Tag Archives: education

Who invented school?

School is an institution that is hated (especially during exams) by millions of kids around the world — but at the same time billions of adults remember it as the ‘good old days’. For all its good and bad, society as we know it couldn’t exist without schools — and we’re not just talking about the building, we’re talking about the entire system and environment that allows us to pass knowledge to younger generations and prepare them for what’s to come in the real world (at least in theory). But who actually invented school?

Image credits: Max Fischer/pexels

From old school to modern schooling system

Ironically enough, for all the information you can find in schools, no textbook mentions exactly when and how the idea of a school originated. This is mostly because it depends on how exactly you define a school. For instance, in ancient Greece, education was somewhat democratized, and education in a gymnasium school was considered essential for participation in Greek culture, but it was reserved only for boys (and often, not all boys). In ancient Rome, rich children were tutored by private professors, but neither of these is a school in the sense we consider today — public, formal education that is compulsory, open, and available to all — though you could argue that in some sense, school dates from ancient times, and the organized practice of teaching children dates for thousands of years.

Compulsory education was also not an unheard-of concept in ancient times –though it was mostly compulsory for those tied to royal, religious, or military organizations. In fact, Plato’s landmark The Republic, written more than 2,300 years ago, argues in favor of compulsory education, though women and slaves were not truly a part of Greek society.

Much information about schooling is also lost to the shroud of time. For instance, there is some indirect evidence about schools in China existing at least 3,000 years ago, but this comes from “oracle bones” where parents would try to divine whether it was auspicious for their children to go to ‘school’ — and there’s little information about what these schools were like.

It’s not just the Chinese, Greeks, and Romans. The Hindus, for instance, had developed their own schooling system in the form of gurukuls. In 425 AD, the Byzantine empire in Rome came up with the world’s first known primary education system dedicated to educating soldiers enrolled in the Byzantine army so that no person in the army faces problems in communicating and understanding war manuals. Different parts of the world had developed different types of education — some more efficient than others.

In Western Europe (and England, in particular), the church became involved in public education early on, and a significant number of church schools were founded in the Early Middle Ages. The oldest still operating (and continuously operating school) is The King’s School in Canterbury, which dates from the year 597. Several other schools still in operation were founded in the 6th century — though again, you could argue whether they were true schools as they were only open to boys.

Albert Bettannier’s 1887 painting that depicts the scene of an old European school. Image credits: Deutsches Historisches Museum Berlin/Wikimedia Commons

Furthermore, compared to the modern schools, education in the above-mentioned institutes was more focused on religious teachings, language, and low-level or practical skills only. Many of them even used to operate in a single room with no set standards and curriculum, but as humanity progressed ahead people started to realize the need for an organized system to educate the future generations. 

For more than ten centuries, schools maintained the same general profile, focused mostly on a niched set of skills and religious training. In the 9th century, the first university was founded in Fez, Morocco. However, that too was founded as a mosque and focused on religious teachings. The oldest university still in operation, the University of Bologna, in Italy, was founded in 1088. It hired scholars from the city’s pre-existing educational facilities and gave lectures in informal schools called scholae. In addition to religion, the university also taught liberal arts, notarial law, and scrivenery (official writing). The university is notable for also teaching civil law.

However, the university is not necessarily the same as a school — it wasn’t a public “for all” education system, but rather a “school” for the intellectual elite. For schools to truly emerge as we know them today, we have to fast forward a few more centuries.

Compulsory, free education for all

In 1592, a German Duchy called Palatine Zweibrücken became the first territory in the world with compulsory education for girls and boys — a remarkable and often-ignored achievement in the history of education. The duchy was followed in 1598 by Strasbourg, then a free city of the Holy Roman Empire and now part of France. Similar attempts emerged a few decades later in Scotland, although this compulsory education was subject to political and social turmoil.

In the United States — or rather, in the colonies that were to later become the United States — three legislative acts enacted in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1642, 1647, and 1648 mandated that every town having more than 50 families to hire a teacher, and every town of more than 100 families to establish a school.

Prussia, a prominent German state, implemented a compulsory education system in 1763 by royal decree. The Prussian General School Regulation asked for all young citizens, girls and boys, to be educated from age 5 to age 13-14 and to be provided with a basic education on religion, singing, reading, and writing based on a regulated, state-provided curriculum of textbooks. To support this financially, the teachers (often former soldiers) cultivated silkworms to make a living. In nearby Austria, Empress Maria Theresa introduced mandatory primary education in 1774 — and mandatory, systemized education was starting to take shape in Europe. Schools, as we know them today, were becoming a thing.

Meanwhile, the US was having its own educational revolution.

In 1837, a lawyer and educator Horace Mann became the Secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education in the newly-formed United States. Mann was a supporter of public schooling and he believed that without a well-educated population political stability and social harmony could not be achieved. So he put forward the idea of a universal public education system for teaching American kids. Mann wanted a system with a set curriculum taught to students in an organized manner by well-trained subject experts. 

Without undervaluing any other human agency, it may be safely affirmed that the Common School…may become the most effective and benignant of all forces of civilization.

Horace Mann, Father of the Common School Movement

Mann employed his “normal school” system in Massachusetts and later other states in the US also started implementing the education reforms that he envisioned. He also managed to convince his colleagues and other modernizers to support his idea of providing government-funded primary education for all. 

Due to his efforts, Massachusetts became the first American state in 1852 to have a mandatory education law, school attendance and elementary education were made compulsory in various states (mandatory education law was enacted in all states of the US by 1917), teacher training programs were launched, and new public schools were being opened in rural areas. 

At the time, when women were not even allowed to attend schools in many parts of the world, Mann advocated the appointment of women as teachers in public schools. Instead of offering religious learning to students, Mann’s normal schools were aimed at teaching them reading, writing, grammar, arithmetic, geography, and history. He believed that school education should not incorporate sectarian instructions, however, for the same reason, some religious leaders and schoolmasters used to criticize Mann for promoting non-sectarian education.

The innovative ideas and reforms introduced by Mann in the 1800s became the foundation of our modern school system. For his valuable contribution in the field of education, historians sometimes credit him as the inventor of the modern school system.

However, as we’ve seen, the history of schools is intricate, complex, and very rich. There is no one “inventor” of school — the process of arriving at the school systems we have today (imperfect as they may be) took thousands of years of progress, which was not always straightforward.

Shocking facts about school education

Now that we’ve looked a bit at the history of the school, let’s see how things are today — and why there’s still plenty of work to be done in schools around the world.

Image credits: Pixabay/pexels
  • A study conducted by the Institute of Education in the UK suggests that quality of primary education is more crucial for an individual’s academic progress, social behavior, and intellectual development as compared to factors including his or her family income, background, and gender. Another study highlights that students who receive good elementary education and have a positive attitude about the significance of their performance in primary and middle school are more likely to earn well and live a better life than others in the future.  
  • A UNESCO report reveals that school education up to nine years of age is compulsory in 155 countries but unfortunately, there are more than 250 million children in the world who are still not able to attend school. 
  • According to International Labour Organization (ILO), due to poverty and lack of educational opportunities, 160 million kids are forced into work across the globe and about 80 million of them work in unhealthy environments. Thousands of such kids are physically and sexually abused, tortured, and are even trained to work under drug mafia, criminal groups, and terrorist organizations. Some studies reveal that child labor is also associated with school dropout in less developed countries. Due to poor financial conditions, many individuals at a young age start giving preference to economic activities and lose interest in costly education opportunities. However, an easily accessible and high-quality school education model that could allow children (from poor families) to pursue education without compromising their financial security can play an important role in eliminating child labor.
  • African nation South Sudan has the lowest literacy rate in the world. Only 8% of females in this country are literate and overall only 27% of its adult population is educated. 98% of the schools that offer elementary education in Sudan do not have an electric power supply and only one-third of such schools have access to safe drinking water. 
  • City Montessori School (CMS) located in Dehradun, India is hailed as the largest school in the world. The CMS campus houses 1,050 classrooms in which more than 50,000 students attend classes every day. 

For Horace Mann, schools were a means to produce good citizens, uphold democratic values and ensure the well-being of society. Though not all schools are able to achieve these goals, the power of school education can be well understood from what famous French poet Victor Hugo once said, “He who opens a school door, closes a prison”.

How outdoor learning helps both students and teachers

Even a single hour per week of outdoor learning can have a tremendous impact on children’s learning outcomes while boosting teachers’ job satisfaction, research shows.

Credit: MaxPixel.

It is now an established fact that most people benefit from performing activities in natural outdoor environments. Being exposed to trees, wildlife, and parks can reduce stress, rejuvenate attention, increase motivation, and improve both physical and mental health by promoting exercise. The more time spent outdoors, the better. For instance, one 2014 study found that a week of camping outdoors can reset your body clock and return your natural sleep patterns. Even a single weekend can do the job, another study found, so better pack up that tent and camping chairs.

The psychological benefits of spending time outdoors, such as improved attention span and mental reinvigoration, are particularly attractive for education — and we don’t have to move schools into the woods to reap these benefits.

Swansea University researchers analyzed the learning outcomes for three primary schools in the south of Wales where classes were held in a natural environment for at least an hour a week.

“We found that the pupils felt a sense of freedom when outside the restricting walls of the classroom. They felt more able to express themselves and enjoyed being able to move about more too. They also said they felt more engaged and were more positive about the learning experience. We also heard many say that their well-being and memory were better, and teachers told us how it helped engage all types of learners,” Emily Marchant, a Ph.D. researcher in Medical Studies at Swansea University and lead author of the study, said in a statement.

Although they were initially skeptical of this pilot program, the teachers found that outdoor learning improved their job satisfaction and personal wellbeing. That’s quite important since all too often the focus of research on education is on the student, with teachers and educators receiving little attention.

“This is a really important finding given the current concerns around teacher retention rates. Overall, our findings highlight the potential of outdoor learning as a curriculum tool in improving school engagement and the health, wellbeing, and education outcomes of children,” Marchant added.

Another study, published in 2018 in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, reached similar conclusions, finding that the “nature effect” of outdoor learning made 9-10 year-olds more attentive and engaged with their schoolwork. Teachers could teach uninterrupted for almost twice as long as during a subsequent indoor lesson, the study found.

“We wanted to see if we could put the nature effect to work in a school setting,” says Kuo. “If you took a bunch of squirmy third-graders outdoors for lessons, would they show a benefit of having a lesson in nature, or would they just be bouncing off the walls afterward?” said Ming Kuo, a scientist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Some teachers may be reluctant at the notion of holding some classes outdoors, at least from time to time, as they might think the environment would overexcite the children and reduce concentration. But the scientific literature actually points to the contrary.

“We’re excited to discover a way to teach students and refresh their minds for the next lesson at the same time,” says Kuo. “Teachers can have their cake and eat it too.”

Each one of us falls into one of three information-seeking ‘personalities’

Knowing what people want to know, and why, can go a long way towards designing public information campaigns. However, it’s easier said than done. New research comes to shed some light on the topic, reporting on the criteria people rely on when deciding to get informed on a topic, or not.

Image via Pixabay.

According to the findings, at least in matters regarding to their health, finances, and personal traits, people, in general, rely on one of three criteria: the emotional reaction they assume they will have when presented with that information, how useful they consider said information will be to them, and whether or not it pertains to something that they think about often. The team says each person falls into one of these three “information-seeking types”, and that they don’t tend to change them over time.

Knowing, why?

“Vast amounts of information are now available to individuals. This includes everything from information about your genetic make-up to information about social issues and the economy. We wanted to find out: how do people decide what they want to know?” says Professor Tali Sharot from the University College London (UCL) Psychology & Language Sciences, co-lead author of the study. “And why do some people actively seek out information, for example about COVID vaccines, financial inequality and climate change, and others don’t?”

“The information people decide to expose themselves to has important consequences for their health, finance and relationships. By better understanding why people choose to get informed, we could develop ways to convince people to educate themselves.”

The study pools together data the researchers obtained over the course of five experiments with 543 research participants.

In one of the experiments, participants were asked to rate how much they would like to know about a certain topic related to their health — for example, whether they had a gene that put them at risk of developing Alzheimer’s, or one that strengthened their immune system. Another experiment followed the same pattern but substituted financial information (for example, what income percentile they fall into) in lieu of personal health. A third asked them to rate how much they would like to know where their family and friends rated them on personal traits such as intelligence or laziness.

Later on, they were asked how useful they thought the information would be, how they expected to feel upon receiving the info, and how often they thought about the subject matter of each experiment.

Based on their responses during these five experiments, the team explains that people tend to seek out information based predominantly on one of the three factors — expected utility, emotional impact, and relevance to their interests. They add that the three-factor model they establish could be used to more accurately predict a participant’s choices to seek or refuse information compared to a range of other models they tested.

Some of the participants also repeated this series of experiments several times, at intervals of a few months. Based on their responses over time, the team explains that people tend to routinely prioritize one of the three motives over the others, and they tend to stick to that one motive over time and across topics. This, they argue, suggests that our motivators in this regard are ‘trait-like’.

These traits do have a direct impact on our lives; the first, obviously, is that they drive us towards and away from certain topics and pieces of data. But they also have a bearing on our wellbeing. In two of the five experiments, participants were also asked to fill in a questionnaire that estimated their general mental health. The team explains that participants who wanted to know more about traits they often thought about showed more signs of positive mental health when seeking out information about their own traits.

“By understanding people’s motivations to seek information, policy makers may be able to increase the likelihood that people will engage with and benefit from vital information. For example, if policy makers highlight the potential usefulness of their message and the positive feelings that it may elicit, they may improve the effectiveness of their message,” says PhD student Christopher Kelly from UCL Psychology & Language Sciences a, co-lead author of the study.

“The research can also help policy makers decide whether information, for instance on food labels, needs to be disclosed, by describing how to fully assess the impact of information on welfare. At the moment policy-makers overlook the impact of information on people’s emotions or ability to understand the world around them, and focus only on whether information can guide decisions.”

The paper “Individual differences in information-seeking” has been published in the journal Nature Communications.

Book review: How to Think Like Shakespeare

Would you like to have the mind of Shakespeare? Put pen to paper and write your way into fame, forever? Well, dear reader, then this book

This book is not what you’re looking for. It is not a shortcut. It won’t teach you how to craft pretty words or witty lines. It won’t bring you fame on stage or the love of millions. What it does do, and very well, is to take a look at our current system of education and see where its failings lie. Scott Newstock’s message is that thinking like Shakespeare has much less to do with copying his form or his topics, and much more with instilling young minds with the habits and tools they need to become the next Shakespeare.

“How to Think like Shakespeare: Lessons from a Renaissance Education”
By Scott Newstok
Princeton University Press, 185 pages | Buy on Amazon.

The world is full of books telling us what to think. There’s no shortage of books telling us how to think, either. But How to Think like Shakespeare is a book that aims to help us think well.

The book is structured in fourteen “deliberately short” chapters, each dealing with an aspect of what Newstok considers to be “key aspects of thinking, and how to hone them”. This book is the product of his own experiences with the U.S. educational system, both internally as a teacher and a professor, and externally, as a parent. Through this exploration, Newstok heavily criticizes what he sees as ineffective or outright damaging trends in education, often campaigned for under the banner of progress through technology, or fairness under standardisation.

Heavily but delightfully peppered with great quotes from great minds throughout history, How to Think like Shakespeare makes for a thoroughly enjoyable read. Hard figures, charts, graphs, these are not really the meat of the book. And yet, through metaphor and wit, it makes just as compelling an argument as you’d expect from a mathematical proof.

I will confess that, at first, I was pretty certain that I wouldn’t like this book. As Newstok himself quips, I did pick up the book hoping for a shortcut, an easy way towards a great mind. Instead, I found that a case was being made for things such as the importance of engaging in past work, in ‘tradition’, to foster creativity. How imitation or outright copying of other’s work can help guide us to our own voice. All of them things that, as a highschooler or college student, I would have dismissed as the uninformed ramblings of a crusty old man out of his time, and out of his depth of understanding. “I,” was my first thought, “have been deceived”.

I am glad to say that I was wrong. I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Both in the way it reads, and in regards to what it has to say. At its core, How to Think like Shakespeare hits upon something that rings undeniably true: education is a very personal act. Screens, standardized tests, optimized ‘learning objectives’ at the head of every lesson, these can be great tools with which to acquire facts, and knowledge — but an education is much more than simple facts.

Newstok looks at the importance of seemingly innocuous factors, such as simply being in the same place and time with teachers, and your class-mates, in shaping our ability to think, and think well. Or, for example, how our obsession with being original, our disdain for plagiarism, actually limits our performance, and stifles creativity. How insisting on efficiency and optimization in the curriculum actually makes us all poorer, intellectually, and how an obsession with assessment and measurement hides the very essence of education from us. Or how, in putting our hopes for a freer and more convenient education in the hands of technology, we’ve lost sight of the fact that thinking aides are not a substitute for thinking.

All in all, this is a book I couldn’t do justice in any way in a simple review. Newstok has a deep and wide-ranging knowledge of literature, insight into why words have power, and an understanding of how to craft them. It presents valuable ideas in an engaging format, and will help you understand both our education systems and your own mind better. It will also give you the tools you need to guide the latter one better, and the insight as to where you want it to go. I thoroughly recommend you give this one a try.

Hard work, not genius, is what should inspire the next generation of scientists

Like in any line of work, good role models and mentors are essential motivators that predict career success. However, it’s often easy to lose track of the bigger picture and think that you’ll never be good enough for a career in science. After all, that’s for geniuses and nerds, some might say — except that’s not true at all.

Yes, working in science is demanding, but it just means that you have to work hard to achieve success, whether it’s graduating, publishing papers, or making a Nobel Prize-worthy breakthrough.

In other words, perspective can be everything. Case in point, psychologists at Penn State, William Paterson University, New York University, and Columbia University published a new study showing that scientists who are known for their hard work — like Thomas Edison — are more inspiring than those typically recognized for their genius talent, like Albert Einstein.

“There’s a misleading message out there that says you have to be a genius in order to be a scientist,” said Daniel Hu, a doctoral student at Penn State and co-author of the new study. “This just isn’t true and may be a big factor in deterring people from pursuing science and missing out on a great career. Struggling is a normal part of doing science and exceptional talent is not the sole prerequisite for succeeding in science. It’s important we help spread this message in science education.”

Hu and colleagues performed three experiments involving 176, 162, and 288 young participants each. While previous studies that investigated the impact of effective models focused on their qualities, the new study looked at how aspiring scientists’ own beliefs might affect their motivation.

In the first study, the participants read the same story about the struggles a scientist had to overcome during his career. Half of the volunteers were told the story was about Einstein, while the other half believed it was about Edison.

Those who were told the story was about Einstein were more inclined to believe talent was the reason behind his success despite the fact that the two stories were identical. Meanwhile, those who thought the story was about Edison were more motivated to solve a series of math problems.

“This confirmed that people generally seem to view Einstein as a genius, with his success commonly linked to extraordinary talent,” Hu said. “Edison, on the other hand, is known for failing more than 1,000 times when trying to create the light bulb, and his success is usually linked to his persistence and diligence.”

In the second study, the participants were again asked to read a different story about the struggles of an up-and-coming scientist. Half were told it was about Einstein, while the other half was informed that the story was about Mark Johnson, a fabricated name that was unfamiliar to them. Those who thought the story was about the unfamiliar scientist were less likely to believe natural brilliance was necessary to succeed in science and were more likely to score better on math problems.

In the final study, the participants pitted the two types of stereotypical role models — genius for Einstein and hard work/perseverance for Edison — against a control. In this case, the control was an unknown scientist.

Like in the previous studies, the participants read a story that was attributed to Einstein, Edison, or some unknown scientist they had never heard of before. Compared to the control, Edison motivated the participants while Einstein actually demotivated them.

“The combined results suggest that when you assume that someone’s success is linked to effort, that is more motivating than hearing about a genius’s predestined success story,” Hu said. “Knowing that something great can be achieved through hard work and effort, that message is much more inspiring.”

This sort of insight could prove useful in an educational setting when designing programs meant to inspire students of all ages. Young people and children, in particular, are very susceptible to role models and often mimic those around them whom they look up to. The key message has to be that struggling for success is the norm, not an exception.

The findings appeared in the journal Basic and Applied Social Psychology.

Immigrants in the classroom bring better results for all schoolchildren

A new study analyzed a claim that seems to be quite popular with the nationalists: the idea that immigrant students drain resources from local students, reducing their performance.

Not only was this found to not be true, but the opposite actually stands: immigrants in the classroom seem to improve performance all across the board.

Image credits: US Embassy.

The case against immigration follows one general belief: that immigrants take away resources from the local population, reducing performance and wellbeing. Researchers are BYU and the University of Albany wanted to put that idea to the test in the classroom and see if it stands.

“The current political environment shows a big push against immigration that in many ways is driven by an argument that immigrants will pull resources from the host country,” said Mikaela Dufur, a sociology professor at BYU. “The thought is if you want to protect the host country you need to really limit immigration to protect those resources.”

They analyzed data from 260,000 students from more than 10,000 academic institutions over 41 high-income countries, focusing on three groups: native-born students (parents and students born in that country), second-generation students (students born in that country but parents born in another) and first-generation students (students born outside of the current country).

The groups were also more homogeneous the more immigrants there were, which is a positive indicator for overall classroom performance. In countries with lower immigration rate (<15%), immigrants perform about 15 to 20 points below native-born students. Where immigration lies between 15% and 25%, native-born students and immigrants are within 10 points of each other, and where 25% or more are foreign-born, all three groups perform within five points of each other.

“We were pleasantly surprised it wasn’t just a neutral effect for the native kids but that they actually did better with more immigrant kids in their class,” Dufur said.

The school is probably one of the best environments to put the anti-immigration idea to the test because children are so vulnerable to resource misallocation.

“We were really interested in looking at education because we thought kids would be the most vulnerable citizens of the host country,” Dufur said. “If you were going to drain resources from kids, you should really see an effect of that and you might want to have stricter immigration policies to protect them.”

“The findings indicate that immigrant students perform similarly to native-born students when considering other contextual factors, with socioeconomic status moderating the effect of immigrant status. Furthermore, all students, immigrant and nonimmigrant students alike, benefit academically from more immigration,” the team concludes.

The fact that this was not the case, and that immigration actually improved academic performance should be an important indicator for policymakers, Dufur says. The positive aspects of having a rich migratory population should be considered when drafting immigration policies and restrictions, they conclude.

The study “The Influence of Foreign-born Population on Immigrant and Native-born Students’ Academic Achievement” has been published in Socius.

Planets collage.

Art-integrated science lessons make some students ‘learn at 105%’, new study finds

Mixing arts into science lessons can help students better retain information and be more creative in their learning process.

Planets collage.

Image via Pixabay.

Is there a place for arts in science? We’ve tackled this idea before (read about it here and here) and, long story short, we feel the answer is a confident “yes”. A new study supports our view: the team, led by the vice dean of academic affairs for the School of Education at the Johns Hopkins University (JHU), reports that art isn’t only desirable in the classroom — it’s “absolutely needed”.

Rappin’, dancin’, drawin’ science

“Our study provides more evidence that the arts are absolutely needed in schools. I hope the findings can assuage concerns that arts-based lessons won’t be as effective in teaching essential skills,” says Mariale Hardiman, the study’s first author.

Past research has shown that dabbling in the arts helps improve students’ academic outcomes and memory capacity, the team writes. However, it was still unclear whether instructing students on art, incorporating it into lesson plans, general exposure to it, or a combination of these factors, was responsible for the observed benefits.

The team writes that one of the biggest hurdles teachers are facing is that “children forget much of what they learn” in class, so the content of the previous year has to be taught again. The efforts of the current study focused on improving students’ retention of information (specifically science content) through the integration of art in the curriculum.

They followed 350 fifth-grade students in 16 different classrooms across 6 schools in Baltimore, Maryland, throughout the 2013 school year. Each student was randomly assigned in one of two classroom pairs: astronomy and life science, or environmental science and chemistry. The experiment consisted of two sessions, each spanning three to four weeks.

In each session, students first took an arts-integrated class or a conventional class — and switched for the second session. Thus, the team ensured that all students experienced both types of classes and that all eleven teachers involved in the study taught both types of classes.

Art-integrated classes included activities such as rapping or sketching to support learning new terms and expanding their vocabulary. The students also designed collages to separate living and non-living things. In conventional classes, these activities were matched with your regular educational process: reading paragraphs of texts with vocabulary words aloud in a group and completing worksheets.

To estimate how well each approach worked, the team analyzed students’ content retention before, right after, and 10 weeks after the study ended. Those at a basic reading level before the study began showed (a quite surprising) 105% content retention in the long term on average. The authors themselves seem surprised with this result, explaining that :

“The value of 105% […] is an actual value. This value for Basic Readers in the Arts Integrated condition resulted from students demonstrating enhanced retained content on the followup testing beyond what was initially demonstrated on the posttest,” they write in the paper.

So not only did their art-infused approach help students remember the subjects being taught during the study, it helped them better retain content they were later exposed to. The team explains that students remembered more in the delayed post-testing because they kept singing songs they had learned during their art activities. Much like how a catchy tune gets stuck in your head the more you think of it or sing it aloud, these songs helped students hold onto educational content in the long term.

The study also found that students who took a conventional session first remembered more science in the second (art-integrated) session. Students who took the art-integrated session first maintained performance over in the second session. The exact differences between the two groups aren’t enough to be statistically significant, the authors note, but it does suggest that students carry the creative problem-solving skills they learned in arts-and-science classes over to the conventional lessons — and it helps to enhance their ability to learn.

Looking forward, Hardiman hopes that educators and researchers will put their methods to use, which will serve to expand on their study and improve understanding of arts integration in schools. They also say that integrating arts into science lessons could be a very powerful tool for students who struggle the most with skills such as reading, because so much of the conventional curriculum relies on students reading material to learn — so if they cannot read very well, their ability to learn also suffers.

“Our data suggests that traditional instruction seems to perpetuate the achievement gap for students performing at the lower levels of academic achievement,” says Hardiman.

“We also found that students at advanced levels of achievement didn’t lose any learning from incorporating arts into classrooms, but potentially gained benefits such as engagement in learning and enhanced thinking dispositions. For these reasons, we would encourage educators to adopt integrating the arts into content instruction,” .

The paper “The effects of arts-integrated instruction on memory for science content” has been published in the journal Trends in Neuroscience and Education.

Want to improve kids’ test scores? Help them reduce their anxiety, researchers say

A large middle school in Midwestern US was about to have a biology test. They were expecting 40% failure rates among low-income children, a steady figure across the years. But with a short 10-minute intervention meant to reduce the kids’ anxiety, the failure rate was halved. Now, researchers explain how this simple intervention can make a very big difference.

Image in public domain.

If you think about it, there are two main parts to taking a test: how much you know, and how well you can handle the pressure and deliver what you know. Different people handle stress differently, and for some, it can be a big problem — we probably all remember at least one colleague who was well-prepared but stressed way too much for tests.

This is a particularly prevalent problem for low-income students. Education is a strong lever which can offer lucrative opportunities and, in particular, increasing access to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields can create career opportunities to alleviate poverty and drastically increase the standard of living. Naturally, this prospect is stress-inducing for most children.

Christopher Rozek, a psychologist at Stanford University and lead author of a new study, says simple psychological interventions could increase the grades of many students, and increase their prospects, potentially offering life-changing opportunities.

Rozek and colleagues worked with 1,175 freshman biology students at a public high school in Illinois, 285 of which came from low-income families. At the school, around half of all low-income students traditionally fail their biology exam, compared to only 6% of their high-income peers.

Researchers carried out only two interventions: before the first-semester final examination in January and before the second one examination in May. The intervention was a 10-minute writing exercise where students were randomly assigned one of the following conditions:

  • an expressive writing intervention in which students wrote freely about their thoughts before the test;
  • a reappraisal intervention in which students were asked to evaluate their symptoms of stress as helpful for test taking’
  • an intervention that combines expressive writing and reappraisal interventions;
  • and an active control condition that instructed students to ignore symptoms of their stress and nervousness.

At the end of the study, a minority of children refused to share their data with the study. But out of those who did, 80 were in the control group, and 168 were in the other three groups. After the intervention, 60% of the children in the control group passed the exam — whereas in the other three groups, 82% did (results were similar across all three groups).

High-income students, however, experienced no significant benefit. Rozek suspects that these students were already more adept at controlling their emotions, which would explain a part of the difference between the two groups.

Of course, this is only a small part in bridging the achievement gap between children from different levels of income, but it is a good place to start, Rozek concludes.

The study was published in PNAS.



Humor done right helps in the classroom, 99% of students report. Bad humor hurts

When in doubt, crack open a funny one.

Shadow joke.

Image credits Hans Braxmeier.

Science classrooms stand to benefit from humor, new research suggests. This first-of-its-kind study revealed that humor can have a positive impact on students’ ability to learn, but also a negative one if wielded improperly. Luckily, the team also identified which kind of jokes go over smoothly and which risk offending students.

The ‘Ha-ha’ factor

Humor can help lighten the mood and help students establish rapport with their instructors. The study, penned by researchers from the Arizona State University’s School of Life Sciences, found that students appreciate when instructors tell jokes in science class. Female and male students, however, differ on what topics they find funny or offensive.

The team surveyed students from 25 college science courses on their perceptions of instructor humor. Out of the total of 1,637 respondents, 99% said they appreciate instructor humor and feel it improves the overall experience of college. Many also said it helps decrease stress, enhance the relationship between students and the instructor, and remind them what was taught in class.

It came as a surprise, the team admits.

“I went into [this study] thinking that maybe we shouldn’t be joking in the classroom, but I left the study thinking that instructors should use humor as a way to better connect with students,” said Sara Brownell, associate professor in the school and senior author of the paper.

“But, as might seem obvious, we need to be careful with what we’re joking about because we found the topics that instructors are joking about can have different effects on different students.”

With great humor, however, also comes great chance to offend somebody.

The good news is that lukewarm jokes — those that students don’t actually find funny — won’t do any damage; such jokes don’t change the students’ attention to course content or their relationship with the instructor, the team reports. The bad news is that if an instructor tells a joke that students find both unfunny and offensive, they can seem less relatable and make students pay less attention, according to over 40% of respondents. The effect seems to be more pronounced on female students, the team adds.

As a group, male and female students will also laugh at different jokes — and they’ll be offended by different jokes, too. In the survey, science students were presented with a list of hypothetical topics that a professor could joke about and asked to rate how they feel about each.

Male students were more likely to find jokes told by the instructor about gender, sexual orientation, religious identity, and race funny. Female students were more likely to find these same hypotheticals offensive. Both, however, found jokes about science, college, and television to be palatable.

“There were 23 subjects that males were more likely than females to report that they might find funny, including all 14 subjects related to social identities,” the paper reads. “However, there was only one subject, food puns, that females were more likely than males to report that they might find funny

“More and more studies are starting to paint a picture that the classroom environment is really important for student learning,” Brownell explains. “Science classrooms and the instructors teaching the science are typically described by students as boring, unapproachable and difficult. So, science instructors who try to be funny can create better learning environments, as long as they are not offensive.”

The authors suggest that instructors weave humor into their course, but that they pay attention to what kind of jokes they crack. “Is it a joke about cute animals? Probably OK.”, says co-author Katelyn Cooper”.A pun about science? Probably OK.”

The study is the product of a collaboration between the team and 16 students (graduate and undergraduates) enrolled in a class focusing on biology education research. The entire class worked on the project for one semester, acting as investigators — formulating the initial research idea, collecting and analyzing data, and editing the final manuscript.

The paper “To be funny or not to be funny: Gender differences in student perceptions of instructor humor in college science courses” has been published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Credit: Pixabay.

Scientists find more than 1,200 genes linked to educational attainment

Credit: Pixabay.

Credit: Pixabay.

As part of one of the largest human genetics studies to date, an international team of scientists has identified more than 1,200 genetic variants associated with the level of education a person completes. A ‘polygenic score’, which the researchers developed based on these variants, can explain more than 11% of the variance in educational attainment between the participants.

The study published in the journal Nature Genetics involved a staggering 1.1 million participants from 15 countries. The meta-analysis used information derived from 71 datasets, including some of the largest genetic datasets in the world, such as the UK Biobank and those belonging to personal genomics company 23andMe.

Researchers spent more than two years analyzing the genetic information on the participants, which they linked to questionnaires that gauged the number of school years they completed. The study participants were age 30 and older and were of European descent.

Previously, a much smaller study identified 74 gene variants — some known to be involved in brain development — that were moderately predictive of the number of completed school years. This time, the huge pool of data managed to surface a wealth of new gene variants that may influence the educational attainment — 1,271 gene variants, to be more precise. Some of these genes are involved in neuron-to-neuron communication and neurotransmitter secretion.

“[The study] moves us in a clearer direction in understanding the genetic architecture of complex behavior traits like educational attainment,” said co-first author Robbee Wedow, a graduate student in CU Boulder’s Department of Sociology and researcher with the Institute for Behavioral Genetics.

These 1,271 genes serve to explain about 4% of the variation in the number of completed school years across the individuals sampled in the meta-analysis. However, when the effects of all the variants were measured across the genome, the researchers were able to develop a polygenic score. The score was predictive of 11-13% of the variation in educational attainment.

However, the researchers stress that individual gene variants have little predictive value.

“It would be completely misleading to characterize our results as identifying genes for education,” said corresponding author Daniel Benjamin, an associate professor at the Center for Economic and Social Research at the University of Southern California.

Of course, having a low polygenic score doesn’t mean that a person won’t achieve a high level of education or is ‘handicapped’ in some way. Socioeconomic status, personality (i.e. ambition), family — these are all important factors that may be far more important than genes in predicting educational attainment. In other words, it’s a matter of both nature and nurture.

The study is still important, nevertheless, as it helps scientists zoom-in on the contribution of the “nature” part. In doing so, the study helps paint a clearer picture of the complex interplay between genetics and the environment in shaping a person’s level of education.

“The most exciting part of this study is the polygenic score. Its level of predictive power for a behavioral outcome is truly remarkable,” said Wedow.

The richest 1% people could own 64% of all wealth by 2030

Wealth is being overwhelmingly concentrated in the hands of the few: a new survey reveals that if current trends continue, the world’s richest 1% are set to control two-thirds of the world’s wealth by 2030. Survey authors warn world leaders that if this continues, it will fuel growing distrust and anger over the coming decade.

It’s not a surprise that the world’s richest are, well, disproportionately rich, but the disparity has gotten bigger and bigger in recent years. Already, a previous report from earlier this year has shown that just 42 people hold as much wealth as the 3.7 billion poorest people in the world. Furthermore, 82% of all wealth created in 2017 went to the top 1%, so this small percentile is set to accumulate even more wealth.

A report by the House of Commons library in the UK found that the wealth of the richest 1% has been growing at an average of 6% a year, whereas the rest of the 99% only grow by 3% a year. If this trend continues, the top 1% of humanity’s population will own almost two-thirds of all economic wealth in just over a decade — that’s amounts to $305tn (£216.5 trillion), up from $140 trillion today.

The research was commissioned by Liam Byrne, the former Labour cabinet minister, who told The Guardian that global inequality was “at a tipping point”.

Commenting on the impact of this inequality in January, Mark Goldring, the chief executive of Oxfam (a charity focused on poverty) said:

“The concentration of extreme wealth at the top is not a sign of a thriving economy, but a symptom of a system that is failing the millions of hardworking people on poverty wages who make our clothes and grow our food.”

This change is not without effect. Polling by Opinium, a market research consultancy, reports that most people feel very negatively about the growing influence of the wealthy, and this is easy to see in all layers of daily life. Those who feel economically insecure especially distrust the rich and the government — and the consequences can be devastating. However, there are even more tangible consequences to extreme economic inequality.

Several studies have established a positive relationship between income inequality and crime. According to a survey of research conducted between 1968 and 2000, most researchers point to evidence economically unequal societies have higher crime rates. That survey concludes that inequality is “the single factor most closely and consistently related to crime.” Inequality also decreases the overall health of a population — something that’s especially true in the US, where more and more people are struggling to cope with increasing health costs (in other countries, which support universal health care, the effect is diminished). Poor health impacts the overall prosperity of a society, so, consequently, economic inequality leads to an even greater impoverishment.

There is also a mountain of research correlating social inequality to a decrease in overall education quality. In unequal societies, government support tends to decline for public education programs, creating a dangerous feedback loop.



It’s official: College men think they’re smarter than they really are

If you think women in science don’t have it hard — then you’re probably not a woman in science.

We all know that overconfident personality, the type who thinks they’re so much better than they really are. We also know that one person who’s really good, but doesn’t have enough confidence. Well, as a new study has shown, the odds are that that first person is a man, and the second one is a woman.

Katelyn Cooper, a PhD student at Arizona State University School of Life Sciences and her adviser, assistant professor Sara Brownell, wanted to study this effect on biology undergrads.

The average grade of the class was 3.3. But when they asked students if they thought they were smarter than the average, male students thought they were smarter than 66 percent of the class, whereas female students thought they were smarter than 54 percent of the class.

Of course, most people tend to slightly overestimate their results, but the difference between the male and female students was quite significant. Men were also three times more likely than women to say they were smarter than the classmate they worked with most closely. This isn’t necessarily a new find.

“This echoes what has been previously shown in the literature; a review of nearly 20 published papers on self-estimated intelligence concluded that men rate themselves higher than women on self-estimated intelligence,” Cooper and Brownell wrote in their report, published in Advances in Physiology Education.

“More and more of these studies are painting similar pictures,” Brownell said.

It’s no secret that STEM is being dominated by men, and women still struggle to establish a solid position in many fields of science and industry. The antiquated, long-held beliefs that men are somehow better than women at subjects like math or physics have long been disproved but unfortunately, unhealthy attitudes still persist.

In terms of Cooper and Brownell’s study, they already identified immediate consequences of this issue:

“Females are not participating as much in science class. They are not raising their hands and answering questions.”

It’s not just a self-attitude — it spills into interpersonal relationships as well. It’s common for women to feel the disdain of their colleagues or to face disproportionate challenges in their careers. These may seem like inconsequential factors, but they do add up and consolidate an unhealthy attitude for all people involved.

It’s important to note however that the findings didn’t apply only to women: non-native English people were also exposed to similar doubts.

“We found that men and native English speakers had significantly higher academic self-concept relative to the whole class compared with women and non-native English speakers, respectively,” the study concludes.

Journal Reference: Katelyn M. Cooper, Anna Krieg, and Sara E. Brownell. Who perceives they are smarter? Exploring the influence of student characteristics on student academic self-concept in physiology. https://doi.org/10.1152/advan.00085.2017

Students get poorer grades at classes that don’t match their biological clocks

A new study showed that students consistently fare better at classes that fit their biological clock and worse at classes that don’t — raising new questions about traditional class times.

We all know that one person who just can’t wake up in the morning. Twenty alarm clocks, snooze after snooze, a grumpy walk to the morning coffee — the whole nine yards. Well, those people are bound to have lower grades in the early classes, but it’s not just them. According to a new study, everyone fares worse outside of their comfort time.

Researchers tracked the personal daily online activity profiles of nearly 15,000 college students as they logged into campus servers. They sorted them into three groups — “night owls,” “daytime finches” and “morning larks” — based on when they tended to be more active.

They found that when students were working out of sync to their biological clock (like night owls in the morning or morning larks in the afternoon), they would suffer from a “social jet lag” — a condition in which peak alertness times are at odds with work, school or other demands. However, most notably, most students were out of sync with school hours.

“We found that the majority of students were being jet-lagged by their class times, which correlated very strongly with decreased academic performance,” said study co-lead author Benjamin Smarr, a postdoctoral fellow who studies circadian rhythm disruptions in the lab of UC Berkeley psychology professor Lance Kriegsfeld.

Owls performed worst of all the groups due to chronic social jet lag. Social lag also with overall GPA (Image courtesy of Benjamin Smarr).

Social lag wasn’t only associated with decreased academic performance — it was also linked with obesity and excessive alcohol and tobacco use.

Researchers say that this research supports shifting school hours to a time that’s more accessible to most students. Rather than admonish students for going to sleep too late, schools should adapt to their biological clocks, taking advantage of the time of day when students are most capable of learning. They also call for an individualization of the teaching process — where different students learn at different times, to facilitate academic performance.

“Our research indicates that if a student can structure a consistent schedule in which class days resemble non-class days, they are more likely to achieve academic success,” said study co-lead author Aaron Schirmer, an associate professor of biology at Northeastern Illinois University.

The findings have been published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Useful tips for writing a coursework

Read this article to find out what to do done before you start writing a coursework on any subject. Consider the tips carefully and make your life easier.

Before You Start a Coursework

Image via Pixabay.

A coursework is the kind of writing that highlights a student’s academic knowledge and talents. It takes away some of the pressure of the exam, being more equitable towards students who are not very stress-durable and who risk failing during an oral or written test session due to it.

Even though coursework has been removed and replaced with “Controlled Assessment” in the UK, most of which must be completed under exam conditions without teacher assistance, coursework is still popular in many parts of the world — and it can be just as challenging as exams are. Actually, completing a coursework involves much more preparation and work than a typical exam.

The amount of time allotted for coursework completion is the reason why students are expected to meet high standards during the challenge and show professionalism while doing it.

You need to research the topic, gather data, and demonstrate writing skills to successfully complete the job. Here is a short preparation guide which can help you get things done much easier, faster, and better. Read it and plan your work accordingly. Keep in mind that if you don’t have enough time or energy to finish a coursework by yourself, there are online resources where you can ask professionals to help you.

Coursework Structure

Certain coursework can be completed as an extended essay or project. The goal of this kind of paper differs from subject to subject, though usually the emphasis is placed on conducting independent research on the topic. In this case, the work tends to become more of an investigation. You put on a detective hat, and then explore, analyze, and explain the topic.

Let’s take a few examples.


English coursework usually takes the form of an extended written essay on a topic of your choosing. Professors will usually give you a certain amount of topics to consider and help you choose a  suitable format — like comparative or analytical writing.

You’re usually given a choice of themes and/or texts to explore, and even though creativity is typically appreciated, the key is still a thorough and analytical understanding of the theme. Comparisons between different texts or authors are quite common in English coursework.


Coursework in Geography is focused on data gathering, analysis, and reporting with the goal of finding answers for some specific phenomena in the field of geography. For instance, you can be asked to observe soil erosion processes on a specific beach, or the development patterns of urban centers compared to rural ones.

In some cases, it can also involve a bit of field work, though it’s usually not mandatory.


In science subjects, coursework is kind of a scientific project or experiment conducted and reported on by a student. Even if it’s a practical project, it still involves quite a bit of theoretical research, and you will have to explain not only how, but also why it works the way it does.

If it’s a theoretical project, then you will need to demonstrate an excellent understanding of the described topics. Many students are lulled by a sense of false security while writing a coursework, and this can be especially tricky when working in sciences.

Coursework Writing Rules

It is important for you to know about the rules of coursework thoroughly earlier on. If you do not follow these requirements, you run the risk of your coursework being disqualified. These rules include:

  • No Plagiarism

Plagiarism is especially dangerous because of the mass of readily available, relevant information on the web. You need to make sure everything included in your coursework is described using your own words. In most cases, they expect you to sign some kind of declaration to confirm that your work is 100% original. To put it simply, don’t copy stuff from the internet.

  • Teachers Can Help

A teacher can help you pass through whatever you might need to include into your paper. They can show you exactly what the examiners expect you to show them as a final result. It’s best to ask your teacher any questions you may have in regards to your coursework. He or she will be able to look through your very first drafts and provide recommendations and tips about additions or improvements for your writing.

  • Word Count Check

Courseworks come with a minimum required number of words, and your professors hope you actually stick to that number. Check it all twice to make sure whether footnotes, appendices, and bibliographies are included in the overall word count or not. Also, don’t use empty words just to rise up the word count — make your words count.

  • Topic Check

Check what topics are allowed for your coursework. If any other of your exams overlap with the topics provided, you will be expected to pick from the other topic for your paper.

Selecting the coursework topic

The best approach is to focus on a topic that’s relevant to your personal interests. That will help you maintain the enthusiasm you need to complete your coursework and will make the whole process more enjoyable for you.

In subjects connected to the sciences, they often expect you to choose something that can be changed, measured, or controlled. These topics need to be validated through experiment — you actually need to dive into a scientific practice to have a good science coursework completed.

campus inequality

U.S. News rankings driving economic inequality on campus

Earning a college degree used to be a proven way to climb the social mobility ladder but a new Politico investigation suggests universities all over the United States are reinforcing existing wealth.

According to the Equality of Opportunity Project, the country’s elite universities such as Yale or Princeton admit more students coming from families whose earnings are in the top one percent than the bottom 60 percent combined. Writing for Politico, Benjamin Wermund argues that the U.S. News rankings are at least partly to blame for this situation. These rankings rely on criteria which reward schools that favor wealthier students over less wealthy applicants.

When universities chase questionable rankings, students get left behind

The assumption is that the more a school spends per student, the better its ranking ought to be, with little concern for economic efficiency. The downside is that a system predicated on wealth fosters a growing resentful underclass. Studies already report that economic mobility in the United States is seriously hindered, making many question the fabled American Dream. One 2015 report by the Center on Poverty and Inequality, for instance, used recent IRS data to show that ‘roughly half of parental income advantages are passed onto the next generation in the form of higher earnings.’

One obvious way to bridge the wealth gap is to ensure that more and more of the population earns a college degree. With a degree, individuals coming from low-income families can get better-paying jobs and have a better career outlook. If anything, today’s academic paradigm seems to run contrary to this thinking.

Part of the problem is that schools are now chasing the US News rankings which for the past 24 years has compared national colleges and universities using questionable criteria.

  • Graduation and retention rates (22.5%). Schools are basically rewarded for graduating more students. This advantages both low-income and high-income students. Top universities have fewer low-income students who are less likely to drop out, however, so their rankings climb.
  • Undergraduate academic reputation (22.5%). This questionable criterion is based on scores which college deans, presidents, and provosts give to other universities. Many critics have voiced concerns that some university leaders might score rivals lowers just to boost their own campus score.
  • Student selectivity (12.5%). SAT and ACT scores make up 65 percent of a university’s selectivity ranking while high school standing accounts for another 25 percent. Standardized tests disproportionately benefit students from families which can afford to pay for test preparation. One 2016 report found students from the top income bracket scored more than 130 points higher on all portions of the SAT than their peers in the bottom bracket.
  • Faculty resources (20%) and Financial resources (10%). This simply measures how much a school spends per student and faculty. This motivates schools to keep class size small and accept more well-off students who don’t require financial aid and thus free up resources to pay faculty more.
  • Alumni giving (5%). US News seems to think that giving indirectly correlates to student satisfaction. This is a rather flawed assumption, however, since Ivy League schools are known to court alumni for donations. According to Harvard Crimson, more than 40% of Harvard’s class of 2021 have family members who attended before them.
  • Graduation rate performance (7.5%). This is perhaps the only criterion that advantages low-income students. This portion rewards schools that are working to help the most disadvantaged students.

“We’re not setting the admissions standards at any schools,” said Robert Morse, chief data strategist at U.S. News who develops the methodologies and surveys for the rankings. “Our main mission for our rankings is to provide information for prospective students and their parents, and we’re measuring academic quality. That’s what we’ve been doing. We’ve been doing this for 30 years, and we believe we’ve been driving transparency in higher education data. Our methodology and the data we’ve chosen for the best colleges rankings is to measure which schools are the top in academic excellence.”

The backlash

It’s not only elite colleges and universities that are chasing these rankings. The Southern Methodist University in Dallas organized a one-billion dollar fundraiser to purposely improve many of the areas ranked by US News. Baylor University, a private Christian school in Texas, invested hundreds of millions into faculty salaries and program that might rank them higher. They even have a stated goal of breaking the top 50 schools within ten years. Baylor University is now ranked #71, up four positions from their 2012 standing.

This sort of spending means additional resources are required. Most often than not, tuitions are affected. For instance, in 2002, Baylor students were charged $17,214 a year in tuition and fees, but that figure quickly soared to $44,040 in 2017. Overall, tuition at public colleges and universities has increased by at least 28 percent over the past decade.

Meanwhile, Georgia State University reduced admission emphasis on SAT scores, preferring to focus on high school scores, which it found to be a better predictor of academic performance. Georgia State has also doubled the number of students on Pell Grants, who now make 60 percent of its student body.  The bottom 60 percent of income earners rose by 11 percentage points from 2000 to 2011, to 54 percent. Georgia State is thus a successful model that motivates low-income students to succeed. Despite these achievements, the university dropped 30 spots in the US News ranking.

All of this raises serious questions about the validity of a higher education system where tuition fees are already skyrocketing. Of course, no one can force US News to revise its rankings. And maybe that’s beside the point because at the end of the day universities ought to guide their policies with the public’s best interest in mind.

“If some foreign power wanted to diminish higher education in America, they would have created the U.S. News and World Report rankings,” Brit Kirwan, former chancellor of the University of Maryland system, told Politico. “You need both more college graduates in the economy and you need many more low-income students getting the benefit of higher education — and U.S. News and World Report has metrics that work directly in opposition to accomplishing those two things that our nation so badly needs.”

Schools in Turkey will stop teaching evolution

The new curriculum for primary and secondary schools in Turkey has brought a number of unwelcome changes, including the termination of all lessons about evolution.

There are some unfortunate similarities between Turkey and the US in this aspect. Image credits: Quinn Anne / Wiki Commons.

İsmet Yılmaz, the Minister of National Education in Turkey, is set to introduce a series of radical changes to the country’s education system. Religion courses had already been increased from 2 to 6 hours a week and Intelligent Design was taught alongside evolution. Now, it will be the only perspective taught to everyone until university. Of course, even at university level, only biology-related classes will discuss the topic — and this ensures that only a small minority of the country’s youth will learn about evolution.

Meanwhile, information on historic topics, such as the country’s founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (who pushed for secularism in the country) is reduced.

While Yilmaz said the draft is still open to feedback, he also cast his doubts about the scientific validity of evolution.

“Whether it is scientific, merely a hypothesis, or just theoretical, all these are debatable.”

Alpaslan Durmuş, who chairs the board of education, also said that evolution was debatable, and also that it is too difficult for students to understand.

“We believe that these subjects are beyond their [students] comprehension,” said Durmuş in a video published on the education ministry’s website.

What this set of measures is doing is ensuring that Turkey becomes more and more religious, something which Ataturk tried to avoid. Ironically, there are some strong similarities with the US — a country where religion is starting to play a more and more important role in governance, despite the intentions of the Founding Fathers. “The government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,” John Adams, the country’s second president, is famously quoted as saying.

The move came following the pressure of conservative groups and fell on fertile grounds in the government. Mustafa Akyol, a senior fellow at the Freedom Project at Wellesley College quotes Egitim Bir-Sen, one such group, as an important source of influence.

“Since the early 2000s, religious conservatives have had the upper hand in Turkey, and their distaste for the theory of evolution is well established,” Mr Akyol wrote. “Many of them see the theory as corrosive to religious faith and want to ‘protect’ young generations from such ‘harmful’ ideas.”

Middle-eastern countries have struggled to accept evolution and implement it in a largely religious society. Education is regarded as a particularly contentious avenue, as it would teach children to think more for themselves and challenge religious beliefs. We wouldn’t want the kids thinking for themselves, who knows what they’ll do next, right?

In Turkey, reactions to this have been mixed, highlighting a clear divide between the two sides of the country. The more educated Turks (often from the higher echelons of society) have spoken against it, with small-scale protests erupting around Turkey’s large cities. But for the religious, largely rural population of Turkey, this is a victory of piety.

The science, however, is pretty clear. Evolution is at the core of biological research, and while some of the nuts and bolts of the theory are still being analyzed and improved upon, evolutionary processes are unanimously accepted by biologists. It’s unfortunate to see religious beliefs interfering with scientific realities.

The final changes will be officially announced at the end of the fasting month of Ramadan. Among other changes, the overall academic difficulty will be significantly decreased — a measure frowned upon in education often used just to inflate numbers — and the failed coup attempt will be included in Social Studies courses starting from the 6th grade.


Teaching school children to sniff out bogus medical claims works

Researchers taught thousands of Ugandan school children, some as young as ten years, how to think critically and sniff out bogus health claims. When assessed with various tests, there were twice as many children among those who received the ‘recipe’ for sniffing out medical falsehoods that got a passing grade than the control group comprised of children who were given no instructions. A similar trend was reported for parents, as well, suggesting ‘bullshit detection’ can become an acquired skill — more important than ever in a so-called ‘post-truth’ era.


Credit: Pixabay.

A good bullshit detector starts early

The experiment was led by Andy Oxman, who is the research director at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health. Oxman became inspired to school young people in the ways of critical thinking after attending of his 10-year-old son’s classes almost twenty years ago. Back then, Oxman told his son’s class that some teenagers found that red M&Ms makes you feel good and helped them write and draw more quickly. There were also some side-effects, though: a little pain in their stomach, and they got dizzy if they stood up quickly.

Oxman challenged the school kids to an experiment meant to validate or disprove these findings. The class was divided into a couple of working groups, each with a full bag of M&Ms at their disposal. Although no particular instructions were offered, the children were clever enough to notice that they a) had to try out each different colored M&M to see what the produced effect was and that b) no such test would be completely fair if the children could see the color of the M&M. Essentially, they had discovered the utility of ‘blinding’ in science before anyone had the chance to teach them what it meant.

By the end of the experiment, most of the children reported little to any difference in the effects of differently colored M&M and even questioned the teenagers’ method itself. Oxman had been disappointing by previous interactions with adults meant at instilling critical thinking — and this was before Facebook even existed, let alone the ‘fake news’ craze. This episode, however, suggested that if children were given the means to spot bullshit, they could become immunized against said bullshit. But could he prove it?

Many years later, Oxman got the chance to test this hypothesis in a huge trial involving no fewer than 10,000 school children from 120 primary schools in Uganda. Oxman and colleagues adapted concepts from a popular book called Testing Treatments (free downloadwhich explains in plain English all the concepts people need to grasp in order to separate garbage from genuine health advice. Eventually, the team reached six key points a person would need to grasp in order to think critically about medical treatments. As reported by VOXthese are:

  1. Just because a treatment is popular or old does not mean it’s beneficial or safe.
  2. New, brand-name, or more expensive treatments may not be better than older ones.
  3. Treatments usually come with both harms and benefits.
  4. Beware of conflicts of interest — they can lead to misleading claims about treatments.
  5. Personal experiences, expert opinions, and anecdotes aren’t a reliable basis for assessing the effects of most treatments.
  6. Instead, health claims should be based on high-quality, randomized controlled trials.

According to an Ugandan urban myth, cow dung helps burns heal faster. It does not. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

According to a Ugandan urban myth, cow dung helps burns heal faster. It does not. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Armed with a solid templated and fun exercises, the team comprised of researchers from Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, Norway, and England, ran their program across more than a hundred schools in Uganda. The researchers also put together a guidebook for teachers and cartoon-filled textbooks for children. The stories presented in the textbooks were also adapted to fit the local narrative, including myth bashing. For instance, many locals recommend putting cow dung on burns as the best treatment for burns [false]. Some of the included myths are known for their particular anti-scientific and menacing nature. For instance, a local myth that had circulated wildly suggested immunization was linked to infertility somehow. As a result, parents stopped allowing their children to become vaccinated with grave consequences. Another myth caused people to replace antiretroviral therapies for HIV with herbal supplements.

To see how all of this work impacted children’s critical thinking, 10,000 fifth-graders, mostly ages 10 to 12, participated in a trial from June to September 2016. Half of the school children had been schooled in detecting bogus medical claims while the other half wasn’t and acted as the control group.

The average score on the test for the kids schooled by Oxman and colleagues was 62.4 percent compared to only 43.1 percent for the control group. More importantly, maybe, twice as many kids from the intervention schools achieved a passing score than those from the control group. The schooling may have even formed the future’s Ugandan critical elite. About one-fifth of the kids schooled by the researchers had mastered the key concepts (more than 20 of 24 answers correct) compared to only 1% of the control group.

When the researchers tried the same thing on parents, they saw similar results. Instead of a course, the parents listened to a dedicated podcast about critical thinking in a medical context. Twice as many parents who listened to the podcast series passed a test on their understanding of key health concepts compared with parents in the control group, as reported in two studies published in the Lancet (1 and 2).

Though it has its limitations, the sheer scale of the study suggests early inoculation of critical thinking works! In today’s age of unshameful, blatant lying in the public space, it’s nice to hear that simple education can actually work.



Children who miss more preschool show fewer academic gains

Parents and kids tend to not give kindergarten too much attention. It’s not mandatory in many countries, and even when it is, it’s often simply overlooked. But a new study shows we shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss pre-school.

“Preschool absences may undermine the benefits of high-quality preschool education,” explains Arya Ansari, postdoctoral research associate at the University of Virginia, the study’s lead author.

Skipping Kindergarten might have a negative impact later on in a child’s education. tImage credits: Paebi.

Studies on pre-school education are not as abundant as others further down the education line because pre-school attendance is not mandated and it’s hard to ensure inclusiveness and relevancy. Even official programs don’t always track this attendance. Also, little is known about why kids don’t attend pre-school and what impact this has on their further education.

Still, Ansari and her team managed to find information on 2,842 children ages 3 and 4 years who attended Head Start in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. Head Start is a program of the United States Department of Health and Human Services that provides comprehensive early childhood education, health, nutrition, and parent involvement services for low-income families. They noted that most of the kids were from ethnic-minority households and came from single-parent families.

The team found that on average, kids missed eight days of the school year, but 12% of children were chronically absent — meaning they skipped 10% or more of the school year. The more days kids missed, the more “holes” they had in terms of their overall education. Excessive absenteeism was also correlated with a less developed skill set in terms of overall education and interpersonal interaction.

While authors caution that correlation does not imply causation and the exact impact of preschool absenteeism are still not properly understood, there are serious reasons for concern. They hope that all involved stakeholders will be more involved to ensure that kids step on the right path from the earliest stages.

“Preschool teachers and administrators, as well as researchers and policymakers, should make efforts to reduce preschool absences,” says Kelly M. Purtell, assistant professor of human sciences at The Ohio State University, who coauthored the study. “One way to do this is to discuss the challenges to attendance that parents face and work with them to reduce these barriers.”

Journal Reference: Arya Ansari, Kelly M. Purtell. Absenteeism in Head Start and Children’s Academic Learning. Child Development, 2017; DOI: 10.1111/cdev.12800

Women's Education.

Empowering women around the world could help usher in a sustainable society, paper argues

Our best bet to feed the populations of the future without sacrificing the planet’s biodiversity, a team of authors reported this week in the journal Science, lies with the ladies. Specifically, by improving women’s access to education, reproductive health services, and contraceptive technologies, an unsustainable population boom might be nipped in the bud.

Women's Education.

Female education in India.
Image credits Tony.saji / Wikimedia.

The paper starts by looking at the interplay between rising human populations and the dramatic decrease in other species or their total populations. Between 1970 and 2010 (less than two human generations) the world lost more than half its wild animals, according to a World Wildlife Fund report — totaling an estimated 39 percent of terrestrial wildlife, 39 percent of marine wildlife, and 76 percent of freshwater wildlife. So what does it all come down to?

“It’s the food. Follow the food and then you’ll know why the planet’s diversity of life is in trouble,” said Eileen Crist, an associate professor of science and technology in society in Virginia Tech’s College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences and the lead author of the review paper.

“We’re causing a mass extinction, and agriculture is arguably the primary driver of those losses.”

And with populations set to boom around the world, the strain on the environment is only going to get worse. High-income countries, which account for a disproportionate use of resources, are more likely to have stable or even declining populations. But low-income countries have growing populations. The UN claims that we’ll go from today’s 7.5 billion to more than 9 billion by mid-century and 11 billion by the end of the century. Couple with economic growth, the most numerous generation of humans in history will consume more meat and other resources; inevitably, they will put immense pressure on the planet’s already dwindling biosphere. All things considered, we’ll need to double of even triple our agricultural output by the end of the century to feed everyone, the authors point out.

“But we’ve already taken up the most lush, arable land for cultivation, and we’ve squeezed wild nature into increasingly narrow pockets around the world,” Crist adds.

“How can we make more food without destroying more nature?”

Made with data from the CIA World Factbook.
Image credits Sbw01f / Wikimedia.

One solution is what agricultural experts call “sustainable intensification,” the pursuit of increased food production without breaking new ground for agriculture or otherwise impacting the environment. But the team says this approach isn’t enough on its own — we also need to work on lowering demand. They conclude that reaching a sustainable society which can equitably provide for while protecting the biosphere will require concentrated effort to stabilize and eventually lower the global population — without them, “nature will continue to take the fall,” Crist says.

Break the cycle

Ok, pause for a second. There are probably some who are getting a Malthusian, a la cycle of misery vibe here — I can’t blame you. The paper’s subject does, in many respects, overlap with those penned by Malthus. Which did, admittedly, have horrific repercussions on the world. Basically, in a way they’ve reached the same conclusion as Malthus — we need to be fewer “people” —  but through a very different approach, which is why I decided to write about the findings in the first place.

The authors believe talks on policy directly regarding population levels have been muted in the past few decades in part because of discomfort around global imbalances — but today, they say, excessive consumption is no longer limited to the developed world, so we need to have this talk. The global middle class of 3.2 billion in 2016 is expected to rise to roughly 5 billion by 2030, they write. Some 40% of India’s population is predicted to join the ranks of the middle class by the middle of the 21st century, adding almost half a billion consumers to the global economy — up from 50 million in 2006 — from one nation alone.

“A key solution to unsustainable population growth is the empowerment of women,” Crist said. “By enhancing their human rights, giving them and their partners access to reproductive health services and contraceptive technologies, and improving their educational attainment, we can help address this planetary crisis.”

“Wherever women are empowered educationally, culturally, economically, politically, and legally, fertility rates fall,” the authors write. “Populations tend to move toward states of zero or negative growth when women achieve equal standing with men, as long as family planning services and contraceptives are readily available.”

There are many factors that drive a nation’s natality rate, but one of the strongest is women’s education levels and access to family planning options — which usually lowers this rate as women forgo their traditionally appointed roles and take more control over their lives. Daniel Callahan talked about this link (and the issue of overpopulation at large) in his book The Five Horsemen of the Modern World. I recommend you give it a read if it ever falls into your hand.

And I’m all for that solution. Let’s face it, for the most part of history women have been handed the short end of the stick. Most of you reading this probably come from developed or the better parts of developing countries, so you are (hopefully) aware of how the bits fit together and can decide for yourself if you want to be a mother or not — but for most women on the planet, that’s only a dream. Even if it doesn’t work and we don’t get to become sustainable, I still think it’s a change for the good.

“The human population is not the only variable stressing Earth,” the authors conclude. “But it is a powerful force that is also eminently amenable to change, if the international political will can be mustered.”

The full paper “The interaction of human population, food production, and biodiversity protection” has been published in the journal Science.

Natural selection is weeding out our drive to go to school, study reports

The genes that make some people seek higher education seem to have been selecting themselves out of our genome for the last 80 years, a new study has found. The authors think that this process of negative selection will have a big effect on the evolution of the human race in the future centuries.

Image credits Pixabay / Pexels.

Researchers from the Iceland-based genetics firm deCODE have studied the genomes of over 129,808 natives looking for genetic markers that predispose people to achieve longer periods of education. The team looked at the birth rates of these people (all between 1910 and 1990) and sequenced the genome of each individual.

By comparing this genetic data to their level of education, the team found that a genetic factor was involved in a person’s likelihood of attending school for longer. The last step was to create a ‘polygenic score’ based on more than 600,000 sequence markers in the genome to estimate a person’s genetic predisposition for education.

Still, genetics obviously isn’t the only factor that dictates a person’s levels of education. After correlating the polygenic score with environmental, social, and biological factors, however, the researchers found individual with higher scores were less likely to have many children.

Running out of a good thing

In essence, they found that these genes also made people less likely to have a large family — meaning that in the end, smart people contribute less and less to the country’s gene pool.

“As a species, we are defined by the power of our brains. Education is the training and refining of our mental capacities,” said Kari Stefansson, CEO of deCODE.

“Thus, it is fascinating to find that genetic factors linked to more time spent in education are becoming rarer in the gene pool.”

This finding doesn’t mean that people are dumber than ever. Modern education along with a wider access to schools and information than before should balance out or even over-match the genetic effect. However, after a few centuries’ worth of this effect adding up, we could be in some serious trouble.

“In evolutionary time, this is a blink of an eye. However, if this trend persists over many centuries, the impact could be profound.”

Overall, the average polygenic score was on a slow but evolutionary-significant decline. They also found a drop in average IQ of about 0.04 points per decade. But that might be an understatement of the problem — as Ian Sample from The Guardian reports, “that figure might rise to 0.3 points per decade” if the researchers included “all the genes that contribute to education”.

Fighting biology with textbooks

The team believes that smarter people don’t have fewer children because they’re busy doing smart stuff instead of pestering the opposite sex. It seems that the genes involved in education can actually affect their fertility on a biological level. They report that the carriers of these genes tended to have fewer children on average than those who didn’t even if they had the same level of education.

The study was performed using only subjects in Iceland, so there’s no guarantee as of now that people in other countries are going through the same process. Still, it’s something that we’d better keep an eye on. The results go to show the importance of continuing and improving education access and quality all over the world.

“In spite of the negative selection against these sequence variations, education levels have been increasing for decades. Indeed, we control the environment in which these genetic factors play out: the education system,” Stefansson said in a press statement.

“If we continue to improve the availability and quality of educational opportunities, we will presumably continue to improve the educational level of society as a whole.”

“Time will tell whether the decline of the genetic propensity for education will have a notable impact on human society.”

The full paper “Selection against variants in the genome associated with educational attainment” has been published in the journal PNAS.