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Monday, March 26, 2012

Training Working Memory

Working memory refers to the memory you can consciously hold in your mind at any one instant — such as a phone number you just looked up. Most people can only hold about four totally independent items in their working memory.
Working memory relates to intelligence. The reason is that thinking involves streaming into the brain’s “thought engine” chunks of information held in working memory. The working memory streams in, much like a Web video streams into your computer. The more you can hold in working memory, the more information the brain has to think with — that is, the smarter it can be.
IQ is not fixed. It improves dramatically in the early school years in all children. Moreover, a recent study shows that both verbal and non-verbal IQ can change (for better or worse) in teenagers.
Educators have known for some time that it is possible to train ADHD children to have better working memories, and in the process improve their school performance. The idea that working memory capacity might be expanded by training normal children has not yet caught on. Test-driven teaching in U.S. schools teaches students what to learn, not how to learn.
Researchers in Japan recently tested whether a simple working memory training method could increase the working memory capacity of children. While they were at it, they tested for any effect on IQ. Children ages 6-8 were trained 10 minutes a day each day for two months. The training task to expand working memory capacity consisted of presenting a digit or a word item for a second, with one-second intervals between items. For example, a sequence might be 5, 8, 4, 7, with one-second intervals between each digit. Test for recall could take the form of "Where in the sequence was the 4?" or "What was the 3rd item?" Thus students had to practice holding the item sequence in working memory. With practice, the trainers increased the number of items from 3 to 8.
After training, researchers tested the children on another working memory task. Scores on this test indicated in all children that working memory correlated with IQ test scores. When first graders were tested for intelligence, the data showed that intelligence scores increased during the year by 6% in controls, but increased by 9% in the group that had been given the memory training. The memory training effect was even more evident in the second graders, with a 12% gain in intelligence score in the memory trained group, compared with a 6% gain in controls. As might be expected, the lower IQ children showed the greatest gain from memory training.
I recently found a paper revealing lasting improvements in brain function were produced in healthy adults by only five weeks of practice on three working-memory tasks involving the location of objects in space, using a training program called CogMed. Similar results have been reported by other investigators.
Another study provides strong evidence that increasing adult working memory capacity will raise their IQ. Subjects, young adults were trained on a so-called dual N-back test in which subjects were asked to recall a visual stimulus that they saw two, three or more stimulus presentations in the past. As performance improved with each block of trials, the task demands were increased by shifting from two-back to three, then three to four, etc. Daily training took about 25 minutes.
The investigators found working memory training improved scores on the IQ test. Moreover, the effect was dose-dependent, in that intelligence scores increased in a steady straight-line fashion as the number of training sessions increased from 8 to 12 to 17 to 19.
Advances in this arena of raising IQ in teenagers and adults may come faster now that we have some many published reports that working memory capacity can indeed be expanded by training. The trick is in finding which approaches work best. Currently, we believe that working memory can be expanded by attentiveness training, music, and certain game environments. Actually, I believe demanding education can do the same thing.
Various techniques are reported in the research literature, and the best results seem to come from n-back methods. One study by Verhaeghen and colleagues show that memory span could be increased from one to four steps back with 10 hours (1 hr/session) of N-back training.
A whole cognitive enhancement industry is flourishing. The idea of brain fitness software is that playing mentally challenging games will make you smarter. This is not necessarily true. Several recent reviews suggest that such games do little. I can only recommend with some certainty those games that focus on expanding working memory capacity, and even here, one should not expect too much. I know about three such programs, MindSparke, Cogmed, and Jungle Memory. I have no personal experience or financial interest in any of these, but each has the potential to be helpful, especially in kids or adults with attention deficit.

Training Working Memory Can Be Fun

Biological reward comes from the release of the neurotransmitter, dopamine. Dopamine release is promoted by performing working memory tasks, which suggests that working memory tasks are actually rewarding. In the study of human subjects by Fiona McNab and colleagues in Stockholm, human males (age 20-28) were trained for 35 minutes per day for five weeks on working memory tasks with a difficulty level close to their individual capacity limit. After such training, all subjects showed increased working memory capacity. Functional MRI scans also showed that the memory training increased the cerebral cortex density of dopamine D1 receptors, the receptor subtype that mediates feelings of euphoria and reward.
Some games that are fun to play may also help working memory. The most obvious example is chess. To play chess well, you have to learn to expand working memory capacity to hold a plan for several offensive moves while at the same time holding a memory of how the opponent could respond to each of the moves. Not surprisingly there are studies showing that IQ scores can go up after several months of chess playing. Some schools, especially in minority schools in impoverished neighborhoods have seen marked improvements in school work by students who joined school chess clubs.
Students who make good grades feel good about their success. Likewise, people who are "life-long learners" have discovered learning lots of new things makes them feel good.
For numerous ideas on how to be a more effective learner, don’t forget to check out my inexpensive e-book, Better Grades, Less Effort, available in all formats from

Alloway, T. P. & Alloway, R. G. (2008). Jungle Memory Training Program (Memosyne Ltd, UK).
Alloway, T. P. & Alloway, R. G. (2009). The efficacy of working memory training in improving crystallized intelligence.  Nature Precedings. Htl: 1010/npre.2009.3697.1
McNab, F. et al. (2009). Changes in cortical dopamine D1 receptor binding associated with cognitive training. Science. 323: 800-802.
Verhaeghen, P., Cerella, J., and Basak, C. (2004). A working memory workout: how to expand the focus of serial attention from one to four items in 10 hours or less. J. Exp. Psychol, Learning, Memory and Cognition. 30 (6): 1322-1337.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Teaching as a Profession in Jeopardy

Politicians and the stock market may give the impression that we are recovering from the recession. Teachers won’t buy it. A survey completed last November by the health insurance and annuity company, MetLife, reveals that teacher job satisfaction is the lowest level in the last 20 years.* In just the last two years, the number of teachers who say they are likely to leave teaching has risen from 17% to 29%. You may recall from my last post that 50% of teachers will actually drop out within five years.

We can all think of legitimate reasons for this disenchantment with teaching. The survey documented that the bad economy was the main culprit. School budget cuts are a factor, particularly as they cause increased class size, unaffordability of access to updated instructional material, and reductions in school programs. More than one third (36 percent) of teachers experienced reductions or eliminations of programs in arts or music, foreign language, or physical education in the past year.

Over a third of the teachers cite fear over job security. The last time this question was asked, in 2006, only 7% had job security worries.

Also important are inadequate opportunities for professional development, time to collaborate with other teachers and more preparation and support for engaging parents effectively. Teachers report increases in the needs of students and the families.

All of this is attributed to “trickle down” effects of the bad general economy. Some 76% of the teachers reported their school budgets have been cut. Nearly a third of the teachers indicated that there have been reductions or eliminations of health or social service programs in their schools in the past year. In addition, 64 percent of teachers report an increase in the number of students and families requiring health and social support services, and 35 percent say the number of students coming to school hungry has increased.

Teacher morale benefits from increasing parent involvement in educating their children. The good news is that teachers report increasing involvement by parents, no doubt because the public is gradually coming to accept the importance of education and that U.S. public education is in trouble.

*The survey was conducted by telephone among 1,001 public school teachers, and online among 1,086 parents and 947 students in October and November, 2011


Friday, March 16, 2012

How Teacher Labor Market Affects Teaching Quality

Turnover of U.S. teachers is a major reason for our educational problems. In 1987, the modal value of teacher experience has dropped from 15 years to just one year in 2007-2008. Today, 50% of new teachers drop out within five years of entering teaching. Obviously, more and more students are being taught by novice teachers. Once teachers get enough experience to start having positive effects, they quit.

I won't go into the reasons teaching seems unappealing. While salary can be a factor, in my experience with teachers, it is working conditions they find most objectionable.

Numerous other sources have debated such causes as lack of status, misbehaving students, apathetic parents, our general anti-intellectual culture, etc. What I want to highlight here is a new study that explores the relationship between teaching quality and experience - with emphasis on science teaching.

The first good thing this study did was define teaching quality in terms of value added, and they used huge numbers of students and teachers. They monitored over the course of five years the effect of high school teachers on 1.05 million end-of-year exams from over 624,000 individual students and 7,961 teachers. The study covered all the science and math courses and three non-science courses (history, civics, English). Of the issues they examined, two were especially noteworthy: 1) do novice science and math teachers improve with experience? and 2) does the experience effect vary by subject matter? The researchers framed the study this way because numerous prior studies made it clear that teachers and teacher experience are clearly the most important variable affecting student learning.

The next good thing they did was use sophisticated statistics that adjusted for other variables such as prior achievement of students and classroom and school environments. They also disentangled any possible affect due to the possibility that teachers who leave teaching early are less effective, thus giving a misleading impression that the remaining teachers are more effective than they really are.

Results showed that in all subject areas, teacher effectiveness increased in near-linear fashion for the first three years. But then a plateau was reached, and actually showed a decrease by year five for biology teachers. Results also showed science and math teachers who quit by year four were typically less effective than those who stayed on the job.

The implications seem clear. New teachers benefit greatly from early teaching experience, but soon "top out" in effectiveness. Moreover, it is the science and math teachers who have the greatest capacity for improvement, with the steepest growth curves observed for teachers of physics and chemistry. Obviously, students don't learn as well from new science and math teachers as they do from more experienced ones.

In terms of the job market, the high turnover of teachers leads to lower average effectiveness. Another way to think about it, not mentioned in the paper, is the possibility that students don't learn science and math very well because their teachers are not very effective in early years and many of them leave teaching by the time they get good at it. This could account for the poor showing of U.S. math and science students compared with students in other countries.

It's time that educational policy makers addressed three problems revealed by this study: 1) attract better science and math students into teaching careers, 2) provide better initial preparation of science and math teachers, and 3) reduce high teacher attrition.

Henry, G. T., Fortner, C. K., and Bastian, K. C. (2012). The effects of experience and attrition for novice high-school science and math teachers. Science. 335: 1118-1121.

Friday, March 02, 2012

School Discipline and Learning Motivation

A major public flap seems to be occurring over the discipline policy of the Noble Street College Prep schools in Chicago. The news report that was called to my attention on this matter began with criticism of the “superficial effort” in reporting the story by the New York Times, Huffington Post, and ABC News. The decline of responsible journalism should come as no surprise to anybody. I won’t get into the journalism, but I would like to reflect on the educational issues involved.

The problem seems to be that Noble school policy is to have a conduct demerit system, use detention for bad student conduct, and impose a $5 fine when detention has to be imposed. A parents group is up in arms over such policy.

First, let me make the point that in learning, motivation is everything. If a student wants to learn, learning happens. If a student does not want to learn, learning will be minimal, no matter the greatness of teaching or enlightenment of educational policy. The old saw fits: “you can lead a mule to water, but you can’t make him drink.”

So, from a learning perspective, the issue is does punishment (negative reinforcement) work? It may or may not, and Noble school’s policy needs to be tested against that criterion. Apparently, Noble school has a permissive enrollment policy that accepts all who apply. It is not like a private prep school where students are screened before admission. Open enrollment will always yield some misfits. Drill sergeants in the military can shape up misfits in a hurry. That may work in a school, but only for some students.

You can train animals with negative reinforcement. But in animals, and people, positive reinforcement is usually more effective. The trick in education is to do things that make students want to learn. And there are numerous ways that good teachers know how to do that.

However, some students are incorrigible, at least at a given moment in their development. There is nothing positive that will reach them. The issue for a school then, especially one such as Noble which is a college prep school where parents volunteer their students for enrollment, is whether a misfit student is interfering with the education of others. No student has a right to interfere with the learning of others. If a misfit does not respond to whatever rules the school has, throw the jerk out. In a charter school, enrollment is not forced. If the parent does not like the rules, they should stop whining and send their child to a regular school. I would add that parents who take their child’s side in such arguments are teaching the child to be a whiner like they are and reinforcing the rebellious nature of such children. If you want to create spoiled brats who grow up to be spoiled adults, this is the way to do it. In case you haven’t noticed, our U.S. population is degenerating into an entitlement society of spoiled adults.