Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Liar, Liar - Dealing with Dishonesty

Catching a child lying can be upsetting for many parents, but there is a silver lining: lying can be a sign of healthy mental development! According to author Michelle Anthony, author of Little Girls Can Be Mean, actual lies—not the fantasies very young children invent—tend to accompany kids' development of conversational skills. As they learn about the way their words impact others, they begin to experiment. That's why many parents and caregivers may observe that youngsters start spinning yarns around the ages of seven and eight years old. Generally, children at this age don't lie with malicious intent; more likely they're trying to increase self-esteem (e.g. claiming they won a competition), avoid punishment, or get something they want.

Rather than fixating on the lie and the downsides of dishonesty, Anthony recommends that adults focus on the benefits that come along with being truthful. Explain to your child that the reward for trustworthiness is autonomy; if you can rely on her to do what she says she will do, you're happy to check up on her less and allow her more freedom. If, on the other hand, she gives you reason to believe that she is not, say, brushing her teeth before bed each night, you will have to supervise her night-time routine.

Since many lies come from kids' desire to avoid making parents angry, here are a few guidelines to remember when responding to dishonesty:
  • Respond calmly to bad news. (If you feel yourself getting angry, delay the conversation until you've calmed down.) If your child confesses that he received detention, first commend him for telling you the truth. An initial response of anger will encourage your child to cover up the truth in the future. 
  • When it comes to tricky truths, like asking a child who struggles with spelling how his test went, lighten the mood before delving into the tough stuff. If you sense things didn't go well, invite your child to tell you a fib about the results of the test first, then to tell you the truth. This shows your child that you are sympathetic, and it also helps emphasize the difference between truth and falsehoods. 
  • When you do catch your child in a lie, think carefully about her motivation for lying to you. Invite her to explain why she didn't tell you the truth, too. You may learn a lot about each other and lay groundwork for more truthful exchanges in the future. Honest!

Friday, May 15, 2015

TED-Ed Brings the Periodic Table to Life

Working with Dmitri Mendeleev's brilliant periodic table of elements, first published in 1864, has become a groan-inducing task for many students today. The organization of elements into a succinct and useful table was ground-breaking, and even more impressive was Mendeleev 's foresight: He left blank spaces on the table where he imagined elements would go when they were eventually discovered (and he was right!). However, the fascinating history of the table is often lost on frustrated students who find studying it boring and memorizing the properties of all those elements next to impossible.

Rather than memorizing, we suggest that students endeavor to understand the properties of the elements instead. And thanks to a partnership between TED-Ed and Periodic Videos, it's easy to do just that.

Periodic Videos is a series made by a team from the University of Nottingham. It is led by the star of the videos, an eccentric, bespectacled professor with a huge mane of white hair named Dr. Martyn Poliakoff. Actually, as of December 2014, he is Sir Martyn Poliakoff, having been knighted for his contributions to the field of inorganic chemistry. In collaboration with TED-Ed, Periodic Videos has made a short video lesson for each element in the periodic table). Some, like the video for krypton, are just over a minute long.

Others, like the video for scandium, take more than seven minutes. The lessons intersperse informational tidbits shared by Sir Poliakoff with experiments by his team that illustrate the elements' properties, bringing the periodic table to life. High school and college students and even chemistry-minded, precocious middle school students will enjoy this fascinating and helpful resource.

We would be remiss not to spread the word about the Periodic Videos YouTube channel  as well. If hydrogen bubbles that burst into fireballs or videos with titles like "Chicken in Acid Conclusion" (in which Sir Poliakoff discusses the results of an experiment in which chicken legs were dipped in hydrochloric and sulfuric acid) don't pique your interest, we're not sure what will.


Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Learning and the Brain

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending a Learning & the Brain conference entitled “Educating World-Class Minds: Using Cognitive Science to Create 21st Century Schools.” I attended my first Learning & the Brain conference when I was an undergraduate and just beginning to explore the fields of psychology and education. The conference organizers would likely be heartened to know that my passion for learning about learning has only grown since. A theme running through the various workshops, keynote addresses, and sessions in this year’s program was the importance of helping students to become independently driven learners, ready to dynamically engage with a globalized and technology-infused world. This theme was conveyed not only through the presentations themselves but on a meta-level, as I took note of my fellow attendees holding up their iPads to take pictures of slides, sharing that information via a few keystrokes and clicks, and conversing with each other about how this learning fits in with their previous experiences as well as their anticipated developments.

One presentation included reference to some particularly interesting research suggesting the importance of inquiry. In a 2011 study at MIT, an experimenter presented four-year-olds with a toy. In one condition, she acted surprised when pulling on one of the toy’s various tubes and finding, as if by accident, that the toy then squeaked. In another condition, she provided direct instruction regarding how to make the tube squeak. When left alone to play with the toy, children in both conditions pulled the tube to produce a squeak. However, children in the first condition played with the toy longer and discovered more of its features, i.e., what happens when engaging with its other tubes. A 2011 study at UC-Berkeley expanded on this research by presenting a music-playing toy to a group of four-year-olds. The experimenter showed the children five successful sequences of action interspersed with four unsuccessful ones to make the toy play music. In one condition, she took a curiosity stance (“Wow, look at this toy. I wonder how it works. Let’s try this.”), and in another condition, she provided direct instruction (“Here’s how my toy works.”). Many children in the first condition figured out the most efficient way to get the toy to play music, i.e., with fewer steps than had been demonstrated, whereas children in the second condition imitated the experimenter exactly.

The implications of this research are significant in the context of a world in which facts can be quickly retrieved via technology, and critical thinking and entrepreneurship are increasingly in demand. Educators must take into account these realities and use the best tools we have available to create thinkers as well as knowers.

One unexpected highlight for me was running into my sixth grade math teacher. I confirmed his identity after, for the first time ever, asking him a question without first raising my hand. Whereas our roles as student and teacher were clearly defined to my sixth grade self, our new dynamic illustrated something important about education. Side by side, taking notes and asking questions, we were both students. The importance of this, that educators and practitioners be continually learning and questioning, is particularly salient in the context of our rapidly evolving Information Age. I was grateful for the opportunity to be one amongst many eager students at this stimulating conference, with presenters emphasizing their positions as lifelong learners as well. Meanwhile, the “thinking cap” we were taught to wear in the classroom is an accessory that should be in fashion regardless of setting or age, and it was a privilege to exchange a tip of the hat with an old teacher as well as many others at the informative and thought-provoking Learning & the Brain conference.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Study on Peer Pressure and Teens’ Academic Choices

The term “peer pressure” probably brings to mind anti-smoking campaigns, gang involvement, and other aspects of life unrelated to school. But a new study suggests that the desire to fit in or impress friends may impact teens’ behavior in the classroom, too. Researchers Leonardo Bursztyn and Robert Jensen found that peer pressure affected Los Angeles high school students’ academic choices (sometimes for the better!).

Bursztyn and Jensen offered free SAT prep courses to students in low-income schools. Sometimes they promoted the courses when students were sitting in honors classes. At other times, they offered the opportunity to students in standard-level classes. The results were immediately obvious: students were more likely to sign up for the course when they were sitting in an honors class. When the same students were surrounded by lower-performing peers in non-honors classes, however, sign-ups were significantly fewer.

Interestingly, students’ true colors showed when they knew no one was watching. When the opportunity to sign up for the course was offered in private, those surrounded by lower-performing peers were more likely to take advantage of the opportunity than when they had to sign up in front of others.

The study also suggests that peer pressure can work in the opposite direction. In honors classes, where students were surrounded by high-performing peers, sign-up rates were much higher. Since the norm in that environment was to enroll in the course, researchers believe, the teens were more likely to follow the trend and sign up, too. All these effects, as you’d expect, were amplified in students who had demonstrated a concern with popularity.

The study lends academic support to a principle that many teachers and parents have probably long known: The company kids keep has a deep impact on their behavior. Although adults can’t always dictate whom kids spend time with, they can adjust their own timing. Offering a choice to a young person when they’re in the company of friends may cause the teen to base her decision on her peers’ opinions rather than her own convictions.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Rethinking Medical Education: Ditching Two Plus Two

Most folks would agree that the goal of education is to prepare students to successfully navigate the world after they have left school. An ever-present conundrum, though, is that no one knows exactly what that world will look like. This is especially true today, when the world, and the skill set one needs to be successful in it, is changing faster and faster. How many of today's computer science majors took computer skills classes in elementary school? Most educators could never have predicted that learning to code would put students on the fast track to success in a field that will never, it seems, stop expanding.

To prepare their students to be more effective physicians in an uncertain future, some medical schools are veering away from tradition with experimental learning models. Most medical schools still follow a model developed in the early 1900s by Abraham Flexner, a prominent educator of the time. His "two plus two" system, still prevalent  in most medical schools in the United States today, dictated that students spend two years in the classroom learning basic science and memorizing facts, then two more years in hospitals using their new knowledge in a practical setting.

Critics argue that the two plus two system no longer works. For one thing, the number of facts students must learn is growing exponentially; according to Dr. John Henning Schumann, Chair of Internal Medicine at the University of Oklahoma – Tulsa, the entire body of medical knowledge doubles every three to four years. And facts that first- and second-year medical students fought to memorize during countless caffeine-fueled study sessions may be outdated and obsolete by the time they're working with patients a few years down the road.

Additionally, ties between public health policy and medical practice are growing more and more numerous. Medical students who learn to practice their craft only within the four walls of a clinic, some believe, are missing a huge part of the equation. Social determinants (lifestyle, housing, nutrition, etc.) play an enormous role in helping to diagnose and treat a patient. Proponents of the new medical educational model argue that medical students must learn about the health care system and all of its resources to be effective, and these lessons are missing from Flexner's model.

The University of Michigan and the University of California,San Francisco are two schools experimenting with new models of medical education. One big difference is the emphasis placed on collaboration. Students work together often, since the schools' administrations are betting that teamwork will be more and more important in the future practice of medicine. And instead of simply memorizing pages of information, instructors teach students to locate current information, synthesize the facts of each case with the latest research, and act on their conclusions to provide effective care.      

At the Yellin Center, where we have been working with medical students from New York University School of Medicine and other medical training programs for years, we know that some of the most successful doctors can pair their knowledge with problem-solving skills and creative critical thinking. They collaborate readily with other medical professionals and know how to communicate clearly with patients. We look forward to learning about the kind of doctors these new educational models produce!

Photo credit: Patrick via flickr cc

Friday, May 1, 2015

The Big Picture: An Excellent Documentary About Dyslexia

Misconceptions about dyslexia abound. To name a few: many people mistakenly think that dyslexia is a problem with visual perception (it isn't), that dyslexia is characterized by letter reversals (it isn't), or that dyslexics either can't perform well in school (they can) or must not be very capable (they are). For anyone curious about dyslexia, we highly recommend the film The Big Picture: Rethinking Dyslexia.

The Big Picture is a documentary that debuted at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Both critics and viewers have applauded the film for what it teaches about dyslexia, but its director James Redford (son of Robert Redford) was after more than just good reviews. For him, and for his family, the topic of the film is a deeply personal one. Redford's son Dylan is dyslexic, and Dylan's journey through high school and into college is one of the story lines the film explores.

Redford weaves together interviews with a variety of experts on dyslexia. Some, like several young people and their parents, know a lot about dyslexia because they live with it. Others study dyslexia, with the esteemed dyslexia authorities Drs. Sally and Bennett Shaywitz, co-directors of the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity, featured prominently among them. And interviews with staggeringly successful dyslexics, from Sir Richard Branson to Charles Schwab, lend credence to the Shaywitz's insistence that dyslexia does not indicate lack of intelligence or potential.

In fact, acclaimed attorney David Boies believes he wouldn't have achieved such success in his career if not for his dyslexia. He is able to speak extemporaneously with ease because he's been forced to practice for most of his life; he can't rely on written notes. And he trained himself to be an exceptionally focused listener. Most skilled readers know they can always review handouts later if they miss important information when a lecturer is speaking, but Boies's difficulty with reading made this nearly impossible. Both of these skills were critical in making him one of the most successful attorneys in the country.

The Big Picture is a must-see for both kids and adults who live with dyslexia, whether they struggle with it themselves or are part of the support network. It is informative, insightful, and inspirational and, at just under an hour's running time, it's digestible even for younger viewers. Visit the film's website to download the film or to purchase the DVD.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Food Allergies

There are kids with allergies in Indianapolis who are going to attend their first baseball game tonight. In honor of Peanut Allergy Awareness Night, the AAA minor league Indianapolis Indians are banning all products containing peanuts from their home game against the Louisville Bats. As any parent of a kid with a peanut allergy knows, sports stadiums can be dangerous places for their children, with the time honored "peanuts and Cracker Jack" all around. For kids whose allergies are severe, a baseball stadium can be just too dangerous to risk.

It seems sometimes that food allergies are on the rise. More and more menu items and food packages are stamped "gluten free" and peanuts are forbidden in some classrooms and even entire schools. But, according to Dr. Marshall Plaut, Section Chief of Food Allergy, Atopic Dermatitis and Allergic Mechanisms of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the jury is still out as to whether more of today's kids have allergies than was the case in the past. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has stated that more children had food allergies between 1997 and 2011 than in prior years; however, in an article in Vanderbilt  Magazine, Plaut describes the statistic as "relatively anecdotal."

Milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy, and wheat make up the "Big 8," the most common allergenic foods. Although food allergies are triggered by specific components within foods, the reactions they cause in allergy sufferers—ranging from mild upset stomach to skin conditions to severe anaphylaxis—are actually caused by the person's own body. The immune system of someone with a peanut allergy responds to the presence of peanuts as it would to a threat from, say, malicious bacteria. Interestingly, some allergies, particularly those to milk and soy, can be outgrown. Others, like peanut, tree nut, and fish/shellfish allergies, tend to be life-long. And some people may develop allergies in adulthood.

If food allergies are indeed on the rise, no one seems to know why. One theory centers around people's recent fixation with cleanliness. Over-use of antibacterial products, according to the "hygiene hypothesis," has interfered with the normal development of children's immune systems. Another theory claims the opposite: that the presence of more pollution in the water and air and chemicals in the processed foods that make up more and more of our diets are causing children to develop allergies.

Whatever the cause, allergies can dominate the lives of families with children whose responses can be severe. Dr. Jane Choi, Allergist and Assistant Professor of Medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical School, recommends that her patients keep food journals to try to pinpoint exactly what they react to. Sometimes this can be tricky; for example, a reaction to french fries may not indicate a potato allergy but actually a corn allergy if the fries were cooked in corn oil. Choi also directs patients to carry two EpiPens in case one misfires.

Trying new foods can be a scary proposition for children with allergies (and their nervous parents); one approach, described in the Vanderbilt Magazine article, is to try a very tiny bit of the new food and then wait at least five minutes. If there is no reaction, it may be safe to try a little more. If the child experiences tingling in his mouth, a skin reaction, or an upset stomach he should not eat any more of the food and should brush his teeth or rinse thoroughly with water or mouthwash to avoid ingesting any more. This should only be tried if your child's physician recommends it; dealing with possible allergic reactions should not be a "do it yourself" project.

Parents whose children have food allergies should be certain that there is a 504 Plan in place for their child and that his teachers, the school nurse, and the school administration know about the allergy and know how to treat allergic reactions. They should provide an EpiPen or equivalent device for each classroom in addition to the pens their child carries. Note that not all schools permit young children to carry their own EpiPen. The 504 Plan should be reviewed at least annually and updated as needed. Parents also need to make sure that the 504 Plan doesn't just stay on file in the nurse's office; school staff need to know what steps to take and whom to call in case of an emergency.

The public demand for allergen information may make things tricky for the food service industry. But for those who suffer from food allergies, the trends of thoroughly labeling foods and providing food options free of the Big 8 make life with food allergies a little easier to swallow.