Improving scientific understanding of learning

Our research is incorporating neuroscientific understanding into educational theory and practice.

The challenge

Myths about the brain (‘neuromyths’) often persist in education and can result in the use of ineffective approaches to teaching. New research on links between reward and learning can bridge the gap between neuroscience and education, offering the chance to improve scientific understanding of learning amongst teachers.

Research impact - Using neuroscience to inform effective approaches to education

Our work analysing how ideas about neuroscience can be interpreted and sometimes misinterpreted in the classroom has led to new neuroscientific approaches to teaching and learning. These have reduced misunderstanding about how the brain learns and raised awareness of the importance of neuroscientific evidence for education.

To improve scientific understanding of learning amongst teachers, we have developed and introduced new ways of communicating how learning proceeds, and how these may contribute to learner engagement. An online course produced on the ‘Science of Learning’ has attracted over 8,000 active learners, allowing teachers from around the world to improve their scientific understanding of reward and other concepts relevant to teaching and learning. One participant said of the course, “[it] has made me really think about lesson design and for that, I will become a better teacher”, emphasising a material impact on improving classroom teaching.

Concepts from neuroscience have also been incorporated into the University of Bristol’s PGCE (Post-Graduate Certificate of Education) programme and Bath Spa University’s teacher training programmes. These programmes reach around 165 and 250 student teachers respectively each year. This work has now also been further extended to support the mentoring of student teachers on school practice, with videos of mentors drawing on our concepts published as a resource for teachers to use when debriefing student teachers following a classroom observation. Additional teacher training institutions have also expressed an interest in incorporating these concepts in their teacher training programmes, with the potential to broaden the reach still further.

Concepts and resources developed to tackle the issue of ‘neuromyths’ are also being introduced into teacher education in lower- and middle-income countries. With the UNESCO International Bureau of Education (UNESCO-IBE), we have undertaken work with the Seychelles Institute of Education to incorporate the concepts into teacher education. This is seen as a testing ground for efforts to distribute the concepts more widely across Africa and beyond, with UNESCO-IBE planning to pilot a teacher training course on the neuroscience of learning with two partner countries in 2020-2021, with additional piloting potentially planned for Cuba and South Africa. Meanwhile, the Nicaraguan Ministry of Education has also arranged to introduce the concepts to 1,000 teachers in Nicaragua in 2020.

In the UK, our research has contributed to a policy debate with representatives from the Department for Education (DfE) and Ofsted that aimed to support evidence-based policy making in education, generating “considerable interest”, and informing the DfE’s development of the Early Career Framework for teachers. Our work has also underpinned decisions by two UK NGOs to provide large-scale funding to inform national teaching practice and education policy, as well as contributing directly to professional teacher development and informing international policy regarding teacher education.

Alongside this work, our researchers have undertaken a number of high-profile engagement activities that have raised public awareness and understanding of the brain’s reward system and its relation to learning, with Prof. Paul Howard-Jones a regular presenter on the award winning and twice BAFTA-nominated TV programme ‘Secret Life of 4, 5 and 6 Year Olds’.

Underpinning research

Our research has been influential in establishing that insights from neuroscience are essential to inform effective approaches to education. A particular focus of this work has been the link between reward and learning, and the use of game-based interventions to motivate and improve the outcomes of learners. In this research, we monitor brain activity to demonstrate the effect of embedding learning in game-like activities (“gamification”) on participants’ engagement in the task at hand. This follows earlier studies which revealed that electrodermal activity (thought to signal emotional response) is further increased in participants when reward is uncertain, and that reward-based models of behaviour have important potential in understanding and developing effective learning games.

Our work in this area has been complemented by analysis of ways in which to bridge the neuroscience-education gap. This has included a review of educational interventions and approaches informed by neuroscience, carried out on behalf of and funded by the Education Endowment Foundation. This review highlighted challenges in implementing ideas from neuroscience in the classroom, and was described as “pivotal in [the] decision” by the Education Endowment Foundation and Wellcome Trust to fund a £6-million initiative aiming to provide practical evidence on how neuroscience might improve educational outcomes.

Key facts

  • The notion that neuroscience can inform education has gained global traction in recent years, but there is limited research-informed practice in this area.
  • Educational neuroscience research from the University of Bristol has informed national teaching practice and education policy, as well as contributing directly to innovative continuing professional development and initial teacher development.
  • Take-up of new neuroscience-informed approaches to teaching and learning has reduced misunderstanding about how the brain learns, and raised awareness of the importance of neuroscientific evidence for education among both practitioners and the public.
  • Underpinning research has also informed international educational policy and practice regarding teacher education in a range of lower- and middle-income countries, and is regularly referenced by UNESCO-IBE in formal and informal discussions with policy makers and practitioners all over the world.

Date published

December 2020

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