There is now a plethora of examples of the application of educational neuroscience to fairly specific issues. The UnLocke (Stop and Think) project is a good example (see www.unlocke.org and Learnus Annual Lecture 2020 by Denis Mareschal - YouTube for further details). Based on the theoretical understanding of cognitive inhibition this randomized control trial indicated potential for improving performance of primary school children in science and maths (See evaluation report). Typically, such research developing insight into how the brain appears to work is only applied to a narrow aspect of learning, or student behaviour.
However, school leaders are often looking not at a specific learning issue, but at the more strategic issues of education. Maybe the most critical part of their role is to make meaning for people. By which I mean that the context within which the individual actions of teachers operates is defined and designed by the leadership of the school (or should be) and that context needs to be clearly articulated. This covers all the activities associated with the organisation of schooling. The most important, I would argue, is creating a common understanding and language about what constitutes learning.
I was certainly hugely interested in trying to incorporate the developing insights from cognitive neuroscience in our learning strategy at my school. The question is, though, how wide can the science go?
Take Table 1 as an example . This was something we came across which seemed to be very helpful in getting us away from teachers only thinking about the short-term lesson structure and to consider more often the overall learning journey they should be designing for their students, both in terms of curriculum content and in moving learners from the shallow characteristics described in Table 1 to the profound. In its own terms, the thinking behind this table seems to me to make a lot of sense, although you might need 10,000 hours to get to the profound column 1
How do we move people from being shall learners to be being profound learners?
Is it really possible to identify any such hierarchy of characteristics? Or is this just philosophy? You could say ‘well this is just a selection of words in a grid which is connected solely by the prejudices of its creator - a social construct’. However, lots of people will recognise it as having sense and meaning to them. So why does it have meaning if it does not connect with an experienced or shared truth, albeit socially constructed. If there is some truth to it, is it scientifically testable?
My question is, how could educational neuroscience help us test whether there was any scientific basis/truth/reality in such a description. How would you approach any kind of neuroscientific explanation of the idea of wisdom, for example? We pretty much know how memory is stored in the brain and even a bit about how it is accessed and manipulated, but it seems to me that it would be extremely difficult to describe something like a manifestation of wisdom. It’s an extremely important idea in educational terms, but is it scientifically accessible? And that’s at the heart of the problem.
We, teachers and researchers, seldom use the same language or approach the issue from the same point of view. Education tries to concern itself with the development of the whole person as an individual, so the variables involved are many and difficult to specify. It is as if we are looking out and around – the word education comes from the Greek educare – leading out to light, whereas it seems that science focuses microscopically on the particular in order to generate understanding.
There is even scepticism and resistance amongst some teachers towards cognitive science. When I attended the launch conference for the new Initial Teacher Education framework and asked why there was no requirement to study educational neuroscience or the science of learning I was told the panel were sceptical about what they felt was a controversial area. The rush to follow neuro-myths amongst some educators (aided and abetted by those who have made a great deal of money out of it) has done the science no favours.
There is also a great deal of resistance amongst some groups against anything which smacks of determinism. Such educators love the idea of brain plasticity, but loath the research which suggests the dominant role of genes in determining outcomes. We who spend our careers in schools don’t like to accept that our efforts appear to make only a marginal difference.
Can a science of learning afford to limit itself to the small and easily researched areas of the specific issue? If not, how do we go about addressing the larger issues usually reserved for philosophy and cognitive psychology with our developing understanding of how the brain actually works?
Educational neuroscience is a fascinating area of research which is developing new understanding all the time. We want it to answer the big questions, but do researchers understand the nature of that challenge? How might they work with teachers and others in education to build the bigger picture?
If we want school leaders and those who make educational policy to really take notice, we have to find a way of expanding the scope of research to develop a much more ambitious description of the learning process. So where do we start?
Richard Newton Chance was a teacher for thirty six years. For the last fourteen years of his career, head teacher of a large rural comprehensive in Devon. Currently, he is Chair of a Schools Trust in Cornwall. He has been involved in Learnus as a Council Member more or less since the organisation’s birth.
1 I can’t remember where this came from, so apologies and acknowledgement to whoever created it.