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£6m fund brings together neuroscientists and teachers to improve learning


The Wellcome Trust and the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) has announced a £6m research fund dedicated to implementing neuroscience finds in UK classrooms to improve learning. 

The idea is to bring together education professionals and neuroscientists to find practical ways of applying evidence-based learning techniques to the classroom. Paul Howard-Jones, Reader in Neuroscience and Education at Bristol University and the author of a review on the topic written for EEF, said there is “no comparable initiative anywhere else in the world”. 

Areas of experimental research could surround the shortening or lengthening of lesson time to increase student attention, altering morning start times or using educational games in the classroom. Some of these topics have been speculated upon, while others have already been studied in the field of neuroscience. However, a Wellcome Trust survey found most techniques tend to be implemented in an adhoc way according to individual teacher preference and irrelevant of corroborating evidence. For example, the survey found some teachers still favour techniques such as Brain Gym, despite there being no empirical evidence to suggest they might have any positive effect. Brain Gym is a US-based non-profit that believes “moving with intention leads to optimal learning” and wants to “empower all ages to reclaim the joy of living”. Yes, we’d be skeptical too. But apparently the UK government was not, and spent tens of thousands of pounds implementing it in schools — according to one report, nearly £130,000 was spent in Scottish schools on the programme in five years.

Hilary Leevers, Head of Education and Learning at the Wellcome Trust, tells Wired.co.uk: “Many neuroscientists note the potential of their research to improve education but few have the educational or methodological expertise to translate their findings into practical education interventions. Likewise many educators are interested in how neuroscience might advance their practice, but few are equipped to judge the best approaches to take, indeed some fall prey to attractive, often commercially developed, schemes that have not been based on real science, let alone systematically tested.”

“A lack of neuroscience in teacher training and the skillful marketing of entrepreneurs makes them vulnerable to neuromyth”

Paul Howard-Jones, Bristol University

The problem is there’s a tonne of pseudoscience surrounding any lucrative sector where the uninformed might have the final say. But rather than have the government be put off the applications of real science in the classroom, the Wellcome Trust and the Education Endowment Foundation fund is aimed at finding out exactly where and how our money can be best spent to truly improve the education system. 

“Teachers are very intelligent people who have a justifiable enthusiasm for understanding the brain — after all, they have a daily and somewhat unique responsibility to enhance brain function and connectivity,” Howard-Jones told Wired.co.uk. “But a lack of neuroscience in teacher training and the skillful marketing of entrepreneurs makes them vulnerable to neuromyth. Perhaps the common misunderstanding is that there is value in teaching to learning styles — i.e. whether you are an auditory, kinaesthetic or visual learner. But there is no convincing educational or psychological evidence to support this. And the brain-based justification for learning styles is more neurobabble than neuroscience.”

The expert outlined the various research areas that have already gained ground in the field of neuroscience in education and are therefore likely to be bid on for a share of the grant money. These include: how exercise improves efficiency in neural networks; the spacing of learning sessions; the effects of testing on learning and the effects of stress on learning. 

“These sorts of effects have been known about for some time, but a scientific understanding of their mechanisms can help us apply them more effectively. In all these areas, there are clear grounds for evaluating educational approaches that are informed by neuroscience.”

Other areas of note include how sleep can improve learning, and how educational programmes could actually encourage better sleep practices among students. Howard-Jones also flagged up the relative efficacy of brain training to improve cognitive function, and how technologies could be used by students to monitor their own brain function. “These are becoming increasingly cheaper, and there’s evidence from adults and children that that this feedback can improve outcomes in areas such as musical performance.” 

To claim some of the £6m, neuroscientists and educational professionals need to work together to put forward bids for evidence-based interventions they would like to trial. An independent evaluator will then assess what the impact of their intervention would be and only those projects that provide “an explicit causal hypothesis relating a finding in neuroscience to a novel intervention” will be funded. Leevers explained to Wired.co.uk that a project will not get funding if the “neuroscience simply explains the basis of already established and proven education interventions”.   

“We have been using brain imaging to understand more about the processes involved with experiences in the classroom”

Paul Howard-Jones, Bristol University

The rigorous funding process, which will ultimately reach the Wellcome Turst and EEF’s Funding Committee, totally eliminates the chance of any evidence-light theories (“there are so many,” says Howard-Jones, “from drinking water in order to learn more, to coordination exercises that are supposed to integrate left and right hemisphere”) and ensure there is a practical output to the investigation once it’s completed — which could be anywhere from one to five years after the projects begin in schools in January 2015.

It’s not all that surprising educators have implemented programs that have no real empirical evidence backing up their claims in the past — neuroscience in education is a relatively young field. Interest is growing though, and there are decdicated research centres across the UK including at Bristol University, the University of Cambridge, Birkbeck College and the Institute of Education. 

Howard-Jones is hopeful that this new initiative marks the beginning of a totally new and unified approach that could speed up research in the field, having already seen first hand what ground can be covered when neuroscientists and teachers work together.   

“In our lab, but also in schools, we have been exploring the potential of whole-class teaching in which all students are involved, using their mobile phones, with gaming experiences orchestrated by the teacher via an interactive whiteboard,” he explains. “We have been using brain imaging to understand more about the processes involved with these experiences, and then applying that knowledge in the development and implementation of the technology. I feel very fortunate to be doing research that increases engagement and learning, and also makes kids scream with excitement.”

“I am personally enthusiastic about what the right blends of neuroscience and technology can do for education.”


The deadline for application is 6 May 2014, with funding decisions to be announced in the autumn. Howard-Jones recommends that any school that wants to get involved — regardless of their relative expertise or lack thereof in neuroscience — should register their interest on the EEF website.