Friday 10 December 2021

Why kids should use their fingers in Math class

Evidence from brain science suggests that far from being “babyish,” the technique is essential for mathematical achievement.

A few weeks ago I (Jo Boaler) was working in my Stanford office when the silence of the room was interrupted by a phone call. A mother called me to report that her 5-year-old daughter had come home from school crying because her teacher had not allowed her to count on her fingers. This is not an isolated event—schools across the country regularly ban finger use in classrooms or communicate to students that they are babyish. This is despite a compelling and rather surprising branch of neuroscience that shows the importance of an area of our brain that “sees” fingers, well beyond the time and age that people use their fingers to count.

In a study published last year, the researchers Ilaria Berteletti and James R. Booth analyzed a specific region of our brain that is dedicated to the perception and representation of fingers known as the somatosensory finger area. 

Philippe Lissac / Godong / Corbis

Remarkably, brain researchers know that we “see” a representation of our fingers in our brains, even when we do not use fingers in a calculation. The researchers found that when 8-to-13-year-olds were given complex subtraction problems, the somatosensory finger area lit up, even though the students did not use their fingers. This finger-representation area was, according to their study, also engaged to a greater extent with more complex problems that involved higher numbers and more manipulation. Other researchers have found that the better students’ knowledge of their fingers was in the first grade, the higher they scored on number comparison and estimation in the second grade. Even university students’ finger perception predicted their calculation scores. (Researchers assess whether children have a good awareness of their fingers by touching the finger of a student—without the student seeing which finger is touched—and asking them to identify which finger it is.)

Evidence from both behavioral and neuroscience studies shows that when people receive training on ways to perceive and represent their own fingers, they get better at doing so, which leads to higher mathematics achievement. The tasks we have developed for use in schools and homes (see below) are based on the training programs researchers use to improve finger-perception quality. Researchers found that when 6-year-olds improved the quality of their finger representation, they improved in arithmetic knowledge, particularly skills such as counting and number ordering. In fact, the quality of the 6-year-old’s finger representation was a better predictor of future performance on math tests than their scores on tests of cognitive processing.

Many teachers have been led to believe that finger use is useless and something to be abandoned as quickly as possible.

Neuroscientists often debate why finger knowledge predicts math achievement, but they clearly agree on one thing: That knowledge is critical. As Brian Butterworth, a leading researcher in this area, has written, if students aren’t learning about numbers through thinking about their fingers, numbers “will never have a normal representation in the brain.”

One of the recommendations of the neuroscientists conducting these important studies is that schools focus on finger discrimination—not only on number counting via their fingers but also on helping students distinguish between those fingers. Still, schools typically pay little if any attention to finger discrimination, and to our knowledge, no published curriculum encourages this kind of mathematical work. Instead, thanks largely to school districts and the media, many teachers have been led to believe that finger use is useless and something to be abandoned as quickly as possible. Kumon, for example, an after-school tutoring program used by thousands of families in dozens of countries, tells parents that finger-counting is a “no no” and that those who see their children doing so should report them to the instructor.

Stopping students from using their fingers when they count could, according to the new brain research, be akin to halting their mathematical development. Fingers are probably one of our most useful visual aids, and the finger area of our brain is used well into adulthood. The need for and importance of finger perception could even be the reason that pianists, and other musicians, often display higher mathematical understanding than people who don’t learn a musical instrument.

Teachers should celebrate and encourage finger use among younger learners and enable learners of any age to strengthen this brain capacity through finger counting and use. They can do so by engaging students in a range of classroom and home activities, such as:

Give the students colored dots on their fingers and ask them to touch the corresponding piano keys:

Give the students colored dots on their fingers and ask them to follow the lines on increasingly difficult mazes:

(The full set of activities is given here.)

The finger research is part of a larger group of studies on cognition and the brain showing the importance of visual engagement with math. Our brains are made up of “distributed networks,” and when we handle knowledge, different areas of the brain communicate with each other. When we work on math, in particular, brain activity is distributed among many different networks, which include areas within the ventral and dorsal pathways, both of which are visual. Neuroimaging has shown that even when people work on a number calculation, such as 12 x 25, with symbolic digits (12 and 25) our mathematical thinking is grounded in visual processing.

A striking example of the importance of visual mathematics comes from a study showing that after four 15-minute sessions of playing a game with a number line, differences in knowledge between students from low-income backgrounds and those from middle-income backgrounds were eliminated.

Number-line representation of number quantity has been shown to be particularly important for the development of numerical knowledge, and students’ learning of number lines is believed to be a precursor of children’s academic success.

Visual math is powerful for all learners. A few years ago Howard Gardner proposed a theory of multiple intelligences, suggesting that people have different approaches to learning, such as those that are visual, kinesthetic, or logical. This idea helpfully expanded people’s thinking about intelligence and competence, but was often used in unfortunate ways in schools, leading to the labeling of students as particular type of learners who were then taught in different ways. But people who are not strong visual thinkers probably need visual thinking more than anyone. Everyone uses visual pathways when we work on math. The problem is it has been presented, for decades, as a subject of numbers and symbols, ignoring the potential of visual math for transforming students’ math experiences and developing important brain pathways.

It is hardly surprising that students so often feel that math is inaccessible and uninteresting when they are plunged into a world of abstraction and numbers in classrooms. Students are made to memorize math facts, and plough through worksheets of numbers, with few visual or creative representations of math, often because of policy directives and faulty curriculum guides. The Common Core standards for kindergarten through eighth grade pay more attention to visual work than many previous sets of learning benchmarks, but their high-school content commits teachers to numerical and abstract thinking. And where the Common Core does encourage visual work, it’s usually encouraged as a prelude to the development of abstract ideas rather than a tool for seeing and extending mathematical ideas and strengthening important brain networks.

To engage students in productive visual thinking, they should be asked, at regular intervals, how they see mathematical ideas, and to draw what they see. They can be given activities with visual questions and they can be asked to provide visual solutions to questions. When the youcubed team (a center at Stanford) created a free set of visual and open mathematics lessons for grades three through nine last summer, which invited students to appreciate the beauty in mathematics, they were downloaded 250,000 times by teachers and used in every state across the U.S. Ninety-eight percent of teachers said they would like more of the activities, and 89 percent of students reported that the visual activities enhanced their learning of mathematics. Meanwhile, 94 percent of students said they had learned to “keep going even when work is hard and I make mistakes.” Such activities not only offer deep engagement, new understandings, and visual-brain activity, but they show students that mathematics can be an open and beautiful subject, rather than a fixed, closed, and impenetrable subject.

Some scholars note that it will be those who have developed visual thinking who will be “at the top of the class” in the world’s new high-tech workplace that increasingly draws upon visualization technologies and techniques, in business, technology, art, and science. Work on mathematics draws from different areas of the brain and students need to be strong with visuals, numbers, symbols and words—but schools are not encouraging this broad development in mathematics now. This is not because of a lack of research knowledge on the best ways to teach and learn mathematics, it is because that knowledge has not been communicated in accessible forms to teachers. Research on the brain is often among the most impenetrable for a lay audience but the knowledge that is being produced by neuroscientists, if communicated well, may be the spark that finally ignites productive change in mathematics classrooms and homes across the country.

(Source: The Atlantic)

Tuesday 7 December 2021

Why child care is so ridiculously expensive

Three broad reasons obtaining care for kids now costs as much as buying a brand new Hyundai Elantra each year

One side effect of “the end of babies”—or, less dramatically, the steady decline in fertility rates around the world—is that today’s parents spend more time and money on the few kids they do have.

In the United States, per-child spending doubled from the 1970s to the 2000s, according to a 2013 paper by Sabino Kornich of the University of Sydney and Frank Furstenberg of the University of Pennsylvania. Parents spent more on education, toys, and games. But nothing grew faster than per-child spending on child care, which increased by a factor of 21—or approximately 2,000 percent—in those 40 years.

Although wrapping your head around 2,000 percent growth might be difficult, the underlying cause isn’t so mysterious. As more women entered the labor force in the late 20th century, the work of caring for infants moved from the unpaid world of stay-at-home parents to the world of salaried labor. The 1970s and ’80s—the two decades when the female labor participation rate grew the fastest—also saw the greatest acceleration in child-care spending, according to Kornich and Furstenberg. Raising young children is work—and it always has been work—but the rise of dual-earner households has forced more families to recognize this work with their wallets.

But child-care spending is unlike other spending. By some measures, it’s getting more expensive faster than almost every other consumer good or service that the government tracks. The Census Bureau has found that child-care expenditures rose more than 40 percent from 1990 to 2011, during a period when middle-class wages stagnated. Since the 1990s, child-care costs have grown twice as fast as overall inflation. In California, the cost of a typical day-care center is now equal to almost half of the median income of a single mother.

Paul Spella / The Atlantic

Pick whatever source and statistic you like, because they all point to the same conclusion: Child care in America has become ludicrously expensive. The average cost of a full-time child-care program in the U.S. is now $16,000 a year—and more, in some states, than tuition at a flagship university.

What the hell is going on? And what should we do about it?

There are three broad reasons American child care now costs the same as buying a brand new Hyundai Elantra every year.

First, although child-care workers aren’t expensive on an hourly basis—their median hourly wage is less than that of non-farm-animal caretakers and janitors—labor is the biggest line item for child-care facilities. Unlike, say, car companies, they can’t cut spending by moving labor to poorer countries or by replacing human workers with machines. Like health care and education, child care requires lots of domestic salaries, which means that its costs will continuously rise faster than overall inflation.

The industry is highly regulated, perhaps reasonably so, given the vulnerability of the clientele—which is the second key driver of child-care costs. As Jordan Weissmann has reported in The Atlantic, states with strict labor laws tend to have the most expensive facilities. In Massachusetts, which requires one caregiver for every three infants, the average annual cost is more than $16,000. In Mississippi, which allows a one-to-five ratio, the cost is less than $5,000. Thanks to high turnover rates—a result of those low wages—companies have to constantly train new workers to meet regulatory standards. Other costs include insurance to cover damage to the property and worker injuries, as well as legal fees to deal with inevitable parent lawsuits.

Finally, there’s the real estate. The most expensive child-care facilities tend to be situated near high-income neighborhoods or in commercial districts, where the rents are high. And they can’t downsize in a pinch, because most states require them to have ample square footage for each kid.

The state of American child care might be defensible if it were expensive and high-quality—or if it were crummy but cheap.

Instead, the U.S. has the worst of both worlds: Cadillac prices for an Edsel product. The typical family paying for any child care spends about 10 percent of their income on it, far more than in most similarly rich countries. But American day care is a shambles. “The overall quality is wildly uneven and barely monitored, and at the lower end, it’s Dickensian,” the health-care writer Jonathan Cohn wrote in 2013. A 2007 review by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development found that only one in 10 facilities offered “high-quality” care.

As the need for day-care options becomes more severe, some private employers, such as Patagonia, Apple, and Google, are stepping in to offer day-care centers for employees or to pay for “backup child care” if an employee’s first option falls through. New early-childhood startups such as Vivvi offer employer-sponsored child care. And Wonderschool, an Airbnb for daycare,” helps neighborhoods launch child-care centers in peoples’ homes.

While it’s admirable for companies to fill the day-care vacuum, the absence of a national solution is an indictment of American policy. Neuroscientists and psychologists have established that the first five years of a child’s life are crucial for the development of logic and language skills. Early education has profound effects on both these cognitive skills and “noncognitive” skills, such as grit, teamwork, and emotional health. But these academic findings haven’t translated to policy, at least not in the U.S. Several European nations, such as France and Denmark, spend three to five times more than America on their young children’s care and education.

There is a deep disconnect in the way the U.S. conceives of its obligation to children. Most Americans accept—even demand—the public subsidy of education from the moment kids turn 5 and enter kindergarten to the day they graduate from a state university or community college. But from birth to the fifth birthday, children are on their own—or, more precisely, their parents are. This arrangement is plainly weird: Parents must bear the highest burdens of child-rearing when they are younger, typically poorer, and less established in their career.

In the politics-and-policy world, some are starting to argue that the U.S. desperately needs a comprehensive, research-based approach to caring for young Americans before they turn 5—a First Five Years policy. For example, the People’s Policy Project, a left-wing think tank, has proposed a bundle of early-childhood policies that includes free health care, a child allowance of $300 a month, and a free spot in a public child-care center. (Parents could also receive a direct home-child-care benefit, if they preferred.) Several Democratic presidential candidates have also embraced elements of a First Five Years policy. Elizabeth Warren, for instance, has proposed to spend nearly $2 trillion on a national child-care system.

One simple reason Washington should play a bigger role in child care is that the benefits of early-childhood care and education are so large—and accrue over such a long period of time—that the only institution big enough to capture the upside is the federal government. In 2015, the Council of Economic Advisers wrote that every $1 spent on early-childhood education results in roughly $8.60 of societal benefits, “about half of which comes from increased earnings for children when they grow up.” Similarly, a 2019 Harvard study of dozens of U.S. policies concluded that “direct investments in low-income children’s health and education” have historically had the biggest bang per buck.

There are two broad criticisms of federally sponsored child care. The cultural critique is that by stepping in to play the role of mom and dad, the state would weaken bonds between parents and their children. The rejoinder here is easy: America’s infants are already suffering the effects of insufficient care. Most of the achievement gap between black and white American students is in place by kindergarten. Meanwhile, dozens of studies of preschool programs since the 1960s have shown that early-childhood education can slash the black-white kindergarten achievement gap in half.

The more policy-focused critique is that establishing a national system to carefully watch nearly 10 million tots under the age of 5 would be a logistical hellscape. How would federal, state, and local governments hire millions of caretakers in an economy with 3.5 percent unemployment? Where would they live? “Increased immigration,” you might answer, “and in new affordable housing.” But building a high-quality national caretaking workforce will take years, and shoddy national day care might be worse than the alternative.

An analysis of Quebec’s effort to expand access to cheap child care, for example, found mixed results. Its programs succeeded in raising the labor-force participation rate of mothers without breaking the bank for taxpayers. But young Canadians who were eligible for the program experienced, as teenagers, “a significant worsening in self-reported health and in life satisfaction” relative to Canadians from other provinces. So, did the Quebec child-care experiment “work”? Yes, for parents and public financing. Perhaps not for the kids.

Despite these challenges, the case for an expanded role in federal child care is strong. Spending on young children is more like infrastructure than Social Security. It’s not just a check or a transfer motivated by mere decency, but rather a savvy investment that returns its cost in the form of taxes and social benefits. The deep irony of the high cost of U.S. child care is that the very thing that is bankrupting parents today should represent, to the federal government, a grand-slam investment in the country’s future. Can U.S. families afford to adequately care for their own children? is a great question. But there’s an even better one: Can the U.S. afford not to? 

(Source: The Atlantic)

Monday 6 December 2021

Young lovers separated by parents finally reunite after 35 years

The love story of Jayamma and Chikkanna is no longer confined inside the walls of the Devaramuddanahalli village in Karnataka’s Hassan district.

According to reports, when they were young in love, their parents did not agree to their union hence they were separated. From growing up together to falling in love, Chikkanna and Jayamma had too close to forget about each other. Even though both the families knew each other well, Jayamma’s parents did not let her marry Chikkanna as he worked as a labourer. She was married off to someone else in the same village.

Jayamma Chikkanna Love Story

Being heartbroken, Chikkanna left the village and moved to another village called Metagalli near Mysore and continued to earn a living as a labourer. He chose to never marry anyone else. Jayamma and Chikkanna did not see each other after Chikkanna left the village but he used to enquire about her whereabouts from mutual friends and relatives. As per reports, Jayamma too was unhappy in her marriage. She had given birth to a son and continued to stay with her husband. Her husband reportedly left her and the house. After that Jayamma went to Mysore to live with her son. That is when Chikkanna got in touch with her.

Speaking to the media, Chikkana said, “She was always in my thoughts. For whatever reasons we couldn’t unite then, we decided to start our lives together until the end. At least in our final years, we can be with each other just like how we used to dream once.” The news of their wedding has gone viral now.

As per the report, Jayamma’s 25-year-old son was unaware of the wedding at first as the couple wanted to keep their relationship hidden till Jayamma’s son got married but the news travelled and reached everyone.

(Source: She the People TV)

Sunday 5 December 2021

I was adopted, I know the trauma it can inflict

On Wednesday, as the Supreme Court heard oral arguments from state attorneys seeking to uphold Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban, Justice Amy Coney Barrett kept getting at one question: Why was abortion necessary, when women who do not want to be mothers can simply give their babies up for adoption?

As an adoptee myself, I was floored by Justice Barrett’s assumption that adoption is an accessible and desirable alternative for women who find themselves unexpectedly pregnant. She may not realize it, but what she is suggesting is that women don’t need access to abortion because they can simply go do a thing that is infinitely more difficult, expensive, dangerous and potentially traumatic than terminating a pregnancy during its early stages.

As an adoptive mother herself, Justice Barrett should have some inkling of the complexities of adoption and the toll it can inflict on children, as well as birth mothers. But she speaks as if adoption is some kind of idyllic fairy tale. My own adoption actually was what many would consider idyllic. I was raised by two adoptive parents, Alice and Terry, from the time I was an infant, and grew up in a home where I knew every day that I was loved. A few years ago, I found my biological mother, Maria, and three siblings I didn’t know I had via a DNA test and Facebook.

The first time I spoke to Maria on the phone — she lives in Alabama, not too far from my parents, and I live in Brooklyn — she apologized repeatedly for giving me up and told me she loved me and that I would always be family. “You are blood,” she would say later. I told her, and continue to tell her, every time she brings it up, that the apology is unnecessary. I had a wonderful childhood and I believe she had made the right decision. But she remains heartbroken about the years we missed together.

Damon Winter/The New York Times

Both Maria and my mom, Alice, oppose abortion on religious grounds. My mom is white and Southern Baptist; Maria is Hispanic and Pentecostal. Both like to point to me to justify their beliefs, saying that had Maria gotten an abortion, I would not exist. It’s a familiar argument: The anti-abortion movement likes to invoke Nobel Prize winners who might never have materialized, or potential adoptees who might have cured cancer, if they hadn’t been aborted at eight weeks.

I’m no Nobel Prize winner, but I still resent being used as a political football by the right. I believe that abortion is a form of health care, and that every woman should have access to it if she needs it. But perhaps more than that, I resent the suggestion by people like Justice Barrett that adoption is a simple solution, and I resent it on behalf of Maria, who found the choice she made traumatizing and still feels that pain, 44 years later. Even when an adoption works out well, as it did in my case, it is still fraught.

When I echo Maria in saying that she “gave me up,” the language always rankles adoptive parents, because it introduces an unpleasant complexity — implying that my birth mother was not completely happy with her choice. Or worse, that it made her miserable. But that is sometimes the case, even when adoption is the best option for all involved. Adoption is not always an unalloyed good. It’s a complicated choice in a situation that has no right or wrong answer.

If the court overturns Roe v. Wade, many women will be forced to give birth to children they did not want or did not feel that they could afford to support. While pregnant, they will undergo the bonding with a child that happens by biological design as an embryo develops into a living, breathing, conscious human. And then that child will be taken away.

The right likes to suggest that abortion is a traumatic experience for women — a last resort, a painful memory. But adoption is often just as traumatic as the right thinks abortion is, if not more so, as a woman has to relinquish not a lump of cells but a fully formed baby she has lived with for nine months.

I’m a mother myself, to an adorable 6-year-old self-proclaimed Fortnite expert, and as is often the case, I did not know I was pregnant with him until the usual symptoms appeared a few weeks into the pregnancy. As anyone who has gestated a human will tell you, there is a vast difference between the fourth week of pregnancy and the 40th. By the 40th, you’re familiar with your baby’s regular rhythms of kicking and moving. When I awoke, my son would wake up shortly after and I’d feel him turning and stretching, or less pleasantly, jamming his precious little foot into what felt like my cervix. This is one of the paradoxes of pregnancy: Something alien is usurping your body and sapping you of nutrition and energy, but you’re programmed to gleefully enable it and you become desperately protective of it. It’s a kind of biological brainwashing. And this often happens whether you want to be a parent or not.

Justice Barrett is well aware of the kind of biological brainwashing that occurs during pregnancy; she gave birth to five children. And yet she blithely seems to assume that a mother can simply choose not to bond with the child she’s gestating solely on the basis that she is not ready to be a mother or believes that she is unable to provide for the child. She assumes that the mother will be supported financially and otherwise, throughout the pregnancy, even in a country where maternal mortality statistics are abysmal. And she assumes that children surrendered for adoption will find a home, and not a bed in the foster care system. She probably assumes these things because she cannot fathom being in this position herself. These are assumptions that stem from the privilege of being financially secure, having never needed an abortion, and perhaps the assumption that women who do have done something wrong and must face the consequences.

In my experience, some on the right believe that the trauma adoption inflicts is a consequence of irresponsibility. But unexpected pregnancy is not a de facto function of bad decision making. It can be a failure of contraception, the product of a rape, a mistaken belief that a woman is infertile. There is no justifiable reason to inflict harm on women and the babies they might produce in any of these situations, regardless of judgment.

The trauma doesn’t just affect mothers, either. Researchers have a term for what children who are adopted, even as infants, may suffer from later in life: relinquishment trauma. The premise is that babies bond with their mothers in utero and become familiar with their behaviors. When their first caretaker is not the biological mother, they register the difference and the stress of it has lasting effects.

I probably got off easy in that respect, in part because I did spend a few months with my biological mother before I was adopted, but that had the unintended effect of traumatizing my older siblings, who remember me as a baby who was there, and then suddenly was gone. This was driven home to me by my older sister Bobbi, whose first encounter with me was over Facebook. “All I can say is I remember you,” she wrote. “I have loved you and missed you my entire life.”

What Justice Barrett and others are suggesting women do in lieu of abortion is not a small thing. It is life changing, irrevocable, and not to be taken lightly. It often causes trauma, even when things work out, and it’s a disservice to adoptees and their families, biological and adopted, to pretend otherwise in service of a neat political narrative.

(Source: NYT)