Monday, January 30, 2012

The Teenage Mind

In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Alison Gopnik, Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, shares some fascinating, research-backed information about brain development and why it makes teenagers behave the way they do. Teenagers, she writes, are products of their biology and their environments.

Many adults simply cannot understand why teenagers, even those who seem grounded and smart, engage in such reckless behavior. Gopnik shares results from recent studies from Cornell Medical College's Sackler Institute, which suggest that teenagers may engage in risky behavior because they are more satisfied by rewards than are adults. Evidence suggests that while they understand risk, taking chances feels worth the jeopardy in which they may place themselves. Particularly rewarding are perceived social benefits. 

Gopnik’s article also explores the brain’s control systems – that is, the areas in the frontal lobe that govern motivation, emotion, decision-making, long-term planning, and gratification delay. These brain functions develop through experience, but because today’s adolescents are focused on going to school and learning about a variety of topics (as compared with, say, the apprenticeship models used for education in bygone years), their experiences are not directly related to adult life. Gopnik says that there’s nothing wrong with this, and points out that average IQ scores have risen as people’s formal education has increased in duration. Still, it explains why teenagers may dive into a pursuit with an abundance of passion but lack the motivation and discipline for the kind of follow-through adults feel they need.

Pointing to the importance of experience in building up the frontal lobe, Gopnik suggests that additional schooling, such as extra instructional time, is not the answer. She’d like to see students engage in more apprentice-like experiences outside of school to give them opportunities to experience learning outside of the classroom. Teenagers need practice shouldering responsibilities in a supported environment so that they can make mistakes and learn from them.

Photo used under Creative Commons by Michael Robinson

Friday, January 27, 2012

Teaching Kids About Politics

The 2012 Presidential primary season is in full swing, and between now and Election Day on November 6th we are all going to be bombarded with political news. No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, and whether you enjoy the often heated exchanges between candidates and parties or cringe every time there is a new controversy or debate, we can all agree that the election process offers a special opportunity to teach our children about our values and our nation.
What can parents do to help their children understand the political process? First of all, we can all model good citizenship by voting -- in all kinds of elections, including primaries and local contests in our cities and towns. Take your child with you when you vote. Show him the ballot, let her pull a lever, feed the ballot into the scanner, or fill out a form for you. If there is a printed copy of the ballot available to take with you, make sure you get one and bring it home to look at together. If there is a state or local referendum (should we change a local law or fund a special project?) discuss it with your child and explain how you voted and why. Some local elections have particular resonance for children -- such as school and library budget votes that take place in many suburbs in the spring. You can discuss this with students of any age, since they understand how schools function and can understand the issues in very personal terms.

We can also discuss our own values in ways our children can understand. If you favor a particular candidate or party it can be educational for you to consider why you do so and to break down your preferences in ways that make them accessible for your child. "I believe that government should be .... so I support this candidate because he or she agrees with me." Or, "I like this candidate because he or she ...." Like our views on other value-laden issues such as religion, we can expose our children to our opinions, let them see us practice what we believe, and know that as they become older they will also be exposed to other views and information that will help shape their perspective.  

We can at least try to practice civil discourse when discussing the candidates and parties. It's not always easy, but we should at least attempt to take the high road when criticizing candidates or their positions. At least try to keep from using language you would not want your child to repeat!

Teachers and parents can use some of the lesson plans available on the TeacherVision website to help children understand some of the considerations in the election process -- such as the nominating process and the Electoral College. Whether the returns on Election Night leave you pleased or disappointed, you can take pride in knowing that you helped your child to understand an important aspect of the world in which he or she lives.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Diagnosing Dyslexia in Young Children

A new study of young children, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, helps expand our understanding of dyslexia and may enable parents and teachers to provide remediation before these children experience reading difficulties in school. 

A team headed by Dr. Nadine Gaab of Children's Hospital in Boston looked at 36 five year old "pre-readers" who had a family history of dyslexia and compared them to a control group without such family history, matched for age, socioeconomic status, and IQ scores. Neuroscientists have long known that there is a genetic component to dyslexia, so the children studied could be expected to have a higher than usual risk for dyslexia.

The researchers used functional MRI studies to look at brain activity during phonological processing (involving such language tasks as deciding whether two words sound alike) which did not involve reading. They found that the group of children at risk for dyslexia showed reduced brain activation in the same areas of the brain that are impacted in older children and adults with dyslexia.

The researchers note that their results suggest that the differences in how individual brains work with language skills are not a result of reading failure, but are present before literacy acquisition starts. They caution that their study sample is small, and that more work needs to be done in this area. 

What does this mean for young children? Most children with dyslexia are not diagnosed until they encounter reading difficulties in school, often in third grade or beyond. There are a number of effective programs to help these children read, but interventions work better the sooner they are begun. 

As Dr. Gaab noted in an interview with Reuters, "Often, by the time they get a diagnosis, they usually have experienced three years of peers telling them they are stupid, parents telling them they are lazy. We know they have reduced self esteem. They are really struggling." She expressed the hope that this kind of research focused on young children will facilitate earlier diagnosis and more effective interventions.

Photo used under Creative Commons by Clever Claire

Monday, January 23, 2012

Authentic Writing Opportunities

Most students would benefit from extra practice with writing. Even informal writing can really boost skills by helping kids get more comfortable shaping letters, searching for words, and composing sentences - but many students find it hard to get motivated. They may wonder why they have to write three sentences explaining why they liked a book or a summary of their history reading assignment. Writing for authentic reasons, however, can be motivating to students because they can easily see the purpose, and luckily there are plenty of “real world” reasons to write!

We hope the ideas below will get the kids in your life on the 'write' track!

Note: While it’s tempting to allow students to type everything, younger students would probably benefit most from writing by hand when they practice. For extra motivation, try pens with colored or sparkly ink, thin-tipped markers, or pencils with a child’s favorite character on the side.

For younger children or those who need help with handwriting, helping to make the grocery list a parent will use in the store can be a very motivating experience. Kids can also make lists of gifts they might like to get for an approaching birthday or holiday, things they think the family should do on a planned trip, guests to invite to an upcoming party, or they can keep track of fun ideas to pass the hours during summer vacation.

Pen Pals
In the age of email, there’s nothing quite like opening a handwritten letter, and this is an experience many kids don’t have very often. Writing to a friend or family member – preferably around the same age as your child – in another place can be a fascinating experience, particularly when they are from another country or culture. Encourage your child to ask about popular foods, common modes of transportation, what their pen pal does to cope with the weather in their area, slang words, etc.

Put your child in charge of communicating with the family during a trip or encourage them to tell friends about their vacation by helping them to buy and write postcards. This activity is great for kids who aren’t sure what to write when they sit down in front of a large blank page.

Book Reviews
Writing about books when one’s teacher is the audience may not seem like fun, but helping other kids make book decisions may motivate some kids to get typing. Check out the Spaghetti Book Club, a site that allows kids of all ages to write book reviews for other kids to read. Kids can review books on Amazon, too!

Giving Advice
This activity allows kids to use their personal expertise. Children can write letters or lists of tips for younger siblings or friends who are about to try something new that the child has experienced him/herself. A few possible topics: what to expect from third grade, how to be an awesome soccer player, why sleep away camp is fun and not scary, or what pitfalls to avoid in a new video game. Remember, this kind of writing is best used for authentic purposes, so make sure the advice actually gets to the intended recipient!

Thank-you Notes
Writing thank you notes for gifts is a great habit to encourage, but you can also urge your child to let the special people in his/her life know how wonderful they are. A note to the teacher after a field trip, school play, or at the end of the year; to a baseball coach after a great game or season; or to grandma just because your child is grateful for her, can be a good way for your child to express him/herself and reflect on the reasons we appreciate people. Of course, the recipient of the note will treasure it, too!

Pass-Along Story
This is a fun family game that helps with sentence building. Begin by sitting in a circle. Each player should write the first sentence to a story, then pass the paper to the right. The second person adds a new sentence to the story, then folds the paper so that the first sentence is hidden and only the new sentence can be seen and passes the paper to the right again. The third person to get the paper should read the visible sentence, add a sentence of their own, then fold the paper so that only their own sentence is visible. Pass the papers around as many times as players wish, then unfold and read the crazy stories!

Friday, January 20, 2012

Apple Brings Digital Textbooks to the iPad

Apple Computers made many exciting announcements at its Education Event at the Guggenheim Museum yesterday. Perhaps the most important one for students and educators was its announcement that for the “Textbook” category in iBooks 2, the second edition of its popular e-reading app for the iPad (and other iOS devices), Apple will partner with major textbook publishing giants like PearsonMcGraw-Hill, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt to make high school textbooks available in a new digital format for $14.99 or less. The price after launch may fluctuate, but it appears that Apple hopes to keep textbook prices in this range.

Not only will textbooks will be more affordable -- making those who paid $200 for their college chemistry textbook wish they’d been born a few years later -- but students will be able to use state-of-the-art interactive features to search through their books, highlight, take notes, and more. There are plans for interactive photo galleries, videos, and 3-D models and diagrams to help elucidate tricky or involved concepts. Learn more about Apple's venture into textbooks here.

A rival company, Chegg, which is already known for its textbook rental business, also made news this month, announcing the release of a new e-reading software designed specifically for digital textbooks.

We will discuss the advent of the age of the digital textbook in much greater detail in this blog in the months to come, as we join our colleagues in education in assessing both the incredible opportunity and potential risk that will come with the implementation of the digital textbook on a large scale. 

--Beth Guadagni, M.A. and Jeremy Koren contributed to this post.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Don’t Call Them “Comic Books” – Graphic Novels Mean Business!

Anyone who has watched their formerly book-avoidant child devour Diary of a Wimpy Kid understands the power of imagery to make reading palatable for children. Graphic novels take this concept a step further. Though they may look like comic books, good graphic novels feature plot lines, character development, and themes every bit as sophisticated (and often more so) than the ones found in standard novels. The genre is gaining both popularity and recognition; Maus won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992 and American Born Chinese was awarded the prestigious Michael L. Printz Prize for Excellence in Young Adult Literature in 2007.

Many parents and some educators are wary of graphic novels, but they can be fantastic tools for struggling readers of all ages. The print is minimal and is supported by images to help the reader self-monitor his/her reading and therefore practice recognizing the right words. The images also help the reader to follow the plot, providing critical practice comprehending themes and events which can be quite complex.

If you’re new to graphic novels, investigate some of the fantastic offerings below:

For Elementary School Readers

For Middle School Readers

For Developing High School Readers
  • American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
  • the Malice series by Chris Wooding
  • the Good Neighbors series by Holly Black and Ted Naifeh

For Mature Readers 
(Many of these novels for mature readers have been made into movies; viewing them before reading will further boost comprehension.)

In addition, The Great Illustrated Classics series has over 70 titles to choose from which students may find to be useful accompaniments to challenging, grade-level material at school. Although these books are not true graphic novels, they present condensed, simplified versions of books like The Picture of Dorian Gray and Moby Dick accompanied by illustrations to support comprehension. Struggling readers could try reading the Great Illustrated Classics series' version of a chapter before reading the original chapter in the school book.

For an article further explaining the benefits of reading graphic novels, as well as additional suggestions, visit the Scholastic website. Truly fascinated graphic novel fans or budding artists should check out Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics for a look at how sophisticated this art form can be.

Friday, January 13, 2012

New Federal Report on Testing Accommodations

A review of the role of federal agencies in enforcing compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by private testing agencies was recently released by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. We think the report provides a good overview of the subject of testing accommodations and makes interesting reading for those with an interest in this subject.

The review was prompted by concerns that organizations that administer such high stakes tests as the SAT, ACT, GRE, MCAT, and certification exams such as USMLE and MPRE operate without sufficient oversight by federal agencies charged with making sure they comply with the ADA. The testing organizations are required by the ADA to provide reasonable accommodations -- modifications such as extended time, use of special technologies, or special testing locations -- to enable students with documented disabilties to have full access to their tests. 

The GAO interviewed or obtained written information from most testing organizations except the Law School Admission Council (which administers the LSAT), which refused to cooperate. We don’t know why they declined to participate, but we are disappointed that they were not willing to discuss their approach to disability accommodations. The GAO also interviewed officials from a representative array of colleges and high schools, and reviewed complaints to the Departments of Justice, Education, and Health and Human Services, all of which (but primarily Justice) have some oversight of this issue.

The report noted that about two percent of the students taking high stakes examinations last year did so with testing accommodations -- some 179,000 of the 7.7 million individuals who took such tests. Of this number, about one-half were students with learning disabilities and one-quarter were students with ADD or ADHD. By far, the most frequently requested and granted accommodation was 50 percent extended time to take the exam.

The report concludes that the Department of Justice needs to take steps to better analyze the data it has available on complaints, to reach out to testing agencies, and to coordinate with other agencies such as the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services. In a statement included in the report, the Justice Department agreed with these recommendations and laid out steps they will be taking to implement such improvements.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012


This past Monday, Dr. Yellin spoke to a meeting of the New York City Chapter of CHADD about Learning and Attention: A Pediatrician’s Perspective on ADHD, Attention, and Learning Issues. The highly-engaged audience, largely made up of parents of children and teens struggling with attention difficulties, heard a presentation that looked beyond the DSM criteria of attention to focus on the ways that attention issues present in school, the component aspects of attention -- mental energy controls such as alertness and work stamina; processing controls, such as processing depth and saliency determination; and production controls, such as previewing and self-monotoring. The talk also included discussion of strategies for home and school, the significance of co-morbidities, and weighing the benefits and possible side effects of medication.

Dr. Yellin presenting to CHADD on January 9 in NYC
CHADD - Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, is a national nonprofit organization that describes its mission as: "to provide a support network for parents and caregivers; to provide a forum for continuing education; to be a community resource and disseminate accurate, evidence-based information about ADHD to parents, educators, adults, professionals, and the media; to promote ongoing research; and to be an advocate on behalf of the ADHD community."

The New York City Chapter, founded and still co-led by Harold Mayer, has an active meeting schedule with featured speakers and active email outreach, with news about all aspects of attention and related issues.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Study Links Excellent Teaching to Lifelong Gains

While most people seem to have a gut feeling that good teachers are a critical factor to student success, there have been few large, long-term studies to back that feeling up with numbers. A recent study conducted by economists from Harvard and Columbia, and reported in The New York Times, however, suggests that good teaching affects long-term student gains even more than most people probably suspected.

Raj Chetty and John N. Friedman (Harvard) and Jonah E. Rockoff (Columbia) followed 2.5 million students over a 20-year period. They found that even a single year under the tutelage of a teacher ranked “excellent” led to gains, albeit modest ones. For example, over the course of his/her life, a student taught by an excellent teacher for one year is likely to earn $4,600 more than a student who had an average teacher during the same year, and is also 0.5 percent more likely to go to college.  However, when viewed in the aggregate -- lots of students over many years --  students with excellent teachers were significantly more likely to attend college, earn higher income as adults, and avoid teen pregnancy. These results held true even when the researchers controlled for the kind of socio-economic factors so often identified as the primary causes for student performance.

For those who attempt to examine teacher quality objectively, one of the trickiest, and also most critical, decisions to make is how to measure teaching prowess qualitatively. Chetty, Friedman, and Rockoff used value-added ratings, which measure the impact individual teachers have on student test scores, to categorize teachers as “excellent,” “average,” or “poor.” Value-added ratings are extremely controversial, with many opponents arguing that good teaching cannot truly be measured or that it is not measured by student test scores. Others worry that making value-added ratings a significant part of teacher evaluations will lead to “teaching to the test,” cheating among teachers, or competition between teachers to stack their classes with students who are perceived as smart.

Despite the controversy, the study certainly seems to suggest that teachers’ impact on their students should not be underestimated.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Dyslexia Study Critical of Discrepancy Model

Back in October, we wrote about a new study that found that children with reading problems have the same kinds of processing issues regardless of whether they have high or low IQs. We quoted that study's authors who pointed out that the kinds of dyslexia interventions that are provided for students of average or above average intelligence should also be used with children with less than average IQs, whose reading problems had previously been thought to be "caused" by their lower IQ.

Now, the National Institutes of Health, which helped to fund the study, has weighed in with its comments  -- and we think that what they had to say is important for schools and parents.

The NIH noted, in a press release, "The results call into question the discrepancy model — the practice of classifying a child as dyslexic on the basis of a lag between reading ability and overall IQ scores." They go on to explain, "In many school systems, the discrepancy model is the criterion for determining whether a child will be provided with specialized reading instruction. With the discrepancy model, children with dyslexia and lower-than-average IQ scores may not be classified as learning disabled and so may not be eligible for special educational services to help them learn to read."

According to Brett Miller, Ph.D., director of the Reading, Writing and Related Learning Disabilities Program at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), the part of the National Institutes of Health that funded the study, “It follows that, whether they have high IQ scores or low IQ scores, children with great difficulty in learning to read stand to benefit from educational services to help them learn to read. The study results indicate that the discrepancy model is not a valid basis for allocating special educational services in reading.” 

We have never been fans of the discrepancy model for providing services under the Individuals with Disabilities with Education Act and Dr. Yellin has done extensive work with school districts who seek to move beyond this model and use a student's Response to Intervention (RTI) as a way of determining how to deal with learning challenges. It's heartening to see that researchers and the NIH agree.

Expect more coverage of this study and its impact on special education services in blogs to come.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Ditch The Lecture: A New Approach to Science in Higher Education

Memories of college courses too often call to mind huge lecture halls, dominated by a droning instructor and filled with students either scribbling notes or struggling to stay awake. These large lectures are likely most familiar to anyone who has studied math or science. However, physics faculty at a few progressive institutions around the country are beginning to question this model.

The upheaval began with David Hestenes of Arizona State, who noticed that his students weren't doing well on his final exams. Hestenes realized that his students seemed to be memorizing and using formulas well but weren’t able to demonstrate an understanding of the concepts he thought he was explaining in his lectures. He began to experiment with different methods of instruction and wrote several articles about the problem. Hestenes believed that passive processing was to blame. "Students have to be active in developing their knowledge," he noted in a story by Emily Hanford on National Public Radio's All Things Considered program. "They can't passively assimilate it." 

The NPR piece noted that Harvard physicist Eric Mazur read Hestenes’s articles and immediately recognized the same problems in his own students. As a result, his teaching methodology has changed radically. Instead of lecturing, Mazur presents students with questions that they must answer independently, then answer once again after discussing the question with a group. Mazur then explains the correct answer to the whole class, describing important principles and strategies. He calls this method “peer instruction,” and says that learning rates in his courses have tripled as a result. Importantly, peer instruction can be used for even very large groups of students and is therefore possible even at the most cash-strapped schools.

Here at The Yellin Center, we find that strategies which prompt students to process information actively can help them be more successful in school. For example, many of our students have benefitted from arranging information with a graphic organizer or taking Cornell notes; both processes require students to think deeply and critically about concepts. What other methods can you and the students in your life use to become more active processors of information?

Photo used under Creative Commons by UMMS IT org

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

IQ Changes in Teens

A recently published study in the journal Nature has demonstrated changes in both IQ and the size and density of specific brain regions in a group of 33 healthy teens. These findings are of particular interest because IQ has long been thought to be fairly fixed, with scores at one point in time usually very close to scores earlier or later in life.

IQ is a numerical measure that is derived by examining a number of tasks in two general areas -- verbal skills and performance (non-verbal) skills. When the "scores" of each of these subtests are looked at together, clinicians are generally able to derive a single numerical expression of the aggregate skills and this number is the IQ. (Note that when there is signficant scatter among the subtest scores it may not be possible to derive a meaningful aggregate score for an individual.)

What the researchers found through their use of standard IQ testing and functional and structural brain imaging was that 33% of the teens showed increases or decreases in their full scale IQ score from age 14 to age 18; 39% showed changes in their verbal scores; and 21% showed changes in their performance IQ. These changes were both upward and downward and in most cases were of at least 15 points. Notably, changes in all of the verbal scores were related to changes in both volume and density in an area of the brain related to speech, the left frontal cortex. They also noted that changes in most of the performance tests were associated with density changes in an area of the brain associated with finger movements.

The study authors suggest that clinicians dealing with patients in this age group be aware of these flucuations to better assess cognitive changes that may occur for other reasons. They also note that the question of whether IQ changes later in life is not yet determined.

Photo used under Creative Commons by Isaac Mao