What do neuroscience and psychology have to do with education? Both are fundamental to teaching and learning. Education changes the brain: every time you learn a new fact, a new name or a new face, something in your brain has changed. In our book, The Learning Brain (Blakemore and Frith, 2005), Uta Frith and I made the comparison between educators and gardeners. In the right soil, a plant will grow. Just as plants can be nurtured through gardening, so the brain can be shaped and moulded through teaching. It is an honour, therefore, to edit the second issue of Impact, supported by the Wellcome Trust, focusing on the science of learning; it includes a wealth of articles spanning a range of methods and fields, from techniques to improve retention of information to the research behind mindfulness, mindset and getting a good night’s sleep.
In my lab at UCL, we study adolescence, and in my new book, Inventing Ourselves (Blakemore, 2018b), I describe the past 15 years of research carried out in my lab – and in other labs around the world – on the adolescent brain and behaviour. Brain imaging studies, in which children and adolescents are scanned in MRI scanners every two or so years as they get older, have shown that the brain undergoes protracted and substantial change during adolescence. In parallel, behavioural studies in the lab and in the classroom have shown that behaviours such as risk-taking, peer influence, decision-making and learning change during adolescence.
Stereotypes about unruly, risky teenagers abound, as they have for millennia, as illustrated by Socrates’ description of this age group:
‘The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.’ Socrates (469–399 BC)
Beneath the stereotype, though, lies a more complicated picture. The adolescent stereotype disregards the fact that there are large individual differences in adolescent behaviour (and brain development; see (Foulkes and Blakemore, 2018)) and the fact that risk-taking and experimentation are important for learning and exploration. There are contextual effects of risk-taking: adolescents are more likely to take risks when with friends than when alone. Our peers become increasingly important as we gradually become independent from our parents, and, perhaps as a result, adolescents are particularly susceptible to peer influence (Blakemore, 2018a).
Peer influence can result in positive behaviours as well as negative. Our studies have shown that learning (non-verbal reasoning) improves during adolescence. Contrary to the assumption that learning declines with age, we found that older adolescents are more efficient at learning non-verbal reasoning than young or mid-adolescents (Knoll et al., 2016). Studies from other people’s labs have shown that certain forms of creativity are higher in adolescents than in adults (Kleibeuker et al., 2013).
Adolescence is a formative period of life, when the brain is changing in important ways, when neural pathways are malleable, and passion and creativity run high. As with all stages of development, we should understand this period of life, nurture it – and celebrate it.
Educational neuroscience is an emerging field that brings together researchers in neuroscience, psychology, education and other related disciplines, and is flourising. Many people have become interested in this area, including researchers and educators alike. In their article in this issue, a pioneer of the field of educational neuroscience, Paul Howard-Jones, and his colleagues Konstantina Ioannou, Ruth Bailey, Jayne Prior, Tim Kay and Shu Hui Yau, offer an overview of recent inroads that have been made in the science of learning and how science of learning research can inform our understanding of how learning works.
Although the brain is critical to teaching and learning, it is important to acknowledge that using neuroscience alone to inform educational strategy has its problems. The American philosopher John Bruer has argued that the gap between neuroscience findings and education practice is a ‘bridge too far’ (Bruer, 1997). Neuroscience studies tend to be carried out in small samples, in laboratories, using highly controlled conditions and stimuli; Bruer argues that they are a far cry from teaching and learning in busy school classrooms, and that psychology studies, which study learning behaviour, are nearer and more relevant to schooling. The second section of this issue contains a rich variety of articles that draw on cognitive psychology to focus on learning behaviour in children in education settings, and in particular how teachers can help students to retain a wealth of information; with the demands of a wide-ranging and challenging curriculum, this is an area of increasing interest.
Research on cognition and memory provides valuable insights into the processes involved in learning new material, although the significance of this for classroom practice is not always clear. Retrieval practice, for example, has been shown to improve learning, yet, as Megan Sumeracki and Yana Weinstein explain, to implement it in the classroom, teachers have a range of variables to consider. Similarly, while research demonstrates that spacing and interleaving may improve learning in the long term, Jonathan Firth stresses the challenges involved in applying these techniques in the classroom, and poses important questions for future research.
Teachers across a range of phases then reflect on their experiences of translating evidence about retrieval, spacing and interleaving into practice. Stuart Garner describes his efforts to utilise retrieval using multiple-choice testing with his Year 4 class, and Caroline Creaby, Kate Mouncey and Karen Roskilly look at the promising results of their ‘Memory Clock’, a tool they developed to improve students’ ability to revise for their GCSEs and A-levels. Dominic Shibli and Rachel West consider the implications of Cognitive Load Theory for teaching and lesson planning, while Adam Boxer outlines a new scheme of work for Key Stage 3 to improve recall and avoid overloading students’ working memory. Oliver Caviglioli explains how visuals can support learning in specific ways – for instance, by drawing attention to information, triggering recognition and minimising cognitive load. Research into the use of learning software that applies retrieval, interleaving, spacing and visual cues simultaneously, developed and tested by Lukas Feddern, Flávia Schechtman Belham and Stephen Wilks, offers insight into a new approach to the development of effective learning strategies using technology.
Of course, while this research on cognition and memory has particularly captured teachers’ interests, the science of learning offers useful and relevant insights in a much wider range of areas.
The neuroscience of sleep is an area that is becoming increasingly important to consider in the context of schools and education. In an article on adolescent sleep and educational performance, leading sleep researchers, Rachel Sharman, Gaby Illingworth and Russell Foster, explain the relationship between sleep and learning. Rebecca M Merkley and Daniel Ansari argue that guided play, a compromise between direct instruction and exploratory free play, is an effective way to introduce symbolic number concepts to young children and foster positive attitudes towards maths, while Tanya Paes and Michelle Ellefson note the relationship between pretend play and the development of children’s language skills, and discuss how play activities, incorporating explicit vocabulary instruction, can be integrated in the classroom for four- to five-year- old children with EAL. Alice Jones Bartoli, meanwhile, describes recent research in social, emotional and mental health difficulties and sensory processing difficulties.
Two recent trends in education – growth mindset and mindfulness – are also brought into focus. Jennifer Baker Jones, Liz Lord and Willem Kuyken look at the science of mindfulness and describe a new cluster-randomised controlled trial looking at whether a mindfulness-based programme is effective in terms of improving resilience. The pioneer of growth mindset, Carol Dweck, reflects on how her research has been used – and, in some cases, misinterpreted – in schools, while Sherria Hoskins, Joanna Nye, Frances Warren, Emily Mason-Apps, Victoria Devonshire and Mathilde Chanvin look at what they have learnt about implementing growth mindset interventions in schools. Daniel Müllensiefen, Peter Harrison, Francesco Caprini and Amy Fancourt also look at the question of mindset in relation to learning music, and outline the measure they developed as part of a longitudinal study in this area. Becky Francis and Becky Taylor then put the spotlight on the practice of grouping by attainment, with Lorna Damms then sharing her experience of how mixed-attainment grouping enables individual students to have a voice within the classroom.
In the final section of the issue, approaches to embedding evidence- informed teaching across schools are discussed by Glenn Whitman and Ian Kelleher of the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning, St Andrew’s Episcopal School (MD), USA, as they describe their efforts to lower the barriers around being a research-informed teacher. Eleanor Dommett, Ian Devonshire and Richard Churches describe a project in which teachers who previously designed and implemented randomised controlled trials (RCT), together with teachers with a psychology or neuroscience degree, came together to design and deliver a series of replicated trial protocols; teacher-led RCTs appear to have the potential to give teachers voice and agency in terms of their professional identity. The timely theme of ‘neuromyths’ is also addressed in this section: Carol Lethaby and Russell Mayne discuss the widespread belief in the meshing hypothesis in English language teaching, despite research showing that catering to a student’s ‘learning style’ does not improve learning. Christian Bokhove describes how these myths are formed and how they can best be challenged, encouraging teachers to follow up on sources, be wary of oversimplifications and provide evidence or facts to replace myths, rather than just saying that they are wrong.
A theme that emerges throughout the issue is collaboration. In the opening article, Annie Brookman-Byrne and Michael Thomas explain the critical importance of educators being directly involved in scientific research on learning, helping to ensure that the science addresses issues that are of importance in the classroom. Peer-support is shown to be key in enabling teachers to successfully engage with the science of learning; Kendra McMahon and Peter J Etchells highlight the value of collaboration for developing teachers’ scientific understanding of learning in their interdisciplinary project, involving teacher educators, cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists. Likewise, Rachel Lofthouse, Jo Flanagan and Bibiana Wigley discuss the potential of cross-sector collaboration – in this case, between teachers and speech and language therapists – to support children with speech, language and communication needs. Informal professional networks are also valuable, as Niki Kaiser highlights when discussing the strategies she has developed to improve learning in secondary science, with the aid of the peer-support network #CogSciSci. As formal and informal collaboration opportunities grow, through social media, research networks and organisations like the Chartered College of Teaching, and as science of learning research is increasingly supported by organisations like the Wellcome Trust, the effective use of research on the science of learning will in turn develop and could flourish.