An Introduction To Neuroscience Part 1: a Massive Open Online Resource (a MOOR) For Everyone.

We need an open online resource (MOOR) for anyone who wants to know more about neuroscience.  This MOOR would be an introduction to neuroscience for the interested from adolescents to octogenarians, and from teachers to lawyers.  By ‘open’ I mean a resource that builds the introduction just by linking to the best existing resources and sources of information.

For example, An Introduction to Neuroscience MOOR could support teachers and educators generally (including parents).  It would help them recognize false claims, know which issues remain uncertain and have a better understanding of physical and mental health.  Adolescents would be interested too: research on the social brain in adolescence has clear implications for everyone working with teenagers (YouTube talk by Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore) and for teenagers themselves. Our changed understanding of sleep’s impact on health and mental health, and the effect of sleep deprivation in adolescence caused by education start times are equally very important issues. If MOOR users really want to know more, it is possible to refer them to further information at almost any level of detail from organizations such as Brain Facts and PubMed.

What isn’t in doubt is the growing importance of neurological or brain research in understanding human learning and memory.  Scientific understanding of the way people learn is developing very quickly, yet most educators are largely unaware of the rigorous evidence emerging from research in this field. We now are at a turning point, where educators can learn about the best neurological research and apply some specific elements of that research in their teaching.  Understanding key neurological research will let teachers use a greater variety of evidence-based approaches that have been shown to improve learning.  These might include adaptive digital technologies and testing methods that support learners to overcome barriers to learning and improved provision for individuals with specific learning difficulties such as Dyslexia[1] and Dyscalculia[2] .  Better-informed teachers, students and families are more able to take appropriate steps to overcome learning, health and mental health issues in adolescence.

The Royal Society examined the growing importance of neurology in society and its implications for education and life-long learning [3].  Their report had four key recommendations: neuroscience evidence should directly impact on education policy, teacher training, the use of adaptive learning technology, and a knowledge exchange network with teachers and scientists should be established. There are similar calls in academic papers, conferences, university courses, special interest research  groups in America and Europe, special centres, and many scientific organizations.

Yet a simple starting point for learners and educators isn’t there in the same way that MOOCs are there for the dedicated.  There should be such a starting point- whether a MOOR or not – and this would, in part, lessen the demands on scientists to explain, over and over to different audiences, the same starting points.…

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The End Of Teenagers? Part Two: Reflections On The UCL Conference On the Healthy Adolescent Brain

‘Adolescents’ seems a different concept from ‘teenagers’.  Most people associate teenagers with surly, inconsiderate and risky behaviours.  Adolescents on the other hand seems less negative, and especially when combined with the words ‘healthy’ and ‘development’.  It is a difference that is more than different adult attitudes to young people.

The new evidence coming from neuroscientists is that adolescents are still in the process of fundamental nervous system development (see  Jay Giedd’s (NIMH,  his work , his presentation on the adolescent brain and an 2012 paper on sex differences in the human brain).  Few people are up to date with these discoveries and their implication, but this is changing fast. Once they know, the response of most parents is to feel instinctively protective- and so we should feel that way.

This science requires adults to admit they got it wrong about adolescents- in many ways, teenagers are an adult myth. Many of their behaviours are exacerbated by brain development or caused by sleep deprivation imposed by the timing of educational establishments (see this blog’s posts on circadian rhythms).   Looked at in this perspective, the fundamental issue is how to protect adolescents, and what can we change in adult behaviour that will help protect them.

During the UCL event we discussed the issue of risk.  Given that adolescents are more prone to risky behaviours in part because of the nature of their brain development, what are the critical risks?  Here is  a good summary of risks that offers a starting point.  Go to this site and chose 14-19 Western Europe, and explore any of the other risk categories too:

Risk of death in adolescence in Western Europe

Looking at the risk of death in the 14-19 age range, the changes over time are generally positive, though a surprising number are due to potentially avoidable risks.  The improvement (over the last twenty years) is indicated in the % change column particularly in medical issues (Leukaemia, Congenital anomalies, and stroke dropping 40% or more).

Risk-related actions are improving too, except drug use disorders.  Yet 7- possibly 8- of the top 10 causes of death imply risky judgements (Road injury, self-harm, drug use disorders, drowning, interpersonal violence, transport injuries and falls).

Twenty years ago we didn’t know as much about healthy brain development in adolescence, and now we do it seems imperative to tackle risk taking in adolescence.  Of course we can continue to raise awareness,  yet we should go further, tackling the negative impact of school opening times being hour/s too early for adolescents, improving the crowded, noisy and stressful environments within schools, and building better systems to improve health by preventative programmes. Already our children feel under critical scrutiny by peers, teachers and even, at times, social media.  Direct support to de-stress childhood is needed.

Allied to this are the increasing use of drugs to control behaviour and mood in adolescence, when our knowledge of the onset of mental issues now makes clear that adolescence may be the critical period where many of these problems emerge. Recent research suggests that environment factors could be crucial in the emergence of mental health at this time resulting from sequences of environmental issues (Giovanoli et al, 2013) – more simply, the more environmental hits, the greater the risk.

There are many ways we can make adolescent life better, including accepting responsibility for adult behaviour to adolescents whether as parents, schools, organizations or government.  The blight caused by drugs such as alcohol and cigarettes is not beyond our control, sleep deprivation of adolescents is easily solved, reducing stress and improving physical health are achievable, and a relentless commitment to improving this stage in human life is critical in improving their lives and our society.

Besides, healthy adolescent brain development is good for everyone – even adults.…

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New Zealand And China 2 – Education Change in China

One of the major changes in the education world is the rise of the Western Pacific in international studies of student achievement.  This includes New Zealand and China, and in my last blog I considered the ambitious plans of New Zealand. In this one, I consider  education change in China.

China has been rapidly modernizing its cities and industries.  Many big Chinese cities such as Shijiazhuang have streets and buildings that might be seen in almost any part of the world.

In other areas, the more traditional building of China remains in evidence, often less than
100 metres from the high-rise offices, businesses and banks (there seem to be an enormous number of banks in Shijiazhuang and Baoding- more so per kilometer than in Beijing even).  More traditional building can be seen in large areas of Shijiazhuang, though even in those areas there are significant changes.

Within even the most modern areas, the side streets contain shops on the ground floor that offer a chance for small business to exist and grow.  Indeed, it seems to me that these small and medium sized businesses are a realization of the dreams of many Chinese citizens.  Their hours are long, with this shop open from before 8 in the morning until after 10 at night (I never saw it shut), with the whole extended family playing a role.

In this process educational buildings- and education in general- has been, to some extent, left behind.  Now it seems that education is becoming a major area of investment and change.  On one level, the changes are subtle.  Consider these two examples from the same school.

The fundamental difference in the classrooms is the number of people in them.  Chinese schools are, in the main, built for classes of 64- though this varies.  The first image presents a more typical classroom and the second, a new classroom specifically designed for small groups (in this case, for robot construction- a current object of interest for Chinese educators).

The differences between Chinese education and US education are not restricted to class size and buildings of course.   Teachers in China have a very different experience- large classes, yet lots of time.  For example, teachers routinely teach less than 2 lessons a day (there are 8 lessons in most schools).  They have their own part of the school building, with offices and work areas.  They react with horror and disbelief to the teaching loads in New Zealand / UK / US education.

The examination system in China is as brutal as in many other systems, with exams at 15 and 18 determining educational futures with, no doubt, the same weaknesses of most examination systems.  The stress on parents, students and families seems intense with the one child policy making the pressure greater.  An aspiration for many Chinese parents is that their children go to UK and US universities, and that makes the challenges even greater.

The result?  Chinese education is, in some areas, embracing radical
change.  They are taking a distinctive approach, with educational change being based on evidence from other countries and, crucially, large-scale field trials of potential systemic changes.  Consider this gated community of apartments in Shijiazhuang: it looks very much like any other apartment complex in most large cities in China.  Yet within the complex is a radical change in educational buildings- a school embedded within an apartment tower block.


Experimental Primary School, Shijiazhuang

The name of the school is interesting- ‘experimental primary school’, and it is that.  Inside the classrooms vary from traditional schools- they are larger, have specialist rooms for most subjects such as science and technologies, and include many cultural subjects (such as music, calligraphy and pottery).  The model is more like that for a secondary school. Other aspects are clearly primary school strengths: every wall throughout the school only displays children’s work.  There is natural light in every room.  It is exceptionally clean and well maintained.

The teachers are dedicated, or so I gathered from speaking
  to the English teachers.  They love the school and its classes of 40 (though, in due course, the numbers will rise).   They are interested in educational developments,  research and change that will improve learning.  They are proud of the school, and eager to improve. ‘Kathy’, the teacher in the black dress, spent a year in Salt Lake City and her English is exceptionally good.

The Chinese approach to educational change is interesting: high cost, high quality field trials like this one show an ambition to become world leaders in learning.  The Chinese vision is one that seeks to achieve an exceptional step change in their education system. This, to me, seems very like the pattern of economic changes in China 30 years ago that have had such impact.  Already the performance of some school areas in China has changed radically (such as in Hong Kong and Shanghai).

There will be further change. We can expect more educational field trials, more evidence-based change, and – I believe – systemic change in Chinese education.

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