Bridge of Sighs. My thoughts on reading yet another paper on the relationship of neuroscience and education

When John Bruer wrote his seminal 1997 paper ‘Education and the brain: A bridge too far’, arguing that the potential of neuroscience to directly influence education was limited, I imagine that he would not have anticipated two aspects of the subsequent debate over 20 years later. The first surprise would be that the substantive points of the debate have hardly moved on at all over that time. A great deal of ink has been spilled by those who agree with Bruer’s scepticism (e.g. here, here, here, here and here) and those who are more optimistic (here, here, here, here, here, here and here), but for the most part they have tended to talk past one another, relying on different characterisations of what a ‘neuroscientific application to education’ actually entails (prime example of this to come). The second surprising consequence of Bruer’s article has been to spawn a whole academic sub-genre of papers about education and neuroscience with ‘bridge’ related titles. We’ve had calls to ‘build bridges’ (e.g. here and here), ‘envisioned bridges’, ‘boundaries as bridges’ and (most enjoyably), ‘bridges over troubled waters’.

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A paper just published in Current Directions in Psychological Science is the latest addition to both exhibits. In ‘Neuroscience and Education: A Bridge Astray’, Michael Dougherty and Alison Robey argue that,

Although we acknowledge the value of neuroscience for understanding brain mechanisms, we argue that it is largely unnecessary for the development of effective learning interventions. We demonstrate how neuroscience findings have failed to generalize to classroom contexts by highlighting the recent popularity and failed results from brain-training research

As this summary suggests, the paper contrasts brain training, an apparent example of an ineffective educational intervention from neuroscience, with more effective educational interventions from cognitive science, for example memory strategies such as spaced retrieval. Unfortunately, this comparison does not stand up to a great deal of deeper scrutiny. I’ll address first my specific concerns with the paper, before trying to show how I found many of the points in the paper symptomatic of my frustrations with much of the previous literature, on both sides of the argument.

 

Building bridges, or building silos?

One of the key assumptions of arguments on the sceptical end of the educational neuroscience debate is that it is possible to very clearly demarcate between research disciplines, e.g. that there is a clear boundary between neuroscience and cognitive psychology. This is obviously essential if you are planning to claim that neuroscience cannot influence education, but psychology can. The problem is that this demarcation is increasingly difficult to perform. The ever-expanding field of cognitive neuroscience explicitly blurs the boundaries between the cognitive and the neural, with each (in theory) reciprocally informing the other. Dougherty and Robey are therefore left with a bit of a dilemma in terms of how to separate ‘neuroscientific’ interventions, from ‘cognitive’ interventions. Their answer is to latch onto some foundational neuroscientific ideas (brain plasticity and synaptogenesis), and to argue that these concepts have not been translated into any useful educational interventions. This is already somewhat shaky ground as pretty much every brain process relies on brain plasticity, including of course the memory changes caused by the interventions based on cognitive theory which they are using as a contrast. However Dougherty and Robey seem want to differentiate interventions which have been initially inspired by neuroscience evidence, as opposed to those initially inspired by cognitive/behavioural evidence. It’s still a difficult and slightly artificial balancing act, but we will accept it for the time being.

 

Their demonstration of an intervention ‘inspired’ by neuroscientific evidence (and also, therefore, their example of the failure of neuroscience to be able to influence education) is the case of ‘brain training’. Brain training interventions (i.e. training on one or more cognitive tasks with the aim that this generalises, or “transfers,” to improved performance on other cognitive tasks and to daily life) has generally been found to be ineffective (see e.g. here, here, here, here and here). With this I am in absolute agreement with the authors. They then write, however:

Brain training is emblematic of the gulf between basic neuroscience and education, wherein seemingly groundbreaking neuroscience findings (e.g., brain plasticity, synaptogenesis, pruning) simply do not scale up to practical education interventions

Is this casual alignment of ‘brain training’ and neuroscience merited? For starters, as the authors themselves point out in the article, ‘brain training’ interventions are just as often called ‘cognitive training’ or ‘working memory training’! This seems somewhat odd if the origin of such training programs can (as the authors seem to claim) be so clearly linked back to purely neuroscientific findings, rather than cognitive psychology, or (whisper it quietly), a mixture of the two. It’s an example of the need for some opponents of educational neuroscience to silo off research disciplines into mutually exclusive territories in order to contrast them; a view which is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain in the face of interdisciplinary research fields such as developmental cognitive neuroscience. Their claim also, however, relies on two key assumptions, which merit dealing with in some more detail.

 

  1. Is ‘brain training’ “emblematic” of educational neuroscience?

The answer to this is a very clear no. There is a huge range of work being done at the moment under the broad banner of ‘neuroscience and education’, and brain training is, frankly, but a tiny fraction of this work. Some of these projects I am very excited about, others cause me concern. For example, I think that far too many ‘educational neuroscience’ projects are designed with little understanding (or interest) in the realities of everyday educational environments. I have taken issue with the unwarranted application of neuroscience into areas of education where it has no business before (e.g. here), and argued that the immediate role of neuroscience in education is not to create brand new, flashy pedagogies or tools, but to help us understand and critique the ideas that are already in use in the classroom (e.g. here and here). In summary I am no evangelist for the idea that ‘educational neuroscience’ research will always produce educational benefit, but I can recognize a misrepresentation of a broad research area when I see one. Treating brain training as “emblematic” of attempts to use neuroscience to improve education is exactly that.

 

  1. Is ‘brain training’ really a neuroscientific idea?

A central part of the argument of Dougherty and Robey is that the interest in ‘brain training’ can be traced directly from basic neuroscientific research findings. I question this assumption. As we have seen already, the fact that brain training is also just as often called cognitive training or working memory training, already raises some doubts as to how purely ‘neuroscientific’ this idea is. Beyond this, however, I would argue that the hypotheses behind brain training are not actually supported by basic neuroscience research and theory, and therefore that the claim that it is a ‘direct neuroscientific intervention to education’ is false. At best, perhaps, it is a ‘direct intervention to education based on a misrepresentation of neuroscience evidence’, but that is rather less catchy. In actual fact, the idea that brain training would be an effective intervention is incompatible with a good deal of what we know about how the brain operates.

Brain training programs rely on the idea of ‘cognitive transfer’, the idea that knowledge or skills learned in one context can be applied to another context (for example, that someone who has improved their ability to do working memory tasks will, as a result, also be better able to do mental arithmetic). Unfortunately, a very large amount of evidence attests to the fact this this is not, in fact, how the brain works, and that brain activity is often stubbornly, frustratingly, context specific. In the influential developmental theory of ‘neuroconstructivism’, for example, context specificity is taken as a central feature of how the brain operates (I have described neuroconstructivism in more detail previously). This means that at all levels, from the neural to the environmental, the activity of the brain is dependent on the context that it finds itself in. Individual neurons compete and constrain one another’s activity. Brain networks do the same, The state of our bodies and the environmental context at the time all also determine the activity of our brain in response to any specific event. In such a system, any neural trace is merely a ‘partial representation’, a representation of the world which captures some, but not all of it. Partial representations are by definition hugely context specific, they record the precise state of the organism at the time of the event, rather than any general underlying feature of it. This means that they don’t generalise very well to other contexts. In one great example (from Karni et al., 1995: note, well before the existence of any ‘brain training’ programs), learning a sequence of movements in one order was found not to transfer to improved learning of a sequence of the same movements in a different order. Given results like this, we should hardly be surprised when brain training programs fail to show transfer to much more distant cognitive abilities.

Dougherty and Robey seem to suggest that brain training programs are a logical extension of neuroscientific findings. I would argue that, in actual fact, a raft of neuroscientific evidence supports the opposite conclusion, that changes in the brain are often context-dependent, and as a result form only partial representations of the world which do not effectively transfer to new contexts.

 

The journal’s gain is teaching’s loss

A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since Bruer first erected it, but I feel that Dougherty and Robey’s article illustrates many of the wider reasons why little progress has been made. A straw man of a ‘neuroscience intervention’, unnatural and forced demarcations between subject areas, strange definitions of what the ‘success’ of a neuroscience intervention would look like (here, successful cognitive transfer, in other cases ‘brand new pedagogical ideas’). Both sides are responsible for these, for example I have been critical (as indeed are the authors of the article), of attempts to co-opt findings which were clearly initially the result of cognitive or educational psychology as ‘educational neuroscience’, based on the fact that we have subsequently done a few brain scans which back up the original findings1. Perhaps the name ‘educational neuroscience’ itself is inadvertently creating some of this tension, suggesting a primacy of neuroscience over psychology. In truth this is not the view of anyone working in the field that I am aware of, but the perception may remain. It is partly for this reason that American researchers have tended to use the more accurate (though less pithy) title ‘Mind, Brain and Education Science’ when referring to the same field.

The sadness in this logical and semantic squabbling is that is has real world consequences. Teachers are genuinely interested in, and keen to learn about, findings from neuroscience and psychology which may be relevant to their practice (Simmonds, 2014). In the absence of any coherent messages from academia (and whilst journals happily lap up publication fees for articles from either side) other voices slide into the void offering ‘brain-based’ solutions to teachers which may be at best ineffective, and at worst downright harmful.

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The bridge which REALLY needs attention is the one to education

The real priority: the collapsed bridge to education

In truth I don’t think it actually matters at all which academic silo/s your data was created in. The debates above are spending time arguing about the order of the traffic, without noticing that the only bridge that is genuinely important here, the one between academia and education, is in a terrible state of repair. The pressing issue, for all parties, is that we still have no coherent framework for translating research findings into educational applications, and hence no clear system for actually finding out which research actually isbeneficial to education, and which is not. Translating research to the classroom is a challenging and complex task, and just as neuroscience findings shouldn’t be applied direct to classrooms, neither should cognitive psychology ones. Amongst other things, any promising research result will need to be adapted, ideally in collaboration with teachers, to create an intervention which is practical (for use in different classrooms and by different teachers), beneficial (i.e. producing outcomes that are of direct relevance and interest to a teacher) and valid (retaining scientific rigour and the ability to be evaluated for effectiveness).  At present, however, there exists almost no formal guidance or research on how this process can best be achieved to the mutual benefit of all parties. This is, for me, a far more important issue than to debate the philosophical implications of bridges between different subject areas.

Only with a proper framework for translating research into practice will we be truly able to see which neuroscientific or psychological findings will translate into valuable educational interventions and which will not. Results will be inconsistent; such is the nature of trying to apply research to the messy real world. I’d love to see it happen, though I wouldn’t like to predict which ideas will prove the most impactful. We’ll just have to cross that bridge when we come to it.

 

Footnote:

1A prime example might be the spacing effect in memory (the idea that information is more effectively learned in a number of spaced sessions than in one go, first reported by Herman Ebbinghaus in 1885), whichis currently under investigation in schools as a project funded by an ‘Education and Neuroscience’ research grant, despite the findings almost pre-dating psychology, let alone neuroscience.

Bridge of Sighs. My thoughts on reading yet another paper on the relationship of neuroscience and education

One thought on “Bridge of Sighs. My thoughts on reading yet another paper on the relationship of neuroscience and education

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