Using lessons from neurobiology to enhance learning

I’ve always been fascinated by cognitive psychology. I remember, perhaps 6 years into my teaching career, thinking that I should really know more about the science of our brains and how we learn. Since then, so much more is known about optimising learning, like the relationship between working memory and long-term memory or the importance of spaced practice.

Over the last few months, I have been listening to a fascinating podcast by Professor Andrew Huberman who works at the Stanford University School of Medicine called The Huberman Lab. A number of things from the podcast have really resonated with me, and I wondered if they could have application in our schools to further enhance learning. Here are just a few of them.

Among the many science-based tools and protocols shared, Professor Huberman describes how important it is after a bout of learning – and ideally immediately after – for deep rest to take place to improve the transfer into long-term memory. After a 90-minute bout of piano practice, for example, learning can be enhanced by having just a few minutes of resting with your eyes closed. I know that this exact protocol won’t apply directly in primary schools. But might another protocol take its place?

He also describes the importance of utilising the visual system, including having at least some periods of time each day for looking into the far distance. As well as being important for eyesight, your brain has significant rest when you are not focusing on things that are close up. Looking into the distance after a lesson could potentially enhance the transfer of learning into long-term memory. This is also why looking at an electronic device is unlikely to give your brain a good break after a bout of learning. A large proportion of our brain activity is generated by the visual system, so knowing how to optimise it to enhance learning is perhaps a less explored aspect of learning.

I was also fascinated by Professor Huberman talking about adult learning. He describes how, before the age of about 25, we are wired for brain plasticity. However, after that age we need to work harder for our brain to adapt. At the start of a bout of learning, our brain releases Epinephhrine – the name given to adrenalin in the brain. This increases alertness but can initially feel uncomfortable. Learning new things is hugely rewarding and joyful. However, in terms of our brain chemistry, it also comes with some discomfort. My current belief is that we need to recognise that learning is both enriching and uncomfortable. This is the biological experience of learning.

One final example. I listened to Professor Tim Spector, on the Feel Better, Live More podcast, questioning how frequently children should be eating snacks. He talked about the benefits that can be gained from stabilising children’s insulin response from them not eating too regularly and how that can improve concentration. He talked about how Italian and French children have different patterns for eating within a day. Do we know the optimal approach in this regard for maximising learning and improving health?

I don’t claim to be an expert on any of these subjects. I don’t suggest that you implement any changes based on this blog post either: I’m not knowledgeable enough on any of these subjects to be a prominent voice. However, I think there is scope for improving learning by listening to the real experts in the respective fields. I’m sure that there will be so many other lessons that we can take away too.

I’d love to hear your opinions on any of these subjects. All comments are welcome: what you agree with, disagree with, other possible areas of interest and other sources of information that I can learn from. I pick up my messages on social media and my email address is I can be slow to respond, but I read every message! I would love to hear your thoughts.

Heartbeat of Education Webinar Series

I’m delighted to announce the launch of the Heartbeat of Education Webinar Series. In these free webinar sessions, held fortnightly on Thursdays at 6-7pm via Zoom, I will host discussions between a panel of experts on some of the most pressing issues in Primary education.

There’s a specific agenda for each session and the four panellists will hold discussions that that will be relevant for teachers, school leaders and parents alike.

I can’t wait to introduce you to the panellists: they are people I have been challenged and inspired by in my 15 years in Primary education. Whilst we are being joined by top authors and esteemed professors, panellists also include some of the UNSUNG HERO teachers, headteachers and home-school mothers that I have learnt so much from. They are wonderful people, the kind of people who you want by your side in the middle of a challenge! And they all bring very different skills and experiences.

More than anything, we want to interact with YOU. We want to understand your challenges, respond to your needs and engage in a personal, practical way. We want our exchanges to be honest and meaningful. You are very welcome to join the sessions and observe in the background. But you are invited to become an active partner as we work through these issues. That’s why I’m so excited about this format!

Click on the links below to register for the free sessions:
Heartbeat of Education: Leading Emotionally Healthy Schools and Homes in a Pandemic, Thursday 25th February, 6pm-7pm
In this webinar, a panel of leading thinkers, school leaders and parents talk about how we can best support the emotional wellbeing of the children and staff in our care. We will have a 360 degree look at the different challenges that children have faced during the pandemic and how, as educators, we can respond in 2021. With author, educational researcher and leader Emma Turner, headteacher of two schools Mandy Jones and inspirational home-school mother of six children Katy Nyman.

Heartbeat of Education: How Expert Teachers Will Rebuild Mathematical Understanding, Thursday 11th March, 6pm-7pm
In this webinar we will consider how primary teachers can best rebuild children’s mathematical understanding when schools reopen to lay the foundations for long-term success. We will discuss how lesson design, planning and teaching pedagogy may be different post-lockdown as well as a range of other issues including subject leadership, accountability systems and differentiation. I’m delighted to be joined by Y6 teacher and STEM professional development leader Alison Hogben, expert maths consultant Vicki Giffard and Infant School leader and award-winning teacher Toby Tyler.

Heartbeat of Education: Building Children as Mathematical Problem-Solvers, Thursday 25th March, 6pm-7pm
In this webinar we will explore how we can enable all children to flourish as mathematical problem-solvers. We will consider the challenges children face in learning to problem-solve and how, as teachers, we can help to deconstruct and build these crucial skills. The panellists will share their various experiences in building mathematical problem-solving skills and developing problem-solving in other contexts. We will try to offer some light on how schools can support all children to become skilful, resilient, logical thinkers! With London SW maths hub lead and teacher Kate Mole, former school advisor and Deputy Headteacher teaching in Y1/2 James Jones and teacher of 38 years, teaching Headteacher of 23 years, former maths consultant and current Camden maths leader Kate Frood OBE.

Heartbeat of Education: Adapting School Life Post-Lockdown, Thursday 22nd April, 6pm-7pm
In this webinar we discuss how school life can best meet the needs of children post-lockdown. We will consider the different challenges, both academically and personally, that children have experienced and how we can respond to meet the needs of every individual. We are joined by Professor in Child Mental Health Jess Deighton, the phenomenal Salford-based Headteacher Jane Garner and Dr Lynne Bianchi who is the Director of the Science & Engineering Education Research and Innovation Hub (SEERIH) at The University of Manchester who specialises in primary science and engineering education.

Please sign up, join in and please spread the word by telling your friends and sharing this post on any relevant pages. Thanks, Gareth

If you are unable to attend live, a recording of each session will be shared with people registered for the session only. This recording will be available for 4 days after the event. Details of how to access the recording will be shared via a Zoom email the day after the event.

A career of improving teaching skills

Over the summer I read ‘Peak’ by Anders Ericsson, a fascinating book that examines the training that leads to expert performance in various fields. Ericsson studied world class performers (chess players, musicians, sportspeople, doctors etc) and describes the ‘deliberate practice’ that they have engaged in to develop their skill.

Ericsson argued that once we have achieved competence in something, simply ‘doing it more’ rarely leads to improved performance. Instead, a tennis player practises by hitting hundreds of backhands from kicking serves; chess masters train by studying key moves from previous games; a radiologist looks at difficult-to-interpret scans from previous cases to improve their diagnoses.

With my teacher hat on, I took away two main reflections from this book:

1. Focus on improving one small aspect of my teaching at a time
Teaching is wonderfully complex. So many things can affect the success of a lesson – there are so many variables! At any one time, though, I try to have one very specific thing that I focus on improving, and spend an extended period of time developing that one skill.

I remember once focusing for a half-term on having the best possible routine during the morning register. I analysed everything, from the logistics of my classroom layout to the little games and activities that were provided for the children. I would secretly time how long it would take children to be settled, pick through how children engaged with our little morning tasks and constantly make small tweaks to that part of the day. In 6 weeks I had a routine that I used successfully (without much further thought) for many years.

2. When making changes to my teaching, seek specific feedback
I love reading research and getting new ideas. When I first try out a new technique, it’s common that my first attempt(s) don’t go that well. For example, after reading ‘How I Wish I’d Taught Maths’ (Craig Barton) I tried out using ‘hinge-point’ questions as short mid-lesson assessments. At first I wasn’t skilled at exactly when/how to use these questions. I’d always arrange for another teacher to be in my class at those moments (even for just 5 minutes) so after we could unpick what worked and what could be improved.

Equally, I remember my first term in year 1. I would plan lessons with my partner Y1 teacher, but knew that her class were getting better outcomes from those lessons than mine. I learnt so much from popping my head in her classroom and watching what she was doing differently to me at specific moments. Or let’s say my focus is on the engagement of a target group of children during the plenary. I might use a TA to make specific observations about the actions of those children so I have better feedback on the success of a particular approach.

By constantly making small improvements to specific parts of my teaching, I hope that in 20 years’ time I will still be getting a bit better at doing my job every day!

All-New CPD for 2018!

I’m delighted to announce a new range of maths CPD opportunities available for 2018, all with the aim of making my work high-impact and as cost-efficient as possible.

I’m particularly excited to advertise my teaching and staff training days support. Here, I am proposing coming into schools and teaching up to three example lessons per day, allowing teachers to see visual, deep maths learning in action! I would also, if requested, run a staff meeting after school.

I’ve found that my training has had the greatest impact where schools have been immersed in a combination of example lessons and training, so I’m delighted to be able to make this offer. Not that I can promise perfect lessons: I’m very happy, though, for people to learn from both my successes and my failures in the classroom!
Click here for more details about in-school support

Over the last four years I have ran a series of conference training events. However, with school budgets increasingly tight (and the cost of hiring venues becoming increasingly expensive), this no longer seems like a cost-efficient way of delivering training. Instead, I’m looking for schools, teaching schools and organisations that would like to host a conference. This will minimise costs, especially for the host school/organisation.
Click here for more details about hosting a conference

I’m also looking forward to running more whole-school INSET and twilight training events, giving schools a collective, exciting vision for developing rich maths learning experiences. The new pricing structure discounts training for smaller schools and provides significant discounts for cluster training events.
Click here for more details about INSET & Twilight training

At the time of writing I have space for eight more bookings this school year (one day left in May, three in June, four in July) then I am taking bookings for 2018-2019.

I love my work. I teach more maths lessons than ever, meet more passionate teachers every week and have plans to create so many more new resources. I hope, in one way or another, I can help you to deliver great maths lessons!

For more information, email 

For me to improve… September ’17

This is my first blog post in the ‘For me to improve…’ series in which I explain what I’m doing to be a better maths teacher. This blog explains the thought process behind the series.

I’m always looking to use equipment and images to represent concepts, and I like my maths lessons collaborative and open. This makes my classroom management skills important so lessons teeter on the healthy side of organised chaos. My partner Y1 teacher last year was the maestro in seeing a logistical detail that I’d missed. I learnt a lot from her, and I also came across some interesting ideas reading Visible Learning for Mathematics. So here are my five targets for the new term:

Promote a learning action
In each lesson, identify one key ‘learning action’ to promote. My thought process will be ‘Which learning behaviour will improve the outcomes in this particular lesson?’ It could be as simple as turning your body to face your partner; it may be more complex like asking clarifying questions; it might be a maths-specific thing like finding different ways to answer a question.

Prepare individuals for the social demands of lessons
I’m a big fan of small-group pre-teaching to help all children access the big ideas of a lesson, breaking down barriers and predisposing misconceptions. It’s helped me to facilitate mixed-attainment groupings. However, for some children the barriers may be the social demands of a lesson. Perhaps Harry finds it harder to share resources; maybe Jade dominates group discussions. A quick conversation or organisational change beforehand might make a big difference.

Make discussions active
I liked this idea from VL for Mathematics: during a whole-class discussion, put your thumb up on your chest if you agree with the speaker and want to add something; put your fist against your chest if you have a different viewpoint. This encourages children to actively participate in discussions without being intrusive to the speaker.

Exit tickets
I’m going to make a clearer distinction between most questions and tasks, used to generate discussions, and short ‘exit ticket’ tasks that are completed independently and used to give more accurate AfL information. The nature of the marking may also vary depending on the conditions in which the work is completed. I’m hoping that this will help to keep children accountable for their own progress and avoid social loafing in group tasks.

Cognitive load and challenge in calculation
In some lessons, particularly early in a unit, I want the challenge to come from understanding the concept so I will minimise the challenge in the calculation. Consider 14 = 6 + ___ (WR Progress Check, Aut Y1, q4). We can learn the concept ‘= means same as’ using numbers within 5. Once that concept has been secured (a concept which tends to need more than a little reinforcement), the challenge within the calculation can be set at an age-appropriate level.

And as ever this year, I make the same vow to the children in my care:
‘I promise to learn alongside you.’

For me to improve…

No book has had a more powerful effect on me as a teacher than Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed. My summary below doesn’t do the book justice.

Inside every aircraft there are two practically indestructible black boxes: one box records flight information, the other records the dialogue between the pilot, co-pilot and air traffic control. In the event of an accident, the black boxes are hunted down and scrutinised so that the exact causes (or contributory factors) behind a crash can be examined. Crucially, in the aviation industry mistakes are viewed as precious opportunities for improvement. Processes are in place so that these lessons can be shared across the industry. Little wonder that you are infinitely safer in an aircraft than driving to an airport.

Black Box Thinking goes on to examine the cultures that exist in some of the world’s most innovative organisations. It also looks at the damage that can be caused when an attitude of fear, or an unwillingness to learn from mistakes, exists within a profession.

It made me reflect personally. Did I actively seek out my own weaknesses? Was confirmation bias making me blind to my shortcomings? When I started teaching (back in 2004) I really struggled and needed to find ways to improve to maintain some degree of sanity. Since then I’ve always been driven to keep getting better, but my processes for improvement could, well, improve. I made three simple commitments:

  • Broaden my experience.
  • Showcase the weakest (rather than the strongest) aspects of my teaching.
  • Make others feel comfortable to suggest how I can get better.

I think that my greatest responsibility as an experienced teacher isn’t to teach the best lessons, but to model the best processes for self-improvement. That, for me, is about being comfortable with (and even enjoying) vulnerability, and about empowering the people around me.

To that end, each term I’m going to write a blog called ‘For me to improve…’. It will chronicle the mistakes I’ve made and the aspects of my teaching that I’m trying to get better. I’m sure I’ll pick up lots of great advice along the way – episode 1 is coming soon!

Enrichment in mathematics

In the early 20th century, psychologist Lewis Terman carried out a now-famous research project: he aimed to prove that by knowing a person’s IQ at an early age, you are able to accurately predict his or her life success. Using a series of intelligence tests, he identified an elite group of 1,470 children to study. Terman believed that it was these children (and others of extraordinary IQ) that ‘we must look for production of leaders who advance science, art, government, education and social welfare generally.’

Terman carefully monitored the progress of the ‘Termites’ over a period of 35 years to ascertain their life success. The results surprised many, including Terman himself. The group thrived in many ways, most notably being healthier, taller and more socially adept than the average American. However, their achievements were far from remarkable. In fact, a later study concluded that a random sample of people, given the same socio-economic status, would have achieved just as well. Terman himself reluctantly concluded that ‘intellect and achievement are far from perfectly correlated.’

Later studies went on to explore this idea more thoroughly, as explained in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. Generally speaking, people who achieve great professional success have an above average IQ: usually 115 or above. However, beyond this ‘intelligence threshold’, a person’s success is determined far more powerfully by other skills and attributes rather than the full extent of their IQ. Gladwell argued that it is hard to be highly successful without above average intelligence; however, beyond the intelligence threshold success is determined by other factors, for example the character and inter-personal skills of the individual.

Pupils who grasp concepts rapidly should be challenged through being offered rich and sophisticated problems before any acceleration through new content.
National Curriculum, Maths

This led me to think about the nature of the ‘rich and sophisticated problems’ that we should be providing. In order to equip children for long-term success, tasks should help children to develop personal and social skills as well as subject-specific expertise. Easier said than done for a busy and pressurised teacher!

That’s what I’m going to dedicate my working life towards: creating learning experiences in maths that engage children intellectually and emotionally; tasks create curiosity and lead to collaboration. I hope that this characterises First Class Maths, Maths Outside the Box and The Maths Apprenticeship.

I’m convinced that, if the system allows, these are the kinds of learning experiences that we as teachers want to provide for our children.

Personal Skills

Plans for maths, 2016-2017

This is a great time to be involved in maths education: there’s a collective movement towards developing deep, conceptual and varied learning experiences; teachers are being proactive in promoting positive attitudes towards maths; maths hubs are growing in their influence.

I’m excited to play my part in this movement. Put simply, I spend hours thinking about and trialling ways to get children involved in maths tasks that are collaborative, open and (wherever possible) visual. I want children to become engrossed in maths; to experience its agonies and thrills, engaging emotionally as well as intellectually.

Here’s what you can expect from me in 2016-2017:

I can’t wait to release Maths Outside the Box, the natural follow-up to First Class Maths. The 15 tasks (logic puzzles, multi-dimensional tasks and investigations) will give children challenging, quirky contexts in which to apply their learning. The perfect way to end a unit of work – it’s been SO much fun writing and trialling.

I See Multiplication and Division for iPad is also coming soon. It allows teachers to create a range of visual images to represent calculations, including proportionally sized bar models, area models, dot patterns and arrays. It’s the natural follow-on to ‘I See Addition and Subtraction’.

I hope to write a range of open, visual questions that allow children to explore maths ideas in depth. Questions a bit like this:

I’m also planning on sharing lots of free resources, including (time permitting) videos for improving the quality of parent interaction in maths. Watch this space.

It’s a privilege being able to visit schools to share this passion. Here is the information about my training.

Conference events are scheduled for Manchester and Dudley with a KS2 focus. Expect future dates for bith KS2 and EYFS/KS1 training in the Spring and Summer terms. I am also soon to announce a 2-day training event in London (mid-November) and my first half-day TA training event in South Manchester.

I’m totally committed to my 2 days teaching my amazing Y1 class this year: I hope they can learn as much from me as I will from them. I’m always happy to promote the good work of other people & look for ways to collaborate, so be in touch.

I’ve got more plans than time, and more ambition than realism, but hopefully in one way or another I can play my part in enriching primary maths. I will also keep posting as many bits as possible on my social media feeds in the distant hope that it will inspire someone somewhere.

Have a great 2016-2017 school year!

Improving reasoning at the point of answer

Here’s a simple, cost-free, whole-school idea for improving mathematical reasoning – when children give an answer to a question, don’t tell them (or infer to them) in that moment whether the answer right or wrong.

Here are two reasons. First of all, we want to communicate that what we value is children’s thinking, their justification, their strategy; not simply whether they have the correct answer. In doing so, especially when this is a whole-staff approach, I believe that children become less anxious about making mistakes.

Also, by creating a moment of doubt at the ‘point of answer’ we give children the space to check their thinking and explain their thought process. Generally speaking, the greater the child’s certainty, the greater the seed of doubt I try to plant. This can be great fun, and it certainly gives children an incentive to justify and explain.

I always liked Jo Boaler’s three levels of reasoning:

I can convince myself
I can convince a friend
I can convince a sceptic

And don’t be surprised if more able children can find it harder to explain their thinking in certain contexts. I remember Mike Askew saying that if children have found an answer without much of a ‘grapple’, they are likely to have almost automatised that thought process. This can make it harder (but still very important) for a child to explain their solution.

I hope this principle gives you many great classroom moments – it certainly has for me!


Frozen Saltwater and Negative Numbers

Much emphasis is now being placed on representing mathematics practically and visually (and quite rightly). For obvious reasons, it’s harder to do this with negative numbers. Here’s a classic activity that I came across on my first Primary Science Teaching Trust conference for showing children negative numbers in context. It can also be used to answer the question ‘Why do we put salt on the roads when it’s icy?’


Have a container filled with icy water and add quite a lot of salt. By putting the temperature probe into and out of the icy solution, the children will be able to see how the temperature changes (and how numbers change from positive to negative and vice versa) as the temperature goes above and below 0 degrees. Most dataloggers come with software that will allow you to graph this pattern as well as displaying the temperature.

By adding the salt, the freezing point of the solution becomes lower. At the maximum level of saturation for salt (according to Google), the freezing point for a saline solution is -21 degrees Celsius. This demonstrates that the salt doesn’t make the water hotter, as I’ve heard children suggest, but that it changes the freezing point. It’s also worth noting that if the temperature were to fall below -21 degrees it would be pointless to grit the roads.

This context could be used simply as a demo of negative numbers, or it could lend itself to a more extended scientific enquiry. Let’s just hope that thawing ice on the roads isn’t a subject that is too topical for too long!