2015: Urban Myths about Learning and Education, 1st Edition

Together with Casper Hulshof I wrote a popular book in Dutch on educational myths in 2013.

In 2015 a whole new, updated and upgraded version will be published internationally by Elsevier/Academic Press, written by myself, prof. Paul A. Kirschner and Casper Hulshof.

The manuscript has been sent in and… check here.


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Researchers claim young adults ages 18 to 26 should be viewed as separate subpopulation

Is the period between age 18 and 26 any different than any other period in a life? Researchers seem to think it is, it’s even comparable with early childhood as it can be as critical for development in later life. You have doubts, read one.

From the press release:

Young adults ages 18-26 should be viewed as a separate subpopulation in policy and research, because they are in a critical period of development when successes or failures could strongly affect the trajectories of their lives, says a new report from the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council. The committee that wrote the report found that young adults’ brains and behaviors continue maturing into their 20s, and they face greater challenges achieving independence than their predecessors did, have lengthened pathways into adulthood, and are surprisingly unhealthy. The report calls for an improved understanding and response to the circumstances and needs of today’s young adults.

Biologically and psychologically, young adulthood is a period of maturation and change. Compared with older adults, young adults have adolescent tendencies, including preferring short-term rewards and responding to peer approval. Compared with adolescents, however, young adults take longer to consider difficult problems before deciding on a course of action and have better-developed impulse control.

In addition, many of today’s young adults confront challenges in making a successful transition to adult roles. Economic and social forces — including the restructuring of the economy, widening inequality, the increasing diversity of the population, and advances in technologies — have altered the landscape of risk and opportunity. In previous generations, the path for most young adults was predictable: graduate from high school, enter college or the workforce, leave home, find a spouse, and start a family. Today’s pathways are often less predictable and extended due to the increasing cost of college and the burden of college debt; a deficiency of well-compensated entry-level jobs; and the high cost of living independently. An estimated 17 percent of young adults ages 16 to 24 are neither attending school nor working. Many of these idle young adults are not just unemployed but have dropped out of the labor force altogether in response to the lower wages and fewer benefits available to those with high school or less education.

Furthermore, inequality can be magnified during young adulthood. Marginalized young adults, such as those aging out of foster care or born to low-income immigrants, are much less likely to transition successfully to adulthood. Earnings gap between those with a bachelor’s degree and those with only a high school diploma have roughly doubled since 1980.

The transition into adulthood is also a critical period in health, and the dominant pattern among young adults is declining health, the committee found. As adolescents age into their early and mid-20s, they are less likely to eat breakfast, exercise, and get regular physical and dental checkups, and more likely to eat fast food, contract sexually transmitted diseases, smoke cigarettes, use marijuana and other drugs, and binge drink. The current generation of young adults is at the forefront of the obesity epidemic and more vulnerable to obesity-related health consequences in later years. Rapid technological changes, economic challenges, and a prolonged transition to adulthood appear to be contributing to the health problems of young adults by increasing their stress and sedentary habits. Mental health among young adults also is cause for concern, the committee said. Along with substance use, mental health disorders are the greatest source of disability among young adults in the U.S.

Providing more educational, economic, social, and health supports needed by all young adults — especially those who are at risk of experiencing the greatest struggles — could promote equal opportunities, reduce disparities, and enable them to embrace adult roles as healthy workers, parents, and citizens, the committee said. Focusing on the health and well-being of the current cohort of young adults is especially important because of the rapidly increasing ratio of individuals in the population ages 65 and older to the working-age population. This ratio has been increasing in all advanced industrial countries while the fertility rate has been declining, leaving working-age adults to support increasing numbers of retiring elders. In the United States, this ratio increased from about 1 elder to 10 workers in 1950 to 2 elders per 10 workers in 2000, and is expected to increase to almost 4 elders per 10 workers by 2050.

The committee called for the public and private sectors to improve policies and programs that address the needs of young adults. It recommended raising completion rates for those in high school and postsecondary institutions, and ensuring that the skills and credentials attained are ones the labor market rewards. To accomplish these goals, better integration is needed among secondary and higher education with workforce agencies. In particular, state government, with support from the U.S. Department of Education, should experiment with and evaluate a range of interventions that improve graduation rates in high schools and colleges, as well as the rates at which high school dropouts receive their General Education Development (GED) credential and enroll in college or job training.

“It is often said that young people are the future, but the rapidly changing world has made it harder for those young people to transition to adulthood,” said Victor Dzau, president of the Institute of Medicine. “They are often getting lost in the shuffle. This report can help policymakers, employers, and other community leaders develop and enhance policies and programs that improve the lives of young adults.”

Actually while I understand the changing situations young adults nowadays live in, I do think we need to be careful with this. I do agree that any life stage has it’s pitfalls and opportunities. Taking the context of a life stage into account seems legit and logical. Still, I think we must be careful in making everything ‘normal’ into something that should be looked at as something you need to diagnose. The most important takeaway to me is more the nurture-side of the story than the nature-side.

You can read the full report here.

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Kids not having enough exercise? Don’t blame technology, but blame our fear?

In her recent book, danah boyd describes how social media can be a last place for kids to meet each other unsupervised. Using technology, i.c. social media, isn’t a problem in itself, but rather a symptom. You might think kids are not playing outdoors anymore because they rather play on their computers, but again the causal relation could be very different.

A new poll of nearly 3,000 parents and children by Eureka Children’s Museum in West Yorkshire in the UK found 81% of children prefer playing outside to watching TV. Yep, they prefer play over technology, and 95% of the parents do think kids should take risks, still … half of the parents surveyed said they don’t let their child leave their home or garden. 37% stated they let their youngster to go to the end of the street.

In total, 2,823 parents and children, aged 5-11, took part in the poll, with an approximate split of 52% children (1,456 respondents) and 48% parents (1,367 respondents).

Read more on the poll on the BBC-website.

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Good read: Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling

Most of the teachers and anyone who ever read “Made to Stick” (if you don’t, it’s surely is interesting) knows that stories help understanding and remembering. A new post on HBR focuses on some of the science behind stories.

An excerpt from the article:

In subsequent studies we have been able to deepen our understanding of why stories motivate voluntary cooperation. (This research was given a boost when, with funding from the U.S. Department of Defense, we developed ways to measure oxytocin release noninvasively at up to one thousand times per second.) We discovered that, in order to motivate a desire to help others, a story must first sustain attention – a scarce resource in the brain – by developing tension during the narrative. If the story is able to create that tension then it is likely that attentive viewers/listeners will come to share the emotions of the characters in it, and after it ends, likely to continue mimicking the feelings and behaviors of those characters. This explains the feeling of dominance you have after James Bond saves the world, and your motivation to work out after watching the Spartans fight in300.

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Interesting read: Your Creativity Might Be Stifled by Your Expertise

We’ve known already for quite some time that there is hardly evidence for a correlation between expertise and great teaching. This article on Inc.com shows that expertise can also have a possible bad consequence:

Using applications for medical research grants, Kevin Boudreau and his colleagues found that evaluators gave their lowest ratings to the submissions with the greatest degree of novelty. Interestingly, if an evaluator was an expert in the area, even lower ratings were given. When new ideas are introduced, people tend to regard these critically. Experts in the area, however, are even more negative.

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How does technology affects mums? VIMN examined it in Australia

A recent joint project by Nickelodeon Kids & Family GPS, MultiChannel Network and BabyCenter sought to understand how technology and content have affected modern moms. This study, “Paranoid or Prepared?,” combines both qualitative and quantitative analysis of more than 1,500 respondents across Australia (source).

Here are some key insights and takeaways from this project:

Though moms were defined en masse in the past, today they define themselves.

  • Their roles and challenges change with time
  • While being a mom is their #1 defining role and proudest achievement, it’s not all they are
  • Takeaways: have empathy, acknowledge they’re not all the same, use relatable moms, provide a forum for sharing achievements

In a sea of information and conflicting advice, trust is key.

  • Moms are looking for brands and advice they can trust (heritage/established, expert or peer endorsements)
  • Takeaways: give honest advice, make it simple, partner with experts

Moms are generally happy, but stressed.

  • They wish they had more time for themselves and for family
  • Technology and information overload is an issue
  • Takeaways: use simple and actionable communication, help them slow down and de-stress

Smartphones are moms’ backup brains.

  • They’re using smartphones for everything
  • However, they have a love/hate relationship with them—valuing useful features but wishing they could switch off
  • Takeaways: understand who you’re targeting, empathize with their needs/challenges, deliver simple solutions

Moms are connecting across more devices and in more locations.

  • They’ll embrace brands that appear to add value
  • Gen X moms use different devices for different tasks
  • Takeaways: Help Gen X moms embrace all that technology offers, make sure offerings are PC-friendly for Gen X, provide inspiration and ideas, make the mundane fun

Millennial moms are especially big mobile users.
•    They’re using mobile technology to get inspiration, research products, and shorten the path to purchase
•    Millennials are more likely to research on the go
•    Takeaways: safety first (reassure moms), make it easy/visual/immediate, make sure it works

Moms want to be their kids’ best friends.

  • Moms want to spend more quality time together and put kids first in everything
  • They’re increasingly going on social media and gaming to connect with kids
  • Takeaways: provide opportunities to have fun together (in person or digitally), offer the chance to be a “cool mom”

Moms love to be part of a reassuring network.

  • All moms love to share (some a bit too much!)
  • They’re increasingly looking for trusted and trusting communities
  • Millennial moms more likely to head online
  • Takeaways: empower influencers (who can become your best marketers), provide a platform to share experiences, align with an established community, give them something to discuss

They’re nostalgic about life before they had kids.

  • Moms miss the freedom, the activities they used to do, and their looks
  • Many also miss their careers
  • Takeaways: help them celebrate new roles and manage change in their lives, provide a judgment-free community to connect with peers

Technology leaves moms feeling paranoid and prepared.

  • Technology can be a source of anxiety, especially among Gen X moms
  • Millennial moms have embraced technology as a parenting tool, but feel overwhelmed by conflicting advice
  • All moms feel overwhelmed by their kids’ technology use
  • Their kids’ safety, both online and in real life, are huge concerns
  • Takeaways: offer reassurance, centralize and validate information, help them understand what their kids are doing

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Birth of a first and a second child briefly increases level parents’ happiness, but a third does not (study)

As my children have been up early this week because we changed an hour because of Daylight Saving Time, I could have wondered this myself, does having children make us any happier? (Actually, I was up myself before them). New research from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and Western University, Canada shows that the birth of a first and a second child briefly increases the level of their parents’ happiness, but a third does not. Those who have children at an older age or who are more educated have a particularly positive response to a first birth. Older parents, between the ages of 35 — 49, have the strongest happiness gains around the time of birth and stay at a higher level of happiness after becoming parents, the research indicates.

From the press release:

According to the research, published in the journal Demography, parents’ happiness increases in the year before and after the birth of a first child, it then quickly decreases and returns to their ‘pre-child’ level of happiness.

The pattern for second births is similar, although the increase in happiness before and around the birth is roughly half of that for first births. The increase in parental happiness surrounding the birth of a third child is negligible.

Mikko Myrskylä, professor of demography at LSE and Director of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rostock, Germany, said: “Our results show a temporary and transitory gain in parents’ happiness around the birth of first and second children.

“The fact that parental happiness increases before these children are born suggests that we are capturing broader issues relating to childbearing such as couples forming partnerships and making plans for the future.

“The arrival of a third child is not associated with an increase in the parents’ happiness, but this is not to suggest they are any less loved than their older siblings. Instead, this may reflect that the experience of parenthood is less novel and exciting by the time the third child is born or that a larger family puts extra pressure on the parents’ resources. Also, the likelihood of a pregnancy being unplanned may increase with the number of children a woman already has — and this brings its own stresses.”

Compared to men, women gain more in happiness in expectation of, and right after, the birth of a child. Women also have steeper drops in their happiness than men between the year of the birth and the year afterward, possibly because of the larger initial gain. However, in the long run, there are no differences between the happiness levels of men and women before and after children.

Those who have children at an older age or who are more educated have a particularly positive response to a first birth. Older parents, between the ages of 35 — 49, have the strongest happiness gains around the time of birth and stay at a higher level of happiness after becoming parents.

Those who become parents in their teens have a predominantly declining pattern of happiness that does not increase above the baseline even during the year of birth. Those who become parents between the ages of 23 -34 have increasing happiness before a first birth, however one to two years after the birth, happiness decreases to baseline or below.

Rachel Margolis, assistant professor from Western University’s Faculty of Social Science, said: “The fact that among older and better-educated parents, well-being increases with childbearing, but the young and less-educated parents have flat or even downward happiness trajectories, may explain why postponing fertility has become so common.”

Abstract of the study:

Understanding how having children influences parents’ subjective well-being (“happiness”) has great potential to explain fertility behavior. We study parental happiness trajectories before and after the birth of a child, using large British and German longitudinal data sets. We account for unobserved parental characteristics using fixed-effects models and study how sociodemographic factors modify the parental happiness trajectories. Consistent with existing work, we find that happiness increases in the years around the birth of a first child and then decreases to before-child levels. Moreover, happiness increases before birth, suggesting that the trajectories may capture not only the effect of the birth but also the broader process of childbearing, which may include partnership formation and quality. Sociodemographic factors strongly modify this pattern. Those who have children at older ages or who have more education have a particularly positive happiness response to a first birth; and although having the first two children increases happiness, having a third child does not. The results, which are similar in Britain and Germany, suggest that having up to two children increases happiness, and mostly for those who have postponed childbearing. This pattern is consistent with the fertility behavior that emerged during the second demographic transition and provides new insights into low and late fertility.

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New research (and debate) on smaller high schools in NY

I’ve written before on the large scaled experiment with smaller high schools in New York, although there were also some doubts. Recently there was a new report published with again positive results:

On average, attending an SSC increased on-time high school graduation rates for the four student cohorts in the present analysis by 9.4 percentage points, an effect that is equivalent in magnitude to roughly 44 percent of the gap in graduation rates between white students and students of color in New York City during the same period. For these student cohorts, attending an SSC also increased the probability of
graduating from high school in four years and attending a postsecondary education program the following year by 8.4 percentage points. It is rare to find such large positive effects for a rigorously evaluated large-scale education reform and rarer still to see such effects continue into college. Hence, the present findings are unusually promising.
Remarkably, SSCs achieve these gains for enrollees at a lower average total cost per graduate than that for their control group counterparts — roughly 14 percent to 16 percent lower. Interestingly, both SSC enrollees and control group enrollees attend high schools that turn out to have per-pupil costs somewhat higher than those of the average New York City high school and substantially higher than those of the largest high schools, which have significant economies of scale. Yet the per-pupil costs for the specific high schools that SSC enrollees and their control group counterparts attended are roughly similar. And, because more SSC students successfully graduate and fewer require an expensive fifth year of high school, the cost per graduate is significantly lower for SSC students than for their control group counterparts. These findings are consistent regardless of the approach used to estimate teacher costs, student composition, facility usage, start-up costs, or partner contributions to the schools.
Still, there is more work to be done. Roughly 30 percent of target SSC enrollees do not graduate from high school on time and, even among those who do, roughly 31 percent do not go on to postsecondary education. In addition, the very small postsecondary effects reported for students who enter high school performing far below grade level suggest that additional investment will be required to help these students obtain the skills they need to make at least some form of postsecondary education a viable option, a transition that will become increasingly important in the twenty-first-century labor market.

In summary, the present findings provide strong evidence that a large-scale high school reform for youths who are far along in the K-12 pipeline, many of whom are academically below grade level when they enter high school, can have sizable positive effects on high school graduation, attainment of a Regents diploma, and postsecondary enrollment.

Still the debate remains as other cities who tried this approach rather had mixed results. Also some researchers have questions with the methodology being used:

Some researchers questioned whether the findings should be seen as a definitive endorsement of small schools in general. Because the research examined only small schools that had more applicants than seats — by definition, the popular small schools — the lowest-performing small schools may not have been included at all.

The study also didn’t look at all of the small schools opened during the Bloomberg administration. An additional 93 small schools opened from 2002 to 2008, but were left out because they were either academically selective, transfer schools, or combined middle and high schools. (source)

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A veteran teacher turned coach shadows 2 students for 2 days – a sobering lesson learned


For the few people who haven’t read this experience yet, do check also the little PS Grant Wiggins added to the story.

Originally posted on Granted, and...:

The following account comes from a veteran HS teacher who just became a Coach in her building. Because her experience is so vivid and sobering I have kept her identity anonymous. But nothing she describes is any different than my own experience in sitting in HS classes for long periods of time. And this report of course accords fully with the results of our student surveys. 

I have made a terrible mistake.

I waited fourteen years to do something that I should have done my first year of teaching: shadow a student for a day. It was so eye-opening that I wish I could go back to every class of students I ever had right now and change a minimum of ten things – the layout, the lesson plan, the checks for understanding. Most of it!

This is the first year I am working in a school but not teaching…

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It’s better for memory to make mistakes while learning … but only if the guesses are ‘close-but-no-cigar’

Do note: while the press release states that the study had been published already online, I couldn’t trace it yet so I haven’t been able to read the actual study bit did read the 2012 article.

Lately I’m getting a bit fed up with the many pleas for failure. Not because I’m convinced that making mistakes shouldn’t be possible or allowed – the research that I’m blogging about shows the importance of mistakes, again – but because most of the times the idea is not: you need to fail, but instead is: you need to fail so you can become successful. The danger can be that it becomes forbidden to be something less than successful. And if that happens, and that’s my personal worry, that it’s being seen as your own mistake because e.g. you didn’t learn enough from your mistakes.

As always it’s all about a balance, because – as said – mistakes can be also very fruitful, and as this research will show: we need to keep on making mistakes, hence my little rambling.

From the press release:

“Making random guesses does not appear to benefit later memory for the right answer , but near-miss guesses act as stepping stones for retrieval of the correct information – and this benefit is seen in younger and older adults,” says lead investigator Andrée-Ann Cyr, a graduate student with Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute and the Department of Psychology at the University of Toronto.

Cyr’s paper is posted online today in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition (ahead of print publication). The study expands upon a previous paper she published in Psychology and Aging in 2012 that found that learning information the hard way by making mistakes (as opposed to just being told the correct answer) may be the best boot camp for older brains.

That paper raised eyebrows since the scientific literature has traditionally recommended that older adults avoid making mistakes – unlike their younger peers who actually benefit from them. But recent evidence from Cyr and other researchers is challenging this perspective and prompting professional educators and cognitive rehabilitation clinicians to take note.

Cyr’s latest research provides evidence that trial-and-error learning can benefit memory in both young and old when errors are meaningfully related to the right answer, and can actually harm memory when they are not.

In their latest study, 65 healthy younger adults (average age 22) and 64 healthy older adults (average age 72) learned target words (e.g., rose) based either on the semantic category it belongs to (e.g., a flower) or its word stem (e.g., a word that begins with the letters ‘ro’). For half of the words, participants were given the answer right away (e.g., “the answer is rose”) and for the other half, they were asked to guess at it before seeing the answer (e.g., a flower: “Is it tulip?” or ro___ : “is it rope?”).

On a later memory test, participants were shown the categories or word stems and had to come up with the right answer. The researchers wanted to know if participants would be better at remembering rose if they had made wrong guesses prior to studying it rather than seeing it right away. They found that this was only true if participants learned based on the categories (e.g., a flower). Guessing actually made memory worse when words were learned based on word stems (e.g., ro___). This was the case for both younger and older adults. Cyr and her colleagues suggest this is because our memory organizes information based on how it is conceptually rather than lexically related to other information. For example, when you think of the word pear, your mind is more likely to jump to another fruit, such as apple, than to a word that looks similar, such as peer. Wrong guesses only add value when they have something meaningful in common with right answers. The guess tulip may be wrong, but it is still conceptually close to the right answer rose (both are flowers).

By guessing first as opposed to just reading the answer, one is thinking harder about the information and making useful connections that can help memory. Indeed, younger and older participants were more likely to remember the answer if they also remembered their wrong guesses, suggesting that these acted as stepping stones. By contrast, when guesses only have letters in common with answers, they clutter memory because one cannot link them meaningfully. The word rope is nowhere close to rose in our memory. In these situations, where your guesses are likely to be out in left field, it is best to bypass mistakes altogether.

“The fact that this pattern was found for older adults as well shows that aging does not influence how we learn from mistakes,” says Cyr.

“These results have profound clinical and practical implications. They turn traditional views of best practices in memory rehabilitation for healthy seniors on their head by demonstrating that making the right kind of errors can be beneficial. They also provide great hope for lifelong learning and guidance for how seniors should study,” says Dr. Nicole Anderson, senior scientist with Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute and senior author on the study.

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Interesting read: The Problem With Positive Thinking

An interesting article by Gabriele Oettingen on the website of the NY Times, a professor of psychology at New York University and the University of Hamburg, on the possible negative consequences of… positieve thinking.

2 excerpts:

“My colleagues and I have since performed many follow-up studies, observing a range of people, including children and adults; residents of different countries (the United States and Germany); and people with various kinds of wishes — college students wanting a date, hip-replacement patients hoping to get back on their feet, graduate students looking for a job, schoolchildren wishing to get good grades. In each of these studies, the results have been clear: Fantasizing about happy outcomes — about smoothly attaining your wishes — didn’t help. Indeed, it hindered people from realizing their dreams.”

“Positive thinking is pleasurable, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for us. Like so much in life, attaining goals requires a balanced and moderate approach, neither dwelling on the downsides nor a forced jumping for joy.”

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