Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Answers to the Developmental Cog Neuro Quiz (and potential policy implications)

The "Guess the Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience Speaker" contest yielded two correct guesses (both Martha Farah for #4) and six incorrect guesses. Basically, the entire exercise was an excuse to feature the eminently quotable soundbytes of Dr. Martha Farah. A leader in the growing field of neuroethics, she directs the Center for Neuroscience & Society at the University of Pennsylvania.

But all our speakers are winners really... The symposium was a smashing success.

Invited Symposium Session 1
The Broader Applicability of Insights from Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience

Chair: Silvia Bunge, UC Berkeley
Speakers: John D. E. Gabrieli, Margaret Sheridan, Martha J. Farah, Helen J. Neville

Finally, here are the answers.......

(1) Martha Farah - “I am not a neurochauvinist”

(2) Sylvia Bunge - “U.S. Prison Experiment”

(3) Helen Neville - “evidence-based politics”

(4) Martha Farah - “IMHO still premature to dictate policy based on neuro”

(5) Martha Farah - “Here's where going ‘neuro’ earns its keep”

(6) Martha Farah - ‘descriptive’ often considered derogatory in science

(7) John Gabrieli - SCHOOLS MATTER!

Dr. Gabrieli's soundbyte was in the context of discussing charter schools, which have a positive impact on standardized test scores (crystallized intelligence) but no effect on fluid intelligence. Another large-scale study identified structural differences in the brains of pre-literate kindergartners that predicted later reading ability. The CNS 2014 Blog covered his talk in much greater detail. Another Gabrieli soundbyte: “Children are born into a neurodevelopmental lottery.”

Dr. Sheridan spoke about the effects of profound deprivation in institutionalized Romanian orphans and the results of the Bucharest Early Intervention Project. This is a very depressing topic, not one that inspires witty quips or quotable soundbytes. As her abstract put it, “Many aspects of postnatal brain development depend critically on experience for development to proceed normally. In this talk we will discuss what happens to children whose postnatal experience violates what we have come to expect as a species.”

Dr. Farah's talk was about socioeconomic status and the developing brain. Low SES affects some cognitive domains more than others: language, executive function, and declarative memory are the most heavily impacted. For language development, environmental stimulation is the sole factor (other than age). For declarative memory, parental nurturance is the sole factor. “Here's where going ‘neuro’ earns its keep”  e.g., it's been shown that the deleterious effects of stress on the hippocampi of rat pups is buffered by maternal care. Farah believes it's “still premature to dictate policy based on neuro” but acknowledged the tactical advantages of using neuroscience for framing/spin e.g., “science speaks with authority” and appeals to government technocrats. “We're not sentimental old fluffs” for promoting social justice (now in the clever guise of brain plasticity). The negative neural consequences of “toxic” environments can replace social justice frames on the Left and “poverty as a moral failing” frames on the Right. Neuroscience for the bipartisan win!

Dr. Neville spoke about specific training programs designed to narrow the socioeconomic gap in achievement. She was less circumspect about policy implications than Farah, arguing in favor of “evidence-based politics” e.g., publicly proclaiming [in the U.S.] that social equality will improve school performance “up to the levels of Cuba and Sweden,” she said in a deadpan manner. Partnering with Head Start school programs in Oregon, she and her colleagues have implemented an attentional training program in low SES children (the Brain Train) and their parents. She said we should convince the public and policy makers to be guided by evidence from brain research. Again, see the CNS 2014 Blog for more details on her talk.

Neuroscience and Education

I'll end with a collection of links that opine on whether neuroscience really has much to say about “evidence-based” education. Teachers in the UK think it does, according to this article:
Teachers demand training in neuroscien​ce to improve classroom practice

Thousands of teachers are set to receive training in neuroscience after union members called for guidance on how the subject could be applied in the classroom.

Members of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) at the union’s annual conference narrowly voted for a motion calling for training materials and policies on applying neuroscience to education and for further research on how technology can be used to develop better teaching.

. . .

“It is true that the emerging world of neuroscience presents opportunities as well as challenges for education, and it’s important that we bridge the gulf between educators, psychologists and neuroscientists.”

Neuroscience could also help teachers tailor their lessons for creative “right brain thinkers”, who tend to struggle with conventional lessons but often have more advanced entrepreneurial skills, Ms Neal said.

If nothing else, perhaps the teachers could learn there's no such thing as “right brain thinkers.”

A more cynical take is at Mind Hacks: It’s your own time you’re wasting.

Professor Dorothy Bishop has been critical as well (see comments):
I really don't want to seem like a Cassandra who rubbishes every attempt at doing neuroscientific studies of development or developmental disorders. ... But my concern is that we are prioritising neuroscience approaches to developmental problems, and this is happening in part because researchers are offering the promise of educational relevance. In contrast, clinical trials of behavioural interventions, which have more potential for helping children, are much harder to fund, and are deemed far less exciting.

Prof. Bishop also asks What is educational neuroscience? 

Here's what Wikipedia has to say about Educational Neuroscience.

Professor Daniel Willingham has covered both sides of the issue in his Science and Education Blog:
Teachers shouldn't need to learn neuroscience

Neuroscience Applied to Education: Mostly Unimpressive

When educational neuroscience works! The case of reading disability.

The University of Oregon is Changing Brains.

Tools of the Mind.

Neuroscience and Education at Columbia.

Centre for Neuroscience in Education at Cambridge.

Mind, Brain, and Education at Harvard.

Trends in Neuroscience and Education journal.

Finally, we have The Brain/Education Barrier and The Santiago Declaration about what science can tell us about early education.

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At April 23, 2014 4:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fascinating! I'm very skeptical of researchers getting too mixed up with policy, especially when they push their own training programs. Just look at what happened with Ekman pushing his microexpression training at national airports (SPOT)! Net result: 200 Million dollars down the drain because the program is a total failure ( ) . Talk about conflict of interest!

At April 25, 2014 11:27 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Training? What training? LOL, kids and adults should just use this:

I'm starting a lawsuit against this company, based on false advertising.


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