Tuesday, 15 November 2016

The future of STEM education and current best practices

MARCH (MAke science Real in sCHools) is a network of European partners aiming to share innovations and best practices in secondary STEM education. On 15th November 2016 MARCH held an international conference in London to talk about the future of STEM education and to showcase current best practices.

I attended the conference to broaden my understanding of issues relating to education - as an educational neuroscientist I often feel like I should be an expert in psychology, neuroscience, and education! I feel very comfortable at psychology conferences (as my background is predominantly in psychology) but neuroscience and education conferences can sometimes take me out of my comfort zone. Since this conference was about STEM education it was perfect for me as my research concerns science and maths reasoning. Throughout the day I noticed three recurring themes, which I will explore here.

The context of many discussions was that there are STEM jobs that need filling and will continue to need filling in the future, yet there is low uptake of these subjects in late secondary school and university. It seems that young people do not aspire to be scientists. This is despite high ratings of interest in STEM subjects. Theme number one is therefore that links need to be made between STEM education at school and STEM careers. If pupils are enjoying STEM subjects but not wanting to follow these careers, it suggests that they have not received adequate careers advice. Indeed one speaker said that many pupils say they want to be managers - but they don't appreciate that a good way to become a manager is to be a scientist or engineer. Making explicit links between classroom STEM and STEM careers could increase uptake of these subjects at a higher level.

One way of making this link is through direct communication with scientists. During the conference we heard about I'm A Scientist, Get me out of here, an online forum for students to ask questions of scientists. This has been hugely successful in the UK, and is now running in many other countries, enabling pupils to see scientists as normal people, and to get a realistic idea of what their jobs entail. Theme number two is communication between schools and scientists. Educators in the audience wondered how they could find scientists to come and speak to pupils in person. As a researcher, I often meet the parallel problem of not knowing how to contact teachers that might be interested in being involved in research. Means of contact between schools and scientists are starting to appear but this is an ongoing struggle. One that has been around for a while in the UK is the STEM Ambassador programme: schools can request scientists to come and speak to pupils. A newer initiative is Speakezee where schools (or other organisations) can browse profiles of potential speakers and invite them to speak at their event. Something that works in the other direction - providing researchers with an opportunity to find willing teachers - would be excellent! As far as I know such a platform doesn't yet exist.

In terms of the future of STEM education, a common hope of speakers was that teaching and learning would move towards a problem-based approach that covers many subjects. Theme number three is therefore interdisciplinary learning. Although the building blocks of education will need to stay the same - subjects such as maths, English and history will continue to be taught - the manner in which they are taught is hoped to take a more interdisciplinary approach. Teaching according to problems that span school subjects might help pupils to see how STEM is relevant to everyday problems and to consider it within a broader context. One way of enabling this is to bring learning experiences outside of the classroom. While this sometimes happens in schools, the suggestion was to increase the regularity of these experiences and to show how they are more than just occasional treats for pupils, but valuable learning opportunities.

Linking STEM education to careers, encouraging communication between schools and scientists, and taking an interdisciplinary approach to teaching are all actions that can be taken to try to improve learning but also to encourage pupils to consider STEM careers.

Follow the hashtag to read tweets from the day: #EuroSTEM

Monday, 7 November 2016

Training of mathematics-related cognitive skills in adolescence

An exciting new paper by Lisa Knoll, Delia Fuhrmann, and colleagues from UCL, has just been published. The aim of the study was to look for sensitive periods in adolescence for training cognitive skills related to mathematics, a departure from much of the literature which focuses on early years training.

A total of 633 participants aged 11 to 33 years took part in one of three training groups, each of which provided 20 days of online training of a specific skill. The numerosity discrimination group were trained on the ability to quickly compare the numbers of dots in two sets. The relational reasoning group were trained on the ability to find patterns in relationships between shapes. Since brain areas involved in these tasks continue developing throughout adolescence, and performance in these tasks improves throughout adolescence, they might be good targets for intervention, so as to enhance the development of these skills. They are also known to be involved in mathematics ability, making the findings of potential relevance to education. The final training group was trained on the ability to process changes in faces. The cognitive and neural mechanisms of face processing are different to those involved in the other skills trained here, plus face processing is not involved in mathematics. Therefore this is the control group, and no transfer effects were expected between face processing and the other abilities.

There is some debate about what constitutes a good control group. Sometimes we want to see if the training is better than "business as usual", in which case we'd want a control group where no training took place. On the other hand, we want to make sure any training effects seen are specific to the task rather than due to simply being involved in a training programme. An active control group like the one in this study, means that any differences between the training groups and control group cannot be down to participation in an online training study, which might be novel and exciting for adolescents.

The researchers were looking for three main things: overall effects of training for the different groups, age effects of training where different aged participants might respond differently to training, and transfer effects where untrained tasks might show effects of training too. Transfer effects are notoriously difficult to find, and it is often only closely related tasks that show any transfer. In order to measure all of these effects, a pre-test, post-test (after training and 3-7 weeks after pre-test), and follow up test (3-9 months after post-test) was given to each participant.

The training itself consisted of 20 days of online training, where each day no more than 12 minutes was spent training. For the adolescents, this took place during normal classroom time.
The first finding of interest was that performance improved on the trained task following the training, and the extent of improvement differed across groups. The numerosity discrimination group saw improvements at post-test that were not sustained at follow up, and the gain seemed to be driven by the adult participants. The relational reasoning group showed improvements compared to pre-test at both post-test and follow up. Further, the improvements in this group were greater than in the other groups. Those who received face perception training also improved at post-test, but not at follow up, and when controlling for confounds this effect was no longer statistically significant.

To examine age effects, the groups were split into younger adolescents (11-13 years), mid-adolescents (13-15 years), older adolescents (15-18 years) and adults (18-33 years). The analysis of age group effects showed that it was only older adolescents and adults who improved in numerosity discrimination at post-test, although this was no longer statistically significant when confounds were included in the analysis. The relational reasoning training elicited improvements in all age groups at post-test and follow up, and these effects were stronger for older adolescents and adults than younger and mid-adolescents. Age group did not moderate the effect of face perception training.

Finally, there was no evidence of any transfer effects. This is unsurprising given the literature. Here, the authors suggest that investigating a broader range of tasks, both similar and dissimilar, might show some degree of transfer. If we are considering the relevance to education, transfer is of critical importance. Since we know that numerosity discrimination is related to mathematics, it would be really interesting to know whether the training did have an impact of mathematics ability. Previous research suggests that this is unlikely. However, this doesn't mean that cognitive training is necessarily a fruitless task. Research in this field is moving in the direction of creating training programmes within the subject domain. Rather than simply training the underlying cognitive skill, it might be crucial to show learners how the skill, say relational reasoning, is important for mathematics, and to practise it within the context. One theory is that we do not see transfer of improved skills because although students have the skill, they just aren't aware they should be using it in this setting.

This research shows us that we can train the cognitive skill, with improvements, and here the biggest gains are in relational reasoning. The next step is to integrate this into a programme targeting the particular subject where we want to see improved performance. A particularly exciting aspect of this paper is that it is shows a sensitive period for improvement in these skills during late adolescence, a developmental period that is rarely considered in similar studies. This means that adolescence is an important time for education, and late adolescence in particular might be a good time for such targeted interventions.


The full text of the original research paper can be viewed freely here.

Full reference: Knoll, L. J., Fuhrmann, D., Sakhardande, A. L., Stamp, F., Speekenbrink, M., & Blakemore, S.-J. (2016). A Window of Opportunity for Cognitive Training in Adolescence. Psychological Science, 27, 1620-1631.

This blog post first appeared on npj Science of Learning.