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Education and Neuroscience

October 9, 2014

With new findings from neuroscience catching the headlines every day, surely we can tap into these results to improve our education system? The Education and Neuroscience Initiative hopes to address this question – this joint programme of work between the Wellcome Trust and the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) aims to: build research and expertise at the interface between neuroscience and education; support the responsible transfer of technologies, resources and practices based upon neuroscience into education; and help teachers to be able to make informed choices based upon the best available evidence. In this post we explain why we are embarking on this work, share some of the learning we’ve gained in the process, and we invite a wider conversation on this topic.

Why are we doing this?

A vital reason to get this research off the ground is because teachers are already adapting their practice due to their interest in neuroscience, but have a weak evidence base to do so. A survey of teachers and parents we carried out in 2013 was consistent with previous research showing educators’ enthusiasm and appetite for increasing their understanding of how the brain learns and changing their teaching methods in response. Unfortunately a plethora of ‘brain-based’ programmes and publications, many of which are not based on real science let alone systematically tested, are pretty much all that is readily available to meet this demand. In many cases teachers were potentially wasting time and effort on programmes and pedagogies which were unsubstantiated. At its worst, teachers can be vulnerable to unscrupulous entrepreneurs who used pseudo-science to promote unevaluated, and sometimes expensive, educational approaches.

Many neuroscientists have emphasised the potential of their research to improve education, yet it is rare for their findings to be translated into testable and practical interventions. We wanted to help stimulate exploration of how neuroscience research could be translated into beneficial interventions and to test these ideas so that we know what does and does not work.

We do recognize that a lack of common language and different expertise can hinder neuroscientists and educators working together, but we are hopeful that bringing in other collaborators, such as psychologists and cognitive or sports scientists, will help bridge the divide. One of the aims of this Initiative is to help grow this interdisciplinary area of research and perhaps stimulate further funding in this area – watch this space!

The funding round

A central part of the Initiative has been the multi-million pound joint funding round with the EEF, launched in January 2014. It was a challenge to define the criteria for the research call to achieve our desired aims. We wanted to test interventions or teaching practices that were informed by neuroscience, and that already had some pilot data or evidence of raising attainment of pupils aged 5-16 (with a particular focus on disadvantaged learners to meet the EEF’s core purposes). In addition, interventions had to be practical, affordable and scalable so that those shown to be effective could be easily used by other schools.

We were delighted to receive nearly 90 applications from universities, schools, charities and other educational organisations on a very broad range of topics. It was encouraging to see diverse collaborations, and in some instances scientists applying their research to answer educational questions for the first time. We are most grateful to all the education and neuroscience experts who helped us in the shortlisting, peer review and interview process – your expertise and input were invaluable.

Today we are excited to be announcing the six successful projects which will investigate the effectiveness of a range of interventions and changes to teaching practices which have been based upon, or informed by neuroscience. In addition to the attainment measures that will be collected, some of the teams will also be collecting additional physiological and neurological measurements to build the evidence about what is happening in the bodies and brains of the children in the studies. In the coming months we will post blogs from each of the teams to give a greater insight into their proposed research questions.

In adopting the EEF’s approach to educational research, each of the project teams have been paired with an independent evaluator and the two teams will be working collaboratively to modify the trial designs from the initial applications and develop appropriate evaluation methodologies. As a research funder, it was really interesting to be involved in using this unusual model – most researchers typically evaluate their own work. The conversations and discussions in working up the collaborative project designs and evaluations have been fascinating.

What’s next?

The funded projects will be starting to recruit schools to take part in the trials in the near future. We hope that many schools will be keen to be part of such exciting research. It is important to remember that we will not know the extent to which the interventions are effective, if at all, until the final evaluation reports when the research is complete – so please be patient.

We are about to embark on another element of this initiative in which we will be trying to help teachers to successfully navigate the minefield of neuromyths, and instead access robust research to build their professional knowledge to inform their practice.

One Comment leave one →
  1. lcommissar permalink*
    April 16, 2015 5:19 pm

    Have you ever wanted to find out more about students’ learning and the factors affecting it, but had no one to ask?

    We think all educators should be able to find out about the latest findings from psychology and neuroscience so they can make well informed decisions for students.

    The Wellcome Trust has teamed up with ‘I’m A Scientist’ so teachers can ask questions and chat live with the scientists who work in this area.

    To find out more:
    To meet the scientists:

    Give us a shout on Twitter (@WTeducation), and share with any teachers who you think might be interested. And remember if you’re talking about the event, use the #edneuro hashtag, to take part in the big discussion.

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