John Cleese Explains the Brain

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Below is a video from John Cleese’s very “informative” brain podcast (actual content begins around 35 seconds). You’ll notice, of course, that nearly every sentence is almost entirely gibberish.

It is humorous to us in large part because . . .

  1. John Cleese is a masterful humorist who can make gobbledygook sound sensical, and . . .
  2. It is a low stakes environment. None of us will be held accountable for his 1.5 minutes worth of “content.” We’ll watch, marvel and share it, and then go on with our lives.

However, the video offers an instructive peek into the daily experience of scores of students who struggle to decipher language — either because of receptive language challenges or immersion in a new language such as English. We know that stress inhibits learning, so the question becomes, how can we alleviate/manage our content delivery to minimize student stress so as to best capitalize on their learning potential?

If we needed to truly understand this information, how might Mr. Cleese revise his methods? How would you deliver this “content” to ensure students understood it?

 

 Photo Credit: Adrian J Wallace via Compfight cc
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Dyslexia doesn’t define me

A short TEDxYouth talk by student, Piper Otterbein, about her journey from being labeled by dyslexia to creating and sustaining her passion. How can we better create environments where students like her don’t have to “graduate” from their areas of challenge in order to connect with their strengths? How can we help make sure learning is meaningful to all students no matter their learning profile? Or better yet, because of their learning profile.

How can we ensure our classrooms and learning communities reflect the best of our students, so when they look around they see their possibilities, not just their challenges?

Organization of Object and Action Categories in the Brain

article-0-1698BF2A000005DC-343_964x597The team at Gallant Lab at UC Berkley has been looking at how the brain processes and maps words/subject/objects. (Their recently published paper in Neuron) The result is a fascinating look into the workings of the brain and yet more evidence that we have only barely begun to uncover the mysteries of the mind at work.

Check out the video below explaining the research and then head over to their site where you can play with the data yourself (they recommend using Chrome as your browser).

While we can’t make assumptions or jump to conclusions about what this means for working with students, the research does offer a springboard for a whole host of other questions. For example:

  • What role does background knowledge play in the shaping and writing the semantic map?
  • Do the semantic maps look different when focused on a single topic — such as vehicles, buildings, or plants?
  • How might this research inform methods of vocabulary instruction?
  • If the information were provided in different contexts or delivery methods (text or verbal rendering vs. movie clip rendering), are the areas of the brain that are oxygenated different? What implications might this have for classroom learning?

Such research illustrates, once again, how little we know, and how much more there is yet to learn. What we do know is this: students’ minds are complex and pliable. The experiences and environments we design and deliver help shape how they process, understand, and interact with the world. It is up to us to make those experiences worthwhile.

Want to know more? Read Ben Thomas’s piece, “Meaning and the Brain: How Your Brain Organizes Reality” at Scientific America. 

Image: via Daily Mail via Gallant Labs

On Cognition and the Bilingual Mind

In the past year there has been a flurry of articles on the cognitive advantages of the bilingual mind. Below is a selection of quotes from various pieces.

The best of the articles comes from the Dana Foundation‘s Cerebrum publication (which includes a list of accompanying research for more exploration). In their piece, Viorica Marian, PhD and Anthony Shook conclude:

The cognitive and neurological benefits of bilingualism extend from early childhood to old age as the brain more efficiently processes information and staves off cognitive decline. What’s more, the attention and aging benefits discussed above aren’t exclusive to people who were raised bilingual; they are also seen in people who learn a second language later in life.25,28 The enriched cognitive control that comes along with bilingual experience represents just one of the advantages that bilingual people enjoy. Despite certain linguistic limitations that have been observed in bilinguals (e.g., increased naming difficulty7), bilingualism has been associated with improved metalinguistic awareness (the ability to recognize language as a system that can be manipulated and explored), as well as with better memory, visual-spatial skills, and even creativity.29Furthermore, beyond these cognitive and neurological advantages, there are also valuable social benefits that come from being bilingual, among them the ability to explore a culture through its native tongue or talk to someone with whom you might otherwise never be able to communicate. The cognitive, neural, and social advantages observed in bilingual people highlight the need to consider how bilingualism shapes the activity and the architecture of the brain, and ultimately how language is represented in the human mind, especially since the majority of speakers in the world experience life through more than one language.

Judy Willis, the internationally recognized neuroscientist turned educator, in her post on Psychology Today writes,

Recent studies of children who grow up in bilingual settings reveal advantages over single language children, including both increased attentive focus and cognition. The findings correlate with prefrontal cortex brain activity networks, which direct the highest levels of thinking and awareness.

Compared to monolinguals, the studied bilingual children, who had had five to ten years of bilingual exposure, averaged higher scores in cognitive performance on tests and had greater attention focus, distraction resistance, decision-making, judgment and responsiveness to feedback. The correlated neuroimaging (fMRI scans) of these children revealed greater activity in the prefrontal cortex networks directing these and other executive functions. (Bialystok, 2009; Kaushanskaya & Marian, 2007).

In March, the New York Times published a piece in their Grey Matters column that included this research finding:

This view of bilingualism is remarkably different from the understanding of bilingualism through much of the 20th century. Researchers, educators and policy makers long considered a second language to be an interference, cognitively speaking, that hindered a child’s academic and intellectual development.

They were not wrong about the interference: there is ample evidence that in a bilingual’s brain both language systems are active even when he is using only one language, thus creating situations in which one system obstructs the other. But this interference, researchers are finding out, isn’t so much a handicap as a blessing in disguise. It forces the brain to resolve internal conflict, giving the mind a workout that strengthens its cognitive muscles.

Bilinguals, for instance, seem to be more adept than monolinguals at solving certain kinds of mental puzzles. In a 2004 study by the psychologists Ellen Bialystok and Michelle Martin-Rhee, bilingual and monolingual preschoolers were asked to sort blue circles and red squares presented on a computer screen into two digital bins — one marked with a blue square and the other marked with a red circle.

In the first task, the children had to sort the shapes by color, placing blue circles in the bin marked with the blue square and red squares in the bin marked with the red circle. Both groups did this with comparable ease. Next, the children were asked to sort by shape, which was more challenging because it required placing the images in a bin marked with a conflicting color. The bilinguals were quicker at performing this task.

This post in the Wall Street Journal highlights the research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In the WSJ, Robert Lee Hotz writes,

In the new study, Kraus and her colleagues tested the involuntary neural responses to speech sounds by comparing brain signals in 23 high school students who were fluent in English and Spanish to those of 25 teenagers who only spoke English. When it was quiet, both groups could hear the test syllable — “da” — with no trouble, but when there was background noise, the brains of the bilingual students were significantly better at detecting the fundamental frequency of speech sounds.

“We have determined that the nervous system of a bilingual person responds to sound in a way that is distinctive from a person who speaks only one language,” Kraus says.

Through this fine-tuning of the nervous system, people who can master more than one language are building a more resilient brain, one more proficient at multitasking, setting priorities, and, perhaps, better able to withstand the ravages of age, a range of recent studies suggest.

Though a little bit older, research by Gallaudet professor, Laura-Ann Petitto, was published in the Mind, Brain, and Education journal in 2009. The abstract reads,

ABSTRACT— We discuss the fruits of educational neuroscience research from our laboratory and show how the typical maturational timing milestones in bilingual language acquisition provide educators with a tool for differentiating a bilingual child experiencing language and reading delay versus deviance. Further, early schooling in two languages simultaneously affords young bilingual children a reading advantage and may also ameliorate the negative effect of low socioeconomic status on literacy. Using powerful brain imaging technology, functional Near Infrared Spectroscopy,we provide a first-time look into the developing brains of bilingual as compared to monolingual children.We show unequivocally that the age of first bilingual exposure is a vital predictor of bilingual language and reading mastery. Accounts that promote later dual language and reading instruction, or those that assert human brain development is unrelated to bilingual language mastery, are not supported by the present findings. We discuss the implications for education, teachers, and developmental brain sciences.

What are the implications for education and educators? While there is no quick and readily applicable conclusion from the emerging research, it is clear we must be very intentional about how we approach second language learning and learners. Educating with the brain in mind necessitates we seek first to understand (our students) and then to be understood (by them).

Want to know more? Keep an eye on Edutopia’s excellent Brain-Based Learning blog and sign up for the Dana Foundation Newsletter.

Rosie O’Donnell explains how to “attune a child.”

By Mary-Dean Barringer, All Kinds of Minds CEO

It took Rosie O’Donnell less than three minutes to describe an educational approach advocated by the All Kinds of Minds Institute. The New York Times shares a video where O’Donnell, and her son, talk about how they pinpointed the root of his learning struggles. It’s the best description of the “attuning a student process” I’ve found! (http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/04/26/little-known-disorder-can-take-a-toll-on-learning/?8dpc)

Ms. O’Donnell’s notices the offbeat way her son responds to particular situations. “He hadn’t learned how to learn yet.” With careful observations, she and others were able to determine the specific breakdown—an auditory processing weakness. Blake was then able to get the targeted interventions and instructional support strategies he needed. Ms. O’Donnell helped him—and his siblings—realize he was not dumb; his brain was just wired differently.

And ask her son what he thinks and he’ll tell you, “It took a lot of work for me to get this smart but now I am smart.”

But Ms. O’Donnell says that process is not just about better grades. “It definitely affected his whole world,” she said of her son. “Not just learning. It cuts them off from society, from interactions. To see the difference in who he is today versus who he was two years ago, and then to contemplate what would have happened had we not been able to catch it — I think he would have been lost.”

At All Kinds of Minds we know that students differ in how they are “wired” to learn, and that the observations of these individual learning profiles – including strengths and weaknesses – can be better understood through knowledge of the brain activities that affect learning.

Our research shows that when educators have an understanding of this knowledge – along with tools and strategies for applying it in their classrooms – they are more effective teachers. They look at students differently. They make better observations about their students and where they are having trouble. They better understand why students are struggling. And they know how to target instruction to help the Blakes in their school.

And the result is exactly what Ms. O’Donnell and Blake share with us–hope, possibility, optimism, belief.

For the students it translates into a belief in themselves as smart learners. For the teachers it translates into optimism that all they can help all students learn. For the parents it translates into hope for a successful life for their child. And for us at All Kinds of Minds, it reminds us of the possibility that all of us just might be able to transform education, even if it starts with a child at a time.

“The Language”

Since our intensive training in the Schools Attuned Program, Subject Specialist Path, which earned faculty a certificate two summers ago, all Learning Specialists at Forman School now use the neurodevelopmental terms in the Learning Profile write-ups which they compose for each of their students before classes begin. This one page Learning Profile provides a “snapshot” of the student that includes his/her learning strengths, challenges, affinities, and necessary accommodations. These profile pages are given to parents, classroom teachers, college advising staff, and other professionals who need access to this information. Learning Specialists are also asking that students use the neurodevelopmental terminology when articulating their learning needs. As a faculty, we are making a conscientious effort to include this specific language in the comments we write home to parents each term. The problem we are facing is that oftentimes parents and educators do not fully understand what is written in the learning profiles because they never had the All Kinds of Minds training. Students are also experiencing difficulty learning the terminology. Forman is a high school which specializes in teaching only those students having learning differences. Do you believe using this technical language makes our reports more accurate, or should we write in layman’s terms?