Montessori preschool boosts academic results and reduces income achievement gap

A longitudinal study published in Frontiers in Psychology examined how children in Montessori schools changed over three years compared with children in other pre-school settings.

The Montessori model involves both child-directed, freely-chosen activity and academic content. Angeline Lillard and colleagues compared educational outcomes for children allocated places by a random lottery to either Montessori pre-schools (n=70) or non-Montessori pre-school settings (n=71) in Connecticut, US. The research team carried out a variety of assessments with the children over a three-year period, from when the children were three until they were six.

The researchers found that over time children in Montessori pre-schools performed better on measures of academic achievement (Woodcock–Johnson IIIR Tests of Achievement effect size = +0.41) and social understanding, while enjoying their school work more, than those in conventional pre-school settings. They also found that in Montessori classrooms, children from low-income families, who typically don’t perform as well in school, showed similar academic performance as children from higher-income families. Children with low executive function similarly performed as well as those with high executive function.

The findings, they suggest, indicate that well-implemented Montessori education could be a way to help disadvantaged children to achieve their academic potential.

Source: Montessori Preschool Elevates and Equalizes Child Outcomes: A Longitudinal Study (October 2017), Frontiers in Psychology

Screen time or story time?

A new article published in Frontiers of Psychology analyses differences in parent-child talk and reading behaviour when reading print versus electronic versions of the same books.

Parents of 102 children aged 17-26 months from Toronto, Canada, were randomly assigned to read either two electronic books or two print format books with their child. The books had identical content, but while the parent read the words in the print books aloud, the electronic books had an automatic voiceover. After reading, the children were asked to identify an animal presented in the books. Children who read the e-book made more correct choices.

Gabrielle Strouse and Patricia Ganea found that parents who read the print books pointed more frequently to pages than parents who read the electronic books. But the opposite was true for the children. Parents and children spent almost twice as much time reading the electronic books as the print format books. Children who were read the electronic books paid more attention, made themselves more available for reading, participated in more page turns, and produced more content-related comments during reading than those who were read the print format books.

The researchers point out that while increased engagement does not always translate into increased learning, the positive engagement and content-related language observed in the children who were read the electronic books suggests they have a role in supporting learning for younger children. However, more work should be done to identify the potential benefits and hazards.

Source: Parent-toddler behavior and language differ when reading electronic and print picture books (May 2017), Frontiers in Psychology 8:677

Does anxiety affect performance, or poor performance cause anxiety?

Mathematics anxiety (MA) is the state of discomfort around the performance of mathematical tasks. Does MA cause poor performance in mathematics, or is it poor performance in mathematics that causes MA? The question is important, because it affects the “treatment” that results. Should the focus be on improving students’ confidence, or their maths ability?

A review in Frontiers in Psychology considers the evidence supporting the two models – The Deficit Theory, which claims that poor performance leads to high anxiety, or The Debilitating Anxiety Theory, which claims that anxiety reduces performance by affecting the pre-processing, processing, and retrieval of information.

The evidence is conflicting – there is research to support the Deficit Theory, with the strongest evidence coming from longitudinal studies and studies of mathematical disabilities. Similarly, there is support for the Debilitating Anxiety Model from studies across all ages that have manipulated anxiety to reveal either a deterioration or improvement in performance. The paper considers that this is indicative of a Reciprocal Theory, where MA and poor performance reinforce each other in a vicious cycle. This in turn suggests that interventions to address MA should target both the anxiety and mathematics performance.

Source: The Chicken or the Egg? The Direction of the Relationship Between Mathematics Anxiety and Mathematics Performance (2016), Frontiers in Psychology.

Less structure = better outcomes?

Frontiers in Psychology has published a new study that suggests that children whose time is less structured are better able to meet their own goals.

As part of the study, parents of 70 6-year-olds were surveyed about their children’s daily, annual, and typical schedules. Researchers then categorised the children’s activities as either more structured or less structured, based on categorisation schemes from prior studies on children’s leisure-time use. In their classification system, structured time was defined to include any time outside of formal schooling spent in activities organised and supervised by adults (eg, piano lessons, organised football practice, and homework). Less-structured activities included free play alone and with others, social outings, sightseeing, reading, and media time. The children were also evaluated for self-directed executive function – the ability to set and reach goals independently – with a verbal fluency test.

Results of the study showed that the more time children spent in less-structured activities, the better their self-directed executive functioning. Conversely, the more time children spent in more-structured activities, the poorer their self-directed executive function.

The researchers emphasise that their results show a correlation between time use and self-directed executive function, but they don’t prove that the change in self-directed executive function was caused by the amount of structured or unstructured time. The research team is considering a longitudinal study, which would follow participants over time, to begin to answer the question of cause.

Source: Less-structured Time in Children’s Daily Lives Predicts Self-directed Executive Functioning (2014), Frontiers in Psychology, online June 2014.

Neuromyths in education

Possessing greater general knowledge about the brain does not appear to protect teachers from believing in “neuromyths” – misconceptions about neuroscience research in education.

A study in Frontiers in Psychology found that teachers who are interested in the application of neuroscience findings in the classroom find it difficult to distinguish pseudoscience from scientific facts. Researchers tested 242 teachers in the UK and the Netherlands with an interest in the neuroscience of learning, using an online survey with 32 statements about the brain and its influence on learning, of which 15 were neuromyths.

On average, the teachers believed 49 per cent of the neuromyths, particularly those related to commercialised education programmes like Brain Gym. One of the most commonly believed myths was that “Individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style (eg, auditory, visual, kinesthetic)”, which was said to be correct by over 80 per cent of teachers in the study.

Although loosely based on scientific fact, these neuromyths may have adverse effects on educational practice. The researchers conclude that there is a need for better interdisciplinary communication to reduce misunderstandings and create successful collaborations between neuroscience and education.

Source: Neuromyths in education: Prevalence and predictors of misconceptions among teachers (2012), Frontiers in Psychology