Archive for the ‘Psychology’ Category

Teaching the subject’s vocabulary: literacy principles applied to promote both memory of terms and concept formation.

November 6, 2018

I have worked  with children who struggled with some concepts despite having memorised the terminology for the subject.  In dealing with the problem, I changed my own approach to teaching some subject vocabulary.  This entry is an example of this approach: teaching number names (Australian Curriculum, Mathematics, Number and Algebra,Number and Place Value )  in Foundation and Year 1, to prevent problems in Year 4 and above

Remember that items grouped together in time are linked together in memory.

Remember that items grouped together by name-form are linked together in memory – and that this form linkage aids rapid learning of items within the group, particularly if the name-form is meaningfully linked to the item’s qualities.

Remember that items linked together by pattern are remembered together.

Common practise:  We can count on our fingers and thumbs, making it easy to prompt 1,2,3, … 10.  Most classroom displays go 1 to 10, 11 to 20, etc.

Problems: Where is zero?  What concept of zero are is developed, when it appears as part of “10” and “20” but not alone except in special mentions.  Where does it fit in the number name pattern? Why did the children I helped remember 10 as a single concept-shape, not splitting the 1 and 0, grouping it with 1 to 9, not 20 to 90?  Why do they jump from 49 to 60, or 47 to 58?

Zero by itself seems taboo, a scary thing with great powers not to be approached by the uninitiated.  As Gahan Wilson asked,

Alternative teaching approach:  Counting practice starts with zero : zero, 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9.

Ten is brought in with 11 to 19.  If both hands are used, 1 full set of digits and zero more (yes, it is a pun) is 10, ten; and one more, 11, eleven…

Twenty is  a word introduced with two, twin, and twice.  Twin-ty for twin tens makes sense. Then the number is “2 tens and zero left over.”  So we write the 20 group of the 10s family 20 to 29 ….  and they count 2 tens and zero left over is twenty,  twenty-one, twenty-two … twenty-nine (We have all 9, next is a 10 – how many tens now?  2+1 is 3…)   The digit form and verbal form are explicitly linked with the physical as we go (an example of manipulatives for this is below.)

Thirty is introduced with three, and third place, and twenty  –  if it ends in “ty” it is part of the tens-family

Forty follows (fourth place) and then they can guess fifty to ninety-nine.

Manipulatives emphasise  zero (none there) and limit group size to 9 objects – e.g. Linear Arithmetic “Blocks” like these:

The pieces are lengths of pipe, with washers for the smallest. 10 of the lesser are as long as 1 of the next length. The rods hold only 9 of the pieces. The organiser serves a similar purpose to the place value chart often used with MAB, holding pieces of the same size together and representing the left-right spatial arrangement of decimal numeration. (Beware – you must be looking from the front!)

Also, if there are ten or more pieces of any one size they will not fit onto the appropriate rod and so ten of them must be exchanged for a single piece of the next highest value. They can see how 100 must be written before they know the name for certain.

To emphasise the infinite nature of number, I have a very long pipe (as long as 10 of the largest) to show that the next rod would be too long for the classroom.

In later years, for introducing decimals, I also use pieces of paper to show that the next smaller rod would be too small to use in class, and then “zoom in” by introducing a blob of bluetack as the decimal point.   As multiplying / dividing by 10 “Zooms” by bluetack movement,  the place value/decimal continuity becomes clear.

I would like to see the big “Educational” display manufacturers making their posters show 0-9, 10 – 19, … and go up to 109 rather than 100.




“That Dress” : Not neuroscience, if you saw brownish and blueish … camera effect, I think.

August 13, 2015

If you remember the chatter about what colour “that dress” was, many talked of “personal perceptions” and “Brightness of environment.” None of the commentators asked the first question that I had:  What are the colours on the image on my screen?  Or the second question: What factors other than the incoming light may affect colour perceptions?  They assumed the screen image was the same as the dress, and that different perceptions were physically based and in some sense equally valid – they didn’t ask “Why do some misperceive?”

Being a bit scientific, however, I used paintshop to sample and make swatches of the colours on the web images in question and the web image of “the original.”


And got these 3 sets of colours.

that dress colours   Can you guess which is the question post and which was the “original dress” image?

Note that the neuroscience effect is noticable – the swatches may seem darker than the perceved colours on the question posts’ dress image.  But it takes talent to see the top left swatch as black.

In different parts of the images, I found different specific shades, but all in the same groupings : for example, for ” black” locations  the web image in question had hue about 30, saturation 50 to 100, and light  about 50 to 90 with  slightly higher R (110 – 140) than G and half to two thirds the B as R ; while the “the original dress” web image on the Slate for  black had saturation and light about 20 to 50 and hue about 160 to 180, with R and G  about 30 to 40 but with B slightly higher.

I think the question posts’ image had been changed by the limited capabilities of a digital camera (probably in a mobile phone.)  I wonder why none of the news reports on academics’ explanations mentioned that?  And why they didn’t mention the confounding problem of social effects on perception, well known since the 1950s (search on Asch and Conformity)  – which  adds to up to “we see what we expect to see, and we expect to see what other people say we can see.”

I think it would be interesting to do a study correlating the responses to such a colour question with personality, including personal response to social pressure.  Do those who want to be different “see” less likely suggestions?  Do conformists “see” what they are told most people see?  Do those who see purple cats (when the cats are purple) resist incorrect suggestions?

In other words, the differences may be more social science than neuroscience.


PS: good commend on fb:

Ceri Vergeltungswaffe I do disagree on one point – it does not take talent to view the top left swatch as black. It takes a poor colour display on a digital device. Or it take growing up with digital devices where “black” is really just super-low saturation and one has become used to adjusting. The subconscious process of “it’s black in context” is the same as the checkerboad “are these two squares the same” illusion.

What is normal?

January 27, 2015

This was left in a caravan park in the 1950’s, earlier provenance unknown, but the hairstyles date it.

My, how culture changes: we are no longer allowed to see the range of shapes as normal, let alone have images of them or names for them except on unsavoury internet sites. Some may object to the descriptive lables, but I think they are rather poetic.

In these days of Barbies, airbrushing, and boob-jobs it could be a valuable health-ed and art resource.  Imagine comic-books with the full range depicted…


Dismissing Freud – baby and bathwater time.

January 6, 2015

According to university student reports, Psychology students are now taught to dismiss Freud – that is, if they are even introduced to his name.  I see three problems with this,  Firstly, they lose the good bits such as  the concept of “Freudian Slips.”  Secondly, they miss the historical perspective – which can inform a properly sceptical view of current theories.  Thirdly, they miss the anthropological perspective, the link between the theories and the culture in which they were developed (for example, penis envy and castrtion fears in a society where men have social power and freedom of movement and body details are a taboo topic, what a surprise….)

The third point is a sad loss in our increasingly multicultural society:  If a woman seeks mental health support and comes of a very patriarchal and female-restricting society, would current approaches help her fit the social rôle her family expects, and would the health professionals be sufficiently aware of the problem to even consider offering culturally sensitive counselling?  I have the uncomfortable feeling that old-style Freudian would be more fitting for some groups – not just Muslim, consider and assault on non-compliant

– our underlying WEIRD cultural  assumptions will challenge these families should they migrate here.

Should people be offered the option of psychiatric help to fit in with their sub-culture’s expectations for their rôle, rather than to achieve full mental health as our culture defines it?  To what extent would a Freudian approach help?

Why I am optimistic

March 4, 2014

Many people I know are less prone to depression than I am, yet seem overall more down when they talk about the world and the people in it.

Why?  Partly  because I grew up in a politically aware household, and understood the huge changes in and from the years of my childhood.  So many people don’t seem to have paid attention, and don’t realise how much things can change in our country.  Partly because I know some deep history of places-other-than-this, so I know how much human lives have changed globally, how they can react to a changing environment, and just how amazingly NICE many people can be.

But, day to day, I find the thing that keeps me up-beat is … reading New Scientist and listening to ABC Radio National science/health programs.

Here’s an example.   New Scientist, page 18, 22 Feb 2014, “Tiny rod reels cancer cells to their death.”

So you have glioblastoma,  brain cancer cells, sitting beside some vital part of the brain that you really don’t want to lose, building up numbers and crushing something like your ability to make new memories, or to distinguish between your wife and a hat until one of them speaks.   If you cut out the cancer you may lose the ability anyway, and drugs to kill the cancer may kill you before they kill all the cancer.

So the doctors get a thin tube lined with a sneaky material, and at the top have a chemotherapy gel.  They poke the tube down into the cancer, and the cancer cells crawl up the tube and are killed with minimal disruption to your biochemistry.  Imagine saying to your cancer “Crawl off and die!”

Imagine if they put a collection chamber on the end and an access-flap in your skull, and took out live cells to analyse their weaknesses, or to prime your immune system against them.

How cool is that?  It brightened my whole day.

OK, climb trees. Now, about the rules on fighting …

January 27, 2014

Interested in , I wondered about other rules that have been, with the best of intentions, added to schools.

I know that “Saturday night is alright for a fight” was true long ago, but attacks without warning used to be “not on.”  This has changed.  And it’s not really the alcohol/ amphetamines: youths report hearing others going out deliberately NOT using the mind-altering stuffs because they want to fight better.

Pigeons in cages  may peck each other to death once they start, because they have no innate off-signal for aggression and are unable to flee.  Dogs have submission and dominance signals.  Humans have socially determined dominance and submission signals, and social rules about when to ignore them.  The later we are trained in them, the less profoundly we are constrained by them.

I have been wondering whether the increase in young adult unprovoked violence is related to the fashion for forbidding schoolyard fighting / wrestling between consenting equals.  Consider the outcomes of the rough-and-tumble:  experiencing pain; accidentally causing more damage than intended; passing on cultural rules such as “It is cowardly to attack a weak opponent” and “Don’t kick a man when he’s down;”  developing rules about “proper” ways to start a fight – and all in the years before 9 years old, the years of setting up the rules that become “just natural” in the adult mind.

Now, consider the possibility of making young boys and girls more reluctant to attack without cause and yet more resilient in the face of physical threat.  I like it.


A legend with moral authority

September 30, 2013

I am considering a question from implementing the Australian Curriculum: why and how to teach history.   (I am also breaking a half-dozen of the “rules” they teach for writing-to-the-test, because my authentic voice doesn’t fit the standard pattern.  Just saying …)

My main interest here is not the understanding that, as Hartley wrote, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”  It’s not the hope that flows from seeing the marvellous changes over time, and the thankful feeling from comparing most of the-lives-lived with our own.  (I really appreciate instantaneous hot water, vaccination, soap, and eye-glasses, for example.)  It’s not the intellectual training from asking the questions like “When does now become history?  How do we know what happened – what do historians do?” – or the surprises that brings when we find that our “history” was propaganda, as in Josephine Tey’s “Daughter of Time.”  (Worth borrowing from the library, even if you have read it – I reread it this week, and was enthused.)

It’s the creation of legends with moral authority, to give a deeper meaning to”Being Australian.”

Consider the etymology of the word:

from the delightful  legend (n.)

early 14c., “narrative dealing with a happening or an event,” from Old French legende (12c., Modern French légende) and directly from Medieval Latin legenda “legend, story,” literally “(things) to be read,” on certain days in church, etc., from Latin legendus, neuter plural gerundive of legere “to read, gather, select” (see lecture (n.)). Used originally of saints’ lives; extended sense of “nonhistorical or mythical story” first recorded late 14c. Meaning “writing or inscription” (especially on a coin or medal) is from 1610s; on a map, illustration, etc., from 1903.

As a child I came across “Van Loon’s Lives” and was entranced by the stories of truly interesting people from the past.  I read and watched many biographies, but few were of Australians, and none of those struck me as really amazing.  It was only as an adult, through an ABC Radio National program (one which seems no longer to be on the net, alas)  that I was introduced to the life of an Australian whom I rate with those Van Loon chose:  Sir John Monash.

Sir John Monash was the child of Jews who had emigrated from Prussia, at a time when Jews were socially unacceptable unless wealthy (remember, this bias continued in many places even after WWII – “No Blacks or Jews” signs in lodging house windows.)  He excelled at school and loved music and drama as well as  languages and mathematics.  A respected  engineer, he served in World War I as an officer – not in Engineering – becoming one of the most respected Generals of the war.  Higher ranks were impressed by his planning, execution of plans, and ability to command; returned soldiers appreciated his victories, but praised his ability to get them hot food.

After the war, he chose not to seek election to Parliament, but – despite social rejection by some traditionalists – used his skills to improve the country.  For example, he worked as the head of the Victorian State  Electricity Commission, changing electricity from a “rich man’s commodity” to a basic utility.

A more important example to consider: when the police were on strike and looting and rioting broke out, he led – at the request of the Premier – a group of other  generals and ex-servicemen ( five battalions, not just a mob) to restore order.  Another:  when the State government had rejected a proposal for developing the power grid, he talked his way into addressing the Cabinet, and told them 

‘Gentlemen,  you have rejected my proposal because you have clearly failed to understand it’. He explained it to them. For thirty minutes. In the end, they agreed! He then said ‘Well, you will now need an Order in Council to implement the decision’, pulling from his pocket one that he had prepared earlier. He stood there while it was signed.

There are many sites with pieces on his life, but I am interested in an aspect less commonly (at present) reported: his decision not to lead armed groups to overthrow the Australian Government.   The Australian Returned Services League (RSL) has one teaching resource which puts it in historical context ( it is in Source 9), and Engineers Australia has a biography    where it is in his life context on page 9.

An outsider by birth, often insulted for his race and his ideas, a brilliant man who cared for the unfortunate, a polymath  who had won the respect of common soldiers, an expert who faced down politicians for the good of the State, a man who saw fools in elected positions of power at a time of crisis, a man who was then offered the chance to take control of the nation  – and supported the fledgling democratic system.  Would you like that to be the children’s idea of a hero?  Their idea of  what it is to be Australian?

That’s a man who deserves to become a legend.

Culture and interpretation of actions

August 19, 2013

A preservice  teacher linked me a 40-minute 2003 documentary , “Children Full of Life.”   (“Namida to warai no happî kurasu: 4 nen 1 kumi Inochi no jugyô”) It is worth viewing by those interested in teaching for happiness and resilience, including making an emotionally supportive classroom.

My interest here is the interpretation viewers make of the teacher’s actions part way through.  This is an example of factors to consider when classes have mixed cultural backgrounds,(Western readers might watch the video before continuing.)


For those who do not watch the video, it is a class of 10 year olds.  The Class aim for the year is happiness.

Through their use of daily letters, the students have implicit permission to write about painful topics, and to have public reactions to others’ letters accepted,  This includes the sudden death of family members.

The teacher is able to hug a grieving child. but also to spend two days making the bullied know they are seen as wronged (““Bullying is contempt, and hatred, completely indefensible.”) , and to make the hidden bullies think about the reasons for their behaviour, the effects on others, and start to admit their actions.


19 minutes in – that afternoon, teams are going to go  rafting in self-designed -and-built rafts in th school pool.

Teacher posture at 20:17 – 20:24 shows  he is angry at continued improper conduct of a student, as he bans him from the afternoon rafting,  The preservice teacher, a Manga / anime watcher, says the posture says “I show I am angry / disciplining.”

A team member protests courteously and asks others to speak, and continues protest argument for a  little.

21.51 – 22:11, 22:35 – 40 The manga / anime watcher says that the posture (folded arms, eyes shut, chin up, that expression)says “I officially disagree with you, but I want you to give me a good reason to agree with you.”

Teacher does eye-bag-at-side-of-nose scratch and slight chin lower at 22:41 as a student says “But it’s partly our fault, too” – (visual “yes, continue…”) hand returns to less closed position –  but eyes shut, chin up .  When the first speaking student claims it was a group task, not teacher task, so group has a right “If it’s all right with us, he shouldn’t have to stay behind”, 23:21 teacher lowers chin, and tilts face towards speaker. Student asks others whether invite him, and they do. 23:22:  teacher opens eyes as they murmur agreement, looks at speaker.

Speaker then notes class agreement and respectfully asks teacher to permit the boy to go in their group to rafting.  Teacher says “Well spoken, Yo.” and (by gesture) invites the teary speaker to a high-five.


From many westerners’ viewpoints, the teacher was giving strong negative signals – and risking class disruption by closing his eyes.  From the (Western ) Japanese Youth Culture enthusiast’s  interpretation,  the teacher’s posture (including  closing his eyes) was giving strong tacit, visual permission for further attempts to speak for the argument.   Do any young Japanese have a comment?

Cross-cultural teaching is such challenging fun.

If there is no fixed standard of educational success, do learning disabilities exist?

July 31, 2012

Cathy Davidson asks

“Here’s a thought experiment.  Let’s try to imagine a society (there were lots of them before modernity) where there is no interest in measuring educational success.  Let’s imagine a society where the only goal of teaching (it’s a high bar) is to help every children master what they need in order to lead the most fulfilling life they are capable of leading —productive, creative, responsible, contributing to their own well-being and that of their society.  No grades.  No tests.  Just an educational system based on helping each child to find her or his potential for leading the best (Socrates would call it “happiest”) life possible.  In such a world, do learning disabilities exist? ”

“If a tree falls in a forest and there’s no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?  If there is no fixed standard of educational success, do learning disabilities exist?”

As David Eddings wrote, there is always something in the forest to hear the tree fall.

Similarly, if human learning is underway there is someone who will notice the performance of an individual and compare it with others.

Perception of difference is part of human nature, and thus exists in all cultures.  The difference between cultures that Davidson writes of is the different response to perceived difference, not the perception of difference.  Pre-industrial societies were quite cruel to those perceived as stupid in valued areas- see history on village idiots, deaf-mutes, military-family members who were sickly but clever, etc- and to those who were both unacceptably gifted and tactless.

Is machine learning a way to get around the perception of difference?  An ideal computer-learning program should have the set-up to adjust the size of steps in new understanding to match the past speed of improvement of the learner, and to suggest human intervention if there is an extremely unusual speed of learning. In machineworld or in class, it is important that the teacher notice any profound mismatch between the standard rate of introduction of new material and the speed of learning of a student: gifted or struggling, both need individualised tasks if they are to reach their potential, and may need individual or small-group professional assistance if they are too far from the class mode.

And now, assume that I was writing  of a riding teacher with 6-year-olds.  Or a gardener teaching adults how to grow plants.  Or a carpenter teaching them basic skills.

The great advantage of standardized testing and defined levels of performance that they allow us to mark the relations between intelligence(s), abilities, and performance in various situations; to find the causes of any unusual performance levels; and to adjust teaching to the learner’s specific needs.

I am the parent of an individual with a specific learning disability who gained access to needed support  largely because the NAPLAN results in year 3 and class results were terribly below the potential suggested by formal individual testing. (The difficulty of arranging formal individual testing is another matter.)  Ves performance now is closer to that suggested by the individual testing, and ve no longer is self-destructive, and ve no longer sees verself as “stupid”. I  have read widely in history and anthropology, and I can think of no previous society where ve could have come close to reaching ves potential.

Yes, learning disabilities would exist even if the society had no “defined standards of educational success”: they are part of the neuronal structure of some humans.  It would just be much harder for the fond parents to find out whether their child’s talents are as great (or as limited) as they think, when ve cannot do what the other children can. It would be that much harder to prove that one method of teaching is better than another for a particular personality type.  It would be that much harder for experts to recommend the direction of training to capitalise on strengths.

It would be that much harder for many of those who are non-standard, not easier.

Psychology: Why I class it as a science.

November 21, 2011

It is sometimes said that Psychology shouldn’t be classed as a science, because psychologists can’t accurately predict what individual people will do:  in a real science, we expect testable predictions.

To be generous, I will allow all  brain-scan linked psychology to be put under neuroscience, and all chemical-linked psychology to be under psychopharmacology.  I will consider only social psychology and the study of individual behaviours.

It is clear that any situation brings out different responses from different human individuals, and that the range of these responses is predictable.

Some situational responses are very common.  In a previous post  I gave some examples of famous response patterns,  but there is a huge range of psychological research into common effects.  (For a quick start, there are many videos and books from Richard Wiseman .)  However, for every standard response there is a sizeable minority who are non-standard.  Does this invalidate the claim to scientific status for psychology?  Consider the reasons for the range of responses:

To begin with, testing of famous effects has made it clear that different cultures prime us to different response sets.  (Laura Spinney’s article on being WEIRD gives a few examples. )

On the individual level, personality and past experience also prime individuals to particular responses.   Research on resilience gives many examples of this.

Finally, for each of us, there is a probability of a particular behaviour in a given situation – even in rats with strongly conditioned responses there is a degree of variability in response.

So, psychologist have found many aspects of variability in response, and are trying to identify causes and measure their effects – alone and in combination – and are testing their predictions.   That sounds like science to me.  However, they still can’t usually predict what an individual will do. So, is that a fatal flaw?

Let us consider Chemistry – that is a science.  Given a set of chemicals, in a given environment, the outputs are predictable – right?  Well, take burning an archetypical carbohydrate:  CH2O (s) + O2 (g)  – >  CO2 (g) + H2O (g).   Can the chemist predict which of the Oxygen gas’s atoms will end in the carbon dioxide?  Consider the history of producing  isocyanides  :  the proportions of different products from a given starting mix was initially hard to predict, and much research was needed before the exact conditions for high yield were found.   With the invention of microwave ovens, chemists found  a new range of conditions for chemical reactions – and again started by finding out the changes in  mixture of products from changes in process.  ( One example is the processing of methane, of interest to the natural gas / syngas industry.)

So, I argue that Psychology can be classed as a science precisely because  (like research Chemists) the researchers accept that there are limits to their knowledge,  that they must measure reality to form ideas of what might be happening (hypotheses),  and that their predictions (from hypotheses) of the results of given processes must be tested against reality before a strong theory can be developed.