Kids love dinosaurs

Wednesday, December 13th, 2017

As a near-universal rule, kids love dinosaurs. Or, as psychologists might say, many children develop an intense interest in dinosaurs:

Researchers don’t know exactly what sparks them — the majority of parents can’t pinpoint the moment or event that kicked off their kids’ interest — but almost a third of all children have one at some point, typically between the ages of 2 and 6 (though for some the interest lasts further into childhood). And while studies have shown that the most common intense interest is vehicles — planes, trains, and cars — the next most popular, by a wide margin, is dinosaurs.

[...]

“I hear it over and over” from parents, he says: ‘They know all the names! I don’t know how they remember that stuff.’” But Lacovara does, or at least he has some theories. “I think for many of these children, that’s their first taste of mastery, of being an expert in something and having command of something their parent or coach or doctor doesn’t know,” he says. “It makes them feel powerful. Their parent may be able to name three or four dinosaurs and the kid can name 20, and the kid seems like a real authority.”

Intense interests are a big confidence booster for kids, agrees Kelli Chen, a pediatric psychiatric occupational therapist at Johns Hopkins.

They’re also particularly beneficial for cognitive development. A 2008 study found that sustained intense interests, particularly in a conceptual domain like dinosaurs, can help children develop increased knowledge and persistence, a better attention span, and deeper information-processing skills. In short, they make better learners and smarter kids. There’s decades of research to back that up: Three separate studies have found that older children with intense interests tend to be of above-average intelligence.

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And it’s probably not a coincidence that the age range for developing intense interests overlaps with the peak ages of imagination-based play (which is from age 3 through age 5).

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In a study published in 2007, researchers who followed up with the parents of 177 kids found that the interests only lasted between six months and three years.

There are a number of reasons kids stop wanting to learn anything and everything about a particular topic, and one of the biggest is, ironically, school. As they enter a traditional educational environment, they’re expected to hit a range of targets in various subjects, which doesn’t leave much room for a specialization.

[...]

“Maybe at home the interest was being reinforced, and the positive feedback loop was, ‘Johnny knows that’s a pterodactyl, Johnny’s a genius!’ When you’re getting praise over and over again for having information about a subject, you’re on a runaway train to Dinosaurland,” Chatel says. “But then school begins and the positive feedback loops shift to, ‘Johnny played so well with others, Johnny shared his toys and made a friend.’”

It starts much, much too early for me

Saturday, December 9th, 2017

Studies have shown the benefits of later school starts, but what about really late school starts?

Here we report on the implementation and impact of a 10 a.m. school start time for 13-16-year-old students. A four-year observational study using a before-after-before (A-B-A) design was carried out in an English state-funded high school. School start times were changed from 8:50 a.m. in study year 0, to 10 a.m. in years 1-2, and then back to 8:50 a.m. in year 3. Measures of student health (absence due to illness) and academic performance (national examination results) were used for all students. Implementing a 10 a.m. start saw a decrease in student illness after two years of over 50% (p< .0005 and effect size: Cohen’s d = 1.07), and reverting to an 8:50 a.m. start reversed this improvement, leading to an increase of 30% in student illness (p<.0005 and Cohen’s d = 0.47). The 10:00 a.m. start was associated with a 12% increase in the value-added number of students making good academic progress (in standard national examinations) that was significant (<.0005) and equivalent to 20% of the national benchmark.

My teenage self would be nodding in agreement — as would Brian Setzer:

Hey, man, I don’t feel like goin’ to school no more / Me neither. They can’t make you go. No you daddyo yeah! / I ain’t goin’ to school it starts too early for me / Well listen man I ain’t goin’ to school no more it starts much, much too early for me / I don’t care about readin’, writin’, ‘rithmetic or history

The class clown is onto something

Friday, December 8th, 2017

Bryan Caplan’s The Case Against Education comes out soon, and he managed to get The Atlantic to publish a summary — which is sure to ruffle some feathers:

How, you may ask, can anyone call higher education wasteful in an age when its financial payoff is greater than ever? The earnings premium for college graduates has rocketed to 73 percent — that is, those with a bachelor’s degree earn, on average, 73 percent more than those who have only a high-school diploma, up from about 50 percent in the late 1970s. The key issue, however, isn’t whether college pays, but why. The simple, popular answer is that schools teach students useful job skills. But this dodges puzzling questions.

First and foremost: From kindergarten on, students spend thousands of hours studying subjects irrelevant to the modern labor market. Why do English classes focus on literature and poetry instead of business and technical writing? Why do advanced-math classes bother with proofs almost no student can follow? When will the typical student use history? Trigonometry? Art? Music? Physics? Latin? The class clown who snarks “What does this have to do with real life?” is onto something.

[...]

Suppose your law firm wants a summer associate. A law student with a doctorate in philosophy from Stanford applies. What do you infer? The applicant is probably brilliant, diligent, and willing to tolerate serious boredom. If you’re looking for that kind of worker — and what employer isn’t? — you’ll make an offer, knowing full well that nothing the philosopher learned at Stanford will be relevant to this job.

The labor market doesn’t pay you for the useless subjects you master; it pays you for the preexisting traits you signal by mastering them. This is not a fringe idea. Michael Spence, Kenneth Arrow, and Joseph Stiglitz — all Nobel laureates in economics — made seminal contributions to the theory of educational signaling. Every college student who does the least work required to get good grades silently endorses the theory. But signaling plays almost no role in public discourse or policy making. As a society, we continue to push ever larger numbers of students into ever higher levels of education. The main effect is not better jobs or greater skill levels, but a credentialist arms race.

Lest I be misinterpreted, I emphatically affirm that education confers some marketable skills, namely literacy and numeracy. Nonetheless, I believe that signaling accounts for at least half of college’s financial reward, and probably more.

Definitely read the whole thing. You might learn — and even retain — something.

Some aspects of prodigy and autism do overlap

Friday, November 24th, 2017

Prodigies aren’t typically autistic, but some aspects of prodigy and autism do overlap:

Prodigies, like many autistic people, have a nearly insatiable passion for their area of interest. Lauren Voiers, an art prodigy from the Cleveland area, painted well into the night as a teenager; sometimes she didn’t sleep at all before school began. That sounds a lot like the “highly restricted, fixated interests” that are part of autism’s diagnostic criteria.

Prodigies also have exceptional working memories. In a 2012 study led by one of us, Dr. Ruthsatz, all eight of the prodigies examined scored in the 99th percentile in this area. As the child physicist Jacob Barnett once put it during an interview on “60 Minutes,” “Every number or math problem I ever hear, I have permanently remembered.” Extreme memory has long been linked to autism as well. Dr. Leo Kanner, one of the scientists credited with identifying autism in the 1940s, noted that the autistic children he saw could recite “an inordinate number of nursery rhymes, prayers, lists of animals, the roster of presidents, the alphabet forward and backward.” A study on talent and autism published in 2015 in The Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders found that over half of the more than 200 autistic subjects had unusually good memories.

Finally, both prodigies and autistic people have excellent eyes for detail. Simon Baron-Cohen, an autism researcher, and his colleagues have described an excellent eye for detail as “a universal feature of the autistic brain.” It’s one of the categories on the Autism-Spectrum Quotient, a self-administered test Dr. Baron-Cohen helped develop that measures autistic traits. The prodigies in Dr. Ruthsatz’s 2012 study got high marks in this trait on the test. One of the subjects, Jonathan Russell, a 20-year-old music prodigy who lives in New York, described how startled he gets when the chimes on the subway are slightly off key.

Beyond the cognitive similarities, many child prodigies have autistic relatives. In the 2012 study, half of the prodigies had an autistic relative at least as close as a niece or grandparent. Three had received a diagnosis of autism themselves when young, which they seemed to have since grown out of.

There might even be evidence of a genetic link between the conditions. In a 2015 study published in Human Heredity, Dr. Ruthsatz and her colleagues examined the DNA of prodigies and their families. They found that the prodigies and their autistic relatives both seemed to have a genetic mutation or mutations on the short arm of Chromosome 1 that were not shared by their neurotypical relatives. Despite a small sample size (the finding rested on five extended prodigy families), the data was statistically significant.

Competent, honest people often don’t do very well

Wednesday, October 4th, 2017

According to Techniques of Systems Analysis, almost any honest, technically competent person could turn out worthwhile and interesting results — in the simpler, narrower field of Operations Research:

This last statement does not carry over at all to the much broader problems faced in Systems Analysis. Here we no longer have a definite context with specific equipment. Sometimes we don’t even have definite objectives. Rather we are trying to design a system capable of meeting contingencies which will arise five to ten, and sometimes fifteen, years in the future. We must not only design this system, we must also decide under what conditions it will be used and what we shall want to do with it. The recommendations of the Systems Analyst are mainly concerned with “beliefs,” research, development, and procurement, and only incidentally with operations.

Under these circumstances, competent, honest people often don’t do very well; this does not, of course, mean that we want incompetent or dishonest people. It does mean that, in addition to technical competence and honesty, a certain sophistication is necessary.

To make the role of the Systems Analyst clearer it seems worth while to make a distinction among at least three kinds of conclusions — what might be called intuitive judgment, the considered opinion, and the technical or scientific “fact.”

The first is essentially based on the individual’s experience and background. It is the basis of the day-to-day decisions of executives, businessmen, and in fact almost everyone. While it may be informed, the machinery by which it has been arrived at is not explicitly shown. It is essentially as good or bad as the man who is making it.

The second we have called the considered opinion. It differs from the intuitive judgment in that the logic behind the judgment is made explicit — this usually means that it is quantitative. In the best case it is arrived at by a reasonable and impartial examination of the known facts with due and explicit allowances being made for uncertainties. In the worst case, it may be an extensive and misleading rationalization of a prejudged position. In both cases it usually claims to be “rational.” The value of the opinion still depends on who is making it; however, insofar as the machinery is clearly shown, and not hidden by a mass of charts, calculations, and technical verbiage, the audience has some change of make its own considered opinion from the information presented.

(It should be clear to the reader that we have taken some liberties with common usage in making these definitions. For example if somebody spent some days in trying to decide some crucial choice problem and after much internal debate and struggle made the remark, “Well I have done a good deal of cogitating and it is now my considered opinion that I should…,” we would probably say he has made an intuitive judgment.)

To make the contrast between our definitions of intuitive judgment and considered opinion clearer, it is worth mentioning that in previous times there wasn’t much room in human affairs for considered opinions. In most situations there were experienced men available to make off-hand decisions, or the pace of events was so slow that people acquired experience almost without trying. Even when people tried to make opinions explicit, the best they could usually do was essentially a simple or complicated listing of the pros and cons with little or no explanation of how to balance the pros and cons quantitatively. In addition there really wasn’t much place for any process of arriving at conclusions that tends to take 3 to 12 months and uses “analytic” rather than “practical” processes, except in the fields of criticism, commentary, or reform. The contrary seems to be true today — hence, a major reason for what is called Operations Research and Systems Analysis.

The last kind of opinion is the scientific or technical “fact.” While such “facts” are much more subject to controversy than the general public suspects, it is still true that they can usually be clearly separated from the individual and are in some sense “objective.” In particular, insofar as the opinions are based on experiments, logic, or calculations, other people will invariably have repeated the steps and come up with the same answers, or the results will not be believed.

Experience has been a better guide than theory

Tuesday, October 3rd, 2017

Techniques of Systems Analysis explains the success of Operations Research — the simpler, narrower precursor to Systems Analysis — during World War 2:

Even allowing for pardonable exaggerations, the analysts often came up with suggestions that were quite different from practice and yet often demonstrably better. This, in spite of the common and well-founded belief that in the past “experience” has been a better guide than “theory” in this kind of work.

The reason for this success is fairly clear. We might, for example, contrast the situation during World War II with that during the Napoleonic Wars, and ask ourselves if scientific personnel could have contributed much to Nelson’s conduct of the battle of Trafalgar. The following quotation contrasts the situation Nelson found to that faced by the professional officer today. It also indicates some reasons why a civilian analyst is sometimes in a better “psychological” position than the professional military officer in approaching new long range problems.

The professional officer, stimulated always by the immediate needs of the service to which he devotes his life, becomes naturally absorbed with advancing its technical efficiency and smooth operation. This task has become ever more exacting with the increasing complexity and rapidity of change of military technology.

Nelson, whose flagship on the day of Trafalgar was forty years old yet in no wise inferior in fighting capacity to the majority of the ships engaged, could spend his lifetime learning and perfecting the art of the admiral without fearing that the fundamental conditions of that art would change under his feet.

Today the basic conditions of war seem to change almost from month to month. It is therefore difficult for the professional soldier to avoid being preoccupied with means rather than ends, especially since his usefulness to his immediate superior hangs upon his skill and devotion in the performance of his assigned function. And if there is one thing above all that distinguishes the military progression from any other it is that the soldier always has a direct superior.

Nelson and his contemporaries could have had forty years’ experience in handling the equipment they were fighting with. In fact, they could have had effectively even more. They could draw not only on their personal experience, but on the experience of others through personal contacts or writings. Under such circumstances the analytical process does not usually yield results with will compete with those that can be obtained by an experienced man using ordinary judgment and inventiveness.

World War II was quite different. Nobody really had much wartime or even peacetime experience with the equipment because so much of it was relatively new. In some cases it did not exist before the war and the military didn’t even have the benefit of exercises and discussion. Under such circumstances, a theoretical or analytical approach, particularly if it can be made quantitative, will often prove to be fruitful. In fact, it was found that almost any honest, technically competent person could turn out worthwhile and interesting results.

I would make time to read that book

Friday, September 29th, 2017

Mike Hennelly reviewed the last six reading lists from the Army Chief of Staff and declared the most recent list the weakest of the bunch:

The various Army Chiefs of Staff issued six different professional development reading lists between 2009 and 2017 (Casey I, Casey II, Dempsey I, Odierno I, Odierno II and Milley I). All these lists are completely different — Dempsey’s brief list consists of 26 books while Milley’s massive list clocks in at a staggering 115 books. These six reading lists cumulatively contain the names of 240 different books, yet not a single one shows up on every list and only one book (Makers of Modern Strategy 2nd ed.) shows up on five of the six lists. In fact, 80 percent of the books on the most recent list are not mentioned on any of the previous lists.

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In the 2017 reading list, Gen. Milley wanted to focus attention on George Marshall. Great idea. Marshall is a wonderful model of military professionalism. Unfortunately, the reading list directs people to Forrest Pogue’s four-volume (!) biography of Marshall. I read all four volumes this summer and it was painful. What is odd about this choice is that the Army has a perfectly good 95-page monograph on Marshall and strategic leadership (written by an Army colonel at the Strategic Studies Institute of the Army War College in 1993) that would serve the same purpose.

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Guess which conflict makes Army generals more comfortable World War II (14 books) or Vietnam (1 book)?

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There is an entire field of human thought devoted to planning, organizing, leading and controlling organizations. It is called the field of management. As an academic major, management is the most popular in American universities (and coincidentally, the most popular academic major, by far, among cadets at West Point). One would think that people who are responsible for planning, organizing, leading and controlling one of the largest organizations on Earth would be at least a little interested in the field of management. The 2017 reading list shows otherwise. Despite containing 115 books, not a single one of these books is from the field of management. Michael Porter, anyone? Clayton Christensen? Jim Collins? Bueller?

[...]

Every single one of the 115 book descriptions on the 2017 list sounds like it was written by a teaching assistant for an undergraduate syllabus. Just once, I would like to read a book description on the CSA reading list that was written by a senior Army leader who says: “I first read the following book as a lieutenant and it fundamentally changed my ideas on (fill in the blank); I reread it on a regular basis and learn something new every time.”

I would make time to read that book.

Psychology beats business training

Thursday, September 28th, 2017

Francisco Campos and his fellow researchers chose to monitor 1,500 people running small businesses in Togo in West Africa and gave them two different sorts of training:

The typical firm had three employees and profits of 94,512 CFA francs ($173) a month. Only about a third kept books, and less than one in 20 had a written budget.

[...]

As they report in Science, the researchers split the businesses into three groups of 500. One group served as the control. Another received a conventional business training in subjects such as accounting and financial management, marketing and human resources. They were also given tips on how to formalise a business. The syllabus came from a course called Business Edge, developed by the International Finance Corporation.

The final group was given a course inspired by psychological research, designed to teach personal initiative — things like setting goals, dealing with feedback and persistence in the face of setbacks, all of which are thought to be useful traits in a business owner. The researchers then followed their subjects’ fortunes for the next two-and-a-half years (the experiment began in 2014).

An earlier, smaller trial in Uganda had suggested that the psychological training was likely to work well. It did: monthly sales rose by 17% compared with the control group, while profits were up by 30%. It also boosted innovation: recipients came up with more new products than the control group. That suggests that entrepreneurship, or at least some mental habits useful for it, can indeed be taught. More surprising was how poorly the conventional training performed: as far as the researchers could tell, it had no effect at all.

How Harvard helps its richest and most arrogant students get ahead

Wednesday, September 27th, 2017

Sarah Ruden bitterly explains how Harvard helps its richest and most arrogant students get ahead:

It was the end of a semester at Harvard University, where I was a doctoral student, and I’d been called into a professor’s office. He was the faculty member overseeing the third-year undergraduate Latin course that I had just finished teaching and grading. One of my students was seated in the office when I arrived, with a look of dignified outrage on his face, having already made his case against me. The offense?

I’d given him an A-minus.

That he apparently felt welcome to petition against that grade might tell you everything you need to know about how Harvard coddles certain students.

True, giving an A-minus to a classics major, a potential “friend of the department” (read: likely future donor), didn’t always go over well. But the same professor who was now entertaining that undergrad’s grievance had, that year, briefed us teaching assistants on the tough new guidelines for combating grade inflation, counseling us to be judicious, to think through what a Harvard “A” meant before awarding one. Hence, it had seemed reasonably safe to assign that grade.

[...]

To arrive at the final grades, I’d carefully marked all the assignments and used a standard point scale and the prescribed weighting of each part of the coursework. I had given only one A in the class. The complaining student was smart, but on the evidence, he had been coasting; at an ordinary institution, he would have earned a C, not an A-minus. but Harvard undergraduate courses aren’t set up that way.

I thought this professor would ask to see the student’s written work as a backup to his complaint. That’s what had happened to me years before when I challenged the C-minus I got for my first undergraduate essay at the University of Michigan. The reaction was harsh — I was grimly scolded; the C-minus went unchanged — but it motivated me. I shut up, buckled down and improved my performance so much that I not only received an A for the course but also eventually graduated summa cum laude and was offered the nation’s premier fellowship for PhD study in classics.

All this had misled me as to what I should expect when teaching at Harvard. This professor didn’t ask to see any evidence. He accepted the student’s plea that he had “worked really hard.” Then, in front of the student, he pressed me to explain the reason for my poor teaching, apparently the only thing that could reveal why the student wasn’t satisfied with his grade.

[...]

Once he extracted my synthetic mea culpa, the professor happily raised the grade. The triumphant student left, and the professor praised me for my professional behavior.

At Harvard, this kind of encounter wasn’t limited to the humanities and social sciences, where the requirements are sometimes easier to bend. For example, three biochemistry graduate students I knew and trusted all had an identical story. In the introductory course they taught, undergraduates weren’t required to show up at a single lecture or section; they could score in the teens on the final and still pass. The professor’s basis for leniency, they said, was that “they pay too much tuition for us to fail them.”

[...]

In fact, genuine rigor — which would, of course, challenge the prerogatives and sift the career options of privileged students — isn’t what Harvard wanted. Such teaching would hamper the real institutional mission: instilling in the elite a conviction of innate superiority and a corresponding contempt for people with technical knowledge, culture, talent or professional experience.

Why don’t students like school?

Saturday, September 23rd, 2017

In Why Don’t Students Like School?, cognitive scientist Daniel T. Willingham argues that teachers don’t have a full understanding of certain cognitive principles and therefore don’t teach as well as they could. Peter Gray offers another hypothesis:

Ask any schoolchild why they don’t like school and they’ll tell you. “School is prison.” They may not use those words, because they’re too polite, or maybe they’ve already been brainwashed to believe that school is for their own good and therefore it can’t be prison. But decipher their words and the translation generally is, “School is prison.”

Let me say that a few more times: School is prison. School is prison. School is prison. School is prison. School is prison.

Willingham surely knows that school is prison. He can’t help but know it; everyone knows it. But here he writes a whole book entitled “Why Don’t Students Like School,” and not once does he suggest that just possibly they don’t like school because they like freedom, and in school they are not free.

Cherry-picking the best students

Tuesday, September 12th, 2017

Public-school supporters often claim that charter schools manage to “cherry pick” the best students:

Now a series of reports in California and elsewhere show the opposite is true. In one case, educators in the San Diego Unified School District have been counseling their students with low grade-point averages to transfer into charter schools, especially online charters, according to a Voice of San Diego report last month.

Students who were part of the district’s class of 2016 but transferred to a charter school “had a combined grade-point average of 1.75 at the time they transferred,” which is below the 2.0 average needed to graduate. This includes 919 students who left the school system and were “no longer factored into the district’s overall graduation rate,” the news site explained. The districts are able to “dump” students that drag down the overall graduation metrics, which are used to rate schools and influence funding decisions.

[...]

The impact often falls heavily on online charters, because brick-and-mortar charters have enrollment caps. Online charters have no such caps, and are an easy way to offload kids who might drag down district test scores and graduation rates.

The subsequent poor performance of some of these students has another benefit to teachers’ union leaders: it becomes a reason to clamp down on charters.

The Caplan Family School is a perfect fit for young Caplans

Thursday, September 7th, 2017

Bryan Caplan interviews his two twin sons — who sound like they may in fact be clones of their father — about their two years of homeschooling in place of traditional middle school.

I don’t share their animosity toward art, music, and exercise, but I will say that their routine sounds like a perfect fit for them:

Their 5′s on the Advanced Placements tests in United States History, European History, Microeconomics, and Macroeconomics are only the beginning.

Earlier he shared his list of homeschooling textbooks:

7th Grade
For Algebra we used Practical Algebra: A Self-Teaching Guide.  This is probably the best math text I’ve ever seen: clear, thorough, and (to our eyes) literally infallible.

For Geometry, I couldn’t find a really good text, so we just used the geometry sections of the Kaplan SAT prep book and Kaplan SAT Math Level 1 prep book, plus miscellaneous others.

Our source for Algebra II was Practice Makes Perfect: Algebra II.  Pretty good, but quite a few errors.

For United States history, I assigned Nation of Nations, volumes 1 and 2.  It’s not thrilling, but was comprehensive, and low on annoying political remarks and outright economic illiteracy.  Here, and in many other cases, I saved a bundle of money by using old editions.  History really hasn’t changed much since 2007, after all.

Later, I bought virtually every A.P. U.S. History prep book for practice questions, as well as Barron’s excellent flash cards.

My students also took my labor economics class, using all the assigned texts.

8th Grade
For Trigonometry and statistics, we used the later chapters of Practice Makes Perfect: Algebra II.

For calculus, we used Quick Calculus: A Self-Teaching Guide.  This book is very well-written and easy to follow.  It’s also full of errors, but a public-minded Amazon reviewer posted a nearly-complete page of errata here.

If Caplan Family School were continuing, I would start a normal calculus textbook from page 1 now that we finished Quick Calculus.  The subject’s hard and deep enough it’s worth mastering the basics, then redoing it with all the bells and whistles.

Our primary source for European history was Carlton Hayes’ A Political and Social History of Modern Europe, volumes 1 and 2.  Few historians are more fun and funny.  Though his words are occasionally monstrous to modern ears, cut him some slack.  The guy moonlighted by saving tens of thousands of lives during World War II.

Since Hayes only goes up to 1924, I added Civilization in the West to get up to the present day.  But despite its massive size, this book’s coverage of the twentieth century was superficial, especially the post-war era.  My sons mainly learned about the twentieth century from random lectures, Wikipedia, and David Phillips’ awe-inspiring flash cards.  Best… flashcards… ever.

For micro and macroeconomics, we relied on Cowen and Tabarrok’s Modern Principles of Economics.  Using a text written by two guys within earshot may seem like nepotism, but my students privately called it their very favorite textbook: written with joy and packed with mind-expanding problems.

This year, my sons also took my public choice class, using all the assigned texts.

It’s definitely a plan by a geek for little geeks:

I’ll probably never get to cheer for my boys at a competitive sporting event, but this before all the world do I prefer.

Never stop learning like a child

Monday, August 28th, 2017

The idea that the mind fossilises as it ages is culturally entrenched:

One study by Yang Zhang at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis that focused on the acquisition of foreign accents in adults suggests we may simply be suffering from poor tuition. When the researchers gave them recordings that mimicked the exaggerated baby talk of cooing mothers, the adult learners progressed rapidly.

Nor do adults necessarily fumble over the intricate movements that are crucial for music or sport. When volunteers visiting Virginia Penhune’s lab at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada, learned to press keys in a certain sequence, at certain times — essentially a boiled-down version of keyboard practice — the adults tended to outshine the younger volunteers.

During a more challenging test of hand-eye coordination, nearly 1000 volunteers of all age groups learned to juggle over a series of six training sessions. As you might expect, the senior citizens aged 60 to 80 began with some hesitation, but they soon caught up with the 30-year-olds and by the end of the trials all the adults were juggling more confidently than the 5 to 10-year-olds.

Old dogs, then, are much more adaptable than folklore would have it — and if we do have deficits, they aren’t insurmountable. The reason that children appear to be better learners may have more to do with their environment, and factors such as physical fitness (see “Faster body, faster mind”).

Indeed, many researchers believe that an adult’s lifestyle may be the biggest obstacle. “A child’s sole occupation is learning to speak and move around,” says Ed Cooke, a cognitive scientist who has won many memory contests. “If an adult had that kind of time to spend on attentive learning, I’d be very disappointed if they didn’t do a good job.”

A glut of free time and a carefree existence are out of reach for most of us, but there are other behaviours that boost children’s learning, and these habits can be easily integrated into even an adult’s schedule. For example, children are continually quizzed on what they know — and for good reason: countless studies have shown that testing doubles long-term recall, outperforming all other memory tactics. Yet most adults attempting to learn new skills will rely more on self-testing which, let’s be honest, happens less often.

[...]

Adults can hamper progress with their own perfectionism: whereas children throw themselves into tasks, adults often agonise over the mechanics of the movements, trying to conceptualise exactly what is required. This could be one of our biggest downfalls. “Adults think so much more about what they are doing,” says Gabriele Wulf at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “Children just copy what they see.”

Wulf’s work over the past decade shows that you should focus on the outcome of your actions rather than the intricacies of the movements. She applies this finding in her own life: as a keen golfer, she has found it is better to think about the swing of the club, for instance, rather than the position of her hands. “I’m always trying to find where best to focus my attention,” she says. Similarly, if you are learning to sing, then you should concentrate on the tone of the voice, rather than on the larynx or the placement of the tongue. Study after study shows that simply shifting your mindset in this way accelerates your learning – perhaps by encouraging the subconscious, automatic movements that mark proficiency.

Misplaced conscientiousness may also lead adults to rely on overly rigid practice regimes that stifle long-term learning. The adult talent for perseverance, it seems, is not always a virtue. Left to their own devices, most people segment their sessions into separate blocks — when learning basketball, for instance, they may work on each shot in turn, perhaps because they feel a desire to master it. The approach may bring rapid improvements at first, but a host of studies have found that the refined technique is soon forgotten.

Instead, you do better to take a carousel approach, quickly rotating through the different skills to be practised without lingering too long on each one. Although the reason is still unclear, it seems that jumping between skills makes your mind work a little harder when applying what you’ve learned, helping you to retain the knowledge in the long term — a finding that has helped people improve in activities ranging from tennis and kayaking to pistol shooting.

Such an approach might not be to everyone’s taste — with intricate skills, it might feel like you are making no progress. But even if you do revert to stints of lengthy practice, you can still reap some of the same benefits by occasionally trying out your skills in an unfamiliar situation. In tennis, you might move to a different part of the court for a couple of serves before returning to the regular position; while playing scales on a musical instrument, you might switch hands temporarily. According to work by Arnaud Boutin at the Leibniz Research Centre for Working Environment and Human Factors in Dortmund, Germany, venturing out of your comfort zone in this way helps to ensure that you improve your overall performance rather than confining your progress to the single task at hand. “Otherwise, the longer you practise, the harder it becomes to transfer the skills that you’ve learned to new situations,” says Boutin.

If none of that helps you learn like a child, simply adopting the arrogance of youth may do no harm. “As we get older, we lose our confidence, and I’m convinced that has a big impact on performance,” says Wulf. To test the assumption, she recently trained a small group of people to pitch a ball. While half were given no encouragement, she offered the others a sham test, rigged to demonstrate that their abilities were above average. They learned to pitch on target with much greater accuracy than those who didn’t get an ego boost.

The Dan Plan failed

Sunday, August 27th, 2017

I first heard about the Dan Plan — in which Dan McLaughlin decided to put aside everything else to put in 10,000 hours of deliberate golf practice and become an adult prodigy — six years ago. It didn’t work out:

Enlisting a coach, McLaughlin collected data on his performance and sent it to Ericsson, who plotted his improvement. McLaughlin built his game from the hole out. For months, all he did was putt. Gradually, he moved farther from the flag, adding clubs. Eighteen months in, he played his first full round. At peak practice, he was putting in four hours on the practice green and driving range and playing 18 holes daily. He was stingy in tallying hours toward the 10,000 mark, only counting concentrated practice.

Barely over halfway through, he’d pared his handicap to an all-time low of 2.6 — a mark achieved by fewer than 6 percent of golfers.

[...]

As he progressed, McLaughlin found that many of our instincts turn out to be self-defeating. “People’s intuitions about practice are nowhere near optimal,” says Robert Bjork, a professor in cognitive psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose research has demonstrated the effectiveness of introducing “deliberate difficulty” into practice — for instance, constant variety, “interleaving” between different skills and “spacing” study to force students to retrieve, and embed, new knowledge between sessions.

“You want to increase arousal so [the brain encodes] information at a deeper level,’” says Mark Guadagnoli, a professor of neuroscience and neurology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, School of Medicine. “It’s [like] using a laser to engrave something versus a ballpoint pen.”

With advice from Bjork, Ericsson, Guadagnoli, and others, McLaughlin incorporated these principles. But only after he’d burned months drilling single skills like putting — intuitively the best way to practice, but actually the least effective.

[...]

According to the PGA, for every one of the 245 spots on the PGA Tour, there are 326,000 active golfers worldwide. Bjork got a look at McLaughlin’s game in 2014. “I could watch him and think it was remarkable for someone who hadn’t played before,” Bjork recounts. “Or, I could look at him … and say the whole idea of [making] the pro tour was unrealistic.”

McLaughlin stuck to his task for years, but 6,003 hours in, his back would no longer comply. “I couldn’t swing a club for six months,” he says. Today, he’s fine — as long as he doesn’t try to play golf every day. And the Dan Plan is a digital ruin, trailing off mid-stream amid the plaintive questions of diehard fans: “What’s the latest Dan?”

Where did summer vacation come from?

Monday, August 14th, 2017

Where did summer vacation come from?

In 1869, a charismatic preacher named William H. H. Murray published a guide to the rugged Adirondacks of upstate New York, extolling them as an antidote to the enervating effects of modern life. He wrote of his desire to “encourage manly exercise in the open air, and familiarity with Nature in her wildest and grandest aspects.”  Murray spoke of how city dwellers weighed down by work emerged from the northern woods revived and bursting with health.

The book was an immediate bestseller, going through numerous printings. In 1869, hordes of tourists dubbed “Murray’s Fools” arrived in the Adirondacks via a new railway line, only to find themselves beset by flies, alarmed by deer tracks, and otherwise flummoxed by life in the great outdoors. The press had a field day with Murray, but the good preacher persisted, and each year, more and more Americans arrived in the mountains.

The massive expansion of railroads opened this and many other locales to white-collar workers seeking a place to spend some time away from the stress of modern life, even if they sometimes made leisure a form of work. Many of today’s favorite summer destinations – the Great Lakes, the White Mountains, the Jersey Shore, the coast of Maine – all began as vacation meccas at this time.

But when parents contemplated bringing the kids, they immediately ran into a serious problem. At this time, schools followed one of two calendars, neither of which was compatible with the idea of summer vacation.  In rural areas, schools opened their doors in the winter and the summer, but closed their doors in the spring and fall, when parents needed children to help out on farms with planting and harvesting. Cities, by contrast, remained open all year. Neither system was conducive to bringing the kids on summer vacation.

But it was precisely this same era that school reformers began voicing the same concerns about “brain work” that doctors had raised about adults. Horace Mann, arguably the most influential school reformer of the 19th century, wrote with conviction that “health itself is destroyed by overstimulating the mind.” Likewise, the Pennsylvania School Journal voiced anxiety that because children spent too much time in school, they were “growing up puny, lank, pallid, emaciated, round-shouldered [and] thin-breasted, all because they were kept at study too long.”

In cities, this argument had particular resonance, no doubt because poorly ventilated, sweltering classrooms were miserable for students and teachers alike. In rural areas studied by Kenneth Gold, a historian at the City University of New York, education reformers began pushing to revamp the school calendar, as well, creating the now standard school calendar.

In truth, much of the impetus for the shift likely came from the teachers themselves, who had by this time organized themselves.  They pushed for summer vacation because, well, they wanted a break. As one reformer arguing against year-round schooling noted: “Teachers need a summer vacation more than bad boys need a whipping.”