What is the Science of Learning?

by Celia Franzè

Neuroscience in education has faced some harsh critics in the past. Many commentators accounted that the concept would never amount to measurable improved learning outcomes (Bruer, 1997). Yet, others closer to classroom practice chose to forge ahead with research to explore successful impacts on learning by considering a multidisciplinary approach; Psychology, Education and Neuroscience. (Horvath and Donoghue, 2016). This approach is what we call ‘The Science of Learning.’ At ThinkPlus, we develop our educational design research projects and teacher professional learning based on these principles. (Sterner, 2019, McKenney and Reeves, 2018)

In 2022, this is what we now know.

Developing executive function in children is critical. The part of the brain most affected by early stress is the pre-frontal cortex, which is essential to self-regulatory activities of all kinds – both emotional and cognitive (Neumann and Tillott, 2021). As a result, children who experience stress generally find it harder to concentrate, relax, rebound from disappointment, and, more challenging, follow directions, all directly affecting their performance at school. Improving executive function indicates that it can close the achievement gap in children far more than just focussing on cognitive skill development.

Executive functions, as now understood, are a collection of high-order mental abilities. They refer to the ability to deal with confusing and unpredictable situations and information. According to current research, executive function skills are highly predictive of success; they are also malleable, much more than other cognitive skills. ThinkPlus resources are developed to account for this and respond accurately to age-based developmental attainment and readiness for learning (Vlasblom et al., 2019).

The pre-frontal cortex is more responsive to interventions than other parts of the brain, and it stays flexible well into adolescence and early adulthood (Barrett, 2009, Horvath and Donoghue, 2016). So if we can improve a child’s environment in specific ways that lead to better executive functioning, we can increase their prospects for success in a particularly efficient way– this has been key in our thinking in the design of ThinkPlus. We continually test the following hypothesis through our research in schools.

How can we prevent disengagement and build resilience so that young learners are capable of navigating their learning and the world beyond school?

The key to ThinkPlus is that intelligence can be grown with effort. By co-designing teaching and learning resources with teachers, parents, students and academics, the conceptual ‘growth mindsets’ beginnings have gone beyond the foundational rhetoric (Dweck, 2017, Yeager and Dweck, 2012, Masters, 2014) It has matured to become a metacurriculum overlay unveiled across the Australian Curriculum. Driven by sound evidence that when students have the self-belief that they can change their intelligence, personality and character,  belief enables them to fulfil their potential, and it assists teachers leverage that to achieve educational outcomes (Marks, 2017)

Teaching thinking is not enough; we need to create a culture – of resilience, mindfulness, self-regulation and the concept that we are malleable, not fixed entities. We can re-imagine learning as we prepare our children for the challenges ahead. Being mindful enhances self-awareness, which can assist in making deliberate choices on how we respond to a given situation (Neumann and Tillott, 2021).

Mindful behavioural reactions to stressful events can improve our ability to apply emotional regulation, which decreases stress cortisol. Through the prefrontal cortex, the individual can develop a clear perspective and apply known strategies and knowledge with a sense of calmness when stress arises (Huebner, 2022, Barrett, 2017).

When teachers know the school curriculum well, we are free to creatively focus on young learners’ capacity to learn and strengthen and develop their brains. Expert teachers know children don’t come with a fixed intelligence but experience brain changes every step of the way while learning. They also know emotional resilience is key to overcoming challenges to learning (Horvath, 2019, Tillott et al., 2021).

Self-efficacy is necessary for a student to exert effort and persist in overcoming obstacles and setbacks to perform a task effectively. Self-efficacy can be increased by self-persuasion or persuasion by a significant other or incentives and rewards. (Kingsley and Grabner-Hagen, 2018, Dweck and Master, 2009). Developing motivational, and emotional goals increases student agency and teacher efficacy in providing feedback (Marshall, 2021, Stuckey, 2018, Mohammed and Ozdamli, 2021). The immediate post-pandemic era in education invites gamification of curriculum and animated pedagogical agents to support learning.

In conclusion, neuroscience in education is here to stay. Through partnering with experts and schools, educational design research and continuous review and improvement, ThinkPlus and Elevo Institute foster and share, in the lifelong learning mindset culture empowering our schools to excel creatively.


All welcome on this journey!



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