Does input from multiple senses help children learn?

In yesterday’s seminar, Dr Natasha Kirkham presented her recent research on multimodal learning in primary school children. She writes:

“It is a well-receivednatasha-kirkham idea throughout the world of primary and secondary education that the more information contained in a learning situation, the easier the learning.  For example, instead of using rote repetition learning of the times tables, modern teaching can include songs, videos and even dances that support the maths content.  This has been referred to as “multimodal learning,” and it has been used as the basis for educational programs in literacy and numeracy, dealing with both typically and atypically developing children. Multimodal learning covers a lot of ground, from specific teaching technologies (smart boards) to general teaching philosophies (teaching content using different modalities at the same time). However, as intuitive as this idea seems, there has been very little research into whether multimodal learning is of any real benefit in education. In fact, our findings suggest that children’s age and the type of modalities being used (visual, auditory, touch)  must be taken into consideration. Evidence for the usefulness of multimodal cues on learning is strongest in young children (e.g. 5 to 6 years), and during incidental learning contexts. Other contexts suggest that as you get older, multiple cues are not only less useful, but can be detrimental.”

You can read more about Natasha and her team’s work on incidental learning  (ie learning which happens without specific instruction) here, here and here

You can also follow Natasha on Twitter @NatashaKirkham

For a fun play-along video which shows what our brains do when information from different senses conflict, have a look here at the McGurk effect and for a remarkable example of innovation in the face of an absent sense, enjoy this Blind baseball

Using research in the classroom: executive function and maths

This week we are very pleased to welcome two researchers – Camilla Gilmore from Loughborough and Lucy Cragg from Nottingham University to talk about their research and what it might mean for educators.

What is the camilla-gilmorelucy_craggfocus of your research? 

The focus of our research is understanding which general thinking skills are involved in different aspects of learning and doing maths. Our first project (SUM) had three main aims: The first was to discover how executive function skills (e.g. manipulating information in memory, flexible thinking, ignoring distractions) are involved in knowing maths facts, applying maths procedures and understanding maths concepts. The second was to distinguish between the skills needed for learning new mathematical material and those needed for performing already‐learned mathematical operations. Finally, we explored how the role of executive function skills might change as children grow older and become more proficient in maths.

What led you to this area of research? 

We shared an office while doing our PhDs on mathematical cognition (Camilla) and executive function development (Lucy). At the time, people doing research on the role of executive function skills in mathematics were either experts in mathematical cognition or executive function, but not both. We decided it would be a good idea to join forces and combine our expertise to better understand the complex interactions between these two sets of skills.

Could you summarise your findings?

Some of the main findings from our work are:

1. Different combinations of executive function skills are important for different components of maths. For example, holding and manipulating information in mind (working memory) and ignoring distractions are more important for learning maths facts and procedures than they are for conceptual understanding.

2. While children’s understanding of mathematics develops dramatically through primary and secondary school, they are drawing on the same set of underlying executive function skills from KS2 right through to young adulthood.

3. In children who have just started school, mathematical and executive function skills interact.

4. Children with good procedural skills have better overall mathematics achievement if they also have good conceptual understanding and working memory.

5. Young children with similar levels of overall mathematical achievement can show very different patterns of strengths and weaknesses across the component skills.

What do you think this means for teachers in the classroom?

If a child is having difficulties with maths, it makes sense to look at their strengths and weaknesses in learning maths facts, carrying out procedures and understanding concepts, rather than focusing on their overall performance. It might also be helpful to consider the underlying skills, such as how good they are at storing and manipulating information in mind, ignoring distractions and thinking flexibly. Maths is a complex subject and there are many reasons why children might struggle; sometimes it’s related to general thinking skills, rather than maths-specific skills.

If you could give one tip to teachers based on your work, what would it be?

You might want to consider how the activities you use in the classroom challenge children’s executive function skills, such as the amount of information they need to hold in mind. Sometimes this might be a good thing, but at other times you might want to reduce these demands, by using concrete manipulatives such as hundred squares or number lines for example, so that children have the cognitive resources to focus on a new idea that is being introduced.


Increased perceptual capacity in autism – a double-edged sword

In this week’s seminar, Dr Anna Remington talked about her research showing that autistic children and adults can take in more information than their non-autistic counterparts. This can confer distinct advantages in certain processing tasks, but there is also the risk of overload.

You can read more about Anna’s work – and test your own perceptual abilities – in a piece she wrote in The Conversation and in a paper about Deutsche Bank’s internship programme for autistic graduates. If you’re a Twitter user, you can follow Anna @annaremington and CRAE (the Centre for Research into Autism and Education) @CRAE_IoE

What factors mediate outcomes for children with conduct problems?

In this week’s seminar, Leonardo Bevilacqua shares his fascinating research into children with conduct problems. Using a large dataset (ALSPAC), he has looked at the likelihood of these children being ‘Not in Education, Employment or Training’ (NEET) by the age of 20, and the positive effects that school connectiveness and school enjoyment have on this association.

To read more about Leo’s research, click on the links below:

Conduct problems trajectories and psychosocial outcomes: a systematic review and meta-analysis

The role of family and school-level factors in bullying and cyberbullying: a cross-sectional study

Initiating change locally in bullying and aggression through the school environment (INCLUSIVE): study protocol for a cluster randomised controlled trial

A bit more about Leo: He is completing his PhD at UCL GOS Institute of Child Health, under the supervision of Professor Russell Viner, Professor Bianca De Stavola and Edward D. Barker at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience. He is currently working on:
1) a randomised controlled trial investigating the effectiveness of a whole-school intervention to reduce bullying in 40 schools in London (INCLUSIVE Trial)
2) Predictors and outcomes of adolescent mental health with particular attention to conduct problems and antisocial behaviour.
He is also a senior teaching fellow at UCL Institute of Education and works as an assistant Psychologist at Helen Bamber Foundation. He will soon start a post-Doc with Professor Essi Viding looking at social reward processing in young people with conduct problems and callous-unemotional traits.

Teachers share their thoughts about research

We are delighted to introduce Shafina Iqbal Vohra, who has very kindly shared her thoughts with us about research in education.

shafina-photo-for-cenShafina is very busy! She is an A-Level psychology teacher and part-time PhD student. She is also:

  • a Certified LEGO Education® Academy Teacher Trainer
  • a LEGO Innovation Studio Lead
  • Head of faculty – academic options
  • a Continuous Professional Learning lead.



Shafina, thank you for taking the time to answer our questions. Firstly, how do you keep up-to-date with the latest education research?

Reading. I follow various researchers, journals, articles, magazines, speakers, setups, education providers, government, and NGO bodies (WEF, UN, OECD, LEGO Foundation). I also attend seminars and conferences where possible (given the limitations of a teaching timetable) and network by meeting key individuals in education research. Recently, I have also been invited to various public events whether it is volunteering at charitable education-led events (usually related to STEM i.e. Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths), or whether I am a speaker on a panel for education and creativity.  These have included the Bett Show, EdTech Podcast (coming up), TEDxTalk (The hand that rocks the mind: Learning through hands-on processes), or events such as Mayor of London RECODE, Mayor of Newham festival, and Institute of Imagination with the London Brain Project which I really enjoy! Whenever there is opportunity to learn more about the kinds of research that is being undertaken or possibilities for future research, I try to make it!

Is it important to you whether the research uses particular methods (e.g. neuroscience, classroom-based)?

I am equally interested in pure neuroscience/lab-based methodology and classroom/field-based methodology. I strongly see the benefit that the two bring together as they are an excellent way of unwrapping the relationships between the neural correlates of particular functions and the consequential or preceding behaviours we see in classrooms. Of course, there is always the debate about whether it is too simplistic to relate learning to regions of the brain directly, as functionality is all connected to a large degree. But to understand for example specific behaviours or specific challenges, neuroscience is of huge value as it equips us with direct evidence, and then allows educators to apply such understanding to their classrooms. This has huge positive impact. Similarly, classroom-based methodology provides researchers with the direct observable behaviours that also offer huge insights into learning such as how giving tools (in my case, LEGO) can enhance learning, creativity, problem solving and collaboration for the learner which may not always be simple to assess neuroscientifically.

Could you tell us how research has influenced your teaching?

As I teach Psychology and am a researcher myself, I have applied research directly to my teaching and vice versa. Understanding the teenage brain and circadian rhythms for example, has led to my rearranging what when & how I teach, which has resulted in positive learning experiences for my students. Knowing that the Basic Rest Activity cycle exists throughout the day at 90 minute intervals enables my teaching to be planned accordingly. For example, in a lesson after lunch students may feel sleepy, so I ensure that heavy thinking and listening does not continue for too long, knowing that they may lose attention. I have therefore developed hands-on methods that are engaging, less strenuous, and yet still productive.

Research has also shed light on understanding multi-sensory input and how this leads to much more activity in the brain across various regions. This has also informed my teaching practice as I ensure my lessons are a good mix of visual, tactile & auditory stimuli to enhance learning. This improves consolidation as the learners experience the learning through various forms hence repeating the content, leading to better memory and retrieval as they can attach a context to it too.

What do you think researchers should focus on next (i.e. what are the gaps in our understanding, from a teacher’s perspective)?

Research from the LEGO Foundation (here and here) has recently verified that play-based learning (early years) is key to motivated learning, independence & resilience – these are key factors that leaners need throughout education. More research in this area (as I am doing) is needed for secondary education. The amount of research on the teenage brain is increasing, but understanding how to engage demotivated teenagers who are experts in some things (gaming, social media, tv) but still maturing in others (prioritising work, taking responsibility for not doing things or accepting constructive criticism) is needed for improving teaching rather than teaching purely for assessments. I feel that research into hands-on learning and innovative thinking in the classroom is needed more than ever to improve the quality and quantity of skills-ready individuals.

Do you have any suggestions of how communication and collaboration could be improved between teachers and education researchers?

It should be easier for researchers to work in schools as this is where 6-7 hours of a child’s learning in the day takes place. I also feel that teachers should be heavily involved in research as they are at the forefront of understanding what works and what does not on a daily basis, whilst some researchers may not have extensive classroom experience. An improved dialogue between teachers and researchers would lead to stronger evidence-based research in real settings (classrooms) where natural behaviours are permitted. The collective effort of both teachers and researchers would allow for more fluidity in research, addressing issues at both the behavioural and neuroscience level together that could then have an impact on policy and curriculum. For example, my research question is based on what I have directly experienced in my teaching; a sizeable, observable impact on learners’ motivation and progress when using LEGO. This has led me to examine evidence for hands-on learning which could then be embedded across many subjects to enhance progress and learning.

Please could you describe a research-informed idea that you feel has had a positive impact in your classroom, so that others could try it as well if they feel it’s relevant. (e.g. Why did you introduce the idea? What did you do? What impact has it had?)

My approach in teaching & learning is to bring real life to the classroom. There are many ways of doing this effectively, using tried & tested activities. However, for me as an adult if someone says “let’s play…” I am instantly excited. It is human nature to play and have fun and the positive implications this has on the brain has been demonstrated through much research in early years (PEDAL, Cambridge).

Through my own experience of teaching science to KS3, I have found that children love to play even at secondary level. They want to enjoy school, they want to make things, and they want to use something in the learning that grabs them, that excites them. There is a lot of content to cover in our new curriculum. So, for me to enjoy teaching and my learners to enjoy learning, I introduced some very simple methods of learning and revising using LEGO (as per research on play), alongside more typical activities such as film, documentary, field experiments, plus the usual essays and tests they have to do.

I adapted the LEGO Foundation 6-bricks concept, for A-level Psychology using a regular 2×4 LEGO System brick. I use it in various ways whether it is to teach localisation of function (Broca’s Area, Motor Cortex, Somatosensory Cortex, Frontal Lobe, etc.) by colour coding LEGO bricks to coloured regions on the brain (from the web). An idea from the London Brain Project (Beading the brain) inspired me to create lessons using LEGO for tasks that allow students to engage with the difficult names of regions and also to use their hands, learn, laugh and remember. Added to this, I developed the 6 brick concept for research methods where students have to use 6 bricks to create things about research methods and these are usually fantastically creative, very innovative and simple and clear – it engages them with the concepts that are sometimes difficult to grasp or imagine. I also use LEGO Education’s research work on play and STEM learning by using their “Build To Express” kits to allow students to create key studies in Psychology using the LEGO which acts as a self–differentiated activity. For me it is about my learners valuing their learning and actively thinking.

The impact to my lessons has been tremendous as it means learners have different tools at hand to choose from, they become independent, they collaborate and facilitate within their own groups and it gives them a tangible memory trigger to aid their revision and exam success.

Thank you Shafina!


Lindsey Richland discusses factors affecting maths performance

In today’s CEN seminar, Prof. Lindsey Richland talked about her research which looks at factors affecting maths performance – making connections (e.g. Teaching mathematics by comparison: Analog visibility as a double-edged sword), impact of executive functions (e.g. Executive function in learning mathematics by comparison: incorporating everyday classrooms into the science of learning) and impact of stereotyping and expectations (e.g. Stereotype Threat Effects on Learning From a Cognitively Demanding Mathematics Lesson).

“Children’s executive functions are well known to predict overall mathematics achievement, but their role in everyday classroom learning is not always considered in educational reform. Strategies for raising the quality of classroom mathematics instruction has led to the recommendation that teachers use more lessons designed to increase students’ engagement in higher level reasoning, yet teaching these lessons effectively for all students is challenging. I describe a series of experiments using one such instructional practice, comparing multiple solutions to key problems, to show that by considering the cognitive demands of such a specific learning context, we can infer ways to improve the likelihood of student learning and better understand mechanisms that may lead to achievement gaps. I’ll show that visual-spatial cues and reminders of relevant mathematics background may aid students in gaining more, while individual differences in executive function resources, pressure, and identity threats may exacerbate achievement gaps in learning from identical lessons.”

How a mobile phone game is helping dementia research


In last week’s CEN seminar, Zita Patai from UCL presented findings from a project involving a mobile phone game, Sea Hero Quest, to assess spatial abilities.

Zita writes:

“Human navigation behaviors vary across nations, cultures, genders and ages, but until recently it has not been feasible to measure this fundamental human capacity on a global scale.  Now, using a mobile phone based game, we have been able to measure spatial navigation ability in more than 2.5 million people around the world. Our results show that navigation ability declines with age, that gender differences can be explained by societal measures such as the gender gap index of a country, that people living in rural environments are better at finding their way around, and finally that behavior in the virtual game is related to real-world navigation ability. Additionally, data suggest that people with a genetic risk factor associated with Alzheimer’s dementia already show changes in navigation ability even though they are of middle age and are completely cognitively intact as measured with standard screening tests. These findings show that 1) we are able to, and should, measure human cognitive functions at a global scale rather than focus on small and homogeneous samples and 2) human navigation behavior may be a good measure by which to enable the early detection of dementia and potentially develop therapies in the future.”


You can read more about the project in this preprint (and here) and in a recent issue of Cell. You can also download and play the game here

You can follow Zita on Twitter @ZitaPatai

Teachers share their thoughts on research-based practice

alice-bowmer-photographAlice Bowmer is a teacher and researcher interested in early child development. She currently works in collaboration with UCL’s Institute of Education, and the arts charity Creative Futures. Welcome, Alice, to our teacher Q+A.

How do you keep up-to-date with the latest education research? Is it important to you whether the research uses particular methods?

I go to a variety of conferences, receive email information from colleagues, follow academics on twitter and receive weekly emails from particular journals.

To me, it is important to look at a wide range of methods and subject matter because I find that looking in only one direction gives you only part of a whole picture. I have a pretty flexible mind and so I often move from one subject to another, usually observing a variety of different methods along the way. Each method tends to give you an idea from one angle, and combined, it’s then possible to see from a variety of different angles, which I find helps perspective.

Could you tell us how research has influenced your teaching? 

Well, this is difficult as the two are not mutually exclusive in my life. I am teaching and researching most days of the week and the subject matter for both is largely related so I find that influence travels back and forth and I often don’t realise! I am still learning to be clear about how the two aspects are functioning supportively, but for now I can give one example.

When I began to research how children develop language skills, I took the theory I was reading and started to observe how it functioned in my own teaching practice.

At first I just observed how I might be facilitating, or not, communication and understanding during lessons with my students.

And after a while I began to clearly see that students didn’t always understand what I was expressing to them verbally. This could be to do with my use of language and/or the examples and gestures I used to support the given idea.

So from here I spent a lot of time experimenting with how I introduce concepts. This often involved using smaller or clearer verbal steps, allowing me to see at which point I lost the student’s attention or understanding. Then I can consider how to change my use of language, introduce the same idea in a different context to reinforce whatever the objective is, or, if it’s an attention issue I’ll try working at a different pace.

I also like to observe understanding from the opposite direction by asking students to use their own language to describe what has just happened – this is really interesting! It shows you what the student notices, how they link ideas together, how they use language as a form of expression and over time it supports the development of their note taking skills, which is a great by-product.

Generally, I would say that research has hugely impacted upon the way that I understand and communicate with my students during our work together.

How do you tell if something is working in the classroom? 

The most important factors to me are attention and engagement. When those elements are there, communication is possible. In my own experience as a teacher, attention and engagement can be facilitated by observing your own attention to what you do and to see if there is integrity in how you carry it out. I have not seen much focus on this in teaching research, perhaps because it isn’t easy to measure.

But in practice, teachers can usually perceive different levels of attention and engagement in both their individual students and the classroom atmosphere. I think that observing the dynamics of these factors is a good place to start.

What do you think researchers should focus on next (i.e., what are the gaps in our understanding, from a teacher’s perspective?)? 

I’d like to see research that looks more closely at the various connections between different subject matter, for instance, how do aspects of musical learning support skills in mathematics and vice versa? And following this, within teaching it would be useful to see research that clearly examines how teachers go about linking concepts across different subject matter e.g., how do teachers use language to make links between subject matter understandable to students?

At the moment, I am specifically interested in how teachers and students work together. One aspect of this is working from where the student is, in that moment, which in practice relies heavily on our attention and engagement rather than pre-determined lesson plans, objectives or ideals. It would be great to have some research on the effectiveness of this way of teaching. And I think more of an understanding here would help us escape the current obsession with measurement for ‘expected outcomes’.

Do you have any suggestions of how we can improve the communication and collaboration between teachers and education researchers? 

First of all, we have to see why collaboration could be mutually beneficial and when the interest is there, both parties then have to accept and respect the differences in their collective perspectives during all aspects of the collaborative process.

We also have to get to grips with how collaboration could work practically. I see a lot of potential in teachers delivering interventions with training and support from researchers. This could improve both the quality and quantity of the intervention for researchers as well as getting the latest research out to those who could impact student outcomes the most – teachers!

Over the next few years, I’d like to hear of multiple projects that actively test out different ways of teachers working with researchers. Then we can learn from one another by highlighting the benefits and limitations that are experienced and move forwards from there.

To support this, we also need forums in which to share our experiences – websites and research conferences that have an ear for the teacher’s perspective and an accessible, co-working approach would help here – the recent EarliSig22 conference was a good example, so let’s have more!

If you could share one piece of advice about research-informed practice with teachers and trainee teachers, what would it be? 

I was recently at a talk given by Adele Diamond who highlighted that the most important quality of early childhood education is the caring relationship between the teacher and the children (e.g. this paper by Melhuish). This has been shown to completely override many aspects of early life adversity and holds true for both teaching and parenting (see this paper by Asok et al). It’s not always easy but I try to keep my heart in the core of my work.

Jo Evershed is taking psychology research online

In yesterday’s CEN seminar, Jo Evershed, Founder and CEO of Cauldron talked about Gorilla, the company’s tool for building behavioural experiments. The tool allows researchers to create all kinds of computer based assessments which can then be used either in the lab, or remotely online, where there is the potential to reach larger and more diverse groups as well as those for whom lab testing is not feasible.

You can find out much more about how it works by having a look at some of these researchers’ stories or by taking a tour around the Gorilla website.


Prof Chloe Marshall on preschoolers and play

In yesterday’s CEN seminar, Prof Chloë Marshall, from UCL’s Institute of Education, presented a paper from Developmental Science by Taggart, Heise & Lillard entitled, “The real thing: preschoolers prefer actual activities to pretend ones”

You can read the paper on Angeline Lillard’s website here.

Professor Marshall writes:

“Play is a contested activity in preschool education. While its importance for children’s cognitive, social and emotional development is widely accepted by developmental psychologists and educationalists, the formalisation of preschool education in many countries means that children have fewer opportunities to play. In the Montessori classroom, there is little of one particular type of play – pretend play – and instead the focus is on providing children with opportunities for learning how to carry out real activities. In the Montessori classroom, for example, children prepare real food for snacktime, and wash real clothes and peg them up to dry, rather than engaging in pretend play in the “home corner” that characterises more mainstream preschools. Aside from the question of whether such real activities are more developmentally appropriate than pretend ones, is there any evidence (other than Montessori’s own observations) that children actually prefer them?

The first piece of evidence that I’m aware of is provided by the paper that I present in this talk. Angeline Lillard – an eminent Montessorian – and her colleagues examined, for nine different activities, American middle-class preschoolers’ preferences for pretend and real versions of these activities. The 100 children that they tested overwhelmingly preferred real activities to pretend ones, and this preference increased from age 3 to age 4, then remained steady through age 6. Children were able to provide cogent justifications for their preferences.”

Following the seminar there was a vibrant discussion of the paper. Some important questions were raised about the experimental design, about whether children would in practice make the choices they made verbally, the role of the imagination in children’s play and much more.

Do join us next time! Seminars are weekly, Thursdays 4-5pm in Room 534 of Birbeck’s Psychology department and are open to all.