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September 28, 2012

FOR KIDS: Making rocks into magnets

Heat up a rock. Most likely, all you will get is a hot rock. But heat up the right type of stone to just the right temperature and you could end up with a magnet, scientists now report.

Long before people invented the small magnets that stick to refrigerators or the big magnets that pick up cars at the junkyard, people discovered natural magnets. The most magnetic and common type is a lodestone. It consists of a brownish-black mineral called magnetite. Lodestones are natural compasses: Suspend one by a thread or wire and it will rotate until its magnetic field is aligned with Earth’s magnetic field.

The Writing Revolution

For years, nothing seemed capable of turning around New Dorp High School’s dismal performance—not firing bad teachers, not flashy education technology, not after-school programs.

So, faced with closure, the school’s principal went all-in on a very specific curriculum reform, placing an overwhelming focus on teaching the basics of analytic writing, every day, in virtually every class.

What followed was an extraordinary blossoming of student potential, across nearly every subject—one that has made New Dorp a model for educational reform.

September 27, 2012

Technology 'Improves' Grammar Learning for Primary Pupils

Hand-held technology can help to improve primary pupils' learning of grammar, according to a new study by the Institute for Effective Education (IEE) at the University of York.

Researchers at the IEE conducted a large randomised evaluation in more than 40 primary schools of the use of Questions for Learning (QfL), a technology-enhanced, self-paced learning tool. It was found to enhance grammar achievement and was particularly effective for average- and low-achieving pupils.

If these results held over a school year, these pupils would make between three and four months of additional progress.

In QfL each pupil responds to progressively more difficult questions that are presented on Promethean ActivExpression wireless hand-held devices at the rate that the pupil answers them. This allows both more advanced and weaker pupils to answer in a private way at a pace appropriate to them.

Researchers Investigate Aggression Among Kindergartners

Not all aggressive children are aggressive for the same reasons, according to Penn State researchers, who found that some kindergartners who are aggressive show low verbal abilities while others are more easily physiologically aroused. The findings suggest that different types of treatments may be needed to help kids with different underlying causes for problem behavior.

"Aggressive responses to being frustrated are a normal part of early childhood, but children are increasingly expected to manage their emotions and control their behavior when they enter school," said Lisa Gatzke-Kopp, assistant professor of human development and family studies.

"Kids who don't do this well, who hit their classmates when they are frustrated or cause other types of disturbances in the classroom, are at especially high risk for long-term consequences including delinquency, violence, dropping out of school, abusing substances and even suicide. Research tells us that the earlier we can intervene, the better the chances of getting these children back on track."

FOR KIDS: Building Stonehenge

A new study of ancient crops may identify the laborers behind Britain’s most famous stone monument.

No one knows for certain why ancient people built Stonehenge, a circular monument of stones in Great Britain. But somebody built it. A new study now concludes that it was most likely erected by prehistoric people who herded animals and moved around the countryside. Until now, most scientists had suspected crop farmers had built Stonehenge.

Cogmed Working Memory Training: Does It Actually Work?

Helping children achieve their full potential in school is of great concern to everyone, and a number of commercial products have been developed to try and achieve this goal.

The Cogmed Working Memory Training program is such an example and is marketed to schools and parents of children with attention problems caused by poor working memory. But, does the program actually work?

The target article in the September issue of Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition (JARMAC) calls into question Cogmed's claims of improving working memory and addressing underachievement due to working memory constraints.

September 26, 2012

What Is This App Doing To My Kid’s Brain?

Seven out of 10 kids in tablet-using homes use the tablet themselves. The author of a new book argues parents are paying attention to the wrong criteria to decide what’s good and bad in kids’ media.

The amount of digital media exposure we’re getting, even among the tiniest infants, just keeps growing . Half of all children under the age of 8 have access to a touch-screen device, whether smartphone or tablet, at home, and half of infants under 1 year watch TV or videos--an average of almost two hours a day. The educational app field is seeing massive growth with 80% of educational apps in the iPad store targeted to young children. But research, says one expert, is lagging far behind practice.

"Parents tend to think: 'If my kids are interacting with media, that they’re getting something out of it,' versus 'If they’re just watching they’re not,'" says Lisa Guernsey. "It’s a dangerous dichotomy--it’s not always true. Some passive screen media may be designed much better than some interactive media."

Learning Requires Rhythmical Activity of Neurons

The hippocampus represents an important brain structure for learning. Scientists at the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich discovered how it filters electrical neuronal signals through an input and output control, thus regulating learning and memory processes.

Accordingly, effective signal transmission needs so-called theta-frequency impulses of the cerebral cortex. With a frequency of three to eight hertz, these impulses generate waves of electrical activity that propagate through the hippocampus. Impulses of a different frequency evoke no transmission, or only a much weaker one.

Moreover, signal transmission in other areas of the brain through long-term potentiation (LTP), which is essential for learning, occurs only when the activity waves take place for a certain while. The scientists even have an explanation for why we are mentally more productive after drinking a cup of coffee or in an acute stress situation: in their experiments, caffeine and the stress hormone corticosterone boosted the activity flow.

Language Use Is Simpler Than Previously Thought

For more than 50 years, language scientists have assumed that sentence structure is fundamentally hierarchical, made up of small parts in turn made of smaller parts, like Russian nesting dolls.

A new Cornell study suggests language use is simpler than they had thought.

Co-author Morten Christiansen, Cornell professor of psychology and co-director of the Cornell Cognitive Science Program, and his colleagues say that language is actually based on simpler sequential structures, like clusters of beads on a string.

September 25, 2012

Human Brains Develop Wiring Slowly, Differing from Chimpanzees

Dr. Sherwood and co-authors write that the development of myelin from birth to adulthood in humans is protracted in comparison to chimpanzees. In humans, myelin develops slowly during childhood, followed by a delayed period of maturity beyond adolescence and into early adulthood. In contrast, in chimpanzees, the development of myelin already starts at a relatively more mature level at birth and ceases development long before puberty.

“These observations indicate that a marked delay in the development schedule of the human neocortex may play an important role in the growth of connections that contribute to our species-specific cognitive abilities,” wrote Dr. Sherwood and co-authors.

The developmental timing of myelination is important because it establishes connectivity among parts of the growing brain, which is essential to higher-order cognitive functions, such as decision-making and emotional regulation. These cognitive functions are known to mature relatively late in humans, after the time of adolescence.

Studies Find Payoff in 'Personalizing' Algebra

While "personalization" has become a buzzword in education, it can be hard to determine what really makes a subject relevant to individual children in the classroom. An ongoing series of studies at Southern Methodist University suggests learning students' interests upfront and incorporating them into lessons can get struggling students to try harder and substantially improve their performance in algebra.

"You don't think the words, the little details of context, will make a difference when you are solving a math problem, but it really does," said Candace A. Walkington, an assistant professor of teaching and learning at Southern Methodist in Dallas and the lead researcher for the reports. The most recent of them Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader is expected to be published later this year in a special issue of the Journal of Educational Psychology on advanced learning technologies.

The studies, which were discussed at a recent meeting here at Carnegie Mellon University, highlight one way to boost learning in algebraic expression, a concept considered critical in the Common Core State Standards but which educators say is perennially challenging to students. The study Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader found that personalized math problems not only made it easier for students to understand what was being asked, but also helped boost the confidence of students.

Schools Should Move from Print to Digital Content by 2017

A report released Monday by a national education technology group suggests schools switch to digital instructional materials by 2017, and highlights some of the policy barriers that must be knocked down in order to get there. The report, from the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA), is a blueprint for states and districts looking to switch over to digital content, and mirrors a similar road map laid out by the U.S. Department of Education and Federal Communications Commission earlier this year.

"The textbook was the best technology we had... 50 plus years ago," said Doug Levin, the executive director of SETDA, during a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington. Levin was joined by SETDA officials and representatives from states like Utah and Virginia, which are put forth as case studies for digital content policy in the report, titled "Out of Print." Levin went on to list the trends changing how instructional materials are designed and delivered, like the Common Core State Standards, budget pressures and student demographic changes, among others.

"[It's] the perfect storm for re-imagination of the K-12 textbook," said Levin.

Dive into the Great Barrier Reef with the first underwater panoramas in Google Maps

Today we’re adding the very first underwater panoramic images to Google Maps, the next step in our quest to provide people with the most comprehensive, accurate and usable map of the world. With these vibrant and stunning photos you don’t have to be a scuba diver—or even know how to swim—to explore and experience six of the ocean’s most incredible living coral reefs. Now, anyone can become the next virtual Jacques Cousteau and dive with sea turtles, fish and manta rays in Australia, the Philippines and Hawaii.

Starting today, you can use Google Maps to find a sea turtle swimming among a school of fish, follow a manta ray and experience the reef at sunset—just as I did on my first dive in the Great Barrier Reef last year. You can also find out much more about this reef via the World Wonders Project, a website that brings modern and ancient world heritage sites online. 

Dyslexia Cause May Be Different Than Previously Thought

Dyslexia may result from impairment of a different linguistic system than previously thought, according to research published Sept. 19 in the open access journal PLOS ONE.

Speech perception engages at least two linguistic systems: the phonetic system, which extracts discrete sound units from acoustic input, and the phonological system, which combines these units to form individual words.

Previously, researchers generally believed that dyslexia was caused by phonological impairment, but results from the current study, led by Iris Berent of Northeastern University in Boston, suggest that the phonetic system may actually be the cause.

"Our findings confirm that dyslexia indeed compromises the language system, but the locus of the deficit is in the phonetic, not the phonological system, as had been previously assumed," says Berent.

September 22, 2012

Pre-school education in Texas: Start them early

DEMOGRAPHERS like to say that Texas today is the United States tomorrow. That being the case, a look at San Antonio—the second-largest city in Texas, and seventh-largest in the country—suggests that America had better get cracking. In many respects the city is in an enviable position: young, diverse, and growing by bounds. It also includes a huge number of children—a quarter of whom live in poverty, most of whom need more education, and all of whom live in a state where government spending is a hard sell. At the Democratic National Convention recently the mayor, Juli├ín Castro, made a pitch for change: “We know that you can’t be pro-business unless you’re pro-education,” he said.

To that end, he said, the city was working for a bigger pre-school programme. The idea is part of a national trend towards early childhood education. “Give me a child until he is seven,” runs the famous Jesuit saying, “and I will give you the man.” Why wait that long, though? By the time children start kindergarten, some are manifestly more ready than others, in terms of their health, cognitive skills, and ability to pay attention to the teacher.

Studies have shown that these advantages persist, and that poverty is the biggest factor. According to a recent analysis from the Brookings Institution, a think-tank, just 48% of children born into poor families are ready for school by the time they start kindergarten. Among children from middle-class and rich families, 75% are.

September 20, 2012

Playground Peers Can Predict Adult Personalities

"Over two years, Montreal students in grades 1, 4 and 7 completed peer evaluations of their classmates and rated them in terms of aggression, likeability and social withdrawal. The students also did self-evaluations."

Over the next twenty years, these children were closely followed as researchers used the exhaustive longitudinal study to track their progress into adulthood. A follow-up survey was conducted between 1999 and 2003 with nearly 700 of the participants from the initial study. The survey included measurement of adult personality traits, such as levels of neuroticism, extroversion, openness, agreeableness and conscientiousness.

"We were able to compare peer and self-perceptions of the childhood behaviours to these adult personality factors," says Martin-Storey.

September 18, 2012

Music Underlies Language Acquisition, Theorists Propose

Contrary to the prevailing theories that music and language are cognitively separate or that music is a byproduct of language, theorists at Rice University's Shepherd School of Music and the University of Maryland, College Park (UMCP) advocate that music underlies the ability to acquire language.

"Spoken language is a special type of music," said Anthony Brandt, co-author of a theory paper published online this month in the journal Frontiers in Cognitive Auditory Neuroscience. "Language is typically viewed as fundamental to human intelligence, and music is often treated as being dependent on or derived from language. But from a developmental perspective, we argue that music comes first and language arises from music."

"Infants listen first to sounds of language and only later to its meaning," Brandt said. He noted that newborns' extensive abilities in different aspects of speech perception depend on the discrimination of the sounds of language -- "the most musical aspects of speech."

September 14, 2012

Sleep Researchers Study Value of Preschool Naps

Parents may feel it's clear that missing a nap means their young children will be grumpy and out-of-sorts, but scientists who study sleep say almost nothing is known about how daytime sleep affects children's coping skills and learning.

Now neuroscientist Rebecca Spencer at the University of Massachusetts Amherst has received a five-year, $2 million grant from NIH's Heart, Lung and Blood Institute to significantly advance knowledge about how napping and sleep affect memory, behavior and emotions in preschoolers.

Spencer says with pressure mounting in some school districts to eliminate naps, "we feel it's important to study this and know their value more precisely. There's a sense among some educators that kids have to 'get over' napping in preparation for kindergarten, but it could be misguided. There's some evidence in young adults and in older children that naps are beneficial. So I suspect there is a benefit for younger children too. We need to know whether keeping naps in the school day is important."

September 11, 2012

Study Finds U.S. Trailing in Preschool Enrollment

The United States lags behind most of the world’s leading economies when it comes to providing early-childhood education opportunities to young children despite improvements in recent years, according to a new study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

According to the Paris-based OECD’s “Education at a Glance 2012,” a report released today, the United States ranks 28th out of 38 countries for the share of 4-year-olds enrolled in pre-primary education programs, at 69 percent. That’s compared with more than 95 percent enrollment rates in France, the Netherlands, Spain, and Mexico, which lead the world in early-childhood participation rates for 4-year-olds. Ireland, Poland, Finland, and Brazil are among the nations that trail the United States.

The United States also invests significantly less public money in early-childhood programs than its counterparts in the Group of Twenty, or G-20, economies, which include 19 countries and the European Union. On average, across the countries that are compared in the OECD report, 84 percent of early-childhood students were enrolled in public programs or in private settings that receive major government resources in 2010.

September 6, 2012

Family Literacy Project Exceeds Expectations

A unique approach to early literacy work with families where children develop their language skills and their ability to read and write from an early age has had a huge success.

Researchers from the University of Sheffield funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) initially planned to use the approach with around 60 families, but discovered that around 6,000 had actually benefited from their work.