This is Your Brain On Awesome Thoughts on the world from a student of the mind


Textbook madness!

It's been a while since I've posted...I've been busy settling into the Bay Area and gettin my research on!

Anyways, here's an article that I'd hope any district supervisor or educational policy board would read.  It comes from a gentleman named Tamim Ansary, who's been working as an editor for textbook publishers for many years.

As if you didn't guess, his opinion of the textbook industry is less than a glowing expression of appreciation.  He makes a lot of really interesting points about why it's so difficult to make a "good" textbook, and explains some quirks of the textbook market that sort-of put things into perspective in terms of what forces are shaping the market.

Take a look at this article, and think about what you might be able to do to help push our school system in a better direction.  Certainly, ineffective textbooks aren't the only thing putting a damper on education, but as the foundation for many of our curriculum, they'd be a great place to start.

via Edutopia


A scientific approach to learning

Obvious though it may seem, we have a long way to go before we can say that our theories about learning and teaching are grounded in any kind of empirical science.  Currently predominating much of our academic pursuits are a mishmash of "tried-and-true" methods that have been passed down over the years, loosely held together with anecdotal evidence and folk-scientific theories.

Now, that's not to say that all of that is necessarily wrong, but if we're going to make a statement about the best way to teach others, let's try and be thorough and meticulous in making sure that it actually works.

Such was the topic of an article that recently appeared in the New York Times.  In it, the authors cite a growing body of research that may lie counter to what has traditionally been held as good study habits.  Certainly, a lot of it provides solid evidence for things we already know (like breaking your studies up into shorter, more frequent sessions is more helpful than cramming), but there were a few curveballs in there as well.

One in particular that I found interesting was the context and manner in which people study.  A long-held tenet of good study habits is that you need a quiet, isolated location to get your work done so that you can concentrate fully on the task at hand.

Interestingly, researchers have found that the opposite may be true.  While concentration is certainly necessary to study well, learning information in a variety of contexts with various kinds of external stimulation might be a better way to learn.  This is likely due to the fact that your brain naturally associates all kinds of daily experiences with one another, and by pairing information with a number of different settings, you are increasing its presence in the memory of your day to day life.

Another new method comes in the form of breaking up the topics that you study in one period.  While many scholars have stressed that learning is best accomplished through total immersion in a subject, research suggests that switching between different (but somewhat related) subjects leads to greater overall recall and performance.

While such tidbits of knowledge don't necessarily call for a total restructuring of our educational system, I think that it's very important that educational policymakers and teachers pay close attention to what science is able to come up with when it comes to teaching others.  It may not have the wisdom of centuries being passed down through the generations, but it's just as important.

via The New York Times



On the subject of scientific approaches to the world, I thought I'd share an article that covers another integral aspect of any person's daily life - imagination.

I know that this sounds hokey, of course everybody uses their imagination - but as much as we like to use it in our day to day lives, I think it's still underestimated as a valuable tool for solving any problem.

This is the stance taken by Timothy Williamson, a philosopher at Oxford University.  He argues that, while deduction is certainly an important part of understanding the world, it isn't as simple as just crunching the data you're given and cranking out an answer.  The world is far too complicated for such a simple method of problem solving, and perhaps our ace in the hole is our ability to imagine.

While it's easy to think of hearing or seeing or smelling as a simple matter of analyzing the sensory information you're given, in truth any sensation you feel is the product of a two-way conversation that is constantly occurring between your brain and the outside world.  What you perceive is highly influenced by what you expect or what you've seen before, and this is where imagination comes in.  Humans do not simply use deduction to understand their world, they also use induction.

So what does this mean for all of us?  Well, if imagining things plays such an important role in our ability to understand the world, then we should certainly make an effort to improve our ability to  do so.  I'd certainly like to see what the folks who are trying to cut many of the creative arts in our public schools have to say about this.

In addition, this kind of approach to cognition points to the value of larger, more ambitious, and ultimately rougher theories about the world.  It is with these kind of guiding ideas that we can connect our minds with the data that the world gives us and come up with truly amazing results.

And even if it weren't so valuable as a life skill, at least you'd beat all your friends at pictionary...if you don't mind, I'm going to go look at the clouds now.

via The New York Times


Bard College just got my attention…

In an age when it seems that schools and universities are cutting important programs across the board, it's good to see an example of a useful course of study actually being created.

Incoming freshman at Bard College, a liberal arts school in New York, will be required to take a "Citizen Science" program during their first years.  Such a course will entail learning about the scientific method, covering modern issues in science, and understanding how empiricism and a scientific approach to the world can be applied to all kinds of life's problems.

This sounds like a pretty awesome program, and assuming that they pull it off well, hopefully it will inspire many more colleges to do the same.  One of the things that I love about science is the extent to which it connects lots of different aspects of life that seemingly have nothing to do with research or academics.

By having a solid understanding of logic, the use (and misuse) of data, and basic statistics, students of all academic approaches will learn to make better decisions and separate the legitimate claims that people make from the utter nonsense that is often thrown around the media.  Teaching these basic principles (and others involved in the scientific method) to students outside of the scientific disciplines is a great step towards more well-rounded students and will help bridge the gap between the scientific community and the general public.  Bravo, Bard College!



An aging brain is not a poorer brain!

Continuing along with the last post's topic of aging and death and all sorts of other uplifting things, I thought I'd throw out a link to an interesting article on the middle-aged brain and what wonderful things it has to offer the world.

While getting older does necessarily entail the loss of certain kinds of functions, it may also lead to an increased ability to perform other tasks better.

Researchers have found that one of the first aspects of cognition to take a hit, and one of the strongest in young people, is "fluid intelligence," an aspect of your cognition that lets you deal with new information more quickly, adapt to new situations, and work out intense logical conundrums.

However, that still leaves a significant chunk of your intelligence intact, researchers say.  Working alongside your fluid intelligence is "crystallized" intelligence - a database of knowledge, heuristics, and wisdom that has been built up over the many years of your middle-aged life!

Studies have shown that this kind of knowledge is significantly stronger middle-late aged adults compared with younger folks - likely due to the fact that they've built up more experience over the years than their more flexible progeny.  Whether this is ultimately for the better is probably dependent on your life situation, but in general older people can perform all kinds of tasks more efficiently than young adults.

What causes this disparity between types of intelligence?  Researchers aren't sure, but some say that it has to do with attentional abilities in general.  Young adults tend to be better at performing tasks that require sustained attention, suggesting that their brains are more well-suited to keep from straying from the task at hand.  Because older adults have more difficulty focusing on one particular thing, it makes it more difficult for them to encode information for further retrieval.

Regardless, it's important to remember that, while certain cognitive abilities decline as you age, this doesn't necessarily mean that you will find yourself at a disadvantage to all the youngsters vying for your job.  You've got crystallized intelligence - and in this arena, time is on your side!

via The Star