Scientists use AI to develop better predictions of why children struggle at school

September 30, 2018, Medical Research Council
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

Scientists using machine learning—a type of artificial intelligence—with data from hundreds of children who struggle at school, identified clusters of learning difficulties which did not match the previous diagnosis the children had been given.

The researchers from the Medical Research Council (MRC) Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit at the University of Cambridge say this reinforces the need for children to receive detailed assessments of their cognitive skills to identify the best type of support.

The study, published in Developmental Science, recruited 550 children who were referred to a clinic—the Centre for Attention Learning and Memory—because they were struggling at school.

The scientists say that much of the previous research into learning difficulties has focussed on children who had already been given a particular diagnosis, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), an , or dyslexia. By including children with all difficulties regardless of diagnosis, this study better captured the range of difficulties within, and overlap between, the diagnostic categories.

Dr. Duncan Astle from the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit at the University of Cambridge, who led the study said: "Receiving a diagnosis is an important landmark for parents and children with learning difficulties, which recognises the child's difficulties and helps them to access support. But parents and professionals working with these children every day see that neat labels don't capture their individual difficulties—for example one child's ADHD is often not like another child's ADHD.

"Our study is the first of its kind to apply machine learning to a broad spectrum of hundreds of struggling learners."

The team did this by supplying the computer algorithm with lots of cognitive testing data from each child, including measures of listening skills, spatial reasoning, problem solving, vocabulary, and memory. Based on these data, the algorithm suggested that the children best fit into four clusters of difficulties.

These clusters aligned closely with other data on the children, such as the parents' reports of their communication difficulties, and educational data on reading and maths. But there was no correspondence with their previous diagnoses. To check if these groupings corresponded to biological differences, the groups were checked against MRI brain scans from 184 of the children. The groupings mirrored patterns in connectivity within parts of the children's brains, suggesting that that the machine learning was identifying differences that partly reflect underlying biology.

Two of the four groupings identified were: difficulties with working memory skills, and difficulties with processing sounds in words.

Difficulties with working memory—the short-term retention and manipulation of information—have been linked with struggling with maths and with tasks such as following lists. Difficulties in processing the sounds in words, called phonological skills, has been linked with struggling with reading.

Dr. Astle said: "Past research that's selected children with poor reading skills has shown a tight link between struggling with reading and problems with processing sounds in words. But by looking at children with a broad range of difficulties we found unexpectedly that many children with difficulties with processing sounds in words don't just have problems with reading—they also have problems with maths.

"As researchers studying learning difficulties, we need to move beyond the diagnostic label and we hope this study will assist with developing better interventions that more specifically target children's individual cognitive difficulties."

Dr. Joni Holmes, from the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit at the University of Cambridge, who was senior author on the study said: "Our work suggests that children who are finding the same subjects difficult could be struggling for very different reasons, which has important implications for selecting appropriate interventions."

The other two clusters identified were: children with broad cognitive difficulties in many areas, and children with typical cognitive test results for their age. The researchers noted that the children in the grouping that had cognitive test results that were typical for their age may still have had other difficulties that were affecting their schooling, such as behavioural difficulties, which had not been included in the machine learning.

Dr. Joanna Latimer, Head of Neurosciences and Mental Health at the MRC, said: "These are interesting, early-stage findings which begin to investigate how we can apply new technologies, such as machine learning, to better understand brain function. The MRC funds research into the role of complex networks in the brain to help develop better ways to support children with learning difficulties."

Explore further: Hidden condition could be the real reason many people struggle with maths

More information: Duncan E. Astle et al, Remapping the cognitive and neural profiles of children who struggle at school, Developmental Science (2018). DOI: 10.1111/desc.12747

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Display comments: newest first

2.3 / 5 (3) Sep 30, 2018
Perhaps they are dumb
1 / 5 (1) Sep 30, 2018
The problem I have with all of this is the categorization of the children into named and collated commodity channels.....
3 / 5 (2) Sep 30, 2018
Great study. Let's do the determination and put it in practice. We will need to set separate schools for struggling children. Where they will get attention they deserve, like double or tipple the number of teachers per pupil. And assign deservingly large funding too.

Perhaps even better, make three of four levels of schools. The least struggling pupils should get barely any schooling - why waste effort if they are doing same as the most struggling? We can use the financing wasted on them to help the struggling pupils.
3 / 5 (2) Sep 30, 2018
"Getting a good education shouldn't be a privilege reserved for a lucky few at the top. We must make higher ed accessible for all students." Keith Ellison

Better yet, let abolish the elitist institutions altogether. Public schools can be extended until pupil reaches 27, with everyone awarded a PhD at that time.
And the stigma of sciences, and humanities. Away with that too. Just PhD, no other designations should be allowed.
Spaced out Engineer
1 / 5 (2) Sep 30, 2018
Perhaps they are dumb

Modal, no stupid. Remember context is defined by the social construct and their integrated information has not had as much time to emerge.
Children are fast. Faster than adults in some regimes. Perhaps the "extra" energy is really just embedded embodied recovery the parents and teachers cannot keep up with.
Until we have a universal language for univalent typography and its internalization within memristor, metrics for intelligence will fail. Even here, a distribution might get there faster. Canonical ensembles unfold as what is tractable today, changes tomorrow. Why assume a ground on the island on knowledge, when aggregating the walk with others can be flight?
Human life is rewarding because it it existential. We would throw it away if we had it. We all use unfalsifiables in our psychosis.
2.3 / 5 (3) Sep 30, 2018
I am totally in favor of abolishing elitist institutions and turning them into lunatic asylums, we have the staff already there, and we can admit all of their like-minded nutjobs and they can be happy together

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