This confused ‘neuro-educationalist’ claptrap won’t help educational neuroscience. 

The notion of a ‘brain-friendly’ education always reminds me of ‘pet-friendly’ hotels, and I think the comparison actually bears some scrutiny. Arriving in even the most ‘pet-friendly’ of hotels, for example, you would not be surprised to find out that you were still expected to exercise some degree of control over your pet. Pet-friendly hotels do not expect the dog to be in charge; they don’t lay sheep carcasses around the lobby for them (and you) to roll in, and the decision to be ‘pet-friendly’ wouldn’t necessitate a complete redesign of the hotel layout and operating system. It is still a hotel, with some allowances made. ‘Brain-friendly education’, on the other hand, seems to often suggest that educational systems need to be subjected to a root and branch overhaul in order to accommodate learners who are entirely subjugated by a ‘developing brain’ which is in-charge, capricious, and requiring of special allowances. It seems less about being ‘friendly’ towards a brain, as much as desperately trying to appease its dictatorial authority.

If you will allow me to coin a few terms here, this ‘despotic-brain’ vision of adolescence assumes what we might call “neuro-determinism” – the primacy of a neuroscientific level of explanation over and above other levels of explanation such as the cognitive and the behavioural. This assumption is central to the claims of an increasing number of ‘neuro-educationalists’, who advocate educational reforms based on recent insights into the developing adolescent brain. It was at the heart of an article in the Washington Post today, which seemed to encapsulate many of the claims and argument techniques of those in the field: ‘Brain-hostile’ education: how schools are failing adolescents. As someone working in the intersection of neuroscience, psychology and education, what irritates me most about articles such as this is that potentially very good ideas are being badly used, with a handful of sensible propositions being swept along in a flood of premature, excessive or unwarranted extrapolations into real life. Some suggestions are deeply impractical, others ignore effective insights from other psychological disciplines which can be far more easily integrated into educational settings. Here is my reaction to some of the points made in the article, and why I think dealing with this sort of misinformation is crucial for the emerging academic field of educational neuroscience.

  1. Brain-friendly”, “brain-hostile”, “brain-ignorant

As I have said any phrase like this sets alarm bells ringing, hinting as it does at an unwarranted primacy of neural level explanations over other levels. This creates a false impression that we are nothing more than a slave to our neural wiring, which is simply untrue. See here for a good summary of the recent trend towards excessive neuro-hype.

2. “ A large-scale national survey of middle and high school students revealed that more than half of all 10th grade students were bored in class and less than half enjoyed being at school… “If we were doing right by our students and our future,” says Brandon Busteed, executive director of Gallup Education, “these numbers would be the absolute opposite. For each year a student progresses in school, they should be more engaged, not less.’’ 

Why? And why does this support anything ‘brain’ related? If teenagers are often bored in school, this is not automatic evidence of a’brain-hostile’ curriculum. If I find a topic boring, I don’t automatically conclude that the topic was at fault for not being sufficiently ‘friendly’ to my brain. Is it realistic that, as they get closer to the major summative exams which will end their school careers, students should also be expected to be enjoying themselves more and more? On a separate note, as people such as Greg Ashman have pointed out, engagement is a poor proxy for learning, so reduced enthusiasm does not necessarily translate into reduced learning.

3. “At a time when adolescents’ emotional brains are jacked up to the max, the middle and high school curriculum suddenly “gets down to business” and becomes emotionally flat in tone.”

It’s true that emotional processing may exercise disproportionate influence in the adolescent brain (see previous post here), but it doesn’t follow from this that we need some sort of tempestuous, emotionally-charged curriculum for them. Admittedly, I don’t know what an ’emotionally-charged curriculum’ would look like, but then I don’t know what an “emotionally-flat” one looks like either.

4. “At a time when the adolescent’s brain increasingly craves stimulation from peers, education becomes more teacher-centered, offering less small-group interaction and cooperative learning than elementary classrooms.” 

Again this suggests an excessive level of neuro-determinism. Also, just because of the (accepted) fact that adolescents brains respond to social interaction differently (see e.g. Chein et al., 2011 or Somerville, 2013), why does this lead to the conclusion that we must place them in these situations more? Adolescent brains also have increased sensitivity and neural responses to risk taking and rewards (e.g. Fryt & Czernecka, 2015) but I can’t imagine the author complaining that “at a time when the adolescent’s brain craves stimulation, society increasingly makes an effort to prevent them from driving too fast or taking large quantities of recreational drugs.

On a more educational note, the idea that more collaborative work would lead to improved learning in teenagers (or any age groups) is generally pretty flawed, for reasons that are well documented by Tom Bennett here.

5. “In addition, teachers promote student embarrassment by posting students’ grades and test results for everyone to see, and ban or restrict social media that could facilitate interpersonal learning in the classroom.”

When does this happen? It certainly isn’t standard practice anywhere I’ve ever worked or heard about. This seems to be a descent into simple misinformation and inaccuracy. Also, with regards to the ‘social media’ point, it should be noted that the use of technology to assist learning is often met with mixed success, especially social media (see e.g. McCoy, 2013;  Sana, Weston & Cepeda, 2013; Junco & Cotten, 2012)

6. “At a point when students’ decision-making skills are at a critical stage of development and the prefrontal cortex is going through a process of fine-tuning, zero-tolerance discipline policies run roughshod over students’ capacities to learn from their mistakes.” 

I’ve written about the adolescent brain’s ability to learn from feedback, and it is true that rewards seem to need to be more salient to produce the same level of response in adolescents as in adults (see e.g. Galvan, 2013)… but is the suggestion here that there should be some sort of brain-differentiation of discipline systems in a school? “Pupil A can have one more warning than pupil B on account of her more immature frontal cortex”? Nonsense. Adolescents are not idiots. They understand right and wrong. The fact that they may push boundaries, break rules and respond slowly to feedback will indeed have neuroscientific roots (as well as partly resulting from increased social freedoms to be able to do these things), but this in no way means that they should be exempted from our normal societal (or school) rules. If anything it makes it more important that they aren’t. Again, this is unwarranted neuro-determinism.

7. “In addition, schools heap required courses on students to prepare them for college, some actually requiring students to declare a major or course of study in ninth grade or even earlier. This approach deprives students of opportunities to take electives that are interesting to them and that might lead to a vocation in adulthood.” 

The make-up of the school curriculum is always a contentious issue. No idea what it has to do with neuroscience though.

8. “During a point when students are entering the developmental stage of formal operational thinking and are able to engage more deeply in metacognition, the curriculum begins to devote more attention to lower-order skills, such as recall of facts, formulas, and details.”

Once we’ve cut through the jargon salad here, we’re left with a point that is a) not about neuroscience, and b) incorrect, creating as it does a false dichotomy between ‘lower-order’ and ‘higher-order’ skills which does not exist. ‘Lower-order’ facts and ‘higher-order’ problem-solving are not rivals; indeed ‘lower-order’ knowledge is a necessary condition for higher-order problem-solving. They are inseparably linked. E.D. Hirsch has spent 50 years trying to get this message out.

9. “Finally, at a time when adolescents have a huge appetite for rewards, teachers start employing higher standards in judging student competence and tend to give lower grades than elementary school teachers.” 

Now I happen to think that the well-documented changes in the processing of reward stimuli in adolescents might be something which could be relevantly exploited in educational settings… but imagine if the ‘solution’ that a school came up with was to simply increase teenagers’ grades (to what? ‘A++’? ‘A****’? ‘A^^^!!@^^”’?). Quite apart from the the obvious stupidity in the idea of an arbitrary increase in teenage grades (and the small problem of looming external examinations, which presumably would not be so inflated), this again falls foul of the fallacy of neuro-determinism. It treats adolescents (or anyone) as drooling idiots, helplessly controlled by their all-powerful developing ‘brain’ and therefore unable to display any skill unless it is in a ‘brain-friendly’ setting. It also ignores the fact that rewards are context-dependent. Getting a ‘C’ grade can feel like a Nobel prize in some contexts, and an ‘A’ grade would be a kick in the teeth if everyone else was getting A****.

10. “The sensation-seeking behavior that can lead adolescents to drug abuse could alternatively be directed toward a highly engaging student-centered learning project. The reward-seeking behaviors that might lure teens into Internet addiction could be tapped through a game-based learning experience in the classroom.” 

A bizarre and slightly threatening conclusion. So are teachers to blame if a student has an internet addiction, because they haven’t game-ified their lessons enough? The sad thing is that, minus the hyperbole, there are relevant and interesting things to say about some of these ideas. Take reward-seeking and game-based learning experiences. As it happens, a large-scale trial of a particular teaching approach derived from neuroscientific evidence about teenage reward processing is currently ongoing in schools. The ‘Sci-napse’ project, lead by Paul Howard-Jones in Bristol, is based on findings about neural responses to uncertain rewards, and involves a ‘gaming’ like system for points scoring within lessons. this is a really exciting and promising project, and I can’t wait to see the results… but we’ll have to wait another year at least for those. Would it really be so boring then, instead of threatening teachers with drug-abusing students if they don’t include enough group work, to have a more measured and sober conclusion? Something like “games involving uncertain rewards in the classroom may allow us to effectively exploit changes in adolescent reward processing for educational benefit, but the tests are ongoing and we’ll know more when they’re done

Ironically, it is the power of ‘neuroplasticity’ – that buzz word of popular neuro-educationalism – which is actually the reason that most of their propositions fail to hold water. Plasticity is precisely what allows us to rise above the ‘determinism’ of our developing (or regressing) cortices. It is what allows us to create behavioural and cognitive strategies which mitigate our weaknesses, be that learning the flute when we’re 80, or revising the Tudors even when we’re bored. These strategies are ‘brain-based’ in the facile sense that pretty much everything that we do is brain-based to some degree, but they are implemented at a level above the neuroscientific. The interplay between these levels is hugely complex and poorly understood, but what is clear is that any developed picture of learning (and so any coherent theory of education) requires all levels to be taken into account. Too often, neuro-educationalists ignore these non-neural levels entirely, creating a neuro-deterministic picture of us (and especially teenagers) as cerebral automatons; slaves to our circuitry without considering the programs that those circuits might be able to run.

The thing which frustrates me most about these sort of articles is that I genuinely believe that neuroscience has a lot to potentially offer to education… just not like this. Hyperbolic depictions of schools as “brain-hostile” dystopias where adolescent dreams go to die (and where the only the only saviour is neuroscience) fly in the face of reality and evidence, and create the impression that educational neuroscience is attempting to circumvent the knowledge and expertise of other established disciplines, such as developmental, cognitive and educational psychology. This is not true at all (certainly it is not true in my mind). I have referred to ‘neuro-educationalists’ in this article to try to differentiate them from ‘educational neuroscientists’, who I see as playing a collaborative role in connecting cognitive theories of learning with the underlying neuroscientific evidence and constraints. Educational neuroscience is struggling for acceptance as a discipline. I briefly covered (and linked to) some of these criticisms in my first ever blog. In a slightly hostile environment it can be tempting to grab onto any show of support, and indeed I first saw this Washington Post article when it was tweeted by a prominent ‘ed neuro’ advocate. But by promoting these articles we only strengthen the case of the detractors and increase the perception of a charlatan enterprise. With friends like these, who needs enemies?

 

References:

Sana, F., Weston, T., & Cepeda, N. J. (2013). Laptop multitasking hinders classroom learning for both users and nearby peers. Computers & Education, 62, 24–31. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2012.10.003

Junco, R., & Cotten, S. R. (2012). No A 4 U: The relationship between multitasking and academic performance. Computers & Education, 59, 505–514. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2011.12.023

Somerville, L. H. (2013). The Teenage Brain: Sensitivity to Social Evaluation. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22(2), 121–127. http://doi.org/10.1177/0963721413476512

Galván, A. (2013). Current Directions in Psychological Science The Teenage Brain : Sensitivity to Rewards. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22(2), 88–93. http://doi.org/10.1177/0963

Fryt, J., & Czernecka, K. (2015). Cognitive control, reward sensitivity and risk-taking in adolescence – research perspectives of the dual systems model. Postępy Psychiatrii I Neurologii, 24, 231–238. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.pin.2015.10.004

Chein, J., Albert, D., O’Brien, L., Uckert, K., & Steinberg, L. (2011). Peers increase adolescent risk taking by enhancing activity in the brain’s reward circuitry. Developmental Science, 14(2), F1–F10. http://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-7687.2010.01035.x

McCoy, B. R. (2013). Digital Distractions In The Classroom: Student Classroom Use of Digital Devices for Non-Class Related Purposes. Journal of Media Education, 4(4), 5–12. Retrieved from http://en.calameo.com/read/000091789af53ca4e647f

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This confused ‘neuro-educationalist’ claptrap won’t help educational neuroscience. 

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