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Remembering Jeanne Chall

September 3, 2014

Jeanne_Chall_smallTeacher. Researcher. Phonics Champion.

As the new school year begins, and my kids head back to the classroom, I find myself thinking about my own education and some of the teachers who had an impact in my life or work. I was lucky; there were a number of them. Most are not well-known, but they were great influencers nonetheless. And I owe them a lot.

Today, I’d like to pass along a brief bio of Jeanne Chall, taken from the history page of the Jeanne Chall Reading Laboratory at Harvard. I was fortunate to have spent many quality hours under her tutelage, in the classroom and at the lab, and was among the last of her students at the Ed School. She retired the year after I earned my degree. She died in 1999.

Jeanne was smart, no-nonsense, and very astute about… well, about most things. She drove some of the students mad with her intolerance of the whole-language vs. phonics approach debate. She firmly believed in the power of systematic phonics instruction and early intervention for basic skills; that decoding facility is what allows readers to develop higher level strategies to read for meaning — a natural next-step for fluent decoders, which relies strongly on vocabulary knowledge. She was not a fan of trends or anecdotal evidence and expected us to base our practice methodologies on proven approaches.

She was, however, a proponent of television and other media as a tool to teach skills and expand word knowledge, which I appreciated. She was an advocate for educationally underserved populations and the potential that technology has to reach them. And she was considerate and patient with her students (although you were smart to leave the methods war outside the door), and said nice things about my writing, too, which I also appreciated. 🙂 I think she would have been very excited to see how far interactive technologies have come, as teaching tools.

If you’d like to learn more about Dr. Chall, you can start here.

Smart Animal Log: Chimp’s Intelligence, Like Human’s, Is 50% Genetic

July 30, 2014

chimp familyFor Chimps, Social Skills and Spatial Understanding Run in the Family

FROM NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC NEWS (Virginia Hughes): “Chimpanzees and other great apes are known for their intelligence… But just as for humans, cognitive abilities vary from one animal to the next. Now, in one of the largest studies ever conducted on chimp cognition, researchers report that those individual differences are due in no small part to genetic makeup.”

I do seem to be on a “smart animal” roll, lately. Forgive me.

This is an interesting article and more evidence “that animals are not passive machines but rather are sharp, active thinkers.” (Just like kids!) It also discusses the relationship between nature and nurture when it comes to how smart chimps — and taking other mitigating factors into account, we — are likely to be. The study appears in the most recent issue of Current Biology.

You can read the National Geographic article here.

Language May Have Evolved With Help From Other Species

June 30, 2014
Illustration by Christine Daniloff/MIT

Illustration by Christine Daniloff/MIT

Human Language’s Deep Origins Appear to Have Come Directly from Birds and Primates

Miyagawa and his co-authors think that some apparently infinite qualities of modern human language, when reanalyzed, actually display the finite qualities of languages of other animals — meaning that human communication is more similar to that of other animals than we generally realized.

FROM SCIENCE DAILY (June 11, 2014): “‘Yes, human language is unique, but if you take it apart in the right way, the two parts we identify are in fact of a finite state,” Miyagawa says. “Those two components have antecedents in the animal world. According to our hypothesis, they came together uniquely in human language.'”

Introducing the Integration Hypothesis, in which humans combined the expression of the birds with the logic of other primates to produce language that is uniquely (but not completely) human.

This article, produced with information provided by MIT, gives an overview of research into the origins of human language that was done by Shigeru Miyagawa, the Kochi-Manjiro Professor of Japanese Language and Culture at MIT, Robert Berwick, a professor of computational linguistics and computer science and engineering in MIT’s Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems; and Shiro Ojima and Kazuo Okanoya, scholars at the University of Tokyo. The resulting paper was recently published in Psychology Today.

“The paper’s conclusions build on past work by Miyagawa, which holds that human language consists of two distinct layers: the expressive layer, which relates to the mutable structure of sentences, and the lexical layer, where the core content of a sentence resides. That idea, in turn, is based on previous work by linguistics scholars including Noam Chomsky, Kenneth Hale, and Samuel Jay Keyser.”

Interesting stuff. You can read the article here.

Smart Animal Log: Yes, That Crow IS Looking at You

May 30, 2014


Be Nice to Crows, Unless You Want Wild, Grudge-Bearing Animals on Your Case

FROM NEW SCIENTIST (Bob Holmes): “Wild crows can recognise individual human faces and hold a grudge for years against people who have treated them badly. This ability – which may also exist in other wild animals – highlights how carefully some animals monitor the humans with whom they share living space.”

I love crows. They’re smart, quick learners, social, calculating, and surprisingly acquiescent. I’ve seen them back away from a meal in progress when a squirrel approaches, for heaven’s sake… the chickens. I always felt that the crows who learned that my backyard and winter handouts of stale bread were safe, also learned to know me a little, but I had no idea that their face recognition ability and memory were so good. According to the research carried out by animal behaviorists at UW Seattle, they not only recognize and remember their foes, they pass this knowledge on to one another. It’s probably a good thing to be their friend.

You can see a video and read about the study here.

A Case for Unplugged Schools

March 30, 2013

Children MeetingSchools Can Address Society’s Ills by Offsetting Digital Connections With Deeply Human Ones 

FROM ORION (Lowell Monke):”In a society in which adults so commonly treat each other mechanically, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that our youth are more attracted to machines. It seems to me that in such a society one task of schools would be to stress the kind of deeply caring, fully present, and wholly human interaction that long ago disappeared from ordinary public life and is now rapidly evaporating from private experience as well. By helping our youth become good at and appreciate the value of profound human engagement, we may help cool the attraction to mediated experiences …”

A call for contrarian action, this is another good piece by Lowell Monke that explores the developmental role of schools, society, and technology in childrens’ lives. You can read the article here.

The Problem With Technology

September 30, 2012

computer-laptop-boyI didn’t want to like this essay, but I did.

FROM ORION (Lowell Monke): “To develop normally, any child needs to learn to exert some control over her environment. But the control computers offer children is deceptive, and ultimately dangerous. In the first place, any control children obtain comes at a price: relinquishing the uniquely imaginative and often irrational thought processes that mark childhood. Keep in mind that a computer always has a hidden pedagogue—the programmer—who designed the software and invisibly controls the options available to students at every step of the way.”

I delved into this article half-heartedly, prepared to confront a stale and luddite treatise on “the problem with the world today.” I should have known better. Lowell Monke offers a well argued and thought provoking essay on the nature of children’s’ social and intellectual development and its relationship to the world around them, and how technology (currently) interferes with important processes that children use to learn about themselves, the nature of the world, and how to connect to place and people. I didn’t want to agree with him, but I found that I did — and realized that, as much as I love technology, I spend a lot of energy mitigating its influence on my own childrens’ development. There are many good takeaways from this piece and I recommend it.

You can read the article here.

Smart Animal Log: Why I Don’t Eat Octopus

February 14, 2012

Photograph: Brandon Cole

A Deep Intelligence Lies Inside the Mind of the Octopus

FROM ORION (Sy Montgomery): “Only recently have scientists accorded chimpanzees, so closely related to humans we can share blood transfusions, the dignity of having a mind. But now, increasingly, researchers who study octopuses are convinced that these boneless, alien animals—creatures whose ancestors diverged from the lineage that would lead to ours roughly 500 to 700 million years ago—have developed intelligence, emotions, and individual personalities. Their findings are challenging our understanding of consciousness itself.”

This is a beautifully written and compelling article by Sy Montgomery. He allows us to shadow his encounter with Athena, a giant pacific octopus, and eavesdrop on his conversations with animal behaviorists who study these complex creatures and have jaw dropping tales to tell. Much more than a report on octopus intelligence, this piece offers a window into a whole other realm of life of earth — and a philosophical exploration of the concept of mind. Truly awe inspiring.

Read the article here.