TIME Education

Why Pediatricians Are Prescribing Books

Temperature, Child
BSIP—UIG via Getty Images

Children under five years old see their doctor at least once a year, and the opinion of a physician often carries more weight with parents than that of a teacher or counselor.

Earlier this week, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement recommending story time with mom and dad start in infancy: parents should be reading to their children, the group says, from the first days of their lives.

Research shows that one-third of American children start kindergarten lacking the basic language skills they will need in order to learn to read, a deficit that can ripple through all the years of schooling to follow. Reading aloud is one of the best ways to build such skills, but surveys find that only about half of low-income parents in the U.S. are reading to their children every day. Scientists have repeatedly demonstrated that better-educated people live longer and have a lower risk of disease than their less-educated counterparts. It makes perfect sense, then, that many pediatricians are adding a new tool to their doctors’ kits: books.

There are hurdles, however, in the way of many parents taking this advice: they may not themselves be literate, for example. A study released earlier this month by the Stanford University School of Medicine reported that immigrant parents and parents with low education levels or low household incomes were less likely to read to their children. In addition, poor families may not have access to books. One study found that in low-income neighborhoods, only one book was available for every 300 children, while in middle-income neighborhoods the ratio was 13 books for each individual child. And many parents may know that they should be reading to their children each day, but find that work schedules and other household activities get in the way.

Pediatricians make ideal conduits for the message that reading is important. Ninety-six percent of children under five years old see their doctor at least once a year, and the opinion of a physician often carries more weight with parents than that of a teacher or counselor. Taking advantage of this privileged position, a growing number of pediatricians are “prescribing” books to their young patients at each visit (some of them even write out the directive to read on a prescribing pad).

Many are doing so under the auspices of an organization called Reach Out and Read, which was founded in 1989 by a group of doctors at Boston City Hospital (now called Boston Medical Center). Over the past 25 years, Reach Out and Read has trained thousands of primary care providers to speak with patients about the benefits of reading. They have distributed millions of books through these medical partners. Each enrolled child gets a new, age-appropriate book at every well-child visit, from six months to five years of age. That means they’ll start kindergarten with a home library of as many as 10 books—and these are often the only children’s books they own.

When working with parents who are unable to read themselves, doctors in the Reach Out and Read program demonstrate how they can page through a picture book with their children, making up their own stories as they go. And when counseling parents who say they’re too busy or too tired to engage in story time at the end of the day, some physicians read aloud a book to their young patients right in the consulting room, to demonstrate to parents how quickly book reading can be accomplished and how much their children enjoy it. In another literacy-promoting program, developmental specialists at the Langone Medical Center at New York University actually videotape parents reading to and playing with their children; then the parents and the specialist watch the video together, a practice that encourages parental self-reflection and self-improvement.

Researchers who have evaluated the effects of Reach Out and Read report that participating parents are up to four times more likely to read to their young children, and that their children enter kindergarten with larger vocabularies and stronger language skills. Interestingly, families who participate in Reach Out and Read are also more likely to show up for their doctors’ appointments: yet another way that health and learning can work together.

Annie Murphy Paul writes The Brilliant Blog and is the author of the forthcoming book Brilliant: The Science of How We Get Smarter.

TIME Education

How to Learn to Love Math

88620976
Monashee Frantz—Getty Images/OJO Images RF

Students have been taught that math is about right and wrong, rather than trial and error

Over the three years Jordan Ellenberg was writing his book, he repeatedly encountered the same reaction to its subject. “I’d be at a party, and I’d tell someone what my book was about, and then I’d be like — ‘Hey, where’d you go?’” What topic was so awful and off-putting as to make people flee at its mere mention? Math.

Ellenberg, a professor of mathematics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, has now published that book, How Not to Be Wrong, and rather than putting people off, it will make its readers want to stick around. Ellenberg tells engaging, even exciting stories about how “the problems we think about every day — problems of politics, of medicine, of commerce, of theology — are shot through with mathematics.” Understanding the role of math in these issues, he writes, “gives you access to insights accessible by no other means.”

Knowledge of math, Ellenberg enthuses, is like “a pair of X-ray specs that reveal hidden structures underneath the messy and chaotic surface of the world,” like “an atomic-powered prosthesis that you attach to your common sense, vastly multiplying its reach and strength.”

Sounds pretty great, doesn’t it? So then why does math fill so many of us with dread? I put that question to Ellenberg when we spoke by phone last week. “We teach math as if it’s about applying a prescribed formula, circling the right answer, and going on to the next problem without thinking about what it is we’re doing,” Ellenberg replied. “But that’s so not what math is. Math is a fundamentally creative enterprise, a fundamentally humanistic enterprise. It’s a lens through which we can see the world better.”

Ellenberg sees the results of rote mathematics instruction in his undergraduates: “It can be hard for my students to get into the mind-set of trying different things. Often, during my office hours, I’ll get a student who says of an assignment, ‘I didn’t know where to start.’ I tell them, ‘Of course you didn’t know where to start! You’re doing this for the first time, so try a few things and see what works.’ But this approach is foreign to students who have been taught that math is a series of formulas. They don’t realize that math is all about trial and error, about experimenting. That’s true of advanced math, but I think we can push that mind-set down into the earlier grades as well.”

Ellenberg acknowledges that his approach would require a paradigm shift. “People are not used to taking a loose and easy approach to math. They get very tight and tense around math because they have so much fear and anxiety about it,” he noted. In addition, he said, “People dislike math because they don’t like being told that they’re wrong. And it’s not incorrect to see math as a realm where there are right and wrong answers. But the thing is: knowledge in math does not come about because the teacher says it’s so. Math is a realm where people can demonstrate the rightness of answers to themselves. So if part of what creates the fear of math is wanting to avoid being wrong, then learning to like math is about learning to be willing to mess up.”

Paul is the author of the forthcoming book Brilliant: The Science of How We Get Smarter. Read more at her blog, where this post first appeared.

TIME psychology

Learning Doesn’t Work Like a Staircase—It Works Like an Ocean Wave

82172817
Ryan McVay—Getty Images

Slipping back to more elementary approaches is how we achieve cognitive change.

When we think and talk about learning, the metaphors we use matter. The language we employ when we describe how learning works can illuminate the process, allowing us to make accurate judgments and predictions—or it can lead us astray, setting up false expectations and giving us a misleading impression of what’s going on.

One of the most common analogies we apply to education is that of a staircase. As we learn, this model assumes, we steadily ascend in our knowledge and skills, leaving more elementary approaches behind. A child learning math, for example, will replace a simple strategy like counting on fingers with a more sophisticated strategy like retrieving math facts from memory. Under the long-lasting influence of psychologist Jean Piaget, staircase-like “stage theories” continue to dominate our mental images of how learning operates.

But in important ways, the staircase metaphor fails to capture the way cognitive change actually works. Research shows that children (and adults!) employ a variety of strategies to solve problems, not only the one “typical” of their stage of development. Around the time that learners begin to adopt a more advanced approach, they may return to earlier, more primitive approaches for a while.

This is not an orderly ascension up an ever-rising set of steps. It’s something more like waves on a beach, where one wave overtakes another and then pulls back, overtaken in turn by another advancing and then receding wave. “Overlapping waves” is, in fact, the name of a theory of intellectual development proposed by Robert Siegler, a professor of cognitive psychology at Carnegie Mellon University.

Here is Siegler writing about traditional notions of learning in his book Emerging Minds: “Children are depicted as thinking in a given way for an extended period of time (a tread on the staircase); then their thinking undergoes a sudden, vertical shift (a riser on the staircase); then they think in a different, higher way for another extended period of time (the next tread), and so on.”

And here is Siegler writing about another, more apt image: “Rather than development being seen as stepping up from Level 1 to Level 2 to Level 3, it is envisioned as a gradual ebbing and flowing of the frequencies of alternative ways of thinking, with new approaches being added and old ones being eliminated as well. To capture this perspective in a visual metaphor, think of a series of overlapping waves, with each wave corresponding to a different rule, strategy, theory, or way of thinking.”

Research by Siegler and others shows that the overlapping waves model applies to learners of all ages, in all manner of subjects. Its image of a series of surging and receding waves is not only a more accurate view of learning than the staircase image; it’s also a more humane and forgiving one. How many of us have felt distressed to see our children, or ourselves, “slipping back” into ways of thinking and acting we thought we had outgrown? What a difference it makes to see such episodes not as a failure to ascend to the next stage, but as part of the natural movement, the ebb and flow, of learning. “Slipping back” isn’t a shameful retreat from our goal—it’s part of the process of getting there.

Annie Murphy Paul is the author of the forthcoming book Brilliant: The Science of How We Get Smarter. Read more at her blog, where this post first appeared.

TIME psychology

Be More Productive—By Doing Less

459771745
Reza Estakhrian—Getty Images

Our constant busyness prevents us from entering the associative mental state in which unexpected connections and insights are achieved.

“Leisure is the new productivity.”

That counterintuitive slogan emerged from a panel I attended last week at the annual conference of the New America Foundation, a Washington D.C. think tank where I am fortunate to be a fellow. The panel was anchored by Brigid Schulte, a Washington Post reporter and the author of a new book, Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time.

Time and the way we spend it was Schulte’s focus, and she argued that we spend too much time working, logging more hours at the office than employees in any other developed country save Japan and South Korea. As a result, “we have a lot of unproductive, sick, unhappy, burned out, and disengaged workers,” Schulte noted. Ironically, we are less productive, creative, and innovative than we would be if we had more time off.

Our continual state of busyness, she explained, prevents us from entering the loose, associative mental state in which unexpected connections and aha! insights are achieved. Schulte was drawing here on the research of psychologists and neuroscientists, one of whom, Northwestern University professor Mark Beeman, was also on the panel.

Beeman and his collaborators have found that although we may appear idle while daydreaming or mind wandering, the brain is actually working especially hard in these moments, tapping a greater array of mental resources than are used during more methodical thinking. This unfocused “default mode,” Schulte has written, “is like a series of airport hubs in different and typically unconnected parts of the brain.” When activated, it “puts together stray thoughts, makes seemingly random connections and enables us to see an old problem in an entirely new light.”

If we don’t allow our minds to have this kind of downtime—because we’re always under stress and on deadline, always making calls and checking email—such connections and insights won’t materialize. “At work and at school, we expect people to pay attention, to focus,” Beeman observed. “To focus on one thing, you have to suppress a lot of other things. Sometimes that’s good. But sometimes a solution to a problem can only come from allowing in apparently unrelated information, from giving time to the quieter ideas in the background.”

Schulte and Beeman contend that we need to make room in our lives for two distinctly different kinds of mental activity: the directed, focused attention usually expected of us at work and at school, but also a more diffuse and leisurely state in which we’re focusing on nothing in particular. “Oscillating” between these two modes—a kind of interval training for the mind—is the best way to reap the benefits of both kinds of thought.

“As we move ever further into a knowledge economy, in which ideas are our products, we have to think about where ideas come from,” Schulte concluded. Where they come from, she argued persuasively, is not only from conventional work, but from productive leisure.

Annie Murphy Paul is the author of the forthcoming book Brilliant: The Science of How We Get Smarter. Read more at her blog, where this post first appeared.

TIME Education

How Studying or Working Abroad Makes You Smarter

71877403
Young woman at museum. Ryan Donnell—Getty Images/Aurora Creative

Research shows that experience in other countries makes us more flexible, creative, and complex thinkers.

How does studying or working abroad change you? You return with a photo album full of memories and a suitcase full of souvenirs, sure. But you may also come back from your time in another country with an ability to think more complexly and creatively—and you may be professionally more successful as a result.

These are the conclusions of a growing body of research on the effects of study- and work-abroad experiences. For example: A study led by William Maddux, an associate professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD, found that among students enrolled in an international MBA program, their “multicultural engagement”—the extent to which they adapted to and learned about new cultures—predicted how “integratively complex” their thinking became.

That is, students who adopted an open and adaptive attitude toward foreign cultures became more able to make connections among disparate ideas. The students’ multicultural engagement also predicted the number of job offers they received after the program ended.

More generally, writes Maddux, “People who have international experience or identify with more than one nationality are better problem solvers and display more creativity, our research suggests. What’s more, we found that people with this international experience are more likely to create new businesses and products and to be promoted.”

Angela Leung, an associate professor of psychology at Singapore Management University, is another researcher who has investigated the psychological effects of living abroad. She reports that people with more experiences of different cultures are better able to generate creative ideas and make unexpected links among concepts.

Like Maddux, Leung found that the advantages of living abroad accrue to those who are willing to adapt themselves to the ways of their host country: “The serendipitous creative benefits resulting from multicultural experiences,” she writes, “may depend on the extent to which individuals open themselves to foreign cultures.” This openness, she adds, includes a tolerance for ambiguity and open-endedness, a lack of closure and firm answers.

Could it be that people who choose to study or work in other countries are already more inclined to be complex and creative thinkers? David Therriault, associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Florida, anticipated this possibility. He and his coauthors administered creative thinking tasks to three groups of undergraduates: students who had studied abroad, students who were planning to study abroad, and students who had not and did not plan to study abroad. The students who had actually studied abroad outperformed the two other groups in creative thinking.

Studying or working in another country can make us better thinkers—more flexible, creative, and complex—if we’re willing to adapt and learn from other cultures. As the title of an article by William Maddux advises: “When in Rome . . . Learn Why the Romans Do What They Do.”

Brilliant readers, what do you think? Have you studied or worked abroad, and did it change the way you think? Please share your thoughts below.

WHAT TO READ NEXT: Recent posts about creativity from the Brilliant Blog:

Hiding Knowledge From Coworkers Makes the Hider Less Creative
How That Cup of Coffee Could Be Inhibiting Your Creativity
The Flakiness of Artists Is the Key to Their Creativity
The Downside of Executive Function: It Squelches Creativity
Creativity Comes In a Flash—But Also Through Trial and Error
The Great Outdoors Makes Us More Creative

Annie Murphy Paul is the author of the forthcoming book Brilliant: The Science of How We Get Smarter. Read more at her blog, where this post first appeared.

TIME Education

How To Help Low-Income Parents Talk To Their Kids About College

How to pay for college was the top concern for most parents.

A follow up on yesterday’s post on the Brilliant Blog about first generation college students: In newly-presented research, education professor Ronald Hallett shares what he discovered through designing and implementing a program intended to encourage high school students who would be the first in their families to attend university.

Hallett, of the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif., designed the five-week summer program for underserved and underperforming Stockton students in partnership with local school district administrators. Speaking at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, said that one of the keys to the success of the program was empowering parents who hadn’t gone to college themselves to talk to their sons and daughters about the importance of higher education. As described on the website ScienceDaily:

“Students attended three-hour sessions three days a week, exploring college websites, visiting college campuses and learning about college entrance requirements. The program also included family information meetings and gave parents weekly themed activity packets to help them lead conversations about preparing for college. At the end of each conversation, parents and students together drafted specific goals. The goals were incorporated into a family action plan at the end of the program.”

Hallett used the program, called Creating Opportunities Via Education, as a laboratory for testing and refining approaches to empower parents to guide their kids on the path to college. Among the lessons learned:

• How to pay for college was the top concern for most parents.
• Parents were reluctant to encourage their children to pursue a goal that might be unattainable; they first needed assurance that college could be financially feasible.
• Large group presentations overwhelmed parents. Individualized attention and guidance better satisfied the complex information needs of low-income families.
•Parents preferred hard-copy written information to emails and blogs, and felt more empowered when information was delivered directly to them rather than sent home via students.
• Parents were more engaged when they helped their student write a college action plan versus reviewing one developed by the student.
•When given effective tools to help underserved and underperforming students prepare for college, parents use them.

“There is a common perception that low-income parents don’t care about college, but it’s not true,” says Hallett. “The parents we worked with really wanted to be engaged in their kids’ educational pursuits.”

Annie Murphy Paul is the author of the forthcoming book Brilliant: The Science of How We Get Smarter. Read more at her blog, where this post first appeared.

TIME Education

Succeeding in Places for Which Your Past Hasn’t Prepared You

Portrait of university graduate with others in background (focus on foreground)
Thomas Barwick—Getty Images

First-generation college students — undergraduates whose parents did not attend university — have reason to be proud. They’ve made it, against daunting odds. But once they get on campus, many of these individuals struggle.

First-generation students “are more likely to encounter academic, financial, professional, cultural and emotional difficulties than are students whose parents attended college,” writes Teresa Heinz Housel, an associate professor of communication at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, who studies this population (and was herself the first in her family to attend college). More than a quarter of low-income first-generation college students leave after their first year, and 89 percent fail to graduate within six years.

The number of these students is growing — nearly one in three entering freshmen in the U.S. is a first-generation student — and so is interest in helping them succeed. The practices researchers have identified can be useful for all of us embarking on endeavors for which our background and experience have not prepared us.

First: Know what you don’t know. First-generation students are often not prepared for university-level work — but they believe otherwise, reports Karen Boden, a researcher at Azusa Pacific University in California. Her study of first-generation Latino students, published in the Journal of Hispanic Higher Education in 2011, found that the participants perceived themselves as academically prepared, even though they frequently lack the skills and knowledge of the offspring of college-educated parents.

Second: Figure out the unwritten rules. First-generation college students don’t simply lack the learning of their more privileged peers. They also arrive on campus without skills that other students take for granted, like knowing how to take notes and how to participate in class. Housel, coauthor of the report Faculty and First-Generation College Students: Bridging the Classroom Gap, notes that she, like many newcomers to university life, had to learn about “what conversational topics were appropriate for dinners with professors, how to make an airline reservation, what outfits were appropriate for professional interviews,” and other crucial but unaccustomed aspects of collegiate culture.

Third: Make connections. First-generation students feel less support, both emotional and informational, from their parents than do continuing-generation students, reports Susan Sy, a professor of psychology at California State University, Fullerton, and her coauthors in a recent study published in the Journal of College Student Retention. In these cases, research shows that social connections, whether it’s a mentor who’s a professor in the student’s area of interest or a study group of students with similar backgrounds, are essential to academic success.

Fourth: Embrace a new identity while preserving the old one. First-generation college students are often less involved in extracurricular activities than other students. They may be more likely to work outside jobs and to commute rather than live on campus, but they also may feel isolated or alienated by an unfamiliar university environment. Building bridges between home and school, old friends and new ones, is key to ensuring that the first generation to arrive at college departs there with diploma in hand.

Annie Murphy Paul is the author of the forthcoming book Brilliant: The Science of How We Get Smarter. Read more at her blog, where this post first appeared.

TIME Education

Designing Smarter Homework

There are innovative approaches out there. Why aren't we trying them?

A couple of years ago, I published a piece in the New York Times about how we could improve the effectiveness of homework by incorporating techniques from cognitive science, like spaced repetition and retrieval practice, into students’ take-home assignments.

Now someone has tried it, and it worked — really, really well. Researchers made changes to homework assignments in an upper-level undergraduate engineering course at Rice University, adding these features:

Repeated retrieval practice: In addition to receiving the standard homework assignment, students were given follow-up problems on the same topic in two additional assignments that counted only toward their course participation grade.

Spacing: Rather than giving all the problem sets for a week’s lectures in one assignment, the researchers spaced the problems over three weeks of assignments.

Feedback: Rather than waiting one week to learn how they did, students received immediate feedback on intervention homework, and they were required to view the feedback to get credit for the assignment.

The website ScienceDaily quotes the instructor of the engineering course, who was also one of the co-authors of the study:

“The results exceeded everyone’s expectations,” said Richard Baraniuk. “These simple changes produced a larger effect than the average improvement for classroom interventions that require a complete overhaul of curricula and/or teaching methods.”

So why aren’t we adding these features to homework assignments given to students at all levels? I think we should be, and as the authors of this study point out, technology may make that easier to do.

Annie Murphy Paul is the author of the forthcoming book Brilliant: The Science of How We Get Smarter. Read more at her blog, where this post first appeared.

TIME Apps & Software

The ‘Brain App’ That’s Better Than Spritz

Getty Images

There’s a check on reading speed that Spritz can’t do anything about: our ability to comprehend what we’re reading. There is, however, a non-magical way to read (and comprehend) more quickly.

We all have so much to read these days. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could read it faster? The possibility that this fond wish could actually be granted by technology is what’s driving the buzz about Spritz, a new speed-reading app that debuted at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona last month and will soon come loaded on new Samsung devices. (For now, you can try out Spritz on this demonstration page.)

Its makers claim that Spritz allows users to read at staggeringly high rates of speed: 600 or even 1,000 words per minute. (The average college graduate reads at a rate of about 300 words per minute.) Spritz can do this, they say, by circumventing the limitations imposed by our visual system.

It is true that “our eyes impose a lot of constraints on the act of reading,” as cognitive neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene writes in his book Reading in the Brain. “The structure of our visual sensors forces us to scan the page by jerking our eyes around every two or three tenths of a second.” These eye movements take time, slowing down the rate at which we can read.

But what if the words moved, instead of our eyes? That’s the innovation behind Spritz, which employs a technique called rapid sequential visual presentation, or RSVP. When using the app, words are presented one at a time, in the exact spot where our gaze is “focalized,” or primed for visual recognition. Then that word is whisked away and another appears in the same, optimal place — and quickly, quickly, others follow.

RSVP has been studied by scientists for years, and it does appear to bypass the speed limit imposed by eye movements during normal reading. But there’s another check on reading speed that Spritz can’t do anything about: our ability to comprehend what we’re reading. When we read really fast — especially in complex or difficult material — our understanding of the text suffers. (I’m put in mind of the old Woody Allen joke: He speed-read War and Peace, he cracks, and came away with the insight that “it’s about Russia.”)

But all is not lost for those of us who would like to read faster, at least some of the time — because there does exist an “app” of sorts that has been proven to allow faster reading and complete comprehension. It’s called expertise. In their forthcoming book, Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, researchers Henry Roediger III and Mark McDaniel (along with writer Peter Brown) liken expertise to a “brain app” that makes reading and other kinds of intellectual activity proceed more efficiently and effectively. In the minds of experts, the authors explain, “a complex set of interrelated ideas” has “fused into a meaningful whole.”

The mental “chunking” that an expert — someone deeply familiar with the subject she’s reading about — can do gives her a decided speed and comprehension advantage over someone who is new to the material, for whom every fact and idea encountered in the text is a separate piece of information yet to be absorbed and connected. People reading within their domain of expertise have lots of related vocabulary and background knowledge, both of which allow them to steam along at full speed while novices stop, start, and re-read, struggling with unfamiliar words and concepts.

Deep knowledge of what we’re reading about propels the reading process in other ways as well. As we read, we’re constantly building and updating a mental model of what’s going on in the text, elaborating what we’ve read already and anticipating what will come next. A reader who is an expert in the subject he’s reading about will make more detailed and accurate predictions of what upcoming sentences and paragraphs will contain, allowing him to read quickly while filling in his already well-drawn mental model. A novice reader, by contrast, faces surprises at every turn in the text; her construction of a mental model is much more effortful and slow, since she’s building it from the ground up.

Lastly, the expert reader is able to vary the pace of her reading: skimming parts that she knows about already, or parts that she can tell are less important, then slowing down for passages that are new or that (she can judge from experience) are especially important. The novice, on the other hand, tends to read at just a single speed: if he tries to accelerate that speed, by skimming or by using an app like Spritz, it’s likely his comprehension will slide. What’s worse, he probably won’t even realize it: lacking deep familiarity with the subject, he won’t know what he doesn’t know, and may confuse main ideas with supporting details or miss important points altogether.

Expertise has its own limits, of course. Becoming an expert is a long, slow process, and each of us can develop true expertise in only a few areas. But reading with the aid of this “brain app” permits us to read swiftly and with depth and understanding — while reading with an app like Spritz allows us only to read simply, foolishly fast.

Annie Murphy Paul is the author of the forthcoming book Brilliant: The Science of How We Get Smarter. Read more at her blog, where this post first appeared.

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 45,407 other followers