Funny on Sunday: Windmills are useful even when there is no wind…

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Good but alarming talk by Alison McDowell: What Sillicon Valley has planned for public education

The talk is more nuanced than you might think, but holds a clear warning. (H/t E. Morozov)

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Did Eratosthenes really measure the size of the earth?

The Renaissance Mathematicus

Last Thursday was Summer Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere and The Guardian chose to mark the occasion with an article by astrophysicist turned journalist and novelist, Stuart Clark, who chose to regale his readers with a bit of history of science. The big question was would he get it right? He has form for not doing so and in fact, he succeeded in living up to that form. His article entitled Summer solstice: the perfect day to bask in a dazzling scientific feat, recounted the well know history of geodesy tale of how Eratosthenes used the summer solstice to determine the size of the earth.

Eratosthenes of Cyrene was the chief librarian at the great library of Alexandria in the third century BC. So the story goes, he read in one of the library’s many manuscripts an account of the sun being directly overhead on the summer solstice as…

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Best Evidence in Brief: Students may do better on tests if they can go back and check their work

There is a new Best Evidence in Brief and while this study I picked from this great newsletter seems to have a bit of ‘No shit, Sherlock’-feel to it, I do think it’s relevant:

Joseph Hardcastle and colleagues conducted a study to compare student performance on computer-based tests (CBT) and traditional paper-and-pencil tests (PPT). More than 30,000 students in grades 4-12 were assessed on their understanding of energy using three testing systems: a paper and pencil test ; a computer-based test that allowed students to skip items and move freely through the test; or a CBT that did not allow pupils to return to previous questions.
Overall, the results showed that being able to skip through questions, and review and change previous answers, could benefit younger students. Elementary and middle school students scored lower on a CBT that did not allow them to return to previous items than on a comparable computer-based test that allowed them to skip, review, and change previous responses. Elementary students also scored slightly higher on a CBT that allowed them to go back to previous answers than on the PPT, but there was no significant difference for middle school students on those two types of tests. High school students showed no difference in their performance on the three types of tests.
Gender was found to have little influence on a student’s performance on PPT or CBT; however, students whose primary language was not English had lower performance on both CBTs compared with the PPT.

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Truth or Truthiness

Excellent post by Paul & Myriam!

Paul A. Kirschner & Mirjam Neelen

Is a study really trustworthy or does it only seem to be? This is an exploration of truth versus the beautiful word that Stephen Colbert – American comedian – came up with: ‘truthiness’ (funny short video on restoring truthiness here), which means roughly: something that sounds plausible and therefore people prefer to believe it and to hold on to it, without taking facts, logic, or any contradictory evidence into consideration. Truthiness shouldn’t be confused with trustworthiness because the latter means that you can actually rely on something as being honest or truthful (i.e., you can trust it).

truthiness 1

This blog is about, unfortunately, an almost daily experience that the conclusions that scientists draw from their findings – and sometimes even the study itself – are actually based on truthiness and not on truth or trustworthiness. And even worse, the conclusions that are…

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Maybe it is ok for children to count on their fingers…

I remember my own teacher repeating not to count on our fingers, but this new research shows using fingers may be a much more important part of maths learning than previously thought.

From the press release:

Is it OK for children to count on their fingers? Generations of pupils have been discouraged by their teachers from using their hands when learning maths. But a new research article, published in Frontiers in Education shows using fingers may be a much more important part of maths learning than previously thought.

The article, by Professor Tim Jay of Sheffield Hallam University and independent researcher Dr Julie Betenson, confirms what parents have long felt instinctively – that the sorts of finger games children often play at home are central to their education.

The researchers worked with 137 primary pupils aged between six and seven. All the children were given different combinations of counting and number games to play – but only some were given exercises which involved finger-training.

Some pupils played games involving number symbols, such as dominoes, shut-the-box, or snakes and ladders.

Other pupils were asked to play finger games: such being asked to hold up a given number of fingers, or numbering fingers from 1–5 and then having to match one of them by touching it against the corresponding finger on the other hand, or tracing coloured lines using a particular finger.

Both these groups did a little better in maths tests than a third group of pupils who had simply had ‘business as usual’ with their teachers. But the group which did both the counting and the finger games fared significantly better.

“This study provides evidence that fingers provide children with a ‘bridge’ between different representations of numbers, which can be verbal, written or symbolic. Combined finger training and number games could be a useful tool for teachers to support children’s understanding of numbers,” Professor Jay said.

Abstract of the study:

Previous research indicates that the use of fingers as representations of ordinal and cardinal number is an important part of young children’s mathematics learning. Further to this, some studies have shown that a finger training intervention can improve young children’s quantitative skills. In this article, we argue that fingers represent a means for children to connect different external representations of number (including verbal, symbolic, and non-symbolic representations). Therefore, we predicted that an intervention that combined finger training with experience playing games involving multiple representations would lead to greater increases in quantitative skills than either aspect of the intervention alone. One hundred and thirty-seven children aged between 6 and 7 years old took part in an intervention study over the course of 4 weeks. The study tested the impact of five different conditions on participants’ quantitative skills, their finger gnosis, and their ability to compare magnitudes of two non-symbolic representations of number. Relative to a control group, those children receiving a finger training intervention saw gains in finger gnosis skills (the ability to differentiate fingers when touched, without visual cues). Those children who played number games saw an increase in their non-symbolic magnitude comparison skills. However, only those children who experienced both aspects of the intervention saw increases in quantitative skills, which were assessed using an instrument informed by Gelman and Gallistel’s (1978) five principles of counting. The findings show that a finger training intervention, when combined with intensive exposure to multiple representations of number can support young children’s development of quantitative skills. This adds to evidence in the literature regarding the role of fingers in children’s mathematics learning and may have implications for pedagogical approaches.

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Funny on Sunday: 36 times Statler & Waldorf were expert trolls

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A Fairy Tale Reform

An old reform-experiment delivers interesting, quite modern insights:
1. When engaged teachers, administrators, and students are given the freedom to experiment and the help to do it, they will come through.
2. There is no one best way of schooling youth.
3. Students can graduate high school who are academically engaged, involved in their communities, and thoughtful problem-solvers.
4. Standards of excellence that work in schools are those that are set and done locally by adults and students—not imposed from the top-down.

Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice

Once upon a time, there was much unemployment, poverty, and homelessness across our land. Leaders tried one thing after another to end these grim conditions. Nothing worked.

In the midst of these bad times, however, a small group of educators, upset over what our youth were learning in high schools decided to take action.

Schools were dull places. Students listened to teachers, read books, and took exams. Schools were supposed to prepare students for life but much of what they studied they forgot after graduating. Worse yet, what they had learned in school did not prepare them to face the problems of life, think clearly, be creative, or fulfill their civic duties. Complaints to school officials got the same answer repeatedly: little could be done because college entrance requirements determined what courses students took in high school.

So to give high schools the freedom to try new ways of schooling…

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This is nice: The story of music is the story of humans and bringing humans together

A new article discusses how music arose and developed. When I first saw the press release, I surely hoped the article would be open access. And great news: it is.

You can read the full article here, but the press release will give you already some idea:

How did music begin? Did our early ancestors first start by beating things together to create rhythm, or use their voices to sing? What types of instruments did they use? Has music always been important in human society, and if so, why? These are some of the questions explored in a recent Hypothesis and Theory article published in Frontiers in Sociology. The answers reveal that the story of music is, in many ways, the story of humans.

So, what is music? This is difficult to answer, as everyone has their own idea. “Sound that conveys emotion,” is what Jeremy Montagu, of the University of Oxford and author of the article, describes as his. A mother humming or crooning to calm her baby would probably count as music, using this definition, and this simple music probably predated speech.

But where do we draw the line between music and speech? You might think that rhythm, pattern and controlling pitch are important in music, but these things can also apply when someone recites a sonnet or speaks with heightened emotion. Montagu concludes that “each of us in our own way can say ‘Yes, this is music’, and ‘No, that is speech’.”

So, when did our ancestors begin making music? If we take singing, then controlling pitch is important. Scientists have studied the fossilized skulls and jaws of early apes, to see if they were able to vocalize and control pitch. About a million years ago, the common ancestor of Neanderthals and modern humans had the vocal anatomy to “sing” like us, but it’s impossible to know if they did.

Another important component of music is rhythm. Our early ancestors may have created rhythmic music by clapping their hands. This may be linked to the earliest musical instruments, when somebody realized that smacking stones or sticks together doesn’t hurt your hands as much. Many of these instruments are likely to have been made from soft materials like wood or reeds, and so haven’t survived. What have survived are bone pipes. Some of the earliest ever found are made from swan and vulture wing bones and are between 39,000 and 43,000 years old. Other ancient instruments have been found in surprising places. For example, there is evidence that people struck stalactites or “rock gongs” in caves dating from 12,000 years ago, with the caves themselves acting as resonators for the sound.

So, we know that music is old, and may have been with us from when humans first evolved. But why did it arise and why has it persisted? There are many possible functions for music. One is dancing. It is unknown if the first dancers created a musical accompaniment, or if music led to people moving rhythmically. Another obvious reason for music is entertainment, which can be personal or communal. Music can also be used for communication, often over large distances, using instruments such as drums or horns. Yet another reason for music is ritual, and virtually every religion uses music.

However, the major reason that music arose and persists may be that it brings people together. “Music leads to bonding, such as bonding between mother and child or bonding between groups,” explains Montagu. “Music keeps workers happy when doing repetitive and otherwise boring work, and helps everyone to move together, increasing the force of their work. Dancing or singing together before a hunt or warfare binds participants into a cohesive group.” He concludes: “It has even been suggested that music, in causing such bonding, created not only the family but society itself, bringing individuals together who might otherwise have led solitary lives.”

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A nuance to thinking about memory: why the ‘peculiar’ stands out

It’s a basic rule in education: combining new insights to prior knowledge is key. But… It’s this notion of ‘peculiarity’ that can help us understand what makes lasting memories. It’s not really a published study, but a press release about a talk in Cannes that triggered my attention. I do think it’s relevant!

From the press release:

It’s this notion of ‘peculiarity’ that can help us understand what makes lasting memories, according to Per Sederberg, a professor of psychology at The Ohio State University.

“You have to build a memory on the scaffolding of what you already know, but then you have to violate the expectations somewhat. It has to be a little bit weird,” Sederberg said.

Sederberg talked about the neuroscience of memory as an invited speaker at the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity in France on June 19. He spoke at the session “What are memories made of? Stirring emotions and last impressions” along with several advertising professionals and artists.

Sederberg has spent his career studying memory. In one of his most notable studies, he had college students wear a smartphone around their neck with an app that took random photos for a month. Later, the participants relived memories related to those photos in an fMRI scanner so that Sederberg and his colleagues could see where and how the brain stored the time and place of those memories.

From his own research and that of others, Sederberg has ideas on which memories stick with us and which ones fade over time.

The way to create a long-lasting memory is to form an association with other memories, he said.

“If we want to be able to retrieve a memory later, you want to build a rich web. It should connect to other memories in multiple ways, so there are many ways for our mind to get back to it.”

A memory of a lifetime is like a big city, with many roads that lead there. We forget memories that are desert towns, with only one road in. “You want to have a lot of different ways to get to any individual memory,” Sederberg said.

The difficulty is how to best navigate the push and pull between novelty and familiarity. Novelty tells us what is important to remember. On the other hand, familiarity tells us what we can ignore, but helps us retrieve information later, Sederberg said.

Too much novelty, and you have no way to place it in your cognitive map, but too much familiarity and the information is similarly lost.

What that means is that context and prediction play critical roles in shaping our perception and memory. The most memorable experiences are those that arise in a familiar and stable context, yet violate some aspect of what we predict would occur in that context, he said.

“Those peculiar experiences are the things that stand out, that make a more lasting memory.”

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