UK child death rate and neuroscience in education

Roger Titcombe's picture
On 3 May the Guardian featured an article by Sarah Boseley entitled, 'UK child death rate among worst in western Europe, say experts'.

The article was based on a report in The Lancet and made the following points.

"Children in the UK are more likely to die before they reach their fifth birthday than in any other western European country except Malta.

Almost five in every 1,000 children born in the UK die before the age of five, a rate the authors of the global study said was surprising for a country with free, universal healthcare.

Researchers at the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) in Seattle said that 3,000 children in the UK died before their first birthday in 2012.

Experts said poverty and deprivation in the UK, together with cuts in welfare, were directly linked to the deaths of the youngest children. Babies who die under age of one tend to be from deprived households, have a low birthweight and have parents who smoked.

Between ages of one and five, deaths are mostly linked to injuries, accidents and serious diseases such as cancer."

This is truly shocking, but are these data being used to falsely support links between childhood deprivation and the potential for intellectual development?

This was the subject an equally important and compelling Guardian article the previous Saturday (26 April) by Zoe Williams entitled, ' Is misused neuroscience defining early years and child protection policy?'

"The idea that a child's brain is irrevocably shaped in the first three years increasingly drives government policy on adoption and early childhood intervention. But does the science stand up to scrutiny?"

Neuroscience can now explain why early conditions are so crucial," wrote Graham Allen and Iain Duncan Smith in their 2010 collaboration, Early Intervention: Good Parents, Great Kids, Better Citizens. 'The more positive stimuli a baby is given, the more brain cells and synapses it will be able to develop."

Readers of my posts will know that I believe in 'general intelligence' as a valid and useful concept, but like Shayer and Adey I believe it to be plastic and susceptible to development through schooling by developmental methods like those set out by these authors and researchers in their 'Cognitive Acceleration' teaching programmes.

Adey P & Shayer M (Edited) (2002), Learning Intelligence, Open University Press

But if Shayer and Adey are right, and I believe they are, then such developmental potential applies to all children including those born into deprived backgrounds. If a child's brain is 'irrevocably shaped' in the first three years of life then schooling won't have much impact and spending a lot of taxpayer's money on it will be in vain.

Zoe Williams' article is more concerned with the implications of this assumption for social policies on adoption and early years intervention, but there are also profound implications for education.

This relates to my study of Mossbourne Academy that forms a major section of my forthcoming book. If the neuroscience is right then Mossbourne's excellent exam results and progression to university of children from severely deprived homes (a high proportion of the intake) shouldn't be happening, and 'impaired synapse connectivity' in early years should be trumping any pedagogic intervention to limit educational attainment.

Zoe Williams argues that 'neuroscience' may in fact be 'bad science'.

"What if the constant references to "brain scans of neglected children" actually just meant one brain scan, from one highly contested study? What if synaptic development were a bit more complicated than "the more synapses the better", and what if MRI scans tell us much less than we think?"

This article is well worth reading in full.

This is obviously not to deny the severity of damage to young children caused by gross physical abuse, trauma and neglect, nor does it provide any comfort for the shame of the way UK children have become so undervalued and under-cared-for.

'Bad Education' edited by Philip Adey and Justin Dillon, Open University Press, 2012 has a chapter by Corinne Read and Mike Anderson that argues for the same scepticism of neuroscience.

"we tackle the question of why neuroscience is so alluring for educators and discuss the dangers of taking a too brain-centric view of education"

This made me think about a possible analogy with computers. Back in the early 1980s we bought an 'Acorn Electron' for our children (at vast cost). This was based on the famous BBC microcomputer that for a few years completely swamped all schools. We bought a 'chess program' for the Electron. This came recorded on an audio cassette and was loaded onto the computer through the headphone socket of an audio-cassette player. What nostalgia for all us teachers in at the beginning of the digital age in the classroom.

This chess playing software worked on the 16K RAM Electron and gave a surprisingly good game.

I am composing this thread on a modern computer whose number of processing 'synapses' and memory store are millions of time greater than those of the Electron. It is possible to purchase 'emulator' software to make modern computers think they are 16K Acorn items and run Acorn software including our chess game.

However the vastly increased processing power of the modern computer doesn't make a jot difference to the ability of the Acorn chess programme to win its games.

It is software not hardware that matters. As for computers, so for the minds of children. The developmental teaching methods advocated by Shayer and Adey, based on Piaget and Vygotsky are about enabling Kahneman's System 2 cognitive ability to grow increasing levels of sophistication, so enabling understanding that requires ever deeper concepts.

I don't think it has so much to do with the number of synapses in the brain, as with the information that passes between them and how this is processed in its biological medium. In other words what programs the brain can run, how they get there and how it runs them

What would happen if you placed an Acorn Electron and a modern laptop in an MRI scanner and played the Acorn chess programme on both? What would you learn from which 'chips' or parts of chips or memory boards lit up?

The fact is that despite all the developments in neurobiology and ever increasing knowledge of which bits of brains light up in MRI scanners when you are thinking different thoughts, we know virtually nothing about the physical processes of the simplest levels of cognition, let alone the enduring mystery of consciousness.

It is these latter that are the true currency of education and learning. Be very sceptical of neuroscience applied to the classroom.
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Fiona Millar's picture
Thu, 08/05/2014 - 07:46

Roger I am quite disturbed by your implication that all children from deprived backgrounds are necessarily under stimulated, neglected or even abused and traumatised. I agree that poverty, poor housing etc make life harder for many families and schools can do a lot to help overcome those difficulties, especially if they impact on attainment. But there are plenty of children from poorer homes who are well stimulated, loved and nurtured by their parents. I suggest you read the EPPE study, a longitudinal study that looks into the multitude of influences on children's lives.It says "What parents do is more important than who they are". We all know children from better off families who maybe don't have a positive home environment, which also impacts on their later lives so I think these generalisations are dangerous.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Thu, 08/05/2014 - 08:12

Fiona - I intended no such implication and completely agree with you. My post is about the false claims of neuroscience and overly pessimistic claims of permanent impairment of the learning potential of children from poor homes, even those that are not "well stimulated, loved and nurtured by their parents."

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