Modsu: Good evening everyone. We’ll start in about 5 minutes, but meanwhile, perhaps we could introduce ourselves and share what sort of work we’re involved in? 🙂
aglover: Hi my name is Andrea. I am training as a specialist dyslexia teacher.
Modsu: That sounds interesting – are you doing a course alongside teaching? How are you finding the training so far?
aglover: It’s quite demanding but really interesting. I love finding out about current research in particular. I am supply teaching and tutoring alongside.
Camilla: Hi, I look at what factors influence the development of mathematical skills in children and adults.
Modsu: What sort of factors in particular that you have found to influence mathematical development? And do they influence all types of maths equally?
Camilla: There are a really wide range of factors that influence mathematical development including general thinking skills (such as memory, attention), language and attitudes to mathematics.
Abena: Good evening. I’m Abena, a secondary teacher starting a psychology conversion course in September. Self study at the moment through Coursera and Saylor (research methods and psychology).
Emma: Possibly not for here, but I teach the undergrad research methods course at Birkbeck.
Abena: I wanted to do that course! (But unfortunately can only do distance so it wasn’t an option for me.)
Kathryn: I hope you are looking forward to your conversion programme. I did one at Royal Holloway and it led me directly to individual differences research and behavioural genetics. I loved it and hope you will too.
Jacob: Hi, I study how individual differences in basic sensory and cognitive capacities account for between learning behaviours, with a particular focus on number/numeracy.
Modsu: That sounds very interesting. What sort of sensory and cognitive capacities are you particularly interested in?
Jacob: Sensitivity to simple perceptual groupings, and understanding how that relates to our sense of “sets” in terms of understanding numbers.
Emma: Research wise, I’m interested in how we differ genetically, and what impact this has on development (particularly educationally relevant traits)
Abena: I’m learning about the role of memory in learning so if anyone has interesting points on that, I’d love to hear them. Do you have any info on how memory differs between individuals? Without brain damage, is there huge variance in potential?
Camilla: Yes there is great variation in working memory capacity. Although this develops as children progress through school some estimates suggest that within a typical class there can be the equivalent of a 6 year range in working memory capacity.
Abena: Is this difference more genetic or environmental? And can the gap be closed with the right kind of memory ‘training’?
Camilla: Good questions! I don’t think we have a clear picture at the moment where this difference comes from. But it is most likely to be a combination of genetic and environmental factors. At the moment there isn’t good evidence that working memory training leads to impact on academic skills. Training may help children to get better at doing working memory tests but this doesn’t seem to transfer to achievement in the classroom.
Abena: Wow, that’s totally surprising. I thought with deliberate practice there’d be a definite change. What’s the good news?
Camilla: Yes it is surprising. Some of the early promise of working memory training hasn’t held up in later, larger more rigorous studies.
Abena: But that doesn’t negate guiding students in memory techniques like mnemonics and loci…or does it?
Camilla: A better approach might be to be aware of the working memory demands of different activities and to try and manage these. This might help all children and not just those with smaller working memory (WM) capacity.
Abena: Yes, I’ve been reading a lot about that on Didau’s blog and trying to visualise what that looks like in practice.
Camilla: These type of memory techniques can help, as can providing external memory aids, breaking down multi-step tasks into smaller chunks. It might be particularly important to manage WM demands while introducing new material for example.
Abena: OK. Thanks for that. Have you any other resources for memory that would be of use in the classroom?
Camilla: There’s some great examples and advice from Sue Gathercole here: http://www.mrc-cbu.cam.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/WM-classroom-guide.pdf
Abena: Thank you so much!
aglover: I have been researching on reading comprehension development and was wondering how much of this ability comes from genetics. I read that it is decoding skills that have a greater basis in genetics?
Emma: Individual differences in reading comprehension are (partly) due to genetic differences. Here is a good and recent paper by Steve Petril’s group: http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0113807
Kathryn: I don’t know the reading comprehension research that well so Emma will probably have a better answer but decoding (as in the phonics check) is one of the most heritable of all educational skills. (In fact I see Emma is already on the case).
aglover: With the TEDS study, do you think this leads to a path where we have greater ‘individual difference’ rather than distinct learning disabilities? I read in Koras et al (2007) that ‘abnormal is normal’ – I am just wondering if this means that the distinctions between learning disabilities will become so blurred they will become too hard to define
Kathryn: It depends on the disability you are talking about. So, for reading, maths etc TEDS (and other studies) find that the same genetic and environmental factors influence all abilities. This suggests that a struggling reader or mathematician has a difficulty rather than a disability. However, there are also genetically distinct learning disabilities e.g. Down Syndrome, Rett Syndrome, Williams Syndrome etc.
Emma: Yes the evidence suggests that the lower end is not genetically distinct from the rest of the distribution. But as Kathyrn points, there are severe (and rarer) disorders that have distinct genetic causes. Robert Plomin’s 2009 paper is an excellent summary if you want to learn a bit more about this: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19859063
Kathryn: This is a tricky issue. Saying the abnormal is normal just means that the same genetic and environmental factors can affect, say, both fluent and struggling readers. However, we don’t diagnose difficulties with reading, speech, language etc using genetic tests – we diagnose on the basis of a child’s observed behaviour and there is currently no reason for our understanding of the roots of the problem to change this.
aglover: Thanks. Do you think in the future this will still be the case, or will reading difficulties be picked up before children even learn to read?
Kathryn: I think that observing a child’s behaviour will always be the very best way to identify their strengths and difficulties. Family history can also tell us something useful about risk for learning difficulties. However, I do think that in the future we will also have genetic risk indicators (genomewide polygenic scores) and these may eventually play a role in identifying children (maybe even babies) with a higher probability of learning difficulties than others and could be used as one tool for allocating early intervention.
Modsu: Did you see this blog that was published this week – you might find it of interest – https://bold.expert/precision-education/
Emma: Oh, I will also have a read of that.
aglover: Thank you! Kathryn – I just realised that you did the TES podcast!
Kathryn: Ah, did you find it interesting?
aglover: Thanks again! It’s amazing that I can ask all these questions. Yes, it was extremely interesting and thought-provoking. It did make me think about Gattaca though. I think the role you have with education for the educators about genetics is so important as there are obviously huge implications.
Abena: I agree that it’s completely AMAZING to be able to have access to the scientists like this. REALLY grateful for your time and knowledge.
Kathryn: It is lovely to have the opportunity to talk with teachers in this way. I completely agree about the importance of education for the educators. I have a student who is working on understanding teachers’ perceptions and knowledge in this area with a view to designing some CPD that would be welcomed by the profession. All ideas are welcome!
Abena: Do you know of any such research (into genes) currently happening? Such as implications for records that follow a child through life!
Emma: One of the things genetic researchers are thinking about is the accessibilty of personalised genetic testing.
Abena: You mean accessibility to testing, or results? Also, whether “one of the things genetic researchers are thinking about” is concerned with who accesses, or who can be tested (e.g. costs)
Emma: We are moving towards a scenario where individuals will be able to get a ‘polygenic’ score that has some predictive power at the level of the individual.
[Polygenic score uses genetic information to create a score for a particular characteristic, which can indicate risk or potential for that trait – https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/whats-your-polygenic-score/].
Kathryn: It is an important question. There will be equality and social justice issues to deal with here.
Emma: Yes, exactly! Would this be something that is rolled out at birth (much like we test for severe genetic disorders already with the heel prick test)? And if so, who is gatekeeper to this info, and who would use it? It is also increasingly possible for individuals to generate their own genetic data, which might increase inequality. Lots of important questions to think carefully about.
Kathryn: I agree – we need to tread very carefully here and understand the ethical, legal and psychological implications in full – putting safeguarding in place where necessary. Research is sorely needed.
aglover: Couldn’t early predictions of difficulty have a negative effect though?
Abena: That’s what I wondered, especially if environment plays a (near) equal role.
Kathryn: Definitely. Especially as GPS can only ever suggest a probability of risk i.e. it can’t predict low ability with any certainty because of genotype environment interplay etc. We need to worry about this now and do what is possible to ensure that this sort of information is used to benefit individuals and society rather than to cause harm.
Modsu: What does GPS stand for? 🙂
Kathryn: Sorry – GPS is genomewide polygenic score. We now know that the heritable part of behaviour is explained by many, many genetic variants each of miniscule effect. A GPS combines lots of these variants found to be associated with a behaviour in a single predictor.
Emma: To my mind, early markers/genetic predictors for risk might not necessitate interventions but rather lead to more regular screening to identify any problems as they arise/early.
aglover: In this way, genetic info would become an environmental factor?
Kathryn: Access to the information could be considered a potential environmental influence I guess – as could the responses of others (e.g. parents or teachers) to that information.
aglover: Is this now inevitable?
Kathryn: Progress in this area has been much faster than I anticipated. Just 2 or 3 years ago we were at a stage where Genomewide Association Studies (GWAS) were beginning to detect these genetic variants of small effect. However, work by the Social Sciences and Genetics Association Studies (SSAGC) has moved along insanely quickly and I think GPSs will be available reasonably soon. Who will want them and how they will be used remains unknown but we will see them.
aglover: Thanks- yes that’s really fast. Seems ironic that as schools get bigger and are run more like businesses, the need for personalised learning and knowledge of individuals becomes even greater!
Kathryn: And we see exactly the same patter in medicine.
Abena: Jacob, can you share some of your main findings / research areas and the implications for the classroom? I’m not a math teacher, but I have 3 kids – 3, 8 and 11.
Modsu: Do your children enjoy maths?
Abena: The eldest 2 are fine with it. Not sure I would say ‘enjoy’ but they are competent and get great pleasure from correct answers.
Jacob: Certainly! I think the most relevant finding for classroom learning from my research has been to show the remarkable range of strategies children use to solve simple arithmetic problems within the same grade.
Abena: With some being more effective than others?
Jacob: We found some children in the youngest grade (kindergarten/preparatory) using more sophisticated problem-solving strategies then children in the oldest grade (Year 3), and vice versa. The most effective problem solving strategy for an individual child poses a difficult question.
Abena: Strategies they’d worked out themselves?
Jacob: Yes, mostly spontaneous – but we’re finding that the amount of in class strategy instruction differs worldwide.
Abena: And nationally too? (I know it does in the English classroom for example.)
Jacob: I’m sure this differs from school-to-school, unless strategy instruction is specified in the national curriculum.
Modsu: I think several schools use ‘Rucksack’ to help children think about their approach to problem-solving – have you come across this before? Just trying to remember what it all stands for now! 😉
Jacob: Just looked it up now: Read, Understand, Choose, Solve, Answer and Check.
Modsu: That’s it!! Been a while since I’ve been in a primary school classroom! 😉
Jacob: I hadn’t come across this version before but I’m familiar with similar “meta” problem-solving techniques. While these techniques are likely to be very helpful to learners already capable of coordinating information into a problem-solving approach, I worry that having to remember a higher level of sequences might confound some children?
Modsu: Very likely. I guess it was designed to break a problem into a series of steps which could be followed – so helping them impose a structure and signpost what they need to do.
Jacob: Yes, that seems quite reasonable. Any learning mnemonic that children can take away with them and apply without needing directed instruction is likely to be helpful.
Modsu: Do you have any suggestion as to why problem-solving strategies were less sophisticated in (some of) the older age group?
Jacob: Yes, we found that differences in working memory capacity and ability to coordinate information explained these differences, regardless of age.
Modsu: I see – that makes sense.
Abena: If you had to recommend one book (or other resource) for research methods, which would it be please?
Emma: A good book that will see you through your undergraduate studies is Andy Field’s ‘Discovering Statistics Using SPSS’, which includes instructions how to run analyses using SPSS and how to interpret the output.
Modsu: Excellent book – I have used it A LOT!!
Emma: He has a new book out – ‘An Adventure in Statistics: The Reality Enigma’ that I imagine is also suitable (I’ve not read it. but a colleague thought it was v.good!). If you don’t like his style (I’m not super keen tbh), then ‘Starting out in Methods and Statistics for Psychology’ by Victoria Bourne and ‘Statistics in a Nutshell’ by Sarah Boslaugh are both good.
Abena: Does it matter which edition of Field as huge price difference between (e.g.) 2nd and 5th?
Modsu: I think there are some additional topics in the later versions, but if there is something specific you need and it’s in an earlier version, perhaps that would be ok? I think I have version 4.
Emma: The main difference is with SPSS – SPSS updates regularly, so the instructions may differ on older versions of the text.
Abena: Ah, I see. That would make a big difference then (as a main purpose for getting the book). Thanks.
Modsu: We’re coming towards the end of our live chat. I hope you found it interesting and useful. We’ll have a break from live chats over Easter, but questions can still be posted on the website.
Abena: Very interesting and great to have such a range of participants. Thank you all.
Emma: Thank you for the awesome questions!
aglover: Thankyou so much – this has been really helpful!
Camilla: Thanks for the interesting questions and discussion.
Jacob: Thanks for your questions and detailed responses everyone!
Kathryn: Lovely to talk to you all. Happy Easter!