Is classroom noise bad for learning?

In this week’s CEN seminar, Jessica Massonnié talked about her research looking at the effect of classroom noise on learning. Here she summarises her talk.

jessica-massonnieClassrooms are lively environments and, as you may remember from your own experience, they are also noisy. Teachers and students report classroom chatter, and noise coming from movement (i.e. scraping sounds from tables and chairs) as the most annoying sources of noise.

Previous research has shown that hearing a single person talking does, in most cases, impair performance (whether we measure attention, memory, reading skills or maths performance). However, more complex types of noise (i.e. when different conversations overlap or are mixed with noise coming from tools and devices, making the semantic meaning of the noise less salient) have been shown to have mixed effects, and do not necessarily impair performance. But we know very little about why some children are very impaired, while others do pretty well in noisy environments. That is what my work focuses on.

In my talk I presented results from a study carried out here, at the CEN, in collaboration with Cathy Rogers and fellow PhD students. We used recorded classroom noise, composed of a mix of babble and environmental noise, and measured its effect on children’s creativity. We found that children in their early elementary school years (below 8 years of age) with low selective attention skills were especially impaired by noise. However, older children, in their late elementary school years, and children with high attentional skills performed similarly in silence and noise. That is to say, noise did not have a negative impact for everyone.

A second study explored the same phenomenon, showing that children in late elementary school (from 8 to 11 years of age) had similar scores in silence and noise when they performed academic tasks (reading and maths), and it did not depend on their level of selective attention.

Measuring how noise affect children’s performance is however only one part of the story. Pupils are also more or less annoyed by noise, emotionally speaking. And this annoyance, perhaps surprisingly, often does not correspond to the effect we see on performance. In other words, some children feel very distracted by noise, even if it does not objectively impact their performance.

My current work is looking at the mechanisms behind children’s annoyance, with the optimal goal of providing some cues to improve their well-being.

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If you are interested in the topic, I recommend the article: Sound or Noise? The importance of individual differences written by Lindsay McCunn.

If you have Netflix, I encourage you to watch the first episode of Explained, “Music”. It discusses the relation between sound and music, and how it is to stop “feeling” sound as music.

Finally, if you would like to receive quarterly scientific and artistic updates on the topic, you can sign up to the newsletter of the Pursuit of Silence.

What do teachers think about creativity?

creativity-in-the-classroomCreativity is not very well understood from a neuroscientific perspective. One theory growing in prominence is that creativity involves the coupling of brain networks which normally work in opposition, allowing the brain to engage both in free associative processes (making unusual connections) and more focused executive processes (evaluating and assessing possible ideas). What is reasonably undisputed is society’s need for creativity – and for individuals who can come up with creative solutions – but how can teachers best help children develop these creative skills?

enikoEniko Bereczki is a researcher in pedagogy and psychology with a particular interest in creativity. She has been looking at teachers’ creativity beliefs and the implications for classroom practice. Here she talks about her findings with the CEN.

Author: Enikő Orsolya Bereczki, Faculty of Pedagogy and Psychology, Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE) in Hungary

What does recent research tell us about teachers’ creativity beliefs and what are the implications for classroom practice?

How well creativity is implemented in education is highly dependent on teachers’ beliefs about it. These beliefs have been extensively investigated over the past 25 years; early studies found that although teachers appreciated creativity, their beliefs were often misaligned with the scientific evidence. Common misconceptions included the idea that creativity is solely concerned with originality, that it is an inborn talent that cannot be nurtured and that it mainly relates to arts and humanities. The research suggested that these misconceptions were likely to act as barriers to fostering creativity in the classroom.

In our systematic literature review[i] of in-service K-12 teachers’ beliefs about creativity we wanted to know if teachers’ beliefs about creativity had become more aligned with the scientific literature in recent years and to find out more about how teachers’ views translate into classroom practice.

There has been a growing recognition of creativity across the curriculum in recent years among classroom teachers.

We found 53 studies published between 2010 and 2015 examining teachers’ beliefs about creativity. Research was carried out all over the world including four studies from the UK. One of our major findings was that teachers’ beliefs heavily depend on the context of investigation: even teachers coming from the same geographical areas, the same cultural background or teaching the same subjects and age groups may hold very different views. Nevertheless, we identified several recurrent themes in teachers’ beliefs on the nature of creativity:

  • Teachers generally support the idea that creativity can be nurtured. The idea that creativity is an inborn talent is still held in certain contexts, especially those in which teachers lack specific creativity training.
  • Teachers generally agree that creativity can manifest in any domain; in Western cultures, there is a slight bias towards art-related subjects while in the East the bias is towards science.
  • Teachers rarely recognise that both originality and appropriateness are joint requirements for creativity, with many educators placing emphasis solely on originality. This risks undervaluing some of the skills and knowledge which contribute to the creative process, and may create an environment in which creativity competes with academic learning instead of supporting it.
  • The idea that creativity requires both originality and appropriateness is supported by highly-accomplished expert teachers, who might therefore play an important role in promoting research grounded beliefs about creativity.
  • Teachers still sometimes have trouble recognizing creative students in the classroom and are often instead positively biased towards students with high intellectual abilities and good behaviour. This may leave creative potential unrealised in the classroom.
  • Teachers generally have positive attitudes towards creativity, feel capable of fostering it and perceive themselves as doing so. Cross-validation of data, however, often highlights incongruence between beliefs and enacted classroom practices.
  • Teachers are aware of several strategies that promote students’ creativity, though some aspects were overlooked and others overemphasized. Teaching divergent thinking and providing active learning opportunities were seen as creativity fostering strategies.

Teachers perceive several barriers, and few enablers, to fostering creativity in the classroom. Lack of time, overloaded curriculum, lack of training, standardized tests and difficulties in assessing creativity are the most widely cited barriers in recent literature.bereczki-teacher-perceived-barriersTeachers still need more help to translate their positive beliefs about creativity to creativity-fostering classroom practices

Of 53 studies on teachers’ beliefs about creativity, 19 investigated the link between teachers’ espoused beliefs and enacted classroom practice. The most important findings were:

  • Teachers’ practices reflect beliefs which are in misalignment with research. For example, teachers who stressed the originality aspect of creativity tended to ask students to generate unique responses, while overlooking tasks requiring both originality and appropriateness.
  • Teachers find it difficult to translate positive beliefs and those in line with research to creativity-fostering classroom practices. Studies which included classroom observation showed that there were teachers with positive beliefs and considerable knowledge about creativity who did not incorporate creativity-fostering tasks in their lessons.
  • Teachers may perceive that they foster creativity in the classroom while their students or school leaders may have different perspectives.

Policy makers and teacher education can do a lot to help teachers develop research-aligned creativity beliefs and implement creativity-fostering practices.

Based on our study, we believe there are several options open to policy makers:

  1. Beyond establishing creativity as an important learning goal in the curriculum, provide research-based definitions and guidance on how to nurture it across the various subject areas.
  2. Invest in the development and acquisition of resources and materials that teachers can use to promote and assess creativity.
  3. Create opportunities for teachers to develop and share best practice on promoting and assessing creativity across the curriculum. Encourage schools to promote creativity-fostering cultures.
  4. In teacher education and development, provide training on creativity and its nurture. Training should emphasise how to conceptualize, recognize, explicitly teach for and assess creativity. It should also explicitly address teachers’ beliefs about creativity.

Teachers themselves can make a real difference

Finally, we would like to share some ways in which teachers can use current creativity research to inform their creativity beliefs and translate them into creative classroom practice:

  1. Reflect on your own beliefs about creativity in the light of research results.
  • What We Know About Creativity? is a research brief published by Partnership for 21st century skills, which is a good starting point for examining beliefs and knowledge about creativity.
  • Creativity in the classroom is a learning module published by the American Psychological Association which gives an overview of the use of creativity in a classroom through interviews with renowned scholars in the field.

Infuse creativity in the curriculum instead of treating it merely as an extra-curricular learning objective. These resources show that even with slight adjustment creativity can become part of daily teaching practice:

  1. In education, what is assessed counts: develop strategies to assess and reward creativity in your classroom.
  • In her post Assessing Creativity Susan M. Brookhart offers some practical tips on how to asses and reward student creativity in the classroom.

[i] Bereczki, E. O., & Kárpáti, A. (2018). Teachers’ beliefs about creativity and its nurture: a systematic review of recent research literature, Educational Research Review, 28, 25-56.

The complexities of learning in multisensory environments

As a P8dks1l1hD student working on the effect of noise on learning, I am fascinated by the complex environment in which children are growing up. They are constantly exposed to multiple auditory and visual information (face to face conversations, TV, radio, books, background noise from the street…). I’m always wondering to what extent, and in which contexts, audio-visual information is beneficial for children, and in which contexts it can be detrimental.

In this blog, I’m going to summarize two talks that gave me some thoughts on these questions.

Anna Fisher (Associate Professor, Department of Psychology, Carnegie Mellon University) presented her work on the multiple “attention-catchers” in the classroom, and in particular, visual stimulation. Classroom walls are often very crowded and colourful: children’s work can be proudly displayed, along with posters to help remember letters and numbers, or the weather forecast which children enthusiastically update every day. By reproducing this visual environment in the lab, Anna Fisher showed that these can distract children from their lessons. In other words, it can be easier for children to focus on the teacher and relevant instructional materials if the classroom has a minimalistic design, with few decorations. In her study, this enhanced focus was associated with learning gains. Anna’s current work is also looking at the instructional materials themselves, questioning the relevance of illustrations in reading books: while multiple and colourful illustrations aim to be engaging, do they always help an understanding of the text? She suggests that their relevance should be critically questioned, to identify which illustrations provide support for comprehension, and which act as distractors, driving pupils’ attention away from the key points.

The main point here is to keep the overarching learning goal in mind. In that respect, Paul Matusz (Lecturer at the Institute for Information Systems at HES-SO Valais and Lausanne University, Switzerland) pointed out that being sensitive to multisensory information in the classroom can be a double-edged sword. Looking at posters on the wall while performing a learning task can promote learning, if these posters contain information that is relevant for the task at hand (e.g. multiplication tables). But if the information is not relevant (e.g. a poem that reminds a child of her holidays), it can potentially drive children away from their task. In other words, qualifying which information acts as “distractor” and which as a “learning help” depends very much on the task at hand. Children who are particularly sensitive to external information can be either especially advantaged or especially disadvantaged, depending on the relevance of such information. You can read Paul’s blog post, as well as his article written for children, to find out more about his work.

I particularly appreciated Anna Fisher’s and Paul Matusz’s work because they show us that complex psychological topics cannot be seen in “black and white”. Instead they encourage us to always consider the specificity of the learning context, and of each pupil. It also stimulates methodological innovations, revealing the potential for mixed-methods, in-between classic well-controlled laboratory research, and naturalistic investigations in the classroom.

You can find out more about Jess’ research from her interview with the Learning Scientists.  She works in the lab of Natasha Kirkham, whose research you can read about on this website here. You can also find out more about related research from other lab members on attention switching and multitasking.
Follow Jess on twitter @Jess_Masso and see her website here

Using research in the classroom: development of mathematical skills

We are delighted to welcome researcher Jo Van Herwegen, Associate Professor at Kingston University, to our series in which researchers talk about the relevance of their work to the classroom. Welcome Jo!

cenblog_image_jvhWhat is the focus of your research?

My research focuses on development, especially language and mathematical development, in children with neurodevelopmental disorders such as Williams syndrome, Down syndrome, Autism Spectrum Disorders and Developmental Language Disorder. Understanding how development in neurodevelopmental disorders deviates from typical development doesn’t just allow me to develop intervention programmes for children with neurodevelopmental disorders, it also provides a better understanding of the building blocks of development as well as alternative pathways to success.

For example, typically developing children who are good at maths are also skilled in mathematical estimation (e.g., saying where there are more dots) and have been argued to have a better Approximate Number System (ANS) abilities. This suggests that the ANS is an important building block for mathematical development. However, it is also possible that better mathematical abilities allow the development of a better ANS. Studies with typically developing children often rely on correlational findings, but these studies cannot provide insight into causal pathways. Studies in neurodevelopmental disorders or populations who have difficulties in a particular area can therefore help further our understanding of what results in mathematical delay.

What led you to this area of research? 

 Mathematical abilities in people with Williams syndrome (WS) and Down syndrome (DS) have been found to be delayed. My research in infants with WS and DS showed that children with DS are proficient at approximate number estimation, while children with WS are not, suggesting that ANS abilities might be a good starting point to improve mathematical abilities in children with WS. While WS is a rare genetic disorder (1 in 20,000 live births) so it’s difficult to carry out large intervention studies, children who show specific mathematical difficulties or dyscalculia have also been argued to have weaker ANS abilities. Therefore, we recently developed some games for pre-schoolers, called PLUS games that target ANS abilities and we assessed whether playing these games for 10 minutes each day would improve ANS and mathematical abilities in pre-schoolers who were at risk for mathematical difficulties or dyscalculia.

Could you summarise your findings?

Our study showed that those children who played PLUS games had better ANS abilities in the long-term and improved as much on symbolic mathematical ability tasks as those children who played more traditional counting and number recognition games, called DIGIT games. The fact that improving ANS abilities through PLUS games improved symbolic knowledge, and that improving symbolic knowledge in DIGIT games improved ANS abilities, suggests a complex interaction between symbolic and non- symbolic abilities and mathematical improvements during the pre-school years. In addition, children who played the PLUS games were reported by teachers (who were blind to which condition the child belonged to) to show greater confidence when completing mathematical tasks. In the near future we would like to assess whether the PLUS games would also benefit mathematical abilities in children with WS.

 What do you think this means for teachers in the classroom?

Traditionally, pre-school instruction in the UK is informal and happens during play, with children who show mathematical difficulties receiving very little additional support. Our results show that both PLUS and DIGIT games improve pre-schoolers symbolic and non-symbolic abilities both short-term (immediately after the training) as well as six months later. Although we were not able to follow-up these children longitudinally to examine which children received a formal diagnosis of dyscalculia later on, around half of the children were no longer considered to be low performers six months after the start of the study. This suggests that playing the PLUS as well as DIGIT games on a regular basis for just five weeks during the pre-school years allows children who perform poorly on mathematical ability tasks to have an optimal start to schooling – and might prevent some children from receiving a formal diagnosis of dyscalculia later on.

If you could give one tip to teachers based on your work, what would it be?

When doing mathematics with young children we often focus on counting and we are quick to correct counting errors. This potentially can make even young children “afraid” of maths or think they are “bad” at maths. However, we know from research that estimation is a very important building block for children’s mathematical understanding and development. So next time when you ask a child “how many things are there”, allow them to guess and discuss whether the number they name is a large number or a small number and how it compares with the real number of objects in front of them.


The PLUS and DIGIT games and the full results from the study can be downloaded for free from here

Spatial cognition as a gateway to maths and science learning

CEN Associate, Professor Emily Farran, is the Developmental Psychology lead in the School of Psychology at the University of Surrey, and director of the Cognition, Genes and Developmental Variability lab (CoGDeV). One of her particular research interests is spatial cognition. In this blog, she introduces the concept and goes on to give heaps of useful pointers for parents and teachers on how to cultivate this foundational skill.cen-blog-emily-501-kb

Spatial ability involves being aware of the location and dimensions of objects and their relationships to one another. It is core to everyday living (e.g., giving directions, or packing a suitcase). Research from my group and others has shown that it is also a strong predictor of a person’s mathematics and science abilities – those who perform well on spatial tasks show strong science and mathematical abilities. Despite the everyday importance of spatial ability, spatial thinking is given little emphasis within the National Curriculum, particularly when compared to the importance placed on literacy skills. However, there are plenty of ways in which parents and teachers can help their children to think spatially. Children who learn to think spatially will reap the benefits in their mathematics and science learning.

Spatial thinking in the classroom

Understanding science and mathematics depends heavily on being able to use, understand and co-ordinate models, read diagrams, rearrange formulae and interpret representations at different scales. Mathematics requires an understanding of shape, symmetry and numerical relationships, all of which require spatial skills, whilst the core problem solving and interpretation skills that are drawn upon in science require visualization, a key spatial skill.

Top tips for parents

Enlighten your child to the spatial aspects of the world by introducing spatial activities during your child’s normal day that will support and encourage their spatial thinking.

  • Help them to order their teddies or toys by size and refer to the toys using size words such as small, medium and large. You can also use hand gestures to teddy-bears-different-sizes-for-emily-blogdemonstrate the difference between small, medium and large. Children will enjoy imitating your gestures during the game. Why? Gesture uses space to supplement the information provided by words. This helps children to learn new spatial words.
  • Books like “Zoom” and many of the “Twirlywoos” books are good for introducing spatial concepts and spatial language to children. Aim to use spatial words such as “in”, “on”, “out”, “between”, “smaller” and “bigger” when discussing the pictures in books with your child. Children love talking about the pictures in books – they will enjoy getting involved in the story telling. Why? Children who hear more spatial language as toddlers have stronger spatial skills when they start school. In turn, stronger spatial language associates with better STEM performance.
  • Point out to your child that they might be able to work out how to fit a jig-saw piece by imagining it rotating in their head. This is harder than trial and error techniques, but children will be delighted with this new skill! Why? This encourages visualisation, which is key to success in science and maths.
  • Spatial thinking does not always have to be formally taught. Block play and jigsaws, as well as computer games like Tetris, encourage the development of spatial ability. Why? These sorts of toys and games, bolster skills such as understanding part/whole relationships, symmetry and measurement.

Top tips for teachers

Because spatial thinking isn’t a recognised part of the curriculum, teachers need to be able to identify opportunities when they can integrate it into their teaching.

  • Terms like “between”, “through” and “separate” are difficult concepts within the primary school years, and the learning of these words can be embedded within mathematics and science teaching. Why? Children with stronger spatial language demonstrate stronger science and maths performance.
  • Equally, teachers can introduce more sophisticated terms such as “slope” or “parallel”, and support their acquisition with gesture to enable children to visualise the concept. Why? Gesture provides an additional representation of the concept. When teachers use gesture, children show a learning benefit over and above teaching using speech alone.
  • Teachers can point out to children when visualisation would be useful (i.e., imagining a process in your head). For example, in physics, ask children to imagine what happens to the push and pull forces of magnets when a magnet is rotated. Why? Children with stronger visualisation skills have stronger science and maths performance.
  • Diagrams are useful tools, but teachers often need to teach children how to use a diagram, for example, helping children to understand the differences in scale of the elements of a life-cycle diagram. When asked to compare diagrams, children need to be taught to view them spatially aligned – it is easier to observe the similarities and differences between two molecules or two quantities if they are aligned. Why? Diagrams use space to show a set of information simultaneously. This contrasts to words, which are sequential in nature. Diagrams can make an otherwise abstract concept more concrete, such as when number lines are used to depict negative numbers.
  • Teachers can encourage children to create their own diagrams in the form of sketches. Why? Sketching helps children to actively learn a concept in a spatial manner.

You can read more about Emily and her colleagues’ work on spatial cognition in these papers – looking at the relevance of spatial skills for science and maths

You can keep up to date with her work via her lab group and by following her on twitter @EKFarran

If you would like to understand more about the basic principles of how the brain works, then why not have a peruse of our new CEN resource


Teachers share their thoughts about research

We are delightemrs-megan-dixon-senior-education-consultantd to welcome Megan Dixon to our blog series in which teachers involved in research give us their take on educational neuroscience. Megan is Director of English at the Aspire Educational Trust and Director of Aspirer Research School. Welcome Megan.

What does educational neuroscience mean to you?

As teachers, I think we need to understand what happens in the brain when children learn; what accelerates and supports learning and what can hinder it. It is also interesting and helpful to understand the challenges pupils might face. Educational Neuroscience helps in a precise way, helping to explain what happens in the brain and support us to be more effective at teaching and learning. It is also helpful when we consider how to support children with special educational needs. Our multi academy trust is an inclusive community and we are passionate about supporting each and every child in our schools.

How do you keep up to date with the latest research?

I run an EEF research school, so I am immersed in the evidence – my particular interest is literacy acquisition and teaching and learning in the early years. Twitter makes it easier to find newly published studies, I often buy books (or borrow them from the library) and will email an author if I can’t get hold of a study I am interested in reading. I subscribe to a number of journals, too – although that can be expensive. I also ask, as part of my performance management, if I can attend a conference each year (rather than attending courses or other training). Last year I attended the Scientific Studies of Reading Conference in Brighton. Although I felt a little out of my depth as a teacher, rather than a researcher, I returned to work with a long list of interesting things to consider and develop with the teachers I support. I often attend teacher conferences, such as Research Ed and Research School conferences too.

Can you give some examples of how neuroscience understanding has helped you and your school?

It has helped with understanding why something works or is important and ensures we continue to make decisions for the right reasons – for example providing breakfast for children in school. This could be seen as an expensive thing to do, but the weight of the evidence, including the EEF Magic Breakfast trial and the neuroscience hit or myth describing the importance of good nutrition helped us understand the importance of maintaining this for our children.

It has also helped us develop principles and practices for teaching and learning that we use across all the schools in the trust. Our understanding of what aids learning, and what hinders – such as how we can support our pupils to learn to read, write and become competent mathematicians is underpinned by a nuanced understanding of the research literature. An example of this is how we ensure children develop their counting skills in the early years and Key Stage 1. The neuroscience suggests it is a complex and challenging task for young children to develop a conceptual, abstract understanding of a number. The child needs to be able to write the digit, recognise the digit, recognise (and count) visual patterns that represent that number – in a group, in a line, in a random collection and when each object has different colours or features. They need to understand where the number comes in relation to every other number and all the language associated with it – for example -bigger, smaller, greater than, less than, one more, one less. We systematically give the children opportunities to understand each aspect of each number, within a wide range of activities. To the untrained eye, it can look like we are simply repeating the same teaching, but without this deep conceptual level of understanding, from the very beginning, the children will find maths extremely difficult. We are always trying to learn more and be more effective in how we teach and adjusting our practices to support each and every child.

How do you get teachers and students involved?

As a Research School, and Teaching School we host a range of opportunities from newsletters to longer CPD programmes to short seminars and information twilights. We often ask researchers to come and share their work with us and we are actively involved in a wide number of research trials. Reading research, reflecting on it and sharing the learning outcomes have become an integral part of our school and trust community. We are always interested in new findings and working to translate them into practice. Over the past 5 years or so, my colleagues and I have worked to build a culture where research and evidence is integral to our practice – it is a habit now for us!

You can follow Megan and her colleagues on Twitter @AspirerTeaching  @AspirerRS

If you would like to understand more about the workings of the brain – what underpins the research mentioned above, do have a look at our new CEN resource How the brain works. We would love to hear what you think. Do let us know on Twitter @UoL_CEN

To eat the marshmallow or not to eat the marshmallow: impulse or choice?

This week Professor Michael Thomas discussed the famous marshmallow experiment and its recent fall from grace.  A new replication study by Watts and colleagues controlling for various social factors such as home environment and socio-economic status has put into doubt the original claims about the importance of impulse control..  But what does this really mean?


Professor Thomas explored the real consequences of controlling for correlated variables in statistical analysis and how this can lead to simplistic conclusions about causality.  For more on this read Payne and Sheeran‘s interesting article!

Can children with autism learn more about emotion from robots?

This week Alria Williams from the Centre for Research in Autism and Education at the UCL Institute Of Education presented recent work from the DE-ENIGMA project at the CEN seminar.

The DE-ENIGMA project is a large European project on robotics and autism, funded by Horizon 2020. The project consists of many teams, including UCL, working together to develop activities to teach autistic children about emotions, using a humanoid robot, Zeno pictured below.


The project was based on the premise that many people with autism have difficulty using and understanding verbal and non-verbal language.  This may make it more difficult to understand others and interact with them.  On the other hand, robots may be easier to comprehend as they are more predictable systems. Previous research suggests that children with autism may perceive a humanoid robot as being less complicated, less threatening, and therefore be more comfortable to communicate with than humans.

Over the past year, the UCL team have conducted studies with children to test the suitability of their learning activities. Yesterday’s talk outlined the numerous studies they have engaged in and discussed the activity design issues that they encountered. During the summer, the DE-ENIGMA team conducted design critique interviews with teachers and presented the key insights and feedback from teachers on suggested ways they could adapt their activity designs to meet the needs of autistic children in the research.

Find out more at the DE-ENIGMA website!


How the brain works

Professor Michael Thomas and the CEN team have produced a new free resource which aims to give an overview of the workings of the brain. No small feat in just a few thousand words. The resource is in the form of the website which you can peruse right here.

Prof Thomas gives you a little taster of what’s in store below