Category Archives: Education

Universities in the Age of AI – Andrew Wachtel.

Over the next 50 years or so, as AI and machine learning become more powerful, human labor will be cannibalized by technologies that outperform people in nearly every job function. How should higher education prepare students for this eventuality?

BISHKEK – I was recently offered the presidency of a university in Kazakhstan that focuses primarily on business, economics, and law, and that teaches these subjects in a narrow, albeit intellectually rigorous, way. I am considering the job, but I have a few conditions.

What I have proposed is to transform the university into an institution where students continue to concentrate in these three disciplines, but must also complete a rigorous “core curriculum” in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences – including computer science and statistics. Students would also need to choose a minor in one of the humanities or social sciences.

There are many reasons for insisting on this transformation, but the most compelling one, from my perspective, is the need to prepare future graduates for a world in which artificial intelligence and AI-assisted technology plays an increasingly dominant role. To succeed in the workplace of tomorrow, students will need new skills.

Over the next 50 years or so, as AI and machine learning become more powerful, human labor will be cannibalized by technologies that outperform people in nearly every job function. Higher education must prepare students for this eventuality. Assuming AI will transform the future of work in our students’ lifetime, educators must consider what skills graduates will need when humans can no longer compete with robots.

It is not hard to predict that rote tasks will disappear first. This transition is already occurring in some rich countries, but will take longer in places like Kazakhstan. Once this trend picks up pace, however, populations will adjust accordingly. For centuries, communities grew as economic opportunities expanded; for example, farmers had bigger families as demand for products increased, requiring more labor to deliver goods to consumers.

But the world’s current population is unsustainable. As AI moves deeper into the workplace, jobs will disappear, employment will decline, and populations will shrink accordingly. That is good in principle – the planet is already bursting at the seams – but it will be difficult to manage in the short term, as the pace of population decline will not compensate for job losses amid the robot revolution.

For this reason, the next generation of human labor – today’s university students – requires specialized training to thrive. At the same time, and perhaps more than ever before, they need the kind of education that allows them to think broadly and to make unusual and unexpected connections across many fields.

Clearly, tomorrow’s leaders will need an intimate familiarity with computers – from basic programming to neural networks – to understand how machines controlling productivity and analytic processes function. But graduates will also need experience in psychology, if only to grasp how a computer’s “brain” differs from their own. And workers of the future will require training in ethics, to help them navigate a world in which the value of human beings can no longer be taken for granted.

Educators preparing students for this future must start now. Business majors should study economic and political history to avoid becoming blind determinists. Economists must learn from engineering students, as it will be engineers building the future workforce. And law students should focus on the intersection of big data and human rights, so that they gain the insight that will be needed to defend people from forces that may seek to turn individuals into disposable parts.

Even students studying creative and leisure disciplines must learn differently. For one thing, in an AI-dominated world, people will need help managing their extra time. We won’t stop playing tennis just because robots start winning Wimbledon; but new organizational and communication skills will be required to help navigate changes in how humans create and play. Managing these industries will take new skills tailored to a fully AI world.

The future of work may look nothing like the scenarios I envision, or it may be far more disruptive; no one really knows. But higher education has a responsibility to prepare students for every possible scenario – even those that today appear to be barely plausible. The best strategy for educators in any field, and at any time, is to teach skills that make humans human, rather than training students to outcompete new technologies.

No matter where I work in education, preparing young people for their futures will always be my job. And today, that future looks to be dominated by machines. To succeed, educators – and the universities we inhabit – must evolve.


Andrew Wachtel is President of the American University of Central Asia.

Project Syndicate

Use of sand vests to calm children with ADHD sparks concern – Kate Connolly and Hannah Devlin.

German schools are increasingly asking unruly and hyperactive children to wear heavy sand-filled vests in an effort to calm them and keep them on their seats, despite the misgivings of some parents and psychiatrists.

The controversial sand vests weigh between 1.2 and six kilograms (2.7-13Ib) and are being used by 200 schools across Germany.

Advocates of the vests say they have witnessed a remarkable change in behaviour in many of the children who have worn them, claiming the heavy vests help to curb children’s restlessness.

A growing number of children are being diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) each year in Germany, as elsewhere. Schools that use the vests argue they are an uncomplicated way of tackling the phenomenon head on, and a gentler and less complicated form of therapy than drugs such as Ritalin.

“Children love to wear the vests and no one is forced into wearing one against their will,” claimed Gerhild de Wall, head of the inclusion unit at the Grumbrechtstrasse school in the Harburg district of Hamburg, which has been one of the sand vest pioneers.
But critics say the vests are reminiscent of straitjackets used to constrain violent patients in psychiatric hospitals, and are in danger of stigmatising their wearers.

One parent who vented her anger over the use of the vests on Facebook, wrote: “It would be best if we avoided such torture methods. How can you say to a child, ‘You’re sick, and as a punishment you have to wear this sand-filled jacket which is not only physical agony but will make you look like an idiot in front of the rest of the class.’ I think some people have lost the plot”.

But another parent, Barbara Truller-Voigt, whose nine-year-old son Frederick has worn a 2kg sand vest at his Hamburg school for the past three years as a kind of therapy for his ADHD, said she was convinced it had a positive influence on him.
“He voluntarily puts it on,” she said, “and has the feeling that it helps him. He can concentrate better and is more able to take an active part in lessons because he’s not spending the whole time trying to keep his arms and legs under control.”
Frederick confirmed as much to the Hamburger Abendblatt: “The vest helps to calm me down,” he said. “And when I have it on my handwriting isn’t as scrawly.”

De Wall first came across the vests when she taught in the United States, where they are sometimes used for children with autism and are variously referred to as compression vests or squeeze jackets. She said that, far from constraining a child, they can help them to feel centred.

“Kids who fidget a lot or have a sensory disorder, often have problems being able to sort out one stimulus from another,” she said. “The vests help them to have a better sense of themselves, and that in turn helps them to concentrate.”

She said the vests should never be worn for more than 30 minutes at a time, but claims their weight is not a problem for most children because it is spread evenly over the upper body.

She also said there was great competition in her school to wear the vest. “The pupils jump at the opportunity to wear them, so we make sure to also let the kids wear them who don’t actually need them, which helps to ensure there’s no stigma attached to having one.”

One teacher, who declined to be named, said the experience of using the vests in her class led her to compare the use of the vests to “laying a hand on a child’s shoulder … or giving them a hug, which the children often need, but which we’re obviously not allowed to do”.

But many psychiatrists are sceptical about the vests’ use, particularly without knowing the long-term effect of them.

Michael Schulte-Markwort, director at the Child and Youth Psychiatry University Clinic in the north-western Hamburg district of Eppendorf, told German newspaper Die Tageszeitung the vests were “ethically questionable” and could easily be interpreted as a single remedy to fit all attention deficiency disorders.

Schulte-Markwort also criticised the fact that in schools too much emphasis was placed on ensuring a child changed their behaviour to fit the class, rather than focusing on the child’s individual problems. “We should be doing that far more,” he added.

Yvonne Gebauer, schools minister for the western state of North Rhine Westphalia, has said she could not support the use of the vests in her region. “This is an unusual method, whose application I can only view with a great deal of criticism,” she said in an interview with the Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung. “Neither are there any verified findings or studies about their effectiveness.”

The main manufacturer of sand vests in Germany, Beluga Healthcare in Lower Saxony, said the company had made vests for “thousands of happy customers” and had been doing so for the past 18 years.

But the controversy unleashed following reports of the vests’ use in German schools has forced the company to put out a statement on its website. In it, Roland Turley owner of Beluga, which also produces diving vests for the German Navy, states: “We don’t want the vests to be viewed as a magic solution to be deployed in every case of concentration disorder. Not every restless child needs a sand vest. Children need to wear them voluntarily and it’s necessary to have an informed diagnosis from an occupational therapist or a paediatrician.”

He admitted that no study has been carried out on the long-term effectiveness of the vests. “We’ve tried to find an institute that might do it, but so far there’s been no interest,” he added.

Analysis: why the debate about sand vests is important

The revelation that schools in Germany are deploying sand vests intended to help children with ADHD raises important questions about how mental illness and special educational needs are approached in schools.

According to experts, there is still a lack of awareness of the condition in classrooms, resulting in many children becoming disillusioned with education.

“They’re often labelled the naughty kid and excluded,” said Louise Theodosiou, a consultant psychiatrist based in Manchester. “If you’ve already got that label it’s easy to see how you’re more vulnerable.”

Theodosiou said proactive support could make a significant difference to the school experience of children with ADHD, their self-esteem, and ultimately success.

However, any intervention – particularly one aimed at a group who already face extra challenges – needs to be carefully assessed before being rolled out, she said. There is some tentative evidence that weighted clothing could be useful. A 2014 study of 110 children wearing this clothing suggested they paid more attention in class. But questions remain about whether these improvements would be sustained in the long term and whether the garments would have other downsides.

“What we don’t want is something where children are wearing something visibly stigmatising,” said Theodosiou. “We need to know, how does the child feel about it, are they being teased about it?”

“I would want more studies on potential impact on breathing, pressure on the spine. There would be too many variables to understand before we recommended this.”

More broadly, the the evidence that sensory aids, such as fidget toys, are helpful for children with ADHD is fairly scant, although some parents anecdotally report that they are helpful.

“It’s an idea that has caught people’s imaginations, particularly among occupational therapists, but I’ve not seen good evidence for this,” says Philip Asherson, a professor of molecular psychiatry at King’s College London. “There’s a risk that you impose something on a child that they don’t like.”

Asherson said a crucial element of helping children with ADHD thrive is to find things they do well and are passionate about.

“It’s interesting to think about the people with ADHD who do quite well,” he said. “The ones who do well often found something that they were good at as children – it might be sport, drama or arts. They’re often in these areas that aren’t valued as much in [the classroom] but they’ve had parents who recognise that they’re really good at certain things and support them in developing that.”


What is it? And what are the symptoms?

People with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) have a pattern of behavioural symptoms, including hyperactivity, impulsiveness and having difficulty concentrating. The traits are often noticeable at an early age, but can become more of a problem when a child starts school. The condition tends to run in families – parents and siblings of a child with ADHD are four to five times more likely to have ADHD themselves – and genetics plays a significant role.

MRI scans have showed up some subtle differences in the brain structure and activity, but how these translate into changes in behaviour aren’t well understood at this stage.

How is it diagnosed?

There’s no quick, simple test to diagnose ADHD and a challenge is that many of the relevant behaviours – fidgeting, being easily distracted and blurting out inappropriate comments – are a normal part of childhood. Such behaviours can also be triggered by external factors such as disruptions in home life or anxiety about school, so the person making the diagnosis (normally a psychiatrist or education specialist) first needs to rule out this possibility.

Children with ADHD lie at one extreme of a spectrum and tend to show these traits much more consistently, and to an extent that causes problems in learning and socialising. While a child without ADHD might find it hard to stay focused in a lesson, a child with the condition will also struggle to stay on topic when having a conversation about something they have a real enthusiasm for, such as their favourite football team or film.

An assessment will involve discussions with parents, a one-to-one conversation with the child and sometimes a standardised computer-based assessment, called the Qb test is used, which gives an objective score of symptoms.

How many people have it?

This depends a bit how people are counted. One of the biggest studies, a meta-analysis done in 2007, estimated the prevalence at between 6-7% in children and teenagers across the world. However, some studies, which have been based on parents or teachers reports have found higher figures – for instance, a recent study based on parent reports in the US put the figure at 9.5%. However, in some populations the rates are far higher – for instance, 20-30% of prisoners meet the ADHD diagnostic criteria.

It also depends what age group is being considered. About a third of children with mild ADHD will outgrow their symptoms or learn to manage them so they no longer have a significant impact.

What can be done to treat it?

Nice guidelines recommend that for children with mild symptoms, the first-line treatment should be family work, helping parents with boundary-setting and ensuring that strategies are put in place at school – for instance, assigned a teaching assistant to help with focused work sessions. Behaviour therapies can also help children learn strategies to help manage their symptoms.

Medication is only viewed as appropriate in moderate to severe cases of ADHD and for children of seven years or older. Ritalin is not widely used in the UK – a significant downside is that children need to take a second dose of medicine at lunchtime. Giving children a slow-release form of the active ingredient in Ritalin, called methylphenidate, can be helpful.

Why is medication so controversial?

Giving medication that has an influence on the brain while it is still developing is a concern for many parents. The drugs have been shown to be safe in the short-term, but the long-term effects on the human brain are not yet well understood. For some children, doctors and parents may decide that the benefits of being able to concentrate better and socialise more easily might outweigh potential risks.

There are also physical side-effects: methylphenidate can increase blood pressure and pulse rate and reduce appetite, meaning all these variables need to be closely monitored if a child is put on this kind of medication.

Which famous people have it?

People with ADHD may find it harder to concentrate, but with the right support it does not need to limit a child’s or adult’s expectations of what they can achieve – particularly if they find something that they are passionate about early in life. A number of high profile athletes, including the US swimmer Michael Phelps and British gymnast Louis Smith, have described how the structure of a training programme was helpful for them. The US gymnast Simone Biles also spoke out about her ADHD after it was revealed she took medication to help control symptoms. In a documentary last year, the comedian Rory Bremner described ADHD as like having a “brain like a pinball machine”.

The Guardian

The West’s Broken Promises on Education Aid – Jeffrey D. Sachs.

The Global Partnership for Education, a worthy and capable initiative to promote education in 65 low-income countries, is having what the jargon of development assistance calls a “replenishment round,” meaning that it is asking donor governments to refill its coffers. Yet the fact that the GPE is begging for mere crumbs – a mere $1 billion per year – exposes the charade of Western governments’ commitment to the global Education for All agenda.

The United States and the European Union have never cared that much about that agenda. When it comes to disease, they have at times been willing to invest to slow or stop epidemics like AIDS, malaria, and Ebola, both to save lives and to prevent the diseases from coming to their own countries. But when it comes to education, many countries in the West are more interested in building walls and detention camps than schools.

The GPE does excellent work promoting primary education around the world. Donor countries, all of which long ago signed on to Education for All, should be clamoring to help one of the world’s most effective organizations to achieve that goal. Yet generous donors are few and far between.

This reality extends back to imperial times. When most of Africa and much of Asia were under European rule, the colonizers invested little in basic education. As late as 1950, according to United Nations data, illiteracy was pervasive in Europe’s African and Asian colonies. At the time of independence from Britain, India’s illiteracy rate stood at 80-85%, roughly the same as Indonesia’s illiteracy rate at the time of independence from the Netherlands. In French West Africa, the illiteracy rate in 1950 stood at 95-99%.

After independence, African and Asian countries pursued massive and largely successful initiatives to raise basic education and literacy. Yet, far from seizing this opportunity to make up for lost time, Europe and the US have provided consistently meager assistance for primary and secondary education, even as they have made high-profile commitments such as Education for All and Sustainable Development Goal 4, which calls for universal access to pre-primary through secondary school.

Consider the grim data on development aid for education, which has stagnated for years – and actually declined between 2010 and 2015. According to the most recent OECD data, total donor aid for primary and secondary education in Africa amounted to just $1.3 billion in 2016. To put that figure in perspective, the US Pentagon budget is roughly $2 billion per day. With around 420 million African kids of school age, total aid amounted to roughly $3 per child per year.

It’s not as if Western governments don’t know that far more is needed. Several detailed recent calculations provide credible estimates of how much external financing developing countries will need to achieve SDG 4. A UNESCO study puts the total at $39.5 billion per year. A report by the International Commission on Financing Education Opportunity, led by former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, similarly put developing countries’ external financing needs at tens of billions of dollars per year.

Here is the reason why aid is needed. A year of education in Africa requires at least $300 per student. (Note that the rich countries spend several thousand dollars per student per year.) With Africa’s school-age population accounting for roughly one-third of the total, the per capita financing requirement is about $100. Yet for a typical African country, that’s about 10% of per capita national income – far more than the education budget can cover. External aid can and should cover the financing gap so that all children can attend school.

That’s not happening. Annual spending per school-aged child in Sub-Saharan Africa is roughly one-third of the minimum needed. As a result, most kids don’t come anywhere close to finishing secondary school. They are forced to drop out early, because there are no openings in public schools and tuition for private school is far too high for most families. Girls are especially likely to leave school early, though parents know that all of their children need and deserve a quality education.

Without the skills that a secondary education provides, the children who leave school early are condemned to poverty. Many eventually try to migrate to Europe in desperate search of a livelihood. Some drown on the way; others are caught by European patrols and returned to Africa.

So now comes the GPE’s replenishment round, scheduled for early February in Senegal. The GPE should be receiving at least $10 billion a year (about four days’ military spending by the NATO countries) to put Africa on a path toward universal secondary education. Instead, the GPE is reportedly still begging donors for less than $1 billion per year to cover GPE programs all over the world. Instead of actually solving the education crisis, rich-country leaders go from speech to speech, meeting to meeting, proclaiming their ardent love of education for all.

Across Africa, political, religious, and civil-society leaders are doing what they can. Ghana has recently announced free upper-secondary education for all, setting the pace for the continent. As African countries struggle to fund their ambitious commitments, new partners, including private companies and high-net-worth individuals, should step forward to help them. Traditional donors, for their part, have decades of lost time to make up for. The quest for education will not be stopped, but history will judge harshly those who turn their backs on children in need.


Jeffrey D. Sachs, Professor of Sustainable Development and Professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia University, is Director of Columbia’s Center for Sustainable Development and of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network. His books include The End of Poverty, Common Wealth, The Age of Sustainable Development, and, most recently, Building the New American Economy.

Project Syndicate

Undoing poverty’s negative effect on brain development with cash transfers – Cameron McLeod. 

An upcoming experiment into brain development and poverty by Kimberly G Noble, associate professor of neuroscience and education at Columbia University’s Teachers College, asks whether poverty may affect the development, “the size, shape, and functioning,” of a child’s brain, and whether “a cash stipend to parents” would prevent this kind of damage.

Noble writes that “poverty places the young child’s brain at much greater risk of not going through the paces of normal development.” Children raised in poverty perform less well in school, are less likely to graduate from high school, and are less likely to continue on to college. Children raised in poverty are also more likely to be underemployed when adults. Sociological research and research done in the area of neuroscience has shown that a childhood spent in poverty can result in “significant differences in the size, shape and functioning” of the  brain. Can the damage done to children’s brains  be negated  by the intervention of a subsidy for brain health?

This most recent study’s fundamental difference from past efforts is that it explores what kind of effect “directly supplementing” the incomes of families will have on brain development. “Cash transfers, as opposed to counseling, child care and other services, have the potential to empower families to make the financial decisions they deem best for themselves and their children.” Noble’s hypothesis is that a “cascade of positive effects” will follow from the cash transfers, and that if proved correct, this has implications for public policy and “the potential to…affect the lives of millions of disadvantaged families with young children.”

Brain Trust, Kimberly G. Noble

  • Children who live in poverty tend to perform worse than peers in school on a bevy of different tests. They are less likely to graduate from high school and then continue on to college and are more apt to be underemployed once they enter the workforce.
  • Research that crosses neuroscience with sociology has begun to show that educational and occupational disadvantages that result from growing up poor can lead to significant differences in the size, shape and functioning of children’s brains.
  • Poverty’s potential to hijack normal brain development has led to plans for studying whether a simple intervention might reverse these injurious effects. A study now in the planning stages will explore if a modest subsidy can enhance brain health.


The goal of Dr. Noble’s research is to better characterize socioeconomic disparities in children’s cognitive and brain development. Ongoing studies in her lab address the timing of neurocognitive disparities in infancy and early childhood, as well as the particular exposures and experiences that account for these disparities, including access to material resources, richness of language exposure, parenting style and exposure to stress. Finally, she is interested in applying this work to the design of interventions that aim to target gaps in school readiness, including early literacy, math, and self-regulation skills. She is honored to be part of a national team of social scientists and neuroscientists planning the first clinical trial of poverty reduction, which aims to estimate the causal impact of income supplementation on children’s cognitive, emotional and brain development in the first three years of life.

Columbia University


A short review on the link between poverty, children’s cognition and brain development, 13th March 2017

In the latest issue of the Scientific American, Kimberly Noble, associate professor in neuroscience and education, reviews her work and introduces an ambitious research project that may help understand the cause-and-effect connection between poverty and children’s brain development.

For the past 15 years, Noble and her colleagues have gathered evidence to explain how socioeconomic disparities may underlie differences in children’s cognition and brain development. In the course of their research they have found for example that children living in poverty tend to have reduced cognitive skills – including language, memory skills and cognitive control (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Wealth effect

More recently, they published evidence showing that the socio-economic status of parents (as assessed using parental education, income and occupation) can also predict children’s brain structure.

By measuring the cortical surface area of children’s brains (ie the area of the surface of the cortex, the outer layer of the brain which contains all the neurons), they found that lower family income was linked to smaller cortical surface area, especially in brain regions involved in language and cognitive control abilities (Figure 2 – in magenta).

Figure 2. A Brain on Poverty

In the same research, they also found that longer parental education was linked to increased hippocampus volume in children, a brain structure essential for memory processes.

Overall, Noble’s work adds to a growing body of research showing the negative relation between poverty and brain development and these findings may explain (at least in part) why children from poor families are less likely to obtain good grades at school, graduate from high-school or attend college.

What is less known however, is the causal mechanism underlying this relationship. As Noble describes, differences in school and neighbourhood quality, chronic stress in the family home, less nurturing parenting styles or a combination of all these factors might explain the impact of poverty on brain development and cognition.

To better understand the causal effect of poverty, Noble has teamed up with economists and developmental psychologists and together, they will soon launch a large-scale experiment or “randomised control trial”. As part of this experiment, 1000 US women from low-income backgrounds will be recruited soon after giving birth and will be followed over a three-year period. Half of the women will receive $333 per month (if they are part of the “experimental” group) and the other half will receive $20 per month (if they are part of the “control” group). Mothers and children will be monitored throughout the study, and mothers will be able to spend the money as they wish, without any constrains.

By comparing children belonging to the experimental group to those in the control group, researchers will be able to observe how increases in family income may directly benefit cognition and brain development. They will also be able to test whether the way mothers use the extra income is a relevant factor to explain these benefits.

Noble concludes that “although income may not be the only factor that determines a child’s developmental trajectory, it may be the easiest one to alter” through social policy. And given that 25% of American children and 12% of British children are affected by poverty (as reported by UNICEF in 2012), policies designed to alleviate poverty may have the capacity to reach and improve the life chances of millions of children.

NGN is looking forward to see the results of this large-scale experiment. We expect that this project, in association with other research studies, will improve our understanding of the link between poverty and child development, and will help design better interventions to support disadvantaged children.

Nature Groups


Socioeconomic inequality and children’s brain development. 

Research addresses issues at the intersection of psychology, neuroscience and public policy.

By Kimberly G. Noble, MD, PhD

Kimberly Noble, MD, PhD, is an associate professor of neuroscience and education at Teachers College, Columbia University. She received her undergraduate, graduate and medical degrees at the University of Pennsylvania. As a neuroscientist and board-certified pediatrician, she studies how inequality relates to children’s cognitive and brain development. Noble’s work has been supported by several federal and foundation grants, and she was named a “Rising Star” by the Association for Psychological Science. Together with a team of social scientists and neuroscientists from around the United States, she is planning the first clinical trial of poverty reduction to assess the causal impact of income on cognitive and brain development in early childhood.

Kimberley Noble website.

What can neuroscience tell us about why disadvantaged children are at risk for low achievement and poor mental health? How early in infancy does socioeconomic disadvantage leave an imprint on the developing brain, and what factors explain these links? How can we best apply this work to inform interventions? These and other questions are the focus of the research my colleagues and I have been addressing for the last several years.

What is socioeconomic status and why is it of interest to neuroscientists?

The developing human brain is remarkably malleable to experience. Of course, a child’s experience varies tremendously based on his or her family’s circumstances (McLoyd, 1998). And so, as neuroscientists, we can use family circumstance as a lens through which to better understand how experience relates to brain development.

Family socioeconomic status, or SES, is typically considered to include parental educational attainment, occupational prestige and income (McLoyd, 1998); subjective social status, or where one sees oneself on the social hierarchy, may also be taken into account (Adler, Epel, Castellazzo & Ickovics, 2000). A large literature has established that disparities in income and human capital are associated with substantial differences in children’s learning and school performance. For example, socioeconomic differences are observed across a range of important cognitive and achievement measures for children and adolescents, including IQ, literacy, achievement test scores and high school graduation rates (Brooks-Gunn & Duncan, 1997). These differences in achievement in turn result in dramatic differences in adult economic well-being and labor market success.

However, although outcomes such as school success are clearly critical for understanding disparities in development and cognition, they tell us little about the underlying neural mechanisms that lead to these differences. Distinct brain circuits support discrete cognitive skills, and differentiating between underlying neural substrates may point to different causal pathways and approaches for intervention (Farah et al., 2006; Hackman & Farah, 2009; Noble, McCandliss, & Farah, 2007; Raizada & Kishiyama, 2010). Studies that have used a neurocognitive framework to investigate disparities have documented that children and adolescents from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds tend to perform worse than their more advantaged peers on several domains, most notably in language, memory, self-regulation and socio-emotional processing (Hackman & Farah, 2009; Hackman, Farah, & Meaney, 2010; Noble et al., 2007; Noble, Norman, & Farah, 2005; Raizada & Kishiyama, 2010).

Family socioeconomic circumstance and children’s brain structure

More recently, we and other neuroscientists have extended this line of research to examine how family socioeconomic circumstances relate to differences in the structure of the brain itself. For example, in the largest study of its kind to date, we analyzed the brain structure of 1099 children and adolescents recruited from socioeconomically diverse homes from ten sites across the United States (Noble, Houston et al., 2015). We were specifically interested in the structure of the cerebral cortex, or the outer layer of brain cells that does most of the cognitive “heavy lifting.” We found that both parental educational attainment and family income accounted for differences in the surface area, or size of the “nooks and crannies” of the cerebral cortex. These associations were found across much of the brain, but were particularly pronounced in areas that support language and self-regulation — two of the very skills that have been repeatedly documented to show large differences along socioeconomic lines.

Several points about these findings are worth noting. First, genetic ancestry, or the proportion of ancestral descent for each of six major continental populations, was held constant in the analyses. Thus, although race and SES tend to be confounded in the U.S., we can say that the socioeconomic disparities in brain structure that we observed were independent of genetically-defined race. Second, we observed dramatic individual differences, or variation from person to person. That is, there were many children and adolescents from disadvantaged homes who had larger cortical surface areas, and many children from more advantaged homes who had smaller surface areas. This means that our research team could in no way accurately predict a child’s brain size simply by knowing his or her family income alone. Finally, the relationship between family income and surface area was nonlinear, such that the steepest gradient was seen at the lowest end of the income spectrum. That is, dollar for dollar, differences in family income were associated with proportionately greater differences in brain structure among the most disadvantaged families.

More recently, we also examined the thickness of the cerebral cortex in the same sample (Piccolo, et al., 2016). In general, as we get older, our cortices tend to get thinner. Specifically, cortical thickness decreases rapidly in childhood and early adolescence, followed by a more gradual thinning, and ultimately plateauing in early- to mid-adulthood (Raznahan et al., 2011; Schnack et al., 2014; Sowell et al., 2003). Our work suggests that family socioeconomic circumstance may moderate this trajectory. 

Specifically, at lower levels of family SES, we observed relatively steep age-related decreases in cortical thickness earlier in childhood, and subsequent leveling off during adolescence. In contrast, at higher levels of family SES, we observed more gradual age-related reductions in cortical thickness through at least late adolescence. We speculated that these findings may reflect an abbreviated period of cortical thinning in lower SES environments, relative to a more prolonged period of cortical thinning in higher SES environments. It is possible that socioeconomic disadvantage is a proxy for experiences that narrow the sensitive period, or time window for certain aspects of brain development that are malleable to environmental influences, thereby accelerating maturation (Tottenham, 2015).

Are these socioeconomic differences in brain structure clinically meaningful? Early work would suggest so. In our work, we have found that differences in cortical surface area partially accounted for links between family income and children’s executive function skills (Noble, Houston et al., 2015). Independent work in other labs has suggested that differences in brain structure may account for between 15 and 44 percent of the family income-related achievement gap in adolescence (Hair, Hanson, Wolfe & Pollak, 2015; Mackey et al., 2015). This line of research is still in its infancy, however, and several outstanding questions remain to be addressed.

How early are socioeconomic disparities in brain development detectable?

By the start of school, it is apparent that dramatic socioeconomic disparities in children’s cognitive functioning are already evident, and indeed, several studies have found that socioeconomic disparities in language (Fernald, Marchman & Weisleder, 2013; Noble, Engelhardt et al., 2015; Rowe & Goldin-Meadow, 2009) and memory (Noble, Engelhardt et al., 2015) are already present by the second year of life. But methodologies that assess brain function or structure may be more sensitive to differences than are tests of behavior. This raises the question of just how early we can detect socioeconomic disparities in the structure or function of children’s brains.

 One group reported socioeconomic differences in resting electroencephalogram (EEG) activity — which indexes electrical activity of the brain as measured at the scalp — as early as 6–9 months of age (Tomalski et al., 2013). Recent work by our group, however, found no correlation between SES and the same EEG measures within the first four days following birth (Brito, Fifer, Myers, Elliott & Noble, 2016), raising the possibility that some of these differences in brain function may emerge in part as a result of early differences in postnatal experience. Of course, a longitudinal study assessing both the prenatal and postnatal environments would be necessary to formally test this hypothesis. Furthermore, another group recently reported that, among a group of African-American, female infants imaged at 5 weeks of age, socioeconomic disadvantage was associated with smaller cortical and deep gray matter volumes (Betancourt et al., 2015). It is thus also likely that at least some socioeconomic differences in brain development are the result of socioeconomic differences in the prenatal environment (e.g., maternal diet, stress) and/or genetic differences.

Disentangling links among socioeconomic disparities, modifiable experiences and brain development represents a clear priority for future research. Are the associations between SES and brain development the result of differences in experiences that can serve as the targets of intervention, such as differences in nutrition, housing and neighborhood quality, parenting style, family stress and/or education? Certainly, the preponderance of social science evidence would suggest that such differences in experience are likely to account at least in part for differences in child and adolescent development (Duncan & Magnuson, 2012). However, few studies have directly examined links among SES, experience and the brain (Luby et al., 2013). In my lab, we are actively focusing on these issues, with specific interest in how chronic stress and the home language environment may, in part, explain our findings.

How can this work inform interventions?

Quite a few interventions aim to reduce socioeconomic disparities in children’s achievement. Whether school-based or home-based, many are quite effective, though frequently face challenges: High-quality interventions are expensive, difficult to scale up and often suffer from “fadeout,” or the phenomenon whereby the positive effects of the intervention dwindle with time once children are no longer receiving services.

What about the effects of directly supplementing family income? Rather than providing services, such “cash transfer“ interventions have the potential to empower families to make the financial decisions they deem best for themselves and their children. Experimental and quasi-experimental studies in the social sciences, both domestically and in the developing world, have suggested the promise of direct income supplementation (Duncan & Magnuson, 2012).

To date, linkages between poverty and brain development have been entirely correlational in nature; the field of neuroscience is silent on the causal connections between poverty and brain development. As such, I am pleased to be part of a team of social scientists and neuroscientists who are currently planning and raising funds to launch the first-ever randomized experiment testing the causal connections between poverty reduction and brain development.

The ambition of this study is large, though the premise is simple. We plan to recruit 1,000 low-income U.S. mothers at the time of their child’s birth. Mothers will be randomized to receive a large monthly income supplement or a nominal monthly income supplement. Families will be tracked longitudinally to definitively assess the causal impact of this unconditional cash transfer on cognitive and brain development in the first three years following birth, when we believe the developing brain is most malleable to experience.

We hypothesize that increased family income will trigger a cascade of positive effects throughout the family system. As a result, across development, children will be better positioned to learn foundational skills. If our hypotheses are borne out, this proposed randomized trial has the potential to inform social policies that affect the lives of millions of disadvantaged families with young children. While income may not be the only or even the most important factor in determining children’s developmental trajectories, it may be the most manipulable from a policy perspective.

American Psychological Association

In the age of robots, our schools are teaching children to be redundant – George Monbiot. 

In the future, if you want a job, you must be as unlike a machine as possible: creative, critical and socially skilled. So why are children being taught to behave like machines?

Children learn best when teaching aligns with their natural exuberance, energy and curiosity. So why are they dragooned into rows and made to sit still while they are stuffed with facts?

We succeed in adulthood through collaboration. So why is collaboration in tests and exams called cheating?

The best teachers use their character, creativity and inspiration to trigger children’s instinct to learn. So why are character, creativity and inspiration suppressed by a stifling regime of micromanagement?

The Guardian

Why Schools Should NOT Be Run Like Businesses – Steven Singer. 

America loves business.

We worship the free market. Nothing is more infallible, not reason, not morals, not even God.

Money is the true measure of success – the more you have, the better a person you are.

This perverted ideology (otherwise known as Neoliberalism) has taken over much of American life. Where we once cared about our country, justice and fair play, today it has all been reduced to dollars and cents.

Every problem can be answered by business. Every endeavor should be made more business-like. Every interaction should be modeled on the corporate contract, and every individual should try to maximize the outcome in his or her favor. Doing so is not just good for you, personally, but it’s what’s best for everyone involved. And this dogma is preached by the high priests of the market who claim that as they, themselves, get wealthier, one day we too will reap the same rewards – but that day never seems to come.

These principles are articles of faith so deeply ingrained that some folks can’t see past them. They have become the driving force behind our country and much of the world. Meanwhile, most people get ever poorer, our environment gets increasingly polluted and everything is up for sale.

One of the last holdouts against this market-driven nightmare is the public school system.

We still have widespread educational institutions run democratically at public expense dedicated to providing every child with the tools and opportunities to learn.

They’re not perfect. Far from it. But they enshrine one of the last vestiges of the America of our grandparents. Democracy and justice are the system’s core values – not profit, expansion and market share.

However, our schools suffer from disinvestment. Since we’ve segregated the rich from the poor into privileged and impoverished neighborhoods, it’s easy to provide more funding and resources to wealthy children and less to poor ones. That’s the main reason why some schools struggle – they haven’t the resources of the Cadillac institutions.

Common Dreams

Pisa Tests And Stupidity. New Zealand’s Outdated Education Philosophy. – Bryan Bruce. 

I see the latest OECD Pisa Test results are out and NZ’s scores fell very slightly in the three tested subjects – Reading, Maths and Science.

Frankly I don’t care. Only the stupid would think measuring 15 year olds in 3 subjects was a measure of whether our education system is good or bad.

I don’t know what Lorde’s test marks were in these 3 subjects at 15 for example, but she left school and won 2 Grammy’s .

My point is that a good education system is one (in my view) that aims to foster the talents and abilities of every individual child…. and a system hell bent on measuring kids to see how much they are the SAME as other kids their age, risks missing how DIFFERENT every child is – so that teachers can help each of their students be the best that they can be.

To continue with a 19th Century testing approach to assess today’s young people for life in the 21st century is again – stupid.

Remembering and regurgitating facts isn’t that important in a world where Google knows everything. What’s important is being able to determine what is good information from what is bogus and how to join the dots between information to achieve the result you need.

Also today’s young people will increasingly live in a world where being able to work with others to solve complex problems will determine their success in life. That ability to cooperate with others to solve problems isn’t measured by any of the Pisa tests.

One thing the latest PISA results DO show however is that 15 year olds from rich schools are about 3 years ahead of kids from poor schools and while teachers in lower socio-economic areas are clearly doing a very good job by lifting the performance of their students – our school administration system is against them.

The introduction of self-managing schools by Labour’s David Lange 30 years ago has proved disastrous for children who come from our poorer homes. It has delivered a Public School System where kids in rich areas are clearly benefiting  more from a system funded by the public purse. Not only is that unfair it’s stupid.

It’s stupid because it means we are wasting the brains of kids who weren’t lucky enough to be born into wealthy homes.

We’re a small country. We can’t afford to waste a single brain, a single ability or a single talent.

Just how stupid is our system?

It seems to me the fact that no other country in the world has sought to follow our self-management school system says it all.

We need to get smart and fix our broken system because decentralisation is getting in the way of teachers doing their job.

How so? Well, for one thing, in an effort to  try and force our grossly unfair system to perform  the Ministry has loaded teachers and school principals with volumes of paperwork to make them “accountable”.

Again that’s stupid,because it robs teachers of invaluable teaching time with individual students.

What we need to do instead is charge our educators with the “responsibility” for educating our nation’s children, because there is a world of difference in those two words.

To make someone ‘responsible’ for something says “we trust you”.

To make someone ‘accountable’ for something says ‘we don’t trust you at all and we are going to check up on you every five minutes to make sure you are doing your job.

Shall I say it again? “That’s stupid.”

It’s time to develop a school system where teachers are trusted to get on with the job of teaching.

We need a centralised school system created in consultation with our teachers and educators and driven by them and not politicians.

A system that has as light an administration system as possible. One that is designed (amongst other things) to bring back the principle of equal opportunity for ALL our children.

A focus on PISA style testing also doesn’t prepare our children in the best possible way for the future.

To be honest if I’d be more worried if we were Number 1 in those three PISA subjects because it would mean in all likelihood we had adopted a very authoritarian system of teaching.

“Do as you are told” teaching doesn’t foster creative thinking – and our economy will need creative thinkers if it is to grow in the future.

You can’t learn to be a creative thinker in an environment where the only answer is the one the teacher wants to hear.

We need to make our schools safe places to learn. Places where students are free to try out their ideas and maybe get things wrong now and then. Because in life we don’t get everything right first time and new innovations and discoveries are often made when we learn from our mistakes.

So we need to develop 21st Century methods of evaluating our young people not ones based on 19th Century ideas of what will prepare our children best for a successful life.

For example  PISA doesn’t measure many of the the essential skills we use most everyday.. such as oral language.

How many of us make our living from sales – persuading people to buy your idea or product? Or instructing people? Or using the telephone or , yes, (God help us) .. politics.

Being good at Oral Language, being able to organise your thoughts and communicate them is essential for success today. Why isn’t that one of the subjects used to determine who has a successful education system and who has not?

So let’s stop being stupid. Let’s have a nationwide hui on education to design a better way to administer our public education system that takes politics out of it  and entrusts our teachers with the responsibility of helping every child to realise their particular talents and abilities and be the best that they can be.

Fiddling While Schools Burn – Bryan Bruce. 

Congratulations to our teachers for standing firm against bulk funding. We have a very unfair Public education system and Hekia Parata’s proposal to force principals to choose between hiring a teacher or buying school equipment would have made an already terrible situation worse.

The way to fix our broken education system is not to tinker with the Decile funding model. It is to admit that the self-management system of school administration, introduced by David Lange and designed by former Supermarket boss Brian Picot 3 decades ago, has been a disaster for children of low (and now also middle) income families.

THAT”s what we need to fix.

We are the only country in the world that has a completely autonomous self management school system and you would think that if it was such a wonderful thing then, at some point over the last 30 years, some other country would have copied us. But they haven’t.

They haven’t  because they can see that not only has school self-management created rich and poor schools within a Publicly funded school system, it has also loaded teachers  with so much “accountability” administration that it has robbed our educators of invaluable teaching and professional development time.

If the Decile system serves any useful purpose at all it is simply as a measure of how unfair our school system has become.

A student who attends a Decile 1 or 2 Secondary School has about a 30% LESS chance of attaining NCEA level 2 than if they attended a Decile 9 or 10 school. That’s not because teachers in Decile 1 and 2 schools are worse than teachers in Decile 9 and 10 schools, it’s because over the last 30 years we have created a very unequal society.  

So fixing our school system cannot be separated from fixing our society. 

In Finland and Shanghai (who the OECD say lead the world in education) they have the centralised system of school administration that we once had before Lange introduced his radical new scheme. Back then, teachers from other countries used to visit us – not Finland – to see how we ran things like our reading programmes because we taught that skill better than anyone else. Why? Because we had a cooperative education system in which teachers shared information and good ideas in order to make every school a good school. Not the competitive one we have today, which inherently encourages teachers and schools not to share good ideas and methods but hold on to their “intellectual property” so they can gain more pupils and funding.

So in my view, returning to a centralised system of light administration that unburdens our teachers from unnecessary administrative tasks in order to spend more time on the difficult job of preparing our children for life is the place to start. Fiddling with funding won’t fix our systemic school administration problem. Taking away the  control of education from politicians and putting back into the hands of our educators however, just might.

If you would like to know more about my views on our Public education system you can watch  my documentary World Class? for free for the next 10 days here: Bryan Bruce

Germany scraps tuition fees after mass student protests cause shift in public opinion. 

After experimenting with tuition fees, all the federal German states have been persuaded to reverse their decision. In the UK and US, there is no political will to change the policies which are blighting whole generations. The only way forward is to copy German protest movements.

The world’s fourth largest economy, Germany, has abolished all higher education tuition fees after flirting with the system for a few years. The contrast could not be greater with both the United States and the United Kingdom, which has largely aped the US model with potentially disastrous results.

In the US, tuition costs have risen 500% since 1985 and those who borrowed for a bachelor’s degree granted in 2012 owe an average of US$29,400. Some 40 million Americans are paying back US$1.2 trillion in outstanding student debt. US senator Elizabeth Warren, who is campaigning to lower fees, says the burden is stopping young Americans from buying homes and cars, or starting small businesses. Meanwhile, existing federal financial aid to students is poorly targeted, with half of federal tuition tax credits going to the wealthiest 20%. Economy Watch

The Destruction of New Zealand’s Public Education System. 

New Zealand Teachers in 2008 were excited about putting all their energies into the new ideas and approaches that were espoused in these co-constructed documents that had taken around seven years to review and write. Evidence, research and practitioner input had created something that would allow us to prepare New Zealand children to become resilient in a rapidly changing world.

We were just on the cusp of something great when an election occurred…

A National led Government was elected and New Zealand’s public education system came under heavy attack. Local Bodies 

NZ School Punishment: 11-year-old locked in ‘dark cell’ 13 times in 9 days.

Victorian era attitudes still alive and well in New Zealand education. 

Children were repeatedly locked in a darkened, cell-like room at a primary school as punishment for bad behaviour.

Education officials launched an investigation at Miramar Central School in Wellington after a behaviour therapist found a 11-year-old disabled boy alone and distraught in the cupboard-sized room, with no way to get out.

The boy, who is autistic with the mental age of a toddler, was one of at least 10 children – mainstream and special needs – put in the “time out” room within the past year, largely without parent knowledge or consent. NZ Herald

People Make People –  Bryan Bruce. 

​Teaching is more than instruction. It’s people making. One of the biggest mistakes we could make in preparing our children for the future is to think that teachers can be replaced by computers.

Why? Because that would be to reduce the job description of a teacher to that of an instructor  – which would take us back to the 19th Century when teachers tried to fill their students up with information.

Yes school is still place were you learn the basic literacy and numeracy skills, but in these days when Google knows everything remembering information is far less important than knowing how to find out what you want to know, how to decide what is good information and bad information – and how to join the dots between various pieces of good information to solve your problem or come up with something new.
So a focus on computer based learning which can be done at home is, in my view, to take a short sighted view of the role of teachers and schools in today’s society  – which is to prepare our children for a future none of us can predict. And one thing we DO know is that whatever the future holds for our kids, it will be their social skills – such as their ability to work with others and communicate their ideas  to other that will largely  determine their success in life.
Now, that things a good teacher  assess in the social environment of a school, but a computer can’t. Because it takes good people to make good people.

GFE, a Global Fund for Education – Jeffrey D. Sachs

Many parts of the world are headed for massive instability, joblessness, and poverty. The twenty-first century will belong to countries that properly educate their young people to participate productively in the global economy.

What US politicians and policymakers in their right minds could believe that US national security is properly pursued through a 900-to-1 ratio of military spending to global education spending? Of course, the US is not alone. Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Israel are all squandering vast sums in an accelerating Middle East arms race, in which the US is the major financier and arms supplier. China and Russia are also sharply boosting military spending, despite their pressing domestic priorities. We are, it seems, courting a new arms race among major powers, at a time when what is really needed is a peaceful race to education and sustainable development. Jeffrey D Sachs, Project Syndicate

Children under ten being fed 14 spoons of sugar a day

The figures show that youngsters’ consumption of sweet drinks has dropped very little in the six years health officials have been collecting data, despite dire warnings of the health dangers. They are still the biggest source of sugar in the diet of children and teenagers. NZ Herald

What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland’s School Success

Finland is an education superpower because it values equality more than excellence. Finnish students have been turning in some of the highest test scores in the world.

Finland’s success is especially intriguing because Finnish schools assign less homework and engage children in more creative play.

There are no private schools in Finland. This notion may seem difficult for an American to digest, but it’s true. Only a small number of independent schools exist in Finland, and even they are all publicly financed. None is allowed to charge tuition fees. There are no private universities, either. This means that practically every person in Finland attends public school.

The answers Finland provides seem to run counter to just about everything America’s school reformers are trying to do.

The Atlantic

Finnish Lessons by Pahi Sahlberg