I have no formal training in journalism. The most instruction I ever received came from a two-day science communication course when I was still a hopeful research student in a molecular biology laboratory. The course was a whirlwind tour through the elements of good science writing – avoiding jargon, the value of active sentences, good openers, and so on. I have learned everything else on my own, through seven years of practicing regularly, experimenting with new approaches, and watching what others do well.
That two-day course might seem trivial in the face of everything that’s happened since. But it exemplifies what I have always found to be the most effective style of teaching. It left me enthused enough to go off and explore on my own, and it provided just enough instruction that I could do so from a running start. It launched a run of exploration, learning and fun. And this experience is relevant a longstanding debate about the best way to teach children, especially very young ones.
It’s a feeling you’ve almost certainly experienced before – the fear of waiting for an exam to start, heart thumping, palms sweating and brow furrowing. You worry about whether you’ve prepared adequately, and about the consequences of failure. So why not write these worries down? Gerardo Ramirez and Sian Beilock have found that students do better in exams if they spend the prior ten minutes writing about their worries. Even better, the most anxious students showed the biggest improvements.
“We also discovered that science is cool and fun because you get to do stuff that no one has ever done before.”
This is the conclusion of a new paper published in Biology Letters, a high-powered journal from the UK’s prestigious Royal Society. If its tone seems unusual, that’s because its authors are children from Blackawton Primary School in Devon, England. Aged between 8 and 10, the 25 children have just become the youngest scientists to ever be published in a Royal Society journal.
Their paper, based on fieldwork carried out in a local churchyard, describes how bumblebees can learn which flowers to forage from with more flexibility than anyone had thought. It’s the culmination of a project called ‘i, scientist’, designed to get students to actually carry out scientific research themselves. The kids received some support from Beau Lotto, a neuroscientist at UCL, and David Strudwick, Blackawton’s head teacher. But the work is all their own.
The class (including Lotto’s son, Misha) came up with their own questions, devised hypotheses, designed experiments, and analysed data. They wrote the paper themselves (except for the abstract), and they drew all the figures with colouring pencils.
It’s a refreshing approach to science education, in that it actually involves doing science. The practical sessions in modern classrooms are a poor substitute; they might allow students to get their hands dirty, but they are a long way from true experiments. Their answers are already known and they do nothing to simulate the process of curiosity and discovery that lie at the heart of science. That’s not the case here. As the children write, “This experiment is important, because no one in history (including adults) has done this experiment before.” Read More
Schools are a breeding ground for both intelligent young minds and virulent diseases. Andrew Conlan from the University of Cambridge has found a way to unite both. Conlan is interested in mathematically modelling the spread of infectious diseases. Between 2007 and 2009, he tried to instil the same interests in schoolchildren, while turning them into research assistants.
His work was part of the Motivate Project, a programme that provided educational resources to schools to show them how maths relates to real life and topical issues. People like Conlan were a key part of the project. They took part in videoconferences with students from several schools, who had the chance to interact with working mathematicians and share ideas with one another. Similar outreach projects are taking place throughout the world but Conlan’s work went above and beyond, going from outreach to actual research.
Genetic studies suggest that genes have a big influence on a child’s reading ability. Twins, for example, tend to share similar reading skills regardless of whether they share the same teacher. On the other hand, other studies have found that the quality of teaching that a child receives also has a big impact on their fluency with the written word. How can we make sense of these apparently conflicting results? Which is more important for a child’s ability to read: the genes they inherit from their parents, or the quality of the teaching they receive?
According to a new study, the answer, perhaps unsurprisingly, is both. Genes do have a strong effect on a child’s reading ability, but good teaching is vital for helping them to realise that potential. In classes with poor teachers, all the kids suffer regardless of the innate abilities bestowed by their genes. In classes with excellent teachers, the true variation between the children becomes clearer and their genetic differences come to the fore. Only with good teaching do children with the greatest natural abilities reach their true potential.
This study demonstrates yet again how tired the “nature versus nurture” debate is. As I wrote about recently in New Scientist, nature and nurture are not conflicting forces, but partners that work together to influence our behaviour.
This latest choreography of genes and environment was decoded by Jeanette Taylor from Florida State University. She studied over 800 pairs of Florida twins in the first and second grades. Of the pairs, 280 are identical twins who share 100% of their DNA, and 526 are non-identical twins who share just 50% of their DNA. These twin studies are commonly used to understand the genetic influences of behaviour. If a trait is strongly affected by genes, then the variation in that trait should be less pronounced in the identical twins than the non-identical ones.
I grew up in the days of the SNES and the Sega Megadrive. Even then, furious debates would rage about the harm (or lack thereof) that video games would inflict on growing children. A few decades later, little has changed. The debate still rages, fuelled more by the wisdom of repugnance than by data. With little regard for any actual evidence, pundits like Baroness Susan Greenfield, former Director of the Royal Institution, claim that video games negatively “rewire” our brains, infantilising us, depriving us of our very identities and even instigating the financial crisis.
Of course, the fact that video games are irrationally vilified doesn’t mean that they are automatically harmless. There’s still a need for decent studies that assess their impact on behaviour. One such study has emerged from Denison University, where Robert Weis and Brittany Cerankosky have tested what happens when you give young boys, aged 6-9, a new video game system.
They found that after 4 months, boys who had received the games had lower reading and writing scores than expected, failing to improve to the same degree as their console-less peers. They also faced more academic problems at school. At first this might seem like support for the rewired brains of Greenfield’s editorials, but the reality is much simpler – the games were displacing other after-school academic activities. While some children were finishing their homework or reading bedtime stories, those with games were mashing buttons.
There is much to like about Weis and Cerankosky’s study. For a start, it is a randomised controlled trial (RCT), one of the most reliable ways of finding out if something is truly causing a specific effect. Indeed, it is the first such trial looking into the effects of video games on the academic abilities and behaviour of young boys.
History has had no shortage of outstanding female mathematicians, from Hypatia of Alexandria to Ada Lovelace, and yet no woman has ever won the Fields medal – the Nobel prize of the maths world. The fact that men outnumber women in the highest echelons of mathematics (as in science, technology and engineering) has always been controversial, particularly for the persistent notion that this disparity is down to an innate biological advantage.
Now, two professors from the University of Wisconsin – Janet Hyde and Janet Mertz – have reviewed the strong evidence that at least in maths, the gender gap is down to social and cultural factors that can help or hinder women from pursuing the skills needed to master mathematics.
The duo of Janets have published a review that tackles the issue from three different angles. They considered the presence of outstanding female mathematicians. Looking beyond individuals, they found that gender differences in maths performance don’t really exist in the general population, with girls now performing as well as boys in standardised tests. Among the mathematically talented, a gender gap is more apparent but it is closing fast in many countries and non-existent in others. And tellingly, the size of the gap strongly depends on how equally the two sexes are treated.
In American high schools, black students typically perform worse than their white peers, which can damage their self-esteem and their future prospects. Studies have found that the fear of living up to this underachieving stereotype can cause so much stress that a child’s performance suffers. Their teachers may even write them off as lost causes, and spend less time on them.
With so many students caught in this vicious cycle, where the stereotype of poor performance strengthens itself, it might seem absurd to suggest that you could turn things round in less than an hour. But try telling that to Geoffrey Cohen from the University of Colorado.
In 2007, he showed that a simple 15-minute writing exercise at the start of a school year could boost the grades of black students by the end of the semester. The assignment was designed to boost the student’s sense of self-worth, and in doing so, it helped to narrow the typical performance gap that would normally separate them from white students. Now, Cohen returns with a new report of the same experiment two years on.
Things are still looking good. Even though two years have passed, the students are still feeling the benefits of those precious exercises. With the help of a couple of booster sessions, they still felt more confident about their chances of success, their grade point averages had increased (particularly among the weakest students), and the proportion who had to repeat a grade was two-thirds lower.
Cohen originally asked a group of white and black seventh-graders to write about a topic that they felt was important – from having good friends, to sense of humour, to musical ability – and why it mattered to them. The idea was to encourage the students to affirm their own abilities and their integrity, as a sort of psychological vaccine against the negative effects of stereotypes. As a control, a second group of students had to write about something they felt was not important, and why it mattered to someone else. Teachers, incidentally, were never told which student was completing which assignment and they were largely kept in the dark about the exercises and the aims of the experiments.
On Tuesday, I wrote a short essay on the rightful place of science in our society. As part of it, I argued that scientific knowledge is distinct from the scientific method – the latter gives people the tools with which to acquire the former. I also briefly argued that modern science education (at least in the UK) focuses too much on the knowledge and too little on the method. It is so blindsided by checklists of facts that it fails to instil the inquisitiveness, scepticism, critical thinking and respect for evidence that good science entails. Simply inhaling pieces of information won’t get the job done.
This assertion is beautifully supported by a simple new study that compared the performance of physics students in the USA and China. It was led by Lei Bao from Ohio State University who wanted to see if a student’s scientific reasoning skills were affected by their degree of scientific knowledge. Does filling young heads with facts and figures lead to a matching growth in their critical faculties?
Fortunately for Bao and his team of international researchers, a ready-made natural experiment had already been set up for them, in the education systems of China and the US. Both countries have very different science curricula leading to different levels of knowledge, but neither one explicitly teaches scientific reasoning in its schools. If greater knowledge leads to sharper reasoning, students from one country should have the edge in both areas. But that wasn’t the case.
You all know the score. A train leaves one city travelling at 35 miles per hour and another races toward it at 25 miles an hour from a city 60 miles away. How long do they take to meet in the middle? Leaving aside the actual answer of 4 hours (factoring in signalling problems, leaves on the line and a pile-up outside Clapham Junction), these sorts of real-world scenarios are often used as teaching tools to make dreary maths “come alive” in the classroom.
Except they don’t really work. A new study shows that far from easily grasping mathematical concepts, students who are fed a diet of real-world problems fail to apply their knowledge to new situations. Instead, and against all expectations, they were much more likely to transfer their skills if they were taught with abstract rules and symbols.
The use of concrete, real-world examples is a deeply ingrained part of the maths classroom. Its advantages have never really been tested properly, for they appear to be straightforward. Maths is difficult because it is a largely abstract field and is both difficult to learn and to apply in new situations. The solution seems obvious: present students with many familiar examples that illustrate the concepts in question and they can make connections between their existing knowledge and the more difficult concepts they are trying to pick up.
The train problem is a classic example. Another is the teaching of probability with rolls of a die, or by asking people to pick red marbles from a bag containing both blue and red ones. The idea is that, armed with these examples, students will recognise similar problems and apply what they have learned. It’s a technique deeply rooted in common sense, which is probably as good an indicator as any that it might be totally wrong.