Category Archives: Neuroscience

Does An Engaged Brain Always Learn Best?

Teachers strive to ensure that pupils are engaged, don’t they?

I chose to look at engagement for my Masters dissertation several years ago and quickly concluded that engagement is a vey complex topic, but we can define it generally as:

The degree of attention, curiosity, interest, optimism, and passion that students show when they are learning or being taught, which extends to the level of motivation they have to learn and progress in their education.

-The Glossary Of Education Reform-

It can also represent wider aspects:

Participation in educationally effective practices, both inside and outside the classroom, which leads to a range of measurable outcomes

– Kuh et al., 2007 –

Definitions aside, all teachers have their own ideas of what engagement actually looks like in the classroom. Teachers can also be informed that they ‘engaged the class well’ or ‘not all pupils were engaged’ or even ‘little Billy was staring into space over in the corner.’ I’ll put to one side the question surrounding the ability of observers to observe for a moment.

(I often wonder what would happen if staff meetings were observed – I must spend around 80 percent of my time staring out of the window or checking Twitter).

I’ll come back to Billy, sitting in the corner, staring into space and obviously not engaged.

The common sense assumption is this: When we are doing nothing, the brain is in some kind of stand-by mode waiting for stimuli and that when we have something to do the brain works harder. This makes complete sense and suggests that a hard working, engaged classroom is a learning classroom.

The thing is, the resting brain is far from inactive. In fact, it’s remarkably active. Brain imaging studies have found consistent levels of activation in certain regions of the brain collectively known as the default mode network. The default mode network has been linked to instances of daydreaming and mindwandering, suggesting that daydreaming could be our default mode of thought.

Experience sampling studies suggest that people might even spend as much time daydreaming as they do sleeping.

So perhaps Billy is daydreaming? Even if he is, he’s still wasting valuable learning time.

Perhaps not.

If we spend around about the same time daydreaming as we do sleeping, then daydreaming (like sleep) must serve some purpose; it must not only be normal but also essential and have some kind of evolutionary value.

During periods of distraction, we loosen our thought processes in order to find solutions to problems using previously unexplored options. Daydreaming can allow us to reach more creative conclusions by facilitating a period of incubation.

Daydreaming also enhances our sense of identity, often through what cognitive scientists call ‘Future Orientated Cognition’ – we recall our past and envisage what our futures might be like or imagine alternative scenarios dependent upon the choices we make. Interestingly (and incredibly sad at the same time) people with dementia are unable to daydream and to forecast the future due to damage to the default mode network.

Back to Billy…

So is Billy disengaged or has he defaulted to daydreaming mode? If he is daydreaming then is his brain busy processing the information from the lesson or planning his weekend on the Xbox?

We don’t always know what engagement looks like and we can’t make judgements based on information hidden from us. Engagement takes many forms and doesn’t always look the same. Mental ‘down-time’ certainly isn’t popular in teaching – imagine an Ofsted inspector entering a classroom during a daydreaming activity! Nevertheless, disengagement might actually make the brain work harder.


Kuh, G.D. (2007) How to Help Students Achieve. Chronicle of Higher Education. 53 (41), B12–13.

Using evidence to support teaching and learning: A cautionary tale.

Several years ago I read Making Minds: What’s wrong with education – and what should we do about. It was written by Paul Kelley, headteacher at Monkseaton High School in the north east of England. I was a little awe struck by Kelley at the time (and still am) and in retrospect see him as the forerunner of all the evidenced informed hype in education that has taken hold in the last couple of years.

Kelley was (and still is) and educational visionary. Drawing on neuroscience and the latest findings in circadian rhythms, he partnered up with leading researchers (including Russell Foster, a neuroscientist at Oxford University) and began to test, analyse and implement a number of revolutionary ideas at the school.

The two main innovations were:

Spaced Learning. Based on research developed by Doug Fields at the Institute of Child Health and Human Development in the United States, it concerned the nature in which memories are strengthened. As Kelley explains:

Remarkably the important factor was time.  Fields and his team found a pattern of 3 stimulations spaced with 10 minute periods without stimulation triggered the response that strengthened the synaptic pathway permanently- creating a long term memory.  I saw an opportunity to use the same pattern in education. A team of students, Angela Bradley (a talented Biology teacher) and I then created what has become known as Spaced Learning.  We ran trials with surprisingly positive results.

[…]I was hoping to link up with other researchers who had applied his research to learning.  He told me he didn’t know of any, and that put huge pressure on me to conduct further detailed research which we did in 2007-2010. The surprisingly positive results were validated. Unfortunately they were so positive they questioned the validity of conventional teaching itself.

We were lucky to secure funding to create a resource to help other educationalists use Spaced Learning- they are here on the site. At Monkseaton there has been training for hundreds of people, and now there is digital resource in English for everyone to use as they see fit. Italian and Chinese versions are on this site.

Later Start to the School Day: The second innovation was based on research by Russell Foster, chair of circadian neuroscience at Brasenose College, Oxford, in turn supported by some of the work Sarah Jayne Blakemore was doing at UCL. Research has discovered that, as teenage brains develop, they are more likely to go through a stage where their 24 cycle (or circadian rhythm) doesn’t match that of adults. The implication is that teenagers are more alert later in the day, are impelled by their circadian cycle to sleep later and wake later in the morning. For Kelley, the conclusion was simple – start school later in the day. In 2009 Monkseaton High School, therefore, became the first school to start lessons later (10am) to account for the differences in teenagers’ circadian rhythms.

So did it all work?

In 2010, a report by Tyneside Council reported GCSE results at 34% (A*-C) in English and Maths (below the national average) and branded the school ‘inadequate’, however the school recorded a rise of almost a fifth a few months later (the highest in the history of the school).

Nevertheless, in 2011 Ofsted designated the school ‘satisfactory’. Kelley unexpectedly resigned as head in 2012 and the following year the school was given a ‘requires improvement’ by Ofsted.

… so, at face value, the situation appears confusing.

The question of whether the initiatives worked is also complicated. GCSE grades certainly increased but a number of different variables need to be considered, such as implementing a rage of evidence-based initiatives simultaneously. Also, the general upward trend in GCSE results nationwide might have contributed to a proportion of this rise.

The evidence on which the experiments took place might have been sound but the implementation might not have been. A series of Randomised Controlled Trials might have been useful but even then it would have been necessary to include other schools in order to reduce the likelihood of extraneous variables impacting on the results. I’m not aware of any replications outside the original school either, so any results might not be valid or reliable.

There is much to learn from the Monkseaton experiment, it was the forerunner of all that’s buzzing in education at the moment but was perhaps too naively designed and implemented to produce any useful data (I haven’t been able to find any outside Kelley’s own book but feel free to point me in the right direction). It also suggests the headteachers really do need the courage to give this kind of thing a go, but preferably not alone!

Finally, remember that although individuals like Ben Goldacre produced the spark, we are all standing on the shoulders of amazing educational revolutionaries like Kelley.

Teaching, neuroscience and the teenage brain.

There is a great deal of debate at the moment about neuroscience and its potential within educational settings. The Association of Teachers and Lectures (ATL) have even debated the possibility that neuroscience should become part of teacherTeenBrain training, partly inspired by the recent interest teachers have shown towards evidence based teaching and learning. Some of the most fascinating research to come from neuroscience over the past few years has been from neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists like Sarah-Jayne Blakemore and her colleagues at University College London. Blakemore and her team have spent a great deal of time looking at the way the teenage brain develops in comparison to the brains of younger children and adults. They use a technique known as Magnetic Resonance Imaging (or MRI) in order to examine the inner workings of the living human brain. Before the introduction of MRI the only way psychologists and neuroscientists could investigate brains without surgery was through post-mortems of the recently deceased so the main advantage of MRI is that researchers can now study living brains while they are in the process of remembering, deliberating and making decisions. It was generally considered that the crucial period for brain development was the first three years of life and, certainly, there are many major changes taking place during this period, changes that include the growth of specialist cells known as neurons.

Astonishingly the adult human brain contains about 80 to 100 billion neurons (just as interesting is that the brain at birth contains only slightly less) but these neurons are only part of a much bigger story. Even before birth the majority of the critically important aspects of the brain are already in place, having begun to develop during the first week of gestation. By the seventh month of gestation pretty much all of the neurons that will make up the mature brain have already been formed. The most significant transformation during the early years of life is not the neurons themselves but rather the wiring of connections between them, known as synapses. The synapse is the way in which neurons communicate with each other in the form of electrical impulses or through special chemicals known as neurotransmitters. These neurotransmitters can have a major impact on our behaviour and emotional state, for example, low levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin has been linked to depression, which is why anti-depressants known as Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitors (or SSRI’s) like Prozac, have proved highly successful in the treatment of depression and related conditions. The neurotransmitter dopamine has been linked to other psychological disorders including schizophrenia; anti-psychotic drugs help to regulate these levels and appear to successfully treat the symptoms related to such conditions. Neurons don’t touch each other so information (electrical or chemical) is released by one neuron and received by another via a gap known as the synaptic cleft (this process is known as synapses). As we learn new things, be it reading, writing or riding a bike, a new connection between neurons is made and the more often the activity is carried out the stronger the connection becomes. This is why the more we repeat a procedure the easier it becomes to do so that, in same cases such a driving the car to work and back each day, our actions become so automatic that we often forget having carried them out.

This increase in connections during the early years of life is called synaptogenesis and can last for several months depending on the species of animal. Astonishingly, the number of connection in the young brain is so vast that synaptogenesis is followed by a period where many unused connections are eliminated through a process known as cognitive pruning which continues for a number of years. Once the process is complete the density of the connections will have reached adult levels. Studies conducted on monkeys have found that such density declines to adult levels at around three years, the point at which the monkeys reach sexual maturity.

Of course, monkeys aren’t humans and it would be highly erroneous to suggest that the development of a human infant mirrors that of other primates. Because the monkey develops faster, reaching sexually maturity at around three years of age, we must assume that the human infant develops somewhat more slowly. This view is astonishingly recent and prior to this it was assumed that humans, like monkey’s had reached maturity in terms of brain structure in early infancy. Unfortunately this error led to the view that infants reach a critical stage in development, after which they might not be able to learn certain skills vital to human growth such as language learning. A more probable situation is that infants pass through a sensitive period where certain aspects of learning are easier to achieve. Studies of feral children, those children who spend the first few years of life raised in the absence of human contact, have discovered that even if they fail to master language in early infancy, this skills can be obtained later in life – albeit with extreme difficulty. In fact, rather than brain development reaching full term in early childhood, Blakemore has discovered that teenage brains are still developing; it’s just that development is only taking place in certain brain regions. This has actually been known since the 1960’s but it is only now that researchers have access to fMRI scanners that they can support these views with evidence. The human brain matures at different rates; for example, the visual cortex should be in place by about ten months. After about this time synaptic density declines (unused connections are cut away through cognitive pruning), reaching adult levels by about ten years old. However, development of the frontal cortex appears to last well into the teenage years and the pruning process in much slower. In fact, synaptic density doesn’t peak until about the age of eleven years and the pruning process continues into the early twenties. This late stage of brain development may go some way to explaining teen behaviour but, before we get excited, there is a great many other factors to take into consideration.

Essentially, there appears to be two major changes that occur before and after puberty. During this period the actual volume of the brain tissue appears to remain stable, however, there is a significant increase in the amount of white matter in the frontal cortex of the brain. As already explained, neurons are continuing to develop and new connections are being formed during this period. The neurons themselves are busy building up a layer of a fatty tissue called myelin on the axon of the cell. The axon is responsible from carrying electrical impulses away from the cell body of the neuron, down the shaft of the axon toward the dendrites, causing one cell to communicate with another. Myelin acts as an insulator and increases the speed of the electrical transmission between the neurons (so it might be related to intelligence – hence the omega 3 hype from a few years back). The fatty tissue of the myelin shows up white under a microscope (hence white matter) and would suggest that the speed at which they communicate with each other significantly increased after puberty. The second major change was first identified by Peter Huttenlocher of the University of Chicago. Brain development in the brains of children leads to a major increase in connections (synaptogenesis) in pre-pubescence followed by major decrease in the density of synapses after puberty. This appears to support other studies that have concluded that while unused connections are pruned; those that are used are strengthened. This appears to suggest that teenagers (and only teenagers) go through a process of brain fine-tuning in the frontal cortex throughput the teenage years.

The frontal cortex (literally the part of the brain at the front of the skull) is the home of what cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists call executive functions. These executive functions are involved in a number of activities including our ability to anticipate the consequences of our own actions, our capacity to decide between good and bad actions and the ability to suppress unacceptable unsocial behaviour. It is also concerned with what is known as social cognition – the way in which we co-operate and communicate with others so that we can successfully exist with members of our own species. The frontal cortex also allows us to modify our emotions so that they can fit within socially accepted norms. Could this later stage of brain development explain why some teenagers can become so difficult during this period of rapid and complex change? American Psychologist, Mike Bradley seems to think so. Bradley has even gone so far as to suggest that adolescence is a form of mental illness caused by the immature yet rapidly developing state of the teenage brain. While many would pour scorn on Bradley’s suggestion, it does appear that something is occurring in the teenage brain that compels them to behave in a certain manner, a manner that many adults might view as unacceptable.

So what does all this really mean to parents, teachers and other adults who work with teenagers? The research is all well and good but unless it can help us to help teenagers (or at least begin to appreciate the huge changes taking place within the context of educating children) knowing what is happening in the brains of our teens is of little use. Additionally, many neuroscientists are still unsure of how their discoveries can impact on education and learning. Blakemore’s research would suggest that teaching teenagers is even more complex than we currently believe because of the way the brain is continuing to develop and its impact on executive functioning. This doesn’t mean that we should reject neuroscience (I was completely taken with Blakemore’s research when I first read it a few years ago and became even more so when I attended her talks) but it does suggest caution.

Blakemore would herself admit that there is a great deal of uncertainly about how we can use this research to inform teaching practice – but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t at least investigate some of the possibilities.