Increasing numbers of studies are linking physiological processes, such as circadian (‘body clock’) patterns in the example above, with human performance in a range of areas. Of particular interest to me are studies attempting to link neuroscientific processes with learning. The neuroscience of education has become a major area of interest in recent years and, although it is notoriously difficult to find solid, cause-and-effect links between specific brain processes and concrete educational outcomes, some of the leading UK centres of research into educational neuroscience are currently
running well-designed studies to probe such links.
Here are a few examples.
Teensleep. Neuroscience studies have identified links between circadian patterns and learning performance. Recent advances in the neuroscience of sleep have shown that teenagers have a delayed body clock, so to explore whether a later start to the day would benefit teenagers, 106 schools across the country are introducing a 10 a.m. start for students in years 10 and 11. The impact on their academic performance and overall health will be measured.
Spaced learning. Scans have suggested that brain connections get strengthened when a stimulus is repeated several times with intervals of inactivity. ‘Little and often’ is a well-known and practiced strategy in learning, but is there evidence that it works? Previous ‘spaced learning’ studies have examined children learning to read and medical students learning surgical skills. These studies, which allow time between lessons to allow the brain to encode the new information, have had positive results, so now over 2000 children in Sheffield are participating in spaced learning trials.
Exercise. Neuroscience evidence suggests that exercise helps to generate new brain cells and has beneficial effects on brain function, increasing attention spans. An Oxford University study involving 70 schools will test this by running three 40 minute aerobic exercise sessions each week and measuring subsequent lesson performance and academic outcomes.
Unlearning. In a study covering 100 primary schools in London, UCL professor Denis Mareschal is exploring how to teach children to ‘turn off’ their initial response to a problem. Neuroscience studies have shown a built-in impulsive response to situations in which children, in particular, find it difficult to inhibit a pre-learned response. By training children to recognise and control this, they may be able to give a more delayed and thoughtful answer. Mareschal’s team is using this method to teach children counter-intuitive concepts, for example that mice and elephants have the same size cells, and that the world is round despite seeming flat.
Brain training. A broad range of neuroscientific studies underpin the theory that phonological awareness - the ability to recognise and discriminate sounds and rhymes - is essential for children who are learning to read. Cambridge professor Usha Goswami has developed and is testing an adaptive computer programme which helps to develop rhyme awareness, and is running a large-scale study to see if this has a positive impact on reading skills.
Uncertain reward. Neuroscience findings suggest that learning is improved when the reward for success is uncertain. Under these circumstances, dopamine levels in the brain increase and engagement in learning increases. To test this, 12,000 students in Yorkshire will compete in quiz teams in a game involving a wheel of fortune, which adds an element of
luck to their point scoring. Students will need a combination of learning and luck to win, potentially stimulating the brain’s reward system and accelerating learning.
Teaching methods have, traditionally, been led by behavioural studies - that is, try it and see if it works. Our growing understanding of neuroscience, and its application to learning, points towards a new science of teaching which will be based increasingly on working ‘with the neural grain’ so that teaching methods dovetail with how the brain works and how it learns. Educational neuroscience is in its infancy, but there is no doubt in my mind that it has great potential.