Neuroscience in rural areas: Gathering evidence to meet literacy challenges

Plenty of research has looked at how kids learn to read, but most studies have focused on children who attend school consistently. In places like the cocoa-growing villages of Ivory Coast, where access to education is sporadic, how do children learn? Cognitive neuroscientist Kaja Jasinska is working with TRECC in a first-of-its kind project to produce evidence to guide education policy. Using neuroimaging technology with children in cocoa communities, she is looking at an understudied aspect of learning: brain development in communities at high risk of illiteracy. We interviewed her about the many ways in which this research can contribute to transforming education.


Q: What is the goal of your research?

A: My research seeks to understand how children learn to read in communities that have a very high risk of illiteracy. We know that learning to read requires quality education – meaning a teacher who can instruct the child and age-appropriate reading materials (books). Without that, simply put, literacy does not happen. What we’re trying to understand is how children learn in the absence of quality education, or with inconsistent access to education. Many children in rural areas in Ivory Coast do not attend school regularly. This is due to many factors, one of which is the prevalence of child labor in cocoa farming.

Our research team looks at literacy from a neurodevelopmental perspective. Rather than evaluating learning in terms of grade levels or primary school completion, we look at a child’s success in mastering all of the important building blocks of literacy. Reading is truly a complex, multifaceted task that requires the ability to identify and manipulate the sounds of language (termed phonological awareness), vocabulary, and cognitive abilities such as attention and memory. These skills are all important predictors of reading attainment.

Q: How does this differ from other research that looks at reading in Western countries?

A:Thanks to decades of great research, we know a great deal about the typical trajectory as children learn to read. We know which skills emerge when, and we can effectively diagnose a developmental delay or a reading disorder. We’ve made great scientific progress. However, most of these studies have focused on children in highly literate societies who attend school regularly and are exposed to literacy from a young age.

What we don’t know is what happens to development when you withhold access to quality education. Does development occur in an analogous manner? Are the same building blocks relevant? Are they relevant at the same age? Is a child who is growing up in a community at high risk of illiteracy delayed at certain stages when learning to read, or is the way the child learns to read qualitatively different? An overwhelming majority of the children we have studied in rural communities do not attain functional literacy by the end of primary school. But there are also children who, despite their environment, “push through” and do achieve functional literacy — why does this happen? What aspects of their learning trajectory may shed light on what we can to do to improve learning outcomes for their peers?

Q: How can policymakers use the data gathered in your project?

A: First and foremost, any education policy must reflect the reality of the communities that the policy targets. Policy must be evidence-based, but it is not sufficient to take evidence and approaches from other countries (largely Western) and simply import them into the Ivorian curriculum. One major issue is that in many cases, aggregated data on literacy rates and school outcomes do not align with a child’s actual learning outcomes. For instance, children are regularly promoted to the next grade in primary school even when they are not reading at grade-appropriate levels. We need real data on children, and for that, we need researchers on the ground. Otherwise, policies affecting education quality are going to be misinformed. While the 5th grade curriculum focuses on building children’s reading comprehension skills and reading fluency, it turns out that most of the fifth graders we studied have not yet mastered letter-sound matching (i.e. understanding that the letter b corresponds to the /b/ sound). A curriculum that targets advanced reading skills in fifth graders is misaligned with the reality of what’s going on in the classroom.

Besides collecting real, informative data, having effective researchers “on the ground” makes it possible to build a dialogue with the teachers and community that are the source of the data. Because our team has spent a lot of time in the field, we have been able to develop communication channels between the community and the Ministry of Education. We learn what challenges the community faces and can communicate this information and our research results to the government through TRECC.

Q: How does the neurodevelopmental perspective help us understand how humans learn?

A: We use cutting-edge neuroimaging technology in our research program. The children who participate undergo functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) neuroimaging. fNIRS is a safe, non-invasive neuroimaging technology used to study brain activity. The system is entirely portable, so it can be set up in a mobile laboratory, even in a rural Ivorian village. fNIRS is often used with infants and children because of its ease of use. This technology allows us to look directly at the development of the brain networks that support reading and learn how the brain’s development is impacted by the child’s environment, which in rural communities is often impoverished and characterized by child labor.

The idea that neuroscience, and neuroimaging tools, can inform education is relatively new. Just as medicine was revolutionized when biological sciences and health care were brought together, the same idea can apply to education: Combining the study of the brain and its development with the study of learning results in a new discipline – educational neuroscience. There are still questions about the extent to which this disciplinary approach will have policy and education implications. Because the discipline is still growing, however, we will have opportunities to shape its future. There is absolutely no reason why Ivory Coast cannot play a major role in determining the future of educational neuroscience. Indeed, the biggest educational challenges are found in developing nations, such as Ivory Coast, that are seeking to improve the quality of education.

Portrait of Kaja Jasinska at the TRECC office

Photo: Portrait of Kaja Jasinska at the TRECC office

Q: Is there the necessary capacity to develop this discipline here in Ivory Coast ?

A: Building science capacity in Ivory Coast is a challenge, but it is also an opportunity. Yes, science is expensive and people must be convinced that science is worthwhile. Why spend money on science when roads and schools need to be built? The advantage of the TRECC program is its regular meetings with policymakers that generate dialogue about science and identify the nation’s most urgent research questions in the field of education. One of the byproducts of my research program and our dialogue with the government is an increase in the value attached to science and the Ivorian scientific community.

Q: How does your project contribute to building research capacity in Ivory Coast ?

A: My research team consists of about a dozen Ivorian graduate students, post-docs, and research assistants. For these junior scholars, it is the first time they have ever formally worked in a laboratory. This team is designing the study and the experiments, collecting data, running statistical analyses, interpreting results, and communicating the results to the wider community through scientific presentations and publications. The members of the team have very strong theoretical training, but have had very limited opportunities to pursue science in the field, get their hands on actual data and interpret it, and engage in critical thinking about the results.

I believe that this model of training Ivorian scientists alongside the research program really works. The outcomes (both in research and in capacity building) are far better than I would have expected — it’s a model that we need to replicate across multiple disciplines. Of course, it requires greater investment — building meaningful, long-term mentoring relationships does takes time – but the research is not possible without this investment. The reciprocal exchange of knowledge within the collaborative structure of a research team can (and does) equip young Ivorian researchers with a greater capacity for conducting child development research, which they can apply to address any challenges in their country.

Kaja Jasinska, a Jacobs Foundation research fellow, is an assistant professor in the Linguistics and Cognitive Science Department at the University of Delaware and a research scientist at Haskins Laboratories. For more information on her work, visit her staff profile or read her latest study (subscription required) based on data gathered in Ivory Coast.

Header image: a child undergoes functional near-infrared spectroscopy neuroimaging as part of data gathering for Kaja Jasinska’s research project. Photo: Kaja Jasinska