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In A Prehistory of Ordinary People, anthropologist Monica Smith argues that rather than deploring multitasking, we should celebrate it as the human ability that separates us from other animals.

Her thesis that we owe our success to our ability to juggle multiple competing demands and to pick up and put down the same project until completion certainly makes a good point. Yes, memory and imagination (our ability to project into the future) enable us to remember the tasks we’re in the middle of, and allow us to switch between tasks. And this is undeniably a good thing.

I have spoken before, here on the website and in my books, about the importance of setting specific goals and articulating your specific needs. Improving your memory is not a single task, because memory is not a single thing. And as I have discussed when talking about the benefits of ‘brain games’ and ‘brain training’, which are so popular now, there is only a little evidence that we can achieve general across-the-board improvement in our cognitive abilities. But we can improve specific skills, and we may be able to improve a range of skills by working on a more fundamental skill they all share.

I don’t often talk about motor or skill memory — that is, the memory we use when we type or drive a car or play the piano. It’s one of the more mysterious domains of memory. We all know, of course, that this is a particularly durable kind of memory. It’s like riding a bicycle, we say — meaning that it’s something we’re not likely to have forgotten, something that will come back to us very readily, even if it’s been a very long time since we last used the skill.

For several decades there’s been argument over where motor memory is created. Now at last the dispute has apparently been settled, in favor of both contenders. What we needed to clarify the evidence was to realize that short-term motor memory is a quite different animal from long-term motor memory, and the two are created in different places.

The differences between short- and long-term motor memory have important implications, so let’s take a look at them.

I recently reported on a study showing how the gestures people made in describing how they solved a problem (the Tower of Hanoi) changed the way they remembered the game. These findings add to other research demonstrating that gestures make thought concrete and can help us understand and remember abstract concepts better.

For example, two experiments of children in late third and early fourth grade, who made mistakes in solving math problems, have found that children told to move their hands when explaining how they’d solve a problem were four times as likely to manually express correct new ways to solve problems as children given no instructions. Even though they didn’t give the right answer, their gestures revealed an implicit knowledge of mathematical ideas, and the second experiment showed that gesturing set them up to benefit from subsequent instruction.

This post is the third part in a four-part series on how education delivery is changing, and the set of literacies required in today’s world. Part 1 looked at the changing world of textbooks; Part 2 looked at direct instruction/lecturing. This post looks at computer learning.

The use of computers in schools and for children at home is another of those issues that has generated a lot of controversy. But like e-readers, they’re not going back in the box. Indeed, there’s apparently been a surge of iPads into preschool and kindergarten classrooms. There are clear dangers with this — and equally clear potential benefits. As always, it all depends how you do it.

But the types of guidance and restrictions needed are different at different ages. Kindergarten is different from elementary is different from middle grade is different from high school, although media reports (and even researchers) rarely emphasize this.

This post is the second part in a four-part series on how education delivery is changing, and the set of literacies required in today’s world. Part 1 looked at the changing world of textbooks. This post looks at the oral equivalent of textbooks: direct instruction or lecturing.

There’s been some recent agitation in education circles about an article by Paul E. Peterson claiming that direct instruction is more effective than the ‘hands-on’ instruction that's so popular nowadays. His claim is based on a recent study that found that increased time on lecture-style teaching versus problem-solving activities improved student test scores results (for math and science, for 8th grade students). Above-average students appeared to benefit more than below-average, although the difference was not statistically significant.

As we all know, we are living in a time of great changes in education and (in its broadest sense) information technology. In order to swim in these new seas, we and our children need to master new forms of literacy. In this and the next three posts, I want to explore some of the concepts, applications, and experiments that bear on this.

Apparently a Danish university is going to allow students access to the internet during exams. As you can imagine, this step arouses a certain amount of excitement from observers on both sides of the argument. But really it comes down, as always, to goals. What are students supposed to be demonstrating? Their knowledge of facts? Their understanding of principles? Their capacity to draw inferences, make connections, apply them to real-world problems?

I recently reported on a finding that older adults whose life-space narrowed to their immediate home were significantly more likely to have a faster rate of global cognitive decline or develop mild cognitive impairment or Alzheimer’s.

Now there are some obvious correlates of being house-bound vs feeling able to travel out of town (such as physical disability), but this relationship between cognitive decline and confined life-space remained after such factors were taken into account. The association is thought to be related to social and mental stimulation.

But I think this association also points to something more specific: the importance of distance, and difference. Different ways of thinking; different contexts. Information (in the broadest sense of the word) that stretches your mind, that gets you out of the grooves of your familiar thoughts.

On a number of occasions I have reported on studies showing that people with expertise in a specific area show larger gray matter volume in relevant areas of the brain. Thus London taxi drivers (who are required to master “The Knowledge” — all the ways and byways of London) have been found to have an increased volume of gray matter in the anterior hippocampus (involved in spatial navigation). Musicians have greater gray matter volume in Broca’s area.

Other research has found that gray matter increases in specific areas can develop surprisingly quickly. For example, when 19 adults learned to match made-up names against four similar shades of green and blue in five 20-minute sessions over three days, the areas of the brain involved in color vision and perception increased significantly.

Children learn. It’s what they do. And they build themselves over the years from wide-eyed baby to a person that walks and talks and can maybe fix your computer, so it’s no wonder that we have this idea that learning comes so much more easily to them than it does to us. But is it true?

There are two particular areas where children are said to excel: learning language, and learning skills.

Years ago I reported on a 2003 study that challenged the widespread view that young children learn language more easily than anyone older, in regard to vocabulary. Now a new study suggests that the idea doesn’t apply to grammar-learning either.

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