Giving talks in the US in February!

I received some requests already for giving talks in the US, and I really like doing this. Do be able to still teach and do research while giving talks in the US there are two options.

Option 1: Yesterday I gave a first talk via Zoom to a group of teachers in the US. It was a new experience to me, but the teachers of Chesterton’s Kent School let me know afterwards they really enjoyed it.

Option 2: I’ll be coming to the US in February 2019 for a first little tour of talks. If interested, check this or mail Desmond:

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Deconstructing Constructivism: A Widely Misunderstood and Misapplied Theory of Learning

Good overview, but I wouldn’t call constructivism a theory of learning as such, as it’s more a theory or even better a philosophy about knowledge with as basic question if there is even such a thing as truth as everybody is constructing his or her own knowledge. I also would describe Piaget rather as an inspiration for e.g. Bruner.

Mr. G Mpls

When I completed my teacher licensure coursework only a few years back, I would have characterized myself as a die-hard believer in John Dewey, Alfie Kohn, flexible seating and student-centered learning.  I believed children learned best by doing, that teacher-talk should be limited in a “readers/writers/math workshop,” and that group work and personalized technology were the future of education.

I didn’t realize it at the time – probably because my teaching philosophy was identical to much of my cohort – but I was unwittingly indoctrinated in the educational progressive’s interpretation of constructivism. I assumed what I was being taught in teacher training was best practice, until I started reading books that were not on any of my syllabi. 

I was able to gain some perspective and insight into the history of this philosophy of teaching after reading Education is Upside-Down by Eric Kalenze. In his book, Kalenze traces the…

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Can you train executive functions? A second meta-analysis says…

In 2015 I wrote this blogpost on a meta-analysis on the training of executive functions. The results were a bit depressing. Today I found a new meta-analysis via Jeroen Jansen and the results… are again not that good and it all has to do with one of the key concepts in education: transfer.  The meta-analysis was based on 38 studies with 47 contrasts.

I’ll first share with you the abstract of the study:

In the present meta-analysis we examined the near- and far-transfer effects of training components of children’s executive functions skills: working memory, inhibitory control, and cognitive flexibility. We found a significant near-transfer effect (g+ = 0.44, k = 43, p < .001) showing that the interventions in the primary studies were successful in training the targeted components. However, we found no convincing evidence of far-transfer (g+ = 0.11, k = 17, p = .11). That is, training a component did not have a significant effect on the untrained components. By showing the absence of benefits that generalize beyond the trained components, we question the practical relevance of training specific executive function skills in isolation. Furthermore, the present results might explain the absence of far-transfer effects of working memory training on academic skills (Melby-Lervag & Hulme, 2013; Sala & Gobet, 2017).

So, this study is not that surprising as it states that near transfer can happen more easily, far transfer is far more difficult (pun intended). But the consequences of this finding can be pretty big:

The most important aim of the present meta-analysis was to gain a deeper understanding of whether and to what extent the different components of executive functions are trainable and whether train- ing a specific executive function has an ameliorating effect on other main executive function components. This is of crucial importance because in the long run the main aim of training executive functions skills is to improve children’s everyday functioning; for example, academic and social skills as well as emotion regulation. These complex skills are not supported by one sole executive function but generally rely on the interplay among most of them.

So to be clear the study doesn’t say that executive functions can’t be trained, or…

Overall, we found a significant, medium-sized near-transfer effect. However, no far-transfer effect appeared. More specifically, there were significant near-transfer effects on all three components: a moderate-sized effect on working memory and small-sized effects on inhibition and cognitive flexibility. In contrast, no far-transfer effects were found on working memory, inhibitory control, or flexibility. The finding that there was a significant near-transfer effect excludes the possibility that the interventions in the primary studies were not effective in training the components that they targeted. Instead, performance on the components that were trained did significantly improve, however, these gains did not transfer to the untrained components.

But what does this mean?

The lack of far-transfer effect found in the present meta-analysis even within the set of executive function skills makes it—though logically not impossible—still highly unlikely that training unique executive functions could have measurable ameliorating transfer effect on more distantly related and complex constructs, such as academic and social skills (Blair & Razza, 2007) that rely just as much on the trained executive function component as on the other untrained and largely unaffected components. The results of the present meta-analysis therefore provide a possible explanation for the previously found absence of far-transfer effects of working memory trainings on academic skills.

So what do we need to do?

The present meta-analysis shows that there are limited practical benefits— other than on the trained component— of training single executive function components in childhood. Thus, it might be more advisable, both in the educational and in the clinical practice, to use approaches that target multiple executive function components.

But maybe the most important question is in the end of the meta-analysis:

“The lack of causal evidence for significant relationships among the three core components might contradict accounts of executive functions as a single construct.”

So maybe you can’t train ‘executive functions‘, but you can train an executive function.

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Qualitative study: how managerialism in UK schools erodes teachers’ mental health and well-being

I have been a full day at a very interesting conference about data and educational policy, but than you read this study and you remember some of the teachers you know who had a burnout lately. There are always real people behind the data! This study is a qualitative study in which the researchers try to understand what can worsen mental health and well-being of teachers.

From the press release:

Performance targets, increased workload, curriculum changes and other bureaucratic changes are eroding teachers’ professional identity and harming their mental health, a new study in Educational Review finds.

The study’s authors interviewed 39 teachers across England and Wales who had experienced long term absence from work due to mental health problems, and six head, deputy and assistant head teachers who had dealt with mental health problems among staff.

The teachers cited constant, complex change in educational policies, target-led performance, lack of managerial support and heavy workload as causes of increased stress and anxiety. They spoke of disillusionment, loss of self-esteem and feelings of failure, leading some to take early retirement or, in one case, attempt suicide due to pressure of work.

Many believed that the focus on targets and results is fundamentally altering the teacher’s role as educator and getting in the way of the pupil-teacher relationship, ultimately harming the learning opportunities and failing to address the psychological needs of children. Job satisfaction is also being eroded by bureaucratic demands, with excessive paperwork and pressure to improve results adding to teachers’ already heavy workloads.

Difficulties with leadership and management styles were widespread, with many teachers feeling they were under constant scrutiny and pressure to perform to unrealistic expectations. Although conscious of the pressures on school managers to successfully implement new policies, teachers felt excluded from the process and ill-equipped to make the required changes.

This managerialist approach to education and the consequent loss of decision-making about classroom practice left many teachers with doubts about their role. Most felt that they were failing the children and themselves by no longer being able to encourage active learning in the classroom.

The study’s Principal Investigator, Gerry Leavey, Director of the Bamford Centre for Mental Health & Wellbeing at Ulster University said: “The destruction of self-esteem and effectiveness, combined with the despair of an externally constructed failure permeated most of our interviews with teachers. Their comments express a tension between the old view of what it means to be a teacher – commitment, service to the school and pupils’ learning – and the new managerialist view – accountability, performativity and meeting standards in a new, corporate world.”

“This tension is often internalised and impacts on teachers’ identity. It often pits taking care of themselves and the non-academic needs of pupils against management duties and targets. Too often, this leads to stress and mental health problems. Too many good teachers are leaving the profession through ill-health”.

Dr Barbara Skinner, an educationalist at Ulster University, added that: “Educational reforms, and the rigidly prescribed organisational and management structures that accompany them, should be weighed against their impacts on professional identity and personal well-being. We also need better evidence-based interventions to promote teacher well-being”

Abstract of the study:

In Europe, well-being in the workplace has increasing prominence in the policy and research agenda, and education is a key context in which the challenge of occupational stress has been reported. Traditionally, the ethos in school settings could be said to be shaped by the vocational motivation of employees; that is, a commitment to a social benefit through the development, support and improvement of the pupils, and this commitment used to override workplace challenges and help teachers deal with stress. This article argues that teachers’ commitment is being eroded by the impact of bureaucratic changes at management level, such as the setting of performance targets, increased workload, increased accountability and changes in the curriculum. This in turn impacts on their professional identity and can negatively affect their mental health and well-being. The current article describes a qualitative study undertaken among 39 teachers and 6 school leaders across England and Wales in which we sought to understand, through interviews, the contextual workplace experiences of teachers who experienced work-related stress. Policy developments in education and management implementation of these developments and the consequent erosion of teacher autonomy dominated the narratives. We examine how managerialism can relate to a loss of commitment, professional identity, self-confidence and vulnerability to stress, anxiety and depression. This article proposes that educational reforms, and the rigidly prescribed organisational and management structures that accompany them, need to be weighed against their impacts on professional identity and personal well-being.

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Again: inquiry-based approach and PISA-data

I discovered that my version of this graph has been shared quite a lot:

Now Dirk Van Damme shared a new study based on UK PISA-data. The study in short:

  • Enquiry teaching methods are a popular approach to science instruction.
  • The link between enquiry instruction and science achievement has previously been investigated using PISA.
  • These studies have been limited by PISA’s cross-sectional design.
  • We present new evidence using longitudinal PISA data from in England.
  • We find frequent use of inquiry instruction is not associated with higher achievement.

Abstract of the study:

Inquiry-based science teaching involves supporting pupils to acquire scientific knowledge indirectly by conducting their own scientific experiments, rather than receiving scientific knowledge directly from teachers. This approach to instruction is widely used among science educators in many countries. However, researchers and policymakers have recently called the effectiveness of inquiry approaches into doubt. Using nationally-representative, linked survey and administrative data, we find little evidence that the frequency of inquiry-based instruction is positively associated with teenagers’ performance in science examinations. This finding is robust to the use of different measures of inquiry, different examinations/measures of attainment, across classrooms with varying levels of disciplinary standards and across gender and prior attainment subgroups.



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Interesting new study: immigrant kids deliberately build STEM skills

I’m involved in a research project related to STEM and hard to reach groups of children, making this study quite interesting for us, although it’s quite possible that this can be heavily influenced by country factors.

From the press release:

U.S. immigrant children study more math and science in high school and college, which leads to their greater presence in STEM careers, according to new findings from scholars at Duke University and Stanford University.

“Most studies on the assimilation of immigrants focus on the language disadvantage of non-English-speaking immigrants,” said Marcos Rangel, assistant professor at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy. “We focus instead on the comparative strength certain immigrant children develop in numerical subjects, and how that leads to majoring in STEM subjects in college.”

About 20 percent of U.S.-born college students major in STEM subjects. Yet those numbers are much higher among immigrants — particularly among who arrive the U.S. after age 10, and who come from countries whose native languages are dissimilar to English, Rangel said. Within that group, 36 percent major in STEM subjects.

“Some children who immigrate to the U.S., particularly older children from a country where the main language is very dissimilar to English, quite rationally decide to build on skills they are relatively more comfortable with, such as math and science,” said Rangel.

Those older immigrant children take more math and science courses in high school, the authors found. Immigrant children arriving after age 10 earn approximately 20 percent more credits in math-intensive courses than they do in English-intensive courses.

This focus continues in college, where immigrant children are more likely to pursue science, technology, engineering and math majors. Those majors, in turn, lead to careers in STEM fields. Previous research has shown that immigrants are more highly represented in many STEM careers.

“Meaningful differences in skill accumulation … shape the consequent contributions of childhood immigrants to the educated labor force,” the authors write.

Abstract of the study:

We provide empirical evidence of immigrants’ specialization in skill acquisition well before entering the US labor market. Nationally representative datasets enable studying the academic trajectories of immigrant children, with a focus on high-school course-taking patterns and college major choice. Immigrant children accumulate skills in ways that reinforce comparative advantages in nonlanguage intensive skills such as mathematics and science, and this contributes to their growing numbers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) careers. These results are compatible with well-established models of skill formation that emphasize dynamic complementarities of investments in learning.

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Funny on Sunday: very recognizable…

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Less is More: Highlighting as Learning Strategy

3-Star learning experiences

 Original blog in Dutch by Tim Surma, Gino Camp & Paul Kirschner (translated and reworked by Paul and Mirjam)

Henry Green, a British novelist talking about his craft, wrote: “The more you leave out, the more you highlight what you leave in.” This might be very true when it comes to highlighting as a learning strategy.

Sometimes learners have to deal with large amounts of content, for example in books or articles. It’s usually the teacher’s job to emphasise which parts of the text are key. (S)he can do this by using advance organizers and by intermittently focusing the learners’ attention on foundational concepts and skills (e.g., prompting; also see our previous blogs on spaced practice and what makes a top teacher). No matter what the teacher does, learners still need to discern the key things in a text themselves. They usually do this by using their favourite…

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A meta-analysis on computer-supported collaborative learning (Best Evidence in Brief)

There is a new Best Evidence in Brief with among others, this study that might surprise some people and oh, my dear friend and co-author Paul Kirschner was involved:

Juanjuan Chen and colleagues recently performed a meta-analysis on the effects of computer-supported collaborative learning (CSCL).

Using 425 empirical studies (all of which used a controlled experimental or quasi-experimental design) published between 2000 and 2016, researchers found several main characteristics to examine: the effects of the collaboration itself; the effects of computer use during collaboration; the effects of extra technology-related learning tools used in CSCL, such as videoconferencing and sharing visuals with team partners; and strategies such as role assignment and peer feedback.
Collaborative learning itself positively affected:
  • Knowledge gain (+0.42)
  • Skill acquisition (+0.62)
  • Student perceptions of the experience (+0.38)
The use of computers, when combined with collaborative learning, positively affected:
  • Knowledge gain (+0.45)
  • Skill acquisition (+0.53)
  • Student perceptions (+0.51)
  • Group task performance (+0.89)
  • Social interaction (+0.57)
Lastly, extra technology-related learning tools during CSCL positively affected knowledge gain (+0.55), as did the use of strategies (+0.38).


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Socioeconomic status and the brain

This new study is a new argument pro helping parents and kids in low socioeconomic statuses when the kids are as young as possible as the relationship between socioeconomic status (SES) and brain anatomy seems to be mostly stable from childhood to early adulthood. So help those families and kids before they turn 5.

From the press release:

Cassidy McDermott, Armin Raznahan, and colleagues analyzed brain scans of the same individuals collected over time between five and 25 years of age. Comparing this data to parental education and occupation and each participants’ intelligence quotient (IQ) allowed the researchers to demonstrate positive associations between SES and the size and surface area of brain regions involved in cognitive functions such as learning, language, and emotions. In particular, this is the first study to associate greater childhood SES with larger volumes of two subcortical regions — the thalamus and striatum — thereby extending previous SES research that has focused on its relationship to the cortex.

Finally, the researchers identify brain regions underlying the relationship between SES and IQ. A better understanding of these relationships could clarify the processes by which SES becomes associated with a range of life outcomes, and ultimately inform efforts to minimize SES-related variation in health and achievement.

Abstract of the study:

Childhood socioeconomic status (SES) impacts cognitive development and mental health, but its association with human structural brain development is not yet well-characterized. Here, we analyzed 1243 longitudinally-acquired structural MRI scans from 623 youth (299 female/324 male) to investigate the relation between SES and cortical and subcortical morphology between ages 5 and 25 years. We found positive associations between SES and total volumes of the brain, cortical sheetnd four separate subcortical structures. These associations were stable between ages 5 and 25. Surface-based shape analysis revealed that higher SES is associated with areal expansion of (i) lateral prefrontalnterior cingulate, lateral temporalnd superior parietal cortices and (ii) ventrolateral thalamicnd medial amygdalo-hippocampal sub-regions. Meta-analyses of functional imaging data indicate that cortical correlates of SES are centered on brain systems subserving sensorimotor functions, language, memorynd emotional processing. We further show that anatomical variation within a subset of these cortical regions partially mediates the positive association between SES and IQ. Finally, we identify neuroanatomical correlates of SES that exist above and beyond accompanying variation in IQ. While SES is clearly a complex construct which likely relates to development through diverse, non-deterministic processes, our findings elucidate potential neuroanatomical mediators of the association between SES and cognitive outcomes.

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Funny on Sunday: I hope they recovered both of the books…

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