Friday, 4 January 2008

Lynn Erler argues that educators need to know about neuroscience to avoid ‘neuro-myths’

The Teaching and Learning Research Programme (TLRP) is a research initiative funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), running from 2000-2011 and supporting to date over 65 education research projects. The TLRP commissioned a review, which appeared in 2007, of neuroscientific findings considered to be of relevance to education and educators. The review was carried out by UK-based researchers Uta Frith and Sarah-Jayne Blakemore and was followed up by a TLRP seminar series called “Collaborative Frameworks in Neuroscience and Education”. These moves mirror concerns that are world-wide, according to the OECD, over the infiltration into formal education of scientific developments that can alter learners’ thinking and activities in the classroom. In the US, for instance, schools use medications for hard-to-control and difficult-to-teach children.

The short pamphlet, Neuroscience and Education: Issues and Opportunities is based on the Frith/Blakemore review and the TLRP seminar series. It is an attempt by specialists to present an idea of the impact, breadth and influence on education of neuroscience-related issues to non-specialists (educationalists, the public in general) in an accessible way. The contributions are from researchers in neuroscience and psychology, and include 98 references to science publications that are already impacting on developments in education-related industries. Some publications present some clear conceptual models that are useful and can be thought-provoking to people involved in teaching and learning, particularly school-based education.

The 28 pages of the pamphlet contain succinctly presented information about the brain, brain development and brain “care” including neuro-myths, developmental disorders of dyslexia, dyscalculia and ADHD which have supplied the principal thrusts of neuroscience research and consequent alleviation projects and products, explanations of why “brain-based” education programmes may help learners be more alert in the classroom but can be classified as neuro-myths that have little or no scientific basis. “Issues on the Horizon” that cross between neuroscience and education are then addressed in the final section. Scientists have been appalled at what has been done with snippets from ‘scientific’ reports and are looking at the future and have issued here a report that informs but also warns and admonishes for collaboration between science and education to ensure “careful educational and scientific scrutiny at all stages” (p. 24), of what is already possible in the classroom in terms of tracking and controlling brain functioning.

Neuroscientific research findings have been and will continue to inform aspects of education, particularly in areas of disability and learning impairment. However, there have been other “spin-offs” identified by Frith and Blakemore (2000) as neuro-myths, which have filtered into UK schools as commercial “brain-based” programmes. The reader is put straight about several such programmes that “too often do not survive scientific scrutiny” (p. 15). For example while a conceptualisation of “learning preferences [styles]” may be of value in encouraging teachers to use “a full range of forms and different media” for learning materials, the “existing research does not support labelling children” (ibid.)

The document concludes with two strands:

  1. What is already, and will shortly be available from neuroscience in the realm of cognitive enhancers (e.g. Ritalin and drugs for Alzheimers are used by enterprising student who hope for higher exam results), and the use of neurofeedback to increase and improve productivity such as carried out on students at the Royal College of Music.
  2. The limits of neuroscience, which has until now only been able to focus on the individual and which has a long way to go in conjunction with many other disciplines - psychology, social sciences, education - to be able to provide holistic improvements in learning.

The authors of the document wish for collaboration between neuroscience and education to conceptualise frameworks for working together to scrutinise the transfer of concepts between neuroscience and education, to avoid future repetitions of “popular ideas about the brain [that] have flourished without check and are impacting upon teaching and learning already” (p. 24) without scientific and educational evaluation. While brain gym might be considered innocuous and in fact a support for being alert in the classroom, more insidious enhancement mechanisms are already available and are being used, not to mention future developments, which are sure to be said to emerge from “ science”. The pamphlet is an attempt by scientists to inform educationalists and to urge them to action: to become informed and together with scientists to inform, and not to leave developments to the government to regulate.

Just how the collaboration across neuroscience and education is going to take place is not ventured in this document, which is a huge detriment. Clearly an exchange across disciplines must be undertaken and a response from the educational community is in order. To be able to enter into a dialogue and to influence future policies at all levels, however, educationalists need themselves to propose a clear conceptualisation of what it means to be human, what it means to learn with dignity and to be respected for human difference.

Neuroscience and Education: Issues and Opportunities was launched at Portcullis House, Westminster on 15 May 2007.

The pamphlet is available as a pdf: