May 2017 research round-up

Research highlights in learning and education from around the world

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Teacher training shapes lesson plan development

Teacher quality consistently ranks as one of the most important contributors to student performance. But what helps a teacher become good? In this study, researchers from the University of Delaware wanted to know whether the content studied in teacher training courses actually ends up shaping how pupils are taught.

To answer this, teachers were asked to develop lesson plans for four mathematics topics: three that were covered in training, and one that wasn’t. For the three topics covered during their pre-service course, teachers developed lesson plans that used the specific content knowledge they had accrued during training. This helped them to explain things like multiplying two-digit whole numbers in terms of concrete models, and enabled them to justify the standard multiplication procedure conceptually. In contrast, for the topic not covered during training, lesson plans developed these key mathematical concepts poorly. The researchers also found that topics covered in more detail during the course were subsequently covered better in teachers’ lesson plans.

In all, the findings show the importance of pre-service courses in developing teachers who structure lesson plans that best benefit learning.

Morris, AK and Hiebert, J (2017) Effect of teacher preparation courses: Do graduates use what they learned to plan mathematics lessons? American Educational Research Journal DOI:10.3102/0002831217695217

How learning to read rewires the brain

By studying 30 illiterate adults from rural India, researchers have shown that learning to read changes the way the brain is wired. At the beginning of the experiment, each of the 30 subjects had their brains scanned using fMRI while they rested, showing the activity of different parts of the brain. Twenty-one of the subjects then underwent six months of training on how to read a Hindi script; the other nine people received no training.

The first finding was that six months of training improved letter recognition and word reading in this adult population. Second, the authors found that visual parts of the brainstem and thalamus became more connected to the visual parts of the cortex – that is, when the subject was resting, these parts of the brain were more likely to be active together. The importance of these early visual pathways in learning to read was not previously appreciated; the authors suggest they are needed when paying attention to precise visual forms – as required when learning to read.

Skeide MA et al. (2017) Learning to read alters cortico-subcortical cross-talk in the visual system of illiterates. Science Advances 3(5): e1602612

Working memory, hiding in plain sight

Working memory plays an important role in life, including classroom learning. Experiments in non-human primates showed that working memory seems to be stored via sustained activity of neurons – the neurons keep signalling even once the stimulus has disappeared. But recent experiments suggest this isn’t the entire picture, and that persistent, post-stimulus activity may not be absolutely necessary.

In this study, researchers from Oxford University use a new technique to show that working memory doesn’t even need brain activity that we can see (with current technology). Instead, information seems to be held in ‘silent states’, which can be brought into the open by flooding the brain with a burst of activity (“pinging the brain”, the authors say, drawing an analogy to sonar signals). While this research shows that working memory can be hiding beneath the surface of brain activity, it doesn’t answer how the information is stored. More studies into how working memory is represented in the brain could one day help in developing interventions for the classroom.

Wolff MJ et al. (2017) Dynamic hidden states underlying working-memory-guided behavior. Nature Neuroscience 20:864-871

The genetics of intelligence

What determines someone’s intelligence? It’s an important question, because intelligence plays a significant part in shaping school and life success. We know that genes are important, since identical twins (with the same DNA) score more similarly than non-identical twins on intelligence tests. Environmental factors like nutrition also play a role.

For this study, researchers did a meta-analysis (a combined analysis of the data from many previously published papers) on the genetic links to intelligence. In total, the study analyzed the DNA from nearly 80,000 people, allowing the authors to find 52 genes linked to intelligence, as well as a host of locations in non-coding regions. They also found that, based on genetic analysis, intelligence was strongly correlated with educational attainment, and moderately correlated with things like head size, height and the presence of autism spectrum disorder. In contrast, genes for intelligence were negatively correlated with those implicated in schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease, and in determining body mass index.

Sniekers S et al. (2017) Genome-wide association meta-analysis of 78,308 individuals identifies new loci and genes influencing human intelligence. Nature Genetics DOI:10.1038/ng.3869

Alan Woodruff

Community Editor, Queensland Brain Institute