Monday, June 27, 2011

Life After High School Book Wins Again

Congratulations are once again in order for our own Susan Yellin, Esq. Susan's book (co-written with Christina Cacioppo-Bertsch) Life After High School: A Guide for Students with Disabilities and their Families has been awarded the bronze medal in the education category in ForeWord Reviews' Book of the Year Awards.

The awards are presented by Foreword Reviews, a print magazine and online review service for readers, booksellers, book buyers, publishing insiders, and librarians.

Earlier this year, the book tied for a bronze medal in the Education/Academic/Teaching category of the Independent Publisher Book Awards.

Great job, Susan and Christina!

Friday, June 24, 2011

Research Roundup

Scientists at the Kennedy Krieger Institute have found that children with math difficulties may lack an intuitive number sense. (Kennedy Krieger Institute)

Educators have long observed that studying over an extended period is more effective than "cramming" to learn material. Scientists in Japan have described the neurological processes that make this so. (Riken Brain Science Institute)

A new study suggests that when individuals are already engaged in active learning or thinking, they perform better on tests of memory. (Science Daily)

New York has released dismal data about the college readiness of graduating high school students throughout the state. (New York Times)

Scientists are getting closer to understanding why self-testing improves memory, especially when students select the correct answer. (Science Daily)

Monday, June 20, 2011

Teachers and Twitter

Twitter has been in the news lately as a technology which can be rife with risk when used by those with weaknesses in impulse control and poor judgment. So we were glad to see that this ubiquitous tool for brief messages has been put to good use by Philadelphia area teachers.

As reported in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Twitter use by area teachers includes a weekly chat by English teacher Menoo Rami that connects participants from around the country discussing topics relating to English education (on Mondays at 7 p.m. at #engchat). Another Philadelphia teacher Twitter chat happens Tuesdays at noon (all times here are Eastern) at #edchat.

The Inquirer article quotes Renee Hobbs, a Professor at Temple University, who notes that the 140 character limit and the hashtag (#) search feature make Twitter particularly helpful for teachers, who often want to check on an idea or subject quickly between their classes. Teachers note that they can use Twitter all the time, as opposed to the very limited networking they have traditionally done at conferences. They note that information from conferences and the other educators they meet there generally don't continue to be part of their professional lives once the conference is over. Twitter connections are constantly updated, and the information provided by colleagues on Twitter continues to evolve.

Other teachers are using Twitter as a way to connect their students to their curriculum, such as the kindergarten teacher in a New Jersey school who reached out through Twitter and was able to contact farmers who answered questions from his students. As one teacher who has used Twitter to link her fourth grade geography students with students around the world noted, "The world becomes a much smaller place."

One hashtag dialog we frequently look in on is #spedchat, which focuses on special education issues in education. If you have ideas on other hashtags of interest to our work or our readers, please leave a comment.

Friday, June 17, 2011

A Father's Story

The online home of the National Center for Learning Disabilities,, published a beautiful article this week by the father of one of our patients at The Yellin Center. With Father's Day coming up this weekend, we thought our readers would appreciate this story of perseverance, resilience, and love of family helping to dramatically transform one young man's learning experience.

"One of the greatest challenges that I confronted was when I realized one of my children had a learning disability. Throughout my life, I have been strong, resilient, confident, and maintained a “nothing will get the best of me” attitude. The day I understood the extent of my child’s disability, my leg trembled, my heart raced. I initially did not know where to turn or what to do to help my son to achieve a bright future. For the first time, I truly knew what fear was: fear for the future of a child that lives in my heart, my soul, and my being... son is now receiving A’s and B’s when he used to receive C’s, D’s, and F’s a year before. He is beaming with self-confidence, which his teachers additionally notice."
You can read the inspiring article here

Our thanks to Mr. Rahamatulla for sharing his story and for giving us his blessing to repost it here. Happy Father's Day!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

New Insights into Early Language Learning

The prevailing view among researchers looking at early language acquisition has been that young children learn words by what is essentially a trial and error approach. In this view, children hear numerous words and see many objects. Over time, hearing particular words associated with particular objects, they narrow down the names for specific objects until they learn the correct word. The problem with this approach, according to a research team at the University of Pennsylvania, is that it is most often studied in a laboratory situation, where young children are shown objects in a controlled setting. They posit that if you look at this scenario in the real world, filled with lots of distractions, innumerable objects, and confusing terminology for most objects (how can a big blue cup with a handle have the same name as a small yellow cup without a handle?) it becomes impossible for the human brain to sort through and narrow the almost infinite input around us, and that the currently accepted theory of how children learn words does not hold up.

To study this issue further, these scientists developed three experiments, each involving videos of children and their parents. In the videos, specific words (or a single word) were targeted, but the study subjects (both adults and preschoolers) did not hear the targeted word, which was blocked by a beep or replaced by a nonsense word. The researchers also used context clues that were particularly informative or more general, and noted differences in how the subjects learned from the high and low context clues.

The scientists found that the subjects learned the targeted words in what they describe as a "eureka moment," with understanding not building gradually, but coming all of a sudden. They also noted that only the high context cues stayed with the subjects and helped them learn the targeted words. Once subjects started to guess incorrect meanings based on low context clues, they stayed on the wrong path but eventually forgot the incorrect guesses, which was necessary for the subjects to learn the correct meaning.

Certainly, this research is in its early stages, but it raises some interesting issues for further study about how children acquire language. It also raises questions about techniques such as flashcards for learning words, which seem to be less effective than real-world, context rich interactions.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Dr. Yellin Answers Questions

"What would you do if...?"

From the blog of Brooklyn's Abundant Learning, Dr. Yellin tackles some tough questions on a range of education issues, from Pre-K placement to high-school students who struggle with reading challenges.

Read the full story here.

Friday, June 10, 2011

A Day in the Cosmos

I spent yesterday at the intersection of Mind, Brain and Education -- and the cosmos -- when I visited with Dr. Matthew Schneps at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. An astrophysicist, Dr. Schneps is the Director of the Laboratory for Visual Learning at the Center, which combines the resources and research facilities of the Harvard College Observatory and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. Dr. Schneps is actively involved in dyslexia research and has asked me to serve on the Advisory Board for a research project which is looking at novel ways to deliver written material to children with dyslexia.

During my visit I was also interviewed on camera for another project, funded by the Annenberg Foundation, which is looking to create web-based materials to make information about neuroscience and learning accessible -- and practical -- for educators. Dr. Schneps is particularly interested in emerging evidence that perceptual variations associated with “learning disabilities” are actually advantageous. For example, it turns out that many of the world’s most accomplished astrophysicists have dyslexia. Dyslexia is frequently associated with an increased ability to perceive information in the peripheral visual fields -- which is advantageous when examining the cosmos. Dr. Schneps also introduced me to a brilliant and resilient astrophysicist who began losing her sight as a graduate student -- and now studies the universe using sound.

After my meeting with Dr. Schneps, I finished the day at a Board of Directors meeting for CAST (Center for Applied Special Technology). CAST continues to amaze all of its Board members with its continued progress in leading the field of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). With technology and an understanding of the wide range of normal variation in children, CAST continues to create tools to make academic material accessible to all learners. If you haven’t heard of CAST and UDL, you will soon. CAST is increasingly sought out by policy makers, foundations, and educators interested in bringing these groundbreaking ideas and technologies to schools and school districts.

Photo credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Monday, June 6, 2011

This is Your 3rd Grader's Brain on Math

We continue to be amazed by what our colleagues in the field of neuroimaging can teach us about how children think and learn. A new study by Stanford University School of Medicine researcher Vinod Menon, Ph.D. and his colleagues reveals substantial differences between how children in second grade and those in third grade solve math problems. 

The researchers used functional MRI (fMRI) scans to look at the brains of 90 children who had just completed 2nd or 3rd grade. While the studies were conducted, the children worked on simple or more complex addition problems. The studies revealed that while the 2nd grade children's brains showed no real differences when they worked on hard or easy problems, the students who had completed 3rd grade had significantly different brain activation when working on the more difficult problems than when they worked on the simpler ones. The third graders showed more activity in two brain areas in particular while working on the more complex problems: the areas for vision and for working memory. 

Of course, seeing these differences in brain function and determining how these findings can or should impact how children are taught, is key to the field of Mind, Brain, and Education. Imaging researchers cannot yet determine whether the observed changes are a result of normal brain development from ages 7 through 9 (the age span of the children studied) or if they are the result of how the children are taught mathematics. They also cannot determine how these findings should be used by classroom teachers. What should a math lesson look like when we know how (and in what area of the brain) students process what they are learning? And how do we tell which students will do best in math in the long run? 

Although there is much missing from these findings, they are a terrific example of how our knowledge of learning and thinking is constantly expanding, and how collaboration among researchers, clinicians, and educators is needed to translate the latest scientific findings into classroom and clinical practices.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Bilingual Brain

A fascinating interview with cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Ellen Bialystok appeared earlier this week in the New York Times. Dr. Bialystok and her team of researchers looked at how being bilingual impacts not just language acquisition and development, but other aspects of brain function as well. In addition to finding that being bilingual appears to slow the onset of symptoms of Alzheimer's disease, they found that being bilingual had a positive impact on executive function skills -- those skills that help all of us manage the many tasks we do every day. When students struggle with executive function, they can have difficulties managing their school papers and personal belongings and staying on top of assignments and deadlines.

Individuals who are experienced at simultaneously processing two languages also turn out to be better at multi-tasking in ways beyond language. When researchers looked at adults who were using a driving simulator and also using devices such as cellphones (don't try this on the road!), they found that those who were bilingual had less impairment in their driving skills than individuals who only spoke one language.

Dr. Bialystok cautioned that just knowing a second language or even using it occassionally does not bring the same benefits as being truly bilingual. For the kinds of positive impacts she and her team have noted, individuals must truly use two languages interchangeably. It seems as if the practice with moving back and forth between the languages actually appears to rewire the way the brain works -- and that these changes can be documented by brain imaging studies.

For parents considering whether to take advantage of an opportunity presented by family members or caregivers to raise a bilingual child, The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association notes that language problems are no more likely to occur in children who are bilingual than in monlingual children. So, whether it is your French speaking nanny, your Spanish speaking spouse, or your employer's offer to transfer you and your family to China for a year, you may want to consider the positive impacts of introducing another language into your child's life.