Last week I went to a seminar [Shirley Brice Heath]1 gave (I believe the recording will be available online at some point but I can’t see it yet). Shirley’s main point was that, with ever increasing pressures on working families, and increasing commercialisation of leisure time, the time which families have to spend together – talking – is vastly decreased, and that this is a bad thing.  She also suggested that many of the after school clubs which are most successful, and most important in raising general achievement (and indeed, well being) are things like art and science clubs in which enquiry based learning is at the fore, encouraging students to engage with each other, the specialist language, and problem solving, to – however informally – learn. So far, so good… These are certainly laudable aims, I haven’t read her books (so can’t comment on them) and I suppose a) given that, and b) the difficulties of ‘nuance’ in giving such talks, some might take criticism to be a touch unfair.  And indeed, I would take that point, and thus take my own further comments with a pinch of salt!  Having said that though, I’m inclined to think that we’re at our most persuasive when we have a coherent, and well considered set of reasons, explanations, concepts. I had a number of concerns in the talk, many of which were – in some form or other – raised by others there. Neuro-education There’s a fascinating, if not innocuous, trend in psychology and correspondingly education, towards emphasising neurological explanations for everything.  And note, ‘explanations’ not ‘descriptions’ there. After talking quite a lot about language, the role of the family, and the impact of the economy on these roles – and thus language – Shirley then highlighted the research she has been involved in on neurological evidence in language development.  In particular, she highlighted the finding that students engaged in enquiry based science projects were capable of ‘later language development’ at a level that we might not have expected, and that neuroscience explains this. Now, I understand that there are funding reasons to do neuro-research at the moment – however irritating that might be given where the money could be directed.  And indeed, there is some great stuff coming out, and as in psychological findings it isn’t all just ‘common sense’, some common assumptions are being challenged by neuro evidence. However, in this case what’s been shown is that being part of a community of enquiry can provoke improved language development!  Indeed, we might well argue that sociocultural theories of language development challenge  rather well the more traditional classical linguistic or neurological accounts of language development, both of which can over-emphasise the importance of early learning/development while ignoring the role of wider culture.  Not to mention the fact that our culture/linguistic (and other tool based) environment/education, etc. impacts on our neurological states, and, no neuroscientific result can tell us what education should look like – what things we should value, although they can add information to such debates.  My suggestion here isn’t that neurological evidence isn’t interesting, it’s just that it isn’t as interesting as the finding that engaging pupils in collaborative enquiry improves their language skills (and that this is an important skill to have).  The neuro evidence can tell us a bit about how this happens, although we’d need quite a lot of evidence from different settings to understand the interaction with the environment, but it certainly doesn’t give us the whole picture, nor even the most interesting bit. Shirley also suggested that both looking, and hands, are key here – that ‘looking’ was correlated with language development, and that the looking was often at hands.  I’m afraid I did a bit of a double take at this, I don’t think I’m being unreasonable in suggesting that unless we think the blind (and indeed, handless or immobile) cannot learn, positing this as the key facet in learning is pretty foolish. To be fair, when questioned, Shirley did strike one note of caution, describing “where culture meets the brain” and the conditions of socialisation, but given that, the emphasis on the importance of the neurological evidence was disappointing (it reminded me a bit of [Susan Greenfield’s]2 claims re: computer games “rewiring” (in a negative sense) our brains). Anyway, the search brings up a number of good articles on neuroscience in education.  In particular Ferrari considers the importance of caution in neuroscience educational claims, highlighting the ease with which people slip into generalisations, and Goswami raises many of the same points – particularly with relation to the many neuro-myths prevalent in our schools – from the perspective of neuroscience (for a more cutting analysis than both of these, see Snook).  I’m not terribly inclined to rehearse their points here, except to highlight again – neuroscience can be incredibly helpful to describe particular brain trends under particular learning or developmental circumstances.  It does not, however, speak to what our education should look like; that is a normative question, for which we need a well theorised approach to our neuroscience, and an understanding of how neurological results relate to the society in which they are obtained.  For more great neuro stuff see: 1. Dorothy Bishop’s lecture on bad neuroscience (discussed on neurobonkers 2. Dorothy Bisdhop’s blogs on “brain scans show that…” 3. Neuroskeptic, e.g. and 4. The neurocritic e.g.

intervention at individual level (or, brain level?) for issues that are widely held to be institutional issues.  There are two strands to this.  The first regards pedagogy within schools and informal education settings – both of these obviously relate to the wider policy landscape.  Given what we already know about children’s learning, and the high quality material around effective assessment, we should perhaps be focussing on this first.  Secondly, Shirley emphasised the changing economic climate, and the impact of working lives on children’s talk (or lack of), in places sounding thoroughly Marxist (bravo!) to me. Class as a key factor – those working/not working families are the issue/rolemodel…? However, in this analysis too there was some confusion.  At times it wasn’t clear whether Shirley was primarily concerned with the middle classes, or lower socioeconomic groups…I suppose I should probably read the book, but I found this quite frustrating with multiple claims being made: 1. Working families don’t see their kids now, and they  use television as a babysitting device 2. Families who don’t work don’t talk to their kids now, and they use television as the only means of communication 3. This puts 1/2 at a disadvantage Similarly with respect to after school clubs, run by “intimate strangers”, it wasn’t clear whether they had positive or negative impact on language, nor whether the ‘good kind’ were more or less likely to be encountered by poorer kids.  I think a point was made that such kids were more likely to be mandated to go to homework clubs, etc. which were not language or problem solving rich…but then this was confused by concerns re: middle class kids not being exposed to language either. There were also a few other claims made which were just irritating including: 1. The claim that between ethnic groups/SES groups there are now basically no differences positionally (this is demonstrably false, certainly in the UK and given, for example levels of education and ethnicity in prisons I’d say in the states too) 2. That drugs are no longer the major problem…well I just cannot believe that they ever were.  That’s not to say they’re not a problem, both in terms of childhood use, and childhood contact e.g. through parental use. But drugs are not the problem with our educational system, and conflating such social issues with those related to an inadequate system is not helpful to anyone 3. That ‘generational unemployment’ is a major issue.  Similarly to the issue above, this is to imply that the problem with our schools is that parents are unemployed. Aside from the issue raised above about confusing middle class/unemployed issues (who receives the deficit?), this is also an irritating one because the numbers of kids who have contact with the long term unemployed, and the cross-generation long-term unemployed, particularly when we remove those who are either unable to work, or carers for those who are unable to work, is really tiny.  This is a line touted by the tabloids, and it is disappointing to see it just glibly thrown in without clear contextualisation.  Irritatingly I can’t find the figures on long-term adult unemployment in the UK, if anyone has them please comment – remember a politician being picked up on this in the last year after suggesting that benefit changes would make a big difference here (when in fact, the figures were pretty small relatively speaking) Kids now not like kids then The other thing I’d say about those points, is that they haven’t particularly changed.  However, plenty of other things have, and these might a) explain some results, and b) be important in thinking about how we measure our outcomes.  For example: 1. The children in this, and the study 30 years ago were asked to recite lists of words to demonstrate their vocabulary size.  It was noted that children now were more reluctant to do this (lacked concentration).  There are negative connotations to “lacked concentration” which I think are a bit problematic.  An alternative interpretation is that they’re more savvy than to engage in pointless tasks anymore.  In any case, the measure is a poor proxy for vocabulary level. 2. Toys now are made from plastic, 30 years ago there were far more malleable materials and toys available for children.  This was tied up in Shirley’s argument that the hands, and looking, are key to learning (see above).  Now, I can see why a range of toys might be important, and I certainly think we should be cautious about the sorts of toys children play with (indeed, this is a depressing arena given the gender specification of many toys).  However, 1) I’m not at all sure what was played with 30 years ago that isn’t now (swap clay for play dough…?), I can think of lots of examples of ‘hard’ toys which no longer exist (dolls houses, trains sets, plenty of the board games my parents used to play, wooden toys) and lots of examples of hard, but malleable (or creative) toys now (lego, for example). Furthermore, there is a thriving industry in “psychology” tested toys, which while I don’t want to endorse all outputs which claim to show learning benefits, surely must relate to some good toys.  I suspect part of her concern here is a rejection of games (computer games specifically) as creative tools for learning.  Again, admittedly there are plenty of bad computer games, many of which claim they’re educational (hell, there are plenty of courses of this nature too!) but many games engage children in deep sustained problem solving and communication, to deny this is to ignore a whole swathe of research. 3. It was also interesting that Shirley suggested that the ‘functions’ of language identified in the previous study, were now changed.  Here again it wasn’t clear how much she thought they (the researchers/her) were ‘wrong’ before – that is, that other functions did exist, but were not classified – and how much language/communication has changed.  Nor, again, was it clear whether this was seen as a negative change, or a positive one or the kind of confused message I’m claiming were made regarding ‘class’. Failure to acknowledge changing times for all – tech makes a difference for all not just kids These issues are, I think, all tied up with another problem with the work – a failure to acknowledge that these are changing times for all, and that technology has impact on everyone, not just children.  That’s not to say that the underlying relationships have changed, but how they are instantiated might have.  Reading is still incredibly important, for example, and children do still communicate – it’s just that they’re doing it differently.  Sure, we should explore how to make this as rich as possible, but not from a position where we assume that non-face-to-face contact is de re ‘bad’. Similarly, Shirley made a claim that children no longer respect intellectual property.  But, this ignores: 1. the fact that many adults are also lax with copyright 2. the fact that many adults and children do respect copyright (particularly when given a good way to legally access materials) 3. the capital interests behind IP and copyright (some of which no sane person would argue for – see recent IP purchasing, suing and counter-suits in mobile phone industry for example) 4. the inadequate licensing/monetisation of many industries (e.g. music), and the desire to CC licence plenty of things for reuse and remixing but with poor methods to do so (and indeed lockins preventing such activities in some industries, including academia) # Conclusions Shirley’s talk  was interesting, and it’s great to have had access to families over such a long period of time.  It may be that if I were to read the book, I’d find a level of nuance, and refinement that would address the issues above.  Perhaps more importantly, I can only agree that our education system should be doing more creative problem extended solving involving both science and arts, and ensuring the inclusion of all children.  That said, the conflation of system-individual level issues, the failure to distinguish groups (or levels of correlation between measures) and their relationship to positive/negative outcomes, or even to define what sorts of outcomes we might be interested in (and why) is frustrating.  We’re at our best when can clearly define, and defend, what we’re interested in, and how it relates to our world – so while the outcome was fine, I worry about the sort of presentation which might not manage to do that. 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