Please sir, my brain hurts

3rd December 2010 at 00:00
Oxford University outreach sessions start by showing pupils a human brain - a real one. But there is a serious side: to find out if knowledge of neuroscience improves their motivation. It certainly makes them - and their teachers - think, says Diana Hinds

It is the moment they have been waiting for all lesson. Dr Ian Devonshire brings an air-tight plastic bucket from under the lab bench and lifts out a brain. Human. And real. The plastic gloves are handed around and the boys jostle to the front of the class, eager for their chance to hold it. The brain, preserved in formaldehyde and then stored in alcohol, is brownish, wrinkled and slightly firm - less pink and less soft than a live brain.

"I thought it would be much bigger," says one boy. "You couldn't put that in someone else's head now, could you?" ventures another.

Today's lesson, with Year 11 biology students at the Oratory School, a boys' school outside Reading, is part of a series of outreach sessions run by Oxford University. But it is not just about showing pupils what a brain looks like. The session is part of a project aiming to discover whether a knowledge of how the brain works helps to improve pupils' motivation to learn.

Dr Devonshire, a neuroscientist at Oxford's Institute for the Future of the Mind, begins the session in front of a screen displaying the enticing line, "How to grow a brain". One of the messages he is keen to impress on these 15 and 16-year-olds is the plasticity of their brains: they can grow and change on a daily basis. This means the pupils' intelligence is not fixed, so that the more effort they make, the stronger and more efficient their brains become.

Describing the structure of the brain, he grabs their interest with the story of a man blinded in a road accident who was nevertheless able to catch a ball every time it was thrown to him because the defensive reflex in a more primitive part of his brain was still intact. He also recounts the tale of Phineas Gage, a 19th-century railroad worker who survived an explosion which blasted a three-foot metal rod into his eye and out through the top of his skull. The rod went through much of his brain's frontal lobe, but although Mr Gage survived he suffered serious changes to his personality.

To show the class how different parts of the body - face, lips and hands - are represented in the brain by extra nerve fibres, Dr Devonshire announces that he is going to allow the boys "to inflict small amounts of pain on each other using cocktail sticks". Working in pairs, one shuts his eyes and has to say whether his partner is pricking him in different parts of the body with one or two cocktail sticks. Their gleeful experiments establish that fingertips are among the most sensitive parts of the body and calves the least.

The boys are also fascinated by a video clip where they are asked to count the number of times young people wearing white T-shirts throw a ball to each other. They are so engrossed in the task that most fail to notice a person in a monkey costume walk right through the middle of the ball- throwers. This illustrates the limits of our attention and how the brain focuses on what we want to learn, ignoring irrelevant things, Dr Devonshire explains. The conclusion is we cannot learn passively; instead we have to focus on what we want to learn.

After the lesson, Jaydon, aged 15, is clearly struck by not having seen the monkey: "It makes you think, doesn't it? It makes you see things differently - how your brain focuses on one thing." Nikolai, 15, is impressed by what they have learnt: "It makes me feel completely differently about my brain. It makes me think about thinking - and that is quite weird."

Part of the inspiration behind the research project was to see if it could replicate the findings from a similar study in the United States, which showed that if you teach pupils that their intelligence can grow and increase, they perform better in school. Children often think of their intelligence as something fixed, some believing that they were born "stupid" and there is little they can do to change that.

In their 2007 study, Carol Dweck, a research psychologist from Stanford University, and Lisa Blackwell, from Columbia University, looked at 100 11-year-olds in their first year of high school, all doing poorly in maths. Half the group were assigned to workshops on study skills, and the others were taught about the expanding nature of intelligence and how neurons in the brain form new connections every time you learn something new.

By the end of the term, the group taught about the brain had significantly better maths results than the other group. This new "growth mindset", Professor Dweck says, changed their attitude to learning and made them put more effort in. When they worked hard in school, they thought about neurons forming new connections and visualised how their brain was growing.

Whereas the US study was rooted in psychology, the researchers at the Institute for the Future of the Mind - Ian Devonshire, Ellie Dommett and Emma Sewter - want to see if giving pupils an anatomical insight into neuroscience can enhance their academic performance. Their project, funded by the CfBT Education Trust - previously known as the Centre for British Teachers - grew out of a collaboration with 15 advanced skills teachers in Gloucestershire, who became enthusiastic about the possible impact of neuroscience on education through a series of seminars by neuroscientists.

With help from the institute research team, the teachers devised a series of four workshops which, from January this year, they delivered in five secondary schools in Gloucestershire, to middle-ability children in Year 7. As in the US study, some of the children attended workshops on study skills, while others looked in detail at how the brain works, what happens when we learn and how we remember things. Real human brains were not available for these lessons, but brains made from foam and from plasticine were found to be an engaging substitute. A control group of children attended neither study skills nor neuroscience workshops.

Before and after the workshops, all the children were tested in maths and asked about their views on intelligence. The tests will be carried out again at the end of the school year, and the maths results have not yet been finalised. But initial findings, according to Dr Devonshire, "show that the neuroscience sessions have made the children think differently about intelligence, have made them see that it is not a fixed entity and that it can grow if they put more effort into studying."

The project also includes a parallel programme of continuous professional development for teachers, designed to give them scientific insights into how the brain learns, via books and PC software packages. No data is available yet on the impact of this programme.

Sylvia Kaniewski-Smith, an advanced skills chemistry teacher from Archway School in Stroud, who delivered some of the pupil workshops, says "the plasticity of the brain" was a new and important idea for her in helping to break down some of the barriers to learning.

"It's the biggest defence many children have, to say: `I'm stupid, I can't do it', because they're afraid to take risks and make a mistake," she says. "And for the teacher, it can be very easy to think that a child is never going to learn something."

The neuroscience programme changes all that, she says, because "the child sees that they have just as many neurons in their brain as the next child", which can spur them into trying harder. "It gives the teacher confidence that you can move the child forward," she adds.

Her involvement in the research project has had a marked effect on her teaching. She says it has made her "dig deeper to find different ways of presenting things" so that all the children get there in the end. It has also "given me licence to repeat and revisit things more than I used to: repetition strengthens the connections in the brain's neural network, and once the connections are stronger, things fire much faster."

Geoff Carr, an advanced skills rural science teacher at Chipping Campden School in Gloucestershire, was attracted to the research project "because of its evidence-based approach" and the fact that it was not "a commercial venture", unlike programmes such as Brain Gym.

He helped to devise and teach a workshop on how we think, and says it has been "an invigorating experience". The project, he believes, has "given a solid grounding and a scientific rationale to things that good teachers do already - like creating a learning environment where children are not scared of getting things wrong."

At a conference in Gloucestershire last month, the teachers and neuroscientists involved in the project encouraged more schools to adopt their approach. The advanced skills teachers have also become members of the all-party parliamentary group on scientific research in learning and education, co-chaired by academic and broadcaster Baroness Greenfield, former education secretary Baroness Morris and James Arbuthnot MP, which was officially relaunched in October. The aim of the group, which is open to all interested teachers, is to build bridges between educationalists, scientists and policy-makers and to debate matters of common interest, including the ways in which neuroscience can inform classroom practice.

There is no doubt that many teachers would like to know more about the brain. A survey in 2007 by Dr Paul Howard-Jones and Dr Sue Pickering at Bristol University's graduate school of education found that 87 per cent of teachers believed it was important to consider the workings of the brain in educational practice.

But as Usha Goswami, professor of cognitive development and cognitive neuroscience at Cambridge University, explains, education and neuroscience have not always been good at communicating with one another. The result, she says, has been a gap "which has been filled by commercial pseudo- scientific projects claiming to be brain-based".

One of the solutions, argue Professor Goswami and Dr Howard-Jones, is to include a neuroscience element in all initial teacher training as well as in continuous professional development, so that teachers have a proper grounding in the subject.

Also vitally needed, says Dr Howard-Jones, is greater collaboration between education and neuroscience, and more teacher involvement in neuroscientific research. Dr Devonshire agrees: "As scientists, we need teachers' input to guide our research into the most useful areas."

Learning and the Brain by Ellie Dommett, Ian Devonshire and Richard Churches will be published in January 2011.

All-Party Parliamentary Group on Scientific Research in Learning and Education,

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