Dr. Natasha Kirkham: Does a multi-sensory approach help learning in the classroom?

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Dr. Natasha Kirkham (Birkbeck, University of London) gave a seminar updating us on the findings of her current project investigating the impact of multi-sensory approaches to learning in the classroom.  Dr. Kirkham’s work investigates what guides attention and supports learning from infancy into early childhood. Recently, she has focused on learning occurring in naturalistic settings, amidst all the noise and distraction of real-life environments.

Children’s formal learning in the classroom takes place in dynamic multi-sensory environments, which can be noisy, distracting and occasionally chaotic. Sometimes the information provided is mutually supportive (e.g., consistent or redundant cues), but at other times it can be de-correlated (independent cues), or even contradictory (conflicting cues). Prior research has shown that multi-sensory information can sometimes facilitate learning in infants (Bahrick & Lickliter, 2000; Lewkowicz, 2000; Richardson & Kirkham, 2004; Wu & Kirkham, 2010) and adults (e.g., Shams & Seitz, 2008; Frassinetti, Bolognini, & Ladavas, 2002).

Consequently, the idea that information received simultaneously from multiple modalities is ‘supportive’ of learning has been used as the basis for educational programs in literacy and numeracy, dealing with both typically and atypically developing children (Bullock, Pierce, & McClelland, 1989; Carbo, Dunn, & Dunn, 1986; Luchow & Sheppard, 1981; Mount & Cavet, 1995).

And yet, beyond its intuitive appeal, there has been no systematic investigation of the effects of multi-sensory stimuli on school-aged children’s basic learning (Barutchu, Crewther, Fifer, Shivdasani, Innes-Brown, Toohey et al., 2011).

Dr. Kirkham presented evidence from her team’s latest work looking at the pros and cons of multimodal information in a learning setting, focusing on the modalities of sight and sound. Thus far, they have used two tasks to tap multi-sensory learning. Both involve learning new categories using audio and visual features.

In the first task (run in collaboration with Prof. Denis Mareschal), the goal is explicit – figure out the categories! In one condition, clues to the categories are in audio features, in a second in visual features, in a third in both audio and visual features together. The results showed that redundant multi-sensory (audio-visual) information offers only a little learning support above and beyond uni-sensory information (audio or visual alone), and only in the youngest age group. In fact, while 5-year-olds seem to show some benefit from multi-sensory information, by 10 years of age children perform best in the auditory alone condition.

The second task (run in collaboration with Dr. Hannah Broadbent) is similar in all ways except that it is an incidental learning task – with children asked to press a button every time they see a frog appear on the screen. There were two categories of frogs, defined, as before, by visual, auditory or audiovisual features. Afterwards, children were asked to identify the categories. In this task, the categories were actually irrelevant to the task at hand – kids just had to spot the frog! In this study, all the age groups (5-, 7-, and 10-year-olds) performed significantly better in identifying the (irrelevant) categories of frog when the categories were marked by multi-sensory cues, rather than just visual or audio features alone.

So, as the team begins to investigate the possible benefits of multi-sensory learning, a more complex picture is emerging. Benefits depend on the type of learning and the age of the child. Multi-sensory presentation may be best for incidental learning. For explicit learning, multi-sensory presentation may be advantageous only for younger children. The project is still on-going.

Free paper for download: Brain plasticity and learning in adulthood

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In the last few years, the academic journal International Review of Education (IRE) – the oldest journal of comparative education in the world – shifted its focus towards closer alignment with the work of its parent institution, the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning. Since then, IRE has given priority to research that explores ways in which the idea of lifelong learning is reflected in education policy and practice throughout the world. This has meant a focus on topic areas such as adult education, non-formal education, adult literacy, open and distance learning, vocational education and workplace learning, new access routes to formal education, lifelong learning policies, and various applications of the lifelong learning paradigm. To introduce new readers to IRE, the journal has made available for free download from October 20 to December 20 ten recently published articles. Among them is a paper from the CEN on brain plasticity and learning in adulthood, which can be downloaded here:

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.

CEN Research Seminars – Autumn programme

The CEN research seminars will recommence next week on Thursday 13th October at 4pm. These seminars are open to anyone with an interest in educational neuroscience, including educators and members of the public. The seminar series will run weekly during term time, and will be held in Birkbeck, University of London.

Some of the upcoming talks: Thursday 13th October 2016: Prof. Michael Thomas “Is educational neuroscience all it’s cracked up to be?” Later in the term: Prof. Ted Melhuish “Long-term effects of early years experience”. Discussion paper: “Genomic basis of educational attainment”

If you are interested in being added to our mailing list for further seminar details, please email us at centre4educationalneuroscience@gmail.com

Can fish oil supplements help children with reading?

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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.

Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience celebrates 20 years

Congratulations to the UCL’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, celebrating its 20 year anniversary. To mark this occasion, the Institute is holding a 1-day event on 11th June 2016. “Mind the Brain” will feature short 15-minute talks from 12 different researchers at the forefront of cognitive neuroscience. To close the day, there will be a panel discussion focusing on how the future of cognitive neuroscience will affect the lives of the public.

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CEN Paper – What Can the Study of Genetics Offer to Educators?

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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.

Read the paper here…

See Michael Thomas give the Learnus Annual Public Lecture on genetics and education.

New journal volume on ‘Neuroscience of education’

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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.”

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Foundations of the Educated Brain: Infancy and Early Childhood – Part of ‘The Educated Brain’ Seminar Series

Summary of the Seminar:
Foundations of the Educated Brain: Infancy and Early Childhood
Part of ‘The Educated Brain’ Seminar Series
Monday April 18th, Newnham College, University of Cambridge

Blog written by Su Morris and Annie Brookman

The first of three seminars on ‘The Educated Brain’ began with a morning of six talks on infancy and early childhood. One of the main themes was the translation of neuroscientific evidence to early education, and the obstacles and benefits of doing so. Educational neuroscience is often considered to be the direct application of neuroscience research to the classroom, which is understandably criticised as a fruitless pursuit. Rather, as we heard throughout the morning, educational neuroscience is about taking an interdisciplinary, multi-level, scientific approach to education. Speakers referred to collaborations between neuroscientists, psychologists, and teachers, but also architects, computer scientists, geneticists, speech and language therapists, and mathematicians. As evidenced by the talks we heard, educational neuroscience takes into account the genetic, cognitive, behavioural, and social levels that influence education. It also aims to work with educators to design educationally-relevant studies that teachers want to know the answers to. With regards to infancy and early childhood, one key question is whether or not the early years form a special, sensitive period that requires a particular focus for educational resources and intervention. In the case of clinical conditions such as stroke, it seems that early intervention is better to enable children to catch up with their peers, with evidence of early childhood as a period of vulnerability. However, the evidence for sensitive periods in the early years does not yet extend to typical development, and we seem to have no convincing evidence yet that the early years should attract extra funding in cases where there are no clinical problems.

The afternoon session allowed further discussions arising from the morning’s presentations, through an interactive workshop. Questions were collected and discussed in groups which brought together people from a wide range of backgrounds, including teachers, psychologists and neuroscientists – a great illustration of the collaborations mentioned in the morning presentations. Each group focussed on their own area of interest, such as child-led and adult-led activities in the early years, intervention policies for particular socio-economic groups, assessment, and stress in both school leaders, teachers, and pupils. The aim was to consider how neuroscience and education could together inform policy, and how communication between different groups could, and should, work in practice to foster research. The exercise provided insight into the views and priorities of those working in different areas. Although the focus of the session continued to be early years, many of the discussions could equally well be applied to all levels of education and learning.

The day was a fantastic opportunity to hear the latest research from highly respected speakers, and to share views and ideas about future research with others. We look forward to attending the next seminar in Autumn where we will hear about the educated brains of children and adolescents.

How children’s brains develop to make them right or left handed

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As children grow older, they tend to favour one hand over the other for certain tasks, particularly for writing or drawing. A child’s “handedness” is generally categorised as right, left or mixed, and tends to settle around the same time they acquire language – about four-years-old. It remains a persistent characteristic throughout our life. We now know that a child’s handedness says something about the organisation and function of their brain. See here for latest ideas on the development and evolution of handedness from Dr. Gillian Forrester (University of Westminster). Here are some of our recent papers in collaboration with Dr. Forrester:

Human handedness: An inherited evolutionary trait

Handedness as a marker of cerebral lateralisation in children with and without autistic spectrum disorder