Communicating research to support the evolution of teaching

The Science of Learning Workshop

The Royal Society
October 2014

Richard Newton-Chance

This event brought together educationists from Singapore and members of the educational community in this country who have a particular interest in neuroscience. It was organised by Michael Thomas, the Director of the Centre for Educational Neuroscience, which brings together the IOE, Birbeck and UCL. What follows is a narrative summarising the main points from several different speakers.

There is a much used comparison between where medicine was in the 17th century before science and where education is now without a thorough scientific understanding of learning. However, as Michael Thomas pointed out, medicine is normative - we all agree what healthy looks like. Education is more complex, but that doesn’t mean that learning is not accessible to scientific understanding.  There is little doubt that teachers are very keen on finding out more - from whatever source - 49% of teachers believe the prevalent neuromyths.

Educational neuroscience is in it’s infancy, but it can help us understand why some cognitive theories work and others don’t.

The Wellcome Foundation are funding 6 research projects which had to meet the criteria that they were original, must help disadvantaged children, have promise and be scaleable. These are:

•   Fit to study - exploring the links between cardiovascular activity and effective learning

•   Spaced learning - short blasts of content, followed by unrelated activity and then repeated

•   Learning Counterintuitive Concepts - children bring their pre-conceptions to science which often get in the way of understanding - can we train them not to?

•   Graphogame Rime - a computer based examination of the links between rhyme and learning

•   Teen sleep - does following the circadian rhythms make a difference?

•   Engaging the brains reward system - again a computer based attempt to capitalise on adolescents’ desire for reward - secondary science based.

All of these projects will run for four years and will need schools to act as partners in the research.  Learnus has a funded role in one of the projects as a partner with CEN, partly to broker links with schools who are Learnus associates.

Singapore is taking a very methodological approach to educational research. They described four drivers and areas for research:

•   student-centric learning

•   21st century competences

•   grouping policy

•   structures and their impact on social mobility

They are also looking at teacher development and the extent to which teacher traits should/could be
matched to particular students.

They have an interesting three tier approach to literacy which has discovered that of the 5% who enter tier 3, some 3% still can’t do it and they are looking to neuroscience to help understand the “withinchild and environmental factors” that might cause this.

From Singapore: “the best way to understand something is to try and change it” and then “learning from productive failure”. In the classroom this means putting the problem solving before the content - it opens the pathways to understanding by employing prior knowledge and understanding.

More generally:

It is the “why” that drives learning. Motivation is key. Curiosity has to be piqued by something which is new or unrecognised. Humans default to a state of least energy expenditure, so ignore most of what happens around them - communication is therefore what you hear, not what I say. Statistics is the language of the brain, not logic. That is, the brain looks for statistical exception before passing the phenomenon for logical analysis. The anterior cingulate detects conflict between previous experience and the new phenomenon and only then passes this to the pre frontal cortex.

Memory is reconstructive i.e. it is drawn from the neural networks from which it is drawn afresh every time. You can’t unlearn anything, you can only learn more, which means previous learning being suppressed if it is in conflict - experts are those able to inhibit previous learning best.

The problem for teachers is not thinking or reasoning, but emotion. The anterior cingulate gate-keeps what gets to the pre-fontal cortex. So children who are insecure, unhappy, deprived are at an immediate learning disadvantage.

There is little evidence to support the idea of sensitive periods in brain development. It is best to conceive of the brain as having a hierarchy of systems which mature at different rates and have different levels of plasticity (ability to reform). The higher functions have the most plasticity. What
sensitive periods there are tend to be very early and in the motor/sensory systems. Lack of proper formation here can limit later development. Plasticity is the default state of the brain - consolidation is necessary for long term learning. Again, the evidence is that experiences in early childhood are critical to later development. Deprivation in experience, emotion or physical care have long term effects on
brain development.

Adolescents lack cognitive control as the pre frontal cortex is not fully developed. They can’t put themselves in others shoes as well as adults. They are particularly susceptible to peer influence. Risk taking behaviour increases hugely with peer presence - the have many more accidents and commit
more crimes in the presence of peers than when they are alone. However, adolescents are more able to learn from negative feedback than younger children and are very susceptible to rewards.

All of the above is based on current research. The neuroscience is largely, but not solely dependent of MRI scans which can only be realistically carried out on children older than six - because younger children won’t stay still long enough!

There is much of relevance to educational practice in the emerging science, but it is not just neuroscience. Cognitive psychology, sociology and social anthropology are also crucial in delineating a learning science. One of the things we have been keen to stress at Learnus is that schools are already very successful at various different levels in developing young people. What we need is for the science of learning to help us understand why.

Richard Newton Chance