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Bridging science and education

Blog • • Dr Marina Puglisi

Over the past decades, science has provided evidence on how to most efficiently reduce language and literacy problems in the early years. Applying this knowledge, professionals from the Health and Human Sciences and Educationists could join efforts to promote language skills of children who are most likely to struggle in school. However, such an approach cannot be purely based on techniques and methods people think might work. Instead, robust scientific evidence should inform education policies, and this likely remains one of the main challenges in the field.

Imagine a situation where you experience sudden intense pain below your ribs, spreading to the abdomen. After a thorough examination, the doctor tells you have renal calculus, also known as kidney stones. What would be your next question? You would definitely wonder what the possible treatments are. You may ask whether any risks are involved in each of the procedures and how long the treatment will take. You may also want to hear a bit about the statistics and success rates. All the information you seek has been established through rigorous research methods and scientific evidence. After treatment, you would most likely ask your doctor how to avoid this happening again. Recommendations and estimation of the risks will be based on the analysis of your biological predisposition (e.g., genetics) combined with your life style (environmental factors such as diet). This may sound familiar and natural to you when we talk about health. In education, however, that is a different story.

The tradition in education has not been to use controlled scientific methods. In general, researchers instead focus on describing the impact of their approaches in details, to capture the particularities of each child. This type of analysis is mainly qualitative. Each research method has its benefits and limitations, and it is not the aim to discuss these in depth here. However, it is important to recognise that while controlled quantitative studies cannot provide information at an individual’s level, qualitative studies cannot provide information on what works for the majority of people. Getting back to the medical example, I would want my doctor to use his or her knowledge on what works for most people to choose the procedure that is most likely to work in my case. Clearly, we need both types of research approaches both in Medicine and Education.

Fortunately, with the advances of the multidisciplinary field of neuroscience, this situation is starting to change. There is a large body of evidence showing the importance of the early years for the development of the brain. This opens a huge avenue for initiatives providing fruitful and rich learning environments that not only promote children’s development, but also help prevent disorders before they are diagnosed. There are currently a number of researchers conducting randomised clinical trials (the gold standard for evaluating how efficient a treatment or an intervention is) to reduce the risk of developmental problems in early childhood. This is precisely what I am currently focusing on in my British Academy funded Newton International Fellowship project.

I have been working with teachers, psychologists and speech-language therapists to develop a language programme that helps to reduce the chances of language and literacy problems in young children, especially in vulnerable backgrounds. Together with Professor Maggie Snowling FBA and other colleagues, I have established a team in Brazil that is currently working in schools to achieve the goals of the project. Teachers have both contributed to the development of the language programme and participated in discussions about the importance of applying scientific rigour in order to understand the impact of the implemented activities. The language programme has been developed to be appropriate for Brazilian socio-cultural aspects, easily applicable in the school environment and of low cost. Therefore, if the activities we developed in collaboration are found to be helping children to overcome their difficulties at the end of the project, the programme can be scaled up. If not, we will have to understand the causes, bring up solutions, and design another study to test the new programme.

Bringing robust scientific evidence to the discussion is necessary for shaping education policies. Bridging science and education not only informs decisions, but helps to create a virtuous cycle that empowers professionals and benefits children. And at the end of the day, this is the ultimate goal of science: discovering alternatives to improve the way we live in society.

Marina Puglisi is a British Academy Newton International Fellow at the Department of Experimental Psychology of the University of Oxford. She is a speech-language therapist with expertise in child language and children with language developmental disorders.  Her main research interests are in understanding how language development is affected by factors both intrinsic and extrinsic to the child in order to develop effective interventions.