July 2017 research round-up

Research highlights in learning and education from around the world

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Teachers–researcher collaboration aids professional development

Teachers play a critical role in rolling out evidence-based teaching practices and new curricula. However, they do not always feel comfortable incorporating new material into the classrooms, and often see classroom-based research as an intrusion on learning. Because of poor implementation of new programs, substandard student outcomes can result.

In this study, primary school teachers undertook a week-long professional development (PD) course in which they collaborated with university science education researchers to develop and critique a lesson plan. The teachers were subsequently asked for their views on whether and how the process had helped. Based on their responses, the authors of the article identified three themes of progress spurred by teacher–researcher collaboration: 1) teachers gained a sense of ownership and involvement in the new material; 2) teachers gained more reflective insight into their practices and the rationale behind the changes; 3) teachers gained a better understanding of, and focused more on, classroom dynamics.

The authors suggest that teacher PD, in the form of teacher–researcher collaboration, can help teachers to see the immediate value of classroom-based research, and can even motivate them to become classroom researchers themselves. 

Gutierez SB and Kim, H-B (2017) Becoming teacher-researchers: teachers’ reflections on collaborative professional development. Educational Research DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00131881.2017.1347051

Foreign language learning in infants

In a globalized world, learning a foreign language is advantageous. Moreover, numerous cognitive benefits have been ascribed to learning a second language. In this study, researchers assessed whether a new intervention, based on a model of infant language development, could enhance second language learning relative to current practices.

The researchers carried out their study in Madrid, Spain, where an Infant Bilingual Program exists, consisting of 2 hours per week of English language learning – the teacher reads books, sings nursery rhymes, and introduces English words and phrases. The intervention consisted of daily 1-hour sessions, in which children were taken to a separate class led by native English speaking “tutors” who were not qualified teachers – they were students or graduates of a US university. In these hourly sessions, a number of principles were adhered to: the tutors spoke a high volume of English; used “parentese” or slow, sing-song voices; prioritized social, face-to-face activities; encouraged students to “talk”; and other measures.

The researchers found that compared to the normal Infant Bilingual Program, children who underwent the intervention showed increased amounts of vocalized English, and had improved English comprehension. These changes persisted for at least 18 weeks after the intervention ended. The study shows that the research-based methods used in the intervention produced greater second language learning than current practice.

Ramirez NF and Kuhl P (2017) Bilingual baby: foreign language intervention in Madrid’s infant education centers. Mind, Brain and Education 11(3): 133-143 DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/mbe.12144

Memories reactivated during various stages of sleep

Using EEG (electroencephalography) to measure brain activity during sleep, researchers have found that specific patterns of waking activity are repeated during both rapid eye movement (REM, when most dreaming occurs) and non-REM (NREM) sleep.

In rodents, replay of memory traces during sleep has been shown to help synaptic plasticity. In humans, it was less clear whether spontaneous reactivations of brain activity during sleep actually helped memory, and when during sleep any reactivations might happen. Interestingly, the authors found that even though memory reactivation occurred during both REM and NREM phases of sleep, only reactivations during NREM sleep correlated with memory performance the following day. 

Schönauer M et al. (2017) Decoding material-specific memory reprocessing during sleep in humans. Nature Communications DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/ncomms15404

A gradient of memory in the hippocampus

The hippocampus is crucial in forming and recalling memories. In rodents, this is particularly true for memories concerned with place. What is less understood is whether all hippocampal neurons are the same, or whether their location might determine how active they are during memory formation or recall. In this study, researchers compared neurons within the CA3 region of the hippocampus, looking for systematic differences based on where in CA3 a neuron lies. Furthermore, they wanted to know if – based on these systematic differences – memory recall might preferentially involve particular parts of CA3 hippocampus over others.

The major finding was that the location of a neuron within CA3 did affect how it would be engaged during memory recall. Because of gradients in how excitable CA3 neurons are, and in where they get the majority of their inputs from, memory recall (in this case, a fear-inducing memory) preferentially involved particular CA3 neurons.

Sun Q et al. (2017) Proximodistal heterogeneity of hippocampal CA3 pyramidal neuron intrinsic properties, connectivity, and reactivation during memory recall. Neuron 95(3):656-672.e3 DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ne... 

Alan Woodruff

Community Editor, Queensland Brain Institute