Can’t dance to it, but can you learn with it?

July 14, 2010

It’s an awkward scene.  John Goodman has a lousy role (and I’m not fond of the direction for him or Melanie Griffith here).  I’ve never seen the movie, “Born Yesterday,” and I don’t know the context.

But ten important amendments to the Constitution, to the tune of “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” a potentially useful mnemonic device for your U.S. history, and government students; it’s mostly accurate:

There is some skipping around —  the song covers the First, Second, Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendments, then skips to the Thirteenth, Fifteenth, Sixteenth, Eighteenth, and Nineteenth Amendments.  The First Amendment’s five freedoms are covered completely, other amendments not so much.

The actor in the scene, playing the senator who sings the Fifteenth Amendment, is former Tennessee U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson.  Thompson staffed the Watergate Committee chaired by Sen. Sam Ervin of North Carolina, earlier — wouldn’t it be interesting to hear his views on this scene, and song, and what other tricks he may have encountered in the Senate, from Sen. Ervin, or the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd?

It’s not Schoolhouse Rock, but it’s really very good.  Everything covered in the song is in Texas TEKS, but some things skipped, like the Fourteenth Amendment, are also required.  Can you use it in your classes?

And by the way, does anyone know a rap for the Bill of Rights?

Tip of the old scrub brush to the Facebook status of the Bill of Rights Institute.


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


Race to the Top: What’s a good job for a great bubble-guesser?

June 22, 2010

Education issues suffered here at the Bathtub over the past several months.  Confession:  I don’t like to write while angry, and thinking about education generally gets me there quickly.  When I write in anger, I like to sit on the stuff and edit when I’m cooled down.  But when I get back to edit, I get angry again.

If you watched the follies from the Texas State Soviet of Education over social studies standards, you might understand some of my anger.  I’m fortunate in some ways that my students don’t track the news more closely — they tended to miss the Soviet’s gutting of Hispanic history from Texas history standards, and so they didn’t get angry.  More than 85% of my students are Hispanic, many related to the Texas heroes dropped from the standards because they were brown (“What’s Hispanic Heritage Month for, anyway?” the Soviet probably wondered.)

Test bubbling, from TweenTeacher

Power of Bubbling -- for a scary story, click on the image and go read it at TweenTeacher

Plus, time for thinking about these issues evaporated during the school year.   Summer isn’t much better, though a bunch of us had eight great days with members of the history department at UT-Arlington focusing on the Gilded Age, Progressive Era, Age of Imperialism . . . even though reminded every day that the Texas Soviet doesn’t want us to teach that period as it is recorded in the history books.  (No, there are not plans for a translation into Texas Soviet Speak, at least not soon.  Teachers will have to make do.)

In one of our (too) many testing/oath-signing sessions this spring, a colleague cynically wondered what would be a good job for a kid who does well on the tests, a kid who has “demonstrated mastery of bubble-guessing.”

Bubble-guessing.  Wow.  Is that an apt description for what many schools teach these days!

I have a few days to put up the periscope and see what is going on out there.  A couple of things I’ve noticed, that you may want to follow:

Yong Zhao noticed that the Race to the Top criteria shouldn’t be etched in stone, and that small changes result in different winners. He’s actually more critical than that — he’s not just saying that the criteria can change.  He’s saying the criteria are lousy.

Education has a new god: data. It is believed to have the power to save American education and thus everything in education must be about data—collect more data about our children, evaluate teachers and administrators based on data, and reward and punish schools using data.

Sound familiar?

Zhao points to serious analyses of the Race to the Top applications and rejections which show, among other things, Pennsylvania was penalized for focusing on early childhood education, instead of collecting data.

Why was it we got into this swamp in the first place, and where did all these alligators come from?

Go read Zhao’s analysis, and maybe cruise around his blog.  It’s worth your while.  He’s a professor at Michigan State — University Distinguished Professor of Education.  (One thing you should read there:  Zhao’s slides from a recent speech.  E-mail the link to your principal.  Somebody find a YouTube version of that speech, please.)  [Checker Finn, do you ever get over to this backwater?  Zhao’s on to something.  Zhao’s on to a lot of things.]

Race to the Top is the worst thing the Obama administration has done, in my opinion.  It is aimed, or mis-aimed to give us a nation of bubble-guessers.  My guess is that aim is unintentional.  But the road to hell, or a Republican majority . . .

While we’re looking around, pay some attention to David Warlick’s 2¢ worth.  That’s where I found the links to Zhao.

Warlick has a couple of points worth pondering today:  First, has the technology train left the station, and so it’s no longer acceptable for teachers to use old tools?  He’s got a rant on trying to figure out if we’re teaching the “right stuff”:

I could have shared some of these new ideas with her, but it would not have helped.  The last time I helped my daughter prepare for a test, it was 8th grade and the unit test on the Civil War.  When she walked into that classroom, she could talk about and write about the reasons for the war, what the North and the South wanted to achieve, the advantages that the North held and those of the South, as well as their disadvantages.  She could tell you who won and who lost and why.

She made a 52 on the test because she couldn’t give the dates of the major battles of the war.

One of our mantras in the old Transportation Consulting Group at Ernst & Young was to understand that “You’re always ready to fight the last war.”  For what we were doing, generally we had to change the technology for each assignment.

That’s doubly true in education, in social studies, I think.  I constantly remind myself that my students don’t need the same things I got in high school.  We shouldn’t equip students to fight the last war, but instead prepare them to understand they need to get ready for the next one.

And what about your tags?  Warlick wonders. No answers, but good wonderings.


Watch my presentation or I’ll shoot this dog . . .

May 20, 2010

National Lampoon once ran a cover of a nice, spotted mutt, tongue out, looking sideways at a pistol pointing at its head.  There was a sort of a caption:  “If you don’t buy this magazine, we’ll kill this dog.”

That’s one way to try to boost circulation!  I first saw the magazine on the rack in a small pharmacy in Colorado Springs, across the street from Colorado College, between rounds of the Colorado College Invitational Debate Tournament.  Being short of cash and in sore need of eye drops, I looked at the magazine but put it back on the rack.  The woman at the cash register watched me carefully.  When I got to the register, she said, “You know, they’ll do it, too!  They’re just the sort of people who will kill that poor dog!”

(I imagine that woman has led Colorado Springs’ dramatic move to the right in politics.)

The publishers got that woman’s attention, didn’t they?

Cartoon by Mark Goetz, on the failure to heed Edward Tufte

Comes an article in The Scientist, “Pimp your PowerPoint.” It’s a news story based on a book by Michael Alley.

In the middle of the 19th century blackboards were all the rage. According to Pennsylvania State University engineering communication professor Michael Alley, it was common for universities and research institutions to proudly advertise that they had the only slate writing board in a 100-mile radius. Scientific lectures became more engaging than they’d ever been.

More than 150 years later, there’s still room for improvement. “People are not anywhere close to tapping the potential that a PowerPoint presentation offers,” Alley says. “We have a tool that can do an incredible amount, and people just waste it.” Who hasn’t been lulled into a somnolent state by some well-intentioned scientist presenting his research to a captive audience by reading a seemingly endless stream of bullet points?

Any media, done well, can be wonderful.  P. Z. Myers’ paean to Prof. Snider and his color chalk artworks reminds us that even a chalkboard can be a place of art, in the eye and hands of someone who gives thought to the work and practices the skills necessary to communicate well.  Looking around my classroom today, I note that better than half the whiteboard space features paper maps held to the board with magnets (which the kids like to steal).

Sometimes a flipchart is all you have, and sometimes a flipchart is all you really need — again, with thought to the ideas to be presented and a bit of polishing of the skills.

The piece in The Scientist relates useful ideas to help somebody who wants to make a better, less sleep-inducing, communicative PowerPoint (or better, maybe, KeyNote) presentation.

Unplug, think, and write
According to Galloway, using PowerPoint to make a great presentation starts with powering down the laptops and writing out an outline on index cards or a legal pad. “People have to shut off their computer and go away as they’re writing their PowerPoint presentation,” he says.

Establish your assertion
Alley says that he starts planning each slide by writing down a single sentence stating the idea he wants the audience to take away. “You have defined what it is you need to support that statement,” he says. “That’s where it starts.” Alley adds that the sentence should only take one or two lines, should consist of only 8–14 words, and should appear in 28-point font when inserted in the final PowerPoint presentation.

Assemble the visual evidence
Let the assertion sentence for each slide guide your decision as to which visuals should accompany it. Use “explanatory images”—not decorative or descriptive images—to support each assertion, says Joanna Garner, assistant professor of psychology at Pennsylvania State University. When describing the context or methods of your research, photos and movies are ideal pieces of evidence; when presenting your results, elements like graphs, tables, or charts (appropriately highlighted to emphasize key points) will do the trick.

Read more: Pimp your PowerPoint – The Scientist – Magazine of the Life Sciences http://www.the-scientist.com/templates/trackable/display/article1.jsp?type=article&o_url=article/display/57186&id=57186#ixzz0oSXiXCT6

Two things you gotta have first:  Something to say, and a desire to say it well.

Resources:

The Craft of Scientific Presentations: Critical Steps to Succeed and Critical Errors to Avoid, by Michael Alley, Springer-Verlag, Berlin, 2003. $39.95.

Presentation Zen Design: Simple Design Principles and Techniques to Enhance Your Presentations, by Garr Reynolds, New Riders Publishing, 2010. $31.49.

slide:ology, by Nancy Duarte, O’Reilly Media, Sebastopol, Calif., 2008. $34.99. (She’s got a blog, too.)

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, by Edward Tufte, Graphics Press, Cheshire, Conn., 1983. $40.00.


What’s gone wrong in Washington?

February 22, 2010

Lincoln, image by Derek Bacon for The Economist (2010)

Image by Derek Bacon, copyright The Economist 2010

Barack Obama announced his candidacy for president in Springfield, Illinois, on ground often trod by Abraham Lincoln.  As did Teddy Roosevelt, Obama studies Lincoln’s life and career, and presidency.  We know he devoured Team of Rivals, Doris Kearn Goodwin’s detailed history of Lincoln’s high-powered cabinet, all of who came to respect his leadership, and most to call him friend.

The Economist scores with another astonishing graphic for the cover of the print edition covering the week of February 18 — Lincoln’s exasperation apparent (image at right).

Is that all?

Again I lament not having an AP government class at the moment.  What an opening for discussion we have in Washington follies of the moment.  The story accompanying the graphic, plus an editorial that takes the Milquetoast way out — ‘Obama needs to try harder’ — poses questions we do need to explore, and which would be great in an AP classroom.

ACCORDING to Paul Krugman, the winner of a Nobel prize for economics and a columnist for the New York Times, modern America is much like 18th-century Poland. On his telling, Poland was rendered largely ungovernable by the parliament’s requirement for unanimity, and disappeared as a country for more than a century. James Fallows, after several years in China as a writer for the Atlantic Monthly, wrote on his return that he found in America a vital and self-renewing culture that attracts the world’s talent and “a governing system that increasingly looks like a joke”. Tom Friedman, another columnist for the New York Times, reported from the annual World Economic Forum in Davos last month that he had never before heard people abroad talking about “political instability” in America. But these days he did.

The growing idea among influential pundits that America is “ungovernable” is being driven in large part by Barack Obama’s failure so far to pass some of the main laws he wants to. And it is, indeed, a puzzle. Here, after all, is a president who only just over a year ago won a handsome mandate: 53% of the popular vote and big majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. He bounded into office with a mountainous agenda, including plans to overhaul America’s health-care system and cut its greenhouse emissions. He seemed until quite recently to be doing reasonably well. In a folksy December interview with Oprah Winfrey he awarded himself “a good, solid B-plus”.

Is America now ungovernable?  What are the limits of a federal system, and have the states capitulated too much power to Washington?  Is anything else feasible with our economy in the mess it’s in?

I can imagine a discussion of the limits of the Articles of Confederation to start, noting the requirement of unanimity from the states to do anything major — and how that hamstrung the growth of America until George Washington pushed Alexander Hamilton and James Madison to change things.  Washington’s goals were only partly noble, to see a new, unified nation.  That unified nation he saw as necessary to open settlement of the Ohio Valley, where Washington had several thousand acres of land he couldn’t sell until settlers moved in.

How does the current set of impasses affect business?  Consider any small business, or big business, which offers health care plans to its employees.  Health reform is stalled — a Blue Cross affiliate in California raised rates by nearly 40%.  Health care is the one section of the economy where growth — meaning costs — grew through the depths of our financial difficulties in 2008 and 2009.  The need should be clear, but there are blocks to getting anything done about fixing the system.

Or consider international affairs.  Pentagon analysts worry about governmental instability created by the effects of global warming — drought, weather disaster, shifting crop yields (up in a few places, dramatically down where a few billion people live).  Thieves stole e-mails from the scientists studying the issue, and subsequent propaganda based on the theft alone has stalled climate talks, worldwide, giving a huge economic advantage to China and India.

What should be the role of government regulation for clean air?  Is the Clean Air Act sufficient? (Texas initiated suit against the federal government last week, claiming that the science behind reducing air pollution is wrong, a suit given as a gift to Texas’s major industries, some of which depend on the ability to dump garbage in the air with impunity.)

Is the problem more organically rooted in our inability to defeat incumbents in Congress? 2010 is a Census year — we count Americans to see how many representatives there should be for each state in the House of Represtentatives.  The bitter redistricting fights will come in state legislatures next year.  Can we save the system when politicians design seats more to secure a safe majority for their own party, rather than to see that every American is adequately represented?

What about media?  Traditionally newspapers, aided by television, played the watchdog role on Washington politicians.  Americans aren’t reading newspapers much, anymore.  News holes shrink, and serious reporting on issues goes away.  Can an open democracy survive without healthy newspapers?  And if not, who can do what about it?

Go to The Economist and check out the stories (better if you’re a subscriber — the stories usually go away for non-paying browsers after a few days).  What can you do with them in the classroom?

What do you think?  What’s gone wrong in Washington?


What if we actually encouraged students to use technology?

February 12, 2010

This is the headline that roped me in, at The New York Times: “Wi-Fi Turns Rowdy Bus into Rolling Study Hall.”

And a short excerpt:

But on this chilly morning, as bus No. 92 rolls down a mountain highway just before dawn, high school students are quiet, typing on laptops.

Morning routines have been like this since the fall, when school officials mounted a mobile Internet router to bus No. 92’s sheet-metal frame, enabling students to surf the Web. The students call it the Internet Bus, and what began as a high-tech experiment has had an old-fashioned — and unexpected — result. Wi-Fi access has transformed what was often a boisterous bus ride into a rolling study hall, and behavioral problems have virtually disappeared.

What would your bus drivers say?

(File under “If you teach them, they will learn — and behavior problems will fade away.”)

Don’t miss the end of the article:

A ride through mountains on a drizzly afternoon can be unpredictable, even on the Internet Bus. Through the windows on the left, inky clouds suddenly parted above a ridge, revealing an arc of incandescent color.

“Dude, there’s a rainbow!” shouted Morghan Sonderer, a ninth grader.

A dozen students looked up from their laptops and cellphones, abandoning technology to stare in wonder at the eastern sky.

“It’s following us!” Morghan exclaimed.

“We’re being stalked by a rainbow!” Jerod said.

More:


5 things to teach – Life lessons your supervisor doesn’t want to see on your lesson plans

February 6, 2010

It’s too short to excerpt — so here’s the whole thing.

Over at The Elementary Educator, I found this list, “Five Things You Should Teach Your Students This Week (None of which are likely to be on your standards):

This week, teach your students:

1.  To understand themselves as learners (a.k.a. metacognition)

2.  That intelligence is not innate; effort matters

3.  Compassion

4.  The excitement of creating real things for real audiences

5.  The joy of exercise, play, and healthy living

Another reminder that not all things that count can be counted.

The Elementary Educator carries interesting stuff.  You may wish to check it out.


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

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

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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Searching on an individual’s name in the author field on our search page at http://ssrn.com/search provides the best single professional directory of scholars in the social sciences and humanities. Complete contact information for authors, including email, postal, telephone, and fax information, is available there.

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Sincerely,

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Cognitive Science Network


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?


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?


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.


Testing boosts memory, study doesn’t

March 7, 2008

This is why football players remember the games better than they remember the practices.

Is this really news? It was a jarring reminder to me. Ed at Not Exactly Rocket Science (just before his blog was swallowed up by the many-tentacled Seed Magazine empire) noted a study that shows testing improves performance more than study.

But a new study reveals that the tests themselves do more good for our ability to learn that the many hours before them spent relentlessly poring over notes and textbook. The act of repeatedly retrieving and using learned information drives memories into long-term storage, while repetitive revision produced almost no benefits.

More quizzes instead of warm-up studies? More tests? Longer tests? What do you think? Certainly this questions the wisdom of high-stakes, end of education testing; it also calls into question the practice of evaluating teachers solely on the basis of test scores.  Much grist for the discussion mill.

Here’s the citation to the study: Karpicke, J.D., Roediger, H.L. (2008). The Critical Importance of Retrieval for Learning. Science, 319(5865), 966-968. DOI: 10.1126/science.1152408

Karpicke is at Purdue; Roediger is at Washington University in St. Louis.


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?


Washoe, pioneer in signing chimpanzees, dead at 42

November 1, 2007

News from Central Washington University in Ellensburg tells of the death of Washoe, the first chimpanzee to learn American Sign Language (ASL), the matriarch of a small clan of signing chimps who pushed the boundaries on our view of the intelligence of animals, especially the other great apes besides humans.

Washoe, undated photo from Central Washington University Washoe was named after Washoe County, Nevada, the home of the University of Nevada – Reno, where she was taken in 1966 after being captured in Africa as an infant.

Washoe, who first learned a bit of American Sign Language in a research project in Nevada, had been living on Central Washington University’s Ellensburg campus since 1980. Her keepers said she had a vocabulary of about 250 words, although critics contended Washoe and some other primates learned to imitate sign language, but did not develop true language skills.

She died Tuesday night, according to Roger and Deborah Fouts, co-founders of The Chimpanzee and Human Communications Institute on the campus. She was born in Africa about 1965.

Between Washoe and her progeny, extended family and students (she taught signing to several others of her species) and the more famous Koko, the gorilla who speaks ASL, our ideas of the learning ability of animals, their achievements dramatically challenged our ideas about the moral sense of animals, and the uniform and universal superiority of humans.

Fouts and the researchers at the University of Nevada raised several chimps who were taught ASL. One of the more interesting, to me, and genuinely thought-provoking stories was of one young chimp who attended church with her human family. She asked questions about church, and eventually asked to be be baptized (the local cleric performed the rite). This is a Rubicon of great import to creationists, and I have yet to find one who isn’t inflamed or enraged by the story one way or another.

Roger Fouts lovingly described Washoe’s life and accomplishments in Next of Kin (including the baptism story). Fouts defends the rights of chimpanzees, His accounts of the life of research chimpanzees trouble anyone with a moral sense. This book troubled me when I first read it almost a decade ago, and I find it still haunts me any time I visit a display of animals, in a zoo, aquarium, or even at a wildlife preserve (I have not been to a circus since I read the book, coincidentally).

Just wait until cetaceans and cephalopods figure out how to use ASL.

Further reading and resources:


They do as you do, not as you say

October 13, 2007

If you were wondering whether it’s still true that kids watch what you do rather than listen to what you say — yes, it’s still true. It’s more important to walk the walk than talk the talkGallup Management Journal features an article emphasizing the phenomenon, “The Sixth Element of Great Managing”:

One of the most powerful discoveries about how humans understand the world around them came about by accident. In the early 1990s, a group of researchers led by Dr. Giacomo Rizzolatti, a neuroscientist at the University of Parma in Italy, placed small electrodes in the brains of monkeys near the regions of the brain responsible for planning and carrying out movements. If the monkey picked up something, an electronic monitor that was connected to the wires in the animal’s brain would sound — “brrrrrip, brrrrrip, brrrrrip” — to register the firing of those neurons.

Then something happened — something so unusual that the researchers thought it had to be a mistake. If the monkey saw one of the scientists doing something — eating an ice cream cone, picking up a peanut or raisin, grabbing a banana — the monitor registered the firing of brain cells as if the monkey had done it, when all the animal did was watch.

“It took us several years to believe what we were seeing,” Rizzolatti told The New York Times. The structure behind the phenomenon was discovered to be what they called “mirror neurons,” cells scattered throughout key regions of the brain that mimic everything the monkey sees another do.

Subsequent research found a far more complicated set of mirror neurons in people. This “human see; human do” circuitry is believed to be why a yawn can be contagious, why even a newborn will stick out her tongue if she sees someone else do it, and why American boys sometimes mimic the idiosyncrasies of their favorite baseball players at bat. “It explains much about how we learn to smile, talk, walk, dance, or play tennis,” said a 2006 cover article in Scientific American Mind magazine.

If you want your students to be good at map reading, they need to see you reading maps. If you want your students to read, they need to see you read. The “mirror neurons” phenomenon should affect the strategies we use in the classroom.

File this under the “nothing new under the sun” category, or “oh, yeah, now I remember!”


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