There’s no Magic Formula but the Science of Learning can help

About 6 years ago I became obsessed with finding some sort of magic formula of what a successful lesson plan should look like. I got into neuroscience trying to find answers to how our brains learn and what we should be doing as teachers to make learning more effective. But do you know that feeling you have deep down that the answer is going to disappoint you?

Eager to learn more about the brain at the University of Bristol

That’s exactly what happened in the first week of January. I had just returned from Switzerland where I’d spent New Years’ Eve with my aunt and cousin eager to attend the first lesson of Cognitive Neuroscience and Classroom Practice at the University of Bristol. My excitement was twofold. Firstly, because this unit seemed to have been tailormade for me and, secondly because the tutor was my brilliant professor Paul Howard-Jones. 

Then it happened. 

Halfway through the lesson, he said that we were not going to learn the magic formula that I had been seeking. He said that maybe, to be quite fair, all neuroscience can do is confirm what we’ve been doing all along and give us new insights into a couple of new things. 

I sort of knew it. To be fair, I had always known it and finally started looking at the beauty of it all. We have been doing the right things after all. For the better part, anyway. As John Hattie puts it: 

Nearly everything we do has some positive impact on students

John Hattie, 2012

Indeed, we can say that teachers have been teaching for millennia and students have been learning (some better, some worse). Despite disagreeing with Hattie (stay tuned for my next post explaining why), the impact that realization had on me was liberating. It confirmed a long-held suspicion of mine and allowed me to focus on the things that could have a positive impact on our students but we are not doing as much as we could in the classroom. 

That was when it hit me! The objective of my dissertation at the University of Bristol became crystal clear. I decided to conduct a thematic analysis on what authors have contributed to the Science of Learning regarding effective classroom strategies and devise a scale based on it to help teachers reflect.

More than 150 strategies later, all condensed into 6 themes that now contain around 30 classroom strategies that should work better according to the Science of Learning (neuroscience, psychology, and pedagogy play a huge role here), allow me to share some of the things that we are not using as often as we could that may have an enormously positive effect on students.

  1. Pretesting

Researchers have found a positive correlation between pretesting – applying a test at the beginning of the lesson – and performance. A quick quiz about the content that will be discussed in that particular lesson is likely to raise students’ awareness and curiosity about the subject and keep them more engaged to find out what they got wrong and why they got some things right (Kornell et al. 2009; Little & Bjork, 2016). It is also an effective way to activate students’ prior knowledge and, consequently, facilitate the learning process (Brod et al. 2013; Shing & Brod, 2016)

How to do it?

Right at the beginning of the lesson, use Kahoot, handouts, or flashcards to ask students questions about the content they are about to learn. Do not get them to work in pairs or groups at this stage. Working individually will most likely guarantee that everyone tries their best to retrieve the information they need to get the right answers and will not have their thought process interrupted by someone else. 

  1. Retrieval practice

Repeated retrieval of memory items increases declarative memory consolidation and improves students’ long-term learning (Karpicke, 2012; Dunlosky et al., 2013). Wirebring et al. (2015) have also demonstrated that the act of constantly retrieving information will create different representations of it in the brain and, therefore, make its retrieval more easily prompted.

How to do it?

After presenting new content, give students a couple of minutes to practice and then ask everyone to retrieve that knowledge individually before moving on to the next topic. This could be as simple as asking students to write down what they can remember, have understood, or reflect on that for 30 seconds or a minute before sharing it with someone or engaging in another activity. 

  1. Spaced repetition

For declarative memory to be consolidated in the brain, sleep is required.  Newly learned information stored in the hippocampus temporarily is replayed in the brain during sleep to make more representations and long-lasting memories (Maquet et al. 2000). Revising content only once after that lesson or doing homework on the same day might be a waste of cognitive resources as it would be more beneficial, based on the notions of spacing effect and memory consolidation, to revisit it the next day after sleeping and in future sessions (Henderson, Weighall, Brown, & Gaskell, 2012; Seehagen, Konrad, Herbert, & Schneider, 2015).

How to do it?

Create a revision timetable. Categorize the topic you’re teaching into codes (Lesson 1 Topic 1 – L1T1) and plan your future lessons with quick pop quizzes to help students revise. Start applying the quizzes a day after the content was introduced, then increase the distance between the last revision session and the next one. Try something like this:

L1T1 quiz in L2, L4, L10, and L15

L2T1 quiz in L3, L5, L11, and L16

You can also use the color-coded tags technique that you can access here.

Remember to assign homework to be done at least the next day after the content was introduced. 

  1. Brain breaks

Even though there is no consensus about how long we can focus, it probably lies somewhere between 10 and 30 minutes (Stuart & Rutherford, 1978;  Davis, 1993; McKeachie, 2006), and if we get more information than what our working memory can handle, generally between 2 and 9 chunks, we normally experience cognitive overload (Miller, 1956; Sweller, 1988; and Cowan, 2001). So, just like hitting the gym to work out, we should ideally apply focused effort (lifting weights) and then take a break (rest) between series. This will allow our brains to shift from the focused mode of thinking into the diffuse mode, which will start the consolidation process and free our working memory for more information (Oakley, 2014).

How to do it?

Get a Pomodoro timer or use one online and set the mark to 15, 20, or 25 minutes. Tell your students everyone is going to be working hard during that period and when the timer goes off, they will have a quick break (it could be 1, 2, 3, 4, or even 5 minutes). During that break, allow students to do whatever they choose: they can listen to music, they can watch a quick video, they can play a game, they can stand up and stretch, they can sit with someone else and talk about anything. The idea is to have them relax a little so that they can keep their attention span high and facilitate memory consolidation. You can read more about it here.

  1. Attitudes and beliefs about learning

Everything mentioned before can be very useful and important strategies, however, it might not mean much if our students do not believe in their potential to learn and, even worse, if we do not believe in our students’ potential to learn. Research on 1) growth mindset (Dweck, 2008); 2) metacognition (Karpicke et al. 2009; Dunlosky et al. 2013); 3) brain plasticity (Blackwell et al. 2007; Myers et al. 2016; Paunesku et al. 2015); and 4) self-efficacy (Bandura, 1997; Schunk et al., 2008) suggest they are great allies in any educational setting. Respectively, we can summarize them as 1) the idea that our intelligence is not fixed and can be improved through effort and constructive feedback; 2) “thinking about thinking” or “learning how to learn”, that is, using study strategies based on the Science of Learning; 3) the idea that the brain is changed by experience and that it can always learn; and 4) the quality of people who can successfully set, maintain, and achieve goals and expected outcomes.

How to do it?

Do not just focus on content. Promote the idea that effort and dedication are key if they want to be successful learners and acknowledge that. Take time from your lesson to teach your students facts about the brain and how it changes structurally when we learn. Tell them that there are better or more effective study strategies and teach them (you can start with the list I’m providing here). Help them organize their studies and set goals. You can use some concepts of strategic planning or project management. 

Use these strategies and tell me how it went. After all, there’s no magic formula. We need to be critical about our practice and remember that science is still making important discoveries.

If you want to read about about the contributions of SoL and how it can be used in your English classroom, check out this article I co-authored with Hall Houston.


Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York:W. H. Freeman.

Blackwell, L. A., Trzesniewski, K. H. and Dweck, C. S. 2007. Theories of intelligence and achievement across the junior high school transition: A longitudinal study and an intervention. Child Development, 78: 246–263. 

Brod, G., Werkle-Bergner, M., & Shing, Y. L. (2013). The influence of prior knowledge on memory: a developmental cognitive neuroscience perspective. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 7, 13. doi:10.3389/fnbeh.2013.00139

Cowan N. (2001) The magical number 4 in short-term memory: A reconsideration of mental storage capacity. Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 24:87–185

Davis BG. (1993) Tools for Teaching. San Franciso, CA: Jossey-Bass

Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013).  Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques:  Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology.  Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14, 4-58.

Dweck, C. S. (2008). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House Digital, Inc.

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. London: Routledge.

Henderson, L. M., Weighall, A. R., Brown, H., & Gaskell, M. G. (2012). Consolidation of vocabulary is associated with sleep in children. Developmental Science, 15, 674–687

Karpicke, J. D. (2012). Retrieval-based learning: Active retrieval promotes meaningful learning. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 21(3), 157-163

Karpicke, J. D., Butler, A. C., & Roediger III, H. L. (2009). Metacognitive strategies in student learning: do students practise retrieval when they study on their own?. Memory, 17(4), 471-479.

Kornell, N., Hays, M. J., & Bjork, R. A. (2009). Unsuccessful retrieval attempts enhance subsequent learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 35, 989–998

Little JL, Bjork EL. (2016) Multiple-choice pretesting potentiates learning of related information. Memory & Cognition.

Maquet, P., Laureys, S., Peigneux, P., Fuchs, S., Petiau, C., Phillips, C., . . . Cleeremans, A. (2000). Experience-dependent changes in cerebral activation during human rem sleep. Nature Neuroscience, 3(8), 831-6.

McKeachie WJ. (2006) Teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers. Boston: Hougton-Mifflin

Miller, G. A. (1956). The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psychological Review63 (2): 81–97

Myers, C. A., Wang, C., Black, J. M., Bugescu, N., & Hoeft, F. (2016). The matter of motivation: Striatal resting-state connectivity is dissociable between grit and growth mindset. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience, 11(10), 1521-1527.

Oakley BA. (2014). A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even if you Flunked Algebra). New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin

Paunesku, D., Walton, G. M., Romero, C., Smith, E. N., Yeager, D. S., & Dweck, C. S. (2015). Mind-set interventions are a scalable treatment for academic underachievement. Psychological science, 26(6), 784-793.

Seehagen, S., Konrad, C., Herbert, J. S., & Schneider, S. (2015). Timely sleep facilitates declarative memory consolidation in infants. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 112, 1625–1629

Shing, Y., & Brod, G. (2016). Effects of prior knowledge on memory: Implications for education. Mind, Brain, and Education, 10(3), 153-161.

Schunk D. H., Pintrich P. R., Meece J. L. (2008). Motivation in Education: Theory, Research and Applications, 3rd Edn., Upper saddle River, NJ: Merrill-Prentice Hall 

Stuart J, Rutherford RJ. (1978) Medical Student Concentration during Lectures. Lancet 312: 514 –516

Sweller, J. (1988), Cognitive Load During Problem Solving: Effects on Learning. Cognitive Science, 12: 257–285

Tokuhama-Espinosa, T. (2014). Making classrooms better: 50 practical applications of mind, brain, and education science. First Edition. New York: W.W Norton & Company.

Wirebring, L. K., Wiklund-Hörnqvist, C., Eriksson, J., Andersson, M., Jonsson, B., & Nyberg, L. (2015). Lesser neural pattern similarity across repeated tests is associated with better long-term memory retention. The Journal of Neuroscience, 35(26)

Learning Cosmos: A Conceptual Framework to Understand your Learner’s Universe

I feel incredibly accomplished. Yesterday, as I was checking my email, I noticed I had a package waiting for me. It had been delivered by Livraria Disal and I knew exactly what it was. As a matter of fact, I had been anxiously expecting that email and that package. The package had 5 printed samples of the latest issue of New Routes Magazine. I was so excited that I couldn’t even wait to get back to my apartment to open it. That moment was the realization of an achievement I’m very proud of and eager to share. After many months, as a result of years of exploring neuroscience and psychology, I was honored to introduce people to my Learning Cosmos Conceptual Framework which made the cover of New Routes #74. You have no idea how proud I am of sharing this with you.

Isn’t the cover beautiful?

Allow me to tell you why I believe you should learn about this framework and what inspired me to create it.

From the Big Bang to the Solar System

It started in my childhood, when I noticed I tried to make connections. My mind was always wandering, looking for something to explore, like those probes sent to other planets or astronauts on a space voyage. I was the weird kid, the geek. I was into sci-fi, video games, dinossaurs (who wasn’t?), and, particularly, the universe. It made me wonder. I suppose I wanted to understand how it worked and how it affected us.

Science became one of my major interests in life. I thought I wanted to be a doctor when I was a teenager because I loved watching ER and seeing how those doctors understood the human body. I was wrong about the profession but right about something else, something I like till today: the process of inquiry; the scientific method. But it was more than that. I asked questions that science couldn’t answer as well. I knew some things were simply impossible to test (at least now). Then another interest grew in me and the Greeks had already chosen a very suitable name for it: love of wisdom aka philosophy. I love asking questions. ‘What if we did it like this?’ or ‘What would happen if we changed that?’

Not knowing exactly what I wanted to pursue in life, I ended up studying International Relations. I learned about how sovereign states interacted in the global arena and how issues related to economy, politics, law, human rights, and military power influenced their decisions. It certainly taught me a lot and gave me a different perspective about life and people in general. At the same time, I knew I didn’t want to specialize in that field. I started a master’s course in Political Science but came to terms with the idea that I wanted to work in education, which confirmed something I had been doing for over 10 years at the time and I was reluctant to admit.

After that realization, my interest in Neuroscience grew stronger. I knew I needed to understand how the brain works and get the proper credentials to talk about it to other professionals in education. I joined the BRAZ-TESOL Mind, Brain, and Education (MBE) SIG, which inspired me to get qualification in the area and led me to my master’s course in Psychology of Education at the University of Bristol. My MSc in Bristol opened my eyes to an amazing and often hidden world of how our brain and our mind function. I always thought I could help teachers understand that universe of learning principles somehow and that feeling even influenced the topic of my dissertation, which looked at effective classroom strategies based on MBE. All of this brought me to my Learning Cosmos framework.

What is the Learning Cosmos?

I truly believe that the Learning Cosmos Conceptual Framework is possibly the most important work I’ll ever do in my life and I intend to keep developing it. It’s an illustration that condenses many learning principles based on cognitive psychology and neuroscience into levels of influence from the cognitive to the environmental (going through emotional, attitudes & beliefs, motivational, and learning design). It contains concentric spheres, which were inspired by Urie Bronfenbrenner’s (1992) Ecological Systems Theory, and it uses a powerful analogy to help teachers understand it: the universe.

Think about it for a second. If we consider the multitude of principles, theories and frameworks that address learning, we can compare it to the expanding universe. Different spheres, each one influencing the others. The objective of this article is to design a Learning Cosmos diagram based on what learning entails. My hope is that this Learning Cosmos can help students, teachers, schools, families, and policymakers admire and reflect on the amazing universe surrounding our learners

André Hedlund, Learning Cosmos

It took me some time to come up with the name Learning Cosmos. I knew from the beginning that I needed something special for the cover of New Routes and that I wanted to include as much about learning as I possibly could. I suppose that was the natural next step after my text for New Routes #72, Teaching Mind and Brain: Contributions of the Science of Learning

My text in New Routes #72

When I look at the creation process, how many sketches I made, and the end result, I feel a wonderful sense of accomplishment. It was really the culmination of all those years and experiences. These things are never really created overnight. I make a point of sharing this because I want you to be inspired and, who knows, even feel motivated to get some of your old projects done. Even when I thought I knew exactly what I wanted, I struggled. Look at how the whole thing evolved:

It took me several emails with different suggestions to make it just right. I had to think of the common thread connecting all those theories and how I’d call them. I even had to draw the whole thing on a wall with chalk to understand how I could make it all fit.

I have to admit, though, that I couldn’t be happier with the result of my interaction with Jack Scholes, New Routes Editor, the whole team who helped me at Disal, and Carol Di Mauro and her team at BrandBox, for capturing the essence of this concept and making my vision a reality. Can you imagine how I felt when I first got this in my email? I literally had tears in my eyes. I was looking at a vision I had inside my head. It was real now and it was out for everyone to see.

Where did I get the inspiration?

My main source of inspiration

It was one of those days that you’re just looking for something interesting to read. I had many new books on my shelf but the one that really stood out was my copy of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time (illustrated and expanded as you can see). I had already read it but the cover was so compelling that I couldn’t resist. I may have been influence by something else, which probably gave me the final push. It was National Geographic’s remake of Cosmos, the amazing show about the universe and science presented by Carl Sagan a few decades ago. The new host, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, has most certainly confirmed and intensified my love for science and the mysteries of the universe.

These two brilliant scientists, Hawking and Sagan, taught me things so fascinating that I think I wanted to honor them somehow. Not only did they broaden my horizons to the wonders of science, but they also did it in such an elegant way using a powerful learning tool that deserves our attention. I’m talking about analogies. When Hawking explains in his book the concept of an expanding universe using a black balloon with white dots on the surface and how these dots move apart as blow air into the balloon or when Sagan uses a map to show us how Erastothenes was able to calculate our planet’s circumference thousands of years ago by measuring the shadow cast by different objects and the distance between two locations on an episode of Cosmos, I mean, WOW! That’s simply mindblowing to me.

Look at the incredible design

So I chose to use an analogy that made sense. I suppose I joined my passion for the universe and how intriguing it can be as we’re always finding out new things as we explore further and further. Here are a few examples of how I used this analogy:

Earth has the perfect conditions to be teeming with life. Its interaction with the sun and other planets in the solar system as well as its location have made our planet special and allowed it to support life in all its beauty and forms. This is exactly how we should think of our learners’ experience. We need to provide them with the best possible conditions so that the design of our lessons allows them to flourish. Let’s call this sphere Learning Design

André Hedlund, Learning Cosmos

The interstellar level is about other stars and planets in our galaxy. Our Milky Way contains anywhere between 100 and 400 billion stars and it would take anyone trying to cross its diameter 100 thousand years at the speed of light. If we could take a picture of it, it would look like a spiral rotating around a massive black hole, a giant vortex that sucks everything that gets too close (including light). The interaction of all these elements form our context and resources, just like what we see when we think of our schools, their infrastructure, and mindset/policy

André Hedlund, Learning Cosmos

The premise here is that just like the universe, we can choose to focus on different levels of analysis when we look at learning. We can look at how our planet offers conditions to support life and focus on that but we mustn’t forget that these conditions are the result of a very intricate relationship that involves our planet, our solar system, our galaxy, and many of the objects contained within our universe. It depends on gravity, matter, dark matter, radiation, light, space and time. Similarly, we can focus on our student’s attention and memory, learn how they work and what we can do to help them, but we cannot forget that our students are whole. Their emotions are intrinsically connected to their cognition and those two are affected by their levels of motivation, what they believe about learning and their capabilities, and even their school’s approach to teaching. They are indeed but a small, however precious, part of this amazing universe.

What can you use the Learning Cosmos for?

I suppose the simplest answer is: to learn about learning according to the scientific literature on the topic. I’m not saying I was able to cover every possible principle and theory but I do think I got the major ones that I believe educators should know about. It’s also an invitation. An invitation to explore those principles and dig deeper. I’d love to think that one of the concepts in the Learning Cosmos could trigger a domino effect and send you on a quest to discover new things about learning, very much like Alice in Wonderland or Cooper, Brand, Doyle, and Romilly in Interstellar by Christopher Nola.

Let’s say you would like to know more about cognition. You’ll realize that I only covered attention, engagement, feedback, and consolidation (Howard-Jones et al. 2018, Dehaene, 2020). I know, however, that cognition relates to reasoning, judging, use of language, perception, and the like. You could start reading something about these concepts that I left out and, who knows, even apply what you learn about them to change something you do in the classroom. Or perhaps you’d like to start from the emotional level and realize that I mentioned emotion regulation (Gross & Thompson, 2007) but I left out self-regulation. Those two constructs are intimately connected and they are also related to emotional intelligence (Goleman, 1995), which I included. What I’m trying to say is that the framework encourages you to look further as well as find connections to things you might already know.

You can watch my interview for Dr. Brenda Owobu-Reosti about the Learning Cosmos

I believe the Learning Cosmos can be a great tool if used wisely as stated below:

Think of the Learning Cosmos as a useful guide that could work as a reflective tool for you to assess why learning might not be taking place. Its purpose is to allow you to ask whether the problem is on, let’s say, the emotional sphere or the cognitive one (or likely both). It may encourage you to consider all these authors and theories the next time you want to work on your professional development or when you plan and deliver your next lesson.

André Hedlund, Learning Cosmos

Be it as it may, the Learning Cosmos is my attempt to make the scientific literature about learning more accessible as I bring all of those fundamental elements about learning together in one illustration. I need to emphasize that the real work was done by all those scientists and authors who published their papers and books. My task was only to connect it all for you to use it as a guide.

My intention is to help teachers, parents, students, educators in general, and even policymakers to understand how beautiful and complex learning is. I want them to look at learning with awe and wonder. I want them to learn as much as they can about learning from multiple perspectives so that they talk about it and provide more effective solutions that will help our students achieve more positive learning outcomes. Let’s look beyond attention and memory, let’s embrace other spheres of influence and make an impact on education.

If you want to know more about the Learning Cosmos Framework, check out the link below and stay tuned. I’ll explore each sphere in the coming blog posts to give you practical ideas on how to work with those principles. Next, we’ll talk about the cognitive sphere.

I’d like to dedicate this to my parents, particularly my dad who ignited this love for science in me and who sadly passed away in 2019. I wish you were here, dad. Also my mom who’s always encouraged me to explore and be whatever I wanted to be. To my wife Cris for inspiring me and helping me aim for the stars. To all my friends and acquaintances who learned something from me or taught me something, especially Mirela Ramacciotti for introducing me to MBE.

I truly hope you liked it and that I was able to share (at least a little bit) how passionate I am about this and how much I want to contribute. Do share with friends and let me know your thoughts


Bronfenbrenner, U. (1992). Ecological systems theory. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Dehaene, S. (2020). How We Learn: Why Brains Learn Better Than Any Machine… for Now. Penguin.

Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional intelligence. Bantam Books, Inc.

Gross, J.J. & Thompson, Ross. (2007). Emotion Regulation: Conceptual Foundations. Handbook of Emotion Regulation. 3-27. 

Howard-Jones, P., Ioannou, K., Bailey, R., Prior, J., Yau, S. H., & Jay, T. (2018). Applying the science of learning in the classroom. Profession, 18, 19.

Hawking, S. (1996). The Illustrated A brief history of time.

Metacognition and Learning: What can the Renaissance teach us about how to learn best?

The narrative

It was a terribly cold day in April 2019 and I was incredibly frustrated at my failed attempt to drive for the very first time in the UK. About 10 minutes after I had picked up the car and started driving, I had a minor accident that knocked my left wind mirror off in a very stupid way. To defend myself, I was just getting used to driving on the left side of the road and a big white van was parked on the sidewalk. Since my brain was only getting adjusted to this rather challenging cognitive task, I couldn’t really tell how close I was when it happened. That van shouldn’t really be there.

I put the past behind me and enjoyed the rest of my journey to Liverpool where not only was I going to visit the city of one of my favorite bands, but I was also attending the IATEFL conference for the first time too. Right at the entrance, I bumped into the wonderful Vinnie Nobre, a reference in ELT and one of the founders of Troika, an educational consultancy based in São Paulo. I congratulated him for the enormous success and after talking and watching a few sessions together, he invited me to teach a course at Troika when I returned from my master’s course. I was certainly thrilled, no doubt, and I really wanted to offer a course that would help teachers reflect on their practice.

From coming back to Brazil to getting in touch with Troika and working out the details of the course, considering it all happened in the middle of the pandemic, it took around a year for me to actually teach it. But all the process helped me fine-tune my idea and create possibly one of the most interesting courses I’ve ever taught in my life.

I chose a topic I had been studying for a while and that I felt would make a difference: metacognition. This is the poster Troika designed for my course and I have to admit I simply loved it. They gave me, perhaps unintentionally, the perfect narrative for the course. That narrative was the Renaissance.

May be an image of 1 person
Troika’s poster of my course

I was inspired by the works of Titian, Michelangelo, Botticelli, Rafael, Michelino and, especially, Da Vinci to create the slides of my course, which made reference to the cultural revival expressed through the art and science represented in the Vitruvian Man and in the perfection of Leonardo’s sketches.

The Renaissance was about questioning the status quo and learning about how things worked, particularly the human body, in order to create the most perfect depictions of the human figure on canvas, paper, stone or marble. It was about observation, questioning, and experimentation of different techniques and paradigms.


You might be wondering what the Renaissance has to do with the idea of metacognition. Before we can establish their relationship, let’s understand the term metacognition, which will require us to first think about the word cognition. According to the Free Online Dicitionary:

the mental process of knowledge, including aspects such as awareness, perception, reasoning and judgment

what becomes known through perception, reasoning or intuition; knowledge

Free Online Dictionary

A more technical definition is offered by the American Psychological Association:

Attention, use of language, memory, perception, problem solving, creativity and thinking

American Psychological Association

If we think about our language classes at school, we might remember that the prefix meta comes from the Greek and it means beyond or transcending and it’s usually employed to give us the idea of the category within the category. That means that metalanguage is the language of language and metadata means the data about data. In that case, metacognition means the cognition of or about cognition. Since cognition is the object of study for many researchers concerned with our thought processes and how we learn, metacognition has been popularly referred to as thinking about thinking or learning how to learn.

Going back in time a few decades, we find out that the term metacognition was coined and popularized by American psychologist John Flavell. In his 1976 work, he describes metacognition as:

knowledge about one’s own COGNITIVE PROCESSES. Ability to CONTROL, ORGANIZE, MONITOR, ADAPT and REFLECT on one’s own thoughts

John Flavell (1976)

Notice the keywords. Metacognition involves not just learning things but questioning whether the way we learn is the best or most appropriate and regulating how we study. Its main question is:

Is there a more effective way to learn this?

In order to answer that question, Flavell discusses three categories of metacognition

  1. Metacognitive Knowledge
  2. Metacognitive Experiences
  3. Metacognitive Control Strategies

The first one refers to the knowledge people have about themselves and others as well as tasks and strategies. Let’s say someone wants to learn how to play the violin. If they have metacognitive knowledge, they’re aware that people who learn how to play the violin need to have access to the instrument, an adequate place to study (a quiet studio for instance), the ability to read sheet music, a varied routine of exercises with lots of repetition and so on. The learner must also understand how people can learn music and how to play an instrument, that is, some basic universal principles of learning that particular skill, which is quite different from learning something like History. A metacognitive learner should also know how their teacher works and what they expect and, mainly, what works best for themselves. Perhaps they can only practice the violin at night when it’s quiet or maybe they consider themselves an early bird and prefer to do it in the morning.

Brown (1978, 1987); Flavell (1976, 1979)

The second and the third one fall under the category of metacognitive regulation (see image above). They’re about knowing which strategies work best and how to use them to achieve the desired result. That means that only possessing the knowledge of how to play the violin will not make anyone learn it if they are unable to plan their study, engage with the activities and stay on task, and assess whether it is working or not. A metacognitive learner is able to make the necessary adjustments to the process in order to reach the desired outcome. Let’s say our violin student realizes that they can’t practice at night because they’re disturbing their neighbors. They’ll have to either find another time or another place to practice because they understand its importance. They might even make the room where they practice soundproof or purchase an electric violin with an amplifier so that they can hear themselves play through headphones. A metacognitive learner develops regulation mechanisms to make sure they accomplish the tasks they are supposed to and evaluate what needs to be changed.

Metacognitive Cycle (Ambrose et al. 2010)

Ambrose et al. (2010) offer an insightful framework to help us become more metacognitive. In this metacognitive cycle, the first step is to evaluate the task at hand. What many learners do quite often when writing an essay or working on a project for instance is making assumptions and jumping to conclusions. They sometimes don’t read or understand the instructions and overdo the task or don’t do enough. Evaluating the task and what is asked is paramount if they want to be successful. The next step is to conduct a fair assessment of one’s strengths and weaknesses. Students who cannot successfully assess that, can over- or underestimate their abilities and not plan enough time to accomplish the task.

Then comes the approach stage. Different tasks require different approaches and depending on how much time learners have, they might waste too much of it on ineffective or even useless strategies or simply not allocate enough of it to get things done. Students may often just skip this planning stage and go straight to the task without really understanding how they accomplish it the best way they can. Moreover, it’s important to keep track of the most suited strategies according to the task and make sure it all becomes part of the learning routine. Simply thinking about these strategies and not applying them won’t generate positive outcomes.

The final stage is perhaps the most important for metacognitive learners. It’s the stage of reflection and it allows learners to evaluate whether all the other stages were done properly and what worked and what didn’t. Reflecting on the learning process can be quite painful but it can tell us a lot about what might not be working and what would take to change things. Here are some questions that might help:

  1. Was my plan adequate/realistic?
  2. Did I allocate enough time to accomplish the task?
  3. Was I committed/focused when I did the task?
  4. Did I have access to the right materials/resources?
  5. Did I seek help when I didn’t know what to do?
  6. Did I make the proper adjustments when things didn’t work out?

The question then is:

Does being a metacognitive learner pay off?

The research suggests that it does. As a matter of fact, a paper by Zulkiply (2009) summarizes many of the findings of other studies and states that:

recent research has revealed the significance of metacognitive awareness in learning. For instance, learners who score high on measures of metacognition are more strategic, more likely to use problem-solving heuristics, better at predicting their test scores, and generally outperform learners who score low on metacognitive measures. Metacognition has been shown to predict learning performance. Learners who are metacognitively aware know what to do when they don’t know what to do; that is, they have strategies for finding out or figuring out what they need to do. More importantly, research has demonstrated the value of metacognition in predicting academic achievement. For example, greater metacognitive ability has been linked to grade point average, math achievement, and reading skill. In addition to this, studies explicitly show that metacognitive skills play an important role in effective learning that leads to academic success, and that academically achieving students are better on metacognitive measures

Zulkiply (2009)

Da Vinci: a man ahead of his time

When I think of all the things Leonardo Da Vinci created, it simply makes me admire his vision even more. He was undoubtedly a man ahead of his time. And to think that many of his sketches of the human body are still used in medical schools today for their incredible degree of precision. Da Vinci used to go to underground morgues to study human anatomy. Can you imagine what a terrible hobby that was? Spending hours in the dark surrounded by putrid and stinky corpses lit by candles while he drew the most perfect lines. It sure wasn’t easy but his curiosity kept him going.

Human anatomy, by Leonardo Da Vinci (1509-1510) "At a time in history when  few people had methodical… | Human anatomy drawing, Anatomy sketches,  Anatomy for artists
Da Vinci’s sketches of the human body. Retrieved from pinterest

Da Vinci was certainly the epitome of mastery and talent and is revered until today for his incredible contribution. I think he is the perfect illustration (no pun intended) of a metacognitive learner. He not only drew beautiful sketches and painted amazing canvases, but he also designed machines and ingenious devices that were way ahead of his time. A good example is his obsession with flying and how his early 15th-century designs of flying machines are remarkably similar to modern gliders and helicopters (which were invented more than 400 years later).

Leonardo da Vinci - Drawing | Da vinci sketches, Da vinci inventions, Leonardo  da vinci
Da Vinci’s flying machines. Retrieved from pinterest

Naturally, we can say that other Renaissance artists were experimenting on different things, trying new techniques and thinking outside the box. Michelangelo was definitely quite metacognitive when he had to come up with a plan to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Can you imagine how daunting the task was? Michelangelo not only pulled it off magnificently but he also created one of the most fascinating and beautiful works of art the world will ever see. But Da Vinci’s legacy and record really deserve special attention. They give us a glimpse of what this man did and how he thought. He was a questioner, a problem solver and a scientist at heart.

His most famous painting also gives us the perfect illustration of what metacognitive should not be about: procrastination. It is said that Da Vinci spent around 12 years to paint the lips of probably the most enigmatic smiles in the art history: The Mona Lisa. It might have been so because of procrastination or Leonardo’s obsession with getting the smile just right or even a hand paralysis he suffered from. Be it as it may, this interesting mystery gives us some insight into how some things might take a lot longer than what we might expect.

My car accident and Final Thoughts

Da Vinci’s designs and schemes did not have as great an impact on the society he lived in because they were exclusive then and forgotten for a long time. His inventions could have created unimaginable technological advances in his time. The idea of joining science and arts to create amazing work and to rethink the status quo is evident in Da Vinci’s work. His curiosity and obsession to try different things and really think outside the box, analyzing not only the object of his art but mainly how he created his art are more than enough proof of his metacognitive personality.

I wonder now if I was any metacognitive when I picked up the car to drive to Liverpool. The answer is probably no but I did try something new. I certainly watched videos of people telling their experience of driving on the other side of the road. I imagined myself doing it a couple of times before I got the car. I wrote down a few things to make sure I wouldn’t forget them. I definitely drove around a few times to get more confidence while performing the task. But none of those things prevented me from having a minor accident. I hadn’t anticipated that a large van could be parked on the sidewalk for maintenance and the rest is history. Perhaps, if I had thought of that variable and had practiced a little more before driving around 3 hours from Bristol to Liverpool, I would have done better.

In Liverpool, before attending IATEFL’s first day of sessions, as a big Beatles fan, I decided to visit the Cavern Club where the four lads used to play. They were also a metacognitive bunch, weren’t they? Their musical legacy is so rich and innovative that they’re actually a great example of metacognition. The Beatles spent quite a lot of years recording in studio some of the most unusual sounds anyone had listened to because they constantly asked themselves if there were better or more effective ways to accomplish what they wanted. And look at what they gifted the world with!

If you are a teacher working with different subject areas or teaching English in a bilingual context, get inspired by the amazing artists of the Renaissance like Da Vinci, musicians such as The Beatles, or other incredible people who were not afraid to question things. People who understood the object of their work so well that they were able to create new paradigms and invent new techniques. We don’t have to be as brilliant as they were, but it will certainly be good enough for us to learn how learn more effectively.

Around a couple of months after my minor accident, my wife, her sister, and our nephew came to visit me in the UK. We rented a car to drive from London to Rochester, then Brighton, Salisbury, Bristol, Cardiff and back to Bristol. I certainly learned my lesson as I didn’t cause any accidents that time. The irony, though, is that someone hit our back bumper on the way to Stonehenge although I was driving quite comfortably and confidently. I can tell you one thing: it was certainly not my fault.

The lesson here I suppose is that even though metacognition can help you achieve your learning goals and improve your performance, you still can’t control all the variables. After all, accidents do happen.

But the most important lesson I want to leave you all with is the following: being metacognitive requires us to understand a little bit about cognition and how we learn so that we can base our strategies on research and make better informed decisions about which strategies might work more effectively. If we don’t do that, we might cause minor accidents along the way like the one I had. My bias of many years driving on the right side of the road made me misjudge the distance I was driving from the sidewalk. After that mistake, I realized I had to compensate for my bias and really monitor what I was doing. My accident made me more metacognitive and it may have prevented another accident.


Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. John Wiley & Sons.

Brown, A.L. (1978). Knowing when, where and how to remember: A problem of metacognition. In R. Glaser (Ed.), Advances in instructional psychology ,Vol.1 (pp. 77-165). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum

Brown, A. L. (1987). Metacognition, executive control, self-regulation, and other more mysterious mechanisms. In F. E. Weinert & R. H. Kluwe (Eds.), Metacognition, motivation, and understanding (pp. 65-116). Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates

Flavell, J. H. (1979). Metacognition and cognitive monitoring: A new area of cognitive-developmental inquiry. American Psychologist, 34, 906 – 911

Roediger, H. L. I., & Karpicke, J. D. (2006). Test-enhanced learning: Taking memory tests improves long-term retention. Psychological Science, 17, 249–255.

Weinstein, Y., Madan, C. R., & Sumeracki, M. A. (2018). Teaching the science of learning. Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications, 3(1), 2.

Zulkiply, N. (2009). Metacognition and its relationship with students’ academic performance. The International Journal of Learning15(11), 97-106.

The Origins of Mind, Brain, and Education and its Relation to ELT

There has been quite a lot of buzz around the idea of joining neuroscience and education. Many would claim that neuroscientific contributions have the potential to revolutionise how teachers teach and the impact they have on their learners’ outcomes. I myself have said that on many occasions. However, I currently believe that many of the things effective teachers do are already grounded in evidence (whether they know it or not) and other things might not be in their hands. There is, of course, room for adding a few classroom practices that might yield better results. Let’s take a look at how neuroscience made its way into education, how the science of Mind, Brain, and Education emerged, and what that means for ELT.

Neuroscience applied to education

It was only quite recently, however, that neuroscience became popular in educational debates and started to be referred to as a source of valuable knowledge that could have important implications for learning and, consequently, classroom practice (OECD, 2002; Ansari & Coch, 2006; Howard-Jones, 2010; Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2014). With the quick advancements in neuroimaging studies and the increased number of publications in the field of cognitive neuroscience in the 1990s, many “brain-based” educational forums, workshops, and programmes started to emerge (Ansari & Coch, 2006, Howard-Jones, 2010, Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2014).

On one hand, concerns of how dangerous it could be to try to connect neuroscience knowledge and education were being voiced, particularly after the publication of Education and the brain: a bridge too far (Bruer, 1997). Bruer illustrates the concerns by pointing out that neuroscience and education had so little in common that joining them would be an infeasible task. On the other hand, the pursuit of narrowing this bridge continued and an important landmark happened in 1999, when the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)’s Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI) inaugurated the Learning Sciences and Brain Research project with two main objectives: to understand “a) how the brain processes information, and b) learning processes over the individual’s lifecycle” (OECD, 2007).

In 2000, the United Kingdom launched the Teaching and Learning Research Project (TLRP), one of the biggest and most expensive initiatives with the objective of promoting educational research on how to improve students’ outcomes and what impacts teaching. The endeavour involved hundreds of researchers over the course of a decade who collaborated in 90 projects, including how neuroscience could be applied in education (Blakemore & Frith, 2005; James & Pollard, 2011). TLRP’s outcomes have been widely disseminated in educational settings. They include several publications based on evidence from the projects, including two book series on how to improve learning and teaching, as well as a summarised list of ten principles as shown in the table below (James & Pollard, 2011; TLRP, 2015).

Ten principles of effective teaching and learning proposed by the Teaching and Learning Research Project (TLRP)

1. Effective pedagogy equips learners for life in its broadest sense.
2. Effective pedagogy engages with valued forms of knowledge
3. Effective pedagogy recognises the importance of prior experience and learning
4. Effective pedagogy requires learning to be scaffolded
5. Effective pedagogy needs assessment to be congruent with learning
6. Effective pedagogy promotes the active engagement of the learner
7. Effective pedagogy fosters both individual and social processes and outcomes
8. Effective pedagogy recognises the significance of informal learning
9. Effective pedagogy depends on the learning of all those who support the learning of others
10. Effective pedagogy demands consistent policy frameworks with support for learning as their primary focus
Source: TLRP (2015)

The OECD Report and Neuromyths

It is important to mention that in 2002, a report entitled Understanding The Brain: Towards a New Learning Science was published by OECD. This report brought together the discussions that had taken place in three different international forums about child, adolescent, and adult learning, some essential knowledge on neuroanatomy and brain function, including neuromyths, as well as how it all related to education and educational contexts (OECD, 2002).

It’s important to stress here that a neuromyth is a false claim or a wrong and widely held belief about how the brain works. The term was coined in OECD’s Understanding the Brain report (OECD, 2002). Some examples discussed in the report are the idea of a left-brain versus right-brain dominance, the notion that humans only use 10% of their brains, the concept that learning two languages at a time is harmful for kids (OECD, 2002)

The main contributions of this report, besides the call for dispelling neuromyths, were: a) the idea of neuroplasticity, that is, the brain’s capacity to learn and change as a consequence of learning; b) the crucial role of emotions and the environment in learning; c) a better understanding of underlying language acquisition and processing mechanisms; and d) a better understanding of underlying numeracy processes.

The end of this relevant report brought pertinent ethical considerations, such as the caution to avoid using neuroscience as a determinant of good teachers based on their impact on students’ brain, and the concern with the utilisation of brain imaging technology for commercial purposes (identifying students with certain brain patterns and labelling them, for instance) as well as the use of products that affect the brain (drugs) and how brain and technology can or should be integrated.

The report’s main conclusions and recommended future agenda included the recognition of neuroscience and its potential to inform practice and policy; the evidence for the importance of lifelong learning; the need for neuroscience-informed curricula and a better understanding of adolescents’ brains, dyslexia, dyscalculia, and dementia; the need for a more holistic and personalised teaching approach (regarding emotional regulation and differentiation as importantly as memorisation);  and the birth of a learning science based on transdisciplinarity. OECD’s project Learning Sciences and Brain Research moved to its second phase focusing on literacy, numeracy, and lifelong learning (OECD, 2007).

The beginning of Mind, Brain, and Education (MBE)

It is worth mentioning that the idea of joining the perspectives from neuroscience, psychology, and education (transdisciplinary approach), can have different labels, such as Educational Neuroscience, NeuroeducationEducational Psychology, Cognitive Neuroscience, Cognitive Neuropsychology, Brain-based Education, Neuroconstructivism, and Science of Learning (SoL) (Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2014, Weinstein et al. 2018). A possible implication of this great variability is that these areas do not communicate well as they have slightly different focuses and standardisation of their findings may be difficult.

Other important developments in the pursuit of joining neuroscience and education were the creation of Harvard Graduate School of Education’s  Mind, Brain, and Education masters course in 2002, the MBE course at the University of Arlington Texas in 2005, the inauguration of the Cambridge Centre for Neuroscience and Education in 2005, and the launch of the Journal Mind, Brain, and Education by the International Mind, Brain, and Education Society (IMBES) in 2007, whose main objectives are to facilitate cross-cultural and transdisciplinary collaboration between cognitive sciences and education in addition to creating useful and applicable resources for teachers by identifying sound scientific information and promoting effective educational practices (IMBES, 2018).

From 2002 onwards, MBE became increasingly more propagated. MBE books, articles and more programmes surfaced, as illustrated by two best-selling books Applying Mind, Brain, and Education Science in the Classroom (Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2010) and Mind, Brain, and Education Science: a Comprehensive Guide to the new Brain-based Teaching (Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2011). The role of MBE started being discussed in journals (Ansari & Coch 2006;  Fischer 2009; Ferrari & McBride 2011). Moreover, universities such as Johns Hopkins, University of Bristol, Dartmouth, UPenn started offering master’s courses and/or units in this new subject (Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2014; Ferrari & McBride, 2011). 

MBE’s goal is to bring together contributions from education and cognitives sciences (psychology and neuroscience) to inform teachers, school managers, and policymakers according to the latest evidence on how people learn and how that relates to classroom practice. This goal involves debunking neuromyths as they may have negatives consequences for students’ learning outcomes (Fischer, 2009; Dekker et al., 2012; Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2014). MBE does not make the assumption that any area is better in its own right than all of them together.

Disciplines and Subdisciplines in Mind, Brain, and Education Science
Source: Tokuhama-Espinosa (2011, p. 15)

The big goals of MBE revolve around research, practice, and policy. Research aims at providing information on mind and brain mechanisms, as well as biological aspects of the body and human behaviour, including those that come from social context (as socioeconomic factors and culture) in order to provide sound information on how humans learn in a holistic way. Practice aims at connecting the information provided by research and apply the new knowledge in real learning situations, particularly the classroom. Its objective is to inform and be informed by teaching practices. Policy is concerned with how neuroscientifically substantiated beliefs can translate into frameworks, governmental programmes, and private initiatives to influence the macrolevel of education (Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2014).

What does that have to do with ELT?

MBE has important knowledge and reflections for educators teaching any subject area or language. The rationale is to simplify, without oversimplifying, the evidence that can be useful in teaching practice and help students learn more effectively. The main principles of MBE are  (Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2010):

1) Each brain is unique and uniquely organized. Human brains are as unique as faces; 

2) All brains are not equal because context and ability influence learning; 

3) The brain is changed by experience; 

4) The brain is highly plastic; 

5) The brain connects new information to old

Eric Kandel, neuroscientist who won a Nobel Prize, lends another principle:

Learning requires attention and memory

Eric Kandel

These 6 priciples, although quite general, tell us that things like personalisation and differentiation, prior knowledge, and active learning, as well as emotions, beliefs and attitudes about learning are key. Nothing particularly revolutionary so far. 

Watch my webinar on MBE

MBE uses an inquiry-based approach that goes something like this: it looks at a particular classroom practice and asks: is there a theory in psychology that might explain why this is positive for learning? If there is, then the question becomes: is there neuroscientific evidence to support this? If the answer is yes, then we might want to keep doing it. If the answer from both psychology, neuroscience (and educational practice) is no, we might want to revisit the concept and try a different approach. 

MBE’s greatest objective is to fight neuromyths. Here’s an illustration: the learning styles theory. According to Paul Howard-Jones (2014, p. 1, 2):

The implicit assumption seems to be that, because different regions of the cortex have crucial roles in visual, auditory and sensory processing, learners should receive information in visual, auditory or kinaesthetic forms according to which part of their brain works better. The brain’s interconnectivity makes such an assumption unsound, and reviews of educational literature and controlled laboratory studies fail to support this approach to teaching.

Paul Howard-Jones

That means that, as ELT teachers, we should rethink the idea of labelling students according to their learning preferences since we have robust evidence that a multifaceted approach to teaching, in which we offer multiple representations of new knowledge, is beneficial to every learner. 

MBE also gives us quite a lot of insights about how languages are learned (and acquired). We have been witnessing the rise of bilingual schools and the shift from EFL to ELF (English as a Lingua Franca). All these changes have important consequences for how language centers operate around the world. 

Based on the body of work from MBE, I can honestly say that I do not consider it as revolutionary as I used to think. People sometimes fall for buzzwords and “revolutionary” claims (especially when they have the terms brain-based, brain-friendly or neuro attached to them). A word of advice: be careful. Using neurojargon and promising “you’ll be able to learn anything with five easy-to-follow steps” is probably a hoax. It generally disregards years of research conducted by several peers from around the world by claiming that someone made an incredible discovery and found a secret formula to maximize learning like never before!

I do think, though, that MBE is worth learning about because it’s sober. It doesn’t have to be revolutionary to actually change many paradigms and positively impact learners. After all, teachers and policymakers have been doing the same old stuff based on tradition and are still prioritising types of assessment that do not seem to capture the wholeness of learning and often label students as not good enough. As I mentioned before, I myself have called it revolutionary a couple of times (and it might still slip now and again), but I believe MBE to be quite responsible and cautious. Remember, it doesn’t take much in this post-truth era for the media to start propagating fake news and that means we must be as evidence-based as possible to make sure people have the latest research available in terms they can understand to make important decisions about their lives and those of others.

As any good teacher, I’ll leave you with some research to do. We would certainly benefit from learning how to explore strategies such as brain breaks and interleaving, retrieval practice and spaced repetition, pretesting and prior knowledge activation, self-regulation and mindfulness, metacognition and mindsets. The list also goes on. I’ll let you figure out what else to study and a good place to start would be one of the resources below:

MBE Resources

BRAZ-TESOL MBE SIG – sign up for our event in Portuguese about memory here.







Ansari, D., & Coch, D. (2006). Bridges over troubled waters: Education and cognitive neuroscience. Trends in cognitive sciences10(4), 146-151.

Blakemore, S. J., & Frith, U. (2005). The learning brain: Lessons for education. Blackwell publishing.

Bruer, J. T. (1997). Education and the brain: A bridge too far. Educational researcher, 26(8), 4-16.

Dekker, S., Lee, N., Howard-Jones, P., & Jolles, J. (2012). Neuromyths in education: Prevalence and predictors of misconceptions among teachers. Frontiers in Psychology, 3, 429-429

Ferrari, M., & McBride, H. (2011). Mind, Brain, and Education: The birth of a new science. Learning landscapes, 5(1), 85-100.

Fischer, K. W. (2009). Mind, brain, and education: building a scientific groundwork for learning and teaching1. Mind, Brain, and Education, 3(1), 3-16.

Howard-Jones, P. A. (2010). Introducing neuroeducational research: Neuroscience, education and the brain from contexts to practice. Taylor & Francis.

Howard-Jones, P. A. (2014). Neuroscience and education: myths and messages. Nature Reviews Neuroscience15(12), 817-824.

IMBES (2018). Home. Retrieved from

James, M., & Pollard, A. (2011). TLRP’s ten principles for effective pedagogy: rationale, development, evidence, argument and impact. Research Papers in Education26(3), 275-328.

OECD. (2002). Understanding the brain: Towards a new learning science. Paris: OECD Publishing

OECD. (2007). Understanding the brain: The birth of a learning science. Paris: OECD Publishing

OECD (2017). PISA 2015 Results (Volume III). Students’ Well-Being. Paris: OECD Publishing.

TLRP, 2015. Publications. Retrieved from

Tokuhama-Espinosa, T. (2010). Mind, brain, and education science: A comprehensive guide to the new brain-based teaching. WW Norton & Company.

Tokuhama-Espinosa, T. (2014). Making classrooms better: 50 practical applications of mind, brain, and education science. First Edition. New York: W.W Norton & Company.

Paper photo created by freepik –

Learning Styles and Multiple Intelligences revisited

Extended version adapted from BRAZ-TESOL’s Newsletter

For decades the idea that people can be categorized according to how they supposedly learn best has become widespread on every level of educational systems around the world. The Learning Styles Theory (LS), often referred to along with the Multiple Intelligences Theory (MI), has shaped curricula and how teachers and students think about learning. However, what does the specialized literature on the topic have to say about these theories? Can these ideas really be considered false claims about the brain, the so-called neuromyths

Spoiler Alert:

LS and MI are controversial and the literature suggests that there’s a lack of empirical evidence to support these notions (Waterhouse, 2006a; Howard-Jones, 2010; Paschler et al., 2010; Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2014). Howard Gardner himself has already said that:

[…] by the middle 1990s, I had noticed a number of  misinterpretations of the theory—for example, the confusion of intelligences with learning styles […]

Howard Gardner (2003, p. 8)

Drop the term “styles.” It will confuse others and it won’t help either you or your students.

Howard Gardner for The Washington Post (Strauss, 2013)

How did the notion of “intelligence” evolve?

Before 1950: Alfred Binet and Théodore Simon developed the IQ test which proposed that human intelligence was fixed and quantifiable. Despite Binet’s disagreement with Simon regarding how fixed our intelligence was and how accurate the test could be, the IQ test took the world and is widely used to this day (Dweck, 2008). 

Online Standard Matrices IQ test | 60 questions in 40 minutes | Score now
Typical IQ test question

After 1950: The idea that people could express their intelligence in ways other than reasoning skills and the ability to solve logical problems became more popular. Many models of cognitive styles and learning styles were proposed and this gave teachers the idea that anyone could learn (or learn better) if their styles were considered when teaching them. In the 70s, the concept of crystallized and fluid intelligence appeared (Cattell,1971) and in the following decade, Gardner (1983) proposed the idea of multiple intelligences.

After 2000: IQ tests and learning styles became more debatable as concepts that could determine someone’s success at learning. New experiments were designed and new advancements from neuroscience, such as neuroimaging technologies, became more accessible and raised some questions. In this period, the notion that learning styles theory is a myth is held widely by most neuroscientists (Howard-Jones, 2010)

Cérebro, Mrt, Ressonância Magnética, Cabeça
Now we can look inside our brains with latest technological advancements

The good, the bad, and the ugly

So what does science have to say about these two theories nowadays and why are they controversial? Regarding LS, my former professor Paul Howard-Jones from the University of Bristol explains that:

The implicit assumption seems to be that, because different regions of the cortex have crucial roles in visual, auditory and sensory processing, learners should receive information in visual, auditory or kinaesthetic forms according to which part of their brain works better. The brain’s interconnectivity makes such an assumption unsound, and reviews of educational literature and controlled laboratory studies fail to support this approach to teaching.

Howard-Jones, 2014, p. 1, 2

In fact, a large systematic review done by Coffield et al. (2004) with the most popular learning styles theories (13 out of 71, yes, there are many!) reached the conclusion that the conceptualizations of these studies were confusing, the methods inadequate, and that there was no conclusive relationship between visual, auditory, and kinesthetic teaching methods and students’ performance. A more recent study conducted by Paschler et al. (2010) demonstrated that there’s no evidence in the literature to support the idea that students learn best when taught in their supposed learning style. As a matter of fact, the authors end on this note:

The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing. If classification of students’ learning styles has practical utility, it remains to be demonstrated

Paschler et al. (2010, p.117)

If you still can’t understand what I’m getting at, try watching this amazing video by Veritasium

What about human intelligence? What defines it and how can it be tested? Despite being a matter of controversy still, Cognitive Psychology seems to agree that there is a global factor that extends throughout different aspects of cognition. This general intelligence global factor, the g factor, is what IQ tests measure. It’s the human capacity to solve logical problems through cognition, something that separates us from animals. We require not only visual-spatial abilities for solving such puzzles, but also literacy and numeracy.

In the words of professor Linda S. Gottfredson, co-director of the Delaware-Johns Hopkins Project for the Study of Intelligence and Society:

Is there indeed a general mental ability we commonly call “intelligence,” and is it important in the practical affairs of life? The answer, based on decades of intelligence research, is an unequivocal yes […]. And this factor seems to have considerable influence on a person’s practical quality of life. Intelligence as measured by IQ tests is the single most effective predictor known of individual performance at school and on the job.

Linda S. Gottfredson for Scientific American.

If you want to read more in plain language about the g factor, check out Linda S. Gottfredson’s text here.

This matter, as mentioned above, is still controversial since authors such as Carol Dweck and Angela Lee Duckworth put a lot more emphasis on long-term commitment and effort rather than IQ scores to determine success.

Angela Lee Duckworth talks about Growth Mindset and Grit

What about the multiple intelligences theory? Well, when Howard Gardner put forward the idea that humans have multiple intelligences, he was basically arguing that there were different intelligences outside the realm of this g factor. That meant that these intelligences could not be measured through traditional IQ tests. Originally, Gardner proposed 8 different intelligence domains, claiming that they should be separate or autonomous with very little overlapping. They were:

gardner's theory of multiple intelligences
The 8 Multiple Intelligences proposed by Gardner. Source here

So here’s the thing: if these intelligence domains were in fact autonomous from one another, we’d expect to see low correlations betwen them. However, numerous intelligence psychometrict tests have found high correlations between most of these domains corroborating the idea of a g factor, that is, supporting the theory that there’s actually a single entity that permeates different features of cognition (Geake, 2008).

We might say that one of the big issues with MI is that most intelligences proposed by Gardner, such as musical, intrapersonal, interpersonal, naturalist, and bodily, for instance, are more like non-cognitive traits and have more to do with personality, skills or “talents” (if we may use this word) than general intelligence and cognitive aptitudes  (Visser et al. 2006b; Waterhouse, 2006a; Locke, 2015).

What then?

If all of this comes as a shock to you, I might have good news. You might be wondering why you have designed so many lesson plans taking into account the different learning styles and multiple intelligences if they are not really quite valid concepts. Well, not all of it is bad if we look at the underlying ideas and the practices that came out from these theories and why they might actually help students learn. 

First of all, diversifying the way we deliver content through visual and phonological input actually works because of our working memory structure and the way our brains encode information. Paivio (1991) suggests the concept of dual coding, which basically means that combining verbal and visual representations increases memorization. Baddeley (2000) posits that our working memory, that is, the memory system we use to hold information long enough to put it to some use, is composed of a visual and a phonological channel and a buffer that puts things together in a timely manner. The working memory system is like our work station where we constantly bring new and old information to so that we can accomplish a task. The best part is that we have neuroimaging studies showing where this memory is located in the brain and experiments suggesting that dual coding is effective (Howard-Jones et al., 2016; Wirebring et al. 2015)

Secondly, integrating non-cognitive skills to the curriculum and focusing a little less on students’ ability to solve puzzles and logical problems, seems to walk hand in hand with notions like self-determination, self-efficacy, growth mindset (this one is getting more controversial too), self-regulation, which are tested and have yielded positive correlations with students’ achievement because they deal with things like motivation, emotional regulation, and collaborative learning environments (Bandura, 1997; Dweck, 2008; Hattie, 2012; Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2014). Like António Damásio and Mary Helen Immordino-Yang propose in their article We feel, therefore we learn: The Relevance of Affective and Social Neuroscience to Education,  learning is not all about cognition, it’s also about emotion (Immordino-Yang & Damásio, 2007)

In third place, we can all agree that the so-called intelligence domains proposed by Gardner are ways of human expression, understaning and important aspects of life. They can lead to successful paths regardless of IQ scores. Someone who’s good at dancing can become a successful dancer and make a better living than anyone with a high g factor. Think of people with excellent interpersonal skills and how far they get in life. What about amazing artists who produce musical hits that shake entire generations?

We need to address the bad and the ugly, though. The bad is that many teachers around the world might be using teaching approaches or methods based on ideas that are not supported by science . This is not always bad unless there’s evidence to show why it might be. An example is this excerpt I got from one of my blog posts

But assigning homework or teaching a one-to-one lesson, for example, based on a specific learning style and neglecting the others will most likely be bad for the students.

Me from my blog post

In other words, what if you had 12 students in your classroom and you tested them using a learning styles questionnaire and coincidentally they were all categorized as auditory learners? Would you bother preparing lessons with visual materials? Some teachers certainly wouldn’t depending on how much they believe in the concept. 

The ugly is best represented in a situation that took place in 2019 during a session I was delivering in Bucharest, Romania. I’m sure many of you know who Hugh Dellar is. If you don’t, Hugh is an ELT author, speaker, teacher trainer and runs the Lexical Lab with Andrew Walkley. Besides being an amazing chap to hang out with, Hugh is a captivating speaker and has great remarks on various topics. I was honored to have him in my session in Bucharest and I said that one of the good things about the whole learning styles theory was exactly the fact that it made teachers think about how they were reaching every student in the classroom by varying their input. Hugh pointed out something and it was sort of like this:

What about the huge amount of money invested to support and propagate a theory that isn’t evidence-based? What if that money had been put somewhere else?

Paraphrasing Hugh Dellar

Well, I’d have to agree with Hugh and say that if ELT and education, in general, hadn’t propagated the learning styles theory and used the money to produce materials, courses, diplomas on, let’s say, furthering our knowledge of how neuroscience could be used in the classroom and which metacognitive strategies might work more effectively, things could be quite different. 


The way I see it, we can keep doing many of the things we do in the classroom and be effective teachers. We do need to start calling things what they are. Instead of saying that you have some auditory learners in the classroom and you need to take that into consideration when planning your lesson, you can start saying that the brain encodes information visually and phonologically and that you need to help your students create multiple representations of what you’re teaching them in their brains to facilitate retrieval and maximize learning outcomes. You could also stop saying that one of your students has musical intelligence and say that she has great musical skills or that someone has interpersonal intelligence and say that they’re sociable and like to interact with others.

Nowadays, I suppose most educators as referring to “learning styles” as “learning preferences”. That means that students may have preferences but it doesn’t mean that their preference may be the best way to learn something in particular. As Paul Howard-Jones says:

However, it is true that there may be preferences and, perhaps more importantly, that presenting information in multiple sensory modes can support learning.”

Howard-Jones, 2014, p. 1, 2

An analogy that recently came to me while debating this post on facebook is the following: People might have a clear view of what they like or not when they are working out in a gym. But those views may be determined by cognitive biases and/or based on concepts that are not validated by the scientific method or the literature on how the body works and how our muscles develop. Therefore, they might be completely irrelevant to a functional and effective workout program and even cause injury. On the other hand, considering that gyms offer a number of possibilities for people to exercise different groups of muscles (push ups and bench press do the same thing for example), a qualified personal trainer or gym instructor can and should take their students’ preferences into account. They just need to be justified and aligned with our knowledge of anatomy and physiology.

I’d say a teacher doesn’t need to be fully aware of neuroscientific jargon and every little detail available in the literature about how the brain learns. But I believe teacher training courses, ELT materials, and professionals working with teacher education should know basic principles that will most likely affect the outcomes of their work. It’s totally fine to ditch ideas that were once quite prevalent, take what’s best out of them, and add the latest discoveries of science. This is how science works. And it’s important to call things what they are and understand more about them so that companies stop profiting from our lack of knowledge by selling products and services based on shaky grounds. I say let’s follow Gardner’s recommendation and drop the “styles” and start teaching students more holistically using every tool we have and focusing on things like attention, engagement, memory, motivation, emotions, consolidation and the list goes on. I say we focus more on basic knowledge about the brain and some evidence-based learning learning. 


Baddeley, A. (2000). The episodic buffer: a new component of working memory?. Trends in cognitive sciences, 4(11), 417-423.

Barbe, W. B.; Swassing, R. H.; Milone, M. N. (1979). Teaching through modality strengths: concepts practices. Columbus, Ohio: Zaner-Bloser.

Cattell, R. B. (1971). Abilities: Their structure, growth, and action. New York: Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 0-395-04275-5.

Coffield, F.; Moseley, D.; Hall, E.; Ecclestone, K. (2004). Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning: a systematic and critical review. London: Learning and Skills Research

Dweck, C. S. (2008). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House Digital, Inc

Gardner, H. (1983) Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. New York: Basic Books

Gardner, H. (2003). Multiple intelligences after twenty years. American Educational Research Association, Chicago, Illinois, 21.

Geake, J. (2008). Neuromythologies in education. Educational Research50 (2): 123–133. 

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. Routledge.

Hedlund, A. (2019). Neuromyths and potential classroom implications: Part 2 – Learning Styles, Fixed Intelligence, Forget about Arts. Retrieved from

Howard-Jones, P. (2010). Introducing neuroeducational research: Neuroscience, education and the brain from contexts to practice. Routledge.

HowardJones, P. (2014). Neuroscience and education: myths and messages. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 15(12), 817-824

Howard-Jones, P., Jay, T., Mason, A., & Jones, H. (2016). Gamification of learning deactivates the default mode network. Frontiers in Psychology, 6

Immordino‐Yang, M.H. and Damasio, A. (2007), We Feel, Therefore We Learn: The Relevance of Affective and Social Neuroscience to Education. Mind, Brain, and Education, 1: 3-10. doi:10.1111/j.1751-228X.2007.00004.x

Locke, E. A. (2005). Why emotional intelligence is an invalid concept. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 26(4), 425-431. doi: 10.1002/job.318

Paivio, A. (1991). Dual coding theory: Retrospect and current status. Canadian Journal of Psychology/Revue canadienne de psychologie, 45(3), 255.

Paschler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D. & Bjork, R. (2010). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9, 105–119.

Strauss, V. (2013). Howard Gardner:‘Multiple intelligences’ are not ‘learning styles’. The Washington Post, 16.

Tokuhama-Espinosa, T. (2014). Making classrooms better: 50 practical applications of mind, brain, and education science. First Edition. New York: W.W Norton & Company.

Visser, B. A., Ashton, M. C., & Vernon, P. A. (2006b). g and the measurement of Multiple Intelligences: A response to Gardner. Intelligence, 34(5), 507-510. doi:

Waterhouse, L. (Fall 2006a). “Multiple Intelligences, the Mozart Effect, and Emotional Intelligence: A critical review”. Educational Psychologist. 41 (4): 207–225. doi:10.1207/s15326985ep4104_1

Wirebring, L. K., Wiklund-Hörnqvist, C., Eriksson, J., Andersson, M., Jonsson, B., & Nyberg, L. (2015). Lesser neural pattern similarity across repeated tests is associated with better long-term memory retention. The Journal of Neuroscience, 35(26)

Science of Learning Resources to help you with Lesson Planning

If you’ve been following me long enough, you’ve probably realized that I talk quite a lot about the Science of Learning (SoL). I believe teachers and students all over the world can benefit greatly from understanding basic principles of how our mind and brain learn. That’s what SoL does. It looks at research and evidence from the cognitive sciences (neuroscience and psychology) and what implications they might have for teachers teaching in the classroom, for students learning from their teachers or even on their own. SoL can be an amazing tool for anyone looking to plan and deliver more effective lessons.

The purpose of this blog post is to put together some of the resources I’ve created or that inspired me so that you can learn more about the SoL and try to implement a few principles into your teaching practice. You can also try to use them as a student yourself.

The links to some videos and articles are below. Hope they are useful!

We start speaking at around 9:30
Click here to access
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No, we don’t just use 10% of our brain

Article originally written for InnovateELT also published on the University of Bristol blog

Ever heard anyone say that? The last time I did was from one of the most powerful voices in movie history: Morgan Freeman’s. If he had been born in the UK, I’m sure he would’ve been knighted by now and joined the select group that includes Sir Anthony Hopkins, Sir Ian McKellen, Dame Judi Dench, and Dame Helen Mirren. Mr. Freeman played the role of Professor Samuel Norman, brain expert who has studied, among other things, the evolution of this incredible organ in Lucy, a movie co-starring Scarlet Johansson.

Watch Lucy | Prime Video
Morgan Freeman and Scarlet Johansson in Lucy
Retrieved from

In one of the scenes, Professor Norman is lecturing to a group of interested students and says:

“Imagine for a moment what our life would be like if we could access, let’s say, 20% of our brain capacity?”

He goes on and claims that each human being has 100 billion neurons, from which only 15% are activated and that means that “we possess a gigantic network of information to which we have almost no access”. In his words, if we could access all the potential of our brains, we’d be able to control other people and even matter.

Well, Morgan Freeman, even though I love your voice and your acting, your character couldn’t be further from the truth. In this Luc Besson movie, released in 2014, most of what Professor Samuel Norman says is a false claim about the brain. It’s a neuromyth.

Funnily enough, I met the real Professor Samuel Norman. His name is Paul Howard-Jones and he is one of the biggest brain references in the world and a professor at the School of Education at the University of Bristol. I’m quite privileged to have been one of his students. In his amazing book, Evolution of the Learning Brain: Or How You Got To Be So SmartHoward-Jones (2018) goes back in time to the early forms of life and takes us on a journey throughout the aeons of our home planet until the most sophisticated form of intelligence known to date: our brains and us. He has published many articles and books on the potential of using brain research, and neuroscience-informed strategies to positively impact educational achievement and learning outcomes.

Professor Paul Howard Jones and André Hedlund
Paul Howard-Jones signing my copy of his book during the launch in 2018

Well, Prof. Samuel Norman, let’s stick to the facts.

No, we do not use just 10 or 15% of our brain capacities. In fact, we use most of our brain most of the time, even when we are sleeping. A simple task such as drinking coffee will require many areas of your brain to activate synchronously. The frontal lobe when you decide to look at the cup of coffee and pick it up, the occipital lobe because you’re visually processing the stimulus, your temporal lobe as you imagine the word “coffee”, subcortical areas, an integral part of your reward system, because the thought of fresh coffee and that expectation make you feel good, your parietal lobe’s somatosensory cortex as you grab the cup and feel the heat on your fingertips, as well as areas related to taste and smell, memory retrieval, etc.  Grab any modern neuroanatomy book and you’ll see how dynamic and interconnected our brain is. You can learn more about brain structure and function on

No, Samuel Norman, we don’t have 100 billion neurons in our brains. Actually, according to the amazing Brazilian neuroscientist Suzana Herculano-Houzel, we have around 86 billion. You can watch her brilliant TED Talk about how she discovered that (it involved detergent and brain soup). Suzana Herculano-Houzel (2002) was also responsible for a questionnaire that has been replicated all over the world on how much the general public, and most recently, teachers, know about the brain.

The results in Brazil suggested that most people don’t really know much about how the brain works. So did the results in the UK, as demonstrated in Howard-Jones’ article (Dekker et al. 2012), in Portugal (Rato et al. 2013), in Greece (Papadatou-Pastou et al., 2017) in Latin America (Gleichgerrcht et al., 2015), in China (Pei et al., 2015), in Spain (Ferrero et al., 2016), and virtually everywhere.

But there is hope! In Lucy, Scarlet Johansson unlocks her brain potential because of a synthetic drug and basically gains superpowers that would make her fellow Avengers in a different franchise incredibly jealous. Let’s just say that if Natasha Romanoff were Lucy in the latest Avengers movies, Thanos wouldn’t have gone so far at all. The hope I’m referring to, however, is the hope that lies in unlocking our potential as teachers so that we can unlock our students’ learning potential. There are things based on the MBE science that can guide us in understanding how attention, memory, motivation, self-efficacy, and many other relevant pre-requisites or aspects of learning work. We just need to learn about them and start applying that knowledge.

While we are at it, I should probably tell Prof. Samuel Norman that there are other popular neuromyths being spread in educational settings all over the world that could potentially lead teachers to misinformed decisions when they are planning and delivering their lessons. To name a few, I will just point out that the learning styles theory and the left/right-brained paradigm need to be revisited by many teachers out there as the scientific evidence suggests that students do not learn better when taught in their preferred learning style (Dekker et al. 2012)

I actually wrote a 4-blog post series on some neuromyths that might be useful. You can read about the potential classroom implications here. Click here to read about learning styles and fixed intelligence. Here you can access the one about drilling, multitasking, and emotions. And you can find the last one about language acquisition and the right and left-brain dominance here.

On the very first blog post of the series, I remind everyone that:

“It is essential to remember that what I’m proposing is not a recipe for successful teaching, though. There are so many variables to consider that we can’t say “Do this and everyone will learn”. The authors who have written about this say that we need to be careful with such bold claims. Rather, if we look at it as just a framework that may help us think about how we teach and how our students learn, I think the potential is huge.”

The journey is long for those who are interested in following the path. A good place to start this journey into the depths of our brain, besides Paul’s book, is the website Science of Learning You can find more information on the Engage-Build-Consolidate (EBC) framework (developed by Paul and many collaborators) with principles that will help you reflect on teaching/learning strategies that might have a positive impact on learning outcomes as they are based on how the brain works.

You can also watch Paul’s webinar for our BRAZ-TESOL Mind, Brain, and Education Special Interest Group, organized by Mirela Ramacciotti, Rodolfo Mattiello, and me.

Click here to watch my NGL webinar with a tips on how to plan a lesson using the EBC Framework

Here are some questions for you to reflect on. What impact do characters like Prof. Samuel Norman (both in fiction and real life) have on people’s understanding about the brain? What could happen if more educators around the world actually understood some fundamental principles of brain structure and function and used that knowledge to tailor their teaching practice? And finally, what could the potential of knowing about their own brains be for students who might be struggling in the classroom?

I don’t believe in magical solutions as those in sci-fi movies. I do believe in real and effective solutions based on scientific evidence and I think you should too.


Dekker, S., Lee, N., Howard-Jones, P., & Jolles, J. (2012). Neuromyths in education: Prevalence and predictors of misconceptions among teachers. Frontiers in Psychology, 3, 429-429. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00429

Ferrero, M., Garaizar, P., & Vadillo, M. A. (2016). Neuromyths in Education: Prevalence among Spanish Teachers and an Exploration of Cross-Cultural Variation. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 10, 496. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2016.00496

Gleichgerrcht, E., Lira Luttges, B., Salvarezza, F., & Campos, A. (2015). Educational neuromyths among teachers in Latin America. Mind, Brain, and Education, 9(3), 170-178.

Herculano-Houzel, S. (2002). Do you know your brain/ A survey on public neuroscience literacy at the closing of the decade of the brain. The Neuroscientist, 8(2):98-110

Howard-Jones, P. (2018). Evolution of the Learning Brain: Or how you got to be so smart. Taylor & Francis Group

Papadatou-Pastou, M., Haliou, E., & Vlachos, F. (2017). Brain Knowledge and the Prevalence of Neuromyths among Prospective Teachers in Greece. Frontiers in psychology8, 804. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00804

Pei X., Howard-Jones P. A., Zhang S., Liu X., Jin Y. (2015). Teachers’ Understanding about the Brain in East China. Proc. Soc. Behav. Sci. 174, 3681–3688. 10.1016/j.sbspro.2015.01.1091

Rato, J., Abreu, A., & Castro-Caldas, A. (2013). Neuromyths in education: What is fact and what is fiction for Portuguese teachers? Educational Research, 55(4), 441-453.

Tokuhama-Espinosa, T. (2014). Making classrooms better: 50 practical applications of mind, brain, and education science. First Edition. New York: W.W Norton & Company.

Emotional Intelligence and Self-Regulation during the Pandemic

Today is World Suicide Prevention Day. It might come as a shock to you, but despite a relatively significant improvement in terms of quality of life worldwide, suicide rates have been increasing in many countries. The Atlantic reports that there’s a Millenial mental-health crisis and that experts are concerned it will get worse because of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a matter of fact, QJM: An International Journal of Medicine states that:

Social isolation, anxiety, fear of contagion, uncertainty, chronic stress and economic difficulties may lead to the development or exacerbation of depressive, anxiety, substance use and other psychiatric disorders in vulnerable populations including individuals with pre-existing psychiatric disorders and people who reside in high COVID-19 prevalence areas. Stress-related psychiatric conditions including mood and substance use disorders are associated with suicidal behavior. COVID-19 survivors may also be at elevated suicide risk

(Sher, 2020)

Why is this happening now more than ever? The objective of this piece is not to go over the causes of anxiety, depression, and other related conditions. We will focus on what we can do as educators and parents to help children cope with these especially difficult times. In short, what we want kids to be able to develop can be summarized in two terms that have been widely referred to in the specialized literature: emotional intelligence and self-regulation.

Exactly 25 years ago, the author who would become a world best seller, Daniel Goleman, published the book entitled Emotional Intelligence. This work has sold millions of copies and has been translated into dozens of languages ​​precisely because it addresses such a relevant subject that is related to practically all areas of human life: the ability to recognize and manage one’s emotions as well as those of others. However, in times of remote teaching and social isolation, how can we help children become more emotionally intelligent?

We are all going through a very unusual moment. The sudden transition of many to remote work, the demand to create new work and study routines, in addition to the physical distance from our loved ones as well as the constant presence of children at home are more than good reasons to cause some unbalance in our emotional state (read my text about it here). However, it is safe to assume that children and adolescents can experience all of this more intensely. How many times have you heard (or even said yourself) that young people are impulsive, negligent, reckless and emotional? Is this just adult talk or is there actually a reason behind that?

Well, reasons do exist. The apparent emotional lack of control and impulsiveness of children have a lot to do with a region of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, which begins its development around pre-adolescence and only completes the process around the end of our third decade of life (Arain et al. 2013). The good news is that we are teenagers until our late 30s, but the bad news is that during this period of brain maturation we are not very good at managing our emotions. In other words, the younger, the less emotional intelligence we have.

The reason for underdeveloped emotional intelligence in childhood is quite simple. It is related to the lack of development of one of the central executive functions of our brain: inhibitory control, responsible for preventing impulsive behaviors (Arain et al. 2013). I remember watching a Brazilian TV show, which featured one of the most well-known Brazilian neuroscientists, Suzana Herculano-Houzel, explaining how we should act when we want a child to stop doing something potentially dangerous. Picture the following scene: a child standing on a wall about to jump. Suzana said that if we shout, “Don’t jump!”, It is very likely that the child will jump, almost as if their brain could not process the DON’T.

Can you relate with the scene described above? How many times have we tried to prevent or control dangerous or inappropriate behavior of a student or our own children which yielded the exact opposite results? What should we do then? Before I give you any tip, it’s important to understand the concept self-regulation as well:

Self-regulation has been conceptualized as an overarching construct that includes control over a variety of processes, including emotional experiences and expressions (i.e., emotion regulation), approach/withdrawal behavior (i.e., effortful/behavioral control), and cognitive or mental processes (i.e., executive function).

(Jahromi, 2017)

After several decades of research, scholars have come to the agreement that self-regulation is a “cornerstone of children’s development”

(Phillips & Shonkoff, 2000)

A self-regulated person can cope with different social situations with the appropriate emotional-behavioral balance/response. Self-regulation starts developing in childhood and it goes on until we become adults. The problem is that if we neglect it, when a child becomes an adult, it might be too late to change their behaviors and attitudes. Even worse, throughout childhood and adolescence, individuals who are not self-regulated will be more susceptible to developing anxiety and depression.

How can we help children and teenagers become more self-regulated and be more emotionally intelligent? Here are some important thoughts and tips:

1. Working on emotional intelligence and self-regulation is like working on any other skill: It requires awareness and practice. Help the child reflect on their emotions and understand why they happen. You can read my text on the neuropsychology of misbehavior here

2. Do not promote what psychotherapist Leo Fraiman (2019) calls Emperor’s Syndrome in his book. A child with this syndrome throws tantrums for anything. They are highly spoiled and can’t deal with any frustration in life. They are incredibly difficult to deal with. We must remember that life is made up of successes and frustrations and that we all need to learn to deal with both. If you satisfy the child’s every whim and / or distract them from negative emotions with gifts, games, travel, etc., you are damaging the child’s ability to lead a functional adult life in society.

3. Be firm but fair. Children develop emotional self-regulation supported by co-regulation, that is, setting up rules together (with parents, primary caregivers). Don’t forget that little ones follow your steps, so if you don’t have emotional control in front of your children, it can negatively impact their lives. Keep your promises. Don’t give in all the time to their desires. It sends a negative message and they can pick up on that quite quickly.

4. Emotional responses can be separated from behavioral responses. Just because you feel frustrated, bored, or disengaged that doesn’t mean you can act in a disrespectful way. The same goes for kids. We need to teach them that there are obligations in life and they need to stay on task or at least be respectful to their peers and teachers.

5. Help children name their feelings and understand that it’s ok to feel negative feelings sometimes. It’s part of being human. These feelings come and go and we need to allow that to happen.

6. Use affirmative commands. Going back to the example of neuroscientist Suzana, we can take from that episode a simple solution : instead of using “Don’t jump!”, Use “Stop!” or “Come back”.

7. Lead a healthy life. Physical exercise is associated with high levels of dopamine, the neurotransmitter of motivation. You can also make kids stay more connected with nature. Help them start and/or keep a vegetable garden. Gardening is about love, patience, and care. It’s great for emotional intelligence

8. Mindfulness and play need to be part of kids’ daily lives. You can set up some moments to help them calm down and meditate – there are apps and music for that – and you can also make sure they get enough movement throughout the day. Time off their digital devices is vital as well. Make sure you keep them away from screens as much as you can.

9. Routines are essential. Make sure you have a plan and try to stick to it as much as possible. Children may feel overwhelmed and apprehensive when they don’t know what’s coming.

10. Human contact has to be kept somehow. How about setting up a virtual play date for the kids to interact with their friends? They can talk about their day, play games, show their vegetable garden or simply laugh at each other’s jokes.

Finally, I would just like to quote, as a good geek that I am, a film that brings a pertinent analogy. Have you seen Captain Marvel? If you haven’t seen it yet, watch out for spoilers.

Aviator Carol Danvers has an interesting journey. The film shows the many times she fell and got up in life and how she always liked speed. Her struggle was to try to fit into a male stereotype, considered more rational, cooler and less emotional, to occupy certain spaces, such as flying war jets. When she gains her powers and moves to the Kree planet, her military instructor constantly tells her that she needs to suppress her emotions in order to reach her full combat potential. However, it is only when she lets herself feel her emotions, in a controlled way, of course, that she attains phenomenal power (you can read my blog post about it here).

I think we have a lot to learn from Captain Marvel. After all, neuropsychologist José Ramón Gamo and the authors of “We feel, therefore we learn”, António Damásio and Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, already said that the brain needs the body-mind-emotion connection to learn. Emotions, positive and negative, are welcome, we just need to learn how to have emotional intelligence to recognize and manage our emotions, identify what others are feeling and have more empathy with those who live around us. This way we will be able to guide children in developing their own emotional intelligence.

I recommend that we all stop to reflect on the type of people we are raising for the world. We must start cultivating the emotional intelligence of children and help develop healthy and functional adults, who are self-regulated and think not only about themselves, but also about others. People who are able to manage their emotions to reach their goals. This way we can save many kids’ from developing chronic stress, anxiety, depression and other conditions that contribute to the sad suicide rates we see nowadays. We can actually save kids by teaching them to self-regulate and to become more emotionally intelligent.

What are your tips? I’d love to read them.


Arain, M., Haque, M., Johal, L., Mathur, P., Nel, W., Rais, A., Sandhu, R., & Sharma, S. (2013). Maturation of the adolescent brain. Neuropsychiatric disease and treatment9, 449–461.

FRAIMAN, Leo. A síndrome do imperador: Pai empoderados educam melhor. Belo Horizonte: Autêntica Editora, 2019

Goleman, D. (1996). Emotional intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Immordino‐Yang, M. H., & Damasio, A. (2007). We feel, therefore we learn: The relevance of affective and social neuroscience to education. Mind, brain, and education1(1), 3-10.

Jahromi, B. Chapter Two – Self-Regulation in Young Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder: An Interdisciplinary Perspective on Emotion Regulation, Executive Function, and Effortful Control,
Editor(s): Robert M. Hodapp, Deborah J. Fidler, International Review of Research in Developmental Disabilities, Academic Press, Volume 53, 2017, Pages 45-89,

Sher, L. (2020) The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on suicide rates, QJM: An International Journal of Medicine, , hcaa202,

Shonkoff, J. P., & Phillips, D. A. (Eds.). (2000). From neurons to neighborhoods: The science of early childhood development. National Academy Press

Six Science of Learning Strategies and How to Use them with Popular Online Tools

Adapted from Troika and ConnectEd Blog

In recent years the area of ​​education has tried to combine some elements of cognitive sciences, such as psychology and neuroscience, with classroom practice. Several postgraduate courses, conferences, workshops as well as other events are now part of Continuous Professional Development (CPD) programs and they’re likely to take into account topics associated with Neuroeducation, Science of Learning (SoL) and the science of the Mind, Brain and Education (MBE). The main objective of this science is to study teaching strategies based on scientific evidence in order to promote what should or should not work best when we want more positive learning outcomes . What can this science tell us and what are some online tools teachers can use to implement more effective teaching strategies in this time of remote teaching?

This text aims to briefly describe six strategies discussed in the recent article by Yana Weinstein, Christopher R. Madan & Megan A. Sumeracki (2018), as well as link them to commonly used online tools. However, before we go any further, it is useful for us to reflect on the concept of Metacognition. Metacognition refers to knowledge about cognition, which relates to words such as thinking, perception, reasoning, intuition, attention, memory and also both lower and higher order thinking skills (see Bloom’s Taxonomy). In other words, metacognition is about learning to learn, or thinking about thinking (Pintrich, 2002). Therefore, we could say that Metacognition is the substance of MBE and SoL. Now if you want to watch a cool webinar about this topic in English, here you go:

If you want a long talk about the subject in Portuguese, you can watch Raquel Oliveira’s interview with me on her channel:

Let’s get down to business, shall we?


For declarative memory to be consolidated in the brain, we need to sleep. Recently learned information is stored in the hippocampus and temporarily reproduced in the brain during sleep to create more representations and lasting memories (Maquet et al.2000). Reviewing content only once after class or doing homework on the same day can be a waste of cognitive resources as it would be more beneficial to revisit it the next day after sleeping and in future review sessions with some spacing between them (Henderson, Weighall, Brown, & Gaskell, 2012; Seehagen, Konrad, Herbert, & Schneider, 2015). You can read more about spaced repetition here.

Suggested online tool (s): Google Classroom and Trello

The idea is to create a repetition schedule. As a great Learning Management System ( LMS), Google Classroom allows you to schedule not only the due dates for activities, but also the dates for posting announcements and exercises. Trello is brilliant for project management. You can create different boards and add as many columns as you want (an example would be TO DO, DOING, and DONE columns). It helps everyone keep track of the things they need to do and when they should have them done.


The evidence suggests that interleaving is better than cramming (Kornell & Bjork, 2008). Switching between tasks or topics when studying can be a wonderful way to improve learning (Rohrer & Taylor, 2007). Our brain is not programmed for monotony. Changes to the environment, resource and, especially, the content / topic can be welcome. Instead of studying the same grammatical structure until exhaustion before moving on to the next one, study it for a while, take a brain break and start the next one. Use the pomodoro technique technique to help you. Read about it here.

Suggested online tool (s): TomatoTimers and Google Classroom

Use the TomatoTimers (website or app). Study 25 minutes of subject or structure A, pause for 5 min and then do another 25 minutes of studying subject or structure B. After two pomodoros (focused study for 25 minutes), take a 15-minute break (long pause). Another tip is to schedule Google Classroom topics in an interleaved way.


Forgetting is essential to learning. If you think that just because the student had a lesson, they learned, think again. Quick question: How much of the test content can you remember a week after taking the test? How about two weeks later? One month later? A semester later? If we can’t remember something, does that mean we’ve learned? Probably not. We need to make a recurring effort to retrieve the content we are learning. The repeated retrieval of items from our memory increases declarative memory consolidation and improves students’ long-term learning (Karpicke, 2012; Dunlosky et al., 2013). So, instead of immediately giving students the answer to a question you’ve just asked, let them search the brain for the answer. Don’t mind the silence, this effort will help them.

Suggested online tool (s): Quizlet, Kahoot, and Mentimeter

Quizlet allows you to create flashcards, that is, cards that contain a question on the front and the answer on the back. It is fun and highly effective to test yourself with flashcards. Kahoot is definitely an all-time favorite as it helps you create interactive quizzes that allow your students to use their mobiles to answer. You can do the same with Mentimeter and also create polls and word clouds. All of these tools help your students retrieve content and you can even use them periodically, based on the spaced repetition strategy.


We need to use verbal and non-verbal processing to better consolidate and retrieve information from our memory. This means that it is better to listen to and to look at something than just one or the other (Paivio, 1991). In a lesson that does not use visual aids, it is likely that students’ working memory will fill up more quickly and that consolidation will be less effective. However, with images and sounds creating larger neural networks in the brain, it is easier to remember the content exposed.

Suggested online tool (s): Zoom or Google Meet

Use videoconferencing platforms. They offer the possibility of sharing sound, video and, in particular, your screen, which can contain relevant pictures about the content you are teaching.


The Elaborative Coding Theory (Karpicke & Smith, 2012) states that, for better memorization and retrieval, information needs to be encoded in a number of different ways, not just one. Rather than showing the formula of Present Perfect and drilling it, the ideal is to have visual examples to show students, such as photos of experiences and trips, as well as ask students to think of other situations in which this structure can be used. They can create podcasts, videos, layouts, organization charts, slides and whatever they want. Inquiry-based teaching (such as Project-Based Learning) and the Socratic Method are great sources of ideas on how to use elaboration.

Suggested online tool (s): Padlet, MindMeister, and Vocaroo

Padlet is excellent for sharing different types of files in an interesting visual way on a screen. Students can place images, videos, text, audio and create editable notebooks for everyone in the group. MindMeister is used to create mind maps with the possibility of attaching files. It’s a great way to make your notes more visually appealing. Vocaroo is quite easy to use and practical as it allows students to record their voices and generate a link of their recording. These tools can help your students ask more questions about the content their learning and think more critically.


Miller (1956), Sweller (1988) and Cowan (2001) suggest the idea of ​​Cognitive Overload, which means that our brains do not have unlimited capacity to store information and the number of chunks that we can keep in the working memory at the same time varies between 2 to 9. This means that we need to give practical examples instead of just explaining the theory, especially when we are teaching children, who are unable to understand very abstract concepts. By eliminating jargon-filled explanations or difficult words, abstract definitions and complex concepts, as well as using familiar situations and analogy, we can help students better understand and memorize.

Suggested online tool (s): Canva and Powtoon

Canva is great for creating and editing posters, pamphlets, guides, portfolios and posts for social media. You can use it to improve the design of your slides and include incredible analogies. If you want a slightly bigger challenge, use the Powtoon animation editor. It helps bring situations and narratives to life with animated characters, effects and soundtrack.

These are just a few tools that can help make this remote teaching period more effective. With the new reality of remote learning for children, we need to rethink our practice and find alternative ways to help them learn better. However, I must also say that we need to be careful with buzzwords such as METACOGNITION or NEUROEDUCATION. There aren’t any magical solutions or fixed recipes. One of the steps of metacognition is to assess whether the chosen strategies are working well or not. And I can’t stress enough how much we need to bear this in mind. Some things may work better for some students and other things may work better for other students. Each brain is unique and we need to treat our students as unique individuals.

To pay my respects to a brilliant educator who’s left this world too soon, remember that:

We have to go from what is essentially an industrial model of education, a manufacturing model, which is based on linearity and conformity and batching people. We have to move to a model that is based more on principles of agriculture. We have to recognize that human flourishing is not a mechanical process; it’s an organic process. And you cannot predict the outcome of human development. All you can do, like a farmer, is create the conditions under which they will begin to flourish.”

Sir Ken Robinson

Having said that, I do believe that tayloring our practice according to how the brain and the mind work will most likely have a positive impact on our students’ learning outcomes. So my suggestion is: try these ideas, learn more about SoL and metacognition, and keep testing things based on scientific evidence and experience.

Let me know how it goes!


Cowan N. (2001) The magical number 4 in short-term memory: A reconsideration of mental storage capacity. Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 24:87–185

Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14, 4-58

Flavell,  John H. (1985). Cognitive development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Henderson, L. M., Weighall, A. R., Brown, H., & Gaskell, M. G. (2012). Consolidation of vocabulary is associated with sleep in children. Developmental Science, 15, 674–687

Karpicke, J. D. (2012). Retrieval-based learning: Active retrieval promotes meaningful learning. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 21(3), 157-163

Karpicke, J. D. & Smith, M. A. (2012). Separate mnemonic effects of retrieval practice and elaborative encoding. Journal of Memory and Language. 67 (1): 17–29

Kornell N., Bjork R. A. (2008). Learning concepts and categories: is spacing the “enemy of induction”? Psychol. Sci. 19 585–592 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02127.x

Maquet, P., Laureys, S., Peigneux, P., Fuchs, S., Petiau, C., Phillips, C., . . . Cleeremans, A. (2000). Experience-dependent changes in cerebral activation during human rem sleep. Nature Neuroscience, 3(8), 831-6.

Miller, G. A. (1956). The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psychological Review. 63 (2): 81–97

Paivio, A. (1991). Dual coding theory: Retrospect and current status. Canadian Journal of Psychology/Revue canadienne de psychologie, 45(3), 255

Pintrich, Paul R. (2002). The Role of metacognitive knowledge in learning, teaching, and assessingTheory into Practice, 41(4). 219-225.

Rohrer, D., & Taylor, K. (2007). The shuffling of mathematics problems improves learning. Instructional Science, 35, 481–498.

Seehagen, S., Konrad, C., Herbert, J. S., & Schneider, S. (2015). Timely sleep facilitates declarative memory consolidation in infants. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 112, 1625–1629

Sweller, J. (1988), Cognitive Load During Problem Solving: Effects on Learning. Cognitive Science, 12: 257–285

Weinstein, Y., Madan, C.R. & Sumeracki, M.A (2018). Teaching the science of learning. Cogn. Research 3, 2 

Special Educational Needs – Part 1: Evolution of our Brain and Definitions

The very first principle of the Mind, Brain, and Education science is:

Human brains are as unique as faces

Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2014

Indeed they are. Our brains have been evolving for millions of years. In fact, according to the most current records, our Homo Sapiens brain only appeared on this planet around 200,000 years ago after evolving from a line of predecessors dating back to our oldest known ancestor, Australopithecus afarensis, who lived around 3 to 4 million years ago (Howard-Jones, 2018).

A recent paleontological study suggests that our brains have not changed in size since the arrival of H. sapiens, which means we’ve had around the same brain, at least in terms of volume, as the hominids who lived 200,000 years ago (Neubauer, Hublin, & Gunz, 2018). Impressive, isn’t it?

Now think for a moment what education looked like 200,000 years ago? Was there any formal system of education? Did kids go to school? What about 100,000 years or 50,000 years ago? How about even 10,000 years ago? For the longest time, our brains were used to tasks immediately related to ensuring our survival as a species. Nothing like the educational systems we have today was available for at least 198,000 thousand years or so (or even 199,750 years ago! Read my post here. What changed everything? First, the Agricultural Revolution. Later, the invention of writing

So we’re basically saying that despite some advancements in technology for the time, such as better tools and techniques to survive, most of our history as H. sapiens has been devoted to a nomadic and illiterate lifestyle. As a matter of fact, around 95% of our time on this planet has been about hunting, looking for shelter, mating and reproducing. What does that have to do with education and educational needs? Think about it for a second. What is likely to happen to all these brains, as unique as faces, when a formal standardized system of education, based on recently socially/culturally constructed fundamental abilities is introduced?

In other words:

How are our brains supposed to get completely adjusted to something that started being imposed on us in the last 5% of our time as a species on this planet?

The answer is simple: our brains can’t. Not all of them anyway. Some brains are quite special and may even have given us an evolutionary advantage. Think of people who couldn’t stay still for long periods of time. They may have been involved in important discoveries and inventions that allowed us to get to where we are now. Think of people who may have had exceptional reasoning and memory skills. Their brains might have led us to invent mathematics and writing. These examples refer to Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) children and adults, for instance.

This short journey we took to the beginnings of our species as we know it can teach us, hopefully, a very important lesson: the incredible variability of brains we have as H. sapiens is a product of evolution and it is well adapted to the needs of 95% of our history. It was when we started to create systems and introduce new skills that things got a lot more complicated.

Don’t get me wrong, though. I believe education is the single most effective product of our species that allowed us to develop as we have, and writing and math are definitely at the heart of it. Nonetheless, I don’t like some of the labels attached to kids and adults who cannot adapt to this recent invention of ours. Let’s talk about Special Educational Needs (SEN) and what you need to know as a teacher and/or parent in this 4-post series.

Special Educational Needs (SEN)

SEN is the term used to refer to people, particularly children, who have some type of learning difficulty or disability and require certain changes in the way and/or content they’re taught. That includes a wide array of conditions, such as the previously mentioned ADHD and ASD, as well as Dyslexia, Dyscalculia, Down Syndrome, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Epilepsy, Cerebral Palsy, many physical and emotional difficulties among others.

Important terminology related to SEN

You may come across terms like: Individual Education Program (IEP), Special Education, Learning Difficulties or Disabilities, Special Needs Education, Exceptional Education, Atypicals or Atypical brains. They all refer to SEN either as synonyms or in slightly different ways. From now on, I shall use atypical and typical to differentiate students with and without SEN. I encourage you to do some research on the terms if you’re looking for more specifics.

Some initial considerations

The very first step we need to take is stop labeling people with SEN. When I say “stop labeling”, I’m referring to words such as “retarded”, “idiot”, “feeble-minded” and things like that. Of course we need to have a label for their condition and a proper diagnosis from a specialist. But we must understand that these conditions are the consequence of a long evolutionary chain of events and that they can also learn with their difficulties.

Secondly, we must be aware of two terms I’ll be using quite a lot in the following posts of this blog series:

ACCOMMODATION: changes in HOW the student will accomplish the task

EXAMPLE: Using a large font size for dyslexic students in a text

MODIFICATION: changes in WHAT the student will do instead of others with typical brains

EXAMPLE: Adapting the text to the student’s needs

Check out this website for more tips

Accommodation and modification are some of the best tools we can use to help students in these conditions. Speaking of conditions, I will focus on the three conditions I consider quite recurring in classrooms around the world and that normally make teachers uneasy: ADHD, DYSLEXIA, ASD. Each blog post after this one will focus on one of these conditions, what causes them, what symptoms students normally display, how we can work with them, and some useful tips on how to make them successful learners.

Oh, and the best part is that I’ll include an interview with someone who studies the topic 🙂

I suppose my final message here is that the wonderful variability of our brains needs to be celebrated and serves a purpose in our species. Maybe it’s to make us more humble or to equip special individuals with tools that may change the world. Be it as it may, we need to not only integrate them into our society but actually include and learn from them.

Have you ever had any atypical student in your classroom? How did you manage? Please share


Howard-Jones, Paul. Evolution of the Learning Brain: Or How You Got To Be So Smart... Routledge, 2018.

Neubauer, S., Hublin, J. J., & Gunz, P. (2018). The evolution of modern human brain shape. Science advances4(1), eaao5961.

Tokuhama-Espinosa, T. (2014). Making classrooms better: 50 practical applications of mind, brain, and education science. WW Norton & Company.