How do you measure the success of a child’s education? Test results are one thing, and according to a recent global survey, British children have risen in the league tables for both maths and reading. However, these same teens reported among the lowest levels of life satisfaction. They may be performing well academically, but they’re not thriving.
This isn’t a problem only in the UK, of course. At a recent conference that I attended, organised by the Templeton World Charity Foundation, research psychologists, education specialists, economists and philosophers from around the world met to discuss how to help individuals and societies flourish in the 21st century. One word hung in the air as key: “character”.
If you confidently tell a young child a fact, they’re likely to believe you. But you’d better be right — because if they find out that you were wrong, and should have known better, they’ll doubt not only your credibility but your intelligence too.
These are the implications of new work in PLOS One, led by Susan Birch at the University of British Columbia. It shows that children prefer to learn from people who are consistently confident, rather than hesitant, about what they say. However, even kids as young as four also keep a track record of a person’s accuracy, and make judgements about them on this basis.
Increasing efforts have been made in recent years to encourage students to pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects. There’s been a particularly positive emphasis on getting a more diverse group of people onto such courses: women, black and ethnic minority groups and working class people have all been the focus of drives and campaigns designed to help them enter STEM careers.
But, a new study suggests, the competitive nature of STEM courses may be having a knock-on effect on the confidence of certain students, in this case first-generation college attendees (those who are the first in their family to go to university). Such students, the paper argues, are more likely to experience “imposter syndrome” — the feeling that they don’t belong or don’t have the skills or intelligence to continue on their studies — precisely because of this atmosphere of competition.
Though fidget spinners have been around since the early 1990s, it was 2017 when they really started to make a stir, becoming a seemingly overnight sensation and starting to appear in offices, classrooms, public transport and pretty much anywhere else they were permitted. The actual provenance of the design has been debated, but many companies market the toys as a tool for concentration, particularly for those who have anxiety, ADHD or autism.
Calming — and fun — they may be, but do they actually work when it comes to keeping attention? Julia S. Soares & Benjamin C. Storm from the University of California, Santa Cruz think not. In a new paper, they look at the marketing of fidget spinners as attentional aides — and come to the conclusion that they may be actively distracting.
Body image can be a tricky enough thing to navigate in adulthood: for young people, it can be even more difficult. Research suggests that adolescence is a “pivotal time” for the development of positive or negative body image — and that poor body image can in turn have a devastating impact on overall self-esteem.
But how someone looks doesn’t just change how they feel about themselves — it can change the way other people treat them, too. One 2013 study found that weight was a factor in graduate school admissions, with overweight applicants less likely to receive an offer. And now research published in the British Journal of Educational Psychology suggests this bias can start before students are even in their teens.
In many countries, the proportion of girls opting to pursue careers in lucrative fields such as engineering and computer science has stagnated. Despite the best efforts of schools, universities and governments, women remain underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the so-called “STEM” subjects. The shortage of women is particularly acute in professions with a heavy focus on maths. But why?
A recent study in PNAS suggests that the answer may lie in differences in ability between boys and girls. But surprisingly, the ability in question is not maths, but reading. In a nutshell, girls who are good at maths tend to be even better at reading, and as a result, many turn away from maths and opt instead to pursue careers that utilise their even stronger language skills. By contrast, boys who are good at maths tend not to show this same advantage in reading, making their decision to stick with STEM subjects much more straightforward.
In an era of TED talks, podcasts, and audiobooks, it’s easy to choose to listen to factual information or fiction, rather than to read it. But is that a good thing? Are there any differences in the way the brain processes the meaning of words that are heard rather than read? According to the researchers behind a thorough new study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, the answer to this last question is “no”. But it may still be too soon to conclude that listening to an audiobook is effectively the same as reading it.
Over the last half century Western European countries have enjoyed a large increase in gender equality. There is a long way to go, but some statistics are striking: for instance, in Germany the employment rate for women has increased from 48 per cent in 1980 to 73 per cent in 2014. Psychologists are interested in whether, and how, these kind of societal-level changes filter down and affect children’s conceptions of gender.
To find out, a team at the University of Münster and Osnabrück University, led by Bettina Lamm, has compared the way that young German children in 1977 drew a human figure with the way that age-matched German children in 2015 drew a figure. The results, published in Sex Roles, suggest two parallel changes: girls in 2015 more often chose to draw a female figure than girls in 1977; at the same time, the children tested in 2015 depicted female figures as more distinctly feminine than the children in the 1970s.
“Societal changes over the last four decades in West Germany have clearly generated two trends,” the researchers said. “… growing status equality between the genders on the one hand, and increasing gender differentiation, on the other.”
There’s a huge amount of research into how people differ in their ability to learn things deliberately and “explicitly”, such as memorising a list of words or instructions, for example. Far less studied is “implicit learning”. Ask a five-year-old to explain the grammatical rules of their language and they’ll likely have no clue where to start. And yet, they do know them – or at least, well enough to form coherent sentences. This kind of unconscious acquisition of abstract knowledge is an example of “implicit” learning.
Implicit learning may be especially important for young children, but adults depend on it, too. It “is recognised as a core system that underlies learning in multiple domains, including language, music and even learning about the statistical structure of our environments,” note the authors of a new paper, published in Cognition.
When responding to science denialism (or, for that matter, any sort of false or harmful information), such as claims that vaccines are ineffective and harmful, it can be difficult to establish the right strategy. Because of the fast-paced way in which information spreads these days, there is a risk that responding to a given inaccurate claim can give it further oxygen, leading the falsehood to reach more people who are vulnerable to being misled, and so forth. There’s also the possibility of the “backfire effect” – people who already endorse the false claims reacting to the debunking information by digging into their beliefs further (though there’s now evidence such fears were overhyped, and that the backfire effect may not be a regular occurrence overall).
To better understand when science-denialism debunking does and doesn’t work, Philipp Schmid and Cornelia Betsch, both of the University of Erfurt in Germany, ran a series of studies that involved online respondents being exposed to various sorts of science debates. The results, published in Nature Human Behavior, offer some useful insights about how to best stem the tide of science denialism.