Educational neuroscience and International Literacy Day 2020

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Tuesday September 8 was International Literacy Day 2020. UNESCO marked the day by holding a global meeting on ‘Literacy teaching and learning in the COVID-19 crisis and beyond’. Globally, basic literacy skills and more than 617 million children and adolescents are not achieving minimum proficiency levels in reading and mathematics. During the initial phase of the pandemic, schools were closed down in more than 190 countries, disrupting the education of two thirds of the world’s student population. The COVID-19 crisis has magnified existing literacy challenges, deeply affecting schooling and lifelong learning opportunities including for youth and adults with no or low literacy skills.

UNESCO’s global meeting brought together international experts in literacy teaching and learning, with the aim of enhancing understandings about the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on teaching and learning of youth and adult literacy and reflecting on reimagined teaching approaches in times of the COVID-19 crisis and beyond.

The CEN’s Director, Michael Thomas, contributed to a meeting session on ‘Reimagined literacy teaching and learning and the role of educators’. He presented the neuroscience perspective and addressed the question of whether neuroscience points to any differences in learning ability in youth and adults that may impact literacy learning, and provides useful knowledge to educators.

Professor Thomas made the following points:

  1. The adult brain has lifelong plasticity, but may need more practice to make skills automatic, and modified teaching methods to help with perceptual learning.
  2. Adult learners need personal relevance, peer support networks, and community buy-in to motivate the required levels of practice.
  3. There can be wider barriers to success than individual brains, including education, policy, and cultural factors.
  4. The COVID-19 crisis is likely to be largely negative for adult learners but there may be opportunities to build back better through technological solutions to augment teaching. However, particularly in rural areas, such opportunities crucially depend on the strength of the IT infrastructure.

Mr. David Atchoarena, Director of UNESCO’s Institute for Lifelong Learning, who was chairing the session, drew the following conclusions:

  • The COVID-19 crisis has made existing challenges in global literacy teaching and learning worse
  • The response to these challenges should leverage new knowledge emerging from fields such as neuroscience, AI and data analytics, as well as building on the established understanding of teaching and learning principles
  • The financial impact of the crisis presents new challenges regarding the financing of education, both in terms of each country’s percentage spend on education and the amount targeted towards literacy. How can we make sure that literacy is prioritised in this new financial climate, and that funding still reaches the most marginalised in society?

See here for the CEN’s report, commissioned by the World Bank, on neuroscience and adult literacy programmes published earlier this year.

Update: SEN conference goes on-line

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EARLI SIG 15’s August conference (10-12th) on “Intellectual difficulties and inclusion: Challenges (and solutions) for the future” has now moved online. You can find the exciting programme below.

Special Interest Group (SIG) 15 is an international scientific research interest group within EARLI (European Association for Research on Learning and Instruction). SIG 15 brings together early career and established researchers and other stakeholders (e.g., practitioners, associations, charities), from across the globe, with an interest in the education and inclusion of individuals with special educational needs (SEN) of all ages.

The main conference runs on Monday 10th and Tuesday 11th of August 2020. Confirmed keynotes include: Professor Maria Chiara Passolunghi and Professor Brahm Norwich.

On Wednesday 12th of August, the conference hosts a workshop and discussion on “Research and SEN: challenges and solutions for the future

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Registration is still open! To register please click here:

https://onlinestore.ucl.ac.uk/conferences-and-events/ucl-institute-of-education-b14/ioe-dept-of-psychology-human-developement-j79/j79-earli-sig15-conference

 

 

Find out about baby brains

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On Thursday 25th January, the CEN had a visit from Dr Silvia Dalvit, founder and director of the company Babybrains. Silvia, a cognitive neuroscientist and Birkbeck alumna, explained to us how she has created an app for new parents. The app gives parents weekly age-appropriate science-based activities, each only a few minutes long, to try out with their baby. These activities target different areas of babies’ language, perceptual, social and motor development.

Dr. Dalvit said, “Importantly, these activities are designed to be fun and to empower parents in being attuned to their baby’s development.” The app aims to communicate research findings on the cognitive neuroscience of development to the most important people in the baby’s life!

Maximising the adolescent brain: FutureEd18

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What makes teenagers tick? Why does their behaviour seem to be erratic at times? How can we help them maximise their potential? What does the research on the adolescent brain tell us? These questions will be considered at the Learnus FutureEd18 conference, Wednesday February 7th, 2018. Speakers include Prof. Sarah-Jayne Blakemore (The Secret Life of the Teenage Brain) and Prof. Sophie Scott (fresh from her Royal Institution lectures). Further details.

All Special Kids conference – Educational Neuroscience and Special Educational Needs

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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.

Cambridge seminars on the Educated Brain #3: Effective translation

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The University of Cambridge will shortly host the third of three ESRC-funded research seminars on The Educated Brain, on Friday 13th October 2017. The first seminar considered Foundations of the Educated Brain: Infancy and Early Childhood, while the second seminar addressed The Educated Brain: Late Childhood and Adolescence. The final seminar is entitled Effectively translating neuroscience for teaching practice: Opportunities and next steps.
 
Provisional programme
Venue: Kaetsu Conference Centre Murray Edwards College
12.30 – 17:00: Includes lunch, short talks and discussion and will be followed by a networking reception
Confirmed speakers include:
Rachel Snape (Head Teacher, Spinney Primary School)
Paul Howard-Jones (Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol)
Jon Simons (Department of Psychology, University of Cambridge)
Sara Baker (Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge)
Michelle Ellefson (Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge)
The seminar is organised in collaboration with Learnus.

Diagnosis – which diagnosis? Pitfalls and prospects for supporting the struggling learner

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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.

Neuroscience in the Classroom: Current Progress and Future Challenges

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The Wellcome Trust hosted the CEN’s eagerly anticipated workshop last Friday 17th March, which was organised by a group of PhD students from the CEN. Nearly 100 delegates attended, with a broad spread of academics, students, teachers, consultants and individuals from charities and organisations.

The morning’s sessions focused on research linking different aspects of brain and cognitive functioning to children’s academic performance and skills. Professor Gaia Scerif’s excellent keynote talk opened the workshop. She presented findings on various aspects of attention control and preschool maths from an integrated cognitive, neuroscientific and educational perspective. Three talks followed focusing on children’s educational outcomes. Dr Denes Szucs, University of Cambridge (pictured above), firstly discussed the cognitive correlates of dyscalculia and discussed the characteristics of individuals who suffer from maths anxiety. On the latter topic, he suggested that maths ability doesn’t always correlate with anxiety; some individuals with strong maths skills still experience maths anxiety. Dr Sinead Rhodes, University of Edinburgh, presented data which suggested that visual-spatial working memory was predictive of conceptual understanding of chemistry. Finally, Dr Michelle Ellefson, University of Cambridge, discussed her recent research which compares parent and child cognitive data between the UK and Hong Kong. Interestingly, her findings indicate that children from Hong Kong performed better on tests of executive function than children in the UK, but, parents performed at a similar level between the two countries.

During lunch, 15 posters were presented on a range of topics including spatial cognition and maths and science reasoning and inhibitory control. The two winners of the poster prize were Marialivia Bernardi (academic achievement in children with typical and atypical motor coordination: the contribution of intellectual ability and executive functioning) and Eugenia Marin-Garcia (functional neuroimaging of the testing effect). The prizes were presented by Lia Commissar, project manager for the Wellcome Trust’s Neuroscience and Education project.

The afternoon focused on neuroscience-informed interventions. Representatives of the Wellcome / Education Endowment Foundation funded intervention projects each presented a 15-minute summary of their progress and discussed any challenges they have experienced to date. This was then followed by a lively and thought-provoking panel discussion involving the project representatives, chaired by Professor Gaia Scerif. Delegates had been invited during the day to submit their questions, which were addressed by the panel and the audience. A common theme was discussing ways in which teachers and researchers could better connect; for example, in terms of teachers being able to access research findings. Professor Courtenay Norbury suggested that becoming a school governor has been an excellent way for her to get more closely involved in schools.

Overall, we were thrilled by the response to day both in terms of the excellent feedback we received and the number of people showing interest in the workshop. Because we had nearly 100 people on the waiting list for places who we were unable to invite, we decided to film the event and will making this available shortly. Watch this space.

Learnus conference on neuroscience and the future of education (London, 9 February 2017)

Our collaborators, the think tank Learnus, are staging their first conference, in partnership with the Association of School and College Leaders, entitled “FutureEd: How can Findings from Educational Neuroscience Reshape Teaching and Learning now and in the Future?”

The conference will be held at the Holiday Inn, Bloomsbury, on Thursday 9th February 2017. For more details, see futureed-conference

The mission of Learnus is to act as a bridge between the latest academic research and the classroom and to share their findings with education policy makers.

Curious Brains

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Professor Derek Bell from Learnus (one of CEN’s collaborators) gave a presentation last week at the Second Neurocuriosity Workshop, on information-seeking, curiosity and attention. The workshop was hosted by The Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development (Birkbeck) and brought together cognitive neuroscientists, psychologists, and educators interested in the role of curiosity in learning.

Given Learnus’ mission – to facilitate in the translation of research to educational implications and practice – Derek’s talk focused on how scientific research in curiosity might help answer the perennial teachers’ question, “So what do I do in my lessons next week?”.

Derek emphasised that the link between education and neuroscience is not a simple straight line. While there is an appetite among teachers for new methods stemming from research on the brain, this places a responsibility on those working in the field to assure the quality of the information that is shared. Derek focused on key questions including: What is curiosity in the classroom? How does it differ from interest? How can curiosity be harnessed for learning? How does the neuroscience understanding of the basis of curiosity (in exploration, information gain, and reward seeking) link to classroom learning activities?

He drew some tentative conclusions from the research presented at the workshop: Curiosity consolidates learning. It may act as a positive feedback loop, with curiosity stimulating learning, and learning in turn stimulating more curiosity. However, curiosity, surprise, rewards and memory are tightly interlinked concepts. Practical strategies to stimulate curiosity and generate interest in lessons might include the use of surprise items and events, rewards, and questions.

But also he also stressed the importance of dialogue between different professional communities to facilitate understanding the concrete implications of cutting edge research, and whether they yet justify any major changes in teachers’ practice.

In the following discussion, two points emerged. The first concerned the challenge of ‘bringing curiosity to the fore’ and the suggestion that having some structure or task to help focus the curiosity might be more productive for students than situations in which the questions are completely open or students engaging in what might be referred to as ‘idle curiosity’.

The second was the idea that curiosity is not a ‘one-off event’, so there is a need to explore ways of sustaining curiosity so that it becomes a longer term interest in the material and, more broadly, in learning about the world and how it works.