Wire the message through

What happens when teachers learn more about how the brain works? They become more confident teachers, says Jonathan Sharples
28th November 2008, 12:00am
Jonathan Sharples


Wire the message through


As psychology and neuroscience move closer together, we are making exciting discoveries at the boundary between brain, mind and behaviour that have direct relevance to the classroom.

We are learning more about developmental stages (early years, adolescence), the impact of environmental factors on the brain, such as nutrition, sleep and exercise, and the processes by which the brain acquires key skills and abilities, such as memory, attention, motivation, numeracy and literacy.

This growing body of knowledge is matched by the enthusiasm of many teachers to incorporate it into their teaching. In a recent survey by academics at Bristol University of 71 teachers attending in-service training, 64 (91 per cent) thought that an understanding of the brain was important, or very important, in the design and delivery of teaching.

Yet despite this enthusiasm, we have so far seen few of these new insights informing teacher training and professional development. So we at the Institute for the Future of the Mind decided to find out what happens when teachers are able to gain scientific insights on learning and apply them to their classroom practice.

Twenty Gloucestershire Advanced Skills Teachers (ASTs) have been investigating concepts such as attention, memory, creativity, gifted and talented children and developmental disorders, as part of a series of monthly interactive workshops for their continuing professional development.

The programme aims to allow them enough time and space to explore how the science might (or might not) relate to the context of their own teaching.

Specific examples of this kind of transfer from science to classroom practice include: providing instant, personalised feedback to pupils to ensure the correct networks in the brain are activated (The TES Magazine, Brain amp; Behaviour, January 18, 2008); incorporating movement - and the imagining of movement - to make concepts stick (February 15, 2008); and improving pupils' awareness of the role of sleep, exercise and nutrition in learning (April 4, 2008).

Has the project had a more general effect on the teachers' practice? In a word, yes. We have found that it makes teachers more self-confident and independent, better equipped to understand pupils' behaviour - and to assess the various "brain-based" products and ideas on offer. It has also reassured them that what they instinctively feel is good practice is often backed up by science.

One AST said after completing the programme: "The project has made me sceptical of commercial products that claim to be based on neuroscience and push a particular way of learning."

"The problem is that these ideas are often presented in a persuasive way as a solution to lots of different educational problems. Now if a new idea comes on to the market, I will certainly be more wary of its origins and endeavour to find out its educational value and scientific basis."

Another felt reassured that her teaching was on the right track. "The benefits from engaging with the neuroscience are not always in terms of developing new ways of teaching, but in adding weight to those ideas that are already perceived as good practice from observations in the classroom," she said. "So it has helped me plan lessons more confidently and clarify the processes I want to achieve with the learner. In general, I have become more confident in my decision making."

A third welcomed the provision of new "tools" for understanding classroom behaviour. "This project has helped me not just to react to pupils' behaviour. I am looking much more carefully under the skin to identify barriers to a child's learning. I can then use that knowledge to make strategic plans to move them forward."

Another welcomed the chance the project provided to step back and reflect on teaching methods and challenge assumptions.

"The project has got me out of the rut of delivering quick-fix strategies to deliver the usual learning objectives," she said. "Now I ask, `Is this appropriate? Are they learning?' The positive feedback I have received has reinforced this shift in practice."

Clearly, the development of education practice depends on factors not intrinsically bound up with the science of learning, such as the expertise of the individual teacher and political decisions based on social and educational values.

It would be extremely unhelpful for scientists to instruct teachers from a position of unchallenged authority. It is only the teachers, after all, who can make a sophisticated judgment on how a bit of information on the brain relates to the complex behaviour they encounter in class.

But, as the collaboration between the Institute for the Future of the Mind and Gloucestershire ASTs has shown, a balanced dialogue between scientists and educators, each drawing on the knowledge and expertise of the other, can deliver real improvements in pedagogy. Learning more about how the brain works, and using that knowledge in the classroom, can only make teachers more professional

Dr Jonathan Sharples was until recently deputy director of the Institute for the Future of the Mind at the University of Oxford and is now manager of partnerships at the Institute for Effective Education at the University of York. He co-ordinates the UK All-Party Parliamentary Group in Scientific Research in Learning and Education


Pickering, S., amp; Howard-Jones, P. (2007) Educators' Views on the Role of Neuroscience in Education: Findings from a study of UK and international perspectives, Mind, Brain, and Education, 1:3, 109-113

Ansari, D. (2006) Bridges over troubled waters: Education and cognitive neuroscience, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 10:4, 146-51

Overview of the Science of Learning project at The Institute for the Future of the Mind:


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