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.

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From obstacles to outcomes, from problems to plans

As reported in “Why Understanding Obstacles is Essential to Achieving Goals”:

For 20 years, psychology professor Gabriele Oettingen of New York University and the University of Hamburg has been examining positive thinking and her conclusion is clear. All that positive thinking can trick the dreamer into believing she’s already done the work to get to the desired goal, squelching the motivation to actually go after it.

Instead, mental contrasting between the desired outcome and the obstacle can scaffold motivation and self-regulation toward the goal, by identifying manageable steps to overcome the obstacles. This bridges the gap between envisioning the goal and creating a realistic plan to achieve it. Without an honest assessment of the obstacles, goals are just wishful dreams. Problems are more concrete, salient, and deeply contextualized than vague goals, and the urgency of solving immediate problems rather than achieving distant goals makes them more motivating.

This also suggests why promoting high self-efficacy alone may not be the best route to success. By itself, “I think I can” gets lost in the clouds, whereas “this is what I need to overcome” is better grounded in reality. Learners need accurate self-efficacy more than arbitrarily high self-efficacy. A true growth mindset would welcome an honest assessment of problems and needs.

 

Diversity enriches us all

From “White Students on Why Schools Need More Teachers of Color“:

The societal advantages of more teachers of color become clearer when considering the racial socialization—or the processes by which people develop their ethnic identities—of white adults, including the parents who may stumble in communicating racial understanding to their children. A Public Religion Research Institute study on “American Values” circulated last summer, following the shooting in Ferguson, showed that 75 percent of white Americans have all-white social networks. This self-segregation could help explain the racial divide over Michael Brown’s death and why it was seemingly so hard for many whites to understand what transpired in Ferguson: Their worldview was restricted to mostly white friends and family. And in a 2014 study researchers found that “the messages that white teens received [from parents regarding race] were contradictory and incomplete,” concluding that schools are a crucial link in building “productive and genuine relationships” between whites and people of color.

Per Matthew Kay, the first black teacher for one Philadelphia high school student:

by interacting daily with people who come from different backgrounds, white students who harbor stereotypes and prejudgments may be able to chip away at those convictions. …

In his day-to-day dealings with students, Kay also fights the widespread, centuries-old narrative that black men are driven by anger and frustration. “I am affectionate and caring … I think it’s important that [the students] see we have the capacity to love.”

Underpinning it all, Kay said, are his close relationships with students and his ability to offer them a safe space to investigate and reflect on any racial privileges they enjoy without being made to feel morally deficient for having white skin.

However:

Thomas M. Philip, an education professor at UCLA whose work focuses on racial ideology and teachers… warned that putting the onus on teachers of color to carry the burden of discussions on larger historical and political issues carries significant risks, ranging from exceptionalism and tokenism to individualizing an institutional responsibility. …

Teacher diversity, Philip stressed, must be accompanied by systemic practices that support all educators in constructively navigating issues of race, racism, and racial justice. To do otherwise, he said, is to allow some to abdicate their role in engaging the same issues deeply and profoundly. “The unique strengths and perspectives of teachers of color are more likely to be beneficial for students if all educators, particularly white teachers and administrators, embrace the responsibility to work for racial equity and justice.”

The benefits and burdens belong to all of us.

Better learning through the careful consideration of differences

In “How Diversity Makes Us Smarter“, Katherine Phillips highlights numerous findings illustrating the benefits of diversity.

On the financial benefits:

business professors Cristian Deszö of the University of Maryland and David Ross of Columbia University studied the effect of gender diversity on the top firms in Standard & Poor’s Composite 1500 list… [and] found that companies that prioritized innovation saw greater financial gains when women were part of the top leadership ranks.

in 2003, Orlando Richard, a professor of management at the University of Texas at Dallas, and his colleagues surveyed executives at 177 national banks in the U.S., then put together a database comparing financial performance, racial diversity and the emphasis the bank presidents put on innovation. For innovation-focused banks, increases in racial diversity were clearly related to enhanced financial performance.

In August 2012 a team of researchers at the Credit Suisse Research Institute issued a report in which they examined 2,360 companies globally from 2005 to 2011,… [and] found that companies with one or more women on the board delivered higher average returns on equity, lower gearing (that is, net debt to equity) and better average growth.

On creative problem-solving and decision-making:

In 2006 Margaret Neale of Stanford University, Gregory Northcraft of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and I set out to examine the impact of racial diversity on small decision-making groups in an experiment where sharing information was a requirement for success. … The groups with racial diversity significantly outperformed the groups with no racial diversity.

In 2004 Anthony Lising Antonio, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, collaborated with five colleagues from the University of California, Los Angeles, and other institutions to examine the influence of racial and opinion composition in small group discussions. … When a black person presented a dissenting perspective to a group of whites, the perspective was perceived as more novel and led to broader thinking and consideration of alternatives than when a white person introduced that same dissenting perspective.

professors of management Denise Lewin Loyd of the University of Illinois, Cynthia Wang of Oklahoma State University, Robert B. Lount, Jr., of Ohio State University and I asked 186 people whether they identified as a Democrat or a Republican, then had them read a murder mystery and decide who they thought committed the crime. … Democrats who were told that a fellow Democrat disagreed with them prepared less well for the discussion than Democrats who were told that a Republican disagreed with them. Republicans showed the same pattern.

Richard Freeman, an economics professor at Harvard University and director of the Science and Engineering Workforce Project at the National Bureau of Economic Research, along with Wei Huang, a Harvard economics Ph.D. candidate, examined the ethnic identity of the authors of 1.5 million scientific papers written between 1985 and 2008 using Thomson Reuters’s Web of Science, a comprehensive database of published research. They found that papers written by diverse groups receive more citations and have higher impact factors than papers written by people from the same ethnic group. Moreover, they found that stronger papers were associated with a greater number of author addresses; geographical diversity, and a larger number of references, is a reflection of more intellectual diversity.

In a 2006 study of jury decision making, social psychologist Samuel Sommers of Tufts University found that racially diverse groups exchanged a wider range of information during deliberation about a sexual assault case than all-white groups did.

Phillips concludes that diversity promotes hard work and creativity through greater information-sharing and perspective-taking.

When peers improve decision-making skill

In a study of 760+ fifth-graders described in “Group learning makes children better decision-makers, study finds”:

Children who had worked in collaborative groups… were better prepared to take on the role of decision-maker about [the moral dilemma in the story], the researchers found.

These children were more proficient at three key aspects of decision-making: recognizing more than one side of a dilemma, considering a range of reasons to support differing viewpoints, and weighing the costs and benefits associated with different decisions, according to the researchers.

These children appealed to a significantly greater number of moral principles and practical considerations when drawing conclusions about [recommended actions], the researchers found.

Students in the direct instruction condition performed no better than a control group of uninstructed students.

Reducing Implicit Bias

Chris Mooney summarizes important research on measuring and reducing implicit bias:

The single best intervention involved putting people into scenarios and mindsets in which a black person became their ally (or even saved their life) while white people were depicted as the bad guys. In this intervention, participants “read an evocative story told in second-person narrative in which a White man assaults the participant and a Black man rescues the participant.” In other words, study subjects are induced to feel as if they have been personally helped or even saved by someone from a different race. Then they took the IAT—and showed 48 percent less bias than a control group. (Note: The groups in these various studies were roughly three-fourths white; no participants were black.)

Other variations on this idea were successful too: making nonblack people think about black role models, or imagine themselves playing on a dodgeball team with black teammates against a team of white people (who proceed to cheat). In other words, it appears that our tribal instincts can actually be co-opted to decrease prejudice, if we are made to see those of other races as part of our team.

There’s also “epistemic unfreezing”, in which “subjects [were] pushed to compare and contrast the two cultures, presumably leading to a more nuanced perspective on their similarities and differences”, with these results:

This experimental manipulation has been found to increase creativity. But surprisingly, it also had a big effect on reducing anti-black prejudice. In one study, Tadmor et al. found that white research subjects who had heard the multicultural presentation (but not the American-only or Chinese-only presentation) were less likely than members of the other study groups to endorse stereotypes about African Americans. That was true even though the subjects had learned about Chinese and American cultures, not African American culture.

Learning about differences through structured comparisons can help reconcile differences.

Inequitable discipline

Racial minorities and students with disabilities are disproportionately suspended from school, as per “National report highlights racial disparities in suspensions”:

  • African American boys receive harsher penalties than white students for the same offense
  • African American girls, Latino students (at middle and high school levels), Native American students and students with disabilities are also overrepresented in suspensions
  • there is “emerging evidence” of disproportionate disciplinary practices involving English learners and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students

The effectiveness and appropriateness of suspension as a disciplinary tool is also suspect:

  • Suspensions are most often used for conduct that is not a threat to safety.
  • disparities are most pronounced for subjective offenses, such as insubordination or defiance

Further troubling is the consequence of receiving suspensions:

  • Suspensions can lead to lower academic achievement, higher dropout rates and a higher likelihood that students will be arrested and incarcerated

Especially in light of more effective alternatives both for preventing and responding to discipline issues:

  • Positive relationships among students, teachers and parents are more important than neighborhood crime and poverty at predicting school safety.
  • interventions that improve the quality of academic instruction contribute to lower suspension rates
  • schools with more diverse faculty and student bodies have fewer disciplinary issues
  • The growing use of restorative justice in schools may help in these efforts because it increases opportunities for positive contact between races and helps teachers and administrators see students as individuals rather than members of a particular race

We need to work to understand differences, not shut them out.

Less identity, more ideas

Once again, “we would all benefit from more meaningful interaction and less labeling… along any dimension by which we divide humanity.”

From Tom Jacob’s “America’s Increasingly Tribal Electorate“, describing political scientist Lilliana Mason’s research:

“behavioral polarization”—anger at the other side, activism for one’s own side, and a tendency to look at political arguments through a biased lens—is driven much more strongly by that sense of team spirit, as opposed to one’s views on public policy.

According to her:

the only way to reduce the anger and bias would be “to reduce the strength or alignment of political identities.”

Yet I remain hopeful that, in spite of the dangers of the backfire effect, we can find ways to separate ideas from identities, and share knowledge both dispassionately and compassionately at the same time. As before: “Most of all, we should put wrongness back in its place– linked to the idea, not the person,” or the identity.

Connecting knowledge and action: On explaining, informing, educating, and mobilizing

In Public Opinion and Political Participation in the Climate Change Debate, Matthew Nisbet reviews factors influencing how people understand and act upon science and policy issues, in a preprint of his chapter:

Nisbet, M.C. (2011). Public Opinion and Political Participation. In D. Schlosberg, J. Dryzek, & R. Norgaard (Eds.), Oxford Handbook of Climate Change and Society. London, UK: Oxford University Press.

Although he focuses on climate change, the principles he describes are more broadly relevant to communication and engagement, or to understanding and acting on new knowledge in general.

Knowledge isn’t action:

only a small proportion possess the type of opinion intensity that motivates direct participation

Information access isn’t knowledge:

the multi-tasking facilitated by hand-held devices is negatively related to learning and recall

Valuing information isn’t the same as evaluating information:

individuals are ‘cognitive misers,’ relying on personal experience, values, social influences such as friends or colleagues, personal identity, and the most readily available information

He then summarizes these influences:

  1. Schemas

    People have multiple schema[s]… which can be triggered by conversations, personal observation, and direct experience

    tailoring communication to these mental models can improve the ability of individuals and groups to reach decisions and to take actions, especially when statistical information is paired with affective, personally relevant images

  2. Values
    • Hierarchists [worry about] threats to those they respect in power, to established order in society, and to status quo practices

    • Individualists [worry about] unwise restrictions on markets, enterprise, and personal freedom.

    • [Those with] egalitarian and communitarian values [worry about] the need to manage markets and industry in favor of the collective good and to protect the most vulnerable

  3. Framing
    If the information doesn’t fit, it won’t stick.

    a specific media frame is only influential if it is relevant—or applicable—to the audience’s preexisting interpretations and schema

  4. Knowledge
    Knowing how to act matters more than knowing why it is.

    understanding how to take actions or to get involved on an issue [is] generally more important to decision making and behavior [than knowledge about the causes of a problem]

  5. Interpretative Communities
    Whom you know affects what you know.

    Different interpretative communities tend to prefer their own ideologically like-minded news and opinion media

There’s a slight irony in the fact that the initiatives he describes for how to apply these principles to promote understanding and action seem a bit less well developed than the principles themselves. But he does offer this guideline:

the ideal approach… [establishes] an iterative dialogue between stakeholders and experts, where the experts can explain uncertainty and the ways it is likely to be misinterpreted [and] the stakeholders in turn can explain their decision-making criteria as well as their own local knowledge

More recommendations along these lines are critical, especially considering the backfire effect. Knowing that risk discussion can backfire on building consensus should remind us to tread gently when confronting uncertainty, feelings of lack of control, and conflicting beliefs.

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.