PsychologiCALL

On maths and learning disability, with Dr Jo Van Herwegen

May 14, 2020 SalvesenResearch Season 1 Episode 4
PsychologiCALL
On maths and learning disability, with Dr Jo Van Herwegen
Show Notes Transcript

Dr Jo Van Herwegen is a developmental psychologist at UCL Institute of Education who specialises in improving educational outcomes for children with learning difficulties. During this Podcast she chats to Dr Sue Fletcher-Watson about a piece of work looking at mathematical development in children with Williams syndrome and Down syndrome and what this research can tell us about mathematical development for typically developing children.

You can follow Jo on twitter here and her lab group account here.

The paper discussed in this podcast is:
Van Herwegen, J., Ranzato, E., Karmiloff‐Smith, A., & Simms, V. (2020). The foundations of mathematical development in Williams syndrome and Down syndrome. Journal of Applied Research in Intellectual Disabilities.

And here is a link to the maths games mentioned in the podcast - you can also find these on twitter by looking for #maths@home

Sue:

[Podcast jingle] [ringtone] Hello? Oh, it is recording. I see the little figure. Okay, great. I will do my little spiel and then I'll introduce you. Nice. Okay. Here I go. Hi, I'm Sue from the Salvesen Mindroom Research Centre at the University of Edinburgh. And we're recording this little series of sort of, not quite a podcast , um, calls with developmental psychologists during the coronavirus lockdown. We thought that , um, because lots of parents are homeschooling their children because lots of practitioners are having to think about delivering services in different ways, um , because lots of brilliant professionals have had to be furloughed. Um, there's a lot of , um , need for some kind of intellectual input and there's maybe some interest in developmental psychology, particularly at this time. And so it seemed a good moment to , um , do these little chats with psychologists who are studying learning and development in children and young people. So today's Psychologic-PsychologiCALL is with Jo Van Herwegen from the UCL Institute of education. And she's going to talk to me about maths development in Williams syndrome and Down syndrome. Okay hello, Jo! How are you today?

Jo:

I'm good! Thank you, Sue!

Sue:

Good! So tell me, what did you discover in this bit of research we're talking about?

Jo:

So previous research in individuals that William syndrome, which is a rare genetic disorder, and also those with Down syndrome had suggested that both of these groups may be delayed in their mathematical development and that this delay might be caused by difficulties in making estimations between large non-symbolic amounts. So in the current study, what we examined was , um, where people with Down syndrome and Williams syndrome were looking during a non-symbolic estimation task using an eye-tracker. So an eye-tracker allows you to see where people are looking on a screen, and we compared the, um, the performance against typically developing children who had similar reasoning abilities, but were younger of course. And what we found was that, although the people with Williams syndrome and Down syndrome performed at a similar level to the typically developing controls, who were younger children, they scanned the stimuli in their task , um, differently. So , um, we looked at the looking behavior, how that changes over time. And we found that , uh, in people with Williams syndrome , um, they changed from starting to move their eyes only a few times and not scanning the stimuli properly , um, to then over time becoming better at it. So the older people with Williams syndrome performed much better than the younger children. And that's now informing us, you know, about how we can help with interventions for people.

Sue:

Um, so , um, I'm just gonna pick up on the "non-symbolic numbers". Can you just explain to me what the difference is between non-symbolic and symbolic amounts? I don't think I've come across that before.

Jo:

OK, so um, symbolic amounts, think about, you know, the actual digits. So seeing number seven, you know, that, that stands for seven items. Um , and that's obviously very important for mathematical development, but you may also have a mathematical development ever, you know, when you have ever added up numbers and with a calculator and at the end, you go like "that can't be right!"

Sue:

Right...

Jo:

So how come your brain can be better than a calculator? And that's because our brain is very good at estimating mathematical amounts. So just, if you see , you know, how many chairs are in one room compared to how many chairs are in another room and you can quickly guess one room's got more chairs than another, so that's your non-symbolic estimation abilities.

Sue:

Okay. So actual numbers of things. And so , um, so tell me a bit more about what you were showing on the screen with the eye tracker then ?

Jo:

So we were literally just showing them blue dots and red dots, and the dots differed in the size. So, you know , they're all mixed up, large and small blue dots compared to large and small red dots. Um , but sometimes we made it quite easy for children. So sometimes we showed them maybe five dots versus 10 dots. And obviously that difference is very large. That ratio is 0.5 and then it's really easy to see that there are more blue dots, but if I show you six versus eight dots, then obviously it might be more difficult to say which color had more dots. So that's what we did with the participants. They saw lots of dots and every time they had to say whether they were more blue dots or more red dots.

Sue:

Okay. And so, so you were interested in how accurately they answer that question, but also where they're looking while they're working it out, right?

Jo:

That's correct. So that's exactly what we were doing. And what we found was that, you know, they're , they're quite good at seeing, you know, I mean, they're as good as younger, typically developing children. So we know they're a little bit delayed . Um, but in their looking, we could see that those with Williams syndrome didn't move their eyes so much. So they didn't scan these patterns of dots, as well as , uh , some of the other, the people with Down syndrome. Um, and obviously if you don't scan things enough, then obviously you're not going to process that information in the same way. So this is where you can see with an eye tracker that although there was no difference in their outcome performance, in their overall score, you can still see with an eye-tracker, how people performed the task and whether that might be different between different groups.

Sue:

Um... And, and so, so thinking about what you do with eye-tracking data, for maybe people who , who aren't familiar with the technique, can you describe this a little bit, you know, what the information from the eye-tracker looks like, and what you do with it in order to be able analyze it?

Jo:

So there's... There's... Well. If... It gives you back a really nice video, which actually takes a red dot , um , that's symbolizes your eyes where they are on the screen, and you can then see-, play a video and it shows you where the red dots moves over the screen, which is quite nice, but obviously that's the easy way of showing it to people. But in order to then see whether that looking is actually different between people, you have to do quite a lot of work with eye-tracking data. So what you do is you have to make areas of interest, so this is what-, you need to tell the software which places on the screen you're interested in. And obviously we'd asked those were the red dots and also the blue dots. Um , and then you need to , um, you need to calculate where, for example, people were looking at what particular point in time, and how long those looks were for. So , um, you tend to get quite a lot of data points when you do this, because you break the videos all down to milliseconds and, you know, very short looks, and then decide on what is a look and how long that look is for. So , um, if you have a lot of different participants and a lot of trials, and those of you who work with Excel know that Excel can handle an awful lot of data, but I have had studies with eye-tracking where actually Excel could not handle the amount of data anymore. So there you go. But this time we didn't break Excel!

Sue:

[Laughs] That's good to know. Um, and so, and so what you're finding is that , um, uh, it's all about how the eyes are moving around the screen and not about how much time they spend looking, or was there a difference in how quickly they could answer the question as well?

Jo:

So, so we measured how quickly they could , um, um, answer the question, and whether they got it correct or incorrect. So that's what typical studies would have done, right? So look at how long does it take a participant to respond? Do they get the answer correct or incorrect, but with eye tracking , you go one step further and you say, where were they looking and how did they make the decision ? So for example, one of the things we looked at is , um, how many times did they look at a red dot versus how many times did they look at the blue dots, and was there a difference? Cause that tells you something about were they actually doing any comparisons between them? And did it take them longer, not necessarily in reaction time, but kind of going backwards and forwards? What you can also measure is the long-, whether they show any longer look. So it could be for example, that children who are just guessing or children who are actually not making any comparisons, they just look at one area very long, but not move their eyes around so much. So those are kind of indicators. So the longest looks , um, how many times they looked at one area versus another. It gives us an indication of their , um , scanning patterns, or how they approached the task.

Sue:

So I think a really interesting thing, a really interesting question in developmental psychology whenever you're working with groups who are , um , developing in a kind of unique way, is whether that development is, is a delay, so sort of broadly following the same path, but just a bit slower or , um, well , we often call it a deviance. It's not really a particularly pleasant word, but anyway, whether children are following their own unique, independent path, that's maybe like a bit of a branch line from the well-trodden road of the typical child. So what would you say for Williams syndrome and Down syndrome in terms of their maths? Are they trotting along down the same road, but a bit slowly, or are they on their own road?

Jo:

So if you just look at performance data without the eye-tracking, you would say that they're , they're following their own path, they're delayed, but that they're very similar. So that those with Williams syndrome and those with Down syndrome, that they follow a very similar pathway. When you then start looking at what is predicting that pathway, or how does that relate to their scanning abilities in this case, then you start to see the differences between the two groups. So what we've found was that we also did a study a long time ago with infants who were very young. And then the difference between the two groups was even larger, where we found that those with Down syndrome really found it difficult to concentrate and to actually have sustained looking at particular objects, compared to those with Williams syndrome who had very long looks and found it difficult to disengage their... their eye movements from one particular place and then move their eyes to another place. And what we now seen the data in the current study is that in William syndrome, that looking pattern is still predictive for their mathematical ability. So although they don't show this sustained , this um, these long looks anymore, these difficulties with disengaging their looks, but they're still in the , you can still see the correlation with their mathematical ability . So those who have more typical looks and are better at moving our eyes around, they're also much better at mathematical development compared to those who still have some longer looking patterns and find it difficult to disengage their eyes. They're the ones who should have a weaker mathematical abilities.

Sue:

Right... So what , what could we do with this information in terms of supporting maths development? Obviously it's a really important skill for future kind of autonomy and, you know , um, self-determination to be able to , um, use basic maths in everyday life, right? So do you think there are ways that we can present information that would be more helpful? What do you think it means for, for teachers, for example?

Jo:

So what , what comes out... Because this study was obviously part of a much larger study where we looked also at other factors that may predict mathematical ability. And this, with the eye- tracker, we just looked at attention and , and eye movements, whether they told us something. Um, so from the eye movements alone, actually what it shows us is that , um, yes, they might be looking slightly differently at a task, but these attention abilities don't seem to predict much for Down syndrome about how to train mathematical abilities. It's slightly different if you talk about for a young children. Um, so for the older children, we would say... For those with Down-, for those with Williams syndrome, they have quite good counting abilities, in that they can really r ecite the numbers, but they may not know what these numbers stand for because their estimation abilities aren't so great. So when they then do an addition and you say to them "how much is 2 plus 3?", and they will just say "9". And where our estimation abilities would say "ooh, that's a bit much" when you add 2 and 3, they don't have that kind of checking system. So giving them a better understanding, what we call "number sense", of how numbers relate to each other, would be beneficial for people with Williams syndrome. So our studies seem to suggest that in , in , in terms of how you would help people with Williams syndrome and Down syndrome, you probably have slightly different , um , intervention programs.

Sue:

Right. That's really fantastic. Um, it's lovely, isn't it, when you do a piece of kind of really , um, solid experimental research like this, but you can also, you know , draw something useful for the community out of it.

Jo:

Yeah, and I think this is where if you really think carefully about your hypothesis and how theory informs your research, you can still link it to practice. Um , you know, by , by thinking in the long term , what do we do? So this study was always planned with the idea of, if we do this study, we can then hopefully have clear predictions of which kind of practice or interventions should work.

Sue:

Mm Hmm . And so what do you want to do next in this area? Or what are you doing at the moment? Are you still working on maths development in these younger children?

Jo:

Yes, yes! So what we've done now is we've put in , um, um, you know , an application for funding cause that's where it all falls down to, right! ...

Sue:

Yes!

Jo:

... to actually start doing , um, two interventions , um, that parents can do in the home. Um, and we're also helping parents , um , at home already during COVID-19 , um, to help their children learn better. So we have the Maths at Home games at the moment. So every day we advertise a new game that parents can do with their children. Um, and you don't need any kind of specific tools or worksheets for it. It's all with things you can find around the house.

Sue:

Oh, that's amazing! I'll make sure we link to that in the, in the podcast description, cause that's, that's fantastic! Well done! Um, so the last question then is I'm thinking about , um, any early career researchers , um , students, PhD students, undergrads, who are kind of stuck at home and maybe feeling a bit anxious about ... [laughs] how their career might develop from here through this, the mirky waters that we're in! So I just wondered if you had anything you wanted to share or say to them, any words of wisdom , um, for those people?

Jo:

Oh, I always find it so difficult! Cause I think , um... I think one... I have two, if I may. I'm gonna keep it short. One is, you know, to really start thinking , um, as I said earlier on like longitudinally so , so, you know, you need to break down if you want to get an intervention for people, there's, there's a lot of... Some basic research that needs to happen first before you kind of have a good feeling "this is what's going to help them best", right, from in terms of predictions. But this is also an important one when it comes about eye-tracking, because although it's very useful tool, in terms of knowing how people solve a task, it isn't as easy as just having your standard experiment and then just adding eye tracking to it. Basically what happens is when you do that, you probably are going to get in a lot of difficulties with analyzing your data. And I'm speaking here [laughs] out of experience in that um... [Laughs] You know, the Tobi, the Tobi software we've used i s very easy for simple experiments, but because we had to also integrate it with iPrime studio to show our experiments, we, u m, because of t he software updates the two couldn't talk to each other anymore. And so we had to, we ended up with having to do a lot of the data coding by hand. So I would say, do you know what if I knew Matlab much better, it w ould h ave been much easier. So if you're stuck at home as an early career researcher, I think this is the perfect time to start learning some new programming languages, whether it's, you know, or s oftwares whether it's Python or Matlab or... Because that's where the future in research really lies, it's knowing all these different systems much better. So that's what I would advise t hem t o do.

Sue:

Yeah, I , I really agree. I actually feel it's , it's one of the biggest things that I wish I could do for myself is learn to code properly and I worry that I've just kind of missed the boat and I'll never find the time. Um, but...

Jo:

Yeah... I've tried to start coding in Python five times, but every time, you know, there's a bigger project or I don't, you know, I get stuck at a particular point and by the time I've had the ability to pick it up again, you know, I need to start from scratch again. So I think if you're now stuck at home for a few solid weeks, this is a skill on your CV that is really worth a lot in terms of money and opportunities, I think.

Sue:

And that other thing of course, that your advice highlights is how much, you know, research just doesn't happen in an ideal world. And I think sometimes we're trying to present out to the public as if everything that happened was exactly what we had planned to happen. [Laughs] Um, but actually, you know, like everyone we're subject to these challenges, technical challenges, you know, your point about the software getting updated is just so resonant. You know, especially if you're doing longitudinal studies or studies that are open for a long time because you're recruiting , uh , a hard to reach sample these, you know, you're really vulnerable to these things and it can be pretty stressful, so well done for overcoming that Jo I'm impressed.

Jo:

Thanks very much Sue .

Sue:

So I think we will draw to a close, thank you so much for giving me your time. Um, for anyone listening, you'll be able to find out more about Jo's work by following links on the podcast page at ed.ac.uk/salvesen-research. We'll link to Joe's paper and her profile and the resources that she mentioned for maths learning as well. Thank you so much, Jo!

Jo:

Thank you! Have a good day!

Sue:

You too! Bye!

Jo:

Bye! [ringtone]

Sue:

Okay we did it! I thought that went quite smoothly! [Podcast jingle]