Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Holiday Highlights

Each year before Christmas our blog’s done in rhyme

Some are just awful and others are fine

We like this tradition and hope you do too

As we share this year’s highlights – well, only a few

We’ve spoken to parents; we’ve helped to train teachers

No matter the group, there is one common feature

They all seek to know how each student’s mind

Can best be engaged to help them do fine

 How all students' challenges help shape what they need

And how strengths can be used to engage and succeed

We’ve traveled to schools in all parts of our nation

As part of a project on School Transformation

Along with our colleagues we saw changes in action

And are working to help these ideas to gain traction

We’ve met many students and helped to explain

The strengths and the challenges that make up their brains

Both students and parents were heartened to hear

The steps they could take to improve the school year

We’ve visited schools to observe kids we’ve assessed

Since sometimes the classroom gives the view that’s the best

To see them in class with their teacher and peers

Can give a perspective beyond what we get here

Our work with grad students continues to grow

Future doctors and others find even they need to know

How to use learning strategies to help them to succeed

And master the skills their profession will need

We’re grateful to teachers, to parents, and kids

Who’ve worked with and trusted us and liked what we did

The holidays loom and we’re off ‘til next year

And we wish to you the gifts of  Peace and Good Cheer!

photo credit: asenat29 via flickrcc

The Yellin Center will close between Christmas and New Year's and will re-open on January 4, 2016. We wish you all a happy holiday and look forward to blogging again next year!

Monday, December 21, 2015

How Human Learning Can Help Technology

Many of our past blogs have focused on ways in which technology can help learning, but here’s a twist: This blog is about how the understanding of human learning can help technology.

Gary Marcus is a psychology professor at New York University and founder of a company called Geometric Intelligence. His aim is to develop artificial intelligence (AI) that is more sophisticated and efficient than currently available AI. Driving his work is the belief that creating good AI entails understanding how young children learn new concepts and generalize. As a trained scholar of human cognition, as well as father to an inquisitive two-year-old boy, Marcus is well versed in the underpinnings of his model.

Commonly, AI algorithms have been developed with a “deep learning” approach, modeled on the way that neurons and synapses in the brain change in response to new information after encountering many examples. Such technology has enabled pattern detection abilities, such as face recognition and word identification. Marcus recognizes that, unlike deep learning technology, toddlers are able to abstract conceptual generalizations from relatively little data. The brain stores and manipulates learned rules so that it can arrive at useful conclusions from few examples. For example, children quickly grasp and apply grammatical rules, while learning the exceptions by rote. Marcus and his colleagues have been coupling this understanding with probabilistic algorithms to take artificial intelligence in new directions.


This is a good reminder that as much as we may recognize cognitive challenges that can benefit from technological assistance, the brain is an amazingly sophisticated tool that technology is only beginning to emulate.

Image credit:

Friday, December 18, 2015

Personal Learning Networks

Here at The Yellin Center, in addition to our work with K-12 students, we also work with college-level and professional learners. We also provide professional development for organizations and schools looking to integrate our neurodevelopmental model into their practices. We know that adult learners, similar to young students, benefit from a diversified, personalized learning experience.

We also understand that teaching adults can differ in several ways from how we typically instruct children. The theories that underpin andragogy, the method by which we teach adults, explicitly states the importance of fostering a deep rooted motivation to learn, utilizing hands-on learning experiences and offering learners a choice in what to learn. Therefore, when working with mature learners one wants to promote an environment of self-determination where learners are finding answers to real world problems they face in their everyday lives. Instead of teaching adults what to learn, the goal is to teach them how to learn, as well as how to seek out answers to their own personal needs. As such, it is vital to provide mature learners with materials, resources and strategies that can help promote learning after the workshop or initial learning has occurred.

One way to promote learning after the initial experience is to connect learners to personal learning networks (PNL), which are communities of learners who are looking to build a shared skill set. PNL’s promote collaboration and a sharing of skills among eager learners. They spark conversation and connect learners to experts in the area in which they want to grow. 

In the truly global and digital society we live in today there are several ways to connect learners to established learning communities. Social Media is a great place to start. PNL’s covering a range of topics exist on platforms such as Facebook, Google+, Twitter and LinkedIn. The best way to get plugged in is to search key words associated with what you want to learn about, using LinkedIn or Twitter search. Explore the results and beginning following people who are discussing your interests. When you are ready, you can start sharing your own ideas, tweets and resources with the communities you become a part of. If you are interested in creating your own professional learning network, there are sites such as Ning, which allow you to create your own, personal social network.

There are also several communities, both online and in the real world, in which adult learners can participate. For example, anyone working in education often finds Edutopia’s community an incredibly valuable resource. Alternatively, for educators looking to boost tech skills, ISTE’s forums are a great place to start.  IT professionals will find a great community at Cisco Learning Network. Professionals across disciplines will be able to find a group and resources at Reddit or MeetUp. Professional development isn’t just about building functional skills for workers. As a leader of professional development, you want to inspire curiosity, and motivate professionals to discover new ways to learn and seek out how to integrate new ideas into their professional practice.

Monday, December 14, 2015

The Merits of Digital Textbooks

The advent and increasing ubiquity of digital text books has revolutionized the reading process for students. Learners with print disabilities have especially benefited from the inclusion of accessibility features, such as larger text and text-to-speech. In addition, due to the digital nature of e-textbooks, the reading habits of readers can be monitored and stored. The learning analytics gleaned from certain digital textbooks provide academics with a wealth of meaningful data to explore and analyze for trends.

For example, a new study from Iowa State University examined the habits of students using digital textbooks from CourseSmart. Researchers compiled an “engagement index,” based on students’ highlighting and minutes spent reading. Further, they explored the number of days a student spent reading. The study concluded that both the aforementioned factors were strong indicators of academic success. However, when controlling for past academic achievement, the subject matter, course, instructor, and the number of days students read provided a much stronger predictor of performance. 

The researchers postulate that the findings of this study could help professors identify struggling students as they worked through assignments. By exploring the digital textbook metrics, professors are able to evaluate a student’s time on task, as well as their level of active learning engagement as evidenced by the frequency of their highlighting and notations. Professors could potentially use the learning analytics gleaned from digital readings as a formative assessment measure to check in on how students are faring with the academic material. However, it should be noted that in this study, while highlighting was related to final course grades, it was not statistically significant correlation. 

An article on digital textbooks and the Iowa State university study wouldn’t be complete without a note about CourseSmart, a publisher of eTextbooks and digital resources. Textbooks and resources created by CourseSmart include features that promote active reading and higher engagement. Students are able to take notes and highlight text within the digital text, as well as copy and paste to an external document for easy report writing. Students are able to use the multiple viewing functions or search the text for key words or ideas to help them better analyze and comprehend the text. CourseSmart e-textbooks can be read both online and offline, on a full range of device from laptops to phones to tablets. Further, several assistive technologies have been embedded into CourseSmart resources to meet the needs of vision and hearing impaired users. 

Missing from this study is an exploration of the privacy issues raised by this kind of analysis. The researchers note that they obtained online consent from the students whose reading patterns they examined to have their studying included and analyzed in the research project. However, as the researchers note, "The advent of digital textbooks ... affords educators the opportunity to unobtrusively collect learning analytics data from student use of reading materials." They go on to note that, "The CourseSmart analytics platform was developed to address [specific] steps of the learning analytics process. First, the analytics platform captures data on interactions with the digital textbook in real-time. Second, the platform translates the raw data into a calculated Engagement Index and reports this information to faculty." We wonder if the students using these digital books are fully aware that their professors have the capacity to see what they read, how often, and whether or not they highlight their work. 

Friday, December 11, 2015

The New SAT - Winding Up Our Series

Today we present the last post of our four-part series on changes to the SAT, which we began last week with an examination of how the revised test reflects the controversial Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Part II discussed how test-taking strategies will be (somewhat) less important in the new exam and looked at minor changes to the reading sections. Part III examined changes to the writing and math sections and discussed the importance of reading for all aspects of the test. This final post of the series gives our recommendations about what students should do in the face of these changes.

Our Recommendations

First, we suggest that students who plan to take the SAT this year register to take the original test on January 23rd, the last time it will be offered. Students who sit for the old test can take advantage of tried-and-true test preparation materials. Also, the content is likely more familiar to them. Another reason not to wait for March: results for the first reconfigured SAT won’t be available until May, which is about twice as long as students usually have to wait. The deadline to register for the January test date is December 28th, so don’t delay!

Remember that students can take the SAT multiple times, and that colleges consider only their highest scores. Applicants can even combine their best scores on the math and verbal sections for the highest possible composite, so there’s no need to worry if your teenager nails the math portion on one test but aces the verbal section on another; the highest scores will simply be added together. With this in mind, we suggest that high school juniors, seniors, and maybe even sophomores who can spare the time and money may want to sit for the January test, even if they haven’t devoted too much time to studying. Because of the comparatively limited exposure many students have had to the CCSS, they may fare better on the old test than on the redesigned version. If they don’t score as well as they’d hoped, they can always test again; the poor scores won’t be considered.

In terms of preparing for the new test, keep a few things in mind:
  • Tutors, test preparation centers, and books are going to lag behind a little here. Though practice versions of the new test are available from the College Board’s website, no one has actually seen the real thing yet, so the test prep industry will need time to review the new exam and prepare effective study materials. Students who can’t test in January will probably want to skip the March test date if possible; waiting a while will allow time for the production of better preparation resources.
  • According to test tutors cited in The New York Times, the best way to prepare for the new SAT is to read. A lot. Students should read deeply and widely, meaning that they need to read in a thoughtful, critical way, and that they should dip into various genres. A fantasy novel habit or an addiction to the sports page won’t cut it, since passages on the test will be from various genres. And those who want to prepare for the test should practice reading shorter passages--rather than novels--that they can discuss and analyze with someone who can give them feedback and push their thinking further. 
  • Whether it’s a vocabulary quiz, the SAT, or the MCAT, gaining familiarity with a test’s format is enormously helpful. Those preparing to take either version of the SAT should know how many sections there are and how long they’ll get for each. They should understand which materials they will be allowed (e.g. scratch paper, calculator, etc.). Most importantly, they should have an idea of what the questions themselves will look like. So far, the only preparation materials available come from the College Board itself; find sample questions here. In addition, four full-length practice tests are available so that students can simulate test day. We suggest taking the first without time constraints, then looking for an error pattern and studying accordingly. Take the second or third test with a timer after studying strategically. 
  • Finally, students with special learning needs must make sure that their certifications for accommodations are up to date. The new SAT will require a tremendous ability to focus without interruption for long periods. Extra time could make a critical difference for those with attention difficulties. Students who struggle with decoding will want to use readers to help them access the test material so they can devote more mental energy to comprehension. Parents or teachers of younger children who have concerns should remember that when it comes to getting necessary accommodations on the SAT, earlier assessment and diagnosis is better. A young person with a history of receiving accommodations is much more likely to be granted what she needs for the SAT than someone who is given a formal diagnosis just before the test. 

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

The New SAT - Part III of our Series

Today we present the third part of our four-part series on changes to the SAT, which we began last week with an examination of how the revised test reflects the controversial Common Core State Standards. Part II discussed  how test-taking strategies will be (somewhat) less important in the new exam and on minor changes in the reading sections. Today's post will examine changes to the writing and math sections and discuss the importance of reading to all aspects of the test. The final post of the series will give our recommendations as to what to do about the changes to the SAT, including registering by December 28, 2015 to take the last sitting of the old version of the SAT on January 23, 2016. 

Writing Section is Optional, but Get Ready to Read

One of the biggest differences between the new test and the old one is that the writing section is now optional. This means a return to the old 1600-point scale, with an additional 800 points possible for an excellent essay. An elective writing portion is great news for both students who struggle to compose a strong essay under time constraints and those who feel fatigued after a long day of testing. While the old test took three hours and 45 minutes to complete, without the essay section the new test will take three hours. Those who wish to write the essay will sit for an extra 55 minutes.

Students who opt to try the essay in hopes that a strong score will wow colleges should know that this portion of the test is just as much about reading as it is about writing. Test-takers must read a passage - samples provided by the College Board are between 650 and 700 words - and then write an evidence-based essay (meaning that it makes specific references to the passage) explaining how the author “builds an argument.” In the past, students were scored on their ability to present and explain their own stance inspired by a reading passage; now they must critique someone else’s work, leaving their own opinions and conclusions out of it and merely presenting facts. Since reading critically goes a step beyond basic comprehension, it’s safe to stay that a student’s shaky reading skills will likely impact his or her writing score.

Virtually all college applications require at least one essay, so students who wish to showcase their writing skills will certainly have other chances to do so. Those who benefit from the drafting process may want to skip the SAT’s essay and concentrate on submitting a polished, outstanding application essay instead.

Math: Broader Focus, Longer Questions, Limited Use of Calculators

In addition to lots and lots of algebra, students will find more trigonometry and statistics on the new SAT and less geometry. Although statistics is generally not a popular course for high school students, it is a concentration that’s built into the math curriculum across grade levels in schools that have adopted the Common Core State Standards, so students who study CCSS-aligned curriculum should find the content familiar. But young people who don’t get as far as trigonometry will suffer. The more math courses a test-taker has under his or her belt, the better, so those who didn’t begin algebra until high school will be at a disadvantage.

Reading plays a large role in the math portion of the test, too. Instead of simply asking students to solve equations, many math problems on the SAT require them to analyze mathematical situations described in passages. Alternatively, some questions are comprised of fairly short statements about equations, but each answer choice is presented as a dense sentence. Students may wish to practice underlining and making notes while reading word problems to help narrow their focus to the essential elements presented.

Many students in high-level math courses have become accustomed to using calculators for every problem; teachers often reason that the students’ primary job at that level is to wrestle with complex concepts and not arithmetic. But calculators aren’t allowed on one of the math sections of the new SAT, so students would do well to leave these tools in their backpacks during the occasional homework assignment to remind themselves how to tackle equations by hand. Those who have lost some fluency with simple math facts may find that performing these rusty skills the old-fashioned way drains mental energy they need to work through complex problems on the test. Practice will help.

Monday, December 7, 2015

The New SAT - Part II of our Series

We are continuing with our four-part series on changes to the SAT, which we began last week with an examination of how the revised test reflects the controversial Common Core State Standards. Today's post looks at how test-taking strategies will be (somewhat) less important in the new exam and on minor changes in the reading sections. The remaining sections will be posted later this week:
  • Part III will examine changes to the writing and math sections and discuss the importance of reading to all aspects of the test.
  • Finally, in part IV, we will provide our recommendations as to what to do about the changes to the SAT, including registering by December 28, 2015 to take the last sitting of the old version of the SAT on January 23, 2016. 

Test-Taking Strategies Will be (Somewhat) Less Important

All test-takers would do well to be strategic when sitting for a high-stakes exam. But the elimination of the so-called “guessing penalty” from the SAT means that students can devote a little more focus to the new test’s content and less to its form. The previous SAT offered students five answer choices for each question. A correct answer earned a point, and students were not penalized for questions left unanswered. Each incorrect answer, however, cost test-takers a quarter of a point, so many testing prep courses urged students not to make a guess unless they could eliminate three of the five answer choices with fair certainty. This structure forced students to try to identify correct answers and calculate their odds of success simultaneously, an extra tax for active working memory.

The new SAT will present students with only four choices, and instead of incurring a penalty for wrong answers they simply won’t get credit. In our book, this difference is a good one for students because it allows them to devote their mental resources to the questions themselves, not to the format of the test. It also levels the playing field a little for students with less access to test preparation courses and materials; these young people are less likely to learn about useful testing strategies and so face a disadvantage. Students should still expect some sneaky tactics, however, such as answer choices designed to mislead the inattentive or unsure.

Reading: Small Changes

Much of the reading section looks the same as it has in the past, though there may be more informational passages and fewer texts from novels and stories. The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) place a large emphasis on evidence-based conclusions, however, and this may be tricky for some students. For example, one question on a practice test provided by the College Board asks students to draw a conclusion, and the following question asks which part of the passage provides the best evidence for their previous answer. A student can’t get the second question right if he misses the first.

Studying for the SAT’s vocabulary questions used to entail memorizing sometimes obscure words and definitions. Instead of relying on long-term memory to answer vocabulary questions, students taking the new test will need good reading comprehension skills. The revamped exam will query students on words that are more “practical,” but in order to answer questions about their definitions, readers will have to understand how they are used in context. For example, one of the sample reading questions asks whether “intense,” as used in the passage, most nearly means “emotional,” “concentrated,” “brilliant,” or “determined.” Simply being able to define “intense” isn’t enough to answer this question; one must understand the word’s function within the text.

Perhaps the most important thing to know about reading and the new SAT, however, is that good reading skills are essential for success on the whole test, not just the language arts sections.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Our Thoughts on the New SAT

Today we begin a four-part series on changes to the SAT. We start with an examination of how the revised test reflects the controversial Common Core State Standards.
  • Part II will look at how test-taking strategies will be (somewhat) less important in the new exam and on minor changes in the reading sections.
  • Part III will examine changes to the writing and math sections and discuss the importance of reading to all aspects of the test.
  • Finally, in part IV, we will provide our recommendations as to what to do about the changes to the SAT, including registering by December 28, 2015 to take the last sitting of the old version of the SAT on January 23, 2016. 

Part I
The SAT test has recently undergone the biggest set of changes since the writing section was introduced in 2005. The new test, which will be available for the first time on March 3, 2016, reflects the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) that have been adopted by 46 states and the District of Columbia, according to The New York Times. It purports to identify students who can analyze, not memorize. Should students welcome the change, or feel apprehensive? We’ll go over some of the major changes and offer some commentary about how they will affect students, particularly students with learning differences. Spoiler alert: Strong readers will bear up to the changes best.

Common Core is Underscored

The CCSS, which teach students to be critical evaluators who draw evidence-based conclusions, are heavily reflected in the new SAT. Regardless of one’s personal opinion about the controversial curriculum, it is safe to say that the transition can be challenging. Many students have struggled to meet the new standards, and many teachers, too, are engaged in a game of pedagogical trial and error.

These growing pains are natural for any school that undergoes major changes. But current students experiencing the transition are likely to see its effects reflected in their SAT scores as well as in their day-to-day lessons. Although most states that adopted the standards did so in 2010, a majority have implemented changes incrementally. Eighteen states, including New York, committed to full implementation by 2014, meaning that students who take the new SAT this year may have had only one full year exposed to the new curriculum (and taught by teachers still learning the ropes). Thirteen states will fully implement the standards during the course of this year. Nevada does not plan to implement the Common Core in full until 2016, and California will not do so until 2017. But even students in those states have an edge over those in Texas, Nebraska, Virginia, and Alaska, where the Common Core has not been adopted at all.

It is possible that this unevenness will mitigate somewhat as time passes: More students will spend more time with the new standards under the tutelage of teachers who have grown comfortable with the new expectations. But young people in states like North Dakota and Georgia, where the CCSS was fully implemented by 2013, may have an initial edge on test day.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Using Infographics in the Classroom

One of the major principals of Universal Design for Learning is multiple means of expression. The underlying idea of this mandate is that students should be allowed to express their learning in multiple ways, particularly through their personal areas of strength. Traditional classroom environments rely heavily on students demonstrating their learning through written expression in the form of papers, oral communication during presentations, or test taking skills. However, there are a variety of ways for students to showcase their learning. For example, a student could draw a picture, create a photo essay, or devise a song. One new medium that media outlets and businesses have been using to synthesize, display, and share information is infographics. Doug Newsom and Jim Haynes (2004) define an infographic as “a graphic visual representation of information, data or knowledge intended to present information quickly and clearly”.

With infographics becoming popular, there are now a variety of child-friendly tools that enable students to create their own visually pleasing, graphic representations of their learning. The following tools are a few of the resources available for creating infographics: describes itself as “a website that features thousands of free infographic templates and design objects which users can customize to create and share their visual ideas online.” The big merit of is that it is incredibly user friendly. The website allows students to drag and drop images and input their own text and information to create robust visual representations of the concepts they are learning in class. Don’t just take our word for it. also received the Best Websites for Teaching and Learning Award in 2013 from the American Association of School Librarians (AASL) - and it's free! allows students to input information and data into the site and then organize it into a visual, infographic, or chart. This tool would be especially useful in mathematics classrooms during a unit on data analysis and graphing. is a subscription-based tool. However, its reach extends beyond the classrooms as it also has the capacity to be used by teachers and administrators for professional development purposes or reporting student performance data. 


Piktochart has the potential to be more complex than the aforementioned tools, as the scope of this program extends well beyond classroom usage. Piktochart was created as a way for non-graphic designers to build high quality, engaging infographics.  As a result, a teacher may elect to use this resource only with older grades or tech savvy students. Although more intricate, Piktochart is still incredibly user friendly. Students are able to create high quality infographics and presentations using a variety of templates and embedded high-res images.

Doug Newsom and Jim Haynes (2004). Public Relations Writing: Form and Style. p.236.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015


It's the day before Thanksgiving, and our thoughts may turn not only to turkey preparation and family travel arrangements but to gratitude. The holiday reminds us to appreciate the harvests on our tables and in our lives. Of course, every day—not just the fourth Thursday of November—offers an opportunity to give thanks. Whether or not this opportunity will be seized, however, seems to be somewhat related to a person’s age.

To be grateful for someone or their actions, one must be able to take that person’s perspective and understand their kind intentionality. This perspective-taking ability, or theory of mind, begins to develop around the ages of three to five; so children younger than this are lacking key building blocks for gratitude. 

After this, however, gratitude may not only grow but become more readily expressed, as language skills develop. This tends to taper off, though, during the adolescent years. Gratitude involves acknowledging a sense of dependency, and this goes against the teenage inclination to assert independence. Adulthood then shifts the gratitude slope in a new direction. 

Research has suggested that as adults age, their brains become less reactive to negative information while equally or even more reactive to positive information. This translates to a generally more positive outlook, which facilitates more gratitude. Psychologists have also noted that accumulated life experience along with a shortened sense of time seem to factor into the increase in gratitude that tends to come with aging.

Photo credit: anjanettew vis flickr cc

Monday, November 23, 2015

IDEA and High Expectations

This month marks the 40th Anniversary of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act – the IDEA – first signed into law November 29, 1975. As most of our readers know, IDEA is the basis for educational services and supports for most students in pre-K through high school with a wide range of disabilities, including specific learning disabilities.

To coincide with this anniversary, the U.S. Department of Education has released a new guidance document for State Education Departments, noting that the IEP (Individualized Education Program) for a student who receives services under the IDEA must be aligned with the academic content standards for the grade in which that student is enrolled. This guidance has been welcomed by parents and advocates who have been concerned that students with disabilities are not being held to high enough standards. As noted by The Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA), “the power of an IEP written with high expectations and its impact on a student’s ability to achieve” are important to students’ lifetime success.

Although exceptions are made for students with the significant cognitive disabilities, even students who are far behind their peers will be held to these academic content standards. However, where students without significant cognitive disabilities are “performing significantly below the level of the grade in which the child is enrolled,” the IEP should contain goals that are “ambitious but achievable.” The Department of Education notes that schools should provide children with specialized instruction to help close the gap between their level of achievement and state standards.

While we welcome high standards and expectations for all students, we will take a “wait and see” position as to whether schools can properly support students with IEPs who are below grade level in one or more subjects, especially those with specific learning disabilities that impact a particular aspect of learning, such as math. While high standards for all students are a laudable goal, the "devil is in details." Such standards need to be reasonable and relevant, not arbitrary.

For example, schools need to focus not just on content mastery, but also on competencies and skills that students can use to help them succeed in the future. Students need to have access to content and methodologies for demonstrating/assessing mastery that take into account their specific disabilities. These methodologies must not be inherently discriminatory and need to conform to the principals of Universal Design for Learning, including multiple means of representation, engagement, and expression. For instance, for some students, schools should consider a portfolio component of assessment.

We would hope that this new guidance does not result in grade retention for students who do not meet grade level assessments, when their failure to do so may be due to years of inappropriate instruction and inadequate methods of demonstrating mastery.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Book on Autism wins the Samuel Johnson Prize

The Samuel Johnson Prize is the UK’s most prestigious literary award. This year, Steve Silberman’s popular science work Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and How to Think Smarter About People Who Think Differently took home the prize for nonfiction. This is the first time in a decade and a half that a popular science work has taken home the esteemed award.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a complex neurodevelopmental disorder characterized, to varying degrees, by impaired social and communication skills, as well as the presence of repetitive, habitual behaviors. Currently, there is no definitive or singular cause for autism. However, researchers have begun unearthing several rare gene mutations that are being linked to ASD. Even with these advances in the research, the academic and medical community is still left with many unanswered questions.

Being the recipient of the Samuel Johnson Prize is not the first time Mr. Silberman has garnered acclaim for his writing on neurodiversity. He is an award-winning investigative journalist with bylines in The New Yorker, Time and Nature. His reach, however, extends beyond the realm of pencil and paper. His TED talk, “The Forgotten History of Autism,” has left a palpable impact and been translated into thirteen languages.

In his book Neurotribes, Mr. Silberman explores the history and shifting attitudes toward autism, as well as the complex science behind the childhood developmental condition. He digs into the social and political landscapes throughout history that have shaped our present understanding of autism. He traces the history of ASD all the way from its origins in the research of Hans Asperger to the modern day. He even goes as far as to try to tease out answers for why there has been an apparent explosion of ASD diagnosis in the past decade.

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of his book is his discussion around the growing body of "neurodiversity" activists. Mr. Silberman details how professionals and persons with ASD are coming together to promote self-determination by seeking accommodations and technological advances in the workplace, as well as in education. The underlying message of Neurotribes is that as a society we should stop drawing sharp divisions between what we assume to be "normal" and "abnormal." Instead, he urges that we be cognizant that everyone, regardless of the presence of a learning difference, has a uniquely wired brain. This is a sentiment that we here at The Yellin Center wholeheartily believe in, and a philosophy we try to propagate in our daily work. Mr. Silberman paints an optimistic picture of how the world can become a better, more accepting, increasingly understanding place for those with learning differences.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Tips for National Scholarship Month

Happy National Scholarship Month! College costs are on the rise (a recent calculation from Bloomberg estimates tuition costs 1200% more than it did in 1978), but a college education is more important than ever. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, a young person with a bachelor’s degree can expect to earn about $20,000 more each year than a peer with only a high school diploma. Loans are one option, but we encourage young people to apply for as many scholarships as possible; it will cost only time, and students could end up earning substantial funds to put toward their school fees.

 courtesy pictures of money via flickr:cc

Here are some helpful tips for scholarship applications, culled from the National Scholarship Providers Association and our own research:
  • Many scholarship providers send information to high school counselors. Students should visit their counselor’s office periodically to check for scholarship opportunities applicable to them.

  • High school seniors should talk to representatives from the admissions or financial aid departments at their college (they may have to wait until they are accepted) to find out what kind of financial aid is available. Those who know what they’ll major In should communicate with that particular department as well; sometimes, departments will offer (or know of) scholarships available for students in certain fields of study. 

  • Fill out the FAFSA as soon as it becomes available in early January (a very recent change permits using information from the prior year, allowing families to have the required information to submit earlier than in the past). Students should do this ASAP; there is evidence that those who complete the FAFSA early receive more scholarship money.

  • Students should use resources like and Local organizations like the Rotary Club, the Lions Club, community foundations, and private foundations are also good sources for scholarship information. Other websites that may be helpful are and, for all things dealing with financial aid. 

  • If a student knows what she will study or what line of work she will go into, she should look into organizations—both local and national—that may offer scholarship money to young people studying to enter particular fields. Insider tip: Local scholarships tend to award less money but a student’s odds of being awarded a local scholarship are much higher. Students should prioritize accordingly and be sure to apply for as many local or smaller scholarships as possible.

  • Look into work-study opportunities, or consider a working part-time. Lots of time in college is unstructured and many students find they have time to take on a job. And studies show that students who work part-time tend to develop better time-management skills, often leading to better grades.

  • Here’s another insider tip: After a student has been accepted, received his financial aid package, and been awarded any private scholarships, he should crunch some numbers to determine whether there is a large gap between amount of aid he has earned and the amount of tuition he and his family can afford to contribute. If he will not be able to afford college even with aid, he should ask his school about options for appeal. Many colleges have an appeal process that may yield more aid if a student’s campaign is successful. There is no guarantee, of course, and students should not take advantage of the system unless there is genuine need.

Finally, a cautionary note: DO NOT pay for scholarship or financial aid information. Frequently, these are scams, and even if some of these for-profit services are legitimate, there are too many free resources to make the cost worthwhile.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Understanding -- and Countering -- Procrastination

“Why do today what you can put off until tomorrow?” the old adage goes. Evolutionary psychology explains that the inclination to procrastinate is not a personal defect but rather a part of human nature that developed as an adaptive survival mechanism. When frequently faced with important survival goals in our immediate surroundings, it would have been maladaptive to focus attention and energy on long-term tasks. A student in today’s classroom is likely not preoccupied with finding shelter while avoiding being attacked by a jaguar; however, his brain is similar to that of an ancestor faced with such concerns. Therefore, while attention to a long-term research paper may certainly be important, it is certainly not natural.

Understanding this is key not only to explaining procrastination, but to countering it. People like to feel that their actions will be beneficial now or in the near future, and even non-survival tasks can be facilitated by linking them to the prospect of such benefits. For example, breaking long-term goals into short-term goals and connecting them to one’s personal interests is a way to capitalize on our brain’s natural reward systems to help counter procrastination. A recent article explains this and shares some other helpful tips for doing today what you could put off until tomorrow. These tips include keeping charts to track progress and breaking tasks down into smaller, more achievable steps. Why not give them a try... maybe tomorrow?

Photo Credit: Vic via flickr cc

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Math Apps for Building Spatial and Reasoning Skills

We recently took a look at spelling apps, recommending those that we think do the best job of providing critical orthographic skills while being fun and engaging. Today, we turn our attention to math apps we think are worth investigating.

Carstens Studios designs, creates and illustrates dynamic learning applications for young children. Daren Carstens, the owner of Carstens Studios, shares that his goal for each app is to inspire the love of math in children by giving them a new way to conceptualize mathematical concepts. Math requires spatial and sequential understanding, as well as a great deal of reasoning and logical thinking skill. 

There are an abundance of tools for building foundational numeracy and sequential skills. However, it can often be a challenge to find dynamic ways to build a child’s spatial understanding or reasoning skill. Carstens Studios offers a variety of fun, engaging tools that help students build their spatial understanding of math while encouraging reasoning and problem solving. We have detailed some favorite apps below that would add value to any math curriculum.

In the introduction to this app, Mr. Carsten shares that when he was in school, math just looked like squiggles to him, leaving his mind to wander and him to doodle on the edge of his notebook. He soon realized that there were places for doodles in math, and that doodling helped him better understand the mathematical concepts. Building on this notion, each game in the Math Doodles app gives players choices for displaying the numbers in different ways (as words, Roman numerals, currency, etc.). Furthermore, each math puzzle encourages students to experiment while developing and strengthening their strategy and problem solving skills. Math Doodles builds a wide range of critical math skills, including building basic mathematical and number sense, as well as teaching basic operations, time, money and geometric concepts.

It is true that math is more than numbers. It takes more to master math than merely mastering numeracy skills. Mr. Carstens states that, “The key to understanding math is understanding patterns.” Therefore, the Attributes app is comprised of a series of seven games, designed to challenge kids' mathematical thought processes through tables, patterns, and the concepts of attributes. The games help late-elementary children develop the abstract reasoning skills required in higher-level math. By playing the Attributes games, students will build their understanding of pattern sequences, Venn diagrams, logic, and classification.

Symmetry Shuffle 

As we have mentioned, spatial reasoning is an important element of mathematics, especially in geometry. The mathematical puzzle Symmetry Shuffle,allows students to explore line and rotational symmetry while developing their spatial sense. Through the game student will build her understanding of slides, flips and rotations of two-dimensional shapes, as well as the concepts of congruence, similarity and symmetry.

We can’t go into detail on every resource, but Carstens Studios has other apps that are also worth noting. So, if you are looking to provide students with extra addition and subtraction practice, check out Unknown Square, Sum Stacker or Connect Sums. Each of the apps has received numerous accolades and awards. But their biggest achievement is that they truly make math learning fun.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Sharing History and Theater with Students

At The Yellin Center, we emphasize that there are many ways to learn and to express knowledge.  Twenty thousand New York City eleventh graders are about to experience education in a new and exciting way.  These students, all from schools with high percentages of low-income families, are going to learn about American history with the help of some Broadway multi-sensory aids.  Producers of the new musical Hamilton, about the revolutionary figure by the same name, have paired with the Rockefeller Foundation to finance student tickets to the show.  The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History plans to create a curriculum to go along with this Broadway experience, with materials to include primary documents from the era depicted in the musical.  Students will have the opportunity to develop and share their own artistic responses.

From the Collection of the National Portrait Gallery
 Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote and now stars in Hamilton, was once a New York City student himself.  He told The New York Times, “If we can excite curiosity in students, there’s no telling what can happen next.”  We agree.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Spelling Apps

Spell with Pip

It seems that these days there is an app for everything. So much so that it can cause any parent or teacher’s head to spin when trying to find tools for a specific need. However, when doing a little investigation into spelling apps, I found I kept coming up short. There were a lot of resources out there, but not all of them were robust enough to build critical orthographic skills. There are a variety of fun, engaging games available, but many tended to lack the educational vigor required to build skills or provide needed interventions. 

Regular practice is key for building spelling skills. It is equally important to provide students with fun, motivating ways to practice these skills. We don’t want literacy learning to hinge exclusively on spelling tests and worksheets. With that in mind,  I have chronicled a few of the strong, game-based digital tools that help students practice their spelling skills

Spelling Monster is an app that allows kids to practice spelling words with fun interactive games. The stats section of the app will let parents or teachers know how long a child is practicing and where they might need extra help. Soon, teachers will have the ability to upload their own personalized spelling lists. Educators will then be able to set objectives and get alerts and weekly reports when students meet their goals.

Spell with Pip is an interactive spelling game created by the makers of the Oxford dictionary. The game gradually gets more difficult as children progress through the levels. The game includes a personal dictionary, and focuses on words that children commonly find hard to spell. The added benefit that I find immensely helpful as a Canadian teacher working in America, is that the games can be offered in either US or UK English. That means whether you spell it “realize” or “realise”, this game has you covered.

Word Domino is a game that allows children to build words with the proposed syllable tiles. The game can be played in single or multi-player versions, which is a great way for students to build their recognition of letter patterns. There is a vocal synthesis function where words are spoken once they are found, which can reinforce sight word recognition also.

Word Domino

Friday, October 23, 2015

New Study Looks at How Brains Multi-Task

Scientists at NYU Langone Medical Center have just announced new research findings that may help explain how our brains focus attention on specific tasks and filter out distracting or unimportant information, a process often referred to as "saliency determination."

As reported by NYU Langone, senior study investigator and neuroscientist Michael Halassa, MD, PhD. noted, 

“Our latest research findings support a newly emerging model of how the brain focuses attention on a particular task, using neurons in the thalamic reticular nucleus as a switchboard to control the amount of information the brain receives, limiting and filtering out sensory information that we don’t want to pay attention to. Filtering out distracting or irrelevant information is a vital function. People need to be able to focus on one thing and suppress other distractions to perform everyday functions such as driving, talking on the phone, and socializing.”

The researchers also noted the interaction of the thalamic reticular nucleus and the prefrontal cortex of the brain in controlling how the brain multi-tasks. The prefrontal cortex has long been known to control executive functions - organization, focus, and other behaviors that impact day to day functioning. The study looked at how mice were able to respond to stimuli when their prefrontal cortex was inactivated, which disrupted TRN neural signaling. When this occurred, the mice were not able to block out distracting stimuli and find a reward of milk.

Certainly, this research has a way to go before it fully explains how this process works in humans. But it may be a huge next step in explaining the brain issues underlying attention deficit and executive function disorders.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Halloween BINGO

Halloween is just around the corner, so we want to share a fun, easy game to play with the kids. It can be played at home in a small group, or at school with the whole class. BINGO is a classic game, and the rules are pretty straightforward. We have, however, included step-by-step instructions to help you brush up on the game play basics. The complete set of game cards can be downloaded, for free, here. There are five different game boards available. We hope you enjoy your Halloween!

Materials Needed

  • One bingo card per child
  • Materials to mark the bingo cards (e.g. candy, tokens or crayons)
  • One set of teacher/parent game pieces

  • Print out enough game cards so that each player has one
  • Gather any markers, chips or candy needed to mark the squares
  • Teacher/parent cuts out their game pieces along the dotted line

  • Teacher/parent draws a card and calls it out to the students
  • It is helpful to show younger children the picture, in case they aren’t familiar with the Halloween words. In a classroom setting, a projector or smart board works well for this
  • Children look at their game card and locate the picture. They then cover the picture if they find it
  • First person to complete a row of five (horizontally, vertically or diagonally) wins!
  • Alternate way to win: Play blackout, where the entire board must be covered to win

Friday, October 16, 2015

Assessing a College's "Value"

Any good liberal arts college will encourage students to understand that correlation does not necessarily mean causation. This key component of critical thinking is what explains why ice cream consumption does not cause drowning, even though both tend to increase at the same time of year - in the summer.

However, it seems that this principle is often being overlooked in evaluating the colleges our society relies on for teaching students how to think critically. The U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard provides in its rankings database, among other information, median earnings of graduates. A recent New York Times article notes that this promotes a causation-for-correlation confusion, and that a particular institution’s direct impact on future earnings cannot be assumed.

Confounding factors include admissions selectivity and the fact that students at expensive universities often come from privileged backgrounds, which also correlates with high earnings. Colleges also vary in their focus on particular fields, some of which are more high-paying than others, thereby impacting the average when earnings of graduates across fields are evaluated as a whole.

There are many ways to assess a college’s value. Graduate earnings are just one of them, and even if this is the variable used, it must be interpreted with great caution.

Monday, October 12, 2015

DIY Professional Development for Adult Learners

Here at The Yellin Center we don’t just work with learners in the K-12 demographic. We do a lot with adult learners who are currently in college, professional school (especially medical students as part of our work with New York University School of Medicine) and even working professionals. We help develop learning plans that will help them to succeed in their higher academic and professional lives. We assist by linking them to resources and developing the strong learning strategies they need to excel in their chosen field. However, outside of the brick and mortar structure of traditional education, it can be hard for mature learners to figure out how to master the important professional skills they need to get ahead in the workforce. 

DIY Professional development is the new buzzword in adult education, and aims to allow learners to take control of their learning on their own time. EdCamps, whose target audience is often teachers, are springing up to teach valuable skills. There are also a wealth of MOOCs (Massive Online Open Course), such as those by edX or Coursera, available from many universities and professional organizations that span disciplines. If you are looking to build technical skills you can take part in a coding boot camp or self-teach through online learning platforms, such as Code Academy or Khan. If you are looking to brush up your language skills you can take a free course with Duolingo. Peer-to-Peer learning environments, such as Skillshare, are also gaining traction, which allow trained professionals to share their skill set with eager learners. The 21st century online learning format is empowering learners to determine what they need to master, and tailor how and when to learn it so that it integrates with their busy lives. 

One of my favorite resources out there is, a website that uses a flipped classroom model and video modeling to teach and train professional learners. According to their website, helps members “stay ahead of software updates, pick up brand-new skills, switch careers, land promotions, and explore new hobbies.” houses a vast, ever growing course catalog that spans topics from tech skills to creative design to business acumen. Since it is a cloud-based library, courses can be accessed 24/7 from any device, providing learners with the flexibility to learn on their own schedule. Each course is taught by recognized industry experts who work in the fields they are teaching about, so you know the content is up to date and relevant. I particularly find being able to take training notes a very valuable asset. Several White Papers have been published that explore the research and merits and benefits of learning with

Learning isn’t restricted to the classroom anymore. With an internet connection and mobile devices you can access skills training for nearly any skill set from any location.  

Friday, October 9, 2015

A School Grows in Brooklyn

Today we feature a guest blog by Elizabeth Frank, the Head of School at Sage Heights School, which will be opening in Brooklyn, New York in September 2016. Dr. Paul Yellin is an Advisor to Sage Heights. The school will utilize the approach of Mind, Brain, and Education to apply best practices in the classroom from research in Neuroscience, Psychology, and Education. Sage Heights is a member of the Harvard International Research School Network.

Everyone is different. We say it all the time, but is it fully embraced by our schools, by us? When taught and nurtured according to their individuality, children are more engaged with the process of learning. Educational research has confirmed what many parents and teachers experience daily; each child is infinitely varied from the next and cookie cutter solutions do not meet their needs. Recognizing our inborn differences allows for children to develop their passions and strengths, while fostering challenges and aversions.

Jillian is an advanced eight-year-old who doesn’t have to try very hard to get perfect marks at school, and tests above the average range on assessments like the ERB. She is often praised for her brightness and quickness. She is starting to avoid anything she thinks is too hard, because she fears the grown-ups might discover her secret. She believes, “If I can’t do this fast and easily, then I must be dumb,” keeping her from her own unique potential to learn and succeed.

Charlie is a seven-year-old gregarious kid who excels at school, is athletic, and very popular. However, he recently retreated into himself, refusing to participate in activities he once loved, after his beloved grandmother passed away.

Annabeth is six and loves books, words, and games. She has great difficulty staying out of trouble. Lately, she’s been left off the birthday invitation lists of her classmates.

Henry is a six-year-old, well liked, quiet boy. He loves building intricate structures with blocks and avoids anything with letters or numbers.

All four students are typical and should be treated as such. We do not learn in synchronistic ways and sometimes life gets in the way. All can excel if the adults in their lives help to cultivate their challenges and support their gifts, while emphasizing the natural differences in all of us. We want schools to see our children for whom they are and respond to them as their lives unfold.

All children are learning machines and learning begins with the brain. Neuroscience tells us brains are unique and plastic. There are no two duplicate brains in the world, now or ever. While the basic structure of our brains are the same, at the molecular level differences can be detected that affect our ability to learn, even in identical twins. If all people are different from one another, it follows that instruction should be differentiated. Differentiated doesn’t mean easier, but rather creating high challenge and low risk for each individual.

Additionally, the brain’s plasticity is occurring constantly as we encounter the world. Our brains automatically rewire neural paths with each song sung, picture painted, soccer scuffle, or negative/positive thought. Schools and parents can use this plasticity to their advantage by creating environments where they reinforce important skills and belief systems around learning. Days should be designed to develop proficiencies in reading, math and other content areas, but more importantly on effort, collaboration and problem solving strategies. This way students become ready for the challenges of adult life. Isn't that what school should be for?

Monday, October 5, 2015

Not a Luddite

“Because I’m not a Luddite.” This was Les Perelman’s response when asked, in a Boston Globe interview, why he joined a web-based writing tutorial company after years of railing against computerized writing evaluations. Having recently retired from the directorship of MIT’s Writing Across the Curriculum program, Perelman is now the chief research scientist for WriteLab, a startup company that has partnered with dozens of college writing centers. WriteLab uses computerized algorithms to offer students feedback on their writing and guide them toward revisions.

Writelab Logo
As Perelman noted in the Globe interview, the software is not a replacement for a human teacher, but rather a supplement. By providing suggestions and questions, it not only facilitates improvement but helps students become more aware of their writing, whether they defend or reject their original choices. Perelman explained in the interview that automated writing instruction can be valuable despite computers’ shortcomings, and that he got involved because, “…if we don’t do it well, other people are going to do it badly.”

Doing it badly is what Perelman became concerned about a few years ago when the Educational Testing Service, which develops and administers the SAT, developed an e-Rater to automatically grade students’ essays. The New York Times noted that Perelman exposed significant flaws in the system by showing that he was able to earn high scores by submitting to the e-Rater prose that was essentially gibberish. Included in his findings was that the e-Rater values number and size of words over truth and logical coherence.

For example, the e-Rater generated positive feedback in response to this:
Competition which mesmerizes the reprover, especially of administrations, may be multitude. As a result of abandoning the utterance to the people involved, a plethora of cooperation can be more tensely enjoined. Additionally, a humane competition changes assemblage by cooperation. In my semiotics class, all of the agriculturalists for our personal interloper with the probe we decry contend.. . .

Clearly, Perelman had good reason to be cynical about algorithms’ evaluative and informative capabilities, although ETS disputed his findings and conclusions. However, he also has good reason to have some faith in them; and his move to WriteLab may signify that understanding. As anyone who uses a GPS knows, technology certainly can be harnessed for helpful guidance. What one recent study found, though, is that people actually tend to underestimate how much algorithms should be trusted. When researchers at the University of Pennsylvania had subjects observe and then choose between a human or statistical model to make predictions, the subjects were more likely to pick the human model. These results followed a number of other studies’ findings regarding the tendency to dismiss algorithms. In various domains such as stock forecasts or medical decisions, people tended to favor human judgement. However, research suggests that mechanical predictions often beat personal judgement, contrary to what we might be inclined to think is the case.

An openness to the power of technology along with a healthy skepticism and understanding of its limitations seems to be the best approach, in education and in general. Because, after all, we are not Luddites.