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It’s not brains that learn, it’s people

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 30 May 2018

IOE Events.
For our penultimate ‘What if…?’ debate before the end of term we took a look at the growing field of educational neuroscience and what it could mean for classroom practice.  The technology for showing the inner-workings of the brain is advancing apace, but just how useful are the findings, at this stage anyway, for educational policy and practice?  Could they actually be unhelpful: accusations of ‘neuro nonsense’ abound.  To help us find our way through the science, we were delighted to be joined by a panel of leading educationalists and neuroscientists: Professor Becky Allen, Director of the IOE’s Centre for Education Improvement Science; Steven Rose, Emeritus Professor of Neuroscience at the Open University; Catherine Sebastian, Reader in the Department of Psychology at Royal Holloway, where she directs the Emotion, Development and Brain Lab; and Michael Thomas, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at Birkbeck, from where he directs the Centre for Educational Neuroscience, a collaboration with UCL and IOE.
Our panel identified the various areas in which neuroscience has the potential to inform education policy and practice – including brain health, child and adolescent development, learning processes, typical and atypical development, and socio-emotional skills.  In some cases this will be through offering new insights and trialling new, better targeted interventions; in other cases it will be in prompting new research in adjacent fields such as cognitive psychology.  But perhaps the main message from the discussion was the need for caution – for, on the one hand, humility on the part of neuroscientists as well as those who promote the findings of neuroscience to educators (or certainly a greater willingness to call out misuse or misunderstanding of the science), and, on the other, for scepticism on the part of those on the receiving end of that science.  Contrary to the impression given by some (Brain Gym, learning styles, and so on), there are no silver bullets it seems, just a slow process of edging towards more nuanced understanding of the complexity and dynamism of being a developing human being.  Human nature being what it is, though, we made need to work through quite a few more neuro myths and neuro snake oil products in the process. Once the theories and technologies are out there, the tendency is to use them.
A lot of what we now regard as brain myths didn’t emerge from nowhere – they counted as good science 10 or 20 years ago but are only now seen as oversimplified.  So we need to be on our guard as to what the next myths will be.  Many may well be what teachers are currently basing changes to their practice on, in the cause of evidence-based practice.  In most cases, the best outcome will be that the change in practice doesn’t do any harm.  Teachers will need to weigh up carefully the case for changing their practice.  To help them in that endeavour they arguably need a new profession of translators – neuroscientists themselves do not typically have sufficient knowledge of what is involved in teaching and managing a classroom.
We also need to recognise that the scope for direct translation of neuroscientific findings to the classroom is limited by several factors. Within the brain there are at least seven different systems involved in learning, which are interacting all the time.  Equally, those processes are just one element of learning – they’re joined by factors linked to the syllabus, pedagogy, and school environment, as well as family and societal influences.  Plus, as well as teaching being a skill that’s delivered in the moment, teachers are generally focused on the class as a whole – there’s limited time to focus on how individuals are learning.
Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) – dubbed by some as ‘the most important thing for teachers to know about’ – provided us with a useful case study.  CLT has been around for quite a while, but has taken off recently. The first question this prompts is why do certain theories take off when they do?  In the case of CLT, it has been picked up by prominent voices in the world of education and at the same time offers ready ways in which it can be implemented – steers that fit with lay understanding, and which are unlikely to be harmful (e.g. steers to keep instructions simple, so that they’re not too cognitively demanding).  However, given the difference between subject disciplines, the usefulness of CLT will vary greatly across them. And even here the science is moving on: there is debate within the neuroscientific community as to whether there is a thing that is working memory – instead, there are probably multiple systems involved.  The danger is that what is a useful prompt for teachers to consider becomes an unquestioned fad, or worse, commercialised as a single intervention that ignores complexity, in the process raising expectations about the extent to which performance can be changed.
In the meantime, new theories and technologies to enhance learning continue to emerge from neuroscience.  Spaced learning offers one example.  At the other extreme there are pharmacological interventions such as Ritalin through to transcranial direct current stimulation of the brain.  Many are in their primitive stage, but we’re likely to see more of them, many of which will turn out to be the neuro myths of the future. What we shouldn’t do is let them distract us from attending to the immediate societal factors that impact on our ability to learn.
You can watch or listen to the debate in full here: What if… we were able to say more about how the brain learns?

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