Avoiding the hype over early foreign language teaching


New CEN paper: Foreign language provision in English primary schools: making evidence-based pedagogical choices

Dr Sue Whiting and Prof. Chloë Marshall from the CEN have published a new paper in the journal Frontiers in Education. The paper aims to arm education professionals with a critical awareness of the (lack of) evidence supporting the bilingual advantage and innovative foreign language taster courses, to help them make evidence-based decisions regarding how to teach foreign languages in primary schools.

Here, lead author Sue Whiting discusses why certain widely held beliefs (e.g. that learning a second language confers an academic advantage, and that the younger-the-better maxim for naturalistic language learning is valid in classroom settings) are tempting some schools to explore unproven ways of teaching languages to 3-11 year olds.

Is foreign-language learning working?

Fluency in more than one language is clearly an advantage in our modern global age of multicultural societies. However, foreign language learning appears to be in crisis in countries where the majority of the population are English monolinguals, i.e., in Anglophone contexts. This has been attributed to the dominance of English as a global language giving rise to the perception that native English speakers do not need to learn other languages (Lanvers et al., 2021).

Despite a recent government initiative in England (Department for Education (DfE), 2013) to introduce foreign language teaching for one hour a week for Years 3-6 (Key Stage 2; KS2), a motivational crisis appears to start from about 11 years of age, once pupils enter secondary school (Lanvers & Martin, 2021): many pupils perceive learning a foreign language to be irrelevant, boring, difficult, and that ‘English is enough’ (Lanvers et al., 2021).

Does bilingualism itself help cognition?

In addition to any obvious personal, social, cultural and economic benefits of being fluent in two or more languages, there are also controversial claims that a ‘bilingual advantage’ leads to improved academic outcomes (Bialystok et al., 2009). This advantage purportedly arises when the skills that are acquired in coordinating two languages transfer to other, non-linguistic, mental processes relevant to learning in school and thereby improve educational outcomes. The research substantiating these claims, though, is mixed with generally only earlier studies, which usually involved only a small number of participants, revealing benefits (Duñabeitia & Carreiras, 2015; Paap et al., 2015, 2019; Van den Noort et al., 2019): lack of replicability is a particular issue (e.g., Bialystok & Martin, 2004; Shokrkon & Nicoladis, 2021).

The ‘bilingual advantage’ is not a robust effect

Many authors now consider that any bilingual advantage occurs only in ‘very specific and undetermined circumstances’ (Paap et al., 2015) and, in relation to academic performance, is likely to be a neuromyth (CEN, 2023). Furthermore, any benefit is likely to entail regularly engaging with the second language rather than experiencing it for just an hour a week in an artificial, classroom environment with little or no out-of-school exposure.

Beware the sales pitch

Nevertheless some language resource websites are targeting schools and caregivers with aggressive marketing of their products, by suggesting that all children learning foreign languages will gain such wide-reaching, general cognitive benefits in all circumstances. Some of the sale pitches appeal to notions of the brain (such as left-brain versus right-brain learning) that have been identified by other authors to be neuromyths (CEN, n.d.). Furthermore, claims far exceed what the current evidence shows, often citing newspapers’ headline catching articles or online articles written by non-specialists.

Against the backdrop of the disappointing results from the current KS2 Foreign Languages policy, such bilingual advantage claims are encouraging some schools not governed by KS2 regulations, i.e., state schools [Early Years to Year 2 (3–7 years of age)] and independent schools (3–11 years of age) to explore unproven ways of teaching foreign languages so their pupils may enjoy enhanced cognitive ability and academic success.

Here’s what doesn’t work

One unproven, and previously discredited, idea resurrected from the 1980s, albeit with older children, is that of schools giving young children a superficial exposure to multiple foreign languages in the belief that they will become natural linguists with native-like speech in numerous foreign languages. This is despite a lack of evidence from either research into a younger-the-better advantage for classroom language learning (Lightbown & Spada, 2020; Mitchell & Myles, 2019; Myles, 2017) or from language awareness research that superficial exposure to multiple languages would support learning (HMI, 1990, para. 66).

There are huge challenges in transferring the rich, immersive, native-language learning environment, where young children learn by ‘doing’ along with access to many hours a day of high-quality input from multiple social interactions, to the formal foreign language learning primary school classroom that typically provides just one hour of exposure each week. The arguments against providing a shallow exposure of several languages are as valid today as in 1990 when the HMI Language Courses Report concluded that ‘short, watered down, fragmented and thin experiences in too many languages’ provided ‘an utterly inadequate base for mastering practical communication skills in any one language and developing proficiency therein’. Then, as now, a policy of continuous exposure to just one foreign language is considered to be superior.

How to judge a good method for teaching foreign languages

We end our paper by recommending that schools should be extremely wary of being persuaded to be the first school to try something innovative when it is sold as being ‘ahead of the game’, or to take part in a research project for which they have to pay. We provide some objective criteria to help schools, from early years settings to the end of primary, to judge the efficacy of unproven methods of teaching foreign languages (or, indeed, other subjects) before adopting them. Here are our top five recommendations:

  1. Remember, a product sold as ‘ahead of the game’ often means untried and untested
  2. Approach other schools already using the innovative protocol to establish what quantifiable outcomes can be reasonably expected
  3. Check the credentials and qualifications of the person making the proposal. Has the Education Endowment Foundation evaluated the proposed pedagogic approach?
  4. If the innovative scheme is sold as a ‘research project’ then it would have been approved by the relevant university’s Ethics Committee. External funding will usually be available, too, in which case there should be no costs to the school in the form of expenses or for consultancy fees.
  5. Schools should consult with, and request approval from, their board of governors. The Primary Languages Policy white paper recommends developing ‘effective partnerships between head teachers and governors’  (Holmes & Myles, 2019, p. 13, p. 16). Boards often have the diverse experience to properly interrogate innovate schemes for educational provision.


Bialystok, E., Craik, F. I. M., Green, D. W., & Gollan, T. H. (2009). Bilingual Minds. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 10(3), 89–129. https://doi.org/10.1177/1529100610387084

CEN, (2023). Learning two languages gives an advantage at school | Centre for Educational Neuroscience

CEN, (n.d.). Left brain versus right brain thinkers | Centre for Educational Neuroscience

Department for Education (DfE) (2013). Languages programmes of study: key stage 2 National curriculum in England. Available here (Accessed July 15, 2023).

Duñabeitia, J. A., & Carreiras, M. (2015). The bilingual advantage: acta est fabula? Cortex, 73, 371-372. doi:10.1016/j.cortex.2015.06.009

HMI (1990). A survey of language awareness and foreign language taster courses. Her Majesty’s Stationery Office 1990. Available here (Accessed July 15, 2023)

Lanvers, U., & Martin, C. (2021). Choosing language options at secondary school in England. In U. Lanvers, A. S. Thompson, & M. East (Eds.), Language Learning in Anglophone Countries (pp. 89–115). Palgrave Macmillan. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-56654-8

Lanvers, U., Thompson, A. S., & East, M. (2021). Introduction: is language learning in Anglophone countries in crisis? In U. Lanvers, A. S. Thompson, & M. East (Eds.), Language Learning in Anglophone Countries (pp. 1–13). Palgrave Macmillan. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-56654-8

Lightbown, P. M., & Spada, N. (2020). Teaching and learning L2 in the classroom: it’s about time. Language Teaching, 53, 422–432. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0261444819000454

Mitchell, R., & Myles, F. (2019). Learning French in the UK setting: policy, classroom engagement and attainable learning outcomes. Apples Journal of Applied Language Studies, 13(1), pp. 69–93. https://doi.org/10.17011/apples/urn.201903011690

Myles, F. (2017). Learning foreign languages in primary schools: is younger better? Languages, Society & Policy, 1(1), 1–8. https://doi.org/10.17863/CAM.9806

Noort, M. Van Den, Struys, E., Bosch, P., Jaswetz, L., Perriard, B., Yeo, S., … Lim, S. (2019). Does the bilingual advantage in cognitive control exist and if so, what are its modulating factors? Behavioral Sciences, 9(27), 1–30. https://doi.org/10.3390/bs9030027

Paap, K. R., Johnson, H. A., & Sawi, O. (2015). Bilingual advantages in executive functioning either do not exist or are restricted to very specific and undetermined circumstances. Cortex, 69, 265–278. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cortex.2015.04.014

Paap, K. R., Schwieter, J., & Paradis, M. (2019). The bilingual advantage debate: quantity and quality of the evidence. In J. W. Schwieter (Ed.), The handbook of the neuroscience of multilingualism (pp. 701–735). London:Wiley-Blackwell. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781119387725.ch34

Shokrkon, A., & Nicoladis, E. (2021). Absence of a bilingual cognitive flexibility advantage: a replication study in preschoolers. PLoS ONE, 16(8), 14–18. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0255157

Van den Noort,M., Struys, E., Bosch, P., Jaswetz, L., Perriard, B., Yeo, S., … Lim, S. (2019). Does the bilingual advantage in cognitive control exist and if so, what are its modulating factors? Behavioral Sciences, 9(27), 1–30. https://doi.org/10.3390/bs9030027



Using neurotechnology in the classroom


In a new issue of the educational journal Comunicar, Jo van Herwegen and Michael Thomas from the CEN have teamed up with María-José Hernández-Serrano from the University of Salamanca in Spain to co-edit a special edition on the use of neurotechnology in the classroom.

What counts as a neurotechnology? Neurotechnology comprises a range of techniques that offer information about the operation of the brain separate from how it shows up in behaviour, especially the kinds of behaviour that educators typically monitor to track students’ progress in learning. The use of neurotechnology is therefore rooted in the assumption that the way that learning works in the brain will be relevant for educators.

Neurotechnologies might directly reflect physiological markers of brain function, such as in the brain’s electrical discharges (electroencephalography or EEG) or its regional oxygenated blood flow (functional Near-Infrared Spectroscopy or fNIRs). They may reflect body markers of the operation of the sympathetic autonomic nervous system, the network of nerves that helps the body activate its “fight-or-flight” response. Such markers often index emotional processes (for example, the electrical conductance of the surface of the skin, which depends on sweat release, so-called electrodermal activity). Or they may detect subtle behavioural markers reflecting attention processes or memory retrieval (for example, eye-tracking or pupil dilation). Together, these measures can offer a window on students’ engagement in the classroom, their current knowledge, their emotional state, and the nature of learning as it unfolds.

There are two advantages that neurotechnology can potentially bring to the classroom. First, it can offer educators real-time information to guide practices, either on the current state of their students or the effectiveness of the teacher’s current activities – though the technical challenge of instantly turning rich neurotechnology data into an educationally usable form renders this still, perhaps, a promise rather than a reality.

The second advantage is that using neurotechnologies in the classroom provides greater ecologically validity to study learning and instruction in the context where it occurs, rather than in the artificially controlled context of the laboratory. This means that the use of neurotechnologies in the classroom engages with the embodied sensory, emotional, and social context in which teaching and learning actually occur.

The special Issue is a contribution to this emerging field, compiling a variety of studies conducted in Spain, Portugal, Latin America, and Taiwan, carried out with different neurotechnologies and approaches, from different perspectives. An introduction to the volume and an overview of the papers can be found here.

How educational are ‘educational’ games?


Alexandra Moroti is part of the global customer research team at Amazon. Alexandra recently completed Birkbeck-UCL-IoE’s Masters in Educational Neuroscience degree. She was attracted to the course due to the novelty of the field, with its multifaceted approach of connecting different disciplines such as biology, neuroscience, and psychology with education – as well as the fact that it is a conjoined programme offered by three leading institutions. In this blog, we asked Alexandra to tell us about the independent research project she completed as part of her masters degree, in which she investigated educational games. Over to you, Alexandra.

“A quick search for “educational toy” on Google yields 191 million results in under a second, most of which are blog posts with affiliate links or recommendations from media outlets. A search for “educational toys” on Mumsnet, a popular parenting blog in the UK, shows numerous inquiries seeking age-appropriate recommendations. While many articles highlight the best educational toys for specific age groups, there are often no clear criteria for selecting these toys.

The purpose of educational toys is to aid a child’s development in a specific area, such as teaching coding or promoting motor skills. These toys should be active, engaging, meaningful, and socially interactive. However, the labelling of toys as “educational” is not regulated, and the development of educational toys often lacks sufficient research into age-appropriate developmental principles relevant to the claimed outcome.

To evaluate the claims of a popular toy marketed as enhancing social cognition in children through socio-emotional learning, I conducted a small-scale pre-test/post-test experimental design, to investigate the effects on young children of playing with a particular “educational” toy over a period of 14 days.

The selected toy

The toy selected for the research was ‘Big Feelings Pineapple,’ marketed for children aged three years and above. The aim of the toy is to build preschool social-emotional learning skills by supporting the recognition of emotional facial expressions. The toy came with a leaflet of 24 expressions, including the six universal emotions: happiness, sadness, anger, fear, disgust, surprise, which can be constructed using various pieces including eyebrows, eyes, and mouths. Here’s the product image (taken from its Amazon page).

61sufahv84s-_ac_sx679_The study

Child participants played with the Pineapple toy and were assessed before and after the intervention on four tasks – two experimental and two control tasks. I evaluated the child’s interaction with the toy through an in-the-moment play assessment tool, and then coded parental observations from a daily play diary.

I found that, although the Pineapple toy was good at promoting communication, it scored lower than predicted in the “Thinking and learning” and “Social interaction” dimensions of my measures. Children were mostly engaged with the toy when their parents were involved, but the toy lacked context and explanation when used alone. Parents who engaged their children with the toy in a meaningful way had more in-depth conversations about emotions later in the trial, and the toy was seen as a positive facilitator for conversations on emotions.

The children showed higher levels of emotion recognition post-play than they did pre-play, but the improvement was not related to the number of times the child played with the toy. This makes it ambiguous whether it was the toy having the effect or natural development. I wish I had included a ‘control group’ of children who had played with another type of toy, to check for this!

Broader lessons from my research study

While initiatives like Common Sense Media exist to help parents choose the best products for their kids, they do not include educational toys. Recently, some researchers have started to pay closer attention to the overuse of the label “educational” in marketing toys, with some researchers also turning their attention to educational value of “educational” apps. For example, see papers by Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and colleagues, Marisa Meyer and colleagues, and Shayl Griffith and colleagues.

In my view, an important future step is to establish guidelines for the development, marketing, and testing of educational toys to ensure that they are truly beneficial for a child’s development. This could involve consultation with researchers in the field, qualitative research such as focus groups and in-depth interviews with stakeholders, and longitudinal studies to assess the educational claims made by manufacturers. By doing so, parents can make informed decisions about which toys truly aid their child’s development. But my study suggests that a key role for toys may be how they support interactions between parents and children that in turn stimulate learning.

I think children’s learning should be a collective effort that goes beyond the household. Society should ensure that cities and environments, curricula, and manufacturers’ claims support educational experiences that prepare children for a future where adaptability and mental balance are crucial.”

Thanks, so much, Alexandra! If you are interested in this topic, take a look at this article which considers whether toys and games improve children’s thinking generally or just make kids better at playing games. And this article by Yuval Noah Harari, the author of Sapiens, speculating on what skills children may have to learn in 2050!


Launching the CEN summer seminar series!


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

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

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

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

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

How well are adults able to ‘break into’ language in an unfamiliar modality?

sign-language-imageIn this blog, the CEN’s Professor Chloë Marshall describes the findings of a recent project to investigate how easily hearing adults can learn sign language.

It is most people’s experience that learning a language is much harder in adulthood than it is in childhood, whether or not there is a critical or sensitive period for language-learning (Most learning happens in the first 3 years | Centre for Educational Neuroscience; Hartshorne et al., 2018). Research has shown that babies and young children possess powerful cognitive mechanisms for extracting statistical regularities from a stream of speech or sign language, and that these mechanisms allow them to ‘break into’ language by mapping word forms to meanings (Berent et al., 2021; Hay et al., 2011). But what about adults? Do they still retain these mechanisms? And if so, can they utilise them when confronted not only with a new language but a language in a modality that they have not previously encountered, namely a sign language?

What can hearing adults learn from viewing a few minutes of naturalistic sign language?

A project led by the CEN’s Chloë Marshall and funded by the Leverhulme Trust set out to investigate what hearing adults can learn from viewing just a few minutes of naturalistic sign language. She and her colleagues Dr Julia Hofweber, Prof. Marianne Gullberg, Lizzy Aumônier and Dr Vikki Janke adapted a paradigm used by Gullberg in previous work. Gullberg et al. (2010) had demonstrated that adult speakers of Dutch were able, after just a few minutes of watching a weather forecast presented in Mandarin Chinese, to learn something about word forms, word meanings, and sound regularities of this unfamiliar language.

Weather forecasts in Swedish Sign Language

Chloë and her team wanted to investigate whether English-speaking adults who had never learned any sign language would be able to learn similar linguistic information after short exposure to Swedish Sign Language (Svenskt teckenspråk, STS). They developed a four-minute weather forecast in STS, within which were embedded 22 ‘target’ signs that varied in occurrence frequency (they occurred either three or eight times in the forecast) and in iconicity (how closely the form of the sign resembled its meaning).

They also created three experimental tasks. In Task 1, participants were shown a mix of target signs and signs that they had not viewed in the forecast, and they had to respond ‘yes’ or ‘no’ when asked whether they had seen the signs before. In Task 2, participants were shown each target sign and had to write down what they thought it meant. In Task 3, participants were shown target signs and signs that could or could not be signs of STS, and they had to make a judgement as to whether they thought each sign was a real sign of the language or not. Participants viewed the weather forecast and then did just one of the three tasks. The task was a surprise for them – they were not warned beforehand that they would have to do it. In this way the researchers were testing implicit and unattended learning.


A still image from the Swedish Sign Language weather forecast

What the study found

Although participants found all three tasks challenging, the results from Task 1 (which assessed the recognition of sign forms) and Task 2 (which assessed whether participants could work out the meaning of the signs) indicated that they had managed to learn something. Participants were more accurate in recognising and assigning meaning to signs that occurred more frequently in the forecast and that were more iconic. Unlike in the original Mandarin Chinese study of Gullberg et al. (2010), however, participants did not appear to have learnt anything about what forms possible signs can take. Nevertheless, taken as a whole this exciting project has shown that the cognitive mechanisms that adults bring to ‘breaking into’ a new language are not limited to just speech, but can be employed even when the language modality is an unfamiliar one.














A still image from one of the target signs used in the experimental tasks, meaning ‘rainbow’. This is an example of a highly iconic sign, because it is visually very similar to a rainbow. Other target signs were less iconic. For example, the sign for ‘mountain’ involves the two fists rubbing past one another, which does not resemble the shape of a mountain at all. Sign-naïve adults found signs like ‘mountain’ harder to remember and guess the meaning of than highly iconic signs such as ‘rainbow’.

What are the implications?

Although the project was not designed to evaluate the effectiveness of sign language teaching, the findings have potential implications for education. The fact that both the form and the meaning of signs were better learnt when they occurred with higher frequency in the input is not surprising given what scientists already know about the role of frequency in language learning (Ellis, 2002), but it provides support for teachers manipulating the frequency of signs in their teaching materials and motivation for learners to seek repeated exposure to such materials. More innovatively, the findings also support the inclusion of signs that are high in iconicity because their meaning is more guessable.

An additional finding from the study, namely that participants’ scores on a range of cognitive tasks such as English vocabulary, executive functions and non-verbal reasoning did not correlate with their learning, suggests that at the early stages of sign language learning the characteristics of the learning materials might matter more for learning than students’ cognitive abilities.

More work needed on second language learning of sign

This set of studies needs replicating in different sign languages and with different input materials. Nevertheless, the findings make an important contribution to the field of the second language learning of sign, where much less is known compared to spoken language learning (Schӧnstrӧm & Marshall, 2022). One paper from the project has been published (Hofweber et al., 2022), another has been accepted for publication (Hofweber et al., 2023), and others are in process. Please contact Chloë if you would like further information (chloe.marshall@ucl.ac.uk).


Berent, I., de la Cruz-Pavía, I., Brentari, D. & Gervain, J. (2021). Infants differentially extract rules from language. Scientific Reports, 11, 20001. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-99539-8

Ellis, N. (2002). Frequency effects in language processing: A review with implications for Theories of implicit and explicit language acquisition. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 24(2), 143-188. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0272263102002024

Gullberg, M., Roberts, L., Dimroth, C., Veroude, K., & Indefrey, P. (2010). Adult language learning after minimal exposure to an unknown natural language. Language Learning, 60, 5-24. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9922.2010.00598.x

Hartshorne, J., Tenenbaum, J., & Pinker, S. (2018). A critical period for second language acquisition: Evidence from 2/3 million English speakers. Cognition, 177:263-277. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2018.04.007

Hay, J. F., Pelucchi, B., Graf Estes, K., & Saffran, J. R. (2011). Linking sounds to meanings: Infant statistical learning in a natural language. Cognitive Psychology, 63, 93-106. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cogpsych.2011.06.002

Hofweber, J. E., Aumônier, L., Janke, V., Gullberg, M., & Marshall, C. (2022). Breaking into language in a new modality: The role of input and individual differences in recognising signs. Frontiers in Psychology, 13:895880. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2022.895880

Hofweber, J., Aumônier, L., Janke, V., Gullberg, M., & Marshall, C. R. (accepted). Which aspects of visual motivation aid the implicit learning of signs at first exposure? Language Learning.

Mott, M., Midgley, K., Holcomb, P., & Emmorey, K. (2020). Cross-modal translation priming and iconicity effects in deaf signers and hearing learners of American Sign Language. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 23, 1032-1044. doi:10.1017/S1366728919000889

Schӧnstrӧm, K., & Marshall, C.R. (2022). SLA2: Linking the domains of second language acquisition and sign language acquisition. Introduction to special issue ‘second language acquisition of sign languages’. Language, Interaction and Acquisition, 13, 145-158. https://doi.org/10.1075/lia.00014.eng

Can polygenic scores predict educational outcomes?


In this blog, Dr. Emma Meaburn, our resident genetics expert, discusses the latest research in using direct measures of DNA variation to predict educational outcomes. Does this work? How can it be useful?

Individual differences in educational traits are heritable

We each contain in every cell in our body the complete set of genetic instructions to build a human, with the distinctly human characteristics of a highly developed brain and the capacity to reason and communicate. Despite the overarching genetic similarity between us, there are numerous – and important – differences in our DNA sequence. If you were to pick any two unrelated individuals at random and examine their DNA sequence, you would find that they differ at roughly 1 in every 1,200 DNA letters (bases). It is now beyond doubt that these genetic differences account for a portion of the differences we see between individuals in how they think, feel and behave. This is termed ‘heritability’. Twin and DNA-based studies have robustly demonstrated that individual differences in educationally relevant traits such as time spent in education (Lee et al., 2018), general cognitive function (Davies et al., 2018) and even academic subjects studied (Rimfeld et al., 2016) are heritable. To illustrate the size of this genetic influence, a recent DNA-based study by Donati et al identified SNP-heritabilities ranging from 41-53% for performance in National Curriculum-based Standardised Assessment tests (SATs) of English, Maths and Science at 11 and 14 years of age (Donati et al, 2021).

Polygenic scores capture a portion of the heritability of educational traits

Let’s refer to a difference in a DNA base between individuals as a ‘genetic variant’. One key insight from recent large-scale genetic studies is that there are many thousands of common genetic variants that together contribute to the heritability of educational traits and outcomes. It transpires that even though each individual DNA variant makes a small contribution, they can be summed together into a single genetic ‘score’ that predicts a portion of the differences we observe or measure between people. This aggregate measure has been termed a ‘polygenic score’ (or polygenic index). To calculate a person’s polygenic score for a particular trait, you sum up the total number of risk-increasing and risk-decreasing variants found in their genome, each weighted by their magnitude of impact. The polygenic score for number of ‘years of education’ completed predicts around 11% of the variance in years of schooling in adolescents and adults (Lee et al., 2018). To put the size of this explanatory power into context, this is better than household income, although not quite as good as maternal education as a predictor of child educational attainment.

Studies measuring DNA variation directly and attempting to predict educational outcomes struggled for a long time because the signal they were trying to detect was so tiny. The studies had to include thousands and thousands of participants before statistically reliable links between DNA variation and years spent in education could be detected. Lee et al.‘s (2018) study involved 1.1 million participants. The same group of researchers last year pushed the number to over 3 million participants and now reported that they could predict up to 16% of differences in educational attainment from direct measures of DNA variation (Okbay et al., 2022).

Polygenic scores for early identification of individuals at risk

Polygenic scores are normally distributed in a population: some people will have a higher score relative to everyone else, while some people will have lower score, but most people will be average. In an out-of-sample prediction, 75% of individuals in the top 10% of the ‘years of schooling’ polygenic distribution go to university, as compared to 25% of individuals in the bottom 10% (Plomin & von Stumm, 2018).  Educational systems have limited resources, and these resources are currently targeted on interventions designed to support students who struggle. Given the same finite resources, low polygenic scores could be a mechanism for triggering in-person assessment or early (or more frequent) monitoring, before the emergence of overt problems. In principle, measures of DNA variation are available at birth.

The (current) challenges for polygenic prediction

Aside from the (very real) practical and ethical challenges of requiring genetic data for children, what are the key barriers for polygenic prediction of educational attainment?

Firstly, it is important to remember that polygenic scores indicate propensity, not inevitability. This is because they do not capture all genetic effects, and genetic effects will always be contingent upon the (home and school) environments in which we grow up. This means that many individuals born with a low polygenic score will still flourish academically. Conversely, individuals with very high polygenic scores may not perform well academically for other reasons, such as experiencing a large environmental risk or having genetic effects not captured by the polygenic score. Research to identify the full spectrum of genetic effects is ongoing (Ganna et al., 2016), but in parallel we need a better understanding of how polygenic effects vary as a function of the environment (Domingue et al., 2020).

Secondly, the studies on which polygenic scores are derived have been limited to populations with European genetic ancestries and the current Educational Attainment (EA) polygenic scores are not as accurate in its predictive abilities in non-European samples. This severely limits generalisability, and risks increasing economic and education disparities between European and non-European populations (Martin et al., 2019). To redress this imbalance culturally and ancestrally diverse genetic studies are a research priority, but the results will take time to feed through (Peterson et al., 2019).

Thirdly, polygenic scores for educational prediction will arguably remain of limited practical value until we know what the optimal environments are that will maximise genetic potential. For this, we need a much better understanding of how polygenic influences impact molecular, biological and neural processes to cause cognitive and behavioural differences between people. Important research is addressing this question (see Dreary et al., 2020; van der Meer & Kaufmann, 2022), but we are still some way off from having a good explanative account of polygenic effects.

“How does society want polygenic scores to be used in education? An analogy can be made with attainment-based selection and streaming in schools … but now we are dealing with a marker of academic potential rather than realised performance”

Finally, even if these challenges were overcome, a central question to ask is how does society want polygenic scores to be used in education? An analogy can be made with attainment-based selection and streaming in schools, the benefits of which continue to be debated (Rix & Ingham, 2021). The arguments are the same, but now we are one step removed and dealing with a marker of academic potential, rather than realised performance. For example, polygenic scores could theoretically be used to personalise educational provision and maximise every student’s educational potential. Alternatively, they could be used to focus resources and identify students deemed to have genetically endowed promise. The answer to this difficult – but important – question is not clear cut.

Future perspectives

So where does this leave us? Polygenic scores should not be ignored, but the hype (and concern) around them needs to be informed by what they can and cannot realistically deliver. Polygenic scores will never definitively predict complex educational outcomes, as heritability is not 100%. However, they do predict (statistically) meaningful differences in educational traits between individuals in a population, and this predictive power is likely to increase.

If their potential in educational settings is to be actualised, we need a clearer understanding of how they relate to, and can be integrated with, existing (non-genetic) measures of educational performance and potential. Only then can we progress in a way that ensures educational and social inequalities in the classroom are mitigated rather than exacerbated.

If you are interested in these topics, see our recent CEN seminar discussing the book “The Genetic Lottery” by behavioural geneticist Kathryn Paige-Harden:


Davies, G., Lam, M., Harris, S.E. et al. Study of 300,486 individuals identifies 148 independent genetic loci influencing general cognitive function. Nat Commun 9, 2098 (2018).

Deary, I.J., Cox, S.R. & Hill, W.D. Genetic variation, brain, and intelligence differences. Mol Psychiatry 27, 335–353 (2022).

Domingue, Benjamin W., Sam Trejo, Emma Armstrong Carter, and Elliot M. Tucker-Drob.
2020. “Interactions between Polygenic Scores and Environments: Methodological and Conceptual Challenges.” Sociological Science 7: 465-486.

Donati, G., Dumontheil, I., Pain, O. et al. Evidence for specificity of polygenic contributions to attainment in English, maths and science during adolescenceSci Rep 11, 3851 (2021).

Ganna A, Genovese G, Howrigan DP, Byrnes A, et al. (2016). Ultra-rare disruptive and damaging mutations influence educational attainment in the general population. Nat Neurosci. 2016 Dec;19(12):1563-1565. doi: 10.1038/nn.4404. Epub 2016 Oct 3. PMID: 27694993; PMCID: PMC5127781.

Lee, J.J., Wedow, R., Okbay, A. et al. Gene discovery and polygenic prediction from a genome-wide association study of educational attainment in 1.1 million individualsNat Genet 50, 1112–1121 (2018).

Martin AR, Kanai M, Kamatani Y, Okada Y, Neale BM, Daly MJ. Clinical use of current polygenic risk scores may exacerbate health disparities. Nat Genet. 2019 Apr;51(4):584-591. doi: 10.1038/s41588-019-0379-x. Epub 2019 Mar 29. Erratum in: Nat Genet. 2021 May;53(5):763. PMID: 30926966; PMCID: PMC6563838.

Okbay A, Wu Y, Wang N, et al. Polygenic prediction of educational attainment within and between families from genome-wide association analyses in 3 million individuals. Nat Genet. 2022 Apr;54(4):437-449. doi: 10.1038/s41588-022-01016-z.

Paige Harden, K. (2021). The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality. Published by Princeton University Press 2021.

Peterson RE, Kuchenbaecker K, Walters RK, et al. (2019). Genome-wide Association Studies in Ancestrally Diverse Populations: Opportunities, Methods, Pitfalls, and Recommendations. Cell. 2019 Oct 17;179(3):589-603. doi: 10.1016/j.cell.2019.08.051. Epub 2019 Oct 10. PMID: 31607513; PMCID: PMC6939869.

Plomin R, von Stumm S. The new genetics of intelligence. Nat Rev Genet. 2018;19:148–59.

Rimfeld K, Ayorech Z, Dale PS, Kovas Y, Plomin R. Genetics affects choice of academic subjects as well as achievement. Sci Rep. 2016 Jun 16;6:26373. doi: 10.1038/srep26373. PMID: 27310577; PMCID: PMC4910524.

Rix, J., & Ingham, N. (2021).The impact of education selection according to notions of intelligence: A systematic literature review. International Journal of Educational Research Open
Volume 2, 2021, 100037.

van der Meer, D., Kaufmann, T. Mapping the genetic architecture of cortical morphology through neuroimaging: progress and perspectivesTransl Psychiatry 12, 447 (2022).

Neuromyths – new and improved


Our team has been hard at work updating our existing articles about common neuromyths (‘Neuro-hit or neuro-myth?’) to reflect the most up-to-date evidence. You’ll be relieved to hear that nothing has flipped from myth to fact or vice versa! So far, six articles have been updated, and the rest will follow over the coming months. Look out for the ‘Now Updated’ button to catch up on what the most current evidence is for each topic – some changes have been quite small, while other articles have had major rewrites!

Here are some highlights of the changes and additions:

  • Is ADHD on the rise in UK schools? This article now reflects changes to the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual [DSM]” – that’s how conditions are officially defined – which now allow individuals to be diagnosed with both ADHD and autism. We’ve added new content on contemporary research into sex differences in ADHD. The article also has a new title, a new image, and some rephrasing to improve inclusivity of the language.
  • Diet makes a difference to learning. Our additions to this article include evidence regarding the links between breakfast consumption and GCSE point scores, and the longer-term effects of healthier diet.
  • Mindfulness has a place in the classroom. We’ve extensively revised this article in light of evidence from a recent large-scale trial with teenagers in UK schools. The overall verdict has been changed to ‘It’s complicated’. Two outdated external resources have been removed and a newer resource on implementing mindfulness in schools has been added instead.
  • Girls and boys have different cognitive abilities. Throughout the article, language has been changed to reflect distinctions between sex and gender roles present in contemporary literature, with a note defining how the terms ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ were used in the article. We’ve added references to new research on topics that include: eye gaze strategies and gender identity on tests of mental rotation; math anxiety; and the role of cultural gender-egalitarian values in academic achievement. Lastly, we’ve added a new resource from the Women and Equalities Committee featuring lots of reports on sex differences in education and employment.
  • Well-rested children do better at school. We’ve added new findings on the role of delayed school start times in academic outcomes, sleep disruptions in neurodevelopmental conditions, and sleep benefits for explicit memory (i.e., learning facts!) in children.
  • Learning two languages gives an advantage at school. This revised article now features some reframing of content regarding the debate over the potential bilingual advantage in executive functioning skills. We’ve also dug into some of the finer details of methods in the studies, considering the diversity of multilinguals as a group.

We hope you enjoy catching up on the new evidence as much as we have!

If you’re hungry for more neuromyths content, or perhaps a bit time-poor for a full article, we are also currently releasing a series of videos that distil the major points from these updated pages to less than a minute each. The videos will be going out on our Twitter (@UoL_CEN) and our brand new TikTok page (@educationalneuroscience). Take a look and let us know if you like them!

What teaching interventions work best for pupils with SEND? The MetaSENSE project


In this blog, we describe a new project beginning at the CEN looking at the evidence for what interventions work best for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). The project is called MetaSENSE, because the full title is pretty long: Raising educational outcomes for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities: A meta-analysis and identifying barriers to change (MetaSENSE)

Why is the project important?

Although previous systematic reviews have examined what works for those with SEND5,6,7, they have not considered the different tiers used in educational services8 and have not separated good quality teaching or universal instruction (Tier 1) from targeted interventions. Targeted interventions can be highly individualised (Tier 3) or not (Tier 2) but include evidence-based interventions or instruction (e.g., Lego Therapy or Colourful semantics) delivered by a trained adult who needs to adhere to the fidelity of the intervention. Targeted interventions are only prescribed to pupils who struggle beyond what can be provided within the regular classroom at classroom level. According to recent figures, this applies to 1,318,300 pupils. Pupils who are most likely to require targeted intervention support include those with Speech Language and Communication needs (23.4%), Moderate Learning Difficulties (22.8%), Social, Emotional and Mental Health needs (18.1)%), and Specific Learning Difficulty (14.9%).

What will the new project do?

The current study will synthesise evidence of what works to raise educational outcomes across different pupils with SEND aged 4 to 25 in a systematic review followed by a meta-analysis (phase 1). In addition to analysis of the quality of the evidence base, this meta-analysis will, for the first time, inform which interventions work best (i.e., largest effect sizes) in relation to different phases of education (preschool, primary, secondary, post-16) and different educational contexts (special vs mainstream) for each category of SEND needs. This will provide greater insight into whether support should be specific or can be generalised across different groups of SEND needs.

This information will be of use to teachers, SENCos, school leaders, and educational psychologists in terms of making provision more effective and cost-effective if provision can be used across different groups of SEND needs. Knowledge of what works for which groups of SEND needs and in which contexts also provides insight into cognitive mechanisms that are important to improving educational outcomes in different SEND groups and this will be of interest to academics and professionals who wish to develop new targeted interventions. As the systematic review will highlight gaps in the research evidence, this will set the future research agenda and be of interest to academics and research funding bodies.

In a second phase of the project, the team will carry out some in-depth interviews with educational professionals to dig into how they select different educational approaches to use, as well as the barriers that they face in implementing the most effective practices highlighted by the first phase.

What will the project produce?

The team will then put together a toolkit featuring a database that can inform practitioners about the evidence-base underpinning different interventions for pupils with SEND and which interventions to select in different context according to the pupils’ needs. The goal is to allow parents, educators, specialist professionals and policymakers to make evidence-informed decisions about how to raise educational outcomes for those with SEND in cost-effective ways and inform the future research agenda of academics and relevant funders.

Who’s on the team and who are our funders?

The project team includes several members of the CEN including: Dr Jo Van Herwegen (PI), Professor Chloe Marshall, Dr Rebecca Gordon and Professor Michael Thomas as well as Professor Julie Dockrell and Thomas Masterman.

The project has been funded by the Nuffield Foundation, but the views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily the Foundation. Visit www.nuffieldfoundation.org or https://www.nuffieldfoundation.org/project/raising-educational-outcomes-for-pupils-with-sen-and-disabilities

All study materials including review, interview and coding protocols will be made accessible via the Open Science Framework.

You can find more detail about the project here.


  1. DfE, June 2021: https://explore-education-statistics.service.gov.uk/find-statistics/special-educational-needs-in-england#releaseHeadlines-dataBlock-tables
  2. Masters, G. N., et al. (2020). Ministerial Briefing Paper on Evidence of the Likely Impact on Educational Outcomes of Vulnerable Children Learning at Home during COVID-19. Australian Government Department of Education, Skills and Employment. https://research.acer.edu.au/learning_processes/24
  3. Department for Education and Department of Health (2015). Special educational needs and disability code of practice: 0 to 25 years. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/send-code-of-practice-0-to-25
  4. Gini, S., et al. (2021). Neuromyths about neurodevelopmental disorders: Misconceptions by educators and the general public. Brain Mind and Education.
  5. Davis, P. & Florian,. L. (2004). Teaching Strategies and Approaches for Pupils with Special Educational Needs: A Scoping Study. Brief No RB516 (London: DfES). Available online at: www.dfes.gov.uk/research/data/uploadfiles/RB516.doc
  6. Carroll, J., et al. (2017). SEN support: A rapid evidence assessment. UK Government (Home Office). https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/special-educational-needs-support-in-schools-and-colleges
  7. Cullen, M. A et al (2020). Special Educational Needs in Mainstream Schools: Evidence Review. London: Education Endowment Foundation. The report is available from: https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/public/files/Publications/Send/EEF_SE ND_Evidence_Review.pdf
  8. Ebbels, S.H., et al. (2019), Evidence-based pathways to intervention for children with language disorders. International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders, 54, 3-19. https://doi.org/10.1111/1460-6984.12387



New edneuro book – interview with the author!


The CEN interviewed Cathy Rogers, one of the authors of the new book “Educational Neuroscience: The Basics”.

We asked Cathy:

CEN: Cathy, what made you want to write this book? Why did you think it was needed?

The field of educational neuroscience still has a lot of work to do to effectively communicate what it is all about. This is especially true for communicating with people outside academia – teachers and educators in particular since educational neuroscience is nothing without them. In the longer term, we might also want to ditch the name ‘educational neuroscience’ as it is stuffy and uninspiring, as well as sounding very academic – that’s no good for a field that wants to build a meaningful partnership between educators and researchers.

We had two main goals for the book: one was to squish a load of science and jargon into something hopefully useful for teachers in their classroom practice. The other was to give a rallying cry for everyone involved in education to work together to improve it. With evidence.

CEN: What are three key takeaways from the book, for teachers and parents?

Number one, affective and social neuroscience (that is, dealing with our emotions and dealing with other people) are as important, if not more important, than cognitive neuroscience (dealing with thinking) for education. I think that teachers understand this from their day-to-day dealings with students but those broader aspects of education often don’t get the attention they deserve. We hope that positioning social and emotional aspects as fundamental to effective learning at the level of the brain will help the reinforce their case.

Number two, metacognition – thinking about our thinking – has the potential to be a hugely valuable, and currently underused, tool for teachers. This might be particularly true for adolescents who have greater knowledge and experience of their own thinking, along with the high levels of brain plasticity to change it. Helping students see thinking and learning as deliberate, structured, visible processes, with patterns and practices they can learn and develop – is potentially empowering for them and transferable across many types of learning.

Number three, everything about thinking and learning is dynamic and active. Whereas in the past, we have thought about ‘boxes’ of knowledge and ‘files’ of memory, now we know better!

CEN: What was the most surprising fact about the brain you found out while researching the book?

I think the most surprising thing is the sheer extent of how much our brains like to make things automatic. I have this mental image now of my brain as a rather over-zealous rule-creator, jumping in, sometimes a bit too soon, like someone clearing away my plate the second I’ve eaten my last mouthful. There it is, trying to spot patterns and make things predictable, trying to be helpful of course, make it automatic, so I don’t have to think. I see a new job for myself in keeping an eye on it! Making sure the rules it’s putting in place are ones I want – because we all know just how hard it is to break a habit.

CEN: So Cathy, what’s your next project?

I’m working on a few different things at the moment. One is another book project but in a very different vein – it’s an illustrated book for children about the future which is sort of utopian-but-science-based. Another is very much educational neuroscience in practice – helping develop clear, evidence-based guidance for how to teach adult literacy to women who missed out on education as children. We’d also, at some point, like to work on a follow up to this book: whereas this book is mostly about the consistencies of how brains work, the next would be all about what makes every brain different.

CEN: Thank you, Cathy, and good luck with book!

Trends and takeaways from the International Mind Brain and Education Society conference 2022


Educational Neuroscience faces some unique challenges. What research should we conduct to best benefit the classroom? How can we bridge the gap between education and neuroscience? How can research meet the needs of educators and vice versa?

These were just some of the questions raised at the recent International Mind Brain and Education Society (IMBES) conference, hosted in Montreal, Canada, in July 2022. IMBES is the North American home of educational neuroscience and a society where researchers and educators can come together to learn about cutting-edge research and reflect on challenges in the field.

In this blog, PhD student Lucy Palmer summarises some of the key takeaways from the conference, including hot topics of research, practical tips for developing transferable skills and the most interesting points of discussion.

What’s hot?

The IMBES conference provided a rich timetable of symposia on a variety of themes. This year’s symposia included research on topics such as curiosity, spatial thinking, neurodevelopmental conditions, mindset, science and maths learning and many more! For those interested in executive function, one of several brilliant symposia exploring the relationship between executive function and maths in early childhood had to be postponed, but was recently presented as part of the Centre for Educational Neuroscience seminar series on the 3rd November 2022. A recording can be found here.

How do I get my message across?

Given the importance of the dialogue between educators and researchers, communication is key in educational neuroscience – but how can we continually develop these skills? To address this, the IMBES pre-conference focussed on improving communication skills, as well as opening up a debate on the following topics:

  1. What do educators need from researchers?
  2. What do researchers need from educators?
  3. How can these needs be addressed in educational neuroscience research?
  4. How can we improve communication between educators and researchers?

Many ideas were explored from both a research and education perspective. Practical topics were discussed for carrying out research in schools, such as easier administration, improved consent forms, building consistent relationships between educators/schools and research and ensuring interventions are appropriate for the target age groups. A greater understanding of the nuts and bolts of the research process was discussed at length, which led to ideas on how to improve communication between researchers and educators.

The pre-conference also hosted workshops with practical tips for improving one’s communication skills. These skills do not develop in great leaps, but in small steps with consistent practise. Here are some short (tried and tested!) exercises that anyone can apply!

  1. Take 5 minutes to write down a title for a hypothetical article which explains your own work/job role. This title must not include any jargon and ideally use a question to create engagement. Ask a friend/colleague to read it and give feedback.
  2. Improvise a three minute pitch talk on a project you are working on right now. You could start with recording it and build up to presenting it in front of a colleague/friend.
  3. Write a tweet summarise a current project you are working on (i.e. less than 280 characters).
  4. Write a blog! Birkbeck Alumna Annie Brookman-Byrne shared her tips on writing for a wider audience at the conference, based on her experience writing and editing for the BOLD journal (https://bold.expert/). She highlighted how to include a personal story and use circular writing (starting and ending your writing on a similar theme). She also explained the “and/but/therefore” structure and using questions to create interesting and engaging titles.

If you have your own tips for improving communication skills, do let us know in the comments section below.

What does the future of education look like?

A key theme underlying the ethos of IMBES is that of collaboration. Therefore, no symposium was more appropriate than that on UNESCO’s International Scientific Evidence-Based Education Assessment (ISEEA). ISEEA is a multi-disciplinary collaboration which aims to pool together vast amounts of information regarding all aspects of education, to answer urgent and important questions surrounding current education systems around the world, such as:

  1. Is the current education system serving the right purpose?
  2. Is the current education system supporting learners in facing contemporary challenges and meeting societal needs?
  3. How can research be used to improve the educational system?
  4. How should data be used in educational policy making?

In order to try and answer these questions, the ISEEA have consequently created a scientifically credible assessment. Their final report spanned 1,500 pages – but a digestible version with take-home messages and policy recommendations can be found here.

The findings from this assessment show that personalised education is key, and emphasise the vital role both cognition and emotion play in learning. Although we are far from having all the answers, the conference was an excellent platform for researchers and educators to discuss issues and solutions arising from the report on the future of education systems.

We are also interested to hear what you think. What do you think the purpose of education is?  Is it to improve the economy, human flourishing or something else? Do you think the current education system in your country achieves this? How would you improve it?

We would love to hear your thoughts in the comment section below. The more these problems are discussed and reflected upon, the closer we get to tackling them.

If you are curious about IMBES, current research in the Mind Brain Education (MBE) journal, or would like to keep an eye out for details of the next conference, check out the IMBES website!