Friday, January 10, 2014

Neuroscience in British education

"These methods need to be investigated thoroughly to dispel the ‘myths’ surrounding practices that may or may not have educational value"

Visual, auditory or kinaesthetic; there’s a high likelihood that, as a student, you may have been labelled as a particular kind of learner. A student who learns best when presented with educational material in a particular format.

However, according to a recent report from the Wellcome Trust, there is little scientific evidence to suggest that this form of intervention in the classroom is beneficial to students; with some suggesting it could be detrimental.

Despite this, 76 per cent of teachers surveyed by both online community, Schoolzone, and the Wellcome Trust, say they currently use Learning Styles in their work, with 68 per cent of respondents reporting that they initially came across the method through working in a school, rather than through academic or scientific journals.

The surveys, commissioned by the Trust, sought to explore how neuroscience is affecting education and learning by noting the methods used by teachers within a classroom environment.

The report revealed that, overall, more than nine out of ten teacher respondents say neuroscience influences their teaching, yet, it has been shown that many of the techniques these teachers reported using, such as Brain Gym, have little in the way of proven effective results through systematic testing.

As a consequence of this report, the Wellcome Trust and the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), yesterday launched a £6 million Education and Neuroscience fund to develop evidence-based practices for use in a classroom setting and to test those methods, such as Learning Styles, which are regularly used in schools.

The fund aims to bring together educators and neuroscientists in the first project of its kind to take place on this scale.

Dr Hilary Leevers, Head of Education and Learning at the Wellcome Trust says: “Neuroscience is an exciting field that holds a great deal of promise both for understanding how our brains work and, through application, for improving how we learn and perform.

“From our surveys we found that many teachers mentioned using certain practices including Learning Styles, mnemonics, mindmaps and Brain Gym. These ideas are being implemented and are very appealing, but teachers aren’t being provided with the evidence that these practices work.

“In fact, if you look at educational practice in general, there isn’t a history of requiring the sort of evidence that you would, for example, in medicine. This is one of the aims that the Education Endowment Foundation is trying to achieve.”

The fund is open to collaborations across the UK, while the interventions themselves have to be tested in UK schools and should have the ability to be applied in a classroom setting.

Sir Peter Lampl, Chair of the Education Endowment Foundation and the Sutton Trust, said: “Improving our understanding of how the brain works will deepen our understanding of how pupils learn.

“Knowing the impact of neuroscience in the classroom will also make it easier to spot the plausible sounding fads and fakes, which don’t improve standards. This is essential if we are to increase the attainment of pupils, particularly those from low-income families.”

One such investigation that Dr Leevers hopes will come out of the fund is based on the idea that you can improve the state of brain arousal and activity to improve readiness to learn. This technique, known as ‘biofeedback’, is currently only used by 1 per cent of the 1,200 teachers who took part in the two surveys last year.

“You can train people quite efficiently by giving them a visualisation of their level of brain activity,” says Dr Leevers. “This has yet to be trialled across different groups of children, or at scale, but there have been positive elements of its impact, particularly in groups of students with attention problems.”

Further to this particular investigation, other projects could look at the length of lessons, listening to music and whether sleep patterns and starting school later could benefit students, particularly teenagers who experience a delay of around two hours in their sleep/wake cycle as a result of puberty – this theory has already been tested in some schools.

“Most educational practice hasn’t been systematically tested,” says Dr Leevers, who hopes that the fund will provide evidence to show how schools could make the best use of neuroscience; determining the best way for their pupils to learn.

“The only testing has been the implementation of a method in the classroom – but the results haven’t been looked at in depth and evaluated to see which are best and which get the best educational outcomes.”

A report written by Dr Paul Howard-Jones, Reader in Neuroscience and Education at the University of Bristol, further highlights the important of evidence based research saying that enthusiasm from some teachers and schools to adopt interventions with a ‘neuro tag’, mean these methods need to be investigated thoroughly to dispel the ‘myths’ surrounding practices that may or may not have educational value.


Australia:  International Baccalaureate studiers at private school top matriculation best performer

The elephant in the room is that most of the high-scoring students were Chinese.  China has come to Australia in a big way, much to Australia's advantage

Eight International Baccalaureate students at one Sydney private school scored the top ATAR of 99.95 compared to six HSC students at James Ruse Agricultural High School, raising questions about whether the alternative qualification gives students an advantage in university admission.

The diploma, which is not allowed to be taught in NSW public schools, was offered at 15 private schools last year as an alternative to the HSC.

When results were released on Saturday, 11 of the state's 450 IB students, or 2.44 per cent, received the top score of 45, which translates to an Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank of 99.95.

By comparison, 48 out of almost 55,000 ATAR-eligible HSC students achieved the same result, a rate of 0.087 per cent. While the IB students make up a tiny sample of the wider community of school-leavers, the year's results suggest they were 28 times more likely to achieve an ATAR of 99.95.

The president of the Board of Studies, Tom Alegounarias, said the top IB mark would be equivalent to several marks at the top of the ATAR scale for an HSC student.

"And you couldn't reliably differentiate any more specifically than that," he said.

The lowest score for a student who passed the IB translated to a 69.35 ATAR, which was higher than the median ATAR of 69.20 among HSC students.

The IB scores range between 24 and 45 and any score above 33 translated to an ATAR above 90.

The director of information services at the University Admissions Centre, Kim Paino, said the high performance among IB students partly reflected that it was only offered in "private schools of a particular demographic". But she said it would be hard to argue the top-ranked IB student deserved anything other than the top ATAR.

"I mean, that would be quite controversial," she said. "And if there are that many good IB students this year, then good luck to them."

The principal at the MLC School in Burwood, Denice Scala, said her IB students felt more in control of their study because their grades did not depend on ranking or scaling and there was not a limit on how many students could receive the top marks.

"They know, if they get the assessment results that they want, what their ATAR will be," she said. "So there are no surprises."

A third of the school's students chose the IB over the HSC last year and more than 90 per cent of those students achieved a score equivalent to an ATAR above 90. None of the school's HSC students received the top ATAR of 99.95. "We certainly don't choose to do the IB because of the conversion to the ATAR," she said.

"We chose to do the IB because of the fact that it's really rich in what it offers our students."

IB students must study six subjects, as well as a 4000-word research essay, study the theory of knowledge and undertake community service.

MLC School student Emma Williams, who received the top IB score of 45 on Saturday, said the IB "definitely" translated favourably to the ATAR. "I'd say that's probably one of the main advantages of the IB," she said. "If you're prepared to work hard in either course, I would definitely suggest the IB to anyone."


Overseas education crucial to Australian universities

INTERNATIONAL education is Australia's fourth biggest export earner, providing crucial cash flows for universities. But newly released archives reveal a Cabinet power struggle between ministers focused on revenue and those concerned with aid.

International education in Australia began as a post-war overseas aid scheme, with students from the Asia-Pacific region sponsored to study here under the Colombo Program. But by 1987, these students were paying about 45 per cent of the average commercial fees.

Education minister Susan Ryan wanted the payments maintained at that level for the next three years, saying the Overseas Student Charge had risen annually since 1980. "There have been rises of the order of 40 per cent in each of the last two years," Senator Ryan noted in a March 1987 submission.

She advocated "certainty and predictability" in the charge, partly because of the effect "controversy surrounding the charge has on Australia's image as an attractive destination".

Senator Ryan said the charge had reached a "practical ceiling" because it was almost as high as the full fees paid on some commercial courses. "To increase the current level of OSC would bring into question the whole rationale for the subsidised program."

A draft press release included in the submission lauded the overseas student program's benefits in "reinforcing understanding and goodwill and in more firmly establishing Australia as a friendly neighbour in the Asia-Pacific".

But other departments were hostile to the proposal. "It is not apparent that the benefits of the program justify such a large subsidy to overseas students," says a summary of Treasury's views.

"Increases in the OSC to date do not appear to have deterred applications," Treasury noted, adding that it would agree to more enrolments "subject to full fees being levied."

The Department of Foreign Affairs argued for annual increases in the charge until "full cost recovery" was achieved, while the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet said fixing future years' charges constituted "an inflexible constraint on future budgetary planning".

The Expenditure Review Committee said the charge should be lifted to 55 per cent in 1988, 65 per cent in 1989 and 75 per cent in 1990. But this was overridden by Cabinet, which settled on 55 per cent for all three years.

Cabinet also accepted Senator Ryan's recommendation that the annual intake quota be set at 3500 students "provided that aggregate student numbers do not in future years significantly exceed the current level".

Last year there were over 500,000 foreign students in Australia.


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