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Brain Fitness Is Not A Game

BBC brain training studyA recent study on brain video games is causing discussions worldwide on the benefits of brain training and programs developed to improve brain functioning. The study, published in Nature and summarized on Nature News, titled “No Gain From Brain Training,” was conducted with adults, average age 39, who practiced a series of online tasks for a minimum of ten minutes a day, three times a week, for six weeks.

These tasks, focused on reasoning, planning and problem-solving abilities, were tests and not exercises intended to improve cognitive skills. While the outcome of the study brings the concept of brain training to the forefront of online discussion sites, it’s important to note that the clarification of brain video games, brain training programs and brain fitness programs and the origins of the research behind the development of these products are critical to the discussions. 

What differentiates the Scientific Learning products from those advertised as “brain video games” or “brain training programs” is the science: decades of research into how students learn preceded the development of our products. For more than 30 years, neuroscientists at Scientific Learning have studied the way the brain learns.

The expertise and collaboration of Drs. Michael Merzenich, William Jenkins, Paula Tallal, and Steven Miller, the founders of Scientific Learning, along with several other cognitive neuroscientists, resulted in the development of a research-based series of products. The Fast ForWord® software is based on the science of how the brain learns and retains information. It utilizes the principles of neuroscience and learning to exercise and develop the brain's processing efficiency, essential for academic learning and reading success.

Brain plasticity research demonstrates that completing learning tasks in a frequent, intense timeframe accelerates learning. Just as exercise promotes physical fitness, exercising our brain improves brain fitness in four critical areas: memory, attention, processing and sequencing.

In addition, the research is recognized and supported by other scientists in peer reviews from Stanford University, Cornell University, UCSF Medical Center & Rutgers University, and many other top Universities, including a recent study by Dr. Nadine Gaab of Children’s Hospital Boston ((Gaab, N., Gabrieli, J.D.E., Deutsch, G.K., Tallal, P., & Temple, E. (2007). Neural correlates of rapid auditory processing are disrupted in children with developmental dyslexia and ameliorated with training: An fMRI study. Restorative Neurology and Neuroscience, 25, 295-310.)).

Finding the right product to improve cognitive skills can be overwhelming for the consumer. Numerous articles and research studies can be found online that address the interest and concern in this popular field of learning and brain development. In fact, a Google search on “brain video games” resulted in more than 32million hits! Members of the education community, parents and teachers alike, who are looking for programs for their students, should be cognizant of the importance of scientific research.

If a product is touted as “research-based,” what are the origins, extent and validity of that research? Are the products intended to test or improve cognitive skills? According to Dr. William Jenkins, Scientific Learning's Chief Scientific Officer, “a program that is designed to improve cognitive, reading or language skills and build brain fitness is adaptive to the student’s abilities; critical tasks are practiced at an appropriate frequency and intensity; multiple skills are cross-trained at the same time for lasting improvement; and rewards are built into the program for maximum motivation as the student progresses.”

In the study referenced above, “No Gain From Brain Training,” researchers believe that none of the groups who participated in the study boosted their performance on tests measuring general cognitive abilities such as memory, reasoning and learning. Participants in the study were volunteers who were viewers of a popular BBC game show, “Bang Goes the Theory.” The study required the participants to complete tasks for only 10 minutes a day, 3 times a week.

While the study concluded that there is no evidence of “any generalized improvements in cognitive function following brain training in a large sample of healthy adults,” it is a study that leads to more questions than answers. Were the tasks measures of current cognitive skills or were they designed to build upon these skills? The study leads the reader to conclude that these were tests of cognitive ability, not exercises to improve skills. So the conclusion that the programs did not improve cognitive function is baffling. Were the tasks adaptive, motivating, and practiced with intensity and frequency? Was there cross-training on multiple tasks to build cognitive skills? How comprehensive is a study conducted on participants who complete tasks for only a few minutes a week?

Based on the intensive studies done on proven brain training or brain fitness products already on the market that follow the basic principles of clinical trial studies (i.e Posit Science, a brain fitness program for adults), this study is not a strong indicator of the results that can be realized with a true research-based program. Whether programs are defined as brain training or brain video games or tasks designed to test cognitive skills, they don’t necessarily have the intensive scientific research that is the foundation of a proven brain fitness program.

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Categories: Brain Fitness, Brain Research, Fast ForWord, Scientific Learning Research

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Investing in Innovation (i3) Grantwriting Tips

Are you applying for Investing in Innovation (i3) funds and in need of some last minute help?  I've received many questions about the difference between "demonstrated success" and "evidence of effect", so I've explained the difference in this short video. 

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Categories: Education Funding, Grants, and Stimulus, Fast ForWord, Reading Assistant

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Announcing Our Spring Webinar Series--Register today!

brain fitness webinarsIt’s almost here!  I’m happy to announce Scientific Learning’s Spring Webinar Series 2010 featuring five must-hear presentations by experienced, committed educators. 

Register for one or all five of the webinars and stimulate your own brain while you absorb ideas and techniques that you can use with your own students.

1) Building Brain Fitness for Struggling Students to Succeed

Presenter: Dr. Deborah Kolonay, Superintendent at Penn Trafford SD
Date & Time: Wednesday, May 12 at 10:00am Pacific

2) Teaching Fluency:  The Neglected Goal of the Reading Program

Presenter: Timothy Rasinski, Ph.D.
Date & Time: Wednesday, May 19 at 11:00am Pacific

3) Moving Students to Proficiency

Presenters: Dr. Mark Keen & Cindy Keever at Westfield Washington SD
Date & Time: Wednesday, May, 25 at 10:30am Pacific

4) Autism:  Support and Interventions

Presenter: Ann Osterling
Date & Time: Thursday, May 27 at 10:00am Pacific

5) Autism:  What is the Latest Research?

Presenter: Ann Osterling
Date & Time: Tuesday, June 15 at 10:00am Pacific

For a fuller description of each session, please visit our webinars page.  And be sure to follow @scilearn on Twitter for updates as the webinar dates approach!

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Categories: Brain Fitness, Brain Research, Education Trends, Fast ForWord, Reading & Learning, Reading Assistant, Special Education

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Lifelong Learning and the Plastic Brain

 

Remember the old saying, "You can’t teach an old dog new tricks?"  Well, we are actually finding out that you CAN teach an old dog new tricks. Decades of research tell us that the brain has the capacity to continually grow and re-wire itself. 

The ability of the brain to change itself is termed brain plasticity or neuroplasticity. A good question is "how do we translate this knowledge of neuroplasticity into success for all learners?"

First, we need to understand what "learner" means. According to TheFreeDictionary.com, "learn" is defined as "to gain knowledge, information, comprehension, or skill."  Lifelong learning is described as learning in which a person of any age keeps the mind and body engaged by actively pursuing knowledge and experience. 

Dr. Michael Merzenich, a leader in the field of neuroplasticity research, claims that we can constantly change the structure of the brain and increase its capacity to learn. His research shows that if the brain is not challenged with new learning, the brain's function can gradually erode over time, leading to decreased memory and cognitive function. Collaborative experiments by Merzenich and William Jenkins, Ph.D showed the adult brain demonstrated change and adaptation in response to stimuli.1

Lifelong learning is not confined to childhood and has extended beyond the traditional classroom environment. Learning takes place in Tai Chi classes for senior citizens or in sandboxes where children can create the future. Many community education programs include lifelong learning courses on a variety of topics, including photography and naturopathic medicine. These activities offer new opportunities for the learner to experience new things, learn new concepts and stimulate the brain in a new way, thus keeping the brain "plastic." 

Educators are learning that brain fitness for students is just as important as physical fitness. Adults, especially Baby Boomers, are embracing lifelong learning as way to keep the mind and body healthy. Some are even looking at voluntourism (combining volunteer work with vacationing) or educational travel (combining lectures, explorations and leisure time) as a way of pursuing lifelong learning.

So, try learning a new language or playing a new musical instrument, teach reading in Romania, or maybe even learn how to do magic. You really can teach an old dog new tricks and you should!

For more information on lifelong learning and neuroplasticity, refer to Norman Doidge's book, "The Brain That Changes Itself" or the video, The New Science of Learning: Brain Fitness for Kids.

1 Jenkins, W. M., Merzenich, M. M., & Recanzone, G. (1990). Neocortical representational dynamics in adult primates: Implications for neuropsychology. Neuropsychologia, 28(6), 573-84.

 

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What is Number Sense and How Does it Relate to Math Skills?

math skillsLet’s talk about the Approximate Number System, or just "the ANS." The ANS is the instinctive ability to nonverbally represent numbers. We constantly use this capability in every day decision making, such as choosing the shorter checkout line at the store or wanting to try a meal at a crowded restaurant. In these situations, our gut decisions are mathematically based. Evidence shows that many different species not only share this capacity, but use it to guide everyday behaviors such as foraging and judging time and distance.

So how does the ANS work in non-humans? Let’s do a little study of my two labs, Bella and Buddy. Both love to chase tennis balls, love to swim, and are highly competitive in the ball-chasing department. Buddy clearly exercises his ANS judgment routinely when I throw the ball into the water. If he and Bella approach the water’s edge at about the same time, they both jump in. On the other hand, if Bella beats him to the water by a significant distance, he recognizes instinctively that he can’t beat her to the ball in the water, so he’ll stop and wait until she brings it nearly to the shore. At that point, he jumps in and goes for the steal.

Why is the ANS important for math skills? It is believed that human mathematical competence comes from two representational systems. One is the "symbolic representations" that must be explicitly taught and are the basis for calculus and geometry. The other–the same one that Buddy uses above–is the older approximate number system. The evidence suggests that very young babies can use this ANS to make approximate number judgments, differentiating one item from two, two items from three and three items from greater than three. Further, a growing body of evidence indicates that individual differences in math achievement are related to variations in the acuity of an evolutionarily ancient, unlearned approximate number sense. Interestingly, evidence also suggests that this ANS may be subject to influence by early learning.

If you’d like to dig deeper into understanding the science of the ANS, I recommend reading Halberda and Feigernson’s 2008 study, "Developmental Change in the Acuity of the ’Number Sense’: The Approximate Number System in 3-, 4-, 5-, and 6-Year-Olds and Adults." For an overview, The New York Times published a write up on the article and even included a link to an interactive, online activity that demonstrates the ANS in action.

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The Technological Lives of Today’s Students

technology and kidsToday, students’ lives are steeped with technology in all its shapes and sizes and forms. They don’t stop to ask directions. They have iPhones and GPSs and they just keep going forward at full tilt. If we wish to understand our students so we can affect their lives and their futures, we—as parents, as educators, as mentors—must not only understand that mindset, but embrace it.

Think about how different the education experience is today from what it was in the 1960’s, 70’s and even a brief 20 years ago in the 80’s. Back then, learning materials were still delivered in print. Biology and chemistry labs were performed in labs or in the field. Students, side-by-side with educators, really got in and got their hands dirty.

Today’s students are likely to be reading their lessons online, performing those same experiments in simulated environments, and turning in their lab reports via a class website as opposed to writing out assignments, and looking their teacher in the eye as they hand them a written report on paper. While we might feel nostalgic for those kinds of interactions, we can—and must—take a different mindset. Essentially, this represents a new aspect of the challenge that every educator has faced: ours is to uncover ways of connecting with our students in ways that are meaningful to them. Technology has provided a new paradigm for the classroom, redefining how, when and where learning happens. Now, educators have a limitless library of tools to add depth to learning experiences. No doubt about it, technology presents challenges, but it has also added great variety to teaching and learning, making it more exciting, interactive and, yes, fun.

A number of insights can help us understand this world where our students reside:

  • Our students experience their world through technology. This is one of those simple, undeniable facts that we can rail against or embrace. According to a new Kaiser Family Foundation study, the average 8 to 18 year-old spends more than seven and a half hours a day using smart phones, computers and other devices. Include texting and cell phones and the number jumps to nine and a half hours. (Levin)
  • The use of technology and electronic media in K-12 education is on the rise. Every year, more wonderful, brave educators are adding more technological arrows to their classroom quivers. A research report that Grunwald Associates created for PBS indicates that almost three quarters of K-12 teachers use downloaded or streaming content from the Internet as an instructional tool. (Grunwald Associates) If you’re one of these educators, kudos to you for implementing ways to connect with your tech-savvy students!
  • It has been said that our school systems are, in general, behind the rest of society. "Most students say they ‘step back in time’ when they enter the school building each morning." (Project Tomorrow) This is a hard fact to swallow, but we must accept it and deal with it, head on. If our task is to prepare students for a technology-driven, knowledge-based global economy, the mastery of technology they are getting outside of school must be just as important a part of their education as the content and skills they are learning in school.

Of course, access to technology is not a given; the economic health of the communities where our nation's students live and learn is not a constant, and we must challenge ourselves at all levels of society to ensure that every student gets a quality, relevant education. If we are to prepare our students for the world that awaits them, educators need to not only welcome technology, but we must approach the world using the high-tech eyes and speak the high-tech languages that our students use every day. As we do that and gain an increasingly deeper understanding of their technological lives, we will be able to more effectively connect them, educate them, and send them forward with the knowledge and skills that they will need to sail on to success.

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Apply for the “Science of Success” Classroom Microgrant for Teachers!

How would you use the knowledge gained from brain research to create the best learning experiences for kids

WeAreTeachers is offering a “Science of Success” microgrant for teachers, sponsored by Scientific Learning, that is designed to help educators enrich their classroom instruction by incorporating information and practices derived from research into how the brain learns.

Enter your project idea for a chance to win $200 and a Flip Video camera or iPod nano® that you can use to document your project! The application period starts today and ends May 13, 2010. Voting will take place on the WeAreTeachers website from May 13 – May 27, with winners announced May 31, 2010.

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Categories: Brain Fitness, Brain Research, Education Funding, Grants, and Stimulus

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Child Reading Development and Language Skills Webinar

Updated June 1, 2010

Child Reading DevelopmentLanguage learning begins at birth and continues throughout early childhood.  A child’s brain needs plenty of early language exposure to map the phonemes—or speech sounds—of her native language. 

Without a good language background, a child is likely to struggle with reading.  Children who are reading below grade level in the first grade are at risk for remaining below grade level in reading ability throughout their school years, and being poor readers as adults.

Early reading intervention gets better results than remediation provided later in life.  Listen to our pre-recorded child reading development webinar with Cory Armes and Dr. Joseph Noble and find out how struggling students in an Iowa school district boosted their language skills from the 36th to the 59th percentile.

The latter half of the child reading development webinar addresses various funding sources—including Stimulus Package opportunities—that districts can apply for to bring similar results to their learners.

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Categories: Brain Fitness, Education Funding, Grants, and Stimulus, Fast ForWord, Reading Assistant

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How Important is Memory in the Phonics Approach to Reading?

reading phonicsAll of us measure our intelligence, to some extent, by how well we remember things. When a young child enters school there is a tremendous premium on the ability to memorize. From learning the alphabet to memorizing math facts, success in school is measured by memory.

Parents intuitively understand this and encourage their children to demonstrate their mnemonic skills. Reciting a poem, repeating the alphabet, counting to 100, or listing other facts like state capitals, can be a badge of “knowledge” that parents will ask their children to perform to demonstrate their intellectual prowess. But, sadly, many children who are significantly behind in some aspects of development can recite and memorize.

It is interesting, that from a neuroscience perspective, memorization is not really a very advanced skill. Memorization of facts, poems, or lists is accomplished by one of the most primitive and, from an evolutionary perspective, oldest parts of the brain, the hippocampus.

The hippocampus is a horseshoe-shaped area situated deep in the center of the brain in one of the oldest parts of the brain, the medial temporal lobe. All animals with a spinal cord have a hippocampus.

Most brain scientists regard the hippocampus as the part of the brain that allows us to learn anything new. And, in fact, when it is permanently damaged in humans, they become unable to learn anything new although they can recite without error information they learned before this part of the brain was damaged. So, it turns out that the hippocampus is like the “tape recorder” of our brain. It enables us to memorize new information but does not appear to be essential for retrieving information we learned years ago or information we know well.1

A great deal of learning in the elementary grades involves the hippocampus. Memorization of spelling rules likes “i before e except after c,” math facts, reading of “sight” words that cannot be sounded out, and geographical facts, just to name a few, demand good memorization skills (hippocampus function.). Reading curriculum used before 1970, like those used when the goal was memorization of the “Dolch” sight words, also stressed memorization skills.2

Children who were not particularly good at memorization in the 1950’s or 1960’s were at a great disadvantage in the early grades. But the 1980’s ushered in a new approach to reading, phonics. The phonics approach to teaching reading went through a slight reversal in the 1980’s and early 1990’s with an academic approach called “total language” that stressed reading speed and ease through use of contextual information like pictures and story3 familiarity, but the phonics-based approaches are now quite strong in most American academic curricula as research pointed to its overall superiority for teaching young readers.

The phonics reading approach places far fewer demands on memorization because a child can read many words without having to memorize them. But phonics does require a kind of memory – working memory – that involves a much more advanced part of the brain and is different from memorization.

1There is considerable debate about how important the hippocampus is in retrieval of different types of stored information. Squire, et al., discuss some of this debate in an excellent summary article: Nature Reviews Neuroscience 8, 872–883 (1 November 2007) | doi:10.1038/nrn2154

2 Anyone who was educated with “Dick and Jane” books was taught to memorize a list of Dolch sight words at each grade level.

3 The National Research Council now recommends that all reading curricula in U.S. schools stress phonemic awareness, phonics, reading fluency, comprehension and vocabulary building.

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Creating the Optimal "Internal" Learning Environment

learning environmentsIn her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol S. Dweck of Stanford University tells us that there are essentially two mindsets with which we approach life: a fixed mindset or a growth mindset.

  • A person with a fixed mindset views their intelligence, talents and abilities as fixed and unchanging. As a result, those with this mindset protect themselves from failure by avoiding new experiences and challenges.
  • A person with a growth mindset sees him or herself as fluid and changing. They see their lives as full of opportunity and personal growth.

According to Dweck, even the very brightest students, if they have fixed mindsets, may "avoid challenges, dislike effort, and wilt in the face of difficulty." On the other hand, the less bright students—if they have a growth mindset—can be "the real go-getters, thriving on challenge, persisting intensely when things get difficult, and accomplishing more than you expected."¹

So how can we cultivate growth-oriented mindsets in our students? In a recent interview, Dweck suggested a number of practical ideas that we can employ every day in the classroom:

  • Teach students to think of their brain as a muscle that strengthens with use, and have them visualize the brain forming new connections every time they learn.
  • When teaching study skills, convey to students that using these methods will help their brains learn better.
  • Discourage use of labels that convey intelligence as a fixed entity.
  • Praise students’ effort, strategies, and progress, not their intelligence. Praising intelligence leads students to fear challenges and makes them feel less intelligent when they have difficulty.
  • Give students challenging work. Teach them that challenging activities are fun and that mistakes help them learn.²

For further reading, check out Carol S. Dweck’s book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

Web Resources:

 

¹ Education World®: School Issues and Education News: Wire Side Chats: How Can Teachers Develop Students’ Motivation — and Success? 2/4/10
² Chen, Milton. " Smart Talking: Tell Students to Feed Their Brains.” www.edutopia.org/tell-students-feed-their-brains

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