Dr. Rebecca Gordon – Measuring executive function in children

Dr. Rebecca Gordon is Academic Head of Learning and Teaching in the Department of Psychology and Human Development, Institute of Education. Her work focuses on executive function and how it might explain individual variation in academic attainment and cognitive profiles of people with developmental disorders such as dyslexia.

Rebecca has recently published a new paper in which she investigates the relationships between processing time, working memory and academic performance. You can find a summary in the video below.

You can follow Rebecca Gordon on Twitter @DrRebeccaGordon.

Dr. Sue Whiting – Critiquing Hölzel’s (2011) mindfulness paper

Sue Whiting earned a doctorate in Astrophysics from Oxford University and later became a chartered accountant and chartered tax adviser. While on a career break, looking after her three young children, she entered the World Memory Championships for mental stimulation, becoming a Grand Master of Memory and achieving the title of the Women’s World Memory Champion on five consecutive occasions. She became fascinated about how the brain works and in particular on how stress affects learning. In 2017 she completed an MSc (Distinction) in Educational Neuroscience at Birkbeck College, London University. She is continuing her research on transferable benefits from whole classroom interventions involving memory techniques that manipulate vivid mental images in working memory. Sue is a school governor.

In her CEN seminar, she discussed Hölzel et al.’s (2011) paper: “Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density”.

 You can find a summary of what she discussed in the video below:

New CEN paper – “Unified: Bridging the Researcher-Practitioner Divide in Mind, Brain and Education”

UCL researchers Michael Hobbiss and Jessica Massonnié contribute to the current debates in educational neuroscience* with their new collaborative paper: “Unified: Bridging the Researcher-Practitioner Divide in Mind, Brain and Education”.


The paper aims to offer practical solutions to “bridge the gap” between research and practice, or, if you have enough of bridge metaphors, to better connect educators with researchers so that they can construct research projects together.

The paper was born from the 2018 EARLI SIG 22 “Education and Neuroscience” conference. In an innovative Open Space Session, educators and researchers could share their concerns, questions, and advances within the field of educational neuroscience. Attendees from various backgrounds were interested to reflect on the creation of a common “Database for Schools and Researchers”. A working group emerged, composed of educators (Charlotte Hindley, Sharon Baker, Alastair Gittner), researchers (Michael Hobbiss, Jessica Massonnié, Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa, Megan Sumeracki, Alice Tovazzi, Ignatius Gous and Thomas Wassenaar), and of a school psychologist (Mónica Lemos). The group worked together during, and after the conference in order to: 1) review the current tools available for researchers and educators to communicate; 2) identify what was needed for collaborations to be further facilitated and flourish; 3) propose a web platform aiming to answer these needs. These three processes are fully described in the paper, and summarised below.

1) The current tools designed to facilitate communication in educational neuroscience were classified into three categories, according to their primary goal: to transmit academic findings, to receive information about educators’ expertise, to promote collaboration between educators and researchers. Most of the resources were classified as transmitting information from researchers to practitioners, which corresponds to a somewhat unidirectional model. The group noticed the scarcity of resources aiming to foster collaborations. Although Research Schools in the US and in the UK form notable exceptions, there are difficulties to find a unified resource to promote large-scale, and bi-directional collaborations.

2) In order to better understand how such collaborations could be facilitated, the working group then carried out a SWOT analysis of transdisciplinary partnerships in educational neuroscience. This type of analysis, borrowed from business project planning, allows to classify the current Strengths and Weaknesses, as well as more long-term Opportunities and Threats of transdisciplinary partnerships. The Strengths and Opportunities are numerous. Research in Psychology and Neuroscience feed each other, while also informing, supporting and/or questioning current classroom practices. Conversely, teachers’ input helps to build more impactful and “real-world” projects, increasing the potential benefits for learners. Ultimately, lab-school partnerships can increase scientific support for good practice in classroom interventions, while empowering teachers as “learning scientists”. However, current Weaknesses and anticipated Threats seem to prevent the field from reaching its full potential. The obstacles are both conceptual (there is a risk of implementing “evidence-informed” interventions that would not be fully contributed by teachers), and practical (such as increased ethical and logistical considerations, and increased time commitment).

To offer practical solutions to these problems, and not only to discuss them conceptually, the working group developed a web platform aiming to directly connect educators and researchers, so that they can develop projects together. On their profile, users can define their interests. The information they provide includes space and time practicalities (e.g. where and how often they would like to be involved in research), the population they would like to work with (e.g. elementary school children, high school students, adults), and the topic they would like to investigate (e.g. memory, stress). The working group worked on some practical solutions to address conceptual issues related to lab-school partnerships, such as difficulties to share a similar vocabulary. Research topics are organised into tags. Each tag consists in a short word (e.g. memory) with a hyperlink showing the profiles of all the users interested in the given topic. This way, users from an educational and a research background can specify their interest from a common bank of words.


As commented by Michael Hobbiss (former secondary school teacher, now researcher at UCL): “The platform seemed necessary because currently both researchers and educators are desperate to meet professionals from the other side, but they don’t quite know how to make the first step to find others with similar interests. UNIFIED aims to bridge that gap. As well as hopefully allowing for research partnerships to be created more easily, this system will let teachers and schools become involved in research at a much earlier stage, allowing them to shape it more successfully to meet their needs”.

The platform is now in a piloting phase. We are happy to receive feedback from new users, and will have a larger scale launch in January!

If you do not manage to access the paper, please email:


* For the purpose of this blog, we will consider the phrase “educational neuroscience” to be equivalent to “Mind, Brain and Education”, which is most often used in the American literature (and in the published research paper).

Rae Snape – Headteacher and National Leader of The Spinney Primary School, Cambridge

raeRae Snape is the Headteacher and National Leader of The Spinney Primary School, Cambridge. She is famous for carrying flamingos with her as a symbol of hope. She spoke at multiple educational conferences, including the “Educated Brain” conference hosted by Cambridge University, and our own CEN seminar. Here, she shares inspirational resources to bring educational neuroscience research into the classroom, putting them into perspective with her core pedagogical values.

Thank you Rae for taking the time to answer our questions. Firstly, what are the core values you aim to implement in the Spinney School?

Our core values are Child-centredness, Teamwork and Community, Excellence, Learning, Improvement, Responsibility, Optimism.  These values successfully inform both the long term strategic vision and the quotidian work of the school.

The intention of our school curriculum is to ensure our young people flourish in five domains; personal, interpersonal, academic, societal and global. We describe ourselves as #pragmaticians. We train our young people to do well in tests and we teach for life!

Our curriculum is designed to teach the statutory national programmes of study in addition to promoting positive behaviours and attitude, and good personal development through the global competencies for deep learning: character education, citizenship, communication, creativity and imagination, critical thinking & problem solving, compassion, and collaboration. Our Spinney Curriculum Intent is:

“We want our children to be happy today, fulfilled in the future and able to make their world an even better place.”

What does educational neuroscience mean to you?

Education neuroscience is a relatively new phenomenon in our profession.  But it is very exciting and has enormous potential to support us to do what we do well and to do that even better!

Can you give some examples of how a scientific approach to education has helped your school?

Having a scientific approach has helped ensure that we take an evidence based approach to teaching in our school to ensure that our curriculum is effective, efficient and enjoyable!

We have a number of examples of scientific approaches to education that have helped our work:

Where possible we try to integrate research and scientific approaches into our teaching. Access to research and scientific approaches has become much easier through blogs and social media and this is a great way for education and the research communities to connect. If we come across something that is beneficial and transferable, one of the teaching faculty will read about it and share it with the rest of the team. We will then discuss it as a faculty and try it out in our classrooms.

Are there any particular strategies you use, that are really successful in your lessons?

Particular evidence based strategies include:

  • STEP4SEAS – Dialogic Literary Gatherings of classic texts promoting improved academic outcomes and social cohesion
  • Mind Up – Combines an understanding of basic neuroscience, daily mindfulness practice, and positive psychology
  • Maths No Problem – An evidence based approach to teaching maths with a focus on creativity, collaboration and problem solving
  • EmpathyLab – EmpathyLab builds children’s empathy, literacy and social activism through a systematic use of high quality literature.
  • Relational Schools Foundationto improve society by strengthening the quality of relationships between people, starting with children in schools.

How do you evaluate their effectiveness?

Children leave our school capable, confident and happy, with positive self-esteem and a love of learning.

In addition results in Standardised National Tests at the end of Key Stage 1 (age 7) and Key Stage 2 (age 11) in Reading, Writing, Maths and Science are higher than Local and National results and progress through the school for all children from their starting points is very good.

Are there areas where you think research should focus next (i.e. what are the important gaps in our understanding)?

I have recently learned about a pedagogic approach developed by Kate McAllister called Hive Learning. This is where the children are responsible for researching and sourcing information and facts on a subject (such as the Vikings) and then collaborate to turn it into teachable content.  I would like to know whether this approach with the children taking the lead would result in better memorisation and retention than typical teacher led instruction.

Are there any tips you would like to give to facilitate partnerships between researchers and educators?

Building positive, reciprocal relationships are key, so meeting face to face and talking things through with the headteacher and then the administrative team is really important! There’s a lot of admin to coordinate before a research project can happen in a school including safeguarding checks and induction, securing parental permissions and finding an available time and space for the research to be undertaken. Once this is all in place researchers need to be as self-managing as possible as there is very little additional human resource to help out. That being said it is also important for researchers to be flexible. Despite the best laid plans it is possible that a researcher could turn up and the group that they are expecting to work with is out on an educational visit – so patience and understanding is key!  The ideal researchers are positive, undemanding, friendly, well-organised, are able to make their own cups of tea and will also help out with the dishwasher rota!

This paper “Lessons for Successful Cognitive Developmental Science in Educational Settings: The Case of Executive Functions” by Michelle Ellefson, Sara Baker and Jenny Gibson, University of Cambridge Faculty will be of interest to readers. “The article gives a reflective account of lessons learned from the experiences of three cognitive developmental scientists conducting psychological research in educational settings” and includes experiences of working in The Spinney.

Thank you very much Rae for your time!

You can follow Rae on Twitter at @RaeSnape

CBCD Anniversary

The Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development turned 21! The research centre was born in 1998 at Birkbeck University, and has, since then, steadily contributed to foster our understanding of children’s development. More specifically, the CBCD focuses on the relation between postnatal brain development and changes in perceptual, cognitive, and linguistic abilities of typically and atypically developing children.


To celebrate the anniversary, a two-days event was held at the Mary Ward House on the 15th and 16th of November. Forty speakers presented their research. The multidisciplinary approach of the CBCD could not be more salient. Studies used a broad variety of methods, including Electroencephalography, Near Infrared Spectroscopy, genetic analyses, or eye-tracking. Multiple areas of knowledge were covered, such as the development of body awareness and goal-directed actions, the organisation and reorganisation of brain networks during language development, or the development of attention and interpersonal communication in typically developing children and in children with autism. Over 15 000 babies and their families came to the Centre, making all these advances possible.

The anniversary was also the opportunity to celebrate the international outreach of the Centre, collaborations being carried out with multiple European countries, the USA, Gambia and India. This is not to forget the diversity of the 125 doctoral students and 65 postdocs who have been trained at the Centre, and who will carry their legacy across the world.

o The program below will give you an overview of the range of speakers and themes that were addressed at the anniversary.

o You can also read Annie Brookman-Byrne’s report about the anniversary, published in the Psychologist. It is full of anecdotes and fun facts about the CBCD. 



Dr. Stuart Ritchie – Polygenic prediction of cognitive traits

The Centre for Educational Neuroscience had the pleasure to receive Dr. Stuart Ritchie for a talk on polygenic scores, and their association with cognitive traits.

You can find Stuart’s most recent publications here, and follow him on Twitter @StuartJRitchie

Me, Human – Our brain as the repository of evolution

We are all individuals, but we acknowledge that we might have inherited grandma’s nose or dad’s extrovert personality. Have you ever thought about what physical and psychological traits, we humans as a species, have inherited from our ancestors?


These are key questions addressed by the “Me, Human” project lead by Dr Gillian Forrester. As she tells it: “As a child, I was fascinated by our closest living relatives – the great apes. I wondered – what do gorillas and chimps think? How similar is their experience of life to mine? I scratched this itch by watching documentaries, reading books and eventually taking degrees in San Diego and Oxford. It was during my studies that I started to learn about brains and how they control behaviour. What struck me as truly incredible was that there are parts of the human brain that come from when humans and fish shared a common ancestor – over 500 million years ago!”

As humans, we are able to think and act in ways unlike any other animal on the planet. Because of these unique capabilities, it is easy to forget that modern human abilities have their origins in a shared evolutionary history. Although we are bipedal and comparatively hairless, we are indeed great apes. In fact, we are not even on the fringes of the great ape family tree – we are genetically closer to chimpanzees than chimpanzees are to gorillas. As such, we share many brain and behaviour traits with our great ape cousins. But, our similarities to other animals date back much farther than our split with an ancestor common to both humans and great apes (approximately 6 million years ago). Some brain and behaviour traits date back over 500 million years –present in early vertebrates and remain preserved in modern humans. It is our similarities and differences to other species that allow us to better understand how we came to be modern humans.

One of our oldest inherited traits is the ‘divided brain’. While our left and right halves of the brain (hemispheres) appear physically similar, they are in charge of different behaviours. Animal studies have highlighted that fishes, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals also possess left and right hemispheres that differentially control certain behaviours. The divided behaviours of these animals provide a window into our ancestral past, telling the story of our shared evolutionary history with early vertebrates.

Studies suggest that the right hemisphere emerged with a specialisation for recognising threat in the environment and controlling escape behaviours and the left hemisphere emerged as dominant for producing motor action sequences for feeding. The divided brain allows for any organism to obtain nourishment whilst keeping alert for predators. We can think of the brain as acting like an ‘eat and not be eaten’ parallel processor.

Considering the consistency in brain side across different animal species, it seems likely that there has been a preservation of these characteristics through evolutionary time. Effectively, we have lugged our useful brain and behavioural traits with us throughout our evolutionary journey. However, little is known about how these old brain traits support modern human behaviours like the way we navigate social environments, kiss, embrace, nurture babies and take a selfie! – inhibiting a better understanding of how, when and why our human unique capabilities emerged and also how they still develop during human infancy and childhood.

In order to answer these questions, scientists from Birkbeck, University of London and collaborating institutions ran the Me, Human live scientific experiment at the Science Museum this summer. This multidisciplinary team of scientists at all levels of their careers from undergraduate students in psychology and biological anthropology to senior academics at leading London universities invited over 1,700 visitors to take part, using their eyes, ears and hands to find out how their ancient brain was influencing their behaviour.


Participants learnt about cutting-edge research and engaged with fun psychology experiments from solving puzzle boards, testing their grip strength and holding and manipulating surprise objects!  Individuals would watch their brain in action, using portable brain-imaging technology as well as put on our magic headphones to test how their brains processed speech.


All this data will shed light on how we, as humans, share a common evolutionary history with other animals – revealing our extraordinary connection to the natural world.


* Note that the specialisations of the left and right hemispheres are presented here within the context of evolution. As explain on our resource “How the Brain Works”: it does not mean that people differ in how much they favour using their ‘left brain’ or their ‘right brain’ and that this produces different cognitive styles and personalities. That’s a brain myth.

Julia Hofweber – Bilingualism and Executive Functions

In this short video, Dr. Julia Hofweber gives an overview of her talk about “The effects of code-switching on bilinguals’ executive functions”.

Julia carried out this work during her PhD program at the University of Reading. She is now a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Psychology and Human Development at UCL, investigating implicit learning in the context of sign language acquisition with Chloe Marshall.

You can find her publications here.

Fun facts about “How the Brain Works”


In this blog, Michael Thomas, Director of the Centre for Educational Neuroscience, shares some fun facts about the brain. More explanations to be found on the website “How the Brain Works
What is the most common misunderstanding about the brain?
That it stops being plastic when you’re older. The brain is plastic throughout the lifespan. Else you wouldn’t remember anything.
Learn more on Learning


If you were designing a brain from scratch is there anything you would do differently?
Having to take the brain off-line for a third of its operational history (during sleep) seems a bit of flaw. That’s 20-30 years lost when we could be doing something useful (though, in the dark, obviously). We need to sleep because the brain thinks with neurons, and learns with multiple neural systems. Neurons need to be metabolically refreshed during the night, and memories consolidated in brain connections. Even your phone can still be used while its recharging…
Learn more on Sleep


What feature of how the brain works is hardest to implement in artificial intelligence?
All the background knowledge that we take for granted when we’re experiencing the world and thinking about it. Researchers called this ‘context’, the expectations and knowledge we bring to every situation, about what’s likely to happen, who we’re likely to meet, what they’ll expect of us, what we’re likely to see and need to do. This is hard to implement because we’re usually not conscious of all this knowledge. Expectations make computations much simpler. Artificial intelligence that doesn’t have this human background knowledge faces much tougher computational challenges, and ends up being very narrow and inflexible in its abilities.
Learn more on Prediction
What is the most unappreciated thing our brains do?
Reach out and pick up a mug of coffee without toppling forward. Arms are heavy, you have to lean back as a counter-balance. Did you even know you were doing that?
Learn more on the Cerebellum



For more information, grab a cup of coffee / tea and visit How the Brain Works“.

Megan Sumeracki, co-founder of the Learning Scientists

megansMegan Sumeracki is an Assistant Professor at Rhode Island College, and the co-founder of the Learning Scientists. Since its creation in 2016, the collaborative group has become a key reference in EdNeuro, broadcasting various resources to better understand learning processes and learning strategies (e.g. podcasts, blog posts, videos). In this blog written for the Centre for Educational Neuroscience, Megan tells us a bit more about the birth of the Learning Scientists, and about her ongoing projects.

Creating The Learning Scientists

In January 2016, I was trying out a new assignment integrating social media into one of my classes. I wanted to teach my students about science communication, particularly how research can be applied in “real life.” I was also thinking a lot about the research I was doing and whether it would ever have an impact. At the same time, Yana Weinstein was having similar thoughts, and we very organically started a Twitter account called @AceThatTest designed to help students find effective study strategies. The account turned into our website, learningscientists.org, and the resources grew organically. We realized quickly that the best way to have an impact on education was to focus on bidirectional communication with teachers, and in that way indirectly help the students. As the project has grown, we have had the opportunity to talk with a lot of teachers around the world about science of learning research, and are always learning from teachers about what research questions would best serve education.

Collaborating with the Learning Agency

As a part of my work with the Learning Scientists, we were thinking about ways to create more free resources aimed at how to implement effective learning strategies in classrooms, and we wanted to focus on how the strategies might be applied in specific content areas. Ulrich Boser, the founder of the Learning Agency, was thinking along the same lines. Our Program Officer at Overdeck, Sarah Johnson, suggested we connect and work together. The project was called “The Science of Learning in Practice”, and involved pairing researchers and teachers to implement evidence-based learning strategies into the classroom. Videos were created to showcase these partnerships; these videos now serve as long-term resources for educators and researchers interested in educational neuroscience. The Learning Agency applied for the grant officially, and I served as a consultant on the grant working on two of the videos. These videos were about dual coding and interleaving practice.

This project was particularly relevant for my research. One focus of my program of research is how we can teach students to effectively utilize learning strategies to improve overall academic success. In this project with the Learning Agency, I was able to work together with teachers to figure out ways to implement science of learning strategies into their classrooms, making it a good fit for me.

I learned a lot throughout this process, and it has had an influence on the way I talk about the strategies with other teachers and my own students. In this blog, I talk about some of the things that I learned and note how truly rewarding it was to work with the two teams of teachers. You can read more about my work with the dual coding team in Memphis here.

You can follow Megan and the Learning Scientists on Twitter @DrSumeracki and @AceThatTest.