Archive | June, 2012

Sleep On It

29 Jun

“Sleep on it, and let me know tomorrow”

A sentence used commonly, means you don’t have to make an immediate decision; take your time to think about it. Taking time to think about an idea or a plan sometimes might help, but what about sleeping? Literally sleeping, when we can’t think? Shouldn’t I be working on my idea the whole night instead of wasting time sleeping?

The importance of a good night’s sleep is lost on most of us. We prefer to watch TV, surf the Internet, read books, or do any other activity. And the next morning, when we have to get up to go to work, the alarm clock becomes our worst enemy. So why do we need to sleep? The answer lies in how we have evolved over millions of years. The humans had existed millions of years before fire was discovered. Our ancestors did not have anything to do once it was dark, so they went to sleep, and woke up at dawn. This gave their bodies time to rest and recover for the next day of hunting and other strenuous physical activity. Sleeping at night is hardwired into our brains. But does sleeping help with any cognitive activity?

It’s counterintuitive to think that our brains are very active even after our bodies have gone to sleep. The brain keeps processing the day’s information, consolidating our thoughts, building and killing neurons, and making connections. Connections between similar as well as disparate thoughts and ideas. When we are not able to solve a problem, sleeping helps us come up with new insights to solve that problem, or at least take us a step further toward solving the problem.

Research on creativity has shown that sleeping helps people become more creative (in addition to taking a walk, showering, socializing, and yes, drinking alcohol). When spending hours analyzing an issue doesn’t help and we are stuck, sleeping usually helps when our brains process a lot of information and make connections.

The number of hours we need to sleep varies from person to person, but it’s usually 20 hours for infants, 9.25 hours for teenagers, and 7-8 hours for adults. Sound and enough sleep is very beneficial to physical, psychological, and neurological health too.

When you are stuck working on a creative task or solving a problem, sleep on it.

Suggested Readings
Forget A’s, B’s, and C’s—What Students Need Is More Zzzz’s
Experiments Show We Really Can Learn While We Sleep

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Designing Videos For Learning

22 Jun

Thomas Edison, in 1913, had predicted:

“Books will soon be obsolete in the public schools. Scholars will be instructed through the eye. It is possible to teach every branch of human knowledge with the motion picture. Our school system will be completely changed inside of ten years.”

It never happened. Books are still in widespread use though the format is slowly and gradually moving from print to digital. The “motion picture” or videos are being used for at least a decade for education, but no significant impact has been reported thereby preventing their mainstream adoption. The Khan Academy, thanks to Bill Gates, has achieved an unprecedented fame for its video-based learning platform. Many startups (Kno, Inkling) and established companies are using videos to enrich their eBooks, but are the videos really having an impact on students’ learning?

It’s said that if a picture is worth a thousand words, a video is worth a thousand pictures (or a million words). Is it true? Not always. Why not? Because a video has to be designed in such a way as to convey the meaning of the words in an efficient and effective manner, and it has to engage the viewer. There are some guidelines that can be followed to design videos for educational settings.

  1. The first few seconds of the video are the most important moments to gain students’ attention. An AdAge research on YouTube showed that about 20% viewers abandon the video in the first 10 seconds, 33% in 30 seconds, and as much as 60% within 2 minutes.
  2. The video should not be more than 2 minutes long.
  3. The video must engage students by generating curiosity and gaining attention and motivating them to watch other videos or read the chapter to learn more. The video should raise questions that are answered in the chapter.
  4. A video at the beginning of a chapter doesn’t have to directly deal with the contents of the chapter. However, it should be relevant to the chapter at a high level.
  5. The content of the video should focus on the learning outcome.
  6. What are the topics that engage students? Relevance to their lives is very important, something that they feel strongly about.
  7. Smartphone, iPad, sports, student loan, music, movies, and Facebook are some of the topics that engage students.
  8. Politics, laptops, books, economy, and workplace are some of the topics that do not engage students.
  9. The video should show something interesting, unusual, surprising, or shocking things, people, or events.
  10. The best option is to show something that evokes emotions such as excitement, happiness, optimism, inspiration, or sadness.
  11. The audio voice over in the video should sound enthusiastic and conversational.
  12. The video should also raise questions that directly or indirectly relate to the contents of the chapter – Why did a particular team win or lose? How did your favorite music band come up with a great song? How many friends can you have in the real world? Which is the happiest country in the world and why? Why do gas prices go up in summer? What are the new high-growth careers?
  13. If the video doesn’t answer these questions, the students will feel compelled to read the chapter to find the answers.
  14. The video may be followed by a few questions to make sure the students watched and understood the video.

Suggested Readings
The Evolution of Classroom Technology
It is not television anymore: Designing digital video for learning and assessment

Not The Asian Kids

14 Jun

Watch this video clip from Jimmy Kimmel Live (Wikipedia, Youtube channel).


For some, this video is funny; for others, it’s not. I don’t believe there is much truth in it, but here’s what’s true – “Not all kids. Not the Asian kids.”

Why are the Asian kids (especially, Indian and Chinese kids) stereotyped as bright, nerdy, and smart in the US, but not in their home countries? From Spelling Bee and National Geographic Bee to Intel Science Talent Search, the Asian kids dominate the scene. I have some theories.

In India and China

  • There are limited opportunities for the kids to show their talent or take paths that don’t conform to the norm. They are not allowed to take risks.
  • They don’t follow their passion. Even if they are interested, the passion dies because they are forced to excel at it.
  • Parents consider a professional degree (engineering and medicine degrees in India) a safe bet for landing a good job, even if the child is not interested.
  • The kids are forced to work hard and get good grades. They get good grades, but they don’t learn for the sake of learning.
  • The kids don’t go for higher education. They don’t aim high. They become risk-averse adults.

Why Asian kids do so well in the US

  • Most of us have come to the US for higher studies. We’ve gone to great universities. We have worked hard. We inculcate the same values in our children.
  • We expect our kids to go to best universities and earn at least a master’s degree (a PhD is better).
  • We don’t believe in online education. We go by the US News rankings. We want our kids to go to highly selective universities.
  • We encourage our kids to study hard (and force them, if required). We spend a lot of time with them and help them with studies. Their “time on task” is highest among any other ethnic/racial groups.
  • Mathematically, we believe s=f(h) where s=success and h=hard work.
  • Our kids are allrounders. They play musical instruments, participate in sports, and do well in studies. If studies are suffering, every extra-curricular activity is dropped.
  • We want our kids to study science, math, and computers. Humanities and social sciences are for the lesser mortals.
  • There are countless opportunities available in the US, so the pressure to do well is less. Less stress means more motivation and engagement.
  • We encourage our kids to be highly ambitious. Not as entrepreneurs but as academics, scientists, engineers.
  • For us, there are only two grades – “A” and “F”. If it’s not an “A”, it’s as good as “F”. And our kids are not allowed to get any grade other than an “A”.
  • The Asian culture is collectivist. If the kids don’t do well in studies, it’s a shame for the entire family. The kids know this and don’t want to let their parents down in front of their social circles.
  • Watching TV, partying with friends, and any other means of wasting time is strictly limited.

Related articles
On parenting – “asian” or otherwise
Why Indian-Americans Reign As Spelling Bee Champs

Engagement And Motivation

1 Jun

Here’s a true story. An online game on biology for middle school kids was developed by people holding PhD degrees in biological sciences and affiliated with Stanford University. The game shows a patient lying on a hospital bed, and the kids have to answer questions correctly to improve the health of the patient. If their answers are wrong, the patient’s condition deteriorates, and multiple wrong answers leads to the patient’s death. The interactive game provides challenge, engagement, and learning opportunity. The kids are engaged with playing the game, they are having fun, and they are motivated to answer the questions. Engagement and motivation are what every educator wants to see in children. What could possible go wrong? But something did …

The students were engaged and motivated, but they were “motivated to play the game”, and not “motivated to learn”. They were having more fun when the patient was dying (funny animations) than when the patient was getting better. Apparently, engagement does not always lead to an increase in motivation to learn.

Use of iPads in schools may be leading to similar results. Children are engaged with their shiny new devices, but are they learning more? We’ll have to wait and see if long term studies prove tablets’ effects on learning.

When a child is interested in something (ex: dinosaurs, video games) or has a positive attitude toward a subject area (ex: physics, history), he wants to do more  with it and learn more about it. It leads to an intrinsic motivation to learn so the child visits a dinosaur museum or reads a science experiments book. If the museum or the book’s contents manage to grab his attention, he is hooked, or “engaged”. If the book is hard to understand, the interest and, therefore, engagement goes down. If the content is relevant to his life and challenging just enough, he continues. Instructional methods, such as examples, practice, and feedback are important, but only when they engage the child.

On the other hand, extrinsic motivation (reward or punishment) would most likely force the children to study. They probably would not be interested in learning, but if the content and instructional methods are engaging, it might generate intrinsic motivation leading to further engagement.

I think the first step toward making our children great learners is getting them interested in and developing a positive attitude toward a subject area. Parents and teachers have the biggest role to play here. And then employing instructional methods based on sound instructional  design principles and educational research findings. Intrinsic motivation leads to engagement. Extrinsic motivation such as forcing the children to study might make some of them aim for good grades, but they would not be learning for the long term. Being a “tiger mom” might help too, but it’s not for the weak-hearted parents and would not work for most of the kids.

You study hard, you get good grades. It’s a simple logic. Unfortunately, the reward of good grades doesn’t motivate or engage students or even grown-ups. And it’s sad that educators and administrators responsible for teaching our kids do not understand this.

Suggested Readings
Engagement Versus Motivation
Why Steve Jobs Would Have Loved Digital Learning