Informing Education with Neuroscience


by Moheb Costandi

April 23, 2017

In recent years, educational neuroscience has become a highly controversial subject. Teachers and other professionals within education are keen to adopt findings from brain research in the classroom but, often, their enthusiasm backfires. Research shows that misconceptions about how the brain works are rife among teachers; consequently, they use pseudoscientific 'brain-based' learning approaches that often prove to be detrimental.

In 2014, the Wellcome Trust, a UK-based medical charity, launched the Education and Neuroscience Initiative in partnership with the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), to help teachers understand the available research and develop evidence-based teaching and learning practices. Researchersinvolved in some of the projects funded by this initiative described their work in a symposium at the biennial meeting of the British Neuroscience Association in Birmingham, UK, earlier this month.

Heidi Johansen-Berg, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Oxford, described the Fit to Study project, which aims to determine whether exercise-based interventions can improve cognitive function and academic performance. 

People in the developed world are becoming increasingly sedentary and unfit, and public health officials have warned of a so-called “inactivity epidemic.” The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity daily for children 5-17 years of age, yet only a minority actually get this amount of exercise. As a result, chronic conditions such as obesity and Type II diabetes are not only becoming more prevalent but are also emerging earlier in life. “There's a very strong evidence base that physical exercise promotes brain growth,” said Johansen-Berg, “but very few children are meeting these recommended levels of physical activity, so there's plenty of scope to make a difference.”

Much of this evidence comes from rodent studies showing that physical activity promotes the formation and survival of new brain cells in the hippocampus, a brain structure essential for learning and memory. Brain imaging studies are also beginning to show that physical activity increases the volume of the hippocampus in humans, and a number of behavioral experiments reveal that exercise can moderately improve academic performance in school-age children. These show rather weak associations, however; so far, there have been very few large-scale, randomized clinical trials testing the effects of exercise on cognition. [See: Exercise Benefits the Healthy and Diseased Brain]  

Johansen-Berg and her colleagues have recruited 100 state-funded secondary schools in the Oxford area and are about to begin the main phase of the Fit to Study project. This will involve training teachers on a programme of activities designed to optimize their physical education classes for brain function. The researchers are targeting approximately 15,000 Year 8 children (ages 12-13) attending the schools involved; some will take the optimized classes while the rest will take their normal physical education classes.

At the end of the school year, the researchers will measure the performance of both groups on mathematical tests. A small number of the students will also have their brains scanned, and undergo additional fitness and cognitive tests.  

“One difficulty was designing an intervention that can be delivered within the constraints of the school curriculum,” said Johansen-Berg. “Another big challenge is how to deliver the computer-based cognitive tests, because the quality of schools' IT resources is highly variable.”

Professor Usha Goswami, director of the Centre for Neuroscience in Education at the University of Cambridge, went on to describe work from her lab investigating the neural basis of speech perception and its relevance to how children learn to read and write.

Goswami explained that speech perception is multimodal: The brain integrates auditory speech signals with, for example, visual information from the lips, to enhance our perception of what is being said (as demonstrated by the 'McGurk Effect'). Likewise, phonological awareness—knowledge of the sound structure of language—is crucial for learning to read and write, and is a core factor underlying individual differences in children's ability to do so.

Goswami and her colleagues have shown that phonological awareness is impaired in people with dyslexia, and that this makes it difficult for them to perceive the rhythm of speech. With funding from the Wellcome Trust and Education Endowment Foundation, they launched

GraphoGame Rime Project, which aims to help children learn to read using a computer game designed to develop phonological awareness through rhyme analogy.

Preliminary results in 2013 suggested that the game led to improvements in reading, spelling, and phonological skills in 6-7-year-old children identified as being relatively poor at reading; the researchers are planning a larger trial which they hope will confirm these earlier findings.

Goswami also described a musical classroom practice designed to improve reading and phonological skills through rhythmic entrainment. One small study showed rhythmic activities such as marching in time to nursery rhymes or playing bongo drums in time to syllable patterns benefits literacy in poor readers.

Both teaching tools are based on the same principle: “The idea is to use rhythm through music and movement to build up these cross-modal representations [of speech in the brain] which are going to support phonological learning,” said Goswami. 

Michael Thomas, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at Birkbeck, University of London, discussed the science behind the UnLocke Project, which aims to help children in Years 3 and 5 (ages 7-8y and 9-10) learn abstract concepts by training so-called executive functions.

It is thought that two distinct modes of reasoning co-exist in the brain: a fast way, which is automatic and based on intuition, and a slow way that is based on logic and requires effort and concentration. These dual processes compete with each other during learning of abstract concepts. Young children come to school with background knowledge learned through experience, and with intuitive yet naïve ideas about how the world works. They retain these ideas but gradually learn to inhibit them through reasoning, a process requiring executive functions, which is linked to increased activity in the prefrontal cortex.  

UnLocke is a computer-based activity that helps children think differently about scientific and mathematical problems, by giving them tricky questions to answer in a virtual game-show environment. The questions in the game were developed around content in the national curriculum, and are posed by a friendly character who guides pupils through the correct and incorrect ways of thinking about them.

The project is set to enter stage II later this year, during which participating teachers in 100 primary (Elementary) schools across the UK will use the game at the start of their science and math lessons for 10 weeks. Afterwards, a small number of children will be randomly selected for cognitive testing and brain scanning.

“We know that children's abilities of inhibitory control correlate with their math and science achievement,” said Thomas, adding that there is a substantial body of work showing that inhibitory control and other executive functions can be improved by training. “We can intervene to improve this, and it turns out that such interventions work better in [disadvantaged] people with compromised executive function.”