How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness

Russ Roberts

Adam Smith is credited with being the founder of modern economics and many have heard of his book The Wealth of Nations which was published in 1776. But Smith also wrote the little-known book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments which was published in 1759. The author is an economist who had read The Wealth of Nations but had never seriously considered reading The Theory of Moral Sentiments until he was asked to interview a friend about the book. When Roberts read the book he was surprised to be captured by Smith’s thoughts. Smith’s thinking had such an influence on him that he wanted others to have the same experience without having to read the original text. Continue reading

Becoming a Nation of Readers

The Report of the Commission on Reading

This report was compiled from research on reading instruction and outcomes. The Commission on Reading was formed from representatives of three federal education agencies and the report was published in 1985. While we keep up with current research and new information, it is important not to forget select older volumes which contain information whose value has been proven over time. The following are some of the pearls from this publication.

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The reading teacher’s repertoire must draw upon the deepening knowledge of child development. I frequently see children who are referred for “problems” which are within the norms of development for their age but do not match the expectations of the curriculum. If their parents were doing this at their age, it would have been considered to be normal.

Mastery tests must not treat reading as a set of discrete skills when research has indicated that a closely integrated set of processes supports fluent reading. As adults it is easy to not recognize that the early stages of reading and writing require significant multitasking. Even after the discrete skills have become automatic in isolation, including a number of visual skills, rehearsal will still be necessary to develop their automatic integration.

Reading is a holistic act. A text is not so much a vessel containing information as it is a source of partial information that enables the reader to use already-processed knowledge to determine the intended meaning. (This calls into question the use of “cold reading” to assess reading ability.)

Five generalizations flow from the research of the past decade on the nature of reading:

 

    1. Skilled reading is constructive. Comprehension is highly dependent on prior knowledge and the ability to read with sufficient mastery to be free to simultaneously consider stored knowledge.
    2. Skilled reading must be fluent to free attention for the analysis of meaning.
    3. Skilled readers are strategic. They read for a purpose.  Becoming a skilled reader requires learning to sustain attention and learning that written material can be interesting and informative.
    4. Reading requires motivation. It will take most children years to learn to read well.
    5. Reading is a continuously developing skill.

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The single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading is reading aloud to children.

Such old-fashioned materials as chalkboards and paper and pencils can make a difference in children’s learning to read. When children who learned to read before going to school were compared to similar children who couldn’t read, the early readers were found to have greater access to chalkboards and paper and pencils and to do more writing.

Children’s proficiency in letter naming when they start school is an excellent predictor of their first- and second-grade reading achievement.

Familiar words are especially useful for teaching children letter names and letter-sound relationships, because children can learn to recognize familiar words prior to learning all the letters.

Phonics instruction should aim to teach only the most important and regular of letter-to-sound relationships, because this is the sort of instruction that will most directly lay bare the alphabetic principle. Once the basic relationships have been taught, the best way to get children to refine and extend their knowledge of letter-sound correspondences is through repeated opportunities to read. Child_reading_at_Brookline_Booksmith.jpg

Blending may seem simple to an adult who already knows how to read, but in fact it is a difficult step for many children. Until a child gets over this hurdle, learning the sounds of individual letters and groups of letters will have diminished value.

Teaching phonics is a benefit to most children who are learning to read, but the relationships between the sounds and the print are not as clear as it appears to adults who already know how to read. Implicit phonics depends on “phonemic segmentation”. This is the ability to identify separate speech sounds in spoken words. There is evidence that many young children cannot extract an individual sound from hearing it within a word. (This is also very hard for adults. We have the illusion that we can do this due to our word knowledge. How many times do we misunderstand what someone says because they did not say what we expected them to say? “Phonemic segmentation” must also be coupled with “visual segmentation” which is dependent on language arts knowledge and figure-ground skills within a crowded letters of a word.) Implicit phonics may actually presuppose what it is supposed to teach. Also see Marilyn Jager Adams in Beginning to Read.

A problem with explicit phonics is that both teachers and children have a difficult time saying pure speech sounds in isolation. All that phonics can be expected to do is help children approximate pronunciations. These must be “tried out” to determine whether recognizable words have been produced which make sense in the context. Oral reading errors provide a window into what is going on inside children’s heads as they read. Research suggests that first graders taught through an explicit phonics approach make more nonsense errors than other children.

A clear finding from research of the past decade is that young readers and poor readers of every age do not consistently see relationships between what they are reading and what they already know.

There are qualitative differences in the experience of children in high and low reading groups that would be expected to place children in low groups at a disadvantage. Children in low groups do relatively more reading aloud and relatively less silent reading. They more often read words without a meaningful context on lists or flash cards, and less often read words in stories.

An indisputable conclusion of research is that the quality of teaching makes a considerable difference in children’s learning. Studies indicate that about 15 percent of the variation among children in reading achievement at the end of the school year is attributable to factors that relate to the skill and effectiveness of the teacher. In contrast, the largest study ever done comparing approaches to beginning reading found that about 3 percent of the variation in reading achievement at the end of first grade was attributable to the overall approach of the program. Thus, the prudent assumption for educational policy is that, while there may be some “material-proof” teachers, there are no “teacher-proof materials.

How We Read

Reading Instruction in Kindergarten

Visual Factors in Reading

The Hidden Link Between Vision and Learning

The Knowledge Illusion Why We Never Think Alone

Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach

It may be disappointing to understand that we know less as individuals than we realize, but continuing to be deceived by this illusion can  lead to poor decisions and unfortunate actions. “Most things are complicated, even things that seem simple.” “Complexity abounds. If everybody understood this, our society would be much less polarized. Instead of appreciating complexity, people tend to affiliate with one or another social dogma.”

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Many of us are frustrated by how much we forget – or remember incorrectly – but “remembering everything is in conflict with what the mind does best: abstraction.” Remembering everything “would make us less successful at what we evolved to do. The mind is busy trying to choose actions by picking out the most useful stuff and leaving the rest behind.”reminder

 

In conjunction with their theme of pooled intelligence, Sloman and Fernbach explain how our thinking is embodied – not just with our own bodies but also with the people and things around us. “The fact that thought is more effective when it is done in conjunction with the physical world suggests that thought is not a disembodied process that takes place on a stage inside the head. Mental activities do not simply occur in the brain. Rather, the brain is only one part of a processing system that also includes the body (including the eyes) and other aspects of the world.” “Our bodies produce feelings to make us aware and warn us.” “In other words, the mind is not in the brain. Rather, the brain is in the mind. The mind uses the brain and other things to process information.” This is not easy to grasp when we already “know” that all thinking takes place in the brain because that is what has been understood for hundreds of years. For additional information and perspective, you may want to reference the following.

A challenging question to answer is: Why have humans evolved such large brains? Large brains are very expensive. They use a lot of energy, they make childbirth dangerous for the mother and the child, and they require a prolonged period of development. What advantage is so important to outweigh these problems? The explanation may be “that large brains are specifically suited to support the skills necessary to live in a community.” “People are built to collaborate.” “The transmission of knowledge enabled by our social brains via language, cooperation, and the division of labor accumulates to create a culture. It is one of the most important ingredients in the human success story. Human capabilities are constantly increasing, but not because individuals are getting smarter. Unlike beehives, which have operated pretty much the same way for millions of years, our shared pursuits are always growing more complex and our shared intelligence more powerful.” “The smartest among us – in the sense of being most successful – may well be those who are best able to understand others.”

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The authors spend the second half of the book “exploring how many of society’s most pressing problems stem from the knowledge illusion” and how change, particularly that triggered by technology, tends to cause us to “lose touch with what really matters.” It is easier and more comfortable to discuss issues with people with whom we agree, but “one common finding is that when people with like minds discuss an issue together, they become more polarized.” This is not informed decision-making. To probe decision-making, Sloman, Fernbach, and other researches have asked people about issues about which they have strong opinions and then probe how much they understand. Striking examples relate to the Affordable Care Act, support for military intervention in the Ukraine, and about the labeling of GMO foods. The results clearly indicate that “public opinion is more extreme than people’s understanding justifies.”non-gmo-logo-400x400

“Recognizing the limits of our understanding should make us more humble, opening our minds to other people’s ideas and ways of thinking.” “Intuition gives us a simplified, course, and usually good enough analysis, and this gives us the illusion that we know a fair amount. But when we deliberate, we come to appreciate how complex things actually are and this reveals to us how little we actually know.” “A mature electorate is one that makes the effort to appreciate a leader who recognizes that the world is complex and hard to understand.” This approach applies to all important decisions, not just voting.  The authors hope that, by helping us understand the routine pitfalls of our thinking, we can improve our decision-making.

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Smart Moves:Why Learning is Not All in Your Head

    Carla Hannaford

After hearing Carla Hannaford quoted many times, I decided that it was time to read this book and I was not disappointed. I started summarizing and excerpting books years ago to share with staff, but one of the primary benefits was to slow down my reading and to allow me the time to think more deeply about the implications of the author’s words. If you follow our blog, you have come across the understanding that thinking is not all in your head. We would have little difficulty with that if we didn’t already “know” that that all learning takes place in our brains. Changing our thinking, our beliefs, and our actions is much more difficult than learning when it does not require unlearning. I hope that the following excerpts cause you to pause as they have me.

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We have missed a most fundamental and mysterious aspect of the mind: learning, thought, creativity and intelligence are not processes of the brain alone, but of the whole body. Thinking and learning are not all in our head. On the contrary, the body plays an integral part in all our intellectual processes from our earliest movements in utero right through old age. It is our body’s senses that feed the brain environmental information with which to form an understanding of the world and from which to draw when creating new possibilities.

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Neural connections can be altered and grown only if there is full attention, focused interest in what we do. In three weeks we can get ten times more proficient at anything if we are emotionally engaged with focused interest. Self-initiated movement, exploration, interaction and physical experience for the joy and challenge of it, facilitates neurogenesis (nerve growth) for a lifetime. (This has been proven over the last decade when it comes to treating amblyopia. Intensive visual tasks for 20 minutes are more effective than hours of patching without a challenging, engaging activity.)

What we know, feel, learn, and think is shaped by how we know, feel, learn, and think. How we do these things is in turn dependent on the sensory-motor systems though which all our experience of the world and of ourselves is mediated. These sensory-motor systems shape our experience, and are shaped by it. So the story of how these systems unfold is a vital key to understanding learning.

Our proprioceptive sense constantly sends feedback to the brain that readjusts the balance of our shoulder and neck muscles in order for the eyes to remain level while reading.

Touch, hearing and proprioception are important organizers of the visual aspects of learning. Vision is a very complex phenomenon, with only a small percentage (less than five percent) of the process occurring in the eyes. The other over ninety-five percent of vision takes place in the brain from the association with touch, hearing, and proprioception.

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It’s easy to forget, or ignore, how much of vision is learned. We have to train ourselves, through books, movies, and art to see three dimensions in a two-dimensional space. We could call this visual literacy.

The eyes must be actively moving for learning to occur.

Words can only be understood when they provoke some kind of image in the mind of the learner. If students cannot access the underlying images, the words are not comprehensible; there is no context or visual understanding.

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Computer scientist David Gelernter makes this point emphatically: “Emotions are not a form of thought, not an additional way to think, not a special cognitive bonus, but are fundamental to thought.” Gelernter goes on to assert that emotions are also “inextricably tied up with bodily states. The bodily state is part of the emotion, feeds it and helps define it. This means that ultimately you don’t think just with your brain; you think with your brain and body both.”

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One of the most important things a teacher can do, especially with students with disabilities, is to bond with them. CAT scans show that children process information through their emotions first, and information that is the most emotional and emotionally relevant to them, is what students will learn. On the other hand, insecurity and fear can bring learning to a screeching halt by shutting down higher brain connections.

Another unnatural challenge has to do with learning to print block letters as the first step in writing. Printing is a highly linear process that takes us away from the more continuous rhythmic flow of language, both as it is experienced in the mind and as it is expressed through the hand – as in cursive…. Part of the problem is hand development, and asking children to perform the complex process of printing, way too early. In order to print the child must first crawl for a good long time with hands forward, to develop the bones in both the hand and to gain upper arm strength…. If you look at an X-ray of hand development, you will notice that the very intricate bones of the area near the wrist – the carpals, are not fully developed until about age twenty. The more developed these bones, the easier to hold a pen or pencil to print. If the child has had a lot of sensory-motor activation of the hand, printing can be more easily taught at about ages eight to ten.

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Children who have looked at books in the home may have already acquired some foveal focus if the process was their choice and free of stress and pressure to perform, however, most children are not physically ready to read at age five as is now mandated in our schools.

Having been flooded a number of times, flood analogies come to mind. Trying to rush development is like trying to pump the water out of your basement before the level of the ground water goes down. You waste a lot of time and effort if you start too soon because the water keeps coming back in. You are eventually successful when the water (or the child) is ready. It is easy to fool yourself about the influence that you had be starting early. If we try to push children too early, we can also create failures as some children become confused and frustrated who would have done fine when they were ready and interested. Combined with this is the opportunity cost of what these children could have been doing and learning to enrich their experiential background prior to the vicarious experience that we get through reading. There is so much that can be experienced and learned in an interesting, interactive classroom. They can even go outside the classroom where most real learning takes place.

You may think that it is a contradiction for me to disparage in any way the potential to learn through reading but we learn very little when we read about things we don’t already know quite a bit about. This book is a good example. It would have glossed off me forty years ago when I knew that all learning took place in the brain. Decades of experience has enabled me to take information from this book that I could not have understood earlier in my career.

Welcome to Your Child’s Brain

Thinking Goes to School:Piaget’s Theory in Practice

Tummy Time

Visual Factors in Reading

When will identifying vision problems that affect learning become a new standard of care?

 

Head in the Game The Mental Engineering of the World’s Greatest Athletes

Brandon Sneed

Head in the Game is about the growing use of new technologies to provide feedback on what is taking place in the brain and to use feedback to train the brain and to train the integration of the mind, vision, and body to enhance sports performance. Becoming aware of how our mind is enhancing our performance, or is getting in the way, is important to improve all visual abilities, not just those related to sports. As Yogi Berra is quoted as saying, “90% of the game is half mental”. The technologies are new, but the goals haven’t changed. To be successful, the athletes need to take what they learn from the electronics and practice to make it habitual. It doesn’t matter what you do in practice or in therapy if you can’t consistently apply your new skills to your challenges. The goal is to replace a less efficient behavior with a more efficient behavior and to have the more efficient behavior become more automatic than what you were doing before. The more automatic the behavior becomes, the more resilient it will be to fatigue and stress.

Brandon Sneed’s first example is using an EEG to provide feedback. “I do best when I put myself in a mind-set of relaxed control – not straining, but working, feeling zoned in but calm, thinking only of moving forward…. Most people need at least thirty sessions to get lasting effects from EEG training. Some, even more… It is work which may be why EEG training hasn’t caught on. It’s easy to pop a pill and see when happens, but EEG training feels almost like going to the gym.” This is the same mind-set that patients need to develop when they are learning to align their eyes, to improve processing with their amblyopic eye, and to focus better and to track better. In vision therapy feedback comes from specially designed targets which may also incorporate new technologies.

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“The reason why golf is so difficult is because you’re starting the action. Your mind wants to be in control, but the golf swing has to be done on a subconscious level. It’s impossible to think about the thousands of muscles and tendons and ligaments that have to fire in a perfect sequence in a fraction of a second.” I recently blogged on How We Read. The visual components of reading are as complex as the components of swinging a golf club and are even more difficult to observe. And, while both acts are too fast and too complicated to be directed through conscious attention, you quiet your conscious mind while swinging a golf club while in reading your brain must be simultaneously combining current input with prior input from the page, along with previously stored input, while also forecasting what is coming next.

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Brandon Sneed appreciates the importance of the placebo and nocebo effects. “Then there’s this stunning example of the nocebo effect: a study at the Oxford Centre for Functional MRI of the Brain in 2011, led by professor of anaesthetic science Irene Tracey. While studying the efficacy of an opioid drug, she found that something that should be effective can be rendered useless after a subject is told it won’t work. That’s right: even though something is scientifically proven to help people – such as a pill – if people decide it’s not going to work, sometimes it won’t.” Supporting people should be an integral component of all care from medicine, to surgery, to therapy, to coaching, to teaching. This is not in lieu of effective treatment, it augments it. If someone becomes a victim and develops learned helplessness. If they become a passive patient instead of a person involved with their care. If the expectations that are placed on them are too high or too soon and they feel that they can’t, working to change that attitude must be part of their care. The teacher is more important than the curriculum. The therapist is more important than the technique. And for coaches see The Talent Code

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“To master the mind, first master the body.” The Western World separated the mind and the body at the beginning of the Enlightenment because the connections could not be proven at that time. It took hundreds of years for this accepted wisdom to be reversed. So while we are mostly training the brain, we are doing it through the body. “Keeping the mind relaxed yet focused for extended periods of time is hard and a skill almost everyone takes for granted.”

“No performance-enhancing drug or piece of technology can compare to a good night’s sleep.” Research on sleep clearly indicates that it is our brain that needs to rest and not our bodies. This is a little like turning your electronic device off and on to allow it to reset, but our brains take more time.

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I share Brandon Sneed’s amazement as it is expressed in the following excerpt. “This brings us to one to one of the most stunning thing’s I’ve learned so far. We have five senses, right? We experience those senses because of specialized cells throughout our body called sensory receptors. Everything you feel, hear, smell, taste, and see comes from those receptors sending the information they gather to your brain. Of all the sensory receptors we have, 70 percent are in our eyes alone. That’s 260 million (130 million per eye) receptors taking information in through the eyes and sending it to the brain, by way of 2.4 million nerve fibers. This adds up to our eyes sending our brain 109 gigabytes of data every second.

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“Larry Fitzgerald, the great Arizona Cardinals wide receiver, did vision training as a child with his grandfather, an optometrist. ‘Parents need to understand,’ Fitzgerald once said, ‘that you need over 17 visual skills to succeed. Seeing 20/20 is just one of those. Vision problems can have a serious impact.’ And not just in sports, he added, but also ‘on a child’s education.’”

 

The Power of Play

Sleights of Mind

The Power of Play

David Elkind

This book addresses the concerns that many of us have about ignoring child development and the ranges of development within a grade level and even within individuals when educational standards are set. David Elkind reminds us that most children are enthusiastic learners in the appropriate circumstances but may be anxiously unsuccessful in other conditions. Continue reading