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Betsy DeVos has invested millions in this ‘brain training’ company. So I checked it out.

A technician snapped a stretchy electrode cap onto my head, and I felt a cold pinch as she affixed each sensor to my scalp with a dose of icy gel. Perched on an office chair, with a rainbow of wires spiraling from my head, I followed the tech’s instructions to stare at a small orange object while an EEG recording device measured the electrical activity in various regions of my brain.

I was checking out the Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., branch of Neurocore, a “brain performance” company owned by the family of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. DeVos resigned her Neurocore board seat when she joined the Trump Cabinet, but she and her husband maintain a financial stake of between $5 million and $25 million, according to a financial disclosure statement filed with the Office of Government Ethics. The DeVoses’ private-equity firm, Windquest, identifies Neurocore as part of its “corporate family.” The Windquest website posts Neurocore news and includes links for job seekers to apply to Neurocore openings.

In other words, the family has a lot riding on Neurocore’s claims that it can help you “train your brain to function better” — addressing problems as diverse as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, autism, anxiety, stress, depression, poor sleep, memory loss and migraines. “Unlike medication, which temporarily masks your symptoms, neurofeedback promotes healthy changes in your brain to provide you with a lasting solution,” touts a Neurocore overview video. “. . . We’ve helped thousands of people strengthen their brain to achieve a happy, healthier, more productive life for years to come.” The company currently has nine offices in Michigan and Florida, though there’s been talk of making a national move.

When the DeVos-Neurocore connection made headlines during her confirmation hearings, I was skeptical of the company’s claims. I had come across brain training while working on a book, “Learn Better,” about the science of learning. The field is rife with vague and overblown promises. Last year, the creators of Lumosity paid a $2 million fine to the Federal Trade Commission to settle a complaint that they deceptively advertised that their memory exercises could improve everyday performance and stave off memory loss.

Neurocore hasn’t been subject to any federal complaints, chief executive Mark Murrison told me. But my impression was that the company’s premise runs counter to an immense body of research suggesting that the human brain isn’t all that trainable. Study upon study has failed to support a game or a tool that can boost intellectual RAM.

So what is our education secretary doing investing millions in a brain performance firm? I couldn’t find any public remarks by DeVos about Neurocore or brain training. Her spokesman at the Department of Education did not respond to my requests for comment. But in January, Neurocore’s chief medical officer, Majid Fotuhi, asserted to the New York Times that “Betsy DeVos really believes in improving brain performance and helping children who have syndromes such as attention deficit disorder.”

I wanted to understand what Neurocore was about.

Read the rest of the story on the Washington Post.

Eulogy for My Father, Otmar Boser

My father, Otmar Boser, passed away a few weeks ago. I said a few words at the funeral along with my brother and sister, and I am sharing my eulogy here. 

A few nights ago, my father, Otmar Boser, had a decision to make. At the time, it seemed pretty clear that a car accident had paralyzed my father from the chest down. His feet? He couldn’t use them. His legs? Also gone.

At best, my father might have use of his arms.

But my father could take a risk. On that evening, he could decide to get a surgery that might give him the power of his legs again. The risks of the surgery were high. Because of the nature of the car accident, Otmar might die during the surgery. Or in the words of the surgeons, he would “bled out.”

My family all went into the hospital room together to discuss the decision, and within moments, my father indicated in a weak voice that he wanted the surgery. He wanted the risk.

Then we hung around for some short moments, hanging out in the sterile room, standing around his bed, waiting for him to be wheeled out away by the surgeons.

We talked about the decision, and what happened during that short hour says a lot about who my father was as a person.

Standing in the room, tears in our eyes, the implication of the surgery washed over us, and my mother mentioned Greek philosophers and the value of the quality of life over quantity.

But my father interjected loudly from the bed: “Who cares” he said.

This was raw dad. It was alway clear what my father wanted. If he didn’t like what you had to say, he would tell you. If he didn’t want to hear about Greek philosophers, he would let you know.

On the flip side, it was very clear about my father loved, what he cared for, what he wanted. Otmar loved my mother with an outsized passion, and when I was boy, my mother was in an accident. (We are a family with a long list of medical issues.)

And a police officer had to tackle my father—breaking two of my father’s ribs–to keep him from joining my mother on an emergency helicopter ride.

My father also loved science, and he had an unending curiosity. He wanted more than anyone to really know. Time, alloys, space, crystals. I once remember my father discussing—at length—the exact process by which eggs hardened when they’re boiled

Then, still waiting for the surgery, my family said a prayer together, and at the end, my father said something along the lines of “Rituals are important.”

You see, my father believed in conventions. Doing the right thing was important to him. Being kind was important to him. He could be so sweet, especially to children and he’d read them endless stories, patient with all their wishes. In much the same way, animals love him, and for a long time we had a cat that would hang around my father’s neck like a scarf while we ate dinner.

Except, of course, when my father didn’t like the convention, and I’ll admit it. He had a slew of odd little habits. Picking his nose, chewing on bones, using his pinky nail to clean his teeth. I remember my father once going on a job interview with two different colored socks.

As the minutes ticked by in that hospital room, as all of us stayed together, talking and crying, in the florescent light. My father grew impatient, as we all did, and he said loudly: “Let’s go.”

This is the final and perhaps most important take-away. My father was someone who wanted to live life. I remembering him talking to me about the art of pouring a wheat beer— slowly. If you put a bowl of whipped cream in front of him, he’d finish off the entire bowl, even turning his finger into a type of hook, so he could get every last bit of  cream.

He and my mother loved their adventures, from walking across obscure bridges to the occasional moments of skinny dipping. Or just listen to one of his favorite songs: Mighty Sparrow’s I’ve Got An Itch.

As we all know, the surgery wasn’t fully successful, and my father died a few days later. But I say to you “Let’s Go”and celebrate who he was—and the memories that he left us. That’s after all want he wanted for himself—and for us.

Practice Doesn’t Make Perfect

Slate featured this excerpt from Learn Better about how, in order to get better at something, you need to know what you’re doing wrong.

Smart, focused criticism helps us figure out how to improve. Feedback makes us realize what we’re doing wrong and how we can do it right. As researcher John Hattie writes in his book Visible Learning, “the most powerful single influence enhancing achievement is feedback.

”I’ll admit that I had long ignored this fact in my basketball life. Before pick-up games, I’d often go to the local gym to try and improve but I wouldn’t really monitor my outcomes. I didn’t get any feedback on my footwork or track the number of shots that fell in. Practice expert Anders Ericsson sees this all the time, and he told me that when most people practice, “they don’t have a clear idea of what they should improve, and so they’re just wasting their time.

When it came to hoops, better forms of practice¾and targeted feedback¾eventually came in the form of Dwane Samuels. During his 20s, Samuels had played basketball at some big-name colleges, notching up minutes in summer leagues against NBA All-Stars like Ben Wallace. Later, Samuels found a spot playing for the Washington Generals, the Harlem Globetrotters’ perennial opponents.

 

Education debates don’t focus enough on teaching and learning

I wrote this piece for ThinkProgress about the need to focus education debates around improving everyday classroom practice. Here’s the gist of the piece:

 

Most school reform headlines focus on a pretty narrow area of policy. The latest voucher study will spark fierce debates, while pundits write heated op-eds on the benefits of non-elected school boards. In Denver, discussions of charter schools funding dominate the education debate. In Los Angeles, the conversation is all about school choice.

These issues are important. Private school vouchers could decimate the nation’s public school system. But just about all of these policy debates revolve around a limited set of governance issues and don’t touch on ways to improve everyday classroom practice.

This administration-heavy approach to reform stands in contrast to the research, and a growing body of evidence — and, really, common sense — suggests that instructional reform can dramatically improve learning. A forthcoming study by researcher Chris Schunn shows that curriculum changes, such as spacing out content, can provide a large boost to student outcomes. Inexpensive online professional development could improve test-scores as much as lowering class size, according to a paper released last year by Kirabo Jackson and Alexey Makarin.

 

But take a look at the full article–and tell me what you think.