Educational Neuroscience: Benefits, challenges and myths
Educational Neuroscience is an emerging field whose goal is to translate new insights, garnered from the study of neural mechanisms underpinning learning, into practical applications in the classroom, in order to improve learning outcomes.
According to the article Educational Neuroscience: Challenges and Opportunities, written by P N Tandon and Nandini Chatterjee Singh, Educational Neuroscience is a multidisciplinary field wherein the aim is to link basic research in Neuroscience, Psychology, and Cognitive science with educational technology.
Educational Neuroscience is founded on the basis that new findings in this field may become helpful for teachers in the classroom.
Research in this field started in the 1990s when technological advancements in brain imaging spurred the progress in scientific understanding of how the brain supports the mind, and its facility to learn. American neuroscientists Edward G Jones and Lorne M Mendell called this period ‘the decade of the brain.’ Educational Neuroscience is also referred to as ‘mind, brain and education’ and as ‘neuroeducation.’ This field supports a number of research centres, journalists and conferences and falls under the broader banner of the ‘the Science of Learning.’
Educational Neuroscience is founded on the basis that new findings in this field may become helpful for teachers in the classroom. However, it does not maintain that brain-level explanations are the best, nor does it seek to reduce education from its intrinsic nature as a societal and cultural enterprise. The contributions of educational neuroscience as a discipline are considered to be more modest – an understanding of mechanisms of learning may help improving some learning outcomes.
Even though Educational Neuroscience has the potential to bring great advancements in educational practices, it comes with its own unique set of challenges. Teachers are often enthusiastic about brain-based techniques, but there are so many myths in the public understanding of the brain. For example, we only use 10% of our brains, or some children are left-brain learners while some are right-brain learners.
According to the research study Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence, written by Harold Pashler, Mark McDaniel, Doug Rohrer and Robert Bjork, these neuromyths have frequently led to implementation of classroom practices without enough scientific support or evidence. It is important to educate the public about these existing myths. However, it should be also acknowledged that even after these efforts, ineffective methods will continue to be used.
According to Henry L Roediger, there will be techniques that will be used in classrooms even if there is a body of evidence showing that they are ineffective.
The potential impact of Educational Neuroscience is to improve educational outcomes by changing the most proximal factors to learning – ability, motivation and attention, health and nutrition. The success of this approach depends on the range of barriers that one needs to overcome beyond learning itself.
The first challenge is the translation from basic science to practical application – it is difficult even for a mature discipline like Psychology. According to Henry L Roediger, there will be techniques that will be used in classrooms even if there is a body of evidence showing that they are ineffective. He points out the example of highlighting or underlining text to aid memorisation. Techniques with good evidence of their effectiveness might not be used in the classroom.
The second challenge is that even if learning is thought to be a unitary construct, the working of the brain is highly complex. As a product of evolution, the human brain has a number of priorities. The brain’s first priority is to support the motor movements. The second priority is to pursue goals that support emotions (eight fs- fear, fight, flight, freeze, feed, fun, frolic, and forty winks). The third priority is other people like parents, siblings, friends, or enemies. The brain dedicates many systems to process other people’s identities, actions, emotions and intentions. The fourth priority is what we are talking about now – high-level cognition. It is the kind of knowledge and reasoning skills that are the target of education.
According to Michael S.C. Thomas, learning itself is an interplay of perhaps eight different neural systems.
1- A system for memorising individual moments
2- A system for learning concepts
3- A system for classical conditioning
4- A system for control
5- A system for learning how to get rewards
6- A procedural learning system for learning activities that we perform frequently and often unconsciously
7- The social-learning system
8- The language system
In addition to these systems, the brain operates on a broader principle – making all processes automatic, so that they occur quickly and smoothly without any need for cognitive effort or even awareness. The more skills or knowledge are used, more it becomes automatic. In contrast, the less skills or knowledge are used, the more likely they are to be lost.
Forgetting happens at a different pace across different learning systems. For example, we forget factual knowledge more quickly than a motor skill like riding a bicycle. All of these systems work in an integrated fashion. They respond differently over time and they are differently influenced by factors such as emotional and motivational states. This complexity presents educators a greater challenge.
Educational Neuroscience has also been critiques by research scholars. Jeoffrey Bowers was of the opinion that neuroscience data are simply too remote from the classroom to be of educational value. Researchers like Dorothy V. M. Bishop have critiqued the notion that neuroscience data can be of use in diagnosing developmental disorders or in predicting individual outcomes; the methods employed within the discipline are said to be impractical or non-viable in current times. There have been lively debates in leading psychological magazines regarding the limitations of the discipline.
Educational Neuroscience must take forward psychological theory and it must point to ways to improve brain health. The argument by Bishop is that neuroscience methods are still limited in their sensitivity and specificity as screening or diagnostic tools for deficits. They can only complement more traditional behaviour and social makers of risk. However, neuroscience measures like infant electroencephalographic measures may help predict dyslexia risk. In future, birth DNA measures may help predict possible educational outcomes.
Early detection of problems like dyslexia increases the opportunity of intervention or simply a targeted monitoring of traditional risk markers. Educational Neuroscience also needs to improve the quality of the dialogue between teachers, psychologists and educators to make it bidirectional.
Learning and understanding neuroscience is important for educators because it can help them understand how the brain learns new information. Even having a basic knowledge of neuroscience can make a big difference. It is certain that Educational Neuroscience can make a difference in the education sector in the future.
Now put on your thinking hats and think about the following questions for a couple of minutes.
How would you explain the scope of “educational neuroscience” to your students?
Can you think of the reasons why some researchers argue that neuroscience methods are still limited?
Can you think of the advantages of applying neuroscience in education?
Write down your thoughts and discuss them with your students, children and your colleagues. Listen to their views and compare them with your own. As you listen to others, note how similar or different your views are to others’.
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