Children’s understanding of counterintuitive concepts in maths and science

Dr. Iroise Dumontheil shared fresh results from the CEN Unlocke project, a large-scale school intervention aiming at improving children’s understanding of maths and science. Teachers used a computer software that invited children to « Stop and Think » before answering counterintuitive problems (e.g. What do cows drink?). The intervention lasted for 10 weeks. Each week included 3 sessions of 12 minutes.

As explained in the following video, the outcomes of the intervention varied depending on children’s age (whether they were in Year 3 or in Year 5), and on the subject that was assessed (science or maths). The most promising results indicate an improvement in scientific understanding among Year 5 pupils.

The project was funded by the Education Endowment Foundation and the Wellcome Trust, and was independently assessed by the National Foundation for Educational Research. It was realised in partnership with Learnus.

You can visit the Unlocke website here, and read the full report here.

Successful CEN randomised control trial: Report published on new neuroscience-inspired learning activity to improve mathematics and science learning in primary school kids

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How do kids learn in school that the world is round, when they’ve spent several years playing football on pitches that seem flat? And when they’ve successfully learned the world is round, they still need to carry on playing football as if it were flat.

Funded by the Education Endowment Foundation and the Wellcome Trust, the CEN, in partnership with Learnus, has spent several years developing a computer-based learning activity to help kids learn these sorts of counter-intuitive concepts in science. The activity, called Stop and Think, also extended to mathematics, where a key skill is to stop previous knowledge interfering with new learning. For example, when kids have learned that 5 is bigger than 4, then they need to learn that 1/5 is smaller than 1/4, and -5 is also smaller than -4.

For both science and mathematics, the key target of the computer-based learning activity is to improve what are known as ‘inhibitory control skills’, the ability to suppress knowledge or expectations not relevant to the current situation (see a similar paper discussing these skills in the context of helping kids to stop making repetitive mistakes).

The new learning activity was evaluated in a large-scale randomised control trial, carried out in 89 schools around the country, with some 7,000 8- and 10-year-old children taking part. Children replaced 15 minutes of science or mathematics lessons with the Stop and Think learning activity three times a week, during a regular 10-week term.

Pupils who participated in the programme made the equivalent of +1 additional month’s progress in maths and +2 additional months’ progress in science, on average, compared to children in the lessons-as-usual control group. The cost of using ‘Stop and Think’ is very low and is estimated to be a little over £5 per child over a three-year period. The full report of the randomised control trial from the Education Endowment Foundation can be found here.

When interviewed, a majority of teachers felt that Stop and Think had a positive impact on the mathematical and science abilities of the pupils in their class.

One teacher said: “It allowed me to develop my understanding of how the children in my class learn and to analyse what they know, how clearly they understand concepts and to identify misconceptions that some/most or all children in my class have.”

Another said: “It gave me an insight into how children’s ideas can change when given thinking time and how they are able to reason as to why something is right or wrong.”

In response to the report, Michael Thomas, Director of the CEN, said: “I am really excited about these findings. They show both the viability and value of using new insights from neuroscience to produce low-cost teaching techniques that can improve educational outcomes. Throughout this project, we have been energised by working with teachers to create and improve the learning activities that will allow neuroscience insights to benefit children in the classroom.”

 

 

Using narrative non-fiction as a teaching technique in primary classrooms, by Emma Browning

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Emma Browning, from the School of Education, Communication and Society at King’s College, presented a fascinating seminar evaluating whether narrative structure might help with the teaching of non-fiction content to primary age children.

She explained how narrative is seen as fundamental to human thought, yet in the Key Stage 2 classroom, is mainly associated with reading for enjoyment. By contrast, non-fiction is commonly used to support learning in content-based subjects, such as history.

If narrative plays a powerful role for children, it might be harnessed as a tool to support learning.

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Emma presented the results of an intervention study with 9-10 year olds, with a sequence of three lessons teaching a history topic (World War 1). One group was presented the content in a narrative format (with a protagonist, a sequence of specific events, and a writing style to encourage engagement), while a second group was presented the content in a conventional factual format. She then assessed the children for their development of understanding of the topic after the lessons, as well as retention of information 3 weeks later. The narrative presentation of content supported a greater degree of comprehension, both in tests of chronological and causal links between information. There was also evidence for enhanced long-term retention.

Notably, while the narrative presentation of non-fiction information induced greater enjoyment in the children, degree of enjoyment did not reliably predict learning outcomes. This suggests that engagement was not the key driver of the narrative effect, rather it was likely due to deeper processing and active construction of meaning during comprehension. Emma presented samples of children’s discourse to support this view.

In the subsequent discussion, Emma considered how to ensure that narrative presentation encouraged the children to learn the information in the best format for future flexible use, rather than as simply a story about someone. Examples of children’s discourse around the learning showed how carefully even 9 and 10 year olds consider the reliability of information.

Emma Browning is currently completing her PhD, and is also a Year 5 primary school teacher.

The CEN is delighted to welcome two new members to its Management Committee

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Dr. Jo van Herwegen (UCL Institute of Education)

Jo is an Associate Professor in Psychology at UCL Institute of Education, and Director of the Child Development and Learning Difficulties lab. The lab carries out internationally excellent collaborative research in child development with a special focus on learning difficulties and developmental disorders, with the aim to translate the latest findings into effective and practical assessments as well as classroom practice and interventions. Jo’s research focuses on language and number development in both typical development and atypical developmental disorders, such as Williams syndrome, Autism Spectrum Disorders, Down syndrome, and Developmental Language Disorder. She is interested in individual differences, as well as exploring what cognitive abilities and strategies relate to successful performance in typical populations and how these differ in atypical populations, in order to aid the development of economically valid training programmes. She says: “I believe that it is important to study abilities from infancy onwards in order to obtain a better understanding of how cognitive abilities develop over time and how performance across different cognitive areas relate to each other.”

Jo’s interest in joining the CEN is to focus on the educational neuroscience of Special Educational Needs, and she is currently working on ‘neuromyths’ about SEN teaching. Welcome to the CEN, Jo!

Dr. Roberto Filippi (UCL Institute of Education)

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Roberto is an Associate Professor in Psychology at UCL Institute of Education, and Director of the Multilanguage and Cognition Lab. The MULTAC lab is formed by a team of researchers interested in studying multilanguage acquisition and its effects on cognitive development across the lifespan. After a successful career in business, Roberto completed his PhD at Birkbeck, University of London, under the supervision and mentorship of Prof. Michael Thomas, Prof. Frederic Dick and Prof. Annette Karmiloff-Smith. His main research interest is on multi-language acquisition and its effects on cognitive development from early infancy to old age. Roberto is the author and co-author of several scientific publications, books and book chapters. He is also actively involved in public engagement. Roberto frequently delivers presentations in schools and workshops with the aim of creating a hotline between scientific research and professional practice in education. He sponsors a “Creative Writing Award” in an Italian primary school that has the intent to promote multicultural exchange between Italy and the UK. Roberto believes that learning a second language (or more!) is “one of the best things that humans can do”, an investment for our future and the future of our children.

His research at CEN will focus on using cognitive neuroscience methods to investigate the educational advantages and disadvantages of learning multiple languages. Welcome to the CEN, Roberto!

 

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!

New paper: Using Insight From Research to Improve Education

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Annie Brookman-Byrne, a PhD student in the Centre for Educational Neuroscience, and Lia Commissar from the Wellcome Trust, have jointly published an article in the journal Mind Brain and Education. The paper summarises the International Mind, Brain, and Education Society pre-conference which was held in Toronto in 2016. The pre-conference was designed to share new research findings and host discussions about how best to move the field of educational neuroscience forward. The article captures discussions from the day and describes new Wellcome Trust funded work in response to the challenges. The article is freely available via this link.

Here are the key questions the paper considers:

  • What have we learned from doing educational neuroscience research in the classroom?
  • How can we close the gap between educational neuroscience research and classroom practice?
  • Where do we want educational neuroscience to be in two years, and what do we need to make that happen?

 

Genetics and education – What’s the message?

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Last week, The Times (@nicolawoolcock) reported a complaint by journalist Toby Young (@toadmeister) that he had been censored for writing that intelligence was largely genetic. What point was Toby Young trying to make by referring to genetic evidence and why was it censored?toby-young-times-censure

According to the Times, Young’s blog argued that IQ is a strong predictor of how children perform in school exams; that schools are largely unsuccessful in raising the IQs of pupils; and that ‘intelligence is a highly heritable characteristic, which is to say that more than half of the variance in IQ at a population level is due to genetic differences’. The context of Young’s article was how he had moderated his early view about the transformative impact that good schools can have, based in part on learning about the greater contribution of genetics to variation in IQ.

There was a negative response to the blog on social media, including that it ‘had deeply nasty connotations’. Teach First (@TeachFirst ), a teacher training organisation, took down the blog, saying the article ‘was against what we believe in’.

Why is genetic data controversial in education?

Genetics is controversial in education because is it sometimes used to support arguments of determinism. In the deterministic narrative, schools have limited influence on children’s academic achievement in the face of more powerful forces, be it genetic variation or socio-economic status. Genetics additionally has negative historical associations with discrimination on the basis of race.

Was the scientific data interpreted correctly?

A recent meta-analysis of 42 datasets involving over 600,000 participants found consistent evidence for beneficial effects of education on cognitive abilities. The effect of schooling was a gain of approximately 1 to 5 IQ points for each additional year of education. Schooling therefore does have a small but measurable effect on intelligence. It is likely smaller than the effect of genetics and of socioeconomic status on IQ.

Importantly, however, genetic effects are not deterministic. If the environment is changed, the genetic effect may disappear. For example, despite the high ‘heritability’ of intelligence often reported in scientific studies, this genetic effect is reduced or eliminated under conditions of socioeconomic privation. When a poor educational environment holds children back, genetics effects can reduce: a study examining reading found reduced genetic effects on reading skills when teaching was poor.

Most of the evidence on genetic effects (‘intelligence is 50% inherited’ and so forth) concerns the differences between people. It does not focus on the absolute level that everyone is performing at (that is, the way people are similar). It is possible for the environment to improve everyone’s intelligence, even while the differences between them are for mainly genetic reasons. Therefore, genetic studies reporting heritability only give part of the picture.

This is relevant because national educational policy is often about changing the conditions for the whole population, (hopefully) raising the education level for all. To take a hypothetical example, the government might decree that schools spend double the amount of time teaching maths. The result would be that all children in the country would get better at maths (though perhaps worse at the topics they have less time for). Those at the top of the maths class might still be near the top, those at the bottom near bottom, perhaps for genetic reasons. The heritability of maths skills could stay the same, even though everyone had improved.

Studies focusing on genetic contributions to education are therefore mainly important for the question of gaps between children, and policy ambitions to narrow gaps. The debate considers the genetic and environmental causes of gaps. These gaps might not primarily stem from variation in school quality, which is the focus of Young’s blog. Indeed, when schools are very good, and in a society with low inequality, any remaining gaps would come from genetic differences (or ‘talent’). If we were to achieve the goal of perfect schools and equal societies, this would eliminate at least half the gaps in educational achievement between children. In that sense, data showing increasing heritability of educational achievement would be an index of progress on those goals (see Asbury and Plomin’s recent book ‘G is for Genes’ for more on this).

However, we should remember that education isn’t about populations, it is about individual children. None of the findings on genetics contradicts the fact that any individual can get better at any skill by working harder at it, irrespective of their genetic make up.

How can genetics benefit education?

Right now, the main message from genetics is that not all differences between children in educational outcomes are environmental.

In the future, based on progress in ‘precision’ medicine, the ultimate promise held out by the application of genetics to education is that we will be able to identify the optimal environments to maximise the genetic potential of each child – to realise their talent. This is a long way off. It requires identifying the biological basis of learning, no mean feat. And there are broader ethical issues to consider about genotyping one’s child and handing over the data to their school. But the promise shows the direction of travel: far from arguing for determinism, genetics is about identifying the best environment for individuals to thrive in.

Before then, as a society, we need to make progress on deciding how we feel about differences between children (in contrast to how well all children are performing). It may be that maximising every child’s (genetic) potential does not narrow the gaps between them. When education empowers every child to reach for the stars, we may have to accept that it is different stars the children are aiming at.

For more information

Here is a recent article giving an overview of the use of genetics in education. Here is a video that gives an introduction to the field: Professor Michael Thomas “Genetics and Education” from Learnus – Understanding Learning on Vimeo.

The Montessori educational method – is it effective?

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CEN member Chloë Marshall has published a paper entitled “Montessori education: A review of the evidence base” in the journal Science of Learning. Montessori education is an alternative method of education which has been in existence for 100 years. In her paper, Chloë reviews the small number of research studies that have evaluated the Montessori method and draws attention to some of their methodological limitations. She also discusses studies which have not directly evaluated Montessori education, but which have evaluated features of other educational methods that are shared with Montessori, such as using phonics to teach reading and spelling. She concludes that there is growing evidence that the Montessori method is effective for supporting children’s cognitive and social development, at least when carried out faithfully to Montessori’s principles

A former Montessori teacher herself, Chloë says “National and regional education systems are beset by regular swings of the pendulum, for example towards and away from phonics, and towards and away from children working individually. This means that elements of the Montessori method will sometimes be in vogue and sometimes not. It is therefore particularly important that Montessori teachers understand the evidence base that supports, or does not support, their pedagogy.”

“What touchscreen technology is really doing to your child’s brain”

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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.

CEN student wins grant to develop spelling app

Capita SIMS Annual Conference 2017

Capita SIMS Annual Conference 2017

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.