Thursday, 15 December 2016

The relationship between visual perceptual processing and maths and science at primary school

This is the first in a series of interviews with researchers in Educational Neuroscience, to showcase current work that aims to bridge the gap between science and the classroom.

First up is Su Morris, a PhD student at the UCL Institute of Education.
Hi Su! Please tell us who you are and what you’re working on at the moment.
Hi Annie! I’m a former primary school teacher, and am currently a PhD student examining the relationship between visual perceptual processing and maths and science at primary school. I am interested in whether a preference for focusing on details (local processing) or the whole of the stimulus (global processing) has an association with science and maths ability. As a teacher, I was always struck by the range of abilities that exist in a single class, and this led me to complete a Masters in Educational Neuroscience as I was keen to learn more about how these individual differences develop. I wanted to continue researching, so I decided to take the next step and apply to do a PhD.
I have recently finished my first data collection, so I will now be analysing the data to address three key research questions:
  • How do children’s local and global processing develop through primary school?
  • How do children’s local and global processing preference, and their ability to switch between the two levels, relate to their science and maths ability?
  • How do children’s local and global processing preference relate to their systemizing, empathizing, and autistic traits?

What got you interested in researching local and global processing, and what do you think the real-world implications might be?
Maths and science are so important, and they were my favourite subjects to teach at school, so it was natural that I would focus on something related to science and maths. I had encountered research that suggested there was a relationship between global and local processing and success in maths, however the association hadn’t been fully explored. I therefore was keen to examine the relationships.
I am still in the early stage of my research, but if there is an association between focusing on the details and success in science and maths, this could have practical applications for perhaps training children to notice details. It could also have implications in the way information or questions are presented to the children.
Is there anything that teachers, parents or students can use from your field right now in their teaching and learning?
I think that currently the evidence is not strong enough to act upon yet.
What direction do you think your future work in this area might take?
I have just completed my first round of data collection, where 135 children from years 1, 3 and 5 (ages 5-10) completed 17 activities. In addition, parents were asked to complete a questionnaire. This initial exploration into the relationships will then guide my future research.
In my next study, I plan to carry out an eye tracking investigation to assess whether differences in looking patterns associate with differences in performance in science and maths, and with global and local measures.
My initial study included science and maths measures which required a single response, but no explanation of the thought process that led to that answer. I would therefore like to investigate whether more abstract or concrete thinking has an impact on science and maths success, and how this relates to global and local processing.
Once I have a better understanding of the relationships, I will be looking to suggest practical applications, as I believe that this is an integral and important part of research in the field of educational neuroscience.
This post first appeared on the npj Science of Learning Community.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

The future of STEM education and current best practices

MARCH (MAke science Real in sCHools) is a network of European partners aiming to share innovations and best practices in secondary STEM education. On 15th November 2016 MARCH held an international conference in London to talk about the future of STEM education and to showcase current best practices.

I attended the conference to broaden my understanding of issues relating to education - as an educational neuroscientist I often feel like I should be an expert in psychology, neuroscience, and education! I feel very comfortable at psychology conferences (as my background is predominantly in psychology) but neuroscience and education conferences can sometimes take me out of my comfort zone. Since this conference was about STEM education it was perfect for me as my research concerns science and maths reasoning. Throughout the day I noticed three recurring themes, which I will explore here.

The context of many discussions was that there are STEM jobs that need filling and will continue to need filling in the future, yet there is low uptake of these subjects in late secondary school and university. It seems that young people do not aspire to be scientists. This is despite high ratings of interest in STEM subjects. Theme number one is therefore that links need to be made between STEM education at school and STEM careers. If pupils are enjoying STEM subjects but not wanting to follow these careers, it suggests that they have not received adequate careers advice. Indeed one speaker said that many pupils say they want to be managers - but they don't appreciate that a good way to become a manager is to be a scientist or engineer. Making explicit links between classroom STEM and STEM careers could increase uptake of these subjects at a higher level.

One way of making this link is through direct communication with scientists. During the conference we heard about I'm A Scientist, Get me out of here, an online forum for students to ask questions of scientists. This has been hugely successful in the UK, and is now running in many other countries, enabling pupils to see scientists as normal people, and to get a realistic idea of what their jobs entail. Theme number two is communication between schools and scientists. Educators in the audience wondered how they could find scientists to come and speak to pupils in person. As a researcher, I often meet the parallel problem of not knowing how to contact teachers that might be interested in being involved in research. Means of contact between schools and scientists are starting to appear but this is an ongoing struggle. One that has been around for a while in the UK is the STEM Ambassador programme: schools can request scientists to come and speak to pupils. A newer initiative is Speakezee where schools (or other organisations) can browse profiles of potential speakers and invite them to speak at their event. Something that works in the other direction - providing researchers with an opportunity to find willing teachers - would be excellent! As far as I know such a platform doesn't yet exist.

In terms of the future of STEM education, a common hope of speakers was that teaching and learning would move towards a problem-based approach that covers many subjects. Theme number three is therefore interdisciplinary learning. Although the building blocks of education will need to stay the same - subjects such as maths, English and history will continue to be taught - the manner in which they are taught is hoped to take a more interdisciplinary approach. Teaching according to problems that span school subjects might help pupils to see how STEM is relevant to everyday problems and to consider it within a broader context. One way of enabling this is to bring learning experiences outside of the classroom. While this sometimes happens in schools, the suggestion was to increase the regularity of these experiences and to show how they are more than just occasional treats for pupils, but valuable learning opportunities.

Linking STEM education to careers, encouraging communication between schools and scientists, and taking an interdisciplinary approach to teaching are all actions that can be taken to try to improve learning but also to encourage pupils to consider STEM careers.

Follow the hashtag to read tweets from the day: #EuroSTEM

Monday, 7 November 2016

Training of mathematics-related cognitive skills in adolescence

An exciting new paper by Lisa Knoll, Delia Fuhrmann, and colleagues from UCL, has just been published. The aim of the study was to look for sensitive periods in adolescence for training cognitive skills related to mathematics, a departure from much of the literature which focuses on early years training.

A total of 633 participants aged 11 to 33 years took part in one of three training groups, each of which provided 20 days of online training of a specific skill. The numerosity discrimination group were trained on the ability to quickly compare the numbers of dots in two sets. The relational reasoning group were trained on the ability to find patterns in relationships between shapes. Since brain areas involved in these tasks continue developing throughout adolescence, and performance in these tasks improves throughout adolescence, they might be good targets for intervention, so as to enhance the development of these skills. They are also known to be involved in mathematics ability, making the findings of potential relevance to education. The final training group was trained on the ability to process changes in faces. The cognitive and neural mechanisms of face processing are different to those involved in the other skills trained here, plus face processing is not involved in mathematics. Therefore this is the control group, and no transfer effects were expected between face processing and the other abilities.

There is some debate about what constitutes a good control group. Sometimes we want to see if the training is better than "business as usual", in which case we'd want a control group where no training took place. On the other hand, we want to make sure any training effects seen are specific to the task rather than due to simply being involved in a training programme. An active control group like the one in this study, means that any differences between the training groups and control group cannot be down to participation in an online training study, which might be novel and exciting for adolescents.

The researchers were looking for three main things: overall effects of training for the different groups, age effects of training where different aged participants might respond differently to training, and transfer effects where untrained tasks might show effects of training too. Transfer effects are notoriously difficult to find, and it is often only closely related tasks that show any transfer. In order to measure all of these effects, a pre-test, post-test (after training and 3-7 weeks after pre-test), and follow up test (3-9 months after post-test) was given to each participant.

The training itself consisted of 20 days of online training, where each day no more than 12 minutes was spent training. For the adolescents, this took place during normal classroom time.
The first finding of interest was that performance improved on the trained task following the training, and the extent of improvement differed across groups. The numerosity discrimination group saw improvements at post-test that were not sustained at follow up, and the gain seemed to be driven by the adult participants. The relational reasoning group showed improvements compared to pre-test at both post-test and follow up. Further, the improvements in this group were greater than in the other groups. Those who received face perception training also improved at post-test, but not at follow up, and when controlling for confounds this effect was no longer statistically significant.

To examine age effects, the groups were split into younger adolescents (11-13 years), mid-adolescents (13-15 years), older adolescents (15-18 years) and adults (18-33 years). The analysis of age group effects showed that it was only older adolescents and adults who improved in numerosity discrimination at post-test, although this was no longer statistically significant when confounds were included in the analysis. The relational reasoning training elicited improvements in all age groups at post-test and follow up, and these effects were stronger for older adolescents and adults than younger and mid-adolescents. Age group did not moderate the effect of face perception training.

Finally, there was no evidence of any transfer effects. This is unsurprising given the literature. Here, the authors suggest that investigating a broader range of tasks, both similar and dissimilar, might show some degree of transfer. If we are considering the relevance to education, transfer is of critical importance. Since we know that numerosity discrimination is related to mathematics, it would be really interesting to know whether the training did have an impact of mathematics ability. Previous research suggests that this is unlikely. However, this doesn't mean that cognitive training is necessarily a fruitless task. Research in this field is moving in the direction of creating training programmes within the subject domain. Rather than simply training the underlying cognitive skill, it might be crucial to show learners how the skill, say relational reasoning, is important for mathematics, and to practise it within the context. One theory is that we do not see transfer of improved skills because although students have the skill, they just aren't aware they should be using it in this setting.

This research shows us that we can train the cognitive skill, with improvements, and here the biggest gains are in relational reasoning. The next step is to integrate this into a programme targeting the particular subject where we want to see improved performance. A particularly exciting aspect of this paper is that it is shows a sensitive period for improvement in these skills during late adolescence, a developmental period that is rarely considered in similar studies. This means that adolescence is an important time for education, and late adolescence in particular might be a good time for such targeted interventions.


The full text of the original research paper can be viewed freely here.

Full reference: Knoll, L. J., Fuhrmann, D., Sakhardande, A. L., Stamp, F., Speekenbrink, M., & Blakemore, S.-J. (2016). A Window of Opportunity for Cognitive Training in Adolescence. Psychological Science, 27, 1620-1631.

This blog post first appeared on npj Science of Learning.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

npj Science of Learning: A new online community for educators, researchers, students, and policymakers

npj Science of Learning is a new journal aiming to bring together psychology, neuroscience and education. To accompany the journal, a website was launched to encourage communication between these disciplines, and beyond, in a more informal way. This online community aims to enable teachers, researchers, students, and policymakers to share events, resources, and news. There's even a section for asking questions of the contributors.

So far I've written an introduction to me and my work, a summary of a different online community with similar aims, a post about my experiences in a public engagement activity with teenagers, and about a film reporting from a longitudinal research project on adolescent brain development. I hope to keep up the regular contributions, and intend to use the site to share upcoming events, reports from events, summaries of research, and my views on issues in the field of educational neuroscience.

There are lots of other interesting posts by much more senior researchers than me, so do check it out!

Friday, 23 September 2016

Learning from educational neuroscience

I am really excited to announce that an article I have written about educational neuroscience has been published in The Psychologist. The article is intended to be an introduction to the field, including a rebuttal of some of the criticisms of educational neuroscience.

You can find it in the October print edition of The Psychologist, or online here:

UPDATE: The piece is now open access, so click the link even if you're not a member of the BPS!

I'd love to get feedback on it, so let me know if you have any thoughts!

Progress for Educational Neuroscience

Over the last year, I have attended a number of conferences and seminars in the domain of educational neuroscience, or MBE (mind, brain, and education). I believe that the field is moving forward, particularly with the Wellcome Trust and EEF funded projects that are applying neuroscience findings to school trials. However, I believe some research presented at these conferences as educational neuroscience doesn’t quite fall into this category.

A number of talks that I have attended have presented neuroscience or psychology research that has no direct application to education, and only on the last slide has the relevance to education been considered. To me, this isn’t educational neuroscience. A research project that aims to be seen as educational neuroscience should consider the educational implications from the start. This could mean consulting with teachers in the design of the research, to make stimuli that converges with the curriculum. This doesn’t necessarily mean that each individual study should be directly related to the classroom, just that the programme of work should have improving education as the end goal. I find it a shame to see study after study on one area of psychology where the stimuli are irrelevant to education, only to hear “and this could be helpful for education” at the very end of the talk. If you think the research could be relevant to education, then make it relevant! If a study is on learning, don’t use coloured dots and squares, use actual educational material.

This is not to say that there is no place for that kind of ‘pure’ psychological research, only that it cannot be considered educational neuroscience. Some arguments against educational neuroscience are aimed at individual studies that have no implications for education, and are therefore considered irrelevant for education. In some cases, I can see where this argument comes from, however I think it cannot be a criticism of the whole field. I believe a programme of educational neuroscience research can include a variety of studies, the culmination of which will help education. Some of these studies will be doing the groundwork, finding out the underlying cognitive and neural mechanisms which can then inform the educational aspect. These parts of the research are important, for instance, discovering neural underpinnings might indicate potential areas of focus for brain stimulation.

I hope that other researchers who attend these events are encouraged to make their research more relevant to education where possible. Talking to educators at these events has made me consider further how to make my own research more applicable to education, and highlighted how important this is. Teachers are keen to hear from researchers: they want to help inform research and they want to use the findings. I believe that we should try hard to engage with teachers and forge relationships early on in the programme of work to ensure our research can truly inform education.

A final thought from my attendance at these conferences is that while teachers are indeed keen to hear from researchers, I don’t think researchers should become too preoccupied with the idea that teachers need to be at every event related to educational neuroscience. Communication with educators is of course important, and I think it’s great that there are many opportunities for this. I do think though, that the scientific community should feel that they can hold educational neuroscience events to disseminate research without educators present. This is not to hold information from teachers, rather to enable discussion of the minutiae of scientific research that is of less interest to teachers. A current area of contention at educational neuroscience conferences is pitching findings at a level that can be understood by teachers, but also sharing the detail that researchers need. Some teachers that I have spoken to felt that the research presented went into too much detail about the methods and not enough about the implications. Similarly, scientists can feel that talks they attend miss the detail of methods and results. Holding some events just for researchers would allow scientists to share findings in the usual academic way, to interrogate and debate methods and findings. Joint events can then bring researchers and teachers together, to discuss the educationally-relevant aspects of the work.

There have been some excellent events showcasing educational neuroscience, enabling scientists and educators to discuss issues in the field, and how we might move forward. I believe we are progressing, but that a continuing challenge is to make research applicable to education from the outset, rather than as an afterthought.


Since writing this post, an article of mine on educational neuroscience has been published in The Psychologist. It is available freely online here:


Tuesday, 14 June 2016

The future of fMRI in cognitive neuroscience - Russell Poldrack

On Friday 10 June 2016, Russell Poldrack gave a talk about the future of fMRI in cognitive neuroscience. It was a fascinating talk that covered not only the recurring concerns about the reproducibility of psychological research findings, but also how we might better use fMRI to answer our research questions.

LucĂ­a Magis-Weinberg and I wrote a blog about the talk for the iDCN lab website, which can be found here.

Replication and Reproducibility in Psychological Science

A debate about replication and reproducibility in psychological science was organised by the British Psychological Society, Association of Heads of Psychology Departments and the Experimental Psychology Society. It took place at the Royal Society on Thursday 26 May 2016, with talks from Marcus Munafo, Roger Watt, Dorothy Bishop, Chris Chambers, Kathryn Sharples, and Nick Brown. If you missed out there are plenty of ways to catch up online.

Head over to Twitter to read tweets related to the debate using the hashtag #psycdebate.

Read a short summary of the event written by Su Morris, a PhD student at UCL Institute of Education.

Read an extended summary or watch the full debate on the website for The Psychologist magazine.

This is an important debate in psychology that is gaining traction. It's great to see that we are moving on from identifying problems, to providing solutions, and it's particularly encouraging that the Royal Society hosted this debate. This is another step towards improving our science.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Educational neuroscience in the media

Head over to the Wellcome Trust ThInk blog, where my summary of a recent workshop about educational neuroscience in the media is. It was my first experience of engaging with the media as a scientist, very meta!

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Foundations of the Educated Brain: Infancy and Early Childhood

Part of ‘The Educated Brain’ Seminar Series

Monday April 18th 2016, Newnham College, University of Cambridge

This post was written in collaboration with Su Morris, a PhD student at the UCL Institute of Education, and first appeared on the iDCN website.

The first of three seminars on ‘The Educated Brain’ began with a morning of six talks on infancy and early childhood. One of the main themes was the translation of neuroscientific evidence to early education, and the obstacles and benefits of doing so. Educational neuroscience is often considered to be the direct application of neuroscience research to the classroom, which is understandably criticised as a fruitless pursuit. Rather, as we heard throughout the morning, educational neuroscience is about taking an interdisciplinary, multi-level, scientific approach to education. Speakers referred to collaborations between neuroscientists, psychologists, and teachers, but also architects, computer scientists, geneticists, speech and language therapists, and mathematicians. As evidenced by the talks we heard, educational neuroscience takes into account the genetic, cognitive, behavioural, and social levels that influence education. It also aims to work with educators to design educationally-relevant studies that teachers want to know the answers to. With regards to infancy and early childhood, one key question is whether or not the early years form a special, sensitive period that requires a particular focus for educational resources and intervention. In the case of clinical conditions such as stroke, it seems that early intervention is better to enable children to catch up with their peers, with evidence of early childhood as a period of vulnerability. However, the evidence for sensitive periods in the early years does not yet extend to typical development, and we seem to have no convincing evidence yet that the early years should attract extra funding in cases where there are no clinical problems.

The afternoon session allowed further discussions arising from the morning’s presentations, through an interactive workshop. Questions were collected and discussed in groups which brought together people from a wide range of backgrounds, including teachers, psychologists and neuroscientists – a great illustration of the collaborations mentioned in the morning presentations. Each group focussed on their own area of interest, such as child-led and adult-led activities in the early years, intervention policies for particular socio-economic groups, assessment, and stress in school leaders, teachers, and pupils. The aim was to consider how neuroscience and education could together inform policy, and how communication between different groups could, and should, work in practice to foster research. The exercise provided insight into the views and priorities of those working in different areas. Although the focus of the session continued to be early years, many of the discussions could equally well be applied to all levels of education and learning.

The day was a fantastic opportunity to hear the latest research from highly respected speakers, and to share views and ideas about future research with others. We look forward to attending the next seminar in Autumn where we will hear about the educated brains of children and adolescents.

Monday, 25 January 2016

ESRC Seminar on Cognitive Training in Children

Over on the iDCN lab's website, there's a blog post written by me and Su Morris, a PhD student at the UCL Institute of Education, summarising a seminar we attended on cognitive training in children.