Monday, May 31, 2010

Going Deep - Finding Time for In-Depth Learning

In a survey of 8,310 undergraduate students, students who had been exposed to a topic in depth (meaning they had spent at least one month studying it [e.g. electromagnetism in physics]), earned higher science grades than those who did not. In contrast, "those who had been exposed to a relatively long list of topics, but not in depth, did not have any advantage in college chemistry or physics and were at a disadvantage in biology."

At the high school level, the debate between depth and breadth often arises in the discussion of the value of Advanced Placement courses. From the Washington Post: "The two biggest shortcomings that I see in the would-be AP U.S. History teachers I meet are their sparse knowledge of history and their limited understanding of what it means to "think historically" (and how to teach their students to do so). To many of them, history is just facts and AP History merely requires that they memorize more facts."

The difficult thing to do in this period of crowded course and subject requirements, is to find time to do it. As Dr. Kieran Egan of the Learning in Depth Project argues that children who never have the opportunity to study a topic in-depth never realize how knowledge is structured, and that does ring true. With out knowing how present knowledge is structured, all sorts of mischief and misconceptions arise as people never come to recognize how existent knowledge was created and what its limitations might be.

The answers are not always so simple - for instance in the situation in which Phil Sadler and his colleagues analyzed what factors determined success in college chemistry, fact memorization was as important as repeating work for conceptual mastery. So perhaps some breadth and depth should be considered both essential components of a 'complete' education. In high school, the requirement for a senior project or mini-thesis in addition to survey courses might help bridge both worlds. Our daughter's attending a classical Great Books school that's roughly based on the Trivium: with grammar (rote), logic (analytical / reasoning argumentation), and rhetoric (persuasion). Some of the sweep of World History is introduced in the early years so more depth is possible in the high school years.

A very different approach to depth in education is suggested by the program Learning in Depth. When first grade students begin their classes, they are assigned a subject that they will study over the 12 years of their future schooling (examples given: apples or dust). The idea is that as they will return to their subject over the next 12 years, continually adding to it so they will have a greater respect for how knowledge is accrued and learning can be conducted from different points-of-view. I don't think that approach is for everybody actually, but it's an interesting idea. I much prefer allowing students to choose their topics and encourage continuity as much as possible - but working with intrinsic interests more than subjects that can be easily digested and assigned in the 1st grade. Even if students had some experience of working on a project for a year or two - this would be an improvement over never having to really think.

Depth Matters
A Brief Guide to Learning in Depth
A theoretical model for learning complexity - depth, abstraction, and transfer of learning
Cognitive Complexity in Math and Science

Monday, May 24, 2010

Video Gamers Have Bigger Brains

On a challenging space game, University of Illinois researchers found that students trained on a more challenging version of a task task (switches from one task to another) developed greater gains in procedural learning and cognitive flexibility that generalized to other tasks, and yes, that their brains got bigger. The area that bigger was the striatum - bilateral caudate, and to a lesser extent, the putamen.

The data are interesting for a number of reasons - brain studies in ADHD and dyslexia have suggested reduced caudate size and greater impairments in procedural learning. Games that employ motor skill and cognitive flexibility just might be able to generalize to other motor tasks like writing by hand or working with one's hands.

There are also caveats of course. Dorsal striatum has also been implicated in addictive behavior and it may be that the 'adrenaline rush' of fast-paced video gaming is not so far from the truth in the dorsal striatum.

But all-in-all, research like this is supportive of computer-based approaches to learning and neurorehabilitation. It is no accident that research of this sort is funded by the Office of Naval Research. Active duty personnel would benefit by training that boosts visual detection, visuomotor skills, and cognitive flexibility. That's probably why surgeons who play video games worked more quickly and made fewer errors than surgeons who didn't. Video game play was more predictive of surgical skills than years of training or number of operations performed (that's pretty amazing).

Striatal Brain Volume Predicts Video Game Skill pdf
Video Game Playing Surgeons Work Faster and Better

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Creative Advantage: How Vivid Memories of the Past Help Predictions for the Future

"It's a poor sort of memory that only works backwards..." - Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

A fascinating new area of cognitive neuroscience has been looking at the link between personal or episodic memory and future prediction.

Episodic memory is an autobiographical that encodes specific times, places, sensory details and context, in contrast to semantic or non-personal memory that encodes facts (like 3 + 2 = 5 or the definition of a shoe) that can deal with more abstract or representational information that now may only be distantly linked to prior experiences.

When researchers looked at the brain regions involved in looking at the past, they found many of the same regions activated in response to prompts to imagine events in the future.

It was the cognitive neuroscientist Tulving who first noticed that an amnestic patient who had no recollection of any event that he had personally experienced also could not answer questions about events he might experience in the future. It was Suddendorf and Corballis who raised the idea that mental time travel into the past was closely linked to time travel into the future.

Any other significance to the brain areas found to be activated into future visualization experiments? Maybe - these are the same areas important for theory of mind or thinking about the perspectives of others, and spatial navigation tasks.

It's not hard to find examples of highly creative forward-thinking adults who seem to have had this prodigious memory pattern (Nikola Tesla, Isaac Asimov, Leonardo Da Vinci etc.) but amazingly we think we see some of these budding versions in our clinic because of our interest in highly gifted and twice exceptional (gifted with LD) learners.

Vivid personal memory doesn't always translated into academic success in the early years of education - because it's usually impersonal or rote memory that's emphasized in school. Vivid visualizers can be easily distracted, lost in their daydreams, or more concerned with personal trivia (what Toby brought to school, the games on Sarah's DS, etc.) or personal experimentation (homemade catapults) than the steps for rounding decimals or regurgitating dates and names for a history test.

But because personal memory is so closely linked to future prediction pathways, shouldn't we think about the implications for education? There's a lot concern these days about American students not being prepared for the new millennial global workplace. Perhaps we spend too little time cultivating rich personal experiences, the development of spatial intelligence, and future thinking.

Episodic Foresight pdf
Episodic simulations of future events pdf

Monday, May 10, 2010

Attention and Distraction - Battle Between the CEO and Creativity Director

Recent research from Illinois researchers indicates that the battle for attention in the Stroop task is not a matter of frontal executive function being present or absent, but rather due to the different patterns of activations in the posterior attention (parietal lobes) brain areas.

When two different Stroop tasks were given that different in the nature of task-irrelevant information (color-word vs. color-object task), little changes were seen in frontal executive areas, whereas marked differences were seen in the posterior areas.

 At left, color-word (orange), color-object (blue) for incongruent vs. neutral condition. Overlapping areas were shown in purple.

The data are interesting and remind us of the Chief Operations Officer or COO (executive) and Creativity Director described in our book, The Mislabeled Child. Stroop tasks are commonly employed in ADHD scenarios or tests of executive function, but this research suggests the truth is a bit more complicated than that.
Some children (and adults) undoubtedly may struggle with the Stroop because of weaker frontal executive functions, but differences in posterior pathways probably account for at least some of the lower performers - the question is how to distinguish the two - either in the clinic or in the classroom. Recently dyslexic teens were reported to have poorer performance on the Stroop, but is that because of weak COOs or 'too strong' Creativity Directors?

In this older study of positive mood on creative fluency and executive function (Stroop) , positive mood was positively correlated with greater creative fluency (e.g. how many different things can you think of to do with a cup), but negatively correlated with strong executive function performance on the Stroop. So happiness may help the Creativity Director, but not the COO. Instead, perhaps it's Seriousness (i.e. not really a positive mood) that drives the Chief Operations Officer.

Two attention systems in the Stroop pdf

Monday, May 03, 2010

Mind over Matter: Imagery Enhances Motor Training

Mental practice improves performance over motor practice alone - that's what the latest imagery research suggests. Texas A & M students learning to draw blood or surgically suture were found to improve if given guided imagery in addition to motor practice. The old saw, "See one, do one, teach one" that we learned in medical school should perhaps become "See one, do one, imagine one".

Psychologist Erica Wohldmann suggests that imagery practice may even be better than motor practice alone because it requires the cognitive generation of more abstract representations of physical movements. Makes sense.

University of Washington scientists are taking this research a step farther, looking at the effects of imagery-based biofeedback training on the learning motor tasks. As it turns out, combining a biofeedback task (moving a computer cursor) with electrical activity at a particular electrode is fairly easy for their sample subjects (graduate students?)  to master. In their study, two students were able to master the task without motor imagery in less than 10 minutes of training...after 5 and 8 min respectively, all they had to do was 'think' about moving the cursor and it moved up and down.

So what are implications for students?

Imagery-based training for motor skills  Many high performance athletes already incorporate imagery training in their routines, but perhaps imagery should be considered more often in children who have dysgraphia and / or other procedural learning difficulties like children with sensory processing difficulties or dyslexia. The idea of air writing, or rather the imagining of air writing may be a useful addition to plain writing your abc's over and over again.

Imagery for Visual Skills? Would guided imagery also be beneficial of disorders of eye movements (e.g. kids who have trouble moving their eyes smoothing across a horizontal line of text)? After all, the muscles that move the eye are voluntary muscles just like the ones in the hands and legs. We would think imagery would be especially helpful for complex tasks that require coordination between different motor groups (e.g. hand-eye coordination) and complex motor sequences.

Treatment for People Who Have Deficient Imagery? And what of children and adults who can't make imagery at? It's hard to know how many of these people there are, but we know of at least some because they tell us so when we ask them. In our clinic,  the children who report an absence of visual or kinesthetic imagery usually have severe sensory processing difficulties, very restricted working memories, and / or impaired gestalt perception. It's a step in the right direct to recognize the organic basis of imagery and its importance for learning. The next step is to help those who don't have it. It's possible that the development of an imagery-based computer feedback system could be extremely valuable for these folks.

Motor performance and imagery-based feedback
Psychology Today: Mind your body