Interview with Annie Brookman-Byrne

Annie Brookman-Byrne is a final year PhD student at the Centre for Educational Neuroscience, at Birkbeck, University of London. She has kindly taken a break from writing her thesis to chat to us about the work she does, and about educational neuroscience more generally.

Annie summarises her research in this short video:

Hi Annie

I’d like to start off by finding out a bit about how you came to be a PhD student in the field of educational neuroscience. What made you decide to study that particular subject?

I became interested in educational neuroscience as a result of conducting research in both psychology and education departments. I loved aspects of both environments and felt that educational neuroscience was the perfect way to combine the two. Educational neuroscience takes a scientific approach to education, which seemed like a great way of conducting psychology research with application to the real world. Of course there is much more to the science of education than psychology, so it’s also fascinating to think about the role of other disciplines within education (such as genetics or learning technologies), and educational neuroscience considers all of these disciplines.

Another appealing aspect of this field is that researchers share a common goal of improving teaching and learning, so it really feels like everyone is working together to see how best to achieve that goal. Educational neuroscience is more than just research: there are lots of resource-sharing and public engagement activities that aim to bring researchers closer to educators and learners. These efforts are essential in making sure the latest findings are fed back to have the greatest impact.

Why do you think educational neuroscience, generally, is an important area of research?

Teachers have a wealth of knowledge about different techniques that work in the classroom, but we don’t necessarily know why they work. One of the aims of educational neuroscience is to get to grips with why different strategies work; if we can find out the science behind these successful techniques then we may be able to use that knowledge to make them even more successful. Equally, there may be techniques that work but not for the reasons we think they do, so we may be able to find a way of streamlining them. And of course, finding out more about the science behind learning enables us to try out new techniques.

All of this is important in helping students to be more successful learners. This doesn’t necessarily mean achieving higher grades, but may mean learning in a way that is more enjoyable, less anxiety-inducing, and more efficient. Many researchers are interested in individual differences in learning. By finding out more about how different people learn, it is hoped that learning experiences can be better tailored to give everyone the best possible chance in school, including those who struggle to learn.

What are the particular challenges you’ve encountered during your research?

Anyone who conducts research in schools will tell you that recruitment is a challenge, and I’m no different! It can be difficult to find schools with the time and resources to let a researcher in to see a large number of children one at a time over the course of a few weeks. Even with a very enthusiastic school, the parents need to give consent, and children need to remember to bring back their consent forms. It can be a long process! Nonetheless, I have been lucky enough to work with teachers who are fascinated in the research and keen to help out—they have made a huge difference.

For me, another challenge has been developing the language to explain my research to teachers and students. Over the course of my PhD I have spoken to teachers about my research through focus groups, teacher training day talks, and conferences. I have also given a number of talks to groups of students. This has been a challenge because I have had to think hard about the best way of explaining my research to different groups who are not already familiar with the background. I have adapted the language I’ve used based on the feedback I’ve received, and now feel much more comfortable in explaining what my research is all about and why it’s important.

And what positive experiences or opportunities have you had when carrying out your research studies?

Speaking to teachers and students have been positive experiences, just a little nerve-wracking at times! I also had a really great time collaborating with teachers to design a series of small-scale classroom-based studies. To me this felt like what educational neuroscience is all about—working with teachers to find a research question of common interest and conducting the research together.

You are also very busy with creating opportunities for educationalists and researchers to communicate and share ideas. Can you tell us a bit about these projects, and why you consider them to be important?

I am a coordinator for the European Association for Research on Learning and Instruction (EARLI) special interest group on neuroscience and education, also known as SIG 22. I worked with Lia Commissar from the Wellcome Trust to put on the biennial SIG 22 conference in June which was a great chance to bring together educators and researchers. In addition to the usual conference activities like talks and poster sessions, we also had an “open space” event, where anyone could suggest a topic to discuss, and small groups got together to talk about them. I am looking forward to seeing what comes of those discussions—initial feedback was positive and suggested that some new ideas for projects came from discussions between researchers and educators.

I also spent January to June this year working with the team behind “I’m A Scientist” to put on an online event called the Learning Zone to connect teachers and researchers. The website hosted content for teachers that outlined the latest science in this field. Educators and researchers also chatted in the zone which was a great opportunity for sharing of expertise in both directions.

These kinds of activities that bring together teachers and researchers are so important because they help to build a common language. Educators need to understand what researchers are working on, and what the latest scientific findings are. It’s also important to communicate to teachers what the science hasn’ttold us yet, and where findings reported in the media may be misleading. Researchers need to understand what teachers already know, and what teachers want to know. This helps drives the research in a direction of interest to teachers, and also helps researchers frame their engagement activities, based on what teachers already know.

Congratulations on your recent ‘Exceptional Trainee’ award from IMBES (International Mind, Brain, and Education Society) – very well-deserved. In your experience, do you think there are differences in the study of educational neuroscience / mind, brain, and education between the UK and USA?

The main difference I have come across between the UK and USA is simply the different term used to describe the field. While it is typically called educational neuroscience in the UK, it is usually called mind, brain, and education (or MBE) in the US. My understanding is that this does not reflect any differences in the type of research conducted, but may alter the public perception of the field. I don’t know why this difference emerged, and I have heard it suggested that MBE better reflects the nature of the field, which is not simply education and neuroscience. A common criticism of the field is that education and neuroscience are too far removed for neuroscience to have anything useful to offer education. Perhaps if we called it MBE in the UK, those not in the field would have a better understanding that it is not simply about connecting education and neuroscience. However, now that educational neuroscience has gained some prominence in the UK, the term may be here to stay!

And finally, what do you consider to be the most important ‘next steps’ for educational neuroscience, and the science of learning?

This is said time and again but communication and collaboration between educators and researchers is essential. I hope to see more networks that allow for this to happen, ensuring that both parties are given the time and resources needed to make fruitful collaborations. There has been a real rise in the sharing of information and I also hope to see more of this, and I think we need to get creative in sharing the latest science in accessible and interesting ways. Finally, my view is that as a field we need to take steps to ensure that research is replicated, and that we are carefully considering issues of sample size and power in study design. Pre-registration of studies is becoming a widely used way of reporting psychological research, whereby study design and analysis is registered and sometimes peer reviewed prior to the data collection. This ensures that researchers are not biased in their analysis. In order to ensure we are making robust claims about science I think our field should follow suit. The way in which students learn and are taught has lasting impact so it’s important that we make sure decisions related to their learning are based on the best possible scientific evidence.

Thanks very much Annie – we wish you all the best with your future research!

Annie can be contacted on and via Twitter @abrookmanbyrne

Annie regularly writes blog posts for:

Her recent papers include:

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