Perspectives on tomorrow's education research from teachers and researchers

Are we just reinventing the wheel?
Derek Bell and Helen M. Darlington

On 4th February 2021 we gave a presentation as part of the online Centre for Educational Neuroscience (CEN) seminar series. We were reflecting on the impact of educational neuroscience in the classroom as outlined in a chapter we wrote for the book, Educational Neuroscience: development across the life span. Our presentation appeared to be well received and, on the evidence of the chat, raised several issues among the participants. One question, however, has lingered with us: “Is educational neuroscience reinventing a wheel developed by psychology etc.?” as did the comment, from another participant, “I'm just concerned about the reinventing the wheel issue, rather than building on existing "wheels."

References to ‘reinventing the wheel’ often imply a criticism alongside comments such as ‘we knew this already’. Putting the negativity aside, the question has a more positive interpretation, but it requires further interrogation. The first thing to note is that concerns about ‘reinventing wheels’ are not unique to the field education. However, we suggest that we can take the analogy of ‘wheels’ and use it to inform our thinking with regards to understanding learning and teaching.

To start, what do you think the first wheel looked like? How was it developed? How did it work? Why did it ‘catch on’? Even at this stage the images and mechanisms we come up with vary considerably but the core features of a wheel can be identified. Some versions worked better than others. Some worked better in some situations than others, thus leading to modifications and divergence in the design of the wheel. In other words, the evolution of the wheel was underway. As the technology developed so too did the wheel – new materials were introduced, and methods of attaching the wheels to vehicles changed for the better. Whilst the core features still remain, by adding to the design using tyres and the like, the performance of the wheel continued to improve and become more specialised. Wheels became used not just for transport but as e.g. water-wheels, pulleys and cogs in mechanical devices etc. Significantly, information and understanding from a range of disciplines e.g. material science, applied physics, aerodynamics and the like come into play as wheels with specific properties are developed to meet the demands of particular contexts. Furthermore, findings from one area of development are transferred from one context to another – yet the core features of the wheel are still recognisable.

Bearing in mind that all analogies breakdown at some point, thinking in terms of our understanding of learning and teaching, yes, we have a ‘wheel’ which is our endeavour to support the development (physical, emotional, cognitive and social) of individuals throughout their lives. As teachers and researchers, we work in our own areas of specialism – sometimes to the exclusion of looking at what is happening elsewhere. Thus, we often become fixed on our particular perspective of what learning and teaching involves or ‘looks like’. We know what works in our particular context, sometimes have insights into why and take on board new ideas from our field. Similar things happen elsewhere from a different perspective which appear to be the ‘same’ but actually are subtly (and significantly) different offering new insights into our understanding. Thus, as with the real thing, we don’t have one type of ‘wheel’ but a wide range of different sorts of ‘wheel’ that have evolved to meet the demands of particular contexts and environments.

Educational neuroscience brings insights to the understanding of learning as does psychology and the other cognitive and biological sciences. In particular, it is not only providing evidence to support older theories based on behavioural studies but it is also offering insights into the mechanisms by which learning is takes place. For example, the existence of misconceptions has been recognised for decades and have been the focus of significant programmes of research. In the early days it was assumed that once recognised, misconceptions could be eliminated with the ‘right’ teaching and then disappear. Subsequently, with support of neuroscientific studies, it has become acknowledged that not only are misconceptions resistant to change, in general they do not go away at all. This therefore invokes the importance of inhibitory control as part of the learning process. Thus, adjustments to teaching may be required in order to make allowances for this new understanding.

Similarly, we ‘know’ giving rewards to learners is ‘a good thing’ in order to encourage them to remain engaged with their learning. However, we also ‘know’ that the effect of the rewards can wear off. Which raises the question ‘Why?’. Neuroscientific evidence indicates the production and effects of neurotransmitters (e.g. dopamine) are key to the way people respond to rewards. Initially the levels of dopamine rise which provides a positive feeling but as rewards are repeated the dopamine produced doesn’t reach the same levels, because the reward is predictable. Thus, the impact of the reward has been almost eliminated. Not only is the effect observed but there is also an explanation of the mechanism that controls the behaviours. Understanding this should inform teaching approaches.

To return to the original question, we would argue therefore, we are not re-inventing the wheel rather our own ‘wheels’ are evolving as new ideas, evidence and demands are placed on learning and teaching. This is a positive thing but, to push the analogy a little further, there is a big danger that we end up putting four different types of wheel onto the same vehicle. Of course, that would be a potential disaster and raises a much more fundamental question: How do we embrace the insights provided by the different disciplines, of both research and practice, in order to maximise the benefits for all learners? By its interdisciplinary nature, Educational Neuroscience has a contribution to make in this field, but it cannot do it on its own. It is only by sharing, knowledge and understanding that teachers, researchers and other stakeholders from the wide range of disciplines bring, that we will be able to improve the quality of education for all.

Derek Bell is Director of Learnus, former CEO of the Association for Science Education and Head of Education at the Wellcome Trust

Helen M. Darlington is Faculty Progress Leader: Science, South Wirral High School, Birkenhead, Wirral

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