Category Archives: Review

Guess what makes the biggest impact on early childhood outcomes? Intentional teaching

Having early childhood education just isn’t enough. It is what happens in early childhood education that can make a difference. This new review looks at several measures of the quality of early childhood education and based on their research, Margaret Burchinal suggests that the instructional practices of preschool teachers have the largest effect on young children’s academic and social skills. I don’t think this review paper will end the discussion, probably nothing ever will, but it does add to it.

From the press release:

A comprehensive review of research on several measures of the quality of early childhood education suggests that the instructional practices of preschool teachers have the largest impact on young children’s academic and social skills. The review helps untangle a complicated knot of factors that affect young children.

“High quality preschool is one of the most effective means of preparing all children to succeed in school,” said Margaret Burchinal, senior research scientist at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute (FPG)at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “However, this review of research indicates the need to expand our definitions of quality.”

Burchinal said her review of the science suggests the field should continue to measure the quality of relationships of preschool teachers and children, especially the sensitivity and warmth of the teachers. In addition, the review suggests factors such as the levels of education of program directors and teachers and the teacher-child ratio also influence outcomes.

However, the areas with the strongest connection to beneficial results for young children involve what teachers teach and how they teach it.

“The largest effects on child outcomes involve curricula,” Burchinal explained. “Some of the biggest impacts on literacy, math, and other skills involved curricula focused on those specific skills with accompanying coaching or training for teachers.”

According to Burchinal, many of the most effective curricula incorporate planned, engaging activities for preschoolers, with a schedule of lessons and activities in a variety of learning settings. Effective learning opportunities often include some whole group instruction and more time in small groups, learning centers, and computer work.

Burchinal also said the research shows that the teaching practice of “scaffolding” brings big benefits. “Scaffolding occurs when the adult caregiver talks with and models a learning activity for the child, making the activity fun through conversation that builds on and extends the child’s interest and knowledge about the world.”

Some of the largest impacts on children’s outcomes have arisen from the strongest pre-kindergarten programs, Burchinal added. These programs show even larger impacts for dual-language learners and for children from low-income families.

“These prekindergarten impacts are larger than impacts from traditionally-measured dimensions of quality,” Burchinal said. “This is further evidence that more focus on scaffolding and intentional teaching is needed.”

Burchinal pointed to FPG’s Abecedarian Project as an example of a program that combined intentional teaching with warmth and sensitivity. The project used an intensive, language-driven approach that involved teacher scaffolding of activity-based learning to build children’s knowledge base and language skills. The center-based, birth-to-5 program for children from low-income homes famously contributed to better cognitive, socio-emotional, and physical health outcomes that have persisted for decades.

Burchinal’s new review of research includes several studies based in the United States and other countries. “Measuring Early Care and Education” appears in “Child Development Perspectives,” which the Society for Research in Child Development publishes.

“As we think about the components of high-quality early childhood education, our policies and practices can reflect what this research tells us,” she said. “Ideally, our new models of quality will encompass evidence-based curricula and intentional teaching within content areas, as well as professional development that focuses on the teaching practices that promote the skills young children need to succeed in school.”

Abstract of the review:

High-quality early care and education (ECE) programs are thought to increase opportunities for all children to succeed in school, but recent findings call into question whether these programs affect children as anticipated. In this article, I examine research relating the quality of ECE to children’s outcomes, finding somewhat inconsistent and modest associations with widely used measures of process and structural quality, and more consistent and stronger associations with other dimensions of ECE such as curricula and type of ECE program. I discuss why the associations between ECE quality and outcomes are so modest, including limited children’s outcomes, psychometric issues with quality measures, and a need to revise and expand measures of ECE quality. The evidence indicates that we need to focus on the content of instruction and teaching practices, as well as the extent to which teachers actively scaffold learning opportunities. We also need to continue to focus on the quality of interactions between teachers and children, and on children’s access to age-appropriate activities.


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How to raise IQ? Education! (a new meta-analysis)

This morning Stuart Ritchie shared a preprint of a new meta-analysis he made together with Elliot Tucker-Drob and the theme is very relevant in many of the present discussions about education: the link between IQ and education. An important insight from the conclusion:

…the results support the hypothesis that education has a causal effect on intelligence test scores. The effect of one additional year of education—contingent on study design, inclusion of moderators, and publication bias correction—was estimated from approximately one to five points on the standard IQ scale.

And this is also important:

The results reported here indicate strong, consistent evidence for effects of education on intelligence. Although the effects—on the order of a few IQ points for a year of education— might be considered small, at the societal level they are potentially of great consequence. A crucial next step will be to uncover the mechanisms of these educational effects on intelligence, in order to inform educational policy and practice.

Still important questions remain. Ritchie and Tucker-Drob mention several, but I personally find this question very relevant for further research:

…are there individual differences in the magnitude of the educational effect? One possibility is the “Matthew Effect” (Stanovich, 1986), whereby children at greater initial cognitive (or socioeconomic) advantage benefit more from additional education than those at lower advantage. Another possibility is that education acts as an “equalizer”, such that those at lower levels of initial advantage benefit most (Downey, von Hippel, & Broh, 2004). Indeed, some evidence of an equalizing effect was reported in a single study by Hansen, Heckman, & Mullen (2004).

Read the abstract:

Intelligence test scores and educational duration are positively correlated. This correlation can be interpreted in two ways: students with greater propensity for intelligence go on to complete more education, or a longer education increases intelligence. We meta-analysed three categories of quasi-experimental studies of educational effects on intelligence: those estimating education-intelligence associations after controlling for earlier intelligence, those using compulsory schooling policy changes as instrumental variables, and those using regression-discontinuity designs on school-entry age cutoffs. Across 142 effect sizes from 42 datasets involving over 600,000 participants, we found consistent evidence for beneficial effects of education on cognitive abilities, of approximately 1 to 5 IQ points for an additional year of education. Moderator analyses indicated that the effects persisted across the lifespan, and were present on all broad categories of cognitive ability studied. Education appears to be the most consistent, robust, and durable method yet to be identified for raising intelligence.



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Project-Based Learning: “promising but not proven” (Best Evidence in Brief)

There is a new Best Evidence in Brief (they have a blog now too) and this working paper will be of interest to a lot of people:

A working paper from MDRC builds on and updates a literature review of project-based learning (PBL) published in 2000. Focused primarily on articles and studies that have emerged in the last 17 years, the working paper discusses the principles of PBL, how PBL has been used in K-12 settings, the challenges teachers face in implementing it, how school and local factors influence its implementation, and what is known about its effectiveness in improving learning outcomes.
The report suggests that the evidence for PBL’s effectiveness in improving student outcomes is “promising, but not proven.”  The biggest challenge to evaluating the effectiveness of PBL, the researchers suggest, is a lack of consensus about the design of PBL and how it fits in with other teaching methods. Some studies have found positive effects associated with the use of PBL. However, without a clear vision of what a PBL approach should look like, it is difficult for teachers and schools to assess the quality of their own implementation and know how to improve their approach. They  also suggest that PBL implementation is particularly challenging because it changes student-teacher interactions and requires a shift from teacher-directed to student-directed inquiry, and requires non-traditional methods of assessment.
The paper concludes with recommendations for advancing the PBL research literature in ways that will improve PBL knowledge and practice.

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Sometimes you’d better don’t believe the press release

I read a lot of different studies and press releases about studies and some end up on this blog. Yesterday I read one press release and when I than read the actual study, I ended up not writing a blog post but tweeting this:

Sadly enough other people did go with the hurray-feel of the press release, as you can take from the title of this NPR-post.

I received these 2 great replies:

But if you want to check for yourself, here you can find the press release and here you can find the actual study.


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One for my students: phones keep you from concentrating during lectures

Yesterday I said to one of my students that it was pointless to sit in my class if you are so busy with your phone. He was so busy it even distracted me. I should have mentioned this new study – a combination of a meta-review and new data -, but I only read if afterwards. But let’s be honest: we’ve known this for quite a while.

The study in short:


  • Media use (MU) and academic performance (AP) studies omit subject area comparison.
  • Sample populations tend to be biased toward social science programs.•
  • Data show differences in the type and frequency of MU across subject areas.
  • Differences between MU and AP correlations were found for different subject areas.
  • MU is a stronger predictor of AP for students in the soft sciences.


From the press release (I skipped the digital native part for obvious reasons):

The researchers say it shouldn’t be surprising that university lecturers are encouraged to develop blended learning initiatives and bring tech — videos, podcasts, Facebook pages, etc. — into the classroom more and more to offer students the enhanced experiences enabled by digital media.

They warn, however, that an important effect of these initiatives has been to establish media use during university lectures as the norm.

“Studies by ourselves and researchers across the world show that students constantly use their phones when they are in class.

“But here’s the kicker: if you think they are following the lecture slides or engaging in debates about the topic you are mistaken. In fact, this is hardly ever the case. When students use their phones during lectures they do it to communicate with friends, engage in social networks, watch YouTube videos or just browse around the web to follow their interests.”

The researchers say there are two primary reasons why this form of behaviour is problematic from a cognitive control and learning perspective.

“The first is that when we engage in multitasking our performance on the primary task suffers. Making sense of lecture content is very difficult when you switch attention to your phone every five minutes. A strong body of evidence supports this, showing that media use during lectures is associated with lower academic performance.”

“The second reason is that it harms students’ ability to concentrate on any particular thing for an extended period of time. They become accustomed to switching to alternative streams of stimuli at increasingly short intervals. The moment the lecture fails to engage or becomes difficult to follow, the phones come out.”

The researchers say awareness of this trend has prompted some lecturers, even at leading tech-oriented universities like MIT in the United States, to declare their lectures device-free in an attempt to cultivate engagement, attentiveness and, ultimately, critical thinking skills among their students.

“No one can deny that mobile computing devices make our lives easier and more fun in a myriad of ways. But, in the face of all the connectedness and entertainment they offer, we should be mindful of the costs.”

The researchers encourage educational policy makers and lecturers, in particular, to consider the implications of their decisions with a much deeper awareness of the dynamics between technology use and the cognitive functions which enable us to learn.

Abstract of the paper:

The current generation of university students display an increasing propensity for media multitasking behaviour with digital devices such as laptops, tablets and smartphones. A growing body of empirical evidence has shown that this behaviour is associated with reduced academic performance. In this study it is proposed that the subject area within which an individual is situated may influence the relationship between media multitasking and academic performance. This proposition is evaluated, firstly, by means of a meta-review of prior studies in this area and, secondly, through a survey-based study of 1678 students at a large university in South Africa. Our findings suggest that little or no attention has been paid to variations between students from different subject areas in previous work and, based on our data, that subject area does influence the relationship between media use and academic performance. The study found that while a significant negative correlation exists between in-lecture media use and academic performance for students in the Arts and Social Sciences, the same pattern is not observable for students in the faculties of Engineering, Economic and Management Sciences, and Medical and Health Sciences.


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2 relevant items in Best Evidence in Brief: no effect mindfulness & effect sizes

There is a new Best Evidence in Brief (they have a blog now too) and this time it was too difficult to pick just one item, so I had to pick two.

The first one is on effect sizes in educational research:

What difference does it make?
We regularly quote effect sizes in Best Evidence in Brief as a measure of the impact of an intervention or approach. But what is the impact of a normal school year on children, and how much of that impact is due to the school? A study by Hans Lutyen and colleagues, published in School Effectiveness and School Improvement, attempts to find out.
The study analyzed 3,500 students from 20 mostly independent (private) English primary schools on four different learning outcomes. These measures, part of the Interactive Computer Adaptive System (InCAS), were reading, general math, mental arithmetic, and developed ability, the last of which measures items such as vocabulary and non-verbal pattern recognition.
Children were measured on these outcomes from Years 1 to 6 (Kindergarten to 5th grade in the U.S.). Using a regression-discontinuity approach that exploited the discontinuity between the youngest students in one year and the oldest students in the year below, the researchers were able to identify the overall progress of the children, and the extent to which this was a result of the impact of the school.
The results showed a declining impact of a school year as children got older. The effect size of Year 1 ranged from +1.18 for mental arithmetic to +0.8 for general math. By Year 6, effect sizes varied from +0.88 for general math to +0.49 for reading and developed ability.
The effect of schooling itself accounted for an average of between 23.5% and 43.4% of this impact across the four measures. Put another way, the effect size of schooling in Year 1 ranged from +0.55 for reading to +0.31 for developed ability. By Year 6, effect sizes had fallen to between +0.27 for general math and +0.08 for reading and developed ability.
The researchers suggest that, when setting benchmarks for educational interventions, it is not only important to consider the phase of the educational career, but also the specific measure.

The second is on the effect of mindfulness in secondary education (check this post too):

Impact of secondary school mindfulness programs
Catherine Johnson and colleagues carried out a randomized controlled evaluation of a secondary school mindfulness program (called “.b mindfulness” for “Stop, Breathe and Be!”) to measure impact on self-reported measures of anxiety, depression, weight/shape concerns, well-being, and mindfulness.
Five hundred and fifty-five students in four secondary schools in South Australia participated (mean age = 13.44 years). Students were assigned using a cluster (class-based) randomized controlled design to one of three conditions: the nine-week mindfulness curriculum, the nine-week mindfulness curriculum with parental involvement, or a control (business-as-usual) curriculum.
The evaluation found no differences between the mindfulness groups with or without parental involvement and the control group at post-intervention or at the six and twelve month follow-up. The researchers conclude that further research is required to identify the optimal age, content, and length of programs delivering mindfulness to teenagers.

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Udacity isn’t about education but about job training

Past week I had the pleasure to attend a talk by Eric Schmidt, top leader from Alphabet/Google in the Netherlands. One of the more interesting things he said was a seemingly contradiction: after several pleas for teaching how to code in school, he ended his talk by saying that soon AI would make coding obsolete.

There was also another talk at the event by Clarissa Shen from Udacity. Her talk gave me an important insight: the present courses delivered by the platform aren’t about education, it’s all about job training.

What is the difference? Biesta has described 3 goals of education: subjectification (personal development), qualification and socialisation. If you go to a school or university you’ll get elements that lead to qualification. Good, but most of the time even when discussing qualification in regular education., it will be more than learning only stuff that is related to a particular job.

What Shen described was only a narrow part of what can be regarded as qualification from the three tasks by Biesta, so don’t call Udacity and it’s nano-degrees education, call it what it is: job training.

Oh, btw, I enjoyed reading this related post at Inside Higher Ed.

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Daniel Willingham’s cool reading facts 1: Writing is a recent technology

How cool is this, Daniel Willingham is publishing a series of 5 short videos on reading, Cool Reading Facts. The first, just up, is titled “Writing is a Recent Technology.” Daniel will publish one each day this week.

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What does the evidence say about technology use? (Best Evidence in Brief)

There is a new Best Evidence in Brief (they have a blog now too) and this study I picked will interest a lot of the readers of this blog:

New educational technology programs are being released faster than researchers can evaluate them. The National Bureau of Economic Research has written a working paper, Education Technology: An Evidence-Based Review, which discusses the evidence to date on the use of technology in the classroom, with the goal of finding decision-relevant patterns.
Maya Escueta and colleagues compiled publicly available quantitative research that used either randomized controlled trials or regression discontinuity designs (where students qualify for inclusion in a program based on a cut-off score at pretest). All studies had to examine the effects of an ed-tech intervention on any education-related outcome. Therefore, the paper included not only the areas of technology access, computer-assisted learning, and online courses, but also the less-often-studied technology-based behavioral interventions.
Authors found that:
  • Access to technology may or may not improve academic achievement at the K-12 level, but does have a positive impact on the academic achievement of college students (ES=+0.14).
  • Computer-assisted learning, when equipped with personalization features, was an effective strategy, especially in math.
  • Behavioral intervention software, such as text-message reminders or e-messages instructing parents how to practice reading with their children, showed positive effects at all levels of education, plus were a cost-effective approach. Four main uses for behavioral intervention software emerged: encouraging parental involvement in early learning activities, communication between the school and parents, successfully transitioning into and through college, and creating mindset interventions. Research is recommended to determine the areas where behavioral intervention software is most impactful.
  • Online learning courses had the least amount of research to examine and showed the least promise of the four areas. However, when online courses were accompanied by in-person teaching, the effect sizes increased to scores comparable to fully in-person courses.




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Learning to realize education’s promise – a look at the 2018 WDR

This is a new relevant report with a strong emphasis on learning – but underneath I would suggest also a strong emphasis on effectieve teaching.

In this summarizing video – and in the report – there is one thing that maybe will scare educators off: the proposed element of measuring. I know this isn’t popular with large groups of the educational world. At the same time: it’s indeed deeply wrong if schooling doesn’t mean learning and it’s important to know if something is learned.

I do think that measuring and monitoring the learning process doesn’t need to mean what Pasi Salhberg has coined as GERM, global educational reform movement.

I also very much agree with this part of the blogpost:

Similarly, there is ambivalent coverage of teachers. Despite the WDR’s resounding conclusion that “education systems perform best when their teachers are respected, prepared, selected based on merit, and supported in their work”, it then draws attention approvingly to the idea that replacing the least effective 7–12% of teachers could help bridge the gap between student performance in the United States and Finland. Treating education as a production process with substitutable inputs is not a good starting point.

I do think there is another, better option. Making sure that the least experienced teachers aren’t getting the most difficult classes to teach (cfr TALIS-report by the OECD) would be a great start.

World Education Blog

Screen Shot 2017-09-28 at 18.43.18For the first time in forty years, the World Bank’s World Development Report (WDR), released on Tuesday, focuses exclusively on education. We are pleased to see its core messages resonating so well with our past reports, especially the 2013/4 EFA Global Monitoring Report on teaching and learning. The WDR is a welcome addition to the Bank’s flagship series. It shows that many changes have happened in the past 40 years in education, not least in the Bank’s thinking about it.

With its crisp presentation and clear threads of argument, the report is aligned with the Bank’s 2020 Education Strategy, which marked a strategic shift to learning over schooling when it was published in 2011. The WDR reiterates that the benefits of education are poorly linked to years spent in school and urges countries to engage in system-wide commitment to improve learning outcomes. Its main messages are to assess learning…

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