[:en]Golden Tiger Award Winners for 2016-2017[:]

Special Issue ・ June 14, 2017
[:en]The Golden Tiger Award celebrates courageous innovation at Avenues.

The individuals selected for this year’s Golden Tigers had the fortitude to take big chances, explore the unknown, and challenge the status quo. With their imagination and persistent efforts, they have further lifted our students’ learning experiences and strengthened our institution.

With our thanks, here are the Golden Tiger Award winners for 2016–2017:

Joseph D’Annibale Ingrid Lamia Jamie Lilly Yingwen Chen Jacob Goren (Parent Conference tiger team), for offering a compelling student-led vision for parent conferences. Sophie Fisher, for blazing trails with Avenues Online. Sharan Gill, for research and development in HIP Writing. Mike Maccarone, for leading innovation by example, from IPBL to the global academic deanship. Todd Shy, for leading innovation by example, from program development to school visioning.

[:en]Learning from Children in the Most Remote Places[:]

Special Issue ・ March 10, 2017

A contingent from the Avenues Tiger Works R&D team recently traveled to Uganda armed with a doc full of research questions formulated in a months-long collaboration with the people of Project Hello World. Our shared challenge required a leap of imagination — can we reach out and work with communities around the world to make high quality learning accessible for all?

This work runs in parallel with the Project Hello World team’s visit to the New York campus in the fall of 2016, where students, faculty, and staff throughout Avenues built a Hello Hub, learning about community-led projects and gaining insight into building something for real-world use that can change lives in remote and marginalized communities.

Initial observations and results from this ongoing research were presented at SXSWedu 2017 in Austin. The team also put together a photo essay to document the research. Click the image below to share in the experience (or download a pdf).


[:en]Can Internet kiosks facilitate meaningful learning in remote places?[:]

Issue 10 ・ September 9, 2016

On the second Friday of each month, Gray Matters addresses a specific question affecting the Avenues mission or learning experience.


We will share our prosperity with those who need it, initially through traditional financial aid and, as we grow, in more innovative and broader-scale ways that leap the walls of our campuses.

The Avenues mission reminds us that being part of Avenues means both focusing on the lives of our students and shaping education on a global scale beyond Avenues campus walls.

Project Hello World is a non-profit organization based in the United Kingdom. It helps communities in remote regions of the world build solar-powered Internet kiosks to support learning, often in the absence of teachers and schools. Inspired by the work of Sugata Mitra, “Hello Hubs,” as they are called, promote a model of learning called learner-directed collaborative engagement. This means that a small number of students control the kiosk while others watch and co-direct. The surrounding students learn through vicarious engagement with the kiosk.

In June 2016, Avenues Tiger Works began working with Project Hello World to extend their curriculum development, educational research, and design and engineering efforts. In addition to this research and development, Avenues students will build a Hello Hub in New York this year with the support of Katy Garnier and Ivan Cestero, school leadership, and the Project Hello World team. This will present students of Avenues New York with an unprecedented opportunity to engage through the network of Hello Hubs and learn with peers living in remote regions of the world.

Research Summary

Can internet kiosks facilitate meaningful learning in remote places? The existing research, though preliminary, suggests it can.

Can students learn to use a computer without taking classes?

Three groups of students aged 12-13 were selected randomly from four sites across India. Group A (31 students) had a kiosk but no computer classes. Group B (31 students) had neither kiosk nor computer classes. Group C (42 students) had both kiosks and computer classes.

After the kiosk had been in the villages for at least one year, all students were given the eighth grade computer science examination, which is a 70-minute practical examination, 90-minute written, and 5-minute oral theory exam. A month before the exam, all students were given the computer textbook so they could prepare.


  • In the practical exam (35% is passing):
    Group A (no class, yes kiosk) scored an average of 58%
    Group B (no class, no kiosk) scored an average of 5%
    Group C (yes class, yes kiosk) scored an average of 55%
  • In the theory exam (35% is passing):
    Group A (no class, yes kiosk) scored an average of 41.67%
    Group B (no class, no kiosk) scored an average of 12%
    Group C (yes class, yes kiosk) scored an average of 55%

In the practical exams, students who only had access to a kiosk scored higher on the exam than those who had computer classes. In the theory exam, those students with only a kiosk scored only slightly lower than those who took computer classes.

What kinds of learning can learner-directed collaborative engagement support?

116 children aged 8–14 were tested from two different villages in India on three basic measures:

  1. Test for intelligence — Raven’s Standard Progressive Matrices (SPMRS)
  2. Test for personality — Catell’s High School Personality Questionnaire. The composite scores on leadership potential (LP) and creativity potential (CP)
  3. Test for kiosk usage — Frequency of Usage Test (FUT) survey.

Based on the results of the frequency of usage, students were divided into frequent (62) and infrequent (54) usage groups. School examination scores in mathematics, science, and English were compared between frequent and infrequent users when the kiosk was installed and again 2.5 years later.


  • In one village, frequent visitors scored higher on the intelligence test than infrequent visitors (62 vs. 54, p < .05).
  • Changes in mathematics scores were significantly improved with frequent versus infrequent users (3.16, p < .05), but improvements in science and English were not statistically significant.

Although we do not know exactly how students used the kiosk, more frequent use appears to aid learning mathematics, but not all subjects. This subject difference could be because math applications were more frequently used than other subjects, or because of the quality of the instructional materials.

Can a group of students meaningfully learn by watching one student engage?

Since many kiosks use learner-directed collaborative engagement, it is important to know the educational benefits of observing another learner. In one study, 80 randomly selected Japanese students learning English were paired based on their English and video game playing abilities. A music video game in English was selected. One student played for 20 minutes while the other watched and this was repeated five times with breaks. Students were tested on 41 vocabulary items from the game both immediately after playing and 2 weeks afterwards.


  • On average, watchers recalled 3X more vocabulary items than the players (21.70 vs. 7.23, p < .05).
  • The recall test two weeks later also revealed that watchers remembered 3X more vocabulary items the players (16.13 vs. 5.15, p < .05)

Students who watched another student play learned vicariously and were better able to recall the vocabulary in the video game. This flies in the face of traditional thinking, which holds that personal engagement trumps passive observation. One possible explanation for this is that students playing the game had increased cognitive load—i.e., the game mechanics distracted—reducing the cognitive resources available to concentrate on vocabulary. Additionally, it appears that vicarious engagement in this model is higher than typical passive observation, and it also created a safe, motivating context for watchers to participate and learn.

Avenues Research

This research shows promise, but it is new and preliminary. The Avenues-Project Hello World partnership aims to extend and strengthen this research base: to understand how technology can best benefit these students academically and emotionally; to document and research the challenges associated with technology-based learning in remote places; and to enhance the usability and reliability of the Hello Hubs themselves.

We are combining this rigorous research with hands-on work that focuses the efforts of our students, the Avenues team, and the people and communities of Project Hello World. This partnership holds the potential to meld new technologies with the much older values of community and service, offering new paths for children to learn worldwide.

If you are interested in supporting the Avenues-Project Hello World collaboration, please contact Faith Rosen (frosen@avenues.org).


“Hope‐in‐the‐Wall? A digital promise for free learning” by Payal Arora, British Journal of Educational Technology, 2010, 41(5), 689-702.

“Learning from a free-access digital information kiosk in Africa: An objectivist-constructivist investigation” by Johannes C. Cronjé & Dirk Burger, Aslib Proceedings, 2006, 58(3), 218-236.

“A model of how children acquire computing skills from hole-in-the-wall computers in public places” by Rhitu Dangwal, Swati Jha, Shiffon Chatterjee, & Sugata Mitra, Information Technologies & International Development, 2005, 2(4), 41.

“The relationship between environmental factors and usage behaviors at ‘Hole-in-the-wall’ computers” by Jennifer DeBoer, International journal of educational development, 2009, 29(1), 91-98.

“An initial investigation to voluntary and unstructured access to computing” by Rita Grobler, 2005

“Application usage of unsupervised digital doorway computer kiosks in remote locations in South Africa” by Kim Gush Ruth de Villiers, Proceedings of the 2010 Annual Research Conference of the South African Institute of Computer Scientists and Information Technologists, 2010, 93-103.

“Computer skills development by children using’hole in the wall’facilities in rural India” by Parimala Inamdar, Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 2004, 20(3), 337-350.

“Hole-In-The-Wall’ Computer Kiosks Foster Mathematics Achievement-A comparative study” by Parimala Inamdar & Arun Kulkarni, Educational Technology & Society, 2007, 10(2), 170-179.

“The effect of interactivity with a music video game on second language vocabulary recall” by Katsuko Kuwada, About Language Learning & Technology, 2010, June, 74.

Children’s acquisition of computer literacy skills in the Mamelodi Digital Doorway Project by Mmankoko Ziphorah Morolo, Doctoral dissertation, University of Pretoria, 2007.[:]

[:en]Golden Tiger Award Winners for 2015-2016[:]

Issue 09 ・ June 10, 2016
[:en]The Golden Tiger Award celebrates courageous innovation at Avenues.

The individuals selected for this year’s Golden Tigers had the fortitude to take big chances, explore the unknown, and challenge the status quo. With their imagination and persistent efforts, they have further lifted our students’ learning experiences and strengthened our institution.

With our thanks, here are the Golden Tiger Award winners for 2015–2016:

Angela Xu, for questioning sacrosanct conventions  of  Chinese immersion teaching Emma Creeden, Erin Finn-Welch, Todd Holcomb, Tiffany Reedy, Tim Steffen (World Course Tiger Team), for offering a compelling new vision for World Course Steven Carpenter, for leading innovation by example, from confabricators to tiny houses

[:ar]A Summary of Lessons Learned[:]

Issue 08 ・ May 13, 2016

Looking back

Over the past 7 issues, Gray Matters included research summaries ranging from the benefits of studying pinyin in Mandarin-language immersion programs to the appropriate amount of homework. In this last issue of the 2016 school year, we look back to summarize the lessons we can take from this research.

Want to improve long-term learning?

Variety is key. A review of studies examining long-term recall suggests:

  • Mix students’ practice
    Combine and distribute practice of diverse skills to increase students’ long-term retention. Compared to students who did repeated practice on one skill, those who completed different kinds of practice problems mixed together could better recall how to solve the problems in the long term.
  • Vary the context of learning
    Students practicing word memorization in different room environments were able to recall more than those who studied consistently in one place. Need to hold class in the library? Maybe it’s not such a bad thing for students’ long-term learning.
  • Test students’ recall
    Students who tested themselves on material they studied were able to recall significantly more than those who only reviewed the material. Provide opportunities for students to test their recall of skills or content they have studied.

Want to differentiate instruction for your students?

Forget learning styles. While fashionable, little research supports the existence of inherent differences in how students learn. Numerous research studies demonstrate that matching instruction to students’ learning preferences does not improve learning. Instead, focus on appropriate scaffolding and connecting to students’ interests.

Wonder if doing projects will interfere with standardized exam success?

Research conducted by the Knowledge In Action initiative compared students doing a standard test prep AP government course and a project-based course. Results showed that students in the project course actually performed better on the AP exam. Based on this research, methods to design project-based courses that aid standardized assessment include:

  • Adapt the standards
    Addressing standards in projects enables students to apply skills in an authentic learning context while simultaneously preparing for an exam.
  • Make projects the core
    Rather than being peripheral or unusual, make projects the key learning activities that provide context for content and skills.
  • Loop key concepts and skills
    In each project, revisit the key skills and content so that students have sufficient practice and can transfer learning to new scenarios. This aligns with the research on long-term learning cited above.

Think that some subject matter may be too abstract for a specific stage of cognitive development?

Empirical research on Piaget’s proposed stages of cognitive development suggests that no stages of development exist which guarantee certain cognitive abilities. In these studies, children performed inconsistently on the same test over time, sometimes demonstrating sophisticated thinking and later more naïve thinking.

  • Focus on scaffolding
    Skills and materials are rarely inherently too difficult for children of a given age, but they may not have sufficient experience, prior learning, or suitable interest for some tasks. Prepare students to succeed in subsequent classes rather than restricting content based on students’ ages.

Wonder how much homework to assign?

Homework has become an unquestioned part of school, but what’s the best way to approach it? Here are the guidelines from a survey of 4,400 research studies.

  • Keep homework under 2 hours for upper school and even less for younger students
    After 2 hours of homework for upper school students and 1 hour of homework for middle school students, the academic benefits of homework declined sharply. Almost no benefit was found by assigning lower school students homework.
  • Assign homework regularly
    Although teachers should avoid assigning too much homework, consistent homework has been correlated with academic achievement in numerous studies.
  • For older students, consider doing the work in class
    Research around models such as the flipped classroom (where students study content at home and apply skills in class) generally indicate academic improvement after implementing such models. However, more rigorous studies are needed to be sure of the effect.

Wonder how to balance physical activity and academics in school?

With cognitive development as a goal, exercise and academics might not be as contradictory as they seem at first glance. Research studies suggest that exercise contributes to the development of executive functioning, which enables students to focus, solve problems, and generate new ideas.

  • Intentionally schedule physical exercise and class practice
    One study showed that performance on a working memory task increased after exercising for just 30 minutes. Intentionally interspersing working memory tasks with exercise could aid students’ success.

Wonder if and when to teach pinyin?

Many schools in the U.S. wait to teach pinyin until a certain age because learning different pronunciations of words that look the same may be confusing. Additionally, Mandarin Chinese has significant complexity with tones, Chinese characters, and pinyin. Existing studies suggest the following guidelines in teaching pinyin:

  • No need to wait
    Research suggests that learning pinyin at the same time as learning to read in one’s native language doesn’t cause interference. If anything, it may increase overall phonetic awareness.
  • Separate the introduction of pinyin and characters
    Introducing Chinese characters and pinyin simultaneously may overwhelm young students’ working memory. A study of how best to introduce them indicated that students’ pronunciation improved most when first shown the character and then later shown the pinyin as feedback on the character’s pronunciation.


Teaching is of course both an art and a science — it’s not as simple as following a set of rules. The ability to connect with students and identify their challenges is a craft. However, the empirical evidence on how learning occurs helps avoid unsupported fads and guides practitioners toward effectively applying the science aspect of good teaching.

*Click on the heading links above to find which articles were used in the creation of this Gray Matters.[:]

[:en]What are the cognitive benefits of physical activity?[:]

Issue 07 ・ April 15, 2016


Physical activity in schools has long been acknowledged to have health benefits. Recently the developing field of cognitive science has deepened our understanding of the link between physical activity and cognitive ability. This research has revealed that time spent exercising complements time spent in academic classes, suggesting that both are necessary for optimal cognitive development.

General Introduction

The research around the effects of exercise on academic ability exists on multiple levels. Some studies use achievement measured through academic assessments to measure the effect of exercise. Other studies investigate at a micro level, which makes some additional vocabulary useful.

Executive function is a grouping of skills that use the brain’s prefrontal cortex for creative thinking and reasoning. Specifically, it includes three parts:

  • Working memory is a cognitive function that allows information to be kept in mind at the same time as it is being used in thought processes.
  • Inhibitory control is the ability to resist external distraction and internal urges.
  • Cognitive flexibility is the ability to switch between thinking about different concepts and process unanticipated information.

Research Examples

How does exercise affect academic achievement?

Studies on how physical activity influences academic achievement primarily focus on associations between fitness levels, frequency of exercise, and standardized achievement tests. One study split 1,490 grades two and three children into a control group and a group that followed a weekly exercise program for 3 years, assessing their achievement scores and body-mass index. Another study investigated the correlation of fourth, sixth, and eighth grade students’ fitness achievement and mathematics and English scores. Results: Over the course of 3 years, grades two and three children who did at least 90 minutes of activity a week had increased achievement on a 100-point scale in reading (1 vs. -2), spelling (4 vs. -.4) and arithmetic (8 vs. 1). The chances of fourth, sixth, and eighth grade students passing the mathematics test increased by 38% for every fitness test passed. For English, the chances were 24% for every fitness test passed.

Does exercise benefit mathematics learning?

Some studies have specifically investigated mathematics gains correlated with exercise. One study of 9 and 10 year old students investigated the fitness levels of children, their brain structures, and mathematics achievement. The study controlled for general intelligence and family background. Results: The study found that more fit students had more developed pre-frontal cortexes (the area associated with executive functioning) and also performed better on the math section of the assessment. Brain scans in the analysis suggest that fitness benefits brain development and, by extension, mathematics achievement.

How does exercise affect inhibitory control?

In these studies inhibitory control is commonly measured by having students accomplish a task that requires them to ignore a distracting stimulus such as seeing the word “red” written in green and having to name its color. In one study, two hundred 7-9 year old children were randomly assigned to a 9-month-long fitness program. They were given pre- and post tests to measure inhibition. Results: Students in the fitness program significantly improved their inhibitory control relative to the non-fitness group. The most effective programs were training in aerobics, traditional martial arts, yoga, and mindfulness.

How does exercise influence cognitive response time and accuracy?

Numerous studies have found that exercising and fitness enables students to respond more quickly in exercises requiring them to identify a stimulus such as whether a letter is a vowel or not. One study investigated if these results are also true with twins who have different levels of exercise. A group of 9 pairs of twins ages 11-14 were split between an intensive exercise program and a standard physical education program. Pre- and post tests were conducted that used a matching task to measure response speed and accuracy. Results: Both groups increased in speed over time by an average of 15 milliseconds. Those in the more intensive program on average responded with 5.9% greater accuracy than the untrained group.

Does exercise influence creative thinking ability?

Some studies have found that exercise primarily increases creative ability. In one study, eighth grade children were split into two groups: a standard physical education class and an aerobic exercise program. Their fitness was measured over the course of 8 weeks and also took pre- and post assessments of the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking. Results: students in the aerobics class increased their scores on average by 57% more than the control group in the area of figural creativity.

How does exercise affect working memory?

The influence of exercise on working memory depends somewhat on the individual’s starting level and age. One study measured adults’ performance on a working memory task before and after a 30-minute aerobic workout. Another study of 7-9 year olds had one group of students who participated in a 9-month exercise program and a control of students who applied but were wait-listed. Results: Adults with initially lower levels of working memory increased their scores by an average of 3.46 points after the aerobic exercise. All 7-9 year olds in the fitness program increased their accuracy on working memory tasks by an average of 3.6%.

How does exercise affect cognitive flexibility?

Using the same data as the experiment above, this study measured students’ performance on a cognitive flexibility task over the course of participating in a 9-month long fitness program. Brain scans were also conducted while the students performed the task. Results: While both groups showed improvement, the improvement of the experimental group was 4.8% greater. Furthermore, the brain scans showed more widespread activity in the exercise group.

How does exercise influence mental health?

The exact outcomes of studies on exercise and mental health vary between the mental health attribute being examined and the experimental methods. A meta-analysis of 73 studies calculated the mental health traits where exercise has the greatest effect. Results: a review of randomized-control studies showed that regular exercise programs contribute to reducing children’s depression, anxiety, psychological distress, emotional disturbance, and to increasing self-esteem.


Academic achievement, mathematics, inhibition ability, cognitive response time, creative thinking, working memory, cognitive flexibility, and mental health—the list of the cognitive benefits of fitness and exercise is long. Promoting physical activity in schools plays a key role in brain development, furthering learning, and general cognitive ability.


“A review of the relation of aerobic fitness and physical activity to brain structure and function in children” by Laura Chaddock, Laura, Matthew B. Pontifex, Charles H. Hillman, and Arthur F. Kramer, Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society, 2011, 17(06), 975-985.

“Aerobic fitness and cognitive development: Event-related brain potential and task performance indices of executive control in preadolescent children” by Charles H. Hillman, Sarah M. Buck, Jason R. Themanson, Matthew B. Pontifex, and Darla M. Castelli, Developmental Psychology, 2009, 45(1), 114.

“Effect of physical education and activity levels on academic achievement in children” by Dawn Coe, James M. Pivarnik, Christopher J. Womack, Mathew J. Reeves, and Robert M. Malina, Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 2006, 38(8), 1515.

“Exercise and children’s intelligence, cognition, and academic achievement” by Philip Tomporowski, Catherine L. Davis, Patricia H. Miller, and Jack A. Naglieri, Educational Psychology Review, 2008, 20(2), 111-131.

“The Role of Aerobic Fitness in Cortical Thickness and Mathematics Achievement in Preadolescent Children” by Laura Chaddock-Heyman, Kirk I. Erickson, Caitlin Kienzler, Matthew King, Matthew B. Pontifex, Lauren B. Raine, Charles H. Hillman, and Arthur F. Kramer, PLoS ONE, 2015, 10(8).

“Influence of physical exertion on mental performance with reference to training” by Yannis Zervas, Apostolos Danis, and Vassilis Klissouras, Perceptual and Motor Skills, 1991, 72(3c), 1215-1221.

“Is there a relationship between physical fitness and academic achievement? Positive results from public school children in the northeastern United States” by Virginia R. Chomitz, Meghan M. Slining, Robert J. McGowan, Suzanne E. Mitchell, Glen F. Dawson, and Karen A. Hacker, Journal of School Health, 2009, 79(1), 30-37.

“Physical Activity Across the Curriculum (PAAC): a randomized controlled trial to promote physical activity and diminish overweight and obesity in elementary school children” by Joseph E. Donnelly, Jerry L. Greene, Cheryl A. Gibson, Bryan K. Smith, Richard A. Washburn, Debra K. Sullivan, Katrina DuBose et al., Preventive Medicine, 2009, 49(4), 336-341.

“The effects of an afterschool physical activity program on working memory in preadolescent children” by Keita Kamijo, Matthew B. Pontifex, Kevin C. O’Leary, Mark R. Scudder, Chien‐Ting Wu, Darla M. Castelli, and Charles H. Hillman, Developmental Science, 2011, 14(5), 1046-1058.

“The psychology, physiology, and creativity of middle school aerobic exercisers” by J. Scoott Hinkle, Bruce W. Tuckman, and James P. Sampson, Elementary School Guidance & Counseling, 1993, 28(2), 133-145.

“The relationship between physical activity and cognition in children: a meta-analysis” by Benjamin A. Sibley, and Jennifer L. Etnier. Pediatric Exercise Science, 2003, 15(3), 243-256.

“The relationship of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity to cognitive processing in adolescents: findings from the ALSPAC birth cohort” By Dominika Pindus, Robert D. Moore Davis, Charles H. Hillman, Stephan Bandelow, Eef Hogervorst, Stuart JH Biddle, and Lauren B. Sherar, Psychological Research, 2015, 79(5), 715-728.[:]

[:en]What role should homework play in learning?[:]

Issue 06 ・ March 10, 2016

Historical Background

In the U.S., debates about the value of homework have been steady over the past century. In the beginning half of the 1900’s, homework was not nearly as common. Many school districts banned homework at the elementary and middle school levels in the belief that it only facilitated rote learning. That changed in the 1950’s when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, creating the perception that the U.S. needed to increase the amount of students’ homework to be competitive in the space race. Over the next 50 years until the present, the popular view of homework switched every 15 years or so between support and condemnation. Today research has enhanced our understanding, but the debate continues.

Homework: What’s the Point?

Numerous benefits are attributed to homework: better retention of factual knowledge, development of study habits, increased ability to manage time effectively, and heightened parental involvement. Evaluating exactly what of these benefits can be attributed to homework versus inherent differences in students or the quality of assignments presents obvious challenges. Further confounding research, homework often exacts costs in the form of increased stress and reduced sleep, which can negate potential benefits. Nonetheless, research to date provides guidance on homework’s role in achieving some of these goals.

Research Examples

How much homework should be assigned?

Although not unanimous, multiple studies on the relationship between homework time and academic achievement have shown that it is not a linear relationship: more homework does not equal more learning. One study of 7,451 13-year-old students administered a test of science and mathematics in addition to a survey of effort spent on homework, homework time, homework frequency, and the general circumstances around how homework was done. Results: student academic gains were associated with homework time up to 1 hour a day, after which increased homework time was associated with worse performance. This result varies with students’ ages.

How does the influence of homework change in different grades?

While empirical studies have not yet explicitly compared the role of homework in different ages, a review of the literature reveals clear trends. A meta-analysis of 4,400 studies up until 2003 found that homework time had different effects depending on the grade of students. Results: up to two hours of homework showed the most benefit for high school students, up to an hour of homework showed some benefit for middle school students, and almost no benefit was found among elementary school students.

What homework factors contribute to academic performance?

Studies that focus on the circumstances in which students complete homework have found that autonomy and effort are more important predictors of performance than homework time alone. One study of 483 eighth-graders from 20 classes analyzed students’ grades and standardized test scores in mathematics in relation to survey responses on homework effort. Students responded once in November and once in May of the academic year. Results: academic gains in grades and test scores were positively correlated to homework effort. However, other studies suggest that since effort and autonomy are highly correlated with students’ prior achievement, it’s difficult to say if this is a trait of the homework or of a certain kind of student.

How can homework best facilitate learning?

Practices from the “How can I improve long-term learning” edition of Gray Matters 01 should be implemented in homework design to facilitate learning. For instance, using homework to continue practice on material and skills learned in previous weeks uses distributed practice to improve recall. Homework that offers adequate practice of important skills also helps reinforce skills in a variety of contexts. A survey of school leaders around homework best practices found similar results: homework can facilitate engagement when it is an authentic, engaging extension of the class. Results: homework should be designed intentionally, with reference to most effective forms of practice.

Does the effect of homework change when instruction occurs at home and exercises are done in class?

In this case, the question is essentially if homework facilitates learning when it is done as a part class rather than at home. One model that represents this circumstance is the flipped classroom. Case studies done with ninth to twelfth-graders across a variety of subjects showed that achievement increased after implementing a model where students watched videos at home and practiced learning in class. In these schools the percentage of students passing standardized exams increased by up to 12%. Empirical studies comparing in-class work and at home work have repeated research design flaws, however, they generally indicate that in-class exercises have a positive effect for older students. Results: the research is inconclusive, but generally indicates that flipped classroom approaches have positive net benefits for high school students.

How frequently should homework be assigned?

The research on frequency is not conclusive, however most studies suggest that classes that receive homework frequently tend to do better on tests of achievement. One such study administered standardized mathematics examinations to 2,939 grade 7 and 8 students across 20 classes. In addition to the exam, students answered questions on frequency of homework and the average amount of time spent on homework each evening. Results: Classes that had more frequent homework assignments had overall higher averages on the achievement tests.

Does homework change students’ attitudes towards school?

Studies comparing the attitudes of students who received homework with those who did not receive homework generally found no significant results across a variety of grade levels. One study compared three different models for assigning arithmetic homework to 342 third-graders across twelve classrooms: teachers assigned no homework, assigned homework as usual, and were required to assign a constant amount of homework every night. Students answered questions measuring their attitudes towards school, teacher, arithmetic, spelling, reading, and homework. Results: no significant differences were found between the attitudes of the different groups.


The quality of homework and the students who complete it vary significantly, however the general research trends suggest that assigning homework does have benefits at the middle and upper school levels. Frequency of assignment and students’ autonomy in finishing homework were also correlated with student achievement. These results provide guidelines on the appropriate quantity of homework, but how best to incorporate homework content into an overall progression of students’ learning remains for teachers to judge.


“Adolescents’ Homework Performance in Mathematics and Science: Personal Factors and Teaching Practices” by Rubén Fernández-Alonso, Javier Suárez-Álvarez, and José Muñiz, Journal of Educational Psychology, 2015, 107(4), 1075.

“Ask the Cognitive Scientist Allocating Student Study Time” by Daniel T. Willingham, American Educator, 2002, 26(2), 37-39.

“Does Homework Improve Academic Achievement? A Synthesis of Research, 1987–2003” by Harris Cooper, Jorgianne Civey Robinson, and Erika A. Patall, Review of Educational Research, 2006, 76(1), 1-62.

“Does Homework Improve Learning?” by Alfie Kohn, AlfieKohn.org, 2006.

“Effects of Arithmetic Homework upon the Attitudes of Third Grade Pupils Toward Certain School-related Structure” by Norbert Maertens, School Science and Mathematics, 1968, 68(7), 657-662.

“Flipped Learning Model Dramatically Improves Course Pass Rate for At-Risk Students, Clintondale high School, MI: A Case Study” by Pearson Education, May, 2013.

“Flipped Learning Model Increases Student Engagement and Performance,
Byron High School, MN: A Case Study” by Pearson Education, June, 2013.

“Homework. Research on Teaching Monograph Series, Homework Versus In-class Supervised Study” by Harris Cooper, 1989, 77-89.

“If They’d Only Do Their Work!” by Linda Darling-Hammond and Olivia Ifill-Lynch, Educational Leadership, 2008, 63(5), 8-13.

“Research Trends: Why Homework Should Be Balanced” by Youki Terada, Edutopia, 2015, July 31.

“Synthesis of Research on Homework” by Harris Cooper, Educational leadership, 1989, 47(3), 85-91.

“The Homework–Achievement Relation Reconsidered: Differentiating Homework Time, Homework Frequency, and Homework Effort” by Ulrich Trautwein, Learning and Instruction, 2007, 17(3), 372-388.

[:en]Do students learn according to fixed stages of cognitive development?[:]

Issue 05 ・ February 11, 2016

Stages of Cognitive Development: An Overview

We’ll start with the obvious: a kindergartener is not the same as a 6th-grade student is not the same as a 12th-grade student. The differences are too numerous to list. Over 50 years ago Piaget proposed categorizing these differences into four stages of development, distributed into ages 0-2, 2-7, 7-12 and 12 onwards. Based on these stages a teacher should be able to predict how each student will respond to certain material, what will be too abstract or otherwise require abilities that are not yet developed. Similar theories have been proposed by Freud, Erikson, Kohlberg, Loevinger, and others.

Some modern versions of developmental stage theories are based in neuroscience, invoking what are called “critical periods” or “sensitive periods.” The claim is that during sensitive periods, the brain requires certain stimuli to develop properly. Oft cited in this literature is the fact that adults, blinded by cataracts for 5 years, can see once the cataracts are removed. But children born with cataracts, if operated on at age 5 years, remain blind. With the cataracts removed, the eyes are able to receive input and transmit signals to the brain, but the brain never learned—and no longer can learn—to translate those signals into images. This observation is extended to posit many such sensitive periods, especially during the first three years of life.

The Five Claims

There is no question that people have different learning capabilities at different ages. Rather, the question is how much of this difference is simply due to prior knowledge and experience versus being due to sensitive periods or stages of cognitive development? The following are five common claims regarding developmental stages and sensitive periods followed by their status according to current research:

  1. Distinct developmental stages exist that all children pass through at more or less the same time and order. Status: FALSE
  2. Distinct developmental stages exist that enable or inhibit performance on certain types of tasks. Status: FALSE
  3. Teaching content that is not aligned with a particular stage of development or sensitive period is ineffectual. Status: FALSE
  4. There are sensitive periods specific to academic disciplines—e.g., art, music, drama, history, reading or language arts, mathematics, and science—that should influence curriculum and pedagogy. Status: FALSE
  5. There are sensitive periods specific to language development that should influence L1 and L2 curriculum and pedagogy. Status: TRUE

Most human learning is not impacted by critical periods or on lessons being taught at a particular age. Unlike the development of vision, most things can be taught to children beyond their early years without detriment. There appears to be no particular benefit, for instance, to teaching music or number sense or reading to toddlers, despite claims to the contrary. Children learn these things at greatly varying ages and sequences in different countries, and their proficiency in upper grades bears little correlation to their start time in early childhood. When it comes to language, however, children deprived of verbal stimulation during their first few years do have greater difficulty acquiring normal language later on. Additionally, evidence suggests that some elements—specifically, grammar structures and phonetics—are more easily acquired before puberty, while other aspects of language development such as vocabulary and semantics are learned with equal ease across ages.

Experimental Examples

Given appropriate learning opportunities, children can acquire abilities prior to prescribed stages of cognitive development.1

According to the theory of developmental stages, children aged 4-6 should be unable to understand reversibility, which is that something can be changed back to its original state after it has been altered. For example, understanding that water poured back and forth between two differently shaped containers remains the same amount despite differences in height. To test whether reversibility could be taught to children ages 4-6, a computer-based educational game was developed that required reversible thinking to be successful. Children were given pre-tests, played the game for 30 minutes, and then given post-tests. Outcome: All children showed significant gains in their game play and reversible thinking as measured by a post-test. The gains were sustained in a follow-up test administered two weeks later.

Abilities depend largely on specific contexts and unknown differences. They cannot be divided into a consistent progression through stages according to age.2

One of Piaget’s central claims is that before a certain stage young children are unable to identify that another’s thoughts and perceptions are different from their own.

First study: A group of 18-month olds is given broccoli and crackers (almost all prefer crackers). Then, the researcher eats either the broccoli or the crackers and exclaims how incredibly tasty it is. The researcher then places her hand equidistant from the two bowls and asks the child to give her a snack. Outcome: About 90% of children offer the researcher the one that she exclaimed liking the most, regardless of which one they themselves liked.

Second study: Children aged 37 months to 46 months were shown a series of boxes that contained objects other than that indicated by their appearance (e.g. an egg box containing a spoon or a biscuit box with an orange). The children were asked what they thought was inside, shown what was actually inside, and then asked what a toy puppet who had been “sleeping” would think was inside. Students were tested once every four weeks for a total of six tests. Outcome: Nearly half of the children inconsistently answered with a correct understanding of the puppet’s perception.

Over time, substantial inconsistency in the same child’s abilities exists, suggesting that there is not a clear stage of development to which a child belongs.3

Children aged 54 to 73 months old were shown two rows of buttons. Each row had the same number of buttons and they are aligned, one for one. The children agreed that the rows are the same. Then the experimenter changed one row by pushing the buttons closer or farther apart. Then, the experimenter asked, which row has more? According to Piaget, younger children would solve the problem by going through specific stages of thinking in a particular order. Performing variants of the problem a total of 96 times over eight sessions, children were asked which row had more buttons and to explain why. Outcome: Children did not proceed through stages in order, but rather replied in a seemingly random fashion, sometimes getting the answer right with sophisticated reasoning, and then getting the next problem wrong with naïve reasoning.


While students at different ages do differ, no evidence exists that different ages correspond to distinct developmental stages. Rather, a student’s development proceeds along a much more complicated path, often in fits and starts and with substantial contextual influence. Similarly, with the exception of language, particular stimuli are generally not required at certain ages for normal cognitive development, nor are there age restrictions on when certain disciplines can be learned. More important than a student’s age is his or her prior knowledge, abilities, and interests, these things–not a hypothesized developmental stage–should form the basis of differentiated instruction.


“Top 20 Principles From Psychology for PreK–12 Teaching and Learning”, by the American Psychological Association, Coalition for Psychology in Schools and Education, 2015.

“What is Developmentally Appropriate Practice?” by Daniel Willingham, American Educator, 2008, 32(2), 34-39.

The Myth of the First Three Years: A New Understanding of Early Brain Development and Lifelong Learning by John Bruer, Free Press, 2002.

“The Persistence of Myth in Teacher Education and Training” by Catherine Cornbleth, 88-108, in Teacher Education: Curriculum and Change edited by David Hartley and Maurice Whitehead, Routledge, 2006.

“Critical Period Effects in Second Language Learning: The Influence of Maturational State on the Acquisition of English as a Second Language” by Jacqueline Johnson, and Elissa Newport, Cognitive Psychology, 1989, 21(1), 60-99.

  1. “Technology and Conservation: Facilitating Reversibility in Pre-Operational Subjects” by David Palumbo, William Lidwell, and Debra Lenamond, Presentation at the Annual Meeting of The Association for the Development of Computer-based Instructional Systems, 1991.
  2. “A Longitudinal, Microgenetic Study of the Emergence of False Belief Understanding and Inhibition Skills” by Emma Flynn, Claire O’Malley, and David Wood, Developmental Science, 2004, 7(1), 103-115.
  3. “How Does Change Occur: A Microgenetic Study of Number Conservation” by Robert Siegler, Cognitive Psychology, 1995, 28(3), 225-273.

[:en]Could pinyin in K-1 immersion programs accelerate Mandarin literacy?[:]

Issue 04 ・ January 14, 2016
[:en]This month’s research question was posed by Angela Xu and Abby Brody.

Language Background

Unlike an alphabet, Chinese characters do not tell you how to pronounce the word. Take, for instance, the similar characters 王 and 玉. These two are in fact pronounced quite differently: wáng and , respectively. To help address this challenge, the romanization system of pinyin was invented in the 1950s as a way of writing character pronunciations using the Roman alphabet and tonal markers. Adding pinyin to Mandarin language instruction raises questions about its influence on the learning of Chinese characters and on language learning in general.

Young English native-speakers in Chinese immersion programs are most influenced by these questions. Teaching pinyin to young learners who have not yet mastered English phonics could potentially interfere and cause confusion. After all, it is not at all obvious why the same letter would be pronounced differently. Fearing such interference, many immersion programs adopt the practice of waiting to introduce pinyin until grade 2. This practice contrasts with that of elementary schools in China, and secondary schools and colleges in the U.S., which do not delay the introduction of pinyin, and which in fact occasionally adopt the opposite practice of starting with pinyin and later introducing characters. Is delaying the introduction of pinyin for young native-English speakers supported by the research literature?

Experimental Evidence

While research is scarce on whether pinyin benefits mandarin literacy in lower elementary immersion programs, there is a body of research that addresses closely related questions. This research can inform our current practice and subsequent research.

For young native-English speakers, how does pinyin impact English literacy?

Since pinyin uses the same alphabet as other foreign languages, more general bi-literacy research is relevant. While the research shows different results depending on learners’ native and target languages, overall no compelling evidence exists supporting the concern of interference when learning two spelling systems at the same time. In the case of Chinese, one study compared the spelling of sounds between Mandarin-English bilingual 5-6 year-olds who had a primary language (L1) of either Mandarin or English. Results: Mandarin L1 learners showed difficulty with English-only sounds, but not those of Mandarin. This suggests that learning pinyin and English simultaneously does not harm one’s native language.

How does learning pinyin influence Mandarin phonological awareness?

Phonological awareness is the ability to distinguish and combine a language’s sound units, such as syllables, rhyming, and alliteration. Phonological awareness is considered a reliable predictor of early reading success across languages. Multiple studies have found that for native Chinese children, pinyin instruction improves phonological awareness in Mandarin. Does pinyin benefit the phonological awareness of Mandarin for native English learners? The jury is still out, though currently unpublished research by Caihua Xu and colleagues from Beijing Normal University and The University of Hong Kong suggest positive effects. Results: for K-1 Chinese students learning Mandarin, pinyin instruction improves phonological awareness of Mandarin. For K-1 English students learning Mandarin, the effects of pinyin on phonological awareness of Mandarin are yet to be determined, though unpublished research suggests it may be beneficial.

How does learning pinyin influence pronunciation?

Some theories of language acquisition suggest that showing students pinyin and characters simultaneously strains working memory and results in poorer pronunciation recall. To test this, students aged 13-14 were quizzed using vocabulary cards showing only a Chinese character or showing a character with English and pinyin. A card was selected randomly and students were asked how to pronounce the character. If they pronounced it incorrectly then one of two methods of correction were tested: they were either shown the pinyin or told to listen closely to the pronunciation and repeat. Students were evaluated based on the number of correct responses and number of attempts until correct pronunciation. Results: students achieved better pronunciation when seeing Chinese characters alone followed with pinyin feedback. Best results were achieved with visual feedback versus verbal-only feedback.

How does learning pinyin before characters influence learning characters?

College students in an introductory Mandarin course were split into two groups. Group 1 began learning Chinese characters and pinyin simultaneously. Group 2 first began by learning pinyin and only began learning characters after three weeks. The two groups were compared with the same tests in terms of listening comprehension, phonetic discrimination, grammar, and oral fluency in conversation. Results: after one semester group 2 scored higher on pinyin transcription, and after one year scored higher in oral fluency.

How does pinyin fluency influence learning characters?

Given the tool of pinyin, educators may worry that learners will use pinyin as a crutch that will hinder their motivation and ability to learn characters. To evaluate this concern, beginning students of Mandarin aged 12-14 were randomly selected and given tasks evaluating their level of ability in character recognition, pinyin, and listening. They also completed surveys about how much time they spent learning pinyin and practicing characters. Results: pinyin ability and time spent studying pinyin were not correlated with character recognition.


No credible evidence exists suggesting that pinyin detracts from the learning of characters or other areas of the language, or that delaying pinyin instruction for K-1 learners is beneficial to learning Mandarin. However, more research is needed with regard to early native English learners. To this end, Angela Xu, Immersion Coordinator for Avenues ELC/LS, has initiated a potential collaboration between the Tiger Works R&D group and Professor Caihua Xu from Beijing Normal University to conduct such research. This longitudinal study will be led by Angela and will explore the effects of introducing pinyin to first graders in 2016–17.


  1. “Effects of Pinyin and First Language Words in Learning of Chinese Characters as a Second Language” by Kevin Chung, Journal of Behavioral Education, 2003,12(3), 207–223.
  2. “Effects of Pinyin Learning on Development of Phonological Awareness in Kindergarten” by Ren Ping, Xu Fen, and Zhang Ruiping, Acta Psychologica Sinica, 2006, 38(1), 41–46.
  3. “Effects of Time Lag in the Introduction of Characters Into the Chinese Language Curriculum” by Jerome Packard, The Modern Language Journal, 1990, 74(2), 167–175.
  4. “The Relation Between Children’s Phonological Awareness and Ability of Pinyin in Primary School” by Xu Fen and Ren Ping, Chinese Journal of Applied Psychology, 2004, 10(4), 22–27.
  5. “The Role of Pinyin Proficiency in the Acquisition of L2 Vocabulary Among English-Speaking Secondary School Learners of Chinese” by Andy Castro, Doctoral Dissertation at University of Sheffield, 2014.
  6. “Shared Orthography: Do Shared Written Symbols Influence the Perception of L2 Sounds?” by Carolyn Pytlyk, The Modern Language Journal, 2011, 95(4), 541-557.
  7. “Phonemic Representation and Early Spelling Errors in Bilingual Children” by Stephanie H. M. Yeong and Susan J. Rickard Liow, Scientific Studies of Reading, 2010, 14(5), 387-406.

[:en]Can project-based learning adequately prepare students for AP-type tests?[:]

Issue 03 ・ December 10, 2015

Project-based learning (PBL), with its focus on solving real-world problems, is frequently advocated in opposition to more test-focused curricula such as Advanced Placement (AP). Teachers in traditional AP courses typically use direct instruction to cover the wide breadth of content students need for the exam. By contrast, teachers in PBL courses use projects that emphasize depth over breadth, which means that certain content is covered more deeply, but at the cost of covering less content. Given this breadth-for-depth tradeoff, PBL skeptics argue that a project-based methodology cannot adequately prepare students for the rigors of college-preparatory testing and coursework. Are there any well-researched examples of rigorous PBL that answer this charge?

The Knowledge in Action (KIA) Initiative1

The Knowledge in Action (KIA) initiative, sponsored by the George Lucas Educational Foundation (GLEF), promotes the design and delivery of rigorous PBL for college-preparatory courses in combination with research on learning outcomes. Five design principles define the KIA approach to PBL:

  1. Rigorous projects as the spine of courses (“the main dish, not the dessert”);
  2. Iterative, interleaved project cycles where each project builds on the other;
  3. Engagement that creates a “need to know”;
  4. Teachers as co-designers and collaborators;
  5. Courses that can be scaled and used by others.

This line of research received the 2013 Exemplary Research in Social Studies Award from the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS).2

Summary of One KIA Experiment3

Research Question: Can project-based learning be used in a high school AP U.S. Government and Politics course to improve AP test scores?

Traditionally taught AP and PBL AP courses were compared across four different class scenarios across four schools: 289 students in total (control group: 114 students received traditional AP courses; experimental group: 175 received PBL courses). Students were compared both in terms of AP score results and in terms of a scenario exam that challenged them to apply the course learning to new areas.


AP Exam Scores: Students in the PBL course scored significantly higher on the AP test than those in the traditionally taught courses. Since many more students in the PBL course took the AP exam than in the traditional course (98% vs. 73%), the possible score difference may be even larger than indicated by the results.

Scenario Exam Scores: No significant difference in performance was found, a result attributed by the authors to a floor effect (i.e., the exam was so difficult and the time given to take it so short that everybody did poorly).

The authors explain the performance difference on the AP exam by suggesting that AP courses traditionally emphasize “fast, superficial learning at the expense of meaningful learning,” which results in low memory retention and low transferability. KIA-PBL, by contrast, emphasizes “deeper conceptual learning and capacity for adaptive transfer,” which results in high memory retention and high transferability.


The results of the KIA initiative prove that rigorous PBL is possible and that such approaches can effectively prepare students for the rigors of college-preparatory testing and coursework. Accordingly, the KIA methodology and five design principles should be considered when designing project-based courses.


  1. See http://www.edutopia.org/knowledge-in-action-PBL-research.
  2. “Rethinking Advanced High School Coursework: Tackling the Depth/Breadth Tension in the AP US Government and Politics Course” by W. Parker, S. Mosborg, J. Bransford, N. Vye, J. Wilkerson, and R. Abbott, J. Curriculum Studies, 2011, Vol. 43(4), 533–559.
  3. “Beyond Breadth-Speed-Test: Toward Deeper Knowing and Engagement in an Advanced Placement Course” by W. Parker, J. Lo, A. Jude Yeo, S. Valencia, D. Nguyen, R. Abbott, S. Nolen, J. Bransford, N. Vye, American Educational Research Journal, December 2013, Vol. 50(6), 1424–1459.

Special thanks to Matt Scott for his review and suggestions.[:]