Tag Archives: research

Collaborate or Work Alone?

17 Jan


I came across an interesting article in the New York Times about the growing tendency toward collaboration in all sectors of society, including education.  Working in groups i.e. “group thinking” is  better than working alone, right?  Not always.

The author, Susan Cain says, “…we need to move beyond the New Groupthink and embrace a more nuanced approach to creativity and learning…Our schools should teach children to work with others, but also to work on their own for sustained periods of time. And we must recognize that introverts …need extra quiet and privacy to do their best work.”  Cain expounds upon the claim that, “research strongly suggests… people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption. ”  Yet contrary to this theory, it seems that our schools are rallying more and more around the themes and practices of collaboration, group work and group brainstorming sessions.  And not without good reason; there is plenty of existing research to support the move toward more collaboration.

From my experience, it seems more accurate to say that students learn best and are most creative when they are actively engaged in the learning process.  Groups do have the ability to engage students in the learning process, which is why working in groups offers many benefits to a classroom environment.  On the flip side, group work is distracting to some learners and can stifle individual creativity.  As special educators and communication specialists, we know that there is no one size fits all model when it comes to student engagement.  Fostering a breeding ground for learning and creativity requires a highly individualized investigation into each child’s disposition, interests and needs.

Group work and group thinking has its place and in some situations is a crucial aspect of the learning process.  This is especially true when we look at theories of active learners, and the benefits of peer models in early childhood education or when specifically targeting social skills.  But sometimes we do our best work, our best thinking and our creative juices flow most freely when we offer ourselves the time and space to work alone. Uninterrupted. Unconcerned about group pressures and dynamics.  Uninhibited.

For me, the take home message of this article is, like anything else in life, we need a balance.  We need group work and team work to thrive, but we also need solitude and individual time to create, grow and empower.  This is the way we are as humans, and our schools and workplaces should work to preserve this balance, being careful not to get caught up in too much of any one approach.  It takes a master teacher to approach this balance.  Ideally our classrooms and language therapy sessions are a well oiled machine, where all the parts are working together, integrating, and collaborating, yet creativity is not stifled and the capability some students gain from working alone is not overlooked.

Here is the link to the full New York Times Article by Susan Cain:



Deb Roy: The birth of a word

13 Dec


Last night I watched this fascinating TED talk given by MIT researcher Deb Roy.  Roy wanted to understand how his infant son learned language — so he wired up his house with video cameras to catch every moment (with exceptions) of his son’s life.  He ended up with 90,000 hours of home video.  Using the 3 years of video footage, Roy traced each new word his son learned to the specific circumstances that led to his son’s acquisition of the word.  For example, he showed how his son’s babbling slowly changed from “gaaaa” into “water.” He looked at every context in which his son heard the word “water” during his first three years of life.  Roy analyzed many variables, such as who was present during each occurrence of the word “water” in the home, what room of the house were they in, and what were the adult language models or how was the word ‘water’ embedded in a sentence?

Roy’s research is data intensive and allowed him to draw conclusions and make connections between environment, language and learning.  He used beautiful, systematic, high-tech graphics to display his data.  The question of how we acquire new words during infancy has been explored readily in the field of language development.  We know that babies learn new words through repeated exposure, that it’s largely dependent on context and surroundings (ie. hearing the word water and seeing water at the same time), and utterance length of the language model (does mom embed the new word in short 1-2 word phrases or in long, complex sentences?).  However, Roy’s data is novel in that the time-lapse technology he uses and his graphic displays have implications for a new way of observing word acquisition over time and provides a closer look at how learning is taking place.

Roy also extends his findings to social media and examines how people behave and communicate in response to specific events in time.  He explores and pinpoints how trends get started, and how new ideas spread, through social media.

Roy’s research both confirmed what we already know about how babies acquire new words and pushed the field of Language & Communication Sciences to a new boundary.  Scientists may have a new way to create models and graphically display language data, connect language circumstances and observe not only language acquisition in infancy, but the larger implications for tracing behavioral patterns through language in social media.

As a Language Development nerd, I found this talk fascinating, and if you have 20 minutes to watch the video, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Recent Studies on Learning New Language- When and How?

19 Oct

Most public schools do not introduce foreign language instruction until Middle School.  Considering what the research says about the “critical period” for learning language, this doesn’t make a lot of sense.  But here at PS20, we are following evidence based research and have implemented a dual language Mandarin program that starts in Kindergarten.  Research suggests that the younger the brain, the more flexible it is in regards to discriminating between sounds of a foreign language.

When children are exposed to more than one language, their brain will wire itself to discriminate between the phonetic sounds of  both languages.  In a child exposed to only one language, eventually the brain wires itself to discriminate between a smaller set of sounds- only those native to the language the child hears.  By the time we are 7, we begin a systematic decline in our brain’s flexibility to learn new sounds.  Therefore, as an adult having never been exposed to Mandarin, for example, I cannot listen to a Mandarin speaker and discriminate between all of the sounds in the language.   My brain has solidified patterns and pathways and limited them the English language.  This isn’t to say I can’t train my brain to hear and learn new sounds- it will just be much more difficult for me to learn.

Some parents have concerns that by teaching two languages their kids might become confused or fall behind their monolingual peers in terms of language development.  According to a recent New York Times Article entitled Hearing Bilingual: How Babies Sort Out Language, scientists are showing that there are differences in the brains of children who grow up bilingual (exposed to two languages), vs. children who grow monolingual (exposed to only one language).  Ellen Bialystok, a distinguished research professor of psychology at York University in Toronto, has shown that bilingual children develop crucial skills in addition to their double vocabularies, learning different ways to solve logic problems or to handle multitasking.  These skills are known as executive functioning skills.  Bialystok says that, “Overwhelmingly, children who are bilingual from early on have precocious development of executive function.”  So rest assured – research is showing that our bilingual kiddos are enhanced, not hindered by second language acquisition.

Furthermore, research has shown that babies learn new language through human interaction and not through listening to audio (through headphones) or watching and listening to TV.  This has profound implications for early learning.  The social brain must be active for children to learn new sounds and language.  A recent study by Patricia Kuhl showed that English-speaking babies exposed repeatedly to a Mandarin speaker were able to discriminate between Mandarin sounds during a lab test.  However, when English-speaking babies were exposed to the same amount of Mandarin through watching it on a TV and listening to it through headphones, the babies learned nothing.

To hear more about this new research, watch this ten minute talk entitled, The Linguistic Genius of Babies, in which Dr. Kuhl shares astonishing findings about how babies learn one language over another  by listening to the humans around them and re-wiring the brain to remember the sounds they need to know. Brain scans show how 6-month-old babies discriminate between sounds.

Piggy-backing on Kuhl’s research was another recent New York Times Article, entitled, Parents Urged Again to Limit TV for Youngest.  This article appeared in yesterday’s paper and reports that video screen time has no educational benefit for young children.  Children learn through face to face interactions with others- the social brain needs to be active  for learning to take place.  “What we know from recent research on language development is that the more language that comes in — from real people — the more language the child understands and produces later on,” said Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek, a professor of psychology at Temple University.

The article reports that according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, parents should limit the amount of time their young children are simply watching a screen (TV, iPad, cell phone) because there is no such thing as educational programming for young children.  There is evidence to suggest that older children can learn through some types of media, but younger children learn best through real life interactions and play. The articles author, Benedict Carey, summarizes that “for every hour a child under 2 spends in front of a screen, he or she spends about 50 minutes less interacting with a parent, and about 10 percent less time in creative play.”

I talk a lot about the use of technology, specifically the iPad, in Speech & Language Therapy. The iPad is useful because it takes the place of wasteful paper materials such as worksheets and flashcards, and saves time on preparing certain activities and games that I used to make by hand.  It can generate thousands of vocabulary words and pictures and stories at the click of a button without me having to spend hours searching for specific target words or sounds online or in books.  But in order for it to be effective in the learning process, there must be face to face interaction with the therapist or parent, activating the social brain and facilitating the learning experience.

In summary:  Learning new language – When?  Early.  How?  Through human interaction.

In the News: Parents’ Ums And Uhs Can Help Toddlers Learn Language

15 Apr

I’ve posted a bit about stuttering lately, and this article from yesterday’s NPR Health Blog is a very cute, informative and related follow up. 

While language modeling for young children can be critical to how they develop language,  don’t worry about having perfectly fluent and smooth speech when talking to your kids!  Research from the University of Rochester suggests that when parents have disfluencies in their speech (or fumble over their words) children learn to anticipate that an unfamiliar or “big” word may follow and it may in fact help them to learn new words and acquire language.

You can click on this link below to access the short article on NPR’s Health Blog:


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