“From neuroscientific theories to effective practice in the classroom- lessons from the UnLocke primary maths and science intervention trial”- Annual Learnus Lecture 2020

Megan Davies from the CoGDeV lab attended this year’s Annual Learnus Lecture which took place virtually on the 25th November. Professor Denis Mareschal, from Birkbeck College, presented the lecture outlining a recent intervention study, UnLocke (http://www.unlocke.org/) that aimed to improve maths and science reasoning in primary school children. Prof. Farran from our lab is also one of the collaborators on the project.

Professor Mareschal began by explaining that on a daily basis children are confronted with perceptual information that contradicts information they are taught, i.e., counterintuitive concepts. For example, we teach young children that the earth is round, however perceptually they experience that the earth is flat.

Next, Prof. Mareschal presented evidence that there are differences in inhibitory control in specialists versus novices. He discussed evidence from Steve Masson and colleagues in which Physics (experts) and Humanities (Novices) students were shown a series of pictures of electrical circuits, whilst in an MRI, and were asked if the pictures were accurate. When presented with a picture that just required basic knowledge, both experts and novices showed similar brain activation. But when it came to the counterintuitive pictures, experts showed more activation in the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex and interior cingulate cortex compared to novices. These brain regions are known to be involved with inhibitory control and suggests, therefore, that experts are better at inhibiting misconceptions in their domain. This was the basis for the UnLocke intervention, a classroom-based intervention that explored whether improving children’s ability to inhibit misconceptions, would lead to an improvement in academic performance.

The UnLocke ‘Stop and Think’ intervention study was a computerised learning activity that encouraged children to wait and think about their answers before shouting them out. The idea behind the intervention was to encourage children to suppress their initial misconceptions and to process and reason to find the correct answer. Prof. Mareschal described how the classroom-based game worked. Children were presented with either a maths or science concept in which a character would ask a question and then force the children to pause before they could select an answer. The other characters on the game provided reasoning, encouraging the children to discuss their answers as a class. The students who took part in ‘Stop and Think’ had an average of 1-month better performance in maths and 2 months better progress in science than controls. However, this was only significant for science, not maths and was most effective in year 5 pupils.

Although the intervention was shown to be effective in some instances, Prof. Mareschal explained that not all teachers were on board. Some weren’t keen on the intervention in its current form, stating difficulties fitting the programme into an ordinary school day. They were also sceptical as they perceived the intervention too easy leading to a lack of pupil engagement. However, Prof. Mareschal countered this with positive comments from other teachers who said that the intervention encouraged students to reason more, developed their social skills and encouraged them to listen and show consideration of their peers’ points of view. It was also observed that students transferred what they had learnt to other subjects.

Overall, it appears that the intervention has promise and Professor Mareschal’s ended the discussion by encouraging teachers to get involved with research as researchers have the same objective as teachers, i.e., of improving education and academic achievement in children.

To read more about UnLocke: http://www.unlocke.org/

Palak, R., Rutt, S., Easton, C., Sims, D., Bradshaw, S. & McNamara, S. (2019, September). Stop and Think:  Learning Counterintuitive Concepts Evaluation Report. Retrieved from https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/projects-and-evaluation/projects/learning-counterintuitive-concepts/

Wilkinson HR, Smid C, Morris S, Farran EK,  Dumontheil I, Mayer S, Tolmie A, Bell D, Porayska-Pomsta K, Holmes W, Mareschal D, Thomas MSC and the UnLocke Team**. Domain-specific inhibitory control training to improve children’s learning of counterintuitive concepts in mathematics and science. Journal of Cognitive Enhancement. **The UnLocke team consists of the authors of this paper as well as Annie Brookman-Byrne, Roshni Modhvadia, and Dilini Sumanapala. https://doi.org/10.1007/s41465-019-00161-4

Written by Megan Davies