What happens when we learn?

Joining together biological and social research on the effects of environment and nutrition on the body and the effects of social and institutional processes on children’s school experiences and outcomes has made me think more about learning. This has made me think that shared meanings, gene expression, electrochemical signals, the everyday of the classroom, and a sense of self are actually all part of one phenomenon that is learning.

In the media and in policy the emphasis is on students’ performance in tests, taken at set points in their education, and this can easily leave us thinking that learning and how we do on tests is the same thing. But test performance is only what a student does in that test, on the day of that test. It might say something about what they have learnt, the limits of what they know and can do, but it might not. Test performance can only speak to what the test itself allows for as knowledge or skills. And it is not the learning itself.

In my own sociological work on how students come to be seen by teachers and themselves as ‘good learners’, I have paid close attention to the nuances of everyday life in classrooms, looking especially at how meanings stick to particular sorts of people and activities. This tells us a lot about how students are included (or not) in classrooms, and why some students are thought of and think of themselves as good learners, but it doesn’t tell us much about what happens when we learn.

In education research, ideas about learning as gaining skills and knowledge have been replaced by ideas that try to account for all sorts of social influences on learning. The revolutionary educator Paolo Friere criticised education based on ‘banking’ important information in the minds of learners. He saw learning as tied up with the social, economic and political situation that learners are in. This led him to think of learning as ‘conscientization’ –learner coming to see and understand their situation and generate strategies for engaging with and transforming it.

Friere’s revolutionary project has slipped from most education theories of learning, but the idea that the local and wider situation is important remains. These theories often suggest a complex interplay of social, personal and educational factors that influence learning. Yrjo Engerstrom’s activity theory offers a useful example where rules, community, the division of labour, and the symbolic mediate the sense that is made to the thing to be learnt by the learner – seen Engerstrom. As does Etienne Wenger’s, where learning takes place in, and makes, ‘communities of practice’ and identity, community, practice and and meaning come together – see wenger.

These models of learning make sense to me – learning is part of experience and doing, it is part of our belonging and who we are becoming, and shared meanings are crucial. But this still doesn’t quite tell us what happens when we learn.

Reading epigenetic research on the way environmental influences effect the way genes are expressed, and so how the cells of the body function, has led me to some unexpected work on learning. In epigenetics the nature of the question and its answer is quite different. We find learning taken to be the making of memory, and memory taken as the biochemical changes in the brain that occur when something is learnt. As we can’t take tissue samples from human brains while they learn, epigenticists set up experiments in which model animals (rats, mice or flies) learn and then the animal is killed so that its brain tissue can be examined. When rats learn fear of/in a new environment by being given an electric shock the learning shows up in their brain tissue – David Molfese shows how histones (that DNA is stored around) in certain parts of the brain are differently methylated (turned off and on). Strange, fascinating, and a long way from a ‘community of practice’. In neuroscience, Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI scanning) is used to identify learning inside the brain as it happens. For instance, work by Kim Sharpiro and colleagues showing how working memory activates particular regions of the brain as identified in fMRI.

These are only some, albeit important, approaches to thinking about and identifying learning. So do we have to choose an account? Or can I put them together?

What happens if I claim that all of these might be true at the same time? Learning is an interaction between a person and a thing; it is embedded in ways of being and understanding that are shared across communities; it is influenced by the social and cultural and economic conditions of lives; it involves changes to how genes are expressed in brain cells because it changes the histones that store DNA; it means that certain parts of the brain are provoked into electrochemical activity; and it relies on a person being recognised by others, and recognising themselves, as someone who learns. And if I am going this far, then it makes sense to suggest that these might be interacting with each other – shared meanings, gene expression, electrochemical signals, the everyday of the classroom, and a sense of self are actually all part of one phenomenon that is learning.

 

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Against Ability

Schools should ditch the idea of ability. This isn’t the first time that I’ve said this, but test-driven education hurtles on and we need to keep stopping to notice what’s wrong with that.

Ability is a staple of education policy and guidance; it is part of common sense; it is a cornerstone of the meritocratic idea that we each get what we deserve (ability plus effort equals merit); and it is a key organisational and explanatory device in many (most?) schools, structuring the everyday landscape and experience of schooling.

Ability is one term in a wider lexicon – intelligence, IQ, potential, aptitude, capacity, capability, talent, gift – in which what a person can do is an interior quality of that person, and often one that is seen as natural and enduring. A focus on prior-learning, pre-existing skills, preparedness, or readiness might have the potential to shift this, but these often still rest on the idea of ability. Advocates of ability (or IQ) claim it has a ‘normal distribution’, just as educational outcomes are expected to have a normal distribution. As David Gillborn has shown, when these measures show uneven distribution of IQ and outcomes across race and class groups, advocates either suggest these are simply difficult truths or sweep them under the rug to do their insidious work.

There is a lot of education research that shows the harm done by ability. When we were doing the research for our 2000 book Rationing Education, me and David Gillborn were privy to this conversation between the Head and Deputy of a London Secondary school:

Head: You can’t achieve more than you’re capable of, can you? Can you? There are kids who surprise you, but I’m not sure that’s quite the same thing.

Deputy: If you can under-achieve why can’t you over-achieve?

Head: What does over-achieve mean? That you’ve done more than you’re capable of doing? You can’t do more than you’re capable of. You can do less than you’re capable of, as most of us do most of the time. Don’t we?

For us this distilled the underpinnings, and dangers of ability as it works in schools.

Ability is used as the basis for sorting, selection, setting and streaming in schools. Research by people like Sue Hallam at UCL Institute of Education shows that using ‘mixed ability’ groupings is better for everyone, but policy continues to mandate setting by ability.

Setting by ability not only sorts and separates, it makes hierarchies – when selection and setting based on ability are part of the fabric of an education system, some of students come to be ‘better’ than others. Children in bottom set know they are in bottom set, and, as Claudine Rauch’s research shows, children sat on the ‘circles table’ know what is implied by the fact that circles have many less sides than hexagons. My own research shows how, through mundane everyday practices ability makes differently valued learners. Day-in, day-out, schools and teachers recognise some students as good learners, and others as difficult, troubling, or troubled learners – modes of recognition that become bound up in students’ sense of themselves: the child recognised as bright understands herself as bright and manifests her brightness in the classroom, while the child recognised as struggling understands himself as struggling and manifests his struggles in the classroom.

Ability is used to predict and fix – many schools pay large sums to private education companies that predict students’ subject-by-subject outcomes in terminal exams based on measures of their ability years in advance. And ability is used to explain (away) inequalities, making them natural, unavoidable and completely down to the individual.

Ability is also used to allocate resources, and when resources are limited and performance indicators drive not just a school’s reputation but its continued autonomy and even its continued existence, ability is used to perform ‘educational triage’. When me and David Gillborn first observed schools performing what looked to us like educational triage in the late 1990s we were shocked – schools were not prioritising the most disadvantaged or lowest attaining students as we had expected. Instead, these students were treated as ‘hopeless cases’ and the often more socially and economically advantaged students performing on the borderline of the performance indicator – the ‘suitable cases for treatment’ – got the resources. These once shocking practices are now standard in schools.

Finally, but perhaps most profoundly, ability stops us think differently about learning.

Throughout the long debate over ability – its existence and what should be done with it – there has been a persistent claim that ability is real and we have to deal with that. This is perhaps seen most boldly in research in intelligence or IQ. Robert Plomin’s lab has been a key site for intelligence research and has asserted the genetic phenomenon of generalised intelligence or ‘G’. Twin studies and more recently genome-wide association studies (GWAS) underpin the claim that variance in intelligence is hereditary. In the early twin studies 50 to 60 per cent of variance was identified as being hereditary, but in genome-wide association studies this figure drops dramatically, down to as low as 2 per cent. While for people like me who see ability as divisive and damaging this is potentially good news, the Plomin lab puts this down to the limitations of the data and the newest study has pushed this back up to 10 per cent.

David Gillborn has engaged in detail with recent research that asserts a major hereditary influence on intelligence, and with policy that makes this its bedrock. He reminds us of the long history of connecting differential intelligence to different races. He explains that, despite popular misconceptions, heritability is about variability across populations and not individuals, and that even intelligence researchers wouldn’t want to speak to the influence of G in an individual child’s school achievements. And he shows how measured IQ has been going up over time, but that it is ‘re-normed’ to sustain a ‘normal distribution’ with an elite group at the top and a hopeless group at the bottom, and the rest in the middle, meaning that distribution of IQ doesn’t tell us anything about what a person can do – just where they sit in a hierarchy.

Sociological research in schools shows that differences in apparent ability (however that might be being observed) and in what children do on particular tests is not about a generalised genetic intelligence – it is about experiences of different forms of advantage and disadvantage; about institutional and every-day, business-as usual racism; about being recognised (or not) by teachers as someone who can learn.

I find it useful to insert epigenetics into thinking about ability and what schools can and should do about it. Epigenetics suggests interactions between the environment and the body’s DNA that effects gene regulation and expression, that is, what cells actually do. To date ‘environment’ in epigenetic research has tended to mean the uterus, mother-child relationships, experiences of trauma, and different forms of environmental toxicity, all of which have been shown to change the functioning of cells. Researchers interested in the epigenetic influences on children’s development and learning offer findings that are useful for supporting a move away from ability as it has been put to work in schools. They stress the massive capacity for ongoing epigenetic changes in the brain and so the brain’s functioning. They highlight the potential for relationships beyond the mother-child pair – perhaps including children’s relationships with their teachers – to have epigenetic influences. And they show how differential epigenetic susceptibility means that those most adversely affected epigentically by environment are also most likely to benefit from positive intervention.

Not only does this epigenetic work offer a very different view of the molecular biology of learning than is offered by a GWAS of intelligence, it also invites us to expand our sociological accounts of what environment might influence. Instead of focusing on ability or IQ as something in a child that we need to identify and measure, it invites a focus and what the influences on learning might be and how these might interact (see the image below for my suggestion of the key influences that we need to understand).

When ability is embedded in our thinking our pedagogies, the learning we offer to students, our relationships with students, and the way we think about ourselves as educators all suffer because ability sits as a block on them all.

What happens (could happen) if we ditch ability and think in different ways about students and learning?

When I asked this question of the staff of the University of Birmingham School last week, it was clear that ditching ability was opening up exciting ways of working for them. It underscores (again) that performance in a test does not tell us anything fundamental about a child, including their capacity to learn. It frees children and teachers from the fear of failing, either through a lack of ability or by not living up to someone else’s idea of promise. It opens up a new space that, while it might feel risky, is a space in which potential might be limitless, where everyone is a learner, where teachers and students can have rich and caring pedagogic encounters, and in which expansive thinking about learning can replace the endless pursuit of test results. It provokes us to consider afresh, what education is and what it is for.

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What rats can teach teachers

I’ve been reading about rat brains and bahaviors and how they are changed by the sort of care they get. The research looks at rat mothers’ licking and grooming behavior and shows that rats that get lots of licking and grooming are different from rats that don’t. The ‘HPA axis’ (hypothalamic, pituitary, and adrenal activity) – also known as the ‘stress axis’ – shows hormonal changes that together mean that licking and grooming effects how rats’ stress responses work and how they respond to stressful situations. Licking and grooming also effects oxytocin and estrogen, including in the medial preoptic area (MPOA) of the brain associated with maternal behavior. This effects the amount of licking and grooming that rat mothers do, and then how much licking and grooming their offspring do. These changes also affect wider social behaviour through changes to oxytocin in the brain’s limbic system (or ‘social behaviour network’). See the Champagne Lab or the Meaney Lab for more on this.

While these patterns can repeat over generations, they can also be changed inside generations. When infant and adolescent rats are fostered to rats with different licking and grooming patterns, their brains change and so do their behaviours.

This ‘plasticity’ of the brain’s ‘epigenetic’ responses to environment and experience offers a positive alternative to the emphasis on early intervention. Early intervention policy has put the responsibility on mothers and insisted that ‘two is too late’ for the effects of ‘poor parenting’ to be undone. What these rats tell me is that two is not too late, that mothers of toddlers can’t possibly be held responsible for their kids’ entire futures, that different forms of care affect different children in different ways, and that, in terms of these brain effects anyway, we don’t need to get our care from our mothers. See research with human subjects here.

Of course, we have to take care translating from rats to humans. Children’s worlds are complex. Their days are filled with numerous experiences and encounters that will provoke a whole range of biochemical, affective, intuitive, social and mindful responses. These responses, the rats tell us, vary between children but also potentially vary in the same child over time. And in the movements and flows of the day, it might not always be so easy to know what might count as a stressor, and to which child.

Children relationships are also complex. They form deep connections to carers, family members, peers and teachers, including when people do not care for them well. Children’s relationships with individuals shift and change, and children can have caring, supportive relationships with some people, and uncaring and unsupportive relationships with other people. And the impact of relationships can endure long after the relationship has ended.

So far I have avoided specifying what the equivalent of rats’ licking and grooming might be for a child, and I’ve avoided the language of attachment parenting that seems to say there is one correct way of parenting. But even if we say that the human equivalent of licking and grooming might be lots of physical contact, sing-song dialogue, validation of feelings and an orientation to discovery – the point the rats are making is that this doesn’t all need to be done in infancy, and it isn’t all down to the mother.

So what are these rats telling teachers?

It seems to me that they are telling teachers to care for the children in their classrooms. They are telling teachers that if they get a report from another professional identifying what and who a child is, they should engage this knowing that children change, and that building deep relationships of care is a key to a child being able to change. They are telling teachers that when a child isn’t doing something they want them to do, it might not be because they are uncooperative, silly, disruptive or disordered – it might be because their stress axis or their social behaviour network is responding to the situation in a way that makes it really difficult for the child to be and do who and what the teacher wants. They are telling teachers that stress, sociality and learning don’t go together, that we should keep stressors – from social policing to high-stakes testing – away from children.

According to the rats, everyone involved with children and young people should have deep relationships of care at the heart of their encounters – these should be encounters of the heart.

 

We are biosocial

 

I am a Professor of Sociology of Education and I’ve spent the last 20 years trying to figure out why education is so unequal.

I’ve looked for answers in the relationships between teachers and pupils; in the ways schools organize themselves and are required to act; and in the judgments that teachers make about the children they teach. I’ve always argued that these social aspects of schooling are important because, being social, we can change them and make a difference.

When students, colleagues, and friends have suggested to me that surely at least some of it is natural, instinct, or genetic – girls being good at arts, boys liking non-fiction books, poor kids and black kids doing less well than white and well off kids – I have dodged the question. I have reminded them of our history of colonization and slavery, of women with no property and no vote, of children experiencing trauma or with disabilities being deemed unfit to educate. I have gone back to the social aspects of schooling, and the ethics that we can use to guide what education is and does.

And then along came epigenetics.

Epigenetics is where work in genetics has got to since the human genome was mapped. It asks how genes are made to work, how they get switched on and switched off, and importantly, how our environment influences how genes work during our own lifetimes.

This means that genes are not the fixed components of what and who we are, while the social is a separate set of influences that works on just those bits of us that are changeable. Epigenetics means that, at the level of how genes are expressed, genes are changeable. The biological and the social are not separate after all. We are biosocial.

This year I have been awarded a British Academy Fellowship to look into what this idea of being biosocial might mean for education. I am talking to experts across genetics, epigenetics and molecular biology, as well as sociology and education. I am engaging with the latest research coming out of these fields. And I am trying to put this collection of research and ideas together in a way that lets us get over the long-running ‘nature versus nurture’ debate in education.

This is an academic project, but my goal is to offer the work I am doing to educators and others who work with children and young people so that it can be useful. I aim to post weekly updates on my research as well as share useful resources and links.

The first resources I am sharing are four summaries of research papers and a set of slides that I used last week with a group of educators and researchers at a workshop that was part of the Economic and Social Research Council’s Festival of Social Science. The researchers were from the University of Birmingham and other universities in the region. The educators were from a range of Birmingham schools and had come to the workshop through their membership of Birmingham Education Partnership. I am hope that workshop was just the beginning of the work I will be doing with teachers.