Saturday, 14 March 2015

Thou shalt not worship false idols: Education and shiny neuroscience.


One of the major frustrations of many stakeholders in education (teachers, academics, parents) is the propensity of education as a field to be susceptible to "fads and fashions". As I've indicated in previous blogposts, in some respects, this reflects the shaky hold of evidence-based practice on education, and perhaps also an historical tendency for this term to not mean in education what it means in related fields of medicine, psychology, and speech-language pathology.

However - regardless of the great epistemological divide between those who favour so-called "teacher-centred" direct-instruction approaches and those whose take on education is more a social-constructivist, "student-centred" approach to learning, most would probably agree that it is helpful, if not necessary, for teachers to understand something about how children and adolescents learn.

In its enthusiasm to improve student learning, education as a discipline has had a bit of a penchant for adopting Big New (but not backed-up-by-evidence) Ideas in an uncritical fashion over the years.

Here's but a few examples:
  • Learning Styles
  • Whole Language as a basis for reading instruction
  • Perceptual-motor programs
  • Notions of "left-brain" and "right brain" learners
  • Use of tinted lenses for struggling readers
  • Sensory integration therapy
  • Brain Gym
  • Reading Recovery*
*Some readers may be surprised to see Reading Recovery on this list. Please refer to my previous blogpost on this

There has been a growing tendency in recent years for academics in and around education to "call out" such approaches and to demand that teacher educators teach only concepts and approaches for which solid empirical evidence exists. The fact that in many cases this solid empirical evidence comes from related disciplines (e.g., cognitive psychology and speech-language pathology) seems to be something of a sticking point in some teacher education circles, and such evidence is dismissed as being "out of paradigm". Conversely, all peer review is not created equal, just as all peer-reviewed journals are not created equal, so knowing that a teaching approach has been described in a "peer reviewed journal" does not necessarily offer the kind of cover we might expect. As Twitter's "Neuroskeptic" observed recently:

So it's perhaps not surprising then, that some educators willingly throw open their doors (and minds) when so-called "Neuroscience" comes knocking.

In the process, it's unfortunate that many proven, low-tech approaches to good teaching and learning are relegated to the "old hat" pile when new, superficially exciting players enter the stage. Examples of the tried and true (but perhaps "unglamourous") include careful consideration of seating arrangements (rows Vs tables), Systematic Synthetic Phonics instruction (Vs Whole Language and/or so-called "Balanced Literacy" approaches), and actually correcting errors in students' written work so that they benefit from specific feedback (Vs giving them generic positive feedback for effort and allowing them to simply learn and rehearse errors)....the list goes on.

Teachers need to know about factors that promote attention, engagement, concentration, problem-solving, persistence, abstract thinking, analysis, synthesis, learning, and memory. Of course this knowledge needs to be embedded in a developmental framework, so that expectations are appropriate to the child's age and/or year level. Call it knowledge of "executive functions" if that makes it more palatable, but let's not be distracted by the superficial glamour of so-called neuroscience, particularly when it comes packaged as functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, or fMRI.

Knowing that in Study X, particular regions of the brain "lit up" in pretty colours when children were performing a particular task or being given a particular kind of feedback is simultaneously somewhat interesting and somewhat unhelpful. It is somewhat interesting in the sense that we all have a strong desire to de-mystify the inner workings of the brain. However it is of very limited practical use in the classroom environment, for a wide range of reasons, e.g.:

  • In most cases, the scientists who undertake these studies can only speculate about the meaning of apparent "activation" of different brain regions. 
  • Sometimes the speculative nature of the language is lost when the findings are picked up and reported in the popular press.
  • Sometimes scientists' speculation will be correct and other times it will ultimately be shown to be off the mark. It takes time, and often unsuccessful replication for this to become apparent.
  • It's very easy for non-experts to be impressed by technical-sounding explanations and extrapolations. Conversely, it takes a high level of specialised knowledge to be able to astutely digest fMRI research and ask the kind of probing questions that shed light on its ambiguities and limitations.

Keep it simple

But perhaps most importantly, fMRI data is not needed in order for teachers to know whether a student is engaged and is understanding the material at hand. That's where teachers' knowledge of children's behaviour and development comes in, and needs to be blended with sound teaching practices. Somehow, for thousands of years, teachers have managed to convey new knowledge, skills and ideas to young people, without the privilege of "looking into the brain". Common sense tells us that this is not about to change. I would recommend reading Professor Dorthy Bishop's January 2014 blogpost on educational neuroscience for further explication of this.

There is one caveat I would add, however, and I have blogged about this previously. This pertains to the benefits of teachers having some understanding of the impacts of early childhood maltreatment (neglect and/or abuse) on the immature brain, and the ways in which these developmental blights can manifest behaviourally in the classroom. In order for this understanding to occur, however, teachers need to first have some rudimentary understanding of healthy brain structure and function, and need to be unconstrained by the "neuromyths" mentioned above.

(C) Pamela Snow 2015


  1. Why make an exception for claims about the 'first three years' ? Perry's claims and Schore's, for example, need to be treated with equal caution.

  2. this reflects the shaky hold of evidence-based practice on education, and perhaps also an historical tendency for this term to not mean in education what it means in related fields of medicine, psychology, and speech-language pathology.

    Aye, and there's the rub(s). Given this state of affairs, the worship of false idols and flaky neuroscience goes with the territory.

    For example, were "reading" to be addressed like cancer, a behavioral disorder, or a speech impediment, it could be routinely "cured." Whether it's PISA results or "what you see with your own eyes," World has a problem: it does not now know how to reliably teach all children how to read. That's the evidence, and it warrants resolution. EdLand, however, can't agree on the boundaries of "reading" or whether "dyslexia" exists and is trying to recapitulate the ontogeny of medical practice.

    Curing the reading condition in the English-speaking World is a simple (HA!) matter of teaching children how to handle the English Alphabetic Code. That's a Piece of Cake for EdLand to do and has all kinds of positive ramifications for World. But World has more false idols to worship than EdLand does and is ignorant of the "on the ground" status of EdLand.

    Science and Technology have a way of straightening these matters out. It's just a matter of how and when and that's up to All of Us.

    That's the "news for now" it seems to me, but the "quick-and-dirty intelligence report" could be "out to lunch." Anyway, it's a breaking story, with "more news to come." More blogs are needed.

    1. Thanks Dick - I agree it's as simple and as impossible as applying what we already know.....