Brain stimulation sounds futuristic. But education is all about changing the brain, and it’s possible that new tools are available to help us do just that. In our latest addition to the neuro-hit / neuro-myth resource, we introduce the concept of brain stimulation and take a look at the current evidence on whether it is effective for improving learning outcomes.
The idea that our intellectual ability is written in the stars is not one that’s confined to the classroom, but it’s certainly relevant, indeed central, to the way that teachers approach their craft. This idea is also key to the way that children are perceived, and the way that they perceive themselves. In our latest addition to the neuro-hit / neuro-myth resource, we explore what intelligence is, then look at the literature around how performance on cognitive tasks can be advanced or held back.
In the second Annual Learnus Public Lecture on educational neuroscience held at Church House in Westminster on 17th May 2017, Professor Sue Gathercole (MRC-CBU, University of Cambridge) talked about the challenges faced by families, practitioners and policy-makers in supporting children who are struggling to learn.
She identified major hazards. These include social inequities, difficulties in identifying underlying problems in children whose first language is not English, haphazard routes to professional help, dependence on diagnoses that are of limited value, and an unrealistic emphasis on cure rather than compensation.
Prof. Gathercole argued that diagnoses of specific disorders, such as dyslexia, dyspraxia, developmental language disorder, dyscalculia and ADHD, might provide re-assurance to parents and access to therapeutic resources. However, more often than not, children exhibit more than one ‘disorder’, symptoms can be highly variable for child assigned the same disorder, and separate diagnoses play down the similarities often shown between children with different disorders. Individual diagnoses therefore can hinder identification of underlying cause or most pragmatic treatment.
She illustrated some of the challenges by describing recent research on struggling learners at the Centre for Attention, Learning, and Memory (CALM). In one study, a large sample of over 400 children were recruited through educational referrals for a range of learning problems. Detailed profiling of the children indicated that dimensions of cognition and behaviour were more important than diagnoses. She also presented evidence on when intensive cognitive training could be most effective. While no panacea, it was most beneficial when children had to learn to do something new, rather than striving to overcome a narrow core problem.
Lastly, neuroimaging of the brain structure of the struggling learners pointed to inefficient white matter connectivity as a marker of learning problems. Indeed, measures of brain connectivity could predict maths and reading ability.
An enthusiastic audience raised a number of questions in the Discussion session, including the relative neglect of secondary education as a period to remediate deficits not addressed through early intervention, the importance of the child’s self-esteem in response to their slower learning progress, and the role of the teacher in identifying each child’s strengths as a foundation on which to build strategies to overcome their difficulties. Professor Gathercole finished by describing an ambitious future project to collect advice and tips from university students who have overcome learning challenges on the best strategies to pass on to the struggling learners of tomorrow.
There’s a wealth of information available on the internet for teachers who want to introduce mindfulness into their classrooms; and indeed why wouldn’t you when the purported benefits for your class include reducing mental health issues, developing compassion, reducing anxiety and increasing attention? In our latest addition to the neuro-hit / neuro-myth resource, we introduce the concept of mindfulness, take a look at the available literature on whether it is actually beneficial and ask, if it is beneficial, why that might be.
In an article in the Psychologist magazine, Michael Thomas discusses new research on the impact of differences in socio-economic status (SES) on children’s cognitive and brain development, and how these are associated with differences in education-relevant skills that are already present when children start school. The article was based on a talk presented at a Learnus Mediated Workshop. The video of the presentation can be found here.
What are the policy implications of this research? The article highlights three:
- Just because the effects of low SES are measurable in the brain does not imply they cannot be reversed. Outside of cases of severe neglect, many cognitive differences shown by children from very low SES families respond well to training techniques, such as those that focus on executive functions and engage with parents.
- A mechanistic perspective highlights multiple points of possible intervention (directly on SES, indirectly on experiences or biological processes that mediate SES effects, indirectly on brain development by training specific neurocognitive functions, and directly on outcomes educationally or therapeutically); and they allow fostering of factors of resilience such as the mother–child or caregiver–child relationship
- Measures of brain function make the greatest contribution where they can show that two individuals with similar behaviour actually exhibit the behaviour for different reasons. This might imply that, for example, childhood emotional regulation difficulties caused by adverse childhood events are best addressed by therapies that address the traumatic experiences, while those with similar difficulties caused by lack of cognitive stimulation are best addressed by learning opportunities scaffolded to encourage self-regulation.
The full article can be downloaded here.
Is ADHD on the rise? Given that the disorder is associated with poor academic outcomes, long-term mental health issues and low employability, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a matter of serious concern for parents and teachers alike.
ADHD seems to be something of a buzz-word in the press: recently we were told that being overweight, taking paracetamol or having a diet high in fat and sugar during pregnancy all increase the risk of your child developing ADHD. Food additives, fizzy drinks, and video game playing have all been claimed to contribute to the inexorable rise in ADHD rates in children.
But are prevalence rates of ADHD really on the rise in the UK? The CEN Neurohit-Neuromyth Team investigates.
In the latest addition to our Neuro-hit or neuro-myth? section, we consider the claim that the time of year children are born influences their subsequent academic performance. This is a simple enough idea with potentially large repercussions. Evidence supporting this was first flagged in the 1960s and ever since researchers and educationalists have been accumulating data. We look at the findings of more recent studies in order to evaluate whether the autumn-born advantage is a reality, possible explanations, how far-reaching the effects are, and whether there are ways to level the playing field.
Can changes in diet improve children’s cognition? Everyone agrees that in one way or another diet has an impact on children’s cognitive abilities. Although there are many studies exploring links between diet and behaviour, there are also lots of holes in our knowledge.
One area of particular focus has been the claim that ingesting fish oil supplements either boosts learning in typically developing children or helps children with developmental difficulties, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), overcome behavioural problems. Fish and shellfish contain Omega-3 fatty acids, which, along with Omega-6, are known as essential fatty acids (EFAs). ‘Essential’ because the body isn’t able to produce them itself, but rather relies on dietary intake. EFAs have a substantial impact on how the brain functions. Despite the necessity of fatty acids for healthy brain function, the benefit of taking dietary supplements containing EFAs (usually Omega-3) has been far from clear. Few studies have shown robust effects of supplements in typically developing, healthy children. There is more evidence of the impact of EFA supplements in reducing ADHD-related symptoms in children with developmental disorders, although even here changes are relatively small and inconsistent.
In a recent paper, researchers reported evidence that taking fish oil supplements improved reading in 9 year old mainstream children in Sweden. The paper, by Mats Johnson and colleagues appears in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. The researchers gave omega 3/6 supplements to 64 9-year-old-children in Sweden over a 3-month period, compared to a group of 58 children given a placebo. The control group were then given the supplements for 3 further months to see whether, if fish oils had an effect, these children then showed the same gains. A battery of reading tests (e.g,. of phonological skills, visual analysis skills, naming skills) were given to the children before and after taking the supplements. Parents also rated their children on various scales, including language and communication skills. From the battery, three tests showed reliable improvements of the supplements compared to the controls: phonological decoding time, visual analysis time, and phonological decoding. The reading benefits were stronger in poorer readers, in boys, and in children with higher ADHD symptoms (though no children symptoms marked enough to suggest a diagnosis of ADHD). Parent ratings did not show any changes (including in ADHD symptoms). The results suggest that while the supplements were effective in a mainstream school sample, they only benefitted some. They had stronger effects in the lower performing children, and diminishing returns in the better readers. This is consistent with the idea that in children who already have diets with sufficient essential fatty acids, supplements confer no extra benefit. However, children with attention problems in particular may show treatment benefits on reading.
The history of genetics goes back to the 19th century when Darwin and Mendel first developed sophisticated notions of heritability. Since then, a tremendous amount of work has been done to further our understanding of heritability and the biological mechanisms and structures that drive it. Modern work in genetics can tell us about the heritability of traits which are important for learning. For a given trait, if we know it’s heritability we know the extent to which genetic factors can explain variation in the trait. Where genetic factors do not entirely explain differences in the expression of a particular trait, we can assume that environmental factors contribute to a corresponding degree.
This paper by CEN members Michael Thomas, Emma Meaburn and Andrew Tolmie, explores what genetics research can tell us about the heritability of traits which are important for learning, and how this knowledge might might be helpful for educators, who have the power to affect the environment of learners.
Abstract: This article explores the potential contribution of modern genetic methods and findings to education. It is familiar to hear that the “gene” for this or that behavior has been discovered, or that certain skills are “highly heritable.” Can this help educators? To explore this, we describe the methods used to relate genetic variation to individual differences in high-level behaviors such as academic skills and educational achievement. These methods include twin studies and genome-wide association studies. We address the key question of what genetic data imply about the ability of educators to optimize educational outcomes for children across the range of abilities.
See Michael Thomas give the Learnus Annual Public Lecture on genetics and education.
Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences has just published a new volume focusing on neuroscience and education. Among the topics its articles cover are the role of spatial thinking in the classroom, neural markers for education-relevant executive function skills, brain evidence on the emergence of numerical symbols during maths learning, brain plasticity for academic interventions, and the link between cognitive control and decision-making across childhood and adolescent development.
The CEN’s own Dr. Iroise Dumontheil has an article in the volume entitled ‘Adolescent brain development’. Here’s the abstract!
“Adolescence starts with puberty and ends when individuals attain an independent role in society. Cognitive neuroscience research in the last two decades has improved our understanding of adolescent brain development. The evidence indicates a prolonged structural maturation of grey matter and white matter tracts supporting higher cognitive functions such as cognitive control and social cognition. These changes are associated with a greater strengthening and separation of brain networks, both in terms of structure and function, as well as improved cognitive skills. Adolescent-specific sub-cortical reactivity to emotions and rewards, contrasted with their developing self-control skills, are thought to account for their greater sensitivity to the socio-affective context. The present review examines these findings and their implications for training interventions and education.”