My latest post for the Blog on Learning and Development has gone live! This post is the fourth in my mini-series on evidence in the classroom, and considers whether brain training for children can have any impact in the classroom. You can read the post here.
My first post, on bringing scientific evidence in the classroom, introduces educational neuroscience and can be found here.
My second post, on neuromyths in education, can be found here.
My third post, on identifying what works in education, can be found here.
Stay tuned - my next post will be about mindsets in education.
My latest blog post has appeared on the BOLD blog, on the topic of randomised control trials (RCT) in education. In this post I introduce the concept of an RCT in the classroom, and consider the challenges of this approach.
The fifth biennial EARLI SIG22 Neuroscience and Education conference will take place from Monday 4th to Wednesday 6th June 2018, in central London hosted by the Wellcome Trust.
I am very excited to be on the organising committee for this conference, and we have a really exciting programme planned. Keynotes include Paul Howard-Jones, Heidi Johansen-Berg, and Robert Plomin. We have also planned plenty of time for discussion of new ideas and issues in the field.
We have just opened up abstract submission for poster presentations, which will be open until 8th January 2018.
Find out more about the call for abstracts and the conference here.
"Neuroscience for Teachers provides a comprehensive, up-to-date introduction to the key issues, debates, challenges, methods and research findings in the field of educational neuroscience. It is written accessibly and contains everything that a teacher needs to know about neuroscience, describing where this knowledge comes from. Most fascinating are the tips given to teachers, which are very clearly drawn from the evidence base as it currently stands. This has the added bonus of making Neuroscience for Teachers a useful resource for researchers who carry out related work but may be stumped when considering how their work impacts upon education.
Whether the reader is a teacher or a scientist, they will come away with a deep understanding of the educational neuroscience knowledge base, how we got there, and how we might use this information in the classroom."
I'm really excited to have the first of a mini series of blog posts published on the BOLD website. BOLD is the Blog On Learning and Development. In the mini series I will be posting about evidence in the classroom, and the first post is a short introduction to educational neuroscience. I really enjoyed writing the post and found it quite an eye-opening experience - I realised shortly after I started writing that I was defining educational neuroscience almost entirely by defending it from common criticisms. This must be a habit I've got into since it is so widely criticised. I managed to start again and re-write it in a much more positive way, so I hope my enthusiasm for the field comes across!
You can read the first post on educational neuroscience here.
My second post, on neuromyths, can be read here.
My third post is about randomised control trials in education, and can be read here.
Previous posts in this series considered the differences between
process- and strategy-based training, and what success might look like in a
training study. Another key design feature to think about is the inclusion of an
adequate control group. Including a control group seems obvious, since we need
to make sure that gains are linked to the training rather than to normal
development. But designing a study with a good control is challenging.
A control group might be matched to the training group on key
characteristics, such as general cognitive ability and age, only differing in
that they do not receive the training – a ‘business as usual’ control. While
this seems like a sensible option, it is important to consider what the control
is doing while the other group receives training. Is the control group doing
normal reading practice while the training group get their reading
intervention? Or perhaps the training group is receiving extra reading help
while the control group have already left school for the day. This is clearly
an important distinction that will affect the conclusions that can be drawn
from the results.
One way to counter these challenges is to include an active control
group. In this scenario, the control group is again matched on key
characteristics to the training group. However, the control group also receive
some training, just not in the skill that is trying to be developed. In this
case, the control group could be given something very different to the reading training
group, like a maths intervention, both taking place after school so as not to
interfere with normal schooling. This would mean that any gains seen in the reading
training group cannot be down to the effect of simply taking part in a piece of
research, which might involve working on fun computer programmes or with
researchers and cause a spike in engagement at school.
But is this a fair comparison? Is it very surprising if pupils improve
their reading skills after doing some more reading? If we really want to find
out what causes the change, we need an even closer match for the control group –
for example a similar reading intervention that does not train the key
ingredient that is thought to lead to improvement (e.g. phonics). Now if we see
an improvement in the training group, we can be fairly sure that there is
something special about the phonics training that led to gains.
The use of different types of control group is associated with
recruitment challenges that should also be taken into account. Unsurprisingly,
many teachers and parents are opposed to their children being put into the control
group, which can mean that fewer pupils sign up to take part. One clever way
around this is to use a cross-over ‘wait list’ control group, where half of the
pupils are in the training group and half are in the control group for one
phase of the study, then they switch for the second phase. Everyone receives
the training at some point, and it is still possible to compare training to
A final option is to include no control group. This might be appropriate
when the aim is to see which individuals respond best to the training. For instance,
do those with better working memory improve more with phonics training than
those with poorer working memory? To answer this question, a group with a large
variation in working memory skills could take part, with no control group. In
this example, the outcome will be able to tell us something useful about the
mechanisms of learning in the absence of a control group.
There is no single right answer when it comes to choosing what the control
group does. This will vary between studies and should be thought about very
carefully before commencing the study, depending on what the research question
Part one on types of cognitive training can be found here, and part two
on success in cognitive training can be found here.
Last week I was at a large conference of over 2,000 delegates. While I was there, an article was published in the Guardian, lamenting the huge expense and exclusivity of such conferences, which can be too costly for early career researchers to attend. I was lucky enough to have my trip paid for, but I wondered how many people were unable to attend due to finances, or how many people had forked out their own money to be there.
The Guardian article, written by two academics, highlighted the increasingly extravagant social programmes. If social events are included in the cost of the conference, researchers may wonder why their registration fee was not better spent elsewhere. On the other hand, if the social event is an added extra that is paid for, those with less money (due to any number of factors, including being an early career researcher, or from a poorer country) may opt out and miss important opportunities for networking.
The article also questioned whether or not conferences really deliver what they intend to. A survey of delegates at conferences in the water sector found that only 2% found conferences useful and cost-effective. So even when researchers can afford to get to a big conference, is it worth the effort and expense? Last week I found myself wondering what the added value was of attending conference talks compared to reading the latest papers.
I think there are a number of things that can be done to improve these international conferences. Keynote speakers often get their expenses paid, yet they are typically not the ones who are most in need of financial help. Keynote speakers who have access to conference funds could be encouraged to pay towards their own expenses, so that money can be directed more towards those in need.
Conferences could offer more in the way of online engagement to reach those who are not present. Conference tweeting is now very common, but this can be hard to follow from afar, so a move towards more formal online discussions, and video streaming, would be welcomed. Conferences could take place less regularly, particularly when there are many conferences that overlap in their themes. Within my field of research, educational neuroscience, there have been discussions about whether or not societies that typically hold separate conferences could run a joint event. This way, delegates would not have to choose which conference to attend in a given year.
Finally, conferences should aim to be better value for money. Researchers often attend a conference for a few days, and present just one talk or one poster. Multiple submissions could be encouraged, particularly to encourage early career researchers to discuss their ideas. Many conferences only allow submissions from those who have results at the time of submission. This excludes work that is finalised during the intervening months, and prevents discussion of new project ideas that are not yet underway. Opening up discussions to proposed work, which will most likely require different formats of conference session, would enable peers to help shape future research.
I will continue thinking about these issues over the coming months, as I am co-organising an upcoming conference. My aim is to encourage early career researchers to become more involved, and to provide settings for discussions of issues and ideas outside of the usual talk and questions format. While it is implied that these discussions will happen during coffee breaks and social events, I believe that these discussions should take a prominent role in conferences. The expertise present should be capitalised on so that researchers can work together to consider how best to address issues and move the research field forward.
I am working with researchers at the UCL Institute of Education, The University of Sheffield, and The University of Nottingham on a project looking at the skills involved in learning science in primary school. We are interested in finding out the views of primary school teachers on this topic. If you are a primary school teacher in the UK please fill in our short survey about this by going to this link. The study has received ethical approval from the UCL Institute of Education (ethics number REC 972). Please get in touch with me directly if you have any questions about this survey, by email at email@example.com.