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Category: Gifted Education

21 Sep 2020
Math Shows How Brain Stays Stable Amid Internal Noise and a Widely Varying World

Math Shows How Brain Stays Stable Amid Internal Noise and a Widely Varying World

Whether you are playing Go in a park amid chirping birds, a gentle breeze and kids playing catch nearby or you are playing in a den with a ticking clock on a bookcase and a purring cat on the sofa, if the game situation is identical and clear, your next move likely would be, too, regardless of those different conditions. You’ll still play the same next move despite a wide range of internal feelings or even if a few neurons here and there are just being a little erratic. How does the brain overcome unpredictable and varying disturbances to produce reliable and stable computations? A new study by MIT neuroscientists provides a mathematical model showing how such stability inherently arises from several known biological mechanisms..

More fundamental than the willful exertion of cognitive control over attention, the model the team developed describes an inclination toward robust stability that is built in to neural circuits by virtue of the connections, or “synapses” that neurons make with each other. The equations they derived and published in PLOS Computational Biology show that networks of neurons involved in the same computation will repeatedly converge toward the same patterns of electrical activity, or “firing rates,” even if they are sometimes arbitrarily perturbed by the natural noisiness of individual neurons or arbitrary sensory stimuli the world can produce.

“How does the brain make sense of this highly dynamic, non-linear nature of neural activity?” said co-senior author Earl Miller, Picower Professor of Neuroscience in The Picower Institute for Learning and Memory and the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences (BCS) at MIT. “The brain is noisy, there are different starting conditions – how does the brain achieve a stable representation of information in the face of all these factors that can knock it around?”

To find out, Miller’s lab, which studies how neural networks represent information, joined forces with BCS colleague and mechanical engineering Professor Jean-Jacques Slotine, who leads the Nonlinear Systems Laboratory at MIT. Slotine brought the mathematical method of “contraction analysis,” a concept developed in control theory, to the problem along with tools his lab developed to apply the method. Contracting networks exhibit the property of trajectories that start from disparate points ultimately converging into one trajectory, like tributaries in a watershed. They do so even when the inputs vary with time. They are robust to noise and disturbance, and they allow for many other contracting networks to be combined together without a loss of overall stability – much like brain typically integrates information from many specialized regions.

“In a system like the brain where you have [hundreds of billions] of connections the questions of what will preserve stability and what kinds of constraints that imposes on the system’s architecture become very important,” Slotine said.

Math reflects natural mechanisms

Leo Kozachkov, a graduate student in both Miller’s and Slotine’s labs, led the study by applying contraction analysis to the problem of the stability of computations in the brain. What he found is that the variables and terms in the resulting equations that enforce stability directly mirror properties and processes of synapses: inhibitory circuit connections can get stronger, excitatory circuit connections can get weaker, both kinds of connections are typically tightly balanced relative to each other, and neurons make far fewer connections than they could (each neuron, on average, could make roughly 10 million more connections than it does).

“These are all things that neuroscientists have found, but they haven’t linked them to this stability property,” Kozachkov said. “In a sense, we’re synthesizing some disparate findings in the field to explain this common phenomenon.”

The new study, which also involved Miller lab postdoc Mikael Lundqvist, was hardly the first to grapple with stability in the brain, but the authors argue it has produced a more advanced model by accounting for the dynamics of synapses and by allowing for wide variations in starting conditions. It also offers mathematical proofs of stability, Kozachkov added.

Though focused on the factors that ensure stability, the authors noted, their model does not go so far as to doom the brain to inflexibility or determinism. The brain’s ability to change – to learn and remember – is just as fundamental to its function as its ability to consistently reason and formulate stable behaviors.

“We’re not asking how the brain changes,” Miller said. “We’re asking how the brain keeps from changing too much.”

Still, the team plans to keep iterating on the model, for instance by encompassing a richer accounting for how neurons produce individual spikes of electrical activity, not just rates of that activity.

They are also working to compare the model’s predictions with data from experiments in which animals repeatedly performed tasks in which they needed to perform the same neural computations, despite experiencing inevitable internal neural noise and at least small sensory input differences.

Finally, the team is considering how the models may inform understanding of different disease states of the brain. Aberrations in the delicate balance of excitatory and inhibitory neural activity in the brain is considered crucial in epilepsy, Kozachkov notes. A symptom of Parkinson’s disease, as well, entails a neurally-rooted loss of motor stability. Miller adds that some patients with autism spectrum disorders struggle to stably repeat actions (e.g. brushing teeth) when external conditions vary (e.g. brushing in a different room).

Source: https://neurosciencenews.com/math-internal-noise-16796/?fbclid=IwAR0UIjZwPJ7XAlHpobyzJwNF267StISiPyVcXBHTfIb6UywrAyJ4dWZItjw

07 Jul 2019

Can You Make Innovation Happen?

Companies used to stay competitive by being reliable. They provided the tried and true. Customers valued companies that reduced the risk in their lives. But the technology boom turned that completely around. Now almost every industry must contend with the need to innovate. Customers want products and services that are high quality but also the latest and newest vs. the tried and true.

This demand for innovation has sent companies and their leaders into a tailspin trying to figure out how to make innovation happen. I’m often brought in to help them try to solve this dilemma. But the hardest thing for them to hear is that you can’t make innovation happen. There, I’ve said it.

So now what? Well, actually, there’s a lot that can be done. But the focus isn’t about making innovation happen. It should be on making innovation probable. And there’s quite a bit a company and its leadership can do for that.

Some key opportunities, that range anywhere from the simple to the complex, include the following:

Take the risk out of risk taking. One of the biggest challenges companies tackle is their fear of failure and mistakes. A great way to do that is to put it right out in the open. From the CEO to the frontline employee, creating a dialogue that tackles that fear head on helps demystify what it takes to make risk taking work for their culture and goals.

This includes sharing lessons learned, clarifying priorities, encouraging a growth mindset and focusing on the value from lessons learned.

Make risk taking more predictable. When leadership discusses how to mitigate risk it helps set a clearer path on how to navigate all the gray area of risk taking. This includes sharing a method for how to propose new ideas, build a business case and conduct low risk trial runs. When people get to take the risk out of sharing their ideas, they are more likely to focus on the risk of genuinely out of the box thinking vs. avoiding rejection or having their reputation ruined.

Get people sharing ideas. Imagination tends to have a fantastic domino effect when shared with others. One out there idea begets another out there idea, until you end up with a genius idea. This is often attempted through the act of group brainstorming. It’s a great concept, in theory. But where it often falls apart is in the execution. Too often the brainstorming sessions become a one or two-person show. Original ideas can get stamped out by group think and seeking approval.

One solution is better facilitated brainstorming sessions. Another option is leveraging collaboration software. Software tools make collaboration independent of time and place, and they also help focus and guide the collaboration to be more productive towards what the company is trying to achieve. Viima Solutions is an example of that kind of software. They focus on providing tools that help facilitate sharing of ideas wherever and whenever.

Measure what’s working and let go of what isn’t. Part of what makes innovation so elusive is people sit around assuming they’ll know what’s innovative or not. But what separates an interesting idea from a truly innovative one is the level of impact it has on the company’s bottom line. If customers don’t care about your idea, then does it matter?

If you know what to measure for, you will be better prepared to gauge whether the issue is the quality of the idea or the readiness of the customer. The latter calls for a phased approach, looking for early adopters and building momentum. The former calls for a post mortem and return to the drawing board. Key things to consider measuring include the effectiveness of collaboration efforts, impact on brand differentiation and consumer behavior.

Have a holistic approach. Though Viima Solutions makes their bread and butter on companies that use their software, they’re the first to admit that the biggest mistake is to think that innovation is easy, or something that can be achieved with a couple of quick superficial projects like introducing a new software tool or organizing a couple of idea challenges. These kinds of tools and methods are essential for driving sustainable results within the organization but won’t lead to innovation in and of themselves.

What’s ultimately needed is a holistic and determined effort that combines all the key aspects of innovation management: strategy, culture, structures and capabilities. The right tools certainly help across all of these factors, and in putting it all together, but you’re still going to need to put in the work to get all of those different aspects right.

Source: https://www.forbes.com/sites/hvmacarthur/2019/07/03/can-you-make-innovation-happen/#2f017db1b89c


07 May 2019
Advocates of gifted students worry about future

Advocates of gifted students worry about future

Moore Public Schools’ plan to discontinue a weekly class for its gifted students has raised concerns with state advocates for gifted education and rankled parents and teachers within the district.

The president of an Oklahoma association for gifted students said the move by such a large district is a “red flag” and sends a message that gifted students don’t need this type of special service. However, there’s no indication so far that many districts are eliminating gifted programs.

Moore Public Schools is the state’s fourth-largest district and received $2.7 million in state funds for gifted students this school year, more than any other district, according to state data.

The district announced last fall it will no longer offer Students Experiencing Appropriate Research and Creative Happenings, or “SEARCH,” a specialized class for students who score in the top 3 percent of intellectual ability. Beginning in 2019-20, Moore is implementing a STEAM class (science, technology, engineering, art and math) for all elementary students and plans to group gifted kids together within that class.

Billed as a great opportunity for all students, Moore says its STEAM program will increase consistency in curriculum across the district as well as give gifted students opportunities to accelerate. It discontinued SEARCH to allow all students to participate in STEAM.

Cynthia DePalma, president of Oklahoma Association for the Gifted, Creative & Talented, said Moore’s decision could exacerbate an attitude among some school administrators that because gifted students are smart, they’ll be fine.

“It’s a savage inequity,” DePalma said. “Gifted education is not a program. Gifted and talented children are a unique population — it’s about meeting the needs of these kids.”

Moore plans to continue testing students for giftedness to receive gifted funding, but spend it on the STEAM class, according to information released by the district. The district’s gifted education plan for 2019-20 has been submitted to the state Education Department but hasn’t yet been approved.

“The way we’re going to work with our gifted students is going to look very different,” said Moore Superintendent Robert Romines, emphasizing the district is not doing away with gifted programming. He said some parents and teachers have misunderstood the plan.

But many parents don’t agree.

“We’re definitely losing something,” said Jamie Eneff, whose son, Andre, is in third grade at Sky Ranch Elementary School and participated in SEARCH this year. “The general population of kids is going to gain from it, and I’m happy for that. But I’m sad for what my son is going to lose.”

Eneff said his son complains about the constant worksheets students complete in his normal classroom.

“He’s just not engaged,” she said. “It’s a relief for him to get to leave and have (SEARCH).”

Other students describe SEARCH as the place in school where they can express themselves, where people understand them and are on the same thinking level. “It’s my home away from home,” one student wrote after the announcement the program was ending, according to letter provided by a SEARCH teacher.

‘Left out of learning’

Oklahoma schools served 96,149 gifted students in 2017-18, according to state data.

Oklahoma schools are required by law to provide gifted education, but districts are given flexibility to design programs to serve their students. A specific class for gifted students is one of several options districts have but the approach is the most common, particularly in elementary school, according to the state Education Department.

Oklahoma is also one of just four states to fully fund gifted education, according to the Davidson Institute, a nonprofit that supports gifted young people. That’s an estimated $55 million this school year.

DePalma said historically, Oklahoma has had strong advocacy for gifted education but it has tapered off. And there is such a focus now on bringing low-achieving students up to a basic standard that districts often focus on the “bubble kids,” those close to meeting proficiency, she said.

“Kids who are already at or above meeting those goals are literally the ones who are left out of learning,” she said.

Consistency is goal

The changes in Moore actually will cost the district more, said Shannon Thompson, dean of academics for Moore Public Schools. The district reported receiving $4.5 million in state and federal funds for gifted education but spent $4.8 million on salaries for teachers in SEARCH, pre-Advanced Placement and Advanced Placement this year.

Implementing STEAM will cost an additional $1 million.

With that program, Moore schools hopes to increase consistency across the district, Thompson said. Currently, SEARCH is offered at 11 school sites, and students at other sites are transported to those schools, but STEAM will be held at each elementary site.

“We believe this serves the gifted population and the regular population much better,” Thompson said.

District leaders also are using STEAM to standardize the curriculum. Because SEARCH teachers have had the autonomy to create their own curriculum, some classes focus more on technology and others on humanities. STEAM classes will be the same at each site and area provided by Project Lead the Way, a program used in schools across the country to teach students in-demand skills in computer science, engineering and biomedical science.

But SEARCH teacher Teresa Potter said this type of “boxed” curriculum doesn’t serve gifted students well because they need individualization and acceleration. These students often are bored with the grade-level assignments in class but thrive in a class where they are challenged.

“You wouldn’t want your best basketball player sitting on the bench,” Potter said.

Potter’s students at Fisher Elementary School build wind turbines, debate at the state Capitol, research robots and compete in a fashion design challenge culminating in a real runway show.

The two-and-a-half hours allotted for SEARCH make these projects doable, she said, whereas it will be very difficult to tackle a complex project in a 45-minute STEAM period.

“It’s not that we don’t want STEAM,” said Potter, who is resigning from the district due to the changes. “There should be both.”

Megan Baxter, whose daughter Abigail is in SEARCH, is upset about the district’s decision to cut the class but keep the funding. She said Abigail’s regular fourth-grade classroom has 24 students this year, making it practically impossible for the teacher to conduct the types of specialized and engaging projects she does in SEARCH.

“The only homework my daughter has is reading. When she goes to SEARCH … it’s helping prepare her for higher-level thinking,” she said. Taking away the program is “not fair to these kids,” she said.

Read more:

06 Feb 2019
Why gifted pupils need more support

Why gifted pupils need more support

Not all gifted children are receiving the support they need in Swiss schools, with an estimated up to one in five not fulfilling their potential. Time to take more action, the Federation of Swiss Teachers says.

The Swiss state school system runs along an integrative model to include a wide range of learners, but the focus often goes on children with special education needs, explained Beat A. Schwendimann, a board member at LCH, which represents teachers in German-speaking Switzerland.

But gifted children also have special needs and require support. “Gifted education is often seen as an optional add-on,” he told swissinfo.ch via email. But it’s the school’s mission to develop the talents for all children, he added.

Studies show that 15% to 20% of pupils would be capable of performing above the class average.

That is why the LCH has drawn up a position paper, recently highlighted on its website, calling for compulsory measures across the country and at all education levels to support high potential children. “Ideally, each school should have at least one teacher specialised in gifted education, who can advise other teachers and the principal,” Schwendimann explained.

What’s on offer

Currently measures for children with high potential vary from canton to canton – as these oversee educational matters in Switzerland. This ranges from skipping a year and mentoring, to after-school activities and specialised schools. Teachers can also give bright kids additional material to do in class. But only in some schools it is a key aspect, Schwendimann said. The amount of funding for this also varies among the cantons. The LCH sees its position paper as a reminder that programmes should be system-wide and across all levels.

Due to the different cantonal approaches, it is hard to compare Switzerland to other countries. “However, Swiss schools could certainly learn from other countries that have a longer tradition in supporting gifted students” the education expert said.


As the position paper explains, spotting high potential is not always easy, as the pupils affected don’t always get high grades. Boredom or fear of being labelled a nerd can impact a high potential child’s performance. In some cases, frustration manifests itself as aggression or being badly behaved. This is why it’s important to recognize and encourage gifted children early, the LCH says.

“Gifted education should therefore be part of school development programmes and receive adequate funding and quality control,” Schwendimann commented.

Education expert Margrit Stamm told the Aargauer Zeitung that while she supported the teachers’ position paper, it might be hard to introduce measures across the whole of Switzerland. Many cantons do not have the money for high potential programmes, she said. There is also a tendency to concentrate on children’s deficits: six out of ten children in canton Zurich have had some sort of therapy – such as for dyslexia or occupational therapy – before they start school, she was quoted as saying. Plus, young children have different rates of development, which is why she is calling for greater flexibility about when children start school (for example in winter as well as summer).

The article also highlighted the story of Maximilian Janisch, Switzerland’s best-known child maths prodigy, and his difficulty in navigating the education system (see box), which he found to be “inflexible” in his case.

Schwendimann recognised that while many schools were working with individualised learning programmes, which makes it easier to develop measures for gifted students, others had no specific support. “To provide equal opportunities for students, all schools should provide support for gifted students,” he concluded.

Swiss wunderkind

Maximilian Janisch is Switzerland’s most famous gifted child. The maths genius, aged 15, has an IQ of 149+, and has just started studying at the University of Zurich. He is the country’s youngest student.

He found that the school system was not really adapted to his exceptionally high IQ. He went to senior school at age eight, doing his Matura, the exam that allows you to study at university, a year later. But he had to wait until he was older to be allowed to attend university.

His father, Thomas Drisch, a retired professor of mathematics, has argued that there is not enough support for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) talents in Switzerland.

Source: https://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/high-iq_why-gifted-pupils-need-more-support/44687732