Thursday, September 21, 2017

Tablets can teach kids to solve physical puzzles


Researchers confirm that when 4-6 year old children learn how to solve a puzzle using a touchscreen tablet, they can then apply this learning to the same puzzle in the physical world. This contradicts most previous research and suggests that different screen learning media could have different effects on skill transfer.

As tablet computers become more popular, children are using them as early as their first year of life. Companies market a huge array of interactive educational apps for kids, but are they effective and can they teach real-world skills?

Guidelines published by some government bodies suggest that while children can learn skills from screen-based media, such as videos or touchscreens, they can struggle to apply these skills elsewhere. This conventional thinking is backed by the majority of previous research.

However, some studies have shown that children can in fact translate screen-based learning to real-world skills. These contradictory findings have inspired researchers to further explore this phenomenon. One such researcher is Joanne Tarasuik, of the Swinburne University of Technology in Australia.

In a previous study, Tarasuik and colleagues found that children in Australia could learn how to solve a puzzle on a touchscreen device, and then successfully transfer these skills to completing the same puzzle in the physical world. As this is contradictory to most previous research, the team repeated the study in different children, with a different language and culture, to make sure that the findings were correct and robust.

In this new replication study, recently published in open-access journal Frontiers in Psychology, the Australian team collaborated with researchers in Croatia to repeat their original study with Croatian children. The study used the 'Tower of Hanoi' puzzle, which involves moving discs between pegs so that they line up in order on a different peg, using the smallest possible number of moves.

The children practiced the puzzle on a touchscreen app, or with a physical version using wooden pegs and discs, and the researchers measured how many moves they took to complete it, and how long they spent. Some of the children practiced the puzzle several times on the tablet before trying it on the wooden version. This allowed the researchers to see if the kids' virtual practice could improve their skills in the physical world.

The children all needed a similar number of moves to complete the wooden puzzle, regardless of whether they had practiced using the virtual puzzle, the physical puzzle, or a combination of the two. From the first to final attempt at the puzzle, all the children also improved their speed.

"We successfully replicated our previous findings that 4-6 year old children can apply knowledge of this puzzle from practice using a touchscreen device, to the physical version of the puzzle," says Tarasuik.

The researchers hypothesize that unlike some passive forms of screen learning like a simple video demonstration, the interactive virtual puzzle significantly engaged the children and enhanced their learning, so that they could successfully apply those same skills to the wooden puzzle.

The findings contrast with most previous research in this area, and suggest that different screen learning media, such as video presentations or interactive apps, could have different effects on whether children can transfer learned skills to the physical world.

"These results demonstrate that 'screen time' is not a useful umbrella phrase, as what children can obtain from different types of screen media will vary, and numerous factors can impact their learning outcomes," says Tarasuik.

"We would like these results to guide future research into how and what children of different developmental stages can learn via touch screen technology, and then apply in the physical world."

Voters reward -- or punish -- school board incumbents based on white students' achievement


Voters reward or punish incumbent school board members based on the achievement of white students in their district, while outcomes for African-American and Hispanic students get relatively little attention at the ballot box, according to a study co-authored by a Baylor University scholar.

The study, published in the American Journal of Political Science, reveals a sharp divide between reality and the democratic ideal of public schools as American society's "great equalizer," said Patrick Flavin, Ph.D., associate professor of political science in Baylor's College of Arts & Sciences.
"Public education represents the largest investment in equal opportunity and social mobility in the United States," he said. "But we find little evidence that African-American or Hispanic student achievement has much influence on reelection prospects of incumbent school board members.

"Even in California school districts in which Hispanic students outnumber white students, we still uncovered patterns of racial inequality," Flavin said.

When the federal government enacted the bipartisan No Child Left Behind law in 2002, one important requirement was that information on racial student subgroups' performance be made available to parents and the public to help advance equality. Until then, many states hid achievement gaps among white, Hispanic and African-American students, Flavin said.

With the new law, "local elected officials were expected to face greater political pressure at election time to raise the performance of racial minorities and other subgroups," he said.

To examine whether that expectation matched the results, Flavin and Boston College co-author Michael T. Hartney analyzed 1,500 individual school board member elections between 2004 and 2013. The study examined elections in 946 of California's 1,025 school districts. Those districts that were not studied did not have an incumbent up for election or data was not available.

The researchers chose California because it strives to make school performance information widely available to the public so voters can evaluate schools' equality and hold school leaders accountable. It posts proficiency scores for each district's demographic groups on the Department of Education's website in late August or early September, leading up to school board elections in November.
"California also is the nation's most populous state and very racially diverse, so it made for a good test of our research question," Flavin said.

The study's results suggest that reelection of school board incumbents is tied to white student achievement; less so to Hispanic student achievement; and seemingly not at all to African-American achievement, he said.

In their effort to understand these findings better, the researchers also conducted an anonymous survey of 290 incumbent school board members in California and asked them what they believed to be important to voters in their school district. The options listed included student preparedness for college and career; school safety and student discipline; adequate administrative staffing to oversee standardized testing; and sports teams that are competitive and well-funded. One randomized half of school board respondents also viewed an additional option: "closing the racial achievement gap." By including this additional option, the researchers could discern, in an unobtrusive way, what percentage of school board members identify closing the racial achievement gap as an important issue to voters, Flavin said.

The results were striking, he said: Nearly 40 percent of school board incumbents did not report feeling electoral pressure to make progress on narrowing the racial achievement gap.

In addition to analyzing data about student achievement and incumbents' reelection, the researchers examined citizens' attitudes about the achievement gap using data from a survey conducted by the Gallup Organization and Phi Delta Kappa, a national professional organization for educators.

In the representative survey of 1,108 individuals, Hartney and Flavin found that:
  • Nearly half of respondents were unaware of differences in achievement among racial groups.
  • Of the 54 percent who were aware, all but 5 percent said the gap was "very important" or "somewhat important."
  • Of those who knew about the achievement gaps, only 24 percent believe it was due to school quality, with most believing that schools were responsible for improving the quality and closing the gap.
"Put another way, fully 76 percent of respondents who identified that the achievement gap exists believe it is due to factors outside of the control of the schools -- and by extension, school board members," Flavin said. "They believe the gap is caused by wider societal factors such as home life, culture and poverty.

"Taking our results as a whole, the study ultimately calls into question whether voter control of public school governance is a viable avenue to correct racial inequality in education that can have important and enduring effects on democratic citizenship and political equality."

Higher manganese levels in children correlate with lower IQ scores


A study led by environmental health researchers at the University of Cincinnati (UC) College of Medicine finds that children in East Liverpool, Ohio with higher levels of Manganese (Mn) had lower IQ scores. The research appears online in the journal NeuroToxicology, available in advance of publication.

The study analyzed blood and hair samples of 106 children 7 to 9 years of age from East Liverpool and surrounding communities, who enrolled in the study from March 2013 to June 2014. Working with a trained registered nurse from East Liverpool, participants and their caregivers were also given cognitive assessments and questionnaires at the time the samples were taken.

The study found that increased Mn in hair samples was significantly associated with declines in full-scale IQ, processing speed and working memory.

Manganese is an element generally found in combination with iron and many minerals. It plays a vital role in brain growth and development, but excessive exposure can result in neurotoxicity. Manganese is used widely in the production of steel, alloys, batteries and fertilizers and is added to unleaded gasoline.

Erin Haynes, DrPH, associate professor in the Department of Environmental Health and lead author of the study, was approached by East Liverpool school district officials in 2013, prompted by concerns of students' academic performance, paired with the knowledge that Mn concentrations in the area have exceeded U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reference levels for more than a decade.

"There are socioeconomic issues at play, however, they are also compounded by potentially significant environmental exposures," says Haynes, who collaborated with the Kent State East Liverpool Campus and the community group Save our County Inc., formed in 1982 by East Liverpool residents in response to the proposed construction of a hazardous waste incinerator in their community. "Children may be particularly susceptible to the neurotoxic effects of ambient Mn exposure, as their brains are undergoing a dynamic process of growth and development."

After concerns of elevated airborne levels of Mn, the school district superintendent in East Liverpool requested testing students for manganese along with neuropsychological tests. A pilot study overseen by Haynes found levels of Mn at double the level in children from the other CARES study cohort, and further investigation was pursued to examine the association between Mn exposure and child cognition.

Located in northeast Ohio along the Ohio River, East Liverpool has a demonstrated history of environmental exposures, with EPA records showing elevated levels of manganese concentrations since 2000. In 2005, East Liverpool was deemed by the EPA to be a potential environmental justice area, afflicted with major environmental exposures, and a 2010 EPA report noted manganese concentrations detected by all monitors in East Liverpool had "consistently exceeded" health-based guidelines set by the agency.

With a declining population of just 11,000, just 7.3 percent of East Liverpool residents have a college degree. The East Liverpool school district reports a higher than average percentage of students in special education (19 percent) versus the Ohio state average of 13 percent.

The school board learned of Haynes' research studying manganese in Marietta, Ohio. Marietta was the original location of the Communities Actively Researching Exposure Study (CARES) which was initiated in 2008 based on community concern about exposure to manganese from a nearby metallurgical manufacturing company. Cambridge, Ohio serves as the comparison community, and the CARES research has since expanded into East Liverpool. In previous studies, the CARES scientific team has found that both too low and too high levels of manganese can be associated with lower neurodevelopment.

Marietta and East Liverpool have some of the highest levels of ambient manganese in the country, Haynes says, and notes that their studies continue in these areas and include neuroimaging, "as we continue to advance our understanding of the impact of manganese on neurodevelopment, and help to define the lines between essential benefit and toxicological harm."

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

ADHD kids can be still -- If they're not straining their brains


How's this for exasperating: Your ADHD child fidgets and squirms his way through school and homework, but seems laser-focused and motionless sitting in front of the TV watching an action thriller.

Well, fret not, because new research shows lack of motivation or boredom with school isn't to blame for the differing behavior. It turns out that symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder such as fidgeting, foot-tapping and chair-swiveling are triggered by cognitively demanding tasks - like school and homework. But movies and video games don't typically require brain strain, so the excessive movement doesn't manifest.

"When a parent or a teacher sees a child who can sit perfectly still in one condition and yet over here they're all over the place, the first thing they say is, 'Well, they could sit still if they wanted to,'" said Mark Rapport, director of the Children's Learning Clinic at the University of Central Florida. "But kids with ADHD only need to move when they are accessing their brain's executive functions. That movement helps them maintain alertness."

Scientists once thought that ADHD symptoms were always present. But previous research from Rapport, who has been studying ADHD for more than 36 years, has shown the fidgeting was most often present when children were using their brains' executive functions, particularly "working memory." That's the system we use for temporarily storing and managing information required to carry out complex cognitive tasks such as learning, reasoning and comprehension.

As recently published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, Professor Rapport's senior doctoral student Sarah Orban and research team tested 62 boys ages 8 to 12. Of those, 32 had ADHD. Thirty did not have ADHD and acted as a control group.

During separate sessions, the children watched two short videos, each about 10 minutes long. One was a scene from "Star Wars Episode I - The Phantom Menace" in which a young Anakin Skywalker competes in a dramatic pod-race. The other was an instructional video featuring an instructor verbally and visually presenting multistep solutions to addition, subtraction and multiplication problems.
While watching, the participants were observed by a researcher, recorded and outfitted with wearable actigraphs that tracked their slightest movements. The children with ADHD were largely motionless while watching the Start Wars clip, but during the math video they swiveled in their chairs, frequently changed positions and tapped their feet.

That may not seem surprising. After all, weren't the children absorbed by the sci-fi movie and bored by the math lesson? Not so, Rapport said.

"That's just using the outcome to explain the cause," he said. "We have shown that what's really going on is that it depends on the cognitive demands of the task. With the action movie, there's no thinking involved - you're just viewing it, using your senses. You don't have to hold anything in your brain and analyze it. With the math video, they are using their working memory, and in that condition movement helps them to be more focused."

The takeaway: Parents and teachers of children with ADHD should avoid labeling them as unmotivated slackers when they're working on tasks that require working memory and cognitive processing, researchers said.

The study builds on Rapport's earlier research, including a 2015 study that found that children with ADHD must be allowed to squirm to learn.

Teens are growing up more slowly today than they did in past decades


Many people believe that teenagers today grow up faster than they used to, while others argue that today's youth are growing up more slowly, perhaps due to overprotection by their parents. A new study explored this issue by examining how often teens in recent years (compared to teens in previous decades) engaged in adult activities such as drinking alcohol, working, driving, or having sex. The study found that today's adolescents are less likely than their predecessors to take part in activities typically undertaken by adults.

Conducted by researchers at San Diego State University and Bryn Mawr College, the study is published in the journal Child Development.

"The developmental trajectory of adolescence has slowed, with teens growing up more slowly than they used to," explains Jean M. Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University and the lead author on the study. "In terms of adult activities, 18-year-olds now look like 15-year-olds once did."

The researchers examined how often teenagers engaged in activities that adults do and that children don't, including dating, working for pay, going out without parents, driving, and having sex. They analyzed seven large surveys of 8.3 million 13- to 19-year-olds between 1976 and 2016. The surveys were nationally representative, reflecting the population of U.S. teens in terms of gender, race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and geographic region.

In the surveys, teens were asked how they used their time, including their engagement in one or more adult activities, allowing researchers to compare teens in the 2010s to teens in the 2000s, 1990s, 1980s, and 1970s. The researchers also examined how changes in family size, life expectancy, education, and the economy may have influenced the speed at which teens take on adult activities.

The study found that adolescents in the 2010s are less likely to work for pay, drive, date, drink alcohol, go out without their parents, and have sex than adolescents in previous decades. The trend appeared across demographic groups (including gender, race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, region of the country, and urban/rural location), suggesting a broad-based cultural shift. The bottom line, the researchers concluded: Today's teens are growing up more slowly than their counterparts from previous decades.

The trend toward engaging in fewer adult activities cannot be explained by time spent on homework or extracurricular activities, the researchers say, because time doing those activities decreased among eighth and tenth graders and was steady among twelfth graders and college students. The authors note that the decline may be linked to the time teens spend online, which increased markedly.

The context also mattered, with teens less likely to engage in adult activities during time periods in which milestones in life occurred later, including when people had longer life expectancies, women gave birth at later ages, and people completed education later. Adult activities were also less common during time periods when families had fewer children and higher median income, and when fewer people died of communicable diseases.

"Our study suggests that teens today are taking longer to embrace both adult responsibilities (such as driving and working) and adult pleasures (such as sex and alcohol)," notes Heejung Park, assistant professor of psychology at Bryn Mawr College, who coauthored the study. "These trends are neither good nor bad, but reflect the current U.S. cultural climate."

Students' self-concepts of ability in math, reading predict later math, reading attainment


Educational and developmental psychologists have tried to understand how skills and motivation are linked to academic achievement. While research supports ties between individuals' concepts of their abilities and their achievement, we lack a complete picture of how these relations develop from childhood to adolescence.

A new longitudinal study looked at how youths' self-concepts are linked to their actual academic achievement in math and reading from middle childhood to adolescence. The study found that students' self-concepts of their abilities in these two academic domains play an important role in motivating their achievements over time and across levels of achievement.

The findings come from researchers at Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile and the University of Michigan. They appear in the journal Child Development.

"Our study shows that youths' perceptions of their abilities in middle childhood are important in promoting their later achievement in math and reading," explains Maria Ines Susperreguy, assistant professor in the Faculty of Education at Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile, who led the study.

"This relation is not limited to students who perform at the top levels, but extends to students with different levels of achievement in math and reading. Even the lowest-performing students who had a more positive view of their math and reading abilities had higher levels of achievement in math and reading."

The researchers looked at three data sets of children ages 5 to 18 - the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (13,901 British children), the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development (1,354 American children), and the Panel Study of Income Dynamics-Child Development Supplement (237 American children). Each data set included measures of self-concept and standardized assessments of early and later academic achievement.

Students' self-concept was defined as their perceptions of their capabilities to succeed on academic tasks. The study considered children's earlier achievement as well as their characteristics and backgrounds, including birth weight, race/ethnicity, gender, age, and their mother's education.
The study found that children's beliefs about their math and reading abilities explain some of the variance in their later math and reading achievement, after controlling for demographics and children's characteristics, as well as prior academic achievement.

The study also revealed that children's self-concept of their ability in math predicted later math achievement, and that their self-concept of their ability in reading predicted later reading achievement, but not vice versa. This finding suggests that the links between self-concept of ability and later achievement are specific to domains; that is, there is a link from students' self-concept about reading to reading achievement, and from students' self-concept about math to match achievement. The findings apply to students of all levels of achievement.

"When trying to understand the issues of low academic performance, we often examine what additional skills children need to succeed in school," says Pamela Davis-Kean, professor of psychology and research professor at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, who coauthored the study. "Our findings, replicated across three data sets, show that it is important to understand the relation between children's perceptions of their abilities and later achievement."

Adult Education and Attainment Scores Across Nations


A new report released compares average literacy and numeracy assessment scores for adults at different levels of education attainment in 22 countries, including the U.S. The countries all participated in the Program for International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), which is sponsored by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
The report, Adult Education Attainment and Assessment Scores: A Cross-National Comparison, was released today by the National Center for Education Statistics. Among the findings:
  • The score gaps in both literacy and numeracy between adults who did not have a high school degree and those who had at least an associate's degree were higher in the United States than in almost any other OECD country that participated in PIAAC except France;
  • The literacy and numeracy score gaps between adults who did not have a high school degree and those who had at least an associate's degree were wider for U.S. adults in their 20s than for all adults ages 16 to 65.
  • The gap for adults in their 20s in almost all of the participating OECD countries was larger between those who did not finish high school and high school graduates when compared to the gap between high school graduates and those with at least an associate's degree. This was true for both literacy and numeracy.