Theories and teachers' notes for Brain Blaster

Welcome to Brain Blaster:

Brain Blaster is a brand new series of workshops for primary and secondary school students from Reception through to Year 13, launched in May 2016 and created by Psychologist of Education, Gavin Ucko and informal educators Copeland Hewitt and Joshua Miller.

What we would like to do here is to explain the psychology behind the workshops in order to give you as the teachers a better perspective on how and what your students are achieving as they work their way through the programme.

How to turn your students into INDEPENDENT LEARNERS AND THINKERS:

The psychology behind Brain Blaster:

Brain Blaster is a completely new concept in school workshops. Nothing like this has ever been done before! With your students in teams, It uses audio-visual mind trickery, bizarre maths, 3D team challenges, blindfolded fishing and Big Ben's chimes... all in your school hall and with up to 300 of your students per day.

The research behind the programme is based on three sets of psychological research.

The first of these is the work of Arthur L. Costa, the emeritus professor of education at California State University, Sacramento, and cofounder of the Institute for Intelligent Behaviour in El Dorado Hills, California. Costa's'Habits Of Mind' - a series of life skills which every person needs in order to confront and overcome problems and challenges and operate effectively in society, underpin the rationale behind the work that your students will be doing in the workshops.

Brain Blaster will help to arm your students with the skills to work through real life challenges and situations, allowing them to respond with awareness, creativity and deliberate strategies, in order to achieve a positive outcome. It will help them to become resilient and encourage them to persevere.

The Brain Blaster workshops really will improve these key 'Habits Of Mind';

  • Persisting - sticking to the task in hand and seeing it through to completion whilst remaining focussed.
  • Thinking and communicating with clarity and precision - Being clear when sharing ideas and listening to those of others.
  • Managing impulsivity - Pausing to consider different options, being considerate to those working with you and staying calm when things get challenging.
  • Listening with understanding and empathy - Paying attention to the ideas of others and giving them due consideration, respecting the ideas and opinions of others.
  • Creating, imagining, innovating - Thinking outside of the box.
  • Thinking flexibly - Weighing up the pros and cons of ideas and generating alternatives.
  • Thinking about thinking (metacognition) - Being aware of your thoughts and actions ; knowing what you are saying to others and considering the impact of your choices.
  • Taking responsible risks - Facing the fear of making mistakes and not letting them prevent you from achieving your goal.
  • Questioning and posing problems - Considering the information you need to know and the obstacles you need to overcome. Devising strategies to achieve this.
  • Thinking interdependently - Working willingly with others, welcoming their contribution, abiding by group decisions and learning from others.
  • Applying past knowledge to new situations - Using what you have learned previously to help you in new situations.
  • Remaining open to continuous learning - Being willing to admit to yourself that there are things you don't know and welcoming new ideas and information.

As your students work their way through the workshop, you will see that different 'Habits Of Mind' will be nurtured, often in different ways. In a moment, we will take you through the individual challenges facing the students and look at what each one strives to achieve.

Although the 'Habits Of Mind' underpin the programme, there are two other areas of research on which we have focussed in order to create Brain Blaster.

The first of these is the work of Carol Dweck, a renowned psychologist at Stanford University who has spent many years researching what it is that makes us achieve things and succeed. Dweck's ground breaking theories distinguish between two different 'Mindsets' that people have. They apply just as much to students as they do to adults.

In a 'Fixed Mindset', people believe that their intelligence, talents and qualities are something fixed and that their talents alone will lead to success without effort and development. That, according to Dweck, is untrue. In fact, the suggestion is that a fixed mindset actually stands in the way of success.

In a 'Growth Mindset', Dweck suggests that people realise that their abilities and talents can be nurtured and developed as a result of hard work and dedication. The talents and intelligence with which they are born merely provide a starting point.

When a person has a 'Growth Mindset', it creates a resilience and a love for learning - two essential ingredients for long-term success and achievement. Dweck believes that almost all of the world's most successful people will have a 'Growth Mindset'.

As teachers, how powerful would it be if we could move all of our students to a 'Growth Mindset'? They would be motivated, resilient and above all, when things get tough, they will persevere. It will have a positive effect on their school work, social lives and relationships in general. Brain Blaster will cleverly start to instil in your students, the seeds of a 'Growth Mindset'.

During the workshops your students may ask themselves; 'Am I sure I can do it? Maybe I am not clever enough!'. The 'Growth Mindset' will replace that with; 'I might not be able to do this now, but if I put thought, time and effort into the task then I believe I can learn more how to do it!'.

Your students may also tell themselves; 'If I don't try then there is no chance of me looking stupid when I mess things up!'. The 'Growth Mindset' will change that response to; 'If I don't try then I have no possible chance of succeeding, which is what I want to do.'.

And perhaps most importantly, your students may tell themselves; 'If I don't succeed at the task, that will make me a failure.'. Brain Blaster aims to change that response to an understanding that the world's most successful people have almost always experienced failures along the path to success. Of course, as teachers, we instil into our students the fact that it's ok to fail. These workshops will take that a stage further and turn a failure into something that drives you forward with determination and perseverance.

The final piece of research which we have drawn on in creating Brain Blaster seems at first not to fit with the rest of the theories, but you'll be surprised how powerfully it does and why it adds a new dimension to the programme.

It centres around research into the unreliability of eye-witness testimonies and how our brains fill in the gaps when we only see or hear part of something that is happening right in front of us. We're going to use this evidence to improve your students' listening skills and give them an understanding of why focussing their attention on something in the classroom will lead to greater success in their work.

Have you ever wondered whether you actually see everything that is in front of your eyes? Have you have ever lost something, then spent ages looking for it, only to find it right under your nose? Of course, we have all done that. Sometimes we look at things, but do we actually see everything that is actually there? Imagine if we could! Imagine if we could actually take in all of the information around us the whole time. What if we saw every single colour, noticed every single shape, every texture.... It's actually almost impossible to do for more than a few seconds at a time, largely because the world is so full of distractions.

In fact, often we don't see things that are there at all - our brains fill in the details: "Memory is a reconstructive process," says Richard Wise, a forensic psychologist at the University of North Dakota. "When an eyewitness recalls a crime, he or she must reconstruct his or her memory of the crime." This, he says, is an unconscious process. To reconstruct a memory, the eyewitness draws upon several sources of information, only one being his or her actual recollection.

"To fill in gaps in memory, the eyewitness relies upon his or her expectation, attitudes, prejudices, bias, and prior knowledge. Furthermore, information supplied to an eyewitness after a crime (i.e., post-event information) by the police, prosecutor, other eyewitnesses, media, etc., can alter an eyewitness's memory of the crime."

That external input is what makes eyewitness testimony so unreliable. Eyewitnesses are generally unaware that their memory has been altered by post-event information, and feel convinced they're recalling only the incident itself.

Audio memory is slightly different. Lots of sounds are classified as 'white noise' - that is to say sounds which simply blend into the background. Most of us will know someone who lives in a house that backs onto a railway line. They probably never notice the trains because their hearing and brain simply adjust to them always being there. But somebody who comes into their house for the first time is likely to notice every train because the sound is outside of a regular context. The same applies to people who live near airport runways. Most of us would think that it would drive us to insanity to have bellowing aircraft overhead every thirty seconds - yet after a while it becomes white noise that you don't notice.

So what is the point of all of this? Well there are times when we need to really focus on what is going on around us. Pick the details that are there and you can achieve something amazing. Brain Blaster will help your students to achieve that, and in the process it will help them to improve their listening skills.

So that's the research and the theories that have lead to the creation of these workshops.

Brain Blaster - The Programme

We are now going to take you through the elements of the programme so you can understand why we are doing each one and what we are trying to achieve.

Remember that you won't see all of the challenges in your programme - your presenter will judge the workshop as it progresses and select the challenges which he/she feels will achieve the most with your students according to their Key Stage, strengths and weaknesses.

At any stage, please feel free to ask any questions, make any suggestions and ask for or give feedback!

Finally be aware that each of these challenges is adjustable to different levels of difficulty, so what you read below may vary in content accordingly.

The Challenge: The Audio Jumble

Main Focus: Listening Skills, Thinking Interdependently, Questioning and Posing Problems.

What Happens?: Every team hears an audio track full of mixed up sounds. Depending on the age group, this lasts between 40 and 60 seconds. There's a lot to take in. The students will hear the sounds again, but first they must come up with a strategy for remembering them as a team.

What should it achieve?: The sounds come so fast at you, it becomes almost impossible to process them. By recognising the boundaries of what your own brain can process, you can create a system that will allow you to remember every sound.

The Challenge: Blind Fishing: Communication and Trust

Main Focus: Persisting, Managing Impulsivity.

What Happens: In order to solve these challenges effectively, you have to do two things - communicate well and trust that the person with whom you are communicating is telling you the truth and is guiding you well. Each team is going to receive two fishing rods and sixteen fish. Half of your team will be playing against the other half of the team. One person in each half team wears the blindfold. The other people in the team must guide the blindfolded fishermen to collect four different fish, each one a unique colour. in other words, the winning half of the team will be the first to collect four different fish with one being red, one yellow, one blue and one green. The fishermen have no idea what they are doing, so their team mates must guide them to catching the fish. Only the fishermen can touch the rods or the fish. As soon as one team finishes, the blindfolds move to different players and you race again.

What should it achieve?: This task is very much about focus and perseverance. It sounds easy, but it is anything but! Each fish caught represents a little achievement.

The Challenge: Scales, Weights and Three Little Pigs!

Main Focus: Thinking Flexibly, Thinking and Communicating With Clarity and Precision

What Happens?: Each team receives a set of traditional weighing scales, together with a series of weights and three piggy banks. The task is simple. Your students have to work out how to divide up the weights so that each of the piggy banks holds an identical combined weight. Like all of these challenges it sounds easy, but of course there is a catch.

What should it achieve?: There is of course a mathematical basis to this problem. It will encourage your students to examine all of the information before them and use it effectively. The temptation is to use trial and error, when in reality there is a need to put basic information to effective use.

The Challenge: Musical Marble Run and Big Ben's Chimes

Main Focus: Thinking and Communicating With Clarity and Precision, Listening With Understanding and Empathy, Managing Impulsivity, Thinking Interdependently

What Happens?: Your students' task is to turn the pieces they have into a marble run that features the sound of Big Ben's chimes. Not only do the bells need placing in the correct order, they also need to be spaced correctly, so that the bells chime at the correct speed.

What should it achieve?: It seems a monumental task, but with effective teamwork, students will learn how to use their own skills effectively with those of the rest of the team.

The Challenge: The Longest Equation In The World

Main Focus: Creating, Imagining and Innovating, Thinking About Thinking, Persisting, Applying Past Knowledge To New Situations

What Happens?: 24 numbers, eight function symbols and all of them have to be turned into one long equation with the correct answer. No calculators allowed. It should be impossible, but if you think logically, the answer is obvious!

What should it achieve?: This is all about thinking outside of the box and realising the importance of widening the way in which you approach challenges. The beauty of this challenge is that even if you don't manage to solve the equation, you'll still learn just as much from understanding the solution.

The Challenge: The Word Grid:

Main Focus: Taking Responsible Risks, Questioning and Posing Problems, Persisting, Thinking and Communicating With Clarity and Precision

What Happens?: Each team has a 4x4 grid and a series of letters. The challenge is to fill the 16 spaces on the grid so that every row displays a valid word, with the same four words showing vertically in the four columns in the same order!

What should it achieve?: This is all about communication and risk taking as well as confidence building. It looks as though it will all be so easy - think again!

The Challenge: The Restaurant Conundrum:

Main Focus: Thinking and Communicating With Clarity and Precision, Thinking Interdependently, Thinking Flexibly, Managing Impulsivity

What Happens?: Your students' task is to lay the table so that everything appears in the correct place. To achieve this you'll need to follow a series of written clues which have been designed to cause as much confusion as possible.

What should it achieve?: It's all about logical deduction and carrying information forward. With the amount of information that needs to be utilised, the team needs to remain focussed and logical.

The Challenge: Light Refractions:

Main Focus: Applying Past Knowledge To New Situations, Persisting, Managing Impulsivity

What Happens?: A series of angled mirrors and a laser beam need to be positioned so that when the laser fires, it bounces off the mirrors and hits its target.

What should it achieve?: Encourages students to look at a problem as a whole rather than in isolated segments. Also improves spatial awareness and sequencing skills.

The Challenge: Fraction Formula:

Main Focus: Applying Past Knowledge To New Situations, Managing Impulsivity, Thinking Interdependently

What Happens?: Each team receives three test tubes and a series of fraction chunks. The aim is to fill all of the test tubes perfectly.

What should it achieve?: Understanding that knowledge you take from previous experiences (in this case learning about fractions) can be used in different contexts.

The Challenge: The Balancing Monkeys:

Main Focus: Remaining Open to Continuous Learning, Questioning and Posing Problems

What Happens?: The blocks initially seem to be identical, but they're not. Some have been weighted to the side making it possible to create seemingly impossible structures. Your eyes are not actually playing tricks on you!

What should it achieve?: Understanding that things may not be what they seem, encouraging students to question the information in front of them and not make assumptions.

The Challenge: Day and Night:

Main Focus: Questioning and Posing Problems, Thinking Interdependently

What Happens?: Simple multi-level puzzles for the younger year groups.

What should it achieve?: Improving confidence in lateral thinking tasks understanding how to effectively share ideas.

The Challenge: The Stacking Tower:

Main Focus: Thinking Flexibly, Applying Past Knowledge To New Situations, Thinking Interdependently, Persisting, Questioning and Posing Problems

What Happens: A challenge for the younger year groups in which a series of blocks must be locked together to form a tower.

What should it achieve? Encouraging effective communication and teamwork. Looking beyond trial and error for strategies.

Typical workshop content by Key Stage

Remember that these are just examples as a guide - your actual workshop content may vary. It will include some or all of the challenges shown!

Key Stage 3 and 4

  • The Audio Jumble - Level 3
  • Blind Fishing
  • Scales, Weights, and Three Little Pigs - Level 3
  • Musical Marble Maze
  • Longest Equation In The World
  • The Restaurant Conundrum
  • The Word Grid - Level 3
  • Light Refractions

Upper Key Stage 2

  • The Audio Jumble - Level 2
  • Blind Fishing
  • Musical Marble Maze
  • The Restaurant Conundrum
  • The Word Grid - Level 2
  • Light Refractions Laser
  • Fraction Formula

Lower Key Stage 2

  • The Audio Jumble - Level 2
  • Blind Fishing
  • Scales, Weights, and Three Little Pigs - Level 2
  • Musical Marble Maze
  • The Balancing Monkeys
  • Longest Equation In The World
  • The Restaurant Conundrum
  • The Word Grid - Level 1
  • Light Refractions

Key Stage 1

  • The Audio Jumble - Level 1
  • Blind Fishing
  • Scales, Weights, and Three Little Pigs - Level 1
  • Musical Marble Maze
  • The Balancing Monkeys
  • Stacking Tower
  • Day And Night
  • Fraction Formula


  • Non-blind Fishing
  • The Balancing Monkeys
  • Stacking Tower
  • Day And Night