Author Archives: Pedro

What are the effects of a method such as Montessori education?

I often get the question what is better: traditional schools or method schools – I would prefer to call them modern schools – such as Montessori, Jenaplan, Freinet, … Last week I explained to my students that this is something quite difficult to examine as many parents who opt for such a school are often already very much involved in the education of their children, an element that already can predict a lot of the gains at school. A recent review study on Montessori-education showed that a lot of the research suffers from this.
I now have two different studies that use the same trick to bypass this hurdle. They look at a lottery situation and compare the children who won the lottery – who were admitted to a Montessori school – with the children who weren’t but who’s parents equally thought this would be important.

The first study has some great news: the children seem to benefit from the approach, as Best Evidence in Brief reported:

A longitudinal study published in Frontiers in Psychology examined how children in Montessori schools changed over three years compared with children in other preschool settings.>The Montessori model involves both child-directed, freely-chosen activity and academic content. Angeline Lillard and colleagues compared educational outcomes for children allocated places by a random lottery to either Montessori preschools (n=70) or non-Montessori preschool settings (n=71) in Connecticut. The research team carried out a variety of assessments with the children over a three-year period, from when the children were three until they were six.

The researchers found that over time children in Montessori preschools performed better on measures of academic achievement (Woodcock-Johnson IIIR Tests of Achievement effect size = +0.41) and social understanding while enjoying their school work more, than those in conventional preschool settings. They also found that in Montessori classrooms, children from low-income families, who typically don’t perform as well in school, showed similar academic performance as children from higher-income families. Children with low executive function similarly performed as well as those with high executive function.
The findings, they suggest, indicate that well-implemented Montessori education could be a way to help disadvantaged children to achieve their academic potential.

The second study by Nienke Ruijs has the same research-approach, but… didn’t find any influence:


  • I use school admission lotteries to investigate the effects of Montessori education.
  • I find little evidence that Montessori education affects academic achievement.
  • Montessori students show similar levels of motivation.
  • Montessori students do not score better on measures of independence.

This is the abstract of the study:

This study investigates the causal effects of Montessori secondary education by exploiting admission lotteries in Dutch Montessori schools. Results from 308 to 625 students indicate that Montessori education provides an alternative way to attain similar outcomes. Montessori students obtain their secondary school degree without delay at the same rate and with similar grades as non-Montessori students, although the route towards the exams is somewhat different. Further, Montessori students show similar levels of motivation and do not score better on various measures of independence, even though these are the main characteristics Montessori education claims to foster.

So, now what? I do think that it is important to notice that while the first study looked at primary education, the second looked at secondary education, which could explain in part the difference. But maybe there could be also another element involved: a lot of schools label themselves Montessori, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are fully working to her vision even if they do use her materials or mention her vision. This seem to be more the case for secondary education as Nienke Ruijs notes:

Montessori secondary education programs are less standardized than Montessori primary education programs, and the results of this study should not be generalized to the small number of rather radical Montessori boarding schools with ‘Erdkinder’ programs. The schools considered in this study are, however, part of a long tradition of Montessori secondary education. Montessori secondary schools in other countries are based on the same philosophy and have similar approaches with respect to choice of activities and field projects.

Both studies have the benefit of having a randomized group, but at the same time they both risk to still be underpowered for strong conclusions.
(H/t to Daniel Willingham for tweeting the Dutch study)



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Funny on Sunday: Banking explained

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by | December 10, 2017 · 9:31 am

Very interesting paper: Are the smartest people losing their intelligence?

This is a fascinating new paper by James Flynn (who’s name delivered The Flynn Effect) and Michael Shayer. The paper doesn’t present a smoking gun, but tries to see trends in countries who see a decline in average IQ and countries who don’t see the same decline. But they look deeper than averages on parts of the test, by also looking on which groups in the population are doing worse.

I can share with you the summarizing bullet points:

  • Important national differences, particularly the contrast between Scandinavia and elsewhere.
  • Dutch trends show that IQ gains vary by age which is indicative of the strength of various causal factors.
  • Piagetian trends provide information conventional tests do not: that the largest losses may be at the top of the curve.

Or even the abstract:

The IQ gains of the 20th century have faltered. Losses in Nordic nations after 1995 average at 6.85 IQ points when projected over thirty years. On Piagetian tests, Britain shows decimation among high scorers on three tests and overall losses on one. The US sustained its historic gain (0.3 points per year) through 2014. The Netherlands shows no change in preschoolers, mild losses at high school, and possible gains by adults. Australia and France offer weak evidence of losses at school and by adults respectively. German speakers show verbal gains and spatial losses among adults. South Korea, a latecomer to industrialization, is gaining at twice the historic US rate.

When a later cohort is compared to an earlier cohort, IQ trends vary dramatically by age. Piagetian trends indicate that a decimation of top scores may be accompanied by gains in cognitive ability below the median. They also reveal the existence of factors that have an atypical impact at high levels of cognitive competence. Scandinavian data from conventional tests confirm the decimation of top scorers but not factors of atypical impact. Piagetian tests may be more sensitive to detecting this phenomenon.

But honestly, there are so many nuances in the article that both these summaries don’t do justice. I think this 2 parts of the conclusion are the most important elements of the paper.

Excerpt 1:

Nations that are candidates for IQ decline give evidence that ranges from beyond dispute to fragmentary. The strongest comes from Scandinavia as a whole, Britain (Volume and Heaviness), and Germany (spatial). Nordic data cover vocabulary, similarities, analogies, shapes, metal folding, number series, geometrical figures, and letter matrices. The pivotal year for all of these nations seems to be about 1995. Data from France and Australia await further studies but cannot be dis- missed. The US is strange. All ages plow on unaffected as yet. Black gains are larger than white but white gains are still robust (Flynn, 2012a). The quick developing world (Korea) and the slow developing world will of course continue to gain for some time.

These trends come as no surprise. Flynn has argued that industrialization may eventually pay diminishing returns in developed nations. Until very recently, we have enjoyed a more favorable ratio of adults to children in the home, more and better schooling, more cognitively demanding jobs, and better health and conditions of the aged. These caused large IQ gains for several generations. However, the same factors can turn from positive to mixed or even negative. The number of children in the home has reached a minimum (and indeed there are more solo-parent homes), middle class parents have used up the tricks that make the pre-school environment cognitively enriching, we appear to have reached a limit in terms of enhanced schooling and the number we keep in school into adulthood, the economy may be producing fewer cognitively demanding jobs in favor of more service work; however, we may continue to improve the health of the aged.

Excerpt 2 (bold by me):

The Piagetian results are particularly ominous. Looming over all is their message that the pool of those who reach the top level of cognitive performance is being decimated: fewer and fewer people attain the formal level at which they can think in terms of abstractions and develop their capacity for deductive logic and systematic planning. They also reveal that something is actually targeting that level with special effect, rather than simply reducing its numbers in accord with losses over the curve as a whole. We have given our reason as to why the Piagetian tests are sensitive to this phenomenon in a way that conventional tests are not.

Massive IQ gains over time were never written in the sky as something eternal like the law of gravity. They are subject to every twist and turn of social evolution. If there is a decline, should we be too upset? During the 20th century, society escalated its skill demands and IQ rose. During the 21st century, if society reduces its skill demands, IQ will fall. Nonetheless, no one would welcome decay in the body politic, or among the elite who at present represent our best thinkers. Although it might be argued that the character of the electorate will be enhanced if it contained fewer lawyers and more plumbers and service workers.

It is always possible that our schools and universities will graduate more young people who read and become more critically astute. This in itself would put a limit on IQ losses on Vocabulary, Information, and most Verbal tests, and on accepting the stereotypes that cloud moral reasoning and political prudence.



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An important weapon against Alzheimer? Education

There has been already some knowledge about how education can protect against Alzheimer’s disease but this theory now has been given further weight by new research from the University of Cambridge, funded by the European Union.

From the press release:

Alzheimer’s disease is the leading cause of dementia. Its chief hallmark is the build of ‘plaques’ and ‘tangles’ of misshapen proteins, which lead to the gradual death of brain cells. People affected by Alzheimer’s experience memory and communication problems, disorientation, changes in behaviour and progressive loss of independence.

The causes of Alzheimer’s are largely unknown, and attempts to develop drug treatments to halt or reverse its effects have been disappointing. This has led to increasing interest in whether it is possible to reduce the number of cases of Alzheimer’s disease by tackling common risk factors that can be modified. In fact, research from the Cambridge Institute of Public Health has shown that the incidence of Alzheimer’s is falling in the UK, probably due to improvements in education, and smoking reduction and better diet and exercise.

“Many studies have shown that certain risk factors are more common in people with Alzheimer’s disease, but determining whether these factors actually cause Alzheimer’s is more difficult,” says Professor Hugh Markus from the Department of Clinical Neurosciences at the University of Cambridge.

“For example, many studies have shown that the more years spent in full time education, the lower the risk of Alzheimer’s. But it is difficult to unravel whether this is an effect of education improving brain function, or whether it’s the case that people who are more educated tend to come from more wealthy backgrounds and therefore have a reduction in other risk factors that cause Alzheimer’s disease.”

Professor Markus led a study to unpick these factors using a technique known as ‘Mendelian randomisation’. This involves looking at an individual’s DNA and comparing genes associated with environmental risk factors – for example, genes linked to educational attainment or to smoking – and seeing which of these genes are also associated with Alzheimer’s disease. If a gene is associated with both, then it provides strong evidence that this risk factor really does cause the disease.

As part of a project known as CoSTREAM, researchers studied genetic variants that increase the risk of a variety of different environmental risk factors to see if these were more common in 17,000 patients with Alzheimer’s disease. They found the strongest association with genetic variants that predict higher educational attainment.

“This provides further strong evidence that education is associated with a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease,” says first author Dr Susanna Larsson, now based at the Karolinska Institute, Sweden. “It suggests that improving education could have a significant effect on reducing the number of people who suffer from this devastating disease.”

And now for the more depressing part:

Exactly how education might reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s is uncertain. Previous studies have shown that the same amount of damage in the brain is associated with less severe and less frequent Alzheimer’s in people who have received more education. One possible explanation is the idea of ‘cognitive reserve’ – the ability to recruit alternative brain networks or to use brain structures or networks not normally used to compensate for brain ageing. Evidence suggests that education helps improve brain wiring and networks and hence could increase this reserve.

The researchers also looked at other environmental risk factors, including smoking, vitamin D, and alcohol and coffee consumption. However, their results proved inconclusive. This may be because genes that predispose to smoking, for example, have only a very small effect on behaviour, they say.

Abstract of the study:

Objective To determine which potentially modifiable risk factors, including socioeconomic, lifestyle/dietary, cardiometabolic, and inflammatory factors, are associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

Design Mendelian randomisation study using genetic variants associated with the modifiable risk factors as instrumental variables.

Setting International Genomics of Alzheimer’s Project.

Participants 17 008 cases of Alzheimer’s disease and 37 154 controls.

Main outcome measures Odds ratio of Alzheimer’s per genetically predicted increase in each modifiable risk factor estimated with Mendelian randomisation analysis.

Results This study included analyses of 24 potentially modifiable risk factors. A Bonferroni corrected threshold of P=0.002 was considered to be significant, and P<0.05 was considered suggestive of evidence for a potential association. Genetically predicted educational attainment was significantly associated with Alzheimer’s. The odds ratios were 0.89 (95% confidence interval 0.84 to 0.93; P=2.4×10−6) per year of education completed and 0.74 (0.63 to 0.86; P=8.0×10−5) per unit increase in log odds of having completed college/university. The correlated trait intelligence had a suggestive association with Alzheimer’s (per genetically predicted 1 SD higher intelligence: 0.73, 0.57 to 0.93; P=0.01). There was suggestive evidence for potential associations between genetically predicted higher quantity of smoking (per 10 cigarettes a day: 0.69, 0.49 to 0.99; P=0.04) and 25-hydroxyvitamin D concentrations (per 20% higher levels: 0.92, 0.85 to 0.98; P=0.01) and lower odds of Alzheimer’s and between higher coffee consumption (per one cup a day: 1.26, 1.05 to 1.51; P=0.01) and higher odds of Alzheimer’s. Genetically predicted alcohol consumption, serum folate, serum vitamin B12, homocysteine, cardiometabolic factors, and C reactive protein were not associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

Conclusion These results provide support that higher educational attainment is associated with a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

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Is there a link between working memory and physical exercise?

There have been numerous studies that make a link between physical exercise and learning, but this new study looks a bit deeper as it shows a positive relationship between the brain network associated with working memory — the ability to store and process information relevant to the task at hand — and healthy traits such as higher physical endurance and better cognitive function. (note: relationship doesn’t necessarily mean causal relation…) But it does seem mens sana in corpore sano.

From the press release:

These traits were associated with greater cohesiveness of the working memory brain network while traits indicating suboptimal cardiovascular and metabolic health, and suboptimal health habits including binge drinking and regular smoking, were associated with less cohesive working memory networks.

This is the first study to establish the link between working memory and physical health and lifestyle choices.

The results of the study will be published online in Molecular Psychiatry.

The research team took brain scans of 823 participants in the Human Connectome Project (HCP), a large brain imaging study funded by the National Institutes of Health, while they performed a task involving working memory, and extracted measures of brain activity and connectivity to create a brain map of working memory. The team then used a statistical method called sparse canonical correlation to discover the relationships between the working memory brain map and 116 measures of cognitive ability, physical and mental health, personality, and lifestyle choices. They found that cohesiveness in the working memory brain map was positively associated with higher physical endurance and better cognitive function. Physical traits such as high body mass index, and suboptimal lifestyle choices including binge alcohol drinking and regular smoking, had the opposite association.

“Working memory accounts for individual differences in personal, educational, and professional attainment,” said Sophia Frangou, MD, PhD, Professor of Psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. “Working memory is also one of the brain functions that is severely affected by physical and mental illnesses. Our study identified factors that can either support or undermine the working memory brain network. Our findings can empower people to make informed choices about how best to promote and preserve brain health.”

Abstract of the study:

Working memory (WM) is a central construct in cognitive neuroscience because it comprises mechanisms of active information maintenance and cognitive control that underpin most complex cognitive behavior. Individual variation in WM has been associated with multiple behavioral and health features including demographic characteristics, cognitive and physical traits and lifestyle choices. In this context, we used sparse canonical correlation analyses (sCCAs) to determine the covariation between brain imaging metrics of WM-network activation and connectivity and nonimaging measures relating to sensorimotor processing, affective and nonaffective cognition, mental health and personality, physical health and lifestyle choices derived from 823 healthy participants derived from the Human Connectome Project. We conducted sCCAs at two levels: a global level, testing the overall association between the entire imaging and behavioral–health data sets; and a modular level, testing associations between subsets of the two data sets. The behavioral–health and neuroimaging data sets showed significant interdependency. Variables with positive correlation to the neuroimaging variate represented higher physical endurance and fluid intelligence as well as better function in multiple higher-order cognitive domains. Negatively correlated variables represented indicators of suboptimal cardiovascular and metabolic control and lifestyle choices such as alcohol and nicotine use. These results underscore the importance of accounting for behavioral–health factors in neuroimaging studies of WM and provide a neuroscience-informed framework for personalized and public health interventions to promote and maintain the integrity of the WM network.

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Why I am a bit annoyed with the mixed messages by Howard Gardner

Last week I received a complaint that I was too kind for Howard Gardner as we didn’t call his multiple intelligences theory a myth. The reason why we used the label ‘nuanced’ is because the basis philosophy that people differ can’t be labeled as wrong. Still we gave a lot of reasons why one should be cautious about this very popular theory. And lately Gardner himself outed the theory as being outdated and ill-researched.

But this paragraph tweeted by Stuart Ritchie is making me grinch:

This quote is coming from this video:

Now, the video is older than the own-debunking I mentioned before on this blog, but Casper made a good comment on Twitter about the mixed message Gardner is giving:

So: Gardner says his theory isn’t supported at all, he even acknowledges that the theories he opposes to do have scientific evidence supporting their theory, but he still defends his own theory because of it’s usefulness. Btw, this is one of the most common replies to any of the myths Paul, Casper and myself have tackled: “hey, I know it’s rubbish, but I think it is useful.”


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Funny on Sunday: The Perception Problem

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What’s the Difference Between Engineering at a Tech Company Versus a School? (Sam Strasser)

This is so great:
“I think by far my biggest advice is this: If you don’t have classroom experience and are building a product, it’s tempting to think you know exactly what you’re doing because we all went to school, and we think that we know what school is.

But, we don’t know what school is. And we definitely don’t know what teaching is, especially as engineers. So my advice is to over-correct for this and build empathy for actual teachers in actual classrooms—not the theoretical idea you have about what teaching should or could be or was for you. Because that almost certainly is not going to land with educators today.”

Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice

This is an interview that Ranjani Sundaresan, a junior at Seattle University and intern at EdSurge over the summer, conducted with Strasser. This post appeared on EdSurge, September 16, 2017.

What’s it like for an engineer to dive into education?

Sam Strasser is Chief Information Officer (CIO) at Summit Public Schools in the San Francisco Bay Area. But he also has had a long career working as an engineer at companies including Microsoft and Facebook. At Facebook, he helped develop Summit’s personalized learning platform, which is now used in more than 100 schools throughout the U.S. Strasser spoke with the EdSurge Jobs team about how school looks from an engineer’s point of view.

EdSurge Jobs: So, give us a 60-second description of your career trajectory up until this point in your life.

Strasser: I started my career as a software engineer at Microsoft for a couple of years. I worked for…

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Do teacher observations make any difference to student performance? Surprisingly, study says no

There is a new Best Evidence in Brief and to be honest, I’ve skipped one because I thought some research mentioned in the newsletter wasn’t really deserving the label of best evidence. The new edition is better, although I was reluctant to share this study. Not because I think it wasn’t conducted in a good way, but because the results are in contradiction with previous research. Still, it is important to share studies even if they don’t show what you expected – or even more important if they don’t.

Check this:

An evaluation published by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) in the UK has found that introducing more frequent and structured lesson observations – where teachers observe their colleagues and give them feedback – made no difference to students’ GCSE math and English results (GCSEs are high-stakes exams taken in a range of subjects by secondary students in England).

A randomized controlled trial of the whole-school intervention Teacher Observation was conducted in 82 secondary schools in England, which had high proportions of students who had ever been eligible for free school meals. In total, the study involved 14,163 students – 7,507 students (41 schools) in the intervention, and 6,656 students (41 schools) in the control.

Math and English teachers in the intervention schools were asked to take part in at least six structured 20-minute peer observations over a two-year period (with a suggested number of between 12 and 24). Teachers rated each other on specific elements of a lesson, such as how well they managed behavior, engaged students in learning, or used discussion techniques.

The evaluation, which was conducted by a team from the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), found that Teacher Observation had no impact on students’ GCSE English and math scores compared to those of students in control schools (effect size = -0.01).


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Funny on Sunday: Raising a child

Found this cartoon via this monthly collection of cartoons by Larry Cuban.

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