Saturday 27 October 2012

Neuromyths: ‘A little learning is a dangerous thing’

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.
(Alexander Pope,
An Essay on Criticism)

When I was in my teens (which in my case lasted until I was at least 30), my father, an otherwise kind and gentle man, used to say to me on occasion, shaking his head in disbelief: “Kevin, you might be clever in some things … but you’re bloody thick in others”. (I think it was his use of the word ‘might’ that really got to me; expressing a degree of doubt.) On mature reflection, I suspect that he was often, if not always, right.
Of course, anyone who has spent any time on university committees will know that the most eminent folk, who are certainly ‘clever in some things’, can be remarkably stupid in others. The almost childlike behaviour of some academics is quite extraordinary. So it should come as no surprise that some otherwise smart and accomplished professionals, such as teachers, are capable of espousing the most curious beliefs. But I get ahead of myself …
Over the past twenty or so years, we have seen extraordinary developments in brain imaging technology such that we now have a much clearer and deeper understanding of how the brain works. At the same time, and notwithstanding this amazing progress, we still have much to learn. Perhaps even more importantly, we still have much to learn about how to put this new knowledge about the brain into practical everyday use. This has not stopped, however, a tidal wave of psychologists, educationists and others from wildly speculating about new ‘brain-based learning’. (I leave it to the reader to come up with examples of non-brain-based learning; elbow learning perhaps …?) Seemingly everywhere one looks, there is news of yet another brain-based teaching method. (Sometimes old wine is simply rebottled with a brain-based label.) My Macquarie colleagues Anne Castles and Genevieve McArthur have recently written an excellent opinion piece on this topic (http://tinyurl.com/9eqrnoa), featuring the recently much vaunted Arrowsmith Program, as a prime example.
Alongside this craze for all things brain-based, or ‘neuro’, a smaller movement has arisen, of desperate evidence-based psychologists and educators, seeking to temper enthusiasm with reality and to dispel some of the nonsense spouted by the ‘brainiacs’, also known as ‘neuromyths’. (A less polite term that you might also encounter online is ‘neurobollocks’.) Like zombies, however, neuromyths are extremely hardy and merely providing contrary empirical evidence is rarely sufficient to kill them off. They might pause, briefly, but then they keep on coming. And they breed …
The extent of this problem is revealed in a recent article by Dekker, Lee, Howard-Jones and Jolles, published in Frontiers in Psychology (http://tinyurl.com/8wsjczw) which reports the results of a survey of 242 teachers conducted in the UK and the Netherlands. Over 90% expressed interest in ‘scientific knowledge about the brain’ and 90% were of the view that such knowledge would positively inform their teaching practice. The teachers responded to an online survey that mixed a selection of neuromyths with true statements about the brain. In addition to the collection of background information (about age, sex, level of education etc), they were also asked about their degree of interest in scientific knowledge about the brain and its influence on their teaching, any ‘brain-based’ methods they had encountered in their school, and whether they read popular science magazines or journals, among other questions.
Over 50% of the teachers indicated that they believed in seven of the 15 neuromyths included in the questionnaire. Over 80% expressed belief in the following: “Individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style (e.g., auditory, visual, kinesthetic)”; “Differences in hemispheric dominance (left brain, right brain) can help explain individual differences amongst learners”; and “Short bouts of co-ordination exercises can improve integration of left and right hemispheric brain function”. Over 80% of the British teachers had encountered Brain Gym (specifically) and learning styles (generally) (98%) in their schools.
So far, so bad; but it gets worse, much worse. When the researchers examined the results in more detail, they found that teachers who actually knew more about the brain tended to believe in more neuromyths. Yes, that’s right; the more they knew about the brain, the more neurobollocks they believed! As the authors put it:
“These findings suggest that teachers who are enthusiastic about the possible application of neuroscience findings in the classroom find it difficult to distinguish pseudoscience from scientific facts. Possessing greater general knowledge about the brain does not appear to protect teachers from believing in neuromyths.”
A little learning is, indeed, a dangerous thing, as Pope asserts. Later on, in the same work, he also cautions: ‘Fools rush in where angels fear to tread’. Quite.
Footnote: My thanks to Max Coltheart for the most apposite quotation from Pope.

Tuesday 16 October 2012

Guest post: Tiger by the Tail

The parlous state of ‘Aboriginal education’ was highlighted again with the release of the NSW Auditor General’s report on the failure to meet the ‘closing the gap’ targets. The report also makes the point that there are a good many Indigenous students who can read and write as well as their non-Indigenous peers.  This is something to be celebrated. But, as many have said before, the problem is that the ‘tail’ of underachieving students is very long (and muscular).

Why is lifting the literacy (and numeracy) level of the majority of Indigenous students such an intractable problem?  It is clear that there are instructional issues stemming from the fact that education systems are not necessarily committed to mandating that proven approaches to the teaching of reading be used in their classrooms.  Even if they were, the teacher training institutions do not necessarily turn out teachers who know how to teach reading effectively. This is a problem for all young Australians and it seems to be a matter of ‘luck’ whether you will be taught to read effectively or not in one of the nation’s classrooms. But that is an argument for another day. 

We consistently read that the poorest performing students are Indigenous students who live in remote and very remote areas of our country. Here the likely instructional inadequacies are overlaid by the myriad problems that are inherent in these ‘hard to staff’ areas.  High rates of staff turnover, young and inexperienced staff, weather events (like cyclone Larry), fresh food shortages, vast distances to be travelled, road closures, lack of replacement staff, lack of housing for school staff (and the list goes on), play havoc with delivering consistent and adequate teaching.

It does not take long in a remote community to come to grips with the enormous challenges that exist for anyone with a vision and passion for redressing this dreadful social ill; that generations of young Indigenous Australians are being relegated to lives devoid of the opportunities that are afforded by education.  We are presently failing to provide even a basic education to a sizeable minority of Indigenous students. At times this apparently intractable problem can seem quite overwhelming.

There is a solution to the provision of effective literacy instruction to these struggling students, however.  This comes in the form of the marriage of two forms of instructional technology. When one hears this term, most people think of computer hardware and its applications. But the instructional technology that informs how and what to teach predates the emergence of the information technology that most of us now take for granted. This form of ‘instructional technology’ forms the bedrock of the skills and expertise that special educators bring to the field of generic basic skills teaching.

Direct, systematic and explicit instruction that is evidence-based is what these students need to get on the road to learning success.  But how do we put those who know how to use such effective instructional technology in touch with the most needy students in remote and very remote areas?

With the advent of fast broadband technology (often excellent in these remote areas), and indeed the coming of the National Broadband Network, we are now able to by-pass all of the staffing and resourcing issues that have hampered the delivery of even the most basic schooling for so long.  We now have the means by which a struggling low-progress reader in, say, Aurukun, Coen, or Baniyala in East Arhem Land, can be taught to read directly, explicitly, systematically and intensively every day by a trained tutor or a teacher at the other end of a broadband connection.  An individual program may be delivered in this one-to-one mode thereby meeting the idiosyncratic needs of each student.

We have been trialing such an approach in Multilit and are confident that it can deliver the instruction that these students most urgently need.  The cost of providing such a service is a grain of sand compared to the desert of costs that are required to attract, retain and maintain staff in these remote areas.  All that is required at each end is a computer, a camera and a headset (also reducing some of the problems of ‘white noise’ in a classroom for students with hearing impairment) and a student ready to learn. Moreover, the integrity and fidelity of the instruction can be assured as monitoring such instruction from the ‘hub’ is easily done.

When we first started our work on Cape York in 2004, a skeptical local educator of some stature said to me, “So….. you’re going to catch the tiger by the tail, are you ?”.  I took it as a challenge. Our subsequent years of work on the Cape confirmed that we could in fact get students moving and learning to read using scientific evidence-based methods, such as are employed in our MultiLit programs.  The logistics around the human element of the exercise was the really challenging thing – we knew what to teach, and we did it. The students learned.  We got the results.

Some seven or so years later, we can now see a way of delivering effective and intensive instruction to the large numbers of students who need it. As a society, we will be judged, quite rightly, by our failures not our successes in the years to come. It is time to grab this tiger firmly by the tail.

Dr Robyn Wheldall (Beaman) is an Honorary Fellow of Macquarie University and is a director of MultiLit Pty Ltd. Email: robyn.wheldall@multilit.com

[Thanks to http://www.free-predator-pics.com for image.]

Sunday 14 October 2012

Preparing Pre-school Children for Learning to Read

If we are serious about ensuring that all children learn to read within their first few years of schooling, we should make sure that the basic building blocks of literacy are in place for all children when they begin formal schooling. The research shows clearly that children commencing school with both phonological awareness and well-developed general language skills are far more likely to learn to read easily and quickly. If all children were to receive a program of instruction in these essential pre-requisites in the year prior to commencing school, far fewer children would struggle to learn to read. It would also mean a levelling of the playing field so that all children, regardless of their family background, would be starting to learn to read from a more similar knowledge base. It is currently the case that many children from less advantaged home backgrounds beginning school are already way behind their more advantaged peers in these key pre-literacy skills.
The idea of teaching these skills to pre-school children may sound off-putting to some but there is no reason why these skills may not be taught effectively in an engaging and play-based way that is more appropriate for young children. An effective pre-literacy program for pre-school children should comprise instruction in the two key areas identified by research as the most important pre-requisite skills for learning to read. First, they should be engaged in games and play-based routines that teach systematically the skills of phonological awareness so that children come to school already able to break up words into their component sounds and to manipulate the sounds in words. The second key component is an emphasis on developing good oral language skills more generally, including explicit vocabulary instruction. The best means of achieving this is by structured storybook reading activities where children are encouraged to engage with the story being read, to answer questions about the story and to relate the events in the story to their own lives. A focus on these two prerequisite skill sets provides an excellent foundation for learning to read. This conceptualisation of what constitutes the best preparation for learning to read forms the basis for our new pre-school program, known as PreLit.
PreLit is an early literacy preparation program, designed to be delivered the year before children start formal schooling. It will also prove useful for teaching children who come to school without the necessary prerequisite skills in place. The purpose of the program is to lay the foundations for good phonological awareness and other language skills in young children, to facilitate literacy development in the early school years.  PreLit is particularly focused on improving the learning outcomes for those children considered at potential risk of long-term reading failure but will provide a good grounding in the key prerequisite skills for literacy for all children about to begin school. PreLit instruction is based on the findings of the accumulated research with this age group and will provide early childhood teachers with research-based teaching strategies and an effective model of delivery for the teaching of phonological awareness and oral language.  It is designed to complement a play-based learning environment through brief periods of daily instruction. 

Friday 14 September 2012

Latest NAPLAN Results: No change

             The Summary Report of the results for the 2012 NAPLAN (National Assessment Program – Literacy and numeracy) testing was released today (http://tinyurl.com/99jrreg), focussing on achievement in reading, writing, language conventions (spelling, grammar and punctuation), and numeracy. In brief, the results appear to show little or no change from last year and, more surprisingly, little change compared with 2008 when the first NAPLAN testing was carried out (the ‘base NAPLAN year’).
            Because I am currently particularly interested in literacy learning in the early school years, I’ll focus mainly on the results for reading in Year 3. I’ll also focus primarily on the results for New South Wales (NSW) because that is the state in which I live. The interesting comparison data are reported from page 28. Moreover, statistical significance testing of differences is also provided, comparing 2008 with 2012 results and also comparing 2011 with 2012. Using the available information, we can also calculate rough effect sizes (which are not given) from the information provided. (Note that these can only be approximations because we do not have access to the raw scores for each child.)When we are dealing with huge sample sizes, as we are here (close to the whole population, in fact) even very small, trivial differences can show up as being statistically significant. But by calculating the effect size, we can gain an indication of whether the differences are worth bothering about or not.
            If we look, for example, at the achievement scores for reading for Year 3 in NSW for 2008 and 2012, the mean (average) score rose from 412.3 to 425.7, an increase of 13.4 points, a difference which was statistically significant. The rough effect size, however, was about 0.17 at best, which is very small; so small, in fact, that it is regarded as barely having an effect at all. Researchers tend to regard an effect size of 0.2 as being the lowest value to count even as ‘small’. To put this in perspective, John Hattie, in his book Visible Learning, argues that an effect size of 0.4 is what he calls the 'hinge' value, meaning that this is the point at which interventions become worthwhile.
            The results Australia wide for Year 3 reading were similar with an effect size of about 0.22. Queensland recorded the biggest improvement with an effect size of about 0.44, above Hattie’s ‘hinge’ and well worth the effort. In this case the effort is likely to have been the additional prep/kindy year of schooling introduced by Queensland in 2008. 2011 was the first year that Queensland children in Year 3 were in their fourth year of schooling, when they took the test, as Year 3 children are in the other states. (The difference between 2011 and 2012 results, although significant, is negligible with an effect size of 0.1, confirming that the big increase was between the years 2008 and 2011.)
            The results for reading in Year 5 show very little change occurring over the years. Although some differences are statistically significant, the rough effect sizes are very small.
            So what does this tell us in broad terms? It tells us that generally there has been no major improvement in reading performance over the years 2008 to 2012 for children in Years 3 and 5. There is one important proviso, however, and that is the assumption that the annual tests are truly comparable year to year, as we are assured is the case. If they were found to be not truly comparable, we could draw no conclusions at all.