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November 26, 2012 / neurograce

Connecting Neuroscience and Education: Not a Direct Route

Education has always been known to “shape minds” and “build brains” and do other neuro-metaphor things. So, unsurprisingly, educators have cultivated an interest in how the brain works, why certain methods work on it while others fail, and what causes individual differences amongst students. Unfortunately, for a long time, neuroscience simply had no hope of answering these questions. As a result, plenty of pseudoscience filled the void between education and neuroscience. But with advances in neuroscience, some organizations feel that the gap is now bridgeable, or at the very least, the first bricks can be laid. Columbia and Harvard both have programs within their schools of education that focus on Educational Neuroscience. And countless other “brain-based teaching” training centers exist around the world, with their focus on informing teachers about neuroscience in order to impact how they run their classrooms.

But does this make sense? Can studying neuroscience in its current state really benefit teachers or their interactions with students?  Is it practical to do so? Neuroscience is a field of unwieldy size and complexity. Only a small portion of neuroscience research is even remotely relevant to learning. But deciding what aspects to teach teachers and then teaching those in isolation is risky. It can allow for studies to be misrepresented or taken out of context, and doesn’t instill in educators an ability to discern between good and bad science. As a result, we get an epidemic of “neuromyths” amongst teachers, such as the idea of right vs left brain-ness. And novel findings, such as the discovery of mirror neurons,  get extrapolated into teaching techniques without scientific support. The artifice of neuroscience knowledge can give teaching programs the appearance of authority, such as when Dr. Mariale Hardiman of Brain-Targeted Teaching incorrectly describes different types of memory and explains their relation to current teaching techniques:

“ Unfortunately, too often what is presented in our classrooms is designed for students’ working memories-students learn information so they can retrieve it on a test or quiz then quickly forget much of it as they move on to the next topic.

During tasks that involve only working memory, the brain uses proteins that currently exist in brain synapses (Ratey, 2001). When information moves, however, from working to long-term memory systems, new proteins are created. Effective teaching can result in biochemical changes in the brain! “

Working memory! Biochemical changes! A citation! It must be real.

Even amongst those who do fully understand the neuroscience, connecting the output of these studies to teaching isn’t straight-forward. Most lab studies investigating the neural mechanisms of learning and memory use animal models whose applicability to humans is in no way known. Even imaging studies done on humans during learning tasks are simplified and take place in a lab in isolation, quite the opposite of the classroom environment. Education is a pragmatic subject: the findings of a neuroscience lab suggesting that a certain method should work in theory is meaningless if it’s proven ineffective in the classroom. So neuroscience’s place in the training of educators is unclear.

There are of course some places of intersection between neuroscience and education. However, these come mostly in diagnosing, monitoring, and treating learning disorders. Imaging techniques can be used to verify learning disorders, and neuro-education supporters are quick to point out that it was PET data that settled the debate over whether dyslexia was a visual or phonological problem. They also like to mention that fMRI data showing increased activity in language processing areas correlates with increased reading performance after treatment for dyslexia. But these findings haven’t aided teachers of students without disorders, and even their impact on special-needs students is unclear. It is impractical to think neuroimaging could be used on a regular basis in the classroom as a means of tracking progress. And would that be helpful anyways? Does showing that brain activity correlates with performance add any additional information that performance alone couldn’t tell you? Does it have any effect on how teachers teach? I don’t see why it should. Again, knowing the neural mechanisms behind normal or disordered learning is, in itself, useless for teachers. What matters is establishing an application of that knowledge for the classroom. And I don’t believe it is the job of teachers to establish that connection.

So, programs that attempt to teach teachers about neuroscience are, to me, impractical. That is not to say that the field of education should be cut off from the gains in knowledge that neuroscience produces. But the bridge between the two needs to be built at a higher level. Before findings from neuroscience can be helpful to teachers, it must be processed. It has to be sent through a pipeline of testing that takes a very basic hypothesis based on neural activity in a laboratory setting and sees how it survives in ever more realistic contexts. Specialists such as cognitive neuropsychologists are well-suited to help guide relevant neuroscience findings into the realm of experimental education. From there, effective techniques can be distilled into methods that teachers can implement. It won’t be a smooth process. Much like in drug development, transferring basic science to the real world exposes a host of unforeseeable complications. But in education, the only test that matters is the real world.

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