Category Archives: Education

Interesting: bilinguals calculate differently depending on the language they use

I have to admit I am sharing this study because I think it is fascinating. The study in brief:


  • Bilingual adults were scanned with fMRI while computing mental arithmetic problems.
  • Arithmetic problem solving induced distinct activation pattern in each of bilingual’s languages.
  • Language plays a critical role in arithmetic.


Or even shorter: the mathematical processes in our brain are influenced by the language we use. I’m less convinced compared to the researchers about how important this study is for the daily practice, but as I said: I’m fascinated.

From the press release:

People can intuitively recognise small numbers up to four; however, when calculating they depend on the assistance of language. In this respect, the fascinating research question ensues: how do multilingual people solve arithmetical tasks presented to them in different languages of which they have a very good command? The question will gain in importance in the future, as an increasingly globalised job market and accelerated migration will mean that ever more people seek work and study outside of the linguistic area of their home countries.

This question was investigated by a research team led by Dr Amandine Van Rinsveld and Professor Dr Christine Schiltz from the Cognitive Science and Assessment Institute (COSA) at the University of Luxembourg. For the purpose of the study, the researchers recruited subjects with Luxembourgish as their mother tongue, who successfully completed their schooling in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg and continued their academic studies in francophone universities in Belgium. Thus, the study subjects mastered both the German and French languages perfectly. As Luxembourger students, they took maths classes in primary schools in German and then in secondary schools in French.

In two separate test situations, the study participants had to solve very simple and a bit more complex addition tasks, both in German and French. In the tests it became evident that the subjects were able to solve simple addition tasks equally well in both languages. However, for complex addition in French, they required more time than with an identical task in German. Moreover, they made more errors when attempting to solve tasks in French.

During the tests, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was used to measure the brain activity of the subjects. This demonstrated that, depending on the language used, different brain regions were activated. With addition tasks in German, a small speech region in the left temporal lobe was activated. When solving complex calculatory tasks in French, additional parts of the subjects’ brains responsible for processing visual information, were involved. However, during the complex calculations in French, the subjects additionally fell back on figurative thinking. The experiments do not provide any evidence that the subjects translated the tasks they were confronted with from French into German, in order to solve the problem. While the test subjects were able to solve German tasks on the basis of the classic, familiar numerical-verbal brain areas, this system proved not to be sufficiently viable in the second language of instruction, in this case French. To solve the arithmetic tasks in French, the test subjects had to systematically fall back on other thought processes, not observed so far in monolingual persons.

The study documents for the first time, with the help of brain activity measurements and imaging techniques, the demonstrable cognitive “extra effort” required for solving arithmetic tasks in the second language of instruction. The research results clearly show that calculatory processes are directly affected by language.

Abstract of the study:

How do bilinguals solve arithmetic problems in each of their languages? We investigated this question by exploring the neural substrates of mental arithmetic in bilinguals. Critically, our population was composed of a homogeneous group of adults who were fluent in both of their instruction languages (i.e., German as first instruction language and French as second instruction language). Twenty bilinguals were scanned with fMRI (3 T) while performing mental arithmetic. Both simple and complex problems were presented to disentangle memory retrieval occuring in very simple problems from arithmetic computation occuring in more complex problems. In simple additions, the left temporal regions were more activated in German than in French, whereas no brain regions showed additional activity in the reverse constrast. Complex additions revealed the reverse pattern, since the activations of regions for French surpassed the same computations in German and the extra regions were located predominantly in occipital regions. Our results thus highlight that highly proficient bilinguals rely on differential activation patterns to solve simple and complex additions in each of their languages, suggesting different solving procedures. The present study confirms the critical role of language in arithmetic problem solving and provides novel insights into how highly proficient bilinguals solve arithmetic problems.


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Does attitude toward school predict academic achievement?

The past week there was some discussion in my own region about the lack of ambition of our students – as described in PISA – while they do perform actually very well in the same international comparison. This study that I found via Paul Kirschner shed some light on another seemingly contradiction. Lee used the following items to measure the Attitude toward School which is actually a bit more about the perception of usefulness of school:

(a) school has done little to prepare me for adult life when I leave school;

(b) school has been a waste of time;

(c) school helped give me confidence to make decisions; and

(d) school has taught me things which could be useful in a job.

What are the results? In short:


  • No direct relationship was found between attitude and achievement.
  • It holds for student groups by gender, family SES, and ability levels.
  • It was consistent across countries except for Qatar, Iceland, and Australia.
  • The finding was well-replicated in the PISA 2003, 2009, and 2012 datasets.

A more elaborated version of the results:

The main findings of this study are as follows.

(a) There is virtually no direct relationship between attitude toward school and reading/mathematics achievement. This apparent lack of relationship was found when attitude toward school was measured by the unidimensional scale (i.e., asking respondents directly about their  school and not about potential factors that may/may not lead to attitude toward school, such as interactions with peers and teachers or learning outcomes).

(b) The lack of substantial relationships holds in general for various student subgroups, including country of residence, OECD membership, gender, family SES, and country modal grades. The finding also holds for the students who are at the ends of the attitude or achievement scores.

(c) Although non-negligible direct relationships between attitude toward school and other predictors in the model (i.e., teacher-student relations, school climate, enjoyment, and self-efficacy) made it possible to observe an indirect effect of attitude on achievement, the strength of this indirect relation was miniscule with almost zero in absolute value of indirect path coefficients.

On the other hand, (d) all the other variables employed in the study (teacher-student relations, school disciplinary climate, enjoyment, and self-efficacy) had direct links to achievement. Among these, the two student-personal variables (enjoyment and self-efficacy) were far stronger predictors of student achievement than attitude toward school or teacher-student relations.

So the answer on the question if attitude toward school can predict academic achievement seems to be: no.

Abstract of the study:

This study, by analyzing the PISA 2003, 2009, and 2012 datasets, finds virtually no direct relationships between students’ general attitude toward school and their academic achievement in reading and mathematics. The lack of substantial relation between attitude and achievement was found for the majority of 64 countries who participated in the PISA 2012 survey. The finding was also consistent across subgroups of students, by gender, family SES, countries’ OECD membership, and variations in the within-country modal grades, as well as for students at the lower and higher levels of attitude or achievement. A moderately strong relationship between attitude and achievement was shown only among students at the highest end of the SES spectrum and in a handful of countries (i.e., Qatar, Iceland, and Australia). Structural equation modeling shows that attitude toward school is at best indirectly related to achievement but the strength of that indirect link is rather small as well.


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Classroom Teachers are Policymakers

Although the amount of teachers involved in this study is rather small – also due to the approach – I do recognize what is being described.

Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice

Note that no question mark follows the title. Teachers make policy.

Historically, the object of policies descending from the U.S. Congress, state capitals, and district school boards to the classroom, teachers are the ones who put policies into practice. As object of policy, however, school observers either forget or choose not to acknowledge that teachers also craft policy for their students in taking those policies that appear at their threshold and adapt them to their students. The title, then, is a fact.

Those classroom rules often listed on bulletin boards and walls are policies that the teacher makes for her students.

Related image

Beyond the classroom walls,  however, those very same teachers take what federal, state, and local policies officials send to their classroom (e.g., teachers have to use high-tech devices to teach, they are required to “personalize” their teaching) and bend, squeeze, and adapt those policies to the contours of their…

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How should we handle boys – and girls – who can’t read?

When discussing the ‘boy-problem’ I always have mixed feelings. True, boys have more chance ending up without a degree, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t girls who dropout and that there aren’t boys who do very well in school. This Norwegian study does look at gender differences, but actually states that both boys and girls can benefit from and evidence-based approach for learning how to read.

From the press release:

Many people know that girls, on average, are worse at math than boys. But the gender difference is three times greater when it comes to reading. According to international studies, this is where boys struggle.

Why? And what can be done about it? For starters, children who struggle most with learning to read could be identified earlier than is currently done. And now, researchers are finding new ways to do this.

“Letter-sound knowledge is what best predicts how well students will be able to read later,” says Professor Hermundur Sigmundsson at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s (NTNU) Department of Psychology. He has based his research on major empirical studies and theory.

Young children who are good at recognizing their letters and sounds early often become the best readers later on, too.

Differences start at six years old

Sigmundsson and his colleagues are working to develop a method to identify children earlier who may eventually have trouble reading.

Special educator Greta Storm Ofteland developed a letter test that enables early identification of children’s knowledge of letters and their sounds, and thus the children who are likely to struggle with reading.

First graders were tested on four literacy factors when they started school: the number of upper and lowercase letters the children knew and the sounds associated with each of them.

The children’s average age was just over six years old. The study included 485 students, of whom 224 were girls and 261 were boys.

“We found a significant difference between girls and boys in all four variables, in favor of the girls,” said Sigmundsson.

Multifaceted cause

Already by age six, girls are best at recognizing letters and the sounds that correspond to them, and the boys lag behind. The study results are now being published in Frontiers in Psychology.

The explanation for this is probably multifaceted. Heredity is a factor, and most girls are already talking more than most boys from as early as the age of 10 months onward.

Environment also plays a role. Parents tend to talk more with girls from birth. Girls get more practice with letters and sounds than boys do. You don’t learn letters and sounds without being exposed to them. You need to be stimulated and gain this experience.

You may also end up stuck in a downward spiral, at least when it comes to reading. When you first start lagging behind in reading, you become less interested in it as well. Then your reluctance to read increases.

Students are no longer required to read as much at school as they were before. This probably most affects those children who don’t choose to read in their free time and can help explain why gender disparities increase.

High cost of special education

Although girls’ mathematical scores have improved in recent years, gender differences in reading have continued to grow. There is an urgent need to address this problem.

In mathematics, the main reason for the perceived gender difference is that few girls rank among the very best. The big differences are thus at the top of the scale. Many girls are doing reasonably well and relatively few are actually bad at math. However, in the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment, commonly called PISA, girls are generally worse than boys at math for most countries with the exception of the USA, for reasons that are not known.

The difference with reading is that many boys are struggling, and the big disparities lie at the bottom of the scale. The worst readers are really bad – and this has major consequences.

“Twenty-one per cent of 15-year-old boys in Norway have trouble understanding a text that is given to them, according to the PISA survey from 2015,” says Sigmundsson. These are among the lowest results in the world.

This situation has a cost, first and foremost for the students themselves, but also for society. More than 50,000 primary school students in Norway receive special education. Sixty-eight per cent of them are boys. Special education costs Norwegian society 12,000 FTE employees and several million dollars.

Too little too late

“One major problem is that a lot of the support efforts come too late. If we could catch children earlier who are struggling and give them the right training and follow-up, we might not have to do so much remedial work with them they get older,” says Sigmundsson.

This approach could make school years much easier for a lot of students, and perhaps help prevent some from dropping out. It’s a reality that the students who struggle the most are also at greatest risk of quitting school.

This would reduce the need for as many special educators, and allow them more time for each student who still needs support services.

Finding effective methods for all students

Sigmundsson doesn’t buy the argument that the gender differences in school are primarily due to girls maturing earlier than boys. Although this difference exists, it doesn’t adequately explain the discrepancy.

We now know that children develop skills mainly through experience and stimuli. Other recent research shows that we get good at exactly what we practice. We need to develop nerve connections in the brain through our actions.

Sigmundsson believes it is important to use evidence-based learning methods that are effective for both sexes.

He thinks that all students’ reading skills should be checked when they start primary school. This assessment is easy and only takes a few minutes per child.

“We have to give the boys a boost by finding where each individual student stands. We can do that by emphasizing letters and the sounds that are associated with them. We need to make sure that all children have a good command of letter-sound relationships as early as possible once they start school,” he said.

Make best method mandatory

When children learn to read, it is best to teach them single letters and their sounds first. Don’t go straight to words. This is what the research literature indicates.

This approach is now so widely accepted that the United Kingdom and France are working to make the methodology mandatory.

Norway has not yet followed suit. Teachers in Norwegian schools are free to choose how they want to teach reading – as well as mathematics – to children.

Abstract of the study:

This study explored whether there is a gender difference in letter-sound knowledge when children start at school. 485 children aged 5–6 years completed assessment of letter-sound knowledge, i.e., large letters; sound of large letters; small letters; sound of small letters. The findings indicate a significant difference between girls and boys in all four factors tested in this study in favor of the girls. There are still no clear explanations to the basis of a presumed gender difference in letter-sound knowledge. That the findings have origin in neuro-biological factors cannot be excluded, however, the fact that girls probably have been exposed to more language experience/stimulation compared to boys, lends support to explanations derived from environmental aspects.

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A bit more about one of my most viral tweets ever: so you want you to change education?

On Saturday evening I posted a tweet that has become one of the most shared and liked tweets I ever had. I wrote a blogpost in Dutch on the theme of the tweet, but I thought it was also a good idea to share some of my thinking behind this tweet in English.

First of all the tweet:

This mail wasn’t the first. The past few weeks, months even years I’ve met a lot of people who want to change education… from the outside. I want to give those people some advice. It’s not meant as satire or criticism, but if those people want to invest a lot of energy in education, I would like to suggest some stuff that can be rather effective.

So you saw some TED-video’s e.g. by Ken Robinson,  that video by Prince EA, or you recently became parent yourself and you dislike what you experience in education? Suddenly you know: you want to change education?

You now can opt for the easy way. You can try to start a movement. You’ll need a nice website, maybe organize some evenings and you’ll have a vision on what has to change – and hopefully you’ll find some more people to share that vision.

What are the odds? It’s true: a singel person can change the world or education, e.g. Salman Khan with his Khan Academy or Tom Bennett and ResearchED. But wait, Salman didn’t really plan this and Tom is a keen defender of education and in both cases you can ask how big the impact really is. Do know: I really love them both. But the harsh truth is that most cases don’t really put a dein the daily practice of schools. Oh, you can reach a lot of people. Actually, teachers seem to love to be told how bad the system is in which they work. I think it’s because of this reason that Ken Robinson is so popular. But the change that there will be an effective change? I think that chance is slim and the chance for frustration after a while can be pretty big. For sure, it will need a lot of energy still I want to call this the easy way. Do you want to try this, be my guest. But I think there are better options.

Do what I tweeted: become a teacher yourself. There is a teacher shortage in a lot of countries throughout the world, for sure in the big cities and we can use every single great teacher. If you wonder what a difference a great teacher can make: imagine how many children you can reach if you teach for over 30 years. This group will maybe be smaller than the world you wanted to reach, but you have one big benefit: sometimes you will be able to see the real effect.

But maybe you know that you aren’t teacher-material. Or maybe you are earning a lot more money than you would earn as a teacher and you don’t want to give up your great job. Too bad, but no problem, not everyone is able to teach. There are many other options to make a difference. You can take part in one of the many projects were volunteers help children with their homework, especially children from families who have it more difficult in life. Again, the group of children you will reach will be smaller, but this approach is effective. Ok, but this maybe will still cost too much of your time and it is more difficult to plan in your already very busy schedule? I hope you do know that education takes a lot of time and effort. But in that case you can maybe ask a school how you can help them out? The effect will again maybe be a bit smaller and less visible, and it’s for sure not similar to you telling them what to do, but maybe you can still make a difference because you can do some stuff instead of the teachers so they can spent more time teaching the kids.

If you really have a lot of money to spent, you can try what Bill Gates did: put a lot of money in education so everybody should adapt to your own vision, but again there is only a small chance this will end up in a positive result, ask Bill himself. A better option is to put your money in more effective tutor programs who sadly also cost a lot money but they are one of the few effective approaches against inequality.

But what about your vision? I have to admit: in all my proposals you won’t change education as such, you will take part in the existing system you wanted to change. Well, I have another option left: start your own school. It happens more often than you think and if your school ends up successful, that will be the best P.R. for your vision. But please, do not make the same mistake that has happened on too many occasions: quite often these kind of schools – I’m not saying always – make inequality in society bigger.

This all may sound less spectacular – well, starting a school is something big – and it all will be more difficult than starting a movement, but ask yourself: do you really want to make a difference?

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Presentation: Urban Myths about Learning and Technology (at #rED17)

This is the presentation I gave at the National ResearchED conference, September 9 2017. The presentation is in part based on our book Urban Myths about Learning and Education and in part based on the recent article I co-wrote with Paul Kirschner published in Teaching and Teacher Education (yes the one that was mentioned in Nature).


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Best Evidence in Brief: The impact of more teachers and smaller classes in the early years

Yep, a study on class size in the new Best Evidence in Brief:

What difference do smaller class sizes, and more teachers, make in early childhood education (ECE)?
A meta-analysis by Jocelyn Bowne and colleagues, published in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, attempts to find some answers. The analysis included evaluations of ECE programs in the U.S. between 1960 and 2007. The evaluations were either experimental studies, used a high-quality quasi-experimental design, or showed baseline equivalence of treatment and control participants. In total, 38 studies were included, all of which looked at children ages 3 to 5 years old attending an ECE center for 10 hours a week or more for at least 4 months. Child-teacher ratios ranged from 5:1 to 15:1, and class sizes from 11 to 25.
The findings were as follows:
  • Above a child-teacher ratio of 7.5:1, changing the ratio had no effect on children’s cognitive and achievement outcomes. Below this, a reduction of the ratio by one child per teacher predicted an effect size of +0.22.
  • For class sizes greater than 15, increasing the size of the class had little effect on children’s cognitive and achievement outcomes. Below this, one child fewer in the class size predicted an effect size of +0.10.

The authors caution that these findings are correlational, rather than causal, so changing class sizes or ratios, certainly at scale, may not lead to these results. However, they conclude that “very small and/or well-staffed classrooms might confer some small benefits for children’s cognitive and academic learning.”

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New report on Cognitive Load Theory aimed at teachers

Filling the pail

I have been researching Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) for a couple of years now. During that time, I’ve blogged about CLT and I’ve often been asked if there is a teacher-friendly summary of the theory available.

Today, such a summary has been released by the New South Wales Centre for Education and Statistics (CESE with handle @nswcese on Twitter). It’s a pretty good take on CLT. John Sweller has read it and thinks they’ve managed to capture the essence of the theory pretty well.

The CESE paper looks at the principles of CLT and the main findings as they apply to teaching, including a brief description of the different ‘effects’ that have been noted. It also has a helpful section on criticisms and limitations (CLT is the subject of ongoing research). I strongly recommend the CESE paper to any teachers who are starting to dip their toes in the water.

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Good news: STEM can be contagious

There is a new report that examines how college students who thought their high school classmates were interested in science classes were more likely to intend to pursue STEM careers.

From the press release:

College students who thought their high school classmates were interested in science classes were more likely to intend to pursue STEM careers, a new study reports. The results of a cross-country survey suggest that motivating high school classroom environments may be “contagious” in positively influencing students’ STEM interests. Given the national push to increase the STEM talent pool in recent years – as a result of students opting out in favor of other preferences and under-representation in related professional fields – it is critical to understand the key features of educational environments that facilitate recruitment and retention. To better identify those attributes, Zahra Hazari and colleagues collected data from students in mandatory introductory English courses at 50 randomly-selected colleges and universities across the United States. They asked participants to report their likelihood of pursuing a STEM career, as well as how interested their peers were in their last high school biology, chemistry, and physics courses. The researchers also accounted for influences such as teaching quality, academic achievement, and family support for science and math. The survey showed that only 40% of students in high school classrooms with perceived low levels of interest showed STEM career intentions in college, compared to 65% of students in classrooms with perceived high levels of interest. What’s more, peer interest was linked to either improved or maintained grades in high school biology, chemistry and physics. The authors say that future research should further investigate the mechanisms by which interest is transmitted among peers, and how students engage in active learning.

Abstract of the study:

We report on a study of the effect of peers’ interest in high school biology, chemistry, and physics classes on students’ STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics)–related career intentions and course achievement. We define an interest quorum as a science class where students perceive a high level of interest for the subject matter from their classmates. We hypothesized that students who experience such an interest quorum are more likely to choose STEM careers. Using data from a national survey study of students‘ experiences in high school science, we compared the effect of five levels of peer interest reported in biology, chemistry, and physics courses on students‘ STEM career intentions. The results support our hypothesis, showing a strong, positive effect of an interest quorum even after controlling for differences between students that pose competing hypotheses such as previous STEM career interest, academic achievement, family support for mathematics and science, and gender. Smaller positive effects of interest quorums were observed for course performance in some cases, with no detrimental effects observed across the study. Last, significant effects persisted even after controlling for differences in teaching quality. This work emphasizes the likely importance of interest quorums for creating classroom environments that increase students’ intentions toward STEM careers while enhancing or maintaining course performance.

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If It Ain’t There, It’s Broke!

3-Star learning experiences

Paul A. Kirschner*

* What you read here is a very concise representation of two theses performed in the context of an OU Master educational sciences. Kristel Vanhoyweghen and Tim Surma, mentored by Dr. Gino Camp and myself, carried out a part of the replication of a research I reported earlier (in Dutch) and which also appeared on my blog 3-Star Learning Experiences: An Evidence-Informed Blog for Learning Professionals (What Every New Teacher Needs to Know, May 2016, also in Dutch). So this blog has four authors.

Should our teachers (and future teachers) understand how their students learn? This question seems rhetorical, because if the task of teachers is to promote student learning, then the planning, execution and evaluation of their lessons will be more effective when teachers themselves know how and when their students learn best. More than a hundred years of cognitive research has…

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