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Failing to Succeed

This past summer, a project funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA , carried out a test of the Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2, the fastest airplane ever built. Traveling at 13,000 miles per hour, the pilotless plane will be able to go anywhere on Earth in an hour or less.

In the test flight, the plane worked perfectly, soaring into near-space orbit and then gliding as planned for nine minutes. It then “lost contact” with its controllers and plunged into the Pacific Ocean.

Here’s where the story gets interesting for educators. DARPA, and the project leaders, confidently hailed this test as a step toward a solution of great importance, and were sure that the hypersonic plane would soon be functional.

That kind of tolerance for failure as a step toward success does not exist in education research. In our field, any setback in a series of experiments is likely to be fatal.

The result of a system that fails to value evidence of effectiveness and gives up too early on setbacks is that we rush from one untested “miracle” to the next, learning nothing. The system discourages real innovation and rigorous evaluation.

With the path that we are on, the U.S. will have a 13,000 mph airplane before it has a proven, replicable approach to teaching algebra. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., is looking to change this by creating ARPA-ED, the education community’s own mechanism for dramatic, breakthrough developments in effective educational technology. It may be just the fuel we need to get proven education reforms on a faster track. —Robert Slavin


Breakthroughs in Autism Diagnosis

New research says it’s possible to help diagnose autism in babies as young as a year old, and an early diagnosis could allow for earlier intervention or potentially stop a child from developing autism.

Autism typically isn’t diagnosed until a child starts to show delays in talking and other milestones that occur after age 2. A study published in this month’s Current Directions in Psychological Science says the medical community has new clues about what to look for in even younger children.

For example, children who will later develop autism are less likely to show “joint attention behaviors”—paying attention to both a toy and another person. They are also less likely to imitate, said the study’s author, Brooke Ingersoll of Michigan State University.

If they don’t imitate, that could explain difficulty with language later. “If there’s some early disruption in these mechanisms that are involved in social learning, the children have many fewer opportunities to learn about their environment,” Ms. Ingersoll said.

Because social learning is so important, some scientists are trying to develop ways to work with toddlers who show early signs of autism.

One intervention, reciprocal imitation training, involves a therapist playing with a child by imitating what the child is doing, then encouraging the child to imitate her. The techniques are also taught to parents to practice at home.

Early results have been good, although the studies on several of these interventions won’t be finished for a few years.

“I think there’s a lot of hope that if we can figure out the right behaviors early enough, and intervene early enough, we may be able to prevent the development of autism,” Ms. Ingersoll said.

—Nirvi Shah


South Korea Cracks Down On Late-Night Tutoring

Well, here’s one educational problem we probably don’t have to worry about in the United States: Were you aware that the South Korean government is now conducting late-night raids to enforce a new curfew on after-hours tutoring?

The raids, according to Time, are part of a far-reaching effort by South Korean authorities to “humanize” the country’s education system.

While South Korea is frequently lauded for its students’ high scores on international-comparison tests, its leaders are increasingly concerned that its emphasis on high-pressure school-admissions exams is swamping innovative thinking and demoralizing young people.

—Anthony Rebora

Vol. 31, Issue 09, Page 10

Published in Print: October 26, 2011, as Blogs of the Week
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