New research to investigate if neuroscience can improve teaching and learning in schools

Can physical fitness improve academic achievement? Would teenagers do better in their exams if they could sleep in and start school later? These questions will be part of a multi-million pound research project, funded by the Wellcome Trust and the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), to investigate a variety of ways neuroscience might improve teaching and learning in the UK.

Thousands of pupils across England will take part in a series of randomised controlled trials after the Wellcome Trust and the EEF identified a need for more robust evidence about how neuroscience relates to learning in order to support teachers and schools keen to use the science. Six projects have been awarded grants, totalling almost £4million. In addition to the total spent on grants, funding will also be provided to ensure the rigorous and independent evaluation of all of the projects.

At a briefing hosted by the Education Media Centre, three of the six project leaders explained to the EMC the main questions their studies would investigate:

 

Professor Colin Espie, Oxford University, will look at teenage sleep patterns and ask if starting lessons at 10am might improve exam results:

 

Professor Helen Dawes, Oxford Brookes, will look at the impact of vigorous exercise on pupils’ attainment:

 

Alastair Gittner, Hallam Teaching School Alliance & Assistant Headteacher, Stocksbridge High School, will ask if “Spaced Learning” can help secondary pupils retain information taught in science lessons. The technique involves the teacher delivering a piece of work then the students doing something completely different before coming back to learn the original piece of work again and then repeating that pattern:

 

The other 3 projects are:

“Learning Counterintuitive Concepts “ led by Professor Denis Mareschal, Brikbeck, University of London, to test a computer game which aims to develop pupils’ ability to ignore prior misconceptions in maths and science . An example would be helping young pupils to understand the world is round when all their experience makes them believe it is flat.

“Uncertain Reward” led by Dr Paul Howard Jones, Bristol University who explains, “We know answering questions in class is important for students’ learning but, based on our understanding of the brain’s reward system, we will be encouraging all students to continuously answer questions as part of a game. Students will need a combination of luck and learning to win. Current research suggests this is more motivating and effective for students’ learning.

“Games in the classroom may do more than just make learning fun. Evidence suggests they can stimulate the brain’s reward system in ways that accelerate learning. We’re very excited about the chance to test this idea.”

“Graphogame Rime” led by Professor Usha Goswami, Cambridge University & Director of the Centre for Neuroscience in Education. This project proposes to test a computer programme designed to improve pupils’ literacy through teaching phonics via “rhyme analogy”.

Professor Goswami said “GraphoGame has been designed to help children around the world to learn to read. There is now considerable experimental evidence supporting the efficacy of GraphoGame in different languages, however this research evidence is small-scale. I am really delighted that the efficacy of the English version of the game, GraphoGame Rime, will now be tested in an independent and large-scale RCT with funding from the EEF/Wellcome Trust.”

Dr Hilary Leevers, Head of Education and Learning at the Wellcome Trust said: “Our growing understanding of how the brain acquires and processes information has great potential to improve teaching and learning. We know that many teachers are keen to try new approaches based on neuroscience; however, we have so far lacked evidence about what will actually be beneficial to their students. We are delighted to be able to support an exciting range of projects that will test the benefits of educational approaches informed by neuroscience and help to build the evidence base on how to improve educational outcomes.”

Dr Kevan Collins, Chief Executive of the Education Endowment Foundation said: “We’re delighted to be researching these cutting edge strategies based on the latest knowledge in neuroscience. Our mission at the EEF is to narrow the attainment gap between pupils eligible for free school meals and their more affluent peers. By funding large scale controlled trials of these interventions and using independent evaluators to assess them we hope to develop a significant body of evidence that can be used by teachers and school leaders to improve attainment, especially for disadvantaged pupils.”

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