“Smart” can be learned, and practiced — but probably not born

October 5, 2011

“I just can’t learn — my memory just doesn’t work.”  Third time today I heard that excuse.

It’s not true.  A lot of what we do in education is based more on tradition than any kind of research — school in the winter, start in the morning, quit in the afternoon, 30 kids sitting at desks in rows, testing for mastery, bells to change shifts classes — but here’s something we do know:  Practice brings mastery; practice makes perfect, more than talent does.

This is an encore post from 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.

Still true. In short, kids, you can learn the material, and you can learn to learn better — with practice.

Are you practicing?

More, and fun resources: 


Helen Thomas and a famous illusion

July 5, 2010

Sometimes people grow into a role they had not intended.

During the recent, sad flap about Helen Thomas’s offensive remarks and forced retirement, some media outlets carried a photo of Thomas that looked almost posed to me.  In our creativity consulting years ago, we used the old, famous optical illusion of the “old woman/young woman.”

Make up your own commentary.  What do you see?  How do you know you’re not looking at an illusion?

Optical illusion, Old woman/Young woman

Famous optical illusion, Old woman/Young woman, color version – borrowed from Mighty Optical Illusions after Gryphons Aerie crapped out.

Helen Thomas in a photo prior to 2009

Veteran White House reporter Helen Thomas, sometime prior to 2009


iPhone apps for a three-year-old’s education? What hath Steve Jobs wrought?

January 22, 2010

You gotta admire the bravery of this guy, who came to fatherhood a little late (he claims), and struggles with the fatherliness expectations of a precocious child:

When my wife returned [from a vacation], we settled back into our routine, consisting of 1-2 days per week when we eat dinner out as a family. These events can also be challenging, as our daughter is one of those kids who just cannot sit still for anything. She seems well connected to her surroundings and engages with us and others, but she is perpetual motion personified. So imagine my surprise when the littlest tornado actually sat in her chair for an entire meal!

My wife’s new secret weapon was a series of iPhone apps created especially for toddlers that one of her California girlfriends had recommended. The most popular with our daughter is Letter Tracer, which works as the name suggests. So my daughter was occupied by learning to write her letters. The device and screen provided the engagement that pen and paper hadn’t, and she delighted at being able to successfully trace all the letters of the alphabet, smiling and exclaiming “Look Daddy, I did it!” each time she completed a new tracing. My daughter was having a blast learning how to write her letters, and her parents were enjoying not just her growth but a nice restaurant experience as well.

So, he got his daughter a de-activated iPhone.  Seriously.

I’d love to see what Checker Finn would have done in that situation, or Diane Ravitch, or even dear old B. F. Skinner.

Is three too young to get your own iPhone?

Go read the piece.  Patrick Hunt at The Apple Blog, “I Gave My Daughter an iPhone – Have I Created a Monster?”

The discussion is good, too.  Why can’t this guy be our tech director, in a district where getting technology is like asking for a French dictionary at Republican Party HQ?


Cognitive Science Network, new at SSRN

April 14, 2009

Unedited press release follows:

We are pleased to announce the creation of the Cognitive Science Network (CSN). It will provide a worldwide, online community for research in all areas of cognitive science, following the model of other subject matter networks within SSRN.

We expect CSN to become a comprehensive online resource for research in cognitive science, providing scholars with access to current work in their field and facilitating research and scholarship.

CSN’s founding director is Mark Turner, Institute Professor, Case Western Reserve University – Department of Cognitive Science.

Initially, CSN will begin with the following 7 subject matter eJournals, and subscriptions will be free during the start-up phase until October 2009.

COGNITION & CULTURE: CULTURE, COMMUNICATION, DESIGN, ETHICS, MORALITY, RELIGION, RHETORIC, & SEMIOTICS

View Papers: http://www.ssrn.com/link/Cognition-Culture.html
Subscribe: http://hq.ssrn.com/jourInvite.cfm?link=Cognition-Culture

Editor: Todd Oakley, Associate Chair, Associate Professor of Cognitive Science, Case Western Reserve University – Department of Cognitive Science

Description: Cognition & Culture focuses on the cognitive study of cultures as creations of human minds in environments. Its scope includes research on cultural manifestations, their differences and incommensurabilities, and their expressive and semantic regularities and universals. This eJournal announces working papers, meetings, and events associated with interdisciplinary research projects and aims at encouraging collaboration across disciplines. It presents research in cognitive science having to do with such fields as design, ethics, history, jurisprudence, morality, philosophy, politics, religion, sociality, science, and technology.

COGNITION & THE ARTS

View Papers: http://www.ssrn.com/link/Cognition-Arts.html
Subscribe: http://hq.ssrn.com/jourInvite.cfm?link=Cognition-Arts

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

Description: A publication dedicated to the artful mind and its relationship to the full range of higher-order human cognition. All scientific approaches are welcome, including developmental, evolutionary, linguistic, and comparative. Cognition & the Arts construes artistic behavior broadly, to include not only the various recognized genres of the arts but also design, style, and performance, throughout the lifecourse.

COGNITION IN MATHEMATICS, SCIENCE, & TECHNOLOGY

View Papers: http://www.ssrn.com/link/Cognition-Math-Science-Tech.html
Subscribe: http://hq.ssrn.com/jourInvite.cfm?link=Cognition-Math-Science-Tech

Editors: Gilles Fauconnier, Professor, Department of Cognitive Science, University of California, San Diego, and Mark Turner, Institute Professor, Case Western Reserve University – Department of Cognitive Science

Description: Mathematical insight, scientific discovery, and technological innovation are hallmarks of higher-order human cognition. Cognition in Mathematics, Science, and Technology is dedicated to the cognitive science of mathematics, science, and technology – in phylogenetic descent, ontogenetic transformation, and historical action.

COGNITION LINGUISTICS: COGNITION, LANGUAGE, GESTURE

View Papers: http://www.ssrn.com/link/Cognitive-Linguistics.html
Subscribe: http://hq.ssrn.com/jourInvite.cfm?link=Cognitive-Linguistics

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

Description:Cognitive linguistics goes beyond the visible structure of language and investigates the considerably more complex backstage operations of cognition that create grammar, conceptualization, discourse, and thought itself. The theoretical insights of cognitive linguistics are based on extensive empirical observation in multiple contexts, and on experimental work in psychology and neuroscience. Results of cognitive linguistics, especially from metaphor theory and conceptual integration theory, have been applied to wide ranges of nonlinguistic phenomena.” – Gilles Fauconnier. 2006. “Cognitive Linguistics.” Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science. John Wiley & Sons.

COGNITIVE NEUROSCIENCE

View Papers: http://www.ssrn.com/link/Cognitive-Neuroscience.html
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Editor: Mark Turner, Institute Professor, Case Western Reserve University – Department of Cognitive Science

Description: Cognitive Neuroscience is dedicated to research on the neurobiological substrate of higher-order human cognition. All methodologies are welcome – philosophical to physiological, modeling to mapping, statistical to individual case study – in forging a research initiative that transcends the limitations of any one discipline or paradigm.

COGNITIVE SOCIAL SCIENCE

View Papers: http://www.ssrn.com/link/Cognitive-Social-Science.html
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Editors: Mathew D. McCubbins, Professor of Political Science, Chancellor’s Associates Chair, University of California, San Diego – Political Science, Adjunct Professor & Co-Director of the USC-CalTech Center for the Study of Law and Politics, University of Southern CaliforniaGould School of Law, and Mark Turner, Institute Professor, Case Western Reserve University – Department of Cognitive Science

Description: Mental events, however distributed, provide the defining problems of the social sciences. What are our basic cognitive operations? How do we use them in judgment, decision, action, reason, choice, persuasion, expression? Do voters know what they need to know? How do people choose? What are the best incentives? When is judgment reliable? Can negotiation work? How do cognitive conceptual resources depend on social and cultural location? How do certain products of cognitive and conceptual systems come to be entrenched as publicly-shared knowledge and method? Economists, political scientists, sociologists, anthropologists, and all other social scientists refer as a matter of course to mental events and typically must assume some general outline of what those mental events can be and how they can arise. They explore networks of mental events in social systems and in social cognition. Given this convergence of cognitive science and the social sciences at their intellectual cores, and the increasing body of research activity at their intersection, the Cognitive Science Network provides an eJournal to track and distribute new and classic research in the emerging field of cognitive social science.

EMERGENCE OF COGNITION

View Papers: http://www.ssrn.com/link/Emergence-Cognition.html
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Editor: Mark Turner, Institute Professor, Case Western Reserve University – Department of Cognitive Science

Description: Dedicated to the study of the emergence of cognition, especially human higher-order cognition, phylogenetically and ontogenetically, in evolution and development.

HOW TO SUBSCRIBE
You can subscribe to the eJournals by clicking on the “subscribe” links listed above. You can also subscribe to all of the eJournals at once by clicking here: http://hq.ssrn.com/jourInvite.cfm?link=CSN-all-inclusive-journal

Individual subscriptions to the CSN eJournals will be free during the start-up phase, ending October 2009. After that, individual subscriptions, for all CSN eJournals, will be $40 per year. Organizational Site Subscriptions will also be available.

You can modify your subscriptions by going to the SSRN User HeadQuarters: http://hq.ssrn.com. If you have questions, please email UserSupport@SSRN.com or call 877-SSRNHelp (toll free 877.777.6435). If you are calling from outside of the United States, please call 00+1+585+4428170.

SUBMITTING PAPERS TO SSRN
Authors are invited to submit papers to the eLibrary without charge through SSRN’s User Headquarters at http://hq.ssrn.com.

Additionally, departments, centers, and other institutions may host their own institutional Research Paper Series to showcase and distribute faculty research. For more information, email Cathy_Blocher@ssrn.com.

SSRN’s eLIBRARY
SSRN’s searchable electronic library contains abstracts, full bibliographic data, and author contact information for more than 228,300 papers, over 110,700 authors, and full text for more than 187,000 papers. The eLibrary can be accessed at http://ssrn.com/search.

SSRN supports open access by allowing authors to upload papers to the eLibrary for free through the SSRN User HeadQuarters at http://hq.ssrn.com, and by providing free downloading of those papers.

Downloads from the SSRN eLibrary in the past 12 months total approximately 7.2 million, with approximately 27.6 million downloads since inception. Downloads are currently running at a rate of 7 million per year.

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

SSRN’s MISSION
SSRN’s objective is to provide rapid, worldwide distribution of research to authors and their readers and to facilitate communication among them at the lowest possible cost. In pursuit of this objective, we allow authors to upload papers without charge. And, any paper an author uploads to SSRN is downloadable for free, worldwide.

Sincerely,

Mark Turner
Director
Cognitive Science Network


No one believes it. Is it so?

August 9, 2008

One of the great mysteries of history is how an entire nation of people can follow a leader into tragedy — a stupid war, economic morass, cultural suicide, genocide, or other tragedy — without appearing to notice they were going against their national values, against reason, against morality.

I wonder if part of the answer can be found by studying the way our brains perceive things, in particular, the way our brains force us to see things that are not so.

Some things are just so unbelievable, our brains tell us we’re seeing something different, something more believable. Here are two examples, the Charlie Chaplin mask illusion, and the Einstein mask illusion.

Chaplin — you know it’s concave, but the nose sticks out every time:

Einstein — is Big Brother really watching you? What do your eyes say?

Here’s a nasty little kicker: Even when most people know that it’s an illusion, they can’t perceive the illusion-in-action; as Paul Simon wrote, “Still a man sees what he wants to see and he disregards the rest.” See Stephen Fry’s discussion about the illusion from BBC2:

Historical applications

  • CIA chief William Colby was involved in Operation Phoenix during the Vietnam War. When investigations revealed that the operation involved torture, many people refused to believe the U.S. would be involved in torture (good!). And even after he admitted to Congressional committees that he had personally authorized the torture, people had difficulty believing it. David Wise wrote an article about Operation Phoenix for the New York Times Magazine, July 1, 1973: “Not one of Colby’s friends or neighbors, or even his critics on the Hill, would, in their wildest imagination, conceive of Bill Colby attaching electric wires to a man’s genitals and personally turning the crank. “Not Bill Colby… He’s a Princeton man.'”
  • “[T]he Russians are finished. They have nothing left to throw against us,” a confident Adolf Hitler told Gen. Franz Halder in July 1941. Russia mired down the German army, making the phrase “the Eastern Front” a dreaded death sentence in German commands. In the end, it was the Soviet Army that first got to Berlin, and captured Hitler’s command bunker where der Führer had committed suicide a short time before. Adding to the historic irony, twice over: First, Stalin refused to believe his intelligence service reports that the Nazis were massing on the border of Russia, just two years after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which pledged neither nation would invade the other. Second, Hitler’s generals had studied Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812, working to avoid all the mistakes Napoleon made. So sure were the Nazis of their superiority to Napoleon in every way, they invaded Russia on the anniversary of Napoleon’s invasion, June 22, 1941. Great shades of Santayana’s Ghost!
  • Bush administration historians will wonder why Bush was able to do what he did, in the Iraq war and other situations foreign and domestic, with even members of his own party who saw him close up believing he’d do something different. See this story by Ron Susskind, “Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George Bush,” New York Times Magazine, October 17, 2004.
  • The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, based on an incident in the Gulf of Tonkin near Vietnam.  (See also documents from the National Security Agency archives.)
  • Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq.

Richard Feynman discussed at length how scientists know their experimental results are accurate, and how to keep science honest. He pointed out that most of the time, errors creep in at the start, and some people just refuse to believe they exist. It is easiest to fool ourselves, Feynman said — and so a good scientist understands that, and protects against self-deception. If only other disciplines could adopt that philosophy, strategy and tactics!

Faith can get us through troubled times, but often gets us into troubled times in the first place.

Do you have other examples of self-delusion by illusionary means?

Tip of the old scrub brush to Vous Pensez.


Does gender-separated schooling work better?

June 16, 2008

Even public school districts toy with the idea of separating genders in the primary and secondary grades.  Some people argue that there is experimental evidence to support the plan, plus there are the arguments about physical differences between the genders, which suggest different educational strategies for girls than for boys.

The No Child Left Behind Act requires schools to implement programs that are supported by research.  Is there solid research to support separating the genders?

Apart from the hoaxes, such as the much ballyhooed “Crokus” in boys brains, the evidence for separating the genders based on physical differences may be a lot slimmer than advocates claim.

For example, do boys really hear differently from girls?   Are the physical differences so great?  Consider the opening paragraph for a lengthy article on the issue by Elizabeth Weil, in The New York Times Magazine last March:

On an unseasonably cold day last November in Foley, Ala., Colby Royster and Michael Peterson, two students in William Bender’s fourth-grade public-school class, informed me that the class corn snake could eat a rat faster than the class boa constrictor. Bender teaches 26 fourth graders, all boys. Down the hall and around the corner, Michelle Gay teaches 26 fourth-grade girls. The boys like being on their own, they say, because girls don’t appreciate their jokes and think boys are too messy, and are also scared of snakes. The walls of the boys’ classroom are painted blue, the light bulbs emit a cool white light and the thermostat is set to 69 degrees. In the girls’ room, by contrast, the walls are yellow, the light bulbs emit a warm yellow light and the temperature is kept six degrees warmer, as per the instructions of Leonard Sax, a family physician turned author and advocate who this May will quit his medical practice to devote himself full time to promoting single-sex public education.

Mark Liberman, who writes at Language Log, deals with these issues dispassionately, and scientifically.  He started a policy of publishing on the blog questions that he gets from journalists on the issues.  Here’s his first published answer, for example, and as you can see, it’s a bit of an information-loaded doozy:

1. I’ve read a few posts on Language Log, but please tell me more about what you think about Dr. Sax’s arguments about sex-based differences in the brain?

In his books, Leonard Sax is a political activist using science to make a case, not a scientist evaluating a hypothesis.

Science is sometimes on his side, sometimes neutral or equivocal, and sometimes against him. He picks the results that fit his agenda, ignoring those that don’t; and all too often, he misunderstands, exaggerates or misrepresents the results that he presents.

There’s detailed support for these assertions in some Language Log posts from 2006:

David Brooks, cognitive neuroscientist” (6/12/2006)
Are men emotional children?” (6/24/2005)
Of rats and (wo)men” (8/19/2006)
Leonard Sax on hearing” (8/22/2006)
More on rats and men and women” (8/22/2006)
The emerging science of gendered yelling” (9/5/2006)
Girls and boys and classroom noise” (9/9/2006)

This doesn’t mean that his conclusions are false, but it does mean that his appeals to science are not trustworthy.

More nuance than some policy groups might be able to deal with, but enough information to direct a genuinely interested person to some good sources.

You’ll also want to read “Retinal Sex and Sexual Rhetoric,” and “Liberman on Sax on Liberman on Sax on Hearing.”

In our weekly staff meetings with then Assisstant Secretary of Education for Research Chester W. Finn, at the old Office for Educational Research and Information, Finn often opened the meetings by turning to the Director of Research and asking whether, in the past week, we had learned how people learn.  When satisfied that this key breakthrough had not been achieved in the previous week, which would change much of what we did, Finn would say something like, “Now that we know we don’t know what we’re doing, let’s go through the agenda.”

Keeping an appropriate sense of humor about the issue, Finn still provided sharp reminders that the science behind learning, for all of the volumes available, is very tenuous and thin.

When science is so thin, the policy side of the discipline can be waved around by a good presentation coupled with plausible sciency-sounding material.  “Plausible” does not equal “good,” and often it doesn’t even equal “accurate.”

Liberman’s critiques are detailed, and they point out questions that the average school board member or principal is probably ill-equipped to realize, let alone ask from an “expert” or consultant selling a program to the district.

Before we teach critical thinking to the kids, we need a lot more critical thinking from administrators.  Liberman tries to light the path to that critical thinking.

What do you think?  Does gender-separate education work better?  Are there such great differences in the learning abilities and methods of boys and girls that we ought to separate them?

What about other shibboleths we hear?  Classroom size?  Testing?  Delivery of material?  Difficulty of material?   Where is there good research for reforming our schools, for the better?


Intelligence: Can it rub off in the classroom?y

September 3, 2007

Can intelligence rub off from an intelligent classroom to the students?

Educational osmosis is one way to learn, I have found. I think a good classroom is one in which the student learns regardless what the student is doing, even daydreaming by looking out the window. How to achieve that? We’re working on it. In 2007, such a classroom should visually stimulate learning, and do so with sound and kinesthetics, too. Repetition in different media, with different contexts, aids learning and cementing of knowledge. But, I speak only from experience, having taken only a tiny handful of “real” education classes in my life, and they rank at the bottom of my list of useful courses.

Brian C. Smith blogs about education technology from the technology side, at Streaming Thoughts. Some time ago he asked teachers to tell about their ideal classroom technology (my response is here). Now he’s back with results of his survey — what technology do teachers need for educational success?

It may be my fault for failing to make the point, but I think a successful classroom also needs access to a photocopier that can turn around material in short order — a fast photocopier is preferred. Classrooms also need printers.

I also wonder if working ventilation and temperature control for comfort figures into the technology equation.

The ideal classroom technology is that set which allows the student to learn well, with speed and wisdom.

Alexander (not yet the Great) and his teacher, Aristotle; public domain image, originally from British Museum?


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