Archive for February, 2010

A food revolution: It’s not egg salad

Alice Waters promotes school gardens as a way to “help students learn the pleasure of physical work.”

Caitlin Flanagan, however, denounces school gardens as a patronizing and unfounded encroachment on the back-to-basics curricula that schools should be advancing.

In “Cultivating Failure: How school gardens cheat out most vulnerable students,” Flanagan contends we should see these initiatives for what they really are: “a way of bestowing field work and low expectations on a giant population of students who might become troublesome if they actually got an education.”

It is a stinging and provocative criticism, and one that I recommend reading — but her argument is powerfully rebutted, I think, with the following clip that woefully exposes the frightening ignorance kids have of what real, whole foods even look like.

Confronted with the fact that diet related disease is the biggest killer in the United States. Jamie’s one wish to change the world is to teach every kid about food. Please take 20 minutes and watch his passionate TED Prize talk, embedded below, about how we are slowly killing ourselves and our children with the foods we (don’t) eat.

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February 26, 2010 at 10:40 pm 3 comments

Stand up and move, cont.

Earlier posts discussed how simply “standing up may be as important as exercise” and the development of treadmill desks and classroom walkstations. Olivia Johnson, a NYT blogger who writes on the “influence of science and biology on modern life,” urges us to “stand up while you read this!

There’s a more sinister aspect to sitting. Several strands of evidence suggest that there’s a “physiology of inactivity”: that when you spend long periods sitting, your body actually does things that are bad for you.

As an example, consider lipoprotein lipase. This is a molecule that plays a central role in how the body processes fats; it’s produced by many tissues, including muscles. Low levels of lipoprotein lipase are associated with a variety of health problems, including heart disease. Studies in rats show that leg muscles only produce this molecule when they are actively being flexed (for example, when the animal is standing up and ambling about). The implication is that when you sit, a crucial part of your metabolism slows down.

It is equally promising and scary that so many of the little things we do can add up to such a large effect on our health. Johnson cites studies of (in)activity that found active walkers who significantly reduced the number of steps they took each day “by using the elevator instead of the stairs and driving to work instead of walking” became fatter in just a period of two weeks because their bodies became worse at metabolizing sugars and fats.

People in work places who simply stood up to stretch, walked to their colleagues’ offices rather than send an email, and generally ambled throughout the day “had smaller waists and better profiles for sugar and fat metabolism than those who did their sitting in long, uninterrupted chunks.” A study of movement practices and habits by doctors “doing the same job, the same week, on identical wards found that some individuals walked four times farther than others at work each day.”

The takeaway: Better health isn’t a marathon away. Simply stand-up for it!

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February 26, 2010 at 5:44 pm 4 comments

Finding, making, and evaluating great teachers

I earlier referenced an article in The Atlantic that asked, “What makes a great teacher?” The entire article by Amanda Ripley is a must-read for anyone interested in human capital, but I want to highlight some of the factors that Teach for America has identified as being the most predictive of teacher success:

Teachers who scored high in “life satisfaction”—reporting that they were very content with their lives—were 43 percent more likely to perform well in the classroom than their less satisfied colleagues. These teachers “may be more adept at engaging their pupils, and their zest and enthusiasm may spread to their students,” the study suggested.

In general, though, Teach for America’s staffers have discovered that past performance—especially the kind you can measure—is the best predictor of future performance. Recruits who have achieved big, measurable goals in college tend to do so as teachers. And the two best metrics of previous success tend to be grade-point average and “leadership achievement”—a record of running something and showing tangible results. If you not only led a tutoring program but doubled its size, that’s promising.

Knowledge matters, but not in every case. In studies of high-school math teachers, majoring in the subject seems to predict better results in the classroom. And more generally, people who attended a selective college are more likely to excel as teachers (although graduating from an Ivy League school does not unto itself predict significant gains in a Teach for America classroom). Meanwhile, a master’s degree in education seems to have no impact on classroom effectiveness.

Related: Bill Gates on how to make a teacher great, which begins around the 8:00 mark on the TED talk embedded below. Some notes and quotes from Gates’ presentation:

  • The state of our public school system is stark: “Over 30% of kids [in the United States] never finish high school. For minority kids, it’s over 50%. Even if you graduate from high school, if you’re low income, you have less than a 25% chance of ever completing a college degree. If you’re low income in the United States, you have a higher change of going to jail than you do of getting a four-year degree.”
  • This confronts us with one of the most important questions of our time: “How do you make our education system better?” The answer is “by having great teachers.”
  • The single most important factor on student achievement is teacher quality. For example, “A top quartile teacher will increase the performance of their class, based on test scores, by over 10% in a single year.” This means that if, for just two years, every student in the United States were taught by a top-quartile teacher, then the achievement gap between the U.S. and Asia would disappear entirely. The simple solution, then, is to provide kids with top-quartile teachers. But before you can do this, you need to assess whether they have any commonalities. In other words, what makes a great teacher?
  • Surprisingly, it may not be what most people think. The best teachers are not necessarily the most senior or experienced:  “Once somebody has taught for three years, their teaching quality does not change thereafter.” Nor do they possess master’s degrees in education. In fact, there is absolutely no general effect or correlation between teachers with a master’s degree and the achievement outcomes of their students. Teach for America teachers and math instructors who majored in math while an undergraduate were found to have, on the whole, slightly positive effects on academic achievement. But overwhelmingly, the most predictive variable of teacher quality was their past performance. The specifics that were responsible for past performance, however, are not yet studied well enough. And sadly, “on average, slightly better teachers leave the profession [more than bad teachers.]”
  • Suggestions for how to gather and analyze teacher improvement data, including team teaching and digital video, are discussed.

Finally, in December of 2008, the always provocative Malcolm Gladwell was fascinated by the question, “How do we hire when we can’t tell who’s right for the job?

This is the quarterback problem. There are certain jobs where almost nothing you can learn about candidates before they start predicts how they’ll do once they’re hired. So how do we know whom to choose in cases like that? In recent years, a number of fields have begun to wrestle with this problem, but none with such profound social consequences as the profession of teaching.

Eric Hanushek, an economist at Stanford, estimates that the students of a very bad teacher will learn, on average, half a year’s worth of material in one school year. The students in the class of a very good teacher will learn a year and a half’s worth of material. That difference amounts to a year’s worth of learning in a single year. Teacher effects dwarf school effects: your child is actually better off in a “bad” school with an excellent teacher than in an excellent school with a bad teacher. Teacher effects are also much stronger than class-size effects. You’d have to cut the average class almost in half to get the same boost that you’d get if you switched from an average teacher to a teacher in the eighty-fifth percentile. And remember that a good teacher costs as much as an average one, whereas halving class size would require that you build twice as many classrooms and hire twice as many teachers.

Educational-reform efforts typically start with a push for higher standards for teachers—that is, for the academic and cognitive requirements for entering the profession to be as stiff as possible. But after you’ve seen how complex the elements of effective teaching are, this emphasis on book smarts suddenly seems peculiar. The preschool teacher with the alphabet book was sensitive to her students’ needs and knew how to let the two girls on the right wiggle and squirm without disrupting the rest of the students; the trigonometry teacher knew how to complete a circuit of his classroom in two and a half minutes and make everyone feel as if he or she were getting his personal attention. But these aren’t cognitive skills.

Read more: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/12/15/081215fa_fact_gladwell?currentPage=all

February 26, 2010 at 8:32 am 3 comments

The greatest race the world has never seen

Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon (CCUM) Mission Statement, La Paloma de Paz:

We come together in las Barrancas del Cobre to create peace and harmony, sharing with/of all that is provided to us by our Mother Earth.Caballo Blanco de la Paz, Race Director

February 24, 2010 at 6:30 pm 2 comments

A scientific Rosetta Stone

Daniel Tammet.

A recent six-part interview on the Sharp Brains blog introduces Daniel as a best-selling author whose claim to fame is his ability to “vividly describe autistic savantism from the inside”

Wikipedia notes that he is one of fewer than 50 autistic savants in the world, perhaps best known for “reciting pi from memory to 22,514 digits” and learning the Icelandic language in just seven days

This must-watch 60 Minutes story explains, “[Daniel] may very well be a scientific Rosetta stone, a key to understanding the brain” —

The Science Channel calls him, simply, Brain Man. Their documentary on Daniel Tammet is available in five parts on YouTube, the first of which is here:

Continue watching Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.

Simply amazing.

February 24, 2010 at 7:16 am 1 comment

Memory snooze

In defense of the siesta:

New research from the University of California, Berkeley, shows that an hour’s nap can dramatically boost and restore your brain power. Indeed, the findings suggest that a biphasic sleep schedule not only refreshes the mind, but can make you smarter.

Conversely, the more hours we spend awake, the more sluggish our minds become. The results support previous data that pulling an all-nighter decreases the ability to cram in new facts by nearly 40 percent, due to a shutdown of brain regions during sleep deprivation.

More here.

Related: How long should you nap for?

The 5-minute nap produced few benefits in comparison with the no-nap control. The 10-minute nap produced immediate improvements in all outcome measures (including sleep latency, subjective sleepiness, fatigue, vigor, and cognitive performance), with some of these benefits maintained for as long as 155 minutes. The 20- minute nap was associated with improvements emerging 35 minutes after napping and lasting up to 125 minutes after napping. The 30-minute nap produced a period of impaired alertness and performance immediately after napping, indicative of sleep inertia, followed by improvements lasting up to 155 minutes after the nap.

February 24, 2010 at 6:10 am 1 comment

Inside the Double McTwist

A cool video of Shaun White breaking-down his gold medal winning snowboard half-pipe performance—his passion, energy, and joy of sport is infectious.

Both of Shaun’s runs, as originally aired, can be viewed here.

February 22, 2010 at 9:19 pm Leave a comment

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Jason R. Atwood

I'm an avid trail runner and doctoral student at U.C. Berkeley who studies motivation and the relationship between the mind and body. This blog is a forum to share research, news, and musings about these topics of interest. More

Play is the beginning of knowledge.

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