The relationship between visual perceptual processing and maths and science at primary school

This is the first in a series of interviews with researchers in Educational Neuroscience, to showcase current work that aims to bridge the gap between science and the classroom.

Go to the profile of Annie Brookman-Byrne
Dec 15, 2016
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First up is Su Morris, a PhD student at the UCL Institute of Education.

Hi Su! Please tell us who you are and what you’re working on at the moment.

Hi Annie! I’m a former primary school teacher, and am currently a PhD student examining the relationship between visual perceptual processing and maths and science at primary school. I am interested in whether a preference for focusing on details (local processing) or the whole of the stimulus (global processing) has an association with science and maths ability. As a teacher, I was always struck by the range of abilities that exist in a single class, and this led me to complete a Masters in Educational Neuroscience as I was keen to learn more about how these individual differences develop. I wanted to continue researching, so I decided to take the next step and apply to do a PhD.

I have recently finished my first data collection, so I will now be analysing the data to address three key research questions:

  • How do children’s local and global processing develop through primary school?
  • How do children’s local and global processing preference, and their ability to switch between the two levels, relate to their science and maths ability?
  • How do children’s local and global processing preference relate to their systemizing, empathizing, and autistic traits?

What got you interested in researching local and global processing, and what do you think the real-world implications might be?

Maths and science are so important, and they were my favourite subjects to teach at school, so it was natural that I would focus on something related to science and maths. I had encountered research that suggested there was a relationship between global and local processing and success in maths, however the association hadn’t been fully explored. I therefore was keen to examine the relationships.

I am still in the early stage of my research, but if there is an association between focusing on the details and success in science and maths, this could have practical applications for perhaps training children to notice details. It could also have implications in the way information or questions are presented to the children.

Is there anything that teachers, parents or students can use from your field right now in their teaching and learning?

I think that currently the evidence is not strong enough to act upon yet.

What direction do you think your future work in this area might take?

I have just completed my first round of data collection, where 135 children from years 1, 3 and 5 (ages 5-10) completed 17 activities. In addition, parents were asked to complete a questionnaire. This initial exploration into the relationships will then guide my future research.

In my next study, I plan to carry out an eye tracking investigation to assess whether differences in looking patterns associate with differences in performance in science and maths, and with global and local measures.

My initial study included science and maths measures which required a single response, but no explanation of the thought process that led to that answer. I would therefore like to investigate whether more abstract or concrete thinking has an impact on science and maths success, and how this relates to global and local processing.

Once I have a better understanding of the relationships, I will be looking to suggest practical applications, as I believe that this is an integral and important part of research in the field of educational neuroscience.

Go to the profile of Annie Brookman-Byrne

Annie Brookman-Byrne

PhD student, Birkbeck, University of London

I use a range of methods to try to understand the cognitive and neural bases of science and maths reasoning in adolescence. In particular, I am currently researching the theory that old knowledge or misleading perceptual cues must be inhibited in order to correctly answer counter-intuitive science and maths problems.

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