Research May Provide The Tools To Create Better Schools

Cognitive science field experiments are critical to understanding human learning and education.


Primary education now is compulsory in India. But many poor Indian children are likely to live in families or communities and have high rates of illiteracy and innumeracy. According to an estimate, many fail to learn the basic concepts and skills taught in primary schools. That because of the curriculum taught in the schools assume a level of preparation that is not there.

Thus, there is an essential need of creating better education quality by thinking beyond the theory only. That is what scientists are trying to do in their new research, that may help to create better schools in India.

So to enhance education and reduce poverty in India, a team of economists and psychologists at Harvard along with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are working together, to create better schools. They have demonstrated both the feasibility and the necessity of such experiments.

As clinical trials are important to enhance human health, likewise it is necessary to understand human learning and education, according to the paper published in the online journal Science.

Research May Provide The Tools To Create Better Schools
Harvard Professor of Psychology Elizabeth S. Spelke is pictured outside of William James Hall at Harvard University. Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

Harvard Professor Elizabeth Spelke said, “Research in cognitive science has taught us a great deal about what children know and how they learn. Much of that work applies to all children, worldwide, and it gives us methods for assessing children’s knowledge that is robust enough to work when implemented by adults with only high school education, working with children in hot and noisy slums. This research doesn’t tell us how to create better schools, but it gives us the tools to do field experiments that can.”

Based on decades of cognitive science research that mainly focused on the nature and early development of mathematical reasoning, scientists created a program that enhances poor children’s readiness to learn mathematics. They evaluated it over a period of 18 months.

They recruited almost 1,500 children in Delhi and randomized them into three groups.

One group received a math curriculum that involves games training two aspects of intuitive mathematics: sensitivity to numbers, and geometry. Children from wealthy countries master these intuitive mathematics over their preschool years. And according to the research in cognitive science, this is critical for later learning of symbolic mathematics.

The second group received a curriculum of games with the same structure. The curriculum trained sensitivity to aspects of human communication: sensitivity to emotional expressions and signs of attention. This skill set also develops in preschool but was not expected to affect math directly.

The third group of children received the regular preschool curriculum.

Over a four-month period, the games were played for three weeks- 1-hour sessions in these two groups. To measure the effects of the games, scientists accessed all the children on a variety of abilities, including intuitive abilities close to the content of the games in the two curricula. They determined which of two sets of objects was more numerous or which of two faces was happier, and symbolic abilities at the center of the primary school curriculum.

In the summer months immediately following preschool, the children showed effects of the math games intervention that similar to effects found in Western children from developed countries- higher sensitivity to numbers and geometry on the intuitive measures that were close to the games. Children were found better in the mastery of the language and symbols of intuitive, preschool mathematics.

Based on it, the study confirmed the central findings from basic research in the cognitive science of mathematics. It suggests findings generalize across children living and learning in very different circumstances.

The study also suggests the field interventions can be effective, not only when implemented in carefully controlled model classrooms but also when implemented and evaluated by adults with minimal training and little connection to the research team.

After the end of the first year of primary school, the children who had received the math games curriculum still reliably outperformed the other children in tests of intuitive numerical and spatial abilities. However, the children had no access to the math games after the end of the intervention.

In other words, the intervention had no effect on children’s mastery of symbolic school mathematics. By the end of first grade, children in the math games condition were no better than those in the other two groups at deciphering Arabic numerals, performing simple verbal additions, or learning the vocabulary of school geometry.

Spelke said, “We think our findings underscore both the feasibility and the necessity of randomized-controlled field experiments to test frontier cognitive science hypotheses in the field.”

Esther Duflo, a professor of economics at MIT said, “Our best guess is that our intervention did not increase kids’ performance in school because the gap between intuitive mathematics and formal mathematics is too large, and ordinary conversations and social interactions cannot bridge it in this context.”

“Our ongoing interventions focus on versions of these games that exercise children’s intuitive mathematical abilities while also presenting the primary language and symbols of school mathematics. We should soon learn whether the new curriculum works better. In this respect, field research is no different from basic research: Both require multiple experiments, and learning from failures, to get things right.”


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