Given how important maths skills are in everyday life, it is vital that we develop ways to reliably identify those children with particular learning difficulties related to maths (known as “specific learning disorder in mathematics”/SLDM or dyscalculia) so that they can be provided with appropriate support. Unfortunately, maths-related learning problems are far less understood and recognised compared with similar problems related to reading and language.
A recent study in the British Journal of Psychology highlights this issue, being the first to estimate the prevalence of SLDM/dyscalculia in primary school age children using contemporary criteria (as outlined by the American Psychiatric Association in the latest version of its diagnostic manual). The results provide much needed data on this topic, reveal some worrying facts and also useful insights for policy.
Educational neuromyths include the idea that we learn more effectively when taught via our preferred “learning style”, such as auditory or visual or kinesthetic (hear more about this in our recent podcast); the claim that we use only 10 per cent of our brains; and the idea we can be categorised into left-brain and right-brain learners. Belief in such myths is rife among teachers around the world, according to several surveys published over the last ten years. But does this matter? Are the myths actually harmful to teaching? The researchers who conducted the surveys believe so. For instance, reporting their survey results in 2012, Sanne Dekker and her colleagues concluded that “This [belief in neuromyths] is troublesome, as these teachers in particular may implement wrong brain-based ideas in educational practice”. (Full disclosure: I’ve made similar arguments myself.)
But now this view has been challenged by a team at the University of Melbourne, led by Jared Horvath, who have pointed out that this is merely an assumption: “Put simply,” they write in their new paper in Frontiers in Psychology, “there is no evidence to suggest neuromyths have any impact whatsoever on teacher efficacy or practice”.
Horvath’s team tested the assumption that belief in neuromyths harms teaching by comparing belief in the neuromyths among 50 award-winning teachers from the UK, USA and Australia with the belief in these same myths shown by hundreds of trainee and non-award-winning teachers (as recorded in the earlier surveys) – the logic being that if belief in neuromyths has an adverse effect on teaching then presumably the award-winning teachers will show significantly lower rates of endorsement of the myths than their less celebrated counterparts.
This is Episode 13 of PsychCrunch, the podcast from the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest, sponsored by Routledge Psychology. Download here.
Can psychology help us to learn better? Our presenter Christian Jarrett discovers the best evidence-backed strategies for learning, including the principle of spacing, the benefits of testing yourself and teaching others. He also hears about the perils of overconfidence and the lack of evidence for popular educational ideas like “learning styles” and “brain gym”.
Stimulants available on prescription such as Adderall improve cognitive functioning as well as attention in people with ADHD, but many students without this condition also take them, believing that they will act as “smart drugs” and boost their cognition, and so their academic performance. The limited research to date into whether this is actually the case has produced mixed results. A new double-blind pilot study of healthy US college students, published in Pharmacy, found that though Adderall led to minor improvements in attention, it actually impaired working memory.
Teaching, it has often been said, is the one profession that creates all other professions. Therefore it is so important that we learn how to do it right. The ways that teachers learn from each other is likely to be an important part of this, especially how they discern each other’s expertise and whetherthey are inclined to seek advice and help from the most able.
A team led by James Spillane at Northwestern University has published a study in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis that looks into these teacher behaviours. The researchers employed a mixed-method approach that spanned five years and involved staff from fourteen different primary schools in the US. This included surveys and interviews to explore how maths teachers conceptualised expert teaching, and then an analysis of student test scores along with teachers’ self-reported interactions with their colleagues, to assess if expert teachers behave differently from their peers.
We all know someone who is convinced their opinion is better than everyone else’s on a topic – perhaps, even, that it is the only correct opinion to have. Maybe, on some topics, you are that person. No psychologist would be surprised that people who are convinced their beliefs are superior think they are better informed than others, but this fact leads to a follow on question: are people actually better informed on the topics for which they are convinced their opinion is superior? This is what Michael Hall and Kaitlin Raimi set out to check in a series of experiments in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.
For various reasons, children in many countries are increasingly sedentary and childhood obesity is a growing concern. At the same time, research tells us that physical activity is good for children’s minds and bodies, and that if they develop active habits in their youth, they tend to keep them up into adulthood.
It would surely help if children were more active at school, but with growing academic pressures, teachers will tell you that it is difficult to justify sacrificing vital maths and English lessons for more PE classes or games. A possible solution: make academic lessons more physically active. A new trial of a 6-week intervention comprising 18 ten-minute active maths and English lessons, published in Health Education and Behavior, suggests that such an approach has great potential.
The way parents and teachers praise children is known to influence not only their future performance, but how they feel about the malleability of intelligence. If a child has done well, focusing positive comments on their efforts, actions and strategies (saying, for example, “good job” or “you must have tried really hard”) is preferable to saying “you’re so smart”, in part because process-centred praise is thought to encourage kids to interpret setbacks as opportunities to grow, rather than as threats to their self-concept. In contrast, a kid who’s led to believe she succeeds because she’s “intelligent” may not attempt a difficult challenge, in case she fails.
Now – and somewhat remarkably, given all the praise and growth mindset research conducted on children – a new study, led by Rachael Reavis at Earlham College, Indiana, US, published the Journal of Genetic Psychology, claims to be the first to test the effects of different types of praise on how adults feel after failure.
The learning-by-teaching effect has been demonstrated in manystudies. Students who spend time teaching what they’ve learned go on to show better understanding and knowledge retention than students who simply spend the same time re-studying. What remains unresolved, however, is exactly why teaching helps the teacher better understand and retain what they’ve learned.
For a new study in Applied Cognitive Psychology researchers led by Aloysius Wei Lun Koh set out to test their theory that teaching improves the teacher’s learning because it compels the teacher to retrieve what they’ve previously studied. In other words, they believe the learning benefit of teaching is simply another manifestation of the well-known “testing effect” – the way that bringing to mind what we’ve previously studied leads to deeper and longer-lasting acquisition of that information than more time spent passively re-studying.
Brain science is mysterious and sexy and people are more inclined to believe claims that contain superfluous neuroscience references or neuro-imagery – an effect referred to as “the seductive allure of neuroscience” or “SANE” (that’s the short story, however the literature on the effect is messy, to say the least, with a mix of successful and failed replications).
One context where we might expect the seductive allure of neuroscience to be particularly problematic is in the emerging field of educational neuroscience, which seeks to use findings about the brain to improve educational practice. While the field holds promise, experts have warned about the dangers of neuro-jargon lending a confusing veneer of credibility to educational practices that lack an evidence base (one prominent example would be Brain Gym which has been widely criticised by neuroscientists and psychologists).
Until recently, however, no one had looked to see whether the seductive allure of neuroscience applies specifically in an educational context. A research group at the University of Minnesota has now attempted to plug this gap. They recently reported in the British Journal of Educational Psychology their “major finding” that the public find popular articles about the psychology of learning more credible when they contain extraneous neuroscience.