As a tutor, I deal with lots of children with learning disabilities, some more severe than others. After looking at the background of some of these kids, it’s clear that there’s a certain causality to these developmental delays.

Let’s look at a generic example. He was adopted from an orphanage  at the age of 2 from a country not exactly known for its world-class orphanages. He’s currently 15 years old, likes sports, and is bit of a slapstick comedian (a lot of falling over and the like). He probably has the intellectual level of an average seven year old and his social, emotional and physical development is nowhere near where it should be. He has many symptoms which might suggest autism spectrum disorder (that’s the way this armchair psychiatrist sees it, anyway).

This child is in Grade 9, can’t spell the word “told” or write a coherent sentence. Yet he is expected to understand and apply such concepts as linear equations, atomic numbers and Shakespearean literature before the year is complete.

I am at a complete loss as to how to deal with something like this. My “specialty” is math and physics. I am used to helping students understand and apply linear equations and atomic numbers. I am unfortunately not prepared to help a 15 year old write a paragraph. In fact, I tried to do this. It took approximately 30 minutes to coax three sentences out of him. It is extremely frustrating to see someone like this who (in my opinion) is not getting the appropriate level of attention.

I am interested in how to combat a disability such as this, but the easiest way to do so is prevention. So why do severe disabilities like this happen, and what can be done to minimize their effects?

Enter the “Still Face experiment“.

The video is narrated by researcher Edward Tronick, and demonstrates what can happen when an infant is (emotionally) neglected for short periods of time. In the video, we see the stark contrast in behavior when a mother is engaged with her infant, and when she does not present any facial cues to her child. When the infant does not receive any feedback from her mother, she becomes distressed very quickly. As Dr. Tronick says at the end of the video:” The good is that normal stuff that goes on, the stuff we do for our kid….The ugly is when you don’t give the child any chance to get back to the good, there’s no reparation, and they’re stuck in that really ugly situation.”

In 1957, psychologist Harry Harlow began a series of experiments with the aim of studying how isolation affects the  development of baby rhesus monkeys. In these experiments, Dr. Harlow isolated the infant monkeys to varying degrees. Jonah Lehrer summarizes the effect on the monkeys in his book “How We Decide“: ” …the babies suffered from a tragic list of side effects. The brain was permanently damaged so that the monkeys…didn’t know how to deal with others, sympathize with strangers or behave in a socially acceptable manner”. In Harlow’s words, “It’s as if the animals were programmed to seek out love”. As Lehrer points out, when the isolated monkeys grew up and had children of their own, they “perpetuated the devastating cycle of cruelty. When their babies tried to cuddle, they would push them away. The confused infants would try again and again, but to no avail”.

Unfortunately, this perpetual cycle  is seen all too often in humans, and this neglect affects not only social and emotional development (as evidenced by the development of children in Romanian orphanages in the 1970s, as discussed in Lehrer’s book), but intellectual development as well. A 2001 study in the journal Pediatrics found that children who were referred to child protection services at some point in their first four years had delayed cognitive development and smaller head sizes compared to other children. In addition, parental risk factors (such as marital status, maternal age and education) were far more likely predictors of neglect than biological risk factors such as birth weight.

I guess I can rack this information up as future parenting advice, and it does tell me why certain children I deal with are as delayed as they are, but it doesn’t tell me how to deal with them. How do you educate a kid like the one I described at the beginning of the post? Moreover, how do you stop it from happening in the first place? Unfortunately, it is hard to break the cycle of neglect. By the time children are old enough to go to school, their development has been severely delayed, and it becomes difficult to make up for the neglect of the past. Unfortunately, I am not familiar with the different approaches to special education. I suppose I have some reading to do…


High school math teacher Dan Meyer recently gave a talk at the TEDxNYED event, where he discussed ways to redesign mathematics education.

Here‘s a link to the video on Dan’s blog.

I think he makes a crucial point in this talk; namely, that teachers aren’t presenting problems in a way that is conducive to student learning. Most problems students are expected to solve are “canned” problems which have little relevance to the real world (an extreme example being ” We know X, Y, Z. The equation for W is W = X + Y + Z. Find W.” OK, not quite that bad…)

What Dan is proposing is to start with a very simple problem (the example he gives is “How long will it take to fill up a jug with water?”), and let students get their hands messy solving it. Instead of proceeding down a list of steps to solve a problem, let students discover the steps for themselves. This messy, “do it yourself” method might seem obvious for introducing a topic, but it is likely alot more efficient (in terms of number of problems solved in a given amount of time) to tell students how to solve a problem. However, by using the “easier” approach, you may be sacrificing the opportunity for the student to gain a deeper understanding of the material, as well as an interest in mathematical reasoning and problem-solving, which is more useful in the long run.

If you’re not familiar with Neil deGrasse Tyson, he is an American scientist well known for his role in popularizing science. He’s been featured on the Colbert Report 6 times, for good reason. His talks are engaging and quick-witted, and he does an excellent job of explaining the beauty of science.

Here he is discussing the role of NASA in our society.

Will shooting people into space make people more money? Will running experiments at the LHC cure cancer? Will abstract paintings buy me a new car, or will the Olympics end wars?

These are the wrong questions to ask. Many of these enterprises are a sinkhole for money, and they will likely not generate a net profit anytime soon. But these are the activities that ignite a new generation of informed, physically active, well-rounded citizens.

Teachers play the same role. Of course students need to be prepared to enter society with the requisite skills, but the Krebs cycle will rarely come up in everyday life for most people. Maybe the more important role of teachers is to ignite a passion for a subject that didn’t exist before. Society gets productive, thoughtful workers, and individuals acquire a passion for a subject that hopefully fulfills them. Everyone wins!

According to a new study published in Psychological science, quicker feedback may elevate levels of learning and performance. The paper itself is located here (pdf).

In the study, students were told they would receive feedback on presentations they gave. Those who were told they would be given feedback sooner received higher grades than those who were told they would be given feedback later. They hypothesize that the threat of disappointment may be more immediate when feedback is received sooner. So if this study is to be believed,  the threat of failure (or looking unprepared) is a good motivator.

I’ve blogged in the past about how frequent testing may improve retention of information. I suggested at the time that the fear of failure may be one motivating factor which explains why testing works. This new paper may add some credence to that hypothesis (although, I am but a lowly blogger and not a professional psychological researcher, so take what I say with a grain of salt).

How could this be used practically? Well, I believe the key is frequent and rapid feedback of performance. For example, in an athletics environment, the coach needs only to watch the athlete and provide feedback immediately after the athlete attempts that skill. In fact, this is reasonable in any environment where the person evaluating the skill has direct communication with the person performing the skill.

Of course, immediate feedback is also important for fixing any errors that may occur, but this study seems to be focused solely on the motivation aspect. So how could the “motivation” part be implemented in a classroom environment? Well, the allure of relatively quick feedback (the sooner the better) may motivate students (the fear of impending failure!), while frequent testing may help them retain the information better. One interesting way I’ve seen this implemented is using Standards-Based Grading (SBG). Students are assessed on how well they can master specific standards (e.g. understanding of the quadratic equation), and are given the opportunity to improve their grades based on how well they understand those standards, as opposed to receiving a single, unchangeable grade in a test. Students could be tested every day of the week in order to improve the grade on specific standards (“testing” does not necessarily mean a sit-down test. It could be working out a single problem, a discussion, a simple experiment, or anything that demonstrates an understanding of the material). Examples of how it could be implemented for different subjects are given in the link I provided (and I encourage you to read Shawn’s blog, which has some great posts about high school math and science).

So while the threat of disappointment may be an important motivating factor, this should be balanced with a healthy dose of guidance  and  frequent opportunities to improve.

I’ve been thinking about how high schools prepare us for grown-up life recently. I’ve been wrestling with the idea of becoming a high school teacher, but there are certain aspects I can’t seem to overcome, such as the seemingly small role that a teacher plays in someone’s life. Perhaps a bit of background will sort things out.

Part I: How I Discovered Physics

I first considered becoming a physics teacher when I was 16 years old. In my grade 11 physics course, we were required to do a project on any physics related topic. I had always had an interest in space (My grade 5 science fair project was “The Solar System”), and I always thought the Big Bang was an interesting concept (the whole universe began with a huge explosion? Neat!). I went to my school’s library to flip through the (somewhat lacking) selection of physics books, looking for any “Big Bang” related topics. I remember there was approximately 5 rows of physics/astronomy books, so not a large selection of books.

I happened across a book called “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Einstein”. Of course, I knew who Einstein was, but I didn’t know what he was famous for; I just knew he was a physicist. While flipping through that book, I noticed a couple chapters devoted to cosmology, and after reading a couple passages, I was hooked.

I started to read the bits of the book relevant to my project, and quickly realized that what I was reading was fascinating, but I would have to start from the beginning to understand the whole picture.  I think I put that book down once before I finished it…and I think I re-read it the week after. I was hooked. Physics was awesome.

However, I wasn’t too keen on my physics teachers though. Physics in a classroom environment just wasn’t exciting for me, and my teachers were either not very boring or not qualified to be teaching the subject (in case you were wondering, I got 100% on my Big Bang report, even though I made obvious mistakes every page or so of a 15 page report). There were moments when it was exciting, but that was when I did reading on my own, not during class hours. However, I did have some outstanding teachers, and I wanted to be like them, to make subjects fun, exciting and accessible. My best friend’s parents were also teachers, so I had a pretty good idea about the kind of lifestyle teachers had. That lifestyle, combined with the influence of a few great teachers and my newfound appreciation for physics, convinced me that I should be a physics teacher. The fact that there was likely to be a job waiting for me when I finished cemented the idea.

I entered university quite immature to science and mathematics. In fact, I was terrible at mathematics. My first failed math test came when I was 9 years old, and things got only marginally better as I went along. I came infinitesimally close to  failing high school calculus. Yet here I was, majoring in physics, taking 6-8 math and physics courses a year.

Long story short, I matured mathematically and scientifically, decided I liked learning physics too much to stop and ended up getting my masters degree in physics. Even though the idea of becoming a teacher kept getting pushed aside, I would come back to me every so often. However, when you’re learning quantum mechanics and advanced electromagnetism, the idea of teaching Newton’s law at a basic level is not the most appealing thing. At least, that was the thought at the time.

Part II: Why I Should Help Others Discover Physics

Now that the idea of teaching has again entered my mind, I’ve been thinking about the importance of these high school courses in someone’s life. I’d like to be a teacher, but what if I’m just a hole in the wall? What is my role in society? To teach a subject that less than 50% of students take, and probably just as many never think of as soon as it’s over? Heck, they may not even remember the teacher in 10 years!

Which I guess brings me to my point. Some of the most influential teachers I had were in subjects that I don’t formally use anymore (English and History). Yet that course introduced me to current events, the role of history on everyday society, and the fact that learning could be fun. I was also influenced by my friends, as we would sometimes go over what was taught in class and even delve into subjects outside of the realm of the public education system, like philosophy or psychology.

I’m sure if you ask anyone what they remember about high school, classroom learning is not the first thing that comes to mind. Yet everyone (and I think this is a scientific law) has a teacher or two that they remember having a positive influence on them, even if they don’t remember the details of what they were taught.** My friends were not physics/math types, so I was essentially on my own in that area. Until I was 18, I didn’t have any peers or role models in physics. I basically took up learning physics as a hobby, and no one that I knew of shared my enthusiasm for the subject (I probably just didn’t look hard enough). But the positive influences I had from my friends and teachers helped me keep going and to consider taking physics seriously. No one played a direct role in my embrace of physics, but their influence was all over it.

I’m trying to come up with a summary for the role a teacher plays in a student’s life, but it keeps becoming riddled with cliches, so I’ll just say this: the subject matter isn’t the most important thing in a class. The most important thing is to keep a student consistently interested in your class so they take something…anything…from the time they spend in your classroom. Everyone has different experiences, and the subject matter is hardly the most important thing. So many factors come into play for a person’s development, and each contribution can seem so inconsequential. But maybe it’s not. Make your contribution matter.

Of course, everyone I’ve ever talked to said that high school physics did not prepare them at all for university-level physics. So maybe if I taught, I could change that too.

Bla that was a lot of writing…

TL;DR (Cliche summary)- As a teacher, you have an opportunity to make a difference in someone’s life. Make it count.

** I remember maybe 3 lessons from school before I was 16. I do remember recess though, and how I spent my recesses and breaks for every year of my schooling.

The New York Times published an article in their magazine this past weekend titled “Building a Better Teacher“. The article outlines the task of placing better teachers in classrooms. The trouble comes in when defining “better teachers”. What makes a good teacher? In the US, the yardstick for “good” teaching seems to be standardized testing, which is whole barrel of worms I’ll get to another time.

And not the good barrel of worms either

The article revolves around a series of instructional techniques called Lemov’s Taxonomy, a list of characteristics supposedly found in effective teachers collected by educator Doug Lemov. I say “supposedly” because the measure of a good teacher appears to be based on a combination of standardized test scores and  some unknown subjective measure. I think the ranking of teachers needs to be based on a sound system of measurement with reproducible results; otherwise, what’s the point? Garbage in = garbage out. It’s like using astrology as the basis for scientific measurements (no offense to any budding astrologers out there).

Aries has a 17.4% chance of surpassing 13 Standard Attractive Units (SAU)

Reproducible results are hard to come by in education, especially with the huge disparity in each child’s background (e.g. socioeconomic, genetic, educational). It’s a complicated area though, and I commend Lemov for giving it a go, as haphazard as the attempt may be.

However, when the article veers onto the subject of content-based knowledge, I could not agree more. Frankly, I’m shocked it took so long for the article to make this point. Content-based knowledge is the foundation of effective teaching.

Of course, a knowledgeable teacher does not necessarily make a good teacher, but I think it’s a minimum requirement. After that? Well, to accurately assess teachers, we need an appropriate measuring stick for teachers, and for this we need to look at what exactly we want students to get out of their education. Do we want them to become better at standardized tests? Do we want them to enter prestigious universities? Do we want them above a certain salary in 5 years?

Maybe the whole practice of assessing teachers has no basis in reality and poor teachers are a consequence of the dysfunctional education system they are part of. Perhaps that’s where we need to focus our attention.

xkcd - Students

Everyone hates this dream. I have this dream frequently, except it’s always a test that I’m writing. For most students, tests are a stress-filled nuisance and once the test is done, most of the knowledge acquired over the days, weeks, months in preparation quickly exits the brain and leaves the head (through the ears, if I’m not mistaken) with an audible *pppfffttttt*.

Testing tends to be stressful for a couple reasons. First, it provides a very slim margin of error. You only get one chance with a test, and if you muck it up? Well, too bad. In addition, if you screw the test up, that could be the end of your lifelong dream of becoming a INSERT YOUR DREAM PROFESSION HERE. Plus, failing never feels good.

However, there is evidence that frequent testing can actually help students learn: instead of learning the material to do well on a test (then promptly forgetting the material), students learn the material better by actually doing more tests. So frequent testing could be good for you. Which doesn’t bode well for those anxiety-filled dreams.

Continue reading ‘Why frequent testing is good for you’