Fiona McPherson's blog

The changing nature of literacy. Part 1: Textbooks

As we all know, we are living in a time of great changes in education and (in its broadest sense) information technology. In order to swim in these new seas, we and our children need to master new forms of literacy. In this and the next three posts, I want to explore some of the concepts, applications, and experiments that bear on this.

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Variety is the key to learning

On a number of occasions I have reported on studies showing that people with expertise in a specific area show larger gray matter volume in relevant areas of the brain. Thus London taxi drivers (who are required to master “The Knowledge” — all the ways and byways of London) have been found to have an increased volume of gray matter in the anterior hippocampus (involved in spatial navigation). Musicians have greater gray matter volume in Broca’s area.

References: 

Kwok, V., Niu Z., Kay P., Zhou K., Mo L., Jin Z., et al. (2011).  Learning new color names produces rapid increase in gray matter in the intact adult human cortex. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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Why learning is harder as we get older

Children learn. It’s what they do. And they build themselves over the years from wide-eyed baby to a person that walks and talks and can maybe fix your computer, so it’s no wonder that we have this idea that learning comes so much more easily to them than it does to us. But is it true?

There are two particular areas where children are said to excel: learning language, and learning skills.

References: 

Brown, R. M., & Robertson E. M. (2007). Off-Line Processing: Reciprocal Interactions between Declarative and Procedural Memories. The Journal of Neuroscience. 27(39), 10468 - 10475.

Brown, R. M., Robertson E. M., & Press D. Z. (2009). Sequence Skill Acquisition and Off-Line Learning in Normal Aging. PLoS ONE. 4(8), e6683 - e6683.

Cash, C. D. (2009). Effects of Early and Late Rest Intervals on Performance and Overnight Consolidation of a Keyboard Sequence. Journal of Research in Music Education. 57(3), 252 - 266.

DeKeyser, R., Monner, D., Hwang, S-O, Morini, G. & Vatz, K. 2011. Qualitative differences in second language memory as a function of late learning. Presented at the International Congress for the Study of Child Language in Montreal, Canada.

Dorfberger, S., Adi-Japha E., & Karni A. (2007). Reduced Susceptibility to Interference in the Consolidation of Motor Memory before Adolescence. PLoS ONE. 2(2), e240 - e240.

Ferman, S., & Karni A. (2010). No Childhood Advantage in the Acquisition of Skill in Using an Artificial Language Rule. PLoS ONE. 5(10), e13648 - e13648.

Ferman, S. & Karni, A. 2011. Adults outperform children in acquiring a language skill: Evidence from learning an artificial morphological rule in different conditions. Presented at the International Congress for the Study of Child Language in Montreal, Canada.

Karni, A. 2011. A critical look at ‘critical periods’ in skill acquisition: from motor sequences to language skills. Presented at the International Congress for the Study of Child Language in Montreal, Canada.

Nemeth, D., & Janacsek K. (2010). The Dynamics of Implicit Skill Consolidation in Young and Elderly Adults. The Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences. 66B, 15 - 22.

Robertson, E. M., Press D. Z., & Pascual-Leone A. (2005). Off-Line Learning and the Primary Motor Cortex. The Journal of Neuroscience. 25(27), 6372 - 6378.

Stambaugh, L. A. (2011). When Repetition Isn’t the Best Practice Strategy: Effects of Blocked and Random Practice Schedules. Journal of Research in Music Education. 58(4), 368 - 383.

Steele, C. J., & Penhune V. B. (2010). Specific Increases within Global Decreases: A Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging Investigation of Five Days of Motor Sequence Learning. The Journal of Neuroscience. 30(24), 8332 - 8341.

Wymbs, N. F., & Grafton S. T. (2009). Neural Substrates of Practice Structure That Support Future Off-Line Learning. Journal of Neurophysiology. 102(4), 2462 - 2476.

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A new resource for Alzheimer's caregivers

I recently reported on a long-running study that found that husbands or wives who care for spouses with dementia are six times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s themselves than those whose spouses don't have it. The most likely cause for this is the great stress of caregiving. Both stress and depression increase the risk of Alzheimer’s, and both are common (well, stress is inescapable!) among caregivers.

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Diabetes - its role in cognitive impairment and dementia

There was an alarming article recently in the Guardian newspaper. It said that in the UK, diabetes is now nearly four times as common as all forms of cancer combined. Some 3.6 million people in the UK are thought to have type 2 diabetes (2.8 are diagnosed, but there’s thought to be a large number undiagnosed) and nearly twice as many people are at high risk of developing it. The bit that really stunned me? Diabetes costs the health service roughly 10% of its entire budget.

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Finding the right strategy through perception and physical movement

I talk a lot about how working memory constrains what we can process and remember, but there’s another side to this — long-term memory acts on working memory. That is, indeed, the best way of ‘improving’ your working memory — by organizing and strengthening your long-term memory codes in such a way that large networks of relevant material are readily accessible.

Oddly enough, one of the best ways of watching the effect of long-term memory on working memory is through perception.

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Even mild head injuries can seriously affect the brain

Traumatic brain injury is the biggest killer of young adults and children in the U.S., and in a year more Americans suffer a TBI than are diagnosed with breast, lung, prostate, brain and colon cancer combined. There are many causes of TBI, but one of the more preventable is that of sports concussion.

References: 

References (and more details) for the studies I have mentioned can be found in my topic collection on TBI.

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Why your knowledge of normal aging memory matters

I’ve discussed on a number of occasions the effects that stereotypes can have on our cognitive performance. Women, when subtly reminded that females are supposedly worse at math, do more poorly on math tests; African-Americans, when subtly reminded of racial stereotypes, perform more poorly on academic tests. And beliefs about the effect of aging similarly affect memory and cognition in older adults.

References: 

Hawley, K. S., Cherry K. E., Su J. L., Chiu Y. - W., & Jazwinski M. S. (2006). Knowledge of memory aging in adulthood. International Journal of Aging & Human Development. 63(4), 317 - 334.

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