What the researchers are talking about: A report on the European Association for Research on Learning and Instruction (EARLI) conference 2023

The field of educational neuroscience has several key conferences where the latest findings are disseminated and discussed. One of those is the European Association for Research on Learning and Instruction (EARLI). EARLI is an international scientific community which supports research in learning and instruction.

In August 2023, EARLI held their 20th Biennial Conference at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and the University of Macedonia. In this blog, CEN member Lucy Palmer reports back on the main themes of the conference and some of the exciting debates, including a look to the future of education


What was EARLI about this year?

This year, the conference theme was “Education as a Hope in Uncertain Times”. Over the last couple of years, rapidly changing technological advancements, fluctuating labour markets, population mobility, political instability and the COVID-19 pandemic have resulted in unprecedented uncertainty for our societies. Consequently, it is important that education can adapt to support individuals facing these challenges and drive positive change through evidence based research.

The event was hosted in the vibrant, multicultural and historical metropolis of Thessaloniki, the second biggest city in Greece. Stroll along the seafront and you will see the famous umbrellas, created by Greek sculptor Giorgios Zongolopoulos in 1997 when Thessaloniki was the European Capital of Culture. Much like its host city, the EARLI 2023 conference was captivating and diverse, with over 2500 attendees from 60 countries, including 1054 academic institutions – the largest number of registrants the conference has seen to date.

With over 550 sessions to choose from over the four day conference, EARLI 2023 provided a plethora of thought-provoking symposia, in-depth discussions, informative talks and posters covering a large variety of research areas. Topics included assessment and evaluation, conceptual change, higher education, instructional design, motivation and emotion, special educational needs and learning and teaching in culturally diverse settings. Naturally, we were drawn to the talks relating to Educational Neuroscience!


How Learning and Education Shape the Brain

The Neuroscience and Education symposium, “How learning and education shape the brain” explored the bi-directional process of how brain processes influence learning and vice versa. This symposium presented both cross sectional and longitudinal research exploring the mechanisms of brain changes as a result of learning, using a multitude of methods (e.g. electroencephalography, magnetic resonance imaging, genetic analysis) and learning topics (e.g. reading, science, maths, executive function) in both typical and atypical populations, as well as populations from the Global South.

Although we still have a long way to go in ensuring education research is generalisable and fully representative, it is encouraging to see an increase in awareness amongst researchers, educators and policymakers regarding the importance of conducting research in under-represented populations; a topic which arose throughout the conference.

The presentations in the Neuroscience and Education symposium demonstrated the pros and cons of using neuroimaging methods to better understand mechanisms of educational interventions.

For example, Professor Tzipi Horowitz (Technion- Israel Institute of Technology) shared her findings from an 8-week executive-function-based reading programme, which resulted in improved reading fluency and greater executive function skills in 8-12 year old children with dyslexia. Additionally, electroencephalography (EEG) data showed increased synchronization of neural circuits supporting visual and auditory modalities, as a result of the engagement of executive functions from the intervention. These findings support the ‘asynchrony’ theory between visual and auditory modalities in dyslexia.

On a similar note, Alexander Enge (Max Plank Institute of Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences) showed how brain responses to written words and spoken words change over time in individual children in rural parts of Northern India, in response to a literacy intervention. Although the work presented was preliminary, this lab showed how bi-monthly fMRI scans can be carried out in hard to reach populations, with the goal of understanding the mechanisms of the literacy intervention.


We presented our promising findings from the Stop & Think intervention developed in the Centre for Educational Neuroscience (www.unlocke.org), as well as some of our follow-up working seeking to tease apart the mechanisms underpinning the successful intervention. At times, this has proven challenging because the tools are not best suited to our target population of 7-10 year olds. Here, we come up against the difficulties of using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to explore mechanisms of inhibitory control in these children – and how these skills can be trained – including the limitations of small sample sizes, drop out and methodological constraints such as scanner resolution and movement sensitivity.

Professor Gregoire Borst (Paris Cité University) presented a solution to some of these problems in the form of  multi-modal methods. This involves combining several different techniques, such as genetic, neuroimaging and behavioural methods, to understanding the mechanisms of inhibitory control training in 10-year-old children. Prof. Borst’s lab found that differences between children in how receptive they were to the inhibitory control training were linked to a combination of genetic, cognitive and anatomical factors.

Overall, this symposium presented a variety of studies on how the brain is influenced by educational interventions, while also demonstrating some of the challenges and solutions within this area of research.

There were also many interesting keynotes throughout the conference. For example, the renowned academic Professor Daniel Ansari (University of Western Ontario) presented his lab’s exceptional work on the developmental trajectory of mathematical skills using both behavioural and neuroimaging methods. Daniel recently presented some of his work in the CEN seminar series: see his talk on the CEN YouTube channel here.

If you are interested in learning more about the research presented at the conference, check out the EARLI website for abstracts and further information  (www.earli.org/events/earli2023).

The future of education panel discussion

As you’ve been reading this blog, I know the excitement has been building, and here it is at last: what did the EARLI conference have to say about the future of education?

Experts in research, policy and education reflected on the challenges for education in the digital era, how to promote education for human flourishing, and how to communicate evidence-based research. Four thought provoking themes leapt to the fore. Here they are (if you agree – or disagree – contribute your thoughts and ideas in the comments section below!)

  1. Which skills will be needed in the next 30 years and therefore need to be taught in educational settings? For example, will the skill of handwriting persist? With today’s technology, we can dictate to text, send a message electronically and have it read back to us by our devices. Which other skills will remain and which will become obsolete and how should we design the curriculum to adapt to these changes? Or will nostalgia for how education has always been hold us back from change?
  2. Are we currently teaching science in the right way? For instance, in formal education, we predominantly teach science as a series of facts. However, science is less about fact learning and more to do with creating hypotheses, asking questions, testing theories and critically analysing evidence. With the recent rise in fake news and unreliable knowledge exacerbated by social media, should we adapt our curriculum to improve the way we teach science and analyse information?
  3. Despite the overwhelming majority of education research being conducted in wealthy, western and well-educated populations, there is a small increase in research being conducted in under-represented populations, but how can we improve the inclusivity of our research and support education for individuals in contexts of severe poverty and without basic needs? In the panel discussion, the issue of rapidly changing political priorities was raised. For example, many programmes that are run to support children from disadvantaged backgrounds often rely on funding from government, but the funding can change depending on the political focus at the time. So how can we use research to create better outcomes for these children? There is no easy or quick solution to this problem, but by bringing people together to discuss these issues, we can raise awareness and influence funding and policymakers’ decisions to support these individuals.
  4. The final theme related to teacher education. When considering the future of education, we often think of how the curriculum can be adapted to support learners, but another major change involves how to best train teachers. What responsibility should universities take to prepare teachers for the future of education? What should be included in the teacher training and CPD curriculum?

In sum, the conference was an exciting hub of new research, discussions and debates about the past, present and future of education research. To find out more, check out the programme, or to sign up as a member click here!




Launching the CEN summer seminar series!


The CEN summer seminar series is up and running. Open to the public and taking place online on Thursdays at 4pm (UK time), with some hybrid sessions, the Centre for Educational Neuroscience seminar series provides bite-sized insights into cutting-edge research in the field, presented by researchers from across the globe.

These seminars are designed for anyone who is interested in educational neuroscience, including teachers, students, researchers, and the general public.

This term, the CEN seminar series offers a wide range of captivating presentations. In our first seminar on Thursday 20th April from 4 pm – 5 pm UK time, we are delighted to welcome Prof Nienke van Atteveldt from Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam who will be talking about the neurocognitive interplay between motivation, learning behavior and achievement. Upcoming highlights include Prof. Roberto Filippi on growing up/becoming multilingual, Dr Dominic Kelly on using secondary data and multiverse analyses to extend adolescent research, Roisin Perry on executive function goes to school: A focus on socioeconomic status and autism, Yasin Arslan on the role of educational neuroscience in teacher training, and Dr Nandini Chatterjee Singh from UNESCO MGIEP asking: can game-play build a better world?

For the full timetable of the seminars on offer this term and to explore recordings of previous seminars, check out our Seminar Series and Conferences website here.

You can also register to receive updates, or check out the CEN twitter for news and information at @UoL_CEN.

CEN’s autumn seminar series is up and running!


Open to the public and taking place online on Thursdays at 4pm (UK time), the Centre for Educational Neuroscience seminar series provides bite-sized insights into cutting-edge research in the field, presented by researchers from across the globe!

These seminars are designed for anyone who is interested in educational neuroscience, including teachers, students, researchers, and the general public.

This term, the CEN seminar series is offering a wide range of captivating presentations. You just missed Tamara Dkaidek (Brunel University) discussing the effects of cycling on the brain (a recording will appear shortly here). If you would like to know more about the development of toolkits to support teachers working with children with ADHD, Dr. Abby Russell (University of Exeter) will be presenting on the 24th November. On December 15th, Dr. Divyangana Rakesh (Harvard University) will be discussing her fascinating work on early adversity and adolescent mental health.

The CEN is also thrilled to host a symposium from the International Mind Brain and Education Society on 3rd November, exploring the role of executive function in maths in early childhood, with presentations from Dr Andy Ribner (University of Pittsburgh), Dr Caylee Cook (University of Witwatersrand), Dr Rebecca Merkley (Carleton University) and Dr Dana Miller-Cotto (Kent State University). This will be an excellent opportunity to hear about brilliant research in Educational Neuroscience from across the pond- you don’t want to miss this one!

For the full timetable of the seminars on offer this term and to explore recordings of previous seminars, check out our Seminar Series and Conferences website here.

You can also register to receive updates, or check out the CEN twitter for news and information at @UoL_CEN.

Join an online roundtable hosted by UNESCO MGIEP on reimagining education: September 15 2022


The International Science and Evidence based Education (ISEE) Assessment is an initiative of the UNESCO Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development (MGIEP).  It complements UNESCO’s Futures of Education initiative, launched in 2021, which is spearheading a global debate on how knowledge, education and learning need to be reimagined in a world of increasing complexity, uncertainty, and precarity.

To inform that debate, the ISEE Assessment brought together multi-disciplinary expertise on educational systems to provide a scientifically robust and evidence-based assessment that could inform education policy making at all levels and scales. The full ISEE Assessment report was launched in March 2022.

UNESCO MGIEP, in collaboration with the Institute of Education, UCL’s Faculty of Education and Society, will host a discussion on the findings from the Reimagining Education report and the policy and practice imperatives it puts forward to reimagine learning systems for the future. An online roundtable discussion will examine the report’s findings with key stakeholders, including policymakers, academics and the student body, the media, and the wider public. The CEN’s Dr. Jo van Herwegen contributed to the report, while CEN’s Director, Prof. Michael Thomas, will serve as an external expert on the roundtable.

You are invited to join the session 3-5pm (UK BST; 2-4pm GMT).

Further information and a link to book online attendance can be found here.

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!