Friday, December 16, 2005

Some thoughts about learning and literacy

Bad news for proponents of bilingual education from today's New York Times:

"The same period saw big declines in Hispanics' English reading skills. In 1992, 35 percent of Hispanics demonstrated "below basic" English literacy, but by 2003 that segment had swelled to 44 percent. And at the higher-performing end of the literacy scale, the proportion of Hispanics demonstrating intermediate or proficient English skills dropped to 27 percent from 33 percent in 1992.

"These are big shifts," said Mark Schneider, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, the arm of the Department of Education that gave the test.

"The Hispanic population in 2003 is radically different than in 1992, and many of the factors that have changed for Spanish-language immigrants make learning English more difficult," Mr. Schneider said. "They are arriving later, staying in the U.S. for a shorter period, and fewer are speaking English at home."

The story also reports that literacy proficiency rates rose for blacks and Asians but fewer than 1/3 of 26.4 college graduates were proficient readers.

Another NYT story from yesterday: Children Learn by Monkey See, Monkey Do. Chimps Don't. I'm not sure I agree with the conclusions the researcher draws, though.

"Mr. Lyons sees his results as evidence that humans are hard-wired to learn by imitation, even when that is clearly not the best way to learn. If he is right, this represents a big evolutionary change from our ape ancestors. Other primates are bad at imitation. When they watch another primate doing something, they seem to focus on what its goals are and ignore its actions.

As human ancestors began to make complicated tools, figuring out goals might not have been good enough anymore. Hominids needed a way to register automatically what other hominids did, even if they didn't understand the intentions behind them. They needed to imitate.

Not long ago, many psychologists thought that imitation was a simple, primitive action compared with figuring out the intentions of others. But that is changing. "Maybe imitation is a lot more sophisticated than people thought," Mr. Lyons said."

The author's daughter was recruited for this study through a note in her cubby at preschool, so the researchers were selecting for kids who were schooled. At her first testing session, the girl behaved like the chimp did, i.e. goal-based. It was at the second testing session several months later that she over-imitated. Makes me wonder if this is an effect of school, rather than genes. Most curricula are based on demonstration--"this is how you divide 365 by 12, do it the same way I did"--so it seems possible that she had been socialized to overimitate rather than trust her instincts to solve the puzzle and achieve her goal. Just a thought.

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