Weekly Roundup 6-7-14

School: Bard College is in its second year of a radical change to their admission process: Write four essays, and if they are graded B+ or higher by a committee of faculty, you’re automatically accepted. No ACT, no SAT no GPA, and no CV. Reminiscent of Oxford’s famous one-word essay question, Bard’s new approach may serve as the ultimate anti-standardized-test statement.

The Bard Entrance Exam aims for exactly the kind of student who, for any number of reasons, doesn’t fit inside that infernal perfection cage—who is instead, as Bard’s Vice President of Student Affairs and Director of Admissions Mary Backlund told me, “someone who really likes learning,” but perhaps “couldn’t be bothered with what they saw as the ‘busy work’ of high school, and instead invested themselves in things not perceived as ‘academic’ in some places, like music or the arts—or just reading on their own.” For these students, Backlund tells me, “this option is a ‘twofer’: They get to apply and do what they love—researching and thinking—all at the same time.”

Psychology: As the global economy has grown to historically unprecedented levels over the past 80 years, people – especially Americans – are feeling more harried than ever. In a new book, “Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time,” Brigid Shulte examines possible reasons why the predicted idle leisure that was supposed to be born of increased wealth has not materialized. Shulte explores numerous theories, including: We’re not actually working more, we’re just appearing to be busy because busyness equates to social status; as our incomes increase, our desires increase – we are hardwired to become more and more acquisitive as our ability to acquire things grows – which leads to a need for more money which leads to more work; and the idea that wealthier people work more hours and have less leisure time than the working class Americans, creating a phenomenon known as “the harried working class” (which brings us back to busyness as social status).

Scholarship: As handwriting is pushed aside by Common Core standards, recent research shows that distinct parts of the brain are used when we write in cursive, print, or type on a computer. Are we depriving children of full brain development by, for example, eliminating instruction in cursive handwriting?

When…children were asked to come up with ideas for a composition, the ones with better handwriting exhibited greater neural activation in areas associated with working memory — and increased overall activation in the reading and writing networks.


Oh, The Humanities!


New research shows that reading difficult prose and poetry “lights up” the brain more than reading dumbed-down versions of the same text. Specifically, researchers gave subjects passages by Shakespeare, Wordsworth, and T. S. Eliot (among others). The readers’ brains were then monitored as they read, and the results seem to be two-fold.

First, there was more electrical activity in the brain while subjects read the difficult (original) passages. Second, when subjects read poetry, regions in the brain associated with memory and self-reflection became active.

“The [original] version caused a greater degree of brain activity, lighting up not only the left part of the brain concerned with language, but also the right hemisphere that relates to autobiographical memory and emotion.”

The study’s authors suggest that this pattern of brain activity indicates a deeper engagement with the text that leads to meaningful self reflection. Philip Davis, an English professor who was part of the research team, said this:

“Poetry is not just a matter of style. It is a matter of deep versions of experience that add the emotional and biographical to the cognitive[…]This is the argument for serious language in serious literature for serious human situations, instead of self-help books or the easy reads that merely reinforce predictable opinions and conventional self-images.”

As a longtime Shakespeare disciple, I’m excited to see scientific confirmation of what his fans have known for centuries: Shakespeare really does put the ‘human’ in ‘humanities.’

Interestingly, this comes at a time when recent Common Core guidelines are being interpreted as calling for fiction and poetry to be gradually tapered from classroom instruction in order to make room for “harder” reading, such as technical manuals and non-fiction writing. Others say teachers are misinterpreting the guidelines and that Shakespeare still should be taught.

States are just beginning the long journey to the Common Core, so time will tell what it will ultimately look like. Let’s just hope that by the time it’s all sorted out, when we ask a student what he’s reading, rather than answering “Words, words, words,” he’ll say “How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, That has such people in’t!”

Link to another news story about the study, with a slightly different angle.
Link to Science Daily report on the study.
Link to LA Times editorial about the implications of Common Core.

Weekly Roundup 12-9-12

School: An inner city Chicago school is incorporating Common Core standards into their curriculum. Since becoming a pilot school for Common Core, Armour Elementary’s state standardized test scores have risen 16 points. Great start, boys and girls!

Psychology: Research with captive gorillas confirms something we’ve known about humans for awhile: being outgoing, easygoing and optimistic will help you live longer.

Scholarship: A new study shows which areas of the brain are most popular among scientists who want to be published in the most prestigious journals. Or, put another way, if you want your brain study to be published, you’re better off writing about certain regions of the brain and ignoring others.