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Montessori, STEM, and Brain Training: Do They Really Benefit Child Cognition?

A child’s cognitive ability — their capacity to “reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly and learn from experience” (Gottfredson, 1997, p. 13) — is linked to a wide range of outcomes in later life. For instance, longitudinal studies suggest that higher cognitive ability in childhood is associated with reduced anxiety and depression in adulthood (at least among females; Hatch et al., 2007), fewer sick days (Henderson et al., 2012), and greater socioeconomic success (Becker et al., 2019).

It’s natural, therefore, for parents to carefully consider whether their child’s educational environment will provide them with the cognitive skills to be happy and successful in later life. Here, we look at three popular approaches to fostering childhood cognition — Montessori, STEAM, and brain training — and at whether they are supported by the psychological and neuroscientific literature. Specifically, we look at whether these approaches positively influence executive function, general intelligence, or emotional intelligence.

Montessori — What is it?

Lillard and Else-Quest (2006, p.1893), psychologists at the University of Virginia, describe the Montessori approach as an educational system that is, “characterized by multi-age classrooms, a special set of educational materials, student-chosen work in long time blocks, collaboration, the absence of grades and tests, and individual and small group instruction in both academic and social skills.” Conceived of by an Italian doctor, Maria Montessori, it was first applied in Rome, though is now utilized by over 5,000 schools in the US.

Montessori — Does it Improve Cognition?

Executive functions are cognitive skills “that make possible mentally playing with ideas; taking the time to think before acting; meeting novel, unanticipated challenges; resisting temptations; and staying focused” (Diamond, 2013, p.1). In one study, the executive functions of children in regular and Montessori schools were compared (Denervaud et al., 2019). While there were no differences with respect to two executive functions — cognitive flexibility and selective attention — those in the Montessori schools had higher scores for working memory, which refers to the “amount of information that can be held in mind and used in the execution of cognitive tasks” (Cowan, 2014, p.1).

Studies have also examined whether Montessori schools can improve general intelligence, defined as, “the ability to learn from experience and to adapt to, shape, and select environments” (Sternberg, 2012, p.19). For example, researchers in Iran found that the IQ scores of children in Montessori kindergartens were significantly higher than those of children in standard kindergartens (Ahmadpour & Mujembari, 2015). While this could mean that Montessori schooling positively impacts IQ, it is also possible that the difference in IQ was due to other factors, such as parental education or socioeconomic background.

As well as traditional intelligence, researchers have investigated whether the Montessori approach can enhance emotional intelligence, “a type of social intelligence that involves the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ emotions, to discriminate among them, and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and actions (Mayer & Salovey, 1993, p. 433). For instance, one study published in Early Child Development Care examined emotional intelligence over time in 4–5-year-olds in Montessori and standard schools, and found that improvements in emotional intelligence were greater among those in the former.

Therefore, although it can be difficult to determine whether effects are actually due to the type of schooling and not other factors (e.g., socioeconomic background), the evidence that Montessori schools can accelerate cognitive development is certainly promising.

STEAM — What is it?

Before there was STEAM, there was STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. Advocates of a STEM approach to education argue that emphasizing these subjects in curricula will ultimately provide the type of scientifically literate and innovative workforce required for continued economic growth. But, questioned others, can children really go on to realize their potential for innovation if their education does not also include a subject that is explicitly about creativity? That’s where the A comes in — Art.

STEAM — Does it Improve Cognition?

In one study based on 11,000 children in kindergarten and elementary school, poor working memory (a facet of executive function) was associated with poorer performance in mathematics and science (Morgan et al., 2018). While this highlights a likely link between performance in some STEAM subjects and executive function, further work is required to determine whether a STEAM education can actually enhance executive functions.

There is, nevertheless, evidence that the art component of a STEAM education can lead to greater intelligence. A study described in Psychological Science involved measuring IQ in a large sample of children, allocating them to one of two music classes (keyboard or voice lessons) or to a control group (no classes), then measuring IQ again (Schellenberg, 2004). Relative to the control group, there were greater increases in IQ in both music groups.

Similarly, it seems that a STEAM education might lead to improvements in emotional intelligence. Researchers in South Korea examined emotional intelligence among gifted children in elementary school and observed that participation in STEAM classes was associated with more substantial increases in emotional intelligence than participation in traditional classes (Oh et al., 2016).

So, as with the Montessori approach, there is preliminary evidence that, compared to a more traditional curriculum, a STEAM education might enhance executive function, as well as general and emotional intelligence.

Brain Training — What is it?

Brain training is an, “activity which purports to improve a cognitive ability […] by repeating certain cognitive tasks over a period of time. This is supposed to produce some changes in behavior, as well as at a neuroanatomical and functional level” (Rossignoli-Palomeque et al., 2018, p.2). Typically, brain training activities resemble games, with many available as apps, such as Luminosity, Fit Brains Trainer, and Cognito.

Brain Training — Does it Improve Cognition?

Researchers in Sweden measured executive function in preschool children, then had them play executive function brain training games over five weeks, then measured their executive function again (Thorell et al., 2009). The results were reflective of a common criticism of brain training: acquired abilities might not “transfer” to other tasks. Indeed, while the children got better at the executive function brain training games, their scores on executive function tests did not necessarily improve.

As well as by completing their own experiments, academics have investigated the value of brain training for kids by compiling and critiquing the existing evidence. An article in Frontiers in Psychology describes how the researchers examined 70 individual studies to understand whether brain training improves intelligence in children (Rossignoli-Palomeque et al., 2016). A striking insight was that only 11% of the studies provided evidence for long-term transfer effects. That is, it is rare for a brain training game to improve performance on anything other than the game itself and for any such improvements to be prolonged.

In line with these somewhat pessimistic results, in a large randomized controlled trial, neuroscientists in Pennsylvania, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), observed no differences in brain activity between adults using or not using a brain training game designed to enhance executive function (Kable et al., 2017). Moreover, there was no difference between the groups with respect to cognitive performance.

In addition to traditional intelligence, researchers have begun to provide indirect evidence that brain training might enhance emotional intelligence. In a study led by Susanne Schweizer at the University of Cambridge, it was observed that the use of brain training games containing emotional content was associated with increased performance on executive function tasks that also contained emotional content (Schweizer et al., 2011). While the participants were adults and the focus was not explicitly on emotional intelligence, this study raises the interesting possibility that, in the future, brain training games could be used to promote social skills and understanding in children.

In Conclusion

While the evidence for brain training is limited, it’s worth bearing in mind that it’s in its infancy. Perhaps we’ll look back one day and realize that this was the era in which designers of brain training games figured out what doesn’t work, allowing them to create games that do. As for the Montessori and STEAM approaches, the evidence is more promising. Although future studies need to ensure that the apparent benefits of these approaches are due to the education and not other factors — the parents of children in Montessori or STEAM schools being more educated or affluent, for example — the extant literature suggests that, yes, these approaches may contribute to students’ executive function, and general and emotional intelligence. If this is the case, children enrolled in such schools may be well positioned to subsequently enjoy in adulthood improved mental and physical wellbeing, as well as greater social and financial success.

This article was written in collaboration between a few of the scientists, montessori trainers and early education experts at KidX. KidX is is an interactive AI education company. At KidX, we are creating the next generation education experience enhanced with state-of-the-art technology, empowering AI to bridge the physical and digital world. KidX integrates its own hardware, software, technology and content to delivery an interactive video and play experience using real world physical play. For more information, please visit www.playkidx.com

References

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