Brain Behaviour - Thinking differently

29th August 2008 at 01:00
Understanding how the brain works can motivate pupils to learn better, say Susan Greenfield and Jonathan Sharples

It is Saturday morning and you are faced with the mammoth task of completing a shopping trip for next week's groceries at the huge out-of- town supermarket. To make things worse, you have also agreed to pick up your mum's groceries and at the same time grab a few items for your elderly next-door neighbour.

What approach do you take? Do you charge in like a bull in a china shop, dive straight into the fruit and veg aisle, and then work it out from there? Or do you spend time pondering your master plan of attack? Both approaches might have benefits, but chances are, as an adult, you are less likely to adopt the "act first, think second" strategy and more likely to think things through.

In general, adults are more aware of their thinking than children. They tend to evaluate a task and work out the best strategy to make it easier, based on an understanding of their strengths and weaknesses. They are more likely to work things through systematically, use internal speech and introspection. Basically, they think about their thinking - a process often referred to by psychologists as metacognition.

Over the past few weeks we have looked at the role of executive functions in education such as decision-making, planning, attention, inhibition and working memory. They free us from responding only to our immediate situation and enable us to respond flexibly to our environment. The ability to direct attention to one's own thinking, through metacognition, is central to how these executive functions work.

Over the previous weeks we have also seen how executive functions can be developed explicitly through education - from brain training through to improved working memory, through to carefully constructed curricula that specifically develop executive functions in pre-school children.

Is metacognition another area where executive functions can be improved in children, through education? We think the answer is yes. In many cases, teachers are already doing precisely that.

As we move into an information-rich world where knowledge is available from a broad range of sources, educationists and policymakers increasingly recognise the importance of being able to process, apply, question and assess that information, rather than just retain it.

The Qualification and Curriculum Authority's (QCA) new national secondary curriculum is bold in how it cultivates learning and thinking skills, presented under the Personal Learning and Thinking Skills (PLaTS) heading.

The curriculum points out that pupils will now be required to develop specific qualities such as curiosity, (exploring problems from different perspectives), questioning their own and other assumptions, and developing a critical attitude. Also included is assessing themselves and others and dealing positively with setbacks and criticism.

Encouragingly, programmes that target pupils' metacognitive awareness of learning are proving to be among the most effective interventions for improving academic achievement. What is also exciting about these approaches is that they align with the emerging evidence from neuroscience and psychology on the critical importance of metacognition and executive functions for success in life, learning and work.

There are clearly practical questions about how the new QCA curriculum can be delivered, but initiatives such as the Campaign for Learning, Building Learning Power and Assessment for Learning are providing powerful clues about how these skills can be developed in schools on a practical level.

To end this series on executive functions, here's one exciting example of how improving metacognition can directly improve motivation and learning. Over the past 10 years, Carol Dweck and colleagues at Stanford University in California have shown that what pupils believe about their brains - whether they see their intelligence as something that is fixed or something that can grow and change - has a significant impact on their motivation, learning and school achievement.

Their research shows that those pupils who believe that intelligence is fixed (fixed mindsets) are less motivated to learn, more afraid of effort, and more likely to quit after an academic setback. In contrast, pupils who believe that intelligence is a potential that can be developed through effort (growth mindsets) are much more committed to learning, show determined reactions to setbacks and show improved academic progress.

Using this as a starting point, they have gone on to demonstrate that we can develop growth mindsets in children by building an awareness of the learning brain. They told pupils in the experimental group how learning changes connections within the brain, how this process takes place throughout our lives and finally how each of us, as an active learner, is in charge of that process. In other words, intelligence is flexible. In a rigorous, randomised controlled study, the eight-session workshop produced a galvanising effect on motivation, which resulted in a dramatic improvement in academic progress compared with control groups.

What is exciting is that it shows not only that learning changes the brain, but that an awareness of the brain can directly change learning.

Baroness Susan Greenfield is professor of pharmacology at Oxford University, Director of the Royal Institution of Great Britain and director of Oxford University's Institute for the Future of the Mind. Dr Jonathan Sharples is deputy director of the Institute and leads its activities relating developments in brain science to education policy and practice. He co-ordinates the UK All-Party Parliamentary Group in Scientific Research in Learning and Education.


Metzler, L. Executive Functions in Education: From theory to practice (The Guilford Press, 2007).

Claxton, G. (2007) Expanding Young People's Capacity to Learn, British Journal of Educational Studies, 55:2, 1.

Blackwell, L., et al (2007) Implicit Theories of Intelligence Predict Achievement Across an Adolescent Transition: A longitudinal study and an intervention, Child Development, 78:1, 246.

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