Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Current Issues in Educational Neuroscience: A workshop sponsored by the Bloomsbury and UCL Doctoral Training Centres

On Friday 20th November, postgraduate students and early career researchers attended a workshop to hear about and discuss current issues in educational neuroscience. The day started with a keynote talk from Professor Daphne Bavelier from the University of Geneva. Daphne’s research has shown that video games can produce a wide range of improvements beyond just video game performance, for example in attentional control. This work has clear implications for possible educational training programmes. The first symposium of the day examined the potential for training executive functions from infancy to adolescence. Following a lunchtime poster session, the second symposium looked at environmental factors associated with learning and development. The final session was a panel discussion, where the panel summed up their thoughts on the day and took questions from attendees. This was a particularly fruitful part of the workshop, as the panel considered a number of important issues in the field.

Daphne Bavelier began the panel session by posing the question of how intervention resources should be divided between family and school. On the one hand, family interventions seem to be more effective, but on the other hand, school interventions are cheaper and can be done on a larger scale. Daphne espoused research that includes teachers from the outset, arguing that these are the best projects.

Jeremy Dudman Jones, an Assistant Headteacher, was able to use his experiences in school to give the perspective of teachers. Jeremy explained that teachers often look to neuroscience for silver bullets that don’t exist, or alternatively teachers may have no interest in finding out about relevant neuroscientific findings. This highlights the fine balance between presenting findings in a relevant and interesting way, but without hyperbole. Jeremy also discussed the importance of sharing scientific debates with teachers: informing teachers of the lack of consensus in new research areas may help to guard against myths infiltrating educational practice, as well as engaging teachers in the topic. Finally, Jeremy argued that it is crucial for research to get into teacher training programmes, which unfortunately does not happen at the moment.

Lia Commissar from the Wellcome Trust spoke about the six projects that were awarded funding last year from the Wellcome Trust and Education Endowment Foundation. Each of these projects focuses on improving educational attainment, particularly in terms of closing the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their more affluent peers. Lia mentioned a number of current activities within the Wellcome Trust that aim to provide free materials that are accessible for teachers. The online Learning Zone forum on I’m A Scientist: Get me out of here features questions asked by teachers and answered by scientists. This is an excellent start but the next iteration will be more of a two-way conversation. Lia hoped that the future of the field would lead to research questions informed by the classroom. Teachers are in the unique position of being able to try out something in the classroom, and suggesting it to scientists for rigorous investigation. Lia was keen to invite researchers from any allied field to get involved in the Educational Neuroscience dialogue.

Professor Emily Farran from the UCL Institute of Education and the Centre for Educational Neuroscience spoke about both the scientific and practical elements of intervention research. Intervention studies require active control groups to ensure that any observed effects are due to the specific intervention rather than simply focusing on something for twenty minutes a day. Emily also stressed the importance of investigating individual differences due to genetics and environment, and how these factors might influence the effectiveness of training. Finally, Emily urged scientists to go back to the schools where they carried out their research to share their findings and communicate with teachers.

The workshop proved to be a thorough investigation of the hot topics in Educational Neuroscience: the current areas of research and the key issues with conducting such work. The inclusion of non-researchers in the discussion was a useful reminder of the benefits of involving all stakeholders in the Educational Neuroscience community. Hopefully future conferences and discussions will follow in the footsteps of this workshop and invite scientists, teachers, funders, and even policy makers. It is clear that opening up this dialogue is the best way to work together to improve teaching and learning.


Links:

Centre for Educational Neuroscience:

Daphne Bavelier’s TED talk:

Learning Zone on I’m A Scientist: Get me out of here:

Wellcome Trust and EEF funded projects:

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