Using insights from neuroscience in education: using the body to improve thinking skills - RSA

Using insights from neuroscience in education: using the body to improve thinking skills

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  • Education
  • Schools
  • Behaviour change
  • Cognition

This guest blog is from Dr Elizabeth McClelland, who became a Fellow in January 2014.  Elizabeth has been working with RSA Education on plans to expand her programme Move4Words to many more schools in England. You can contact her at where you also find out more about the research evidence.

I was a research scientist in a former life – Royal Society Research fellow for 10 years at Department of Earth Sciences, Oxford University, then University Lecturer and Director of the Palaeomagnetism research laboratory at Oxford between 1997 and 2003. In 1998, I suddenly became very ill with an unknown virus which temporarily robbed me of the ability to speak coherently, to understand speech or written language or to control my muscles properly. All my facilties came back over the following couple of months, except my ability to read fluently. I could read single words, but couldn’t make sense of a paragraph. I was still lecturing at Oxford, I could do my numerical research, gave talks at conferences and even touch-typed a couple of papers (although was unable to proof-read them). It was incredibly frustrating. Eventually, I found a private physio who used a physical activity programme to help children with dyslexia, and she showed me that I’d lost the ability to control my eye movements, and had lost some cross-body muscular control. She showed me some simple physical and visual exercises, which I practised several times a day, and, remarkably, my reading started to improve after a couple of weeks, and within 2 months it was back to my original rapid reading. It was so dramatic, I vowed to find out more and to do what I could to help others in the same way.

For the last ten years,  I have been working with children with learning difficulties, and with schools, on what might be considered to be a radical idea – that our bodies’ physical actions feedback and impact on our brain function in a way that can improve our learning capacity. I started off empirically, working out in practice what actually seemed to help children improve reading, maths, focus and concentration. I’m interested in recruiting into the learning process the parts which normal teaching doesn’t reach, which are physical, visual and mindful bodily control. I call the programme Move4words and I run a not-for-profit CIC to help promote its use in schools.  When I did the exercises myself, I did find them extremely difficult, , and so I’ve put a lot of energy into understanding why they were so difficult, and to working out all the precursor steps which actually make the whole training process easy for almost anyone to follow.

We’ve trialled the method with more than 2,000 primary school children, and the results are startlingly good, particularly for pupils in the bottom 20% of achievement. Children whose reading had not progressed beyond the very early stages despite strenuous efforts by dedicated teachers during an average of four years at school, made dramatic strides forward. The idea is that the whole class participate, and that all the activities are demonstrated by videos of child actors or animations, so that teachers don’t have to be an expert to use it. It only takes 15 minutes a day for 12 weeks, so that the programme doesn’t interfere too much with the curriculum. I’ve designed the programme so that all the activities require the children to concentrate and pay attention to their bodily movement; to be mindful of their physical control. This seems to generalise to an improved ability to control their thinking.

As I started to read the science behind all this, I realised that the basic idea of using movement to improve learning wasn’t so way out as it first seemed. Professor John Stein, of Oxford University’s Department of Physiology, recommended that I look at the growing discipline of “embodied cognition” for inspiration, and I did. The science is fascinating.

It is amazing to think that whenever we hear, speak or even think in language, our brains are busily firing neurons, not only in the classic language processing areas, but also in the bits of the brain which control bodily movement. When you read “Judith delegated the responsibility to Sheena”, activation occurs in the regions of your brain which would control the physical action of handing something to someone.

Researchers are even finding that any use of language causes our bodies to make minute muscle movements all the time. It is thought that we actually cannot develop higher level thought processes without developing a good sense of bodily awareness and muscle control; that our knowledge systems are built on a physical foundation. I think that this is why the research data we’ve collected shows that physical activities do have a real and large impact on more abstract learning.

Some scientists believe that mirror neurons are responsible. This is the neuronal system which allows us to feel someone else’s pain and to empathise. But mirror neurons also fire when we watch someone else doing something physical (our brains mimic the activity required to copy the movement) AND when we process any sort of language. Researchers have suggested that the young child’s mirror neuron system activates when their parents put the doll on the table, mimicking their actions and developing new neural networks. The child then calls on those same neural networks when she learns the words for simple concrete actions like “put the doll on the table”. The same mirror neuron system strengthens and then underpins successive developments, such as learning how to ask someone else to move the doll for her, and eventually to abstract ideas rooted in the original concept.

Earlier this year, I came across the Educational Endowment Foundation, and its exciting mission – endowed by the UK Department of Education to find out what really works in closing attainment gaps in schools. We need to know how education should be best shaped and improved so that children can learn as effectively as possible (with the least expenditure of time and money, of course). The Educational Endowment Foundation (EEF) and the Wellcome Trust recently got together to encourage scientists to use knowledge gained from neuroscience for the direct benefit of children. In response, Joe Hallgarten,  myself, Professors John Stein and Kia Nobre of Oxford University and Professor Tim Brighouse put together a dynamic application, involved randomised controlled trials. to understand how the Move4Word approach would improve attention and concentration for primary school children, and whether this would impact on literacy outcomes.

The EEF and Wellcome Trust have just announced the six successful projects, one of which will adapt school timetables to suit teenage sleep patterns. Our project reached the short short-list of 10 out of 90, and we were interviewed, but we fell at the last hurdle – no academic publications on our work. Frustrating, yes, but we had a fascinating time at the interview, where we had the chance to discuss our ideas with a bunch of neuroscientists, and to learn how we could do it better next time. Because there will be a next time – we’ve written and submitted an academic paper, and applied again to the EEF.

Up until recently, it has been very difficult to persuade anyone in the academic or even educational world that this is a viable approach. My collaboration with the RSA has been a wonderful experience, a real vivid example of the way in which the fellowship works. Together we can do great things. We are always interested in support from other fellows for our work, so do get in touch!

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  • I really enjoyed reading this. Very interesting. Wishing you all the very best with your second EEF application.