Thursday, July 07, 2005

Just the Facts, M'aam - Creativity in Fact Lovers

Maybe you know one of these fact lovers or maybe you are one yourself. It's all to easy to dismiss fact lovers as trivia geeks, hyperfrontal-types, or Asperger folk, but the truth is, a strong knowledge of facts can make the essential difference in innovative or ground-breaking work, and expertise at acquiring and retaining facts may mean that education should take on a different purpose.

One example of an avid fact aficionado is Isaac Asimov. Asimov voraciously read books his whole life long, and he wrote nearly 500 books over the course of 40 years. Many have referred to him as a very 'non-visual' writer and he himself had made this comment about visual thinking:

"You may have heard the statement: 'One picture is worth a thousand words.' Don't you believe it...As soon as it becomes necessary to deal with emotions, ideas, fancies- abstractions in general - only words will suit."

In fact, Asimov's series of "How did we find out about..." is really an extraordinary collection of children's books. Each is only about 60 pages long, but well written and quite creative in its charting of the course of scientific discovery. It's a great book for kids because it talks about the whys and hows and serendipities of science, and it makes the questions and pursuit of knowledge seem attainable. When science is only taught from the standpoint of 'we know this now', students may be discouraged from thinking that they could actually find out anything new. Asimov's series includes topics such as germs, lasers, microwaves, blood, the round earth, and much more. It's great summer reading. We found the books at the library (did you know the microscope inventor Leeuwenhoek was not really a scientist, but a janitor who like tinkering around with lenses?).

One of Asimov's real gifts was being able to recognize and organize interesting facts in simple but compelling ways. Creativity is not just making something completely new, but it is also an ability to see in facts, what others haven't been able to see.

SENG Conference in New Mexico, See You July 14th

We're headed off to the SENG (Social and Emotional Needs of Gifted Children) Conference, so we'll be taking a break from blogging for the next week. Our kids have been doing some last minute learning about New Mexico geology, Los Alamos, the Anasazi, and Billy the Kid. It'll be fun.

The speakers also look terrific - this is one keynote's description..."Alisa's Cuban-born father was placed in the fourth grade when he arrived in the U.S. at age fifteen, because he spoke no English; he went on to become a famed professor of Latin American sociology. Alisa, now the top-selling Latina novelist in the U.S., was failed out of freshman English by a high school English teacher for not following rules. And Alisa's son was recently misdiagnosed as autistic because he did not ift in at preschool, preferred sprinkler systems to toy cars, and had taught himself to read..."

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Remembering in Different Ways

Check out the variation in patterns of brain activation among test subjects trying to recall items from a previously displayed word list. The best performer was S.C., and this subject also had the most intense activation and reproducibility in her testing 5 months later. The blue arrows indicate the right parietal area (imagery, attention), whereas the green arrows indicate more conventional prefrontal working memory areas.

We've included a snapshot from "musical imagery" in pianists for comparison. The last link below is a paper which shows that the parietal and prefrontal areas can be strengthened (and the fMRI signals more activated) with memory training involving mneumonics.

Individual Differences in Retrieval fmri pdf
Musical Imagery
Working Memory Training fMRI pdf

More Computer Classes Urged for Kids

Students may be feeling the crunch of declining numbers of computer science teachers. Computer teaching in the elementary school years is often relegated to keyboarding. What students should be doing is learning how to organize and problem solve using computer-based instruction.

Excerpt from article:"If the teachers only know word processing, he said, "that's all their class is going to get."

This exhortation is particularly relevant given a Stanford study showing that having a home computer was associated with 6 points higher math and 4 points higher reading (controlled for parent education level) on the Stanford Achievement Test (3rd graders). The definite no-no was a TV in a child's bedroom. This was associated with 8 points lower on math and 7 points lower on reading.

More Computer for Kids:
TV bad, Computer Good for Kids

Medical School Testing Lawsuit Passes Hurdle

For those of you who are following the lawsuit involving university students suing for testing accommodations on the MCAT, we've heard that they've recently passed a hurdle. The Court ruled that "that California has a legitimate local interest in ensuring that California residents take the MCAT with all the accommodations required by California law." The AAMC intends to vigorously continue the fight. Check out the AAMC's response too.

MCAT Litigation: Victory for Students with Disabilities
AAMC Responds

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Flashes from the Past: A Lover of Words...

His father died when he was 4 years old, leaving him, his mother, and a younger brother to fend for themselves. His mother remained ambitious, making the decision to homeschool him (teaching him Latin, French, English, drawing, botany, and piano) in the hopes of having him admitted to the best grammar school in the city. He didn't get in at age 7, but he tried again at age 8, and got in.

From an early age, he loved words and loved to read. He started to read at 4 and his mother provided him with a steady supply of Arthurian legends, fairy tales and George MacDonald's Curdie books. By age 11, he was learning Greek and Shakespeare, and became fascinated by reading The Canterbury Tales in its original Middle English. He also loved to play around with and make up words. His young mother died from diabetes when he was just 12 years old, but he and his brother were fortunate to be adopted by a parish priest, a family friend.

This young man's love of words continued to grow as he progressed through school, and corresponded in made up languages with two cousins. One language, "Animalic" consisted only of animal names. Apparently, "Dog nightingale woodpecker forty" meant "You are an ass."

Here's a limerick he wrote to his cousin in the imaginary language "Nevbosh":

Dar fys ma vel gom co palt "Hoc
Pys go iskili far maino woc?
Pro si go fys do roc de
Do cat ym maino bocte
De volt fact soc ma taimful gyroc!"

The translation:

There was an old man who said "How
Can I possibly carry my cow?
For if I were to ask it
To get in my basket
It would make such a terrible row!"

Who was this budding philologist? This was J.R.R. Tolkien, later Oxford Professor and literary scholar, and author of The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, and Silmarillion, among others. He often said he thought of names he liked first, then put them in stories.

Throughout his life, he was close to all of his children and told them stories to help them fall asleep. Many were apparently never recorded, but some were collected together for books that were published posthumously. The story of Roverrandom was told by him after one of his sons had lost a favorite toy on a vacation.

Tolkien often mentioned that everything he knew, he owed to his mother who died so young, and her deep religious faith. Quote, "However by name a Tolkien, I have the taste, talents and education of a Suffield.”

Tolkien Biography

Advantages of Bilingual Language Learning

Is there any advantage to picking up a foreign language as a child? That depends. It's important to be aware that bilingual children have significant extra hurdles in the early years of their schooling. Gifted bilingual children are underrecognized, and some are even mistakenly thought to be learning disabled.

But for those are able to become fairly proficient at two languages, this hard work appears to pay off one's entire life span. The study below shows that bilingualism reduces age-related decline in working memory and the slower response times! In other studies, there's a suggestion that "successful" bilinguals have stronger flexibility of thinking, higher 'creativity', and better problem solving ability. When you think about it, young bilingual children get much more intensive practice with inferences, and multiple word meanings.

Now that being said, the choice of whether to add a second language at a young age should be made individually. Children struggling with auditory processing, fundamental language disability, or working memory limitation should consider a foreign language waiver. Also realize that all languages are not alike. Some languages (like Spanish, Italian, or American Sign Language) are not as demanding phonetically or spelling-wise as languages like French.

Improved Cognitive Control Among Bilinguals
Bilingualism Press Release
Challenges with Young Bilingual Children

Friday, July 01, 2005

Spatial But Not Visual Thinking

There are many different types of spatial thinking, but a lot of confusion that visual and spatial gifts are the same. They're not. Spatial abilities can be visual -but they can also be distinct - and even at odds with visual ability. Spatial ability is particularly challenging to train because it may be the most abstract and 'non-conscious' style of learning.

Spatial thinking may involve personal experience, memories of movements or manipulations, or relationships of parts. It may involve sight, but also sound, touch, and more amorphous sensations. Spatial reasoning may involve a sequence of ideas, possibilities, or objects, or inductive leaps (Aha!) based on previously seen or experienced patterns.

In this interesting study above, researchers from Max Planck find different steps of coordination that the brain goes through when it performs a spatial reasoning task -
"V is left of X. X is left of Z. So V is left of Z" The first step involves occipital-temporal areas (visual /auditory overlap - premise considered), then the prefrontal cortex becomes activated (integration), then prefrontal and parietal lobes (multisensory, spatial) become active in the final 'validation' stage.

Spatial thinking and reasoning are hard to teach didactically, because they are best learned by direct experience, internalization and positing or rules, abstraction (thinking), and experimentation. No wonder that tweakers are ideal spatial learners.

Think of the paradox that comes with spatial thinking - the best way to 'train' is to work both with hands-on and non-hands-on approaches (abstraction, visualization). In fact, it's probably wise to make sure creative spatial thinkers get plenty of both types of practice (working with models and manipulatives, but also not working with models and manipulatives to imagine and problem solve).

So does this picture of spatial thinking encompass too much? We don't think so. What is not spatial thinking? It's not words and doesn't have to be visual images.

We've added some interesting links we stumbled upon for spatial teaching and reasoning. This is probably obvious to many of you, but strong spatial thinkers are necessary in almost all scientific and technical domains (including video gaming and software design of course), design and graphics, architecture, the military, mathematics, and more.

Spatial Reasoning Resources
Spatial Reasoning and Cognition:
NCTM: Cubes and Drawings
More Student Spatial Activities
Dyslexia & Talent: Visual-Spatial
Problem Solving Spatial Geometry

A Challenge to Autism Statistics: Three Reasons....

This paper is likely to cause quite an uproar. Read the full paper at the link below. This group has taken on the notion of an autism epidemic. While some of their points about the morph'ing of definitions over time are fair (current behavioral checklist guidelines stink), they ignore the fact that are many children out there who are unable to keep up with 'regular' activities of childhood language and social interaction.

Today many children are being mis- or over-diagnosed, but many do have neurologic issues, and they need specific interventions for their particular problems.

Three Reasons Not to Believe in an Autism Epidemic

Thursday, June 30, 2005

Teaching Optimism

Some children seem to be born more pessimistic than others, but optimism can also be systematically taught. And a child with a higher degree of optimism is more likely to resist depression, be health physically, persist at difficult tasks, and succeed in school and later life. In fact, children with high 'optimism' scales are more likely to outperform in college what their SAT and achievement scores would predict.

The picture below shows that students with higher anxiety scores are more likely to have lower levels of amygdala activation when viewing photographs of 'happy faces.' Of interest too, the higher anxiety subjects were still within normal ranges of personality.

Gifted children may also especially prone to existential depression, and studies of gifted children have shown that gifted students may react more intensely than average-ability students to frustration. Studies of stress and burn-out in gifted students suggest that key factors can be an inappropriate level of intellectual stimulation ('underload' or 'overload' as Hoekman et al. have recently commented).

One helpful book offering a step-by-step program to improve a child's optimism is Dr. Seligman's The Optimistic Child. It provides practical instruction on how to encourage children to see failures and setbacks as temporary, limited, and impersonal.

Seligman's Optimism Program
Happy Faces fMRI
Optimism article

Hoekman, McCormick, Barnett, 2005. The Important Role of Optimism in a Motivational Investigation of the Education of Gifted Adolescents, Gifted Child Quarterly, Spring 2005 (not online).

Science Fiction Links

Science fiction can be used to teach creative and critical thinking, social, biological, and physical sciences, art, math, literature, technology, history, and futurism.

Yale Science Fiction
Physics, Art, Literature, Mathematics
University of Kansas Center for the Study of Science Fiction
SCIFI.COM in Classroom
Sci Fi forYounger Readers
Course Study of Science Fiction
Tamora Pierce Gifted Readers Sci Fi List
Science in Science Fiction
Science fiction & Real Technology
HHMI Biology Through Science Fiction

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Flashes from the Past: "Do not let this boy in your school..."

His principal had taken the time to write a letter saying, "Do not let this boy in your school under any circumstances," but as he recalled, "... I got in the car and drove up there and got in time for registration. When I reached the desk, they looked at me and said, "We told you not to come." I said, "I know you did, but I didn't think you meant it."

He was a kid who "stayed in trouble all the time," and he was frequently expelled for pranks and insubordination. Although he managed to wrangle his way into the university, he rarely went to classes (although enjoyed reading in the library) and dropped out after 2 years. He went into the National Guard, but was court-martialed for leaving the base without permission to visit a girlfriend, whom he later married.

But he did love to write. In response to a interviewer's question, "How did you get interested in writing?, he said "I'm sure my interest began in an interest in reading, which then was translated into an interest in writing...I was about 11 years old. I won a copy of "David Copperfield." Up to that time I'd read the "Bobbsey Twins" and then "Tom Swift" and the "Rover Boys" and "Tarzan," but since I got this as a prize, I decided I should read it. I found a world that was realer than the world I lived in, unlike these Tarzan and other books. This was a whole other world, and it was a world of art. I couldn't have defined it as that, but, one thing, I knew "David Copperfield" better than anybody I knew in the real world, including myself...I remember vividly having that reaction to that book "David Copperfield." I think most writers probably have that experience."

Who was this? This was Shelby Foote, who died just this past Monday at the age of 88. Shelby Foote was best known as the lyrical historian on Ken Burns' Civil War documentary. Foote's Civil War: A Narrative has been ranked as No. 15 on the Modern Library's list of the century's 100 best English-language works of nonfiction. He really did have a way with words.

"Of all the passions of mankind, the love of novelty most rules the mind. In search of this, from realm to realm we roam. Our fleets come loaded with every folly home." - Shelby Foote

Shelby Foote Interview
Shelby Foote Biography

Math Education Links

We came across these excellent links at Kevin Karplus' website. His brief comments on the sites are also helpful - we demo'ed ALEKS and were disappointed as well. EPGY math may also not allow enough opportunity to return to subjects. Do you have experiences with these programs? If so, please post comments if you get a chance.

Karplus' Math Ed Links

Javits Funding NAGC Alert

The NAGC has sent out an alert to contact your senator about Javits funding for Gifted education. The appropriations committee meets July 12.

Javits Funding NAGC

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Training Visual Perception - More Than Meets the Eye

Trends in Cognitive Sciences has a nice review on the 'top-down' cognitive direction of visual perception. We see more when we are expecting to see more. It's like this gray and black picture below. At first glance, we may not recognize it, but with further inspection we can fill in and organize what we see into a figure.

Many people are aware of these sorts of 'eye tricks' in the form of optical illusions. But, visual perception has extensive relevance to many aspects of learning, expertise, and some forms of disability.

Perceptual learning is big news because it highly trainable and involves 'rewiring' the brain. Computer-based programs are ideal for perceptual training, but existing commercial programs are fairly simplistic, although that probably won't be for long.

Training in visual perception has powerful implications for many groups and conditions, including athletes, workers who require visual discrimination as part of their occupations (quality control, air traffic controllers, umpires, chemists, architects, engineers etc.), visual experts (artists, bird watchers, antique appraisers, chess masters etc.), and children and adults who have conditions such as dyslexia, nonverbal learning disabilities, visual distractibility, prematurity (periventricular leukomalacia), or autism.

What can you do now, if you have a child with visual perceptual problems? First look for visual factors that may improve or detract from their visual ability. Vary the light intensity, color, and visual crowding. Could there be a problem with seeing movement? If so, slow it down. Try simplifying visual settings to see if it helps their visual search or orientation. Use words and touch to help them correct visual errors, spatial mistakes or size distortions. Have them draw and build, and give them plenty of time to study and compare what they see with what they perceive in terms of space. Many adults are able to compensate very well for visual perceptual problems, but they had to learn it gradually.

Visual Perceptual Learning
Cutting through the Clutter -PLos brief
The Principles of Artistic Illusions
Visual Shape Learning pdf

Geek Brain Break: Interactive Mathematics Puzzles

Interactive Mathematics Miscellany and Puzzles

Free Online U.S. Report Teaching Children with ADHD

There are other free downloadable publications at this government site: for instance, Helping Your Child Become a Reader, Helping Your Child Learn Math, Helping Your Child with Homework...

Fed Report Teaching Strategies ADHD

Monday, June 27, 2005

East meets West: Fundamental Differences in Math Teaching

We finally got a chance to read Liping Ma's Knowing and Teaching Elementary Mathematics, and Wow, what a book! This book (Ma's PhD thesis) used interviews with U.S. and Chinese mathematics teachers to compare approaches and understanding about basic elementary mathematics: subtraction with regrouping, multidigit number multiplication, division by fractions, and explorations of new knowledge. Her findings have direct and practical implications for teachers, parents, and tutors.

Key Findings:

- U.S. teachers tend to focus on procedures rather than understanding the conceptual foundations of basic math operations(in one testing situation, 83% U.S., 14% Chinese used procedural knowledge only)

- Impaired conceptual knowledge impaired U.S. teachers' abilities to understand student mistakes and apply math reasoning to new problems or scenarios.

- U.S. teachers' use of manipulatives could be misapplied, for instance, removing the need for a child to understand regrouping, rather than illustrating principles regrouping or borrowing.

-U.S. teachers showed less flexibility and alternative problem solving than their Chinese counterparts.

-U.S. teachers seemed more likely to introduce entertaining or visually appealing aspects of math calculations, but sometimes at the expense of accurate conceptual teaching.

Example: "One thing I would do is....put either an apple, orange or whatever, in the spaces...I mean it could be some weird thing, even pictures of elephants. I do not care what it was. But the children memorized this and they said, oh I remember that [my teacher] said do not put anything there because that is where the orange was or that was the apple...Just put something different there so that it will hit their eye."

- Some Chinese teachers regularly showed a math problem with errors on the board, and challenging students to 'find the problem' and 'summarize the rule'. A discussion would then follow about the correct underlying concept.

- Only 43% U.S. math teachers arrived at the correct answer to: 1 3/4 divided by 1/2 compared to 100% of the Chinese teachers. Problems included over-reliance on a mneumonic (without conceptual understanding), a lack of alternative ways to solve the problems, and limited analogical understanding. For the latter, for instance, U.S. teachers tended to rely on pizza-type examples for fractions, but became stumped with dividing by the 1/2.

- Finally, U.S. teachers also fared poorly in a scenario of a student suggesting a novel theory that increasing the perimeter of a closed figure would necessarily increase the area. 9% accepted the theory without a doubt, 78% would not have conducted any mathematical investigation ("I'd try to look it up in a book"), and only 13% would have investigated the claim. Only 1 teacher out of the 23 was able to solve the answer. In comparison, of the Chinese teachers, 8% accepted the claim outright, 70% arrived at the correct answer, and the remaining at least tried with mathematical reasoning, but solved the problem incorrectly.

Clearly we have a long way to go with teaching conceptual foundations in math. Bravo, for the math teachers at NCTM for taking a hard look at the book, and considering reforms.


NCTM: Comparing U.S. and Chinese Elementary Math

Thinking It Over: Combining Analytical Thinking and Imagery

When we make decisions based on risk, it matters whether the possibilities are framed in a positive or negative light, what risks are matched to possible benefits. People are likely to opt for 'certain' rather than 'risky' options when only good outcomes are offered, but tempted to make riskier choices confronted with two negative possibilities. This pattern of decision making has always been a bit perplexing because the choices (certain-good, risky-bad) seem to be somewhat contradictory. There are different possible reasons for this (see the paper for more discussion below) - but one theory posits a compromise between desire to make a good decision and desire to minimize cognitive effort, while the other suggests a compromise betweens fears and wishes of an individual.

This recent study found the cognitively 'easy' choice for a certain positive gain matched well with fmri activation data. The negative condition required more brain work under both conditions, and that also showed more imagery area activation (blue arrows) than the simplest positive-certain condition. Imagery, it seems, is very important in making decisions under uncertain conditions.

Analysis and Imagery in Framing Decisions

Sci Am: Math without Words

Here's a Scientific American article about Numerical Reasoning independent of words: Sci Am: Math without Words

Friday, June 24, 2005

The Extra Work of Multiple Word Meanings and Word Play

This figure shows you the extra work with multiple word meanings. Although sometimes we see parents or teachers who are concerned that a child's difficulty in getting jokes is due to autism, it takes a lot more brain work to figure out words that have several possible meanings, and it is also an ability that improves with age.

We just excerpted two key figures, but the main point to notice is that ambiguous words take more 'frontal' activity and right hemispheric activity- keeping different possibilities in mind, generating alternatives, and then choosing one on the basis of the best fit or pattern. Many children have difficulty with figuring out word meanings - sometimes it is developmental, sometimes it is attentional or memory related, and it can occur in many different kids with language challenges.

Multiple word meanings come up all the time in English, and we probably need to quiz kids more to see if they really understand the meaning. Some of the links below may be helpful to some of you. Word play sites are also good practice for speech fluency, prosody, and of course, just for fun.

Ambiguous Words and fMRI
Multiple Word Meanings-Elementary
Powerpoint Elementary Multiple Word Meanings
List Multiple Meanings
Fun With Words
Puns@Web English Teacher

Super Smart? Denver Post Article

Super Smart?

Essential Questions Site U.S. History

Since we're going to be doing U.S. History next year homeschooling, we've been looking for a site like this. Excellent links too.
Essential Questions U.S. History

Thursday, June 23, 2005

For Kids, Actions Speak Louder Than Words - Different Site for Word Generation

In this very interesting study from Washington University St Louis, Schlaggar and his group find that children use action and movement-related areas of the brain to generate words. This is a nifty study because the investigators matched children and adults who showed an equivalent performance. So we are really seeing how kids (age 7-10) use their brains differently from young adults. The word generation trials involved several different ways to generate words - matching verbs with nouns (car & drive), rhymes (cat-hat), and opposites (up-down).

What you can see is that adults (red) tended to use their 'classic' left hemispheric language area to generate words, while kids (blue) were using their right occipitotemporal region, a region involved in multisensory imagery for action and movement. So it seems children are closer to the 'source', associating words with direct sensations and imagery, while adults have gone on to file word knowledge away in their word definition library.

Children, Word Generation, and fMRI
Action Imagery in the Brain

Math and Learning Disabilities Links

Found some nice links for Math and Learning Disabilities in a course syllabus at Johns Hopkins University. Some of them are rather technical, but show us how many different ways math performance can be affected by a disability or individual cognitive challenges.

Mathematics and Learning Disabilities

Course Syllabus JHU
Developmental Dyscalculia

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Analogical Thinking and Imagery in Problem Solving

Analogical thinking has always played a powerful role in scientific innovation, but now the contribution of multimodal imagery is also becoming clearer.

Some 20 or so years ago, John Clements found that analogies played an important role in the problem solving abilities of scientists. Given a physical problem involving coiled springs, he videotaped and interviewed them as the were able to figure the problems solution. The analogies that the scientists used usually bore some functional or structural similarity to the unsolved problem, but several observations were notable: the solutions were not sudden (some only solved the problem after an hour or more), most adopted analogies only tentatively at first, the analogies seemed to based on structural or functional features, and most of the work seemed to be involved with testing and challenging the favored analogy. Ultimately the correct answer was arrived at by associational and inferential conclusions, rather than deduction.

Now in this latest paper from John Clements, he has become interested in the role of personal dynamic / kinesthetic imagery in bridging the analogical concept and physical problem. Hand gestures and movements seemed important for representing forces, and visualizations (combined with gestures) were important for reaching final conclusions.

Studies such as these are an interesting look into the problem solving process and they offer interesting questions as to the best ways to expose students to these approaches in their school training. There are variety of successful problem solving traits of these scientists - persistence with a problem, willingness to suspend judgment, flexibility to possibilities, and facility with personal imagery.

We also included some research papers which looked at the introduction of analogical teaching in science classrooms. There are some differences presenting experts vs. novices with analogies - many experts love analogies because they start off with a richer foundation of knowledge. Analogies help you if you already have a lot of information because it simplifies and groups what you already know. However, for the novice, analogies might just seem to be a pattern to be memorized - and so the likelihood that it will be learned as it should be as a tool for other situations is unlikely.

The first chemistry paper below looks at an obviously very creative teacher who explores many analogies with chemical events in his classroom. But the concern would be that he adopts too many different and non-specific analogies that his students don't get a chance to test it out or see how the analogy could lead to particular predictions or testable hypotheses.

Finally, as a brain break, if you're interested, check out the funny 'bad analogies' link in student writing or the winning entries in the 'bad fiction' of Bulwer Lytton ("It was a dark and stormy night..." below.

Clement's Study of Analogy in Problem Solving
Analogy in Chemistry
Analogical Strategic Reasoning in Management
Multiple Models in Chemistry
Metaphors and Analogies in Scientific Thinking
Bad Analogies
The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest

Flashes from the Past: "He was a bit of a dud in math..."

In school, he seemed to be a bit of a dud in math, and in fact he was held back one year when he had trouble learning mental math. He was rescued in his teenage years when an insightful teacher realized he needed more time.

"I used to take these maths tests which were supposed to be done in one period and it took me not just that period but the next one which was a play period and somethimes the one beyond that before I finished the test. And it was only then that I started to do well."

Who was this super-slow thinker? This was Roger Penrose, now mathematician and physicist, discoverer of Penrose tilings, and author of many original thoughts in geometry, relativity, quantum mechanics, and theories of consciousness. It seems that if you are a slow thinker, you may still think well.

Offered Penrose, "My own way of thinking is to ponder long and I hope deeply on problems and for a long time which I keep away for years and years and I never really let them go. I'm pretty tenacious when it comes to prob"People think of these eureka moments and my feeling is that they tend to be little things, a little realisation and then a little realisation built on that."

And "...these little things may not seem like much but after a while they take you off on a direction where you may be a long way off from what other people have been thinking about."

Penrose Interview

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Auditory Distractions - Why They're Hard to Ignore

Some people use distractibility and impaired sustained attention interchangeably, but they are different. Some people have quite strong abilities at being able to sustain attention, but they may also be exquisitely sensitive to distraction.

In this study, we get a chance to see why distractions make it hard to learn. The areas of the brain (prefrontal) that are necessary to resist distractions are exactly the same areas that are needed keeping information in mind. It looks like a direct competition.

Other interesting details - we are more sensitive to distraction at the limits of our memory (the more challenging the task) and when the distracting sounds are fluctuating, rather than constant like a hum.

Auditory Distraction pdf

Teach Briefly, Teach Often

Here's some practical information for making you an effective teacher - better to teach in short repetitive bursts, than all in one sitting. In the study below, children whose teaching consisted of three 2-min sessions per day (for 2 weeks) showed more than six times the improvement of those who were taught for one 6-min session per day. Sounds a bit like how good TV documentaries are designed: tell'em what you're going to tell'em, tell'em, then tell'em what you told'em.

Teaching Intervals

Monday, June 20, 2005

Neuroinflammation in Autism

In this important study, researchers from Johns Hopkins found quite striking evidence of inflammation in the brains of people diagnosed with autism. The ages studied ranged from 5 to 46 years, and the main brain region affected with inflammation was the cerebellum (see also post below), a site important for motor planning and coordination, but also sensory-motor coordination, autonomic activation, and attention. In the middle picture below, see how there's less of the dark purple dots (loss of neurons). On the right, the brown dotted staining showed areas of inflammatory activation in microglial cells.

The findings raise important questions like: what is the inflammation in response to? and is there any way that treating the inflammatory response can improve brain functioning or the course of the disease?

With this new information, autism is more clearly a neurologic rather than psychiatric or behavioral disorder. Studies in progress are evaluating possible laboratory tests to aid in the diagnosis.

Neuroinflammation in Autism

'Automatic' Learning - ADHD, Autism, Sensory Integration

Sites for 'automatic' learning in the brain are regions like the cerebellum, that help coordinate information coming in from the senses, motor plans, and adjustments that the body has to make when its doing something. Traditionally, brain regions like cerebellum have been relatively neglected by neuroscience research (conscious regions have attracted more attention), but now the cerebellum finds itself at the center of attention of some of the most critical childhood behavioral syndromes of our time: ADHD, autism, and sensory integration dysfunction.

In fact, cerebellar abnormalities are now recognized to be the dominant site for inflammation in autism (see post above), but it is also the site for abnormalities in ADHD, and from injuries due to birth injury, prematurity, or low birthweight.

Part of the reason that cerebellar problems may present with behavioral difficulties is that the cerebellum directly connects with the hypothalamus. It is a relatively primitive part of the brain that can activate the autonomic system direcly, and affect mood, arousal, and attention. Also because most of the cerebellum's actions are not under directly conscious control, some of these other activations may occur 'without thinking'.

Unfortunately the excellent Dysmetria of Thought article below is not yet available for free access. But in the coming year, there will probably be many more interesting studies about what makes 'automatic learning' difficult in ADHD, Autism, and SI.

Dysmetria of Thought
Neuroinflammation in Autism
Spatial Attention Cerebellum
Cerebellum ADHD Abstract

Friday, June 17, 2005

Flashes from the Past: A Great Dad

It's tough when there are so many to pick from, but for this Father's Day, we chose a father whose son grappled with significant disability.

His son had misfortune of starting out life with German measles. At birth the boy only saw lights, shadows, and colors, but then he lost all vision at the age of 4. In fact, the day he came home from the hospital, he later recalled that when he asked for his favorite coloring pencils, "my father had notched each pencil in a distinctive pattern so I might still know which color went with which pencil. He also cut letters and numerals out of paper so that I could learn what (my brother) already knew..." So from the very beginning, this Dad was determined to include him in everything.

Everyone learned Braille and took turns translating works for him. His family also made a point of carrying on "a continuous commentary about the passing scenery as I walked, bicycled, or traveled by train. Clouds, colors, cows, cars- everything mundane or out of the ordinary – were mentioned, described, and, when possible, demonstrated. In this way, I could integrate the world and let my imagination fill in the blanks...Nothing was out of reach; nothing Arie (his brother) was allowed to do was off limits to me...”

Intrinsic interests were actively encouraged: “One day..I decided during lunch recess to start a collection of pressed plants…My father was only too pleased to join in the search for plants. I began to learn from him about leaf shapes, venation patterns, modes of branching, and flower characteristics…”

What point, one might think, was there to be teaching a blind boy so much about nature's diversity? Well, this boy grew up to be Geerat Vermeij, Professor of Marine Ecology and Paleoecology UC Davis, MacArthur Fellow and publisher of almost 100 articles and 4 books, including who published nearly 100 articles and 4 books, including his autobiography: (Privileged Hands: A Scientific Life). Vermeij's dad was a remarkable example of steadfastness, optimism, and encouragement. He saw the big dream and he gave it to his son.

Have a great Father's Day weekend.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Talking with Your Hands - Language Merged with Movement

When words are stored in the brain, they are stored in complex ways - as verbal definitions, visual pictures, sounds, personal contexts and emotional associations, and as movements. When we gesture, this study below finds that the movements help speakers retrieve words. If you stopped the movements, you stopped fluency. Another interesting tidbit that turned up, people tended to gesture more when their were trying to describe a visual pattern that wasn't easily named (drawing with their hands) and objects that you could touch or manipulate. They speculate that when we learn about tangible objects, we register our knowledge and memory of that with sensory/motor memory as well as with words or sight.

All this implies that language learning should be a vivid affair. So go ahead and add drama to your family or classroom readings - may a bold sweep of gestures and accentuate your voice. This is really multisensory language - language that is sound, music, rhythm, movement, visual, and emotive...much more than words only.

Another rumination on this work is that folks with with sensory-motor challenges are disadvantaged if they don't have 'in sync' sensory-motor / movement systems as the learn and use words. In the optimal state, many large scale brain networks work in integration with each other. There may be surprising other consequences when one system becomes impaired.

Gesture and Language pdf

Harry Potter for the Summer

If you've got Potter fans in the house, here are some nifty links. We also just discovered the Yahoo 'Hogwarts Summer Correspondance School' too - a terrific (and free) site. You need to register an email address, but then can download lots of very imaginative and whimsical files. Our kids favorites - Hermione's logic puzzles and the mock daily newspapers (you have to join the different subgroups or classrooms - the newspapers are under Literature). Some of the materials these parents dreamed were a lot like my son's Hobbit course through Northwestern's gifted online school (CTD).

Yahoo groups are clunky to negotiate, but there's a lot of stuff there - mini textbooks on 'Herbology' (really Botany and nature activities), Astronomy, etc. Some of the Potter spins are quite clever. Our kids may try their hand at writing a 'newspaper'. For those who study Latin, that is also fun aspect of the books. In fact, HP is now published in Latin as well as Ancient Greek. When J.K. Rowling graduated with double 'firsts' in Classics and French at the University. In fact, she's said she modeled Hermione after herself.

Hogwarts 'Summer School' at Yahoo
Harry Potter Games
The Harry Potter Lexicon
HP Latin Quiz

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Executive Function Takes Time

Executive functions are clusters of 'overseeing' brain activities that include regions to make decisions, focus attention attention, inhibit certain impulses, and allocate memory resources. Executive functions are often at the center of research on ADD and ADHD.

In this recent paper from the University of Minnesota, there's new information that spatial memory, spatial multi-tasking (keeping different bits of visual information 'in mind'), and visual strategy undergo dramatic development from ages 9-10 to 18-20.

The youngest group (age 9-10) were the lowest performing for all of the visual-spatial tests, and in fact, improvements in memory and the ability to organize visual searches strategically or in an orderly fashion continued to improve between the ages of 16-17 and 18-20, so that the central 'Executive' was still getting a lot smarter into young adulthood.

It's important to look at study such as this (sorry, can't share the original publication with you as it's not yet Free Access) because it cautions us about accepting developmentally unrealistic expectations for executive functioning in school children. Admittedly we're in a situation to see kids who are having trouble in the school system, but why should some kids are made to feel like they're failing life when even though they're only 7 or 13 years old and still developing? Our most common referral age for possible ADHD is 7 years old, and some studies have suggested ADD / ADHD incidence as high as 5-10% of all boys. Do we really think all these kids need to be on meds?

There has been a lot of new information coming out about the normal course of cognitive development in kids, and this is all good. But we hope the right people are listening. There are profound implications here for the re-structuring of education and assessment, not to mention behavioral or psychological strategies for diagnosing.

As for us parents, we think the take-home point for this study should be that we should try to be more patient, try to be more encouraged, and try to be more encouraging. Growing up our 'Executives' takes time for everybody, and there's a lot to do in the meantime.

Kids and Teens: The Evolution of Multi-tasking and Memory

The Social Internet

The Internet is a social and intellectually challenging place, but we don't need to tell you that. Here's an article that summarizes Social Research & the Internet (from Yale):

"The Internet has unique, even transformational qualities as a communication channel, including relative anonymity and the ability to easily link with others who have similar interests, values, and beliefs. Research has found that the relative anonymity aspect encourages self-expression, and the relative absence of physical and nonverbal interaction cues (e.g. attractiveness) facilitates the formation of relationships on other, deeper bases such as shared values and beliefs...Despite past media headlines to the contrary, the Internet does not make its users depressed or lonely, and it does not seem to be a threat to community life--quite the opposite, in fact."

There are always be naysayers, though, like here. But in even a large German study that concluded that math and reading suffered in households that had multiple computers, they also found that "academic performance rose among those who routinely engaged in writing e-mail or running educational software."

The Internet and Social Life

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Switch! - Cross-Disciplinary Learning

"The best way to have fun in science is to do something you are not trained for." - Seymour Benzer

Any student of creativity or innovation knows that changing disciplines seems to be a way of keeping 'fresh' and getting new ideas. Louis Pasteur got his start in crystallography, but then started solving problems in fermentation when a student of him brought a problem to him from a factory. When a devastation of silkworms happened in Europe, they call Pasteur who exclaimed, "But I know nothing of silkworms." Nevertheless, he ended up solving the problem of silkworms and crossing over into the fields of microbiology and immunology.

In Root-Berstein's study of innovators, he found "In every case that I have been able to examine, researchers who continued to be productive past middle age changed fields regularly. In effect they periodically returned to the state of a novice by taking up a new subject. They broke out of the patterns of work and thought to which they had become accustomed."

Maybe it's as Nobel Prize winner Peter Debye said, "...ask for people who have enough brain power that they at least have a feeling of how to handle a new problem. The specific nature of the problem is not important."

What does these people look like as young people - well we don't know for sure, but we have a hunch. We see some extraordinarly bright kids who have very wide ranging interests. Sometimes they are not easily contained by the classroom, but the journey sure looks very interesting.

The Life and Times of Louis Pasteur
Transdisciplinary Evolution of Education
OJR article: Teaching Convergence
Economics of Cross Pollination
Interdisciplinary Teaching and Learning
Teaching Across Disciplines
UD PBL -- Jan. '95 About Teaching
Teaching Across Disciplines
Successful Interdisciplinary Teaching
Cross Disciplinary Field Trips

Flash from the Present: "A counselor told her parents she was not college material..."

A college counselor told her parents she was not college material, but her parents rejected that idea flat out. She was playing piano for family get-togethers at age 3 and she was raised in a 'stimulating environment' that included youth group, piano, ballet, French, flute, violin, speed reading, and church. Her parents were a pastor and a music teacher. She entered college at age 15 with the idea of being a concert pianist, but then on the competition circuit she met "11-year olds who could play from sight what had taken me all year to learn." She shocked her parents when she told them she was changing her major from music to political science. Her father said, "Black people don't make money in poligical science." She replied, "Music, either."

This gal went into a Masters program at 19, then after finishing, got a PhD in International Studies. At 26, she became an Assistant Professor at Stanford, and soon made full professor. At 38, she became provost of Stanford - the youngest, first non white, and first woman to hold the position. She balanced the $20 million budget deficit in 2 years. Can you guess?

This is Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of State and still a concert pianist- she gave a charity concert at the Kennedy Center last weekend to help out Tom Lantos' granddaughter, an opera singer recently diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension. That's a first for Secretary of State too.

Rice takes help ailing singer

Monday, June 13, 2005

Understanding Persistence

"Never give in. Never give in. Never,never, never, never--in nothing, great or small, large or petty- never give in, except to convictions of honour and good sense..." - Winston Churchill

Why is it that some people give up easily? What's different about the ones that persist? Do they have better attention? Do they have better drive?

Well, this brain imaging study suggests that some people are better at being able to activate their medial reward systems - so that they want to do the task - even if the task is uninteresting. We just excerpted a few pictures below (and put the eyes in so you could get a better idea what you're looking at) and the paper can be read in the open access NIH paper database at PubMed Central.

When we're troubleshooting a child's poor task persistence, we need to think about several things - can a child do it (could a disability be the problem?)?, are there ways to improve motivation (internal and external rewards) within the educational setting?, and are the conditions ripe to foster a feeling of competence (can the child experience some success while being incrementally challenged).

Check out other articles below on Temperament and School Behavior, and Fostering Resilience.

Persistence on fMRI
Temperament and School Behavior
Fostering Resilience in Children

Sensory Integration - Imagery Integrates the Senses

"The delicate tremble of a butterfly's wings in my hand, the soft petals of violets curling in the cool folds of their leaves or lifting sweetly out of the meadow-grass, the clear, firm outline of face and limb, the smooth arch of a horse's neck and the velvety touch of his nose - all these, and a thousand resultant combinations, which take shape in my mind, constitute my world." - Helen Keller

Our senses unite to give us representations of the world. When one modality is lost, distortions and confusion result, but the solution is interact even more with the world. In the figure below, researchers find that blind and control subjects activate similar areas for similar objects. Sighted people see a tube of toothpaste and have a tactile imagery of what it feels like. Blind people only have a tactile imagery. But the image is a representation or a generalization that the brain makes about what it is. And imagery is formed by an ongoing feedback between the senses and the brain.

There are many conditions that give rise to sensory processing disorders in children...the most common are probably mild birth injury or a inherited disability. Children who have inconsistent imagery for steps, escalators, dogs, and new environments will be afraid of all these things. Over time (if left to their own devices), they will explore less rather than more. What parents, therapists, and teachers can do is guide them in their exploration and help them to gain confidence with understanding their world with whatever intact senses they have. These general principles apply to many children with sensory disorders (for instance those with visual or auditory perceptual abnormalities or those with impaired position sense).

In the figure below, the top picture shows the pattern of brain activation in sighted test subjects. Note the overlap between touch and sight. Below is a simlar representation observed in blind subjects that used touch alone.

When Sight is More Than Sight

Friday, June 10, 2005

Thinking Flexibly

The ability to think flexibly is important for problem solving and creativity, amd it improves with direct modeling (examples). Flexibility is not the only factor for successful problem solving...selection is equally as important, but it is particularly important in situations in which information is ambiguous or conflicting, or incomplete- and when something totally new is needed.

Based on work by Amabile and others, childrens' fluency of ideas are found to best stimulated in environments that emphasize a great deal of freedom, individuality, playfulness, and ideational risk-taking. We provided links to other papers on encouraging and teaching for flexible thinking, including some more technical papers which look at cognitive flexibility theory.

In work at Oxford (below), Geake and colleagues used the Verbal Similarities task as model for gifted flexible thinking, but we shouldn't forget that that approach only looks at language. Flexibility in visual thinking uses other pathways, and it is possible to be very good at way, but not the other.

We'e also put in a link to an interesting paper involving high functioning autistic kids and young adults. There researchers found that their test subjects were quite strong in 'design fluency' (visual fluency task), and in fact generated as many new visual designs as their controls. What autistic subjects struggled with, though, was language - and for verbal fluency tasks, autistics scored far lower than a globally learning-disabled (retardation) control group.

There's some important stuff here. It's a reminder to us to foster the gifts of autistic students in visual design and problem-solving. Too often we may get preoccupied with their language and social needs, but their visual strengths may help them develop their expertise, interest-based friendships, and careers. In this study, the autistic group had some difficulty intrusive errors on design tasks, but importantly, they could recognize when errors were made. This means that educating for visual strengths should always incorporate at least a 2-step creation process- first generating ideas, then going back to throw out errors and select optimal designs.

Ideational Fluency and Autism
Geake post Fluid Analogies fmri
Flexible Teaching
Cognitive Flexibility, Constructivism, and Hypertext
Flexible Thinking: Learning from real life
Visual Flexibility Current Opinion Neurobio
p.s. Can't remember what brain regions were important for design fluency? Check out our prior post on the Tower of London task here.

Students Voice WASL Opposition

By the news article, we don't know whether this protest was initially student-motivated or parent- or teacher-motivated. Anyway, it is true high school students who are passing their classes, but failing the WASL, have a lot to lose by being denied their diplomas. If they fail to win a diploma, the statistic prediction is poor: more likely to be unemployed and on public assistance, and much lower average salaries. Average salaries for young adults are $19,000 no diploma, $26,000 diploma, $31,000 some college, $42,000 college or higher.

Students voice WASL opposition
Education Statistics

Brain Break (Kid Pick): Last Minute Book Report

Our son found this site - hilarious animated "Last Minute Book Reports" - Little Women, Don Quixote, etc.

Last Minute Book Reports

Computer Use Begins Even Earlier!

Computer users are getting younger - the latest statistics: 67% nursery school students use the computer (23% are on the Internet), 80% Computer 32% Internet by Kindergarten. By the time kids are first graders, it's 91% Computers and 50% Internet.

Computer and Internet Use in Kids

Have a great weekend.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

The Complex Framework of Reward and Motivation for Kids

There is a complex relationship of reward and motivation for school aged kids, and the answers are simpler when children have high intrinsic (internal reward) motivations and flexible educational options. But when a child's performance begins to slip, and motivation and achievement drop, it becomes more difficult knowing how to regain intrinsic motivation and use extrinsic incentives to improve achievement.

The outlook for intrinsic motivation over time looks poor:

"Preference for Challenge" similarly decreases.

And yet, what can you do? Providing incentives is a tricky business. If you take something that a child naturally loves and then provide money as an incentive, research studies suggest that your scheme will backfire. In a classic experiment (repeated many times), Deci found that college students not paid to play with a puzzle played longer with it and had more interest in it, than students who were paid. As a result, the rules of reward are different when it comes to intrinsic interests. Praise and encouragement seem to be fine, but money has an opposite effect. If you want to check out Amabile's Creativity Killers, see the Art of Creativity news article below.

On the other hand, incentives may work well for activities that don't require a great deal of creativity activity like completing math worksheets.

It's valuable to think about contextual factors in motivation as well -where a child feels he is starting from, whether he perceives or knows he has slipped, and whether he now feels he is successful at his work. Sometimes we see kids when they have been experiencing repeated failure, and it's important to give them a break, to aggressively pursue accommodations if they are appropriate - so they can experience success and have more psychic energy to work on difficult tasks. Many parents can succumb to catastrophic thinking - if they take accommodations now, maybe they'll always be dependent, etc. etc., but that's not what's going to happen.

On yesterday's post about Kids and Reward, we found it interesting that the researchers cited Tversky and Kahneman's work in their design of a 'random' number guessing reward paradigm. Children were overly discouraged when win-losses were about equal. They needed to win:lose at about a 2:1 ratio to be motivated and excited about the game. It's no different in school (or in video games for that matter).

Motivation is a powerful tool in the classroom. We just need to know how to use it the right way to push their learning onto a new level.

Academic Intrinsic Motivation
Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation
Psychology Today: The art of creativity
Reward and Math Worksheets
Decision Making Under Uncertainty- Kahneman

Impulsivity Can Be Reduced By Training

This is a summary of the original research paper, but it's an accurate one. Impulsivity is probably the most easily trained of behaviors associated with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. In this study, high impulsivity was most highly correlated with a "lax" parenting style with inconsistent consequences for misbehaviors. Families with high emotional reactivity on the part of the parents (got very upset at children) were also at greatest risk for having children with impulsive behaviors.

The most important point, though, was that children's impulsivity really decreased in response to more structured discipline (after parents received instruction). Hope this helps someone.

Attention Research

Sleep Loss Affects High Schoolers

Teens do have a real alteration in their sleep cycle that makes them prefer staying up late and sleeping in. This is a normal development at this age. But this study found that teens had real effects on cognitive performance and mood. The researchers suggested giving tests in the afternoon and changing school start times.

Sleep Loss Affects High Schoolers