Do their homework or reach over there for the iPad and dive into a world of games? It’s the ever-present dilemma facing young children today. Here’s a simple technique that could tip the balance a little in favour of the homework. Psychologists have reported in Child Development that when four- to six-year-olds pretended to be Batman while they were doing a boring but important task, it helped them to resist distraction and stay more focused. The challenge now is to nail down exactly why the technique works, and to see if over time it could improve children’s self-regulation skills without them needing to go through the ritual of pretending to be someone else.
By guest blogger David Robson
Cast your mind back to your teenage maths lessons. Without a calculator, would you have been able to estimate the answer to the following sum?
12/13 + 7/8
Don’t worry about giving the precise number; just say whether it lies closest to 1, 2, 19, or 21*.
By the end of middle school, most American pupils have been studying fractions for a few years; these questions should be embarrassingly easy. But when Robert Siegler, a psychologist at Carnegie Mellon University posed the problem to a group of 8th graders (13 to 14 year olds), he found that they performed little better than if they’d simply guessed – with just 27 per cent choosing the right answer. In another test, around 50 per cent of 8th graders failed the arguably easier task of putting a series of simple fractions into size order, from smallest to biggest.
As if this dismal performance wasn’t depressing enough, it comes after decades of educational reforms. American educational psychologists first identified that teens often struggled to understand fractions in 1978, and since then various government commissions and teacher committees have attempted to address the issue, including thousands of educational studies and the introduction of widely used textbooks aimed specifically at deepening children’s understanding of fractions and decimals. These efforts may have amounted to billions of dollars’ worth of spending. Yet Siegler found next-to-no improvement in performance over the 40-year period.
Interestingly, students from other cultures – most notably, East Asian countries – do not face these problems. Siegler and his colleague Hugues Lortie-Forgues have explored the various potential explanations in their recent article for Current Directions in Psychological Science, including research that hints at a tantalizing link between language and mathematical reasoning.
As they point out, a basic understanding of fractions and decimals is essential for any further mathematical or science education – so finding a way to remove this stumbling block could have serious consequences for the pupils’ future careers.
In the UK, more and more of our children are learning mindfulness at school. The Mindfulness in Schools project claims that over 4000 of our teachers are now trained in the practice. However, some experts are concerned that the roll-out of mindfulness has raced ahead of the evidence base, which paints a mixed picture.
Following their recent failure to find any benefits of a school mindfulness programme for teenagers (contrary to some earlier more positive findings), a research team led by Catherine Johnson at Flinders University has now reported in Behaviour Research and Therapy the results of their latest school trial, which included new features in the mindfulness intervention, such as parental involvement and better designed homework materials, intended to maximise the programme’s effectiveness. However, once again the mindfulness programme led to no observable benefits.
By Alex Fradera
Exactly how parents shape their children is a matter of controversy, especially since Judith Rich Harris’ book The Nurture Assumption popularised the behavioural genetics position that the “shared environment” (so-called because it’s shared by siblings) – including the family home and parents’ methods of upbringing – has scant influence on how children turn out. But the debate is far from settled, and now a team chiefly from Florida State University has investigated whether more educated parents produce offspring with particular personality characteristics. Published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the research identifies a number of personality differences that correlate with parental education, and the researchers suggest the causes of this association must be more than just genetics.
While the idea that the lack of women in science and tech is entirely about cultural obstacles is contentious (as demonstrated by the recent Google memo furore), few would argue that social and cultural factors aren’t important. And these social influences may begin early. For example there’s an argument that boys are encouraged to play with toys that are likely to promote skills that will help them in science and maths. Toys aimed at girls, in contrast, are more likely to promote stereotypically feminine skills, such as nurturing.
LEGO, say Megan Fulcher and Amy Hayes, the authors of a new paper in the journal Sex Roles, is a case in point: its marketing is skewed towards boys, especially since the increase in packaged sets, which tend to feature stereotypically masculine items like pirate ships and castles. The result, they argue, is that boys are more attracted to LEGO, girls deterred from it, and that boys get to practice their building skills while girls don’t.
LEGO has heard some of this criticism (and no doubt also seen a gap in the market) and they’ve released girl-friendly packaged sets and product lines, including Friends items with a focus on people and including pink bricks. But Fulcher and Hayes – who very much speak from the nurture perspective on these issues (they fail to cite a single study demonstrating a biological basis for sex differences in toy preference) – fear this could be counterproductive because girlie bricks and sets are likely to promote more stereotypically feminine LEGO play and remind girls of their gender. To find out if their concerns are justified the researchers tested the LEGO building skills and choices of 116 girls and boys (aged 5 to 10) depending on whether they were given boyish LEGO bricks and packages or girlie ones.
By guest blogger Bradley Busch
It sounds like a paradox – the idea that participating in aggressive sport can make people less aggressive. Yet this belief forms a core basis of many martial arts dating back thousands of years, and many famous practitioners (real and fictional) have preached the importance of self control.
Legendary martial artist Bruce Lee once noted that “emotion can be the enemy. If you give into your emotion, you lose yourself”. Or as Mr Miyagi said in The Karate Kid the “lesson is not just karate only, the lesson is for whole life”.
Previous research has demonstrated that this may well be the case, as participating in martial arts helps improve concentration and self-awareness, self-esteem, emotional stability and self-regulation.
But is it really true that martial arts also reduces aggression outside the dojo? Can participating in traditionally violent sports prove cathartic, helping young people develop self-discipline and in turn be less violent away from the sport? Writing in the journal of Aggression and Violent Behaviour researchers from Israel and America report their findings from the first meta-analysis on the impact of martial arts on violent behaviours in children and teenagers.
Avid readers of novels know that they often take the perspective of the characters they read about. But just how far does this mental role-playing go? A new paper in the Journal of Memory and Language has provided a clever demonstration of how readily we simulate the thoughts of fictional characters. Borrowing a method from research into the psychology of deliberate forgetting, the researchers at Binghamton University, USA, show that when a story character needs to focus on remembering one series of words rather than another, the reader simulates this same memory process in their own minds. The character’s mental experience becomes the reader’s mental experience.
By Alex Fradera
To lead a good life, we need to make good decisions: manage our health and financial affairs, invest in appropriate relationships, and avoid serious lapses like falling for online scams. What equips us to do this? One candidate is IQ: after all, people who score higher on intelligence tests tend to go on to do better academically and in their careers. But many of us know intellectual titans who still make grave errors of judgment in their lives. Book-smart doesn’t necessarily make you life-smart, and a new article in the journal Thinking Skills and Creativity examines the utility of IQ in navigating existence, and how another mental ability may put it in the shade.
Three years ago, the film Lucy came out starring Scarlett Johansson as the eponymous heroine who is implanted with drugs that allow her to use the full capacity of her brain rather than the mere 10 per cent that the rest of us supposedly use. In response I wrote an article for WIRED “All you need to know about the 10 per cent brain myth in 60 seconds“. Soon afterwards I received an angry, acerbic 1,200-word email from a reader: “I am obviously not going to insist you take your article down since that isn’t my place,” she wrote, “but you should certainly not feel proud to be spreading such misinformed information to the public”.
What particularly shocked me was not just the tone of the correspondence, but the fact this email, endorsing the 10 per cent brain myth, came from a Masters student in neuroscience at Yale. But perhaps this wasn’t such an odd occurrence. A new US survey published in Frontiers in Psychology finds that belief in brain myths remains widespread, and moreover, that extensive education in neuroscience seems to provide little protection from such beliefs.
By guest blogger Helge Hasselmann
Cognitive performance fluctuates throughout the day. Depending on their “chronotype” some people are sharpest in the morning (“larks”), while others generally prefer the later hours of the day (“owls”). For obvious reasons, this is mirrored in our preferred sleep routines: larks get tired in the evenings earlier and, as a consequence, also wake up earlier, while owls show the opposite pattern. Your chronotype is not something that you’re stuck with for the rest of your life, but it changes with age. In fact we’re most likely to show an owl-like chronotype during adolescence, which might at least partly explain why teenagers often stay up late and arrive at school with eyes bloodshot thanks to a hefty sleep debt.
But if late chronotypes are so common in adolescents, why does school start so early (usually well before 9am in the UK, Netherlands and Germany)? Doesn’t that mean that many students are likely to be constantly sleep-deprived and not assessed during their biological peaks? Yes, it does! In fact, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that school kids who have a late chronotype score lower grades. But besides reduced sleep time, there are several alternative explanations for why a late chronotype could be associated with lower academic performance (such as absenteeism, for instance) as explored in a new paper in Scientific Reports. The researchers, led by Giulia Zerbini at University of Groningen, say their findings might help us understand the chronotype/school grade link and how we can fix it.