EEF Blog: Using insight from neuroscience to improve education

Emily Yeomans discusses exciting new EEF funded projects which have their roots based in neuroscience.

In January 2014, the EEF, in partnership with the Wellcome Trust, launched a collaboration to develop and evaluate educational approaches and interventions grounded in neuroscience.

Last week we announced details of the six successful projects we will be funding. They test a range of ideas - from those that entail changes to the structure of the school day to others that require teachers to slightly alter their existing practices.

These projects follow on from work carried out by the EEF and Wellcome Trust in 2012-13. This included aliterature review of current educational interventions and approaches that are based on findings from neuroscience; and a survey of teachers and parents to establish which educational interventions they use that they believe to be based upon neuroscience.

Our survey found that there are several ideas from neuroscience that have started to inform educational practices and others that have the potential to improve teaching and learning. We also discovered that teachers are excited by the idea that that neuroscience can influence education, with eight out of 10 teachers who responded to the survey saying they would collaborate with neuroscientists doing research in education.

This interest is to be welcomed. However, our survey also indicated that many teachers use unproven techniques. These included some that may not have a sound neuroscientific basis for their claims, such as ‘Left/Right Brain Distinction’ (the prevalent myth that people may use one hemisphere more than the other, with those that use the right side of their brains being more creative and those who use the left side most being more analytical).

The six projects that we have funded all have a secure grounding in neuroscience and show promise as possible means of narrowing the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their more affluent peers. They are:

  • Teensleep: Professor Russell Foster, Director of the Oxford University Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute and Professor Colin Espie, Professor of Sleep Medicine, will lead a trial of later school start times, along with a sleep education programme, to assess their impact on teenagers’ educational achievement. Some participants will wear non-invasive bio-telemetric devices to provide additional physiological data.
  • Fit to study: Professor Heidi Johansen-Berg from the University of Oxford will lead a study to look at the effect of medium to high cardiovascular activity on academic attainment, using brain imaging to investigate the correlation between them.
  • Spaced learning: a trial on the effectiveness of repetition and spaced learning, a method of teaching that intensively teaches the same material with gaps in-between. This will be led by Alastair Gittner from the Hallam teaching School Alliance in partnership with Stocksbridge High School.
  • Engaging the brain’s reward system: Dr Paul Howard Jones will be leading a team from Bristol University and Manchester Metropolitan University on a project to examine the effect of uncertain reward on attainment. It is proposed that an element of chance in the anticipation of a reward is highly engaging and will help people learn – an interesting contrast to the traditional emphasis on consistency when using rewards and incentives in education.
  • GraphoGame Rime: Professor Usha Goswami, Director of the Centre for Neuroscience in Education, will lead a project that will look at how developing phonological awareness through ‘rhyme analogy’, using the GraphoGame Rime computer game, can affect how children learn to read.
  • Learning counterintuitive concepts: a study from Birkbeck, University of London and the Institute of Education, led by Professor Denis Mareschal, aims to test the benefit of training pupils to suspend their pre-existing beliefs when it comes to solving mathematical or scientific questions, for example correcting the seemingly logical notion that a heavy object will fall faster than a light one.

We hope these projects will start building research expertise at the interface between neuroscience and education, help teachers and school-leaders make informed choices about different interventions – and, ultimately, identify some approaches that help to raise the educational attainment of disadvantaged children.

We will soon be looking for schools to take part in the six funded projects and our Get Involved page has further details about the projects currently recruiting.