New Podcast: Meet the education researcher

Listen to Michael Thomas’s new podcast with Neil Selwyn from Monash University, Australia, in Neil’s series “Meeting the Education Researcher“:

“Many people expect neuroscience to change our understanding of education. Michael Thomas (Birkbeck University) is director of the Centre for Educational Neuroscience in London. In this episode, Michael talks about what educators need to know about how the brain works, avoiding ‘disciplinary wars’ between psychology & neuroscience, and the need to balance a ‘medical model’ of learning with societal concerns about education.”

Funded PhD studentship in Educational Neuroscience available


Applications are welcomed for a new PhD studentship in educational neuroscience, co-funded by ESRC UBEL Doctoral Training Partnership and Evolve. The studentship is to work on a project entitled “Evaluation of a child-centred intervention targeting wellbeing and
cognitive skills in primary age children” and is available to start in October 2021.

The student will work on a collaborative project between the Centre for Educational Neuroscience and Evolve, a social enterprise, to carry out and evaluate a trial to improve wellbeing and cognitive skills in primary age children in the Doncaster area. The PhD student will be involved in delivering the intervention in the academic year 2021-22, evaluating the trial’s outcome, and exploring the underlying mechanisms of any improvements. The student will gain training in the interdisciplinary field of educational neuroscience from the academic partners, and experience with Evolve in the operation of a social enterprise developing educational interventions of potential societal impact. See here for further details. Applications can be made via the UBEL portal or direct to Professor Andy Tolmie providing a CV and a statement of interest in the project.

Deadline for applications is 5 March 2021.

Parents matter: Creating a short course that marries neuroscience, pedagogy and parenting


Ruth Martin is the founder and owner of Artisans Montessori Kindergarten. This year, Ruth completed the Masters in Educational Neuroscience course offered by Birkbeck and UCL. She recently put together a course for parents of children at her school that combined neuroscience, pedagogy, and parenting themes. Here she reflects on her experiences designing the course and the parents’ responses:

“Parenting is tough. I know, I have four wonderful children of my own and I have taught hundreds of others. Why aren’t parents treated with the respect they deserve for the incredibly difficult task they do? Why aren’t they listened to with compassion and informed with solicitous care? The media is saturated with desperate stories of family trauma; political policy regards children as future capital to be maximised; schools are cynical at best; meanwhile neuroscience stays firmly inside its academic fortress or risks being simplified into quick fix nonsense.

As a teacher and an educational neuroscience student I am perplexed and saddened that most educational and neuroscientific literature either ignores parents as an audience or assumes the worst. So, in my Montessori Kindergarten, I created a short course for parents to explore interrelations between concepts from neuroscience, pedagogy and parenting. From the graciously analytical feedback the attending parents gave, three overarching themes became clear.


Firstly, our hard working, nuclear family society has created a divide between care and education that is new in human history. Neuroscience’s unique perspective offers an opportunity to reunite care and education as the single continuum of a child’s lived environment and this gift was relished by parents. In contrast to both pedagogy and parenting, neuroscience concepts had an ever increasing impact on parental behaviours and choices through the study; “I find the neuroscience is a way I can keep making sure my parenting is the best it can be”, commented one parent.

Secondly, the implied value base of our educational and political structures is that children are adults-in-waiting. The evidence of developmental neuroscience is that childhood offers unique potentialities which, if nourished, could create the threshold for positive change; parents embraced that. One parent commented “These sessions make me realise that childhood is special and different to being an adult… [children] are better at taking risks and trying new things, and we ought to let them, not get anxious about it.” Children are not replicas of their ancestors, but citizens of the future, and society risks self-harming if it fails to provide children with the space and time to ferment change.

Finally, parents actively sought to use neuroscience to support mental and emotional health as this parent’s comment illustrates, “I know the experiences are what are shaping his mental health and his character and not the facts he knows. Providing experience and empathy has given us both space to be contented”. Neuroscience has proven the critical reverberations of relationships, demonstrating the prioritisation of safety, survival and social connection present in the hierarchies of brain functions. Public and professional conversations around mental health are drawing on neuroscientific insight into how this impact takes effect, the answer has the potential to be pivotal in how we, as a society, choose to conduct and model relationships with and around children. Maybe it will be this that finally makes the professional and academic elite realise that their sterile, orderly worlds would be more luminous, fulfilling and accurate if they sought and valued parenting as a dynamic cauldron of expertise.

The feedback from the parents attending my course offers a glimpse of how, in the tender membranes between neuroscience, pedagogy and parenting, there are many latent opportunities for a symbiotic relationship between all three practices. A relationship which, in the future, could underpin a more generous experience for children of their childhood and a more intimate intergenerational and interprofessional society.”

New book on practical strategies to bring educational neuroscience into the classroom in secondary schools


Our colleagues at BrainCanDo have published an excellent new edited volume that provides teachers and school leaders with a concise summary of how some of the latest research in educational neuroscience and psychology can improve learning outcomes in secondary schools.

Here’s an excerpt from the Foreword, written by CEN Director, Michael Thomas, giving an overview of the book:

“What most sets this volume apart from others in the field is its focus on adolescence. It is noticeable how the educational neuroscience and psychological research taken to be of translational interest to education differs with the age of the child. For early years education, the interest is in basic sensori-motor skills, oral language development, behavioural regulation, and socio-emotional development – skills that contribute to school readiness. For primary school age, the focus shifts to core cognitive skills underlying academic abilities, such as numeracy, literacy and reasoning, the limits imposed by the development of skills of cognitive control, and more sophisticated socio-emotional skills involved in peer group formation and dynamics. Consider then, the topics considered in a volume aimed at secondary school: character development, gratitude, motivation, mindset, metacognition, regulation of sleep, extended musical training (Chapters 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11). The focus has shifted again, beyond core skills to children’s understanding of their own learning and their motivations to learn. The individual must learn where he or she needs to put in effort to achieve their goals, and indeed to decide what those goals are – who they are as individuals.” (p.3)

Wearing face coverings and the impact on children’s spoken language comprehension


On the advice of the UK government, more and more people are wearing face coverings in order to reduce COVID-19 transmission. However, face coverings muffle the sounds of speech, and – if they are opaque, as the vast majority are – they make it impossible to read the wearer’s lips. They also make emotional expressions on the face harder to identify. Face coverings therefore reduce the auditory and visual cues that are necessary for successful spoken language communication.

The likely impact on communication in noisy environments, for people who are not proficient English speakers, and for people who are deaf and hard of hearing is obvious. A further group likely to be impacted are children, whose language system is not yet fully developed and who are still on their way to gaining the sophisticated language knowledge that can be used to ‘fill in the blanks’ when something is not heard or understood.

CEN member Prof. Chloë Marshall and her colleagues at UCL and the University of Cologne have a particular interest in the multimodality of communication, and they are studying how multimodal cues support young children’s spoken language learning*. When we speak we don’t just produce speech sounds, we communicate in other ways, too. We use our hands to point, to gesture the forms of the things we are talking about, and to add emphasis to something important. We use eye gaze to direct the attention of the person or people we are communicating with and to regulate conversational turn-taking. We modulate the pitch, tone and speed of our voice to emphasise certain meanings, and we use sound effects and onomatopeia.

Chloë and her colleagues’ research is demonstrating that these cues play an important role in supporting children’s language development and that they contribute to making communication with children successful. And yet, many parents, caregivers and teachers are unaware that they have this rich set of multimodal resources at their disposal.

In order to help adults who communicate regularly with children to think about how to make their communication clearer while wearing a face covering, Chloë and her colleagues have produced a poster. The poster outlines some of the communicative challenges of wearing a face covering and some of the ways in which those challenges can be overcome using multimodal communication. It is free to download here and can be distributed electronically or printed out. Please do use it if you think it will be helpful!


*Their project, titled The role of iconicity in word learning, is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. You can watch a short video presentation of this project here.

Our new educational neuroscience book is now shipping


The first volume to bring together the latest knowledge on educational neuroscience from a life-span perspective, this important text offers state of the art, authoritative research findings before providing evidence-based recommendations for classroom practice.

Here’s a sneak preview of the introduction “Educational Neuroscience: Why Is Neuroscience Relevant to Education?”

Receive a 20% discount when ordering from the website by using the code FLR40 at the checkout page!


COVID-19 and children’s return to school – Evidence to inform decision-making


In making decisions around the timing of children’s return to school following the COVID-19 crisis, it is quite right that policymakers, educators, and parents prioritise evidence around health risks. However, balanced decision-making also requires considering the evidence regarding the impact of delaying children’s return to school on educational and psychosocial outcomes.

Here we summarise some educational, psychological, and neuroscientific evidence regarding:

  • risks that continued homeschooling will exaggerate the attainment gap between children from different socioeconomic groups
  • limits in the effectiveness of online learning when used on its own
  • the greater social impact of a delayed return to school on adolescents, for whom contact with their peer group is particularly important

COVID-19 and social inequalities

Since the end of March, schools have been closed to all but the children of key workers and specific groups of vulnerable children. It is becoming increasingly clear that the Covid-19 pandemic is impacting disproportionately more children from low socioeconomic backgrounds and children in difficultly more generally. The Sutton Trust has released several reports examining the impact of school closure on children, with an eye on its ultimate impact on their social mobility. We summarise the results of one of their key reports[i] focussing on school closures.

The authors find that 23% of pupils are reported to be taking part in live and recorded lessons online every day. However, pupils from middle class homes are much more likely to do so (30%), compared to working class pupils (16%). The home learning environment is linked with academic outcomes[ii], but it is likely to play an even more critical role now. More than three quarters of parents with a postgraduate degree, and just over 60% of those with an undergraduate degree felt confident directing their child’s learning, compared to less than half of parents with A level or GCSE level qualifications.

In the most deprived schools, 15% of teachers report that over a third of their students would not have adequate access to an electronic device for learning from home, compared to only 2% in the most affluent state schools. Inequalities in support are being reflected in the amount and quality of work received by teachers. Fifty percent of teachers in private schools report they are receiving more than three quarters of work back, compared with 27% in the most advantaged state schools, and just 8% in the least advantaged state schools.

Teachers were asked for their preferred strategies to prevent some pupils from falling behind during the period of shutdown. Over half of secondary teachers cited the provision of tech devices. Another popular option was providing less well-off families with stationery and curriculum resource packs, which could help to alleviate the divide in digital access. Half of teachers also supported some form of staggered return to school, or summer ‘catch up classes’ for disadvantaged pupils, to give them a chance of restarting school on an equal footing.

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) has also raised concerns. While the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their classmates at the end of primary school has narrowed over the past 10 years, the EEF suggest that  based on what we know about the impact of summer learning loss on disadvantaged pupils[iii], this gain will be reversed by the combination of economic hardship and school closures caused by Covid-19.

The EEF is developing a response to this crisis based around the following two key principles: (1) Mitigation to limit the negative impact on disadvantaged pupils while schools are closed, and (2) Compensation to support disadvantaged pupils to bounce back when schools re-open.

As part of the mitigation strategy, they have reviewed evidence on how to best support remote learning in pupils, and they have released a set of evidence-based resources to help parents with home schooling. When implementing strategies to support pupils’ remote learning, or supporting parents to do this, key things to consider include:

  • Teaching quality is more important than how lessons are delivered
  • Ensuring access to technology is key, especially for disadvantaged pupils
  • Peer interactions can provide motivation and improve learning outcomes
  • Supporting pupils to work independently can improve learning outcomes
  • Different approaches to remote learning suit different types of content and pupils

How effective is homeschooling?

Parents have been pitched into a position where they are required to homeschool their children, with variable support from schools. Once more, this variation itself is likely to contribute to differences on what children gain from homeschooling. While the research is reasonably positive on the academic attainment produced by homeschooling in itself[iv] (despite some difficulties in evaluation given the self-selecting nature of the parents[v]), such research stems from families where the parents have chosen and are committed to homeschooling. It may not give an insight into the involuntary homeschool situation that parents find themselves in. For example, there will be variation in the opportunities and resources that parents can bring to homeschooling their children, depending on factors such as work commitments and caring responsibilities. Again, these risk exaggerating disparities between children’s educational outcomes.



Online education for primary school children: How much online learning can children really do?

Will technology be the saviour of children required to learn at home? The evidence from primary-age children at least is that online learning is limited in its effectiveness.

Primary school children learn best when they remain in what is called their zone of proximal development – that is, when they complete tasks that are just within the boundaries of what they can achieve with the help from a more knowledgeable other. This more “knowledgeable other” can be a person (usually a parent or teacher) or can be a tool such as an app or computer technologies that can keep children motivated by adjusting the difficulty of the task at hand and providing feedback.

During the past few years there has been an explosion of educational apps that have claimed to support preschool and primary school children’s learning, especially in relation to reading and mathematics. However, there is dearth of evidence what children age 6 to 12 can learn from apps[vi]. For example, a recent systematic review[vii] identified only 11 studies that have evaluated the use of computerised instructional programmes for children aged 4-11 years and found mixed results in terms of how much these programmes improved children’s mathematical outcomes. Similarly, for reading apps, the evidence demonstrates only small effects on children’s reading abilities[viii].

There are many factors that impact on whether or not children learn from computerised programmes. It is not just the design features of the app[ix] that matter, but also parents’ engagement and involvement with their children while they play[x]. The evidence suggests that educational apps are not very successful in replacing teachers without parental support.

Another tool that has been suggested to aid children’s homeschooling during Covid-19 is intelligent tutoring systems. This term covers a variety of computerised technologies that provide immediate and customised instruction and feedback, to provide high quality education without the need of a teacher or parent. Once more, evidence on how successful these are in improving children’s learning is mixed. A meta-analysis on K–12 mathematics learning[xi] concluded that intelligent tutoring systems have small or no effect on learning in these grades; and that these tools may even cause negative effects to students who were classified as lower achievers. Although a more recent meta-analysis in 2016[xii] showed more positive outcomes, the effects for younger primary-school children were small compared to older secondary school children, suggesting technology may be more effective for older children.



The potential impact on teenagers

The social distancing measures implemented by the UK and other countries in response to Covid-19 have reduced the opportunity for social interactions for individual of all ages.

However, social deprivation will likely affect children, adolescents, young adults and older adults in different ways. A recent preprint[xiii] argues that adolescents may be particularly susceptible to social deprivation and that this should be taken into account when considering which social distancing measures, such as school closures, to maintain or modify.

The start of adolescence marks a shift in the relative importance of parents and peers. Developmental changes in specific neural circuits lead to increased motivation towards social integration[xiv]. While there is little research on the effect of social deprivation during adolescence in humans, animal models give some insight into the neural mechanisms.

For example, studies in rodents, which are social animals, indicate that social deprivation during a phase equivalent to adolescence has specific significant short-term and long-term consequences on behaviour and neural functioning, in particular affecting the dopamine system[xv]. Notably, a study has shown that rats deprived of social interactions with peers by being reared just with an adult animal – which approximates the situation for many adolescents staying home with their parents during school closure – also showed neural changes[xvi].

However, teenagers are not completely isolated and continue to interact with each other through social media. The extent to which social media use can compensate for the lack of face-to-face interactions is unknown, and is likely to be dependent on individual differences, access to digital resources, and the strength of peer groups before social distancing measures were put in place.

Overall, the research suggests that beyond preparation for school exams and entry to university, governments deciding on the timings of school closures should consider the unique social developmental needs of adolescents.

New research in unprecedented circumstances

In some respects, previous research on educational impacts of school closures and homeschooling is limited because the current circumstances are unprecedented.

Researchers are already carrying out new work to investigate the current situation. For example, research underway at UCL Institute of Education is specifically exploring how secondary school students are coping with pandemic since lockdown in March.

Preliminary data show that schools across the country have been able to provide online resources promptly, but students are also reporting a lack of interaction with teachers and classmates that turns into a lack of motivation to study. Although there are individual differences, with some students who are actually enthusiastic about remote learning – they can sleep more in the morning and avoid commuting – there is general consensus that college life and interaction with teachers and friends is irreplaceable.

New work is also underway to better understand the impact of distance learning through technology, and parent-supported homeschooling, on mathematics learning for children aged 5-14 years. It investigates the home-learning in which parents and pupils are able to engage and supports the development of best practice initiatives for educators. (If you are interested in participating in a survey related to this work, please click here).

Balanced decision-making

Perhaps longer term the Covid-19 crisis will provide pointers towards a future with a more flexible education provision, which combines the best of remote learning and face-to-face lessons in a more balanced and harmonious manner.

But in the short term, we believe the potential risks of negative educational impacts should be weighed along with health risks in determining the immediate decisions about children’s return to school.

CEN Management Committee

1 June 2020


[i] Cullinane, C. & Montacute, R. (2020). Covid-19 and Social Mobility Impact Brief #1: School Shutdown. Report for the Sutton Trust (

[ii] National Children’s Bureau (2018) Home matters: making the most of the home learning environment

[iii] Stewart, H., Watson, N., & Campbell, M. (2018). The cost of school holidays for children from low income families. Childhood, 25(4), 516–529.

[iv] Rothermel, P. (2004). Home-education: Comparison of home- and school-educated children on PIPS baseline assessments. Journal of Early Childhood Research, 2(3), 273–299.

[v] Carlson, J. F. (2020). Context and regulation of homeschooling: Issues, evidence, and assessment practices. School Psychology, 35(1), 10-19.

[vi] Blumberg, F.C., Deater‐Deckard, K., Calvert, S.L., Flynn, R.M., Green, C.S., Arnold, D. & Brooks, P.J. (2019). Digital Games as a Context for Children’s Cognitive Development: Research Recommendations and Policy Considerations. Social Policy Report, 32, 1-33. doi:10.1002/sop2.3

[vii] Simms, V., McKeaveney, C., Sloan, S., & Gilmore, C. (2019). Interventions to improve mathematical achievement in primary school-aged children. England, UK: Nuffield Foundation.

[viii] Verhoeven, L., Voeten, M., van Setten. E., & Segers, E. (2020). Computer-supported early literacy intervention effects in preschool T and kindergarten: A meta-analysis. Educational Research Review, 30, 100325.

[ix] Hirsh-Pasek, K., Zosh, J. M., Golinkoff, R. M., Gray, J. H., Robb, M. B., & Kaufman, J. (2015). Putting Education in “Educational” Apps: Lessons From the Science of Learning. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 16(1), 3–34.

[x] Griffith, S. F., & Arnold, D. H. (2018). Home learning in the new mobile age: Parent‐child interactions during joint play with educational apps. Journal of Children and Media, 13, 1–19.

[xi] Steenbergen-Hu, S., & Cooper, H. (2013). A meta-analysis of the effectiveness of intelligent tutoring systems on K–12 students’ mathematical learning. Journal of Educational Psychology, 105(4), 970–987

[xii] Kulik, J. A., & Fletcher, J. D. (2016). Effectiveness of Intelligent Tutoring Systems: A Meta-Analytic Review. Review of Educational Research, 86(1), 42–78.

[xiii] Orben, A., Tomova, L., & Blakemore, S. (2020, April 20). The effects of social deprivation on adolescent social development and mental health.

[xiv] Nelson, E. E., Jarcho, J. M., & Guyer, A. E. (2016) Social re-orientation and brain development: An expanded and updated view. Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, 17, 118–127.

[xv] Hall, F. S. (1998) Social deprivation of neonatal, adolescent, and adult rats has distinct neurochemical and behavioral consequences. Critical Reviews in Neurobiology, 12, 129–162.

[xvi] Bell, H. C., Pellis, S. M., & Kolb B. (2010). Juvenile peer play experience and the development of the orbitofrontal and medial prefrontal cortices. Behavioural Brain Research, 207, 7–13.

Education, the science of learning, and the COVID-19 crisis

Michael Thomas and Cathy Rogers discuss the potential contribution of the science of learning to the educational challenges presented by the COVID-19 crisis, in a new article appearing in Prospects (The UNESCO Comparative Journal of Curriculum, Learning, and Assessment).

In the COVID-19 crisis, the science of learning has two different responsibilities:

  • to offer guidance about how best to deal with the impact of the current situation, including lockdown and home-schooling;
  • to consider bigger questions about what this large-scale educational experiment might mean for the future.

The first part of this Viewpoint article summarises advice for parents on mental health, and on becoming stand-in-teachers.

The second part, taking the longer view, considers the potential negative impact of the COVID-19 crisis in increasing inequality in education; but also the potential positive impact of driving innovations in technology use for educating children.



The CEN is delighted to welcome Spencer Hayes to its Research Group


Dr. Spencer Hayes (UCL Institute of Education)

Spencer is an Assistant Professor in Psychology at UCL Institute of Education. His research investigates sensorimotor learning and control in autistic and non-autistic individuals. He is currently working on projects looking into the contribution of the sensorimotor system in imitation, motor control, gait, exercise, and social interaction in autistic children and adults in the UK and Italy. His collaborators include Prof. Simon Bennett, Dr Joe Causer and Dr Richard Foster (RISES), Prof. Geoff Bird (Oxford), and Prof. Cristina Becchio and Dr Nathan Foster (Italian Institute of Technology). Spencer is particularly interested in making links between basic research in neurodevelopmental disorders and implications for SEN education in the classroom.

Children’s understanding of counterintuitive concepts in maths and science

Dr. Iroise Dumontheil shared fresh results from the CEN Unlocke project, a large-scale school intervention aiming at improving children’s understanding of maths and science. Teachers used a computer software that invited children to « Stop and Think » before answering counterintuitive problems (e.g. What do cows drink?). The intervention lasted for 10 weeks. Each week included 3 sessions of 12 minutes.

As explained in the following video, the outcomes of the intervention varied depending on children’s age (whether they were in Year 3 or in Year 5), and on the subject that was assessed (science or maths). The most promising results indicate an improvement in scientific understanding among Year 5 pupils.

The project was funded by the Education Endowment Foundation and the Wellcome Trust, and was independently assessed by the National Foundation for Educational Research. It was realised in partnership with Learnus.

You can visit the Unlocke website here, and read the full report here.