Advancing children’s STEM abilities through spatial reasoning


Spatial reasoning (also referred to as spatial thinking) is identified by research as a key contributor to mathematical learning. Prof Emily Farran, member of the CEN research group, has been collaborating with colleagues Sue Gifford, Cath Gripton, Helen Williams, Andrea Lancaster, Alison Borthwick (from the Early Childhood Maths Group), Kathryn Bates, Ashley Williams and Katie Gilligan-Lee to create a Spatial Reasoning Toolkit.

Spatial reasoning is now part of the statutory Educational Programme for children from birth to five years in England (DfE, 2021). In response to this requirement, the toolkit is designed to support the mathematical learning of children between the ages of birth and seven years. The toolkit, which is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and the Centre for Educational Neuroscience, includes a guidance document, a learning trajectory, posters and explainer videos and is aimed at teachers, practitioners and parents alike.

Spatial reasoning involves perceiving the location, dimensions and properties of objects and their relationships to one another. We use spatial reasoning every day of our lives. Whether we’re packing a suitcase, organising furniture or stacking the dishwasher, our spatial reasoning plays a part. In recent years, the causal association between these skills and abilities in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) has been increasingly recognised.

In science, for example, we use illustrations to depict DNA sequences, we use spatial scaling to illustrate cells and even the solar system, and we rely on the spatial arrangement of the periodic table to gauge relationships between elements. In maths, we arrange numbers spatially and use graphs to visualise data. All of these require spatial reasoning.

In a recent survey led by Emily Farran, practitioners expressed that one barrier to implementing spatial reasoning in the home, nursery or classroom was limited training and subject knowledge. This has an impact on practitioners’ ability to support children’s spatial reasoning development. Offering teachers, practitioners and parents access to the Spatial Reasoning Toolkit will begin to address this need.

Spatial learning and training is clearly effective and has long lasting benefits in the fields of STEM and the structure provided by the Spatial Reasoning Toolkit will help practitioners to support children’s spatial reasoning skills in the early stages of learning.

To read more about the project, click here.

To access the Spatial Reasoning Toolkit, click here.

For information on the launch event for the Spatial Reasoning Toolkit on Monday 28 February 2022, see here.

It’s spring! The CEN online seminar series returns


The Centre for Educational Neuroscience Online Seminars will be returning next week on Thursday Jan 21. Please see below for the full term’s schedule. Seminars will take place on Thursdays from 4 pm – 5 pm UK time. Abstracts and Zoom links for each talk will be circulated via the mailing list on the Monday of each week. To help us keep the seminar secure, we kindly request that you direct colleagues and students who are interested in attending to sign up to the mailing list here.

Spring term seminar schedule

  • Jan 21 – Dr Jonathon Beale (Tony Little Centre for Innovation and Research in Learning, Eton College) – “Educational Neuroscience and Educational Neuroscientism”
  • Jan 28 – Prof Michael Thomas (Birkbeck, University of London) – “Key themes emerging from the CEN‘s new book on Educational Neuroscience”
  • Feb 04 – Professor Derek Bell (Learnus) and Dr Helen M. Darlington (South Wirral High School) – “Educational neuroscience: so what does it mean in the classroom?”
  • Feb 11 – Dr Gavin Breslin (University of Ulster) – “How Physical Activity and Sport can Impact Mental Health and Wellbeing across Educational Setting”
  • Feb 18 – Dr Rebecca Gordon (UCL Institute of Education) – ” Mapping Components of Verbal and Visuospatial Working Memory to Mathematical Topics in Seven- to Fifteen-year-olds”
  • Feb 25 – Dr Hiwet Costa (Numerical Cognition Lab, Universidad de Málaga) – “First Spanish online dyscalculia test: a validation study”
  • Mar 04 – Dr Karla Holmboe (University of Oxford) – “Development of inhibitory control across the infancy-toddlerhood transition”
  • Mar 11 – Dr Bert De Smedt (University of Leuven) – “Individual differences in early mathematical development: the roles of symbolic number processing and more”
  • Mar 18 – John Bishop (Evolve Education) – “Detail matters. Why delivering successful school based research projects is so difficult”
  • Mar 25 – Prof Gaia Scerif (University of Oxford) – “Attention and the classroom: Development under high genetic or environmental risk”

IBE-UNESCO Webinar: The neuroscience of learning: Relevance and prospects in the time of COVID-19 (December 4 2020)

ibe_webinarThis event, co-organised by the International Bureau of Education (IBE-UNESCO) and the International Brain Research Organisation (IBRO), seeks to contribute to closing the gap between scientific knowledge on learning and its application to education policies and practice. Michael Thomas, Director of the CEN, is a contributing panelist.

The panelists are:

  • David Bueno, University of Barcelona
  • Donna Coch, Dartmouth College
  • Joel Talcott, Aston Institute of Health and Neurodevelopment
  • Grégoire Borst, Paris Descartes, CPSC
  • Michael Thomas, Birkbeck, University of London
  • Crystal Johnson, IBE & CCJ Consulting

Details of how to register for this free webinar can be found here. The webinar will take place at 3pm GMT / 4pm CET on Friday 4 December 2020.

A scientific groundwork for education and learning has the potential to revolutionise the current understanding of learning and to provide an expanded, updated, and potentially useful toolkit to shape educational practice and policy. To effectively envision and guide critical improvements and reforms, policy makers, practitioners, and researchers need to be fully cognisant of this momentous dialogue between education and the science of learning. This dialogue is now more relevant than ever. Besides leading to an extraordinary global health and economic crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to unprecedented educational disruptions, with unprecedented government responses (UN 2020, UNESCO 2020, World Bank 2020). This webinar considers how the neuroscience of learning can contribute to understanding and addressing the global educational challenges created by the pandemic.

Educational neuroscience and International Literacy Day 2020


Tuesday September 8 was International Literacy Day 2020. UNESCO marked the day by holding a global meeting on ‘Literacy teaching and learning in the COVID-19 crisis and beyond’. Globally, basic literacy skills and more than 617 million children and adolescents are not achieving minimum proficiency levels in reading and mathematics. During the initial phase of the pandemic, schools were closed down in more than 190 countries, disrupting the education of two thirds of the world’s student population. The COVID-19 crisis has magnified existing literacy challenges, deeply affecting schooling and lifelong learning opportunities including for youth and adults with no or low literacy skills.

UNESCO’s global meeting brought together international experts in literacy teaching and learning, with the aim of enhancing understandings about the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on teaching and learning of youth and adult literacy and reflecting on reimagined teaching approaches in times of the COVID-19 crisis and beyond.

The CEN’s Director, Michael Thomas, contributed to a meeting session on ‘Reimagined literacy teaching and learning and the role of educators’. He presented the neuroscience perspective and addressed the question of whether neuroscience points to any differences in learning ability in youth and adults that may impact literacy learning, and provides useful knowledge to educators.

Professor Thomas made the following points:

  1. The adult brain has lifelong plasticity, but may need more practice to make skills automatic, and modified teaching methods to help with perceptual learning.
  2. Adult learners need personal relevance, peer support networks, and community buy-in to motivate the required levels of practice.
  3. There can be wider barriers to success than individual brains, including education, policy, and cultural factors.
  4. The COVID-19 crisis is likely to be largely negative for adult learners but there may be opportunities to build back better through technological solutions to augment teaching. However, particularly in rural areas, such opportunities crucially depend on the strength of the IT infrastructure.

Mr. David Atchoarena, Director of UNESCO’s Institute for Lifelong Learning, who was chairing the session, drew the following conclusions:

  • The COVID-19 crisis has made existing challenges in global literacy teaching and learning worse
  • The response to these challenges should leverage new knowledge emerging from fields such as neuroscience, AI and data analytics, as well as building on the established understanding of teaching and learning principles
  • The financial impact of the crisis presents new challenges regarding the financing of education, both in terms of each country’s percentage spend on education and the amount targeted towards literacy. How can we make sure that literacy is prioritised in this new financial climate, and that funding still reaches the most marginalised in society?

See here for the CEN’s report, commissioned by the World Bank, on neuroscience and adult literacy programmes published earlier this year.

Update: SEN conference goes on-line


EARLI SIG 15’s August conference (10-12th) on “Intellectual difficulties and inclusion: Challenges (and solutions) for the future” has now moved online. You can find the exciting programme below.

Special Interest Group (SIG) 15 is an international scientific research interest group within EARLI (European Association for Research on Learning and Instruction). SIG 15 brings together early career and established researchers and other stakeholders (e.g., practitioners, associations, charities), from across the globe, with an interest in the education and inclusion of individuals with special educational needs (SEN) of all ages.

The main conference runs on Monday 10th and Tuesday 11th of August 2020. Confirmed keynotes include: Professor Maria Chiara Passolunghi and Professor Brahm Norwich.

On Wednesday 12th of August, the conference hosts a workshop and discussion on “Research and SEN: challenges and solutions for the future


Registration is still open! To register please click here:



Find out about baby brains


On Thursday 25th January, the CEN had a visit from Dr Silvia Dalvit, founder and director of the company Babybrains. Silvia, a cognitive neuroscientist and Birkbeck alumna, explained to us how she has created an app for new parents. The app gives parents weekly age-appropriate science-based activities, each only a few minutes long, to try out with their baby. These activities target different areas of babies’ language, perceptual, social and motor development.

Dr. Dalvit said, “Importantly, these activities are designed to be fun and to empower parents in being attuned to their baby’s development.” The app aims to communicate research findings on the cognitive neuroscience of development to the most important people in the baby’s life!

Maximising the adolescent brain: FutureEd18


What makes teenagers tick? Why does their behaviour seem to be erratic at times? How can we help them maximise their potential? What does the research on the adolescent brain tell us? These questions will be considered at the Learnus FutureEd18 conference, Wednesday February 7th, 2018. Speakers include Prof. Sarah-Jayne Blakemore (The Secret Life of the Teenage Brain) and Prof. Sophie Scott (fresh from her Royal Institution lectures). Further details.

All Special Kids conference – Educational Neuroscience and Special Educational Needs


CEN director Professor Michael Thomas and CEN member Professor Chloë Marshall were keynote speakers at a conference in Geneva, Switzerland, organised by ASK (All Special Kids). ASK is a non-governmental organisation that supports children with special educational needs, and their families and teachers. The theme of ASK’s annual conference this year was educational neuroscience.

Chloë’s workshop on the afternoon of Friday 6th October 2017 was entitled “Educational neuroscience: neuromyths and neurohits in the education of children with special educational needs”. It introduced teachers to educational neuroscience as a discipline and how its findings might support children with special educational needs. It generated a valuable discussion about how to evaluate educational interventions that claim to have a basis in neuroscience, and how to identify neuromyths.

Michael’s presentation on the morning of Saturday 7th October 2017 was entitled “Educational neuroscience aims to use insights into brain function to shape educational practices – How can it help children with special educational needs?” It considered the links between new findings in neuroscience and teaching approaches for children with Special Educational Needs. The session sparked a great deal of interest amongst parents and teachers alike.

Cambridge seminars on the Educated Brain #3: Effective translation

The University of Cambridge will shortly host the third of three ESRC-funded research seminars on The Educated Brain, on Friday 13th October 2017. The first seminar considered Foundations of the Educated Brain: Infancy and Early Childhood, while the second seminar addressed The Educated Brain: Late Childhood and Adolescence. The final seminar is entitled Effectively translating neuroscience for teaching practice: Opportunities and next steps.
Provisional programme
Venue: Kaetsu Conference Centre Murray Edwards College
12.30 – 17:00: Includes lunch, short talks and discussion and will be followed by a networking reception
Confirmed speakers include:
Rachel Snape (Head Teacher, Spinney Primary School)
Paul Howard-Jones (Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol)
Jon Simons (Department of Psychology, University of Cambridge)
Sara Baker (Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge)
Michelle Ellefson (Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge)
The seminar is organised in collaboration with Learnus.

Diagnosis – which diagnosis? Pitfalls and prospects for supporting the struggling learner


In the second Annual Learnus Public Lecture on educational neuroscience held at Church House in Westminster on 17th May 2017, Professor Sue Gathercole (MRC-CBU, University of Cambridge) talked about the challenges faced by families, practitioners and policy-makers in supporting children who are struggling to learn.

She identified major hazards. These include social inequities, difficulties in identifying underlying problems in children whose first language is not English, haphazard routes to professional help, dependence on diagnoses that are of limited value, and an unrealistic emphasis on cure rather than compensation.

Prof. Gathercole argued that diagnoses of specific disorders, such as dyslexia, dyspraxia, developmental language disorder, dyscalculia and ADHD, might provide re-assurance to parents and access to therapeutic resources. However, more often than not, children exhibit more than one ‘disorder’, symptoms can be highly variable for child assigned the same disorder, and separate diagnoses play down the similarities often shown between children with different disorders. Individual diagnoses therefore can hinder identification of underlying cause or most pragmatic treatment.

She illustrated some of the challenges by describing recent research on struggling learners at the Centre for Attention, Learning, and Memory (CALM). In one study, a large sample of over 400 children were recruited through educational referrals for a range of learning problems. Detailed profiling of the children indicated that dimensions of cognition and behaviour were more important than diagnoses. She also presented evidence on when intensive cognitive training could be most effective. While no panacea, it was most beneficial when children had to learn to do something new, rather than striving to overcome a narrow core problem.

Lastly, neuroimaging of the brain structure of the struggling learners pointed to inefficient white matter connectivity as a marker of learning problems. Indeed, measures of brain connectivity could predict maths and reading ability.

An enthusiastic audience raised a number of questions in the Discussion session, including the relative neglect of secondary education as a period to remediate deficits not addressed through early intervention, the importance of the child’s self-esteem in response to their slower learning progress, and the role of the teacher in identifying each child’s strengths as a foundation on which to build strategies to overcome their difficulties. Professor Gathercole finished by describing an ambitious future project to collect advice and tips from university students who have overcome learning challenges on the best strategies to pass on to the struggling learners of tomorrow.