The British Columbia education system would seem to be doing an excellent job. Although very recent data are not available, performance by BC 15 year-olds on the 2006 PISA showed them lagging just one country in science (Finland), two countries in reading (Finland and Korea), and five in math (Taipei, Finland, Hong Kong, Korea, and fellow Canadian Province Quebec). Meanwhile, in 2007, no one scored better than BC fourth graders on the PIRLS reading assessment. (
Eight countries or provinces scored about the same--36 scored lower. Test data summarized here
.)Despite this record of success, BC is not satisfied, and gearing up to change the curriculum.There's one sense in which this plan is clearly needed: there are too many
objectives. The document describing learning objectives
for the fourth grade runs 21 pages, and includes scores of items. No one can cover all that in a year, so the document ought to be tightened. Another stated objective in the document describing the proposed change is to offer teachers more flexibility
so that they can better tune education to individual students. Whether that's a good idea is, in my view, a judgment call. The BC Ministry of Education contends that the current curriculum is too proscriptive. It may be, but it's being taught (and learned) at very high levels of proficiency, at least as measured by international comparison tests that most observers think are pretty reasonable. Change the curriculum, and that level of performance will likely drop. But other benefits may accrue, such as better performance in academic areas not measured by students with strong interest in those areas, and greater student satisfaction.My real concern is that the plan doesn't make very clear what the expected benefit is, nor how we'll know it when we see it.At least in the overview document, the benefit is described as "increased opportunities to gain the essential learning and life skills necessary to live and work successfully in a complex, interconnected, and rapidly changing world. Students will focus on acquiring skills to help them use knowledge critically and creatively, to solve problems ethically and collaboratively, and to make the decisions necessary to succeed in our increasingly globalized world."Oddly enough, I thought that excellent preparation in Reading, Math, and Science was just the ticket to help you use knowledge critically and creatively. And then I saw this statement:"In today’s technology-enabled world, students have virtually instant access to a limitless amount of information. The greater value of education for every student is not in learning the information but in learning the skills they need to successfully find, consume, think about and apply it in their lives."
Very proud that an excerpt from When Can You Trust the Experts? is the cover story of American Educator
This is a negative finding, so I'll keep it brief.How do kids acquire new vocabulary?
This process is poorly understood.An influential theory has been that the phonological loop in working memory provides essential support. The phonological loop is like a little tape loop lasting perhaps two seconds; it allows you to keep active a sound you hear. The idea is that a new unfamiliar word can be placed on the loop for practice and to keep it around while the surrounding context helps you figure out the meaning.If so, you'd predict that the larger the capacity of the phonological loop and the greater the fidelity with which it "records" the better children will be able to learn new vocabulary.The efficacy of the phonological loop is measured by having kids repeat nonsense words. Initially they are short--tozzy--but they increase in length to pose greater challenge to the phonological loop--liddynappish.Several studies have shown correlations between phonological loop capacity and vocabulary size in children (for a review, see Melby-Lervag & Lervag, 2012).The problem: it could be that having a big vocabulary makes the phonological loop test easier, because it makes it more likely that some of the nonsense words remind you of a word you already know. (And so you have the semantics of that word helping you remember the to-be-remembered word.)
Indeed, even proponents of the hypothesis argue that's what happens when kids get older.What you really need is a study that measures phonological loop capacity at time 1, and finds that it predicts vocabulary size at time 2. There is one such study (Gathercole et al, 1992) but it used a statistical analysis (cross-lagged correlation) that is now considered less than ideal. A new study (Melby-Lervag et al, 2012) used probably the best methodology of any used to date. It was a longitudinal study that tested nonword repetition ability
and vocabulary once each year between the ages of 3 and 7.They used a different statistical technique--simplex
models--to assess causal relationships. They found that both nonword repetition and vocabulary show growth, both show stability across children, and both are moderately correlated, but there was no evidence that one influenced the growth of the other over time.The group then reanalyzed
the Gathercole et al (1992) data and found the same pattern. This is one depressing paper. Something we thought we knew--the phonological loop contributes to vocabulary learning--may well be wrong.
If anyone is working on a remediation program for young children that centers on improving the working of the phonological loop, it's probably time to rethink that idea.
Gathercole, S. E., Willis, C., Emslie, H., & Baddeley, A. (1992). Phonological memory and vocabulary development during the early school years: A longitudinal study. Developmental Psychology, 28
Melby-Lervåg, M., & Lervåg, A. (2012). Oral language skills mod-erate nonword repetition skills in children with dyslexia: A meta-analysis of the role of nonword repetition skills in dyslexia. Scientific Studies of Reading, 16,
Melby-Lervåg, M., & Lervåg, A., Lyster, S-A H., Klem, M., Hagtvet, B., & Hulme, C. (in press). Nonword-repetition ability does not appear to be a causal influence on children's vocabulary development. Psychological Science.
The importance of a good relationship between teacher and student is no surprise. More surprising is that the "human touch" is so powerful it can improve computer-based learning.In a series of ingenious yet simple experiments, Rich Mayer and Scott DaPra showed that students learn better from an onscreen slide show when it is accompanied by an onscreen avatar that uses social cues.
Eighty-eight college students watched a 4-minute Powerpoint slide show that explained how a solar cell converts sunlight to electricity. It consisted of 11 slides and a voice-over explanation.
Some subjects saw an avatar which used a full compliment of social cues (gesturing, changing posture, facial expression, changes in eye gaze, and lip movements synchronized to speech) which were meant to direct student attention to relevant features of the slide show.
Other subjects saw an avatar that maintained the same posture, maintained eye gaze straight ahead, and did not move (except for lip movements synchronized to speech).
A third group saw no avatar at all, but just saw the slides and listened to the narration.
All subjects were later tested with fact-based recall questions and transfer questions (e.g. "how could you increase the electrical output of a solar power?") meant to test subjects ability to apply their knowledge to new situations.
There was no difference among the three groups on the retention test, but there was a sizable advantage (d = .90) for the high embodiment subjects on the transfer test. (The low-embodiment and no-avatar groups did not differ.)
A second experiment showed that the effect was only obtained when a human voice was used; the avatar did not boost learning when synchronized to a machine voice.
The experimenters emphasized the social aspect of the situation to learning; students process the slideshow differently because the avatar is "human enough" for them to treat it prime interaction like those learners would use with a real person. This interpretation seems especially plausible in light of the second experiment; all of the more cognitive cues (e.g., the shifts in the avatar's eye gaze prompting shifts in learner's attention) were still present in the machine-voice condition, yet there was no advantage to learners.
There is something special about learning from another person. Surprisingly, that other person can be an avatar.
Mayer, R. E. & DaPra, C. S. (2012). An embodiment effect in computer-based learning with animated pedagogical agents. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 18, 239-252.
Someone needs to tell Glen Whitney that algebra doesn't matter.
Poor, deluded Whitney has seen the negative attitude that most Americans have about mathematics--it's boring, it's confusing, it's unrelated to everyday life--and concluded that Americans need a mathematical awakening.
To prompt it, he's spearheading the creation of a Math Museum in New York City, the only one of its kind in North America. (There had been a small math museum on Long Island, the Goudreau Museum. It closed in 2006).
Whitney reports that he loved math in high school and college, but didn't think he was likely to make it as a pure researcher. He went to work for a hedge fund, creating statistical models for trading. When the Goudreau Museum closed, he organized a group to explore opening a math museum that would be more ambitious.
A rendering of the plan is shown below.
The plan is for exhibits similar to those seen in science museums--plenty of interaction and movement on the part of visitors, and a focus on the fact that mathematics is all around us.
All around us to the point that Whitney currently gives math walking tours in New York City. As he notes in a recent interview
in Nature, math is in "the algorithms used to control traffic lights, the mathematical issues involved in keeping the subway running, the symmetry of the mouldings on the sides of buildings and the unusual geometry that gives gingko trees their distinctive shape."A traveling exhibition, Math Midway, has been making the rounds of science museums
around the country, whetting appetites for the the grand opening (December 15th, 2012). The most popular exhibit is a tricycle with square wheels which can be ridden smoothly on a track with inverted curves, calculated to keep the axles of the trike level. In the photo below it's ridden by Joel Klein (former New York chancellor of education and current leader of
News Corporation's education venture).
Whitney says that the beauty of the tricycle exhibit is that it gives people the sense that math can make the impossible seem possible.Next impossible challenge: persuade people who think that math is mostly irrelevant and should be dropped from public schooling for most kids that they are wrong. The Math Museum looks like a long step toward making that goal seem possible. More at MoMath.org
Anyone who has spent much time in classrooms has the sense that just a couple of disorderly kids can really disrupt learning for everyone. These kids distract the other students, and the teacher must allocate a disproportionate amount of attention to them to keep them on task. Obvious though this point seems, there have been surprisingly few studies of just how high a cost disruptive kids exact on the learning of others.Lori Skibbe and her colleagues have just published an interesting study on the subject.Skibbe measured self-regulation in 445 1st graders, using the standard head-toes-knees-shoulders (HTKS) task.
In this task, children must first follow the instructors direction ("Touch your toes. Now touch your shoulders.") In a second phase, they were instructed to do the opposite of what the instructor said--when told to touch their toes, they were to touch their head, for example. This is a well-known measure of self regulation in children this age (e.g., Ponitz et al., 2008). Researchers also evaluated the growth over the first grade year in children's literacy skills, using two subtests from the Woodcock-Johnson: Passage Comprehension and Picture Vocabulary.
We would guess that children's growth in literacy would be related to their self-regulation skill (as measured by their HTKS score). What Skibbe et al showed is that the class average
HTKS score also predicts how much an individual child will learn, even after you statistically account for that child's HTKS score. (Researchers also accounted for the school-wide percentage of kids qualifying for free or reduced lunch, as academic growth might covary with self-regulation as due to SES differences.)
Thus it would seem that kids who have trouble inhibiting impulses don't just get distracted from their work; when they get distracted from their work they likely engage in behaviors that distract other kids too. Skibbe then replicated this finding with a second cohort of
633 children in 68 classrooms. The effects were sizable both for comprehension (d = .35 for cohort 1 and .31 for cohort 2) and for vocabulary (d = .24 for cohort 1 and .16 for cohort 2). To provide some perspective, the effect on comprehension is close to the effect that an effective principal makes to kids' learning (d = .36) according to Hattie's 2009 meta-analysis.
So a calm classroom makes for a better learning environment. Who didn't know that? Well,
I might have guessed that the effect was present, but I wouldn't have guessed it is as large as it is. To me, this finding also brings to mind the likely importance of peer self-regulation at older grades. Skibbe et al measured self-regulation at first grade, when most teachers still have ready tools to deal with disruptive behavior: most children (but not all, certainly) are ready to yield to teacher's authority. That's less often true in middle or high school. What tools do teachers have for older kids? What can be done when kids compromise not only their own education, but those of their classmates?This strikes me as a terribly difficult problem, and one for which I am without ideas. But it seems like a vital problem to address. Skibbe's work tells me that the effects of disruptive peers may be worse than we would have guessed. Hattie, J. A. C. (2009). Visible Learning. London: Routledge.
Ponitz, C. C., McClelland, M. M., Jewkes, A. M., Connor, C. M., Farris,
C. L., & Morrison, F. J. (2008). Touch your toes! Developing a direct
measure of behavioral regulation in early childhood. Early Childhood
Research Quarterly, 23
, 141–158.Skibbe, L. E. , Phillips, B. M, Day, S. L., Brophy-Herb, H. E. & Connor, C. M. (2012).
Children's early literacy growth in relation to classmate's self-regulation. Journal of Educational Psychology, 104