1. Neurons have the right shape for deep learning

    December 14, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research press release:

    Deep learning has brought about machines that can ‘see’ the world more like humans can, and recognize language. And while deep learning was inspired by the human brain, the question remains: Does the brain actually learn this way? The answer has the potential to create more powerful artificial intelligence and unlock the mysteries of human intelligence.

    In a study published December 5th in eLife, CIFAR Fellow Blake Richards and his colleagues unveiled an algorithm that simulates how deep learning could work in our brains. The network shows that certain mammalian neurons have the shape and electrical properties that are well-suited for deep learning. Furthermore, it represents a more biologically realistic way of how real brains could do deep learning.

    Research was conducted by Richards and his graduate student Jordan Guerguiev, at the University of Toronto, Scarborough, in collaboration with Timothy Lillicrap at Google DeepMind. Their algorithm was based on neurons in the neocortex, which is responsible for higher order thought.

    “Most of these neurons are shaped like trees, with ‘roots’ deep in the brain and ‘branches’ close to the surface,” says Richards. “What’s interesting is that these roots receive a different set of inputs than the branches that are way up at the top of the tree.”

    Using this knowledge of the neurons’ structure, Richards and Guerguiev built a model that similarly received signals in segregated compartments. These sections allowed simulated neurons in different layers to collaborate, achieving deep learning.

    “It’s just a set of simulations so it can’t tell us exactly what our brains are doing, but it does suggest enough to warrant further experimental examination if our own brains may use the same sort of algorithms that they use in AI,” Richards says.

    This research idea goes back to AI pioneers Geoffrey Hinton, a CIFAR Distinguished Fellow and founder of the Learning in Machines & Brains program, and program Co-Director Yoshua Bengio, and was one of the main motivations for founding the program in the first place. These researchers sought not only to develop artificial intelligence, but also to understand how the human brain learns, says Richards.

    In the early 2000s, Richards and Lillicrap took a course with Hinton at the University of Toronto and were convinced deep learning models were capturing “something real” about how human brains work. At the time, there were several challenges to testing that idea. Firstly, it wasn’t clear that deep learning could achieve human-level skill. Secondly, the algorithms violated biological facts proven by neuroscientists.

    Now, Richards and a number of researchers are looking to bridge the gap between neuroscience and AI. This paper builds on research from Bengio’s lab on a more biologically plausible way to train neural nets and an algorithm developed by Lillicrap that further relaxes some of the rules for training neural nets. The paper also incorporates research from Matthew Larkam on the structure of neurons in the neocortex. By combining neurological insights with existing algorithms, Richards’ team was able to create a better and more realistic algorithm simulating learning in the brain.

    The tree-like neocortex neurons are only one of many types of cells in the brain. Richards says future research should model different brain cells and examine how they could interact together to achieve deep learning. In the long-term, he hopes researchers can overcome major challenges, such as how to learn through experience without receiving feedback.

    “What we might see in the next decade or so is a real virtuous cycle of research between neuroscience and AI, where neuroscience discoveries help us to develop new AI and AI can help us interpret and understand our experimental data in neuroscience,” Richards says.


  2. Study suggests hearing different accents at home impacts language processing in infants

    December 12, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University at Buffalo press release:

    Infants raised in homes where they hear a single language, but spoken with different accents, recognize words dramatically differently at about 12 months of age than their age-matched peers exposed to little variation in accent, according to a recent study by a University at Buffalo expert in language development.

    The findings, published in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, point to the importance of considering the effects of multiple accents when studying speech development and suggest that monolingual infants should not be viewed as a single group.

    “This is important if you think about clinical settings where children are tested,” says Marieke van Heugten, an assistant professor in UB’s Department of Psychology and lead author of the study with Elizabeth K. Johnson, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. “Speech language pathologists [in most of North America] typically work with the local variant of English, but if you have a child growing up in an environment with more than one accent then they might recognize words differently than a child who hears only one accent.

    Although extensive research exists on bilingualism, few studies have taken accents into account when looking at early word recognition in monolingualism, and van Heugten says none have explored the issue of accents in children younger than 18 months, the age when they traditionally develop the ability to recognize pronunciation differences that can occur across identical words.

    “Variability in children’s language input, what they hear and how they hear it, can have important consequences on word recognition in young, monolingual children,” she says. For instance, an American-English speaking parent might call the yellow vehicle that takes children to school a “bus,” while the pronunciation of the same word by an Irish-English speaking parent might sound more like “boss.” The parents are referencing the same object, but because the child hears the word pronounced two ways she needs to learn how to map those different pronunciations to the same object.

    For the study, researchers tested children who were seated on the lap of a parent. The children heard words typically known to 12-1/2 month olds, like daddy, mommy, ball, dog and bath, along with nonsense words, such as dimma, mitty and guttle. Head turns by the children, a common procedure used in infant speech perception that signals recognition, determined preference for particular words. A second experiment included children of 14-1/2- and 18-months of age.

    Van Heugten says children show a preference for the known words when they recognize words that occur in their language. If they fail to recognize words there’s no reason for them to express a preference, as on the surface, the known and the nonsense words sound equally exciting with an infant-directed intonation.

    The results indicate that children who hear just a single accent prefer to listen to real words in the lab, although those who hear multiple accents don’t have that preference at 12-1/2 months. This difference between preference patterns was found even though the two groups were matched on socioeconomic status as well as the number of words children understand and produce. This suggests that both groups of children are learning words at about the same rate, but that hearing multiple accents at home might change how children recognize these words around their first birthday, at least in lab settings. Perhaps children raised in multi-accent environments need more contextual information to recognize words because they do not assume all words will be spoken in the regional accent.

    But they no longer have difficulties recognizing these words in this challenging task by the time they’re 18-months-old, according to van Heugten.

    “What we’re concluding is that children who hear multiple accents process language differently than those who hear a single accent,” she says. “We should be aware of this difference, and keep in mind as a factor prediction behavior in test settings, especially when testing children from diverse areas in the world.”

    “We are excited to carry out additional work in this area, comparing the development of young children growing up in more or less linguistically diverse environments,” adds Johnson. “[This] will help us better understand language acquisition in general, and perhaps help us better diagnose and treat language delays in children growing up in different types of environments.”


  3. Study suggests socioeconomic status may be linked to differences in the vocabulary growth

    December 10, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Texas at Dallas press release:

    The nation’s 31 million children growing up in homes with low socioeconomic status have, on average, significantly smaller vocabularies compared with their peers.

    A new study from the Callier Center for Communication Disorders at The University of Texas at Dallas found these differences in vocabulary growth among grade school children of different socioeconomic statuses are likely related to differences in the process of word learning.

    Dr. Mandy Maguire, associate professor in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences (BBS), said in her study that children from lower-income homes learned 10 percent fewer words than their peers from higher-income homes. When entering kindergarten, children from low-income homes generally score about two years behind their higher-income peers on language and vocabulary measures.

    The vocabulary gap between the two groups of children gets larger throughout their schooling and has long-term academic implications, Maguire said.

    The primary reason for the differences in infancy and preschool is related to different quantity and quality of language exposure at home. But why the gap increases as the children get older is less studied.

    “We might assume that it’s the same reason that the gap is large when they’re young: that their environment is different,” Maguire said. “Another possibility is that all of this time spent in low-income situations has led to differences in their ability to learn a word. If that’s the case, there’s a problem in the mechanism of learning, which is something we can fix.”

    The study, recently published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, aimed to determine whether socioeconomic status is related to word learning in grade school and to what degree vocabulary, reading and working memory might mediate that relationship.

    For the study, 68 children ages 8 to 15 performed a task that required using the surrounding text to identify the meaning of an unknown word. One exercise included three sentences, each with a made-up word at the end — for example, “Mom piled the pillows on the thuv.”

    “You have to understand all of the language in each sentence leading up to the made-up word, remember it and decide systematically across all three sentences what the made-up word must mean,” Maguire said. “In this case, the three sentences all indicated ‘thuv’ meant ‘bed.’ This isn’t quite the same as real word learning, where we have to create a new concept, but this what we think kids — and adults — do as they initially learn a word.”

    Specifically, the study found that children of lower socioeconomic status are not as effective at using known vocabulary to build a robust picture or concept of the incoming language and use that to identify the meaning of an unknown word.

    Reading and working memory — also known to be problematic for children from low-income homes — were not found to be related.

    The study also provides potential strategies that may be effective for intervention. For children ages 8 to 15, schools may focus too much on reading and not enough on increasing vocabulary through oral methods, Maguire said.

    Maguire said parents and teachers can help children identify relationships between words in sentences, such as assigning a word like “bakery,” and having the child list as many related words as possible in one minute. Visualizing the sentences as they read also can help.

    “Instead of trying to fit more vocabulary in a child’s head, we might be able to work on their depth of knowledge of the individual words and linking known meanings together in a way that they can use to learn new information,” Maguire said.

    This study was funded by a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation, which was awarded in April 2016.

    Three co-authors of the paper are BBS doctoral students who work in Maguire’s Developmental Neurolinguistics Laboratory: Julie M. Schneider, Anna E. Middleton and Yvonne Ralph. Lab coordinator Michael Lopez and Dr. Robert Ackerman, an associate professor, also are co-authors, along with Dr. Alyson Abel, a recent Callier Center postdoctoral fellow who is an assistant professor at San Diego State University.


  4. Study suggests reading information aloud to yourself improves memory of materials

    December 9, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Waterloo press release:

    You are more likely to remember something if you read it out loud, a study from the University of Waterloo has found.

    A recent Waterloo study found that speaking text aloud helps to get words into long-term memory. Dubbed the “production effect,” the study determined that it is the dual action of speaking and hearing oneself that has the most beneficial impact on memory.

    “This study confirms that learning and memory benefit from active involvement,” said Colin M. MacLeod, a professor and chair of the Department of Psychology at Waterloo, who co-authored the study with the lead author, post-doctoral fellow Noah Forrin. “When we add an active measure or a production element to a word, that word becomes more distinct in long-term memory, and hence more memorable.”

    The study tested four methods for learning written information, including reading silently, hearing someone else read, listening to a recording of oneself reading, and reading aloud in real time. Results from tests with 95 participants showed that the production effect of reading information aloud to yourself resulted in the best remembering.

    “When we consider the practical applications of this research, I think of seniors who are advised to do puzzles and crosswords to help strengthen their memory,” said MacLeod. “This study suggests that the idea of action or activity also improves memory.

    “And we know that regular exercise and movement are also strong building blocks for a good memory.”

    This research builds on previous studies by MacLeod, Forrin, and colleagues that measure the production effect of activities, such as writing and typing words, in enhancing overall memory retention.

    This latest study shows that part of the memory benefit of speech stems from it being personal and self-referential.

    The study was recently published in the journal Memory.


  5. Study suggests preschool program helps boost skills necessary for academic achievement

    December 6, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Penn State press release:

    Children growing up in poverty face many challenges, but a preschool program that aims to improve social and emotional skills may help increase their focus and improve learning in the classroom, according to researchers.

    Researchers observed two groups of children from preschool through third grade. One group participated in the Head Start REDI (Research-based, Developmentally Informed) program and the other did not. Each year, the researchers measured the students’ executive function (EF) — skills that help children focus, control their impulses, remember details, and other skills essential in the classroom.

    Karen Bierman, Penn State Evan Pugh Professor of Psychology, said that while most children seemed to benefit from the REDI program, it was the children that started out with the lowest executive function that benefited the most.

    “We saw a bit of an improvement in EF skills after REDI ended at the end of preschool, but the bigger effects emerged over time in the children that started out with lower EF,” Bierman said. “We think that the social and emotional skills they built in the program boosted the EF in this group of kids, which in turn helped them engage in the classroom and benefit cognitively.”

    The researchers — who published their findings in the journal Psychological Science — said executive function skills are critical for all students, but they tend to be lower in children that grow up in poverty. Bierman said that if students are low in executive function and can’t regulate their behavior in the classroom and focus on their schoolwork, it’s hard for them to learn.

    “Some people describe executive functions as the neural architecture for learning,” Bierman said. “They help you organize and focus your attention, support your working memory, and promote your self-control. They help you stop and think through something. EF is governed by the prefrontal cortex, which grows very rapidly during the preschool years. So preschool is a great opportunity to work on these skills.”

    The REDI program was developed at Penn State as a way to build upon the existing Head Start program, which provides preschool education to low-income children. The REDI program aims to improve social and emotional skills, as well as early literacy and listening skills, by incorporating stories, puppets and other activities that introduce concepts like understanding feelings, cooperation, friendship skills and self-control skills.

    The researchers suggested that REDI’s focus on these skills would also help strengthen executive function. They recruited 356 children for the study, with 192 participating in the REDI program and 164 participating in a traditional Head Start curriculum.

    As the children moved from preschool through third grade, the researchers checked in each year and measured executive function and academic performance. In addition to comparing the REDI students to the control group, they also noted the differences in children that started with high, medium and low executive function within the REDI program.

    After analyzing the data from all five years and across all groups, the researchers found that the children in the low executive function group showed more growth in EF than the control group. The researchers also saw better reading fluency and language arts and math performance in the third grade in the lower executive function group compared to the control group.

    “We saw that this enriched preschool intervention can really have long-term academic benefits, especially, in this case, for kids who were at highest risk for having school difficulties because of their low executive function,” Bierman said. “The greatest benefits for the larger group of children were in the area of social and behavioral adjustment when they moved into elementary school. And for the kids with lower executive function, we also saw improved academic skills.”

    Bierman said she believes that boosting executive function in the kids that needed it most, gave them the skills to participate and focus in the classroom.

    In the future, the researchers said they want to continue following the children in the study as they move into middle and high school to continue measuring the lasting effects of the REDI program.

     


  6. Neurobiology: The chemistry of memory

    December 4, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet Muenchen (LMU) press release:

    Learning requires the chemical adaptation of individual synapses. Researchers have now revealed the impact of an RNA-binding protein that is intimately involved in this process on learning and memory formation and learning processes.

    The formation of memories requires subtle changes in brain structures. This is because learning and memory are the result of the incessant modification of synapses — which provide the functional connections that enable nerve cells to communicate with one another. The long-term molecular alterations involved in this process are encoded by so-called messenger RNAs, which are produced in the nucleus of the neuron and must be transported to the appropriate synapses in order to program the synthesis of specific proteins “on-site.” In previous studies, LMU scientist Michael Kiebler has shown that the RNA-binding protein Staufen2 plays an essential role in conveying these mRNAs to their destinations. But exactly how this molecular process actually affects learning and behavior was not well understood. Now, a study carried out by the Kiebler group, in collaboration with Dusan Bartsch (Mannheim University) and Spanish colleagues (Seville University), has shed new light on this issue. The new work shows, for the first time, that reduced levels of Staufen2 are associated with a specific impairment of memory. The findings appear in the journal Genome Biology.

    The researchers made use of a genetic rat model that has been developed and refined over the past decade, in which the synthesis of Staufen2 can be conditionally and selectively suppressed in nerve cells in the forebrain. They then characterized the effects of reduced levels of Staufen2 protein on memory using behavioral tests that measure the efficacy of spatial, temporal and associative memory. These tasks are known to depend on synaptic plasticity, i.e. the ability to actively adjust the efficiency of communication between specific synaptic networks, in the hippocampus. The results clearly show that the reduction of Staufen2 in the forebrain has a negative impact on several aspects of memory. “Overall, long-term memory continues to function, and the rats remain capable of learning how to find a food source, for instance” — Kiebler says — “but when the mutants are asked to recall what they have learned after longer periods of time, their performance is significantly worse than wild-type animals.”

    Depletion of Staufen2 also has a marked effect on nerve-cell morphology and synapse function. With the aid of electrophysiological measurements, the authors analyzed the efficiency of signal transmission across synapses in the hippocampus, and found that both long-term potentiation (LTP) and long-term depression (LTD) are affected. LTP is a mechanism that results in a long-lasting increase in the efficiency of synaptic transmission, and thus strengthens the functional connections between them. LTD, on the other hand, diminishes transmission efficacies, and effectively disconnects previously established connections. Strikingly, reduced levels of Staufen2 enhance LTP, while they impair LTD. These findings suggest that deficiency of Staufen2 makes synapses more responsive than they would otherwise be. “LTP is regarded as a model of learning at the cellular level. However, our results indicate that it is actually the balance of LTP to LTD that is important. This is clearly perturbed in the absence of Staufen2,” Kiebler points out. The researchers therefore assume that, under these circumstances, synapses become highly responsive, and not enough are repressed. This could imply that information which is normally consolidated in long-term memory is prematurely destabilized or perhaps even wiped out. “This work has enabled us, for the first time, to link a specific molecular factor — the RNA-binding protein Staufen2 — with synaptic plasticity and learning,” Kiebler says. “Furthermore, our approach promises to yield completely new insights into the molecular mechanisms that mediate learning.”


  7. Noninvasive brain imaging shows readiness of trainees to perform operations

    November 27, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute press release:

    While simulation platforms have been used to train surgeons before they enter an actual operating room (OR), few studies have evaluated how well trainees transfer those skills from the simulator to the OR. Now, a study led by Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute that used noninvasive brain imaging to evaluate brain activity has found that simulator-trained medical students successfully transferred those skills to operating on cadavers and were faster than peers who had no simulator training.

    The study, led by Suvranu De, the J. Erik Jonsson ’22 Distinguished Professor of Engineering and head of the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Nuclear Engineering; and Xavier Intes, professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and director of the Functional & Molecular Optical Imaging Laboratory; along with Arun Nemani, M.S., a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the first author on the study, evaluated the surgical proficiency of 19 medical students, six of whom practiced cutting tasks on a physical simulator, eight of whom practiced on a virtual simulator, and five of whom had no practice. Last month, study results were presented at the American College of Surgeons Clinical Congress 2017.

    “We plan on using these study findings to create robust machine learning-based models that can accurately classify trainees into successfully and unsuccessfully trained candidates using functional brain activation,” said Nemani.

    The medical students who practiced on the physical simulator completed the task in an average of 7.9 minutes with a deviation (±) of 3.3 minutes. Those who used the virtual stimulator did the task in 13.05 minutes (±2.6 minutes) vs. an average of 15.5 minutes (±5.6 minutes) for the group that had no practice (p<0.05).

    Brain imaging measured activity in the primary motor cortex, located in the frontal lobe. The researchers found that the simulator groups had significantly higher cortical activity than the group that had no training.

    “By showing that trained subjects have increased activity in the primary motor cortex when performing surgical tasks when compared to untrained subjects, our noninvasive brain imaging approach can accurately determine surgical motor skill transfer from simulation to ex-vivo environments,” Nemani said.

    “This is a significant leap in the use of noninvasive brain imaging technology to quantify human motor skills and represents a paradigm shift in which surgeons and other medical professionals may be certified and credentialed one day,” said Suvranu De, who also serves as Nemani’s faculty adviser. The research builds on the long history of the Center for Modeling, Simulation and Imaging in Medicine (CeMSIM) in advancing patient care through cutting-edge research and innovation.”

    “These results demonstrate that optical neuroimaging provides quantitative and standardized metrics for assessing surgical skills acquisition and expertise,” said Intes. “Hence, optical neuroimaging is uniquely positioned to play a central role in developing tailored surgical training programs for optimal skill acquisition and retention assessment, as well as for facilitating bimanual skill-based professional certifications.”

    The researchers believe this study is the first one to show clear functional changes that transfer into surgical skill in individuals who had simulator training. “This work addresses underlying neurological responses to increased motor skill training that is often missing in current surgical simulator literature,” Nemani said.

    According to the researchers of this study, objectively determining if a surgeon in training has achieved the motor skills necessary to perform surgery before actually doing surgery in the OR is crucial. “Brain function-based metrics, which do not depend on subjective or inaccurate task performance metrics, may bring significantly more objectivity in surgical skill transfer assessment,” Nemani said.

    This study underscores the value of simulation and pre-planning operations by objectively showing functional changes in brain activity as surgeons learn new skills. “Now, we can quantify changes in brain activation as trainees master surgical tasks on a simulator and transfer to more clinically relevant environments,” Nemani said.

    “This work highlights the power and impact of multidisciplinary collaboration at the interface of engineering, biomedical sciences, and computation,” said Shekhar Garde, dean of the School of Engineering at Rensselaer. “I sense that these results on connecting and measuring brain activity to fine motor skills are only the beginning, with many more diverse applications to come that will improve health care, human health and fitness, and quality of life for the global population.”

    The multidisciplinary, collaborative team comprised of researchers from Rensselaer, Harvard University, and the University at Buffalo is enabled by the vision of The New Polytechnic, an emerging paradigm for higher education which recognizes that global challenges and opportunities are so great they cannot be adequately addressed by even the most talented person working alone. Rensselaer serves as a crossroads for collaboration — working with partners across disciplines, sectors, and geographic regions — to address complex global challenges, using the most advanced tools and technologies, many of which are developed at Rensselaer. Research at Rensselaer addresses some of the world’s most pressing technological challenges — from energy security and sustainable development to biotechnology and human health. The New Polytechnic is transformative in the global impact of research, in its innovative pedagogy, and in the lives of students at Rensselaer.

    Future research will expand to include other cortical areas associated with motor skill learning, such as the prefrontal cortex and supplementary motor areas, according to Nemani. “These next steps will help provide a comprehensive map on functional changes within the brain as surgical motor skill increases,” he concluded.


  8. Study suggests consuming nuts strengthens brainwave function

    November 25, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Loma Linda University Adventist Health Sciences Center press release:

    A new study by researchers at Loma Linda University Health has found that eating nuts on a regular basis strengthens brainwave frequencies associated with cognition, healing, learning, memory and other key brain functions. An abstract of the study — which was presented in the nutrition section of the Experimental Biology 2017 meetings in San Diego, California, and published in the FASEB Journal.

    In the study titled “Nuts and brain: Effects of eating nuts on changing electroencephalograph brainwaves,” researchers found that some nuts stimulated some brain frequencies more than others. Pistachios, for instance, produced the greatest gamma wave response, which is critical for enhancing cognitive processing, information retention, learning, perception and rapid eye movement during sleep. Peanuts, which are actually legumes, but were still part of the study, produced the highest delta response, which is associated with healthy immunity, natural healing, and deep sleep.

    The study’s principal investigator, Lee Berk, DrPH, MPH, associate dean for research at the LLU School of Allied Health Professions, said that while researchers found variances between the six nut varieties tested, all of them were high in beneficial antioxidants, with walnuts containing the highest antioxidant concentrations of all.

    Prior studies have demonstrated that nuts benefit the body in several significant ways: protecting the heart, fighting cancer, reducing inflammation and slowing the aging process. But Berk said he believes too little research has focused on how they affect the brain.

    “This study provides significant beneficial findings by demonstrating that nuts are as good for your brain as they are for the rest of your body,” Berk said, adding that he expects future studies will reveal that they make other contributions to the brain and nervous system as well.

    Berk — who is best known for four decades of research into the health benefits of happiness and laughter, as well as a cluster of recent studies on the antioxidants in dark chocolate — assembled a team of 13 researchers to explore the effects of regular nut consumption on brainwave activity.

    The team developed a pilot study using consenting subjects who consumed almonds, cashews, peanuts, pecans, pistachios and walnuts. Electroencephalograms (EEG) were taken to measure the strength of brainwave signals. EEG wave band activity was then recorded from nine regions of the scalp associated with cerebral cortical function.


  9. Study suggests intentional teaching makes the biggest impact on early childhood outcomes

    by Ashley

    From the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute press release:

    A comprehensive review of research on several measures of the quality of early childhood education suggests that the instructional practices of preschool teachers have the largest impact on young children’s academic and social skills. The review helps untangle a complicated knot of factors that affect young children.

    “High quality preschool is one of the most effective means of preparing all children to succeed in school,” said Margaret Burchinal, senior research scientist at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute (FPG) at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “However, this review of research indicates the need to expand our definitions of quality.”

    Burchinal said her review of the science suggests the field should continue to measure the quality of relationships of preschool teachers and children, especially the sensitivity and warmth of the teachers. In addition, the review suggests factors such as the levels of education of program directors and teachers and the teacher-child ratio also influence outcomes.

    However, the areas with the strongest connection to beneficial results for young children involve what teachers teach and how they teach it.

    “The largest effects on child outcomes involve curricula,” Burchinal explained. “Some of the biggest impacts on literacy, math, and other skills involved curricula focused on those specific skills with accompanying coaching or training for teachers.”

    According to Burchinal, many of the most effective curricula incorporate planned, engaging activities for preschoolers, with a schedule of lessons and activities in a variety of learning settings. Effective learning opportunities often include some whole group instruction and more time in small groups, learning centers, and computer work.

    Burchinal also said the research shows that the teaching practice of “scaffolding” brings big benefits. “Scaffolding occurs when the adult caregiver talks with and models a learning activity for the child, making the activity fun through conversation that builds on and extends the child’s interest and knowledge about the world.”

    Some of the largest impacts on children’s outcomes have arisen from the strongest pre-kindergarten programs, Burchinal added. These programs show even larger impacts for dual-language learners and for children from low-income families.

    “These prekindergarten impacts are larger than impacts from traditionally-measured dimensions of quality,” Burchinal said. “This is further evidence that more focus on scaffolding and intentional teaching is needed.”

    Burchinal pointed to FPG’s Abecedarian Project as an example of a program that combined intentional teaching with warmth and sensitivity. The project used an intensive, language-driven approach that involved teacher scaffolding of activity-based learning to build children’s knowledge base and language skills. The center-based, birth-to-5 program for children from low-income homes famously contributed to better cognitive, socio-emotional, and physical health outcomes that have persisted for decades.

    Burchinal’s new review of research includes several studies based in the United States and other countries. “Measuring Early Care and Education” appears in “Child Development Perspectives,” which the Society for Research in Child Development publishes.

    “As we think about the components of high-quality early childhood education, our policies and practices can reflect what this research tells us,” she said. “Ideally, our new models of quality will encompass evidence-based curricula and intentional teaching within content areas, as well as professional development that focuses on the teaching practices that promote the skills young children need to succeed in school.”


  10. Study suggests engaging children in math at home equals a boost in more than just math skills

    November 23, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Purdue University press release:

    Preschool children who engage in math activities at home with their parents not only improve their math skills, but also their general vocabulary, according to research from Purdue University.

    “Exposure to basic numbers and math concepts at home were predictive, even more so than storybook reading or other literacy-rich interactions, of improving preschool children’s general vocabulary,” said Amy Napoli, a doctoral student in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies who led the study. “And one of the reasons we think this could be is the dialogue that happens when parents are teaching their children about math and asking questions about values and comparisons, which helps these young children improve their oral language skills.”

    The findings are published online in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology.

    “It’s never too early to talk about numbers and quantities. One of the first words young children learn is ‘more,'” said David Purpura, an assistant professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies, and senior author of the study.

    There are a number of ways parents can encourage math learning at home, such as talking about counting, connecting numbers to quantities and comparing values — more and less. It also helps to focus on counting as purposeful, such as “there are three cookies for a snack” rather than “there are cookies for a snack.”

    “This focus on math typically isn’t happening at home, but this shows that when parents do include math concepts it can make a difference,” said Napoli, who is working on tools to help parents improve math-related instruction at home. “When working with families, there is a math-related anxiety aspect and that is probably why more parents focus on literacy than on math. But, if you can count, then you can teach something to your child.”

    This study evaluated 116 preschool children, ages 3-5. The researchers assessed the children’s math and language skills in the fall and spring of the preschool year and examined how what their parents reported about math and literacy activities at home predicted children’s improvement over time. Napoli and Purpura do caution that these findings are only correlational and the future experimental work is needed to evaluate the causal nature of these findings. This research is ongoing work supported by Purdue’s Department of Human Development and Family Studies.