From the Enlightenment to neurobollocks: The ‘myth of progress’ in teaching

In my last post I looked at recent research which illustrated that brain-training is not as effective as the adverts might make out, as well as reminding us that many of the benefits claimed by brain-training programs are available using existing, often time-honoured and rather mundane methods. This lead me to think about why this bias towards the novel exists, to the point where we may systematically ignore solutions that have been effective for years.

The concept of universal education can be traced back to the Enlightenment, indeed it is one of the most enduring products of the period. In a “post-factual” age when, in the words of Stephen Fry,

the achievements of the enlightenment are questioned, ridiculed, misunderstood and traduced by those who would reverse the progress of mankind

it is notable that the notion of universal education has never been seriously questioned. It was the product of two major Enlightenment advances, one scientific and one philosophical. Firstly, scientific breakthroughs from the likes of Newton, Kepler and Galileo led to an optimistic outlook regarding humans’ ability to comprehend and shape the world around them. Subsequently, John Locke and other figures from the emerging philosophical school of Empiricism began to argue that knowledge could only be gained through the senses; through our interactions with the world and by our subsequent reflections on the impressions that these interactions created. Empiricism led naturally on to ideas of universal education; since we all have pretty similar faculties for the sensation of the world, there seemed no obvious reason why all people should not be able to benefit from educational experiences which had, to that point, only been available to a privileged few. Presumably, then, the more people that were educated, the faster still would be the progress and development of the species. The confluence of these two factors – optimism about our scientific capabilities and an empiricist notion of education for all – created a powerful narrative which persists today: humans are capable of greatness and education is the tool for that greatness to be realised as widely and as effectively as possible. Education as the engine of human progress. So far so good, and I agree…

But this optimism can also have a corollary. It can create a general belief that, the occasional blip notwithstanding, we are on something of an inexorable march of ‘progress’. Indeed the notion of ‘progress’ was an important one for many Enlightenment thinkers, who drew a sharp distinction between more ancient voices such as Plato and Aristotle who saw society as a cycle, with periods of progress and development unavoidably followed by decline and disaster. Enlightenment thinkers, especially those armed with the emerging theories of evolution in the late 18th century and beyond, often presented ‘progress’ as an essential part of human nature, with our increasingly successful adaptation to our surroundings reduced to a simple (and inevitable) biological necessity. This narrative of progress is powerful and seductive, but it is also potentially dangerous one. Theories regarding the ‘progression’ of the species have been at the heart of some of the worst of subsequent human thought, justifying eugenics and genocide. In a less serious form, however, a blinkered faith in human ‘progress’ can lead to either a casual over-optimism regarding our current actions, or a tendency to embrace the ‘new’ and to reject the status quo. In both cases, this novelty bias can encourage us to change systems without due scrutiny being applied to their newer replacements.

Teaching, as we have said, is an Enlightenment profession. The nature of teaching means that many of the goals of the Enlightenment are also implicit assumptions of the profession. The belief in improvement through information, that the widest benefits for the world will come from the widest dissemination of knowledge, a passion for the democratisation of learning and so on. It is hard to imagine anyone entering the profession without holding these basic assumptions. In addition, it is not a profession where we can ever conceivably judge that we have done enough, or produced the ‘best possible’ results, so there is always a desire for progress: better exam results, value-added scores, enrolment figures, university entry rates etc etc – something could always be improved. Yet perhaps the same Enlightenment-era zeal which drives us can become something of a double-edged sword, leaving us vulnerable to falling for the ‘myth of progress’. I would argue that, just as it embodies many of the virtues of the Enlightenment, teaching is also prone to demonstrate the occasionally casual over-optimism of the time, and to embrace the novel over the time-honoured too unquestioningly. ‘Change for change’s sake’ is a frequent lament in the classroom in response to yet another management initiative, but teachers also need to critique their own classroom practice in the same spirit. How often do we jump to incorporate trendy new ideas or the latest cultural craze into our lessons (Pokemon Go, Minecraft, iPads etc etc), without really assessing how we are expecting it to make for a more effective learning experience? Another example might be the over-eager and premature adoption of new scientific ideas (gleefully exploited by unscrupulous edu-quacks), which has lead to widespread misinformation about the brain and learning amongst teachers (see e.g. here), and bogus interventions like Brain Gym, the Dore program or inappropriate use of the ‘growth mindset’. We also have explicitly named ‘Progressive’ education movements, which may embody many modern values, some of which have been translated into educational programs without due assessment of the relevance or efficacy of this translation. Changes in conceptions of individual rights and freedoms have metamorphosed into doctrines of student choice or ‘personalised learning’, which in turn have engendered such ineffective educational enterprises as ‘free-schools’ or learning styles.

I should be clear here that I don’t think that these problems are unique to teaching as a profession; I am sure that a good deal of this novelty bias is a natural human tendency shared by us all. But I do think that the aims of the profession, along with the inherent difficulty in ever defining or measuring ‘success’, make it especially vulnerable to a headlong search for the next new magic idea. Sometimes, however, what we’ve got already may actually work pretty effectively. Let’s try to remember that for when the next bandwagon rolls into town.


Dekker, S., Lee, N. C., Howard-Jones, P., & Jolles, J. (2012). Neuromyths in Education: Prevalence and Predictors of Misconceptions among Teachers. Frontiers in Psychology, 3, 429.

Howard-Jones, P. (2014). Neuroscience and education: myths and messages. Nature Reviews. Neuroscience, (October).

From the Enlightenment to neurobollocks: The ‘myth of progress’ in teaching

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