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Transcript: Educational neuroscience and its application to teaching practice

Part of the Psyched about Education podcast series for IOE120.

00:00:02 Female voiceover 

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00:00:11 Dr Spencer Hayes 

Welcome to the podcast Psyched about Education. This series celebrates the academic excellence of the work carried out at the Department of Psychology and Human Development and the impact this work has on policy and practice. I’m Dr Spencer Hayes, Associate Professor of Developmental Psychology at UCL. My research is on motor skills and autistic individuals and how motor processes control and learn new skills and how these can impact on imitation and school readiness. 

I'm your host for today, and with me I have: Dr Rebecca Gordon. She is an associate professor of cognitive psychology, and her expertise is related to higher-order cognitive processes in adults and children as they relate to academic outcomes such as reading and mathematics; Dr Jo Van Herwegen, she's an associate professor of developmental psychology, and her expertise is related to child development, especially Williams syndrome, Down syndrome and autism, and how environmental factors such as educational practice, education policies and home environment impact on number and language development; and Professor Andy Tolmie, who is a professor of developmental psychology. His interests and expertise are in preschool and primary school children’s development and learning of behavior change such as maths and road crossing. 

In this podcast, we are focusing on how can psychology make a difference? We have five questions to talk through and I'll start with question one: why should teachers care about educational neuroscience?

00:01:41 Dr Rebecca Gordon 

It's first important to acknowledge that teachers do know what works in the classroom. They do have good practice already. But what educational neuroscience can do is it can explain why that good practice is effective. And so if the brain mechanisms behind certain behaviors, such as remembering new information, are understood, then those practices that help children with consolidating this new information can be applied in an optimal way. A good example of this is practice effect: all teachers will know that the more children have to retrieve information that they've learned, the more consolidated, the stronger those memories are for that information and could be more easily recalled when required so it can be applied in later learning. 

If we understand what's going on there, at a higher level, in terms of reactivation of neural networks and the importance of context, then we can ensure that retrieval practice is applied properly in the classroom. Because if it's applied incorrectly, what it can do is it can consolidate misinformation, which is then much more difficult to undo in a child if they've continued to activate this information that isn't quite correct. So, it's just a way of supporting teachers to understand why what they do is effective 

00:03:12 Dr Jo Van Herwegen 

My own research focuses on children with special educational needs, and as teachers may know, children with neurodevelopmental disorders often have very uneven cognitive profiles – and there's also a lot of variability in children with special educational needs as well as comorbidity – and educational neuroscience examines the mechanisms of learning and therefore provides a better understanding of these mechanisms of learning within these children with special educational needs – how these differ between the different groups of special educational needs, but also how these mechanisms may overlap, will allow teachers greater insight in terms of what might work for different groups of children. For example, we know for that Lego therapy, for example, benefits some autistic children to develop their communication skills, but we now also know from research that Lego therapy can improve mathematical outcomes. So then we can start to question things like can they go through therapy, for example, to help develop mathematical abilities in children with Down syndrome? Two different groups of children with special educational needs may benefit from the same intervention for very different reasons, and this is how an understanding of the mechanisms of learning and brain development can really help teachers. 

00:04:26 Professor Andy Tolmie 

Those are great examples and they highlight a more general point which I want to make, which is about the nature of teaching and how teachers are engaging with what they do. There has been a great tendency over the past, oh, long period really, I suppose certainly in the last 10-15 years, of trying to portray teaching as a kind of craft and approaching it that way; whereas I think a much more appropriate way of thinking about the nature of teaching is that teachers are, in some sense, learning technicians. And in order to actually engage with what they do appropriately, effectively, they need to understand what the processes of learning actually are and how those actually play out in classroom context. So, the kinds of information that we're trying to help teachers to gain are really fundamental to the things they do, and that in turn is, I think, also fundamental to their own kind of professionalization, which we know is a key marker of successful education system. So I think this is really very fundamental stuff that teachers will benefit from engaging with. 

00:05:31 Dr Spencer Hayes 

Yeah, an excellent final comment there, Andy. And with that in mind, then, and I'll focus this towards Jo: how does this play out in your own specific research? 

00:05:41 Dr Jo Van Herwegen 

Yes, so in my own research we are examining the development of different groups of children with special educational needs, and by comparing their development across different groups we get a better understanding of what cognitive abilities are not only related to better outcomes, but also which ones are necessary for good outcomes. For example, we've examined mathematical abilities in children with Williams syndrome – so that's a rare genetic disorder about one in 18,000 live births that results in an uneven cognitive profile with better language and poorer visuospatial abilities – and we compare performance to individuals with Down syndrome, who often have better visuospatial abilities compared to poorer language abilities. What we found is that although both groups have very similar mathematical outcomes, the causes of these difficulties differ from infancy onwards. For example, children with Williams syndrome seem to struggle to get good understanding of how numbers relate to each other, which is often referred to as a mental number line or number sense, as a result poor scanning and visual spatial abilities. Whereas individuals with Down syndrome might not just have issues with counting as a result of their language difficulties, but also because of poor sustained attention to track individual objects and keep track of their counting. As a result, we're currently examining whether these two groups would respond differently to different mathematical interventions, so that a better understanding of which interventions work for different groups of children with special educational needs doesn't only help these children – but will also help us to better understand the mechanisms of mathematical development, which will then also impact better educational programmes and developmental theories for typically developing children as well. 

00:07:29 Dr Rebecca Gordon 

Usually with typical populations, what I do is I pull apart certain concepts to understand why they're related to educational outcomes. For example, I look at working memory, and there are decades of research telling us that working memory is important in education and that higher working memory capacity leads to better educational outcomes, but we don't necessarily understand why that is. So what I do is I pull apart working memory; for those who aren't familiar with the term, working memory is typically defined as the concurrent processing and storage of information for short periods of time in pursuit of a known goal. A classroom situation is a very good example of that, when a child is learning a new concept, such as division in maths. 

We typically measure working memory capacity in participants by giving them a complex span task which mirrors the need to process and store information concurrently, and then we say the maximum amount of information, maybe a string of digits, that they can recall denotes their working memory capacity. The higher that capacity, the better their educational outcomes are. But because there is so much going on there – they have to process information, they have to process it accurately, they have to recall it accurately; some children might recall that information quite quickly; some might have to search for cues to actually recall that information – what I do is I pull that all apart so we can understand which aspect is it of working memory that explains certain educational outcomes. What we have found in typically developing children is that different components of working memory can explain different types of educational outcomes, so that might explain reading, might explain different aspects of maths; in one study we did, we even found that the storage component of working memory might explain immediate mathematic ability, but it's the processing speed in the early years that explains mathematical outcomes two years later. Even though I do tend to look at typical populations, it's these kinds of findings that can inform the work that Jo does in looking at interventions for children who struggle in the classroom for a number of reasons. 

00:09:57 Dr Spencer Hayes 

Yes, thank you Rebecca, and a nice insight there into developmental conditions and typical populations. With that in mind, Andy, are there connections between the types of research you each do?

00:10:12 Professor Andy Tolmie 

Yes, it's a very good question. I think there are fundamental connections between what we do, but in a sense, because of the diversity, I think, the key thing to my mind – I've been thinking about this for many years – is the way in which work in education has tended, when thinking about learning processes, to focus on the notion of there being single overarching pedagogies, ways of doing teaching effectively, and I think the very concrete work that we do shows that actually there are such diversity of processes involved in learning in different areas that we need to understand to have any kind of holistic picture of what learning actually involves. We need to understand the ways in which these different processes play out in different types of learning. 

So Rebecca's work on working memory, executive function, its connections to learning in mathematics; but then in terms of mathematics, certainly an interest there has been work on spatial processing, so thinking about nonverbal skills and the ways in which those might be important foundations for learning. And that is in the work that I've been involved in in science learning is played out in a very, very major fashion, where it's become plain that actually it is the imaginative abilities that the children can bring to thinking about the connections between causes and effects which actually mark their ability to move on and progress effectively with science. So there's lots of different strands here and if we don't understand how these complex elements play into each other – literacy, verbal skills are all centrally important, too – if we don't understand how these things play into each other, how they work with each other, then we won't have any good understanding of the ways in which teachers might need to think about how they approach the profession and to think about it at a much more complex level than any kind of single simple pedagogy has tried to capture previously. And so, yes, we talk to each other a very great deal and we really need to do that in order to understand these different dimensions. 

00:12:19 Dr Spencer Hayes 

Yes, great point about your interdisciplinary work there. That's obviously key and the complexity of your work. Jo would you mind giving us an example of how teachers might make use of your findings?

00:12:32 Dr Jo Van Herwegen 

Yes, so not only have we focused on mathematical development and a number of training resources for teachers, but in our latest study we've examined the misconceptions that teachers and members of the general public may hold about brain development in general, but also brain development related to development disorders. And actually Rebecca, is one of the co-investigators on that as well. We looked at what is referred to as neuromyths, or common misunderstandings. We found that both teachers and members of the general public actually are more likely to endorse false facts related to neurodevelopmental disorders than about the development of the typically developing brain. For example, endorsing that reducing sugar intake might help children with ADHD, or that children with dyslexia might make letter reversals. Or another one is that children with intellectual disabilities cannot learn anything complex. Endorsing these neuromyths can actually impact on whether or not children get a diagnosis, for example, in the case of dyslexia, or whether these children get the right support in the classroom. So as a result we've developed some video explainers as well as blogs that are part of our NeuroSENse awareness campaign. I would definitely encourage listeners and teachers to go and have a look at all the various resources that we've developed and also provide us with feedback on whether they actually are helpful or not. 

00:14:00 Dr Rebecca Gordon 

This is actually a very good point, and it's something that in some areas of educational neuroscience we're aware that we need to do more. For example, in the in the research that I do, which is around working memory and executive function, we do so in order to inform reasonable adjustments and interventions in the classroom, but exactly what that looks like isn't always clear. It can be clearer in the work that Jo does when we're looking at children who are developing atypically, but in terms of typically developing children there's a lot of individual variation in ability. So how do we actually assist those children who struggle due to, for example, executive deficits? I have a PhD student at the moment who's just starting to do exactly that, to find out how we can use this wealth of information we have about the brain mechanisms that are involved, the higher order cognitive abilities that are involved, in learning and actually help teachers help children in the classroom. So that's more of a ‘watch this space’ example. 

00:15:08 Dr Spencer Hayes 

Taking it one step above that, then, in terms of your basic science, how has your work or psychology research in this area made a contribution to policy or practice? Back to you, Rebecca. 

00:15:21 Dr Rebecca Gordon 

The year before last Andy and I were involved in a project at the Institute, with the Department for Education, looking at the Early Career Framework for teachers and looking at how we could use the information that we have as researchers in education to inform practice and ensure that that early career teachers are well informed in terms of the science behind learning. I worked on a stream looking at memory and also working memory – and I gave the example earlier about what the mechanisms are involved in consolidating new information. We put together some materials that early career teachers could work on themselves and then apply to their teaching practices. 

We also did this looking at working memory and executive functions and providing an understanding of how certain cognitive mechanisms or abilities or constructs are limited. For example, executive functions are limited and effortful cognitive processes. If we can help teachers understand that in the classroom, it means that they can reduce cognitive load, maybe give children external memory aids, and anything that might assist children in the classroom to learn. Again, I'll go back to my point when I answered your first question, it's about supporting teachers in understanding why good practice is so effective.

00:16:56 Dr Jo Van Herwegen 

We've worked on the NeuroSENse awareness campaign and also have some mathematical interventions in the Center for Educational Neuroscience. Research from the Center for Educational Neuroscience not only translates into resources that can be used by teachers, also we often inform policymakers and stakeholders. For example, this year I've been involved in a report for UNESCO, reflecting on how educational neuroscience actually can make a difference within education – what the barriers are, what are the areas where we still need to do more work in terms of translating findings about the brain and mechanisms to educators and what might be the gaps there? – thinking around how educational neuroscience can shape education in the future with the big aim to see how we can make children flourish as well as in society. 

00:17:50 Dr Spencer Hayes 

Thank you. And on that note, Jo, thank you so much to the panel today. You've been listening to the Psyched about Education podcast. For further details of other podcasts from the Department of Psychology and Human Development, please see the links at the end of this podcast. 

00:18:10 Female voiceover 

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