My qualifications

PhD in Psychology and Human Development
UCL Institute of Education
MA Educational Neuroscience
Birkbeck, University of London
Primary PGCE
Canterbury Christ Church


Research interests


Morris, S., Farran, E. K., & Dumontheil, I. (2019) Field independence associates with mathematics and science performance in 5- to 10-year-olds after accounting for domain-general factors.

Field independence describes the extent to which individuals are influenced by context when trying to identify embedded targets. It associates with cognitive functioning and is a predictor of academic achievement. However, little is known about the neural and cognitive underpinnings of field independence that lead to these associations. Here, we investigated behavioral associations between two measures of field independence (Children's Embedded Figures Test [CEFT] and Design Organization Test [DOT]) and performance on tests of mathematics (reasoning and written arithmetic) and science (reasoning and scientific inquiry) in 135 children aged 5–10 years. There were strong associations between field independence and mathematics and science, which were largely explained by individual differences in age, intelligence, and verbal working memory. However, regression analyses indicated that after controlling for these variables, the CEFT explained additional variance on the mathematical reasoning and science tests, whereas the DOT predicted unique variance on the written arithmetic test.

Wilkinson, H. R., Smid, C., Morris, S., Farran, E. K., Dumontheil, I., Mayer, S., Tolmie, A., Bell, D., Porayska-Pomsta, K., Holmes, W., Mareschal, D., Thomas, M.S., The UnLocke Team. (2019) Domain-specific inhibitory control training to improve children’s learning of counterintuitive concepts in mathematics and science.

Evidence from cognitive neuroscience suggests that learning counterintuitive concepts in mathematics and science requires inhibitory control (IC). This prevents interference from misleading perceptual cues and naïve theories children have built from their experiences of the world. Here, we (1) investigate associations between IC, counterintuitive reasoning, and academic achievement and (2) evaluate a classroom-based computerised intervention, called Stop & Think, designed to embed IC training within the learning domain (i.e. mathematics and science content from the school curricula). Cross-sectional analyses of data from 627 children in Years 3 and 5 (7- to 10-year-olds) demonstrated that IC, measured on a Stroop-like task, was associated with counterintuitive reasoning and mathematics and science achievement. A subsample (n = 456) participated either in Stop & Think as a whole-class activity (teacher-led, STT) or using individual computers (pupil-led, STP), or had teaching as usual (TAU). For Year 3 children (but not Year 5), Stop & Think led to better counterintuitive reasoning (i.e. near transfer) in STT (p < .001, ηp 2 = .067) and STP (p < .01, ηp 2 = .041) compared to TAU. Achievement data was not available for Year 3 STP or Year 5 STT. For Year 3, STT led to better science achievement (i.e. far transfer) compared to TAU (p < .05, ηp 2 = .077). There was no transfer to the Stroop-like measure of IC. Overall, these findings support the idea that IC may contribute to counterintuitive reasoning and mathematics and science achievement. Further, we provide preliminary evidence of a domain-specific IC intervention with transferable benefits to academic achievement for Year 3 children.

Tolmie, A. K., Ghazali, Z., and Morris, S. (2016) Children’s science learning: A core skills approach.

Background: Research has identified the core skills that predict success during primary school in reading and arithmetic, and this knowledge increasingly informs teaching. However, there has been no comparable work that pinpoints the core skills that underlie success in science.

Aims and method: The present paper attempts to redress this by examining candidate skills and considering what is known about the way in which they emerge, how they relate to each other and to other abilities, how they change with age, and how their growth may vary between topic areas.

Results: There is growing evidence that early-emerging tacit awareness of causal associations is initially separated from language-based causal knowledge, which is acquired in part from everyday conversation and shows inaccuracies not evident in tacit knowledge. Mapping of descriptive and explanatory language onto causal awareness appears therefore to be a key development, which promotes unified conceptual and procedural understanding.

Conclusions: This account suggests that the core components of initial science learning are (1) accurate observation, (2) the ability to extract and reason explicitly about causal connections, and (3) knowledge of mechanisms that explain these connections. Observational ability is educationally inaccessible until integrated with verbal description and explanation, for instance, via collaborative group work tasks that require explicit reasoning with respect to joint observations. Descriptive ability and explanatory ability are further promoted by managed exposure to scientific vocabulary and use of scientific language. Scientific reasoning and hypothesis testing are later acquisitions that depend on this integration of systems and improved executive control.

Morris, S., Dumontheil, I., & Farran, E. K. (2021) Responses to Navon tasks differ across development and between tasks with differing attentional demands

Navon hierarchical stimuli are designed to measure responses to the global level (grouped local elements, e.g. a forest) and the local level (individuated local elements, e.g. trees) of a visual scene. Cross-sectional evidence suggests that there are developmental changes in global and local processing. We examined global and local processing in 135 typically developing children in Year 1 (aged 5–6 year), Year 3 (aged 7–8 years), and Year 5 (aged 9–10 years). Participants completed a range of Navon tasks, each with different attentional demands. The design of the Navon stimuli remained constant across the tasks, ensuring that any task-related differences were not due to stimulus characteristics. Sixty children from Years 1 and 3 repeated the testing session two years later. Linear mixed model analyses combined longitudinal and cross-sectional data to assess developmental changes and the influence of attentional task demands on responses. The results revealed differing patterns of global and local processing responses according to Year group and attentional task demands. We found some evidence of developmental change in responses from a relatively more local advantage to a relatively more global advantage, which is consistent with the literature. However, the age at which this transition occurred varied across the tasks. We conclude that responses to hierarchical Navon stimuli are modulated by attentional task characteristics which mask any underlying global or local processing advantage.