Tuesday, August 23, 2011

"What's next?": How dopamine helps us predict the future

Fascinating new research from Jeffrey Zacks at WUSTL on the role of the mind-brain dopamine system (MDS) in making predictions about the future that keep the mind-brain's stream of consciousness as smooth as possible (as reported by Tony Fitzpatrick):
“When we watch everyday activity unfold around us, we make predictions about what will happen a few seconds out,” Zacks says. “Most of the time, our predictions are right.
“Successful predictions are associated with the subjective experience of a smooth stream of consciousness. But a few times a minute, our predictions come out wrong and then we perceive a break in the stream of consciousness, accompanied by an uptick in activity of primitive parts of the brain involved with the MDS that regulate attention and adaptation to unpredicted changes.”
I've written in the past about computer modeling suggesting that the dopamine system is involved in predicting future outcomes and how that may relate to the experience of pleasure. It's also known that dopaminergic medicines are sometimes effective in treating attention dysfunction, though our understanding of why has been limited. The evidence is growing that our model of dopamine is limited if we think of it only as mediating a pleasure-reward pathway and this new information supporting dopamine's role in making predictions certainly fits in an evolutionary context better than pleasure-reward.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Four more reasons to watch Sesame Street's 42nd season: S, T, E, and M!

Via John Eggerton at Broadcasting & Cable:
Taking its cue from the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) curriculum being pushed by the Obama administration, the iconic show will add a "Murray's Science Experiments" and work investigation and experimentation into the episode themes.

The new theme of the season will be "Let's find Out."
 Very much looking forward to watching some of these with my son.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Challenge Based Learning

I'm attending Apple Academy this week, a pull-out-all-the-stops professional development event for small cohorts of education professionals.  I'm feeling extremely grateful to be here.  Yesterday was "Day 1", and for me the highlight was a presentation on Challenge Based Learning.  It's a new paradigm for student learning prompted by the limitations of traditional instruction and the exponentially increasing access to digital tools for consumption and creation:
Students today have instant access to information through technology and the web, manage their own acquisition of knowledge through informal learning, and have progressed beyond consumers of content to become producers and publishers. As a result, traditional teaching and learning methods are becoming less effective at engaging students and motivating them to achieve.
 So what is it?
Challenge Based Learning is an engaging multidisciplinary approach to teaching and learning that encourages students to leverage the technology they use in their daily lives to solve real-world problems. Challenge Based Learning is collaborative and hands-on, asking students to work with other students, their teachers, and experts in their communities and around the world to develop deeper knowledge of the subjects students are studying, accept and solve challenges, take action, share their experience, and enter into a global discussion about important issues.
We watched a video of some students and teachers from Australia who selected the big idea of "resilience" and took on the challenge of helping communities who'd been affected by a natural disaster. What struck me most was that these students, through this process, were empowered and passionate about making a difference in their world, learning their required bits along the way in the framework of the challenge they selected, the solutions they implemented, and the analysis and evaluation they engaged in along the way.  There's more information at this Challenge Based Learning section of Apple's website, including ideas for challenges and many other videos of student and teacher experiences.  We saw a data table that showed that students and teachers alike self-reported huge gains in many aspects of modern goals for learning, most particularly in the realm of leadership.  I have more to learn about this, but from what I've seen so far, it's a very compelling model - not only because students are learning "the material", but more so because it appears that they're learning to care!

What would school "look like" if our highest purpose was to help students learn that they can make a difference?

Friday, August 5, 2011

Hearing what we see: silent reading and direct speech

From Rebecca Greenfield at The Atlantic Wire on brain activity during silent reading:
People who imagine voices may not be so crazy after all. While glossing over dialogue in books, readers will speak the voices--as they imagine the speaker--in their heads, a Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience study finds. The transcript of an Obama speech features his deep cadence in your head. Or Hermione sounds like Emma Watson. That sort of thing.
First author on the work is Bo Yao, a postgraduate student working on his PhD in Psychology at the University of Glasgow.  The experimental design is unique and the conclusions are powerful: silent reading of direct speech causes a strong "top-down" activation of parts of the auditory cortex, giving rise to the sensation of an "inner voice" for the text during the reading process.  In other words, it is not unusual that we hear what we see when what we see are words that directly represent someone else's speech.  Sounds a bit like synesthesia, doesn't it?

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

STEM education dilemma infographic dilemma

I like graphs. A lot. I find beauty in simple-to-understand representations of complex data (for example, Horace Dediu's analysis at Asymco of the ongoing post-PC market transition).

So you can imagine how delighted I was to find the infographic at GOOD.is entitled "The STEM Dilemma". There are some nice representations there: the number of 9th graders that end up earning an undergraduate degree in a STEM field is only 6.1% (a tiny dot), and STEM-capable teachers earn only about 71% of the income that their peers do in other jobs (a much smaller pie).  I believe these visualizations can be important tools in our work to help get folks invested in working towards improving STEM education outcomes.

Given my role in high school education, I was particularly interested in the analysis of 12th grade U.S. students in terms interest in STEM and proficiency in math.  That is, until, I noticed that the percentages add up to 104.6.

An infographic without accurate information is just a pretty picture.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Teaching to change minds: what's the role of text?

So, what do you think are the best ways to help students learn challenging topics? Does text have a place in the modern classroom? Think about your own work as we - in the northern hemisphere, anyway - begin preparing for the upcoming 2011-2012 school year. Are your lessons hands-on, and is that enough?

You'll have a better understanding of why I'm asking you to think about your own answer to that question once you read Marie-Claire Shanahan's recent blog post (cross-posted to Scientific American) about the qualities of text that are most correlated with conceptual change.
Both Tippett and Guzzetti were able to look at several comparisons in how refutation texts were used: texts on their own, texts used with classroom discussions, texts read before and after classroom demonstrations, and texts used with writing activities. Given how powerful direct experiences can be, I was surprised that both of the reviews showed that the most effective strategies were always combinations that included text and that text on its own was more powerful that any of the other methods on their own (e.g., discussions and demos). This says a lot about the power of what we read.
Put another way...

You might think that hands-on activities and discussions are enough. But according to research, that's just not true. Best practices in teaching for conceptual change integrate quality texts with hands-on work to directly elicit, confront, and resolve misconceptions.

Great information to keep in mind as we head back to the classroom.