Practice, even with failure, more important than talent

November 20, 2007

Every teacher needs to get familiar with the work of Carol Dweck. She’s a Stanford psychologist who is advising the Blackburn Rovers from England’s Premier League, on how to win, and how to develop winning ways.

Your students need you to have this stuff.

A 60-year-old academic psychologist might seem an unlikely sports motivation guru. But Dweck’s expertise—and her recent book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success—bear directly on the sort of problem facing the Rovers. Through more than three decades of systematic research, she has been figuring out answers to why some people achieve their potential while equally talented others don’t—why some become Muhammad Ali and others Mike Tyson. The key, she found, isn’t ability; it’s whether you look at ability as something inherent that needs to be demonstrated or as something that can be developed.

What’s more, Dweck has shown that people can learn to adopt the latter belief and make dramatic strides in performance. These days, she’s sought out wherever motivation and achievement matter, from education and parenting to business management and personal development. [emphasis added]

I can’t do justice to Dweck’s work. See this story in Stanford Magazine.

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


Quote of the Moment: Ellen Langer on learned helplessness

November 14, 2007

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

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

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

Washoe, pioneer in signing chimpanzees, dead at 42

November 1, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further reading and resources:

Sometimes Nobel winners do stupid things . . .

October 18, 2007

. . . and then other people who are expert in the field kick their butts.

No, I’m not talking about Al Gore. James Watson, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, recently insulted the entire continent of Africa, and a good bunch of North and South America, and western Europe. No, Dr. Watson, race is not a predictor of intelligence.

Greg Laden provides the boot action at his blog, Evolution. Bookmark it. As certain as your heritage is passed to your children by a double-helix structure in the structure of your cells, some fool will repeat Watson’s argument. Veterans of quote-mine wars warn that creationists right now are filing the statement away for use in some future debate, where they will claim falsely that “the science of genetics is evil because it promotes racism.”

So keep that Laden piece handy.

And if all of this is news to you as a social studies teacher? Read the piece thoroughly. Check out Laden’s links, ask questions if you’re unclear on anything he says. Laden takes questions. P. Z. Myers takes questions (and a tip of the old scrub brush to Pharyngula for point out Laden’s post). Comments are open here.

See, this is how science and free discussion work: People get awards for the good ideas they have, and they pay the price for stupid ideas. Discussion, among the experts, is based on real data, real research. Ideas win when they have the data to back them up, not on the word of some authority, regardless whether the authority is well schooled, of the right or far-right political party, or supernatural.

It’s a model for our students.


Update:  Even more from Mr. Laden, as he notes in comments.  You have plenty of bookmarks available, right?

They do as you do, not as you say

October 13, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spinning dancer

October 10, 2007

Spinning dancer - a right-brain/left-brain exercise

Cool .gif, and a bit of a rant:

Cool .gif: I found this .gif at That Wealth Advisor Guy, a blog of a midwestern investments advisor. He claims that if you see the dancer rotating clockwise, you are right-brained; if you see her rotating counter-clockwise, you are left-brained. I can see it both ways (look under her feet for a few seconds, see if she doesn’t reverse for you, too).

If this is a valid test — and I have no way to gauge that it is valid — it provides one more way to discern one more fact about people you work with, or know — or about your students with some relevance to their learning styles (I don’t know what the connections would be).

The rant: That Wealth Advisor Guy posts no links, no sources, and no citations to back up any of his claims. It may well be just a cool .gif. How could we know if he doesn’t give us the details?

His blog doesn’t allow comments.

Would I invest with a guy who doesn’t provide all the information I want, or all the information that should be legally required, and who seems unduly influenced by woo stuff he finds on the internet?

Off to see if I can find citations . . .

Below the fold: Right-brain, left-brain characteristics, as related by That Wealth Advisor Guy. Are they accurate, or backed by any research? Who can tell?

Update: Mo at Neurophilosophy debunks the left-brain / right-brain stuff. It’s just an optical illusion, which illustrates that we often see things differently from other people, but probably provides no deep insights into anything you should take seriously. Go read what he says!

Read the rest of this entry »

Neuroscience, culture, and practical application

September 23, 2007

The oak tree at Jena's high school -- now cut down

My hypothesis is that a normal person may not peruse this site, The Situationist, without finding something of use for the person’s work or homelife — or at a minimum, something extremely intrigueing about a problem the person has in an organization to which the person belongs.

For example, check out these discussions:

  1. On the Jena 6
  2. On l’affaire Chemerinsky at UC-Irvine
  3. On college debt
  4. On confronting mistakes — especially one’s own

It’s a project at Harvard, interdisciplinary so far as I can tell.  Here’s the explanation:

There is a dominant conception of the human animal as a rational, or at least reasonable, preference-driven chooser, whose behavior reflects preferences, moderated by information processing and will, but little else. Laws, policies, and the most influential legal theories are premised on that same conception. Social psychology and related fields have discovered countless ways in which that conception is wrong. “The situation” refers to causally significant features around us and within us that we do not notice or believe are irrelevant in explaining human behavior. Situationism” is an approach that is deliberately attentive to the situation. It is informed by social science—particularly social psychology, social cognition, and related fields—and the discoveries of market actors devoted to influencing consumer behavior—marketers, public relations experts, and the like. The Situationist is a forum for scholars, students, lawyers, policymakers, and interested citizens to examine, discuss, and debate the effect of situational forces – that is, non-salient factors around and within us – on law, policy, politics, policy theory, and our social, political, and economic institutions. The Situationist is associated with The Project on Law and Mind Sciences at Harvard Law School. To visit the Project’s website, click here.

Go see, and report back, if you don’t mind.

What’s the difference between school and prison?

June 5, 2007

Give up?

Yeah, often the students give up, too. If you don’t know the answer, your school may resemble a prison.

Gary Stager’s post with jarring comparisons is here, at District Administration’s Pulse! blog.

When the elder Fillmore’s Bathtub son attended intermediate school, he complained of the discipline. So did a lot of other good kids. We got a call from a parent asking if we’d join in a meeting with the new principal, and hoping to learn things were really hunky dory and offer assurances to our son, we went. Read the rest of this entry »

How it’s done right

June 1, 2007

If I need a lift, I go here. It’s how school should be — probably all the way through.

I don’t know the details of how or why this class is set up the way it is, but day after day they do things that other people use as textbook examples of what a good classroom ought to be doing, sometimes. And they do it day, after day, after day.

Carnival of Education, are you paying attention?


I wager right now that these kids will be the top performers on the standardized tests for at least the next five years, in their classrooms and schools. The Living Classroom weblog is a valuable chronicle for how to provide quality education.

Somebody should step up with the money to track how these kids do, especially against their contemporaries. Alas, this is exactly the sort of information that will be lost, due to “lack of funding.” Fortunately, one of the women involved in the classroom made the chronicles, and shared them.

Side note: Looking at the photos, ask yourself, “Does our town offer these types of recreational facilities for use?” Washington has traditionally led the nation in setting aside land for public recreational use — this class has taken full advantage of being in a town that had the foresight to put up public art and public beaches, and other public parks and places. There is a lesson here for city planners, and for mayors and city councils who wonder how they might support their schools, run by other governmental entities.

Dandelion, class activitiy for The Living Classroom

Girls and technology: Girl Scouts on the ‘net

May 26, 2007

Here, try this brain teaser.

Girl Scouts of America can be found on the web; some of the stuff at this “Go Tech” site could be useful in the classroom. The design appears to encourage girls to pursue the use of technology, and to open them up to possibilities for careers where women are badly needed, but too seldom go. That becomes clear with this .pdf, 14-page guide for parents, It’s Her Future: Encourage a Girl in Math, Science and Technology.

I wish more organizations would put up sites for kids to use to learn. I’d love to see some interactive sites with great depth on several topics: Geography map skills, navigation, European explorers in the 15th through 20th centuries, market fluctuations for commodities and securities (for economics), Native Americans from 1500 through the 21st century, westward expansion of European colonists in America, time lines of history, great battles, etc., etc. etc.

We are missing the boat when it comes to using computers as tools for learning. Like unicorns and centaurs standing on the dock as Noah sailed away, education as a whole institution and educators individually are missing the boat (with a few notable exceptions — pitifully few).

Where is the Boy Scout site with games and material for the boys?

Treating kid’s brains as finely toned muscle

March 3, 2007

How many of us have worked with former athletic coaches who just don’t quite master the need for practice of academic topics, time to master academic skills, the need for constant rehearsal of the skills, and good care and feeding of the brain, the same way they understand the care and feeding of kinesthetic skills?

Chris posted a 7-point summary of Eric Jensen’s plan for keeping kids’ brains in top learning order. It’s worth a look. Treat it like a checklist: How many of these get done in your classroom? How much of this brain conditioning do you have control over?

Now, remember that part of the No Child Left Behind Act that says what we do should be backed by research?

Teaching critical thinking, “further reading”

March 1, 2007

Once upon a time I was a graduate student in a rhetoric program. At the same time I was the graduate assistant for the intercollegiate debate program at the University of Arizona, which at the time had an outstanding, nationally-competitive team and a lot of up-and-comers on the squad. From there I moved almost immediately to a political campaign, a sure-loser that we won, and from there to Congressional staffing, writing speeches, editorials, press releases and a few legislative dabbles. Then law school, etc., etc.

Some of the fights I’ve been involved in include air pollution and the laws controlling it, land use in statewide plans, tobacco health warnings, compensation for victims of fallout from atomic bomb tests, food safety, food recall standards, education testing standards, measurement of management effectiveness, noise control around airports, social studies textbooks and biology textbooks, and a few others. Most political issues are marked by people who really don’t understand the information available to them, and many issues are pushed by people who have no ability or desire to understand the issues in any depth.

And so, having survived a few rounds in the crucibles of serious debate with real stakes, I am often amused and frustrated by state education standards that demand teachers teach “critical thinking,” often as not grounded in something that looks like hooey to me.

In one of my internet rambles I came across a site with modest ambitions of continuing discussion of critical thinking. Rationale Thoughts comes out of Australia. The view is a little different, but not too much so (hey, it’s in English, which is a bonus for me).

If you’re looking for sources to seriously understand what critical thinking is, this is one place you would be well-advised to check. You might find especially useful this list for “further reading” in the topic.

Seymour Papert update

December 26, 2006

MIT’s Media Laboratory says they will post updates as they get them.  As of today, Dr. Papert is resting in Massachusetts General Hospital’s Intensive Care Unit (ICU), taking no visitors, and still in a coma.

Meanwhile, there is also an electronic get-well card you may sign.

Literally: Can’t shut up to learn history

September 27, 2006

There should be a Congressional Medal of Honor, or something similar, for junior high school and middle school teachers. Particularly the boys can be among the most irritating creatures on Earth, above mosquitoes in a tent on a hot night, above a cat who wants you awake at 4:30 a.m. Such teachers, afflicted by kids who appear absolutely unable to be quiet long enough to allow two sentences together into their heads, face audiences more daunting than any faced by non-funny comedians, or by school boards proposing an increase in taxes.

Maturing teenage brains

Now we have the MRI images to demonstrate that it’s true, and why. Jake Young at Pure Pedantry has a post on the research (just published in Nature), with good links to the videos of the maturing teenage brain.

One theory is that teenagers are actually from a separate barbarian race. However, I suspect that there is also an underlying neurological reason for this barbaric behavior that has to do with the different rates of brain maturation in the human cortex.

The neurological changes that happen in the human brain over adolescence are described in a great article by Kendall Powell in Nature.

Alas, no sure-fire lesson plans, nor even hints of teacher survival strategies accompany the research findings.

Santayana was right: Some of these kids will be condemned to repeat history, either Texas history, or U.S. history to 1877.


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