“Use Your Brain!” – Neuroscience and Education

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Neuroscientists are progressing rapidly in their research into areas highly relevant to education. Educators are eager to learn about their discoveries. Numerous teachers already use “brain-based” programmes in order to enhance learning. But can neuroscience really help to improve teaching? Experts at OEB 2009 called for caution.

By Andrea Marshall

Hauke Heekeren, Professor of Affective Neuroscience and Psychology of Emotions at the Freie Universität Berlin and Max-Planck-Institute for Human Development, gave a brief summary of the function of the brain and the basic methods of neuroimaging. “We must be very careful interpreting the results of brain imaging,” he warned. “What we are measuring might be far removed from what we are actually looking for.”

To illustrate this point, Heekeren suggested an analogy: “It is like trying to investigate how a car works – but you examine it with a sensor that is mounted on a geo-satellite.”

“Neuromyths” and “Edumyths”

Quite a few myths have spread from misleading interpretations of neuroscientific data, Heekeren explained. A famous one is “the left side of the brain is responsible for language and the right side for abstract thinking”. However, it is far too simplistic to ascribe one specific function to one clearly defined ‘centre’ in the brain, Heekeren pointed out. “It is a popular myth that there are all these ‘centres’ in the brain. There is even supposed to be a shopping centre,” he smiled.
So how does the human brain work? According to Heekeren, different brain regions form dynamic networks. In other words: Several regions “cooperate” when carrying out certain cognitive tasks. The complexity of the system is one of the reasons that makes it difficult to apply neuroscientific results directly in the classroom. “From a neuroscientific point of view, it is not possible to conclude that – for example – online education works better than other forms of education.”

For more information on Hauke Heekeren, please refer to http://www.heekerenlab.org/

Some “Brain Experts” Sell “Snake Oil”

Daniel T. Willingham, Cognitive Scientist and Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia, was connected to the ONLINE EDUCA BERLIN audience via the Internet. He holds a slightly different view. In his book Why Don’t Students Like School? he explains the biological and cognitive basis of learning – with clear applications for teachers. However, he also made the point that it is difficult to ‘translate’ neuroscientific data to behavioural analysis. His main argument: There is often a mismatch in the levels of analysis that neuroscientists and education researchers work with (see text box).

Different Levels of Analysis
“The upper-most level employed by neuroscientists concerns the mapping of brain structure and activity to cognitive functions (e.g., memory, attention) or function interactions (e.g., the impact of emotion on learning).
Neuroscientists study these cognitive functions in isolation for the sake of simplicity. They do not study the entire nervous system (…).

For educators, the mind of a single child is the lowest level of analysis with any payoff. Higher levels include the classroom, school, neighbourhood and country.

The information that education researchers most often try to import from neuroscience concerns a single cognitive process in isolation, but the interactions with other systems will be part of the educational context. For example, we know that repetition benefits memory, but a teacher cannot ask students to repeat work without considering the impact on motivation.

Neuroscientists usually cannot characterise these interactions.”

Daniel T. Willingham (2009)

Willingham gave a “note of caution” to teachers: “So-called brain experts take ordinary findings, throw in a few ‘brain things’ and sell it as revolutionary in education,” he said, likening the ‘experts’ to quack doctors selling “snake oil”.

The suggestions of these ‘experts’ are often banal: “They explain how a low glucose level in the brain metabolism affects learning. But everyone knows anyway that children who are hungry don’t learn well,” Willingham said.

Neuroscience Can Describe – Not Prescribe “What Works”

What can neuroscience do for education then? At OEB, both experts pointed out that neuroimaging studies are descriptive but not prescriptive. For example, they can pinpoint the neural systems responsible for reading, writing or arithmetic. But they do not tell teachers “what works” in the classroom. It is not possible, for example, to advise teachers on certain strategies for so-called visual, auditory or kinesthetic learners. Brain research has not found any evidence that these learning styles exist.

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