Thursday, March 11, 2010

21st Century Learning

"To Present their Gift of Human Imagination, Each Child Needs Hope and the Creative Capacity Earned From Real World Experience to Realize Their Potential"

- Gary Andersen, founder Neuropath Learning.

Today’s students are digital learners – they literally take in the world via the filter of computing devices: the cellular phones, handheld gaming devices that they take everywhere, plus the computers, TVs and game consoles at home. Young people, aged 8-18, mainline electronic media for more than six hours a day on average. Many are multitasking – listening to music while surfing the web, or instant-messaging friends while playing a video game. Less than 1% of the world’s new information that is being created ends up on paper.

This is a dramatic departure from the industrial model of our youth gathering knowledge. It is abandonment, finally, of textbook-driven, teacher-centered, paper and pencil schooling. It means a new way of understanding the concept of authority delivered "knowledge" and a new definition of what it takes to "educate a student". There is a need to discover a new way of designing and delivering the curriculum that is required to shape a child’s brain for their future. Schools must go from "buildings" to "nerve centers" with walls that are porous and transparent, connecting teachers, students and the community to the wealth of knowledge that exists in the world. Teachers must change from their primary role as a dispenser of information to an orchestrator of learning and helping individual students turn information into knowledge, and knowledge into abilities. Success in the 21st century requires knowledge generation and application; not just information delivery. Schools need to create a "culture of inquiry" with a focus on assessment of the individual.

By and large, a learner is a young person who goes to school, spends 12 years of their life in certain courses, received passing grades and 50% leave by graduating. Today, Neuropath Learning sees learners in a new context:

First – We maintain student interest by helping them see how the things they are learning prepares them for life in the real-world.

Second – We build curiosity, success, common sense and a thinking capacity which are all fundamental to the building of lifelong learning.

Third – We are certain that the development of the child’s brain is being prepared with the neurological structure that allows the child to be self-motivated and mentally prepared to be a responsible citizen.

Fourth – We excite learners to build and earn hope and success and become even more resourceful as they pursue their life story.

So what will schools look like, exactly? What will the curriculum look like? How will this 21st century curriculum be organized, and how will it impact the way we design and build schools, how we assess students, how we purchase resources, how we acquire and utilize the new technologies, and what does all this mean for us in an era of standardized testing and accountability?

Neuropath Learning 21st Century Perspective

Twenty-first century curriculum has certain critical attributes. It is interdisciplinary, project-based and research-driven, based on student performance. It is connected to the community – local, state, national and global. Sometimes students are collaborating with people around the world in various projects. The curriculum incorporates higher order thinking skills, creative desire, use of technology and multimedia, the multiple literacies of the 21st century and real time assessments.

The classroom is expanded to include the greater community. Students are self-directed and work both independently and interdependently. The curriculum and instruction are designed to challenge all students and provides for the differentiation of each student.

The curriculum is not textbook-driven or fragmented, but is thematic, project-based and integrated. Skills and content are not taught as an end in themselves, but students learn them through their research and application in their projects. Textbooks, if they have them, are just one of many resources.

Knowledge is not memorization of facts and figures, but is constructed through research and application, and then connected to previous knowledge, personal experience, interests, talents and student interests. The skills and content become relevant and needed as students require this information to complete their projects. The content and basic skills are applied within the context of the curriculum and are not ends themselves. Creating within the child’s brain the ability for, flexibility of thinking, ability to synthesize ideas and also to learn from failures.

Assessment moves from regurgitation of memorized facts and disconnected processes to demonstration of understanding through application in a variety of contexts. Real-world audiences are an important part of the assessment process, as is self-assessment.
Students find their voices as they create projects using multimedia and deliver these products to real-world audiences, realizing that they can make a difference and can influence others. They learn what it is to be a contributing citizen and carry these citizenship skills forward throughout their lives.

As a result, standardized test scores are higher. This is because students have acquired the necessary neurological development, thinking skills and knowledge in a meaningful, connected way with the real-world useful understanding stored in long term memory. Students actually know the content on a much higher level of understanding, and they have developed their basic skills by constant success throughout the duration of our programs. Students learn that through collaboration and competition they can work together to make their world a better place.

There is much more to consider. There is no "one size fits all" or "one style fits all" blueprint. Each school should be designed with the students and the goals of the individual, school and community in mind. However, there are some basic things that should considered.
A school will want to stay away from the traditional design which has students constantly isolated in small classrooms. Those school facilities were designed for the emerging industrial age of the 19th century, and were based on a factory model and a 100 year old management system.
First of all, the design takes into account the kind of spaces needed by students and teachers as they conduct their investigations and implement their projects. Spaces will be needed for large groups, small groups and for independent work. There should be plenty of wall space and other areas for displaying student work. This includes a place where the parents and community can gather to watch student performances as well as a place where they can meet for discussions. There also needs to be access to a virtual space where multimedia projects can be showcased and peers, mentors, parents and community can comment on successes, exchange ideas and collaborate virtually.

Changes in the Way Students Learn
Our challenge is to encourage, connect and foster learning throughout a child’s day. How do we help children make sense of all the information and experiences in their lives? How do we ensure that all children have opportunities to reach their full potential in a competitive world where thinking skills are the most important asset of a society?

Our thoughts are that in order to create change in education all stakeholders must be on board. One of the main obstacles as we see it is the enormous resistance to change. There have been many movements to create change in our educational system, all fraught with conflict. Some of the current efforts are trying to create change without actually changing; they are trying to take attributes of the 21st century and force them into the 19th and 20th century ways of designing and delivering education. That simply will not work.

What is Neuropath Learning?

Neuropath Learning is an education company that has created a series of 21st century early learning programs that develop critical thinking skills in young minds.
Neuropath Learning currently offers three online learning programs for elementary schools that can be easily incorporated into existing curriculum. These programs provide stimulus for knowledge application and synthesis, thinking strategies, social emotional development and cognitive growth that are relevant to the child and directly related to the context of the real world. The programs are designed to stimulate development of both left and right hemispheres of the brain in an attempt to create a more balanced and efficient brain. These programs also provide teachers with a tool for formative assessment of 21st century skills as well as academic standards.

Neuropath Learning programs are intended to be used for data-driven-decision-making which make them powerful RTI (response to intervention) tools for educators.

Neuropath Learning programs are:

Early Mind Matters: Special education and early education learning and assessment program. The EMM program assesses both perceptual skills as well as cognitive skills. It screens for visual processing and auditory processing problems as well as testing and training reasoning and thinking abilities.Some basic literacy and math skills are covered by this program but minimal reading skills are required to play the game. What is emphasized is the social/emotional and behavioral development of the child. This multimedia interactive software offers an alternative learning and testing environment for children who may or may not do well with traditional schooling. Student data from this program allows parents, teachers and caregivers to pinpoint with clarity where deficiencies in abilities or understanding may lie. Repeated practice of the weak skills through the use of this program also strengthens these skills. If cognitive weakness is the root of a particular student's learning or reading struggles, then cognitive testing and training is clearly the most promising approach to provide both immediate and long term answers. It is the only choice specifically designed to overcome barriers and unlock potential. EMM targets and strengthens cause/weakness.

Be School Ready: A preschool program designed to prepare children for kindergarten. Children using BSR get both an academic boost and a cognitive boost. Students who enter kindergarten ahead, stay ahead. BSR covers key early literacy and language skills, social skills and provides the child's brain with a broad array of stimuli required for proper development of essential skills. Children are engaged, they learn to focus, listen and attend better as well as build their memory capacity. In short BSR develops the fundamental skills required for efficient learning to occur. BSR is both a learning and assessment program. The early developmental data is important to preschool teachers and parents who often cannot gauge how much a child can do or know simply because they are not capable of taking a written test yet. BSR is entirely reality based with natural images, sounds and real human voices and has no "cartoon" visuals or computer generated audio content.

Knowledge First: This is a three part series of programs suitable for K-3 students, each one more advanced than the last. Students of all abilities can benefit from the Knowledge First. It identifies and corrects learning gaps in poor performing students and takes high performing students to an even higher level. Cognitive and academic exercises provide various problem solving challenges that motivate students to keep pushing the limits of their mind. These effective multimedia games build the parts of the brain involved in decision making, judgement and emotional intelligence. Cognitive capacity, including speed of reasoning, working memory are trained. Application of knowledge is demonstrated in the real world context, showing how it relates to the child. Learning productivity is greatly improved when Knowledge First programs are implemented in schools. Both right brain visual-spatial thinking strategies as well as left brain auditory-sequential thinking strategies are developed in the child brain through the use of this program which leads to better problem solving, critical thinking skills and creativity. Knowledge First covers state and national academic standards in literacy, language and math. It builds the reasoning and logical thinking skills that are required in science and math. KF data shows teachers and schools, a students strengths as well as their weaknesses and provides a comprehensive measurement of their abilities.

Neuropath Learning has shown that using this online learning environment, all children can learn. Students using the programs are noticeably more engaed than by any other learning process. School districts in Washington state and California have successfully used Neuropath Learning programs to close the achievement gap, effectively teach ESL/ELL, mainstream special education students and raise gifted learners. Neuropath Learning is partnering with cities to provide community wide access to our programs. This model is also under consideration for state-wide implementation. In 2010, an elementary school principal who has been using Neuropath Learning programs in her school for several years, received a national award from US secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, for closing the achievement gap at her school. Neuropath Learning is also building exciting new partnerships with national leaders in 21st century education reform. Visit the Neuropath Learning website for more information, demos of the programs, sample data charts and content related information on the learning and assessment activities today!

Friday, February 19, 2010

Gaming Brains Gain

Just as we shape our tools, our tools shape us. They change our capabilities and our expectations—and can change how we perceive the world. Now, as the 40th anniversary of the Internet slips by, researchers are asking how new and powerful digital technologies are transforming the brains that use them.

The last few months has witnessed many important research findings on the benefits of video gaming:

  1. Video gaming improves visual perception, processing and attention.
  2. Internet use engages more neural circuitry than book reading in the digital generation
  3. Sizes of three structures in the brain can predict a video gamer's success.
  4. Learning environments of video games can educate children effectively.
  5. Building computer games promotes critical thinking and creative thinking skills.

This posting discusses how these discoveries build on our knowledge of the gaming brain and also how Neuropath Learning programs harness the power of game based learning to stimulate cognitive development.

[Although the word "video" is still widely used, here it refers to all forms of interactive digital games, whether played on a computer, over the internet, on a smart phone, a hand held gaming device, and other gaming consoles etc.]

Vision and the video game

Video games may seem an unlikely tool for brain research, but Daphne Bavelier and her team at the University of Rochester have, over several years, conducted numerous experiments that reveal how playing computer games affects the human visual system. “Research on action video game playing is providing a lot of information about how malleable the brain really is,” says her sometime collaborator Matt Dye, a professor of speech and hearing science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2009, six new publications from there lab showed how development of visual spatial skills, visual attention, perceptual skills, contrast sensitivity, visual learning and processing speed are all enhanced by virtue of video gaming

One area of interest has been “visual attention,” the ability to focus on an object, event, or feature within the visual field. Unlike “paying attention,” which can be consciously controlled, visual attention happens automatically in the brain, for example, when we read, drive, or interact with other people.

One measure of visual attention is the attentional blink. After one stimulus is perceived, the visual system is “blind” to another for a short period of time. That “blink” may reflect the time a brain needs to switch from one task to the next. While a student in Bavelier’s lab, Shawn Green (now at the University of Minnesota) found that skilled players of action video games have a shorter attentional blink than non-gamers or players of slower simulation-type games. Some people, including Green himself, have no measurable blink at all.

Green also studied the number of objects that the visual system can perceive at once. Without deliberately counting, game players easily track five objects, while non-game players stop at three. With more objects, the brain needs to count; again game players excel, counting more accurately and making fewer mistakes.

Dye and Bavelier recently tested children for their ability to search for a target. The researchers also measured recovery time after attending to a target as well as the number of objects the children could track simultaneously. Their research demonstrated that these visual capacities develop at different times and at different rates as children mature.

On all three measures, however, action game players performed better than non-gamers, no matter what the stage of development. The researchers ruled out the idea that gamers have better attentional skills to begin with (and, perhaps, choose to play computer games for that reason). Training studies show that learning, not inborn skill, makes the difference. When volunteers are trained to play action video games, their visual attention scores increase.
“Training on action video games enhances performance across a range of visual skills,” says Dye. Such research, says Green, has implications for education. Children who play video games may learn better if educational materials and presentations match their enhanced visual and attentional skills. It has also been suggested that video game playing may be used to reduce gender differences in visuospatial cognition.

In many everyday situations speed is of the essence. In their latest paper, Dye, Green and Bavelier show that the every act of playing video games, significantly reduces reaction times without sacrificing accuracy. But perhaps the most exciting news is that the increased speed of processing video gamers develop is generalized as evidenced by transfer to wide variety of attentional and perceptual tasks beyond gaming situations.

Imaging Brain - Machine Interaction

Although all people can seek to improve their cognitive skills with the use of video games, not all gamers show the same level of success, some learn faster than others. As it turns out, how well you learn from a video game is predetermined by the size of certain structures within your brain. Last month researchers showed that they can predict your performance on a video game simply by measuring the volume of specific structures in your brain.

The new study found that nearly a quarter of the variability in achievement seen among men and women trained on a new video game could be predicted by measuring the volume of three structures in their brains.

The study adds to the evidence that specific parts of the striatum, a collection of distinctive tissues tucked deep inside the cerebral cortex, profoundly influence a person's ability to refine his or her motor skills, learn new procedures, develop useful strategies and adapt to a quickly changing environment.

"This is the first time that we've been able to take a real world task like a video game and show that the size of specific brain regions is predictive of performance and learning rates on this video game," said Kirk Erickson, a professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh and first author on the study.

This study suggest that pre-existing individual differences in the brain might predict variability in learning rates.

Animal studies conducted by Graybiel and others led the researchers to focus on three brain structures: the caudate nucleus and the putamen in the dorsal striatum, and the nucleus accumbens in the ventral striatum.

"Our animal work has shown that the striatum is a kind of learning machine -- it becomes active during habit formation and skill acquisition," Graybiel said. "So it made a lot of sense to explore whether the striatum might also be related to the ability to learn in humans."

The caudate (CAW-date) nucleus and putamen (pew-TAY-min) are involved in motor learning, but research has shown they are also important to the cognitive flexibility that allows one to quickly shift between tasks. The nucleus accumbens (ah-COME-bins) is known to process emotions associated with reward or punishment.

The researchers began with a basic question about these structures, Kramer said: "Is bigger better?" They used high-resolution Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) to analyze the size of these brain regions in 39 healthy adults (aged 18-28; 10 of them male) who had spent less than three hours a week playing video games in the previous two years. The volume of each brain structure was compared to that of the brain as a whole.

Participants were then trained on one of two versions of Space Fortress, a video game developed at the University of Illinois that requires players to try to destroy a fortress without losing their own ship to one of several potential hazards.

Half of the study participants were asked to focus on maximizing their overall score in the game while also paying attention to the various components of the game.

The other participants had to periodically shift priorities, improving their skills in one area for a period of time while also maximizing their success at the other tasks.

The latter approach, called "variable priority training" encourages the kind of flexibility in decision-making that is commonly required in daily life, Kramer said. Studies have shown that variable priority training is more likely than other training methods to improve those skills people use every day.

The researchers found that players who had a larger nucleus accumbens did better than their counterparts in the early stages of the training period, regardless of their training group. This makes sense, Erickson said, because the nucleus accumbens is part of the brain's reward center, and a person's motivation for excelling at a video game includes the pleasure that results from achieving a specific goal. This sense of achievement and the emotional reward that accompanies it is likely highest in the earliest stages of learning, he said.

Players with a larger caudate nucleus and putamen did best on the variable priority training.

"The putamen and the caudate have been implicated in learning procedures, learning new skills, and those nuclei predicted learning throughout the 20-hour period," Kramer said. The players in which those structures were largest "learned more quickly and learned more over the training period," he said.

"This study tells us a lot about how the brain works when it is trying to learn a complex task," Erickson said. "We can use information about the brain to predict who is going to learn certain tasks at a more rapid rate." Such information might be useful in education, where longer training periods may be required for some students, or in treating disability or dementia, where information about the brain regions affected by injury or disease could lead to a better understanding of the skills that might also need attention, he said.

Your brain online

While Bavalier and her colleagues have used behavioral tests, other researchers are taking a more direct route, using imaging technologies to measure brain activity while volunteers use a computer.

The idea has been around for a while. In 1992, Richard Haier and his team at the University of California, Irvine, reported on positron emission tomography (PET) scans of eight young men while they played the computer game Tetris. Haier measured the rate of glucose use in the cerebrum before the volunteers practiced the game and after four to eight weeks of practice.
Haier found that, while game scores rose by a factor of 7, the brain’s use of glucose declined with practice. Furthermore, those subjects who improved their Tetris performance the most showed the largest decreases in glucose metabolism after practice. Haier concluded that changes in cognitive strategy are part of the learning process. As a skill is mastered, the brain finds more efficient circuits for performing it.

Gary Small is a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles. Last January, he and his team reported on a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study that compared patterns of brain activation during reading and internet searching in older people. The UCLA team worked with 24 healthy volunteers between the ages of 55 and 76. Half were new to internet use, while the other half had considerable experience. The researchers found that the pattern of activity in the brain while reading a book page was similar in the two groups. Inexperienced individuals displayed a similar pattern to book-reading when they searched online. The big difference appeared when the savvy volunteers searched online. “We found a twofold increase in activity throughout the brain, especially the frontal lobes,” Small says

At the 2009 meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in Chicago, Small extended those findings, reporting on scans of brain activity after the inexperienced subjects practiced internet searching for 7 hours over two weeks.

After an initial brain scan, participants went home and conducted internet searches for one hour a day for a total of seven days over a two-week period. These practice searches involved using the internet to answer questions about various topics by exploring different websites and reading information. Participants then received a second brain scan using the same internet simulation task but with different topics.

The first scan of participants with little internet experience demonstrated brain activity in regions controlling language, reading, memory and visual abilities, which are located in the frontal, temporal, parietal, visual and posterior cingulate regions, researchers said. The second brain scan of these participants, conducted after the practice internet searches at home, demonstrated activation of these same regions, as well as triggering of the middle frontal gyrus and inferior frontal gyrus – areas of the brain known to be important in working memory and decision-making.

Thus, after internet training at home, participants with minimal online experience displayed brain activation patterns very similar to those seen in the group of savvy internet users – after just a brief period of time.

"The results suggest that searching online may be a simple form of brain exercise that might be employed to enhance cognition in older adults," said Teena D. Moody, the study's first author and a senior research associate at the Semel Institute at UCLA.

When performing an internet search, the ability to hold important information in working memory and to extract the important points from competing graphics and words is essential, Moody noted.

“Performing internet searches for even a relatively short period of time can change brain activity patterns and enhance function," Small says.

What is even more compelling is the far greater brain activity that occurs with "computer learning" vs "book learning". Dr. Small's findings indicate that internet searching appears much more stimulating than reading. In fact a direct comparison showed that the internet task demonstrated strongly enhanced activity in visual cortices when compared with the reading task in internet savvy subjects, although the actual visual stimuli were identical. This observation suggests that in the internet task the subjects were attending far more to the visual information and demonstrating a richer sensory experience.

Brain training

For that reason, a number of organizations and companies are developing computer-based brain-training programs designed to enrich a healthy brain.

One brain-training program is an online version of a memory-challenging computer game developed by University of Michigan researchers and assessed in a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last April. Susanne Jaeggi and her team reported that their game increased short-term working memory, which was its intended purpose. But it achieved more. It also improved “fluid intelligence,” which is the ability to solve novel problems independently of previous learning.

The Michigan study stands among only a few that have demonstrated transfer of one learned skill to another cognitive domain. The Michigan study also demonstrated a dose effect: the more time people spent using the program, the greater their improvement in both memory and fluid intelligence.

Such research has also spawned a host of efforts to use computers in rehabilitating aging, dysfunctional or damaged brains. These studies are still in the exploratory phase. Small, for example, has collaborated in the development of the Dakim Brain Fitness Unit, a touch-screen system that is available in assisted-living facilities.

Other researchers are experimenting with computer-based systems designed to help disabled patients regain or enhance specific sensory or motor abilities. For example, Susan Brown’s Motor Control Laboratory at the University of Michigan is using a home- and Internet-based training program to improve upper limb and hand function in adults with cerebral palsy. Lucia Vaina’s Neurovisual Clinic at Boston University designs, develops, and tests computer applications to restore visual skills lost in some stroke patients.

Video games for learning

Some parents might see video games as an impediment to children keeping up with their schoolwork. James Gee, however, thinks video games are some of the best learning environments around. He says that if schools adopted some of the strategies that games use, they could educate children more effectively.

"Commercial video games, the ones that make a lot of money, are nothing but problem-solving spaces," says Gee, the Mary Lou Fulton Presidential Chair in Literacy Studies in the Mary Lou Fulton Institute and Graduate School of Education at Arizona State University.

Gee was one of the first scholars to examine the educational potential of video games. In 2004 he wrote one of the earliest books about how games use good learning principles -- What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy.

Video games optimize learning in several ways. First, games provide information when it is needed, rather than all at once in the beginning.
"We tend to teach science, for example, by telling you a lot of stuff and then letting you do science. Games teach the other way. They have you do stuff, and then as you need to know information, they tell it to you," Gee explains. In school, very often you get a lot of words and you don’t get to use them until much later. By the time you use them, you’ve forgotten them. In a game you’re going to get them right when you can use them and see how they apply.”

Games also provide an environment that is "pleasantly frustrating." They are challenging but doable. Games try to stay within, but at the outer edge of, your regime of competence. "That's a very motivating state for human beings. Sometimes it's called the 'flow' state," says Gee. At first you might be blown away by how difficult a game is but this is usually because you are learning something new. Once you stop worrying about failing – something schools consider negative – you start enjoying the experience.

Gee describes video game environments as “situated learning” because the player is situated in an actual problem-solving space.

Assessment is a controversial issue in education today. One thing games can teach us is how to manage assessment better. Currently, schools use standardized tests administered by an outside testing industry. In games, however, assessment and learning are tightly married. Games constantly assess player performance and provide feedback. The game can collect an incredible amount of data on each player's performance and present it statistically.

“We have a standardized testing regime that is focused on skill and drill and facts, not problem-solving," Gee said. "How do we change our assessment regime so that we favor innovation, critical thinking and problem-solving? Then it would fit with the situated learning we’re talking about." Integrating learning and assessment also is less expensive than supporting an independent testing industry. “And you’re not teaching to a test, you’re teaching to your actual learning goals – the goals that you hold regardless of a testing industry,” Gee said.

Another feature of gaming that could apply to education is the practice of “modding.” Many game developers invite players to modify their products. They share the software and encourage user to create things like new maps or scenarios.
Gee says schools could enhance learning by inviting students to “mod” lessons.
“Think about it," Gee said. "If I have to make the game, or a part of the game, I come to a deep understanding of the game as a rule system. If I had to mod science – that is, I had to make some of my own curriculum or my own experiments – then I’d have an understanding at a deep level of what the rules are.”
He noted that educators do not need to use actual computer-based games to incorporate these educational principles. In fact, good teachers have always done these things intuitively.

Games have grown up, and lots of grown-ups are paying attention. Some parents might still see video games as time-wasters. But a growing number of people – from teachers to researchers to policymakers – are seeing great educational potential in these virtual environments. In fall 2009, the Quest to Learn school for kids in grades 6-12 opened in New York City. The school, created in part with a grant from the MacArthur Foundation, uses the underlying design principles of games as the basis of its curriculum. The idea that educators can learn from the gaming industry is now becoming increasingly popular.

Game building: a creative challenge

But why just stop at playing digital games why not build you own? Computer games have a broad appeal that transcends gender, culture, age and socio-economic status. Now, computer scientists in the US think that creating computer games, rather than just playing them could boost students' critical and creative thinking skills as well as broaden their participation in computing. They discuss details in the current issue of the International Journal of Social and Humanistic Computing.

Nikunj Dalal, Parth Dalal, Subhash Kak, Pavlo Antonenko, and Susan Stansberry of Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, outline a case for using rapid computer game creation as an innovative teaching method that could ultimately help bridge the digital divide between those people lacking computer skills and access and those with them. "Worldwide, there is increasing recognition of a digital divide, a troubling gap between groups that use information and communication technologies widely and those that do not," the team explains. "The digital divide refers not only to unequal access to computing resources between groups of people but also to inequalities in their ability to use information technology fully."

There are many causes and proposed solutions to bridging this divide, but applying them at the educational and computer literacy level in an entertaining and productive way might be one of the more successful. The team adds that teaching people how to use off-the-shelf tools to quickly build a computer game might allow anyone to learn new thinking and computing skills. After all, they explain, the process involves storytelling, developing characters, evaluating plots, and working with digital images and music. Indeed, their preliminary survey of this approach shows largely positive effects. Rapid computer game creation (RCGC) sidesteps the need for the students, whether schoolchildren or adult learners, to have any prior knowledge of computer programming.

Traditionally, various groups have stereotypically been excluded from computing to some degree, including women, seniors and people who don't consider themselves as mathematically minded. Dalal and colleagues suggest that their approach circumvents most of the issues and provides a lead into computing that would otherwise not be apparent.

With RCGC becoming increasingly popular in schools and universities, the team suggests that the next step will be to develop yet more effective teaching models using RCGC and to investigate the conditions under which it works best in improving critical and creative thinking and developing positive attitudes to computing among different groups by gender, age, nationality, culture, ethnic group, and academic background.

Students today are digital natives; what they have mastered is not a technology, but the change of technology.

Neuropath Learning Games

Research is now catching up with and slowly proving what we here at Neuropath Learning have believed to be true for a long time now. Neuropath Learning programs incorporate game based learning principles into an educational tool for students and teachers.

Neuropath Learning games are challenging and motivating. Our games combine learning with assessment. They offer a means of formative assessment with constant feedback to the student. They collect a vast amount of data on student performance and present it statistically. They are not solely focused on standards but rather value critical thinking and problem solving skills as learning goals. Neuropath learning programs offer situational learning where students are virtually immersed in the real world problem solving space. Information is presented as needed and not all at once in the begining. Multiple opportunities for application of this knowledge are presented through out the game. Our games were designed on 12 years of scientific research about brain based learning, cognitive development, gaming design and communication technology.

During the past 5 years that Neuropath Learning programs have been in existance we have proved over and over again that this educational model really does work. Not only do our programs offer lessons in learning and literacy, they provide a huge amount of cognitive stimulation and training. Thus we have data showing continual improvement in student performance. The difference in gains made by students using our programs and students in the same school that didn't use our programs, is startling. We have data showing transfer of cognitive skills to standardized test scores. We have also shown a dosage effect of the cognitive training our programs provide. We showed that the more time students spend on our programs, the greater the benefits.

In just a matter of 15-60mins a day NPL programs can dramatically speed up cognitive development of a child's brain. This lays the foundations for thinking strategies that are useful throughout life. It also increases learning productivity of a class such that teachers have more time for more meaningful multisensory enrichment activities. The multimedia delivery of our programs develops right brain creative thinking and helps the visual spatial learner as much as it does the auditory-sequential learner. The programs are self paced and the data is individualized. Social cogniton is developed with equal emphasis as other academic goals and intelligence measures. These are real 21st century education programs that place the focus on the individual student and change the role of a teacher to a facilitator of learning. If you would like to know more about our programs please contact me at today!


Striatal volume predicts level of video game skill acquisition,” Erickson KI, Boot WR, Basak C, Neider MB, Prakash RS, Voss MW, Graybiel AM, Simons DJ, Fabiani M, Gratton G, Kramer AF. Cerebral Cortex. Jan. 19, 2010.

Dye, Green and Bevalier publications on Plasticity and Video games:

Your brain on Google: patterns of cerebral activation during internet searching.
Small GW, Moody TD, Siddarth P, Bookheimer SY. Am J Geriatr Psychiatry. 2009 Feb;17(2):116-26.

Rapid digital game creation for broadening participation in computing and fostering crucial thinking skills. Dalal et al. International Journal of Social and Humanistic Computing, 2009; 1 (2): 123


Other Sources: ASU, Science Daily and the Dana Foundation.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Where in the brain are words?

How are words represented in the brain? Are they listed alphabetically, categorized by meaning or categorized by the way they sound? The emerging technologies of brain imaging have now made it possible to examine the neural representation of such concepts as simple nouns in the human brain. By combining brain imaging and machine learning techniques, neuroscientists Marcel Just and Vladimir Cherkassky and computer scientists Tom Mitchell and Sandesh Aryal recently determined how the brain arranges noun representations.

"In effect, we discovered how the brain's dictionary is organized," said Just, the D.O. Hebb Professor of Psychology and director of the Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging. "It isn't alphabetical or ordered by the sizes of objects or their colors. It's through the three basic features that the brain uses to define common nouns like apartment, hammer and carrot."

As the researchers report January 12 in the journal PLoS One, the three codes or factors concern basic human fundamentals:

  1. how you physically interact with the object (how you hold it, kick it, twist it, etc.);

  2. how it is related to eating (biting, sipping, tasting, swallowing); and

  3. how it is related to shelter or enclosure.

The three factors, each coded in three to five different locations in the brain, were found by a computer algorithm that searched for commonalities among brain areas in how participants responded to 60 different nouns describing physical objects. For example, the word apartment evoked high activation in the five areas that code shelter-related words.

In the case of hammer, the motor cortex was the brain area activated to code the physical interaction. "To the brain, a key part of the meaning of hammer is how you hold it, and it is the sensory-motor cortex that represents 'hammer holding,'" said Cherkassky, who has a background in both computer science and neuroscience. Similarly "shelters" activated the
parahippocampal place area of the brain. The eating factor activates areas associated with face-related actions like chewing or biting. As you can see below, the "tools of manipulation" and "eating" words are represented in the left hemisphere probably because most of the particpants were right handed for tool use and feeding.

Each noun is represented as a mixture of factors. For example "apple" being both an object of eating and an object of manipulation activates multiple brain areas to different degrees producing a pattern of activation or a "code". Thus the meanings of concrete nouns can be semantically represented in terms of the activation codes in the cortex.

Interestingly, researchers found that word length was also a factor that was features in this activation code for each written word. The word length factor presents an opportunity to separate a low-level, perceptual feature of the printed word from the highlevel, semantic object features (encoded by the manipulation, eating, and shelter factors). The word length factor appeared to represent the width or number of letters of the printed word.

The research also showed that the noun meanings were coded similarly in all of the participants' brains. "This result demonstrates that when two people think about the word 'hammer' or 'house,' their brain activation patterns are very similar. But beyond that, our results show that these three discovered brain codes capture key building blocks also shared across people," said Mitchell, head of the Machine Learning Department in the School of Computer Science.

This study marked the first time that the thoughts stimulated by words alone were accurately identified using brain imaging, in contrast to earlier studies that used picture stimuli or pictures together with words. The programs were able to identify the thought without benefit of a picture representation in the visual area of the brain, focusing instead on the semantic or conceptual representation of the objects. Thus this is important in understanding how the brain reads and comprehends language.

Although nouns that related to human beings such as 'spouse' or 'boyfriend' or even 'person' were not included in the study, some human dimension is expected to be part of the brain's coding of nouns, in addition to the three dimensions the researchers found. With psychiatric and neurological illnesses, the meanings of certain concepts are sometimes distorted. These new techniques make it possible to measure those distortions and point toward a way to 'undistort' them. For example, a person with autism might have a weaker coding of social contact.

Reference: Just et al. A Neurosemantic Theory of Concrete Noun Representation Based on the Underlying Brain Codes.PLoS ONE, 2010; 5 (1): e8622 DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0008622

Monday, November 30, 2009

Why Learning by Doing is the Best.

Ever wondered why learning by doing is so successful? Exciting new research on the rewiring processes that take place in the brain during motor learning now offers some clues. As it turns out, lots of new connections are formed between neurons when we learn a motor task and this learning is not forgotten because this change is permanent. Here is more....

The study led by researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz, published in the science journal Nature, reports that new connections begin to form between brain cells almost immediately as animals learn a new task. The researchers studied mice as they were trained to reach through a slot to get a seed. They observed rapid growth of structures that form connections(called synapses) between nerve cells in the motor cortex, the brain layer that controls muscle movements.

"We found very quick and robust synapse formation almost immediately, within one hour of the start of training," said Yi Zuo, assistant professor of molecular, cell and developmental biology at UCSC.

Zuo's team observed the formation of structures called "dendritic spines" that grow on pyramidal neurons in the motor cortex. The dendritic spines form synapses with other nerve cells. At those synapses, the pyramidal neurons receive input from other brain regions involved in motor memories and muscle movements. The researchers found that growth of new dendritic spines was followed by selective elimination of pre-existing spines, so that the overall density of spines returned to the original level.

"It's a remodeling process in which the synapses that form during learning become consolidated, while other synapses are lost," Zuo said. "Motor learning makes a permanent mark in the brain. When you learn to ride a bicycle, once the motor memory is formed, you don't forget. The same is true when a mouse learns a new motor skill; the animal learns how to do it and never forgets."

The study used a noninvasive imaging technique that enabled them to view changes in individual brain cells of the mice before, during, and after the mice were trained in the seed-reaching task.

"We were able to follow the same synapses over time, which had not been done before in a motor learning study," Zuo said. "We showed that structural changes occur in the brain at a much earlier stage than people had believed."

Results from the study suggested that the newly formed dendritic spines are initially unstable and undergo a prolonged selection process during the course of training before being converted into stable synapses.

When previously trained mice were reintroduced to the reaching task four months later, their skill at the task remained high, and images of their brains did not show increased spine formation. When previously trained mice were taught a new skill, however, they showed enhanced spine formation and elimination similar to that seen during the initial training. Furthermore, spines that had formed during the initial training persisted after the remodeling process that accompanied the learning of a new task.

These findings suggest that different motor behaviors are stored using different sets of synapses in the brain.

Understanding the basis for such long-lasting memories is an important goal for neuroscientists.

One of the questions Zuo would like to explore in future studies is how these findings apply to different types of learning. "In China, where I grew up, we memorize a lot in school. What are the changes that take place in the brain during learning and memorizing, and what are the best ways to consolidate those memories? We don't really know the best way to learn and memorize," she said.

What we do know, however, is that knowledge obtained from rote memorization is easily forgotten whereas as learning by doing has been proven to have the best retention rates. Learning through discussion, participation and simulation comes a close second. It is likely that greater involvement of our many different senses during the "doing" process of active learning plays an important role in this phenomenon. Additionally, as the above study suggests, we may be just naturally wired to learn by doing. This would explain why we have such a lot of mental resources devoted to learning through "mimicking". A trait that has been preserved from mice to humans and that is observed as early as infancy.

Reference: University of California - Santa Cruz (2009, November 30). New brain connections form rapidly during motor learning. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 30, 2009, from

Friday, November 6, 2009

Learning Math

The brain has an innate ability for estimating quantity as seen in babies and non-humans. However, the human ability to match specific quantities with number symbols, a skill required for doing arithmetic, is a developed skill. It takes years for children to master the ins and outs of arithmetic. New research indicates that this learning process triggers a large-scale reorganization of brain processes involved in understanding written symbols for various quantities.

It is now known from brain imaging studies that the two distinct circuits are involved during math. One circuit gives names to numbers and carries out exact calculations. This shows up on brain scans as large and strictly left-lateralized activation in the left inferior frontal lobe. A second circuit operates intuitively and is used for estimating quantities and other numerical relationships. This one shows up on brain scans as bilateral activation of the inferior parietal lobule. Research also indicates that the cerebellum plays an important role in single digit addition and comparison tasks of math cognition, but the function of cerebellum in math cognition cooperates with the frontal lobe to perform the simple math task.

While this is true for adults, children, have been observed to recruit more of their pre-frontal cortex and depend less on parietal cortex for math tasks. It is generally thought that the parietal cortex takes time to mature and as it does so mental math becomes earier for children. Interestingly, we also find that math-gifted adolescents show more bilateral activation of frontal and parietal lobes. They are able to recruit the right hemisphere possibly for the imagery required in spatial math problems. The bilateral nature of this activation indicates enhanced interhemispheric connectivity via the corpus callosum. Programs designed to develop the whole brain would therefore be likely to improve mathematical ability as would programs that stimulate the frontal cortex.

The frontal areas of the brain, especially the prefrontal cortex houses cognitive skills as working memory and executive function. Both executive function and working memory have been found to be important foundational cognitive skills for mathematical ability. For instance a study of 141 preschoolers from low-income homes has found that a child whose IQ and executive functioning were both above average was three times more likely to succeed in math than a child who simply had a high IQ.

When math test scores in individuals who had higher levels of working memory with those who had less were compared, it was found that individuals with higher levels of working memory have superior memory and computational capacity. However, in a high pressure testing situation, it turns out that the subjects with higher working memory levels performed very poorly—that is, the subjects with the greatest capacity for success were the most likely to “choke under pressure”. This has important implications for assessment such as the COGAT test. Also, as more schools start emphasizing state-exam based curricula, these studies will become increasingly relevant and important for the development of exams and training regimens that will ensure optimal performance, especially by the most promising students.

The type of working memory involved in solving math problems may be affected by the way the problems are presented. When arithmetic problems are written horizontally, more working memory resources related to language are used. However, when problems are written vertically, visuo-spatial resources of working memory are used.

Resoning ability is another cognitive domain builds the capacity for logical thought, reflection, explanation, and justification. Math is about using logic to explain and justify a solution to a problem. It is the mental muscle necessary to successfully explore puzzles. It can also extend something known to something not yet known. Therefore developing good reasoning skills is also important in math ability.

The fact that executive function, working memory and other cognitive abilitiesare significantly related to early math performance, even in children as young as pre-schoolers, suggests that if we can improve the capacity for these skills, we can improve their academic performance.

Infact, this is exactly what we have demonstrated with Neuropath Learning programs. We recently showed that third grade students graduating our programs perform significantly better on state standardized test of math proficiency when compared to students who have not used our programs. Because Neuropath Learning programs build cognitive skills such as visual-spatial skills, reasoning skills, attention skills, executive function skills and working memory skills we have been able to boost mathematical acheivement without necessarily teaching third grade mathematics. Such is the power of cognitive training! For information on our programs visit us at or send me an e-mail to


Clancy Blair, Hilary Knipe, David Gamson (2008) Is There a Role for Executive Functions in the Development of Mathematics Ability? Mind, Brain, and Education, 2 (2): 80 – 89.

Beilock, S. L. (2008). Math performance in stressful situations. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 17, 339-343.

Michael W. O’Boyle, et al., (2005) Mathematically Gifted Male Adolescents Activate a Unique Brain Network During Mental Rotation, Cognitive Brain Research, 25: 583-587.

Holloway, I.D. & Ansari, D. (2009) Mapping numerical magnitudes onto symbols: The numerical distance effect and individual differences in children’s math achievement. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 103, 17-29.

Shigang Feng1, Yaxin Fan1, Qingbao Yu1, Qilin Lu1 and Yi-Yuan Tang (2008) The cerebellum connectivity in mathematics cognition. BMC Neuroscience 9(Suppl 1):155.

S Dehaene (1997) The number sense: How the mind creates mathematics New York, NY: Oxford University Press