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

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

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

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

New workshop ‘Neuroscience in the classroom: current progress and future challenges.’ Friday 17th March 2017

‘Neuroscience in the classroom: current progress and future challenges’- a workshop supported by the Wellcome Trust and the Bloomsbury Doctoral Training Centre.

We are excited to announce a  new educational neuroscience workshop being organised  by the CEN on Friday 17th March 2017 at the Wellcome Trust.

Confirmed keynote: Professor Gaia Scerif, University of Oxford.

Other speakers include: Dr Michelle Ellefson, University of Cambridge and Dr Denes Szucs, University of Cambridge.

We will also be having presentations from a representation of each of the Wellcome Trust/Education Endowment Foundation funded projects:


The event will be free to attend and details for registration will be announced soon. We will also be accepting poster presentation submissions.

If you have any queries before then, please email Alex Hodgkiss: alex.hodgkiss.14@ucl.ac.uk 

Would you like to do a PhD in educational neuroscience?


Studentship applications are now invited for PhD study in educational neuroscience at Birkbeck and UCL Institute of Education, open to UK students or EU students with UK residency.

Applications are open for ESRC studentships via the UBEL Doctoral Training Partnership, which offers a training route in Educational Neuroscience within its Psychology Pathway.

The closing date for PhD applications within the preferred institution is Friday 6 January 2017, for degrees to start October 2017. Interested candidates should approach relevant possible supervisors to discuss their proposed research projects in the first instance (see CEN faculty members). Alternatively, interested students should contact a representative within the relevant department: Birkbeck: Professor Michael Thomas. UCL Institute of Education: Professor Emily Farran.

The importance of language for deaf children’s cognitive development


Two papers published by CEN member Chloe Marshall and her colleagues at City University of London and UCL’s Deafness Cognition and Language Research Centre stress the importance of language for deaf children’s cognitive development. Deaf children are at risk of having delayed Executive Function (EF) development. It is well established that EFs play a critical role in children’s academic success and social and emotional wellbeing, and that they are closely associated with language skills. A long-standing debate in the research literature concerns whether language supports the development of EFs, or whether EFs support language development.

Marshall and her colleagues argue that deafness, a sensory impairment that negatively impacts children’s ability to take up language from the input, offers a unique way of testing the developmental relationship between language and EF. In a paper just published in the leading journal Child Development, they show that deaf children perform more poorly than hearing children on EF and vocabulary tasks, and that vocabulary level mediates EF performance (but not vice versa). In other words, deaf children’s poor EF can be explained by their low vocabulary levels, whereas their poor vocabulary cannot be explained by difficulties with EF tasks.

In an earlier paper published last year in Frontiers in Psychology, Marshall and her colleagues showed that poor working memory (an important component of EF) is not an inevitable consequence of deafness; deaf children who are native signers (i.e. grow up from birth in a home with parents who use a sign language) have comparable performance on working memory tasks to hearing children, but both those groups perform better than deaf children who are non-native signers.

Taken together, these studies suggest that growing up in an environment that offers a rich and accessible language input can protect deaf children from delayed EF development.

Do children do better in school if they were born in the autumn?


In the latest addition to our Neuro-hit or neuro-myth? section, we consider the claim that the time of year children are born influences their subsequent academic performance. This is a simple enough idea with potentially large repercussions. Evidence supporting this was first flagged in the 1960s and ever since researchers and educationalists have been accumulating data. We look at the findings of more recent studies in order to evaluate whether the autumn-born advantage is a reality, possible explanations, how far-reaching the effects are, and whether there are ways to level the playing field.

Dr. Natasha Kirkham: Does a multi-sensory approach help learning in the classroom?


Dr. Natasha Kirkham (Birkbeck, University of London) gave a seminar updating us on the findings of her current project investigating the impact of multi-sensory approaches to learning in the classroom.  Dr. Kirkham’s work investigates what guides attention and supports learning from infancy into early childhood. Recently, she has focused on learning occurring in naturalistic settings, amidst all the noise and distraction of real-life environments.

Children’s formal learning in the classroom takes place in dynamic multi-sensory environments, which can be noisy, distracting and occasionally chaotic. Sometimes the information provided is mutually supportive (e.g., consistent or redundant cues), but at other times it can be de-correlated (independent cues), or even contradictory (conflicting cues). Prior research has shown that multi-sensory information can sometimes facilitate learning in infants (Bahrick & Lickliter, 2000; Lewkowicz, 2000; Richardson & Kirkham, 2004; Wu & Kirkham, 2010) and adults (e.g., Shams & Seitz, 2008; Frassinetti, Bolognini, & Ladavas, 2002).

Consequently, the idea that information received simultaneously from multiple modalities is ‘supportive’ of learning has been used as the basis for educational programs in literacy and numeracy, dealing with both typically and atypically developing children (Bullock, Pierce, & McClelland, 1989; Carbo, Dunn, & Dunn, 1986; Luchow & Sheppard, 1981; Mount & Cavet, 1995).

And yet, beyond its intuitive appeal, there has been no systematic investigation of the effects of multi-sensory stimuli on school-aged children’s basic learning (Barutchu, Crewther, Fifer, Shivdasani, Innes-Brown, Toohey et al., 2011).

Dr. Kirkham presented evidence from her team’s latest work looking at the pros and cons of multimodal information in a learning setting, focusing on the modalities of sight and sound. Thus far, they have used two tasks to tap multi-sensory learning. Both involve learning new categories using audio and visual features.

In the first task (run in collaboration with Prof. Denis Mareschal), the goal is explicit – figure out the categories! In one condition, clues to the categories are in audio features, in a second in visual features, in a third in both audio and visual features together. The results showed that redundant multi-sensory (audio-visual) information offers only a little learning support above and beyond uni-sensory information (audio or visual alone), and only in the youngest age group. In fact, while 5-year-olds seem to show some benefit from multi-sensory information, by 10 years of age children perform best in the auditory alone condition.

The second task (run in collaboration with Dr. Hannah Broadbent) is similar in all ways except that it is an incidental learning task – with children asked to press a button every time they see a frog appear on the screen. There were two categories of frogs, defined, as before, by visual, auditory or audiovisual features. Afterwards, children were asked to identify the categories. In this task, the categories were actually irrelevant to the task at hand – kids just had to spot the frog! In this study, all the age groups (5-, 7-, and 10-year-olds) performed significantly better in identifying the (irrelevant) categories of frog when the categories were marked by multi-sensory cues, rather than just visual or audio features alone.

So, as the team begins to investigate the possible benefits of multi-sensory learning, a more complex picture is emerging. Benefits depend on the type of learning and the age of the child. Multi-sensory presentation may be best for incidental learning. For explicit learning, multi-sensory presentation may be advantageous only for younger children. The project is still on-going.

Free paper for download: Brain plasticity and learning in adulthood


In the last few years, the academic journal International Review of Education (IRE) – the oldest journal of comparative education in the world – shifted its focus towards closer alignment with the work of its parent institution, the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning. Since then, IRE has given priority to research that explores ways in which the idea of lifelong learning is reflected in education policy and practice throughout the world. This has meant a focus on topic areas such as adult education, non-formal education, adult literacy, open and distance learning, vocational education and workplace learning, new access routes to formal education, lifelong learning policies, and various applications of the lifelong learning paradigm. To introduce new readers to IRE, the journal has made available for free download from October 20 to December 20 ten recently published articles. Among them is a paper from the CEN on brain plasticity and learning in adulthood, which can be downloaded here:

Curious Brains


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CEN Research Seminars – Autumn programme

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

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

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

Can fish oil supplements help children with reading?


Can changes in diet improve children’s cognition? Everyone agrees that in one way or another diet has an impact on children’s cognitive abilities. Although there are many studies exploring links between diet and behaviour, there are also lots of holes in our knowledge.

One area of particular focus has been the claim that ingesting fish oil supplements either boosts learning in typically developing children or helps children with developmental difficulties, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), overcome behavioural problems. Fish and shellfish contain Omega-3 fatty acids, which, along with Omega-6, are known as essential fatty acids (EFAs). ‘Essential’ because the body isn’t able to produce them itself, but rather relies on dietary intake. EFAs have a substantial impact on how the brain functions. Despite the necessity of fatty acids for healthy brain function, the benefit of taking dietary supplements containing EFAs (usually Omega-3) has been far from clear. Few studies have shown robust effects of supplements in typically developing, healthy children. There is more evidence of the impact of EFA supplements in reducing ADHD-related symptoms in children with developmental disorders, although even here changes are relatively small and inconsistent.

In a recent paper, researchers reported evidence that taking fish oil supplements improved reading in 9 year old mainstream children in Sweden. The paper, by Mats Johnson and colleagues appears in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. The researchers gave omega 3/6 supplements to 64 9-year-old-children in Sweden over a 3-month period, compared to a group of 58 children given a placebo. The control group were then given the supplements for 3 further months to see whether, if fish oils had an effect, these children then showed the same gains. A battery of reading tests (e.g,. of phonological skills, visual analysis skills, naming skills) were given to the children before and after taking the supplements. Parents also rated their children on various scales, including language and communication skills. From the battery, three tests showed reliable improvements of the supplements compared to the controls: phonological decoding time, visual analysis time, and phonological decoding. The reading benefits were stronger in poorer readers, in boys, and in children with higher ADHD symptoms (though no children symptoms marked enough to suggest a diagnosis of ADHD). Parent ratings did not show any changes (including in ADHD symptoms). The results suggest that while the supplements were effective in a mainstream school sample, they only benefitted some. They had stronger effects in the lower performing children, and diminishing returns in the better readers. This is consistent with the idea that in children who already have diets with sufficient essential fatty acids, supplements confer no extra benefit. However, children with attention problems in particular may show treatment benefits on reading.