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What Neuroscience Can and Cannot Tell Us About Learning

‘Based on neuroscience’ might sound like a convincing argument in favour of the next best teaching technique – but beware...

  • What Neuroscience Can and Cannot Tell Us About Learning

With the advent of increasingly inexpensive access to brain imaging technology, neuroscience has entered a fascinating period of rapid advancement. The ability to generate images of what’s going on in our brains is hugely exciting, and the enthusiasm for trying to apply this science to education should come as no surprise.

However, neuroscience is probably the ‘wrong level of description’ to provide meaningful insight into classroom practice: observing the actions of particular groups of neurons, or activity in various regions in the brain, is a long way from teaching a classroom full of children.

Concepts like neuroplasticity, or findings about the role of dopamine in learning, provide few insights into how best to teach maths to 11 year olds.

As professor of developmental neuropsychology, Dorothy Bishop says, “Neuroscientists can tell you which brain regions are most involved in particular cognitive activities and how this changes with age or training. But these indicators of learning do not tell you how to achieve learning. Suppose I find out that the left angular gyrus becomes more active as children learn to read. What is a teacher supposed to do with that information?”

Persuasive language

Where neuroscience has most to offer education is in testing cognitive theories and models of how children learn.

Take the example of dyslexia. For decades a debate raged between those who were convinced the condition was caused by a disorder of visual-perceptual system, and others who were equally sure that phonological problems were at dyslexia’s root.

Brain imaging techniques have shed much-needed light on which of these rival hypotheses provides the better explanation. Currently, studies finding reduced activation in the left temporoparietal cortex suggest that dyslexia is better explained by phonological rather than visual perception narratives.

This is invaluable information and lets teachers know their time will be best spent embedding phoneme grapheme relationships rather than mucking about with coloured filters.

However, what teachers really need to know about neuroscience is the extent to which its language and imagery can be used to baffle and bamboozle.

Several well-meaning but misguided attempts to apply neuroscience to teaching have led to a whole suite of myths and misconceptions.

Sometimes these are based upon ‘hyped’ versions or distortions of genuine findings, other times they appear entirely spurious; merely cloaking themselves in the language of neuroscience to give the ideas a veneer of plausibility.

One of the most widely believed is the thoroughly debunked notion that students have different learning styles. Others include such hoary old chestnuts as the belief that we use only 10% of our brains (in fact we all use pretty much all of brain pretty much all of the time), the idea that people are preferentially ‘right-brained’ or ‘left- brained’ (we’re not, we need our whole brain in order to be logical and creative as anyone who’s ever tried to lop off one hemisphere or other very quickly learns), and the bogus assertion that children’s cognitive development progresses via a fixed series of age-related stages.

Stay sceptical

One study into how neuroscientific explanations influence beliefs divided participants into four groups, with each asked to read brief explanations of psychological phenomena, none of which required a neuroscientific explanation.

Half the participants read good explanations, the other half bad explanations. Additionally, half the participants saw spurious neuroscientific justifications specifying an area of activation in the brain, whilst the other half did not.

Participants then had to rate how satisfied they were with the explanations given for each phenomenon. Although participants could tell the difference between the good and bad explanations, the presence of the irrelevant neuroscientific information led them to judge the explanations, particularly the bad explanations, more favourably.

Unsurprisingly, the less we know about neuroscience, the more likely we are to be persuaded by explanations that use technical language and scientific terminology. There’s even evidence that we may find scientific articles more credible when a picture of a brain scan is included!

Given the limitations of directly applying neuroscientific evidence to classroom settings, as a rule of thumb we should probably exercise professional scepticism when anyone claims that a method of teaching is ‘brain-based’ or supported by ‘neuroscience’.

There’s a good chance that such terminology is being bandied about to persuade us rather than to genuinely justify the approach to teaching.

For now, neuroscience offers teachers little beyond a very limited ability to corroborate or contradict psychological theories. A little less credulity when we see those brain images would go a long way.

David Didau is an independent education consultant and writer. He blogs at learningspy.co.uk.

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