We all knew the kid who couldn’t be pried away from her book—and the kid for whom each page was an exquisite torture. Why do people take to reading with such varying amounts of ease? A new study that looked at the differences in the brain development between children with different reading abilities may help answer the question. The researchers monitored subjects over a three-year period and found some interesting correlations between reading ability and neuronal wiring.
Kids are natural scientists, it turns out.
In an article published last week in Science, psychologist Alison Gopnik reviewed the literature about the way young children learn, and she finds that the way preschoolers play is very similar to the way scientists do experiments: Kids come up with general principles, akin to scientific theories, based on the data of their daily lives. Gopnik argues that the research should steer educators and policy makers away from more-regimented, dogmatic kinds of preschool instruction.
We humans aren’t the most logical creatures. Take information processing: if we were perfect reasoners, we would absorb all the new facts we learn and use them to modify our view of the world. But while we do something like this with good news, bad news tends to go in one ear and out the other. While this good news / bad news effect gives you a more positive outlook on life, it can make you blindly optimistic, unprepared for the real consequences of medical problems or natural disasters.
What’s the News: A few years ago scientists learned that American crows can recognize and remember human faces, particularly faces they associate with bad experiences. Now, new research published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B shows that the birds can share that knowledge of dangerous humans with other crows.
What’s the News: Researchers have simulated the symptoms of schizophrenia using a language-learning computer program, in a recent study published in Biological Psychiatry. The computer started showing schizophrenia-like symptoms when it was set to learn too much and forget too little. This study lends support to the hyperlearning hypothesis, that the brains of people with schizophrenia have trouble forgetting or filtering out irrelevant information.
Though attempts to teach creationism (or its twin sister, intelligent design) in the classroom have been struck down in court, these anti-science approaches still influence the teaching of evolution in American schools. Barely more than one-quarter of 926 high school science teachers who responded to a survey published in Science this week unabashedly taught evolution in their classrooms.
Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer of Penn State have been watching this story for years, tracking whether courtroom victories like 2005’s Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District truly freed up teachers to teach evolution without fear. In an early 2008 study, a book, and new results published in Science, the answer is a depressing “no”:
Only 28% of the 926 teachers surveyed, “unabashedly introduce evidence that evolution has occurred and craft lesson plans so that evolution is a theme that unifies disparate topics in biology.” … Most biology teachers belong to the “cautious 60%,” who are “neither strong advocates for evolutionary biology nor explicit endorsers of nonscientific alternatives,” the study says. [USA Today]
It’s not that a wave of creationism is overtaking our biology teachers—just 13 percent of respondents said they advocated that viewpoint. What’s more likely, Berkman and Plutzer say, is a crisis of confidence. Says Berkman:
“The survey left space for [the teachers] to share their experiences. That’s where we picked up a lot of a sense about how they play to the test and tell students they can figure it out for themselves. Our general sense is they lack the knowledge and confidence to go in there and teach evolution, which makes them risk-averse.” [LiveScience]
This evening, according to early reports, President Obama will spend part of his State of the Union Address addressing the United States’ “competitiveness.” But ahead of the national pep talk, the Department of Education brought the mood down a notch. The latest results from a federal test called the National Assessment of Educational Progress were released today, and the “Nation’s Report Card” doles out some depressingly low grades for American students’ understanding of basic science.
A third of the nation’s fourth-graders, 30 percent of eighth-graders and 21 percent of 12th-graders are performing at or above the proficient level in science…. Fourth-graders considered proficient are able to recognize that gravitational force constantly affects an object, while advanced students can design an investigation comparing two types of bird food. Proficient 12th-graders are able to evaluate two methods to control an invasive animal species; advanced students can recognize a nuclear fission reaction. [Bloomberg]
At the other end of the spectrum, 28 percent of the 4th graders failed to show a basic understanding of science, and that number was up to 40 percent for high school seniors. That troubles Alan Friedman, a member of the board that oversees the test:
“I’m at least as concerned, maybe even more, about the large number who fall at the low end,” Friedman said. “Advanced is advanced. But basic is really basic. It doesn’t even mean a complete understanding of the most simple fundamentals.” [AP]
Parents, of course, love to read too much into the small steps of a child’s development. But could it really be that the self-control kids learn to exert when they are very young is an indicator of the adult lives they will lead?
Right from the start, they are taught to restrain their impulses, focus on their goals, and control their choices. This seems like a wise move, but how could you tell if such instruction actually affects a child’s fate?
Ideally, you would follow a group of children into adulthood, to see how their degree of self-control affects the course of their lives. You’d need to catch up with them at regular intervals to look at their health, mental state, finances and more. You’d need to meticulously plan the study decades before the important results came in, and you’d need to keep in close touch with the volunteers so they stick with the study. In short, you’d need to have set up the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study.
That study began in the mid-1970s, and all these years later, nearly all of the thousand-plus participants (who were born in 1972 or 1973) are still involved. The huge data set Terrie Moffit and Avshalom Caspi have obtained shows that those who scored highest on self-control tests in the first years of their lives were healthier and wealthier than their peers into their 30s.
For all the details, check out the rest of Ed’s post at Not Exactly Rocket Science.
Not Exactly Rocket Science: Bilingual Infants Have Better Mental Control
Not Exactly Rocket Science: Newborn Babies Have a Preference for the Way Living Things Move
DISCOVER: Could an Inner Zombie Be Controlling Your Brain?
Autism researchers already knew that a variant of gene called CNTNAP2 that appears in about one-third of people is associated with higher risk for developing the condition. A study this week out in Science Translational Medicine puts that genetic marker together with what it appears to do in the brain: cause too many connections inside the frontal lobe of the brain, but too few from there to other brain regions. That could be a key clue in unraveling the learning and language difficulties that frequently appear in autism spectrum disorders.
The gene produces a protein called CASPR1 and is active during brain development — mostly during frontal-lobe development. “During early development, it is localized to parts of brain that are ‘more evolved’ — areas where learning and language happen, the frontal lobes where really complex thinking takes place,” says Ashlee Scott-van Zeeland, a postdoctoral fellow at the Scripps Translational Science Institute in La Jolla, Calif., and lead author of the study. “[It is] thought to help structure the brain.” [TIME]
To study its effects, Scott-Van Zeeland and company studied 32 kids between 11 and 13 in age. Some were autistic, some not, and many of the non-autistic kids carried the CNTNAP2 gene variant. The scientists examined the children’s brains through fMRI while the kids played a game intended to stimulate brain regions that the gene affects.
A small new study published in Current Biology involved electrical stimulation of the parietal lobe, a part of the brain involved in math learning and understanding. When this area was stimulated, students performed better on a math problem test. Said study leader Cohen Kadosh:
“We’ve shown before that we can induce discalculia [an inability to do math], and now it seems we might be able to make someone better at maths, so we really want to see if we can help people with dyscalculia…. Electrical stimulation is unlikely to turn you into the next Einstein, but if we’re lucky it might be able to help some people to cope better with maths.” [BBC News]
Dyscalculia is a learning disability similar to dyslexia, in which a person has an innate difficulty with learning or understanding math. People with this condition can have trouble with daily arithmetic, telling left from right, and telling time on analog clocks. Some studies estimate up to five percent of the population suffers from dyscalculia, and about 20 percent have less severe troubles with math.
For the experiment, 15 students were hooked up to a transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) machine, which stimulates the brain through the skull with 1 milliamp of electricity, and were given either a positive (right to left) zap to their parietal lobe for 20 minutes, a positive zap for 30 seconds, or a negative (left to right) zap for 20 minutes (five students per group). The current produced a tingling sensation in the scalp, but it didn’t hurt. Then the students were trained to learn the assigned number values of made-up symbols.