Variability surpasses frequency for language learning

In “Predicting the Birth of a Spoken Word” [PDF]:

Children learn words through an accumulation of interactions grounded in context. …

We show that words used in distinctive spatial, temporal, and linguistic contexts are produced earlier, suggesting they are easier to learn. …

…contextual distinctiveness (whether in space, time, or language) was a strong independent predictor of the child’s production. Each of the three predictors correlated with the child’s production more robustly than frequency, MLU [mean length of utterance], or word length…

Distinctive combinations of contextual features matter more than mere frequency of repetition. Children learn language through meaningful, authentic contexts, suggesting the caregivers and teachers should expose them to and engage them in real-life conversations using varied vocabulary, in varied expressions, about varied topics, in varied situations.

Project-based learning, science talks, and field trips, anyone?


Roy, B. C., Frank, M. C., DeCamp, P., Miller, M., & Roy, D. (2015). Predicting the birth of a spoken word. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(41), 12663-12668.

Responses to Feedback Define Mindsets Better than Self-Reported Beliefs

Growth and fixed mindsets are better defined as responses to feedback, particularly feedback on errors, shortcomings, and setbacks, than as beliefs about intelligence. As reported in, “Seeing the benefits of failure shapes kids’ beliefs about intelligence“:

Parents who tended to view failure as a negative, harmful event had children who were more likely to believe that intelligence is fixed.

…parents who adopted a more negative stance toward failure were more likely to react to their child’s hypothetical failing grade with concerns about their child’s lack of ability. At the same time, these parents were less likely to show support for the child’s learning and improvement. Their reactions to the failing grade were not linked, however, with their beliefs about intelligence.

Actions speak louder than words, especially self-reported words that conform to social desirability.

Haimovitz, K., & Dweck, C.S. (2016). What Predicts Children’s Fixed and Growth Intelligence Mind-Sets? Not Their Parents’ Views of Intelligence but Their Parents’ Views of Failure. Psychological Science. DOI: 10.1177/0956797616639727

 

Good practice for better learning

Some choice nuggets from “How to Learn Better at Any Age” by writer Peter Brown and cognitive psychologists Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel:

Retrieval practice — recalling facts or concepts from memory — is a more effective learning strategy than review by rereading.

[Interleaved practice] produces longer-lasting learning and enables more versatile application of it in later settings.

Trying to solve a problem before being taught the solution leads to better learning, even when errors are made in the attempt.

You learn better [by] drawing on all of your aptitudes and resourcefulness, than when you limit instruction or experience to the style you find most amenable.

Better yet, write your own summary.

 

 

More meaningful interaction, less labeling

We would all benefit from more meaningful interaction and less labeling– not just by gender, but along any dimension by which we divide humanity.

In Education Week’s “Scholars Say Pupils Gain Social Skills in Coed Classes”, Sarah Sparks describes the negative consequences of segregating and labeling children by gender, as well as the benefits of the Sanford Harmony Program in avoiding and counteracting those effects.

Here are some choice quotes on the benefits of gender-balanced classrooms, based on research by Erin E. Pahlke, an assistant research professor of social and family dynamics at Arizona State University:

boys and girls in classes near sex parity had better self-control than those of either sex in a class in which they were the dominant majority, 80 percent or more.

Teacher stereotypes about student abilities may also be tempered in a more balanced classroom… Prior research has shown that teachers’ own beliefs about gender stereotypes—such as that girls perform worse in math, or boys in reading—can bring down their students’ performance.

On avoiding labels, based on research by Rebecca S. Bigler, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin:

even casually organizing students by gender or mentioning it in a way that labels causes boys and girls to develop the idea that gender is fundamentally oppositional, in ways the teacher has not mentioned or discussed

using a noun description like calling someone a ‘hat wearer,’ rather than saying ‘he likes to wear hats often,’ makes the description seem more permanent and intrinsic in children’s minds.

when teachers use groups to label children in their classrooms, you get the formation of stereotyping and prejudice, and when teachers ignore the presence of those groups in their classrooms, you do not find stereotyping and prejudice.

On the consequences of gender-based segregation, according to Laura D. Hanish, the co-director of the Lives of Girls and Boys: Initiatives on Gender Development and Relationships project at Arizona State University:

when boys and girls played mostly with same-sex classmates in preschool, they began to behave in more gender-stereotyped ways: Boys played farther from teachers, became more aggressive, and used more ‘rough and tumble’ play over time; girls moved closer to teachers and included more gendered play.

On the Sanford Harmony Program at Arizona State University:

each week, every child is paired with a new ‘class buddy’ of the other sex. Every day, buddies do a different activity together, from art projects and music to active physical games outside. The program also includes regular activities to teach the children social skills, such as listening, sharing, and cooperation.

students who participated in the buddy matching and social curriculum were more socially competent, less aggressive, less exclusionary, and showed better social skills toward both boys and girls.

students are now more likely to play together, cooperate, and help each other.

Yet again, we see the importance of reinforcing actions rather than appearance or group identity, and emphasizing behaviors over which people have control. Indeed, a little careful effort improves social relationships.


D. F. Halpern, L. Eliot, R. S. Bigler, R. A. Fabes, L. D. Hanish, J. Hyde, L. S. Liben, C. L. Martin. The Pseudoscience of Single-Sex Schooling. Science, 2011; 333 (6050): 1706 DOI: 10.1126/science.1205031

Belief in effort improves social relationships

Hans Villarica’s article about dealing with peer aggression describes a fascinating example of how a growth mindset, or believing that success comes from effort, can help with social relationships as well as individual abilities.

While I strongly object to the title suggesting this approach is to “fix the victims,” I do agree with the value of encouraging everyone involved to develop productive coping strategies, and the article describes compelling research demonstrating the power of believing that relationships can be repaired. According to the article’s summary of a study[1] surveying 373 second-graders:

those who were genuinely interested in fostering friendships tended to react in healthful, positive ways. They asked their teacher for advice, sought emotional support, and found means to solve the tension with those who harassed them.

Further, a previous study[2] surveying 206 elementary-school children revealed that those with an incremental theory of peer relationships were more resilient to peer victimization. As summarized in the article:

Children who believed friendships are fixed, succeeding or failing without their involvement, tended to be more enamored with popularity and may be more vengeful as a result. On the contrary, those who viewed their friendships as works in progress tended to appreciate their peers more and interact more responsibly. ‘If children believe that effort is worthwhile, they’ll feel less threatened or helpless when they hit bumps in their relationship,” [psychology professor Karen D. Rudolph] says, ‘and they’ll be more likely to try to resolve relationship problems.

Conclusion: Believing that social relations can be repaired is worth the effort.

Now I just need to find out if someone has applied this approach to attachment theory.


[1] Rudolph, K. D., Abaied, J. L., Flynn, M., Sugimura, N. and Agoston, A. M. (2011), Developing Relationships, Being Cool, and Not Looking Like a Loser: Social Goal Orientation Predicts Children’s Responses to Peer Aggression. Child Development, 82: 1518–1530. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2011.01631.x

[2] Rudolph, K. D. (2010), Implicit Theories of Peer Relationships. Social Development, 19: 113–129. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9507.2008.00534.x

Neural evidence for “I think I can” in learning from errors

In Why Do Some People Learn Faster?, Jonah Lehrer reports on Moser et al.’s EEG study documenting different brain responses to error depending on people’s beliefs about success reflecting innate ability vs. effort. Following an error, those who believed intelligence was malleable produced a much stronger brain signal in attending to that error and also were more successful in correcting their error afterward. In particular, after the initial “Oh $#*%!” response (or error-related negativity, probably arising from the infamous anterior cingulate cortex), they showed a stronger “Now what?” response (or error positivity, suggesting greater attention).

Coupled with Dweck’s research showing that people can learn to develop a growth mindset (i.e., a belief that intelligence is malleable and that success comes from effort), this implies that verbal feedback may be able to change people’s involuntary brain response to error. (The follow-up research to this ought to include a longitudinal study confirming this and documenting the extent and time course of that change after receiving such messages.)

Now that would be a very good habit of mind to develop.


Moser, J. S., Schroder, H. S., Heeter, C., Moran, T. P., & Lee, Y-H. (2011). Mind your errors: Evidence for a neural mechanism linking growth mindset to adaptive post-error adjustments. Psychological Science.

Misplaced critical thinking

In Physics Today‘s Science controversies past and present, Steven Sherwood compares the current public response to anthropogenic climate change to the historical responses to heliocentrism and relativity. Even though theories of climate change pale in comparison to the others on the scale of scientific revolutions, he notes many fundamental similarities in their effects on people’s conception of the world. Here are some choice quotes that capture important scientific principles which tend to escape lay understanding and which may make acceptance of scientific theories more difficult. On scientific elegance and parsimony in model comparison:

Surely, the need for a new tweak to the model each time more accurate observations came along should have been a tip-off that something fundamental was wrong.

On deduction vs. observation:

the worked-out consequences of evident physical principles rather than direct observation

A common refrain is the disparagement of new paradigms as mere theories with too little observational basis.

On the backfire effect:

Instead of quelling the debate, the confirmation of the theory and acclaim for its author had sparked an organized opposition dedicated to discrediting both theory and author.

As [confirmatory] evidence continues to accumulate… skepticism seem[s] to be growing rather than shrinking…

provocative ideas… have shattered notions that make us feel safe. That kind of change can turn people away from reason and toward emotion, especially when the ideas are pressed on them with great force.

why the backlash happens: the frailty of human reason and supremacy of emotional concerns that we humans all share but do not always acknowledge

On communicating scientific uncertainty:

“All our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike—and yet it is the most precious thing we have.” (Einstein)

One of the most difficult yet fundamental principles of science is that we don’t and can’t know if we’re right. We can only get closer to what is probably right. Yet science is seldom conveyed or perceived that way. And what makes science so precious is its ability to show us, through inference and deduction, that which seems to contradict our casual observation and which most surprises us. This suggests caution both when employing discovery learning, as we cannot always trust ourselves to discover accurately, and when employing lecture-based instruction, as we are also unlikely to trust authoritarian telling that threatens our preferences for and sense of security about our world. Understanding the relationship between our flawed tools of reason—through cognitive science—and our imperfect tools of science—probabilistic inference, mathematical proof, model comparison—can help us learn better from both. — Sherwood, S. (2011). Science controversies past and present. Physics Today, 64(10), 39-44. http://dx.doi.org/10.1063/PT.3.1295

The invisibility of belonging and the salience of difference

Many years ago, long before I knew much of anything about social science research methods, I conducted a small-group activity for my fellow teacher colleagues for an in-service workshop. The gist of it was simply for everyone to note the ways in which they were in the majority or the minority with respect to the rest of their group. Although I never did any formal analyses of the data, it appeared as though people were more aware of the ways in which they were different from the norm than of the ways in which they were in the norm. That is, they listed more characteristics along which they were “different from the majority” than “same as the majority.”

This surprised me, since I expected that people would notice all the ways in which they were just like the norm and how a handful of individuals were different—reinforcement that they belonged to the dominant group. I can even propose an explanation for this based on psychology research I know now, noting that people use similarities to recognize differences. But if the results I saw from this little activity were to be believed, people noticed how they were different, moreso than how others were different.

Looking at it now, with slightly older and more jaded eyes, I suppose this egocentrism isn’t so surprising: People are afraid of losing their dominant status and are quick to notice where those privileges might be at risk. That seems to be the same phenomenon at play in Norton and Sommers’ recent article on perceptions of racism.

If only it were easier to demonstrate that societal benefits are not a zero-sum game, that in fact to help others really is to help oneself. It’s puzzling that people can be so keenly aware of how easily their advantages can slip away, yet not realize that constructing a society where everyone is protected is precisely how they can guard against this.


M. I. Norton, S. R. Sommers. Whites See Racism as a Zero-Sum Game That They Are Now Losing. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2011; 6 (3): 215 DOI: 10.1177/1745691611406922

From positive self-esteem to positive other-esteem and learning

Dealing with differences needs to be encouraged gently, whether with ideas or with people.

As described in “People with Low Self-Esteem Show More Signs of Prejudice”[1]:

When people are feeling bad about themselves, they’re more likely to show bias against people who are different. …People who feel bad about themselves show enhanced prejudice because negative associations are activated to a greater degree, but not because they are less likely to suppress those feelings.

The connection between low self-esteem and negative expectations reminds me of related research on the impact of a value-affirming writing exercise in improving the academic performance of minority students:

From “Simple writing exercise helps break vicious cycle that holds back black students”[2]:

In 2007, [Geoffrey Cohen from the University of Colorado] showed that a simple 15-minute writing exercise at the start of a school year could boost the grades of black students by the end of the semester. The assignment was designed to boost the student’s sense of self-worth, and in doing so, it helped to narrow the typical performance gap that would normally separate them from white students.

After two years, the black students earned higher GPAs if they wrote self-affirming pieces on themselves rather than irrelevant essays about other people or their daily routines. On average, the exercises raised their GPA by a quarter of a point.

And from 15-minute writing exercise closes the gender gap in university-level physics[3]:

Think about the things that are important to you. Perhaps you care about creativity, family relationships, your career, or having a sense of humour. Pick two or three of these values and write a few sentences about why they are important to you. You have fifteen minutes. …

In a university physics class, Akira Miyake from the University of Colorado used [this writing exercise] to close the gap between male and female performance. … With nothing but his fifteen-minute exercise, performed twice at the beginning of the year, he virtually abolished the gender divide and allowed the female physicists to challenge their male peers.

Helping people feel better about themselves seems like an obvious, “everybody-wins” approach to improving education, social relations, and accepting different ideas.


[1] T. J. Allen, J. W. Sherman. Ego Threat and Intergroup Bias: A Test of Motivated-Activation Versus Self-Regulatory Accounts. Psychological Science, 2011. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0956797611399291

[2] Cohen, G.L., Garcia, J., Purdie-Vaughns, V., Apfel, N., & Brzustoski, P. (2009). Recursive Processes in Self-Affirmation: Intervening to Close the Minority Achievement Gap. Science, 324(5925), 400-403. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.1170769

[3] Miyake, A., Kost-Smith, L.E., Finkelstein, N.D., Pollock, S.J., Cohen, G.L., & Ito, T.A. (2010). Reducing the Gender Achievement Gap in College Science: A Classroom Study of Values Affirmation. Science, 330(6008), 1234-1237. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.1195996

Other research-based commentary on “tiger parenting”

For what I hope will be my last post on the subject, I wanted to share some gems I’ve found from my online meanderings following link after link on Amy Chua’s views on parenting. These all draw from relevant research to critique specific practices rather than an imprecise “parenting style.”

1. In this edited interview transcript with Scientific American, Temple University developmental psychologist Laurence Steinberg reviews the literature on many of the specific practices Chua describes, pointing out both the good and the bad. On his “good” list are high expectations, parental involvement, and positive feedback for genuine accomplishment (but not cultivating false self-esteem). On his “bad” list are excessive punishment, being overly restrictive, and squelching autonomy (characteristics of authoritarian rather than authoritative parenting). He further questions Chua’s views on desirable goals for her children and highlights the value of unstructured play for children’s development. Although he mentions cultural differences in parenting and acknowledges that Americans might misperceive Chinese parenting as being more authoritarian than it really is, he doesn’t analyze cultural influences in much depth here.

2. On Parenting Science, Gwen Dewar (an interdisciplinary social scientist whose background also includes psychology) provides a fuller analysis on both the authoritarian / authoritative parenting style dimension and the cultural differences between Chinese and American parenting. Like Steinberg and others, she too affirms the importance of believing in effort over innate ability, noting that this characterizes Chinese more than American values. Ironically, she includes more detail than Steinberg on his own research, describing the potential for positive peer pressure among Chinese-American youth, whose peers encourage them to achieve rather than rejecting them for geekiness. Most thankfully, she highlights that the positive aspects of traditional Chinese parenting can be separated from undesirable authoritarian practices.

3. Finally, on the NY Times Freakonomics blog, Yale professor of law and economics Ian Ayres (who acknowledges being a friend and colleague of Amy Chua’s) delves into the cognitive benefits of some of these parenting practices, rather than their developmental or cultural consequences. While I’m disappointed that he discusses the benefits of “tiger parenting” without strong caveats against its harms (or an acknowledgment that they can be separated), I particularly appreciated his economic analysis of the attitudes and behaviors that may result.

One virtue Ayres extols is delayed gratification, which he quantifies as “the intertemporal marginal rate of substitution, the willingness to forego current consumption in order to consume more in the future.” It’s another lens on the importance of grit, perseverance, and conscientiousness in enduring challenges while pursuing distant goals. He points out research indicating that these skills may be a stronger predictor of future success than intelligence (as measured by IQ).

(Although Ayres didn’t mention it, this further validates Dweck’s research on the importance of believing that effort matters more than innate ability in determining success.)

He also cites Ericsson’s research on the amount of effort necessary to develop expertise. Despite believing that such discipline is likely to transfer over to other pursuits, he admits that he would probably choose skills with more immediate benefits:

My personal bias is in guiding my children toward endeavors (like learning statistics or US History or corporate finance or Python — all subjects of daddy school) that I think are likely to pay higher direct adult dividends than music or sport skills that atrophy in adulthood.

Inclined though I am to agree with him, I wonder how effective such pursuits are as targets for kids to develop discipline and expertise. Aside from the value of music and sports in themselves, they also carry salient milestones—some culturally derived (such as soccer tournaments and numbered Suzuki-method books), but others perceptually evident—that help children self-assess progress. Computer programming has concrete markers of success in getting a program to produce the desired output, but growth in using analytical tools such as statistics is a bit harder for a youngster to perceive and appreciate.

Oddly, Ayres portrays Chua’s methods as an effective “taking choice off the table” technique for building discipline, despite this crucial difference between his parenting approach and hers: he explicitly involved his children in the initial choice process and explained the pros and cons of their choices, whereas Chua imposed her choices on her children. That initial commitment by the child is key. Without it, the child is simply following rules divorced from meaning. With it, the child learns to connect desire with dedication and goal with process.


Collectively, these articles echo the fundamental values of attributing success to effort, nurturing intrinsic motivation, and setting high expectations that I summarized earlier, while also adding a richer perspective on cultural differences, peer pressure, and delayed gratification in promoting perseverance. While these articles haven’t and won’t receive the audience that brazen storytelling attracts, they give voice to relevant research that too often whispers quietly from the archives.