Perspectives on tomorrow's education research from teachers and researchers

What should we do about neuroscience in Initial Teacher Education?
Kendra McMahon and Alison Lee

The problem we have been puzzling over together is what to do about neuroscience in Initial Teacher Education (ITE). Previous Learnus Blogs have been written either from the perspective of practitioner or researcher. We each see ourselves as being both. We conduct research in our respective fields and we teach university students. We each have an additional claim to be practitioners as a former primary school teacher now involved in teacher education (KM), and a clinical neuropsychologist working with patients (AL). We value theory and empirical research but we also understand that each context for professional action has unique features and that our values shape our professional decisions; there are judgments to be made.

Along with other colleagues at Bath Spa University, we first collaborated on a project supporting trainee teachers to take a critical perspective on brain-based claims, and in the process to unpack some neuromyths. This critical perspective was welcomed, but trainees and tutors expressed frustration that it didn’t fully get to grips with the question of what aspects of the learning sciences teachers did need to know. Our latest project: The Learning Sciences in ITE, funded by the Wellcome Trust, has been addressing that.

Responses of the Initial Teacher Education Community

Those involved with teacher education have a range of perspectives; some are very interested in neuroscience, some see it as an unnecessary distraction. There are also concerns about the scientific framing of educational issues.

One concern is how the concept of ‘evidence-based practice’ positions teachers as passive recipients of technical knowledge. Science is frequently presented as providing definitive answers to educational questions whereas professional action by teachers requires value-based judgements made in specific and diverse contexts rather than off-the-peg solutions (Biesta, 2007; Hordern, 2019). Although the improved term ‘evidence-informed practice’ does offer room for professional judgment, there is still the issue of what kind of evidence is valued.

It has been helpful to make a clear distinction between the ‘what works’ research agenda – with its emphasis on randomised control trials (RCTs) that establish direct causal relationships between an intervention and an outcome -  and the wider set of research approaches used by the Learning Sciences. Paul Howard-Jones argues that the Science of Learning helps explain ‘how it works’ by developing principles of teaching and learning that teachers can use to make sense of their practice. Broad conceptions of the Learning Sciences often involve design-based research in which the responses of participants in a specific learning context inform an iterative process of design (of teaching and learning materials, programmes or environments). It is increasingly evident from the small effect sizes of RCTs that silver bullets to improving education are not being found this way. It is likely that complex interactions between many factors make the difference in outcomes.

By valuing a broad range of research methodologies, we can take an approach perhaps more similar to that of medicine, or clinical neuropsychology, in which clinical expertise and experiments both contribute to knowledge and to practice. Taking this approach is also consistent with what is understood about the brain.  There are biological features common to all humans, but there are also considerable differences between the brains of individuals. This is the inevitable outcome of the evolution of humans to be organisms with brains that continue to change all through their lifetime in response to their unique environment.

What neuroscience do ITE tutors need to know?

Initial teacher education is a key player in the synthesis and critical evaluation of ideas about learning that relate to education in schools.  By occupying the ground between research and educational practice university-based ITE is ideally placed to act as a channel for valid ideas.

However, (in England) academic decisions in ITE are also constrained by government policy and the need for ‘compliance’ in order to get a high grade from Ofsted Inspections. The Core Content Framework for Initial teacher Training (CCF for ITT) (DfE, 2019) sets out the minimum requirement for the curriculum and acts in concert with the Inspection Framework for ITE. The outcome is that selected concepts and findings from cognitive psychology have been privileged in setting out a view of teaching and learning that emphasises forming long term memories. There is recognition of the importance of building on prior knowledge and the use strategies such as retrieval practice, worked examples and spaced learning is encouraged. However some within the education neuroscience community have argued that the CCF for ITT takes a partial view of cognitive neuroscience research and calls for a more nuanced view that addresses sensory, emotional and social dimensions of learning (Turvey et al., 2019).

One key message for education is that individual differences between brains are important and we need to respond to this. Are there more generalised findings about the human brain and learning that ITE tutors should be aware of? Paul Howard-Jones and colleagues at Bristol University have made a complex set of ideas from the Science of Learning accessible and manageable for ITE under three headings: Engage, Build Consolidate. We have taken another approach. We noticed that some tutors were taking a quick look at the CCF for ITT and deciding that the content was either familiar; ‘We already know about the importance of prior knowledge don’t we?’, or suspicious; ‘Retrieval practice - is that rote learning?’. Others felt it didn’t take them far enough. So we took the CCF for ITT as a start point and have explained the science (usually cognitive psychology) that seemed to be underlying the statements. We then took it further and went on to bring a more diverse range of neuroscience and educational research to each statement.  This may be seen as just making it more difficult! But we wanted to communicate that the Learning Sciences is bigger, more diverse and that knowledge is more contested than was being portrayed. We also wanted to open up possibilities for ITE tutors to make further connections between the Learning Sciences and their own areas of interest to keep the dialogue going.

Ways forward

As a result of our experiences in developing the ITE curriculum we recommend that ITE providers:

  • Locate cognitive psychology within the broader ‘Learning Sciences’ that also encompass neuroscience and educational research.
  • Have a look at our open-access material which addresses and goes beyond the ITT Core Content Framework.
  • Embrace the possibilities of neuroscience for understanding teaching and learning.
  • Make contact and open dialogue with researchers in the field of educational neuroscience in order to understand better the different perspectives and ways in which, together, further progress can be made.

Kendra McMahon ( a Reader in Education at Bath Spa University. She is a co-lead of the Centre for Research in Scientific and Technological Education and Learning. Her research and writing is on science education, particularly in primary schools, and in this context she has researched formative assessment, dialogic talk and is now exploring education and neuroscience.

Alison Lee is Course Director of the MSc Principles of Applied Neuropsychology at Bath Spa University. She has a particular research interest in the neuropsychology of people with Parkinson’s disease and motor disorders. She has also written on psychopathology from a social neuroscience perspective. She is a member of the Centre for Research in Scientific and Technological Education and Learning.

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