By Phil Heron & Jamie Williams

What can we learn from successful teaching in prison, where the students are often those who didn’t engage well in school? The pioneers of the Think Like A Scientist programme give their verdict on what made the difference when they taught in prison.

Think Like A Scientist is a course designed to improve critical thinking and encourage independent thought for people in prison. The programme, the first of its kind in England, uses short, impactful talks on science topics to bring new information to the class. Through dialogic teaching methods and guided by a critical thinking framework, the students are taught to analyse and openly discuss research and to connect with the outside world through learning about space missions, climate change, natural hazards, the Universe, the science of sleep, and artificial intelligence.  

Many of those who participated in the programme have, historically, not engaged well with formal education. Based on our course feedback, we outline below some practical advice for teaching such students and specifically for students who have no confidence in either themselves and/or in the education system.

To address this issue in our own programme, we aimed to create a classroom dynamic that is accessible, inclusive, and relatable to students from all backgrounds. 

Engaging Hard To Reach Students

Education and employment have been highlighted by the Ministry of Justice as key points in reducing re-offending rates. However, due to restrictive prison environments (Rogers et al., 2014), a lack of funding for prison educational programs, and (most importantly) the impact of prisoners’ previous struggles with traditional classroom settings, teaching in prison is a complex endeavour. As such, educational needs are largely unmet for those in custody (Geib et al., 2011). 

To overcome these obstacles, a key component of Think Like A Scientist is to align education to the needs of students that are harder to reach, rather than students adapting to the pace and structure of an inflexible education program. 

As a result, the course acts as a stepping-stone to more formal education (e.g., GCSEs, A-Levels, and undergraduate courses) through increasing confidence in the student’s abilities in the short and long-term. 

Keep It Relatable

Critical Educational Neuropsychological research (Billington, 2017; Damasio, 2000) has indicated how social, emotional, and cultural factors impacting disadvantaged students cannot be separated from a student’s cognitive ability to learn within formal environments. Furthermore, research into ‘Stereotype Threat’ (Steele and Aronson, 1995; Pennington et al, 2016) suggests that students who believe themselves not to ‘fit’ into educational settings are more likely to perform poorly or withdraw, due to the impression they do not match the profile of students who usually succeed. This can be due to feelings of stigma or ‘minority stress’ (Meyer, 1995; Parker, 1999), relating to race, religion, disability, economic status, sexuality, gender or other intersecting cultural factors; stigma often felt to be subtly reinforced in the language and hierarchies used in classroom settings.

A challenge here was to use relatable cultural references and ‘Plain Speak’ English when teaching, as well as considering who and what was rewarded and prioritised in interactions with students (Goodley et al, 2017).

By visiting successful prison education programs during the development of Think Like A Scientist, it was clear that learners engaged best when the material was relatable (e.g., classes related to criminology and law). Although some topics of our class are directly applicable to daily life (e.g., sleep), the majority of the course focuses on how we think about a subject – a process which is inherently relatable. Think Like A Scientist teaches the ‘the scientific method’ – a framework where we explore what we do not know about a subject and discuss how we can find out more. 

For instance, each session starts with us asking the group to list anything related to the main topic (e.g., what do we know about the solar system?). From here we can understand the key areas to focus on and ask how we can find that out (e.g., Do we need to visit Mars to check for life? Can we send robots? What would they look like? How would they work?). 

By shifting the focus of the program to be about how we think about a subject rather than what we know, the material becomes applicable to everyone. Crucially, this creates an open structure, rewarding exploration and engagement over attainment, suggested to be positive for all learners’ self-esteem and progression (Usten & Eryilmaz, 2018; Saloviita, 2020; Hornby, 2020)

Make It Accessible

A key part of Think Like A Scientist is that it is not taught in typical classrooms – an arena where many of our students have had previous negative experiences. A common place to hold the course is in the library, which is not only sufficiently neutral ground to engage difficult to reach learners, but is also often carpeted, to help with some sensory issues.

Resources whilst teaching in prison are scarce, and often the only teaching aid available (apart from a pen and paper) is language (which turns out to be key). If the language used was terminology heavy or uses allegory, metaphor, or other forms of figurative or culturally specific language this will often be too difficult to process for many students, particularly those with learning difficulties, whose literacy skills are low, or whose experiences either very different, or aren’t sufficiently culturally rich to understand the references made in explanations.

Ensure You Are Inclusive

Although a certificate from a university is offered on completion of the course, there is no formal assessment strategy linked to the program. By breaking down the barrier of grading, an environment of open expression can begin to be created and allow for more potential students to engage. Through the main focus of the course being on how an individual’s mind works to tackle a problem, we are able to tailor the learning experience and bring education to the student.   

Group discussion of opinions on topics are fundamental to the class. In Think Like A Scientist, students are asked to give their thoughts on current topics (after reading recent research) with which there is no scientific consensus (e.g., should we colonise Mars? Is there life outside our Solar System?). As the answers are debatable, the students are allowed a voice on cutting-edge science – the impact of this on a student’s confidence can be highly significant.

Related to the previously mentioned ‘Stereotype Threat’ and ‘Minority Stress’ theories, this flattening of the power dynamic within the classroom meant that learning was made more inclusive and critical barriers to students’ learning (which teachers may or may not be aware of) were removed. 

The Importance Of Encouragement 

From the classes taught in prison, not all students write down their thoughts and submit work. However, for those that do, the work is ‘marked’ by highlighting the main points of their discussion and offering encouragement. Here, it is important to ignore spelling errors and grammar, and focus on the positive aspect of the student submitting thoughts and ideas. 

Incidentally, by setting a task to express their thought process, rather than ‘testable’ questions, the work submitted is often really interesting. For those who submit, the feedback can be “like receiving a prize” as one student wrote in the course evaluation. 

Wider Application? 

Even though the course has been designed with the restrictive and complex prison education system in mind, there is a wider application to this work (specifically in settings where students aren’t engaging in formal education). 

In Think Like A Scientist, the creation of a neutral classroom dynamic (in location and environment), producing content that is relatable, removing the grading structure, and emphasising encouragement have been powerful in breaking down educational barriers. Furthermore, in terms of the consideration of language in the classroom, avoiding assumed previous knowledge and asking explicitly worded questions, alongside the implementation of clean ‘Plain Speak’ English, can make learning resources and discussions accessible to all. 

Adam – Can we put these references in a separate box at the end of the article somewhere?


Tom Billington (2017) Educational inclusion and critical neuroscience: friends or foes?, International Journal of Inclusive Education, 21:8, 866-880, DOI: 10.1080/13603116.2017.1283717

Damasio, A. (2000). The feeling of what happens: Body, emotion and the making of consciousness. London: Vintage. 

Geib, C., Chapman, J., D’Amaddio, A., Grigorenko, E., 2011. The education of juveniles in detention: policy considerations and infrastructure development. Learn. Individ. Differ. 21 (1), 3–11.

Goodley, D., Lawthom, R., Liddiard, K., & Cole, K. R. (2017). Critical disability studies. In The Palgrave handbook of critical social psychology (pp. 491-505). Palgrave Macmillan, London.

Hornby, G. (2020). The necessity for coexistence of equity and excellence in inclusive and special education. In Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Education.

Meyer, I. H. (1995). Minority stress and mental health in gay men. Journal of health and social behavior, 38-56.

Parker, M. N., & Jones, R. T. (1999). Minority status stress: Effect on the psychological and academic functioning of African-American students. Journal of Gender, Culture and Health, 4(1), 61-82.

Pennington, C. R., Heim, D., Levy, A. R., & Larkin, D. T. (2016). Twenty years of stereotype threat research: A review of psychological mediators. PloS one, 11(1), e0146487.

Rogers, L., J. Hurry, M. Simonot, A. Wilson (2014), The aspirations and realities of prison education for under-25s in the London area, London Review of Education, 12 (2) pp. 184-196

Saloviita, T. (2020). Attitudes of teachers towards inclusive education in Finland. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, 64(2), 270-282.

Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69(5), 797–811.

Ustun, U., & Eryilmaz, A. (2018). Analysis of Finnish Education System to Question the Reasons behind Finnish Success in PISA. Online Submission, 2(2), 93-114.


Dr Phil Heron is an Assistant Professor of Environmental Geophysics at the University of Toronto with over a decade of teaching experience, while Jamie Williams is a Social Science researcher and Co-Director of Spectrum First Education, a company specialising in removing barriers to education for autistic adults.


  1. Hello, do you know where can we find the course ” Think Like A Scientist” ? Thank you!

Write A Comment