimed at fighting infectious diseases, protecting women and children, and strengthening global public health systems. (Global Health News Release)
  • Episode 11: Human Sexuality — A panel of experts explores major trends in human sexual behavior, sexual desire and satisfaction, and sexual dysfunction issues. (Human Sexuality News Release)

I wish all news programs covered science so well, and made their material so readily available.


Boost test performance: Start school later

February 5, 2008

Students perform better when schools adjust schedules to accommodate the realities of biology: High school students don’t learn or test well in the morning. Go here for an introductory discussion of the issues.

Of course, in order to boost student performance by starting high school later, bus schedules would have to change. Change costs money. Anyone care to wager whether this quick, proven method for boosting student performance will catch on, considering it costs a little?


Practice, even with failure, more important than talent

November 20, 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.

See a significant update on this article, in October 2012, here.

 


Quote of the Moment: Ellen Langer on learned helplessness

November 14, 2007

A much more pernicious loss of choice and control is brought about by repeated failure.  After a number of experiences in which our efforts are futile, many of us will give up.  Well-known research by psychologist Martin Seligman and others shows that this learned helplessness then generalizes to situations where the person can, in fact, exercise control.  Even when solutions are available, a mindless sense of futility prevents a person from reconsidering the situation.  The person remains passive in the face of situations that could easily be handled without undue difficulty.  Past experience determines present reactions and robs the individual of control.   . . .

Learned helplessness was originally demonstrated in rats.  When placed in ice water, they have no difficulty swimming around for forty to sixty hours.  However, if, instead of being put immediately into the water, the rats are held until they stop struggling, something very different happens.  Instead of swimming, these rats give up immediately and drown.

Ellen J. Langer (b. 1947), Harvard University psychologist, Mindfulness, 1989, pp. 53-54


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