Can neuroscience inform education?

Michael Thomas thinks neuroscience can finally have a real impact on learning.

X-ray image of brainIn October 2014, the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) and the Wellcome Trust jointly funded six research projects designed to evaluate educational interventions inspired by neuroscience research. One of these is a project by our own Centre for Educational Neuroscience (CEN), targeting the learning of counterintuitive concepts in primary maths and science classes.

What is special about these projects compared to other educational interventions? And can neuroscience truly have a direct influence on educational techniques?

The idea that our understanding of the brain might influence educational techniques is not new, and there is a great deal of interest from teachers and educators in brain-based learning. However, many so-called brain-based techniques have not originated from neuroscientists; their link to the underlying science is sometimes tenuous; and they often lack rigorous supporting evidence for their effectiveness. In fact, some researchers have referred to techniques such as ‘learning styles’, ‘left-brain/right-brain’ and so forth as neuromyths.

The new field of ‘educational neuroscience’

The enterprise of educational neuroscience takes a much longer view: broadly, that neuroscience can inform educational practices in the way that the natural sciences changed public health in the 19th Century. Science changed public health from an approach involving the accumulation of trial and error knowledge (along with some fads and quackery) to one based on an understanding of anatomy, biology, and biochemistry. Nowadays, health professionals have a science-based training, and medical research is a service industry to doctors to provide new, more effective, treatments.

Similarly, neuroscience can provide an understanding of mechanisms of learning and the biological factors that influence them. In turn, neuroscience will influence psychological theories that can then translate into educational implications.

This enterprise will likely take decades, and must be evidence-driven. Moreover, it will be a dialogue, where educators guide the focus of neuroscientists as much as neuroscientists offer insights into learning. Indeed, much of the initial work in educational neuroscience will involve understanding why currently effective educational techniques are successful. Importantly, the approach is not ‘reductionist’. Medicine does not reduce a person to a biological system, and public health remains a community-based phenomenon. Similarly, neuroscience will complement person-based, classroom-based, school-based and community-based approaches to education.

What kinds of things might neuroscience contribute to psychology? Here are a few possibilities. Neuroscience can explain why plasticity (learning ability) should change with age (Thomas, 2012). This is of growing importance in the era of lifelong learning. It can also explain when training in one skill is likely to transfer over to other skills. Transfer will only occur if the training task and the target task utilise the same brain mechanisms. Neuroscience can address the physiological effects on brain function of factors such as aerobic fitness, sleep, or chronic stress, and how these impact on learning.

The CEN was set up in 2008 to develop these new interdisciplinary links, building on the expertise of its component institutions – Birkbeck, University College London, and the Institution of Education – in child development, neuroscience, and education. Current projects include evaluating the effectiveness of multi-sensory cues on learning in the classroom, evaluating the effects of mobile phone use on teenage brain development, and investigating the role of spatial cognition in the learning of STEM skills.

Learning counterintuitive concepts

The EEF and the Wellcome Trust felt the time was right to fund the evaluation of a range of interventions that have been derived from the latest neuroscience findings. One of the chosen projects is UnLocke by the CEN, which targets the learning of counterintuitive concepts in primary maths and science classes.

When learning new concepts in science and maths, pupils must be able to inhibit prior contradictory knowledge and misconceptions to acquire new knowledge successfully. This skill of ‘interference control’ varies between pupils, and variation is evident from an early age. Disadvantaged pupils seem to have weaker control skills than their wealthier peers. Evidence published this year demonstrates that even ‘expert users’ of scientific knowledge (in this case, undergraduates in physics) still need to suppress their everyday knowledge when reasoning about the abstract properties of physical systems (in this case, electrical circuits). Indeed, what makes them experts is partly their greater ability to control their knowledge.

The project will develop a computer game to train pupils’ ability to control interference from irrelevant or misleading background knowledge. Following its development, pupils in up to 100 primary schools will undertake 15 minutes of exercises three times a week, at the beginning of maths or science lessons. In the game, a child-friendly character will try to solve problems with help from the player, providing prompts and suggestions.

The aim is to train the pupil to inhibit their initial response, and instead give a more delayed and reflective answer. Exercises will relate to specific maths and science content. For example, they will help pupils to realise that mice and elephants have the same-sized cells in their bodies, or that the world is round despite seeming flat when you play football on it. Teachers and teaching assistants will receive a half-day training workshop to understand the context and background, but the hypothesis is that interference control improves best with practice, not through a change in pedagogy. The effectiveness of the technique will ultimately be assessed on usual maths and sciences tests.

In line with the evidence-based approach of educational neuroscience, we must remember that these projects are still at the evaluation phase. Time will tell how effective they are, so watch this space.

Michael Thomas is director of the Centre for Educational Neuroscience.

If you are interested in the UnLocke project, please email unlocke@psychology.bbk.ac.uk

References: 

Thomas, M. S. C. (2012). Brain plasticity and education. British Journal of Educational Psychology Monograph Series II: Part 8 Educational Neuroscience, 143–156.

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