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Showing posts in November 2012  Show all posts >

Selective Hearing: How Your Brain Extracts Meaning from the Noise


What would it be like if you went to a cocktail party – or a rock concert or even your quiet corner coffee joint, for that matter – and you didn’t have the ability to filter out one voice or sound from the sea of other sounds around you?  This ability is called “selective hearing” and is a computational function in your brain that enables you to focus in on your companion’s voice in the midst of the endless sound waves coming from ceiling fans, ambient music, and other people’s voices bouncing off the walls. Your ability to focus in on that single selected voice is impressive. 

Doctoral candidate Bridget Queenan of Georgetown University Medical Center is figuring out how we humans are able to perform this difficult feat by studying bats. She has found that certain neurons in bats’ brains can “quiet” other neurons, allowing the bat to prioritize certain sounds over others. In short, through “turning up the volume” on certain neurons, bats can zero in on the most important sounds, such as their own echolocation sounds, and allow other sounds to fade into the background. (2010)

Researchers at UCSF recently published an article in the journal Nature that describes how they have actually seen this process take place in humans. Using a sheet of 256 electrodes placed on the brain, they can see which neurons activate at the sound of certain voices through the use of sound samples played simultaneously. They could then “decode” the data from the electrodes to find out what the patient heard without talking to the patients themselves. (2012)

When you consider that a bat must hunt, gather, and navigate through spaces populated with thousands and thousands of other bats, it’s easy to see why a brain function like selective hearing is essential to survival. Humans have depended on selective hearing throughout our history for much the same reason.

Although most modern humans are no longer engaged in hunting and gathering activities, our world would look very different were it not for selective hearing. Imagine living in a city – or even a moderately sized suburban town, for that matter – with its ambient atmosphere combining traffic, voices, weather sounds such as wind or rain, and the rest of the cacophony of daily life that we simply don’t think about from moment to moment. Were it not for selective hearing, we would drown in an overwhelming sea of noise, unable to focus on any one sound well enough to effectively evaluate its importance. Considered in that context, the neurological capability that we call selective hearing has played a significant role in defining how we function as a species.

You can also see how this ability would be important in the real-world context of the classroom. Without it, students who are already easily distracted would simply be swallowed by the noise. Independent research has shown that students’ selective auditory attention improves after they use the Fast ForWord program for as little as six weeks. (2008)

So the next time you find yourself unable to focus on someone’s voice at a party, or you encounter a student who is having a hard time paying attention in a noisy classroom, take a moment. Appreciate your ability to use your selective hearing. And have patience while that other person works to engage theirs.

Further reading:

Bat Brain Research Highlights Human Selective Hearing Skills


Bardi, J. (2012). How Selective Hearing Works In the Brain.  Retrieved from the University of California San Franciso website:

Mallet, K. (2010). Bat Brains Offer Clues As to How We Focus on Some Sounds and Not Others.  Retrieved from the Georgetown University Medical Center:   

Stevens,C., Fanning, J.,  Coch, D., Sanders, L., & Neville, H. (2008). Neural mechanisms of selective audiory attention are enhanced by computerized training: Electrophysiological evidence from language-impaired and typically developing children. Brain Research. 1205, 55 – 69.  doi: 10.1016/j.brainres.2007.10.108.



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Categories: Brain Research, Fast ForWord, Scientific Learning Research

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How a Low Performing School Achieved Double-Digit Gains on the California Standards Tests (CSTs)

improved test scores

On November 5th, Dr. Martha Burns and Mr. Charles Wilson, principal of the Korematsu Discovery Academy in the Oakland Unified School District, presented a live webinar that explained the research behind the Fast ForWord program and how it took Korematsu from NCLB Program Improvement (PI) status to achieving double-digit learning gains -- and emerging from PI status in only two school years!

Dr. Burns focused on the neurophysiology of learning, specifically the importance of several key left hemisphere pathways. Dr. Burns noted that these pathways appear to be originally founded in object naming networks but gradually expand to symbolic representation systems. She described how information is moved from perceptual/comprehension regions in the rear of the brain to the anterior regions of the frontal lobe, where the learner can utilize the information in useful ways.

This process is particularly important in reading. Reading represents one form of symbolic processing in which the visual symbol corresponds initially to speech sounds and ultimately to words and sentences. Fast ForWord is particularly designed to activate and strengthen speech perception, comprehension and production regions and those key pathways that enable processing for struggling learners by:

  • Targeting key neurological centers for language, perceptual processing and sequencing
  • Enhancing processing speed and accuracy through repetition and practice of brain fitness exercises
  • Building executive functions (life skills) through exercises that increase students’ ability to control their attention and retain information (working memory)

The best testament to Fast ForWord’s capabilities is real-world success, which is exactly what Mr. Wilson provided in his section of the webinar. Korematsu is a heavily disadvantaged school with a 95% free lunch rate and a high percentage of ELL students. Korematsu found itself in NCLB Program Intervention status due to not meeting AYP requirements, at which point Wilson and his staff adopted Fast ForWord. In the subsequent school year, the Academy experienced double-digit gains on the CSTs and was named the Alameda County English Learner School of the Year.

Those of us who have worked in a low-performing school understand the immense challenge it is to improve student achievement, especially in the midst of record budget cuts.  A lot can be learned from Mr. Wilson, a man who has achieved such great success for students in one of the most challenging educational environments.  With a mix of leadership, determination, innovation, and inspiration, Mr. Wilson shows us that anything is possible. 


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Categories: Brain Research, Education Trends, English Language Learners, Fast ForWord, Reading & Learning

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Early Predictors of Math Success

math skills fractions

Educators and psychologists like to talk about predictors--we like to know what about today can tell us about how students will achieve tomorrow. While such knowledge is academically interesting, its true value only lies in the action it inspires.

For example, a recent study published in Psychological Science outlines the early predictors of mathematics achievement (Siegler, 2012).  Based on various theories of how humans naturally develop numerical concepts, the research team hypothesized that an early understanding of fractions could predict how well a student would perform in algebra and general mathematics later on. Siegler’s earlier research had revealed that a student’s understanding of the number line was critical to future mathematical success; this recent publication is an extension of those original findings.

In the 2012 study, the team did a retrospective study of data from two populations of students – one in the United States and one in England. The data indicated that their hypothesis was true:  fractions knowledge indeed predicted later success. After controlling for intellectual ability, family background and existing mathematical abilities, the students who had a greater understanding of fractions early on ended up doing better in algebra and math in high school, 5 or 6 years later.  

The paper’s authors say it well: “If researchers can identify specific areas of mathematics that consistently predict later mathematics proficiency…society can increase efforts to improve instruction and learning in those areas.” (2012)

So, we have a solid hypothesis, and the data support it. With the scientific method as their toolset, the research team provided us with a bit of useful, straightforward information. The real question becomes: what do we do with this knowledge?

Let’s bring this down to the level of practice: what are some simple things parents and teachers can do to help young learners develop a better understanding of fractions?

  • Make it visual. Use lots of visuals and manipulatives – paper cutouts, blocks, Legos®, pies – anything to help students visualize fractions. 
  • Make it reflective. When you tell a learner, “You’ve got three quarters of an hour to do this task,” push their understanding of the idea. In passing, ask them how many minutes that is in comparison to how many minutes there are in a whole hour. Little mental puzzles not only make for fun interactions, but challenge and extend understanding.
  • Make it practical. Instead of using a pie chart, how about baking an actual pie? Working with recipes is a fun, hands-on way to teach and learn fractions. (And when it comes to motivating learners, don’t underestimate the value of a pizza; it makes fractions not only come alive, it makes them smell and taste delicious.)
  • Make it ubiquitous. Fractions are truly everywhere: in the car, at the supermarket, at the hardware store. I challenge you to find a place where we go in daily life that fractions are NOT part of the environment. Look for fractions when you’re with young learners and call them out: “Hey, those sodas come in 12-packs. We only need half. How many is that?” The more they are exposed to them, the greater opportunity learners will have to absorb the concepts.

One crucial reinforcement to the above strategies comes from Siegler’s findings about the importance of the number line. It is helpful to use the strategies above, but the student must ultimately understand how that fraction is represented in relation to other numbers (e.g., knowing that 2/4 and 1/2 are the same point between 0 and 1).  Use the strategies above to engage learners, but always remember to reinforce the concepts by taking the activity back to the number line.

Studies like the ones I’ve discussed can be great, enlightening tools. They show us a relatively straight road to get from here to there and a clear relationship of cause to effect. If we can help students understand fractions early, given the regular patterns of development and learning, those students will have advantages when it comes to developing deeper math skills later on.

The simple problem is that acting on this knowledge takes change. Do we have the will to take on those changes?


Seigler, R.S., Duncan, G.J., Davis-Kean, P.E., Duckworth, K., Claessens, A., Engel, M., Susperreguy, M.I., Chen, M. Early Predictors of High School Mathematics Achievement. Psychological Science. 14 June 2012.  

Related Reading:  

Kindergarten Math Readiness & The Cardinal Principle

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


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Categories: Education Trends, Reading & Learning

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What Educators May Not Know about the Neuroscience of Learning

latest in neuroscience

On October 30th, noted neuroscience researcher and co-founder of Scientific Learning, Dr. Paula Tallal, conducted a live webinar titled “What do Neuroscientists Know About Learning That Most Educators Don’t?” In her presentation, Dr. Tallal discussed her original research on auditory processing, its relationship to language development, and the far-reaching effects that deficiencies in those areas can have on learning.

Research continues to support the hypothesis that difficulty discriminating between small changes in sound is at the heart of learning problems both in students who have a diagnosed difficulty and those who do not.  Dr. Tallal described how oral language is the foundation for learning and for most successful educational outcomes, adding that oral language itself is dependent on the brain’s ability to discriminate and process auditory information. Children who have difficulty perceiving the many subtleties of language find the deck stacked against them in their educational careers. They can experience a variety of impediments to learning, including:

  • Limited attention: Humans are less likely to pay attention to someone speaking if they only understand a portion of what is said. Recall the last time you spoke to someone with a heavy accent or were on a bad phone line.
  • Difficulty following directions: When you only understand a portion of a spoken “order of operations” - like a set of directions – the chance that you follow the order decreases dramatically.
  • Memory issues: As Dr. Tallal describes, if you have to concentrate so much on understanding spoken text, you are less able to move information from working to long-term memory, and therefore are less likely to remember it.

Students with this subtle level of auditory processing problem need specific differentiation that is not possible in most classrooms. The good news, as Dr. Tallal describes, is that modern technology can be used to address the difficulties these children face and help bridge these skill gaps. In fact, it is this level of research and development that informed the development of Scientific Learning’s software programs, including Fast ForWord.

To close, Dr. Tallal took questions from the educators relating to how these insights can be used to improve educational outcomes in all classrooms. Teachers left this insightful webinar with practical strategies that can be used to help learners of all abilities.



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

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