It’s good to talk

Written by: HTU | Published:

A meeting of neuroscientists and educators marked the launch of a national forum aiming to bring the two professions closer together to further research and improve the education of SEN children. Pete Henshaw was there

Neuroscientists and SEN teachers must work together much more closely to help develop and share teaching strategies and best practice.

This was the overarching message at the inaugural conference of the National Forum for Neuroscience in Special Education, which took place at London’s Institute of Psychiatry recently.

The event, attended by more than 100 educators and neuroscientists, saw Professor Uta Frith – world renowned for her work on neuro-developmental disorders including autism and dyslexia – unveiled as the Forum’s patron.

It was Prof Frith who had given impetus for the Forum’s creation last year when she said: “Education is concerned with enhancing learning and neuroscience is concerned with understanding the mechanisms of learning. It seems only logical that the one should inform the other.”

The Forum is being backed by The Schools Network – formerly the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust – and was founded by SEN expert and former headteacher Professor Barry Carpenter, Dr Rona Tutt, who has an OBE for her services to special education, and Francesca Happé, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at Kings College London.

In the opening address, Prof Carpenter said that the Forum is a platform for neuroscientists and teachers to engage in a dialogue in order to “enhance educational practice and to innovate”.

He said: “We are educating too many 21st century children with SEN with a 20th century toolkit. We do not have enough tools in that toolkit to meaningfully teach that child at its point of need.

“You could work your fingers to the bone as teachers and still not be ‘outstanding’ for some because we have still not understood the pedagogical style of some children that populate our schools.”

Prof Carpenter said modern issues such as increasing prematurity of birth have “rewritten the SEN registers”. He continued: “There is a resonance between the objectives and outcomes of neuroscience and our objectives as teachers in the classroom. We need the guidance of neuroscientists but we need that to be given in the language of teachers.”

Speaking to HTU during the day, Prof Carpenter emphasised that the Forum was a two-way dialogue – not just about scientists dictating to teachers.

He told us: “Teachers are asking about this new generation of children with complex learning needs and how they learn. I think some of these answers to the new generation of children rest outside of the traditional approach and I think neuroscience can be one of these reference points.

“As teachers we probably put ourselves down – in fact we know a lot. Neuroscientists can make all the wonderful discoveries in the world, but (they need) a teacher to put them into practice. We can be the conduit for that and feedback into the neuroscience.”

Prof Frith also addressed the event and emphasised the Royal Society’s Brainwaves reports and ongoing project work, which she said had recognised the need for stronger links between researchers and the education system to improve understanding of the implications for both neuroscience and education.

Prof Frith continued: “The brain is actually malleable. That is why special education is so effective. In (students with) learning difficulties the brain seems to have less plasticity. However, any learning changes the brain and the fact is that we always learn.”

Prof Frith echoed the call for educators and neuroscientists to work together. As a case in point, she quoted dopamine, a chemical in the brain that increases excitement or pleasure and is known to be boosted by reward-driven activities. Research has shown that dopamine reacts more to unexpected, rather than expected, rewards but Prof Frith said that to develop this research further, neuroscience needs input from teachers.

Elsewhere, Prof Frith referenced the work of Professor Daniel Kahnemann and his study of the two systems of the mind – a fast system to do with the emotional, intuitive, automatic functions and a slow system consisting of slow, deliberate actions that require effort. She explained: “It’s teaching that influences the slow system of the mind. Teachers have to know a little bit about the fast, automatic system and the rest of the brain, but really they can change the slow, important system.”

Also, Prof Frith suggested, neuroscience and teachers could work together to look at compensatory learning – such as how some dyslexics become successful readers while remaining dyslexic – or at issues like habit learning – why habits develop quickly but are hard to break.

On this last point, she added: “It’s one of these things where again we need your advice and experience about this practical type of learning that has to do with the fast system.”

Elsewhere at the event, HTU spoke to Prof Happé shortly before her address. The one neuroscientist among the three founders of the Forum, Prof Happé, said that neuroscientists were “very aware of what we can learn from teachers” and that teachers could help set the priorities for their research. She also said that mainstream as well as special education teachers had a part to play.

She explained: “Most children with SEN are in mainstream schools. We really need to get to talk to mainstream teachers – (who are) understanding and coping with really complex needs (in a situation) where the agenda is set by the majority of students.“We need to know what information is useful and we need to ask you questions to inform our knowledge and identify research priorities.”

Prof Happé also emphasised the role teachers could have in dispelling myths that some people have about certain conditions, such as ADHD.

She continued: “I think families could tell you how damaging it is to have someone tutting at you in the supermarket and saying all that child needs is a good slap when your child is lying on the floor screaming because their favourite cereal brand has new packaging.

“Teachers are a great force for communicating to families. They are on the frontline to explain the nature of the difficulties. Ignorance and fear are the enemies and teachers are vital to disseminating understanding.”

During her presentation, Prof Happé said that while much scientific research focused on large groups, teachers were perfectly placed to carry out single case research in collaboration with neuroscientists. She explained: “With a particular child you can decide that you want to find out how that child reacts to a change in your teaching practice. You need to measure a baseline and the same things through the intervention and for quite a time afterwards, but you can start doing it tomorrow and you can tailor it to the individual.”

For Prof Carpenter it was a comment made by Prof Frith during her presentation that summed up the Forum’s purpose: “I do not believe at all that just because something is biologically different we cannot do anything about it and I believe it’s only teachers who can do anything about it through education.”

Further information

The Forum aims to host an annual conference as well as regular seminars, the first of which will be hosted by Dr Tutt on July 4 in London. For details, email or contact 01902 796067.

For more on Prof Carpenter’s work in the area of complex SEN, visit

For more on the Royal Society Brainwaves project, visit

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