Babies Can’t Read

Evidence that a growing segment of baby products may be made by hucksters:

Targeted to children as young as 3 months old, there is a growing number of baby media products that claim to teach babies to read. This randomized controlled trial was designed to examine this claim by investigating the effects of a best-selling baby media product on reading development. One hundred and seventeen infants, ages 9 to 18 months, were randomly assigned to treatment and control groups. Children in the treatment condition received the baby media product, which included DVDs, word and picture flashcards, and word books to be used daily over a 7-month period; children in the control condition, business as usual. Examining a 4-phase developmental model of reading, we examined both precursor skills (such as letter name, letter sound knowledge, print awareness, and decoding) and conventional reading (vocabulary and comprehension) using a series of eye-tracking tasks and standardized measures. Results indicated that babies did not learn to read using baby media, despite some parents displaying great confidence in the program’s effectiveness.

And speaking of products with false claims, USC Morgan Polikoff is beginning to unleash his research on the meaningless practice of calling a textbook “Common Core Aligned.”

Publishers are marketing all kinds of new textbooks they say align with the Common Core standards.

In reality, “they do not look that different from the previous versions,” said Morgan Polikoff, an associate professor at the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California.

In a study debuted last weekend at an Education Writers Association conference in Los Angeles, Polikoff analyzed three “Common-Core aligned” fourth-grade math textbooks adopted in Florida and one commonly used textbook that is not aligned to any particular standards.

He found that 15 to 20 percent of textbooks cover topics outside the Common Core standards, while 10 to 15 percent of the standards are not reflected in the texts.

In the long run, this probably isn’t a big deal, but over the next few years it’s going to be a big pain to get this right.


The Imaginary Diversity of College Recruitment Brochures

No big surprise here:

This study examined one aspect of the marketing of colleges by examining the portrayal of racial and ethnic diversity. Through a content analysis of over 10,000 photographs from 165 four-year institutions in the US, the accuracy of the photographic portrayal of diversity in recruitment materials was assessed. Findings indicate that the majority of institutions provided images of diversity to prospective students in 2011 that were significantly different than the actual student body. Furthermore, diversity was typically symbolized by portraying African American students at higher rates rather than presenting a more representative student body.

Stereotype Threat For Men?

Female role models that counter negative stereotypes (e.g. a female physicist) can help protect female students from the threat of confirming a negative stereotype (girls are bad at math). But what if those role models express having had some doubts about their ability?

A new study led by San Diego State’s David Marx proposes that when positive female role models express doubts it can mitigate their positive impact. Furthermore, Marx and his team believed that the opposite would happen with men. Because men are more likely to feel threatened by not living up to the expectations of a positive academic stereotype (rather than confirming a negative stereotype), a doubtful male role model might help alleviate some of the pressure of those expectations.

As predicted, doubtful female role models increased threat for females, while doubtful male role models decreased threat for males.

Past work has shown that female role models are effective buffers against stereotype threat. The present research examines the boundary conditions of this role model effect. Specifically, we argue that female role models should avoid expressing doubt about their math abilities; otherwise they may cease to buffer women from stereotype threat. For men, a non-doubtful male role model should be seen as threatening, thus harming performance. A doubtful male role model, however, should be seen as non-threatening, thus allowing men to perform up to their ability in math. To test this reasoning, men and women were exposed to either an outgroup or ingroup role model who either expressed doubt or did not. Participants then took a math exam under stereotype threat conditions. As expected, doubtful ingroup role models hurt women, but helped men’s performance. Outgroup role models’ expressed doubt had no differential effect on performance. We also show that expressions of doubt take on a different meaning when expressed by a female rather than a male role model.

The broader lesson is that over the course of many years the way students think about academic expectations and social and cultural norms can have an enormous impact. It’s not only important to focus on what students are learning and how they’re learning it, but on how they think about those things in the broader context of their lives.

The Joys Of Multi-Culturalism

A new paper from William Maddux of INSEAD:

A longitudinal study found that the psychological approach individuals take when immersed in a general multicultural environment can predict subsequent career success. Using a culturally diverse sample, we found that “multicultural engagement”—the extent to which students adapted to and learned about new cultures—during a highly international 10-month master of business administration (MBA) program predicted the number of job offers students received after the program, even when controlling for important personality/demographic variables. Furthermore, multicultural engagement predicted an increase in integrative complexity over the course of the 10-month program, and this increase in integrative complexity mediated the effect of multicultural engagement on job market success. This study demonstrates that even when individuals are exposed to the same multicultural environment, it is their psychological approach and engagement with different cultures that determines growth in integrative complexity and tangible increases in professional opportunities.

Clickity Click

If you haven’t seen them, I’ve got two new articles floating around the internet. The first, at Pacific Standard, looks at new research on economic performance and risk aversion that suggests most Congressmen will get reelected even though American’s say they hate Congress.

The implication is somewhat depressing. If politicians allow the economy to deteriorate, the resulting increase in risk aversion could make many voters more likely to support delinquent incumbents. That’s not to say sabotage is a good electoral strategy. Job and income growth will always be the most important factors. But it would seem that regardless of performance, the economy mitigates its own impact on the election by altering the level of risk aversion in society. When the economy is strong, lower risk aversion harms incumbents. When the economy is weak, higher risk aversion helps incumbents. Given that we’re still waiting for a true economic recovery, incumbents ought to get another boost in 2014.

Read the whole thing!

The second article is on new research that suggests personalizing questions based on student interest can have a positive impact.

The study dovetails nicely with work done by Na’ilah Suad Nasir and Carol Lee on the importance of embedding learning in culturally relevant contexts. The type of personalization in Walkington’s experiment was rudimentary compared to that found in the work of Nasir–who examined mathematical thinking during games of dominoes–and Lee–who investigated the impact of culturally relevant literature on literacy. Still, Walkington’s findings support the idea that there’s more to learning than the bare bones structure of a lesson, and perhaps more importantly, that technology can be used as a means to add on to that structure.

Read on.

One More Reason to Not Let Your Kids Watch TV

“Theory of Mind” (ToM) is the term psychologists use to describe the ability to interpret the distinct mental states of others. The knowledge that each person’s head contains a unique conception of the world is the first step toward understanding what others want and feel.

Developing ToM is an important part of childhood. It’s what allows kids to get along with others and make sense of the world around them. An improved theory of mind among adults could ultimately lead to less conflict and a society better geared toward improving human welfare.

What helps and hinders the development of Theory of Mind? A 2009 study (pdf) led by York University’s Raymond Mar suggests that books and movies may help, but that television does not. And that’s the rosy view of television. A new study led by Ohio State’s Amy Nathanson suggests that television is detrimental to ToM development. 

This study explored the relation between preschoolers’ television exposure and one important indicator of cognitive processing called theory of mind (ToM). A total of 107 preschoolers and their parents provided data on the preschoolers’ television exposure (including both intentional viewing and exposure via background television), parent–child discussion of television, and preschoolers’ ToM. The results indicated that preschoolers who were exposed to more background television and who had a television in their bedroom performed more poorly on ToM assessments compared with other children. Parent–child discussion of television was positively related to ToM performance, however. These results have implications for how we understand the effects of television on preschoolers.

The study is largely correlational, so there’s still a question of causality. Perhaps a lack of social interaction in the family — the kind that might help with ToM development — drives kids to watch more TV. It’s also possible that kids with a less-developed ToM tend to be drawn to television. But the most likely explanation is that when young children watch TV they don’t develop an understanding of how other people think to the extent that they do when they interact with actual people.

A lot is written about the dangers of modern media, but much of the criticism tends to focus on how communication platforms like Twitter and Facebook dumb us down. While this is a serious concern — one that Neil Postman was somehow able to foresee with regard to television nearly 30 years ago —  I think a less-publicized and perhaps more serious threat is that human interaction will be replaced by inferior alternatives.

When two people choose to have an argument over Twitter rather than publishing competing essays or engaging in face-to-face debate, the dialogue may be less fruitful, but at least there is authentic human interaction. With that comes certain emotions and thoughts — for example, what the other person is thinking —  that can be stored for later use. But if people fulfill their need for cognitive and emotional arousal by observing fictional television characters rather than engaging in human interaction, the result may be less positive cognitive development. It’s the equivalent of getting calories from candy rather than through real food.

Nathanson’s study is just one data point, but in general the less you do something the worse you’re going to be at it. If we allow Netflix to start filling cognitive or emotional needs that social interactions used to fill, people will probably get worse at optimizing social interactions.
Nathanson, A.I., Sharp, M.L., Alade, F., Rasmussen, E.E., & Christy, K. (2013). The Relation Between Television Exposure and Theory of Mind Among Preschoolers Journal of Communication DOI: 10.1111/jcom.12062

Solving College Mismatch By Instilling a Sense of Competence

My latest piece for Pacific Standard looks at how perceptions of competence can lead to better college enrollment outcomes. The backstory is that research has shown that high-achieving low-income students often fail to apply to selective colleges. A recent paper by Caroline Hoxby found that sending them information packets about their options can help solve the problem, but one unexplored issue is how students are affected by the massive amount of choice involved in the college application process. My article focuses is on new research by Erika Patall that suggests choice can be de-motivating if it’s not accompanied by a feeling of competence:

Across the experiments results suggested that when participants felt competent, choice increased motivation relative to situations with no choice. However, when participants did not feel competent, choice decreased motivation and had a negative impact on future intentions to engage in the activity. It would appear that without a feeling of competence, the presence of choice can drive people away from a given task.


Hoxby’s information packets are seen as useful because they make students aware of their options. Patall’s study shows that it’s also possible the packets help because they raise feelings of competence, thereby motivating students to dedicate more time and effort to the college application process. The takeaway is that organizations attempting to improve student-college matches should consider emphasizing the message that students are fully capable of conquering the process. It’s good to give people information about choices, but it’s better to also ensure that the information instills a sense of competence.

Read the whole thing!

The broader point is that the impact of education goes beyond simply knowing a new fragment of information. Possessing more knowledge can have a slew of motivational and behavioral consequences, most of which are positive.