Friday, November 26, 2010

Learning In School. The "Problem with No-child Left Behind"

I see two main problems, one with the philosophy and one with the means of learning assessment.

As for philosophy, it sounds good, but like many social engineering efforts by the government, there are major unintended consequences that are too destructive. In this case, leaving no child behind has the effect of "no child pushed forward." In order to save kids who don't care about learning or whose parents don't care, we manipulate the whole system so that kids who are conscientious and who have talent are neglected. These kids don't pull down the schools' average scores on high-stakes testing, so they are left mostly to fend for themselves. The emphasis, which borders on compulsive, is on bringing up the bottom, so the school and teachers won't look so bad.

Worse yet is the unavoidable tendency to teach to the state standards and the test that is based on them. This not only engenders a "drill and kill" negative attitude among students, but many teachers just leave out most other enriching instruction that is not likely to get tested. For years, all of science was largely ignored in my state of Texas, because the high-stakes testing was restricted to English and math.

Also, the state standards are not infallible. In Texas, I know many educators who think the standards lack adequate rationale and coherence, especially across grade levels. States develop their standards by putting together a committee to write them. Such committees can be very opinionated, driven as much by ideology as by logic.

Then there is the assessment process of high-stakes testing. The President of the U.S. National Academy of Education, Professor Lorrie Shepard, recently argued that scores on these tests can be increased without any corresponding increase in learning or skills. This has been verified by use of other independent measures of the same content.

There is also the assumed necessity of using multiple-choice testing because so many schools and kids are involved. As an expert on memory, I can assure you that multiple-choice tests are the least reliable way to assess knowledge and understanding. More complex indicators of learning are needed, and this is recognized by the new, but very limited new program of "Race to the Top."

Shepard says if you really want to know whether education is being improved, especially in math and science, you have to evaluate such things as solving non-routine problems, to assess the reliability and meaning of evidence, apply knowledge in different contexts, and to communicate their learning effectively, both orally and in writing, In general, our schools don't do that.

Good teachers know how to assess learning without multiple-choice testing. They know how to structure student work requirements so that meaningful assessment is possible. In the old days, that is what teachers were expected to do. Today, they are expected to make sure the class scores high-enough on the state tests. A better approach, I submit, is to require students to create portfolios that reflect their ability to solve non-routine problems, evaluate evidence, and to apply and communicate their understanding. Then, these portfolios could be reviewed anonymously by an outside group, perhaps by educators in other schools, who in turn subject in reciprocal manner the portfolios of their own students to similar review.

Source:
Shepard, L. A. 2010. Next-generation assessments. Science. 330: 890.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Neuroscience research working for you

I just attended the 40th annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in San Diego. There were over 31,000 scientists there, about 20,000 of whom presented research findings.Attendees come from all over the world. I an a Charter member of the Society and attended the first and most of the other annual meetings. It is hard for "outsiders" to appreciate just how much has changed in brain research over that time. The first meeting had less than 1,000 attendees. Now the meeting is so big that only a handful of U.S. cities can host such a large meeting.

There were many papers on memory presented. Most, however, were focused on how the brain achieves memory, and a lot of that has no immediate practical application for everyday life. I keep an eye out for such papers and report them in this blog when I find it.

One paper confirmed what I already knew about teaching "old dogs new tricks."  It showed that learning of a series of items was impaired in Seniors compared to younger people, but the deficiency was overcome if the experimenters just increased the interval between presentation of items. In other words, you CAN teach old dogs new tricks, it just takes longer.

I was really excited to see that I am on the right track on my new book, due out from Springer next Spring. The book is titled "Atoms of Mind. The 'Ghost in the Machine' Materializes." A few scientists are starting to do  the kind of research I advocate in the book for the study of consciousness. While at the meeting, I got a new idea nobody has considered yet. I'll tell people about it in the book, which I am mailing off to the publisher in a week or so..

I presented a paper on why people dream. A commonly accepted idea is that we dream to consolidate memories of the preceding day's events  It is true that memory consolidation does occur in sleep, both dream and non-dream sleep. But that is not the CAUSE of either dreaming or non-dreaming sleep. It is the consequence.

The simple answer is that we dream because the brain becomes activated in what is called REM sleep. Activated brains want to think, and thinking during sleep is expressed as dreams. So the real question I addressed is why do we have REM sleep. It's a long story, but the short answer is that REM helps to re-boot a sleeping brain so that we can become awake and conscious again. My presentation was well received. I had 50 copies of handouts, and they were scarfed up in the first 30 minutes of my poster session. Lots of people left their e-mail address so I could mail them copies of the poster. Over 100 people came by the poster. And they weren't window shopping. They stayed, read it all, and discussed it with me during the time when I was attending the poster. Nobody could punch any holes in the theory. I think I have the best explanation anybody has every presented.

It has been a stimulating four days. I will need some time to unwind.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

B Vitamins, Brain Shrinkage, and Memory

I have discussed nutritional effects on memory and warned readers that many claims are just so much undocumented hype. Here is a study, apparently very well done by a group at Oxford University, that shows supplementing diet with B vitamins can help prevent mental decline in the elderly.

As people age, the brain tends to atrophy, even in healthy people, and this of course can contribute to mental decline and senility. A risk factor for brain atrophy in the elderly is homocysteine, an amino acid best known as being a risk factor for coronary heart disease, stroke and peripheral vascular disease. B vitamins (folic acid, B6 and B12) reduce the blood level of homocysteine. In the Oxford study, 271 people over 70 years old with mild cognitive impairment were given a mixture of the B vitamins daily for two years. Brain size changes were monitored with brain scans.

During the test period, brains shrunk 1.08% in the non-supplemented controls and 0.76% in those that got the B vitamins. There were correlated changes in blood homocysteine levels and performance on mental tests.  Daily doses used were folic acid: 0.8 mg; B6: 20 mg; and B12: 0.5 mg.(I just checked my own brand-name one-a-day multi-vitamin pills, and they have a lot less of B6 and B12.)

If brains shrink at this rate (actually shrinkage probably accelerates over time), the difference by age 90, for example, would be substantial. Shrinkage would be even greater if there were other factors such as large alcohol consumption or Alzheimer's disease. One could also expect B vitamins to provide some benefit for the cardiovascular system, though this was not evaluated in this study.

Source:

Smith, A. D. et al. 2010. Homocystein-lowering by B vitamins slows the rate of accelerated brain atrophy in mild cognitive impairment: a randomized controlled trial. PLoS ONE. doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0012244