Brain stimulation sounds futuristic. But education is all about changing the brain, and it’s possible that new tools are available to help us do just that. In our latest addition to the neuro-hit / neuro-myth resource, we introduce the concept of brain stimulation and take a look at the current evidence on whether it is effective for improving learning outcomes.
CEN director Professor Michael Thomas and CEN member Professor Chloë Marshall were keynote speakers at a conference in Geneva, Switzerland, organised by ASK (All Special Kids). ASK is a non-governmental organisation that supports children with special educational needs, and their families and teachers. The theme of ASK’s annual conference this year was educational neuroscience.
Chloë’s workshop on the afternoon of Friday 6th October 2017 was entitled “Educational neuroscience: neuromyths and neurohits in the education of children with special educational needs”. It introduced teachers to educational neuroscience as a discipline and how its findings might support children with special educational needs. It generated a valuable discussion about how to evaluate educational interventions that claim to have a basis in neuroscience, and how to identify neuromyths.
Michael’s presentation on the morning of Saturday 7th October 2017 was entitled “Educational neuroscience aims to use insights into brain function to shape educational practices – How can it help children with special educational needs?” It considered the links between new findings in neuroscience and teaching approaches for children with Special Educational Needs. The session sparked a great deal of interest amongst parents and teachers alike.
Paul Howard-Jones (Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol)
Sara Baker (Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge)
Michelle Ellefson (Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge)
In the October issue of Tatler magazine, CEN PhD student Cathy Rogers discusses research on how widespread use of touchscreen tablets may be influencing toddlers’ cognitive and brain development. She describes Birkbeck’s TABLET (Toddler Attentional Behaviours and Learning with Touchscreens) project, one of the few longitudinal studies designed to look at the effect of touchscreens on very young children.
Fiona Button, who is soon to complete the MSc in Educational Neuroscience, has won a grant from the education charity SHINE to develop Button Spelling, an app to teach the spelling of difficult words using visual mnemonics. An initial trial, which formed Fiona’s dissertation project, showed that using these mnemonics significantly improved children’s retention of tricky spellings. The Let Teachers SHINE grant will enable Fiona to develop a prototype version of the app and to test it in participating schools.
The competition for these grants was fierce, with only 10 of the 147 applicants being successful. A big congratulations to Fiona! Her dissertation supervisor, Prof. Chloë Marshall at UCL Institute of Education, said “I am very proud of Fiona, and she richly deserves this award. She has developed a really innovative set of materials for helping children to remember words that are tricky to spell, and the creation of an app will allow children greater autonomy in working on their spellings. Fiona’s achievement encapsulates what is so valuable about the MSc in Educational Neuroscience. The programme encourages teachers to bridge the gap between research and practice in the science of learning, and to contribute to creating a more secure evidence base for education.”
Fiona will be presenting her research at a CEN seminar at 4-5pm on 23rd November. Check http://www.educationalneuroscience.org.uk/seminars/ from October for details.
The idea that our intellectual ability is written in the stars is not one that’s confined to the classroom, but it’s certainly relevant, indeed central, to the way that teachers approach their craft. This idea is also key to the way that children are perceived, and the way that they perceive themselves. In our latest addition to the neuro-hit / neuro-myth resource, we explore what intelligence is, then look at the literature around how performance on cognitive tasks can be advanced or held back.
UCL Institute of Education is establishing a new investment in a Centre for Education Improvement Science, and is currently recruiting a Director for this flagship initiative. See here for more information.
In the second Annual Learnus Public Lecture on educational neuroscience held at Church House in Westminster on 17th May 2017, Professor Sue Gathercole (MRC-CBU, University of Cambridge) talked about the challenges faced by families, practitioners and policy-makers in supporting children who are struggling to learn.
She identified major hazards. These include social inequities, difficulties in identifying underlying problems in children whose first language is not English, haphazard routes to professional help, dependence on diagnoses that are of limited value, and an unrealistic emphasis on cure rather than compensation.
Prof. Gathercole argued that diagnoses of specific disorders, such as dyslexia, dyspraxia, developmental language disorder, dyscalculia and ADHD, might provide re-assurance to parents and access to therapeutic resources. However, more often than not, children exhibit more than one ‘disorder’, symptoms can be highly variable for child assigned the same disorder, and separate diagnoses play down the similarities often shown between children with different disorders. Individual diagnoses therefore can hinder identification of underlying cause or most pragmatic treatment.
She illustrated some of the challenges by describing recent research on struggling learners at the Centre for Attention, Learning, and Memory (CALM). In one study, a large sample of over 400 children were recruited through educational referrals for a range of learning problems. Detailed profiling of the children indicated that dimensions of cognition and behaviour were more important than diagnoses. She also presented evidence on when intensive cognitive training could be most effective. While no panacea, it was most beneficial when children had to learn to do something new, rather than striving to overcome a narrow core problem.
Lastly, neuroimaging of the brain structure of the struggling learners pointed to inefficient white matter connectivity as a marker of learning problems. Indeed, measures of brain connectivity could predict maths and reading ability.
An enthusiastic audience raised a number of questions in the Discussion session, including the relative neglect of secondary education as a period to remediate deficits not addressed through early intervention, the importance of the child’s self-esteem in response to their slower learning progress, and the role of the teacher in identifying each child’s strengths as a foundation on which to build strategies to overcome their difficulties. Professor Gathercole finished by describing an ambitious future project to collect advice and tips from university students who have overcome learning challenges on the best strategies to pass on to the struggling learners of tomorrow.
There’s a wealth of information available on the internet for teachers who want to introduce mindfulness into their classrooms; and indeed why wouldn’t you when the purported benefits for your class include reducing mental health issues, developing compassion, reducing anxiety and increasing attention? In our latest addition to the neuro-hit / neuro-myth resource, we introduce the concept of mindfulness, take a look at the available literature on whether it is actually beneficial and ask, if it is beneficial, why that might be.
In an article in the Psychologist magazine, Michael Thomas discusses new research on the impact of differences in socio-economic status (SES) on children’s cognitive and brain development, and how these are associated with differences in education-relevant skills that are already present when children start school. The article was based on a talk presented at a Learnus Mediated Workshop. The video of the presentation can be found here.
What are the policy implications of this research? The article highlights three:
- Just because the effects of low SES are measurable in the brain does not imply they cannot be reversed. Outside of cases of severe neglect, many cognitive differences shown by children from very low SES families respond well to training techniques, such as those that focus on executive functions and engage with parents.
- A mechanistic perspective highlights multiple points of possible intervention (directly on SES, indirectly on experiences or biological processes that mediate SES effects, indirectly on brain development by training specific neurocognitive functions, and directly on outcomes educationally or therapeutically); and they allow fostering of factors of resilience such as the mother–child or caregiver–child relationship
- Measures of brain function make the greatest contribution where they can show that two individuals with similar behaviour actually exhibit the behaviour for different reasons. This might imply that, for example, childhood emotional regulation difficulties caused by adverse childhood events are best addressed by therapies that address the traumatic experiences, while those with similar difficulties caused by lack of cognitive stimulation are best addressed by learning opportunities scaffolded to encourage self-regulation.
The full article can be downloaded here.