Welcome to Stanford’s Brainwave Learning Center by Liz Toomarian

liz-toomarianCan you describe the Brainwave Learning center and your role?

The Brainwave Learning Center (BLC) is a unique partnership between researchers at Stanford University and Synapse School, an independent K-8 school in nearby Menlo Park, CA. The BLC comprises multiple synergistic initiatives, including: curriculum support for teachers, unique neuroscience learning opportunities, and leading-edge scientific research on the developing mind and brain, which is conducted in our on-site EEG lab. The hope is that by building deep relationships between cognitive neuroscience researchers and members of the school, we can more effectively explore how brain activity is transformed through learning experiences, and how those insights can, in turn, enrich how we experience education.

As the Director of the BLC, I’m leveraging my background in cognitive neuroscience, educational psychology, and science outreach to act as a liaison between these two communities. I’m part of an interdisciplinary team of researchers at Stanford, led by Dr. Bruce McCandliss, which is designing novel ways to use neuroscience to better understand the cognitive processes underlying skills such as reading or early numeracy. I’m also a staff member at Synapse (aptly named!), so I actually spend most of my time at the school. We’ve set up a fully functional, on-site EEG lab — the Brainwave Recording Studio — where students not only participate in research studies, but also learn about how and why we’re conducting EEG research.

What’s the benefit of having a neuroscience researcher in a school?

As a school staff member, I’m fully embedded in the daily lives of the teachers and students at Synapse. In addition to conducting research, I teach science elective courses, do classroom visits to talk about neuroscience and being a neuroscientist, attend and participate in staff meetings, and even supervise students at recess! All of these activities familiarize me with the culture of the school and allow me to develop authentic relationships with both the teachers and the students.

blc_img_2311This approach also means that students are much more comfortable and engaged when they participate in our EEG studies because they are already familiar with our tools, our space, and most importantly, with me and the rest of our team. Another key advantage to being on-site is that students can participate in a 45 minute experiment during the course of the school day and go right back to class or recess. This sets us up really nicely for rich longitudinal studies of brain development, and also makes participation much more accessible.

As a researcher now working primarily in a school, what have you learned about teachers?

One thing I’ve learned about teachers is that they have so many research ideas! Because they work closely with their students every day, witnessing the daily challenges and successes, they have an incredible wealth of insight into cognitive phenomena and patterns that emerge over time. For example, our music director shared that over the years she’s noticed a connection between inability to match pitch and certain learning difficulties, such as with early reading. This led to a discussion about congenital amusia, the hypothesized link between phonological awareness/auditory deficits and dyslexia, and how we might investigate that connection. In fact, a recent study has shown support such a link (Couvignou, Peretz, & Ramus, 2019)!

I’ve also had rich conversations with teachers about topics like the neural basis of second language acquisition and the cognitive benefits of physical activity. I’ve really enjoyed exploring these topics with active practitioners, and would highly recommend that anyone doing educationally-relevant research develop a relationship with teachers! I wish I had done so sooner in my career. To account for this perspective, our group at Stanford is working closely with teachers at Synapse as we develop our research questions and protocols for the coming school year. One way we’re doing this is by organizing a listening and brainstorming session with teachers during summer inservice days.

What are some examples of activities/programs/initiatives you’ve started in this role?

We’ve accomplished quite a bit since the Brainwave Learning Center was established less than six months ago. We have a BLC classroom, where students explore commercially-available brainwave-sensing tools (e.g. Backyard Brains), make neuroscience crafts, experience sensory illusions, and curriculum specific lessons. For instance, first and second grade students learned about the concept of reaction time by seeing how fast they could catch a falling ruler, in conjunction with their science unit on the human body. I’ve also conducted small seminars with middle school students on the brain basis of sleep, adolescent brain developments/risk taking, and cognitive control. Middle schoolers also had the opportunity to hold real human and animal brains and devised their own EEG experiments in my science elective class. Five middle school students acted as research assistants for the BLC by reviewing scholarly research articles (including reviewing an article for Frontiers for Young Minds) and consulting on our study design.


Is this a unique approach or are there other similar institutions around the world doing this kind of thing? If so, where are they and do you / how do you connect with them?

While no one has taken this kind of multifaceted approach to educational neuroscience, there are several groups that are doing school-based EEG research, such as Nienke van Attevelt at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Jennie Grammer at UCLA, and Suzanne Dikker/David Poeppel at NYU. The NYU team, including Wendy Suzuki and Ido Davidesco, has a high school program called Brainwaves, which combines teacher professional development with neuroscience outreach and curriculum. We worked with Jennie Grammer when we were just starting the BLC to learn more about her lab’s work in schools, including best practices for communicating with parents about the research and unique challenges of actually collecting EEG data in schools. In terms of the teacher experience, the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning is based in a school and has been incorporating MBE and learning sciences research into professional development. Notably, however, there hasn’t really been an attempt to combine in-school research with a fully-embedded neuroscientist facilitating teacher PD and fostering general student engagement and curiosity around neuroscience. To my knowledge, we are the first group to attempt this much more integrative approach, and I think the field is really moving towards this kind of model.

What’s been the response from families? Teachers? Students?

The response has been overwhelmingly positive! We have been really heartened by how supportive and encouraging both parents and teachers have been about this initiative. I had no idea how teachers were going to feel about working together, but the Synapse teachers have been such a pleasure to work with. They’ve actively brought me into the conversation when they are planning curriculum and have been very supportive of things like occasional pullouts for research sessions.

I’ve also been getting positive feedback from parents. One parent sought me out at a school event to tell me that all week her young son had been talking about activities and lessons he’d learned in the BLC. He had recently been diagnosed with dyslexia, so learning about individual differences in brain and behavior in a school context helped to support the kinds of conversations that were happening at home.

At the end of the year, when I asked students for ideas about how to grow the BLC in the coming school year, many students asked for more opportunities to get involved in research, wear the EEG net, and learn more about brains- I take that as a very good sign!   

You can keep up with Liz and her work by following her on Twitter


Using narrative non-fiction as a teaching technique in primary classrooms, by Emma Browning


Emma Browning, from the School of Education, Communication and Society at King’s College, presented a fascinating seminar evaluating whether narrative structure might help with the teaching of non-fiction content to primary age children.

She explained how narrative is seen as fundamental to human thought, yet in the Key Stage 2 classroom, is mainly associated with reading for enjoyment. By contrast, non-fiction is commonly used to support learning in content-based subjects, such as history.

If narrative plays a powerful role for children, it might be harnessed as a tool to support learning.


Emma presented the results of an intervention study with 9-10 year olds, with a sequence of three lessons teaching a history topic (World War 1). One group was presented the content in a narrative format (with a protagonist, a sequence of specific events, and a writing style to encourage engagement), while a second group was presented the content in a conventional factual format. She then assessed the children for their development of understanding of the topic after the lessons, as well as retention of information 3 weeks later. The narrative presentation of content supported a greater degree of comprehension, both in tests of chronological and causal links between information. There was also evidence for enhanced long-term retention.

Notably, while the narrative presentation of non-fiction information induced greater enjoyment in the children, degree of enjoyment did not reliably predict learning outcomes. This suggests that engagement was not the key driver of the narrative effect, rather it was likely due to deeper processing and active construction of meaning during comprehension. Emma presented samples of children’s discourse to support this view.

In the subsequent discussion, Emma considered how to ensure that narrative presentation encouraged the children to learn the information in the best format for future flexible use, rather than as simply a story about someone. Examples of children’s discourse around the learning showed how carefully even 9 and 10 year olds consider the reliability of information.

Emma Browning is currently completing her PhD, and is also a Year 5 primary school teacher.

The role of relational categories in mind, brain and education by Dr Micah Goldwater

Dr. Micah Goldwater from the University of Sydney presented a trio of studies from his lab which have taken different approaches to studying how people use relational categories and analogies in learning.

He says ‘For decades, cognitive lab-based research on category and concept learning, and education research on learning in the classroom have been disconnected in many crucial ways. Even for the moment forgetting the sociocultural, and motivational differences in the two distinct settings, the nature of the concepts to be learned are typically of two distinct kinds. Cognitive research has focussed on how people learn to categorise objects by their intrinsic features – although key concepts in education are about the extrinsic relations between objects and events. For example, consider catalysts and reagents. These labels classify molecules not by their intrinsic features but the roles they play in chemical reactions. In my work, I have argued that a focus on relational categories can help bridge the gap between cognitive and educational research. In my talk, I presented basic cognitive research on the representation and learning of relational categories, how relational category learning is implemented in the brain, and classroom research that leverages how relational categories are learned to improve STEM education.

You can access the full papers here and here and you can stay up to date with Micah’s work via his Sydney lab or by following him on @Mic__G on Twitter

Imitation and sensorimotor learning in autism by Dr Spencer Hayes

spencer-hayesAutism spectrum disorder is a neurodevelopmental condition characterised by differences in restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviour, interests or activities, and persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction. In addition to these core characteristics, autistic people show differences in sensorimotor functioning – such as gait, motor planning, motor learning, and imitation. Whilst autistic people imitate the goal of an action (e.g., picking up a cup), it has been reported for decades that autistic people show behavioural differences associated with imitating observed movement execution properties that constrain/describe the movement (e.g., speed of a movement). It’s thought that this behavioural difference is  underpinned by autism-specific sensorimotor processes involved in mapping self-other actions.

In this talk, I reported data from a series of autism studies (published and under review) from our lab that examined the imitation of biological motion kinematics. The data showed that autistic adults successfully imitated novel biological kinematics during voluntary imitation. These positive effects only occurred when participants imitated the model in a predictable blocked practice trial order (same model on a trial-by-trial basis), rather than a random practice trial where the different models were imitated across trials. This blocked practice order seems to allow the integration of observed biological motion with the executed sensorimotor information.

pldIn addition to imitation learning, we also reported data indicating that although autistic adults acquired visuomotor sequence tasks across a period of practice-with-feedback, the executed movements were less accurate and more variable than in non-autistic adults. Examination of movement kinematics indicated the underlying sensorimotor control processes associated with movement planning and feedforward control were less effective than non-autistic learners. But importantly, over practice movement variability was reduced, suggesting intact operational sensorimotor processing.

Taken together, the data indicate that whilst there are some differences in the function of the sensorimotor system in autism that leads to deficits in imitation learning, and more variable motor execution, the practice effects show these differences can be ameliorated with training. Understanding these practice effects might therefore offer opportunities to develop motor based interventions involving physical activity and dyadic play that supports motor-social interactions.


Low Fidelity Imitation of Atypical Biological Kinematics in Autism Spectrum Disorders Is Modulated by Self-Generated Selective Attention

Sensorimotor learning and associated visual perception are intact but unrelated in autism spectrum disorder

If you cannot access the papers, please feel free to contact Spencer to get a copy. His e-mails is spencer.hayes@ucl.ac.uk.

Dr Spencer Hayes, Department of Psychology and Human Development, UCL

Paying tribute to my own primary school teacher by Dr. Roberto Filippi

roberto-filippiThe role of educators in primary school is crucial for the formation of each child. Their work, unfortunately not always carried out in easy conditions, is the basis of the cognitive and social development of future generations.

After many years, I still feel the impact of primary school on my personal growth. The memory of my Teacher, Mrs Rina Bottai, prompted me to sponsor a creative writing award in her honor.

roberto1School leavers picture. The signs says “Farewell elementary school”. Mrs Bottai retired that year after a long career in primary education. I am the one on her right.

As well as my family, Mrs Bottai was the architect of my individual development, giving me the tools and fundamental values to face life: education, self-confidence and respect for others.

With this Creative Writing award I therefore want to celebrate all primary educators, their dedication to serving children, their families and the future of our societies.

roberto3The winners were awarded on the 5th June 2019 at my old primary school, the Carlo Bini Elementary School in Livorno, Italy.


It was a great thrill for me to get back there after 47 years!


The children have done some fantastic work that I am still reading with pleasure. I have to admit, their Italian is much better than mine!

roberto4In total, there were 6 individual winners whose work was judged by a panel of teachers and parents. However, the largest part of the donation was used to buy books for the school library so that all children could benefit.

A sample of the children’s work: an essay titled “Cara Maestra… (Dear Teacher) in which they pretended to be grown-ups and told their teachers how they fulfilled their dreams after primary school. Each essay was accompanied with a drawing.

I’m already thinking about the 2019-2020 edition, where I would also like to involve an English primary school. In these sad times where the divisions between peoples always find a main title on the media, our role as educators is to encourage exchanges and cultural knowledge among the new generations.


I would like to thank the Director of the Livorno’s educational headquarter, Gianna Valente and the head of my former primary school, Katia Burlacchini who, together with their collaborators, have made this event possible. A special thanks goes to the children who participated in the competition!

roberto5Gianna Valente (on my right) and Katia Burlacchini (left) and all the teachers who made this initiative possible.


Parents and children of the Carlo Bini primary school attending the ceremony


Article about the award in UCL news

Dr Roberto Filippi’s UCL profile page and his lab page

You can also follow Dr Filippi on twitter @psyrob

The CEN is delighted to welcome two new members to its Management Committee


Dr. Jo van Herwegen (UCL Institute of Education)

Jo is an Associate Professor in Psychology at UCL Institute of Education, and Director of the Child Development and Learning Difficulties lab. The lab carries out internationally excellent collaborative research in child development with a special focus on learning difficulties and developmental disorders, with the aim to translate the latest findings into effective and practical assessments as well as classroom practice and interventions. Jo’s research focuses on language and number development in both typical development and atypical developmental disorders, such as Williams syndrome, Autism Spectrum Disorders, Down syndrome, and Developmental Language Disorder. She is interested in individual differences, as well as exploring what cognitive abilities and strategies relate to successful performance in typical populations and how these differ in atypical populations, in order to aid the development of economically valid training programmes. She says: “I believe that it is important to study abilities from infancy onwards in order to obtain a better understanding of how cognitive abilities develop over time and how performance across different cognitive areas relate to each other.”

Jo’s interest in joining the CEN is to focus on the educational neuroscience of Special Educational Needs, and she is currently working on ‘neuromyths’ about SEN teaching. Welcome to the CEN, Jo!

Dr. Roberto Filippi (UCL Institute of Education)


Roberto is an Associate Professor in Psychology at UCL Institute of Education, and Director of the Multilanguage and Cognition Lab. The MULTAC lab is formed by a team of researchers interested in studying multilanguage acquisition and its effects on cognitive development across the lifespan. After a successful career in business, Roberto completed his PhD at Birkbeck, University of London, under the supervision and mentorship of Prof. Michael Thomas, Prof. Frederic Dick and Prof. Annette Karmiloff-Smith. His main research interest is on multi-language acquisition and its effects on cognitive development from early infancy to old age. Roberto is the author and co-author of several scientific publications, books and book chapters. He is also actively involved in public engagement. Roberto frequently delivers presentations in schools and workshops with the aim of creating a hotline between scientific research and professional practice in education. He sponsors a “Creative Writing Award” in an Italian primary school that has the intent to promote multicultural exchange between Italy and the UK. Roberto believes that learning a second language (or more!) is “one of the best things that humans can do”, an investment for our future and the future of our children.

His research at CEN will focus on using cognitive neuroscience methods to investigate the educational advantages and disadvantages of learning multiple languages. Welcome to the CEN, Roberto!


Social, Emotional, and Academic Development report

Georgie Donati presented a recent report from the Aspen Institute, an international think tank. The report was the result of findings from a commission set up to look at Social, Emotional, and Academic Development in young people – with the aim of re-envisioning what constitutes success in schools.


There is a wealth of information available from Aspen here and Georgie’s slides of the presentation are available on the link below:


Spatial cognition and children’s science learning

Dr Alex Hodgkiss from Oxford University’s Department of Education, talked about his recent research looking at whether spatial cognition is a crucial ingredient in the recipe for success in science – at primary school and beyond. See his short video summary as well as links to his papers and other resources below.

You can read more about the research in these papers:

Spatial cognition and science achievement

Development of spatial skills and maths

Development of children’s spatial scaling skills

Alex’s University webpage, which is regularly updated with new research, is here

You can also keep up to date with his research by following him on twitter @hodgkiss_alex

Learning geometry in high school: an international analysis

christian-bokhoveIn this week’s seminar, Christian Bokhove, Associate Professor in Mathematics Education at Southampton University talked about his recent research on geometry learning. He took as his starting point the question of why Asian countries typically score higher in PISA-type maths comparisons than European countries. Luckily for anyone who missed it, the slides of his talk are all available on slideshare here.


As part of the project, he and his partner team in Japan created a set of geometry learning materials which you can have a look at here.

And do check out Christian’s own website to find out more about his diverse research interests, including his presentation on the Top five tips: what teachers should know about research.

You can also follow him on twitter @bokhove

How to enhance word learning in children with developmental language disorder

Image result for children readingProf. Chloë Marshall led a discussion of two papers recently published by Laurence Leonard and his colleagues in the Journal of Speech Language and Hearing Research. They investigated some of the factors that can enhance word learning in children with developmental language disorder (DLD). Paper 1 investigated whether children with DLD, and also typically developing children, learnt words better when they were required to actively retrieve them, rather than just studying them. The authors found that active retrieval on repeated occasions was indeed more effective than repeated study, both when children were tested immediately on those words and when they were tested a week later.

Paper 2 developed this line of research further by comparing two different retrieval schedules – an immediate retrieval schedule, and an interleaved retrieval schedule. The interleaved retrieval schedule was more effective at supporting children with DLD and typically developing children to learn words. Interestingly, the study in paper 2 also incorporated event-related potentials (ERPs) whose data revealed that words were learnt better in the interleaved retrieval condition, supporting the behavioural data.

The papers generated lots of interesting discussion about (1) how neuroimaging methods could be used to support behavioural methods in intervention studies, (2) what the neurological mechanisms underlying the advantage for interleaved retrieval might be, and (3) how far interleaved retrieval might be incorporated into the teaching of vocabulary across all curriculum areas and for all children. We also discussed how interleaved retrieval might be used beyond teaching vocabulary, for example, as here, in maths.


Find out more about interleaving from the excellent Learning Scientists here and you can follow Prof Marshall on Twitter.