Inhibitory control in science and maths

Start date


End date


Project website



Conceptual change is the idea that when we are provided with new evidence we update our understanding accordingly. The traditional view of conceptual change was that new theories replaced old theories. For example, this suggested that once a child had learned that the Earth rotates around the Sun, their previous theory (based on the experience of seeing the Sun move in the sky) that the Sun rotated around the Earth, was completely overwritten. Recent evidence in adults instead suggests that, in fact, these old, incorrect theories remain stored in our brain in the face of new evidence, and that inhibitory control is needed to suppress the old, incorrect theories [4]. The naïve, incorrect theory is more familiar and intuitive. It needs to be suppressed, and the correct new theory needs to be retrieved and used to give a correct response. 

Within the context of education, misconceptions are frequently observed. They arise when children are asked to reason about counterintuitive concepts and they do not manage to inhibit or suppress their naïve theories, old strategies, or misleading perceptual cues (e.g. that the Sun appears to move in the sky). Importantly, children and adolescents are often taught more and more complex theories as their school years progress, with the expectation that they will replace previously learned simplified versions of the theories with the more complex ones. For example, children initially learn positive integer numbers, in sequence (e.g. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 etc.). They are also taught that 5 is larger than 1. Children practice this until they are very fast at saying that 5 is larger than 1. Later, children are taught about negative numbers, where -5 is smaller than -1. Children often make the mistake of saying that -5 is larger than -1, because 5 is larger than 1, and they find it difficult to inhibit this automatic response and consider the new knowledge they have been taught about negative numbers being organised differently than positive number.

The UnLocke intervention trained children to engage their analytic system and inhibit their automatic system answers, using an approach embedded within the science and maths curriculum. Children did exercises through a computerised game, which encouraged them to inhibit an initial response, in favour of a more delayed and reflective correct response.



Lab members 


  • Denis Mareshal (Project Lead)
  • Hannah Wilkinson
  • Iroise Dumontheil
  • Michael Thomas
  • Andy Tolmie
  • Derek Bell
  • Sveta Mayer
  • Kaska Parayska-Pomsta



The evaluator report finds that Stop and Think improves children's maths and science performance.


  1. 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. C., & Team, T. U. (2019). Domain-Specific Inhibitory Control Training to Improve Children ’ s Learning of Counterintuitive Concepts in Mathematics and Science. Journal of Cognitive Enhancement, in press.
  2. Roy, P., Rutt, S., Easton, C., Sims, D., Bradshaw, S., & McNamara, S. (2019). Stop and Think: Learning Counterintuitive Concepts. In NFER Evaluation Reports (Issue September).


Research groups and centres

Our research is supported by research groups and centres of excellence.

Cognition, Genes and Developmental Variability Lab