Thursday, 21 December 2017

Do our genes determine learning ability?

I have written a new blog post for the npj Science of Learning community about the role of genes in education. You can read the piece here.

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

IMBES Pre-Conference: Using Insight From Research to Improve Education

A paper that I co-wrote with Lia Commissar has been published in the journal Mind, Brain, and Education. Lia is Project Manager of the Education and Neuroscience initiative at the Wellcome Trust, and organised the pre-conference at the 2016 IMBES conference. This paper summarises the pre-conference, and elaborates on how those in the field might move the field forward.

The paper is freely available here.

Friday, 24 November 2017

Calling science of learning researchers!

Would you like to be involved in a public engagement activity where you can talk to teachers about your research online?

Click here to find out more about this exciting opportunity!

Fourth post on BOLD blog - brain training for children

My latest post for the Blog on Learning and Development has gone live! This post is the fourth in my mini-series on evidence in the classroom, and considers whether brain training for children can have any impact in the classroom. You can read the post here.

My first post, on bringing scientific evidence in the classroom, introduces educational neuroscience and can be found here.

My second post, on neuromyths in education, can be found here.

My third post, on identifying what works in education, can be found here.

Stay tuned - my next post will be about mindsets in education.

Monday, 30 October 2017

Third post on BOLD blog - randomised control trials

My latest blog post has appeared on the BOLD blog, on the topic of randomised control trials (RCT) in education. In this post I introduce the concept of an RCT in the classroom, and consider the challenges of this approach.

You can read the post here.

My first post, an introduction to educational neuroscience, can be found here, and my second post on neuromyths in education can be found here.

Monday, 16 October 2017

EARLI SIG 22 Neuroscience and Education conference

The fifth biennial EARLI SIG22 Neuroscience and Education conference will take place from Monday 4th to Wednesday 6th June 2018, in central London hosted by the Wellcome Trust.

I am very excited to be on the organising committee for this conference, and we have a really exciting programme planned. Keynotes include Paul Howard-Jones, Heidi Johansen-Berg, and Robert Plomin. We have also planned plenty of time for discussion of new ideas and issues in the field.

We have just opened up abstract submission for poster presentations, which will be open until 8th January 2018.

Find out more about the call for abstracts and the conference here.

Second post on BOLD blog - neuromyths in education

My latest blog post for the BOLD blog is now live, and the topic this time is neuromyths in education. What exactly are neuromyths and what impact might they have in the classroom?

Read the post here, and my first post for BOLD, an introduction to educational neuroscience, here.

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

New book: "Neuroscience for teachers"

Neuroscience for Teachers: Applying research evidence from brain science is a new book from Richard Churches, Eleanor Dommett, and Ian Devonshire. I was lucky enough to read and review the book before publication, and here are my comments:

"Neuroscience for Teachers provides a comprehensive, up-to-date introduction to the key issues, debates, challenges, methods and research findings in the field of educational neuroscience. It is written accessibly and contains everything that a teacher needs to know about neuroscience, describing where this knowledge comes from. Most fascinating are the tips given to teachers, which are very clearly drawn from the evidence base as it currently stands. This has the added bonus of making Neuroscience for Teachers a useful resource for researchers who carry out related work but may be stumped when considering how their work impacts upon education.

Whether the reader is a teacher or a scientist, they will come away with a deep understanding of the educational neuroscience knowledge base, how we got there, and how we might use this information in the classroom."

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

New educational neuroscience blog series on BOLD

I'm really excited to have the first of a mini series of blog posts published on the BOLD website. BOLD is the Blog On Learning and Development. In the mini series I will be posting about evidence in the classroom, and the first post is a short introduction to educational neuroscience. I really enjoyed writing the post and found it quite an eye-opening experience - I realised shortly after I started writing that I was defining educational neuroscience almost entirely by defending it from common criticisms. This must be a habit I've got into since it is so widely criticised. I managed to start again and re-write it in a much more positive way, so I hope my enthusiasm for the field comes across!

You can read the first post on educational neuroscience here.

My second post, on neuromyths, can be read here.
My third post is about randomised control trials in education, and can be read here.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Designing a cognitive training study: Control groups

Previous posts in this series considered the differences between process- and strategy-based training, and what success might look like in a training study. Another key design feature to think about is the inclusion of an adequate control group. Including a control group seems obvious, since we need to make sure that gains are linked to the training rather than to normal development. But designing a study with a good control is challenging.

A control group might be matched to the training group on key characteristics, such as general cognitive ability and age, only differing in that they do not receive the training – a ‘business as usual’ control. While this seems like a sensible option, it is important to consider what the control is doing while the other group receives training. Is the control group doing normal reading practice while the training group get their reading intervention? Or perhaps the training group is receiving extra reading help while the control group have already left school for the day. This is clearly an important distinction that will affect the conclusions that can be drawn from the results.

One way to counter these challenges is to include an active control group. In this scenario, the control group is again matched on key characteristics to the training group. However, the control group also receive some training, just not in the skill that is trying to be developed. In this case, the control group could be given something very different to the reading training group, like a maths intervention, both taking place after school so as not to interfere with normal schooling. This would mean that any gains seen in the reading training group cannot be down to the effect of simply taking part in a piece of research, which might involve working on fun computer programmes or with researchers and cause a spike in engagement at school.

But is this a fair comparison? Is it very surprising if pupils improve their reading skills after doing some more reading? If we really want to find out what causes the change, we need an even closer match for the control group – for example a similar reading intervention that does not train the key ingredient that is thought to lead to improvement (e.g. phonics). Now if we see an improvement in the training group, we can be fairly sure that there is something special about the phonics training that led to gains.

The use of different types of control group is associated with recruitment challenges that should also be taken into account. Unsurprisingly, many teachers and parents are opposed to their children being put into the control group, which can mean that fewer pupils sign up to take part. One clever way around this is to use a cross-over ‘wait list’ control group, where half of the pupils are in the training group and half are in the control group for one phase of the study, then they switch for the second phase. Everyone receives the training at some point, and it is still possible to compare training to control.

A final option is to include no control group. This might be appropriate when the aim is to see which individuals respond best to the training. For instance, do those with better working memory improve more with phonics training than those with poorer working memory? To answer this question, a group with a large variation in working memory skills could take part, with no control group. In this example, the outcome will be able to tell us something useful about the mechanisms of learning in the absence of a control group.

There is no single right answer when it comes to choosing what the control group does. This will vary between studies and should be thought about very carefully before commencing the study, depending on what the research question is.

Part one on types of cognitive training can be found here, and part two on success in cognitive training can be found here.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Shaking up the academic conference

Last week I was at a large conference of over 2,000 delegates. While I was there, an article was published in the Guardian, lamenting the huge expense and exclusivity of such conferences, which can be too costly for early career researchers to attend. I was lucky enough to have my trip paid for, but I wondered how many people were unable to attend due to finances, or how many people had forked out their own money to be there.

The Guardian article, written by two academics, highlighted the increasingly extravagant social programmes. If social events are included in the cost of the conference, researchers may wonder why their registration fee was not better spent elsewhere. On the other hand, if the social event is an added extra that is paid for, those with less money (due to any number of factors, including being an early career researcher, or from a poorer country) may opt out and miss important opportunities for networking.

The article also questioned whether or not conferences really deliver what they intend to. A survey of delegates at conferences in the water sector found that only 2% found conferences useful and cost-effective. So even when researchers can afford to get to a big conference, is it worth the effort and expense? Last week I found myself wondering what the added value was of attending conference talks compared to reading the latest papers.

I think there are a number of things that can be done to improve these international conferences. Keynote speakers often get their expenses paid, yet they are typically not the ones who are most in need of financial help. Keynote speakers who have access to conference funds could be encouraged to pay towards their own expenses, so that money can be directed more towards those in need.

Conferences could offer more in the way of online engagement to reach those who are not present. Conference tweeting is now very common, but this can be hard to follow from afar, so a move towards more formal online discussions, and video streaming, would be welcomed. Conferences could take place less regularly, particularly when there are many conferences that overlap in their themes. Within my field of research, educational neuroscience, there have been discussions about whether or not societies that typically hold separate conferences could run a joint event. This way, delegates would not have to choose which conference to attend in a given year.

Finally, conferences should aim to be better value for money. Researchers often attend a conference for a few days, and present just one talk or one poster. Multiple submissions could be encouraged, particularly to encourage early career researchers to discuss their ideas. Many conferences only allow submissions from those who have results at the time of submission. This excludes work that is finalised during the intervening months, and prevents discussion of new project ideas that are not yet underway. Opening up discussions to proposed work, which will most likely require different formats of conference session, would enable peers to help shape future research.

I will continue thinking about these issues over the coming months, as I am co-organising an upcoming conference. My aim is to encourage early career researchers to become more involved, and to provide settings for discussions of issues and ideas outside of the usual talk and questions format. While it is implied that these discussions will happen during coffee breaks and social events, I believe that these discussions should take a prominent role in conferences. The expertise present should be capitalised on so that researchers can work together to consider how best to address issues and move the research field forward. 

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

UK primary school teacher survey

I am working with researchers at the UCL Institute of Education, The University of Sheffield, and The University of Nottingham on a project looking at the skills involved in learning science in primary school. We are interested in finding out the views of primary school teachers on this topic.

If you are a primary school teacher in the UK please fill in our short survey about this by going to this link. The study has received ethical approval from the UCL Institute of Education (ethics number REC 972).

Please get in touch with me directly if you have any questions about this survey, by email at

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Broad Inquiry

I am really pleased to be featured on the Broad Inquiry website. The Broad Inquiry project hosts profiles of women in science, technology, engineering, and maths. It aims to showcase the interesting work that women are doing, while providing some information about what life is like as a scientist. Any woman in STEM is eligible to sign up to be featured, so I encourage everyone else to do the same. Find out more here.

Monday, 12 June 2017

The myth of learning styles

In March, an open letter in the Guardian, led by Professor Bruce Hood, aimed to raise awareness of the myth of learning styles. Learning styles refers to the idea that individuals have preferences for learning in certain domains (auditory or visual for example), and learn better when information is presented in their preferred domain. A summary of the (lack of) evidence for this approach can be found on the Centre for Educational Neuroscience website, in the centre's series on neuromyths.

The open letter sparked debate in The Psychologist magazine, when Professor Rita Jordan responded. Jordan questioned the evidence presented, championed an individualised approach to education, and suggested that giving lectures to teachers about the myth was not helpful. Hood, on behalf of all co-signatories, responded in turn, emphasising that the original letter referred to a general educational approach, and arguing that giving talks to teachers might help them to recognise pseudoscience.

I decided to write to The Psychologist too. Firstly, I wanted to make clear that those of us who argue against learning styles are not calling for a depersonalised approach to education. There may be some important negative effects of teaching according to learning styles: that students do not get to practice other ways of learning, and that they may miss out on material that is better learnt another way. Surely educators should be challenging pupils to improve in all domains. Arguing against learning styles is therefore not arguing against the notion of individualisation, rather it is arguing against the use of this specific approach which may be detrimental.

I also wanted to advocate for increased discussion between researchers and teachers. Scientists giving lectures to educators is one way in which knowledge can be exchanged, but of course there are other approaches too. Collaborations between teachers and researchers are increasingly common, and anything that encourages communication between both groups is to be commended and encouraged.

Finally, it's important to remember that the adoption of learning styles is not cost-free. Schools pay out large sums of money to have someone tell them how to utilise this approach in their classrooms. Given the lack of money in schools, this could certainly be spent better elsewhere. As the original open letter argued: "any activity that draws upon resources of time and money that could be better directed to evidence-based practices is costly and should be exposed and rejected".

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Designing a cognitive training study: Success

This is the second in a series of posts that examines the key aspects of designing a cognitive training study. Post one considered the type of training programme that a researcher might design. But what does success look like for a training study? It is important to establish this during the design phase, to ensure appropriate tests are in place.

The obvious answer is that success is seen when there are improvements in performance compared to a control group. Both accuracy and response times might be important here. Improved accuracy is important in determining ability to carry out the task, but response times might be informative about underlying mechanisms. Increased speed might indicate improved automaticity or efficiency, while reduced speed might indicate greater thought prior to a response, or the use of a new strategy.

Gains in performance are most likely to be seen in the task that is being practised throughout the programme. If the training is computerised, performance can be tracked during each session, measuring both accuracy and speed. Plotting a learning curve of performance throughout the training might help to identify the number of sessions that were necessary to elicit meaningful change. We might also look for improvements in a task very similar to the trained task, indicating near transfer.

More importantly though, the hope is that improvements occur beyond the task being trained, in academic performance, demonstrating far transfer. One step further, we might also find long-term effects, whereby those who underwent training see sustained gains in academic performance. This is the holy grail of cognitive training research. Ultimately, this is of course one of the aims of our field – to improve education. But is academic improvement enough to call a training study successful? And what if a study doesn’t produce gains in academic performance?

A training study that shows no improvement in academic performance is not necessarily unsuccessful, as it may inform our cognitive theories. It might tell us that individual differences in that cognitive ability do not affect academic performance in the way we thought they did. This is clearly still a useful outcome, and will lead to new questions and hypotheses. Conversely, a training programme that has led to academic improvement might not be able to tell us anything new if the causal processes have not been considered. This may occur if many approaches have been incorporated into one study, and individual effects can't be teased apart. Training studies should be considered a tool, to help establish underlying mechanisms of learning.

Finally, it is important to think carefully about the precise aim of the study. Perhaps a strategy-based working memory training programme has been designed to improve maths performance. It may be that an overall aim of the project is to improve maths as a means of encouraging more pupils to take up maths-related subjects later in their educational careers. In this case, success might also be measured in terms of maths anxiety. The training programme may not have shown transfer to maths performance, but it may have reduced maths anxiety through providing new strategies, and this in turn might lead to the desired impact of higher enrolment to maths-related courses.

Considering what counts as success and what success means while designing the programme will help to crystallise the aims and hypotheses of the study. This will benefit in the selection of the tests used to measure success, so that the results can inform our mechanistic understanding.

Part one, on types of cognitive training, can be found here.
Part three, on control groups, can be found here.

This post was informed by this highly recommended article:

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

An introduction to educational neuroscience: Useful resources

Every so often I get email requests for further information about educational neuroscience. I thought it would be handy to compile a list of resources and links that might be of interest. Many of my suggestions are London and UK based, so please bear this in mind and do share anything else you have come across further afield.


The Education and Neuroscience online group was set up by Lia Commissar of the Wellcome Trust, and aims to facilitate links and partnerships between teachers and researchers. There are opportunities here for sharing files, events and blog posts, as well as for getting involved with forum discussions.

In 2015, I’m a Scientist, supported by the Wellcome Trust, ran an online event where teachers could ask questions of, and engage in discussion with, scientists who research learning. Although the event is no longer open to questions, it’s a great resource for scrolling through or searching for questions that might be of interest.

The npj Science of Learning community is linked to the journal in that it aims to fulfil the journal’s aim to foster discussions across disciplines related to the science of learning. There are sections that relate to opinions, events, news, and the latest findings, and there are articles suitable for students, teachers, and researchers.


Learnus is a community that aims to bring research into the classroom. Learnus hold free lectures throughout the year, and held their first conference in early 2017. Learnus also offer a free workshop for teachers, to increase awareness of the relevance of neuroscience to the classroom.

The Centre for Educational Neuroscience, a London consortium between Birkbeck, UCL, and the UCL Institute of Education host research seminars that are open to the public.


In 2014, the Wellcome Trust published the results of a teacher and parent survey that aimed to establish their views of how neuroscience can influence education.

In the same year, the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) published a review of educational interventions that are informed by neuroscience. The EEF also have a handy toolkit that indicates the cost, strength of evidence, and impact of a range of interventions, although these are not necessarily based on neuroscience.


Educational Neuroscience discusses methods (e.g. neuroimaging, computational modelling) and findings (e.g. relating to language, mathematics, executive functions), considering the relevance to education.

G is for Genes presents findings from genetics that are relevant to education, and discusses what individual differences in genetics means for educational equality.


There are a few journals that specifically publish educational neuroscience work, and these include: Mind, Brain, and Education, Trends in Neuroscience and Education, Educational Neuroscience, and the aforementioned npj Science of Learning.

Postgraduate courses - UK

Educational Neuroscience can be taken as an MSc or an MA for a joint degree from Birkbeck, University of London, and the UCL Institute of Education.

The University of Bristol offers an MSc in Education (Neuroscience and Education).

Postgraduate courses - US

Harvard Graduate School of Education offers a Master’s program in Mind, Brain, and Education.

Vanderbilt University offers postgraduate training in Educational Neuroscience.


BOLD (blog on learning and development) is run by the Jacobs Foundation. It hosts authors who are scientists, journalists, policymakers, and practitioners.

ThInk is an educational neuroscience blog from the Wellcome Trust.


The International Mind, Brain, and Education Society (IMBES) aims to further our knowledge, as well as create and identify useful resources. IMBES also holds a conference roughly every two years that attracts researchers from around the world as well as teachers.

Special Interest Group 22 (Neuroscience and Education) is part of a wider organisation, the European Association for Research on Learning and Instruction (EARLI). A group conference is held every two years, and in the intervening years there are EARLI conferences that bring together all special interest groups.

Flux is a developmental cognitive neuroscience society that encourages translational research in education and other fields.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Designing a cognitive training study

Cognitive training is a hot topic in educational neuroscience. Can training a certain cognitive function lead to gains in academic performance? This is an exciting question for researchers who (a) want to see real-world impact of their research, and (b) aim to use training as a tool to further inform their theories. But what makes a good training study, and what are the key aspects to be considered throughout the design process? This is the first in a series of posts that examines the key aspects of designing a cognitive training study.

An important consideration is the type of training programme. Will the programme provide practise of difficult tasks (process-based training), or will it train a new strategy to bring to the task (strategy-based training)? Repetition of a task through process-based training may lead to increased automaticity and efficiency, while a new method learnt through strategy-based training may enable a toolkit approach where students can choose the best tool for each problem.

Taking one example, a training programme might aim to improve working memory, since this is known to be important for many academic outcomes. Process-based training would see the student practise working memory tasks, perhaps in an adaptive programme that gets harder or easier depending on performance. On the other hand, strategy-based training would provide explicit explanations of how to perform in the task.

A third approach, that can be considered a type of strategy-based training, is to train metacognitive knowledge. This time, the student might be given a mechanistic explanation of why working memory is so important in their academic studies. They might be explicitly told when to use working memory. Here the aim is not necessarily to train working memory, but rather to train the use of working memory within a certain context. Perhaps a student has adequate working memory but has not previously considered its use in this subject domain. Metacognitive training might allow the student to identify when working memory is needed, and to implement an appropriate strategy.

In the process- and strategy-based approaches we would expect to see an improvement in working memory. This in turn might lead to improvements in academic performance. Conversely we might not expect any working memory improvement through a metacognitive approach, but we might nonetheless see an academic improvement.

Perhaps then, the most effective approach would be to combine all three of the above: Provide repetition of the task, train specific strategies, and increase metacognitive awareness of the cognitive functions involved in a task or subject domain. In terms of educational outcomes, this might be the most likely to show an impact. The challenge for the researcher is that in providing all three, we are no closer to discovering what the “active ingredient” causing change is.

The final consideration in choosing the type of training study is that different methods may be effective for different learners. Perhaps some students require the process- and strategy-based training to improve their baseline working memory ability, while other students already have very good working memory but might benefit from metacognitive training to help them identify when to use this ability. Therefore the type of training programme might depend on the population that the programme targets.

These considerations highlight the importance of designing the training programme from a cognitive theory. While the ultimate aim of educational neuroscience is of course to improve education, as scientists, researchers must use their theory to choose the best type of training programme to answer a particular question. Simply providing training and hoping for a positive outcome is not enough. The outcome must drive theory forward, and the training programme must be carefully designed to enable this. For the scientist, an important result is one that can tell us about the mechanism behind change, rather than one that shows improvement without a good theory about why this change occurred.

This post was informed by this highly recommended article:

Friday, 7 April 2017

Summary of our "Neuroscience in the Classroom" conference

Head over to the Centre for Educational Neuroscience blog to see a summary of the day from Alex Hodgkiss who was the main organiser of the event. The day was a huge success, with almost 100 people in attendance, and almost a further 100 on the waiting list! There is huge appetite for new educational neuroscience research findings, from a wide range of individuals. We had researchers, teachers, and representatives from charities and organisations in attendance.

The whole event was filmed, so we will be making the videos available soon. I hope that the enthusiasm for the day will translate to more events like this, and lead to more conversations between teachers and researchers. Thank you to everyone who attended for your active engagement.

UPDATE: Videos of the day are now available here.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

A response to Jeffrey Bowers

In 2016, Jeffrey Bowers of the University of Bristol published a paper entitled “The practical and principled problems with educational neuroscience”. In this paper, Bowers described what he saw as key issues in the field, ultimately arguing that neuroscience cannot help education. In March 2017, Bowers spoke at UCL’s Language and Cognition Seminar Series, where he argued the main points from his paper.

As a proponent of educational neuroscience, I took this opportunity to hear Bowers speak in person about what he feels the main problems with educational neuroscience are. Bowers started his argument by stating that educational neuroscience has two core claims, which are that teachers who know about the brain will be more effective, and that neuroscience will suggest new forms of teaching. Bowers stated that neuroscience-based claims about education are self-evident, that work that is helpful for education is mislabelled as educational neuroscience, and that educational neuroscience work is misguided. Bowers took the example of brain training games to show that sometimes educational neuroscience is wrong. He used a version of Dorothy Bishop’s table of the possible effects of reading interventions to argue that understanding brain change associated with interventions is pointless. Like Bishop, Bowers also argued that psychology is key if we want to inform education. Bowers finished his talk by explaining that he is not opposed to neuroscience, nor to the science of learning, but neuroscience should not pretend to help education when it can’t.

The description of educational neuroscience that Bowers described did not match my own experiences within the field. Educational neuroscience is not about neuroscientists conducting research and then imparting their knowledge to teachers. Rather it is about bringing together neuroscientists, educators, psychologists, geneticists, and those from any science that is related to education, and collaborating. Most of the people I know who conduct educational neuroscience research are indeed psychologists, so the notion of an educational neuroscientist who does not engage with psychology does not match reality. Psychology and neuroscience go hand in hand, and for me, the core claim of educational neuroscience is that an interdisciplinary, scientific, approach can better explain, and thus enhance, teaching and learning. The researchers in this field that I have come across do not pretend that their work is relevant to education: they actually work closely with teachers (many researchers themselves are also ex-teachers) from the outset of a project, to ensure it is relevant for education.

In terms of teachers’ understanding of neuroscience, the aim is not to simply tell teachers how the brain works. Part of the mission of educational neuroscience is to enable teachers to digest new neuroscientific research themselves. As Bowers mentioned in his talk, brain training games can often present themselves as being based on scientific findings. While Bowers saw this as an example of bad educational neuroscience, educational neuroscientists see it as their duty to inform educators of the perils of these expensive, sometimes predatory programmes. Tackling myths is one of the items on the agenda for an educational neuroscientist. Rather than simply passing on neuroscience findings to teachers, the aim is to enable teachers to access and interpret research.

Opponents of educational neuroscience, such as Bowers, sometimes point to examples of studies that claim to be educational neuroscience, and show that they have not yet impacted on teaching. Educational neuroscience is a young field, and the expectation for droves of findings to help teachers will not be met for some time. The six Wellcome Trust and Education Endowment Foundation funded projects show how the field currently works in reality. These large-scale projects bring together scientists and educators, collaborating, discussing, designing and carrying out research that is both scientifically rigorous and interesting and useful for teachers. There is no pretence that the work is relevant for education, because the involvement of educators ensures that this is a key priority from the outset. Educational neuroscience is often characterised as neuroscientists adding an impact statement to their funding application that states “… and this might help education”. This is a mischaracterisation of the people I know who work in this field, who are genuinely concerned with using an evidence-based approach to improve teaching and learning.

For a much more comprehensive and persuasive response to Bowers’ article, see “The principles and practices of educational neuroscience: Comment on Bowers” from Paul Howard-Jones and others.


Bowers, J. S. (2016). The practical and principled problems with educational neuroscience. Psychological Review, 123, 600-612.

Howard-Jones, P A., Varma, S., Ansari, D., Butterworth, B., De Smedt, B., Goswami, U., Laurillard, D., Thomas, M. S. C. (2016). The principles and practices of educational neuroscience: Comment on Bowers. Psychological Review, 123, 620-627.

Monday, 20 February 2017

What can educational neuroscience do for teachers?

I recently spoke to some teachers who were new to the concept of educational neuroscience (or mind, brain, and education), and its aim to bring a scientific approach to education. I was surprised that this is still new to some educators, so for me it was a reminder of the importance of keeping up our efforts to communicate with teachers.

The teachers I spoke to, having learnt a bit about the field, were keen to find out about the latest research findings and how they might impact on the classroom. One teacher said she would never implement any new project in school without evidence to back up its effectiveness.

However, I feel that there are some expectations of teachers that researchers are not ready to meet. It is therefore essential that communications between researchers and teachers are honest and that researchers highlight the extent to which translations from science to the classroom are realistic. In particular, teachers were looking for a manual to explain the neuroscience behind various behaviours of their students, and how best to respond to this behaviour. The first problem here is that we are still far from a full understanding of the neuroscience behind all of the different types of behaviours that a teacher may witness in the classroom. The second issue is a belief that it is neuroscience that can explain these behaviours and what to do about them. While neuroscience may have some explanatory power, educational neuroscience aims to bring together all fields of science that are relevant to teaching and learning. It is likely that the best solutions don’t come directly from neuroscience, but may come from other types of research such as cognitive psychology or educational research at the system level. Indeed some prefer the label mind, brain, and education (or MBE) to educational neuroscience, in describing the bringing together of sciences that describe teaching and learning. Further, what works in the lab, or a handful of schools, may not generalise to another school: research findings are likely to be highly contextual.

A further resource that teachers thought would be useful was a place for them to pose their own research questions for scientists to conduct research on. While educational neuroscience researchers value and seek collaboration with teachers in their studies, it is likely that researchers already have their topics of investigation (often with funding attached) and are in fact looking for teachers who have aligned interests. There is also the fact it often takes a couple of years to run a decent study and generate useful results, plus many related studies may be required to answer the specific question that a teacher has.

The enthusiasm from this group of teachers new to educational neuroscience was encouraging, but as a field we must be careful about managing expectations. At the moment, the endeavour of educational neuroscience should be about collaboration: working together, sharing resources and findings, developing a common language. While teachers may not be able to submit their questions for scientists, they certainly can work with researchers to help shape the design of the research. Hopefully working in this manner will lead to benefits for teachers in the long run, even if there is no immediate payoff. For the teacher who vowed to only implement evidence-based school changes, this is a noble aim, but the evidence base is not there yet. Perhaps the best solution for the time being is to try things out, but be wary of being too prescriptive, and monitor changes. The hope is that one day, we will have the evidence that teachers seek. But this will require many years of close collaboration between educators and researchers, working together to try to improve teaching and learning for everyone.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Interviews with Educational Neuroscience researchers

Over on my npj Science of Learning blog, I have started a series of interviews with researchers in Educational Neuroscience. The aim of the interviews is to showcase the work of those who are working hard to bridge the gap between scientific research and the classroom. I also hope they will demonstrate the realistic goals of researchers: nobody in this field is claiming to be able to transform education with some brain scans. I hope you'll agree that there is some great work happening at the moment, in the incremental manner that science works in.

My first interview was with Su Morris, who is researching visual perceptual processing in primary science and maths.

My second interview was with Alex Hodgkiss, who is researching spatial cognition in primary science.

My third interview was with Mike Hobbiss, who is researching attention and distraction in secondary school pupils.

Su, Alex and Mike all used to be teachers, which I think makes them ideal researchers in this field - they have a deep understanding of the education system, the reality of school life, and pressures faced by teachers.

Watch this space for further interviews!

Monday, 9 January 2017

Neuroscience in the Classroom: Current Progress and Future Challenges

Registration has now opened for a day conference organised by PhD students at the Centre for Educational Neuroscience. It will take place on Friday 17 March 2017, at the Wellcome Trust. The conference is supported by the Bloomsbury Doctoral Training Centre and the Wellcome Trust, and is dedicated to discussing the progress our field has made and challenges for the future.

We will have a keynote from Prof Gaia Scerif, and talks on educational outcomes from Dr Dénes Szücs, Dr Sinead Rhodes, and Dr Michelle Ellefson. We are also delighted to have updates on five of the neuroscience and education projects funded by the Wellcome Trust and Education Endowment Foundation. The day will include plenty of discussion, including a poster session over lunch and a wine reception at the end.

We are inviting poster presentations on work related to the field of educational neuroscience, and will award poster prizes for outstanding work that bridges the gap between neuroscience and the classroom. Since there are a limited number of spaces available, preference will be given to those who submit a poster abstract.

Find a detailed programme below, and please sign up for a place here:
Places will be confirmed by 10 February.

Programme for the day

09:00-09:30  Registration

09:30-10:55  Keynote: Prof Gaia Scerif

10:55-11:15  Coffee break

11:15-13:00  Educational Outcomes:  Dr Dénes Szücs, Dr Sinead Rhodes, Dr Michelle Ellefson

13:00-14:00  Lunch (included) and poster presentations

14:00-15:30  Wellcome Trust and Education Endowment Foundation projects:
Spaced Learning – Alastair Gittner
Teensleep – Dr Chris Harvey
Learning Counterintuitive Concepts – Prof Denis Mareschal
GraphoGame Rime – Dr Anji Wilson
Engaging the Brain’s Reward System – Prof Paul Howard-Jones

15:30-16:00  Coffee break

16:00-16:55  Panel discussion

16:55-17:00  Poster prize announcement and close

17:00-18:00  Wine reception and networking

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Could training executive functions have unintended negative consequences?

The importance of executive functions in subjects across the curriculum has led many researchers to consider how training executive functions might improve performance in these subjects. We already know that it is possible to train executive functions, such as working memory or inhibitory control, but the key question is whether this improvement transfers to academic subjects that require these skills. So far, there is little research indicating successful transfer, but the field is moving towards an approach of training the executive function within the academic subject of interest: in contrast to simply training the executive function. This is more likely to be fruitful because it requires more explicit use of the skill in a new setting. Part of the training in this case might be simply raising awareness that a particular skill is useful within that subject.

A less discussed issue in training research is the possible unintended consequences of training. A recent paper by Matzen and colleagues found that performance on a recognition memory task decreased following working memory training in adults. Here, the training was not within a subject domain, but was a typical adaptive working memory programme, aiming to improve both verbal and spatial working memory. The authors hypothesised that there would be near-transfer to other working memory tasks, and far-transfer to a recognition memory task. In fact, while performance on the baseline working memory tasks increased, the training led to no near-transfer and lower performance on the far-transfer recognition memory task.

For me, the most interesting aspect of this paper is that participants were asked about their memory strategies. Analysis of this data suggests that participants who had received the working memory training were using less effective strategies: they were using the strategies learned during training but these were not effective in the recognition memory task. Ironically then, participants did show far-transfer to a new task, but it did not have the anticipated positive effect. The authors suggest that future studies include a larger battery of tasks to examine whether decreased performance is simply a quirk of specific measures or a genuinely concerning effect.

I think this finding further highlights the need for training to be explicit and occur within the subject domain. Explaining clearly to participants why a skill is being trained, and why it is useful within the context might help to guard against implicit unwanted transfer to other tasks. In my own research, I am considering an inhibitory control training programme within the context of science and maths. Explaining the mechanism through which inhibitory control impacts science and maths reasoning, alongside the subject-embedded inhibitory control training programme, might increase awareness of participants’ strategy use and allow selection of the appropriate strategy for the task at hand. Considering the limited transfer effects in the literature, this may be more beneficial than training inhibitory control in isolation and looking for transfer to science and maths.

Nonetheless, I will bear in mind the possibility that any training could have unintended negative consequences, and consider what these might be and how they could be measured and combatted. If we continue to find decreased performance in untrained areas, this will raise important questions about why and when we should implement training programmes, weighing up the benefits in one domain against the detriment to others.

Full reference for the Matzen paper:

Matzen, L. E., Trumbo, M. C., Haass, M. J., Hunter, M. A., Silva, A., Stevens-Adams, S. M., Buning, M. F., & O’Rourke, P. (2016). Practice makes imperfect: Working memory training can harm recognition memory performance. Memory & Cognition, 44, 1168. doi:10.3758/s13421-016-0629-4