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Developmental dyslexia essential to human adaptive success, study argues.

Fri, 24/06/2022 - 00:00

Cambridge researchers studying cognition, behaviour and the brain have concluded that people with dyslexia are specialised to explore the unknown. This is likely to play a fundamental role in human adaptation to changing environments.

They think this ‘explorative bias’ has an evolutionary basis and plays a crucial role in our survival.

Based on these findings − which were apparent across multiple domains from visual processing to memory and at all levels of analysis − the researchers argue that we need to change our perspective of dyslexia as a neurological disorder.

The findings, reported today in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, have implications both at the individual and societal level, says lead author Dr Helen Taylor, an affiliated Scholar at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at the University of Cambridge and a Research Associate at the University of Strathclyde.

“The deficit-centred view of dyslexia isn’t telling the whole story,” said Taylor. “This research proposes a new framework to help us better understand the cognitive strengths of people with dyslexia.”

She added: “We believe that the areas of difficulty experienced by people with dyslexia result from a cognitive trade-off between exploration of new information and exploitation of existing knowledge, with the upside being an explorative bias that could explain enhanced abilities observed in certain realms like discovery, invention and creativity.”

This is the first-time a cross-disciplinary approach using an evolutionary perspective has been applied in the analysis of studies on dyslexia.

“Schools, academic institutes and workplaces are not designed to make the most of explorative learning. But we urgently need to start nurturing this way of thinking to allow humanity to continue to adapt and solve key challenges,” said Taylor.

Dyslexia is found in up to 20% of the general population, irrespective of country, culture and world region. It is defined by the World Federation of Neurology as “a disorder in children who, despite conventional classroom experience, fail to attain the language skills of reading, writing and spelling commensurate with their intellectual abilities”.

The new findings are explained in the context of ‘Complementary Cognition’, a theory proposing that our ancestors evolved to specialise in different, but complementary, ways of thinking, which enhances human’s ability to adapt through collaboration.

These cognitive specialisations are rooted in a well-known trade-off between exploration of new information and exploitation of existing knowledge. For example, if you eat all the food you have, you risk starvation when it’s all gone. But if you spend all your time exploring for food, you’re wasting energy you don’t need to waste. As in any complex system, we must ensure we balance our need to exploit known resources and explore new resources to survive.

“Striking the balance between exploring for new opportunities and exploiting the benefits of a particular choice is key to adaptation and survival and underpins many of the decisions we make in our daily lives,” said Taylor.

Exploration encompasses activities that involve searching the unknown such as experimentation, discovery and innovation. In contrast, exploitation is concerned with using what's already known including refinement, efficiency and selection.

“Considering this trade-off, an explorative specialisation in people with dyslexia could help explain why they have difficulties with tasks related to exploitation, such as reading and writing.

“It could also explain why people with dyslexia appear to gravitate towards certain professions that require exploration-related abilities, such as arts, architecture, engineering, and entrepreneurship.”

The researchers found that their findings aligned with evidence from several other fields of research. For example, an explorative bias in such a large proportion of the population indicates that our species must have evolved during a period of high uncertainty and change. This concurs with findings in the field of paleoarchaeology, revealing that human evolution was shaped over hundreds of thousands of years by dramatic climatic and environmental instability.

The researchers highlight that collaboration between individuals with different abilities could help explain the exceptional capacity of our species to adapt.

The findings are published today in the journal, Frontiers in Psychology.

The research was funded by the Hunter Centre for Entrepreneurship, University of Strathclyde.

Reference

Taylor, H. and Vestergaard M. D: ‘Developmental Dyslexia: Developmental Disorder or Specialization in Explorative Cognitive Search?’ Frontiers in Psychology (June 2022). DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2022.889245

Researchers say people with Developmental Dyslexia have specific strengths relating to exploring the unknown that have contributed to the successful adaptation and survival of our species.

“The deficit-centred view of dyslexia isn’t telling the whole story. This research proposes a new framework to help us better understand the cognitive strengths of people with dyslexia.”Dr Helen TaylorYoung boy steadily makes his way through a dense forest of trees and cow parsley. He stands out in the green in his bright red jumper.


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“Reductive” models of wellbeing education risk failing children unless improved, researchers warn

Tue, 21/06/2022 - 01:11

In a new compendium of academic analysis, researchers argue that despite decades of investment in ‘positive education’ – such as programmes to teach children happiness and mindfulness – schools still lack a proper framework for cultivating pupil wellbeing.

The critique appears in Wellbeing and Schooling, a book launched on 21 June. It compiles work by members of the European Health and Wellbeing Education research network, which engages specialists from around the world.

It argues that many education systems, including in the UK, treat wellbeing education reductively, generally viewing it as a means to drive up attainment. It links this viewpoint to the prevalence of one-size-fits-all models such as the ‘happiness agenda’: a sequence of initiatives which have tried to promote ‘happier living’ in British schools in recent years. These typically focus on training pupils to adopt a positive mindset. Commonly recommended methods include keeping gratitude journals and recording happy memories.

The authors suggest that such approaches, while useful, have limited impact. Instead, they say wellbeing should be “an educational goal in its own right”. Fulfilling that requires a more nuanced approach, in which pupils engage purposefully with the circumstances that influence their wellbeing, as well as their own feelings.

Their book presents various examples from around the world of how this has been achieved. They range from system-wide strategies, such as the use of ‘Transition Years’ in Ireland and South Korea; to small-scale programmes and pilot studies, such as a project co-created by parents and teachers in New Zealand which drew on indigenous Maori heritage.

Wellbeing is typically conceptualised as having two dimensions: a ‘hedonic’ aspect, which refers to feelings and personal satisfaction, and a ‘eudaimonic’ aspect; a sense of meaningful purpose. Ros McLellan, an Associate Professor at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, who co-edited the book, said most wellbeing education focused only on the hedonic dimension.

“If education doesn’t also guide children towards doing things that they find worthwhile and meaningful, we’re failing them,” McLellan said. “We limit their prospects of becoming successful, flourishing citizens. Life satisfaction is also more complex than we tend to acknowledge. It’s about dealing with both positive and negative experiences. Just running lessons on how to be happy won’t work. At worst, it risks making children who aren’t happy feel as if that’s their own fault.”

There is some evidence that wellbeing education, as presently realised, is failing to cut through. The Children’s Society has reported that 306,000 10 to 15-year-olds are unhappy with their lives, while one in eight feels under pressure at school. Other research on pupil stress raises questions about why the standard policy justification for wellbeing education remains the “positive impact on behaviour and attainment”.

One chapter in the book, co-authored by Professor Venka Simovska, from Aarhus University, Denmark (together with Catriona O`Toole), raises concerns that the happiness agenda overlooks the fact that some pupils inevitably find it difficult to suppress negative emotions, and fails to reflect whether focusing solely on positive feelings is beneficial for wellbeing.

“Students are faced with ever-increasing exhortations to be upbeat, to persist in the face of challenges, to display a growth mindset, to be enterprising and resilient,” the researchers write. “Repeated over time, this can give rise to an atmosphere of toxic positivity, particularly for those whose life experiences and living conditions do not lend themselves to feelings of cheery enthusiasm.”

As an alternative, they point to the recent revival in Scandinavia and elsewhere of Bildung, a German educational philosophy that links independent personal development to wider notions of purpose and social responsibility.

Informed by this tradition, schools in Denmark have applied a participatory and action-oriented pedagogical model to health and wellbeing education. The model starts by encouraging students to discuss an issue, for example how they feel when in school, then the teacher guides the students to critically explore the dynamics – either within their school or beyond – which might influence this, and envision creative possibilities for positive transformation.

Teachers and students together then develop programmes which address these structural influences and try to bring about change. The result has been school-level projects that address issues such as social inequality, marginalisation and discrimination related to health and wellbeing. “One could describe it as a form of citizenship education, but focused on school-related or wider societal determinants of wellbeing,” Simovska said.

The book also underlines the need to avoid generic, often Eurocentric, responses to promoting wellbeing in school, to consider complexities of culturally sensitive and multicultural environments, and to focus on both local circumstances and the specific needs of different demographic groups.

One chapter examines Ireland’s use of an optional ‘Transition Year’, in which students focus on developmental activities and work experience, partly to help them become more “fulfilled citizens”. This has inspired the introduction of ‘Free Years’ in South Korea. The South Korean model, however, necessarily involved adaptations to address local issues. Most obviously, Free Years, introduced in 2013, are compulsory, reflecting deep nationwide concerns in South Korea “about student wellbeing and stress in a high-stakes academic environment” – manifest in rising rates of school violence and youth suicide.

Another chapter reports how researchers at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, orchestrated a series of wānanga – traditional Maori knowledge-sharing gatherings – for parents and teachers on New Zealand’s South Island, to examine local communities’ ideas and priorities for wellbeing.

Teachers used these to devise effective strategies for helping pupils to develop positive relationships and express emotions, often drawing on Maori culture. In one particularly touching example, a primary school teacher introduced a symbolic Maori Stone into her classroom, to which children could ‘transfer’ thoughts and feelings. She found it became a useful tool for working through moments of unrest and disagreement.

McLellan believes such cases illustrate how a more nuanced approach to wellbeing education is particularly feasible in primary settings. “Arguably, it’s important we start as young as we can,” she said. “The examples in the book also show what amazing things teachers and schools can do, if we give them the resources and space to implement really effective, comprehensive, socio-ecological and culturally sensitive wellbeing education.”

Wellbeing and Schooling: Cross Cultural and Cross Disciplinary Perspectives is published by Springer, within the book series of the European Educational Research Association’s book series titled Transdisciplinary Perspectives in Educational research. The book will be launched at an event on 21 June.

An improved vision for wellbeing education should replace the over-simplistic approaches currently employed in many schools, such as happiness lessons, which risk creating an “atmosphere of toxic positivity” for pupils, experts say.

If education doesn’t also guide children towards doing things that they find worthwhile and meaningful, we’re failing themRos McLellanTeacher speaking with students


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Yes

KPMG and the University of Cambridge unveil new partnership to reimagine the world of work, starting with mental wellbeing

Mon, 20/06/2022 - 17:23

The University of Cambridge and KPMG have today unveiled a new partnership to understand how the world of work is changing, starting with what really works when it comes to supporting employees’ mental wellbeing.

The partnership is a global first and sees the University of Cambridge bring together researchers from different disciplines to better understand the factors that affect mental wellbeing at work. It will show how different kinds of supports can boost individual mental wellbeing, enhance productivity and promote a healthy workforce for the future. 

KPMG will open its doors to Cambridge researchers, who will assess the effectiveness of the mental wellbeing initiatives the firm currently offers to its c.16,000 UK employees. This will develop an evidence base of what works and how new support measures can be developed and evaluated to meet employees’ future needs. The firm will use these insights to invest in and evolve its package of mental wellbeing support.

The firm will also share its research with the wider business community, to help them support their own workforce and reduce attrition and wellbeing related absence. It also aims to provide empirical evidence clearly demonstrating the link between employee mental wellbeing and improved productivity. 

Jon Holt, Chief Executive of KPMG UK, said: “Mental wellbeing is a global issue and a leading concern on the minds of the business leaders I speak to. Businesses need research and data to help them invest in the right areas to support their staff through a huge period of change, as we emerge from the pandemic and introduce new ways of working.

“But mental wellbeing at work is an under researched area and it is hard to access empirical data evidencing clear links between mental wellbeing policies and better employee health. 

“This partnership with the very best academics in their field seeks to address this and provide real answers on what works. It aims to help leaders support their people to thrive at work, which in turn will lift productivity and deliver wider benefits to the economy.”

Professor Gordon Harold, who is leading the Mental Wellbeing programme for the partnership, said: "Mental health is the bedrock of a healthy, productive and positive society. By 2030 depression will be a leading cause of mortality and morbidity globally, with significant implications for individuals, society and the future of work. Promoting positive mental health and supporting those who experience or are at risk of mental ill health is now a national and global priority.”

Professor Andy Neely, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Enterprise and Business Relations at the University of Cambridge said: “Work – what we do, how and where we do it and what it means for individuals, organisations and wider society – is changing. This ambitious partnership will bring together Cambridge researchers from a wide range of disciplines to reimagine the world of work and to co-create with KPMG effective strategies and interventions that will benefit both its workforce and those of organisations worldwide.

“Finding the best ways to support mental wellbeing at work is an urgent and important task, and the starting point for this partnership which will explore more broadly how can we enable meaningful work that addresses society’s needs.” 

The announcement is part of KPMG’s £300m three-year strategy to transform and grow its business, as it invests in new insight and services to support its clients and its people.  

It also forms part of a wider partnership between KPMG and the University of Cambridge, which aims to examine the big issues affecting work and society, such as the impact of digital technologies, the global distribution of work and Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG), and to provide evidence-based, actionable insights. In September last year, the firm unveiled a training programme with Cambridge Judge Business School, which will deliver ESG training to KPMG’s 227,000 global workforce.

Read more about the Future of Work partnership here.

Published 21 June 2022

New five-year partnership on the ‘Future of Work’ will examine the big issues affecting the modern workforce and offer practical, research backed solutions to employers

Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash


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Yes

Pre-school play with friends lowers risk of mental health problems later

Tue, 14/06/2022 - 01:00

Researchers at the University of Cambridge analysed data from almost 1,700 children, collected when they were aged three and seven. Those with better peer play ability at age three consistently showed fewer signs of poor mental health four years later. They tended to have lower hyperactivity, parents and teachers reported fewer conduct and emotional problems, and they were less likely to get into fights or disagreements with other children.

Importantly, this connection generally held true even when the researchers focused on sub-groups of children who were particularly at risk of mental health problems. It also applied when they considered other risk factors for mental health – such as poverty levels, or cases in which the mother had experienced serious psychological distress during or immediately after pregnancy.

The findings suggest that giving young children who might be vulnerable to mental health issues access to well-supported opportunities to play with peers – for example, at playgroups run by early years specialists – could be a way to significantly benefit their long-term mental health.

Dr Jenny Gibson, from the Play in Education, Development and Learning (PEDAL) Centre at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, said: “We think this connection exists because through playing with others, children acquire the skills to build strong friendships as they get older and start school. Even if they are at risk of poor mental health, those friendship networks will often get them through.”

Vicky Yiran Zhao, a PhD Student in PEDAL and first author of the study added: “What matters is the quality, rather than the quantity, of peer play. Games with peers that encourage children to collaborate, for example, or activities that promote sharing, will have positive knock-on benefits.”

The researchers used data from 1,676 children in the Growing up in Australia study, which is tracking the development of children born in Australia between March 2003 and February 2004. It includes a record, provided by parents and carers, of how well the children played in different situations at age three. This covered different types of peer play, including simple games; imaginative pretend play; goal-directed activities (such as building a tower from blocks); and collaborative games like hide-and-seek.

These four peer play indicators were used to create a measure of ‘peer play ability’ – the underlying ability of a child to engage with peers in a playful way. The researchers calculated the strength of the relationship between that measure and reported symptoms of possible mental health problems – hyperactivity, and conduct, emotional and peer problems – at age seven.

The study then analysed two sub-groups of children within the overall cohort. These were children with high ‘reactivity’ (children who were very easily upset and difficult to soothe in infancy), and those with low ‘persistence’ (children who struggled to persevere when encountering a challenging task). Both these traits are linked to poor mental health outcomes.

Across the entire dataset, children with a higher peer play ability score at age three consistently showed fewer signs of mental health difficulties at age seven. For every unit increase in peer play ability at age three, children’s measured score for hyperactivity problems at age seven fell by 8.4%, conduct problems by 8%, emotional problems by 9.8% and peer problems by 14%. This applied regardless of potential confounding factors such as poverty levels and maternal distress, and whether or not they had plentiful opportunities to play with siblings and parents.

The effect was evident even among the at-risk groups. In particular, among the 270 children in the ‘low persistence’ category, those who were better at playing with peers at age three consistently had lower hyperactivity, and fewer emotional and peer problems, at age seven. This may be because peer play often forces children to problem-solve and confront unexpected challenges, and therefore directly addresses low persistence.

The benefits of peer play were weaker for the high reactivity sub-group, possibly because such children are often anxious and withdrawn, and less inclined to play with others. Even among this group, however, better peer play at age three was linked to lower hyperactivity at age seven.

The consistent link between peer play and mental health probably exists because playing with others supports the development of emotional self-control and socio-cognitive skills, such as the ability to understand and respond to other people’s feelings. These are fundamental to building stable, reciprocal friendships. There is already good evidence that the better a person’s social connections, the better their mental health tends to be. For children, more social connections also create a virtuous cycle, as they usually lead to more opportunities for peer play.

The researchers suggest that assessing children’s access to peer play at an early age could be used to screen for those potentially at risk of future mental health problems. They also argue that giving the families of at-risk children access to environments which promote high-quality peer play, such as playgroups or small-group care with professional child minders, could be an easily deliverable and low-cost way to reduce the chances of mental health problems later.

“The standard offer at the moment is to put the parents on a parenting course,” Gibson said. “We could be focusing much more on giving children better opportunities to meet and play with their peers. There are already fantastic initiatives up and down the country, run by professionals who provide exactly that service to a very high standard. Our findings show how crucial their work is, especially given that the other risk factors jeopardising children’s mental health could often be down to circumstances beyond their parents’ control.”

The study is published in Child Psychiatry & Human Development.

Children who learn to play well with others at pre-school age tend to enjoy better mental health as they get older, new research shows. The findings provide the first clear evidence that ‘peer play ability’, the capacity to play successfully with other children, has a protective effect on mental health.

Games with peers that encourage children to collaborate, for example, or activities that promote sharing, will have positive knock-on benefitsVicky Yiran ZhaoJay Chen on UnsplashChildren playing


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Yes

“Write fewer papers, take more risks”: researchers call for ‘rebellion’ against academic convention

Mon, 06/06/2022 - 07:46

The appeal is the starting point for a new book which questions prevailing orthodoxies in academia. Its editors, who are four academics based in Britain and Australia, invite university staff to “rise up and rebel” against these conventions. They attack the assumption that the main output of research should be papers for scholarly journals, describing this as the “boring stuff” of their profession, which often undermines its quality and public value.

Instead, the book calls for more university researchers to “depart radically” from traditional modes of academic production and combine forces with organisations beyond the ‘academy’, “to do the radical kind of work that the world needs right now, in a time of climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic, and rising nationalism and populism.”

It examines, in particular, how this could be achieved through the arts. In a wide-ranging survey, different contributors cite examples of how academics have used creative writing, poetry, podcasts, music – and less obvious media including circus arts and magic – both to communicate their work, and as research tools.

The book, Doing Rebellious Research in and beyond the Academy, has been co-written by social scientists, critical theorists and performing artists. It argues that although universities often claim to be interdisciplinary, many academics still work in silos – rarely collaborating with colleagues, let alone beyond their institutions.

It adds that this is often a consequence of convention and not intention, and that rather than being inherently remote and ‘stuffy’, as cliché might have it, many academics are under constant pressure to publish in specialist journals. The volume itself is an anthology of “creative essays” exemplifying alternative ways to present research: as creative writing, poetry and art.

Pamela Burnard, one of the co-editors and a Professor of Arts, Creativities and Educations at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, said: “Universities are meant to exist for everyone’s benefit. It’s bizarre that their main research output is complex, esoteric writing that only a few other academics read or understand.”

“Nobody is claiming that academic writing is pointless, but why is it the norm? If we want research to address the biggest challenges facing society, we need academics to have the confidence – in a sense the permission – to depart radically from it. We need to be braver and take more risks with what we do.”

In the book’s prologue, the editors quote a similar point made by the anthropologist, Mary Pratt, in 1988: “How could such interesting people, doing such interesting things, produce such dull books?”

They argue the arts provide alternative modes of expression that give non-academics better opportunities to connect meaningfully with academic ideas. They also suggest that when used as part of the research process, the arts give academics a means to ‘live’ and ‘experience’ their research as something creative and engaging. This often enables them to see the work differently and innovate further. The book provides numerous examples of how this has been done by researchers around the world, using forms such as dance, the visual arts, poetry, hip-hop and podcasting.

One example is the ‘Departing Radically in Academic Writing’ programme in Australia, which trains postgraduate students not just to turn their research into creative writing, but to use it as a research method. Its methods include ‘thesis drabbling’, in which students summarise their thesis as 100 words of stream-of-consciousness prose. Students say this has helped them to make their work “more human”, focus on its real purpose, and reconnect emotionally with why they wanted to do research in the first place.

Elsewhere, the book presents the recent case of a University of Cambridge student who used podcasting to collect data from students and staff for a study about how COVID-19 affected university life. It explains how the project stemmed partly from a dance workshop and ended with her releasing an electronica and spoken word album featuring performed fragments of the interviews on Spotify, to convey the fears and anxieties experienced on campuses during lockdown.

In a separate chapter a psychologist discusses how she used slam poetry and spoken word art to get marginalised young people to open up about their experiences of social injustice. She concludes that poetry can be used to challenge established “notions of what research and knowledge look like.”

This book also touches on even more offbeat artforms. One chapter, for example, reports on the Stockholm University of the Arts ‘Department of Circus’. This trains circus performers but has also used the unexpected realm of circus arts, and their capacity to test the extremes of human ability and self-control, to undertake studies into issues such as teamwork and collaboration in high-risk environments.

In similar vein, a chapter co-authored by a medic, an award-winning biomechanics researcher, and an illusionist and escapologist, write about  how the Academy of Magic & Science has created ‘magic shows’ which introduce audiences to transdisciplinary practices and ideas connecting diverse fields such as engineering, chemistry, electronics, physiology, psychology and performance cultures. The co-authors argue that the careful structuring of magic acts, to provoke curiosity and surprise, could be applied more widely in scientific writing. They suggest that presenting research as an illusionist might do could engage wider audiences far more than the “cold lists of data and conclusions” in many scientific papers.

Burnard said she fully expects the book, which features plenty of other, different examples of rebellious scholarly writing, to be “written off” by some scholars. “Our ideas and intentions are challenging – but that’s something that academics are meant to be,” she added. “The emergence of unimagined possibilities should be celebrated.”

Doing Rebellious Research in and beyond the Academy is published by Brill-i-Sense. It will be widely available following a launch event in Cambridge on Monday 6 June.

A group of education specialists are urging researchers to challenge the “structures and regulations” which define academic scholarship, arguing that different approaches are needed in an age of climate change, COVID-19 and rising populism.

“Nobody is claiming that academic writing is pointless, but why is it the norm? If we want research to address the biggest challenges facing society, we need academics to have the confidence – in a sense the permission – to depart radically from it. We need to be braver and take more risks with what we do.” Pamela BurnardJoakim Björklund Student performing on rigging at the University of Stockholm’s ‘Department of Circus’, which explores different disciplines through circus arts.


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Our world-leading research: REF 2021

Thu, 12/05/2022 - 07:00

Cambridge’s global reputation is recognised by the Research Excellence Framework, with 93% of our overall submissions rated as world-leading or internationally-excellent.

Want more students to learn languages? Win over the parents, research suggests

Tue, 03/05/2022 - 16:21

Children’s attitudes towards learning languages and their willingness to see themselves as ‘multilingual’ are influenced far more by the views of their parents than by their teachers or friends, new research indicates.

The finding implies that parents may have an important part to play in reversing the national decline in language-learning. The authors of the study, which was led by researchers at the University of Cambridge, say that efforts to increase uptake in these subjects would benefit from involving families, as well as schools.

Entry rates for modern languages have declined steadily, at both GCSE and A-Level, since the early 2000s. GCSE entry data, for example, show that the combined total number of pupils taking French, German, Spanish and other Modern Languages last year was almost half that of 2001.

The new study surveyed more than 1,300 Year 8 students, aged 12-13, to understand what makes them self-identify as ‘multilingual’: as capable learners and users of other languages. The responses revealed that their parents’ beliefs about languages had almost twice as much influence as the opinions of their teachers, and were also significantly more influential than the views of their peers.

Specifically, parental attitudes help students who are still forming a view about languages work out whether these subjects matter personally to them. In general, the study shows that they are more likely to consider themselves ‘multilingual’ if they identify with languages at this personal level and see them as relevant to their own lives. Simply learning languages at school and being told that they are useful appears to make less difference.

Professor Linda Fisher, from the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, said: “Students’ personal commitment to languages is determined by their experiences, their beliefs, and their emotional response to speaking or using them. Slightly surprisingly, the people who feed into that most appear to be their parents.”

“This can be a positive or negative influence depending on the parents’ own views. Its importance underlines the fact that if we want more young people to learn languages, we need to pay attention to wider social and cultural attitudes to languages beyond the classroom. Waning interest in these subjects is a public communication challenge; it’s not just about what happens in schools.”

Some language-learning specialists argue that most people are fundamentally “multilingual”. Even if they do not speak another language fluently, they may know assorted words and phrases, or another kind of ‘language’: such as a dialect, sign language, or computer code.

Recognising that they have this multilingual capability appears to strengthen students’ self-belief when they encounter modern languages at school. There is also evidence that students who self-identify as multilingual perform better across the school curriculum, including in non-language subjects.

The study explored what leads students to see themselves in these terms, and whether this varies between different groups – for example, those who have ‘English as an Additional Language’ (EAL), and typically speak another language at home.

In the survey, students were asked to state how strongly they agreed or disagreed with various statements, such as: “Learning other languages is pointless because everyone speaks English”, and: “My parents think that it’s cool to be able to speak other languages.” They were also asked about their own experience with languages, and how multilingual they considered themselves to be. The researchers then developed a model showing the relative importance of different potential influences on their self-identification as language-learners.

Although some influences – such as that of peers – differed for EAL and non-EAL students, that of parents was consistently strong. Across the board, the relative impact of parents’ attitudes on students’ willingness to see themselves as multilingual was found to be about 1.4 times greater than that of their friends, and almost double that of their teachers.

The researchers suggest that encouraging more parents to recognise their own multilingual capabilities would positively affect their children’s own language-learning. “In an ideal world we should be encouraging adults, as well as children, to see themselves as having a repertoire of communicative resources,” Fisher said. “It’s remarkable how quickly attitudes change once you start asking: ‘What words do you already know, what dialect do you speak; can you sign?’”

More broadly, the study found that young people are more likely to see themselves in these terms if they are exposed to meaningful experiences that involve other languages – for example by hearing and using them in their communities, or while travelling abroad. This, along with their personal and emotional response to the idea of languages, informs the degree to which they self-describe as multilingual.

The researchers argue that this raises questions about recent Government reforms to language GCSEs, which are meant to help students “grow in confidence and motivation”. The new measures focus narrowly on so-called linguistic “building blocks”: for example, requiring students to learn 1,700 common words in the target language. Head teachers’ bodies have already criticised them as “prescriptive and grinding” and liable to alienate pupils further.

The new study similarly indicates that encouraging more young people to learn languages requires a broader-minded approach.

“There’s no evidence that if you just focus on the mechanics – phonics, grammar and so on – you’re going to motivate students or, for that matter, teachers,” Fisher said. “Students need to discover what languages mean to them, which means they also need to learn about culture, identity and self-expression. Simply drilling verb forms into them will only persuade a swathe of the school population that these subjects are not for them. That is especially likely if their parents don’t value languages either.”

The research is published in the International Journal of Multilingualism.

Parents influence children’s attitudes to languages far more than their teachers or friends, research finds. This implies that efforts to reverse the national decline in language-learning need to target families as well as schools, researchers say.

Waning interest in these subjects is a public communication challenge; it’s not just about what happens in schoolsLinda FisherBen Mullins via UnsplashGirl listening in the classroom


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The West must beware the language of appeasement

Thu, 28/04/2022 - 12:52

Words shape our world, write Dr Rory Finnin and Dr Thomas Grant. We must see Russia's war on Ukraine for what it is and stop appeasing Putin with our words.

Co-offenders likely to violently turn on one another, UK crime gang study shows

Tue, 12/04/2022 - 09:55

The first study to take a “network analysis” approach to patterns of violence within UK organised crime gangs (OCG) has shown that OCG members who previously offended together are likely to end up attacking one another.

The research also reveals cycles of escalating violence within the criminal milieu of Thames Valley. For example, OCG members who harass other members are far more likely to become victims of violence, primarily from those they harassed. 

Researchers found these “relational effects” – whether one OCG member has worked with or fallen out with another – to be much stronger predictors of violent crime than more traditional ‘rap sheets’: prior offence lists of individuals.

The study, led by the University of Cambridge and using sixteen years of data from Thames Valley Police, is published in the Journal of Quantitative Criminology. It marks an initial foray into “networks of violence” research for the UK.

While network analyses have previously been used to help police some of the most violent cities in the US, such as Chicago and Boston, this is the first time the technique has been deployed in a less violent European context.   

“Our work shows the importance of taking relationships into account when developing policing risk factors and ‘red flags’,” said Dr Paolo Campana from Cambridge’s Institute of Criminology. “These techniques could help police identify at an earlier stage the social networks set to spiral into violence.”

Within the wider milieu of hardened OCG and all their known current and former associates, having co-offended – or been suspected of offending – with an OCG member dramatically increased the odds of becoming a victim of OCG violence by 56 times, typically from the former partner-in-crime.  

Having harassed an OCG member or associate increased the odds of violent victimisation by a factor of 243, while those who had attacked someone in the network were 479 times more likely to become victims of violence themselves.

However, simply having a record of criminal violence, or of hard drugs offences, was found to have no significant effect on the potential for future violence. 

Researchers say that such high odds ratios are due in part to limited data in this early study, but expect to see similarly strong correlations in future research. Campana is working with Cambridgeshire and Merseyside police to build bigger datasets.  

“It often comes down to tit-for-tat retaliation that generates circuits of violence,” said Campana.

“In the Thames Valley data we can see how prior co-offending relationships turn sour and become a mechanism for further violence. Harassment within criminal networks also dramatically increases the potential for violence.”

“Violence is like a virus, it spreads through proximity and familiarity. Those within certain social bubbles are most at risk. In some US cities, co-offending bubbles account for over 80% of the violence,” he said.  

“As we collect more data, we can expect to identify more of the chains and feedback loops that sustain violence and render it endemic within groups and locations.”

The study used anonymised records from Thames Valley Police between 2000 and 2016 to build a network model for organised crime across a population of just over 2 million, including cities such as Oxford and Reading.

Definitions of an OCG member includes those working with others to “commit serious crime on a continuing basis”, with elements of planning, structure and coordination.

Campana and his colleague Dr Nynke Niezink from Carnegie Mellon University analysed a criminal environment of 6,234 individuals, of which 833 were longstanding OCG: active as part of a gang for 2 years both before and after their first and last recorded offences.

Overall, belonging to an OCG carried a slightly lower risk of becoming a victim of violence than those in the wider criminal network, but it increased the risk of being attack by fellow gang members. 

Researchers whittled over 23,000 events down to 156 OCG-instigated violent acts with sufficient data on the connections and criminal histories of the gang members involved.  

Acts included murder and attempted murder, manslaughter, assault, and actual and grievous bodily harm with and without intent. Related incidents of threats and harassment were added to data models in addition to core acts of violence.

The hardened OCG members were overwhelmingly male (93%), and most had been active in drug dealing. Half (51%) had been involved in a violent act, while a quarter (26%) had been a victim of violence.

The few female OCG members were twice as likely as male members to be victims of violence. This was despite researchers removing incidents related to domestic violence. 

Police initially supplied records on all events involving at least one OCG member as offender or victim, along with information on all others connected to the event.

Over the data period, the average size of a crime gang in Thames Valley’s jurisdiction – which includes cities such as Oxford and Reading – was 5-6 members, with the largest composed of 21 members.    

Researchers use over a decade of data from Thames Valley Police to reveal “mechanisms” that generate and sustain violence within networks of organised crime.

Violence is like a virus, it spreads through proximity and familiarityPaolo CampanaWest Midlands Police Arrest warrant executed in West Bromwich, UK


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Trainee teachers made sharper assessments about learning difficulties after receiving feedback from AI

Mon, 11/04/2022 - 09:41

The study, with 178 trainee teachers in Germany, was carried out by a research team led by academics at the University of Cambridge and Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München (LMU Munich). It provides some of the first evidence that artificial intelligence (AI) could enhance teachers’ ‘diagnostic reasoning’: the ability to collect and assess evidence about a pupil, and draw appropriate conclusions so they can be given tailored support.

During the trial, trainees were asked to assess six fictionalised ‘simulated’ pupils with potential learning difficulties. They were given examples of their schoolwork, as well as other information such as behaviour records and transcriptions of conversations with parents. They then had to decide whether or not each pupil had learning difficulties such as dyslexia or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and explain their reasoning.

Immediately after submitting their answers, half of the trainees received a prototype ‘expert solution’, written in advance by a qualified professional, to compare with their own. This is typical of the practice material student teachers usually receive outside taught classes. The others received AI-generated feedback, which highlighted the correct parts of their solution and flagged aspects they might have improved.

After completing the six preparatory exercises, the trainees then took two similar follow-up tests – this time without any feedback. The tests were scored by the researchers, who assessed both their ‘diagnostic accuracy’ (whether the trainees had correctly identified cases of dyslexia or ADHD), and their diagnostic reasoning: how well they had used the available evidence to make this judgement.

The average score for diagnostic reasoning among trainees who had received AI feedback during the six preliminary exercises was an estimated 10 percentage points higher than those who had worked with the pre-written expert solutions.

The reason for this may be the ‘adaptive’ nature of the AI. Because it analysed the trainee teachers’ own work, rather than asking them to compare it with an expert version, the researchers believe the feedback was clearer. There is no evidence, therefore, that AI of this type would improve on one-to-one feedback from a human tutor or high-quality mentor, but the researchers point out that such close support is not always readily available to trainee teachers for repeat practice, especially those on larger courses.

The study was part of a research project within the Cambridge LMU Strategic Partnership. The AI was developed with support from a team at the Technical University of Darmstadt.

Riikka Hofmann, Associate Professor at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, said: “Teachers play a critical role in recognising the signs of disorders and learning difficulties in pupils and referring them to specialists. Unfortunately, many of them also feel that they have not had sufficient opportunity to practise these skills. The level of personalised guidance trainee teachers get on German courses is different to the UK, but in both cases it is possible that AI could provide an extra level of individualised feedback to help them develop these essential competencies.”

Dr Michael Sailer, from LMU Munich, said: “Obviously we are not arguing that AI should replace teacher-educators: new teachers still need expert guidance on how to recognise learning difficulties in the first place. It does seem, however, that AI-generated feedback helped these trainees to focus on what they really needed to learn. Where personal feedback is not readily available, it could be an effective substitute.”

The study used a natural language processing system: an artificial neural network capable of analysing human language and spotting certain phrases, ideas, hypotheses or evaluations in the trainees’ text.

It was created using the responses of an earlier cohort of pre-service teachers to a similar exercise. By segmenting and coding these responses, the team ‘trained’ the system to recognise the presence or absence of key points in the solutions provided by trainees during the trial. The system then selected pre-written blocks of text to give the participants appropriate feedback.

In both the preparatory exercises and the follow-up tasks, the trial participants were either asked to work individually, or assigned to randomly-selected pairs. Those who worked alone and received expert solutions during the preparatory exercises scored, on average, 33% for their diagnostic reasoning during the follow-up tasks. By contrast, those who had received AI feedback scored 43%. Similarly, the average score of trainees working in pairs was 35% if they had received the expert solution, but 45% if they had received support from the AI.

Training with the AI appeared to have no major effect on their ability to diagnose the simulated pupils correctly. Instead, it seems to have made a difference by helping teachers to cut through the various information sources that they were being asked to read, and provide specific evidence of potential learning difficulties. This is the main skill most teachers actually need in the classroom: the task of diagnosing pupils falls to special education teachers, school psychologists, and medical professionals. Teachers need to be able to communicate and evidence their observations to specialists where they have concerns, to help students access appropriate support.  

How far AI could be used more widely to support teachers’ reasoning skills remains an open question, but the research team hope to undertake further studies to explore the mechanisms that made it effective in this case, and assess this wider potential.

Frank Fischer, Professor of Education and Educational Psychology at LMU Munich, said: “In large training programmes, which are fairly common in fields such as teacher training or medical education, using AI to support simulation-based learning could have real value. Developing and implementing complex natural language-processing tools for this purpose takes time and effort, but if it helps to improve the reasoning skills of future cohorts of professionals, it may well prove worth the investment.”

The research is published in Learning and Instruction.

A trial in which trainee teachers who were being taught to identify pupils with potential learning difficulties had their work ‘marked’ by artificial intelligence has found the approach significantly improved their reasoning.

It is possible that AI could provide an extra level of individualised feedback to help [teachers] develop these essential competenciesRiikka HofmannAnnie SprattYoung boy completes homework


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Lessons from modern languages can reboot Latin learning

Thu, 07/04/2022 - 08:54

Fan fiction, Minecraft and Taylor Swift lyrics are hardly the stuff of traditional Latin lessons. They are, however, part of an expanding repertoire that teachers are successfully drawing on to deepen students’ grasp of the language of Virgil and Cicero.

All three are cited – alongside many other examples of innovative tools and techniques – in a new handbook which calls for a rethink about how to teach Latin. Its author, the Cambridge academic Steven Hunt, suggests that mainstream teaching practices, some of which date back to the 1950s, are linked to dwindling uptake in the subject and that change is overdue.

Part of his suggested solution is for Classics teachers to follow the lead of subjects like French and German, where students learn to use and communicate in their target language. Hunt argues that students would comprehend Latin better if they were exposed to opportunities to speak, sing, perform or write creatively in it, rather than just learning vocab and grammar, and translating set texts. They might also enjoy it more.

His book shows that some more adventurous teachers are, indeed, already following this path and innovating in the classroom to engage students and improve fluency. While Hunt does not dispute the value of some traditional teaching methods, he does suggest that a more open-minded approach to how Latin might be taught, drawing on the evidence from other language subjects, would help students to thrive.

Hunt has been a Latin teacher for 35 years, and now trains teachers on the University of Cambridge PGCE. “The trouble with Latin teaching is that it’s never been subject to thorough academic investigation; we tend to rely on anecdotal information about what seems to work,” he said.

“There is no ‘best way’ to teach it, but some teachers are creating a rich set of responses to the challenge. Most draw on principles from modern languages education. Because the human brain is hardwired for sound, it learns by speaking, listening and using language. Some Latin teachers are realising that this is the way to learn any language – dead or alive.”

Hunt believes that many students are disengaged by the standard teaching model for Latin: an outdated formula focused on vocab, grammar, translations, comprehension exercises and rote-learning. There is little evidence from research in modern languages that this is the best way to develop students’ fluency or understanding, and there has been a steady decline in the numbers of students choosing Latin for examination. “Falling uptake means there is now a moral imperative for us to be open to different ideas,” he said.

His book makes a case for more forms of ‘active’ Latin – encouraging students to use and communicate in the language. One argument is that of ‘communicative necessity’. Speaking a language means students have to make themselves understood in real time, so they often grasp core principles, and learn to correct mistakes, quickly. Similarly, he advocates giving students more opportunities to hear Latin being sung or spoken. This can, for example, embed vocabulary in the long-term memory: when we recall a word, what we are really recalling is its sound.

The book also suggests new ways to develop the traditionally favoured skills of reading and translation. For example, some teachers have successfully improved students’ ability to master complicated texts, like Cicero’s speeches, through a process called ‘tiering’, in which they start with simplified versions and gradually build up to reading the full, complex original.

Evidence is also emerging, particularly from the US, that free composition – creative writing in Latin – can improve fluency, translation, and deepen students’ appreciation of Roman authors. In some classrooms, students now produce poetry, prose and songs in Latin, as well as their own fan fiction – which often involves tributes to characters from popular programmes such as the Cambridge Latin Course.

One example cited in the book comes from a university tutor who, having struggled to develop his students’ understanding of Virgil’s poetry, asked them to try translating well-known songs instead. In a research paper, he describes how, for instance, students Latinised the chorus of Taylor Swift’s Bad Blood: Quod, care, nunc malum sanguinem habemus. He found their choices about how to translate the hits strengthened their ability to “recognise, comprehend and use” different techniques in Roman poetry. The exercise is now a staple of his Latin Prose Composition course.

Similar examples of innovative practice abound in Hunt’s book. Adopting principles from language immersion, many teachers use techniques such as storytelling, singing and dramatic performances to get students using Latin, while some universities now have Latin-speaking social circles.

Teachers are also producing their own resources to support these endeavours. A thriving culture of self-published Latin short stories and novellas is encouraging students’ free reading, which according to one study is up to six times more efficient than traditional teaching at building vocabulary.

Elsewhere, one enthusiast has recorded Latinised Disney songs, enabling listeners to hear how Let It Go might have sounded had Frozen been made in Ancient Rome. 3D digital modelling and Google Earth are also being used to create opportunities for students to use Latin during virtual walk-throughs of ancient sites; these include a 3D model of Rome built in Minecraft.

Such innovations should, Hunt says, be treated selectively but seriously; while the change they are instigating ought to be welcomed. “Latin’s role as the gatekeeper to an elite education is over, but involving more students, especially in state schools, remains a problem,” he said. “The challenge for teachers in the years to come will be whether they are prepared to grasp these opportunities to present the subject differently, and widen the appeal for students, or whether they prefer to stick to familiar routines.”

A new guide calls for a broader approach to teaching Latin, one that draws on modern languages education, involving speaking, music and storytelling.

Falling uptake means there is now a moral imperative for us to be open to different ideasSteven HuntChemical Engineer“Romans go home”. Mocked-up Roman graffiti, referencing Monty Python’s Life of Brian, at the Hull and East Riding Museum


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Poorly conceived payment-on-results funding threatens to undermine education aid

Wed, 30/03/2022 - 12:38

A payment on results approach to delivering education aid, which is championed by international institutions including the World Bank, is in danger of backfiring in some of the countries it aims to help, researchers believe.

The concerns are raised in a new study, by academics at the Universities of Cambridge and Addis Ababa, which examines results-based financing in education and heavily critiques one such programme in Ethiopia. It urges donors not to treat the approach as a “magic bullet” for poorer countries, echoing other studies which have flagged similar doubts.

Results-based financing is a funding model that has been widely adopted by Western governments and institutions to provide education aid to lower-income countries. Rather than handing out grants up front, the approach requires recipient governments to meet a set of target conditions which are agreed with donors in advance. The money is released as these conditions are met.

The targets vary, but typically involve improvements to attainment and enrolment in schools. According to the World Bank, results-based financing “could have a substantial impact in terms of achieving results that matter” in support of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

The new study examined the ‘Programme for Results’ (PforR) scheme: a results-based financing package underpinning the latest phase of the Ethiopian government’s education reforms. This draws on a pooled fund, supported by a consortium of donors led by the World Bank.

Although the research is broadly supportive of the principle of linking funding to results, it found that several aspects of the financing project were unfit for purpose from the start. Many of the targets set through PforR, for example, fell short of those of the education reforms themselves. The researchers also argue that key groups of children, such as those with disabilities, were overlooked in the target-setting; inadequate systems were put in place to measure results, and some local authorities were unaware of the new system months after it began.

Professor Pauline Rose, Director of the Research for Equitable Access and Learning (REAL) Centre, University of Cambridge, said: “The shortcomings we identified suggest that the potential for this results-based financing programme to improve education and learning is limited. In the worst-case scenario, it could end up undermining the very reforms it is meant to support.”

The study is not the first to question how results-based financing packages are being structured and implemented. Similar problems have been highlighted in several previous assessments, including an evaluation of a pilot programme in Ethiopia in 2015, and an assessment of funding programmes in Mozambique, Nepal and Tanzania, in 2021.

The PforR initiative began in 2018 and is expected to run until 2023. Researchers examined the original programme appraisal document, and interviewed 72 of the donors and government officials responsible for its creation and delivery.

They found that many targets set through the scheme failed to match the ambition of the Ethiopian government’s reforms. Just 40% were linked to improving academic results, which is the principal aim of the government’s initiative. The PforR plan also specified that attainment should be measured at 2,000 schools which had been earmarked as requiring improvement. The bar set for the attainment targets that would unlock further funding was therefore often low; one donor described them as “a bit soft”.

While some of these targets took gender parity into account, researchers found that they overlooked other equity issues, such as how far education reforms were supporting marginalised groups including children with disabilities and those from the poorest backgrounds.

In the few cases where the PforR plan did specify targets for these groups, they were often widely considered to be inadequate. For example, education officials told the researchers that they had raised concerns at the plan’s draft stage about a target for expanding the number of Inclusive Education Resource Centres in Ethiopia. The researchers calculate that this target, if achieved, would affect just 10% of schools and fail to reach the majority of children with disabilities. The feedback raising this concern was never taken into account.

The paper criticises what appears to be a back-to-front approach to data-gathering. Several interviewees observed that systems were not in place to measure whether the PforR targets were being met before the programme started. Instead, improving data collection was itself set as a goal. In some cases, the study finds, this may mean that inaccurate information produced under the old, faulty system is likely to be contradicted mid-programme, creating the false impression that some targets are being missed.

The analysis also found a “significant gap in knowledge” about the programme’s introduction among regional and woreda (district) officials in the local education authorities charged with delivering results.

Months after it commenced, one official told researchers that he had “no clear understanding” of what ‘Programme for Results’ meant or involved. Another said that they had only heard “a rumour that the school grant is to be changed”. “These interviews were carried out during the first year of the implementation,” co-author, Dr Belay Hagos from Addis Ababa University, said. “We didn’t expect everyone to have a comprehensive knowledge of what it involved, but we did expect they would at least be aware of it.”

The authors suggest that these findings add further weight to existing evidence that some results-based financing packages are being implemented without adequate, contextualised planning, and without necessary preconditions – such as data-gathering measures – in place.

Rose added that there were doubts about how more recent developments in Ethiopia – notably the double shock of COVID-19 and conflict – would affect the arrangements. “Some of the education reforms to which the funding is tied have inevitably ground to a halt since 2018,” she said. “It is not entirely clear who will be responsible when results aren’t achieved in this context, and what sort of funding the government might eventually receive.”

The research is published in Third World Quarterly.

Analysis of a results-based-financing programme for education aid in Ethiopia finds that multiple aspects of the arrangement were unfit for purpose from the start and could undermine education reforms.

Some of the education reforms to which the funding is tied have inevitably ground to a halt since 2018Pauline RoseTaylor WilcoxChildren leaving school in Ale, Ethiopia


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Russia-Ukraine ‘off-ramp’: potential plan drafted by Cambridge peace negotiator

Mon, 14/03/2022 - 16:27

A “finely balanced formula” in which the disputed Donbas regions have increased self-governance but remain Ukrainian, and a tacit “status quo” for Crimea is agreed along with rights for minority groups, could help provide an “off-ramp” for both sides in Russia’s war on Ukraine.      

This is according to a proposed settlement designed by Marc Weller, Professor of International Law at the University of Cambridge and leading legal expert, who has mediated in a wide range of conflicts for the United Nations and others, including Kosovo, Syria, Yemen and Russian-occupied Transnistria.

Weller’s suggested deal would see NATO maintain its “open door” policy but grant Russia medium-term assurances on an effective moratorium for Ukraine, and possibly Moldova and Georgia, while allowing Sweden and Finland access if wished.

While nuclear arms controlled by the United States remain in Europe, the peace plan compels a return to negotiations on limitations of intermediate-range nuclear weapons on both sides, as part of several “confidence-building” steps.   

Importantly, Weller argues that no agreement should intrude on pursuing Russian accountability for the horrific war crimes witnessed by the world in recent weeks, which may ultimately see demands for trillions of dollars in reparations to Ukraine.

His proposal is published by international law forum Opinio Juris in the form of a draft outline agreement.

“A settlement will only be possible when victory is unlikely, or when losses imposed upon either side by a continuation of conflict become truly unbearable,” said Weller. “That moment may come sooner or later, but in any event, we be must be ready to help establish peace.”

“The sense of outrage and injustice on the part of Ukraine will be difficult to overcome. It is vital the Ukrainian government is not pressured into accepting outcomes that reward a war of aggression.”

Moscow demands recognition of the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk, the “states” in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region recognised by Russia at the outset of the conflict.

Their supposed independence was cynically used by Russia to argue a right of self-defence of these purportedly sovereign states, says Weller. He argues that these are “non-states”, and backing for purported statehood is not possible under international law.

Weller advocates a revised version of 2015’s Minsk II agreement that Russia has long complained was never fully implemented – one offering plenty of autonomy to both districts yet keeping them within Ukraine’s sovereign territory.

His proposed compromise, a form of “asymmetrical federation”, would see overall claims of statehood abandoned, but areas – or Oblasts – within the Donbas that have ethic or linguistic majorities be given greatly enhanced local self-governance.

“Unless Donetsk and Luhansk walk back their unfeasible claims to statehood, they will remain trapped in the twilight of international isolation, even with Russia propping them up,” said Weller.

“A settlement that keeps them as Ukrainian provinces but in an environment of self-government – almost virtual statehood – will allow both Oblasts authority over all their territory, rather than just the third taken by force in 2014,” he said.

“This would be balanced by internationally guaranteed rights to genuine local elections and safeguards for the right of minority populations—whether Russian speaking or Ukrainian.”  

International observers should be maintained throughout to reassure populations of all backgrounds, says Weller, as should the possibility of cross-border links to the Russian Federation to placate separatist groups.

While cease-fire and retreat of forces – along with full humanitarian access – are conditions that underpin the settlement, Russian withdrawal from the Donbas regions could be subject to a “transitional phase”. “However, Ukraine must not suffer de-facto division forever more as a consequence of turning the invasion into a frozen conflict,” Weller said.

Crimea cannot be formally recognised as part of Russia, Weller contends, regardless of Kremlin demands. However, both sides could pledge not to challenge the “territorial status quo” of the situation as of 23 February 2022 forcibly or perhaps in general terms, for the sake of hostility cessation.

This balancing act would require international cooperation to secure rights for Crimea’s non-Russian speakers, and see the region’s Tatars – a mainly Muslim population persecuted during the Soviet years – benefit from a restoration of the ethnic minority “special protection” they once had.  

While NATO’s “open door” policy will remain unshakeable in principle, Washington has already floated possible moratoria on Ukraine membership. Any settlement could adapt this into a self-imposed limitation by Ukraine for a given period of time – expressed through a legally binding unilateral declaration. Weller argues that such commitments could extend to Georgia and Moldova if needed.

He also outlines “Cooperative European Security Architecture” strategies to help reassure eastern European states that will not join NATO in the medium-term.

This would draw on existing arrangements as well as establish further steps to build transparency and keep regional tensions in check: rules for military flights toward national borders; prior notice agreements for military manoeuvres; arms limitations in key areas, supported by third-party verification.  

International law expert outlines terms for a possible agreement on Ukraine, including proposals for the Donbas and Crimea regions, and a “Cooperative European Security Architecture”.    

It is vital the Ukrainian government is not pressured into accepting outcomes that reward a war of aggressionMarc WellerMinistry of Defence Ukraine A Ukrainian soldier near the front lines in the Donbas region in 2015


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