If you don’t want to do something, one excuse is as good as another

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One thing the BBC programme about brain training did emphasise was the importance of physical workouts for mental agility, particularly for older people.

I’m not so sure, you know. The creativity and energy I use coming up with excuses not to exercise are many and legion. Trying to still that inner voice (the Protestant work ethic has a lot to answer for) that whines away when I’ve gone yet another week without doing anything more strenuous than walking from the car to the sofa to the kitchen takes up a great deal of imagination and effort.

‘Sometimes I wish I had a terrible childhood, so that at least I’d have an excuse’.

Incidentally, I Googled ‘excuses not to exercise’ to see if I could any funny ones (I couldn’t) led me rapidly to a site I came across offering (for the paltry sum of $75 a year) fake doctor’s notes complete with surgery addresses! It makes my vague fantasies about pretending I was stuck in Spain because of the volcanic ash on the first morning of this new term relatively trivial. (I didn’t by the way).


 

(The right sort of) Brain Training Can Improve Grades

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The BBC trial of brain training mentioned in my last post  demonstrated that Brain Training is ‘only as good as spending six weeks using the internet. There is no meaningful difference’, as is shown in the clip above.

The ‘Brain Test Britain’ experiment was inspired by a study, published in 2009, suggesting the scientific evidence for brain training was lacking.   Tracy Packiam Alloway was instrumental in conducting research on this issue. She states that:

Working memory abilities are closely associated with a wide range of measures of academic ability, including literacy and mathematics. The majority of those with recognised learning difficulties in these areas have working memory impairments. Poor working memory skills in the early years of education are also effective predictors of poor scholastic attainments over the subsequent school years.

The point about brain training programs is that there is no transfer effect. You might improve your ability to recall numbers in a backward sequence over a short period (or spell ‘psychiatrist’ backwards as in Neurolinguistic programming) but not develop your critical or creative thinking and reasoning, your ability to evaluate and synthesise new information or relate prior learning to novel situations. You are no better equipped to know what to do when you don’t know what to do!

Alloway conducted a clinical trial with two groups of students:

The Training group participated in a working memory training program  and the Control group received targeted educational support (IEP). The two groups did not differ in their IQ, working memory, or academic scores pre-training.

In contrast, the Training group demonstrated a clear improvement not only in IQ and working memory tests, but crucially in learning outcomes as well. Students on the working memory training program went from a C to a B, or a B to an A after just 8 weeks of training! This is an exciting step in demonstrating that the right brain training can significantly boost academic attainment.

Both the Training and the Control groups underwent 8-weeks of their respective training programs and then were retested on the IQ, working memory, and academic tests.

The results were dramatic. The Control group did not perform much better without intervention, and in some instances they performed even worse in math and working memory.

Now, Alloway has a product to sell; but at least Jungle Memory appears to be founded on evidence based, scientific and peer reviewed research.

John Connell flagged up a fascinating TED talk about ‘Science Denialism’ and irrational thinking which describes the importance of challenging the ‘belief in magic that replaces evidence-based research’. The speaker, Michael Specter, focuses largely on food production and vaccines, but he could equally well be talking about the ‘leap into the arms of the placebo’ that many take about education. The clip is well worth watching if you have 15 minutes to spare.

Working Memory: the New Intelligence

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Working memory is the new intelligence: the ability to hold information in your head and manipulate it mentally. We use this mental workspace not just when doing ‘mental maths’, but also when following instructions and directions, recalling sequences in words, sentences and oral presentations, and retaining information long enough to evaluate and synthesise. Children who do poorly at school may have poor working memory rather than an immutable lack of intelligence.

Working memory is not linked to differences in income, environment, social class or any of the other factors that make traditional IQ tests so unhelpful. Poor working memory is often not routinely identified at school and teachers often describe children with this problem as inattentive, day dreamers or being less able.

Working memory determines how effectively someone can learn and is, according to Tracy Packiam Alloway, ‘the best predictor of academic success’. I had thought this was receptive vocabulary but of course knowledge of a wide variety of words is dependent on the ability to retrieve these words at will. An effective working memory is fundamental to learning.

Dr Alloway is the director of the Centre for Memory and Learning in the Lifespan at Stirling University. I heard her at the Edinburgh Science festival last week and was most impressed with her energy and wide ranging research profile.

People use working memory to stay focused, creatively solve complex problems, respond to questions thoughtfully and recall instructions and crucial information. Those who are better at remembering and working with new information do better in all aspects of learning.

Working memory impacts on every aspect of how our brain works and, as a consequence, every aspect of our lives: from securing our survival, to making savvy business decisions and controlling our emotions. Understanding what we can do to train our working memory can have a tremendous impact on preventing memory loss and delay the signs of dementia.

Alloway states that specific ‘Brain Training’ programmes have no benefit other than enabling people to do brain training exercises more effectively. She has also debunked ‘Brain Gym’ in her extensive research. The BBC programme this week, ‘Bang goes the Theory’ , confirmed these findings in an amusing way. A chimp demonstrated that practise in such games improves performance measurably, with no concomitant surge in overall cognitive function. The chimp didn’t become more intelligent in the generally accepted sense of the word.

Brain Test Britain found that people who play brain training games do get better at those specific brain training games. But this really only proves the old adage of ‘practice makes perfect’. There is no evidence that this transfers to the brain skills measured by our benchmarking tests.

However, all is not lost. Alloway’s research demonstrates that playing video games involving planning and strategy, such as war games, may also train working memory. Games that demand keeping track of past actions and mapping the actions you are about to take (Scrabble, chess, crosswords, Sudoku being prime examples) are likely to have the same effect as their video equivalents in challenging the brain.

Dr Alloway’s team has developed a program, Jungle Memory , that claims to increase the performance of 11 – 14 year olds. After 8 weeks, children in a trial saw ten-point improvements in literacy, numeracy and ‘IQ’ scores. (I wonder why Alloway continues to use this outdated mode of assessment. It is clear that she regards intelligence quotients only as effective indicators of the ability to pass intelligence tests).

Doodling is also highly recommended for recording those ‘mental scribbles’ about information we need to remember and reflect on.

Adopting approaches that encourage note making using symbols, metacognitive strategies for recall, strategic thinking, time for reflection and – crucially – collaborative learning and playing games in the classroom is likely to help those children (estimated at 10% across all age ranges) whose poor working memory affects their progress.

Interesting stuff that should impact upon learning and teaching for all children, but especially those with learning difficulties.