Archive for the ‘technology’ Category

Teaching language to a machine

October 5, 2010

We posted last week about the Children of the Code Web site, and noted that reading is such an incredibly complex task that it’s not notable that some students struggle with reading, but rather miraculous that any of us can read at all. Computers are good at breaking down complex tasks like forecasting weather – could they be any good at learning language and reading?

Today’s NY Times describes a computer program under development at Carnegie-Mellon University called NELL (for Never Ending Language Learning). NELL is attempting to learn by acting not like a computer (computers are generally very good at following rules – for example, learning to play chess – but lousy at more nuanced tasks), but like a human being.

Researchers working on NELL cited an example of the following two sentences:

The girl caught the butterfly with the spots.

The girl caught the butterfly with the net.

A human reader inherently understands that girls hold nets, and girls are not usually spotted. So, in the first sentence, “spots” is associated with “butterfly,” and in the second, “net” with “girl.”

“That’s obvious to a person, but it’s not obvious to a computer,” Dr. Mitchell said. “So much of human language is background knowledge, knowledge accumulated over time. That’s where NELL is headed, and the challenge is how to get that knowledge.”

But if a computer is using a hierarchy of rules self-developed rules to resolve ambiguity in language, what happens if it gets a rule wrong?

When Dr. Mitchell scanned the “baked goods” category recently, he noticed a clear pattern. NELL was at first quite accurate, easily identifying all kinds of pies, breads, cakes and cookies as baked goods. But things went awry after NELL’s noun-phrase classifier decided “Internet cookies” was a baked good. (Its database related to baked goods or the Internet apparently lacked the knowledge to correct the mistake.)

NELL had read the sentence “I deleted my Internet cookies.” So when it read “I deleted my files,” it decided “files” was probably a baked good, too. “It started this whole avalanche of mistakes,” Dr. Mitchell said. He corrected the Internet cookies error and restarted NELL’s bakery education.

The researchers behind NELL (and other projects that are attempting to teach computers to attack language as humans do) cite the possibilities for improved natural language search (where searching returns answers to questions, rather than just lists of relevant Web sites) as a positive outcome of their research. One hopes as well that as we train a computer to think like a human we gain additional insight into how humans think and learn, with the potential to improve learning for our children.

Working memory deficits

September 30, 2010

Working memory is the cognitive function responsible for retaining, manipulating and using information. We use working memory to delegate the things we encounter to the parts of our brain that can take action. Because of this, working memory is critical for staying focused on a task, blocking out distractions, and keeping us updated and aware about what’s going on around us.

In the classroom, working memory supports a wide range of learning activities, from reading to science to math. Students who struggle with working memory struggle with classroom activities and frequently fail to complete them properly because their memory can’t hold crucial information that guides their action. As a result, children may not get the benefit of successfully completing an activity, which slows their rate of learning. These children also struggle to engage with the normal pace of ongoing classroom activities because of their inability to follow multi-step directions (they forget the instructions before they complete the whole sequence of actions). Teachers may report that the child isn’t paying attention, when in fact they he or she has simply forgotten what they were supposed to do.

The Centre for Working Memory and Learning at the University of York has compiled a list of characteristics of children with poor working memory. These children typically:

  • Are well-adjusted socially
  • Are reserved in group activities, rarely volunteering answers and sometimes not answering direct questions.
  • Behave as though they have not paid attention, for example forgetting part or all of instructions or messages, or not seeing tasks through to completion
  • Frequently lose their place in complicated tasks that they may eventually abandon
  • Forget the content of messages and instructions
  • Make poor academic progress, particularly in the areas of reading and mathematics
  • Are considered by their teachers to have short attention spans and also to be easily distracted

The Centre has also compiled a useful case study of a child with poor working memory:

Nathan is a 6-year-old boy with an impairment of working memory. His non- verbal IQ is in the normal range. He is a quiet child who is well-behaved in the classroom, and is relatively popular with his peers. He has been placed in the lowest ability groups in both literacy and numeracy. His teacher feels that he often fails to listen to what she says to him, and that he is often ‘in a world of his own’.

In class, Nathan often struggles to keep up with classroom activities. For example, when the teacher wrote on the board ‘Monday 11th November’ and, underneath, ‘The Market’, which was the title of the piece of work, he lost his place in the laborious attempt to copy the words down letter by letter, writing ‘moNemarket’. It appeared that he had started to write the date, forgotten what he was doing and began writing the title instead. He also frequently fails to complete structured learning activities. In one instance, when his teacher handed Nathan his computer login cards and told him to go and work on the computer numbered 13, he failed to do this because he had forgotten the number. On another occasion, Nathan was encouraged to use a number line when counting the number of ducks shown on two cards but struggled to coordinate the act of jumping along the line with counting up to the second number. He abandoned the attempt, solving the sum instead by counting up the total number of ducks on the two cards.

Nathan also has difficulty with activities that combine storage of multiple items with other demanding mental processing. For example, when asked to identify two rhyming words in a four-line text read aloud by the teacher, Nathan was unable to match the sound structures of the pair of words, store them and then recall them when the teacher finished reading the text.

Sound like anyone you know?

Working memory deficits are a characteristic of many kids of learning difficulties, including individuals with language impairments, difficulties in reading, and some forms of attention deficit disorder (ADD or AD/HD). For example, studies have shown that 70% of children with learning difficulties in reading score very low on working memory assessments.

However, as we have previously blogged, working memory deficits are not limited to individuals with diagnosed learning difficulties. For example, one study we referenced identified students who were classified as “typically developing”, but who still struggled with reading, math and general learning due to their working memory deficits. And data in that study showed that 10% of mainstream educated kids have working memory deficits.

The good news is that like other brain processing inefficiencies, we can develop working memory skills with daily exercises for the brain that promote working memory. Just like we exercise our bodies in the gym or on the track to build physical fitness, we can build brain fitness through targeted exercises that adapt to our abilities.

A recent article by Dr. Torkel Klingberg, published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences (link is to abstract only; full article available with subscription) provides an overview of the understanding of the role of working memory, its demonstrated plasticity, and the rationale and feasibility of improving it through training. Dr. Klingberg summarizes the research that supports the importance of plasticity of working memory and the efficacy of working memory training programs on various populations with working memory deficits.

Be Amazing Learning provides solutions that build working memory and brain processing efficiency in other critical cognitive skill areas like processing rates, attention and sequencing. The programs are based on decades of research into brain plasticity, and provide effective, enduring and validated results. For more information, visit our Web site,, or call (800) 792-4809.

Technology in the classroom

September 25, 2010

Last week’s NY Times Magazine was dedicated to the interface between technology and education. As purveyors of computer-assisted learning, we were naturally intrigued.

The Times’ included a history of technology in the classroom that starts with the Horn Book, a wooden paddle with printed lessons that was introduced circa 1650, and ends with the iPad (a 21st century Horn Book of sorts), which the Times speculates may replace the textbook. Along the course of history was the chalkboard (1890), the pencil (1900) and Liquid Paper (really? technology?) (1960).

The use of technology to assist with learning is obviously not new. And since the time of the Horn Book, educators have probably wondered whether technology would, at some point, replace them at the front of the classroom. Recent developments in online learning are certainly challenging the traditional nature of how we learn.

Thirty years ago, we wrote papers out by hand. Today, students can type them and submit them by email. Technology has improved the efficiency of this process, but it hasn’t really changed the nature of the process itself. A program like Fast ForWord, improves learning by using technology to accomplish something that wasn’t previously possible. For example, for students who struggle to accurately process brief consonant sounds in English, the program acoustically modifies the short and soft consonant sounds to make them more pronounced. You and I can’t do this. (Try it. Say the word “cat” slowly. It comes out “C-a-a-a-a-a-t”, and all you’ve done is make the vowel sound longer.) But with an algorithm applied to digitized speech, the Fast ForWord program can isolate the consonant sound, make it louder and longer. And then it can present the modified sounds in thousands of precisely adapted trials that ensure that each student is challenged appropriately to promote learning.

Technology in the classroom is great. And learning to navigate technology is a life skill. But when it comes down to using technology to promote learning in new and different ways, programs like Fast ForWord stand out from the crowd.

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