PhD Studentship – Applications open

apply_pic2Dr. Steven Papachristou (UCL Institute of Education), Dr. Emma Meaburn (Birkbeck) and Prof Flouri (UCL Institute of Education) are advertising a fully funded PhD (October 2020- September 2023).

The project titled ‘Educational attainment, inflammation and depression: shared genetic aetiology or causal pathway?’ will make use of data from the Understanding Society cohort to test if educational attainment, inflammation and depression are linked because they share genetic underpinnings.

Full details are available here.

The closing date is 31st of March 2020.

Lust & Love explained by the Me, Human team

Do you believe in love at first sight?
Do you think that opposite attract?
Can Paracetamol help you cure your heartbreak?

Sitting at a dimly lit table full of glittery hearts and candies, I consider Gilly Forrester’s questions to the audience. Yes, No, No, I reply. Having a look at the rest of the audience – maybe in the hope of finding my soulmate, I can see that some people do not agree with me. The tone is set: what I will hear tonight will challenge my preconceptions.


Joining Gilly on stage, we have Catherine Loveday (no, she did not change her name for the event, it is just very appropriate), and Simon Green. Catherine is a Professor at the University of Westminster, and is here to reveal the physical chemistry of lust and love. Simon is a retired Senior Lecturer at Birkbeck University, and will tell us about the evolutionary functions of lust and love, in humans and other animals. Gilly Forrester, who created this overall event, is a Reader at Birkbeck University, and will talk about other species, such as birds and white wales – thereby also considerably raising the “cuteness” vibes of this event.

But let’s start with us, humans, and let’s clarify what we mean by Lust and Love.

Catherine explains 3 different states:

  1. Lust, or physical, sexual attraction. One of the 7 deadly sins. Bluntly speaking, this is what is behind hook-ups and one-stand partners – multiple people can satisfy our needs here.
  2. Romantic love, or passion. Here, the attraction is still physical but we select one person to be in a relationship with. Our brain is secreting addictive dopamine, noradrenaline, and serotonin. Have you ever felt so much passion that you could not eat anymore? Well, this is because heightened rates of noradrenaline are also related to loss of appetite.
  3. Attachment, or companionate love, is a calm, secure long-term relationship with a “partner for life”. Here, our brain secretes oxytocin, the “cuddle” hormone. It is also related to maternal love.

These three states are not mutually exclusive, but since attachment develops over time, we might reconsider our first question “Does love at first sight exist?”. Well, maybe we should instead say: “Lust at first sight”?


Catherine, on the left, explains the three states of lust and love

And what about gender differences here? Simon mentions that the costs and benefits of lust and love might be evolutionarily different for men and women. Whereas men would benefit from having many different sexual relationships (spreading their genes), women are more constrained by the costs of pregnancy, needing to carefully select the good partner (i.e. good genes), while also providing resources and security to the future offspring. Following from that, as men have no guarantee that an offspring is theirs (they are not pregnant), they would be particularly sensitive to sexual infidelity, whereas women would need to rely on attachment and security, thereby being sensitive to “attachment” infidelity. Should I just say here that we are talking about evolutionary psychology, so if you feel some outrage here (for god’s sake, we are in the 21st century!), just imagine a world with more pregnancy risks (without condoms and contraceptive pills) – the evolution of species is much slower than that of technology, and we talk about the reproduction of genes here.

What kind of signs do we use to select a good partner then? To try and figure it out by ourselves, we answered a little survey, selecting our physical preferences among different options. I happily did it – the answers were anonymous, right(?!). Few indicators came out when merging the answers from the audience, that correspond to what is usually found in the general population. For example, women are considered more attractive if they have long legs, compared to their upper body (hence maybe the power of heels), and if they have a narrow waist and larger hips. When it comes to judging men, on the contrary, a more balanced legs-to-body ratio is preferred (legs a bit longer than the torso but not too much). For both sexes, indicators of good health are usually preferred. This includes symmetry, and having a rather thin face. Of course, in social interactions, as well as on dating apps, physical indicators come along with information about a person’s social status and personality. This also influences attractiveness. Creativity also enhances a man’s attractiveness from a woman’s perspective – much more than the other way around. So sadly, if I create a profile on a dating app, mentioning that I am playing music might help less than putting a picture of me in a fancy dress…

A funny fact though, is that whereas women’s choice of attractive mate age increases with their own age (red line on the picture below), men’s preference for mate choice never exceeds about 20 years of age – regardless of how old they are (blue line).


Let’s try and justify this: if we consider that older women have had, on average, more sexual partners, dating younger women with less experience would help men to be sure that the offspring is theirs. On the woman’s side, a man who can provide resources would gain attractiveness as he can provide security for the offspring. Again, we are talking about evolutionary psychology here, and customs have changed in western industrialised countries. A key challenge of these theories is to make sense of different patterns of relationships (e.g. homosexual, pansexual relationships) and social configurations (e.g. taking into account the availability of contraception methods, and the increased independence of women in society). Maybe these evolutionary theories, focused on very long time frames, could be complemented with social and cultural theories. However, they can help us to understand what were share with other animals.

Inasmuch as we fancy talking to our cats and dogs, it is hard to know what is going on in their heads: Do they feel lust, love, companionship? Back in the 19th century, a strong movement in Psychology, called Behaviourism, focused on what was observable for an external eye, that is to say, behaviour, acts. Taken to an extreme, it would mean that we could infer love in animals to the extent that they show similar behaviours to ours. But it is not only about animals being similar to us. We are also similar to animals, since our brain is the repository of evolution.

The 3-brains theory posits the existence of 3 layers in the brain (for further clarifications, see this page):

  1. The reptilian brain, shared with various, and quite remote species such as amphibians, or reptiles. It controls our vital functions (such as breathing, body balance) and primal emotions (seeking for food and partners, lust, rage).
  2. The limbic brain is shared with some reptiles and mammals. It involves the regulation of emotions that are more related to attachment: the urge to care for an offspring, to have long-lasting relationships. It can record memories of behaviours that produced agreeable and disagreeable experiences.
  3. The cortex, often highlighted as the most developed human part, is actually present in other species as well. What seemed to have particularly expanded in primates and humans is its connections with other areas of the brain. The cortex helps us to regulate our behaviour and refrain impulses, but it would not work without foundations, in other words, without the reptilian and limbic brains!

So, in answer to the question: “Do we experience the world in a similar way than other animals?”, a tentative response would be: could be, for lust and romantic love.

pic_animals_loveThis is supported by the study of brain chemistry. Oxytocin is not only secreted by human brains. In animals, this hormone is related to pair bonding, which basically means pairing to handle resources and raise offspring. Pairing fosters health and survival. The good news is that the secretion of oxytocin, in both humans and animals, enhances the attractiveness of our current mate, and reduces the attractiveness of other mates. Another good news is that the physical symptoms of a heartbreak can be alleviated via paracetamol – of course, this is not the panacea to cure any psychological and mental health issue.

At this stage, my brain was a bit smashed by all these new ideas – and by my two glasses of wine. So, what did I take from the event? First, next time I am heartbroken, I will go to the chemist, pull out a 50p coin and buy some Paracetamol. Second, I might stop making fun of my mum when she infers mental states in cats.


The next Psyched! event is about Sex differences. You can book your place here.

Don’t forget to follow the team at @Me__Human

Written by: Jessica Massonnié

The NeuroSENse project – your help needed!


The Centre of Educational Neuroscience and the UCL Institute of Education would like to invite you to participate in a questionnaire investigating your beliefs about the brain and people with special educational needs (SEN).

We would like as many people as possible above the age of 18 years old to take part in our study.

This short questionnaire will help us gain insight on what the general population knows about these topics and potentially lead to the development of targeted educational resources.

All answers will remain confidential and anonymous.

Click the link below to access the survey:

Dr. Joni Holmes – Transdiagnostic approaches to understanding why children struggle at school

Dr. Joni Holmes is the Head of the Centre for Attention Learning and Memory (CALM) at the Medical Research Council’s Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, University of Cambridge (CBU). Research conducted in CALM aims to illuminate the cognitive, neural and genetic underpinnings of learning difficulties with a view to developing targeted interventions and identifying risk factors for long-term difficulties.

In her CEN talk, Joni shared results from a recent study on 800 struggling learners, that were referred to the CALM by a variety of practitioners (e.g. special needs co-ordinators, paediatricians, child psychologists and psychiatrists, and speech and language therapists). Joni and her team examined the nature of children’s difficulties, and the mechanisms underlying their reading, spelling and maths performance.


You can watch the full seminar here.

Full details about the study are available in the following papers:

Siugzdaite, R., Bathelt, J., Holmes, J. & Astle, D. (2020). Transdiagnostic brain mapping in developmental disorders. Current Biology.

Holmes, J., Guy, J., Kievit, R., Bryant, A., & Gathercole, S.E. (2020). Cognitive dimensions of learning in children with problems in attention, learning and memory. Journal of Educational Psychology, under review.

Mareva, S., the CALM Team, & Holmes, J. (2019). Transdiagnostic associations across communication, cognitive and behavioural problems in a developmentally at-risk population. BMC Pediatrics, 19, 452-462.

Holmes, J., Bryant, A., & Gathercole, S. E. (2019). Protocol for a transdiagnostic study of children with problems of attention, learning and memory (CALM). BMC Pediatrics, 19(1), 10.

Astle, D. E., Bathelt, J., CALM Team, & Holmes, J. (2018). Remapping the cognitive and neural profiles of children who struggle at school. Developmental science, 22(1), e12747. 

You can also read Joni’s team paper for TES, and a recent BBC report on the work carried out at CALM.

The CALM clinic also provides free resources for professionals supporting struggling learners.

Spatial Cognition and LEGO (BLOCS Project)


It is hard to think of an everyday activity that doesn’t involve the use of spatial skills. Whether we’re reading a map or packing a suitcase, we need to understand the location and dimensions of objects and their relationships to one other. Spatial ability varies across children, and predicts adult expertise in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). This is unsurprising, given the many examples of spatial skills that are integral to STEM professions (for example understanding graphs and diagrams). Recent research has found that it is possible to train spatial skills, and that this in turn can improve achievement in STEM subjects.


The BLOCS project (standing for Block Construction Skills for Mathematics) aims to determine how LEGO® is related to and can be used to improve maths achievement in seven to nine year-olds. Lego is not only a practical choice, but research has shown that it has the capacity to help children reach their mathematical potential. The project will also explore how digital technologies (a part of many children’s everyday activities) can improve spatial abilities. Specifically, it will identify how both physical Lego and digital Lego construction activities can be used to improve spatial abilities and measure the impact that this has on maths ability. This series of research studies is funded by the Leverhulme Trust.

The teamteam_lego2


You can learn more about the project by reading the article on page nine of the Leverhulme Trust Newsletter. 

Communicating educational neuroscience to a wide audience


On Thursday 6 February, Dr Annie Brookman-Byrne from The Psychologist magazine spoke at the CEN seminar. Annie is an alumnus of the CEN, having completed her MSc, PhD, and a post-doc in the centre, leaving in 2019. Here she summarises the discussion that was had around her experiences communicating educational neuroscience to a wide audience.

Who do we need to communicate with?


The key group that we need to communicate with is teachers. Ideally, we hope to share strategies from research that teachers can use in the classroom, but teachers may also simply benefit from understanding more about neuroscience. We might speak to teachers about the field of educational neuroscience, trying to get them on board (see this example of a paper I wrote for teachers with Michael Thomas), or we might share our own research and results with them, particularly if they’ve been part of our research.

There’s increasing interest in getting educational neuroscience, or the science of learning, into initial teacher training. Paul Howard-Jones and his team have identified three categories of learning that they teach to secondary teachers on their programme – these are engagement, building knowledge and understanding, and consolidation of learning. They explain these concepts from a neuroscientific perspective and argue that an understanding of these mechanisms helps teachers to understand why things they try in the classroom do or don’t work. Kendra McMahon and Pete Etchells have adopted a different approach in their primary teacher training, focusing on neuromyths, and enabling teachers to critically understand educational programmes. They aim to help teachers become ‘critical consumers’ of the evidence.

While many of us would like all teachers to engage with us, I am increasingly aware that we need to ensure that teachers don’t feel like they have to engage. Teachers are extremely busy people, often facing many stresses in their jobs, so my aim is to be ready for when they do seek information, providing tools and strategies, rather than strict guidelines. I helped to run the Science of Learning Zone, part of I’m A Scientist, Get Me Out Of Here, which allowed teachers and researchers to communicate with each other about science relating to the classroom. It was an easy way for teachers and researchers to interact, since it was all via computer.


Students are another key group that educational neuroscientists communicate with. Sometimes we’re sharing the results of research that they’ve participated in, or we might just be passing on information that has potential benefit for them (e.g. inhibitory control, sleep, diet, learning techniques). When we’re telling students about these, we have to be careful not to make them anxious, for example through over-emphasising the importance of sleep, which they may have very little control over. But overall, I’d hope that information given to students would ultimately be helpful and potentially reassuring – for example, learning that IQ fluctuates may be encouraging to those who feel they are performing less well than their peers.

I participated in a play for adolescents, created by Cardboard Citizens in collaboration with Iroise Dumontheil, about brain development that aimed to help students understand their own behaviour, and hopefully change it. The play involved a series of events that went badly for the characters, and by the end of the play they were near homelessness or self-harm. The teenagers in the audience were asked to choose a scene where a character could have acted in a different way to change the outcome. Each performance had a neuroscientist present, to explain why the character behaved in a certain way, what was happening in their brain, and why a new strategy might be better. The play introduced the idea of metacognition: the idea that we can think about our thoughts and feelings, and try to change them.

Go to the I’m A Scientist website to look out for opportunities to talk to school students online about science.


In between students and teachers, researchers are indirectly connected to parents, who receive information about research projects that are carried out in schools. Information sheets typically only include very specific information about one study. For me, that’s about the extent of my engagement with parents. Chloë Marshall spoke about a UCL event for engaging with parents, where everything is set up by the university to make it easy for academics. Jessica Massonié suggested that an extension of the CEN’s Bright Sparks public engagement event could include talking to parents about key topics in educational neuroscience.


The final group on my list of people to communicate with about educational neuroscience is other academics, which I consider to be a genuine challenge for us. There are of course those who believe that education and neuroscience are not related (or, I would argue, who don’t really understand what educational neuroscience is). Part of my motivation for writing about educational neuroscience in The Psychologist (long before I started working there!) was to convince other academics that educational neuroscience is worthwhile. But there are also those who can be defensive, and think we’re telling them they must take an interest in education. Just as all teachers needn’t engage with educational neuroscience, all researchers needn’t take an interest.


At the end of the discussion, Michael Thomas pointed out that I was missing a key group – policymakers. I have no experience of communicating with policymakers, and Michael spoke of the challenge in communicating with this group. Policymakers want things that will work, which they will then mandate. This is tricky for us, because our aim is to empower teachers, not to mandate. But, Michael said, if we don’t do it, others will (and they do). So we can’t just keep saying that the evidence is premature, we need to use what we do know. For example, we know that socioeconomic status is more influential on academic outcomes than school and teacher quality – that kind of information could be used to inform policy.

How can we communicate?

There are many different ways of communicating with these audiences, including blog posts (which are so easy to do!), talks, podcasts (such as the Learning Scientists’ podcast). If you have a bit of a budget, you can do even more exciting things like the play I mentioned above. I was lucky to get funding for a project with Georgina Donati – we created a film about the adolescent brain for teachers. The film is hosted on a website with loads of information about brain development. We created the film following a focus group with teachers who gave us really helpful feedback on our ideas which really helped us decide how to frame the film. In-person discussions are a really good way of communicating, and at the 2018 SIG 22 conference we used an open space format, allowing any attendee to pose a topic for discussion.

A number of people mentioned other forms of communication, including INSET days, workshops, and BNA resources for teachers. Overall I concluded that a diversity of format is good for reaching different audiences who will have different preferences for how and when to talk with researchers.

Challenges in communicating educational neuroscience

Sharing your opinions, and putting your writing into the public domain can be scary, especially when writing about individuals. What if you’re wrong? What if someone argues with you on Twitter and you need to respond? This can be very off-putting, especially at the beginning… But you don’t have to respond to every comment, and it’s okay to disagree with people. In my experience it’s very rare that people actually want to get into an argument.

A key challenge for me is the lack of feedback from many of these activities. How do you know that you’ve reached your intended audience? And how do you know if you’ve made anything change? I get feedback mostly through Twitter, and only from those who have strong opinions, and typically academics rather than teachers. One person in the discussion said that teachers often expect a strategy or top tip, so might not be impressed when they hear from us that there are no quick fixes. I do find that a lot of my blog posts end with a variation of ‘we don’t really know the answer yet’ so I can understand that this is frustrating. Andy Smart suggested that I follow more teachers on Twitter to help my voice get heard by them. Michael Thomas pointed out that web analytics can be useful for at least seeing how many people are reading posts and how they’re getting to your site.

Benefits of communicating

Despite these challenges, it really isn’t all bad! Even if all you do is write one blog post, that’s one thing that people can read when they search for you. I started blogging when I was applying for PhDs, and my main motivation was that I wanted anyone who googled me to be able to find something that I’ve written. I thought that if I did just three a year, then within a couple of years I’ve got six pieces for people to read. It’s also great writing practice, which will be useful – Iroise Dumontheil said that writing in an accessible style is increasingly important in grant applications. One thing I love about blogging is that it’s so fast. You might have an idea one afternoon, sit down to write it for a few hours, then it’s online by the evening. Communication can also allow you to be creative.

Getting teachers’ and students’ opinions may help to inform your research. You may start new collaborations with particularly keen people you communicate with. It can also be useful to get feedback from other academics on your work – I’ve heard a few educational neuroscientists say that communicating with other academics has made them think harder about the aims and remit of the field, which has ultimately been a good thing.

My back catalogue of blog posts has helped me to remember what I was thinking in the past – it’s been a useful resource for myself that I can draw on. It can also help you keep up to date with the field – I’m always on the lookout for the latest educational neuroscience work that might be interesting to write about. I’ve also met new people and found new opportunities through communicating, such as getting involved in projects and being invited to interesting events. Ultimately you might end up enjoying it so much that you end up making a career out of it!

Getting started

If you’d like to communicate educational neuroscience and you’re not sure where to start, I’d recommend creating a blog. You could make your own, or find friends in a similar area. I use blogger, which is very easy to set up. You could also create a profile on the NPJ Science of Learning community, which is also easy to use and will help you reach a wider audience. You could think about submitting your work elsewhere – to the Jacobs Foundation Blog on Learning and Development (BOLD) for example, or of course The Psychologist!

Write just 500 words, on something that you know about, perhaps something that might seem obvious to you but wouldn’t to others. If you’re stuck for ideas, then you could review a podcast or a book, report on an event, or write an opinion piece. I also look out for pieces in the news that I can write a response to (even if it’s not explicitly a response).

You could also share your ideas on social media, perhaps using a Twitter thread, and the hashtag #edneuro so that we can all find each other’s posts.

Remember to use simple language, and that it’s not an essay. Very often you can just drop instances where you’ve said “Research has shown that…”, as you’ll be linking to the source anyway. At The Psychologist we are working on a guide to writing science pieces for a wide audience, so look out for more advice on writing soon!

Thanks to everyone who joined in with the discussion.

See Annie on Twitter here, and read The Psychologist here.

Lipreading training in deaf children

Let’s tell you a bit more about the research projects carried out at the CEN.

Today, we will share the outcomes of an intervention study led by Prof. Mairéad MacSweeney at UCL, and aiming at improving deaf children’s lipreading skills.

Many deaf children find learning to read to be very challenging. This project evaluated a computerized speechreading (lipreading) training program in a randomized controlled trial to determine (a) whether it is possible to train speechreading in deaf children and (b) whether speechreading training results in improvements in phonological skills and, subsequently, single word reading skills. 

Sixty-six deaf 5- to 7-year-olds children participated in the study. They became deaf before they were 12 months of age. They either took part in a speechreading intervention, or in a maths training intervention (active control group). The interventions consisted of computerised games that were designed to run across forty-eight 10-min sessions. Children were engaged in one session per day, 4 days a week, for 12 weeks.


Screenshots from the computer games used in the speechreading (a, b) and maths (c, d) interventions.

In the speechreading intervention, children saw a silent video of a model saying a given word, and had to choose the corresponding picture from a choice of four pictures. They also had to match visual speech patterns with letters and words. For example, seeing the video of a model speaking a phoneme (e.g, ‘p’) and choosing the corresponding letter. In the maths training intervention, children were presented with counting and arithmetic exercises.

Results showed a significant benefit of the speechreading training intervention on speechreading and also on their speech production accuracy. Importantly the speech production measure took into account both auditory speech and visual speech (i.e., articulation accuracy). The benefits of speechreading training were stronger when only children who completed the full 48 sessions were included in the analyses. These benefits however did not filter through to result in improved single word reading.

Although no effects were seen on reading skills, practitioners and parents of deaf children are likely to be interested in a game that can lead to speechreading gains in deaf children. Future research should explore whether interventions are more efficient for children whose speechreading skills are particularly low and also whether a longer training period would lead to subsequent gains in reading.


Pimperton, H., Kyle, F., Hulme, C., Harris, M., Beedie, I., Ralph-Lewis, A., … & MacSweeney, M. (2019). Computerized Speechreading Training for Deaf Children: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research62(8), 2882-2894.

See a demonstration of the games here:

Funders: Wellcome Trust, Economic and Social Research Council

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Éadaoin Slattery – Keeping Score! The development of a school-based attention training programme

Éadaoin Slattery is a PhD student at the University of Limerick. She is interested in the measurement and enhancement of cognition, with a particular emphasis on sustained attention, working memory and their interrelations. Her PhD research focuses on the development and evaluation of “Keeping Score!”, a novel, school-based attention training programme designed to improve sustained attention and working memory in children with attentional difficulties.

In her talk for the Centre for Educational Neuroscience, she first highlighted the relationship between cognitive assessments of sustained attention among primary school students, and teachers’ and parents’ reports of inattentive behaviour in everyday life – a first step in bridging the gap between lab-based research and school practice. Second, she reported the strong associations between: a) verbal IQ and working memory (e.g. the capacity to keep multiple pieces of information in mind), and b) word reading and reading comprehension. Finally, she presented an intervention, Keeping Score! aiming to improve children’s sustained attention and/or working memory. The intervention consisted in children playing table tennis, while keeping track of the scores. Although the programme seemed promising in terms of the ease to implement it in school settings, it did not yield significant improvements in working memory and sustained attention. Together with the attendees, Éadaoin discussed the methodological and practical challenges she faced (e.g. difficulty to have big sample sizes, to dissociate motor skills and attentional skills in the training programme). A lot of food for thoughts for fellow EdNeuro researchers!

You can watch the entire talk here.

Follow Éadaoin on Twitter @eadaoinslattery

What do kids want to know about their own brains? An interview with Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa

traceytokuhama-espinosaTracey Tokuhama-Espinosa is from Berkeley, California and teaches a course at the Harvard University Extension School entitled Neuroscience of Learning: An Introduction to Mind, Brain, Health and Education. She is a former member of the Organisation For Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) expert panel to redefine Teachers’ New Pedagogical Knowledge which determined teacher need more training in Technology and Neuroscience. Tracey is the founder of Connections: The Learning Sciences Platform, which provides evidence-based resources to teachers. She has also taught Kindergarten through University and believes that the quality of education is improved through research, teacher education, and student support. In this blog post, she presents one of her on-going research project, which investigates what kids want to know about their own brain.

Thanks for taking time to answer our questions, Tracey. First of all, why did you develop this research project?

This research project was inspired by my many visits to classrooms. I am often called in to work with teachers, but I remind the schools of the importance of working with kids and their parents as well. There was one particularly wonderful class, a 4th grade room at Punahou School in Hawaii. When I asked the children what they wanted to know about their own brains, one little girl said, “I want to know how my head has enough space for my brain AND all of my imagination”! What a beautiful question.


This made my think of a study that Paul Howard-Jones mentioned once when we were talking about why people become fixed in their belief about how brains can do and learn, usually based on no evidence whatsoever. He suggested that there was a “theory of brain concept”, in which children around 8 or 9-years of age “decide” they think they know how they learn best, and then spend the rest of their life trying to confirm those ideas.

So… what do children want to know about their own brain? 

Curiously enough, there seems to be a pattern of response that parallels Howard’s thinking. That is, kids spend a lot of time thinking about how their brains work when they are very little, and then begin to conform to a pattern of thinking as they grow. The younger the kid, the more sophisticated the questions. By the time they are around 13, their words and questions are less imaginative and sound more like typical adult questions. To give some examples, here are some questions that arose when I visited a school last October, and talked with 12-to 13-years-olds.

  • Why do we get stressed?
  • How can we get enough sleep if we have sports and homework?
  • Why do people have sudden changes in mood?
  • How does our brain come up with dreams?


What was the most frequent question?

We are still doing data collection through June 2020, so I can’t answer that. I can say that there are a lot of questions about inner voice and self-talk, and also about how emotions play into behavior and learning.

Which one was your favourite?

I have to confess that I love questions about potential. For example, some kids want to know why they were “born” one way or another, and if there is anything they can do about it. These kids were 12 to 13 years of age. As you can see, they sound much like adults. When you get the smaller kids, you get more creative questions (like the one on imagination above).

Which one was the most unexpected?

The most unexpected were the disturbing ones. “Why do I think of killing myself sometimes?” for example really threw me. I also find it incredible that kids think their brains are somehow separate from the body. That is, they want to know why their brains don’t work when they don’t sleep well because they don’t see how they are connected.

Do we have sufficient scientific knowledge to answer these questions at the moment?

We have limited evidence to answer all of their questions, but we have a lot of directions we can nudge them in to find better answers. I like to say that we don’t know the answer, but it is a great question and some people would answer X, while others would answer Z. Then I ask them which they could believe and why. I think it is very important to fuel the fires of this curiosity with additional questions and existing hypotheses, and then push them to think a bit deeper about their own questions.

How would the answer to these questions be relevant to teachers?

By looking at what kids want to know about their own brains, they reveal a lot of unspoken conversations we need to be having in schools. Michael Merzenrich suggested that we should have a Brain Health class for all kids, around 8th grade (13 to 14 years of age), so they can understand the basics of the mind-body connection (how nutrition, sleep and physical activity influence their ability to learn), how emotions influence cognition, and better understand the different roles of nature and nurture, plus the role that making the right choice can play (free will). This study has taught me that kids have a whole lot of concerns and mistaken understandings about the limits on their own potentials that we can improve, just by sharing information. I think teachers would learn a great deal from reading the results of this study (or better yet, ask their own students the same question!)

Are there areas where you think research should focus next?

I am very enthusiastic with following up on Michael’s idea about Brain Health in regular schools. We don’t talk enough about the brain in schools, and many of these kinds of conversations between kids and teachers would go a long way in reshaping individual self-efficacy, growth mindsets, and so on.

If you are a parent and/or teacher, you can participate in the survey by following this hyperlink.

If you would like to know more about Tracey’s research, publications, and to access free resources for teachers, you can visit the website of Connections: The Learning Sciences Platform. The journal Frontiers for Kids also publishes articles for young readers, and you will find the answer to a few questions such as “How does the brain learn to link things together?” or “What did language grow from?“.

Narratives and Mathematics by Jo Van Herwegen

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

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

Narratives as an anchor for mathematical development

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

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

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

Storybooks as a way to develop mathematical vocabulary

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

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

Reading from left to right helps to understand the number line

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

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

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

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


Teaching mathematical concepts

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


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

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


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

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

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

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