Teaching Young Students Empathy Improves Their Creativity, University of Cambridge Finds

Having students become more skilled at looking at things from different perspectives may be what drove the increase in their creativity. The power of enhanced creativity can obviously be leveraged in many fields to boost levels of success.

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Teaching children in a way that encourages them to empathise with others measurably improves their creativity, and could potentially lead to several other beneficial learning outcomes, new research suggests.

The findings are from a year-long University of Cambridge study with Design and Technology (D&T) year 9 pupils (ages 13 to 14) at two inner London schools. Pupils at one school spent the year following curriculum-prescribed lessons, while the other group’s D&T lessons used a set of engineering design thinking tools which aim to foster students’ ability to think creatively and to engender empathy, while solving real-world problems.

Both sets of pupils were assessed for creativity at both the start and end of the school year using the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking: a well-established psychometric test.

The results showed a statistically significant increase in creativity among pupils at the intervention school, where the thinking tools were used. At the start of the year, the creativity scores of pupils in the control school, which followed the standard curriculum, were 11% higher than those at the intervention school. By the end, however, the situation had completely changed: creativity scores among the intervention group were 78% higher than the control group.

The researchers also examined specific categories within the Torrance Test that are indicative of emotional or cognitive empathy: such as ’emotional expressiveness’ and ‘open-mindedness’. Pupils from the intervention school again scored much higher in these categories, indicating that a marked improvement in empathy was driving the overall creativity scores.

The study’s authors suggest that encouraging empathy not only improves creativity, but can deepen pupils’ general engagement with learning. Notably, they found evidence that boys and girls in the intervention school responded to the D&T course in ways that defied traditional gender stereotypes. Boys showed a marked improvement in emotional expression, scoring 64% higher in that category at the end of the year than at the start, while girls improved more in terms of cognitive empathy, showing 62% more perspective-taking.

The research is part of a long-term collaboration between the Faculty of Education and the Department of Engineering at the University of Cambridge called ‘Designing Our Tomorrow’ (DOT), led by Bill Nicholl and Ian Hosking. It challenges pupils to solve real-world problems by thinking about the perspectives and feelings of others.

The particular challenge used in the study asked pupils at the intervention school to design an asthma-treatment ‘pack’ for children aged six and under. Pupils were given various creative and empathetic ‘tools’ in order to do so: for example, they were shown data about the number of childhood asthma fatalities in the UK, and a video which depicts a young child having an attack. They also explored the problem and tested their design ideas by role-playing various stakeholders, for example, patients, family-members, and medical staff.

Nicholl, Senior Lecturer in Design and Technology Education, who trains teachers studying on the University’s D&T PGCE course, said: “Teaching for empathy has been problematic despite being part of the D&T National Curriculum for over two decades. This evidence suggests that it is a missing link in the creative process, and vital if we want education to encourage the designers and engineers of tomorrow.”

Dr Helen Demetriou, an affiliated lecturer in psychology and education at the Faculty of Education with a particular interest in empathy, and the other researcher involved in the study, said: “We clearly awakened something in these pupils by encouraging them to think about the thoughts and feelings of others. The research shows not only that it is possible to teach empathy, but that by doing so we support the development of children’s creativity, and their wider learning.”

The gender differences charted in the study indicate that the intervention enabled students to overcome some of the barriers to learning that assumed gender roles often create. For example, boys often feel discouraged from expressing emotion at school, yet this was one of the main areas where they made significant creative gains according to the tests.

In addition to the Torrance Tests, the researchers conducted in-depth interviews with pupils at both the intervention school and a third (girls-only) school who also undertook the asthma challenge. This feedback again suggested that pupils had empathised deeply with the challenges faced by young asthma-sufferers, and that this had influenced their creative decisions in the classroom.

Many, for example, used phrases such as ‘stepping into their shoes’ or ‘seeing things from another point of view’ when discussing patients and their families. One boy told the researchers: “I think by the end of the project I could feel for the people with asthma… if I was a child taking inhalers, I would be scared too.”

Another responded: “Let’s say you had a sister or brother in that position. I would like to do something like this so we can help them.”

Overall, the authors suggest that these findings point to a need to nurture ’emotionally intelligent learners’ not only in D&T classes, but across subjects, particularly in the context of emerging, wider scientific evidence that our capacity for empathy declines as we get older.

“This is something that we must think about as curricula in general become increasingly exam-based,” Demetriou said. “Good grades matter, but for society to thrive, creative, communicative and empathic individuals matter too.”

Nicholl added: “When I taught Design and Technology, I didn’t see children as potential engineers who would one day contribute to the economy; they were people who needed to be ready to go into the world at 18. Teaching children to empathise is about building a society where we appreciate each other’s perspectives. Surely that is something we want education to do.”

The study is published in the journal, Improving Schools.

Teenagers With Better Childhoods Drink Less and Do Drugs Less

If we structured a system where there was less poverty and despair, more people would have better childhoods, and less people would end up with damaging drug addictions.

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Teenagers with happy childhood memories are likely to drink less, take fewer drugs and enjoy learning, according to research published in the peer-reviewed journal Addiction Research & Theory.

The findings, based on data from nearly 2,000 US high school students, show a link between how pupils feel about the past, present and future and their classroom behavior. This in turn influences their grades and risk of substance misuse, according to the study.

The authors say action is needed now because Covid-19 has left many teenagers struggling with online study, suffering mentally and turning to drink and drugs.

They are calling on teachers — and parents — to help students develop more positive mindsets and become motivated to learn so they are less likely to binge drink or use marijuana.

“School often seems a source of stress and anxiety to students,” says John Mark Froiland from Purdue University in Indiana, US.

“This puts them at greater risk of not participating in lessons, getting lower grades and of substance misuse.

“Many teenagers also aren’t engaging with online learning during Covid or have lower engagement levels.

“But they’re more likely to be enthusiastic learners and not use drink and drugs if teachers take time to build more positive relationships with them. They can help students see that everything they’re learning is truly valuable. Parents have a role to play too.”

Teenagers with a balanced attitude towards their childhoods and other time periods have already been shown by studies to be more likely to abstain from drink and drugs and achieve academically. This is compared to those with a pessimistic outlook.

The aim of this study was to establish how substance misuse and behaviors towards learning are affected by students’ feelings about the past, present and future.

The data was based on assessments and questionnaires completed by 1,961 students at a high school in the San Francisco Bay Area. More than half (53%) of the pupils included in the study were female.

The study authors looked at responses from pupils where they rated how nostalgic they were towards their childhood, current happiness levels in life and how much they look forward to future happiness.

They also analysed marijuana and alcohol habits over the past 30 days including binge drinking, and average academic grades. They analysed motivation levels, and behavior in lessons such as how much teenagers paid attention and listened.

Statistical techniques were used by the researchers to assess the associations between all these different factors and establish the key predictors for alcohol and marijuana misuse.

In general, the study found that positive attitudes towards the past, present and future put adolescents at lower risk for alcohol use, binge drinking, and marijuana.

The opposite was true for those displaying pessimistic or negative ways of thinking or feeling about their life in the past, now or ahead of them.

The reason for this was that a content and optimistic outlook increased the likelihood they would be motivated and behave in a focused way on the chance to learn.

Other findings include girls having stronger levels of behavioral engagement than boys, and students who drank being most likely to use cannabis.

Boosting Serotonin Can Speed Learning

I’m sure this research has more implications than currently realized.

Serotonin is thought to mediate communications between neural cells and play an essential role in functional, and dysfunctional, cognition. For a long time, serotonin has been recognized as a major target of antidepressants (selective-serotonin-reuptake-inhibitor (SSRIs) that are used to treat various psychiatric conditions, such as depression, obsessive-compulsive-disorder and forms of anxiety. However, serotonin in humans, and other animals, is associated with a bewildering variety of aspects of cognition and decision-making, including punishment, reward and patience.

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In the experiments, mice were trained to choose one of the two targets to receive water rewards. Mice continually had to learn which of the targets was more rewarding, as the reward rates changed without warning. Crucially, sometimes serotonin release in the brain was temporarily boosted in mice with genetically modified serotonin neurons by a technique called optogenetics, allowing the effects of serotonin on learning to be assessed.

Iigaya built a computational account of mice behaviour based on reinforcement learning principles, which are widely used in machine-learning and AI. Iigaya found that the learning rate, i.e. how fast the modelled mice learn, was modulated by serotonin stimulation. He compared trials with and without stimulation of serotonin neurons, and observed that the learning rate was significantly faster when stimulation was delivered, meaning that boosting serotonin sped up learning in mice.

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The authors conclude: “Our results suggest that serotonin boosts [brain] plasticity by influencing the rate of learning. This resonates, for instance, with the fact that treatment with an SSRI can be more effective when combined with so-called cognitive behavioral therapy, which encourages the breaking of habits in patients.”

Substantial clinical research shows that SSRI treatment is often most effective if combined with cognitive-behavioural-therapy (CBT). The goal of CBT is to change maladaptive thinking and behaviour actively, through sessions that are designed for patients to (re)learn their way to think and behave. However, scientists have had limited understanding of how and why SSRI and CBT work together for treatments. The new findings point to a possible functional link between the two, with serotonin boosting the learning inherent to CBT, providing clues as to one of the roles that this neuromodulator plays in the treatment of psychiatric disorders.

Brain’s Window for Easy Language Learning Open a Decade Longer Than Previously Thought

Various educational systems may now be changed as a result of this research.
In a study of nearly 700,000 English speakers, researchers from Boston College, MIT and Harvard have discovered the optimal years to learn a second language extend to the cusp of adulthood, the team reports today in the online edition of the journal Cognition.

It has long been known that children learn language more easily than adults, but determining exactly when that ability declines has been something of a mystery.

Benefitting from a massive study population and new research methods that allowed them to separate interconnected factors in language acquisition, the team reports that the window for language learning is open approximately a decade longer than previously thought — until the age of 17.4 years of age.

The new findings hold implications for neuroscience, linguistics, developmental psychology and public policy, according to the co-authors of the report, titled “A Critical Period for Second Language Acquisition: Evidence from 2/3 Million English Speakers.”

“What we’ve found gives us a dramatically different understanding about why children learn a new language more efficiently and completely than adults,” said Boston College Assistant Professor of Psychology Joshua K. Hartshorne, a co-author of the study with MIT Professor Joshua B. Tenenbaum and Harvard Professor Steven Pinker.

The findings are the first to estimate how long humans can learn grammar and how that ability changes with age. The ability extends to early adulthood before it begins to decline, the researchers found. This proved so for both “easy” and “difficult” syntaxes the team used in their study.

The findings define a clear “critical period for language acquisition” that lasts much longer than previously thought.

“Explaining this ‘critical period for language acquisition’ is crucial not only for understanding why humans, but not animals or machines, learn language, but also for research questions on neural development and plasticity, bilingual education, foreign language education, treatment of disorders that affect language, and early childhood stimulation,” Hartshorne said.

Tens of thousands of respondents from around the world took the survey through a quiz the researchers offered online through the site http://www.gameswithwords.org, Hartshorne said.

He added that earlier studies focused on how much language a seven-year-old could expect to eventually learn, rather than how quickly a seven-year-old learns language.

Too Much Time in Dimly Lit Rooms May Decrease Intelligence, Neuroscience Research Finds

There’s a lot that could be said about this and the structural effects from it.

Spending too much time in dimly lit rooms and offices may actually change the brain’s structure and hurt one’s ability to remember and learn, indicates groundbreaking research by Michigan State University neuroscientists.

The researchers studied the brains of Nile grass rats (which, like humans, are diurnal and sleep at night) after exposing them to dim and bright light for four weeks. The rodents exposed to dim light lost about 30 percent of capacity in the hippocampus, a critical brain region for learning and memory, and performed poorly on a spatial task they had trained on previously.

The rats exposed to bright light, on the other hand, showed significant improvement on the spatial task. Further, when the rodents that had been exposed to dim light were then exposed to bright light for four weeks (after a month-long break), their brain capacity — and performance on the task — recovered fully.

The study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, is the first to show that changes in environmental light, in a range normally experienced by humans, leads to structural changes in the brain. Americans, on average, spend about 90 percent of their time indoors, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

“When we exposed the rats to dim light, mimicking the cloudy days of Midwestern winters or typical indoor lighting, the animals showed impairments in spatial learning,” said Antonio “Tony” Nunez, psychology professor and co-investigator on the study. “This is similar to when people can’t find their way back to their cars in a busy parking lot after spending a few hours in a shopping mall or movie theater.”

Nunez collaborated with Lily Yan, associate professor of psychology and principal investigator on the project, and Joel Soler, a doctoral graduate student in psychology. Soler is also lead author of a paper on the findings published in the journal Hippocampus.

Soler said sustained exposure to dim light led to significant reductions in a substance called brain derived neurotrophic factor — a peptide that helps maintain healthy connections and neurons in the hippocampus — and in dendritic spines, or the connections that allow neurons to “talk” to one another.

“Since there are fewer connections being made, this results in diminished learning and memory performance that is dependent upon the hippocampus,” Soler said.

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The project could have implications for the elderly and people with glaucoma, retinal degeneration or cognitive impairments.

“For people with eye disease who don’t receive much light, can we directly manipulate this group of neurons in the brain, bypassing the eye, and provide them with the same benefits of bright light exposure?” Yan said. “Another possibility is improving the cognitive function in the aging population and those with neurological disorders. Can we help them recover from the impairment or prevent further decline?”

Study: Video Game Players Have an Advantage in Learning

There could be some value to these results. Video games in moderation may be better than prescription drugs (which too often have negative side effects) at treating learning difficulties, for example.

Neuropsychologists of the Ruhr-Universität Bochum let video gamers compete against non-gamers in a learning competition. During the test, the video gamers performed significantly better and showed an increased brain activity in the brain areas that are relevant for learning. Prof Dr Boris Suchan, Sabrina Schenk and Robert Lech report their findings in the journal Behavioural Brain Research.

The weather prediction task

The research team studied 17 volunteers who — according to their own statement — played action-based games on the computer or a console for more than 15 hours a week. The control group consisted of 17 volunteers who didn’t play video games on a regular basis. Both teams did the so-called weather prediction task, a well-established test to investigate the learning of probabilities. The researchers simultaneously recorded the brain activity of the participants via magnetic resonance imaging.

The participants were shown a combination of three cue cards with different symbols. They should estimate whether the card combination predicted sun or rain and got a feedback if their choice was right or wrong right away. The volunteers gradually learned, on the basis of the feedback, which card combination stands for which weather prediction. The combinations were thereby linked to higher or lower probabilities for sun and rain. After completing the task, the study participants filled out a questionnaire to sample their acquired knowledge about the cue card combinations.

Video gamers better with high uncertainties

The gamers were notably better in combining the cue cards with the weather predictions than the control group. They fared even better with cue card combinations that had a high uncertainty such as a combination that predicted 60 percent rain and 40 percent sunshine.

The analysis of the questionnaire revealed that the gamers had acquired more knowledge about the meaning of the card combinations than the control group. “Our study shows that gamers are better in analysing a situation quickly, to generate new knowledge and to categorise facts — especially in situations with high uncertainties,” says first author Sabrina Schenk.

This kind of learning is linked to an increased activity in the hippocampus, a brain region that plays a key role in learning and memory. “We think that playing video games trains certain brain regions like the hippocampus,” says Schenk. “That is not only important for young people, but also for older people; this is because changes in the hippocampus can lead to a decrease in memory performance. Maybe we can treat that with video games in the future.”