The role of relational categories in mind, brain and education by Dr Micah Goldwater

Dr. Micah Goldwater from the University of Sydney presented a trio of studies from his lab which have taken different approaches to studying how people use relational categories and analogies in learning.

He says ‘For decades, cognitive lab-based research on category and concept learning, and education research on learning in the classroom have been disconnected in many crucial ways. Even for the moment forgetting the sociocultural, and motivational differences in the two distinct settings, the nature of the concepts to be learned are typically of two distinct kinds. Cognitive research has focussed on how people learn to categorise objects by their intrinsic features – although key concepts in education are about the extrinsic relations between objects and events. For example, consider catalysts and reagents. These labels classify molecules not by their intrinsic features but the roles they play in chemical reactions. In my work, I have argued that a focus on relational categories can help bridge the gap between cognitive and educational research. In my talk, I presented basic cognitive research on the representation and learning of relational categories, how relational category learning is implemented in the brain, and classroom research that leverages how relational categories are learned to improve STEM education.

You can access the full papers here and here and you can stay up to date with Micah’s work via his Sydney lab or by following him on @Mic__G on Twitter

Imitation and sensorimotor learning in autism by Dr Spencer Hayes

spencer-hayesAutism spectrum disorder is a neurodevelopmental condition characterised by differences in restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviour, interests or activities, and persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction. In addition to these core characteristics, autistic people show differences in sensorimotor functioning – such as gait, motor planning, motor learning, and imitation. Whilst autistic people imitate the goal of an action (e.g., picking up a cup), it has been reported for decades that autistic people show behavioural differences associated with imitating observed movement execution properties that constrain/describe the movement (e.g., speed of a movement). It’s thought that this behavioural difference is  underpinned by autism-specific sensorimotor processes involved in mapping self-other actions.

In this talk, I reported data from a series of autism studies (published and under review) from our lab that examined the imitation of biological motion kinematics. The data showed that autistic adults successfully imitated novel biological kinematics during voluntary imitation. These positive effects only occurred when participants imitated the model in a predictable blocked practice trial order (same model on a trial-by-trial basis), rather than a random practice trial where the different models were imitated across trials. This blocked practice order seems to allow the integration of observed biological motion with the executed sensorimotor information.

pldIn addition to imitation learning, we also reported data indicating that although autistic adults acquired visuomotor sequence tasks across a period of practice-with-feedback, the executed movements were less accurate and more variable than in non-autistic adults. Examination of movement kinematics indicated the underlying sensorimotor control processes associated with movement planning and feedforward control were less effective than non-autistic learners. But importantly, over practice movement variability was reduced, suggesting intact operational sensorimotor processing.

Taken together, the data indicate that whilst there are some differences in the function of the sensorimotor system in autism that leads to deficits in imitation learning, and more variable motor execution, the practice effects show these differences can be ameliorated with training. Understanding these practice effects might therefore offer opportunities to develop motor based interventions involving physical activity and dyadic play that supports motor-social interactions.


Low Fidelity Imitation of Atypical Biological Kinematics in Autism Spectrum Disorders Is Modulated by Self-Generated Selective Attention

Sensorimotor learning and associated visual perception are intact but unrelated in autism spectrum disorder

If you cannot access the papers, please feel free to contact Spencer to get a copy. His e-mails is

Dr Spencer Hayes, Department of Psychology and Human Development, UCL

Paying tribute to my own primary school teacher by Dr. Roberto Filippi

roberto-filippiThe role of educators in primary school is crucial for the formation of each child. Their work, unfortunately not always carried out in easy conditions, is the basis of the cognitive and social development of future generations.

After many years, I still feel the impact of primary school on my personal growth. The memory of my Teacher, Mrs Rina Bottai, prompted me to sponsor a creative writing award in her honor.

roberto1School leavers picture. The signs says “Farewell elementary school”. Mrs Bottai retired that year after a long career in primary education. I am the one on her right.

As well as my family, Mrs Bottai was the architect of my individual development, giving me the tools and fundamental values to face life: education, self-confidence and respect for others.

With this Creative Writing award I therefore want to celebrate all primary educators, their dedication to serving children, their families and the future of our societies.

roberto3The winners were awarded on the 5th June 2019 at my old primary school, the Carlo Bini Elementary School in Livorno, Italy.


It was a great thrill for me to get back there after 47 years!


The children have done some fantastic work that I am still reading with pleasure. I have to admit, their Italian is much better than mine!

roberto4In total, there were 6 individual winners whose work was judged by a panel of teachers and parents. However, the largest part of the donation was used to buy books for the school library so that all children could benefit.

A sample of the children’s work: an essay titled “Cara Maestra… (Dear Teacher) in which they pretended to be grown-ups and told their teachers how they fulfilled their dreams after primary school. Each essay was accompanied with a drawing.

I’m already thinking about the 2019-2020 edition, where I would also like to involve an English primary school. In these sad times where the divisions between peoples always find a main title on the media, our role as educators is to encourage exchanges and cultural knowledge among the new generations.


I would like to thank the Director of the Livorno’s educational headquarter, Gianna Valente and the head of my former primary school, Katia Burlacchini who, together with their collaborators, have made this event possible. A special thanks goes to the children who participated in the competition!

roberto5Gianna Valente (on my right) and Katia Burlacchini (left) and all the teachers who made this initiative possible.


Parents and children of the Carlo Bini primary school attending the ceremony


Article about the award in UCL news

Dr Roberto Filippi’s UCL profile page and his lab page

You can also follow Dr Filippi on twitter @psyrob

The CEN is delighted to welcome two new members to its Management Committee


Dr. Jo van Herwegen (UCL Institute of Education)

Jo is an Associate Professor in Psychology at UCL Institute of Education, and Director of the Child Development and Learning Difficulties lab. The lab carries out internationally excellent collaborative research in child development with a special focus on learning difficulties and developmental disorders, with the aim to translate the latest findings into effective and practical assessments as well as classroom practice and interventions. Jo’s research focuses on language and number development in both typical development and atypical developmental disorders, such as Williams syndrome, Autism Spectrum Disorders, Down syndrome, and Developmental Language Disorder. She is interested in individual differences, as well as exploring what cognitive abilities and strategies relate to successful performance in typical populations and how these differ in atypical populations, in order to aid the development of economically valid training programmes. She says: “I believe that it is important to study abilities from infancy onwards in order to obtain a better understanding of how cognitive abilities develop over time and how performance across different cognitive areas relate to each other.”

Jo’s interest in joining the CEN is to focus on the educational neuroscience of Special Educational Needs, and she is currently working on ‘neuromyths’ about SEN teaching. Welcome to the CEN, Jo!

Dr. Roberto Filippi (UCL Institute of Education)


Roberto is an Associate Professor in Psychology at UCL Institute of Education, and Director of the Multilanguage and Cognition Lab. The MULTAC lab is formed by a team of researchers interested in studying multilanguage acquisition and its effects on cognitive development across the lifespan. After a successful career in business, Roberto completed his PhD at Birkbeck, University of London, under the supervision and mentorship of Prof. Michael Thomas, Prof. Frederic Dick and Prof. Annette Karmiloff-Smith. His main research interest is on multi-language acquisition and its effects on cognitive development from early infancy to old age. Roberto is the author and co-author of several scientific publications, books and book chapters. He is also actively involved in public engagement. Roberto frequently delivers presentations in schools and workshops with the aim of creating a hotline between scientific research and professional practice in education. He sponsors a “Creative Writing Award” in an Italian primary school that has the intent to promote multicultural exchange between Italy and the UK. Roberto believes that learning a second language (or more!) is “one of the best things that humans can do”, an investment for our future and the future of our children.

His research at CEN will focus on using cognitive neuroscience methods to investigate the educational advantages and disadvantages of learning multiple languages. Welcome to the CEN, Roberto!


Social, Emotional, and Academic Development report

Georgie Donati presented a recent report from the Aspen Institute, an international think tank. The report was the result of findings from a commission set up to look at Social, Emotional, and Academic Development in young people – with the aim of re-envisioning what constitutes success in schools.


There is a wealth of information available from Aspen here and Georgie’s slides of the presentation are available on the link below:


Spatial cognition and children’s science learning

Dr Alex Hodgkiss from Oxford University’s Department of Education, talked about his recent research looking at whether spatial cognition is a crucial ingredient in the recipe for success in science – at primary school and beyond. See his short video summary as well as links to his papers and other resources below.

You can read more about the research in these papers:

Spatial cognition and science achievement

Development of spatial skills and maths

Development of children’s spatial scaling skills

Alex’s University webpage, which is regularly updated with new research, is here

You can also keep up to date with his research by following him on twitter @hodgkiss_alex

Learning geometry in high school: an international analysis

christian-bokhoveIn this week’s seminar, Christian Bokhove, Associate Professor in Mathematics Education at Southampton University talked about his recent research on geometry learning. He took as his starting point the question of why Asian countries typically score higher in PISA-type maths comparisons than European countries. Luckily for anyone who missed it, the slides of his talk are all available on slideshare here.


As part of the project, he and his partner team in Japan created a set of geometry learning materials which you can have a look at here.

And do check out Christian’s own website to find out more about his diverse research interests, including his presentation on the Top five tips: what teachers should know about research.

You can also follow him on twitter @bokhove

How to enhance word learning in children with developmental language disorder

Image result for children readingProf. Chloë Marshall led a discussion of two papers recently published by Laurence Leonard and his colleagues in the Journal of Speech Language and Hearing Research. They investigated some of the factors that can enhance word learning in children with developmental language disorder (DLD). Paper 1 investigated whether children with DLD, and also typically developing children, learnt words better when they were required to actively retrieve them, rather than just studying them. The authors found that active retrieval on repeated occasions was indeed more effective than repeated study, both when children were tested immediately on those words and when they were tested a week later.

Paper 2 developed this line of research further by comparing two different retrieval schedules – an immediate retrieval schedule, and an interleaved retrieval schedule. The interleaved retrieval schedule was more effective at supporting children with DLD and typically developing children to learn words. Interestingly, the study in paper 2 also incorporated event-related potentials (ERPs) whose data revealed that words were learnt better in the interleaved retrieval condition, supporting the behavioural data.

The papers generated lots of interesting discussion about (1) how neuroimaging methods could be used to support behavioural methods in intervention studies, (2) what the neurological mechanisms underlying the advantage for interleaved retrieval might be, and (3) how far interleaved retrieval might be incorporated into the teaching of vocabulary across all curriculum areas and for all children. We also discussed how interleaved retrieval might be used beyond teaching vocabulary, for example, as here, in maths.


Find out more about interleaving from the excellent Learning Scientists here and you can follow Prof Marshall on Twitter.

Can the great modern philanthropists (Gates, Zuckerberg) trigger a revolution in education?

In this week’s seminar, Prof Michael Thomas discussed the background to chan-zuckerbergbill-and-melinda-gatesand the findings of a US initiative set up to consider the possibility of transformative changes to education.

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) are jointly exploring whether transformative education solutions can be developed through an accelerated research and development (R&D) effort. The approach would bring together interdisciplinary teams from education research, human development research, learning measurement, evidence-based technology-enhanced practice, professional development, neuroscience, and other fields.

In May 2018, the two philanthropic organizations came together to seek new approaches from practitioners, researchers, and the public to a set of education challenges with enormous implications for the success of all students – and especially those who have faced early trauma or learning challenges. They put out a ‘Request for Information’ (RFI) from a wide range of research, educational, policy, non-profit and business groups to seek information for innovative strategies to help address three pressing challenges they saw:

■Writing: Preparing all high school graduates for the type of nonfiction writing demanded in college and the workplace by developing the necessary habits, skills, and strategies;

■Maths: Preparing all students to deeply understand and apply mathematical skills and knowledge and related mindsets;

■Executive Functions: Improving the ability of all students to think flexibly, wrestle with multiple ideas, and manage their thoughts and actions


The main findings in these areas were:


The RFI submissions in writing focused on three big areas:

1. Writing for the real world:These approaches provide students with opportunities to engage in writing that more closely mirror the demands of college and the workplace. These range from a partnership with a science museum to promote real-world science writing to developing a community-based peer coaching model.

2. Getting students more feedback:Many of these submissions focus on developing students’ writing skills or providing feedback to students from a diverse group of readers, including outside experts such as journalists, to complement classroom teachers.

3. Next generation writing environments:A number of submissions focus on how to put technology at the disposal of teachers to help personalize writing instruction. These range from a tool to capture qualitative data from students’ drafts to help teachers see patterns in student writing, to an online learning environment that would make visible students’ contributions to peer feedback, so that teachers would know when to coach the class or an individual learner.


The RFI submissions in mathematics focused on four key topics:

1. Practice and feedback: These approaches provide students with rich opportunities to engage in deliberate practice and receive actionable feedback that leads to deep mastery of foundational math knowledge and concepts. Many of them employ digital games, intelligent tutoring, and technology-based platforms to tailor learning experiences for individual students.

2. Novel instruction and experiential learning:These approaches provide students with the opportunity to discuss real-world math problems of interest to them to help develop a positive math identity. One proposal invites students to consider the real-world and ethical implications of math questions.

3. Improved measurement systems: These solutions propose to narrow the gap between assessment and instruction by providing richer indicators of student progress.

4. Empowered teachers: These submissions propose using technologies that deliver real-time information on student learning to teachers with recommendations for adjusting instruction. The intent is to support teachers to differentiate their approaches for students with a wide range of proficiency levels, as well as to enable teachers to try new pedagogical strategies

Executive Functions

The RFI submissions in this area fell into three broad buckets:

1. Measures of executive functions: There were promising approaches to developing better measures of executive functions across basic and applied research. Such measures are needed to understand which interventions best target individual students’ needs and to help teachers make informed judgments. Some submissions offer tools to help teachers understand and support students’ development of executive functions, and to provide teachers with professional development in this area.

2. Interventions to build executive functions:These submissions include ideas for scaling some existing products as well as for basic research. They range from low-cost, targeted strategies that represent the essential “active ingredients” in effective programs to develop students’ social, emotional, and cognitive skills, to efforts to build adults’ knowledge and development of executive functions, which research has found is strongly associated with children’s development of such skills.

3. Tools and techniques to support programs that develop executive functions:These ideas would support and buttress existing efforts to develop executive functions

The full findings are available in this report. More information on the background to the RFI can be found here. And their website also has useful resources for teachers and educators which are regularly updated.

New ways of understanding the learning experience through adaptive education

susanneSusannne De Mooj, PhD student at the Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development, tells us about the work she has been doing in collaboration with Dutch educational company, Oefenweb, using data from over 300,000 individuals using the company’s maths and language e-learning apps.    Online learning environments have the ability to continuously adapt and accommodate differences between learners, and changes within individual learners over time.  Susanne is investigating innovative ways these apps may be tailored to enhance different aspects of the online learning experience.

Learning is an inconceivably complex system, as many elements interact with each other; general mental ability, prior knowledge, learning styles, personality characteristics, motivation, anxiety, and many more. These interactions over time result in extensive individual differences in the cognitive trajectory, making it difficult for education and research to optimise learning for everyone. Online learning environments can have a positive impact on education and individual students in general by providing individualized computer adaptive practice and monitoring tools. Tracking the individual development of both accuracy and response time can shed some new light on the complexity of learning, which is illustrated below by three individual time series of children practicing single mathematical problems (i.e. 1 + 5) for a long period (adapted from Brinkhuis et al., 2018). For example, in the upper and low panel of this figure you see a three-stage pattern, moving from mainly incorrect response, to fast correct responses.  On the other hand, the middle panel shows a child who does not learn 3 + 4, while practicing this item for 61 times, with some correct responses alternated with errors. The highly variable patterns within and between the learners shows that tailoring and monitoring their learning experience is essential.


Cognitive profile and time perception. Any learning environment (offline or online) creates a certain cognitive load particularly to attention and working memory. This load can be increased through the presence of irrelevant objects/information (e.g. gamified sounds, flashing objects, alternative answer options), but also through external stimuli such as worried thoughts about performance. These stressors can either drive children to use more efficient strategies or it could compete with the attention necessary to learn new skills. One particular stressor used in a lot of game-based learning platforms and experiments, is time pressure. In one of our smaller sample studies we found that the presence of the time pressure on the screen has an impact on maths performance. Critically, we found that an individual’s ability to inhibit irrelevant information is key to whether this has an impact on the learning experience. Eye movement patterns in this study also showed that whether time pressure is visible or not in the learning environment in combination with their cognitive profile affects where and how much the children attend to. Although bigger studies are needed, time perception and individual cognitive profile are features that we might need to consider in adaptive frameworks.

screenshot-2019-05-21-at-11-52-24Mouse tracking. In most educational tools, the most widely used indicators of learning are response time and accuracy, as shown in the individual time series figure. Although these measurements are well-suited to indicate the overall performance, they cannot be used as continuous measures of the underlying cognitive process. A promising online measure designed to track the timing of evolving mental processes is mouse tracking (Freeman, Dale, & Farmer, 2011; Song & Nakayama, 2009; Spivey, Grosjean, & Knoblich, 2005). For this paradigm, the speed and movement of a mouse point as well as where it is placed on the screen is tracked to see how much attention the user pays to certain stimuli. Mouse tracking is becoming popular on commercials website as a way to gain insight into behaviour, however it is also available and potentially useful for researchers, see for example the recent implementation in the online experiment builder Gorilla. One of our current studies tracks the mouse movements of 100.000 active users for a month while practicing arithmetic skills. Specifically, we are interested in the attraction towards alternative answer options, not selected as response, to get a better understanding of the user’s possible misconceptions. The aim of this online technology-based assessment of the misconceptions is to adapt feedback and instruction on an individual basis.

Large scale measure of (dis)engagement.

The way a student engages in learning is essential to their experience. Engagement is screenshot-2019-05-21-at-11-52-38mostly defined as attentional and emotional involvement with a task (Christenson, Reschly, & Wylie, 2012). However engagement is not stable, but fluctuates throughout the learning experience. Different measures are used to assess initial but also sustained engagement, such as self-report questionnaires, heart rate changes, pupil dilation and emotion detection. For large scale, online detection, head movement has been proposed as an estimate of the dynamics of the user’s attentional state. Generally, studies find that head size, head posture and head position successfully capture engagement, such that when the person is deeply engaged, movement is less and when distracted/bored more head movement follows. To measure engagement within an online learning platform or in typical psychological experiments, we use an automated detection algorithm where we track (multiple) faces with a simple webcam during the learning experience or afterwards from videos. Our current study (N=83 children, 8-12 years old) investigates how head movement relates to both emotional and cognitive engagement and whether we can predict whether children are in the ‘flow’ or are about to disengage from the task. Hopefully, this will enable us to prevent high dropouts and adapt the presentation and content to the individual learner’s state.