Category Archives: Education

Depressing read: Oh dear, even people with neuroscience training believe an awful lot of brain myths

It’s a bright sunny day. My kids are having fun. Tomorrow I’ll be leaving for DC to be part of the CTTL summer course. Life is great, but this article in BPS Digest about this new survey is making me depressed.

Do read the full article by Christian Jarrett but the results of the survey can make you cry:

Is there any silver lining? Yes: teachers are doing a better job than the general public, but the fact that even people involved in neuroscience are believing some of this stuff?

(Btw, remember this post?)

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A study that can be looked at from different angles: genes account for half of differences in social mobility

Is the bottle half full or half empty? Well it doesn’t mind, this new study shows that genes account for nearly 50 per cent of the differences between whether children are socially mobile or not. What does this mean? That everything is determined by our genes? No, it’s the half of the differences. Does this mean that genes don’t play an important role? No, guess again.

From the press release (bold by me, because great quote):

A new King’s College London study suggests that genes account for nearly 50 per cent of the differences between whether children are socially mobile or not.

One of the best predictors of children’s educational attainment is their parents’ educational level and in the past this association was thought to be environmental, rather than influenced by genes.

Parents with higher levels of educational achievement, for example, are thought to access greater academic and social resources, enabling them to pass on better opportunities for their children than less educated parents.

This new King’s study, published today in Psychological Science, is the first to find substantial genetic influence on children’s social mobility, which could have important implications for reducing educational inequality.

Using a sample of more than 6,000 twin families from the Medical Research Council (MRC) funded Twins Early Development Study, the researchers measured genetic influence on four categories of social mobility:

  • Downwardly mobile: children who did not complete A-Levels but were raised in families with a university-educated parent;
  • Upwardly mobile: children who completed A-Levels but their parent did not attend university;
  • Stably educated: children who completed A-levels and were raised in families with a university-educated parent
  • Stably uneducated: children who did not complete A-Levels and whose parents did not attend university

The researchers also used an alternative method to study genetic influences on social mobility that focuses on people’s DNA markers for educational achievement, so-called genome-wide polygenic scores (GPS).

They found that children with higher polygenic scores completed A-levels, even if they had come from families where no parent had gone to university. The highest polygenic scores were found for families that were ‘stably educated’, the lowest scores for those who were ‘stably uneducated’, and results fell in the middle for downwardly and upwardly mobile families.

Ziada Ayorech, first author of the study from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) at King’s College London, said: ‘The role of parent’s education in their children’s educational outcomes has previously been thought of as environmental, but our study suggests a strong genetic component too. These results show that half of the differences between whether families were socially mobile or not, can be attributed to genetic differences between them.

‘This tells us that if we want to reduce educational inequalities, it’s important to understand children’s genetic propensity for educational achievement. That way, we can better identify those who require more support.’

Dr Sophie von Stumm, senior author and a Senior Lecturer at Goldsmiths University of London, added: ‘Finding genetic influences on social mobility can be viewed as an index of equality, rather than inequality. The reason is that genetics can only play a significant role for children’s educational attainment if their environmental opportunities are relatively equal.

Abstract of the study:

Using twin (6,105 twin pairs) and genomic (5,825 unrelated individuals taken from the twin sample) analyses, we tested for genetic influences on the parent-offspring correspondence in educational attainment. Genetics accounted for nearly half of the variance in intergenerational educational attainment. A genomewide polygenic score (GPS) for years of education was also associated with intergenerational educational attainment: The highest and lowest GPS means were found for offspring in stably educated families (i.e., who had taken A Levels and had a university-educated parent; M = 0.43, SD = 0.97) and stably uneducated families (i.e., who had not taken A Levels and had no university-educated parent; M = −0.19, SD = 0.97). The average GPSs fell in between for children who were upwardly mobile (i.e., who had taken A Levels but had no university-educated parent; M = 0.05, SD = 0.96) and children who were downwardly mobile (i.e., who had not taken A Levels but had a university-educated parent; M = 0.28, SD = 1.03). Genetic influences on intergenerational educational attainment can be viewed as an index of equality of educational opportunity.

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Books or laptops, a new study about choosing the right tools in education

Earlier this week there was the often shared article in Scientific American that discussed the use of laptops in (higher) education. This new study looks further than the effect on learning, but also looks at the possibilities and the cost.

What did they find – in short?

  • Accessing and producing reading resources are increasingly shifting from print to digital options that can be viewed on electronic devices, such as computers. In education in particular, research studies have shown that providing digital content on computers has lower marginal costs but higher fixed costs in comparison to textbooks for schools.
  • Information and communication technologies (ICTs), such as computers and laptops, provide users with computational tools, information storage and communication opportunities. However, these devices may also pose as distractors that tamper with the learning process.
  • Using a randomized controlled trial in elementary schools in Honduras, we show that at the end of one school year, we fail to reject the hypothesis that the substitution of laptops for textbooks did not make a significant difference in student learning for mathematics and Spanish and in non-academic outcomes related to coding and verbal fluency.

It’s a bit complicated to understand this last point. Do laptops have a good, a bad or no effect on learning? Luckily the conclusion in the article is much more clear and the answer is: no effect:

We found textbook replacement with laptops did not affect student learning after one school year using a randomized controlled trial with 271 schools and 9,600 students. We also implemented a cost-effectiveness analysis to compare expected results of this replacement of textbooks using laptops. Laptops have a higher initial fixed cost than books and impose variable costs, such as electricity, Internet and maintenance. However, the marginal cost of providing additional content decreases.

Our research highlights limitations relevant for future work. First, our results correspond to one year of program exposure. The impact of the program during a longer exposure may enhance our understanding of how technology affects student learning. In particular, it would be interesting to explore the effects of laptops after four years of working life. Second, some literature points to adaptability of software as a determinant to learning efficiency. We only explore how format provision changed student learning. Future work may test how specific software features affect its role in providing content information. Third, our cost-effectiveness results are sensitive to assumptions on student’s benefits derived from Internet access, communication technologies and digital literacy. However, we do not have good causal estimates of the returns on these computer features (net potential harmful effects). More information on how students benefit from computer use in the long run would provide useful information to inform policy regarding laptop provision. Fourth, given the low marginal costs of digital provision of content, it would be interesting to estimate how the substitution of more textbooks affects learning outcomes. It is a priori unclear whether there are positive or negative scale effects on learning. Fifth, another relevant area to explore is how freedom of choice may impose a cost control on users. More specifically, laptops may make it difficult for students to focus on learning tasks. Students may get distracted by games, music or social communication features.

Is this the definitive study on laptops versus books in education? Did you just read the last paragraph? Hell no. It’s just another interesting piece of a jigsaw puzzle of which we don’t know how it looks like and how many pieces there are left.

Abstract of the study:

Information and communication technologies can be used for educational purposes, but these devices may also pose as distractors that may tamper with the learning process. This paper presents results from a randomized controlled trial in which laptops replaced traditional textbook provision in elementary schools in high poverty communities in Honduras. We show that at the end of one school year, we fail to reject that there were no differences between laptop and textbook provision on mathematics and Spanish test scores and in non-academic outcomes related to coding and verbal fluency


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Automaticity and motivation’s effects on reading comprehension (Best Evidence in Brief)

There is a new Best Evidence in Brief and this time I picked this study:

As struggling readers get older and the words they read get longer, the effort it takes them to decode longer words interferes with their reading comprehension. Jessica Toste and colleagues conducted a study examining the effects of an intervention designed to develop multisyllabic word reading (MWR) automaticity via repeated exposure to multisyllabic words in isolation and in context. The goal of the intervention is for students to focus their attention on text meaning instead of decoding. Given that research shows motivation supports cognitive ability, researchers also wanted to examine the effects of this strategy with and without a motivational component.
Fifty-nine struggling third and fourth graders in two charter schools located in a large city in the southwestern U.S. were randomly assigned to one of three groups: MWR only (n=18), MWR with motivational beliefs (MB) training (n=19), or business as usual (22). No significant reading comprehension differences existed at pretest, as measured by subtests of the Woodcock-Johnson III, TOWRE, and WRAT, or among motivational beliefs as measured on the Reading Attribution Scale.
In groups of 2-3 students, the MWR and MWR + MB groups received tutoring sessions in reading for forty minutes a week, three times a week for eight weeks in addition to their regular reading instruction. The MWR + MB group also received five minutes of motivational instruction each session, while the MWR-only group practiced math facts for their final five minutes. The MWR lessons consisted of seven components, starting with repeated reading of vowel patterns and progressing to target words in paragraphs. The MB component added self-reflection, positive self-talk, and eliminating negative thoughts throughout the lesson.
Results showed that students in both MWR groups performed better than the control group at posttest on word fluency measures, and performed moderately better than the controls on TOWRE phonemic decoding and the WJ letter-word ID and word-attack subtests. The MWR + MB group had higher scores than the MWR group solely on sentence-level comprehension, but had higher scores than controls on the attributions for success subscale, meaning they were more likely to attribute success to internal causes like effort rather than external factors like luck. MWR + MB did not outperform MWR on motivational measures. The authors conclude that developing automaticity in multi-syllable word reading and motivation’s effect on reading comprehension are both promising interventions to develop MWR.

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A very relevant question: Is teacher burnout contagious?

Burn-out is something to be taken seriously, imho. I’ve seen some close friends in education who fell victim and honestly: I never would dare to say that I could never become a burnout patient. Still, I’ve learned from earlier research that the causes of burnout are more complex than most people think. It’s no by definition – only – work that can result in people having a burnout. This new study does look at the work place – more specific in education – but examines something special: the effect of colleagues having en burnout. Well, that’s the word that’s being used to sell the study to the public. The correct question is how can the organizational culture in schools make a notable difference for early-career teachers’ burnout levels.

And while the findings of this study seem to have a certain element of ‘no shit, Sherlock, they do are very relevant:

  • Organizational exposure had the strongest association with novice teachers’ burnout.
  • Social network exposure had a significant association with novice teachers’ burnout.
  • Students’ socio-economic status affected novice teachers’ burnout levels.

From the press release:

Burnout among young teachers appears to be contagious, indicates a new study led by Michigan State University education scholars.

The study found a significant link between burnout among early-career teachers and exposure to both a school-wide culture of burnout and burnout among the young teachers’ closest circle of colleagues.

Surprisingly, the link was stronger to the school-wide culture of burnout than it was to burnout among close colleagues.

“If you are surrounded by people who are downcast or walking around under a pall of burnout, then it has a high chance of spilling over, even if you don’t have direct contact with these folks,” said Kenneth Frank, professor of measurement and quantitative methods in MSU’s College of Education.

“This study,” Frank added, “is one of the first to provide evidence that the organizational culture in schools can make a notable difference for early-career teachers’ burnout levels.”

Frank co-authored the study with Jihyun Kim, an MSU doctoral student, and Peter Youngs, a former MSU scholar who’s now an associate professor at the University of Virginia. Their findings appear in the journal Teaching and Teacher Education.

The researchers analyzed the survey data on burnout of 171 teachers who were in their first four years in the profession and 289 experienced teachers who served as the young teachers’ mentors or close colleagues.

Kim, lead author on the paper, said she was interested in investigating teacher burnout based on her experiences as an early-career teacher in her native Korea, where she worked long days and weekends.

Early-career teachers are particularly vulnerable to stress and burnout as they adjust to working full-time and respond to school and district expectations, she said. Further, schools often fail to provide teachers with enough resources, including the appropriate teaching materials, assistant teachers, professional development and preparation time.

“These resources are critical not only for reducing teacher burnout, but also for closing gaps in students’ learning,” said Kim, who will begin work in the fall as an assistant professor of education at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania.

Frank said teacher burnout is also tied to the current education policy environment. Controversial policies such as evaluating teachers based primarily on student test scores, merit pay for teachers and lack of voice in assignment of students to teachers can bring added pressure.

“We know that early career teachers are susceptible to burnout because of the significant demands placed on them. It is also clear that the introduction of new reforms in K-12 education on a frequent basis adds to the pressures they experience,” Frank said.

“If school administrators and policymakers are serious about promoting retention and reducing burnout among novice teachers, they should be aware not just of the curriculum they are advocating, or their rules and policies for teachers. They should also attend to how the organizational culture in their schools can have direct effects on burnout levels of their faculty.”


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Funny on Sunday: rap battle between teacher & student (Guess who wins?)

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Altering the critical period for learning languages and music

Let’s start of with a big warning: this is a study on mice that if true sounds very promising, but doesn’t mean you’ll be able to buy a medicine next week to make it easier to learn. It does mean that one day this could be the case, but we’re still a long way to go. Ok, now you’ve had this big warning, the actual information: Scientists have discovered that curtailing activity of the neuromodulator adenosine extends the critical period of auditory learning in mice and offers promising results for humans.

From the press release:

Learning language or music is usually a breeze for children, but as even young adults know, that capacity declines dramatically with age. St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital scientists have evidence from mice that restricting a key chemical messenger in the brain helps extend efficient auditory learning much later in life.

Researchers showed that limiting the supply or the function of the neuromodulator adenosine in a brain structure called the auditory thalamus preserved the ability of adult mice to learn from passive exposure to sound much as young children learn from the soundscape of their world. The study appears June 30 in the journal Science.

“By disrupting adenosine signaling in the auditory thalamus, we have extended the window for auditory learning for the longest period yet reported, well into adulthood and far beyond the usual critical period in mice,” said corresponding author Stanislav Zakharenko, M.D., Ph.D., a member of the St. Jude Department of Developmental Neurobiology. “These results offer a promising strategy to extend the same window in humans to acquire language or musical ability by restoring plasticity in critical regions of the brain, possibly by developing drugs that selectively block adenosine activity.”

The auditory thalamus is the brain’s relay station where sound is collected and sent to the auditory cortex for processing. The auditory thalamus and cortex rely on the neurotransmitter glutamate to communicate. Adenosine was known to reduce glutamate levels by inhibiting this neurotransmitter’s release. This study also linked adenosine inhibition to reduced brain plasticity and the end of efficient auditory learning.

Researchers used a variety of methods to demonstrate that reducing adenosine or blocking the A1 adenosine receptor that is essential to the chemical messenger’s function changed how adult mice responded to sound.

Much as young children pick up language simply by hearing it spoken, researchers showed that when adenosine was reduced or the A1 receptor blocked in the auditory thalamus, adult mice passively exposed to a tone responded to the same tone stronger when it was played weeks or months later. These adult mice also gained an ability to distinguish between very close tones (or tones with similar frequencies). Mice usually lack this “perfect pitch” ability.

Researchers also showed that the experimental mice retained the improved tone discrimination for weeks.

“Taken together, the results demonstrated that the window for effective auditory learning re-opened in the mice and that they retained the information,” Zakharenko said.

Among the strategies researchers used to inhibit adenosine activity was the experimental compound FR194921, which selectively blocks the A1 receptor. If paired with sound exposure, the compound rejuvenated auditory learning in adult mice. “That suggests it might be possible to extend the window in humans by targeting the A1 receptor for drug development,” Zakharenko said.

Zakharenko and his colleagues also linked the age-related decline in ease of auditory learning to an age-related increase in an enzyme (ecto-5′-nucleotidase) involved in adenosine production in the auditory thalamus. Researchers reported that mature mice had higher levels than newborn mice of the enzyme and adenosine in the auditory thalamus. Deletion of this enzyme returned the adenosine level in adult mice to the level of newborn mice. Therefore, researchers are currently looking for compounds that target ecto-5′-nucleotidase as an alternative approach for extending the window of auditory learning.

Abstract of the study:

Circuits in the auditory cortex are highly susceptible to acoustic influences during an early postnatal critical period. The auditory cortex selectively expands neural representations of enriched acoustic stimuli, a process important for human language acquisition. Adults lack this plasticity. Here we show in the murine auditory cortex that juvenile plasticity can be reestablished in adulthood if acoustic stimuli are paired with disruption of ecto-5′-nucleotidase–dependent adenosine production or A1–adenosine receptor signaling in the auditory thalamus. This plasticity occurs at the level of cortical maps and individual neurons in the auditory cortex of awake adult mice and is associated with long-term improvement of tone-discrimination abilities. We conclude that, in adult mice, disrupting adenosine signaling in the thalamus rejuvenates plasticity in the auditory cortex and improves auditory perception.

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How to help underprivileged teenagers to enter university? New study doesn’t tell how, does suggest when.

We have know for quite a while that underprivileged teenagers are more likely to give up their university ambitions. But how can we help them?

A new study suggests – again – that early interventions to maintain and raise expectations could increase the number of teenagers from less privileged backgrounds entering higher education. Sadly enough not by trying to solve it, but by examining when their expectations change.

From the press release:

The research, which analysed how young people’s expectations of applying to university change between the ages of 14 and 17, found that those from less advantaged backgrounds were more likely to stop, and less likely to start, thinking they would apply than their more advantaged peers. This was true even when comparing individuals with the same test scores.

Through analysis of a survey of 14-20-year-olds conducted between 2004 and 2010, Dr Jake Anders of UCL Institute of Education (IOE) found that a substantial proportion of young people changed their minds about whether they were planning to apply to university — with the change running in both directions — and that socioeconomic background played a significant part in whether expectations changed. The study used data from the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England,

Compared to the most advantaged fifth of young people, the least advantaged fifth had more than twice the probability of switching from being ‘likely to apply’ to ‘unlikely to apply’. Conversely, the most advantaged fifth had more than twice the probability of changing from being ‘unlikely to apply’ to ‘likely to apply’.

How young people reacted to new information on their academic attainment at age 16 also depended on their background. For those with higher socioeconomic status, improvements in exam results were significantly more likely to raise expectations of applying for university.

Dr Anders said: “These findings suggest that part of the socioeconomic difference in university applications has its roots during the period when potential applicants are aged between 14 and 17 and, as such, it’s not too late to target policies at this age group to try and narrow the gap.

“Intervening early to maintain expectations, rather than attempting to raise them later, is more likely to be successful as this will ensure individuals engage in steps that keep them on track to be in a position to apply for university.

“Sixteen could also be a key age for interventions. This is a difficult point in time to reach young people as many move between educational institutions or leave full time education altogether. However, it may be the case that providing fresh guidance in the light of exam results could play an important part in ensuring young people get the right educational message.”

Abstract of the study:

A much larger proportion of English 14-year-olds expect to apply to university than ultimately make an application by age 21, but the proportion expecting to apply falls from age 14 onwards. In order to assess the role of socioeconomic status in explaining changes in expectations, this paper applies duration modelling techniques to the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England, analysing transitions in young people’s expectations both from being ‘likely to apply’ to being ‘unlikely to apply’ and vice versa. Young people’s socioeconomic background has a significant association with changes in expectations, even after controlling for prior academic attainment and other potentially confounding factors; in addition, young people’s backgrounds affect their responsiveness to new evidence on academic attainment at age 16. This suggests more could usefully be done to maintain the educational expectations of academically able young people from less advantaged families, especially providing guidance on how to view new academic results.

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Good but alarming talk by Alison McDowell: What Sillicon Valley has planned for public education

The talk is more nuanced than you might think, but holds a clear warning. (H/t E. Morozov)

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Did Eratosthenes really measure the size of the earth?

The Renaissance Mathematicus

Last Thursday was Summer Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere and The Guardian chose to mark the occasion with an article by astrophysicist turned journalist and novelist, Stuart Clark, who chose to regale his readers with a bit of history of science. The big question was would he get it right? He has form for not doing so and in fact, he succeeded in living up to that form. His article entitled Summer solstice: the perfect day to bask in a dazzling scientific feat, recounted the well know history of geodesy tale of how Eratosthenes used the summer solstice to determine the size of the earth.

Eratosthenes of Cyrene was the chief librarian at the great library of Alexandria in the third century BC. So the story goes, he read in one of the library’s many manuscripts an account of the sun being directly overhead on the summer solstice as…

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