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.

Neuroscience in the Classroom: Current Progress and Future Challenges


The Wellcome Trust hosted the CEN’s eagerly anticipated workshop last Friday 17th March, which was organised by a group of PhD students from the CEN. Nearly 100 delegates attended, with a broad spread of academics, students, teachers, consultants and individuals from charities and organisations.

The morning’s sessions focused on research linking different aspects of brain and cognitive functioning to children’s academic performance and skills. Professor Gaia Scerif’s excellent keynote talk opened the workshop. She presented findings on various aspects of attention control and preschool maths from an integrated cognitive, neuroscientific and educational perspective. Three talks followed focusing on children’s educational outcomes. Dr Denes Szucs, University of Cambridge (pictured above), firstly discussed the cognitive correlates of dyscalculia and discussed the characteristics of individuals who suffer from maths anxiety. On the latter topic, he suggested that maths ability doesn’t always correlate with anxiety; some individuals with strong maths skills still experience maths anxiety. Dr Sinead Rhodes, University of Edinburgh, presented data which suggested that visual-spatial working memory was predictive of conceptual understanding of chemistry. Finally, Dr Michelle Ellefson, University of Cambridge, discussed her recent research which compares parent and child cognitive data between the UK and Hong Kong. Interestingly, her findings indicate that children from Hong Kong performed better on tests of executive function than children in the UK, but, parents performed at a similar level between the two countries.

During lunch, 15 posters were presented on a range of topics including spatial cognition and maths and science reasoning and inhibitory control. The two winners of the poster prize were Marialivia Bernardi (academic achievement in children with typical and atypical motor coordination: the contribution of intellectual ability and executive functioning) and Eugenia Marin-Garcia (functional neuroimaging of the testing effect). The prizes were presented by Lia Commissar, project manager for the Wellcome Trust’s Neuroscience and Education project.

The afternoon focused on neuroscience-informed interventions. Representatives of the Wellcome / Education Endowment Foundation funded intervention projects each presented a 15-minute summary of their progress and discussed any challenges they have experienced to date. This was then followed by a lively and thought-provoking panel discussion involving the project representatives, chaired by Professor Gaia Scerif. Delegates had been invited during the day to submit their questions, which were addressed by the panel and the audience. A common theme was discussing ways in which teachers and researchers could better connect; for example, in terms of teachers being able to access research findings. Professor Courtenay Norbury suggested that becoming a school governor has been an excellent way for her to get more closely involved in schools.

Overall, we were thrilled by the response to day both in terms of the excellent feedback we received and the number of people showing interest in the workshop. Because we had nearly 100 people on the waiting list for places who we were unable to invite, we decided to film the event and will making this available shortly. Watch this space.

Learnus conference on neuroscience and the future of education (London, 9 February 2017)

Our collaborators, the think tank Learnus, are staging their first conference, in partnership with the Association of School and College Leaders, entitled “FutureEd: How can Findings from Educational Neuroscience Reshape Teaching and Learning now and in the Future?”

The conference will be held at the Holiday Inn, Bloomsbury, on Thursday 9th February 2017. For more details, see futureed-conference

The mission of Learnus is to act as a bridge between the latest academic research and the classroom and to share their findings with education policy makers.

Curious Brains


Professor Derek Bell from Learnus (one of CEN’s collaborators) gave a presentation last week at the Second Neurocuriosity Workshop, on information-seeking, curiosity and attention. The workshop was hosted by The Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development (Birkbeck) and brought together cognitive neuroscientists, psychologists, and educators interested in the role of curiosity in learning.

Given Learnus’ mission – to facilitate in the translation of research to educational implications and practice – Derek’s talk focused on how scientific research in curiosity might help answer the perennial teachers’ question, “So what do I do in my lessons next week?”.

Derek emphasised that the link between education and neuroscience is not a simple straight line. While there is an appetite among teachers for new methods stemming from research on the brain, this places a responsibility on those working in the field to assure the quality of the information that is shared. Derek focused on key questions including: What is curiosity in the classroom? How does it differ from interest? How can curiosity be harnessed for learning? How does the neuroscience understanding of the basis of curiosity (in exploration, information gain, and reward seeking) link to classroom learning activities?

He drew some tentative conclusions from the research presented at the workshop: Curiosity consolidates learning. It may act as a positive feedback loop, with curiosity stimulating learning, and learning in turn stimulating more curiosity. However, curiosity, surprise, rewards and memory are tightly interlinked concepts. Practical strategies to stimulate curiosity and generate interest in lessons might include the use of surprise items and events, rewards, and questions.

But also he also stressed the importance of dialogue between different professional communities to facilitate understanding the concrete implications of cutting edge research, and whether they yet justify any major changes in teachers’ practice.

In the following discussion, two points emerged. The first concerned the challenge of ‘bringing curiosity to the fore’ and the suggestion that having some structure or task to help focus the curiosity might be more productive for students than situations in which the questions are completely open or students engaging in what might be referred to as ‘idle curiosity’.

The second was the idea that curiosity is not a ‘one-off event’, so there is a need to explore ways of sustaining curiosity so that it becomes a longer term interest in the material and, more broadly, in learning about the world and how it works.

CEN Research Seminars – Autumn programme

The CEN research seminars will recommence next week on Thursday 13th October at 4pm. These seminars are open to anyone with an interest in educational neuroscience, including educators and members of the public. The seminar series will run weekly during term time, and will be held in Birkbeck, University of London.

Some of the upcoming talks: Thursday 13th October 2016: Prof. Michael Thomas “Is educational neuroscience all it’s cracked up to be?” Later in the term: Prof. Ted Melhuish “Long-term effects of early years experience”. Discussion paper: “Genomic basis of educational attainment”

If you are interested in being added to our mailing list for further seminar details, please email us at centre4educationalneuroscience@gmail.com

Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience celebrates 20 years

Congratulations to the UCL’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, celebrating its 20 year anniversary. To mark this occasion, the Institute is holding a 1-day event on 11th June 2016. “Mind the Brain” will feature short 15-minute talks from 12 different researchers at the forefront of cognitive neuroscience. To close the day, there will be a panel discussion focusing on how the future of cognitive neuroscience will affect the lives of the public.


UCL-IOE / HKU Education & Neuroscience Collaboration: Friday 15th January

You are warmly invited to take part in the upcoming, second instalment of an exciting digital and e-learning collaboration between UCL-IoE and Hong Kong University.

Intended to facilitate inclusive and accessible conversations about current trends in education and neuroscience, and to link researchers working in different parts of the world, this Friday’s session will consist of;
  • Prof. Andrew Tolmie (UCL-IoE), presenting on Observation, Description and Explanation in Primary School Science
  • Prof. Michael Thomas (BBK) speaking on The Cognitive Neuroscience of Socioeconomic Status
  • Prof. Emily Farran (UCL-IoE) presenting a paper entitled A Multilevel Approach to Understanding Development

Abstracts are available here…

As this is a digital seminar, the session will be broadcast online, and is therefore intended to be accessed remotely from anywhere via a link sent to those who sign-up. Similarly, participants will have the opportunity to ask questions of each other and the speakers via the twitter hashtag #UCL_EdNeuro and a google-hangout. There is also an opportunity to attend the session in person over coffee at UCL-IoE.
For more information and to sign-up, follow the Eventbrite link here… 

New Workshop on Current Issues in Educational Neuroscience for graduate students and researchers: Friday 20th November, 9:00 – 17:00

Current Issues in Educational Neuroscience: A workshop sponsored by the Bloomsbury and UCL Doctoral Training Centres

Date and time: Friday 20th November 2015, Registration from 9:00, workshop 9:30 – 17:00

Location: Room B34, Birbeck, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HX (updated location)

This full day workshop features a keynote presentation by Professor Daphne Bavelier entitled “Learning and transfer: Lessons from action video games”, two themed sessions on educational neuroscience (on the training of executive functions, and on the environmental factors associated with cognitive development and learning), a lunchtime poster session, and a panel discussion.


Professor Daphne Bavelier (University of Geneva) is a cognitive neuroscientist who studies brain plasticity. Her research tackles questions such as: What are the factors that promote such learning and brain plasticity? Are some parts of our nervous system more plastic than others, making some skills easier to acquire?

Professor Bavelier presented the popular TED talk “Your brain on video games”.

Who is the workshop for? MPhil/PhD students, MSc students, and early career researchers

Is there a registration fee? No, registration is free, but you must register to attend.

How do I book? To reserve your place, please email the Centre for Educational Neuroscience administrator at centre4educationalneuroscience@gmail.com, with NOVEMBER WORKSHOP in the subject line. Please indicate in the email what programme you are studying on.

Can I present a poster? If you have research to present that is relevant to educational neuroscience (in its broadest sense) we would love to hear from you. Please email a 300 word abstract of your poster to the Centre for Educational Neuroscience administrator at centre4educationalneuroscience@gmail.com, with NOVEMBER WORKSHOP POSTER in the subject line.

CEN Research Group autumn schedule now available

The CEN Research Group, which is open to those interested in the latest developments in educational neuroscience, meets weekly at 4pm on Thursday afternoons.

Our autumn schedule is now available here. The first meeting is on Thursday 15th October, with a journal paper presentation from Emily Farran. On 22nd October, Sarah Punshon will be talking about her new Wellcome-Funded project: “Getting stuck, going wrong and being stupid: could a theatrical adventure impact children’s beliefs about their mathematical brains?”. On Thursday 29th October, Dr. Ben Shaw from the University of Westminster will present his research on “Children’s Independent Mobility: how much freedom do our children have to get about by themselves and does independence affect child development?”


The CEN Research Group is open to faculty members, postdoctoral fellows, and students at Birkbeck and UCL (especially those on the Educational Neuroscience and Developmental Sciences masters, and PhD students studying relevant topics). It is also open to educationalists, educational psychologists, and interested teachers. Meetings aim to enable an atmosphere of informal discussion of the latest findings in neuroscience and psychology, and their relevance to education. If you would like to attend, please contact us at: centre4educationalneuroscience@gmail.com