Thursday, 25 February 2016

How to Learn to Love to Practice

Is there a secret to staying in the zone?

In interviews, famous people often say that the key to becoming both happy and successful is to “do what you love.” But mastering a skill, even one that you deeply love, requires a huge amount of drudgery. Any challenging activity—from computer programming to playing a musical instrument to athletics—requires focused and concentrated practice. A perfect golf swing or flawless butterfly stroke takes untold hours of practice (actually around 10,000 hours, according to Malcolm Gladwell) and countless repetitions to perfect.

Anyone who wants to master a skill must run through the cycle of practice, critical feedback, modification, and incremental improvement again, again, and again. Some people seem able to concentrate on practicing an activity like this for years and take pleasure in their gradual improvement. Yet others find this kind of focused, time-intensive work to be frustrating or boring. Why?

The difference may turn on the ability to enter into a state of “flow,” the feeling of being completely involved in what you are doing. Whether you call it being “in the zone,” “in a groove,” or something else, a flow state is a special experience. Since Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi developed the concept of flow in the 1970s, it has been a mainstay of positive-psychology research. Flow states can happen in the course of any activity, and they are most common when a task has well-defined goals and is at an appropriate skill level, and where the individual is able to adjust their performance to clear and immediate feedback.

Flow states turn the drudgery of practice into an autotelic activity—that is, one that can be enjoyed for its own sake, rather than as a means to an end or for attaining some external reward. That raises the question of how we can turn this to our advantage: How can we get into a flow state for an activity that we want to master, so that we enjoy both the process of improving skills and the rewards that come with being a master?

Sunday, 21 February 2016

No fairy tale: Origins of some famous stories go back thousands of years

Statistical analysis of language evolution helps estimate storytelling dates.

“Beauty and the Beast” is practically “a tale as old as time.” So are a few other folktales, new research shows.

Statistical ties between a set of folktales and languages from parts of Europe and Asia have helped researchers date the origins of some stories to thousands of years ago. The roots of the oldest one — a folktale called “The Smith and the Devil” — stretch back to the Bronze Age. The findings, reported January 20 in Royal Society Open Science, may dispel the thought that some well-known folktales such as “Rumpelstiltskin” and “Beauty and the Beast” are recent inventions.

“These stories are far older than the first literary evidence for them,” says coauthor Jamie Tehrani, an anthropologist at Durham University in England. 

When linguists study a language’s evolution, they trace grammatical and phonetical structure through time. “What we were interested in doing is seeing if you could do that for other elements of culture,” Tehrani says.

Tehrani and Sara Graça da Silva of the New University of Lisbon in Portugal studied 275 magic-based stories from a database of more than 2,000 types of folktales. Magic stories include beings or objects with supernatural powers and are the largest folktale group. Statistical analyses of the relationship between the folktales and language, as well as between the folktales and how they may have been shared by neighboring peoples, left the team with 76 stories that they thought were strong candidates for accurately estimating folktale age. Family trees, or phylogenies, of Indo-European languages throughout Asia and Europe helped the researchers investigate how the region’s language history related to these folktales.

Saturday, 20 February 2016

Five easy ways urban schools can experiment with outdoor learning

Outdoor learning isn't just the preserve of urban schools. These simple ideas will help you incorporate outdoor learning in a concrete jungle.

Whether it’s hunting for minibeasts in the playing fields or reading a book under a tree, the positive impact of outdoor learning on young people’s achievement and development is widely acknowledged.

But what do you do if your school isn’t blessed with acres of green space? From making the most of your playground to venturing further afield, we’ve gathered five tips to help urban schools feel the benefits of taking learning outside.

Embrace your school grounds

It might sound simple but the first thing to do is get outside. As Ian Tokelove from London Wildlife Trust says: “Ask yourself if a game or activity could work outside. If it could, then go for it.”

It could be as simple as asking students to close their eyes and tune into the sounds of the urban world.

Games such as follow-my-leader or hide and seek are good for familiarising students with their outdoor space. Older pupils could map the school grounds, identifying their favourite areas and explaining their choices.

Nicole Daw, a National Trust ranger at Leigh Woods, Bristol, finds a colour-matching activity works well. She says: “Using some paint charts from your local DIY shop, ask pupils to go outside and find colours that match the charts. Green is a great place to start, but it is incredible how many colours are out there once you really start looking.”

At what age is it easiest to learn a second language?

If you want to learn a foreign language, should you begin before a certain age in order to fully master it? Popular opinion holds that young children find it easier than adults because childhood is a “critical period” for language learning.

It has been difficult to prove this, but new research published by my colleagues and me, using brainscans and innovative statistical methods, does indeed suggest that our capacity to learn a language diminishes gradually over our lives.

The familiar mantra that children immersed in a language “soak it up like a sponge”, while adults apparently do not, is not in itself proof of the existence of a critical period for language learning. But it is both easier and more important for children to quickly become good in a second language they hear spoken around them.

There are many reasons for this. Children can spend more time and effort on learning than adults who have many competing demands; the motivation for children to fit in is much higher, and the habits of pronunciation and grammar of their first language are less deeply ingrained and thus easier to overcome. And, of course, all learning gets harder with age.

None of these factors have anything to do with a specific critical period for learning languages, but all of them do make younger learners of a new language eventually outperform older ones.

Grammar gripes

In addition to this overall and gradual advantage for younger learners, there is one notable qualitative difference: even very good older language learners differ from younger ones when it comes to using grammar correctly and consistently. Every time I mark a run of scripts from my adult students, most of whom are from non-English-speaking backgrounds, I find that while they are amazingly good at using a wide range of vocabulary, appropriate style and complex grammar, they often struggle with some simple grammatical rules.

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Four scientific ways teachers can cope with stress

From basic mediation exercises to learning to say ‘no’, there are many simple changes teachers can make to improve their physical and mental health.

The pressures of teaching can be difficult to manage and it can sometimes feel like you have no time to switch off. So if you ended last year feeling overwhelmed and anxious then the start of the new year is a good time to make some changes. 

But learning to cope better with stress does not happen overnight and takes some effort on your part. Here is a list of some simple, scientifically-proven practices to help you unwind and improve your mental health.

Learn the power of your breath

It may seem intuitive, but so many of us end up holding our breath, especially when we’re stressed. Breathing exercises work with the cardiac muscle to shift our vagal tone toward a parasympathetic balance. In other words, breathing deeply takes our body from a fight-or-flight state towards a calm and balanced one. Being aware of your breath for a few minutes every day, right before your class begins, or even with the students, can have amazing benefits for your health.

Try following the exercise below or if you want a deeper practice, try Pranayama, the art of yoga breathing.

  • Breathe into the diaphragm through the back of the throat for four seconds.
  • Hold for four seconds.
  • Breathe out slowly through the back of the throat for six seconds.
  • Hold empty breath for two or more seconds, then repeat.
Sleep better

Getting more hours of shut-eye is critical for our physical and mental health. Research by the University of Pennsylvania, for example, found that subjects who were limited to just 4.5 hours of sleep a night for one week felt more mentally exhausted and stressed. Their mood improved greatly when their sleep pattern resumed to normal.

Saturday, 13 February 2016

Gravity waves detected at last!

Scientists finally discover gravitational waves that were predicted a century ago.

A very special burst of waves from deep space has forever changed the way we look at the universe. These aren’t water waves or waves of light. They are gravity waves, tiny ripples produced by massive objects moving very quickly.

Two black holes produced the newly reported waves when they collided at some point roughly 1.3 billion years ago. Black holes are massive objects that trap light because their gravity is so strong.

Scientists announced the long-awaited discovery of these waves on February 11. That was a century after the famous physicist Albert Einstein first predicted gravity waves would exist. They are also describing their data in a paper published February 11 in Physical Review Letters. 

"It's the first time the universe has spoken to us through gravitational waves," LIGO laboratory executive director David Reitze said at a press conference February 11. "As we open a new window on astronomy, we may see things we never saw before."

Their discovery now gives scientists a new tool for studying the universe. Astronomers need these tools because not everything in the universe can be seen through a telescope. Stars, galaxies and other bright objects emit light that travels to Earth. But black holes are truly black. They don’t emit light, so telescopes can’t see them.

“Gravitational waves allow us to look at the universe not just with light but with gravity,” says Shane Larson. He’s an astrophysicist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

The discovery immediately becomes a likely candidate for a Nobel Prize. And that's not just because it ties a neat bow around decades of evidence supporting a major prediction by Einstein. In 1916, he came up with the idea for gravitational waves, also called gravity waves. He had just introduced his famous theory of general relativity. That theory says that objects with mass will curve space, similar to how a person standing on a trampoline will bend the fabric. The bending of space changes the motion of nearby objects. For example, the sun’s mass forces Earth to orbit the star in an ellipse, not just move in a straight line.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Five ways particle accelerators have changed the world (without a Higgs boson in sight)

The Large Hadron Collider is probably the world’s most famous science experiment. The 27km-long ring-shaped particle accelerator beneath the edge of the Alps grabbed the world’s attention in 2013 when it proved the existence of the Higgs boson particle. This helped physicists confirm that one of their key theories about the way the universe worked was correct – a huge step for science. But particle accelerators also have a big impact on our real lives. Even Christmas wouldn’t be the same without them.

Particle accelerators accelerate the tiny building blocks of matter by using electric fields to speed them up to high velocity/energy. These electric fields are the invisible force field created by charged objects, like static electricity or high voltage equipment.

These devices were initially invented to study what happens when particles collide with each other or with targets. These experiments allowed us to understand the particles themselves, the world around us, and nuclear physics (the study of the atomic nucleus). In itself this knowledge has been vital to the development of many technologies such as MRI scanners in hospitals and nuclear power stations.

There are also medium-sized accelerators that produce intense light or neutrons to allow physicists, biologists and pharmacologists to study materials, viruses, proteins and medicines, leading to countless Nobel prizes and new drugs and vaccines. They are even used by chocolate and ice cream makers to study how to make the tastiest products by using X-rays to look at the formation of different crystal structures and how to avoiding icy or chalky parts.

However, the most common type of particle accelerators are not the big 27km giants but the small industrial and medical accelerators that are all around us.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Why Reading the Same Book Repeatedly Is Good for Kids

(Even If It Drives You Nuts)

Does your child have a favorite book they want to read over and over again? Or worse, wants you to read over and over again? I bet you’ve memorized every word. You loved its adorable illustrations and clever text when you first brought it home, but now you’ve grown to hate it. You might even wish it would disappear forever. I feel your pain. I know it can be maddening, but before you toss this particular book, you may want to reconsider. Despite its annoyances, repetitive reading — whether you’re reading to your child or they’re reading to you — offers a surprising number of benefits for new readers.

Vocabulary and Word Recognition

The more a child reads, the larger their vocabulary becomes. When a child reads or hears the same book multiple times, they become familiar and comfortable with a greater number of words. That text you’ve memorized? Chances are your child has too, and that’s a good thing.

Pattern and Rhythm

Hearing favorite stories read aloud helps children become aware of the pattern and rhythm of text. Language is more than just words — it’s how words sound and connect to each other. Parents can model the rhythms of reading for children who are just learning how language works.


Fluency is the ability to read text “accurately, quickly, and with expression.” Repetitive reading allows a child to read without stumbling or stopping, and reading time becomes more pleasant for everyone. Once a child masters one book, it makes moving on to another more appealing.

How to teach ... Chinese year of the monkey

From exploring our simian relations to creating Chinese art and learning Mandarin, here’s our guide to teaching this festival.

Are you a rat? A tiger? Maybe you’re a dragon? Don’t worry, we’re not talking about your staff room persona – although we can all probably think of a snake or two – but rather the signs of the Chinese zodiac. The Chinese lunar new year and the beginning of the year of the monkey starts on 8 February. It’s a time of celebration and new beginnings, and a great way to introduce your students to another culture. So how best to bring a bit of monkey business to your classes?

This comprehensive year of the monkey education pack from the British Council is an excellent place to start. It includes detailed lesson plans and resources looking at the history of the festival, creative tasks such as making indoor kites and Chinese opera masks, and a research project on the endangered snub-nosed monkey.

For more background on the celebrations, this simple video will give your students an understanding of the Chinese calendar and its roots in the legend of a swimming race between animals of every species. And once your pupils have got to grips with that story, they can create their own tales with this simple monkey-themed story starter from PrimaryLeap. This comprehension activity uses a character called Marcus the Monkey to present a series of monkey facts before asking pupils to demonstrate their understanding with a quiz.

This Chinese new year-themed worksheet from TeachIt takes the traditional colour of the festival, red, and uses it as the basis for games and poetry-writing. Sticking with tradition, Twinkl has this resource that asks pupils to imagine how they would make use of the envelope of money given out for the festival, as well as a series of writing frames based on the animals of the Chinese zodiac.

Twinkl also offers these Chinese zodiac-themeddecorative borders for writing tasks and animal-adorned posters of numbers for a numeracy reminder. If you want to go further in decorating your room for the festival, these resources from the British Council will show your students how to make Chinese hand scrolls and traditional lanterns.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

The Musical Brain: Novel Study of Jazz Players Shows Common Brain Circuitry Processes Both Music and Language

Researchers scanned brains while musicians “traded fours"

The brains of jazz musicians engrossed in spontaneous, improvisational musical conversation showed robust activation of brain areas traditionally associated with spoken language and syntax, which are used to interpret the structure of phrases and sentences. But this musical conversation shut down brain areas linked to semantics - those that process the meaning of spoken language, according to results of a study by Johns Hopkins researchers.

The study used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to track the brain activity of jazz musicians in the act of "trading fours," a process in which musicians participate in spontaneous back and forth instrumental exchanges, usually four bars in duration. The musicians introduce new melodies in response to each other's musical ideas, elaborating and modifying them over the course of a performance.

The results of the study suggest that the brain regions that process syntax aren't limited to spoken language, according to Charles Limb, M.D., an associate professor in the Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Rather, he says, the brain uses the syntactic areas to process communication in general, whether through language or through music.

Limb, who is himself a musician and holds a faculty appointment at the Peabody Conservatory, says the work sheds important new light on the complex relationship between music and language.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Recreating medieval towns – an example of why Minecraft is a great learning tool

I recently told a room full of academics interested in using videogames as a teaching tool that “to play is the biggest freedom we can have as a child, or as an adult”. The popular world-building game, Minecraft, provides that opportunity at every twist and turn – something Microsoft has emphasised when announcing the release of Minecraft Education Edition.

After buying Minecraft in 2014, Microsoft also recently acquired MinecraftEDU, a modified version of Minecraft developed by Teacher Gaming to help teachers use it more easily in the classroom. The latest edition will make this even easier – but what makes this game such a great tool for teachers?

Minecraft is a creative “sandbox” game where the players dig up blocks in a landscape, craft them in to new materials, then use them to create whatever they wish. It allows players complete freedom to explore, build and experiment and is often referred to as “virtual Lego”.

The key to success in the classroom, as any good teacher will tell you, is keeping students engaged. Motivated and enthused teachers are more likely to motivate and enthuse their pupils, who in turn are more receptive and willing to explore, experiment, test and – most importantly – fail, as part of the learning process.

Building the past in blocks

In a recent archaeology undergraduate class, we explored the site of the deserted medieval village of Wharrem Percy in East Yorkshire. We did so without leaving the classroom – we recreated in MinecraftEDU using shuttle radar topography mission data available from space shuttle missions, combined with DEM software for viewing 3D models to create a 1:1 scale map of the region, imported into Minecraft using WorldPainter. From there, landscape detail including ruins, ponds, rivers and forests can easily be added in.