Sunday, 23 November 2014

Word recognition versus comprehension

Here is a new research paper which compares word recognition to comprehension:

It comes to the conclusion that word recognition does not necessarily imply comprehension. 
Any primary school teacher in the UK can tell you that.
Well, at least someone has formally put it down on a paper.
And it justifies why we recommend always doing phonics before comprehension for struggling readers.


Friday, 3 October 2014

Curiosity didn't kill the cat, it improved learning

Somebody has finally done an experiment whose results were obvious, but we accelerated learning buffs will be grateful for the publicity!

From today's Guardian newspaper:

Curiosity improves memory by tapping into the brain’s reward system

Monday, 15 September 2014

Whom do you trust?

Last night I watch a fascinating National Geographic TV program about the vital importance of first impressions.

This has very strong implications for PR, marketing and selling.
In summary, the following research findings were highlighted:
1.       Putting visual clues not in plain sight, but repeating them subtley, makes a big difference.    In several scenes of the program, there were posters and pictures shown on the screen – but not as the main focus – of milk and related items.  (A cow is a related item to milk!)  After watching these scenes, people were asked to pick what they most wanted to drink from a list of 3, one of which was milk.  They all chose milk because they had subconsciously picked up on the visual clues.
2.       What you say first is the most important thing.  They showed 2 identical twins doing an interview.  The first one said something positive and then something negative about herself.  The other twin said something negative and then something positive about herself.  They repeated the interviews with several interviewers who were blind to the experiment.  They were asked to pick whom they would hire.  They all picked the twin who spoke positively FIRST.   Apparently this is called the Primary Effect.
3.       Statistics show (yeah, ok) that people are willing to spend 30% more on a known brand compared to a generic in a supermarket.
4.       People are much more adventurous if they are NOT being watched.  If you offer free money to people in the street, they are unlikely to take it if you are watching them or even if you put up a big poster with a pair of eyes!  If they think no one is watching, they will take the money much more readily.
5.       All things being equal, people will always choose things that are easier to pronounce.  For example, which 3 of the following stocks are you most likely to invest in, if you had the money and didn’t know anything about them other than their codes:
·         CLEM
·         FDW
·         TAN
·         GZR
·         BARN
·         QXM
Nearly everyone in the experiment picked CLEM, TAN and BARN.
6.       People generally will not buy into anything if they believe it’s too good to be true.  This wasn’t in the program, but there’s a section in the excellent book “Flash Boys” by Michael Lewis which I reproduce here about two guys trying to sell an astonishing piece of software to Wall Street that had an almost unbelievable back story:
They never created a PowerPoint; they never did anything more formal than sit down and tell people everything they knew in plain English.
7.   People instantly decide if a face is trustworthy or not.  70% of the reason a politician gets into power is probably because people like his face.  Just think about the recent leaders of political parties.  It may be that the only reason that Nick Clegg is Deputy Prime Minister is because he has a nice face.  Will Ed Milliband lose because he looks a bit weird?  Would UKIP have got anywhere if Farage looked like the back of a bus?

 How does this apply to selling therapy for depression, my own particular point of interest?  The point that jumps out for me is that I think the reason that therapy doesn’t sell  is because it’s too good to be true.  So what we need to do is explain exactly how it works.  And the same applies to TIR, our traumatic stress therapy.  We need some to explain it in simple terms in one paragraph.

And TIR needs a better acronym that can be pronounced as a word.
And I need to do a survey showing my face and some of my colleagues to a bunch of strangers to see which one of us is the most trustworthy!

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Blowing my own trumpet and casting scorn on others... again

Today in The Guardian, the Daily Telegraph, Newsweek and elsewhere, there is a report of a scientific experiment at a US university to see if applying magnets to the brain improves memory.  The results are published in Science magazine.  
So it must be true then.
Well, not so fast.
Firstly, there were 16 treatment subjects.
Yes, 16.  A miserably small number.
The improvements were "20 to 25%" over the control, but only lasted 24 hours.
We don't know how many other papers on the same topic were not published due to failure.

We did something with memory in India.  We took 100,000 women.  That's a sample size of 6000 times bigger.
We made most of them literate.  They learnt 50 letters of the Hindi alphabet and how to string them into sentences.  The effect lasted a lot longer than 24 hours.   (We don't think literacy fades much if they keep practising.)  Our control group - the other hundreds of millions that we didn't put on our course - didn't get literate.  So the improvement was from zero words a minute reading ability to say an average of 10 words a minute.  That's 10 divided by 0 is.... an infinite improvement!

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Tories discuss stripping benefits claimants who refuse treatment for depression

From today´s Sunday Telegraph:

According to the government, 46 per cent of benefit claimants receiving Employment and Support Allowance, the main benefit for ill and disabled people, have mental health problems.
Estimates based on government figures suggest the state spends up to £1.4 billion a year – more than £3.5 million per day - on ESA for these claimants with mental health issues.
That's 260,000 claimants.
So if you can cure 50% of them of depression at a cost of £2700 per person, the cost will be £700m and the benefit will be £700m.

For £2700 per person, I will happily volunteer to be the therapist.  And I only need to get a 50% cure rate.

Tory MPs allege that claimants are just unwilling to avail themselves of the services available.  Obviously they don't know that the waiting list for CBT is several months in many areas, and the alleged benefit of CBT doesn't kick in for 6 months anyway.  

Monday, 7 July 2014

How to reduce crime through literacy part 2

The adult population of the UK is 51 million.
10% of them are Scottish.
5.2 million adults are illiterate in England ( reading age of 11 or below).[1]  So probably 5.5 million adults are illiterate in the UK.  (I’ve seen large numbers banded about for Scotland but I don’t believe them!)

9.2 million adults in the UK have criminal records.[2]
Let us assume that 25% of these actually went to prison.
(I checked with Howard League for Penal Reform but even they don’t know the total number of people who have been to prison, so I am using this as a rough way of getting the number.)

So we’re assuming that 2.3 million UK adults have been to prison.

48% of criminals have a reading age of 11 or below.[3]

So let's work with a manageable sample:

1000 people leave school.
102 will be illiterate (5.2 million out of 51 million).
45 will go to prison (2.3 million out of 51 million).
48% of prisoners are illiterate.  Which is 22 of them.

So of our 102 illiterates, 22 of them will end up in prison.

That’s 20%. 

Let's just emphasise that.  If we've got our assumptions correct, for every child you allow to leave school illiterate (reading age of 11 or below), a fifth of them will end up in prison. 

So let’s say we halve the number of illiterates leaving school, then maybe only 11 of our illiterates end up in prison instead of 22.
So we could reduce the prison population by 11/45 which is about 25%.

Let's just emphasise that.  If we reduce the number of illiterates leaving school by a half, we could reduce the prison population by a quarter.

(We haven't proven causality here of course, we're just saying there's a jolly good chance that we're right!)

But can we reduce the illiterates by half?

In our research trial of our literacy program ReadingWise English last year, in one secondary school, 30% of the struggling readers went from “illiterate” (below reading level 1) to literate (level 1 or above) in just a 20 hour intervention.  In fact their average reading age increase was 23 months.

That was only 20 hours.  So yes, we can reduce the illiterates by half.
At a rough cost per child of £262[4] for the software and say £3,000 for a Teaching Assistant for one week for 10 children (salary and premises and amortise a computer), so that’s £300, so let’s be conservative and say £1000 per child total cost.

And you’ll save £37k per prisoner.  Not to mention the staggering rest of the cost of policing and arresting and trying the poor buggers.   So that’s £5k against a lot more than £37k.
A no brainer.

My case rests.

[4] £5000 for a school of average 939 pupils with 20% of them on the program.

The smokescreen of stats in medicine, and how to reduce crime

Here is a s
uperb article about the failure of doctors to understand statistics, especially in screening, which leads to completely wrong recommendations. 

Gigerenzer, the clever guy at the centre of this article, suggests a standard set of questions to ask your doctor after he/she has prescribed whatever treatment/screening they urge you to do:
What are the alternatives?
What's the benefit and what's the harm?
Please tell me this in terms of absolute numbers. If 100 take this medication and 100 people don't, what happens after five years?

I am particularly struck by the third question.  I think this would be a lovely thing to apply to education research papers.
If you take the effect our English literacy program ReadingWise English has on 11-year-olds who have reading problems, and increase the term to say, 10 years, the answer is likely to be something like this:
If a struggling 11 year old does our program, he's going to have an average bump of 1 year in reading age.  If his pre-programme reading age was 9, you would expect him to go through secondary school learning very little, go into unskilled employment.  Or be chronically unemployed.  And the chances of the chronically unskilled ending up in prison after 10 years are x per 1000.
Whereas the bump of just one year in reading age would be enough to give him/her the confidence to actually pay attention to his/her secondary schooling, and get at least some vocational training, and therefore his/her chance of ending up in prison would be y per 1000.

So what are x and y?

There is a study by researchers at Northeastern University in the US which used a range of census data to find this out.  They concluded that "about one in every 10 young male high school dropouts is in jail or juvenile detention, compared with one in 35 young male high school graduates.

If we extrapolate these numbers, we would get:
  • If 100 stuggling readers do NOT do ReadingWise English, 10 end up in trouble with the law.
  • If 100 struggling readers DO do ReadingWise English, 3 end up in trouble with the law.
That is a massive difference. 
Yes, yes, you are saying, but that's the USA, not the UK. 
You're right, and I need to research these numbers for the UK, BUT I think it's an entirely predictable that a short sharp boost in literacy for struggling readers in UK secondary schools could make a serious impact on the crime rate.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

The conventions of Randomised Control Trials are too limiting

I just read a research paper slamming "synthetic phonics" and extolling "whole language".
Why do academics have to come down on one side or another like they are supporting a football team?

This to me epit​omises a fundamental problem that wrecks scientific research - we can't cope with cognitive dissonance.
Our culture requires us to assess stuff on one scale from good to bad, and then come up with a binary conclusion - it's good, or it's bad. 
What's wrong with a curate's egg - good in parts, bad in other parts?

Synthetic phonics (one of my pet subjects) has lots of good points.  "Whole language" (the other team) has lots of good points.  They are not mutually exclusive. 
The problem with most research is it's looking for a holy grail of "your one single hypothesis is probably true".   Everyone bow to the Probability Deity.

It's present in our justice system - a person is either guilty or not guilty.  What if he's partially guilty?  I know you can't be partially pregnant.  But you can be partially guilty.  You can be partially right.  You can be an almost complete shit and still be nice to your mother.

This problem besets research into vital development procedures which effect the lives of millions.
Some very smart people from MIT, I think it was, did a study which found that the benefits of microfinance initiatives are not proven.
That is so not helpful.
What we need is to know all the aspects of microfinance that are beneficial, and to what degree.
And what aspects of microfinance as it is now practiced are not beneficial, and what can we do about it.

We ourselves (ReadingWise) just did an RCT where we came up with the probability that our literacy program worked.  (It did, and remarkably well.)
That's all very well.
But what are its good bits, and how far do they work?  What aspects of it don't work so well?  That's what we need to know.  Shades of grey, please.  But we are trapped in an academic culture that disapproves of that.  As it so happens, I'm writing a supplementary paper where I can go into these shades of grey.  But to get a research trial published, you have to follow a very restrictive set of conventions which just don't help illuminate the issue you are trying to explore.

So please, academics, it's time to drop this convention of proving just one hypothesis with one parameter.  It's just so arbitary.  So 20th century.  

Test yourself - is Luis Su├írez (the footballer with a habit of biting people) a good or bad person?  You probably thought bad, because he bites people.  But maybe he looks after his Mum and donates lots of money to orphanages.  See - nothing is completely black and white.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Sociopathy in the workplace and family

There is a superb article about prosperity and the market by Hanauer and Beinhocker in Democracy Journal:

In summary, it addresses the following problem.  Given that  markets are not perfectly efficient, and people are not perfectly rational, and money is a poor measure of prosperity, how do you measure prosperity, and how do you increase  it?  They suggest solutions are the markers for prosperity, not financial wealth.  So Western society is prosperous because it has medical solutions, transport solutions etc etc.

All very nice, and I basked in a glow of intellectual satisfaction as I read it.

Then in the comments section, I saw the following by a chap called George Wells:
The article fails to consider the effect of sociopaths and their behavior. The sociopaths have convinced us that corporations, and by implication, all business has a singular purpose: to make the capitalist more wealthy. Anything, and everything that stands in the way of pure profit is wrong even if it means delivering harmful products or not producing beneficial ones because they are not sufficiently profitable.
Why is it that humans reward sociopathic behavior? That, to me, is the real question.

Yeah, George!  You hit the nail on the head.
(If you think his judgement is too harsh, go read Ben Goldacre.)

I think the challenge for us chattering classes in the behavioural science arena is to solve the problem of sociopathy in the workplace and the family.

Friday, 14 March 2014

The Case for Making Criminals Literate

The total cost of crime against individuals and households in England and Wales is something like £36 billion per annum.

Assume 40% of the prison population have a serious literacy problem.   (Most studies show it higher, but we are being conservative here.)

Assume that you can make half the illiterates in prison literate at a cost of, say, £1000 per head.

There are 88,000 prisoners currently in England and Wales.

So making half of the illiterates literate would cost 88,000 * 40% * ½ * £1000.
That’s around £18 million.

Let’s assume that making half the illiterates in prison literate keeps 1% of them out of prison and reduces the cost of crime by 1%.  That’s a saving of £36 billion * 1% = £360m.
So by spending £18 million on making them literate, we save £360 million.
Not too shabby, is it?

There’s two assumptions here you might want to challenge.

Firstly, can you make half the illiterates in prison literate?  Yes, our program ReadingWise English will certainly work on at least 50% of the inmates.  Last year we did a research trial on English schoolchildren with reading difficulties, which showed that the older the child and the worse the difficulty, the higher the degree of improvement.  We have extensive experience with making adults literate in other countries (80,000 at the last count) so we know we can do it.

Secondly, can it be done for £1000?  Well, actually, it can be done for far less.  The program can be done on a computer or tablet WITHOUT INTERNET and needs to be supervised by a lay person with 2 hours training from someone certified by my company. 
So let’s say it takes 80 hours to make a criminal literate, and there are 10 prisoners in the class.  One supervisor in 50 weeks can handle 25 * 10 = 250 prisoners a year.  But let’s assume a 50% failure rate.  Then one supervisor can make 125 prisoners a year literate.

Let’s assume the lay person is paid £40k per year and equipment for the class costs £10k per year.  That’s a total of £50,000 per year.

So the cost is £50,000 / 125 prisoners = £400 per prisoner.  So why did I assume £1000 per prisoner?  Because I’d like to be paid £600 per prisoner into my own pocket on a results-only basis!