When I first saw yesterday's New York Times op-ed
, I mistook it for a joke. The title, "Is algebra necessary?" had the ring of Thurber's classic essay "Is sex necessary?" a send-up of psychological sex manuals of the 1920s. Unfortunately, the author, Andrew Hacker, poses the question in earnest, and draws the conclusion that algebra should not be required of all students. His arguments:
His proposed solution is the teaching of quantitative skills that students can use, rather than a bunch of abstract formulas, and a better understanding of "where numbers actually come from and what they actually convey,"
- A lot of students find math really hard, and that prompts them to give up on school altogether. Think of what these otherwise terrific students might have achieved if math hadn't chased them away from school.
- The math that's taught in school doesn't relate well to the mathematical reasoning people need outside of school.
e.g., how the consumer price index is calculated. For most careers, Hacker believes that specialized training in the math necessary for that particular job will do the trick. What's wrong with this vision? The inability to cope with math is not the main reason that students drop out of high school. Yes, a low grade in math predicts dropping out, but no more so than a low grade in English. Furthermore, behavioral factors like motivation, self-regulation, social control (Casillas, Robbins, Allen & Kuo, 2012), as well as a feeling of connectedness and engagement at school (Archambault et al, 2009) are as important as GPA to dropout. So it's misleading to depict math as the chief villain in America's high dropout rate.What of the other argument, that formal math mostly doesn't apply outside of the classroom anyway?
The difficulty students have in applying math to everyday problems they encounter is not particular to math. Transfer is hard. New learning tends to cling to the examples used to explain the concept. That's as true of literary forms, scientific method, and techniques of historical analysis as it is of mathematical formulas.
The problem is that if you try to meet this challenge by teaching the specific skills that people need, you had better be confident that you're going to cover all
those skills. Because if you teach students the significance of the Consumer Price Index they are not going to know how to teach themselves the significance of projected inflation rates on their investment in CDs. Their practical knowledge will be specific to what you teach them, and won't transfer.
The best bet for knowledge that can apply to new situations is an abstract understanding--seeing that apparently different problems have a similar underlying structure. And the best bet for students to gain this abstract understanding is to teach it explicitly. (For a discussion of this point as it applies to math education in particular, see Anderson, Reder, & Simon, 1996).
But the explicit teaching of abstractions is not enough. You also need practice in putting the abstractions into concrete situations. Hacker overlooks the need for practice, even for the everyday math he wants students to know. One of the important side benefits of higher math is that it makes you proficient at the other math that you had learned earlier, because those topics are embedded in the new stuff. (
e.g., Bahrick & Hall, 1991). So I think there are excellent reasons to doubt that Hacker's solution to the transfer problem will work out as he expects.What of the contention that math doesn't do most people much good anyway? Economic data directly contradict that suggestion. Economists have shown that cognitive skills--especially math and science--are robust predictors of individual income, of a country's economic growth, and of the distribution of income within a country (e.g. Hanushek & Kimko, 2000; Hanushek & Woessmann, 2008). Why would cognitive skills (as measured by international benchmark tests) be a predictor of economic growth? Economic productivity does not spring solely from the creativity of engineers
and inventors. The well-educated worker is more likely to (1) see the potential for applying an innovation in a new context; (2) understand the explanation for applying an innovation that someone else has spotted.
In other words, Hacker overlooks the possibility that the mathematics learned in school, even if seldom applied directly, makes students better able to learn new quantitative skills. The on-the-job training in mathematics that Hacker envisions will go a whole lot better with an employee who gained a solid footing in math in school. Finally, there is the question of income distribution; countries with a better educated populace show smaller income disparity, and suggesting that not everyone needs to math raises the question of who will learn it. Who will learn higher math in Hacker's ideal world? He's not clear on this point. He says he's against tracking, but notes that MIT and Cal Tech clearly need their students to be proficient in math. Does this mean that everyone gets the same vocational-type math education, and some of those going on to college
will get access to higher math? If that were actually implemented, how long before private vendors offer after school courses in
formal mathematics, to give kids an edge for entrance to MIT? Private courses that cost, and to which the poor will not have access.
There are not many people who are satisfied with the mathematical competence of the average US student. We need to do better. Promising ideas include devoting more time to mathematics in early grades, more exposure to premathematical concepts in preschool
, and perhaps specialized math instructors beginning in earlier grades
. Hacker's suggestions sound like surrender.
Anderson, J. R., Reder, L. M., & Simon, H. A. (1996). Situated learning and education. Educational Researcher, 25
Archambault, I., Janosz, M, Fallu, J.-S., & Pagani, L. S. (2009). Student engagement and its relationship with early high school dropout. Journal of Adolescence, 32,
651-670.Bahrick, H. P. & Hall, L. K. (1991). Lifetime maintenance of high school mathematics content. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 120, 20-33.
Hanushek, E. A. & Kimko D. D. (2000). Schooling, labor-force quality, and the growth of nations. The American Economic Review, 90,
E. A. & Woessmann, (2008). The role of cognitive skills in economic development. Journal of Economic Literature. 46,
George Miller passed away on July 22, 2012, at the age of 92. Miller was one of a handful of researchers who could be called true founders of cognitive psychology. He is best known to undergraduates today for his 1956 paper "The magical number seven, plus or minus two," usually cited as a key paper in the understanding of short-term memory and the process of recoding (or chunking) in order to evade its limitations.The point of that paper was actually something larger, as revealed by the subtitle: "Some limits on our capacity for processing information." Miller commented on the short-term memory capacity limit along with other limits of about the same magnitude: our ability to distinguish simple sensory stimuli (tones or tastes, e.g.), or more complex stimuli (faces or tunes). It each case, Miller noted that our limit is about 2.5 bits, and he suggested that the similar values may be more than a coincidence. They may reflect a limitation in channel capacity, in how rapidly information may flow through the human mind.This conception of the human as a processor of information (in the formal sense of information theory) was a radical idea, and would turn out to be enormously important as a way forward for the science, which was somewhat stymied in the 1950s by the epistemology of behaviorism. An equally important contribution was Miller's 1960 book (with Eugene Galanter and Karl Pribram) Plans and the Structure of Behavior, which offered an explicit theory based on this new approach to psychological science. Although information theory played a small part in the work, it was an example (along with contemporaneous work by Herb Simon and Allen Newell) that rigorous research could be conducted using theories that entailed constructs (like TOTE units) that were not directly observable.
In recent years
Miller's work focused on the psycholinguistics, especially word meaning (summarized in this wonderful review
) and the organization of meaning in long-term memory, modeled in a lexical database, WordNet
.Miller's influence may be understood by the fact that he was awarded more or less all of the prizes and honors a psychologist might win, culminating in the National Medal of Science in 1991.
My new book, When Can You Trust the Experts: How to Tell Good Science from Bad in Education
is now available. (There’s a link for a free download of Chapter 1 on this page
.) EDIT (7:17 pm 7/18) I just saw that it's listed as "Recommended," with a micro-review on the Scientific American website.
I wrote the book out of frustration with a particular problem: the word “research” has become meaningless in education. Every product is claimed to be research-based. But we all know that can’t be the case. How are teachers and administrators supposed to know which claims are valid?
It’s notable that this problem exists in many other fields. However good your training, research doesn’t stand still. So how does a pediatrician who has been in practice 10 years know that what she learned in medical school as the optimal treatment for, say, croup, is still the best treatment?
The answer is NOT that the pediatrician is expected to comb through medical journals each night to keep up to date. Who has the time? Instead, reliable summaries are published (usually annually) that bring doctors up to date.
But there is no institution in education that publishes such summaries, and indeed, there’s not an institution that would have the credibility to do so. The Institute of Educational Sciences tried with the What Works Clearinghouse,
but it has not been a success, mostly because the criteria it used to evaluate products was so stringent, and also because (at least initially) it was dogged by suspicions that its conclusions would not be politically neutral.
Teachers and administrators are on their own.
But doing a good job of evaluating research carries two requirements: you need a certain level of expertise in evaluating research (which requires knowing the existing research literature) AND you need a good deal of time.
The purpose of When Can You Trust the Experts
is to offer a short cut, a work-around, so that you can size up the likelihood that a claim like “all the research supports it” is actually true.
The first half of the book focuses on what cues we use to tell us “this is probably true,” and how they can be misleading. You need to understand why we believe what we do in order to make it less likely that you’ll believe something that is false,
I also describe at some length how when can know when science might help with a particular problem and when it can’t. I think science is terrific for answering certain types of questions, but there are many questions it can’t answer.
The second half of the book describes the short cut, which consists of four steps:
- Strip it. Clear away the verbiage and look at the actual claim. What exactly is the claim suggesting a teacher or parent should do, and what outcome is promised?
- Trace it. Who created this idea, and what have others said about it? It's common to believe something because an authority confirms it, and this is often a reasonable thing to do. I think people rely heavily on credentials when evaluating education research, but I argue that it’s a weak indicator of truth.
- Analyze it. Why are you being asked to believe the claim is true? What evidence is offered, and how does the claim square with your own experience?
- Should I do it? You're not going to adopt every educational program that is scientifically backed, and it may make sense to adopt one that has not been scientifically evaluated.
My purpose is not to turn you into a researcher by reading one book. Anyone who tells you that’s possible is trying to pick your pocket. What I can promise is this: whatever you current level of research sophistication, I can help you ask better questions about an educational product, and think through the logic of adopting it for your home, classroom, or school district.
I should also mention that When Can You Trust the Experts
makes a splendid gift for weddings, anniversaries, birthdays, christenings, etc.
Free download of Chapter 1 on this page
(I'm writing this blog posting in answer to a question posed to me on Twitter.)
What's the difference between practice, drilling, and memorization?
In the psychological literature Practice has a formal definition, which I know through Anders Ericsson; I think it originates with him but am not certain. Practice includes feedback on performance, and it's executed for the purpose of improvement. The distinction is important because it differentiates practice from performance (which is done for the pleasure of others) or play (which is done for one's own pleasure) or the routine execution of a task (which is done to achieve a goal).
Thus, if I practice guitar I'm trying to improve, and I'm monitoring my performance for the sake of noting errors and thinking of new ways to do it. Performance and play of the guitar differ in obvious ways. Routine execution might apply to a task like handwriting. My handwriting is pretty bad, despite thousands of hours of execution, because during all of that time I wasn't practicing. I was just writing to get something on paper.
Drilling and memorization don't, so far as I know, have definitions that have been carefully thought through to draw important distinctions.
To me, "drilling" connotes repetition for the purpose of automaticity, using the technique of thoughtless repetition.
"Memorization" connotes the goal of something ending up in long-term memory with ready access. . . but the word does not imply anything about the technique one uses to achieve that goal.
Thus, students are unlikely to practice the multiplication table, but they would practice the violin, or writing an evocative description of a scene.
Students might drill in an effort to learn the multiplication table, but I hope they would not. As I've defined it, it's hard to think many school-related tasks that would be well-served by drill. Perhaps a very basic motor skill, like a particular run when playing the guitar? Again, this would be repetition without thought.
Much more common would be memorization: activities undertaken in the desire to commit something to memory so that it is readily accessed. This would include deep processing (i.e., thinking about meaning), generating cues for oneself, etc. A student who wants to memorize a poem, for example, could try to do so by drill, but it's a terrible way to learn something. Much better to think about the meaning of whatever it is you're trying to remember, and tie it to things you already know.
Again, let me repeat that practice does have an accepted definition, but I've made up my own for drill and memorization.
Psychologists have not had anything nice to say about multitasking. Trying to do two things at once degrades performance in virtually all circumstances. The exception seems to be listening to music while performing other tasks, but that seems to be true only for some people, some of the time. (I review this literature here
.) This pattern of performance is especially troubling, given that multitasking--especially media multitasking--is becoming more prevalent, especially among younger people. But there's no evidence that doing a lot of media multi
tasking makes you better at it. In one study, researchers (Ophir, Nass & Wagner, 2009
) found that college students who reported more habitual multitasking were actually less
skillful in standard laboratory tasks that require shifting or switching attention. Why would they be worse? One possibility is that they are biased to spread attention broadly. That's a poor strategy when you're confronted with two tasks that have different or even conflicting requirements. But that bias would make you more likely to multitask, even if it's not very effective. Whether multitasking creates that bias or whether that bias exists for other reasons and prompts people to multitask is not known.
Either way, if heavy multitaskers have a bias to spread attention broadly, that bias should be helpful
in tasks where two different streams of information are mutually supportive. A new study
(Lui & Wong, 2012
) tests that prediction. The researchers used the pip and pop task.
Subjects view a display like this one:
The subject's task is to find, as quickly as possible, the single horizontal or vertical line amidst the oblique lines, and to press a button identifying it as horizontal or vertical.
All of the lines alternate colors (red and green) but do so asynchronously. The interesting feature of this task is that every time the target changes color, there is an auditory signal--the pip. The pip doesn't tell you where the target is, the color, or whether it's horizontal or vertical. It just corresponds to the color change of the target.
Subjects are not told that the pips have anything to do with the visual search task, nor that they should pay attention to the pips.
But people who integrate the visual information with the auditory report that the target seems to pop out of the display. They feel like they don't need to laboriously search, they just see it.
The researchers compared subjects speed and accuracy in finding the target when the auditory signal was present and found that accuracy (but not speed) correlated with subjects' self-reported frequency of multitasking, as shown below. Not a huge effect, but reliable.
Most laboratory tests of multitasking use tasks that are uncorrelated, so spreading attention among them hurts performance. In this case, the information provided among visual and auditory streams is mutually reinforcing, so spreading attention helps.
Does this have any bearing on the types of tasks people do outside of the lab?
Information in two different tasks is presumably uncorrelated. When two different streams of information are mutually reinforcing it's by design--the audio and visual portions of a movie, for example. In such cases it's so well synchronized that people make few errors.
One way that multitaskers might have an advantage in real-world tasks is in the detection of unexpected signals. For example, if you're biased to monitor sounds even as you're writing a document, you might be more likely to perceive an auditory signal that an email has arrived in a noisy office environment. Or even to perceive a police siren or lights while driving. Such predictions have not, to my knowledge, been tested.
Lui, K. F. H & Wong, A. C.-N (2012) Does media multitasking always hurt? A positive correlation between multitasking and multisensory integration. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 19, 647-653
Ophir, E., Nass, C., & Wagner, A. D. (2009). Cognitive control in media multitaskers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106,15583–15587
This blog is about science as it applies to education, so I normally would not read the platform of the Republican Party of Texas. But Washington Post
education reporter Valerie Strauss (
and others) pointed out that the platform opposes teaching critical thinking skills to students, and that prompted me to have a look
. Most of the stances that party takes concern values or the interpretation of law, and science is obviously silent on those matters. But there are some
positions taken for which scientific findings are relevant.So for all of you Texas republicans, here's some science for you, if you're interested. Below I reproduce the section of the Texas GOP platform that concerns education. For the sake of completeness I've copied the whole thing, although I comment on just a few of the statements. My comments are in red.
EDUCATING OUR CHILDRENAmerican Identity Patriotism and Loyalty
– We believe the current teaching of a multicultural curriculum is divisive. We favor strengthening our common American identity and loyalty instead of political correctness that nurtures alienation among racial and ethnic groups. Students should pledge allegiance to the American and Texas flags daily to instill patriotism.Basic Standards
– We favor improving the quality of education for all students, including those with special needs. We support a return to the traditional basics of reading, writing, arithmetic, and citizenship with sufficient discipline to ensure learning and quality educational assessment. Bilingual Education
– We encourage non-English speaking students to transition to English within three years. This might be ok for some, but ESL students are heterogeneous: significant variables include grade level and starting proficiency. Suggested reading: The education of English language learners. By Genesee, Fred; Lindholm-Leary, Kathryn Harris, Karen R. (Ed); Graham, Steve (Ed); Urdan, Tim (Ed); Bus, Adriana G. (Ed); Major, Sonya (Ed); Swanson, H. Lee (Ed), (2012). APA educational psychology handbook, Vol 3: Application to teaching and learning., (pp. 499-526). Washington, DC, US: American Psychological AssociationCareer and Technology Education (Vocational Education)
– We support reinstatement of voluntary career and technology education, including adjusting the 4x4 requirements as needed, without detracting from non-vocational program requirements.Classroom Discipline
–We recommend that local school boards and classroom teachers be given more authority to deal with disciplinary problems. Corporal punishment is effective and legal in Texas. It’s effective for immediate compliance, but corporal punishment has been linked to aggression, violence in intimate relationships in adulthood, and depression. Suggested reading: Corporal punishment in America today: Spare the rod, spoil the child? A systematic review of the literature. By Hicks-Pass, Stephanie Best Practices in Mental Health: An International Journal, 5(2), Jul 2009, 71-88. Classroom Expenditures for Staff
– We support having 80% of school district payroll expenses of professional staff of a school district be full-time classroom teachers. College Tuition
– We recommend three levels of college tuition: In-state requiring proof of Texas legal citizenship, out-of-state requiring proof of US citizenship, and nonresident legal alien. Non-US citizens should not be eligible for state or federal grants, or loans.Controversial Theories
– We support objective teaching and equal treatment of all sides of scientific theories. We believe theories such as life origins and environmental change should be taught as challengeable scientific theories subject to change as new data is produced. Teachers and students should be able to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of these theories openly and without fear of retribution or discrimination of any kind. “Subject to change as new data [are] produced” is how science works (“data” is plural, btw) so no one would argue with that. The question is “how good does a theory have to be before it merits study by students?” Intelligent design is a terrible theory, no better than the Flying Spaghetti Monster theory. Suggested reading: Newton-Smith, W. H. (2001) A Companion to the Philosophy of Science. Malden, MA: Blackwell. Also read Sober, E. (2007) What is wrong with intelligent design? The Quarterly Review of Biology, 82, 3-8.Early Childhood Development
– We believe that parents are best suited to train their children in their early development and oppose mandatory pre-school and Kindergarten. We urge Congress to repeal government-sponsored programs that deal with early childhood development. OK, but you should note that you’re making a lot of things harder on yourself and on teachers. Good preschool experiences are associated with better economic and behavioral outcomes for the kids, and for society at large. Suggested reading: Heckman, J. J. & Masterov, D. V. (2007). The productivity argument for investing in young children. Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy, 29, 446-493. Knowledge-Based Education
– We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority. You’re mixing a few different ideas. Values clarification does focus on personal values, and could be seen as impinging on a domain that ought to be exclusively that of parents. Critical thinking skills(as the term is typically used) doesn’t have anything to do with that. Behavior modification is the use of conditioning techniques (usually operant, sometimes classical) to increase behaviors deemed desirable and decrease undesirable. As for “challenging fixed beliefs” I think you mean matters that concern values. Students come to school with lots of beliefs--e.g., that a vacuum sucks things towards it--that are inaccurate and ought to be challenged. Suggested reading: pick any introductory educational psychology textbook. Educational Entitlement
– We encourage legislation that prohibits enrollment in free public schools of non-citizens unlawfully present in the United States. Funding of Education
– We urge the Legislature to direct expenditures to academics as the first priority.Higher Education
– We support merit-based admissions for all college and university applicants to public institutions. We further support the repeal of the 1997 Texas legislative act commonly known as the Top Ten Percent Rule. All Texas students should be given acceptance priority over out-of-state or foreign students. Juvenile Daytime Curfew
- We strongly oppose Juvenile Daytime Curfews. Additionally, we oppose any official entity from detaining, questioning and/or disciplining our children without the consent of a child’s parent. Sorry, this isn’t a scientific point, but does this call for clarification. Given that you favor corporal punishment, does this point imply that it should be implemented only with parental consent? Local Control for Education
– We support school choice and believe that quality education is best achieved by encouraging parental involvement, protecting parental rights, and maximizing local independent school district control. District superintendents and their employees should be made solely accountable to their locally elected boards. We support sensible consolidation of local school districts. We encourage local ISDs to consider carefully the advantages and disadvantages of accepting federal education money.No Taxpayer Paid Lobbyists
– We support the prohibition of any paid public school employee or contractor to lobby the legislature or the SBOE, unless on an unpaid basis and in an unofficial capacity. No registered lobbyist should be allowed to run for SBOE. Parental Rights in Education
– We believe the right of parents to raise and educate their children is fundamental. Parents have the right to withdraw their child from any specialized program. We urge the Legislature to enact penalties for violation of parental rights.Sex Education
– We recognize parental responsibility and authority regarding sex education. We believe that parents must be given an opportunity to review the material prior to giving their consent. We oppose any sex education other than abstinence until marriage. Question: What do you call students who have been through an abstinence-only sex ed program? Answer: Parents. More seriously, I understand that this is a values stance. I’m assuming you know that the outcomes of abstinence-only programs have typically not been good, and that more explicit programs are known to reduce incidence of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease, but that this trade-off is worth it to you. Suggested reading: Poobalan, A. S. (2009). Characteristics of effective interventions in improving young people’s sexual health: A review of reviews. Sex Education, 9, 39-336. Parental School Choice
– We encourage the Governor and the Texas Legislature to enact child-centered school funding options which fund the student, not schools or districts, to allow maximum freedom of choice in public, private, or parochial education for all children. Permanent School Fund
– We believe that because the Permanent School Fund is not paid by taxpayers that the principle balance should be safeguarded and not viewed as a source of additional funding for our state budget. Political Community Organizing in Texas Schools
- We believe neither Texas public schools should be used nor their students should be instructed by groups such as SEIU or other community organizers as instruments to promote political agenda during the instructional school day.Private Education
– We believe that parents and legal guardians may choose to educate their children in private schools to include, but not limited to, home schools and parochial schools without government interference, through definition, regulation, accreditation, licensing, or testing. Religious Freedom in Public Schools
– We urge school administrators and officials to inform Texas school students specifically of their First Amendment rights to pray and engage in religious speech, individually or in groups, on school property without government interference. We urge the Legislature to end censorship of discussion of religion in our founding documents and encourage discussing those documents.School Surveys and Testing
– Public schools should be required to obtain written parental consent for student participation in any test or questionnaire that surveys beliefs, feelings, or opinions. Parental rights, including viewing course materials prior to giving consent, should not be infringed.State Board of Education (SBOE)
– We believe that the SBOE should continue to be an elected body consisting of fifteen members. Their responsibilities must include:
· Appointing the Commissioner of Education
· Maintaining constitutional authority over the Permanent School Fund
· Maintaining sole authority over all curricula content and the state adoption of all educational materials. This process must include public hearings.
The SBOE should be minimally staffed out of general revenue.Textbook Review
– Until such time as all texts are required to be approved by the SBOE, each ISD that uses non-SBOE approved instructional materials must verify them as factually and historically correct. Also the ISD board must hold a public hearing on such materials, protect citizen’s right of petition and require compliance with TEC and legislative intent. Local ISD boards must maintain the same standards as the SBOE.Supporting Military Families in Education
– Existing truancy laws conflict with troop deployments. We believe that truancy laws should be amended to allow 5 day absence prior to deployments and R&R. Military dependents by definition will be Texas residents for education purposes.Traditional Principles in Education
– We support school subjects with emphasis on the Judeo-Christian principles upon which America was founded and which form the basis of America’s legal, political and economic systems. We support curricula that are heavily weighted on original founding documents, including the Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution, and Founders’ writings.School Health Care
– We urge legislators to prohibit reproductive health care services, including counseling, referrals, and distribution of condoms and contraception through public schools. We support the parents’ right to choose, without penalty, which medications are administered to their minor children. We oppose medical clinics on school property except higher education and health care for students without parental consent.U.S. Department of Education
– Since education is not an enumerated power of the federal government, we believe the Department of Education (DOE) should be abolished.Zero Tolerance
– We believe that zero tolerance policies in schools should specify those items that will not be tolerated at schools. The policy should be posted on ISD websites.Transparency
– We support legislation requiring all school districts to post their expenditures online or made readily available to the public.Foreign Culture Charter Schools in Texas
– We oppose public funding of charter schools which receive money from foreign entities. We demand that these Charter Schools have accountability and transparency to local parents, taxpayers, the State of Texas, as do current public schools, including U.S. citizenship of public school trustees.
A notable feature of most action video games is that one must pay attention to more than one thing simultaneously. For example, in a first-person shooting game
like the one depicted below, one must move to navigate the terrain while avoiding hazards and seeking out beneficial objects. At the same time, the player might switch among different weapons or tools. Thus, one might think that extended practice on such games would lead to the development of a general skill in allocating attention among multiple tasks.
That's a logical conclusion, but two recent papers offer conflicting data as to whether it's the case.
In one (Donohue, James, Eslick & Mitroff, 2012)
the authors compared 19 college-aged students who were avid gamers to students with no gaming experience (N = 26). Subjects completed three tasks: a simulated driving game, an image search task (finding simple objects in a complex drawing) and a multiple-object-tracking task. In this task, a number of black circles appear on a white screen. Four of the circles flash for two seconds, and then all of the circles move randomly. At the end of 12 seconds the subject must identify which of the circles flashed. Subjects performed all three tasks twice: on its own, and with a distracting task (answering trivia questions) performed simultaneously. The question is whether the performance on the experienced gamers would be less disrupted by the attention-demanding trivia task. These researchers found they were not, as shown in the figure below
(click for larger image).
The bars with dotted lines show the gamers' performance.
Everyone performed worse in the dual-task condition (i.e., when answering trivia questions) but the cost to performance was the same for the gamers as for the non-gamers. Extensive gaming experience didn't lead to a general skill in sharing attention. But a different group of researchers found just the opposite.Strobach, Frensch & Schubert (2012)
used much simpler tasks to compare 10 gamers and 10 non-gamers. They used simple reaction time tasks; the subject sat before a computer, and listened over headphones for a tone. When it sounded, the subjects was to push a button as fast as possible. A second task used a visual signal on the screen instead of a tone. In the attention-demanding dual task version, either an auditory or a visual signal might appear, with different responses for each. In this experiment, gamers responded faster than non-gamers overall, but most important, their performance suffered less in the dual-task situation. The authors didn't leave it at that. They recognized that the experimental paradigm they used has a significant drawback; they can't attribute the better attention-sharing skills to gaming, because the study is correlational. For example, it may be that some people just happen to be better at sharing attention
, and these people are drawn to gaming because this skill makes them better at it.To attribute causality to gaming, they needed to conduct an experiment. So the experimenters turned some "regular folk" into gamers by having them play an action game (Medal of Honor) for 15 hours. Control subjects played a puzzle game (Tetris) for 15 hours. Subjects improved their dual-task performance after
playing the action the game. The puzzle game did not have that effect.
So what is the difference between the two studies? It's really hard to say. It's tempting to place more weight on the study that found the difference between gamers and non-gamers. Scientists generally figure that if you unwittingly make a mistake in the design or execution of a study, that's most likely to lead to null results.
In other words, when you don't see an effect (as in the first study) it might be because there really is no effect, or it might just be that something went wrong.But then again, the first study has more of what scientists call ecological validity--the tasks used in the laboratory look more like the attention-demanding tasks we care about outside of the laboratory (e.g., trying to
answer a passenger's question while driving). It may be that both studies are right. Gaming leads to an advantage in attention-sharing that is measurable with very simple tasks, but that is washed out and indiscernible in more complex tasks. The conclusion, then, is a little disheartening. When it comes to the impact of action gaming on attention sharing, it's probably too early to draw a conclusion. Science is hard.
Donohue, S. E., James, B., Eslick, A. N. & Mitroff, S. R. (2012). Cognitive pitfall! Videogame players are not immune to dual-task costs. Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics, 74,
Stroback, T., Frensch, P. A., & Schubert, T. (2012). Video game practice optimizes executive control skills in dual-task and task switching situations. Acta Psychologica, 140,
Important study on the impact of education on women's attitudes and beliefs:Mocan & Cannonier (2012) took advantage of a naturally-occurring "experiment" in Sierra Leone. The country suffered a devastating, decade-long civil war during the 1990s, which destroyed much of the country's infrastructure, including schools. In 2001, Sierra Leone instituted a program offering free primary education; attendance was compulsory. This policy provided significant opportunities for girls who were young enough for primary school, but none for older children. Further, resources to implement the program were not equivalent in all districts of the country.
The authors used these quirky reasons that the program was more or less accessible to compare girls who participated and those who did not. (Researchers controlled for other variables such as religion, ethnic background, residence in an urban area, and wealth.)
The outcome of interest was empowerment
, which the researchers defined as "having the knowledge along with the power and the strength to make the right decisions regarding one's own well-being." The outcome measures came from
a 2008 study (the Sierra Leone Demographic and Health Survey) which summarized interviews with over 10,000 individuals.
The findings: Better educated women were more likely to believe
Better educated women were more likely to endorse these behaviors:
- a woman is justified in refusing sex with her husband if she knows he has a sexually transmitted disease
- that a husband beating his wife is wrong
- that female genital mutilation is wrong
One of the oddest findings in these data is also one of the most important to understanding the changes in attitudes: they are not due to changes in literacy. The researchers drew that conclusion because an increase in education had no impact on literacy, likely because the quality of instruction in schools was very low. The best guess is that the impact of schooling on attitudes was through social avenues.
- having fewer children
- using contraception
- getting tested for AIDS
Mocan, N. H. & Cannonier, C. (2012) Empowering women through education: Evidence from Sierra Leone. NBER working paper 18016.