I was recently online and an ad similar to the following displayed in my browser:
I clicked on the "Start Training" button and was transported to the official Lumosity website. I was anxious to learn more about improving my general brain power, and what I discovered at the website was a program that included a variety of exciting online games designed to increase my memory abilities, problem-solving capabilities, and thinking speed. Excellent! I can use a faster brain, so I created a free account (with limited features) and began my "brain training." I suggest you navigate to the site an try out the Lumosity games yourself.
When you are on the Lumosity site, you will notice that the people who have designed the material (and the marketing strategy) have provided some "research" to back up their claims regarding the effectiveness and effects of their gaming techniques. For example, the developers use a strategy called "n-back" which supposedly affects memory capabilities (check out the Wikipedia entry for more information). And here is a short video that promotes the Lumosity "brain training" strategies:
"Suppress impulsive responses that get in the way of your goals." I can use some of this. The Lumosity website even promotes a slick research reports with titles like "The Science of Lumosity" supporting the cognitive benefits of their gaming strategies (see them here).
You can examine the material presented at the site, and spend some time reviewing some of the games available (and the reporting features), and you might even be compelled enough to pay for the deluxe version at around $60/year. The products sure seem legitimate, particular when you read through the research study posted on the company website.
But wait a minute. Another developer of "brain training" software has prepared material that seems to discredit some of the claims presented by the good people at Lumosity (many of whom have "Ph.D." after their names). Check out this video from Braingainer:
After viewing this video, you may be tempted to ask "Who is right?!?" Of course, if you watch the Braingainer video long enough, you soon realize it is just a crummy commercial too!
After viewing all the material for the brain training resources, I felt a little bit the way Ralphie did when he decoded the radio message in A Christmas Story. The material presented looks legitimate, but the more you examine the claims and "research," the more you realize that such material seems to have been generated by the people who are trying to sell you something.
All this reminds me of a conversation I recently had with students in one of my other courses about the value of learning certain content-area skills in school, and whether any skills we expect students to learn might ultimately be good for the brain in general, particularly in the area of critical and creative thinking. The issue of learning math skills was discussed, including basic math skills like math facts (e.g. knowing that 3 X 7 = 21 without doing a calculation every time) as well as more complex skills included in algebra and calculus curricula. I questioned the reasoning that such skills would have an impact on general thinking skills, and received some healthy push-back on my position from some of the students. I do believe that many people have misconceptions about the value of mathematical skill learning in school. If you think about it, our society has placed a very high premium on math skills (after all, math and reading standardized test scores seem to be the only thing that matters to many people). I believe part of this premium comes from an erroneous belief that mathematics is "good fro the brain," as if the brain works like a muscle and math experiences make the entire cognitive functioning stronger. From a scientific perspective, such claims need to be backed up with research results supporting hypotheses that suggest a positive relationship between learning math and improving general problem-solving abilities. But have such studies been designed and implemented? If so, what do the results suggest? And how does this idea apply to other subject skill sets as well? Likewise, do advanced reading skills contribute to better "thinking" abilities? Can learning more about the scientific method improve reasoning skills? What subject-specific skills, if any, HAVE been linked to proficiencies in broader skill sets?
I think a lot about such matters. One of the best conference presentations I every experienced was a keynote address by Seymour Papert, an MIT professor who worked in the areas of mathematics, learning theory, and computer application in teaching and learning (among other things). Part of his presentation included the value of learning math in school, and he made a general conclusion that a good deal of the math we expect kids to learn is essentially a waste of time and effort. In response to a comment that complex math helps develop general problem-solving ability, Papert asked the audience if they personally knew any mathematicians. He challenged us to think about the problem-solving ability of mathematicians (or scientists or engineers), and whether or not their abilities were extraordinary outside their specific discipline. He asked us if they are better at solving problems in other areas of their life than most people. Are their relationships more successful? Can they diagnose trouble with their automobiles more easily than most, or make better decisions about money than the average person? "Not the mathematicians I know...including myself," he remarked.
Papert brought up some very good points. As did Daniel Willingham in the video from the Week 1 information about learning styles. I have had similar thoughts about the way in which I observe teachers trying to teach to "multiple intelligences".
What about you?
So the first step in thinking like a scientist is making observations, followed by identifying problems based on your observations.
Please post a comment...
Here at the beginning of the course, I am interested in learning about the types of problems or questions you have about anything related to education that have been raised based on your personal observations. These could be observations made when you were a student, a teacher, or just a regular person walking around in the world noticing things. in the comments below, post a question r problem statement you have about education, and briefly describe the observations that led to you raising the question(s). You don;t need to do anything with these problems...now or in the future. Just share any questions bouncing around in your head....