kitchen table math, the sequel: paging Dr. Willingham

Monday, April 6, 2009

paging Dr. Willingham

We need Daniel Willingham to break this down:

Study gives more proof that intelligence is largely inherited
UCLA researchers find that genes determine brain's processing speed

Because unfortunately that headline has quickly turned into this one:

Bad at Math? Blame It on Your Parents
And if your kids aren't good at math, blame yourself

Just imagine the kind of damage this kind of headline can do.

We've been talking about cultural attitudes towards ability and this absolutely sends the wrong message that effort doesn't count for much. If you're not good at something, blame it on your gene pool and get on with it.

We already have a serious problem with believing that we're either good at math or we aren't. This just adds fuel to the fire.

In Why Don't Students Like School? Daniel Willingham asserts, "Our genetic inheritance does impact our intelligence, but it seems to do so mostly through the environment. There is no doubt that intelligence can be changed."

Children need to know that it is within their power to increase their intelligence. That ability can be improved with effort. If parents and educators buy into the you're-either-born-smart-or-you're-not mindset, we're doomed to continue declining on all internationally benchmarked assessments of academic ability.

We need Dr. Willingham to counteract this spin and control it with headlines that make sense. Changing cultural perceptions about learning needs to happen now.

I blogged more about it here .

22 comments:

mazenko said...

Charles Murray has received a lot of criticism for the same assertions that he makes in his newest book "Real Education." Perhaps the UCLA study will generate better discussion of just what exactly we expect the average child to accomplish in school.

Barry Garelick said...

Perhaps the UCLA study will generate better discussion of just what exactly we expect the average child to accomplish in school.

That discussion is already occurring in the form of lowered expectations. What is it you wish to see happen?

SteveH said...

"That discussion is already occurring in the form of lowered expectations."

Can you characterize what they are saying and what they base it on?

I can't imagine that tests haven't already been done to isolate the effect of teachers and homogeneous versus heteroeneous grouping. All you have to do is show that it can happen once; that a teacher can get low IQ kids (however they are defined defined) to meet minimum state standards.

They have to calibrate this somehow. It can't be that difficult.

palisadesk said...

Genetics are important, but are only part of the story. Tbe emerging science of epigenetics is making some significant discoveries about the limits of the genome, per se. The epigenome partially explains why identical twins can be so different (obvious example: one having severe autism and developmental disabilities from birth and the other not).

NOVA (via the BBC) had an interesting show on this topic, entitled "Ghosts in Your Genes" or something like that. I got it from the library but it may be on line somewhere.

Here are a few links to articles of interest:

Whew! Your DNA Isn't Your Destiny

Backgrounder: Epigenetics and Imprinted Genes


DNA Is Not Destiny {not the same as the first article}

The Gene Expression blog is a fascinating one to follow on this and other developments in the field.

SteveH said...

How important is genetics if the goal is to get kids to know their adds and subtracts to 20 by December of third grade(the goal at our school), given 6+ hours a day? Genetics would mattter more for the high end rather than the low end in this case, but the IQ argument is often used to explain away educational failure at the low end.

Eliminate the teacher and curriculum variables and then we'll talk.

palisadesk said...

How important is genetics if the goal is to get kids to know their adds and subtracts to 20 by December of third grade

Neither genetics/epigenetics not IQ plays much of a role in this type of task. Indeed, mastery of math facts is one at which children with *very* low IQ's can often excel.

John Wills Lloyd said...

Hi, concernedCTparent.

I'm sure Dan Willingham could make sage comments about heritability of IQ, but probably his colleague Eric Turkheimer would be able to make even more powerful observations:

Turkheimer, E. (1998). Heritability and biological explanation. Psychological Review, 105, 782-791.

concernedCTparent said...

Thank you for that reference. I am now paging Dr. Eric Turkheimer as well.

Heritability and psychobiological association cannot be the basis for establishing whether behavior is genetic or biological, because to do so leads only to the banal tautology that all behavior is ultimately based in the genotype and brain.

John Wills Lloyd said...

You are welcome.

Here's a slightly different take on the somewhat tired jousting match between bio-genetic and socio-behavioral positions' responsibility for outcomes:

Suppose that 75% of outcomes are, indeed, controlled by genes. That leaves 25% subject to influence by environment and the interaction between the two. Just for the sake of argument, let's say 5% is interaction, leaving 20% to the environment. That is 20% of the variation in outcomes is controlled by environmental factors.

On most standardized tests, variation is represent by the variance. Variance on a test with a mean of 100 points and a standard deviation of 15 is about 225 (S equals sd-squared). So, 20% of the variance woUld be something like 45 points. That's a lot!

If environmental factors account for 45 points out of the range from 0 to 225, we can make some substantial differences by manipulating environmental variables. It doesn't mean we can turn IQ=80 into IQ=125, but it does mean there's plenty of room for experience (up-bringing, education, and such) to make a difference.

This argument is similar to one made by Carl Bereiter in an essay on heritability in Disadvantaged Child (vol. 3), as I recall.

palisadesk said...

This argument is similar to one made by Carl Bereiter in an essay on heritability in Disadvantaged Child (vol. 3), as I recall

I have that article (co-written with Engelmann, IIRC) and indeed it is a very compelling one. It presents the data from the preschool project at the University of Illinois. Every child in the experimental group ended up with an IQ over 100 (ranged from 108-149 I believe), whereas comparison groups did not show this effect.

Pretty powerful evidence of environmental effects.

Also, the observation that landed James Watson in deep trouble -- that rural East African tribespeople typically score around 70 on IQ tests -- can be considered in tandem with the results obtained by children of African refugees (whose parents were from nomadic tribes) who are raised in our school system. Most have normal IQ's (over 90) and a significant number do well enough to meet college entrance requirements and obtain degrees. Surely another environmental effect.

Lsquared said...

SteveH-

It sounds like you are encountering math facts frustrations. I'd like to recommend the web site:
http://thinkingwithnumbers.com
Especially the the Questions/Answers section. I find this approach to teaching math facts to be surprisingly sane compared to the common alternatives. (I can't stand either the solution where we decide students don't need to know math facts, or the solution where we hand the kids some flash cards and give them a 100-problem timed test every week). It's a fairly long faq, but very readable.

palisadesk said...

Oops, the article I have is not by Carl Bereiter (he and Engelmann co-wrote a detailed book about the preschool project, so it was a logical inference). I think John Wills Lloyd must have been referring to this article:

Genetics and educability: Educational implications of the Jensen debate

C Bereiter - Disadvantaged child, 1970


I’ll have to find a way to get that one now, it sounds very on-topic.

I do have two articles by Engelmann, one from the same volume of Disadvantaged Child, where he discusses IQ changes and the intensive academic preschool they ran at the University of Illinois. That article is entitled “The Effectiveness of Direct Verbal Instruction on IQ Performance and Achievement in Reading And Arithmetic “


Another Engelmann article I have from the same time period is “Teaching Reading to Children With Low Mental Ages,” published by the CEC in 1967. There is a great conclusion from this article that I will type up and post separately.

The first article had data tables on the experimental and comparison groups.

Some typical IQ changes:
(start) (after 1 yr) (after 2 yrs)
BG 119 130 139
DD 99 118 129
MB 89 101 131
BW 111 139 (MOVED)
BA 92 113 123
BD 89 112 (MOVED)
SV 85 101 108
Nc 70 89 (MOVED)
RV 109 127 138

There are quite a few more, but you get the idea;-)

The middle class comparison group did not make any significant IQ gains (less than 3 point on average)

The disadvantaged comparison group (regular preschool program) had some children who made IQ gains and others whose IQ went down. The mean gain was 5 points, whereas for the experimental group it was a gain of 24 points, with a low of +10 and a high of +30 (two standard deviations).

Here are some trenchant bits of the concluding summary:

The major hypothesis tested by the program was that children are taught at different rates: if the effective rate at which disadvantaged and middle-class children are taught is increased substantially, those children will perform at an above-normal level, which means that the disadvantaged subjects may become “superior in specific areas of achievement. This hypothesis was confirmed….The present experiments seem to indicate rather strongly that the reason disadvantaged children fail in public school is not necessarily that they are genetically inferior or developmentally impaired, but that they receive poor instruction. If younger children with initially lower mental ages can achieve at an above-normal rate, school aged disadvantaged children (who usually learn more rapidly) should have little trouble achieving at the rate of normal children in specific achievement areas if instruction is adequate.

The results of the experiment cast rather serious doubt on the validity of IQ measures as indicators of genetic endowment. The children in the experimental program were changed rather dramatically during the two years of instruction. Unless one knew what went on in the environment diriong those two years, one would be at something of a loss to explaim these children If we were to take their terminal IQ scores as an indication of differential genetic endowment, then we would be faced with the difficult problem of explaining how the genetic composition of the children changed over the two years. Was it something they ate?

The fact that some of the children made very little progress compared to others may be taken as an indication of differential genetic influence. Again this conclusion would be quite hasty. Before we can intelligently discuss what happened to individuals, we would have to know what went on in that individual’s environment (his total waking environment and not merely the 2 1/2 hours a day that he was in school) before we could presume to talk about the relative influence of the “environment” on intelligence. Probably everyone would agree that genetic endowment makes a difference, but the extent of that difference is far from obvious. At least, genetic endowment seems to be a relatively minor factor among the overwhelming majority of children.

SteveH said...

"It sounds like you are encountering math facts frustrations."

No. I'm encountering "change the subject" frustrations. Many want to talk about IQ or how the brain works, when the big problems have to do with the basics. If our school mandated Singapore Math, kids would still get to fifth grade not knowing 6 times 7.

KDeRosa said...

The problem with many of these studies involving P-3 aged children is that while IQ appears to be very malleable up until age 10-12, the gains quickly fade back to their baseline (or by an educationally insignificant amount above) by the time most of the children hit 12 years of age.

It appears to be very difficult to sustain the effort needed to boost student IQ after this point with some sort of compensatory education.

palisadesk said...

the gains quickly fade back to their baseline (or by an educationally insignificant amount above) by the time most of the children hit 12 years of age

That's one of the interesting things about this particular experimental group. That did not happen. Engelmann followed up on these children as adults and they did not return to baseline, but completed secondary and post-secondary education and entered professions and middle-class occupations.

A study published in the Harvard Educational Review back in the 70's showed long-term IQ gains ( more than 1 SD)in a subset of students and these gains were sustained well into middle age.

The common denominator in both studies was that the catalytic factors occurred early.

I have not read of any cases where later compensatory intervention had the same effect (but it is possible it has not been systematically tried).

palisadesk said...

Many want to talk about IQ or how the brain works, when the big problems have to do with the basics

The curriculum expectations in my district do not include the expectation that students will learn the math facts "by rote." Thus even teachers who understand the importance of automaticity in basic skills are reluctant to spend much class time on these skills, because they can be -- and are -- disciplined for doing so. The push to "cover the curriculum" and conform to the requirements for discovery learning and emphasis on "higher level thinking" is very strong.

Parents may disagree (and I hope they do) but if employees are mandated by their employer to adhere to certain parameters, the change needs to come from higher up. Teachers don't set the curriculum in most places, and they are often required to teach in ways that they know are counterproductive, unvalidated or ineffective.

It's possible to be a "guerilla instructivist" (I'm one) but it is a minor part of the workday. You can't be upfront about it, nor can you flout all the stupid mandates that come your way. You can of course quit the system, but I realized long ago that the students I wanted to help, and get the most satisfaction from teaching, are ones who will never be in any private school or tutoring clinic.

Parent action can have some effect, especially at the local school level, if it is on a large scale. I don't think parent action will "change the system." The system is an organism with a life of its own.

Catherine Johnson said...

Haven't read the thread yet, but I've got to get Diane McGuinness' passage on perfectly normal young kids acquiring language disorders in school by the time they're teens.

Catherine Johnson said...

And don't forget Ian Robertson!:

Poor schooling lowers intelligence and handicaps children intellectually for life.... their intelligence is steadily eroded because the synapses in their brain are inadequately tuned and shaped by the planned structured experience that good teachers provide.

This is precisely what happened in some rural school systems in the southern states of America during the 1970s. Education was so poor in some of these systems that intelligence was more badly eroded the longer children stayed in the system. As a result, the IQs of the older children in a family who had been in the school system longer were routinely lower than those of their younger brothers and sisters whose brains had not yet suffered the great synaptic hunger which comes from poor education.

[snip]

In one study, black children who had moved from the south to Philadelphia had their IQ scores raised more than half a point for every year they spent in this better school system.

Mind Sculpture
by Ian Robertson

Catherine Johnson said...

fyi...the Turkeimer study isn't online via BobCat - but you can Google it, for some reason.

The entire study is posted.

Catherine Johnson said...

Just found the long passage from Robertson:

good schools raise IQ, bad schools lower IQ

Catherine Johnson said...

Eliminate the teacher and curriculum variables and then we'll talk.

That's pretty much my motto.

Especially around here, where we are routinely told that our kids "can't think inferentially" or are too "immature" to take Earth Science in the 8th grade, etc.

Not to mention: "Irvington is more diverse than people realize."

That one popped up again at a budget forum when a retired realtor raised the issue of Irvington's SAT scores.

For the record, Irvington is not more diverse than people realize.

Irvington is exactly as diverse as people realize.

question:

How likely is it that only the 5 members of the school board and the 15 members of the school administration (district size: 1900 students, & falling) would grasp the true level of Irvington's diversity?

Which is: 8% African American / Hispanic.

Alyse said...

The present experiments seem to indicate rather strongly that the reason disadvantaged children fail in public school is not necessarily that they are genetically inferior or developmentally impaired, but that they receive poor instruction. If younger children with initially lower mental ages can achieve at an above-normal rate, school aged disadvantaged children (who usually learn more rapidly) should have little trouble achieving at the rate of normal children in specific achievement areas if instruction is adequate.

What constitutes ''poor instruction"?
As a first-year teacher in a Brooklyn school I am incessantly comparing my experiences in urban education with what I enjoyed as a student in a suburban, fully 'advantaged' educational setting. One thing I realized early on was that what was considered excellent teaching practice in an advantaged setting would in fact prove to be completely ineffective in a disadvantaged setting. It seems to me that quality of instruction is relative to the 'environment'/ culture in which it is executed. This is not to say that I think that urban education is going just plain GREAT and that teachers in urban settings are always just as good as suburban educators, but that I think that educators in certain situations have a lot more up against them. All of my students are naturally very academically inclined (and are accepted into the school I work at because of this), but many of them operate under completely different value systems (than students at my 'advantaged' school did) that definitely inhibit their academic success. The quality instructor in this setting not only has to convey material well, but create and uphold a set of success-producing values for their students in a way that teachers in advantaged areas do not need to. I do not mean to imply that one set of values is superior, just that the value systems in advantaged environments obviously uphold traits that are necessary for children to also be advantaged (as a result of being academically successful), whereas this is not necessarily the case in disadvantaged environments. I feel that what I mainly enjoyed at my 'advantaged' school was growing up in an environment where extremely high academic standards were implied and success in school was necessary to earn the respect of others. Value systems are missing from this 'not genetically inferior or developmentally impaired'... and therefore 'reciev[ing] poor instruction' citation.


Here
is an article in which societal stress is deemed a big player in student success, but that is somewhat irritating