2015: Urban Myths about Learning and Education, 1st Edition

Together with Casper Hulshof I wrote a popular book in Dutch on educational myths in 2013.

In 2015 a whole new, updated and upgraded version will be published internationally by Elsevier/Academic Press, written by myself, prof. Paul A. Kirschner and Casper Hulshof.

The manuscript has been sent in and… check here.

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Strong reading skills at early age predict higher intelligence at later age

Stop, before you start taking your books and maybe wake up your kids to practice reading, first read this piece. A study of 1,890 identical twins has found that strong early reading skill might correlate with later intelligence. The twins, who are part of an ongoing longitudinal study in the United Kingdom, share all their genes as well as a home environment. Differences shown in intellectual ability came from experiences they didn’t share. The twin with stronger early reading skills was found to have higher overall intellectual ability by age 7.

As you will read, the researchers think there might be a causal effect although they keep their reserves. They argue that the research implies a causal relation as they focused on identical twins (genes are the same), and we know there is a big correlation in IQ between identical twins. So differences in the IQ come from the environment, is the basic idea, reading being one of the elements in the environment.

Well, what we do know: reading skills do help, reading helps reading skills, so, maybe don’t wake up your kids, but do promote reading.

From the press release:

“Since reading is an ability that can be improved, our findings have implications for reading instruction,” according to Stuart J. Ritchie, research fellow in psychology at the University of Edinburgh, who led the study. “Early remediation of reading problems might aid not only the growth of literacy, but also more general cognitive abilities that are of critical importance across the lifespan.”

Researchers looked at 1,890 identical twins who were part of the Twins Early Development Study, an ongoing longitudinal study in the United Kingdom whose participants were representative of the population as a whole. They examined scores from tests of reading and intelligence taken when the twins were 7, 9, 10, 12, and 16. Using a statistical model, they tested whether differences in reading ability between each pair of twins were linked to later differences in intelligence, taking into account earlier differences in intelligence. Because each pair of identical twins shared all their genes as well as a home environment, any differences between them had to be because of experiences that the twins didn’t share, such as a particularly effective teacher or a group of friends that encouraged reading.

The researchers found that earlier differences in reading between the twins were linked to later differences in intelligence. Reading was associated not only with measures of verbal intelligence (such as vocabulary tests) but with measures of nonverbal intelligence as well (such as reasoning tests). The differences in reading that were linked to differences in later intelligence were present by age 7, which may indicate that even early reading skills affect intellectual development.

“If, as our results imply, reading causally influences intelligence, the implications for educators are clear,” suggests Ritchie. “Children who don’t receive enough assistance in learning to read may also be missing out on the important, intelligence-boosting properties of literacy.”

Besides having implications for educational intervention, the study may address the question of why individual children from one family can score differently on intelligence tests, despite sharing genes, socioeconomic status, and the educational level and personality of parents with their siblings.

Abstract of the study:

Evidence from twin studies points to substantial environmental influences on intelligence, but the specifics of this influence are unclear. This study examined one developmental process that potentially causes intelligence differences: learning to read. In 1,890 twin pairs tested at 7, 9, 10, 12, and 16 years, a cross-lagged monozygotic-differences design was used to test for associations of earlier within-pair reading ability differences with subsequent intelligence differences. The results showed several such associations, which were not explained by differences in reading exposure and were not restricted to verbal cognitive domains. The study highlights the potentially important influence of reading ability, driven by the nonshared environment, on intellectual development and raises theoretical questions about the mechanism of this influence.

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Great read: Neurologist Oliver Sacks on Memory, Plagiarism, and the Necessary Forgettings of Creativity

Brain Pickings is a good place to find interesting summaries who make you want to read more. This is a little element to convince you to check Brain Pickings so you could read this piece by Oliver Sacks:

“Sometimes these forgettings extend to autoplagiarism, where I find myself reproducing entire phrases or sentences as if new, and this may be compounded, sometimes, by a genuine forgetfulness. Looking back through my old notebooks, I find that many of the thoughts sketched in them are forgotten for years, and then revived and reworked as new. I suspect that such forgettings occur for everyone, and they may be especially common in those who write or paint or compose, for creativity may require such forgettings, in order that one’s memories and ideas can be born again and seen in new contexts and perspectives.”

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The social origins of intelligence in the brain (research)

I’m finally reading The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker, and actually I’m a bit ashamed that it took so long to read it. I do wonder what Pinker would make from this new study: researchers found that brain regions that contribute to optimal social functioning also are vital to general intelligence and to emotional intelligence. This finding bolsters the view that general intelligence emerges from the emotional and social context of one’s life. They found this by studying the injuries and aptitudes of Vietnam War veterans who suffered penetrating head wounds during the war. I suspect that Pinker would argue that the architecture being mentioned both used for social and intelligence is innate.

From the press release:

“We are trying to understand the nature of general intelligence and to what extent our intellectual abilities are grounded in social cognitive abilities,” said Aron Barbey, a University of Illinois professor of neuroscience, of psychology, and of speech and hearing science. Barbey (bar-BAY), an affiliate of the Beckman Institute and of the Institute for Genomic Biology at the U. of I., led the new study with an international team of collaborators.

Studies in social psychology indicate that human intellectual functions originate from the social context of everyday life, Barbey said.

“We depend at an early stage of our development on social relationships — those who love us care for us when we would otherwise be helpless,” he said.

Social interdependence continues into adulthood and remains important throughout the lifespan, Barbey said.

“Our friends and family tell us when we could make bad mistakes and sometimes rescue us when we do,” he said. “And so the idea is that the ability to establish social relationships and to navigate the social world is not secondary to a more general cognitive capacity for intellectual function, but that it may be the other way around. Intelligence may originate from the central role of relationships in human life and therefore may be tied to social and emotional capacities.”

The study involved 144 Vietnam veterans injured by shrapnel or bullets that penetrated the skull, damaging distinct brain tissues while leaving neighboring tissues intact. Using CT scans, the scientists painstakingly mapped the affected brain regions of each participant, then pooled the data to build a collective map of the brain.

The researchers used a battery of carefully designed tests to assess participants’ intellectual, emotional and social capabilities. They then looked for patterns that tied damage to specific brain regions to deficits in the participants’ ability to navigate the intellectual, emotional or social realms. Social problem solving in this analysis primarily involved conflict resolution with friends, family and peers at work.

As in their earlier studies of general intelligence and emotional intelligence, the researchers found that regions of the frontal cortex (at the front of the brain), the parietal cortex (further back near the top of the head) and the temporal lobes (on the sides of the head behind the ears) are all implicated in social problem solving. The regions that contributed to social functioning in the parietal and temporal lobes were located only in the brain’s left hemisphere, while both left and right frontal lobes were involved.

The brain networks found to be important to social adeptness were not identical to those that contribute to general intelligence or emotional intelligence, but there was significant overlap, Barbey said.

“The evidence suggests that there’s an integrated information-processing architecture in the brain, that social problem solving depends upon mechanisms that are engaged for general intelligence and emotional intelligence,” he said. “This is consistent with the idea that intelligence depends to a large extent on social and emotional abilities, and we should think about intelligence in an integrated fashion rather than making a clear distinction between cognition and emotion and social processing. This makes sense because our lives are fundamentally social — we direct most of our efforts to understanding others and resolving social conflict. And our study suggests that the architecture of intelligence in the brain may be fundamentally social, too.”

Abstract of the study:

Accumulating neuroscience evidence indicates that human intelligence is supported by a distributed network of frontal and parietal regions that enable complex, goal-directed behaviour. However, the contributions of this network to social aspects of intellectual function remain to be well characterized. Here, we report a human lesion study (n = 144) that investigates the neural bases of social problem solving (measured by the Everyday Problem Solving Inventory) and examine the degree to which individual differences in performance are predicted by a broad spectrum of psychological variables, including psychometric intelligence (measured by the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale), emotional intelligence (measured by the Mayer, Salovey, Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test), and personality traits (measured by the Neuroticism-Extraversion-Openness Personality Inventory). Scores for each variable were obtained, followed by voxel-based lesion–symptom mapping. Stepwise regression analyses revealed that working memory, processing speed, and emotional intelligence predict individual differences in everyday problem solving. A targeted analysis of specific everyday problem solving domains (involving friends, home management, consumerism, work, information management, and family) revealed psychological variables that selectively contribute to each. Lesion mapping results indicated that social problem solving, psychometric intelligence, and emotional intelligence are supported by a shared network of frontal, temporal, and parietal regions, including white matter association tracts that bind these areas into a coordinated system. The results support an integrative framework for understanding social intelligence and make specific recommendations for the application of the Everyday Problem Solving Inventory to the study of social problem solving in health and disease.

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The World Inequality Database on Education (WIDE)

One of the most visited posts on this blog is on comparing education. This tool is good addition.

The World Inequality Database on Education (WIDE) brings together data from Demographic and Health Surveys and Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys from over sixty countries to enable users to compare education attainment between countries, and between groups within countries, according to factors that are associated with inequality, including wealth, gender, ethnicity and location. Users can create maps, charts, infographics and tables from the data, and download, print or share them online.

Check the online tool here: www.education-inequalities.org

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Background TV can be bad for kids (study)

This research is both not surprising and a bit ‘wait a minute’.

“Parents, turn off the television when your children are with you. And when you do let them watch, make sure the programs stimulate their interest in learning.” That’s the advice arising from University of Iowa researchers who examined the impact of television and parenting on children’s social and emotional development. The researchers found that background television—when the TV is on in a room where a child is doing something other than watching—can divert a child’s attention from play and learning. It also found that non-educational programs can negatively affect children’s cognitive development.

It’s not surprising that if there is a television on in the background it’s less comfortable to study as you could get distracted. Still the research conducted has a big correlation-feel rather than causation.

From the press release:

“Kids are going to learn from whatever you put in front of them,” says Deborah Linebarger, associate professor in education at the UI and the lead author on the study, published online in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics. “So what kinds of messages, what kinds of things do you want them to learn? That would be the kinds of media you’d purposefully expose them to.”

The findings come from a national survey of more than 1,150 families with children between 2 and 8 years old. Linebarger and her team looked at family demographics, parenting styles, media use, and how those factors could impact kids’ future success.

The team found a relationship between the content children are exposed to and their executive function, an important facet in learning and development. This was especially true among children in families she identified as “high risk”—in families living in poverty or families whose parents have little education, for example. Yet even kids in high-risk families who watched educational television saw increases in executive function, the researchers found.

Regardless of family demographics, parenting can act as a buffer against the impacts of background TV, Linebarger’s team found.

“Children whose parents create a home environment that is loving and nurturing and where rules and expectations are the same from one time to another are better able to control their behavior, display more empathy, and do better academically,” she says. In particular, Linebarger suggests that parents be mindful what their children view on the tube, especially the content of a show.

“Sit down to watch a particular show and when it’s done, turn it off,” she says.

In an earlier study, Linbarger and other UI researchers found that children, on average, are exposed to nearly four hours of background TV per day. Among the impacts of background TV, researchers say, is it recruits kids’ attention away from other activities, such as play and learning.

Abstract of the research:

Objective:

This study was designed to examine how parenting style, media exposure, and cumulative risk were associated with executive functioning (EF) during early childhood.

Methods:

A nationally representative group of US parents/caregivers (N = 1156) with 1 child between 2 and 8 years participated in a telephone survey. Parents were asked to report on their child’s exposure to television, music, and book reading through a 24-hour time diary. Parents also reported a host of demographic and parenting variables as well as questions on their child’s EF.

Results:

Separate multiple regressions for preschool (2–5 years) and school-aged (6–8 years) children grouped by cumulative risk were conducted. Parenting style moderated the risks of exposure to background television on EF for high-risk preschool-age children. Educational TV exposure served as a buffer for high-risk school-aged children. Cumulative risk, age, and parenting quality interacted with a number of the exposure effects.

Conclusions:

The study showed a complex pattern of associations between cumulative risk, parenting, and media exposure with EF during early childhood. Consistent with the American Academy of Pediatrics, these findings support the recommendation that background television should be turned off when a child is in the room and suggest that exposure to high-quality content across multiple media platforms may be beneficial.

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A defense of PISA by the OECD Secretary-General, but it could have been more

Since the influence of PISA has become bigger and bigger, also the criticism augmented. To read some of the examples, just check these earlier posts:

And there was even an open letter against PISA (which I don’t want to sign, btw). Now there is an answer to many of the critiques by Ángel Gurría, the Secretary-General of the OECD, home to the PISA-studies. He defends PISA by giving Germany, Brazil and Japan as important examples of how PISA has influenced national governments to change education. I’m a bit disappointed in the reaction as the only really answer to the many critiques doing the rounds is just one short paragraph:

“Of course, assessments do not cover every important skill or attitude. But there is convincing evidence that the knowledge and skills that the PISA system assesses are essential to students’ future success, and the OECD works continuously to broaden the range of cognitive and social skills that PISA measures.”

Read the whole letter here. (Actually, I think Andreas Schleicher did a better, more in depth job earlier on, but still: Comparing countries, another PISA-discussion)

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Learning, a story about brain plasticity and stabilization

This is a rather difficult piece of research that took me some work to grasp, but very interesting. Throughout our lives, our brains adapt to what we learn and memorize. The brain is made up of complex networks of neurons and synapses that are constantly re-configured, sometimes people than think about brain plasticity. However, in order for learning to leave a trace, connections also must be stabilized. A team researchers from l’Université de Genève has now discovered a new cellular mechanism to help to understand this.

From the press release:

The central nervous system excitatory synapses — points of contact between neurons that allow them to transmit signals — are highly dynamic structures, which are continuously forming and dissolving. They are surrounded by non-neuronal cells, or glial cells, which include the distinctively star-shaped astrocytes. These cells form complex structures around synapses, and play a role in the transmission of cerebral information which was widely unknown before.

Plasticity and Stability

By increasing neuronal activity through whiskers stimulation of adult mice, the scientists were able to observe, in both the somatosensory cortex and the hippocampus, that this increased neuronal activity provokes an increase in astrocytes movements around synapses. The synapses, surrounded by astrocytes, re-organise their architecture, which protects them and increases their longevity. The team of researchers led by Dominique Muller, Professor in the Department of Fundamental Neuroscience of the Faculty of Medicine at UNIGE, developed new techniques that allowed them to specifically “control” the different synaptic structures, and to show that the phenomenon took place exclusively in the connections between neurons involved in learning. “In summary, the more the astrocytes surround the synapses, the longer the synapses last, thus allowing learning to leave a mark on memory,” explained Yann Bernardinelli, the lead author on this study.

This study identifies a new, two-way interaction between neurons and astrocytes, in which the learning process regulates the structural plasticity of astrocytes, who in turn determine the fate of the synapses. This mechanism indicates that astrocytes apparently play an important role in the processes of learning and memory, which present abnormally in various neurodegenerative and neurodevelopmental diseases, among which Alzheimer’s, autism, or Fragile X syndrome.

This discovery highlights the until now underestimated importance of cells which, despite being non-neuronal, participate in a crucial way in the cerebral mechanisms that allow us to learn and retain memories of what we have learned.

Abstract of the research:

Background: Excitatory synapses in the CNS are highly dynamic structures that can show activity-dependent remodeling and stabilization in response to learning and memory. Synapses are enveloped with intricate processes of astrocytes known as perisynaptic astrocytic processes (PAPs). PAPs are motile structures displaying rapid actin-dependent movements and are characterized by Ca2+ elevations in response to neuronal activity. Despite a debated implication in synaptic plasticity, the role of both Ca2+ events in astrocytes and PAP morphological dynamics remain unclear.

Results: In the hippocampus, we found that PAPs show extensive structural plasticity that is regulated by synaptic activity through astrocytic metabotropic glutamate receptors and intracellular calcium signaling. Synaptic activation that induces long-term potentiation caused a transient PAP motility increase leading to an enhanced astrocytic coverage of the synapse. Selective activation of calcium signals in individual PAPs using exogenous metabotropic receptor expression and two-photon uncaging reproduced these effects and enhanced spine stability. In vivo imaging in the somatosensory cortex of adult mice revealed that increased neuronal activity through whisker stimulation similarly elevates PAP movement. This in vivo PAP motility correlated with spine coverage and was predictive of spine stability.

Conclusions: This study identifies a novel bidirectional interaction between synapses and astrocytes, in which synaptic activity and synaptic potentiation regulate PAP structural plasticity, which in turn determines the fate of the synapse. This mechanism may represent an important contribution of astrocytes to learning and memory processes.

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Nice read: Common Science Myths That Most People Believe

I do like IFLScience, and articles like this Common Science Myths That Most People Believe are the reason.

So check if you still think:

  • There is a dark side of the moon.
  • The full moon affects behavior.
  • Sugar makes children hyperactive.
  • Lightning never strikes the same place twice.
  • Dropping a penny from a tall building will kill someone.
  • Hair and fingernails continue growing after death.
  • Cracking your knuckles gives you arthritis.
  • It takes seven years to digest swallowed chewing gum.
  • Antibiotics kill viruses.

Read the whole piece here.

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Good read: Why Behavioral Economics is Cool, and I’m Not

Found this piece by Adam Grant on Linkedin via @fanseel. He lists some more interesting research he found lately, what do they have in common:

  • People are more likely to buy jam when they’re presented with 6 flavors than 24.
  • After inspecting a house, real estate agents thought it was $14,000 more valuable when the seller listed it at $149,900 than $119,900.
  • When children play a fun game and then get rewarded for it, they lose interest in playing the game once the rewards are gone.
  • People conserve more energy when they see their neighbors’ consumption rates.
  • If you flip a coin six times, people think Heads-Heads-Heads-Tails-Tails-Tails is less likely than Heads-Tails-Tails-Heads-Heads-Tails, even though the two are equally likely.
  • Managers underestimate the intrinsic motivation of their employees.

They’ve all appeared in the media as research done by behavioral economists, when in fact they were done by psychologists.

Grant concludes:

This is a common mistake. As one Nobel Laureate in economics observes: “When it comes to policy making, applications of social or cognitive psychology are now routinely labeled behavioral economics.”

It happens to me regularly: I’m an organizational psychologist, but I get introduced at least once a week as a behavioral economist. The first time this happened before a speech, I attempted to set the record straight, telling the executive that all of my degrees were in psychology. His response: “Your work sounds cooler if I call you a behavioral economist.”

Read his piece with possible explanations and why we have to say goodbye to Freud.

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Funny on Sunday: When asked about the perks of being in academia…

Acadecomic.com is just a great daily dose!

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