“Neuroscientists and teachers need to work together”

FotoEmotions, Pixabay.com, CC0 1.0
FotoEmotions, Pixabay.com, CC0 1.0

Education expert Davide Antognazza discusses how neuroscientists and educators might work more closely together, and explains why both researchers and teachers need to understand the importance of social and emotional learning.

Sabine Gysi: People have widely divergent opinions about the usefulness of educational neuroscience. Some are enthusiastic, while others are very skeptical.

Davide Antognazza: I understand an enthusiastic response, because educators are gaining a much deeper understanding of how the brain works. But as the skeptics point out, we have by no means found answers to all of the relevant questions. We haven’t yet identified the kinds of instruction and learning environments that are most successful.

There’s no magic bullet that will make students successful learners. I think teachers are skeptical not because they don’t believe in neuroscience, but because they realize that neuroscience is seeking to answer questions that differ from teachers’ concerns.

Let’s say, for example, that neuroscientists have discovered that certain neurons fire when we solve a specific mathematical task. But we have not yet found a way to apply this finding to the practical classroom context. This is why neuroscientists and teachers need to work together to develop experiments.

But so far, it’s unusual to have direct collaboration between neuroscience, psychology, and education. Managing an experiment in the lab is one thing. Managing an experiment in a classroom, where learning is embedded in a social and emotional environment, is much more complicated. I can’t put a class of 25 children into an MRI machine!

SG: What might help foster collaboration?

DA: Finding a common language. Language can be a barrier. Neuroscientists must express themselves in a way that is understandable to a teacher. We need to create common ground so that discussion is possible.

“We now know that the brain learns in context, connecting new content with earlier experiences, rather than creating new learning out of nothing.”

Once we have found a common language, it quickly becomes apparent that insights from neuroscience are of great interest to teachers. Neuroscientists have shown, for example, that hyperactive children are better able to learn in a very quiet environment. Moreover, we now know that the brain learns in context, connecting new content with earlier experiences, rather than creating new learning out of nothing.

SG: In a recent talk, you mentioned certain neuromyths that some teachers still accept. Can neuromyths be harmful?

DA: They can lead you in the wrong direction. A very popular neuromyth posits that the two hemispheres of the brain serve different purposes; the left side is said to be artistically oriented, while the right side is more rational. There’s no scientific foundation for this. We only need to know that in some cases, certain content is processed primarily by one of the two hemispheres, but for the most part the two work together.

And then there’s the myth about learning styles. Of course, individuals learn in different ways. We all differ in our responses to, and understanding of, visual stimuli, sounds, touch, and emotions. But this has nothing to do with “learning styles.”

SG: Is that why adaptive teaching is important – because everyone learns differently?

DA: Yes. What really makes the difference when educating students is to get to know them.

As a teacher, you need to understand your students’ personalities, their relationship styles, and so on. Adaptive teaching means, first of all, getting to know your learners better, and applying what you have learned in theory to the practical context. Of course, theory will help you differentiate your instruction to meet the needs of individual students.

“If we want to use new technologies, we must develop them in a way that allows learners to take charge of their own learning.”

A good, experienced teacher will have an instinctive understanding of the kind of assignment that will benefit a specific child. In this context psychology should serve as a mediator between neuroscience and education.

SG: What do you see as the role of technology in helping teachers tailor their instruction to individual students?

DA: I believe in new technologies, and I believe in looking for new, complementary ways to engage children. But we have to be cautious. When presented with a video game, children are naturally engaged. Perhaps the game will help them become more strategic when solving certain types of problems or learning numbers or words – and that’s fantastic.

Even though the current generation of games is becoming a bit more challenging, however, video games are a very closed system. When learners leave the game, they find themselves back in the real world, and they need someone to help moderate their experience. The moderator can be a teacher, an educator, a mom, a slightly older peer, a friend.

“We mustn’t forget that even when learners are cognitively strong – excellent problem solvers, for example – emotions can get in the way of their learning.”

As a learner, you need feedback to recognize whether your learning is successful – whether you have truly gained a better understanding, or simply acquired a piece of information. This feedback helps you take what you have learned in an artificial situation and apply it in a completely different environment. If we want to use new technologies, we must develop them in a way that allows learners to take charge of their own learning.

SG: You once pointed out that we need to consider the brain from a cognitive as well as an emotional perspective. What do you mean by this?

Neuroscientists are beginning to understand the crucial role that emotions play in education and learning. We mustn’t forget that even when learners are cognitively strong – excellent problem solvers, for example – emotions can get in the way of their learning.

I may be well able to use my cognitive skills, but my emotional skills – which we refer to as metaskills – will determine their ultimate success. This is why it is so important to understand the role of emotions and recognize that our brain is both an emotional and a cognitive organ.

Davide Antognazza, an education researcher who holds an Ed.M. degree from Harvard University, is a senior researcher and lecturer in the Department of Education and Learning at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts of Southern Switzerland. His main research interests are social and emotional learning, theories of intelligences, emotional intelligence in organizations, and neuroscience in education.

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