Bringing scientific evidence to the classroom

The rise of educational neuroscience
markuspiske, pixabay.com, CC0 1.0
markuspiske, pixabay.com, CC0 1.0

Educational neuroscience is not a cure-all for education. But it does promise to find out how we can best support all learners.

Educational neuroscience is a new discipline with the overarching aim of improving learning. It brings together research from all scientific fields related to education – including genetics, neuroscience, psychology, education, and technology.

Although it’s known as ‘educational neuroscience’ in the U.K., the term ‘mind, brain and education’ is preferred in the U.S., as it is thought to better reflect the diversity of research themes involved. The field looks at learning in school subjects including science, maths, geography, and reading, but is also concerned with other factors that affect school performance, such as the role of motivation and emotion in learning. Educational neuroscience is therefore a broad discipline, and the goal is to allow teachers to access rigorous scientific evidence when considering how best to teach in the classroom.

“It is essential that researchers talk to teachers and have an understanding of the classroom.”

In order to achieve this goal, it is essential that researchers talk to teachers and have an understanding of the classroom. Many researchers in the field are in fact ex-teachers, so already have an appreciation of the pressures of life in school. Teachers sometimes collaborate on educational neuroscience research from the outset, so that they can shape the research questions being asked. These discussions between researchers and teachers ensure that studies are genuinely aimed at improving education.

Researchers in the field of educational neuroscience are also keen to share their new findings with teachers. Since teachers may not have time to read journal articles, new methods for sharing the latest research have recently been developed. Websites and online discussion forums connect teachers with researchers, in addition to more traditional conferences where researchers describe their findings to teachers. An upcoming post will explore the importance of ensuring teachers receive the most up-to-date information and are guarded from myths about the brain.

Teachers, beware of business-minded suppliers of costly programmes that are not science-based

Many teachers have shown a real appetite for neuroscience, but sadly this has often been exploited by the creators of costly programmes that claim to tell teachers how to engage their pupils’ brains. These programmes usually have little basis in actual scientific research, are often totally useless, and may actually hinder children’s learning. (I will talk more about the potential harm of these predatory programmes in a later post. Stay tuned)! It is therefore crucial that teachers are presented with accurate and useful scientific information in an accessible manner.

“Many teachers have shown a real appetite for neuroscience, but sadly this has often been exploited by the creators of costly programmes that claim to tell teachers how to engage their pupils’ brains.”

Since educational neuroscience is a young field, there remains a lot of work to be done. Being an educational neuroscience researcher, people often hope I possess a list of recommendations for the classroom based on neuroscience. As yet I don’t, but my colleagues and I are working on it! Carrying out rigorous scientific research takes time, and there are many steps between forming theories, testing them in the lab, and then trying them out in a school setting.

A whole host of studies need to be done before firm conclusions can be made, and it is unlikely that the enterprise will generate ground-breaking new ways of teaching. Instead, through carefully-designed studies, we are slowly building up a base of evidence that explains what works best in the classroom, some of which are things that teachers are already doing.

“Through carefully-designed studies, we are slowly building up a base of evidence that explains what works best in the classroom.”

Educational neuroscience does not promise to make teaching and learning easy by providing a list of rules, but it does promise to find out how we learn and how we can best support all learners.

 

 

A mini-series on evidence in the classroom

Further articles in this series will look at so-called brain training educational programmes, and the challenge of conducting large scale studies in schools.