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Child Neuropsychology

A blog by Dr Jonathan Reed

  • I am really excited about the prospects of using the ipad to help children learn.  As I have previously discussed there are some important advantages in using the ipad, especially with younger children and children who find learning difficult.  I am developing games on the ipad to help learning and rehabilitation (see Nutty Numbers).   I am also clinically involved in rehabilitation and looking to find ways to help children with neurological conditions.   As a result I have looked in detail at what sort of apps are available.     My impression from studying the itunes educational app charts and trying out various games is that there is generally a lack of good quality educational apps that I could recommend.   Although I want to promote my own apps, I would also like to recommend apps to help particularly children who are finding learning hard or are in rehabilitation.  Whilst there are a lot of nice looking apps about there is mainly a lack of substance.  The sort of features I would like to see in apps and would recommend parents to look for include:

    1.  Is the app based on learning theory?  There is increasing knowledge about how children learn.  Are the educational apps utilising this?

    2. For younger children are there spoken instructions rather than written instructions?  Clearly young children can’t read and therefore will need a parent supervising them if the instructions require reading. The ipad will work best when children can explore and learn under their own initiative.

    3. What happens if the child gets an answer wrong?  It can be very frustrating receiving a big cross or a sound effect indicating a mistake sound, especially if you don’t know the answer.   This is a particular problem for children who find learning difficult.  Several experiences of this will turn most children off.

    4.  What are the reward structures?  Research has shown that positive affirmations (i.e. letting the child know that they are doing well) are very powerful by themselves in learning.  Any educational apps should have several layers of reward structure.

    5.  Is there any research showing that the app improves learning?  For example Nutty numbers has been shown to significantly increase numeracy compared to a control group in a published experimental study.

    6.  Is there a randomised presentation?  Just going through the same structure each time does not encourage learning.

    These are some of the criteria that I consider important and have used to develop my apps.   I would like to see other educational apps with these features. I think this would help develop the field of games based learning and realise some of it’s potential.  Potentially many children could be using tablet devices such as the ipad to learn and develop.  I have written previously about the advantages of game based learning.  However, at present in my opinion it is still a field in it’s infancy.    I hope it does develop and that I can contribute to this.  I would be keen to hear of any other recommended educational apps fulfilling some of the criteria above.

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  • Neuropsychologists have studied memory for a long time.   We have a clear system of memory classification involving declarative memory which includes episodic memory (memory for events) and semantic memory (memory for facts) and non declarative memory which includes more implicit systems such as procedural memory, classical conditioning and priming.  The neurological substrates of this system are understood.  Numerous case studies of individuals with brain injury and memory disturbance have been reported.   The whole enterprise is best summarised by one of the leading researchers Larry Squire in this excellent paper Memory and brain systems 1969-2009 .

    Yet despite all this knowledge I struggle to see the relevance for the many children I see with memory and learning difficulties.  I was therefore fascinated to read a new book Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer.  Foer’s book is based around a strange group of people who compete in memory championships around the world.  He explains how these competitors memorise the orders of multiple packs of cards, very long strings of digits and long unpublished poems.  The amount of information they can remember is quite remarkable.  Yet Foer shows that these feats are based on some simple memory techniques.  The premise is that human memory evolved to aid survival (finding food and avoiding danger) and therefore is primarily visual and spatial (location based).  He also highlights the way the brain learns and remembers through associations.  The techniques he describes are based on creating an imaginary spatial location (a memory palace) and imagining different visual images which can be associated with what you want to remember in this location.  So for example if you wanted to remember a shopping list you may imagine your home and visualise the first item, which could be milk by imaging someone bathing in milk.  The next item may be fish and you could imagine a singing fish in the kitchen.  The more bizarre the image the better you will recall, hence the title of the book.  By recalling the location and image you can then easily recall the information.   Individuals can create huge memory palaces and remember large amounts of information this way.  Foer believed that these techniques were so powerful that anyone could become a memory champion and he sets out in the book to prove this by entering the US memory championship.  I won’t give away the ending but it is a fascinating read.

    I think that these ideas could have important implications for neuropsychological rehabilitation and teaching.  How many teachers and psychologists know about these techniques and use them?   The techniques would need some adaptation (learning packs of cards, shopping lists and strings of numbers is not that useful) but used properly it could be very helpful for children learning facts about the world or number facts or just developing more effective ways to pass exams.  Is anyone out there using these techniques to help children with learning problems? If so I would love to hear about it.

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