Can Neuroscience inform Education? Maybe not. Is ‘Educational Neuroscience’ a good thing? Definitely.

Teachers deal with brains. They may not like to think about their job in such explicitly reductionist terms, but at the end of the day a teacher’s job is to leave a student with a better brain than they started with. They’re like brain surgeons, but they (usually) get home without blood spattered shoes. Of course, we can argue all about what exactly is meant by a ‘better brain’ – therein lies the eternal debate about the point of education – but whatever sort of school you’re in, it’s the same game with a different hat on.

It seems understandable, then, that there has been considerable excitement over the past ten years or so about the fact that the ever expanding field of neuroscience may be on the cusp of orchestrating an educational revolution. Neuroscientists find out how the brain works, teachers do things that accommodate this, students learn more efficiently and everyone is happy. It seems so alluringly simple and, cards on the table here as a teacher-turned-neuroscience-researcher, I really really REALLY want this to be the case. I want it to be the case so much I quit my teaching job and went back to university to try and make it the case! It’s just that there may be some crucial, immovable factors which serve to prevent any useful cross-pollination of the disciplines, regardless of the enthusiasm and biased optimism of those within it.

I want to make two basic points in this blog post.

  1. Why there is scepticism about neuroscience’s ability to inform educational practice
  2. Why I don’t think this matters, and why the educational neuroscience movement is still a positive development for education.

Educational neuroscience. A bridge too far?

This topic has already been covered in detail by much more eminent and eloquent voices than mine (I would recommend Daniel Willingham and Dorothy Bishop as particular starting points), so I will only cover these objections in brief.

levels of explanation edneuro
Some of the levels of explanation separating neuroscience and education

The first main objection is that there are too many levels of explanation between neuroscience and education for it to be useful to teachers (Daniel Willingham would call this the ‘vertical problem’). Neuroscience primarily produces results about brains but, for a teacher, knowing which particular brain area is active is not at all useful to their practice. What are they supposed to do with this insight into their students’ neurological performance? What is needed is a ‘bridge’ between neuroscience and education and, so the argument goes, an effective one already exists – namely cognitive psychology: the scientific study of thoughts and behaviour.

John Bruer has argued persuasively that not only is a direct bridge between neuroscience and education not needed, it could potentially be harmful. Neuroscience might help to tell us why a particular teaching style is effective, but only cognitive psychology (and educational psychology) can find out that something is effective. Teachers don’t need to know why a particular strategy works, just which things work, so neuroscientific information for teachers pointlessly puts the cart before the horse, wasting teacher time and resources.

educational neuroscience bridges
Is a direct connection between neuroscience and education (bypassing cognitive psychology) desirable, or even possible? With apologies to Microsoft Paint.

A second major bugbear is often that many modern research projects that have been bracketed as ‘educational neuroscience’ are not really much more than repackaged testing of cognitive psychology hypotheses given a glossy finish and the all-important “neuro-“ prefix. Take the recent ‘Education and Neuroscience’ research grants awarded by the Wellcome Trust and the Educational Endowment Foundation. Although clearly informed by neuroscience, arguably all of the projects are testing cognitive rather than neuroscientific hypotheses. One example is the Sci-Napse Project, led by Paul Howard-Jones from Bristol University, based on research which has found a stronger neural response to a reward when the reward was uncertain, compared to when it was consistent. Though based on neuroscience research, the outcomes being tested here are very much cognitive and behavioural, such as the effect of the uncertain reward strategy on motivation and attainment. More egregious still for the sceptics is the ‘Spaced Learning’ project, which is testing the educational applications of the ‘Spacing Effect’ (the idea that information is more effectively learned in a number of spaced sessions than in one go). Yet this is a concept which has been known since Herman Ebbinghaus published his treatise on memory in 1885; a time when the field of psychology, let alone neuroscience, was still barely formed!

Is there any hope?

I have spent a good deal of time in the last few years shuttling back and forth along Bruer’s bridge; so much so that I am sometimes reminded of the time I got lost in Sydney and ended up crossing the harbour four times. In so doing, whilst I have a lot of sympathy with the arguments above, I have come to the optimistic conclusion ‘educational neuroscience’ research holds out the promise of huge benefits for education. The view from the bridge is perhaps not as bleak as it might seem, for the following reasons.

1. Who cares is it’s ‘neuroscience’ or ‘cognitive’? Good education research is good education research… and it’s desperately needed.

Firstly, there is clearly a tension between the two objections mentioned above. If you’re suspicious of anyone attempting to skirt the bridge of cognitive psychology, then you can’t criticise research when it turns out to basically be doing cognitive psychology all along. More broadly though, the quality and utility of a piece of research is entirely independent from the particular nomenclature we designate for it. If these are really cognitive or educational psychology studies, then fine. What is important, as far as I am concerned, is that they are large, well-funded and, in most cases, randomised pieces of educational research, in a field where the standards of research can vary hugely in quality. Any teacher who has attempted to mine the literature for signs of what they should be doing differently will be familiar with the enforced trawl through a sludge of underpowered and often poorly designed research in order to find that nugget of usable science. Teachers are always on the lookout for signs that they are doing the right thing, but all too often in the absence of clear guidelines and suggestions from the academic community, snake oil has oozed into the gap between research and practice. Where overzealous and premature marketing doesn’t penetrate, teaching practices are often passed on through an equally unscientific process of anecdote and personal testimony. Why this gulf exists is perhaps the subject for another blog, but anything credible that attempts to fill it, regardless of its position in the academic taxonomy, is fine by me.

N.B. It is important to make clear that I don’t think that even the most credible research findings are good enough to tell teachers exactly what they should be doing. As Tom Bennett is fond of pointing out, research results should be the start of the conversation, not the end. They just ensure that the conversation is being conducted in the right sort of areas.

2. “Neuro-” things are sexy, and sexy gets funded. If we have to call it “Educational Neuroscience” rather than “Cognitive Psychology”, then this doesn’t leave me feeling too dirty.

Speaks for itself this one really. We may not be totally accurate in our description of spaced learning as a neuroscientific concept (even if there has been a lot of neuroscientific research into the phenomenon), but if the end result provides useful pedagogical applications then you can call it ‘Ken Robinson’s Multiple Intelligences Brain Gym’ as far as I’m concerned. Actually, I’m not sure about that last bit.

Of course, we still need to make sure the funding goes to the right studies. I have read plenty of ‘educational neuroscience’ papers where brain scans seem to have been done as an afterthought and add nothing to the results, but this is more of a general issue with funding bodies understanding what they are funding than a problem for educational neuroscience per se.

3. Neuroscience helps to make our cognitive and educational theories realistic.

Teachers are currently bedevilled by educational schemes and theories which are simply not plausible given what we know about the neuroscience of learning and memory. From Brain Gym and Learning Styles – the time-honoured piñatas of evidence-based education – to more subtle but pervasive ideas such as constructivism, multiple intelligences and even the relative malleability of IQ, teachers attempting to sniff out bullshit find it woven depressingly deep into the fabric of their profession. Even if we have to pass through the bridge of cognitive psychology to get there, educational neuroscience can be hugely beneficial if it serves to point out which educational ideas do not make sense, and contributes to the effort to replace them with ones that do.

4. Give it time.

Educational neuroscience is still a baby. And like every baby we have to be careful not to throw it out with the soiled bathwater. Whilst we may never build a bypass around Bruer’s bridge through cognitive psychology (and perhaps we never should), our bridges can become bigger, hold more traffic, and greatly cut down the journey time from one end to the other. Nothing was more frustrating to me as a teacher than seeing ‘new’ educational ideas arrive which I knew had already been mostly discredited in the academic literature (neuro-linguistic programming would be one such example), yet such is the disconnect that this was not an uncommon occurrence. More investment in the field brings the possibility of a much faster transfer of knowledge from the neuroscience lab, to the educational psychology trial, to the everyday classroom, and this can only be a good thing.

For the time being at least, let’s ignore the semantics of precisely what this field is or isn’t. Instead I think we should celebrate a new age of what I hope will be well-funded, well controlled and well disseminated educational research which should be something we can all recognise as a good thing regardless of our original position. And if you still don’t agree then I’m sorry: I was only trying to build some bridges.

Can Neuroscience inform Education? Maybe not. Is ‘Educational Neuroscience’ a good thing? Definitely.