What the resource is
This resource is a report which has been compiled by Professor Usha Goswami to contribute to a much larger document. The overall report has been commissioned by the Government Office for Science. The full report aims to advise the Government on how to achieve the best possible mental development and well-being for everyone in the UK. To make this exercise viable, the work was divided into five broad areas:
- Mental capital through life
- Learning through life
- Mental health
- Wellbeing & work
- Learning difficulties.
This resource documents findings on Learning Difficulties.
The aims of the resource
The full report for the Foresight Project on Mental Capital and Wellbeing aims to advise the Government on how to achieve the best possible mental development and wellbeing for everyone in the UK. This section of the report focuses on Learning Difficulties. It explores the complex interplay between the development of core skills, how these underpin higher level processing functions and their specific role in learning disabilities. The author of the report proposes that understanding the cause of these deficits is key to planning interventions to enhance mental capital and wellbeing. The resource is compiled using reports from over 80 reviews by experts in the field.
Key findings or focus
This report is divided into three chapters plus a conclusion. The author begins the report by giving definitions of:
Mental Capital - the totality of an individual's cognitive and emotional resources, including their cognitive capability, flexibility and efficiency of learning, emotional resilience (eg: empathy and social cognition) and resilience in the face of stress. The extent of an individual's resources reflects his/her basic endowment (genes and early biological programming) and their experiences and education, which take place throughout the life-course.
Wellbeing: which throughout the report refers to Mental Wellbeing. This is a dynamic state in which the individual is able to develop their potential, work productively and creatively, build strong and positive relationships with others, and contribute to their community. It is enhanced when an individual is able to fulfil their personal and social goals and achieve a sense of purpose in society.
The number of scientific reports consulted has contributed to the development of a conceptual model which describes typical and atypical development of learning (considered in Chapter 1), which is then used to consider the multiple factors that influence the outcomes of learning difficulties in individuals (Chapter 2). This enables possible intervention strategies to be considered both now and in the future (Chapter 3).
The report highlights the fact that a brain with a learning difficulty is a brain which is less efficient in particular and measurable aspects of processing. Although the learning difficulty is of biological origin it is the impact the environment has upon that inheritable factor which often leads to mental ill health, social exclusion, unemployment and criminal behaviour. These factors leave those with learning difficulties vulnerable and less likely to be able to develop a healthy level of Mental Capital and Mental Wellbeing. There are different ways in which this can be addressed which recognise that although a child may be born with genetic influences or predisposition through the manipulation of the environment we may be able to seek better outcomes from the earliest opportunities. Environmental strategies can therefore be employed to reduce the impact of an inherited vulnerability to a learning disability.
The report distinguishes between:
- Specific Learning Difficulties focusing on Dyslexia, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Anti-social behaviour/conduct disorder (ASB/CD), Dyscalculia, specific Language Impairment, autism and deafness
- Generalized intellectual disabilities which are defined on the basis of very low IQ (<70) with issues generalised across cognition, social cognition & executive function.
The report is extremely effective in dividing learning disabilities into two discreet categories which are underpinned by core neurological processes. The author distinguishes between:
- Disorders of basic learning of symbolic system (such as reading, writing, number, language & deafness) which is underpinned by difficulties in sensory and cognitive processing.
- Disorders of social cognition and executive functioning (the impaired ability to intuit the psychological states of other and/or impaired ability of the child to self regulate or control their emotional states or behaviour) which are underpinned by impaired social cognition or impaired executive functioning.
The author asserts that it is the effective functioning of sensory and motor systems of the brain which is crucial to all subsequent learning.
We can deduce then that in order to create effective education pathways for the majority of learning disabilities, we must ensure that interventions are addressing the core deficits which underpin the difficulties.
In some cases, behaviours and difficulties may present in the same way but have different underlying causes. In order to ensure that mental capital and mental wellbeing develop in children with specific learning difficulties, it is important to ensure that interventions target different underlying causes and in this respect different interventions may need to be developed. Such interventions may take advantage of the advent of new technology such as genetic testing and neuroimaging whilst advances in cognitive neuroscience will aid early identification New interventions may therefore take the form of environmental interventions (such as cochlear implants), sensory interventions, educational interventions, improved care taking behaviours, etc. By manipulating the environment it is possible to change the developmental trajectory for a child.
The report points to three areas which may be utilised to ensure potential for the development of mental capital and mental well being are maximised:
- Enhancing the attributes of affected individuals through future policy development at the earliest opportunity whilst cognitive systems are still developing within the brain.
- Early detection to ensure that intervention occurs early in the learning trajectory before the learning problems become severe and therefore enabling learning trajectories to move closer to those of typically developing children
- Early intervention utilising new technologies and techniques which will become possible over the next two decades.
The quality, authority and credibility of the resource
Professor Usha Goswami, the author of this resource, is Professor of Education at Cambridge University and Director of the Centre for Neuroscience in Education. She is widely published in the area and has received a number of awards for her achievements. Her research is primarily concerned with literacy, cognitive development and neuroscience in education.
From a general perspective in relation to ITE the resource will provide a sound underpinning knowledge of the underlying factors which need to be considered when developing interventions to address the educational needs of children with a range of specific learning difficulties. This is key to successfully educating this group of learners in the future and specifically guides the reader to optimising the use of current and future technologies. The report is less optimistic regarding generalised learning difficulties and indeed suggests that this group of individuals are resistant to intervention. Whilst we can concur with the author that this group of learners characterise a very heterogeneous group who require high levels of support throughout life, there is evidence to demonstrate that with the right interventions this group of learners can and do succeed. Ensuring their mental capital and mental wellbeing is optimised may require yet another set of strategies over and above that employed for those with specific learning difficulties
The implications for ITE tutors/mentors
This resource could be used as a fundamental key text in all modules relating to learning disabilities and education. It can provide key step off points for discussions
- Issues for maximising mental capital and mental wellbeing for children with learning disabilities - ie: early identification of risk through use of genetic screening. Such a tool may make it possible to commence educational intervention strategies from the earliest opportunity.
- The use and potential for new technologies and advances in genetics, cognitive neuroscience and neuroimaging.
- The importance of understanding the functions of the brain in relation to learning (both for typically and non-typically developing pupils).
- Considering the differences between specific learning disabilities (dyslexia, ADHD, dyscalculia, etc) and generalised intellectual disabilities (IQ <70) and the implications for teaching practice.
- The interplay between environment and genetic vulnerability - taking the nature nurture debate to a new level.
The relevance to ITE students
All students in the education arena should understand the basic functions of the brain in relation to learning. Whilst acknowledging that an understanding of the complexities of brain functioning should stay within the realms of neurological science, being in possession of an appreciation of the way in which different parts of the brain are implicated in learning will help them to create a synergy between theory and practice. ITE students should be aware of the sensory, motor or cognitive deficits which underpin a learning difficulty and how these vary across the range of learning difficulties they will encounter in practice. This will assist them in developing a range of interventions to maximise the learning opportunities of their pupils. It is also essential to understand the impact of these deficits in relation to the developmental trajectory of a pupil in relation to their mental well being. Understanding these underpinning philosophies now will enable educators to maximise the potential for their students when such technologies become available. Even in the current situation, gaining that level of insight will contribute to existing pedagogies adding another dimension which will maximise the potential to enhance learning from the earliest opportunity by developing approaches which address key neurological issues. This is clearly where the author of the resource demonstrates a link between neuroscience and education - understanding the neurological problem enables us to develop interventions and manipulate the environment from a position of knowledge which addresses the issue directly rather than second guessing.
There is some evidence that having a voice and being accepted for what you can contribute and achieve is more important than what you can't do. An unrelenting focus on deficit and stereotypes derived from essences and abstracted learning difficulties can lead to a medical model where the individual is marginalised and has no voice (see the organisation People First and Whitehurst, T 2006).
The following might be useful to read in conjunction with this resource:
International Mind Brain & Education Society -
Mind Brain & Education Journal -
The Foresight Mental Captial and Wellbeing Project
TLRP: Neuroscience and Education:Issues and Opportunities A Commentary by the Teaching and Learning Research Programme
Goswami, U. (2004) Neuroscience, education and special education. British Journal of Special Education, Vol 31 (4) 175-183
Sousa, D.A. (2007) How the Special Needs Brain Learns. London: Sage Publications
Whitehurst, T (2006) ‘Liberating Silent Voices: Perspectives of Children with Profound and Complex Learning Needs on Inclusion'. British Journal of Learning Disability Vol 35 (1) 55-62