Nina's Reading Blog

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Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything

Posted by nliakos on April 26, 2015

by Joshua Foer (Penguin 2011; ISBN 978-1-59420-229-2)

Reading this book, I learned a lot that I didn’t know (always a good thing!). Chief among these is perhaps the fact that before people wrote things down, printed them in books, and saved them in digital format, they did not just naturally have better memories than we do; they learned and practiced techniques that enabled them to remember better. These techniques have mostly been lost to us (blame Gutenberg), but have been revived by a small group of memory experts who practice memorizing things like random numbers, poetry, and the order of cards in a deck, and compete among themselves. These techniques include things like the “person-action-object” system, or PAO, in which the memorizer commits to memory a set of images corresponding to two-digit numbers; for example, Pele kicking a soccer ball. This allows him (most of them seem to be male) to generate a memorable image for each six-digit number (Hillary Clinton talking to a soccer ball). It’s vital that the number be visualizable and unusual (thus memorable). Using this system, memory buffs (some are called “grand masters”) can, with practice, learn to remember any number from 0 to 999,999. (Why you would want to do this is another question.) The point is, there are tricks to remembering stuff, and they can be learned and practiced.

(Another interesting thing I did not know is that the human brain is very good at spatial memory and quite poor at remembering things like phone numbers, passwords, historical dates, and instructions; this is why memory champs employ “memory palaces” (mental images of places they know very well) in which to position their images so as to retrieve them in order without forgetting any.)

Joshua Foer begins with attending the 2005 U.S. Memory Championship as a science reporter, and he eventually devotes a year to learning and practicing memory techniques so that he can compete in the next championship (I will not divulge the outcome!). Along the way, he digests a lot of information about memory, learning, intelligence, education, history, chick sexing, savants, and more, and passes it on to his readers, making for a fascinating read.

We generally assume that the invention of the printing press, and indeed, the invention of writing itself, has been a good thing; Foer points out that all those external memory devices have their cost. In one of my favorite sections, he quotes Plato quoting Socrates quoting the Egyptian king Thamus (in Phaedra), to whose people the god Theuth offers a writing system which will improve the people’s memories. Thamus declines, saying, If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls. They will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful; they will rely on what is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminding. And it is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only its semblance, for by telling them of many things without teaching them anything, you will make them seem to know much, while for the most part they will know nothing. And as men filled not with wisdom but with the conceit of wisdom, they will be a burden to their fellow-men. (pg 138) Which is pretty much what happened. Foer observes later that progressive education has made school more interesting and pleasant for children, but in so doing it has left us without the shared memories that enable us to “partake of a shared culture’. He continues, The people whose intellects I most admire always seen to have a fitting anecdote or germane fact at the ready. They’re able to reach out across the breadth of their learning and pluck from distant patches. It goes without saying that intelligence is much, much more than mere memory, . . . but memory and intelligence do seem to go hand in hand. . . . The more tightly any new piece of information can be embedded into the web of information we already know, the more likely it is to be remembered. . . . The more we remember, the better we are at processing the world. And the better we are at processing the world, the more we can remember about it. (pgs 208-209)  That is certainly true.

However, after all that practice, Foer points out that although he could memorize certain kinds of things (generally ordered lists of something) much better than he had been able to previously, he did not remember other kinds of things (like where he had parked his car, or even a series of colors) any better than he had better.  And he very quickly returned to the practice of using external memory aids (post-it notes, to-do lists, cell phone address books) after his year on the memory circuit. But he also believes that a bigger benefit of that year’s training has to do with being mindful and learning to notice things. What I had really trained my brain to do, he writes at the end, was to be more mindful, and to pay attention to the world around me. Remembering can only happen if you notice.  (pg 268) This brought to mind something someone said on a TV show about forgetfulness that I once saw: it isn’t so much that we forget stuff, but that we never bother to remember it in the first place. It never makes it into our long-term memory.

I could not help remembering, as I read the book, that the reason I started my reading blog, back in 2006, was because I forgot what I had read so quickly after I read it. Apparently, I am not alone in this, in a world in which quantity (how much you read) is more valued than quality (how well you understand and remember what you have read). There is much to be said for questioning our assumptions about reading, understanding, knowing, and remembering.

P.S. Yes, Joshua Foer is Jonathan Safran Foer’s brother. I googled it.

Posted in Education, Memoir, Non-fiction, Science | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

No Pity: People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement

Posted by nliakos on August 9, 2014

by Joseph P. Shapiro (Random House/Times Books 1993)

No Pity tells the story of the disability rights movement. It introduces the reader to the heroes of this movement, such as Ed Roberts, who refused to accept no for an answer at the University of California Berkeley; Judy Heumann, who became a disability activist when she was denied a teaching job for which she was well-qualified; T. J. Monroe, who organized fellow people with mental retardation to stand up for their rights as members of People First; and Jim (no last name given), perhaps the original inspiration for the author’s interest in and passion for the fight for equal opportunities, whose slowness of speech belied his talent for all things mechanical, so he lived most of his life in an institution; and many more. Shapiro includes post-polio quadriplegics and paraplegics and disabled veterans; people with developmental disabilities, cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury, and ALS; people who require a respirator to breathe; people who are deaf or blind. . . . in short, people with all kinds of disabilities, major and minor. He tells the story of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). He reveals the surprising statistic that one in seven Americans has a disability; they and their relatives and friends constitute a population that includes poor people and rich people; people in power (including presidents, legislators. . .) and people without any power at all; people of all races, religions, and ages; people who were born disabled and people who became disabled later in life due to disease, accidental injury, or war-related injury. This book shows how many smaller rights movements merged to create the disability rights movement.

Shapiro took events that I remember, like the battle for a deaf president of Gallaudet University in 1988, and put them into a larger context. My daughter, born very premature in 1992 and considered to be on the autism spectrum, has benefited in many ways from the advances described by Shapiro in this book; yet I did not realize how recent some of them were. My perspective as the parent of a person with disabilities led me to question some of the ideas in the book, such as the idea that “even children with the most severe disabilities learn better in integrated settings” (p. 168). But I don’t want to quibble, because this is an important book, one we should all read, because it reminds us all of our shared humanity.

Posted in Education, History, Learning Disabilities, Non-fiction | Leave a Comment »

Why School? How Education Must Change When Learning and Information Are Everywhere

Posted by nliakos on October 12, 2012

by Will Richardson (TED eBook, 2012)

Will Richardson used to be a K-12 teacher. Before that, of course, he was a student in the American school system. Now, he is the father of two schoolchildren. He also blogs about education and educational technology.  Richardson’s premise here is that our educational system was created when knowledge was hard to get, and it was necessary for children to physically go to a building where they could be instructed by those few who had knowledge (teachers). Now that this is no longer true–now that knowledge is easily attainable from almost anywhere if one is connected, and anyone can quickly find the answers to the kinds of factual questions that used to be taught and the knowledge of which was assessed (names, dates, events, math and science facts, geography, and so on)–Richardson argues that we need to fundamentally recreate the system to reflect reality. Instead of trying to do what we already do, but better, Richardson wants us to chuck the old system and re-invent school.

Richardson explains that what we used to consider literacy is no longer enough; we now need to be multi-literate, and schools need to teach multiliteracies; but right now, most schools are too busy trying to put up firewalls to keep email, YouTube, and (God forbid) Facebook out of the classroom, so kids have the whole web of knowledge at their fingertips 24/–except for the time they are in school (when they are forbidden to use their smartphones).

He believes that education “isn’t about delivery [of knowledge to children]. . . . It’s about discovery [by children and adults together].” He advocates rethinking assessment (realizing that we all depend on the Internet to find our answers, and we should be teaching our kids to do that well (i.e., to evaluate websites) rather than continue forcing them to memorize and then regurgitate canned knowledge which in most cases they will never need, and if they do need it, they can find it easily.  He cites Yong Zhao of the University of Oregon, who believes that high-stakes testing in schools takes time and resources away from where they should be and forces teachers to teach to the tests, “[thus depriving] our children. . . of a real education.” He wants to “rethink teaching”, saying that “learning, unlearning, and relearning” are the essential skills of the future (and perhaps the present). He advocates that teachers share freely what they know. He believes we need to teach students to “talk to strangers” online (safely, of course!) because it is through connecting with others that we enhance our knowledge of the world. (Students in Richardson’s high school literature class studying The Secret Life of Bees had the opportunity to interact with the author while they were reading the novel.) Teachers should be “master learners,” modeling for students the behaviors we hope they will acquire. And kids should produce work that matters (“real work for real audiences”) in place of endless worksheets that end up in the recycle bin. It should be the kids who drive learning–not their teachers. (I always wonder, though: students know what they think they should learn, but there is so much that they don’t even know exists, or why they would need to know it. Can we really assume that they can figure this out on their own?)

Richardson ends by saying, “Our kids, and we ourselves, can now carry the sum of human knowledge around in our pockets. . . . We can have teachers and classrooms with us wherever we go.” He calls on us to educate ourselves about connected learning and to try to convince others of its importance.

Posted in Education, Non-fiction, Recommended for ESL or EFL Learners, Web Technology | 3 Comments »

A Man Without Words

Posted by nliakos on September 30, 2012

by Susan Schaller (Univ. of California Press 1991)

Another of the books I’ve been meaning to read for a long time, but it wasn’t available at my public library; I found it at the university library, on a shelf with many other accounts of the lives of the deaf. Susan Schaller is a hearing person who learned American Sign Language because she loved it. After moving to Los Angeles with her graduate student husband, Schaller signed up with the local interpreters’ registry and was assigned to a reading class for hearing-impaired people. This was where she met the man she calls Ildefonso, a 27-year-old Mexican she soon realized was “languageless”–having never learned any language at all, either oral or sign-based, he had no concept of what language was and no comprehension of what people were doing when they interacted with each other.

Schaller took on the enormous challenge of introducing Ildefonso to language. She describes her often fruitless attempts to get him to understand the smallest things, as well as her misgivings about having unlocked the door to human communication for him while being unable to help him cross the threshold  She wondered if it was even possible for a languageless adult to learn a language; she searched and found nothing written about such people, yet she knew Ildefonso was not the only one. She tried to solicit support from the only academic she could discover who had written about adults without language, only to be rebuffed. But she could not give up.

Eventually, Schaller’s path led her away from Los Angeles and she lost sight of her pupil for several years. When she found him again, he had indeed acquired language, and he was eager to answer all of the questions she had tried to ask him when they worked together, which he had been unable either to understand or answer.

Schaller does not describe how Ildefonso managed to progress from the very rudimentary ASL she was able to teach him to the complete fluency he acquired later. And it was not only language that Ildefonso lacked when she met him; he knew nothing of time, history, geography, science, or anything that someone who has attended elementary school would know something about, yet somehow, he managed to catch up once he learned ASL. This would appear to contradict the critical period hypothesis for language development.

Despite the dearth of research Schaller found concerning languageless adults, Ildefonso introduced her to a whole group of such people just in his own community. Obviously, there must be many more such people in the world, which makes me wonder why there hasn’t been more research done or attempts to help them participate in the societies they live in.

Posted in Education, Learning Disabilities, Non-fiction | Leave a Comment »

Beyond the Hole in the Wall: Discover the Power of Self-Organized Learning

Posted by nliakos on April 1, 2012

by Sugata Mitra (TED Books 2012)

This is my first TED Book. TED launched TEDBooks recently: “an imprint of short nonfiction works designed for digital distribution. Shorter than traditional books, TED Books run fewer than 20,000 words each — long enough to explain a powerful idea, but short enough to be read in a single sitting.”  Each book (there are currently just 13, but presumably more will be added) costs just $2.99 and can downloaded for the Nook, the Kindle, or the iPad/iPhone (I think; available from the ITunes store, anyway). I envision the day (pretty soon) when I can have my students purchase a few TED books to read on their iPads, iPhones, Kindles, or Nooks. The fact that the books are so short and so inexpensive, that they are nonfiction and that students can be turned on to their subjects by watching the related talks, is bound to make them popular. I just have to wait until everyone has the capacity to download the book somewhere. (I suspect that it may already be the case, as I think they all already have iPhones, and there are apps for eBooks available for those.)

Sugata Mitra was an invited speaker at the last WiAOC  (Click on “Keynotes for 2009” at the top); this may have been where I first learned about the “Hole in the Wall” project, or I may have listened to his 2007 talk, “Sugata Mitra Shows Kids How to Teach Themselves,” or perhaps “The Child Driven Education” in 2010. Mitra is described as “an education  scientist.” His big idea was to make a computer with internet access available to poor children in the streets of New Delhi and to watch what happened. What happened was that the children rapidly taught themselves/each other how to use the computer and how to get online. From this starting point, Mitra tried out his experiment in different places and in different ways, always finding that children are seemingly hard-wired to learn from each other. They naturally organize themselves into learning communities and need very little (if any) adult supervision or actual instruction to do so. Mitra praises MIE, or “minimally invasive education,” as a way to ask groups of kids a “big question” (e.g., Who was Archimedes and what is he known for?” or even better, a question to which even the teacher does not know the answer) and then stand back and let them use the computer to find the answer.

I found Mitra’s descriptions of what he has observed to be very interesting, his predictions about how things will work 50 years in the future, using a fictional child named Rita, much less so. We really have no idea what technologies will be invented between now and 2062 nor how they will affect our lives. MIE and SOLE (self-organized learning environment) are interesting enough!

The book is only 56 pages; I finished it during part of a bus ride from Philadelphia to Washington, DC. I am looking forward to reading more TED books! See here for more information about TEDBooks and a list of books that are currently available.

Posted in Education, Non-fiction, Recommended for ESL or EFL Learners, Web Technology | Leave a Comment »

Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn

Posted by nliakos on August 21, 2011

by Cathy N. Davidson (Viking 2011)

Usually I finish a book before writing about it, but in this case, I will have to put off finishing it until I get my own copy (I was sneaking a peek into a copy I bought as a gift). Still, I figured that given my propensity to forget what I’ve read as soon as I’ve read it, I decided to write my first impressions here.

I have read the Introduction and Part One (which deals with the science of how we pay attention and what we pay attention to) and begun Part Two (which focuses on education: what it is, and what it could become if we could loosen up a bit and apply what brain scientists have learned about attention and learning).  In the debate over multi-tasking (can the digital natives really do those things at the same time?), Davidson comes down squarely on the side of Yes, they can. She explains that neuroscience has shown that neural pathways are constantly changing as the environment causes the brain to re-invent itself.  Educating kids in the 20th (and 19th) century style (one size fits all and everyone has to achieve the same result at the expected time or they are considered to have failed) results in a lot of bored students, frustrated teachers, and schools that cannot meet their quota of satisfactory test scores under No Child Left Behind.

This book has resonated with me on a number of levels. It connects to what I’ve read and seen before (the gorilla experiment, which I first read about in Temple Grandin’s Animals in Translation; mirror neurons, which I learned about from Blakeslee and Blakeslee’s The Body has a Mind of Its Own; even those TV ads for Cymbalta, which my daughter’s doctor has suggested for her but which terrifies me. (I actually do focus on the droning list of unpleasant and dangerous side effects when I see that ad. What does that say about my brain?). Sometimes I wished Davidson would focus a bit more on what happens when the brain does not develop in the normal way, but that is due to my own interest in learning disabilities and the autism spectrum. And she does mention these–just not as often as I might like.

Davidson writes about complicated stuff in a way that is engaging and easy to follow (reminiscent of her wonderful memoir of falling in love with Japan, Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, which is one of my favorite books). But I wish the publisher had chosen a slightly larger font–I find myself straining to read.

I’m looking forward to continuing the book soon.

Okay, it’s now a few weeks later and I have finished the book. After making what to me was quite a convincing case for reforming education, Davidson turns in Part 3 to the world of work, where she describes how the 21st century workplace has changed (at least for those working in offices, it has; but I kept wondering about all those people who work in retail, allied health fields, sanitation, restaurants…. you get the picture. Those people aren’t telecommuting, surely.) She suspects that we were never all that good at focusing on only one thing at a time, even before multi-tasking became fashionable, and claims that left to its own devices, our brain ceaselessly changes focus (Just ask anyone who has attempted to meditate!). She reminds us that prior to the industrial age, which created the boundaries between work and leisure, there were no such boundaries. If we end up bringing more work home while also taking unscheduled breaks at our desks to check out Facebook, listen to the latest TED talk or watch a funny video shared by a friend, it is not very different from how work and rest co-existed peacefully before we all started going “out” to work in offices, stores, schools, and the like.

Part 4 urges us to jump into the brave new world of the Internet to forge new connections with people near and far.   She concludes by saying, “With the right practice and the right tools, we can begin to see what we’ve been missing. With the right tools and the right people to share them with, we have new options. … The changes of the digital age are not going to go away, and they are not going to slow down in the future. … It’s time to reconsider the traditional standards and expectations handed down to us from the linear, assembly-line arrangements of the industrial age and to think about better ways to structure and to measure our interactive digital lives. … Right now, our classrooms and workplaces are structured for success in the last century, not this one. We can change that.” (p. 291)

Posted in Education, Non-fiction | 4 Comments »

From Blogs to Bombs

Posted by nliakos on May 24, 2010

by Mark Pegrum

Australian educator Mark Pegrum sees the brave new world of web technologies through technological, pedagogical, social, socio-political, and ecological “lenses” or perspectives.

Posted in Education, Non-fiction, Web Technology | Leave a Comment »

Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace… One School at a Time

Posted by nliakos on May 24, 2010

by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin (Penguin, 2006)

This book has been on the Washington Post‘s bestseller list for 141 weeks as of this writing, which is mind-boggling but totally understandable. Since it was first published four years ago, Mortenson has collaborated on a young adult version, a picture book called Listen to the Wind, and a sequel, Stones Into Schools (all of which I have read and enjoyed).  This is a life-changing book, one I have given as a gift to several people and to my daughter’s school. It is a book which shows just how much one person can do to change the world, if s/he tries hard enough.

The story of how Greg Mortenson failed to reach the top of K2, the world’s second-highest peak, and stumbled instead into a remote Pakistani village and there found his life’s work, must be pretty well-known by now.  The villagers saved Mortenson’s life, and he in turn promised to build a school for their children. This he managed to do, and he then went on to build (as of now, over 135) more schools, not only in Pakistan but in neighboring Afghanistan as well, as director of the Central Asia Institute, which he established with money donated originally by Jean Hoerni, who also gave the money to build Mortenson’s first school in the village of Korphe.

What is really amazing is that Greg Mortenson is still alive, considering how he constantly puts himself into harm’s way in some of the most dangerous places in the world for Americans to go.  Somehow his love of the cultures and peoples of Central Asia and his honest desire to help educate the children there, especially the girls, have resulted in his being surrounded by Pakistanis and Afghans who manage to protect him from those who would harm him…so far.  His is an incredibly inspirational story, as are the stories he recounts of the people who help him and the children who have been educated in the schools he has built.


Official book site for Three Cups of Tea

Official book site for Stones Into Schools

Pennies for Peace is an organization started by Mortenson to raise money in America’s schools, a penny at a time.

Here is a link to Wikipedia’s article about the book.

Music video of the song “Three Cups of Tea”, performed by Mortenson’s daughter Amira

Posted in Education, Non-fiction | Leave a Comment »

From Emotions to Advocacy: The Special Education Survival Guide

Posted by nliakos on July 27, 2008

by Pam Wright and Pete Wright.  Harbor House Law Press, 2006 (2nd edition).

Pam and Pete Wright are the founders of Wrightslaw, a website devoted to special education, advocacy, and the relevant laws.  They also have a free online newsletter and have written several books to guide parents of children with special needs through the legal intricacies of IDEA and NCLB, including Wrightslaw: Special Education Law, which I own and also recommend, From Emotions to Advocacy, and others, as well as DVDs and other websites.  I wonder when the Wrights have time to do anything else; maybe they don’t.

For me, the most important benefit from reading Special Education Law was actually reading the law for the first time.  The Wrights stress the importance of reading the statutes and regulations for oneself.  This was how I first realized that schools are obligated by law to prepare children with disabilities for independent living (insofar as possible) and employment — not only to educate them in the traditional sense of the three Rs.  I had been led to believe that skills not directly applicable to education (math, reading, writing) were not the responsibility of the school to enhance.  Wrong!

Legal language is difficult to read, but the Wrights explain and clarify, giving plenty of examples.  They use the same strategy in From Emotions to Advocacy (in fact there is quite a bit of overlap between the two books).  In this book, I learned how to collect all the reports, IEPs, medical records etc. that had been languishing in 30 different folders and organize them into a chronological master file.  (They recommend using a large 3-hole binder to keep the documents–I already have three!)  I am now in the process of creating the index for this file.  It has been very educational for me to go back and look at these documents again, and the Wrights point out that in order to be an effective advocate, a parent must become very familiar with the contents of the file, because no one else is ever going to read through all of it!  There are useful chapters in both books about keeping a written record of all communication with the school and how to write effective letters that will serve as solid evidence if there is a dispute or due process hearing.  They assume that school systems may need legal coercion to provide FAPE (a Free Appropriate Public Education, guaranteed by IDEA), so the books are geared toward preparing a strong case.  I hope I will not need to use my Master File for this purpose, but if I ever do, the Wrights’ books and websites will certainly provide excellent guidance in how to proceed!

Posted in Education, Learning Disabilities, Non-fiction | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Nonverbal Learning Disabilities at School

Posted by nliakos on June 27, 2008

Educating Students with NLD, Asperger Syndrome, and Related Conditions, by Pamela Tanguay. London and new York: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2002.

How I wish I had read this book years ago, when my daughter was struggling in elementary and middle school and I couldn’t figure out how to help her! How I wish her teachers had read this book! I would like to give a copy to each of the schools she has attended (seven now), to help them to recognize NLD in other children before it is too late.

Pamela Tanguay, of NLD on the Web, has written a very practical book for educators (but good for parents also). Included in the eleven chapters are an entire chapter on “Arithmetic and Math”, one on “Reading, Spelling, and Vocabulary,” one on “Penmanship, Writing, and Composition” and one on “Organization, Study Skills, and Homework.” These give very specific advice on how to teach, and how not to teach, children with NLD of different ages. There are also more general chapters on the school environment, teaching strategies, social and emotional functioning of the child with NLD, and spatial and psychomotor challenges.

The book is probably way too idealistic. The kinds of accommodations Tanguay recommends are so far-reaching that I doubt they could ever all be put into place. It would require teachers to teach whole classes as if all the children had NLD! It would also take far more time than teachers have. Tanguay warns that every accommodation and strategy that is not used places a road block in front of the NLD student, setting her up to fail. (I wonder how actual NLD students who manage to graduate from high school and college and even go to graduate school succeed, because they surely did not have all of Tanguay’s recommended accommodations!)

Still, some of her advice would not be too difficult to implement, and certainly every teacher who has a child with NLD should read this book. If it does nothing else, it may convince the teacher that the child is not being lazy or noncompliant when she cannot do what she is told. Tanguay reminds us that since these children are fluent talkers with large, often precocious vocabularies, people often assume that they are smart in other ways as well, or could be if they just tried hard enough or paid attention. Tanguay explains, for example, that people with NLD cannot attend to two modalities at once, so if the teacher demonstrates something as she explains it, the whole lesson is wasted on the NLD child. The teacher must first explain verbally, and only then demonstrate. You can see how this would be awkward and time-consuming to implement in a real classroom–especially if only one child requires it. Yet it explains much about the struggles of these children.

Posted in Education, Learning Disabilities, Non-fiction | Tagged: | 1 Comment »