Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Cognitive development improves problem solving for rising 3rd graders

June 8, 2011

Parents of students who are wrapping up second grade rejoice! New research suggests that changes in the brain that occur between 2nd and 3rd grades lead to improved problem solving.

Researchers gave 2nd and 3rd graders both a simple math calculation task (addition, where one of the numbers is 1) and a more difficult calculation task (adding a number between 2 and 5 to a number between 2 and 9). That the third graders performed better on the calculation tasks isn’t surprising, but researchers also discovered that while the second graders used the same basic neurological function for both the simple and more difficult tasks, third graders showed distinct brain responses for the simple and more difficult calculations.

From a CNN blog post on the research:

The older children showed greater engagement in a brain system related to quantity representation, and in another related to working memory.

The third graders’ brains also showed greater “cross-talk,” or signal transfer, along pathways that deal with information between those two regions, and help with more efficient numerical problem solving.

How could the research direct educational planning and decisions? Study author Vinod Menon, neuroscientist at Stanford University School of Medicine, quoted in the CNN blog post says “hopefully at some point we’ll be able to translate and use this information to examine children with dyscalculia and related learning disabilities.”

There’s not enough evidence for specifics yet, but the idea is that brain imaging could inform educational interventions for these children. Understanding the parts of the brain involved in children’s math skill development could lead to tutoring or other cognitive paradigms for children with learning disabilities, Menon said.

Menon’s research was published in the journal Neuroimage.

“The cognitive functions are triggers that fully activate the love network”

February 14, 2011

Translation? “Happy Valentine’s Day!”

From Scientific American comes a depiction of the blood and brain chemical levels that give the sensation of love. The highlights:

  • More dopamine means more pleasure, more motivation and less sadness.
  • More oxytocin means more trust, more attachment and less fear.
  • More cortisol in the blood means more stress, more alertness and lower pain sensitivity.

Sounds about right.

Happy Valentine’s Day from Be Amazing Learning!

Want to remember? Take a test!

January 24, 2011

From the NY Times comes a summary of new research, published in the journal Science, about how to improve learning:

Taking a test is not just a passive mechanism for assessing how much people know, according to new research. It actually helps people learn, and it works better than a number of other studying techniques.

The study found that “students who read a passage, then took a test asking them to recall what they had read, retained about 50 percent more of the information a week later than students who used two other methods.” (The other methods were repeatedly studying the material and drawing detailed diagrams documenting what they are learning.) The research was conducted by Dr. Jeffrey Karpicke, an assistant professor of psychology at Purdue University. We had previously posted about Dr. Karpicke’s research in a review of study strategies last fall.

As the Times points out, Karpicke’s research doesn’t get into why retrieval testing can help with learning. A couple of psychologists interviewed for the article had some thoughts:

  • Robert Bjork, from the University of California, Los Angeles: “When you’re retrieving something out of a computer’s memory, you don’t change anything – it’s simple playback. But when we use our memories by retrieving things, we can change our access to that information.”
  • Nate Kornell, from Williams College: “The struggle (of taking a test) helps you learn, but it makes you feel like you’re not learning. You feel like: ‘I don’t know it that well. This is hard and I’m having trouble coming up with this information.'”

We were particularly intrigued not so much by the improved recall that resulted from testing as a learning strategy, but with the outcome that the students who took a retrieval test after learning the information “even did better when they were evaluated not with a short-answer test but with a test requiring them to draw a concept map from memory.” Concept mapping, says Daniel Willingham of the University of Virginia, is considered the gold standard of learning.

The last thing most great educators would advocate for in our classrooms is more testing. So it will be interesting to see how this new research translates into the classroom. Says Howard Gardner, an education professor at Harvard quoted in the Times article: “Educators who embrace seemingly more active approaches are challenged to devise outcome measures that can demonstrate the superiority of such constructivist approaches.”

For more thoughts from Be Amazing Learning on study skills, check out these previous posts:

Let’s Play!

January 11, 2011

When my child’s teachers apologize for the messy appearance of their classroom at the end of the school day, my first response is usually “better here than at home!” And that, says play experts, is part of the problem.

Kids need unstructured play time for social and emotional development. But providing this time (and the space for it) can be challenging for parents. Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control cited in a recent NY Times article, “Play’s the Thing“, indicate that only 20% of children live within walking distance of a park or playground. So it falls on parents to create play spaces at home. And that, says the Times article, means embracing the chaos. Parents must learn “to live with disarray and take other difficult steps, like strict limits on screen time.”

It also means taking an active roll in teaching kids how to play: how to organize their own games and create their own rules. Organizers of The Ultimate Block Party in Central Park, which drew 50,000 people outside to play with sidewalk chalk and mounds of play dough, provided parents with a “Playbook” with ideas for “playful pursuits.” The ideas are frameworks, rather than strictly organized games: turning the couch into a ship destined for far-off lands or building a bridge over a toy with blocks.

The Times article cites a number of play resources for parents who are struggling to get enough play into their kids’ lives. KaBoom is a non-profit that has built neighborhood playgrounds and organized “Play Days.” And Learning Resources Network, a Web site scheduled to launch this spring, will provide tools for parents and educators.

For further reading on play, check out Building Unstructured Play Into the Structure of Each Day from Scientific Learning’s The Science of Learning Blog. That article references a report from the American Academy of Pediatrics, The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds, which outlines the key benefits of play.

Growing up digital, wired for distraction

November 22, 2010

The NY Times looks at teenagers’ use of technology, and the impact on their academic pursuits and ability to sustain attention. The article describes an incoming high school senior, torn between YouTube and Facebook on one hand, and Kurt Vonnegut on the other. Vonnegut loses: On YouTube, “you can get a whole story in six minutes,” [the teen] explains. “A book takes so long. I prefer the immediate gratification.”

Says the Times:

Students have always faced distractions and time-wasters. But computers and cellphones, and the constant stream of stimuli they offer, pose a profound new challenge to focusing and learning.

Researchers say the lure of these technologies, while it affects adults too, is particularly powerful for young people. The risk, they say, is that developing brains can become more easily habituated than adult brains to constantly switching tasks — and less able to sustain attention.

“Their brains are rewarded not for staying on task but for jumping to the next thing,” said Michael Rich, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and executive director of the Center on Media and Child Health in Boston. And the effects could linger: “The worry is we’re raising a generation of kids in front of screens whose brains are going to be wired differently.”

The Times also highlights the apparent paradox of technology and school: many schools are trying to reach students using the very technology that distracts them. Teaching, the Times says, on the students’ technological territory: million dollar multimedia centers, iPads for teaching language and classes to teach students to use digital tools to make music and movies. Says a principal quoted in the article: “I am trying to take back their attention from their BlackBerrys and video games. To a degree, I’m using technology to do it.”

At Be Amazing Learning, we use computer-based training programs to help students achieve academic success by developing foundational cognitive skills like working memory and brain processing efficiency. The paradox of using technology to improve, for example, the attention skills of students whose attention spans have been compromised by too much exposure to technology is not lost on us. However, we do see a difference between an adaptive, targeted technology like Fast ForWord or Cogmed and surfing Facebook or YouTube! And in an academic world saturated with distracting technology, programs like Fast ForWord and Cogmed become more important for struggling students to get on track.



What’s going on in there? A look inside the teenage brain

November 12, 2010

Research tells us that significant brain development occurs in the first few years of life: the brain reaches 95% of its adult size by age 6.

But recent brain studies show that significant brain development occurs around adolescence. Up to age 12, the brain is adding gray matter (or, to put it more technically, “cortical thickness” increases), at which point, gray matter begins to thin, as the brain prunes connections that developed in childhood, but are no longer deemed necessary.

The PBS series Frontline recently dedicated a show to the teenage brain. The show’s Web site is loaded with content, including the transcript of interviews with several researchers who are looking at the development of the teenage brain. One in particular that caught our eye is with Dr. Jay Giedd, a neuroscientist at the National Institute of Mental Health. Dr. Giedd is focused on how to turn what we’re learning about the brain into practical advice for parents, teachers and teenagers. Now that we have established the concept of brain plasticity, says Giedd, researchers are turning to:

… the forces that can guide this plasticity. How do we optimize the brain’s ability to learn? Are schools doing a good job? Are we as parents doing a good job? And the challenge now is to … bridging the gap between neuroscience and practical advice for parents, teachers and society. We’re not there yet, but we’re closer than ever, and it’s really an exciting time in neuroscience.

At Be Amazing Learning, we regularly work with teenagers who themselves (or whose parents) are looking for solutions for their developing brains. In many cases, these teens have difficulty planning, organizing, and paying attention to and remembering details. Cogmed and Fast ForWord programs can be effective interventions for children and teens with these “executive function” deficits because they develop and strengthen the cognitive skills associated with successful executive function, including working memory, attention and processing rates.

The Frontline series on the teenage brain is fantastic, and there’s a bunch of information available on the show Web site. We’ll be highlighting additional interviews in future posts.

Multi-tasking: Can we do it?

November 1, 2010

Sure. But only up to a point. Our brains can handle two activities, but not three. Which might explain why we have a hard time making decisions when we’re faced with more than two choices.

In the brain, the medial prefrontal cortex (MFC) keeps track of what we’re doing. When we’re working on two tasks, it can divide its attentions, with one half of the region focusing on one task, and the other half on the second task. But, according to researcher Etienne Koechlin of the Universite Pierre et Marie Curie in Paris, we’re actually “divide tasking”, rather than multi-tasking. And things get pretty muddled if we try to add a third task.

Koechlin’s research, “Divided Representation of Concurrent Goals in the Human Frontal Lobes,” was published in the journal Science.

In an interview for Live Science, Koechlin said:

What the results really show is that we can readily divide tasking. We can cook, and at the same time talk on the phone, and switch back and forth between these two activities. However, we cannot multitask with more than two tasks.

Koechlin’s study used fMRI brain scans to monitor 32 subjects as they watch upper case letters on a screen. The subjects had to determine if the letters were presented in the correct order to spell a certain word, such as B-R-A-I-N. They received a monetary reward if they made no errors. As the rewards increased in value, the researchers saw more activity in the MFC.

The subjects were then presented with lower case letters as well, and had to determine if both the upper case and lower case letters spelled a word, B-R-A-I-N and b-r-a-i-n. This required the subjects to switch back and forth between tasks.

During this dual task, the MFC divided up the labor. One hemisphere of the brain encoded the reward associated with the upper case letter task, and so showed activity during that task, while the other region encoded the reward associated with the lower case task.

Essentially, the brain behaved “as if each frontal lobe was pursuing its own goal,” Koechlin said.

When researchers introduced a third letter-matching task, they saw the subject’s accuracy drop considerably. In essence, there was no where for the third task to go.

As for decision-making, Koechlin thinks his results may explain why it’s difficult for us to decide between more than two options:

Previous work has indicated that people like binary choices, or decisions between two things. They have difficulty when decisions involve more than two choices, Koechlin said. When faced with three or more choices, subjects don’t appear to evaluate them rationally; they simply start discarding choices until they get back to a binary choice.
This is perhaps because your brain can’t keep track of the rewards involved with more than two choices, Koechlin said.

If you’re interested in reading more about multi-tasking, check out this episode from NPR’s Talk of the Nation, featuring NPR science correspondent Jon Hamilton and University of Michigan professor Daniel Weissman.

Halloween Candy

October 29, 2010

Here at Be Amazing Learning, we spend a lot of time thinking about the brain. But today, we are taking a hint from the dentist and thinking about teeth.

Given the question of whether to dole candy out little by little, or eat it right away, many dentists say getting it out of the way is better than having a little each day. The bacteria in plaque ferments the sugar in candy to create an acid that attacks the surface of teeth. The thinking then is that the less this occurs, the better we can avoid cavities.

So how much sugar is in Halloween candy?

The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry says that consuming 12 average size Halloween treats is equal to 30 packs of sugar or drinking a 1 liter bottle of soda. That is a lot of sugar!

Every parent has a different strategy for handling the inevitable mass of candy. We asked around found some tricks to dealing with the treats your ghosts and goblins bring home. Here are the highlights:

  • Smaller bags: Use smaller trick-or-treat bags. If you are crafty you can make your own. No pillow cases!
  • Limit trick-or-treat time: This is pretty simple, the less time your little Superman spends trick-or-treating, the less candy he will bring home.
  • Eat before going out: Trick-or-treating on a full stomach may help avoid the “snacking” between houses.
  • Trade or buy them out: We know a mom who takes her child to the toy store to let her pick out a toy in exchange for the full bag of candy. We have also heard of parents who buy the bag, though we are not sure of the going rate. The Utah Daily Herald reports that a dentist office pays $1 per pound to buy children’s candy.
  • Treats should follow a healthy snack: Make sure that kids eat something with nutritional value before they eat a piece of their candy.

Our advice? Hide it. If the candy is out of sight, children will be less likely to ask for it. We’re actually famous for losing the candy. Last week, I found my children’s Easter candy at the back of the cupboard, no joke. The bag was pretty full.

Happy Halloween!

Building Math Fluency

April 6, 2010

In its report “Foundations for Success” (2008), the National Math Panel emphasized the importance of developing automatic recall of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division facts in order to adequately prepare for algebra and beyond.

FASTT MathTo help students develop this math fact fluency, Be Amazing Learning is excited to add the FASTT Math program to our stable of programs. FASTT Math uses the research-validated FASTT system (Fluency and Automaticity through Systematic Teaching with Technology) to help students develop fluency with basic math facts.

Each student undergoes a brief assessment to uncover fluency gaps and to establish a baseline of fluency. Then, FASTT Math automatically differentiates instruction in customized, 10-minute daily sessions.

FASTT Math ensures that all students, regardless of their fluency level, build the long-lasting fluency they will need to tackle higher-order math.

At 10 minutes per day, FASTT Math is a great add-on to the Fast ForWord programs. Call us today at (800) 792-4809 for more information about how to incorporate FASTT Math into your summer!

Be Amazing Learning at Home School Association of California Conference

August 11, 2009

We’re just back from the Home School Association of California (HSC) annual conference in Sacramento, CA. Be Amazing had a booth in the vendor hall, and we got a chance to meet homeschool families from all over the West coast.

Fast ForWord programs from Be Amazing Learning are a natural fit for homeschool families. The program runs on a home computer, but parents have access to detailed data and support from our learning professionals. The parents we met at the conference seemed most excited about:

  • A proven, research-based solution to reading struggles
  • An opportunity to give kids computer time that has a documented educational benefit
  • A solution that attacks the underlying cause of reading problems, rather than simply more computer-based curriculum

Be Amazing Learning has worked with several homeschool families across North America with outstanding results, and we’re hoping to work with some of the families we met in Sacramento.

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