Narratives and Mathematics by Jo Van Herwegen

cartoon_mathsAt first glance, it may look as if mathematics and narratives do not have much in common. Mathematics concerns itself with theory and facts whilst narratives can include fiction, fabricated characters and fantasy worlds. Recently however, there has been an increased interest within the academic world in the overlap between mathematics and narratives. This interest covers the mathematics of narratives, using mathematical ideas to study narrative techniques, the stories of mathematics teachers, and the importance of narratives in teaching mathematics.

Stories are powerful tools for learning for a number of reasons. People enjoy stories and stories can help to motivate learners when learning. Stories create more vivid, powerful and memorable images in a listener’s mind which helps both learning and recall. In addition, stories embed concepts within a context; this can make abstract concepts more accessible and helps show how concepts can be applied in real life. So according to recent research, narratives can be a powerful tool to teach mathematics.

Narratives as an anchor for mathematical development

Learning is not just some abstract thing that happens in the brain; rather, learning happens in the context in which a concept is used. Narratives can represent mathematical concepts through their prose, illustrations, logical development and context. An example of how narratives can be used to teach young children comes from a study by Kinnear and Clarke[1]. Earlier studies which examined probabilistic reasoning (calculating the likelihood that something will happen) in 6- and 7-year-old children had found that although children were able to use data to draw inferences,  when they explained their answers, they would use subjective examples from their own experiences and show little understanding of how they achieved their answer. Kinnear and Clarke used a story picture book including the character Litterbug who was first very wasteful but then learned about recycling and started to collect litter everywhere in the town. In their study, 5-year-olds were presented with the book Litterbug and a table with information about the rubbish that Litterbug had collected on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday per type of items (e.g. 5 cans, two apple cores, three papers, etc). Children were then asked to predict how much of each litter category Litterbug would collect on Thursday. In contrast to previous studies which showed just data tables, children who were presented with the Litterbug story drew exclusively from contextualised knowledge of the picture story book to explain their predicted values when asked. This shows that children have the capacity and ability to draw meaningfully from data and use context knowledge to explain data observations if the connection to the data context source is indeed meaningful.

Since narratives are an integral part of our everyday activities, and our counting system is a cultural notation that has evolved as a result of these every day activities, it is not surprising at all to see that narratives are a powerful tool in helping children to develop mathematical abilities. There are a number of ways in which narratives can help mathematical abilities. First of all, narratives can teach children new concepts and promote mathematical reasoning. Secondly, they contextualise mathematical ideas as well as engage the child. Finally, they allow for rich discussions and wider exploration.

For example, a recent study by Carrazza and Levine[2] at the University of Chicago compared typical maths books that simply include sets of objects and books with the same objects and sets incorporated into stories (rich narratives) for numbers 1 to 10. They asked two groups of parents, one for the classic number books and one for the rich number stories, to use the books each day with their three-year olds. The researchers examined how well children could count and understand cardinality before they started using the books as well as after 4 days of using the books. Even though parents in both groups reported the same number of book reading sessions during the four days, children in the rich narrative condition performed better on the cardinality and counting task than those who used the simple pictures of the same sets of objects. This shows that embedding knowledge into rich narratives aids children in learning mathematics faster.

Storybooks as a way to develop mathematical vocabulary

Not only can the context help to embed knowledge and understanding, storybooks are also extremely useful in teaching children mathematical vocabulary. The development of mathematical vocabulary is important for young children as its use is necessary for them to reason and to understand maths. For example, when children learn that the words “more” and “less” can be used to describe number, they have a way to verbally explain the differences between a basket with ten apples and a basket with 5 apples. The use of storybooks that highlight mathematics vocabulary and explain numbers and how they relate to each other might help children “mathematize” or understand everyday situations in mathematical terms.

We can see then that while the richness of narratives allows young children to learn concepts faster and foster a deeper understanding of mathematical vocabulary, there is evidence that even just reading books, whether they have a mathematical content or not, influences children’s mathematical abilities.

Reading from left to right helps to understand the number line

People have been argued to have an internal number line that goes from left to right in most western countries and it is thought that the direction of this number line is influenced by the reading direction in those countries. A recent study showed that when reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar, a children’s book in which the caterpillar comes out of an egg, looks for food, and eats one apple, two pears, three plums, four strawberries, and five oranges, children who read the book with the pictures presented from right to left and page turning from left to right (so opposite of usual books) changed their counting direction from right to left when counting a row of coins. Therefore, the orientation of the pages and pictures in shared book reading activities can activate and change the child’s spatial representation of numbers along a number line (see Göbel and colleagues, 2018)[3].

It has been shown that children who have a firm mental number line are more able to manipulate numbers and as a result have better mathematical abilities. Number lines and narratives share the fact that both have a structure or sequence to them. Therefore, using words such as ‘before’, ‘after’, ‘in front’,’ ‘next’, ‘forward’ and ‘backward’ in stories will help understanding of sequences and of number lines. In addition, books are like number lines in that a book goes from page 1 to the final page just like a number line goes from the start to the finish. As pages are flipped, pages with smaller numbers are placed on the left and pages with larger numbers remain on the right. Therefore, as children get more familiar with books they get a stronger understanding of the relationship between space and numbers.

A study by Daniela O’Neill and colleagues (2004)[4] examined the narratives of 3-year-old children who were asked to tell a story from a wordless picture book. The researchers analysed various aspects of the children’s narratives, including how many conjunctions children used, i.e. sentences that include words such as ‘and’, ‘but’, ‘or’, ‘because’, ‘after’, along with the event content of the stories, i.e. how many different parts the story contained (which shows the richness of the content of the story). The number of conjunctions and events used when children were three years old correlated to their mathematical performance at that age, as well as predicted their mathematical performance two years later. This suggests that there is a relationship between exposure to books, narratives, and number line development and improved number line abilities allow for improved mathematical abilities.

In reality, all books and stories contain some kind of mathematical content, as mathematics is truly embedded within our culture (telling the time, reading the number of a bus/train to catch, postcodes, telephone numbers, cooking etc.). Therefore, it is less about the kind of story or book but rather how they can be used to highlight mathematical concepts.


Teaching mathematical concepts

The best way to teach children mathematical concepts is to first read the story while pointing out pictures and highlighting mathematical concepts and vocabulary words such as ‘same’, ‘different’, ‘bigger’, ‘smaller’, ‘half’, ‘whole’, ‘next’, ‘after’, ‘before’. We often assume that children will implicitly absorb the information we tell or teach them. Although this is true to some extent, it is better to talk to children about the vocabulary words and define them within the context of the story. For example, when reading the story ‘Two of Everything’, a child might not be familiar with the word ‘double’ and thus it may be necessary to explain this explicitly. In order to check that your child has understood the mathematical concept in the story, you could ask your child some other examples of this mathematical concept from the book or even from outside of the book. For example, when reading Goldilocks you can ask, “There were three bowls in the book. Were there any other groups of three in the book?”.


In conclusion, mathematical learning starts at home from birth onwards. Through narratives and shared book reading, children develop an improved mathematical understanding which can influence mathematical abilities later on in life. There are a number of ways in which narratives can help children. First of all narratives can teach children new concepts such as counting, number words, and cardinality. Secondly, books and narratives provide a structure and sequence that may influence children’s mathematical number line visualisation and understanding of how numbers relate to each other. Thirdly, narratives and books facilitate children’s development of a rich mathematical vocabulary. And finally, books and narratives help to engage children and to provide a rich context in which mathematical concepts and ideas can be applied, which allows for deeper mathematics knowledge.

joDr Jo Van Herwegen, PhD, is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology and Human Development at UCL Institute of Education, London and co-ordinator of the Child Development and Learning Difficulties Lab. Her research focuses mainly on language and number development in both typical and atypical populations, including Williams syndrome, Autism Spectrum Disorders, Down syndrome, and Mathematical Learning Difficulties. She explores individual differences and what cognitive abilities or strategies relate to successful performance, in order to aid the development of valid training programmes. Her research has been supported by various sources of research funding (e.g., British Academy, Nuffield Foundation, Baily Thomas Charitable Fund etc.).


 [1] Kinnear, V. and Clark, J. (2014) ‘Probabilistic reasoning and prediction with young children.’ In J. Anderson, M. Cavanagh, and A. Prescott (eds) Curriculum in focus: Research guided practice Proceedings of the 37th Annual Conference of the Mathematics Education Research Group of Australasia (pp. 335–342). Sydney: MERGA.

[2] Carrazza, C. and Levine, S.C. (2019) ‘How numbers are presented in counting books matters for children’s learning: A parent-delivered intervention’. Conference talk: Society for Research in Child Development. Baltimore, USA.

[3] Göbel, S.M., McCrink, K., Fischer, M.H., and Shaki, S. (2018) ‘Observation of directional storybook reading influences young children’s counting direction.’  Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 166, 49-66.

[4] O’Neill, D.K., Pearce, M.J., and Pick, J.L. (2004) ‘Preschool children’s narratives and performance on the Peabody individualised achievement test-revised: Evidence of a relation between early narrative and later mathematical ability’ First Language 24, 2, 149-183.

Dr Jake Anders – Determinants of private school participation: all about the money?

Dr. Jake Anders is Associate Professor (Reader) of Educational and Social Statistics and Deputy Director (Early Years, Schools, CREATE) in the UCL Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities (CEPEO). He is also Head of Research in the Department of Learning and Leadership at UCL Institute of Education (IOE), University College London.

Jake’s research focuses on understanding the causes and consequences of educational inequality and the evaluation of policies and programmes aiming to reduce it. In this video, he presents his recent research of the determinants of private school participation: Is it all about the money?

You can follow Jake @jakeanders

An interview with Iroise Dumontheil

Learnus UK supports the communication of research to enrich learning and inform curriculum development. In this interview, Birkbeck researcher Dr Iroise Dumontheil presents her own research about the teenage brain, and discusses current advances in Educational Neuroscience. Educational Neuroscience is still a recent field which develops gradually. Yet, our understanding of psychology and brain development suggests some interesting ways to capitalise on adolescents’ sensitivity to peer influences, and on their propensity for risk-taking, to create positive learning experiences and socio-emotional outcomes.

Iroise is currently working on the Unlocke project. More information about her research is available on her personal website.

Birkbeck researchers Dr Georgina Donati and Dr Annie Brookman-Byrne (now Deputy Editor of The Psychologist) have created this short video about the Adolescent Brain, that might be useful for teachers or parents willing to know more about the topic, or to discuss it together with teens.


Multisensory Learning


Our world is noisy and distracting, filled with a multitude of sights and sounds; the television is on while we talk on the phone, there are street sounds as we navigate a map, and people talking to each other as we try to attend to a specific conversation.   To walk into a toy shop is to be overwhelmed with sights, sounds, and even smells. Clearly, children are stimulated and excited by information from multiple sensory modalities.

But what is best for their learning? Research from psychology has shown that adults learn better if they are given information in different sensory modalities at the same time. This fact has been used as the basis for many childhood educational programs in literacy and numeracy. But there has been no systematic investigation into whether children learn better from information presented in different sensory modalities. Or if, in fact, there are individual differences in this ability.  To take advantage of multimodal stimuli a learner has to be able to pay attention to one thing and not another, and to switch attention when required. These sophisticated skills – inhibitory control, selective attention and cognitive flexibility – are developed slowly throughout the course of childhood, and some children develop slower than others. Preliminary results show that, as a consequence, children can struggle to learn from multimodal information.

esrc-logoThe ‘Multisensory’ grant, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, aimed at identifying when and where children have difficulty with multlimodal information, and to  help develop materials that are tailored to their cognitive and perceptual development.

Four main research questions have been addressed by the project, and a summary of the findings can be found in the presentation below.

 The team 



Broadbent, H., Osborne, T., Mareschal, D., Kirkham, N.Z. (under review). Are two cues always better than one? The role of multiple intra-sensory cues compared to multi-sensory cues in children’s learning. Cognition.

Broadbent, H., Osborne, T., White, H., Mareschal, D., Kirkham, N.Z. (2019) Touch and look: The role of visual-haptic cues for categorical learning in children. Infant and Child Development, doi:10.1002/icd.2168.

Broadbent, H., Osborne, T., Mareschal, D., Kirkham, N.Z. (2018) Withstanding the test of time: multisensory cues improve the delayed retention of incidental learning. Developmental Science, doi: 10.1111/desc.12726 

Broadbent, H., Osborne, T., Rea, M., Peng, A., Mareschal, D., Kirkham, N. (2018) Incidental category learning and cognitive load in a multisensory environment across childhood. Developmental Psychology56(6), 1020-1028. doi: 10.1037/dev0000472.

Broadbent, H., White, H., Mareschal, D., Kirkham, N. (2017) Incidental learning in a multisensory environment across childhood. Developmental Science21(2) e12554, doi:10.1111/desc.12554.

Kirkham, N. Z.,  Rea, M., Osborne, T., White, H. & Mareschal, D. (2019) Do cues from multiple modalities support quicker learning in primary school children? Developmental Psychology, 55, 2048-2059. doi: 10.1037/dev0000778

Massonnié, J., Rogers, C. J., Mareschal, D. & Kirkham N. Z. (2019) Is classroom noise always bad for children? The contribution of age and selective attention to creative performance in noise. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 381.

Peng, A., Kirkham, N. Z., & Mareschal, D. (2018) Information processes of task-switching and modality-switching across development. PLoS ONE, 13(6): e0198973.

Peng, A., Kirkham, N. Z., & Mareschal, D. (2018) Task switching costs in preschool children and adults. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 172, 59-72. doi: 10.1016/j.jecp.2018.01.019

New CEN Paper


pic_hannahwThe CEN has published a new paper! It presents the pilot study carried out at the start of UnLocke, a multidisciplinary and collaborative research project aiming at better understanding how primary school children learn counterintuitive concepts in maths and science. In this blog Dr. Hannah Wilkinson, postdoctoral researcher at Birkbeck University, summarises the paper and its key implications.


Why did you carry out this study?

Many concepts in maths and science are counterintuitive [1]. This is because children hold naïve theories based on their first-hand experiences of the world (e.g. a belief that the world is flat as the ground beneath us appears flat and when a child kicks a ball it behaves as if on a flat surface) or misleading perceptual cues (e.g. a belief that the angles in a large triangle are greater than those in a small triangle, because the overall shape is larger). These ‘misconceptions’ can interfere with learning new concepts, even into adulthood [2].

pic_flat_earth pwp_triangle3

Evidence from cognitive neuroscience suggests that learning counterintuitive concepts requires inhibitory control [3,4]. Inhibitory control is the ability to withhold an intuitive, pre-potent response, in favour of a more considered response – it is one of a set of cognitive control processes or ‘executive functions’ [5]. Therefore, we were interested in finding out whether training children to use their inhibitory control could improve learning of counterintuitive concepts. However, traditional executive function training has shown limited success in terms of participants transferring their skills beyond the trained task [6]. Taking a novel approach, we developed and evaluated a computerised classroom-based intervention, Stop & Think, which embeds inhibitory control training within the specific domain in which we would like children to use it, i.e. content from the maths and science school curricula.


What are your key findings?

Cross-sectional analyses of data from 627 children in Years 3 and 5 (7- to 10-year-olds) demonstrated that inhibitory control (measured on a Stroop-like task) was associated with counterintuitive reasoning and maths and science achievement.

In addition, a subsample of 456 children had teaching as usual or participated in Stop & Think (12 minutes, 3 times per week) for 10 weeks. There were no significant intervention effects for Year 5 children. However, for Year 3 children, Stop & Think led to significantly better maths and science counterintuitive reasoning performance and significantly better standardised science achievement scores (but not maths achievement scores) compared to teaching as usual.

Why is it important for educators?

These findings support the idea that inhibitory control contributes to counterintuitive reasoning and mathematics and science achievement. Therefore, ensuring children can effectively use their inhibitory control in the classroom is important for educators.

From an educational neuroscience perspective, these findings provide preliminary evidence that a neurobiologically-informed intervention delivered by teachers in the classroom, can improve ‘real-world’ academic learning.

Furthermore, there have been few interventions that target primary school science despite the subject’s economic importance [7]. Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) industries contribute over £68 billion a year to the UK economy and account for over a third of UK exports. Despite their importance, there has been little emphasis on interventions that target mathematics and science skills, particularly when compared to the wealth of literature on literacy skills intervention. The promising findings here, in particular for Year 3 science, suggests that there could be educational and economic gains from training such as Stop & Think as an educational tool within primary school lessons.

Additional resources

> You can read the full paper here.

> The Unlocke website gives some more information about the Stop & Think intervention, and about the multiple steps of the Unlocke project.

> In this blog post, Iroise Dumontheil shares the results of a larger-scale intervention with Stop & Think.

> “Overcoming students’ misconceptions”, an article for the BOLD blog by Dr. Annie Brookman-Byrne.


[1] Allen, M. (2014). Misconceptions in primary science. McGraw-hill education (UK).

[2] McNeil, N. M., & Alibali, M. W. (2005). Why won’t you change your mind? Knowledge of operational patterns hinders learning and performance on equations. Child Development, 76(4), 883–899.

[3] Mareschal, D. (2016). The neuroscience of conceptual learning in science and mathematics. Current Opinion in Behavioural Sciences, 10, 14–18.

[4] Vosniadou, S., Pnevmatikos, D., & Makris, N. (2018). The role of executive function in the construction and employment of scientific and mathematical concepts that require conceptual change learning. Neuroeducation, 5(2), 62–72.

[5] Diamond, A. (2013). Executive functions. Annual Review of Psychology, 64, 135–168.

[6] Diamond, A., & Ling, D. S. (2016). Conclusions about interventions, programs, and approaches for improving executive functions that appear justified and those that, despite much hype, do not. Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, 18, 34–48.

[7] Morse, A. (2018). Delivering STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) skills for the economy. National Audit Office.

Inhibition and cognitive load in fractions and decimals

Vana Avgerinou is a classroom assistant at Putney High School. She completed an MSc in Educational Psychology at UCL IoE and is currently studying for an MA in Specific Learning Difficulties (Dyslexia). In this video, she presents her new research paper, investigating the role of inhibitory control in learning counterintuitive fractions and decimals, among primary school children. Her results indicate a more nuanced relation between inhibitory control and counterintuitive fractions and decimals than presumed by previous research. They suggest that the role of inhibitory control when reasoning about counterintuitive fractions and decimals is not constant, and it is only drawn on at high levels of cognitive load.

screen-shot-2019-12-19-at-09-47-21You can follow Vana on Twitter @AvgerinouVana


Psyched! event from the ‘Me, Human’ team on the evolution of language


‘Lovely cabaret style set-up and relaxed mood. Excellent quality of content.’

For its public engagement event on the origin of human language, the ‘Me, Human’ team chose an intriguing yet straightforward title: ‘Blah Blah Blah’. This leaves some room for interpretation. So, what was it all about?

On stage, Dr. Gillian Forrester, Dr. Natasha Kirkham, and Dr. Simon Green shared some fun facts about the development of human language, both at the scale of evolution (e.g. from chimpanzees to humans), and at the scale of a human life (e.g. from babies to the elderly). Let’s start with an example of our extraordinary language skills… Can you understand this?

The middle-aged lady who was wearing a long red scarf was eating a chocolate ice-cream in front of the shop that was very busy and situated in the main street, because it was Christmas and she liked the squared bubbly vibes of the end-of-the-year celebrations.


Weird and long sentence? Maybe, but it is still plain English. The capacity to generate an infinite number of sentences, expressing various events in the past, present and future, is one of the unique characteristics of human language. Although other species, such as chimpanzees, use vocalisations to share information about specific things, such as food or predators, their language does not seem to have generative properties. Most importantly, their language is not necessarily voluntary: they cannot always inhibit their screams even if there is no one around. Imagine if you were shouting ‘chocolate!’ every time you saw a chocolate bar, even when you are alone in the house…

But since we share 98% of our genes with chimpanzees, we still have a lot in common. Tool use, for example. Chimps can do crazy things such as cracking nuts with stones. Over the course of human history, multiple tools have been used to transform our natural environment (e.g. lighting up a fire), process food and create necessities (e.g. clothes). Fine motor skills, such as the ones used to manipulate tools, actually recruit the same areas of the brain as language. Have you ever found yourself sticking your tongue out as you were trying to put a thread into a needle?  Well, that’s it. As humans evolved to use tools more and more frequently, it became useful to not only use gestures but also oral language to communicate. This way, hands could be kept free for manual work. The development of language skills occurred in parallel with changes in the configuration of the mouth and of the larynx, as well as with the adoption of a bipedal posture.


‘Excellent knowledgeable presenters. Fun vibe, not too heavy.’

One of the disadvantages of being bidpedals is that human hips are relatively narrow – and are brain-body ratio is proportionately larger than other primates. Although the brain is folded like a little nut within the cranium, a baby’s head is still relatively big relative to the size of the cervix. Mothers, you know that… When babies are born, they are still quite early in their development. They are dependent on other people’s help. Babies need eye contact to communicate. Being progressively helped by adults’ scaffolding, they use and understand pointing to share their attention to external objects. They learn to be aware of their facial expressions and to progressively shape their vocalisations in a specific language. Until 6 months of age, babies are not yet ‘tuned it’ to any specific language. Then, they get accustomed to the specific sounds and boundaries of their native language. Learning where words start and end in a given language actually requires quite a lot of expertise. A great deal of statistical learning occurs here – with experience, children compare different sentences and learn that some words and sounds can, or cannot follow each other. ‘This is a pretty baby’. You could understand: ‘this is a prettyba by’, but this is not very frequent, is it? The importance of segmentation is quite obvious when we hear a foreign language. When hearing people speaking another language, does it seem to you to be like an endless sentence, or just a blurry ‘BlahBlahBlah’? Well, that is it.

Furthermore, as if it was not complex enough, language is multisensory. Most of the time, we establish visual contact with the people we talk to. We see their lips and can follow the movements of their mouth to get more cues if we have difficulties to hear what they say. But what happen when the sound we hear and the lips movements are not congruent? We start to hear funny sounds. Try it by yourself. This shows that we integrate both visual and auditory information when we process language.

The ‘Me, Human’ event was the opportunity to be bewitched by the fantastic skills primates and humans have developed throughout history. From the new-born babies who needs vocalisations to express their needs, to the mature adults who are playing with words with a Scrabble, there is a lot to learn, and to share.

So if you have not been to this event but are interested in attending the next one about lust(!), you can book you ticket here. You can follow the team @Me__Human  #MHPsyched.


Written by: Jessica Massonnié

Dr. Roberto Filippi – The effects of multilanguage experience on cognitive development

rfDr Roberto Filippi is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology and Human Development at University College London, Institute of Education. He is the Director of the Multilanguage & Cognition Lab at UCL, Institute of Education, part of the Centre for Language, Literacy and Numeracy: Research & Practice. His research, funded by the Leverhulme Trust and the British Academy, focuses on second language acquisition and its effects on attention, memory, executive functions and metacognition across the lifespan.

As Roberto explains it, the issue of whether bilingualism/multilingualism is beneficial or detrimental to cognitive development has been an area of research interest for decades and, understandably, a concern for parents and educators of bilingual children.

Despite the initial belief that learning a second language early in life can delay cognitive development, there is now a general consensus that multilanguage experience is inherently advantageous for communication in modern multicultural societies.

However, one of the most exciting yet controversial current scientific debate is based on some reported evidence that the lifelong use of two languages may have positive effects on attentional processing and executive functions (e.g., Bialystok Craik, Green, & Gollan, 2010) and even protect the brain from age-associated cognitive decline (e.g., Bak, Nissan, Allerhand & Deary, 2014; Craik, Bialystok, & Freedman, 2010). Remarkably, the positive effects of being raised in a bilingual environment are observed even before children begin to talk, suggesting that comprehension processes alone may be sufficient to trigger such advantages (Kovács & Mehler, 2009).

However, recent evidence has challenged the bilingual advantage hypothesis. In particular, the work of Paap in the USA, and Duñabeitia in Spain, has questioned the validity of previous findings and generated a heated debate among the scientific community.

In this video, Roberto summarises the current debates and shares some of his own findings.

You can follow Roberto on Twitter @psyrob

Nathan Morland, Director of the Staffordshire Research School


As part of our series of blog posts written with/for educators and school leaders, we had the pleasure to interview Nathan Morland. Nathan is the Director of the Staffordshire Research School. As such, he infuses his work with educational research, while being aware of and attentive to his staff’s needs and aspirations. In this interview, he shares his experience and key resources with us.

What does educational neuroscience mean to you?

For me, it means expanding foundation in our level of understanding about cognitive development and how young people acquire and enhance knowledge and skills, and more importantly…remember them! It also means a number of opportunities and challenges for teachers and school leaders too.

I cast my mind back to when I started out in teaching 15 years ago and I don’t recall the word ‘neuroscience’ featuring in CPD or department meetings. Enhancing or evolving practice seemed to be much more organic, based upon feedback from a middle or senior leader, with little evidence or research from neuroscience used to back it up.

On occasions the term ‘research-informed’ can be carelessly misused or superficially applied to strategies without the true depth of research findings being fully explored or understood. There are many green shoots though with growing traction and a sense of enthusiasm in research-informed practice in the profession. Pleasingly, the drivers of this movement are from both bottom up (Research Schools Network, twitter, new authors, researchED events) and top down perspectives (School Inspection Framework overview of research).

The Challenges are very apparent too. The NFER’s recent report on teachers’ engagement with research indicated that only 16% of the teachers surveyed said decisions about their CPD were based on academic research and, ‘teachers were most likely to draw on their own expertise, or that of their colleagues, when making decisions about teaching and learning or whole-school change’. (NFER, 2019)

So there is still a great deal of work to do. How do we distil complex and specialist research into a digestible format, that enables our time-strapped teachers to apply them effectively in their bespoke contexts?  The EEF’s Guidance Reports do a great job of the distillation process, alongside the Research School Network in mobilising the research and providing the practical tools for their application.

What does that mean for you to be involved in a Research School?

The most common question we were initially asked upon becoming Research School was ‘What does that involve?’ One of our first steps was to paint a clear picture of what Research Schools do, and do not do. This can be seen in our concise infographic and blog here.  This question is then increasingly being followed up by, ‘so how can we work together?

It is a privilege and provides an additional sense of purpose. It means there is an additional (and non-judgemental) avenue of support for schools to enhance outcomes for their students, particularly in areas of deprivation, that are free from Multi Academy Trust, Local Authority, Teaching School or geographical alliances and loyalties.


How do you keep up to date with new neuroscience research?

 It is a challenge with the amount of emerging research.

  • As the Director of the Staffordshire Research School, being part of the Research Schools Network enables us to learn directly from the colleagues at the EEF and the IEE. It also means we are directly engaged in working with schools to apply research in a range of settings, which will only be effective if we have a broad foundation of knowledge ourselves.
  • I receive a range of newsletters and journals including ResearchED, The Chartered College Impact Journal, ASCD (in the USA) and Best Evidence in Brief from the IEE.
  • In the John Taylor Multi-Academy Trust and via the National Forest Teaching School we invite the researchers to share expertise at our training and conferences. The value of face-to-face interaction and training with researchers can be underestimated, as some schools can be cautious about releasing staff for training to save cover costs the risk can be a lack of depth of understanding and possible weaker implementation models.
  • Twitter is great. I rate it as one of the best sources of information and collaboration I have and would encourage any non-users to take the plunge.
  • I also have a set of go to organisations that I check in with regularly for updates. You can find these in a free handout and hyperlinked infographic here.


From a practical point of view, I take a fairly methodical approach using two IT tools called Pocket and Padlet. Whilst these are not evidence based, they are simply practical tools that help me filter and organise the sources of research and reports that I come across and leave a breadcrumb trail back to where I found them. I put sources of research, reports or blogs in the Pocket app (a simple tap and drop feature), either to read or come back to at a later date. When ready, I then upload the link to a Padlet page. Padlet is virtual pinboard that enables people to bring together and store a range of e-resources in one place. I can then categorise it for colleagues, delegates or for personal use into aspects of research, evidence, pedagogy or school focus area and save time in having to search the internet all over again. Its power is in its simplicity and you can see an example here.

 How do you get teachers and students involved?

  • Each Monday we hold short briefing that is supported by a takeaway resource (maximum of one page of A4 or a postcard) that covers a ‘nugget’ of research-informed practice and links with one of the T&L principles in our ‘inside-out’ CPD model (see question below). It keeps the flow of research regular and digestible for staff.
  • Staff receive a ‘DNA’ paper each half term. A deeper insight into an element of research, again linking to one of our key T&L principles (e.g. Long Term Memory) or school targets (e.g. Pupil Premium students). This introduces the research concisely and provides a number of signposts to journals, white papers, podcasts or guidance reports.
  • Practical teaching methods and templates are created and provided to staff each half term to model how to turn the research into a tangible teaching methods or resources and how to articulate them to students.
  • In addition to the training courses, free twilights and more sustained work with schools across the West Midlands, colleagues also receive the Staffordshire Research School’s newsletter which is free to sign up to here.

In all honesty, the students get involved through their lessons. We keep it simple, they already have a lot on their plates. We do not necessarily teach them explicitly about neuroscience research but we do model practices for learning and help them to experience what successful learning feels like through well-designed lessons and tasks.

Can you give some examples of how neuroscience understanding has helped you as a school leader?

It has allowed me… no us, as a leadership team… to:

  • Provide precise informed feedback where practices have been less effective e.g. a retrieval practice starter done with books open or resources is not retrieval practice, in turn allowing staff to adjust and improve.
  • Upskill staff in their pedagogical knowledge through the design of a CPD model that is built upon a solid foundation of emerging research.
  • Consider the extent to which staff are engaging with research and provide a range of timely tools that allow staff to do so at different depths (briefings, 15 minute reads, full reports, extended CPD)
  • Provide focussed training opportunities at John Taylor High School, the National Forest Teaching School and the Staffordshire Research School.

It has helped significantly, however the amount I learn from our most innovative and well-read staff means that they help me equally in return.

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

At John Taylor High School we operate an ‘inside-out’ CPD model whereby, informed by previous student outcomes and middle leader guidance, staff select an area of T&L to improve from a range of T&L principles (the Rosenshine Principles feature heavily). It is a ‘bottom up’ model that is very personalised and takes inspiration from Huntington Research School’s ‘Disciplined Inquiry’ and Durrington Research School’s six principles of evidence-informed teaching. This year alone, 48 staff have chosen Long-Term Memory & Retrieval Practice foci and 30 more have chosen modelling, scaffolding or the teaching of disciplinary literacy. Each member of staff has a Coach to engage in reflective practice, alongside the use of Iris. A key component of our ‘inside-out’ model is that staff are expected to engage with reading research (supported by the Padlet example here) and implement the strategies in their classrooms, with key milestones calendared over the course of the academic year. Autonomy remains with the teacher and they are encouraged to trial and test methods – but the curriculum design, craft of lessons and decision making have to a rationale in that they are informed by research.

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

The evidence behind dual coding and cognitive load theory is sound. However, some teachers’ interpretation of how they combine this research to design/present their teaching resources can be varied and cause the two to be in conflict with each other. The desire to include dual coding can unintentionally cause some teachers to create cognitive overload for students. Finding the balance and optimal combination of each is less understood. I’d like to see more exploration of how the design and presentation of teaching resources that integrate different ratios of both cognitive load theory and dual coding. Having the same teacher, teaching the same content, using resources designed with these in mind would be interesting.

That said, the variables of the students themselves and over 240,000 bespoke school contexts across the country will always remain, rendering any research a ‘best bet’, not a ‘sure bet’ of what could work with the correct implementation.

Thank you very much for your time!

You can follow the work of Nathan’s research school @JTStaffsRSch

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.