The Neurodevelopmental Research (NDevR) lab recently launched a new teacher focused training resource: Supporting the Complex Needs of Children with Genetic Syndromes in Educational Practice (www.findteacherresources.co.uk). Researchers Dr Jo Moss and Holly Snellgrove from the University of Surrey developed this novel, freely available e-resource in consultation with SENCOs, SEN teachers, parents, carers and educational psychologists. Its aim is to raise awareness and understanding of the complex needs of children with genetic syndromes associated with intellectual disability. In this blog, Jo and Holly give an overview of the inspiration behind the resource, and what it comprises.
“Children with neurodevelopmental conditions are known to experience poor developmental, health and wellbeing outcomes compared to neurotypical peers (Beadle-Brown et al. 2005). These inequalities are heightened in children with the most complex clinical presentations and particularly those with intellectual disability (ID) associated with rare genetic syndromes.
Currently rare genetic conditions account for approximately 50% of individuals with severe intellectual disability and 20% of individuals with a mild intellectual disability (Oliver & Woodcock, 2008). Therefore, it’s crucial that educational practitioners receive appropriate training and support to cater for the needs of children with genetic syndromes in classroom settings.
“At present, practitioners working in schools have very limited access to training and information about rare genetic syndromes”
At present, practitioners working in schools have very limited access to training and information regarding these syndromes and due to the rarity of the syndromes, they are unlikely to have significant experience of working with other children who have the same condition. Therefore, condensed and accessible information on genetic syndromes can be invaluable for practitioners (Waite et al, 2014).
The resource we developed features information on a range of topics that teachers/educational practitioners can work through at their own pace. It includes topics such as ‘Co-occurring Conditions’, ‘Understanding Behaviour’, ‘Individual Differences’, and ‘Support for Parents and Carers’.
The resource features informative text and infographics, videos from the research team, teachers, parents and an educational psychologist, links to further resources and reflective exercises. The content of the resource has been informed by research findings from various scientific studies, which can be accessed from the academic papers section.
The resource also has dedicated pages which signpost users to additional resources and useful support groups, both general and syndrome specific, that can enable users to identify further information and support resources.
We hope this resource will help teachers and educational practitioners to further develop their understanding of the ways that children with genetic syndromes can be supported in educational settings. Although the resource was designed primarily for education practitioners, others who support children with genetic syndromes may also find it useful, and it is therefore accessible to all.
The International Mind Brain and Education Society (IMBES) are thrilled to announce that the 2024 conference will be held from 10 – 12 July in Leuven, Belgium! The meeting will be jointly organised by IMBES and EARLI SIG 22.
The primary objective of this joint conference is to showcase cutting-edge research where the fields of neurosciences, educational sciences, developmental sciences, and cognitive sciences intersect. The overarching goal is to advance the current state of knowledge and foster meaningful dialogue between scientists, practitioners, and policy makers within the realm of mind, brain, and education.
IMBES are delighted to announce their distinguished keynote speakers for this event, namely Stanislas Dehaene (Unicog, Paris), Jennie Grammer (University of California LA, US), and Duncan Astle (University of Cambridge, UK).
If you are interested, please mark your calendars with the following important deadlines:
Opening registrations: 15 January 2024
Abstract submission deadline: 1 February 2024
Author notification: 1 March 2024
Early bird registration deadline: 1 May 2024
Closing registrations: 26 June 2024
Conference dates: 10 – 12 July 2024
Should you have any questions or remarks about this conference, you can always reach the organisers at email@example.com. If you wish to stay informed about the IMBES 2024 updates, do not hesitate to subscribe to the mailing listand/or check out the websitefor more information!
The field of educational neuroscience has several key conferences where the latest findings are disseminated and discussed. One of those is the European Association for Research on Learning and Instruction (EARLI). EARLI is an international scientific community which supports research in learning and instruction.
In August 2023, EARLI held their 20th Biennial Conference at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and the University of Macedonia. In this blog, CEN member Lucy Palmer reports back on the main themes of the conference and some of the exciting debates, including a look to the future of education
What was EARLI about this year?
This year, the conference theme was “Education as a Hope in Uncertain Times”. Over the last couple of years, rapidly changing technological advancements, fluctuating labour markets, population mobility, political instability and the COVID-19 pandemic have resulted in unprecedented uncertainty for our societies. Consequently, it is important that education can adapt to support individuals facing these challenges and drive positive change through evidence based research.
The event was hosted in the vibrant, multicultural and historical metropolis of Thessaloniki, the second biggest city in Greece. Stroll along the seafront and you will see the famous umbrellas, created by Greek sculptor Giorgios Zongolopoulos in 1997 when Thessaloniki was the European Capital of Culture. Much like its host city, the EARLI 2023 conference was captivating and diverse, with over 2500 attendees from 60 countries, including 1054 academic institutions – the largest number of registrants the conference has seen to date.
With over 550 sessions to choose from over the four day conference, EARLI 2023 provided a plethora of thought-provoking symposia, in-depth discussions, informative talks and posters covering a large variety of research areas. Topics included assessment and evaluation, conceptual change, higher education, instructional design, motivation and emotion, special educational needs and learning and teaching in culturally diverse settings. Naturally, we were drawn to the talks relating to Educational Neuroscience!
How Learning and Education Shape the Brain
The Neuroscience and Education symposium, “How learning and education shape the brain” explored the bi-directional process of how brain processes influence learning and vice versa. This symposium presented both cross sectional and longitudinal research exploring the mechanisms of brain changes as a result of learning, using a multitude of methods (e.g. electroencephalography, magnetic resonance imaging, genetic analysis) and learning topics (e.g. reading, science, maths, executive function) in both typical and atypical populations, as well as populations from the Global South.
Although we still have a long way to go in ensuring education research is generalisable and fully representative, it is encouraging to see an increase in awareness amongst researchers, educators and policymakers regarding the importance of conducting research in under-represented populations; a topic which arose throughout the conference.
The presentations in the Neuroscience and Education symposium demonstrated the pros and cons of using neuroimaging methods to better understand mechanisms of educational interventions.
For example, Professor Tzipi Horowitz (Technion- Israel Institute of Technology) shared her findings from an 8-week executive-function-based reading programme, which resulted in improved reading fluency and greater executive function skills in 8-12 year old children with dyslexia. Additionally, electroencephalography (EEG) data showed increased synchronization of neural circuits supporting visual and auditory modalities, as a result of the engagement of executive functions from the intervention. These findings support the ‘asynchrony’ theory between visual and auditory modalities in dyslexia.
On a similar note, Alexander Enge (Max Plank Institute of Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences) showed how brain responses to written words and spoken words change over time in individual children in rural parts of Northern India, in response to a literacy intervention. Although the work presented was preliminary, this lab showed how bi-monthly fMRI scans can be carried out in hard to reach populations, with the goal of understanding the mechanisms of the literacy intervention.
We presented our promising findings from the Stop & Think intervention developed in the Centre for Educational Neuroscience (www.unlocke.org), as well as some of our follow-up working seeking to tease apart the mechanisms underpinning the successful intervention. At times, this has proven challenging because the tools are not best suited to our target population of 7-10 year olds. Here, we come up against the difficulties of using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to explore mechanisms of inhibitory control in these children – and how these skills can be trained – including the limitations of small sample sizes, drop out and methodological constraints such as scanner resolution and movement sensitivity.
Professor Gregoire Borst (Paris Cité University) presented a solution to some of these problems in the form of multi-modal methods. This involves combining several different techniques, such as genetic, neuroimaging and behavioural methods, to understanding the mechanisms of inhibitory control training in 10-year-old children. Prof. Borst’s lab found that differences between children in how receptive they were to the inhibitory control training were linked to a combination of genetic, cognitive and anatomical factors.
Overall, this symposium presented a variety of studies on how the brain is influenced by educational interventions, while also demonstrating some of the challenges and solutions within this area of research.
There were also many interesting keynotes throughout the conference. For example, the renowned academic Professor Daniel Ansari (University of Western Ontario) presented his lab’s exceptional work on the developmental trajectory of mathematical skills using both behavioural and neuroimaging methods. Daniel recently presented some of his work in the CEN seminar series: see his talk on the CEN YouTube channel here.
If you are interested in learning more about the research presented at the conference, check out the EARLI website for abstracts and further information (www.earli.org/events/earli2023).
The future of education panel discussion
As you’ve been reading this blog, I know the excitement has been building, and here it is at last: what did the EARLI conference have to say about the future of education?
Experts in research, policy and education reflected on the challenges for education in the digital era, how to promote education for human flourishing, and how to communicate evidence-based research. Four thought provoking themes leapt to the fore. Here they are (if you agree – or disagree – contribute your thoughts and ideas in the comments section below!)
Which skills will be needed in the next 30 years and therefore need to be taught in educational settings? For example, will the skill of handwriting persist? With today’s technology, we can dictate to text, send a message electronically and have it read back to us by our devices. Which other skills will remain and which will become obsolete and how should we design the curriculum to adapt to these changes? Or will nostalgia for how education has always been hold us back from change?
Are we currently teaching science in the right way? For instance, in formal education, we predominantly teach science as a series of facts. However, science is less about fact learning and more to do with creating hypotheses, asking questions, testing theories and critically analysing evidence. With the recent rise in fake news and unreliable knowledge exacerbated by social media, should we adapt our curriculum to improve the way we teach science and analyse information?
Despite the overwhelming majority of education research being conducted in wealthy, western and well-educated populations, there is a small increase in research being conducted in under-represented populations, but how can we improve the inclusivity of our research and support education for individuals in contexts of severe poverty and without basic needs? In the panel discussion, the issue of rapidly changing political priorities was raised. For example, many programmes that are run to support children from disadvantaged backgrounds often rely on funding from government, but the funding can change depending on the political focus at the time. So how can we use research to create better outcomes for these children? There is no easy or quick solution to this problem, but by bringing people together to discuss these issues, we can raise awareness and influence funding and policymakers’ decisions to support these individuals.
The final theme related to teacher education. When considering the future of education, we often think of how the curriculum can be adapted to support learners, but another major change involves how to best train teachers. What responsibility should universities take to prepare teachers for the future of education? What should be included in the teacher training and CPD curriculum?
In sum, the conference was an exciting hub of new research, discussions and debates about the past, present and future of education research. To find out more, check out the programme, or to sign up as a member click here!
In this article, Professor Jo van Herwegen and her team give an update on the latest findings from the MetaSENse project which is revisiting the evidence base for effective interventions for students with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND).
Background of the wider MetaSENse project
The number of pupils identified with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) continues to rise (DfE, 2021). Educational outcomes for those with SEND are often lower compared to those without SEND and this gap has become larger since 2020. This is likely due to the COVID-19 pandemic (Tuckett et al., 2022) and highlights the disparities for this population. Thus, it is important for parents, educators, specialist professionals and policymakers to understand the best evidence-based practice to raise educational outcomes in pupils with SEND.
The CEN’s MetaSENse study, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, is synthesising evidence of what remediations work across different pupils with SEND aged 4 to 25. Technically, the project is focusing on “manualised” (i.e., has a published and accessible manual) targeted intervention approaches (either Tier 2 or Tier 3) that go beyond good quality teaching. Tier 2 interventions are often provided in small-group sessions in the classroom during independent work or during times that do not conflict with other critical content areas. Tier 3 provides intensive intervention sessions for individual students with more significant needs or whose needs are not sufficiently met by Tier 2 supports.
In phase 1 of the project, the team is carrying out a systematic review of the empirical literature, followed by a meta-analysis of the data. In addition to analysing of the quality of the evidence base, this meta-analysis will, for the first time, inform which Tier 2 and Tier 3 manualised interventions work best (that is, have largest effect sizes) in relation to different phases of education (preschool, primary, secondary, post-16), and in different educational contexts (special vs mainstream). And this is being done for each category of SEND needs. In phase 2, the team is using in-depth interviews with educational professionals to identify the barriers they face in implementing the most effective practices indicated by the aforementioned evidence.
The project will have a practical outcome: we will produce a toolkit featuring a database that can inform practitioners about the evidence-base underpinning different interventions for pupils with SEND, and which interventions to select in different contexts according to pupils’ needs. This will allow parents, educators, specialist professionals and policymakers to make evidence-informed decisions about how to raise educational outcomes for those with SEND in cost-effective ways. By the same token, it will inform the future research agenda of academics and relevant funders.
Update on our findings: the number of RCTs and QeDs included in MetaSENse
Randomised Control Trials (RCTs) are seen as the ‘gold standard’ way of evaluating what works. In RCTs participants are randomly assigned to one of two groups: the experimental group receiving the intervention or the control group which either receives the business-as-usual support in the classroom or another type of activity (named active control trial) that is not of interest.
Quasi-experimental designs (QeDs) are studies in which two groups of subjects are matched based on one or more characteristics and one group receives the intervention, whilst the other does not and receives either business as usual or an active control intervention. The difference with RCTs is that in QEDs the groups are not randomly allocated.
Together, these two types of study form the best kind of evidence that tell us how effective interventions for SEND are, in what populations and in what contexts.
In our systematic review, we began by collating all the research papers that reported the outcome of evaluating interventions to improve educational abilities in children with SEND. Using our pre-registered search protocol, we identified 55,564 records for title and abstract, which we then screened to evaluate their relevance. We then screened 4323 full texts, as well as full texts from clearing houses, organisations which write composite reports of evidence. From this set, we identified 533 records of studies that meet our inclusion criteria for the systematic review: over 500 studies to review! This initial work demonstrates that there are now a large number of studies that have examined Tier 2 and Tier 3 manualised interventions to improve educational outcomes for those with SEND.
How did we decide which studies to consider?The studies we considered were all published between 1st of January 2000 and 27/02/2023. We only included RCTs and QeDs that were published in peer-reviewed journals or dedicated websites of clearing houses and charities. Student dissertations held by universities were not included. Studies had to include a manualised intervention and report at least one educational outcome related to maths, reading, writing, science or overall attainment. We only included studies that focused on individuals with an existing diagnosis, or if the study screened for a diagnosis using normed assessments. Studies that only included students at risk for SEND based on teacher report or general attainment outcomes were not included, because this might target a much more heterogeneous population. Finally, studies could be completed in any country as long as the text was available in English.
What have we found so far?As can be seen from Figure 1 below, there has been a steady increase in the number of studies that have evaluated which interventions work to improve educational outcomes for students with SEND. Despite the steady increase in study numbers, it is important to note that this represents research globally.
The next step is to extract findings from these studies and use statistics to characterise the overall patterns – an analysis of the analyses, otherwise known as a meta-analysis. We have only completed data extraction for 25% of all studies and so far, have identified relatively few studies that have been carried out in the UK. In addition, the number of RCTs and QeDs alone does not yet tell us anything about the quality of the evidence and whether this has improved over time. So, with data extraction and quality analysis of more than 350 studies still to go… watch this space!
Our interim finding, however, is that there is an encouraging increase over time in the number of studies applying the best evidence-based approaches to evaluating the effectiveness of educational interventions for children with SEND.
Figure 1. Number of studies per publication year for MetaSENse: All studies include RCTs or QeDs related to improving educational outcomes for those with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities.
More about MetaSENse
You can find out more about the MetaSENse study and research team here: MetaSENse
The metaSENse study is funded by the Nuffield Foundation: The Nuffield Foundation is an independent charitable trust with a mission to advance social well-being. It funds research that informs social policy, primarily in Education, Welfare, and Justice. It also funds student programmes that provide opportunities for young people to develop skills in quantitative and scientific methods. The Nuffield Foundation is the founder and co-funder of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, the Ada Lovelace Institute and the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory. The Foundation has funded this project, but the views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily the Foundation. Visit www.nuffieldfoundation.org
 Raising educational outcomes for pupils with SEN and disabilities (MetaSENse)
In this blog, Michael Thomas discusses the potential impact of generative AI tools such as ChatGPT on education.
Generative artificial intelligence, such as ChatGPT, is a form of AI that can generate human-like text based on a ‘large language model’ – information extracted from what is out on the internet. It can write essays and summarise facts, it can give feedback on written work and Excel formulae. There are versions that can generate other types of content, such as images from text, or music. I used DALL:E to generate the above image in response to the text prompt “draw a photorealistic picture of a university administrator thinking very hard about artificial intelligence” (I added the text!). Together, generative AI represents an immensely powerful tool.
In education, one of the principal methods of encouraging conceptual learning, developing writing skills, and assessing knowledge, is to ask students to independently write essays. However, students are now increasingly using generative AI in their work (see, e.g., this recent article from the BBC: ‘Most of our friends use AI in schoolwork‘). This is causing concern among educators and parents alike.
For educators, generative AI represents a significant challenge. Can teachers no longer use essays as an educational tool? Has a principal form of assessment been lost? Generative AI is immensely powerful but it has limitations: it generates plausible, ‘high probability’ text, not necessarily factually correct text, and the content it generates can be biased based on what the AI has found on the internet. Are students using a tool that leads them astray?
Like search engines, generative AI cannot be uninvented. Instead, students should be guided on how best to use generative AI to support their learning. But right now, students frequently know more about what generative AI can do than educators.
CEN Director Michael Thomas recently attended a meeting of the All Parliamentary Party Group (APPG) on Artificial Intelligence at the UK House of Lords, convened to discuss the potential impact (for better or worse) of generative artificial intelligence on education. He wrote a report of the meeting for the education think tank Learnus. The 3-page report can be found here.
Here are the main points from the report of the House of Lords meeting:
1. No one was panicking that AI robots were going to take over the world – although everyone recognised the downside risks of generative AI (e.g., inaccurate and biased content, age-inappropriate content, commercial ownership, data privacy). Instead, the main focus was on opportunities.
2. Among experts, there was a diverse range of views expressed on what tools like ChatGPT mean for education – all the way from ‘that don’t impress me’ to ‘it’s a steppingstone to utopia’. Some thought it on a par with the introduction of calculators to maths class, or of search engines for researching essays and projects: a helpful tool, necessitating some tweaking of teaching practice, but not much more. Others thought it would fundamentally alter educational practices and was an opportunity to democratise education – a tool to provide support for all.
3. The kids currently know much more than the teachers – pretty much everyone agreed that the most important first step is to improve teacher literacy on generative AI, to understand what these systems can (and can’t) do, and to begin to think about how they may be used. Perhaps the most important take-home for teachers and students alike is that you’ve got to know the limitations of the technology.
4. Guidance is beginning to emerge – institutions are thinking hard about the educational impact of generative AI, and some guidance is beginning to emerge (e.g., from the UK Department for Education and from the Russell Group of UK universities). As an example, this term, I gave a lecture to university psychology students on how they might use ChatGPT as a tool in their essay writing. I let them know what the chances are of getting caught if they simply use it to write their assessments (given that universities use AI detection tools, and that ChatGPT essays are reasonably easy to spot for content experts); and I also told them the very mediocre mark they would likely receive for an AI generated essay even if they didn’t get caught – because ChatGPT doesn’t write great essays. Here’s a slide summarising some tips:
There are many ways generative AI can be useful in education: to suggest initial ideas, to give feedback on text, to help second language learners improve their writing, for checking and recommending Excel formulae or computer code.
There are inevitably pitfalls we need to avoid (mostly linked to ensuring that content is unbiased and factually true, and that creativity is not stifled – ChatGPT will encourage you to write just like everyone else on the internet!).
But the broad message should be a positive one. In the same way that the invention of search engines gave everyone unprecedented access to vast stores of human knowledge (but ‘knowledge’ not to treated uncritically), generative AI can empower learners. The search is on for the best guidance to allow students to realise the potential of this new tool and avoid its pitfalls.
Did ChatGPT just ruin education? No, it gave education a powerful new tool, but with an instruction manual yet to be written.
The CEN has a new book out, written by CEN Director Michael Thomas and Simon Green, entitled ‘How the brain works: What psychology students need to know’. It provides an accessible overview of how the brain works useful to psychology students and to educators.
The book is published by Sage. For a 25% discount, use the code HTBW25 on the Sage website or on eBooks.com (valid until 31/12/24).
Michael says: “We wanted to write an accessible book on how the brain works. When psychology students or educators are introduced to the brain, the material often focuses on the Latin names for different structures, or how brain scanners work. As one student said to us, ‘I wanted to know why neurons communicate both electrically and chemically. I wanted to know why the left side of the brain controls the right side of the body. But whenever I asked these sorts of ‘why’ questions, the teacher kept saying, just learn it, it’s in the textbook’. Simon and I set out to write a book that gives an overall gist of how the brain works and why it works that way, which ultimately led us to placing the brain in its evolutionary context; and then showing how homo sapiens has subsequently stepped out of this context – in the main, through a cultural focus on education. The book shows how our minds have the peculiar properties they do because of how the brain works (including the way we learn); that the brain works the way it does because of biology; and that biology works the way it does because of evolution.”
Many people may struggle to develop strong mathematical abilities for many different reasons and thus mathematical difficulties are best thought of as a continuum (BDA, 2019). Dyscalculia falls on one end of that continuum and is a specific learning difficulty that affects a person’s ability to understand numerical information and perform mathematical operations (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).
Watch our explainer video
Here’s a video we produced as part of our NeuroSENse project
How is dyscalculia defined?
Although definitions may vary, individuals with dyscalculia may have difficulty with mental maths, trouble understanding mathematical concepts, difficulty with sequencing and organising information, and challenges with time and money management. These difficulties manifest during the early school years and must persist for at least 6 months to be diagnosed, according to DSM-V criteria. In addition, these learning difficulties cannot be attributed to intellectual disabilities, developmental disorders, or neurological or motor disorders. While dyscalculia is often diagnosed in childhood, it can also affect adolescents and adults.
How common is it?
Prevalence rates of dyscalculia have proven difficult to ascertain given that different inclusion criteria for dyscalculia are often used (Szűcs & Goswami, 2013). Based on a small number of previous studies, the prevalence of dyscalculia has been estimated to range between 1.3% and 10% of the population (Devine et al., 2013). This is equivalent to roughly 3 children in every class of 30 children, making it a relatively common condition that can affect people of all levels of intelligence.
How is dyscalculia diagnosed?
Dyscalculia can be diagnosed through a comprehensive evaluation by a qualified professional, and there are strategies and interventions that can help individuals with dyscalculia improve their mathematical skills and make progress.
Dyscalculia is not a neuromyth. The exact causes of dyscalculia are not yet fully understood, but researchers believe that there may be a combination of genetic, environmental, and brain-related factors that contribute to the condition (Van Herwegen, 2020). It is important to understand the facts about dyscalculia to provide appropriate support and accommodations for individuals who may have this condition.
Yet, there are several common misconceptions (neuromyths) about dyscalculia. Here are our top 5 myths!
Myths about dyscalculia
Neuromyth 1: If a person struggles with mathematics they have dyscalculia
This is not necessarily the case. Dyscalculia is a specific learning difficulty that affects an individual’s ability to understand and perform mathematical operations. This it is not the same as simply having difficulties with mathematics. A child may struggle with mathematics for a myriad of reasons, including lack of interest, poor teaching, or the curriculum being too delivered too quickly for their capacity. In addition, maths anxiety can be a contributing factor to difficulties with maths, but that doesn’t mean people with maths anxiety necessarily have dyscalculia (Devine et al., 2018). Most people with dyscalculia have specific mathematical difficulties such as understanding how numbers relate to each other (number sense), memorising and retrieving numerical facts as well as make counting errors.
Neuromyth 2: Individuals who are dyscalculic usually only have problems with numbers and can read and write at typical levels
Individuals with dyscalculia typically experience difficulties with their working memory and visuo-spatial skills (Kroesbergen et al., 2022). As such, dyscalculia impacts all areas of the curriculum, not just mathematics. In addition, up to 20-60% of those with dyscalculia also have other learning difficulties, such as, ADHD, dyslexia, and dyspraxia (Morsanyi et al., 2018; von Aster & Shalev, 2007), with co-occurrence of maths and reading difficulties as high as 70% (Moll et, al, 2019). This can mean individuals with dyscalculia also have problems with attention, reading and writing. It is thought that the overlap between dyscalculia and other learning difficulties is caused by shared difficulties with procedural learning (Evans & Ullman, 2016), the learning and control of skills and habits.
Neuromyth 3: Individuals with dyscalculia can be best helped by teaching them to remember number facts
Difficulties with number facts is only one aspect of dyscalculia. Although the actual cause of dyscalculia has not yet been established, many individuals with dyscalculia show difficulties with reasoning about quantities, and with a sense of what numbers represent (Butterworth, 2018). As such, they may need targeted interventions and support to succeed in academic and everyday life. Additionally, accommodations such as extra time for assessments, use of a calculator, or modifications to assignments can help students with dyscalculia succeed in the maths curriculum (Fuchs et al., 2008). While there are strategies and interventions that can help individuals with dyscalculia improve their maths skills, there is no cure for dyscalculia, which is a lifelong difficulty.
Neuromyth 4: It is often thought that individuals with dyscalculia are impaired across the entire maths curriculum
Indeed, most individuals with dyscalculia may struggle with basic arithmetic, number sense, and mathematical reasoning, which can impact their ability to learn and apply maths concepts across different areas of the curriculum. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some individuals with dyscalculia can be very good at geometry and algebra but there is scant evidence on the knowledge of geometry and algebra in individuals with dyscalculia. It is important to note that the severity and scope of dyscalculia can vary from person to person (see for example studies that have examined the existence of sub-groups within dyscalculia: Bartelet et al, 2014; Costa et al., 2018). While most people with dyscalculia struggle with many different mathematical concepts and procedures, some individuals with dyscalculia may have strengths in particular areas of maths and with good teaching and practice individuals with dyscalculia can make progress in maths, especially if targeted early intervention is provided.
Neuromyth 5: The dyscalculic brain is wired differently, which causes problems with maths but is often associated with strengths like creativity, strategic thinking, and intuitive thinking
There is currently no scientific evidence to support the claim that people with dyscalculia are more creative than those without dyscalculia. Dyscalculia is a learning difficulty that affects a person’s ability to understand and work with numbers. It does not necessarily affect a person’s creativity or artistic abilities. However, it is worth noting that people with dyscalculia may have developed compensatory strategies to deal with their difficulties in mathematics, which could enhance their creativity in other areas. For example, they may have developed stronger verbal and visual reasoning skills, or they may have developed a more intuitive approach to problem-solving. These compensatory strategies could potentially translate into enhanced creativity in certain domains. Nevertheless, it is important to recognise that dyscalculia is a real and significant learning difficulty that can have a negative impact on a person’s academic and professional success. It is essential to provide appropriate support and accommodations for individuals with dyscalculia to help them overcome their challenges and reach their full potential, regardless of their creativity levels.
Here’s your take home
In sum, although the exact causes of dyscalculia are not yet fully understood, dyscalculia can have a profound impact on people’s lives, especially in terms of educational outcomes and financial success. Early intervention is required to help people with dyscalculia to achieve their full mathematical potential. However, neuromyths can prevent timely diagnosis, create stigma and impact on intervention practices (Gini et al., 2020) and thus, it is important to continue our understanding of dyscalculia and reflect on any beliefs, knowledge and practices. Further research on dyscalculia especially to how it manifests over time is required.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition: DSM-5 (5th ed.). American Psychiatric Publishing.
Bartelet, D., Ansari, D., Vaessen, A., & Blomert, L. (2014). Cognitive subtypes of mathematics learning difficulties in primary education. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 35(3), 657-670. doi: 10.1016/j.ridd.2013.12.010.
Butterworth, B. (2018). Dyscalculia: From science to education. Routledge.
Costa, H.M., Nicholson, B., Donlan, C., & Van Herwegen, J. (2018). Low performance on mathematical tasks in preschoolers : the importance of domain-general and domain-speciﬁc abilities. Journal of Intellectual Disability Research, 62(4), 292-302.
Devine, A., Soltész, F., Nobes, A., Goswami, U., & Szűcs, D. (2013). Gender differences in developmental dyscalculia depend on diagnostic criteria. Learning and Instruction, 27, 31–39. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.learninstruc.2013.02.004
Devine, A., Hill, F., Carey, E. and Szűcs, D. (2018) Cognitive and emotional math problems largely dissociate: Prevalence of developmental dyscalculia and mathematics anxiety. Journal of Educational Psychology, 110(3): 431–44.
Evans, M. & Ullman, M.T. (2016). An extension of the procedural deficit hypothesis from developmental language disorders to mathematical disability. Frontiers in Psychology 7 ,1-9.
Fuchs, L. S., Fuchs, D., Powell, S. R., Seethaler, P. M., Cirino, P. T., & Fletcher, J. M. (2008). Intensive Intervention for Students with Mathematics Disabilities: Seven Principles of Effective Practice. Learning Disability Quarterly, 31(2), 79- 92. https://doi.org/10.2307/20528819
Gini, S., Knowland, V., Thomas, M.S.C. & Van Herwegen, J. (2021). Neuromyths about neurodevelopmental disorders: Misconceptions by educators and the general public. Mind, Brain & Education, 15(4), 289-298.
Kroesbergen, E. H., Huijsmans, M. D. E., & Friso-van den Bos, I. (2022). A Meta-Analysis on the Differences in Mathematical and Cognitive Skills Between Individuals With and Without Mathematical Learning Disabilities. Review of Educational Research, 0(0). https://doi.org/10.3102/00346543221132773
Moll, K., Landerl, K., Snowling, M. J., & Schulte-Körne, G. (2019). Understanding comorbidity of learning disorders: Task-dependent estimates of prevalence. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry,60(3), 286–294. https://doi.org/10.1111/jcpp.12965
Morsanyi, K., van Bers, B.M.C.W., McCormack, T., & McGourty, J. (2018). The prevalence of specific learning disorder in mathematics and comorbidity with other developmental disorders in primary school-age children, British Journal of Psychology, 109(4), 917-940, ISSN: 0007-1269. DOI: 10.1111/bjop.12322.
Van Herwegen, J. (2020). Math Disorder. In: S. Hupp & J. Jewell. The Encyclopedia of Child and Adolescent Development. John Wiley & Sons: Chichester, UK.
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New CEN paper: Foreign language provision in English primary schools: making evidence-based pedagogical choices
Dr Sue Whiting and Prof. Chloë Marshall from the CEN have published a new paper in the journal Frontiers in Education. The paper aims to arm education professionals with a critical awareness of the (lack of) evidence supporting the bilingual advantage and innovative foreign language taster courses, to help them make evidence-based decisions regarding how to teach foreign languages in primary schools.
Here, lead author Sue Whiting discusses why certain widely held beliefs (e.g. that learning a second language confers an academic advantage, and that the younger-the-better maxim for naturalistic language learning is valid in classroom settings) are tempting some schools to explore unproven ways of teaching languages to 3-11 year olds.
Is foreign-language learning working?
Fluency in more than one language is clearly an advantage in our modern global age of multicultural societies. However, foreign language learning appears to be in crisis in countries where the majority of the population are English monolinguals, i.e., in Anglophone contexts. This has been attributed to the dominance of English as a global language giving rise to the perception that native English speakers do not need to learn other languages (Lanvers et al., 2021).
Despite a recent government initiative in England (Department for Education (DfE), 2013) to introduce foreign language teaching for one hour a week for Years 3-6 (Key Stage 2; KS2), a motivational crisis appears to start from about 11 years of age, once pupils enter secondary school (Lanvers & Martin, 2021): many pupils perceive learning a foreign language to be irrelevant, boring, difficult, and that ‘English is enough’ (Lanvers et al., 2021).
Does bilingualism itself help cognition?
In addition to any obvious personal, social, cultural and economic benefits of being fluent in two or more languages, there are also controversial claims that a ‘bilingual advantage’ leads to improved academic outcomes (Bialystok et al., 2009). This advantage purportedly arises when the skills that are acquired in coordinating two languages transfer to other, non-linguistic, mental processes relevant to learning in school and thereby improve educational outcomes. The research substantiating these claims, though, is mixed with generally only earlier studies, which usually involved only a small number of participants, revealing benefits (Duñabeitia & Carreiras, 2015; Paap et al., 2015, 2019; Van den Noort et al., 2019): lack of replicability is a particular issue (e.g., Bialystok & Martin, 2004; Shokrkon & Nicoladis, 2021).
The ‘bilingual advantage’ is not a robust effect
Many authors now consider that any bilingual advantage occurs only in ‘very specific and undetermined circumstances’ (Paap et al., 2015) and, in relation to academic performance, is likely to be a neuromyth (CEN, 2023). Furthermore, any benefit is likely to entail regularly engaging with the second language rather than experiencing it for just an hour a week in an artificial, classroom environment with little or no out-of-school exposure.
Beware the sales pitch
Nevertheless some language resource websites are targeting schools and caregivers with aggressive marketing of their products, by suggesting that all children learning foreign languages will gain such wide-reaching, general cognitive benefits in all circumstances. Some of the sale pitches appeal to notions of the brain (such as left-brain versus right-brain learning) that have been identified by other authors to be neuromyths (CEN, n.d.). Furthermore, claims far exceed what the current evidence shows, often citing newspapers’ headline catching articles or online articles written by non-specialists.
Against the backdrop of the disappointing results from the current KS2 Foreign Languages policy, such bilingual advantage claims are encouraging some schools not governed by KS2 regulations, i.e., state schools [Early Years to Year 2 (3–7 years of age)] and independent schools (3–11 years of age) to explore unproven ways of teaching foreign languages so their pupils may enjoy enhanced cognitive ability and academic success.
Here’s what doesn’t work
One unproven, and previously discredited, idea resurrected from the 1980s, albeit with older children, is that of schools giving young children a superficial exposure to multiple foreign languages in the belief that they will become natural linguists with native-like speech in numerous foreign languages. This is despite a lack of evidence from either research into a younger-the-better advantage for classroom language learning (Lightbown & Spada, 2020; Mitchell & Myles, 2019; Myles, 2017) or from language awareness research that superficial exposure to multiple languages would support learning (HMI, 1990, para. 66).
There are huge challenges in transferring the rich, immersive, native-language learning environment, where young children learn by ‘doing’ along with access to many hours a day of high-quality input from multiple social interactions, to the formal foreign language learning primary school classroom that typically provides just one hour of exposure each week. The arguments against providing a shallow exposure of several languages are as valid today as in 1990 when the HMI Language Courses Report concluded that ‘short, watered down, fragmented and thin experiences in too many languages’ provided ‘an utterly inadequate base for mastering practical communication skills in any one language and developing proficiency therein’. Then, as now, a policy of continuous exposure to just one foreign language is considered to be superior.
How to judge a good method for teaching foreign languages
We end our paper by recommending that schools should be extremely wary of being persuaded to be the first school to try something innovative when it is sold as being ‘ahead of the game’, or to take part in a research project for which they have to pay. We provide some objective criteria to help schools, from early years settings to the end of primary, to judge the efficacy of unproven methods of teaching foreign languages (or, indeed, other subjects) before adopting them. Here are our top five recommendations:
Remember, a product sold as ‘ahead of the game’ often means untried and untested
Approach other schools already using the innovative protocol to establish what quantifiable outcomes can be reasonably expected
Check the credentials and qualifications of the person making the proposal. Has the Education Endowment Foundation evaluated the proposed pedagogic approach?
If the innovative scheme is sold as a ‘research project’ then it would have been approved by the relevant university’s Ethics Committee. External funding will usually be available, too, in which case there should be no costs to the school in the form of expenses or for consultancy fees.
Schools should consult with, and request approval from, their board of governors. The Primary Languages Policy white paper recommends developing ‘effective partnerships between head teachers and governors’ (Holmes & Myles, 2019, p. 13, p. 16). Boards often have the diverse experience to properly interrogate innovate schemes for educational provision.
Bialystok, E., Craik, F. I. M., Green, D. W., & Gollan, T. H. (2009). Bilingual Minds. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 10(3), 89–129. https://doi.org/10.1177/1529100610387084
Department for Education (DfE) (2013). Languages programmes of study: key stage 2 National curriculum in England. Available here (Accessed July 15, 2023).
Duñabeitia, J. A., & Carreiras, M. (2015). The bilingual advantage: acta est fabula? Cortex, 73, 371-372. doi:10.1016/j.cortex.2015.06.009
HMI (1990). A survey of language awareness and foreign language taster courses. Her Majesty’s Stationery Office 1990. Available here (Accessed July 15, 2023)
Lanvers, U., & Martin, C. (2021). Choosing language options at secondary school in England. In U. Lanvers, A. S. Thompson, & M. East (Eds.), Language Learning in Anglophone Countries (pp. 89–115). Palgrave Macmillan. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-56654-8
Lanvers, U., Thompson, A. S., & East, M. (2021). Introduction: is language learning in Anglophone countries in crisis? In U. Lanvers, A. S. Thompson, & M. East (Eds.), Language Learning in Anglophone Countries (pp. 1–13). Palgrave Macmillan. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-56654-8
Lightbown, P. M., & Spada, N. (2020). Teaching and learning L2 in the classroom: it’s about time. Language Teaching,53, 422–432. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0261444819000454
Mitchell, R., & Myles, F. (2019). Learning French in the UK setting: policy, classroom engagement and attainable learning outcomes. Apples Journal of Applied Language Studies, 13(1), pp. 69–93. https://doi.org/10.17011/apples/urn.201903011690
Myles, F. (2017). Learning foreign languages in primary schools: is younger better? Languages, Society & Policy, 1(1), 1–8. https://doi.org/10.17863/CAM.9806
Noort, M. Van Den, Struys, E., Bosch, P., Jaswetz, L., Perriard, B., Yeo, S., … Lim, S. (2019). Does the bilingual advantage in cognitive control exist and if so, what are its modulating factors? Behavioral Sciences, 9(27), 1–30. https://doi.org/10.3390/bs9030027
Paap, K. R., Johnson, H. A., & Sawi, O. (2015). Bilingual advantages in executive functioning either do not exist or are restricted to very specific and undetermined circumstances. Cortex, 69, 265–278. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cortex.2015.04.014
Paap, K. R., Schwieter, J., & Paradis, M. (2019). The bilingual advantage debate: quantity and quality of the evidence. In J. W. Schwieter (Ed.), The handbook of the neuroscience of multilingualism (pp. 701–735). London:Wiley-Blackwell. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781119387725.ch34
Shokrkon, A., & Nicoladis, E. (2021). Absence of a bilingual cognitive flexibility advantage: a replication study in preschoolers. PLoS ONE, 16(8), 14–18. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0255157
Van den Noort,M., Struys, E., Bosch, P., Jaswetz, L., Perriard, B., Yeo, S., … Lim, S. (2019). Does the bilingual advantage in cognitive control exist and if so, what are its modulating factors? Behavioral Sciences, 9(27), 1–30. https://doi.org/10.3390/bs9030027
In a new issue of the educational journal Comunicar, Jo van Herwegen and Michael Thomas from the CEN have teamed up with María-José Hernández-Serrano from the University of Salamanca in Spain to co-edit a special edition on the use of neurotechnology in the classroom.
What counts as a neurotechnology? Neurotechnology comprises a range of techniques that offer information about the operation of the brain separate from how it shows up in behaviour, especially the kinds of behaviour that educators typically monitor to track students’ progress in learning. The use of neurotechnology is therefore rooted in the assumption that the way that learning works in the brain will be relevant for educators.
Neurotechnologies might directly reflect physiological markers of brain function, such as in the brain’s electrical discharges (electroencephalography or EEG) or its regional oxygenated blood flow (functional Near-Infrared Spectroscopy or fNIRs). They may reflect body markers of the operation of the sympathetic autonomic nervous system, the network of nerves that helps the body activate its “fight-or-flight” response. Such markers often index emotional processes (for example, the electrical conductance of the surface of the skin, which depends on sweat release, so-called electrodermal activity). Or they may detect subtle behavioural markers reflecting attention processes or memory retrieval (for example, eye-tracking or pupil dilation). Together, these measures can offer a window on students’ engagement in the classroom, their current knowledge, their emotional state, and the nature of learning as it unfolds.
There are two advantages that neurotechnology can potentially bring to the classroom. First, it can offer educators real-time information to guide practices, either on the current state of their students or the effectiveness of the teacher’s current activities – though the technical challenge of instantly turning rich neurotechnology data into an educationally usable form renders this still, perhaps, a promise rather than a reality.
The second advantage is that using neurotechnologies in the classroom provides greater ecologically validity to study learning and instruction in the context where it occurs, rather than in the artificially controlled context of the laboratory. This means that the use of neurotechnologies in the classroom engages with the embodied sensory, emotional, and social context in which teaching and learning actually occur.
The special Issue is a contribution to this emerging field, compiling a variety of studies conducted in Spain, Portugal, Latin America, and Taiwan, carried out with different neurotechnologies and approaches, from different perspectives. An introduction to the volume and an overview of the papers can be found here.
Alexandra Morotiis part of the global customer research team at Amazon. Alexandra recently completedBirkbeck-UCL-IoE’s Masters in Educational Neuroscience degree. She was attracted to the course due to the novelty of the field, with its multifaceted approach of connecting different disciplines such as biology, neuroscience, and psychology with education – as well as the fact that it is a conjoined programme offered by three leading institutions. In this blog, we asked Alexandra to tell us about the independent research project she completed as part of her masters degree, in which she investigated educational games. Over to you, Alexandra.
“A quick search for “educational toy” on Google yields 191 million results in under a second, most of which are blog posts with affiliate links or recommendations from media outlets. A search for “educational toys” on Mumsnet, a popular parenting blog in the UK, shows numerous inquiries seeking age-appropriate recommendations. While many articles highlight the best educational toys for specific age groups, there are often no clear criteria for selecting these toys.
The purpose of educational toys is to aid a child’s development in a specific area, such as teaching coding or promoting motor skills. These toys should be active, engaging, meaningful, and socially interactive. However, the labelling of toys as “educational” is not regulated, and the development of educational toys often lacks sufficient research into age-appropriate developmental principles relevant to the claimed outcome.
To evaluate the claims of a popular toy marketed as enhancing social cognition in children through socio-emotional learning, I conducted a small-scale pre-test/post-test experimental design, to investigate the effects on young children of playing with a particular “educational” toy over a period of 14 days.
The selected toy
The toy selected for the research was ‘Big Feelings Pineapple,’ marketed for children aged three years and above. The aim of the toy is to build preschool social-emotional learning skills by supporting the recognition of emotional facial expressions. The toy came with a leaflet of 24 expressions, including the six universal emotions: happiness, sadness, anger, fear, disgust, surprise, which can be constructed using various pieces including eyebrows, eyes, and mouths. Here’s the product image (taken from its Amazon page).
Child participants played with the Pineapple toy and were assessed before and after the intervention on four tasks – two experimental and two control tasks. I evaluated the child’s interaction with the toy through an in-the-moment play assessment tool, and then coded parental observations from a daily play diary.
I found that, although the Pineapple toy was good at promoting communication, it scored lower than predicted in the “Thinking and learning” and “Social interaction” dimensions of my measures. Children were mostly engaged with the toy when their parents were involved, but the toy lacked context and explanation when used alone. Parents who engaged their children with the toy in a meaningful way had more in-depth conversations about emotions later in the trial, and the toy was seen as a positive facilitator for conversations on emotions.
The children showed higher levels of emotion recognition post-play than they did pre-play, but the improvement was not related to the number of times the child played with the toy. This makes it ambiguous whether it was the toy having the effect or natural development. I wish I had included a ‘control group’ of children who had played with another type of toy, to check for this!
In my view, an important future step is to establish guidelines for the development, marketing, and testing of educational toys to ensure that they are truly beneficial for a child’s development. This could involve consultation with researchers in the field, qualitative research such as focus groups and in-depth interviews with stakeholders, and longitudinal studies to assess the educational claims made by manufacturers. By doing so, parents can make informed decisions about which toys truly aid their child’s development. But my study suggests that a key role for toys may be how they support interactions between parents and children that in turn stimulate learning.
I think children’s learning should be a collective effort that goes beyond the household. Society should ensure that cities and environments, curricula, and manufacturers’ claims support educational experiences that prepare children for a future where adaptability and mental balance are crucial.”
Thanks, so much, Alexandra! If you are interested in this topic, take a look atthis articlewhich considers whether toys and games improve children’s thinking generally or just make kids better at playing games. Andthis articleby Yuval Noah Harari, the author of Sapiens, speculating on what skills children may have to learn in 2050!