Saturday, April 23, 2011

The 7 Steps to Language Learning

Just as an infant must first drink milk, before eating solids, prior to the brain processing complex language abstractions, the networks for basic language foundations must be first laid down. All higher circuits build upon whatever the lower brain circuits have developed earlier, but those circuits must be pre-existing or there will be little on which to build. Infants and toddlers learn language in this recommended sequence of developmental events

1. Hear songs, children’s lullabies, and music, which teach infants the distinct phonemic elements – the building blocks – of the local language. To build a foundation in the language, an infant must hear the sounds that are most useful to their language. Songs for children, characteristically stress the high frequency/high utility sounds and grammatical patterns found in the local/regional language. (The sense of hearing goes “on-line” at 7 months in utero, when fetues begin eavesdropping on the language of the locality into which they will soon be born.)

2. Sing those songs themselves and learn how to produce the sounds via mimicry -- watching others. With their budding "mirror neurons" active, infants fixate on the lips and mouth of a singer (or speaker) and mentally “rehearse” how he/she would produce those same sounds well before the infant is capable of physically replicating the songs with voice. They begin to “babble,” or practice the language.

3. Listen to, repeat, and then recite children’s poetry where they begin to notice the similarities in sounds (words/word sounds that rhyme) by practicing the primary phonetic elements.

4. Listen to short stories emphasizing sentence structure, grammar, syntax, and the predictable nature of language (subject-verb agreement, the word order for adjectives and the nouns they describe, etc.) to learn language structure.

5. Repeat/re-tell stories in their own words making personal sense of words, content, and context. Oral language develops our “phonological loop,” where a child begins to listen to his own voice while speaking, and later, while reading. Words are used to think, not just to read, as we have learned. A limited vocabulary is a crucial factor underlying failure in school (particularly for disadvantaged students.) The “context processor” in the brain constructs an on-line, coherent interpretation of what is being heard. If he is fortunate enough to have a lengthy personal background where others have read to him, his phonological loop will more readily integrate those past language experiences into future language production. For that child, learning to read is a skill that develops considerably faster than for others. Children don’t learn exclusive from listening to stories. They benefit more from the give-and-take in discourse about the stories. That is where they learn how to use language.

6. Draw pictures of story events, objects, and characters, where children learn to create mental pictures in their “mind’s eye.” Nouns are typically more readily activated in the mind than words describing intangible concepts. Drawing will bring the abstract closer to mind. Drawing does for the brain during the day what dreaming does for the brain at night. Pictorial representations and symbols (art) have been part of the human experience for far longer than the printed word.

7. Begin reading and writing with symbolic language. Now, the child is ready. For boys, this may take 6-7 years.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Nobel Prizes and Synapses

What do Nobel prizes and synapses have in common?

In order for us to move, feel and think, neurons in our brain relay messages to one another. When neurons "chat" among themselves, their means of communication relies on both electricity and chemistry.

Once incoming stimuli of a specific type reach a threshold point, a 270 mph electrical impulse “fires” and is transmitted down the axon of a neuron, the elongated portion of the nerve cell.

The chemical component of this informational exchange occurs by means of over 70 neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) and neuromodulators. Once the electrical impulse reaches the end of the axon, a tiny pocket of chemicals bursts releasing neurotransmitters (the “chemical couriers”), which travel across the synapse, a microscopic gap separating two theoretically “connected” neurons. The “apse” in synapse means binding, and “syn” meaning together.

Synapses in reality are contiguous rather than continuous contact points between the message-sending or pre-synaptic neuron and the post-synaptic or message-receiving neuron.

As neurotransmitters cross the synaptic gap they lock into receptor sites on the post-synaptic neuron (the next neuron on a neural pathway) and convey their chemical message only if their molecular properties fit the precise configuration of the receptor sites on the post-synaptic neuron. Over one quadrillion (1,000 trillion) synaptic connections can be established inside the human brain. Each neuron can make 15,000 to 200,000 connections with other brain cells.

Creating new synapses and delivering the appropriate types and quantities of neurotransmitters in these chemical communications, is the foundation of the event we generically call learning.

Although synaptic transmission is just one aspect of how the brain functions, three Nobel prizes have been awarded (to Arvid Carlsson, Paul Greengard, and Eric Kandel) for their research on this single portion of our complex brain transactions.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Linking Education and Economic Progress

While education is enjoying a global resurgence, it continues to be the target of conservative politicians in the United States. The World Bank places a premium on education, and more specifically, the education of young girls in developing Third World countries.

Today, loans to poor nations are granted with this single factor used as an important criterion in the loan-granting process. Educated women typically give birth to fewer children (an average of two rather than eight). The two children hailing from the smaller households will typically receive an education, because of two primary factors:

(1) formal education (instead of daily survival) in smaller families rises to the level of a high "family priority," when monthly income leaves funds available for discretionary spending, and
(2) more family resources can be invested in schooling rather than in basic needs of food, clothing, etc., for a large number of family members, who are not making even modest contributions to the family income. The ultimate fiscal drain on limited family resources often spells foreclosure on financially out-of-reach educational opportunities.

National instability and political oppression, coincidentally, often accompany high levels of poverty and low levels of education. Countries with a substantive middle-class population typically enjoy greater political stability, which allows them to make good on their World Bank loans.

The current attack on public employees in general, and public education in particular can be disastrously short-sighted recognizing the high correlation that we all acknowledge between a quality "education for all" and global economic standing.

There are no "internal winners" in the senseless assaults on public education. In both the long-term and the short-term, our entire nation will suffer when we don't support public education and maximize learning for every child who walks into our doors.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The First Ph.D. in Psychology

The first Ph.D. ever awarded with the term “Psychology” in its title was granted at Harvard University in 1878.

Barely fourteen years later, the American Psychological Association was the center of this fledgling discipline, which was quite “undisciplined” since it was not driven by any precise methodological or scientific focus. One hundred years later, Pres. George Bush declared the 1990s “The Decade of the Brain.”

During the intervening decades, our understanding of the human brain mushroomed as our knowledge base catapulted from mere conjecture, guesswork, and speculation to a domain grounded in biology, medicine, and science.

Parenting and education were two areas of the modern human experience that seemed almost impervious to the incredible findings in neuroscience until recently. Remarkably, no two arenas are better positioned to put this research into daily practice. To our collective good fortune, today we see educators, parents and neuroscientists seeking to understand the aspects of behavior, learning and memory.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Science of Learning

We receive questions frequently about student learning. One question that has been asked several times and in numerous different ways is, "Can you recommend a short list of priorities for learning?" Those items should always include the following:

• Hands-on, minds-on, heart’s-in learning experiences (experiential learning)

• Relevance to the student’s personal life whenever possible (it is relevance that makes "rigor" achievable)

• Active learning, which is how the brain learns best and remembers most effectively (engagement)

• Student-centered learning, which increases the probability of student achievement

• Technology, manipulatives, and simulations followed by student writings on those experiences

• Metacognitive learning where students analyze, reflect on, and discuss their thinking processes

• Differentiated learning, since students learn at different rates and by different means

• Diverse learning styles using multiple intelligences to address the different ways of knowing and different ways of learning

• Build from the concrete experience to the pictorial/representational to the abstract/symbolic

• Provide a physically and emotionally safe learning environment• Build upon past learning and prior knowledge (schemas)

• Learners must apply their learning in order to establish long-lasting neural connections

• Capitalize on a child’s interests and strengths for motivation (requiring “Emotional Intelligence”), while helping a child learn how to “manage” his/her “emerging talents” (a.k.a. "weaknesses") competencies, and skills.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Achievement Gap and Testing: Understanding standardized Testing Below Its Deceptive Surface (Part III)

When two youngsters are administered the same timed-test and each receives a score of 6/10 correct, we assume that they are working at the same achievement level. Student “A” may have responded with six correct answers after completing only six of the 10 items. Student "B" may respond knowledgeably and correctly to only three test items. He guesses at the remaining seven questions of which four are coded “incorrect” and only three are correct. If Student “A” had more time, he may have received a perfect score of 10 out of 10, because he actually knew the concept well, while Student B's score might continue to fluctuate solely based on the mathematical probabilities associated with guessing at four random multiple-choice items.

Don't our children also deserve to be measured by more than high-stakes test? When making decisions that have a long-term impact on our lives (college attendance, a home purchase, or which car should we buy), numerous factors are frequently entertained and multiple measures are used before we arrive at a final conclusion.

The American Educational Research Association, the American Psychological Association and the National Council on Measurement in Education advocate using multiple resources for student assessment. There should be multiple types of information used from assessments, multiple formats of assessment, more reliance on formal and informal testing occasions where proficiency can be demonstrated, and multiple opportunities for students to “show what they know" in a risk-free, stress-free environment where the actual demonstration of knowledge is more important than what the clock says.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Achievement Gap and Testing: Understanding standardized Testing Below Its Deceptive Surface (Part II)

Pay scales for classroom practitioners are characteristically governed by (1) the degrees earned, and (2) the length and quality of job experiences, which is comparable to most other professional occupations.

However, a suburban high school, where 80 highly qualified and experienced teachers are paid an average of $1,000 more per teacher, per month than their cross-town colleagues in the inner-city, is investing in excess of $1 million dollars more per year in salaries and benefits for those educators. Yes, that substantial difference in investment certainly should yield an expected return annually.

While formal assessment and standardized testing can serve a worthwhile mission, all tests are not necessarily accurate indicators of knowledge attainment, skills acquisition, scholarly competence, or "school quality." Yet, we have faith in the erroneous equation...

more pressure on teachers = more learning = better test scores.

When the multifaceted processes of teaching and learning can be reduced to “a bubble” on a multiple-choice test item, we have significantly degraded cognitive development and the intrinsic importance of intellectual exploration. Innovative thinking has never been stimulated by standardized testing.

Even more important, many of the most beneficial human traits, dispositions, and attributes (ingenuity, persistence, compassion, creativity, dependability, controlling impulsivity, adaptability, flexibility in thinking, integrity, originality, self-sufficiency, etc.) that have sponsored the greatest advances in human development, go untested and completely ignored by standardized tests.

These characteristics typically determine the success in life and the quality of one's life, although they are most unwelcome on standardized tests.

Albert Einstein once said, "Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted” or calibrated on a standardized test. As adults, our "character" is informally assessed daily, where it counts -- our professions and our entire lives.

What do you think?

The Achievement Gap and Testing: Understanding standardized Testing Below Its Deceptive Surface (Part III) follows tomorrow.

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Achievement Gap and Testing: Understanding standardized Testing Below Its Deceptive Surface (Part I)

There are several predictable and pernicious economic factors that impact learning and development, which, collectively, skew standardized test results.

Parents are often dismayed by assessment scores reflecting their child's lack of success in academic progress. Yet we must remember that children grow and mature at dramatically different rates physically, emotionally, socially and academically.

Variability in cognitive development gets reflected in significant differences that we see within members of the same family. So, why is there any surprise that broad achievement bands would be found between disparate economic and ethnic groups? Strikingly different patterns of growth and development are the expected norm, not the exception.

An expectation that children should learn and master the same new content or skill at precisely the same rate is comparable to hoping that all children will grow in height and weight at exactly the same rate regardless of diet, health, genetics, or environmental circumstances.

“Performance uniformity” might be a reasonable expectation in product development and manufacturing models, but not in child development and the incredible complexities associated with human learning.

We often lament the plight of the disadvantaged student, but we seldom acknowledge what being "advantaged" really means. Comparable to a 100-meter track race, where one sprinter clearly benefits by receiving a 40-yard head start, the outcome should surprise no one.

The greatest surprise is that we continue to operate under an uncomfortable pretense that a conversation about the benefits of gross economic advantages are forbidden in our candid public discussions. Talking about the economic advantages that pave the way to academic advantages is impolite.

What we find most amazing is that the “achievement gap” isn’t considerably wider given what we know today about brain development, child development, and the correlations between social status, family income and test scores.

In Dennis Littky’s book, The Big Picture: Education Is Everyone's Business, he offers the following quote from Ken Wesson, a founding member of the Association of Black Psychologists: "Let's be honest. If poor inner-city children consistently outscored children from wealthy suburban homes on standardized tests, is anyone na├»ve enough to believe that we would still insist on using these tests as indicators of success?"

What do you think?

The Achievement Gap and Testing: Understanding standardized Testing Below Its Deceptive Surface (Part II) follows tomorrow.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Fordlandia: What Happens When We Work Against Nature? (Part II)

Most of the heveas brasilis trees succumbed quickly to a local fungus that would have normally been curtailed by the natural vegetation, which was now absent. Healthy trees also need space between one anther, which they also lacked in Fordlandia. The subsequent flooding, caused by depleting the area of vegetation, washed away the few surviving trees.

Almost no trees were harvested, since they could not reach maturity. In the unforgiving nature-driven rainforest, manufacturing schedules and carefully planned production levels were the priorities, in spite of what nature had in store. The results were physically and financially disastrous.

Ultimately, Ford's $20 million agricultural fiasco was terminated and the now-useless land was sold back to the government of Brazil for $250,000. This relegated Fordlandia to the classic "case studies" list of prime examples of the high price paid for ignoring, rather than working with, nature.

On countless occasions in our human history, we have demonstrated how defying Mother Nature can be a sin that is accompanied by severe punishment. Contemporary classrooms are not exempt. Force-fitting more than 4 million years of brain evolution into a 150 year-old American classroom model has also been punished by conspicuous academic shortcomings. This is evidenced by an abundance of "brain antagonistic" educational practices that yield consistently poor learning results.

As the 20th-century British leader Winston Churchill once said, “Success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing one’s enthusiasm.” Many of the instructional failings about which we’ve been most enthusiastic for several generations should be substituted with “brain-considerate” approaches that reflect how our brains have developed over the past 4 million years of evolutionary enhancements.

Fordlandia: What Happens When We Work Against Nature? (Part I)

In 1927, Henry Ford negotiated the purchase of 2.5 million acres of lush tropical land in the Brazilian jungles. That land became the home site of a massive Ford Motor Company rubber plantation aptly named “Fordlandia.”

Thousands of fertile acres of rich rainforest land were slashed and razed as the first step in creating Fordlandia. Since time was of the essence, rubber tree saplings were immediately planted. But, they were unwisely crammed together in neat (but extremely narrow) little rows in the now-barren stretches of rich soil. To maximize production yields, the customary planting distances between trees were abandoned so space usage could be maximized.

In their native surroundings, rubber (heveas brasilis) trees thrive best in wide patches of roomy green terrain. However, the production techniques utilized in carefully-controlled, crowded, man-made, factory-like conditions were forced upon Mother Nature with a less than comparable success to put it mildly.

The assembly-line models, which were effective for automobile production, were met with an extremely hostile reaction by the biological principles governing rainforest environments.These models were no match when put to a test of wills with Mother Nature.

What do you think happened to Fordlandia? Do you see any parallels with our schools?

Fordlandia: What Happens When We Work Against Nature? Part II will appear tomorrow.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Attention Span Revisited

There have been numerous formulas proposed for calibrating the attention span of children, adolescents and adults.

Some contemporary researchers advocate gauging children’s attention spans by multiplying chronological age by 3 to 5 minutes for each year of age. Others have set the human attention span at a maximum of 20 - 22 minutes of learning time for upper adolescence and adulthood.

Still other child development researchers have concluded that a child’s attention span is typically equivalent in minutes to the chronological age of that young boy or girl.

However, from working with educators, parents, and children over the past four decades, the following instructional attention spans seem most accurate and useful.

Attention Span: Under Optimal Conditions*
• Between ages 2 and 3 children have an attention span ranging from 3-4 minutes
• When children begin Kindergarten (approximately age 5), attention spans rise to a maximum of 5 to 10 consecutive minutes
• Between ages 6 and 8, the maximum time for focused attention, during instructional time, can stretch to 15-20 minutes when children are engaged in a single learning task.
• From age 9 to 12, the best estimates of an adolescent’s “focused attention” do not exceed 22 to 35 minutes, when they are engaged in learning.

*Caveat: Attention spans for children at play and when socially engaged will often exceed the maximum figures established for formal instruction.

Given today’s technological toys and tools for entertainment and productivity, sizeable increases in attention spans correlate with interactive involvement and far exceed traditional figures for customary instructional time spans. Extensions in attention spans are correlated with children are
• challenged (eustress)
• emotionally engaged (“fun”)
• receiving on-going feedback and support

Anyone with just a modest degree of experience working with children has noticed that when children are fully “immersed in enjoyment,” they frequently lose track of time and our chart-based expectations are repeatedly obliterated.

Technology and the Internet have prompted a new phenomenon referred to as “CPA” -continuous partial attention - where children and adults devote less-concentrated attention to two or more tasks that are attempted simultaneously without one’s full attention committed any single one of those endeavors.

As an expected outcome, the quality of execution in each task frequently suffers significant performance erosion. For example, a five-year-old can talk and he can also tie his shoe, but talking while tying his shoes concurrently can even lead to “performance paralysis.” One of the two tasks must reach the perform threshold of “automaticity” (where one task can be performed without actively and consciously thinking about each step in the process of execution) before we can successfully engage in the second task with some degree of expected roficiency.

Consequently, many American states have recently passed laws intended to curtail the hazardous practice of driving while using a cellular phone (and texting). Even the most reliable statistics on attention spans are meaningless when the brain is distracted. The charts presented here are most applicable under optimal conditions in the learning environment. They become distorted once distractions become a factor whether in a car or in a classroom.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Human Brain

The human brain the most complicated multifaceted organ in the human body and composed of over 150 different types of cells -- the largest number of diverse cell types found in any single organ. It is the most adaptable and the most complex single object in the known universe. If a more complicated entity exists on Earth, no one has broken its confidence.

At the drop of a hat, most bodily systems and organs quickly divulge their fundamental duties during the most cursory examination. Watching the repetitive expanding and contracting of a muscle reveals its primary purpose. The pipe-like arteries and vessels that enter and exit a blood-pumping heart, leave little wonder as to the heart’s basic function. Our lungs inflate and deflate in perfect synchrony with each breath, as we respectively inhale and exhale –no mystery there either. Each of these organs honors a “transparent anatomy policy,” where vital organs avoid any disguise of their labors.

However, inside the human cranium lies a brain whose inner operations have remained tightly classified secrets housed in the best-protection (hair, skin, muscles, and solid skull bones) our bodies are capable of constructing.

Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), a leading thinker of his day, was an advocate of a cardiocentric view of human learning. The heart at that time was believed to be central to all cognitive responsibilities including higher intelligence. Taking a backseat to the heart in this theory, the brain was relegated to the more humble undertaking of cooling the warm blood circulated by the heart – demoting the brain to a menial “radiator” status. Contemporary phraseology continues to reflect vestiges of that early perspective.

Nearly 2400 years later, we still refer to successfully memorized content as information we know “by heart.” However, it is the hippocampus that serves as the primary brain structure that permits us to learn from experience based on stored memories.

Vocabulary Development is Key to Learning

The human sense of hearing begins to function two months prior to birth in a full-term baby. During those last eight weeks, fetuses are learning the essential sounds of the local language into which they will soon be born. All human competencies become fine-tuned following birth depending on the richness of the environmental in which they find themselves. Following delivery, infants begin a quest to perfect their language abilities based on the supportive verbal interactions that newborns and infants with their primary caregivers.

While reading to children is considered indispensable in language development, it is the supplementary verbal give-and-take (the questions, comments, related prior experiences, etc.) taking place during the informal sidebar conversations that are as important as the reading itself. Hart and Risley’s research on language development found that from ages zero to 3, children are dependent upon their immediate families for developmental experiences, including language.

When tests of language fluency are administered during second and third grade, those exams are better reflections of (1) the richness in the vocabulary a child hears in the first three years of his/her life, and (2) the quality and quantity of language interactions that have taken place with and around him/her, than anything the schools may have achieved during formal language instruction. According to science writer Ron Kotulak, the average number of words spoken daily in professional, middle-class and low-income homes are as follows:

• A professional household = 1500-2500 words
a total of 3.5 million words heard by age 3
• A middle-class household = 1000-1500 words
a total of 2.0 million words heard by age 3
• A welfare-recipient’s household = 500-800 words
a total of 1 million words heard by age 3

What is the most reliable predictor of vocabulary development and reading comprehension for children in 3rd grade? His/her verbal abilities at age three. What is the most accurate means of forecasting 11th grade reading scores? Merely using a teenager’s 3rd grade reading and language test scores.

The academic challenges facing children with limited vocabularies are compounded over time. These children are correspondingly limited in their ability to think, due to a limited database from which to select words needed for speaking, thinking, listening, understanding, reading, and writing with accuracy. Although it is often said that we use words primarily for interpersonal communications, according to Stahl’s research, “Words are used to think. The more words we know, the finer our understanding of the world.”

A robust “vocabulary tool chest,” or conversely, an extraordinarily barren one, will determine the language to which that child has access for interpreting a concept, discussing an experience, or writing about an event. His/her recollection of any of these experiences is largely dependent on the development of linguistic precision.

Making Connections: Connect and Reflect

Author Joseph Epstein stated that, "We are what we read." Neuroscience would contend instead that “We are what we experience,” neural circuits are constantly reorganized and rerouted based on the quantity and timing of our experiential transactions.

We have 100 billion neurons (the "gray matter" consisting of neural cell bodies). Their primary purpose is to link brain cells together into the circuits that represents who we are and what we know. Inside the brain, there are over 1,000,000 miles of nerve fibers (the “white matter” connections), linking together over one quadrillion neurons with one another. Through this process, we access a remarkable ability to make sense of an extraordinarily complex ever-changing world. In his book The Mind's Best Work, Harvard educator David Perkins says, "Good thinking is a matter of making connections, and knowing what kinds of connections to make."

As parents and educators, the sequence of “cognitive rehearsals” below shows that making connections is not just a useful description of the dynamic learning process, but is indeed quite a natural progression for constructing how we think. The distinguished educator John Dewey once said, “We don’t learn from experience, we learn by reflecting on it.” In the following series of learning events each sets the stage for the next level of thinking.

Doing is a rehearsal for thinking
• Thinking becomes a rehearsal for dialogue and discourse
Discourse becomes a rehearsal for writing
• Playing with objects and ideas, exploring and experimenting, thinking, talking, and writing become rehearsals (developing the necessary background knowledge) for reading comprehension.
• Writing and reading clarify one’s thoughts, generate coherent thinking, cultivate precision for expressing one’s thoughts, and prepares a youngster for abstract thinking
• Discourse, reading, and writing become rehearsals for eventual formal assessment

If we are to build meaningful conceptual links for students (and connect “meaning” with "print") we must make the most of opportunities to foster "good thinking" with logical connections. When students later hear the target word in context, or if they encounter it while reading, they are capable of relating that word back to the family of concepts and words to which it belongs based on the student’s experiences with the meanings, interpretations, and connections they have already learned.

The repeated use strengthens the verbal, visual, auditory, tactile and abstract interconnections that are physically represented by specific intricate brain circuitry.