Times Educational Supplement, 1 March 2013 (click image for PDF)

In a former life, Dr Paul Howard-Jones was an inspector for Estyn, Wales’ equivalent of Ofsted. Like inspectors in England, he was expected to check that the reward and sanction systems at the schools he visited were fair and consistent.

Ofsted believes that such consistency is vital for children’s motivation. As a 2001 report put it: “Effective schools use rewards consistently... to encourage pupils to manage their behaviour. Consistency of approach means that pupils can see sanctions as reasonable. Where the application of rewards and sanctions is seen to be idiosyncratic, pupils may become cynical and resentful of an over-emphasis on the latter.”

It seems natural that the education system values this approach: it appeals to our sense of justice and fair play. But when it comes to motivating learning, Howard-Jones, now a researcher in neuroscience and education at the University of Bristol, found that it is completely wrong.

As a teacher, he saw that the rewards available in the classroom seemed to have little effect on achievement. “If you increase the number of gold stars on offer, you don’t necessarily see an increase in learning,” he says. “We need to think about how the reward system in the classroom stimulates the brain’s reward system.”
Rather than responding to rewards that are consistent and predictable, the brain appears to prefer an element of randomness. The brain’s reward system responds more strongly when there is a fifty-fifty chance of reward than it does to a sure thing.

Dopamine is the chemical responsible for this. Sometimes described as the brain’s pleasure chemical, its role in the reward system is in fact more complex and ambiguous. It is released not only in response to success but also to near misses. It is the chemical that keeps people coming back for one more go, whether they are foraging for food, practising free kicks after hitting the woodwork or becoming addicted to slot machines.
“It’s one of the reasons video games are such effective teachers,” Howard-Jones says. “There’s a massive uptake of dopamine, which is the equivalent of taking Ritalin or some amphetamines.”

The inspector-turned-academic used this insight to develop classroom games that challenge teams of pupils to answer multiple-choice questions. They have the option to gamble for double points if they think they have the right answer, but the catch is that they have a fifty-fifty chance of losing all the points they already have.
It is a cruel and arbitrary system but he says children take to it enthusiastically: his published research describes pupils singing and dancing when they are victorious. “You get this kind of sport talk emerging. When children are losing they can blame it on luck; when they’re doing well it’s their own skill and ability,” Howard-Jones says.

Low-ability pupils and high-ability pupils benefit in different ways, he adds. “It’s good because low-ability children often win. And it’s good because high-ability children often don’t.” High-ability pupils therefore feel less exposed and more able to enjoy their rarer victories, he suggests.

What is crucial, however, is that pupils know that the randomness is generated by the computer game, and that success or failure is a matter of pure luck rather than the teacher’s whim.

“It makes for a lot of fun and increases the dopamine uptake in the midbrain region,” Howard-Jones says. Dopamine also contributes to the brain’s ability to make or break connections between neurons, and this plasticity is what underpins all learning. So there is reason to think that raising dopamine levels will make learning more effective.

The notion of applying ideas from neuroscience in the classroom has long attracted scientists and educators. In The Brain at School, the late Professor John Geake quotes a neuroscientist speaking in 1998: “One day enough might be known about brain functioning that brain scanners could monitor the pupil’s learning to assess if it was taking place effectively.” The ultimate in Assessment for Learning. That dream seems almost as far off as it did 15 years ago. But since then our knowledge of the brain’s development through adolescence has vastly increased and insights from that research have begun to influence schools. Increasingly, big business and government are taking a strong interest.

President Barack Obama recently announced that the US plans to invest $3 billion (£1.96 billion) in neuroscience research. And the European Commission has already awarded €1 billion (£873 million) to a project that aims to create a model of how the brain works.

So if teachers do not use the insights from brain research, they may nevertheless find that they are used on them. In fact, surveys show that teachers are often interested in science about the brain and its influence on learning, and most of them believe that this knowledge is valuable for teaching practice. But there is also a high degree of mutual incomprehension.

Mind and myth

Research has shown that myths about the brain are rife in teaching. In one survey, 93 per cent of UK teachers said that children learn better if taught in their preferred visual, auditory or kinaesthetic style. There is no evidence for this: rather, all learners benefit from varied teaching methods. Nearly half believed that we only use 10 per cent of the brain, a claim not supported by any research.

Perhaps most seriously, a minority of teachers believed that there are critical periods of childhood after which some things cannot be learned, or that learning problems associated with developmental differences cannot be helped by education. The ability of the brain to change – its plasticity – in fact provides a good reason to believe that educational interventions are not wasted.

But teachers have also been frustrated by their encounters with scientists. Professor Usha Goswami, director of the Centre for Neuroscience in Education at the University of Cambridge, recounts how a conference in 2005 left teachers disappointed that they were not simply told “what works”. One said that the scientists’ debunking of the brain-based programmes marketed to schools “left teachers feeling [that] they had lots stripped away from them and nothing put in [its] place”.

Scientists interested in the application of their ideas to teaching tend to refer to the field as mind, brain and education. The answers to “what works” usually come from experiments in cognitive psychology, the study of the mind, leaving some questioning teachers’ fascination with neuroscience’s research into where learning takes place in the brain.

“I’m more concerned that they are not hearing enough about techniques that scientists have demonstrated work well and can actually benefit their students,” says John Dunlosky, a psychology professor at Kent State University in the US, who recently co-authored a study of the effectiveness of 10 common learning techniques. “Parents wouldn’t send their children to doctors who used medical practices that weren’t established by science to work, so it never fails to amaze me how the latest and newest learning technique is eaten up even though we don’t know how well it works.”

Dunlosky’s research provided a comprehensive overview of studies into the 10 learning techniques with the aim of ranking them and discovering exactly what works. What he and his team found was that popular approaches to study, for example highlighting passages, were not very effective: pupils may as well just be re-reading the text. Similarly, summarising passages could be helpful for those who were good at it.
The researchers found that the best study techniques were more active. Practice testing was one of the most highly rated of these: research shows that the act of trying to retrieve information from memory strengthens knowledge and makes it easier to retrieve in the future.

“I would never take highlighters away from students, and I use them myself, but highlighting is just the beginning of the learning journey, not the end,” Dunlosky says. “Students should use more active techniques, like trying to recall the most important information from mind [through practice tests] or by explaining why material is correct as they are reading.”

Another technique highly rated by the researchers was “distributive practice” or “spaced learning” – terms that essentially mean “not cramming”. Learning from cramming was shown to fade from memory more quickly than learning through other methods. By spacing out study sessions and repeatedly returning to material, recall was strengthened. And the longer you need to remember the information, the longer the intervals between sessions should be.

Dunlosky says pupils’ natural preference for cramming can be overcome. “In our experience, students who use spaced practice studying in class quickly see its power. Every next study session of the same material becomes easier, and many students will learn the materials so well that they will be surprised and get hooked on using this simple technique.”

Protection against the hard sell

At the University of Bristol’s Graduate School of Education, one of the few to include some neuroscience instruction for trainee teachers, Howard-Jones defends the value of teachers understanding the brain as well as the mind.

“They need to know about learning disabilities, memory, learning about nutrition, sleep, the effects of technology,” he says. “There is more and more scientific research that is looking into these areas. Most teachers have children in their class who are on psychoactive drugs for ADHD [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder]. There’s a strong case for teachers knowing something about the brain.”

The attraction that makes myths about the brain so widespread could also be used for good, Howard-Jones says: research has shown that people find psychological explanations more satisfying when they are accompanied even by irrelevant neuroscience. “If you talk in psychological terms, it seems abstract. If you talk about the brain, there’s something concrete about that,” he adds, suggesting this can give teachers confidence in psychological findings.

He gives the example of Monkseaton High School in Tyne and Wear, which adopted the “spaced learning” technique that Dunlosky and others have rated as one of the most effective study techniques. As far back as 1988, researchers lamented that schools were failing to apply these psychological findings. But the research only caught the attention of Dr Paul Kelley, then headteacher of Monkseaton, when he read an article in 2005 about related neuroscience discoveries.

The experience of Monkseaton also demonstrates that implementing even well-evidenced research can prove difficult. After spaced learning was introduced, North Tyneside Council called for improvement at the school “as a matter of urgency” as just 34 per cent of pupils achieved five good GCSEs in 2010. The following year, however, the school achieved record results, perhaps because teachers became more comfortable with the new learning style. Kelley resigned last year and is now an educational consultant.

The prospect of proven methods of training the brain is proving irresistible to the private sector. One estimate suggests that last year the market for brain-training software was worth £1 billion. By 2020, it is predicted to reach £6 billion.

Dunlosky suggests that teachers need to be armed with scientific understanding to protect themselves from the hard sell. “Every time someone comes to a school to sell the next learning device that will ensure student learning, everyone at that school should be sceptical and ask, ‘Where is the evidence that it works?’” he says. “When the entrepreneur begins to talk about the brain and how easily students can learn using their newfangled technique – and, by the way, learning well is rarely easy – and doesn’t show evidence in terms of improved student achievement, that individual should be shown the door.”

One company that has tried to meet these standards of evidence is Cogmed, founded by Torkel Klingberg, a Swedish neuroscience professor working to support pupils with ADHD. Now owned by Pearson, Cogmed aims to use computer software to train the brain and increase its working memory. The software is marketed to schools at £400 a year for 20 pupils as a remedy for low achievement.

The big hope

Howard-Jones argues that working memory is the big hope for improving brain power. “Working memory is about the one cognitive process that we have that we appear to be able to enhance,” he says. Working memory is the process that allows people to hold and process multiple pieces of information in the mind, and has a wide range of implications for pupils’ ability, from composing complex sentences to analysing material.

Unusually for a company marketing a brain-based education product, Cogmed commands respect from many scientists. It claims scientific backing from published studies. “Cogmed may be one of the good guys here,” says Mike Anderson, professor of psychology at the University of Western Australia and co-editor of Neuroscience in Education: the good, the bad and the ugly. But a recent study has put Cogmed’s performance in doubt.

Psychologists from the Georgia Institute of Technology in the US reviewed the research behind the software. “We conclude that the claims made by Cogmed are largely unsubstantiated,” they said. “The only unequivocal statement that can be made is that Cogmed will improve performance on tasks that resemble Cogmed training. However, for people seeking increased intelligence, improved focus and attentional control, or relief from ADHD, current research suggests that this training program does not provide the desired result.”

What neuroscience can give, it would seem, it can take away. (Pearson was contacted for comment but did not respond.)

The danger of misinterpretation

Neuroscience is also having an impact in government. Ministers are taking an interest in the science of the developing brain with a view to determining the best way to maximise their investment in education. Science could end up determining how education is funded.

Howard-Jones says there is a danger here, since some of the science is being misinterpreted. A 2011 report from the Centre for Social Justice thinktank called Making Sense of Early Intervention suggested that the relatively constant investment in education throughout childhood is at odds with research showing that far more benefit could be found by increasing investment in the early years, a crucial time for brain development.

But the authors had mistaken a simplified predictive model for fact, Howard-Jones says. “Neuroscience just doesn’t support that.” In fact, research over the past 15 years has found that a second crucial stage of brain development takes place during adolescence: the prefrontal cortex – responsible for, among other things, planning, self-awareness and social understanding – continues to develop during the teenage years and does not reach full maturity until the mid twenties.

Adolescent behaviour previously chalked up to hormones now appears to be partly caused by huge changes in the brain. “I talk to teachers a lot and many of them say it changes the way that they think about the children they teach,” says Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London. “Fifteen years ago, adolescent behaviour such as taking risks, being self-conscious, not being great at thinking about the consequences of their actions – that was put down to the hormonal changes of puberty, along with social changes. Now we really try to understand these behaviours at least partly in terms of underlying brain development.”

This growing understanding of the teenage brain is already having an impact on schools. The UCL Academy in central London has a start time of 10am for teenagers to account for changes in the body clock at this age and their disrupted patterns of waking and sleeping.

Blakemore says that metacognition programmes – learning how to learn, how to plan and how to work in groups, for example – may also be valuable for adolescents, particularly for supporting them in learning how to plan ahead, a function of the still-developing prefrontal cortex.

She says that the real impact of neuroscience on education is probably still decades away – such as a deeper understanding of how brains differ, higher-resolution brain imaging that could one day, perhaps, reliably detect learning disabilities.

But Blakemore is not surprised by teachers’ continuing interest in neuroscience. “When you educate someone, you are changing their brain. That’s what education is,” she says. “It comes as a shock to some people. Educators are interested in neuroscience because they are changing people’s brains and they want to know more. A lot of neuroscientists are interested in education because it can shape the questions they ask in their science.”

Howard-Jones suggests that greater understanding of the brain among teachers and pupils could help to motivate learning. “There’s every reason to believe that when learners and teachers know about brain plasticity, and understand that their brain is not a limit to what they can achieve, that will positively influence their self-image and academic achievement,” he says. “Children don’t realise very often that they’re in control of building their own brain.”