Another reason why we have music? Parenting?

I love music. Actually, I couldn’t imagine living without it. But where does music comes from? Why does music exist? I’ve heard several explanations in the past, and this new study adds a new theory, and it has all to do with parenting.

From the press release:

A new theory paper, co-authored by Graduate School of Education doctoral student Samuel Mehr and Assistant Professor of Psychology Max Krasnow, proposes that infant-directed song evolved as a way for parents to signal to children that their needs are being met, while still freeing up parents to perform other tasks, like foraging for food, or caring for other offspring. Infant-directed song might later have evolved into the more complex forms of music we hear in our modern world. The theory is described in an open-access paper in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior.

Music is a tricky topic for evolutionary science: it turns up in many cultures around the world in many different contexts, but no one knows why humans are the only musical species. Noting that it has no known connection to reproductive success, Professor of Psychology Steven Pinker, described it as “auditory cheesecake” in his book How the Mind Works.

“There has been a lot of attention paid to the question of where music came from, but none of the theories have been very successful in predicting the features of music or musical behavior,” Krasnow said. “What we are trying to do with this paper is develop a theory of music that is grounded in evolutionary biology, human life history and the basic features of mammalian ecology.”

At the core of their theory, Krasnow said, is the notion that parents and infants are engaged in an “arms race” over an invaluable resource — attention.

“Particularly in an ancestral world, where there are predators and other people that pose a risk, and infants don’t know which foods are poisonous and what activities are hazardous, an infant can be kept safe by an attentive parent,” he said. “But attention is a limited resource.”

While there is some cooperation in the battle for that resource — parents want to satisfy infants appetite for attention because their cries might attract predators, while children need to ensure parents have time for other activities like foraging for food — that mutual interest only goes so far.

Attention, however, isn’t the only resource to cause such disagreements.

The theory of parent-offspring conflict was first put forth over forty years ago by the evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers, then an Assistant Professor at Harvard. Trivers predicted that infants and parents aren’t on the same page when it comes to the distribution of resources.

“His theory covers everything that can be classified as parental investment,” Krasnow said. “It’s anything that a parent could give to an offspring to help them, or that they may want to hold back for themselves and other offspring.”

Sexual reproduction means that every person gets half of their genes from each parent, but which genes in particular can differ even across full siblings.

Krasnow explains, “A gene in baby has only a fifty percent chance of being found in siblings by virtue of sharing two parents. That means that from the baby’s genetic perspective, she’ll want a more self-favoring division of resources, for example, than her mom or her sister wants, from their genetic perspectives.”

Mehr and Krasnow took the idea of parent-offspring conflict and applied it attention. They predict that children should ‘want’ a greater share of their parents’ attention than their parents ‘want’ to give them. But how does the child know it is has her parent’s attention? The solution, Krasnow said, is that parents were forced to develop some method of signaling to their offspring that their desire for attention was being met.

“I could simply look at my children, and they might have some assurance that I’m attending to them,” Krasnow said. “But I could be looking at them and thinking of something else, or looking at them and focusing on my cell phone, and not really attending to them at all. They should want a better signal than that.”

Why should that signal take the form of a song?

What makes such signals more honest, Mehr and Krasnow think, is the cost associated with them — meaning that by sending a signal to an infant, a parent cannot be sending it to someone else, sending it but lying about it, etc. “Infant directed song has a lot of these costs built in. I can’t be singing to you and be talking to someone else,” Krasnow said. “It’s unlikely I’m running away, because I need to control my voice to sing. You can tell the orientation of my head, even without looking at me, you can tell how far away I am, even without looking.”

Mehr notes that infant-directed song provides lots of opportunities for parents to signal their attention to infants: “Parents adjust their singing in real time, by altering the melody, rhythm, tempo, timbre, of their singing, adding hand motions, bouncing, touching, and facial expressions, and so on. All of these features can be finely tuned to the baby’s affective state — or not. The match or mismatch between baby behavior and parent singing could be informative for whether or not the parent is paying attention to the infant.”

Indeed, it would be pretty odd to sing a happy, bubbly song to a wailing, sleep-deprived infant.

Krasnow agrees. “All these things make something like an infant directed vocalization a good cue of attention,” he continued. “And when you put that into this co-evolutionary arms race, you might end up getting something like infant-directed song. It could begin with something like primitive vocalizations, which gradually become more infant directed, and are elaborated into melodies.”

“If a mutation develops in parents that allows them to do that quicker and better, then they have more residual budget to spend on something else, and that would spread,” he said. “Infants would then be able to get even choosier, forcing parents to get better, and so on. This is the same kind of process that starts with drab birds and results in extravagant peacocks and choosy peahens.” And as signals go, Krasnow said, those melodies can prove to be enormously powerful.

“The idea we lay out with this paper is that infant-directed song and things that share its characteristics should be very good at calming a fussy infant — and there is some evidence of that,” he said. “We’re not talking about going from this type of selection to Rock-a-Bye Baby; this theory says nothing about the words to songs or the specific melodies, it’s saying that the acoustic properties of infant directed song should make it better at calming an infant than other music.”

But, could music really be in our genes?

“A good comparison to make is to language,” Krasnow said. “We would say there’s a strong genetic component to language — we have a capability for language built into our genes — and we think the same thing is going to be true for music.”

What about other kinds of music? Mehr is optimistic that this work could be informative for this question down the road.

“Let’s assume for a moment that the theory is right. How, then, did we get from lullabies to Duke Ellington?” he asked. “The evolution of music must be a complex, multi-step process, with different features developing for different reasons. Our theory raises the possibility that infant-directed song is the starting point for all that, with other musical behaviors either developing directly via natural selection, as byproducts of infant-directed song, or as byproducts of other adaptations.”

For Pinker, the paper differs in one important way from other theories of how music evolves in that it makes evolutionary sense.

“In the past, people have been so eager to come up with an adaptive explanation for music that they have advanced glib and circular theories, such as that music evolved to bond the group,” he said. “This is the first explanation that at least makes evolutionary sense — it shows how the features of music could cause an advantage in fitness. That by itself doesn’t prove that it’s true, but at least it makes sense!”

Abstract of the paper:

We present a theory of the origin and evolution of infant-directed song, a form of music found in many cultures. After examining the ancestral ecology of parent-infant relations, we propose that infant-directed song arose in an evolutionary arms race between parents and infants, stemming from the dynamics of parent-offspring conflict. We describe testable predictions that follow from this theory, consider some existing evidence for them, and entertain the possibility that infant-directed song could form the basis for the development of other, more complex forms of music.

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Funny on Sunday: Politics of Schooling

Every month Larry Cuban puts out a themed collection of cartoons. These are 2 of the new collection on the theme of politics of schooling. Check the other cartoons here.

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Another study on a kind of bias: students more likely to succeed if teachers have positive perceptions of parents

Last week I took part in some offline and online discussions about teacher bias towards different students. This new study adds an important element to these discussions as they found found that teacher ratings of parental involvement early in a child’s academic career can accurately predict the child’s academic and social success. One could argue that this more correlational in nature, but – to me – more important: the scientists suggest based on a randomized controlled trial that teacher training can help.

From the press release:

Parental involvement is commonly viewed as vital to student academic success by most education experts and researchers; however, the quality of research on how to measure and improve parental involvement is lacking. Now, researchers at the University of Missouri have found that teacher ratings of parental involvement early in a child’s academic career can accurately predict the child’s academic and social success. Additionally, they found that a teacher training program can help improve the quantity and quality of teacher-parent interactions. Keith Herman, a professor in the MU College of Education and co-director of the Missouri Prevention Center, says these findings show the importance of teacher-parent connections and also the need for training teachers on how to create effective relationships with all parents.

“It’s clear from years of research that teacher perceptions, even perceptions of which they are not aware, can greatly impact student success,” Herman said. “If a teacher has a good relationship with a student’s parents or perceives that those parents are positively engaged in their child’s education, that teacher may be more likely to give extra attention or go the extra mile for that student. If the same teacher perceives another child’s parents to be uninvolved or to have a negative influence on the child’s education, it likely will affect how the teacher interacts with both the child and the parent.”

For their study, Herman and a team of MU researchers randomly assigned more than 100 teachers to receive a professional development program called the Incredible Years. The program is designed to prepare teachers to develop more effective relationships with parents and students, and to improve their classroom management skills. Teachers completed surveys about their more than 1,800 students and parents at the beginning and end of the school year, including answering questions asking about the quantity and quality of their relationships with parents and the parents’ involvement in their children’s education. The researchers also collected ratings and observations on student behavior and academic performance. Children whose parents were identified by teachers as more positively involved had higher levels of prosocial behaviors and more academic success. Additionally, the researchers found that parents who had children in classrooms where teachers received the training were more likely to develop more positive behaviors, including higher involvement and bonding with the teacher.

“Negative perceptions often bring out negative behaviors,” Herman said. “We also know, from this and prior studies, that teachers are more likely to report less comfort and alignment with parents whose children have academic and social problems, and parents from low income and/or from racial or ethnic minority groups. In other words, often the families and students who need the most positive attention and support to re-engage them in education, are often the ones who are viewed the least favorably. Fortunately, this study shows that we can support teachers to improve their relationships with all parents, resulting in a better education for all children while also encouraging parents to become more involved in the education process.”

Herman and other MU researchers have successfully implemented a teacher training program that improves teacher-parent relationships and creates more positive perceptions of parental involvement. Papers outlining this study and the teacher training program have been accepted for publication in School Psychology Quarterly and the Journal of School Psychology. Wendy Reinke, professor in the MU College of Education and co-director of the Missouri Prevention Center, co-authored both studies with Herman. Aaron Thompson, an assistant professor in the MU School of Social Work within the College of Human Environmental Sciences, was the lead author on the teacher training study published in the Journal of School Psychology. Melissa Stormont, a professor in the MU College of Education, and Carolyn Webster-Stratton, a professor emeritus at the University of Washington, also co-wrote Thompson’s paper with Herman and Reinke.

I was able to find and read the first study mentioned in the press release of which this is the abstract, I haven’t been able to read the second study yet:

For children with the most serious and persistent academic and behavior problems, parent involvement in education, particularly teacher perceptions of involvement, is essential to avert their expected long-term negative outcomes. Despite the widespread interest in and perceived importance of parent involvement in education, however, few experimental studies have evaluated programs and practices to promote it. In this group randomized trial, we examined the effects of the Incredible Years Teacher Classroom Management program (IY TCM) on teacher perceptions of contact and comfort with parents. One hundred five classrooms with 1818 students were randomly assigned to an IY TCM or to a control, business as usual condition. Measures of key constructs included teacher ratings of parent and student behaviors, direct observations in the classroom, and a standardized academic achievement test. Latent transition analysis (LTA) was used to identify patterns of involvement over time and to determine if intervention condition predicted postintervention patterns and transitions. Four patterns of involvement were identified at baseline and at follow-up; parents of students with academic and behavior problems were most likely to be in classes with the least adaptive involvement patterns. Intervention status predicted group membership at follow-up. Specifically, intervention classroom parents were significantly more likely to transition to more adaptive teacher-rated parenting profiles at follow-up compared to control classroom parents. This is the first randomized trial we are aware of that has found that teacher training can alter teacher perceptions of parent involvement patterns. Clinical implications for students with behavior and academic problems are discussed.


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Best Evidence in Brief: A randomized controlled trial of the repeated reading strategy

There is a new Best Evidence in Brief and this time I – first – want to focus on this randomized controlled trial:

Repeated reading is a strategy used to develop children’s reading fluency in targeted text. However, little research has been done using randomized trials to determine the extent to which fluency gained in repeated reading generalizes to new text in terms of accuracy, speed, comprehension, and expression. In an effort to examine the effectiveness of the repeated reading strategy, Scott Ardoin and colleagues at the University of Georgia and Mount Holyoke College conducted a randomized controlled trial comparing students’ fluency development using repeated reading to their fluency development using wide reading (non-repetitive reading of passages with minimal word and content overlap) and to a third group who continued with business as usual.

A total of 168 second graders in three schools in the southeastern U.S. were matched on standardized pre-testing by reading level in groups of three and assigned to one of the three groups. Pre-tests were also conducted for eye movement and prosody. Each student received 20 minutes of individualized intervention four times a week for 9-10 weeks.

Results showed that while all students gained in all areas, the students in the experimental conditions gained more than the business-as-usual students, with the lowest-achieving students making the most gains. It was of note that there was no significant advantage to being in the repeated reading group versus the wide reading group.


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Infographic by Oliver Caviglioli and Paul Kirschner: the case for fully-guided instruction

Oliver Caviglioli The same guy who designed the great study method posters by the learning scientists worked now together with Paul Kirschner on this infographic which you can download here!


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Ten Cures for the Teacher Shortage

Bearing in mind that teacher shortage is almost a global phenomenon, I think this post can inspire also people outside the UK.

Love Learning....

Dear Government,

Here are ten cures for the teacher shortage.

  1. Stop talking teachers and schools down. Every time you (falsely) mention how poorly we compare to our international competitors or how we need to raise standards in our schools, you put people off. Few want to play for a losing side.
  2. If you’re going to offer financial incentives to, say Maths, Science graduates, then why not tie them into teaching for a few years? At the moment, it’s a no brainer to train for a year and receive a £30,000 grant. Especially if you don’t even have to teach afterwards.
  3. Develop good career pathways for teachers who don’t want to move into management but who still want their excellence and expertise to be recognised. Value and reward experience.
  4. Increase funding to schools so they can afford to employ good teachers.
  5. Broaden out the EBacc to cover more subjects – e.g. more…

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The Importance of Asking the Right Policy Question: Technology in Schools

Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice

About a century ago, electronic technologies entered the classroom. Initially  as the film (1920s), radio (1930s), and instructional television (1960s), these devices derived from the entertainment business. The hype surrounding each promised that teachers would have access to the world beyond the classroom and the library. Teachers would have engaging tools that turn on students to what had to be learned. And students would be able to learn more, faster, and better.

The policy question driving these entertainment-oriented devices was: How can these new media help teachers do better what they ordinarily do in conveying to students new knowledge and skills?

Both teacher and student access to these electronic devices, however, was limited by costs of film projectors, classroom radio sets, and television wiring and equipment. Districts parceled out equipment to schools and established audiovisual departments. Consider further that finding the best film for a unit took much time as teachers…

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Study: the importance of good teaching conditions for learning

I found this new study by Banerjee et al. via Larry Ferlazzo and while it seems logical to many people in education, this study wants to give empirical evidence for the link between good teaching conditions for educators is positively correlated with student achievement in both math and reading.

Abstract of the study:

Studies have not conclusively established whether teacher job satisfaction improves student achievement or whether the advantages to students from having satisfied teachers vary with the broader school culture. In this article, we investigate two research questions: (1) Is there a relationship between teacher job satisfaction and students’ math and reading growth in elementary school? (2) How do schools’ organizational cultures moderate the relationship between teacher job satisfaction and student achievement growth? We examined these questions using the Early Childhood Longitudinal Survey and found that teacher job satisfaction has a modest but positive relationship with students’ reading growth but no relationship with students’ math growth between kindergarten and fifth grade. However, school culture and teacher job satisfaction interactively affect student achievement in both math and reading. We argue that future education reforms should place special emphasis on improving teacher job satisfaction and school culture.

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Great on Sunday: the best letter to the NY Times in decades

Although my most read Funny on Sunday is about the current president of the US, it was my plan not to post jokes about Donald Trump anymore. But this letter by Demurs isn’t so much funny but just great.

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Interesting read: What Works Can Hurt: Side Effects in Education

I’ve been working on a new book, due out January 2018, about teaching and my first chapter – already read by my publishers – has quite some in common with this new blog post and article by Yong Zhao: What Works Can Hurt: Side Effects in Education.

This is the abstract of the actual paper (you can download the actual article also in this blog post):

Medical research is held as a field for education to emulate. Education researchers have been urged to adopt randomized controlled trials, a more ‘‘scien- tific’’ research method believed to have resulted in the advances in medicine. But a much more important lesson education needs to borrow from medicine has been ignored. That is the study of side effects. Medical research is required to investigate both the intended effects of any medical interventions and their unintended adverse effects, or side effects. In contrast, educational research tends to focus only on proving the effectiveness of practices and policies in pursuit of ‘‘what works.’’ It has generally ignored the potential harms that can result from what works. This article presents evidence that shows side effects are inseparable from effects. Both are the outcomes of the same intervention. This article further argues that studying and reporting side effects as part of studying effects will help advance education by settling long fought battles over practices and policies and move beyond the vicious cycle of pendulum swings in education.


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