Neuroscience in Education - Mar '17

By John Nichols, MTA
Following the Association’s Neuroscience and Learning seminar earlier in the year, John Nichols MTA explores what neuroscience can tell us about education.

Neuroscience is a scientific field where enormous advances have been made in the last two decades, potentially of great significance in education. As a subject, it has been treated with a great deal of awe and, to most people, ‘neuroscientist’ has become practically synonymous with ‘genius’.

However, the hype has led to a proliferation of ludicrous claims, such as: ‘we only use 10% of our brain, but we can unlock the other 90%’. These ‘neuromyths’ betray, at best, a total misunderstanding of the underlying science and, at worst, are an attempt to deceive. Understanding the science can at least help us to evaluate such claims in a meaningful way.

So, what can neuroscience really tell us about education? Two main ideas will be addressed here. Firstly, we now know that humans are not perfectly rational beings, operating in a higher plane than ‘mere beasts’, as has been the prevailing belief through most of history.

Second, we understand that memories are stored as part of networks called schemata and that better developed schemata profoundly improve recall and possibly influence motivation. There are other important implications too: the growing consensus that the brain can change more than once thought (popularised by Carol Dweck) and an understanding of some of the neurological basis for intelligence, willpower and determination, although there is enough content there for a hefty book.

How much are you in control of yourself?
We now understand that far from being the perfectly rational beings imagined by the great Enlightenment thinkers, humans are animals like all others. Our brains are fairly large, but that is not unique. We have much of the same basic hardware as any other vertebrate, the primary function of which is to keep us alive, not solve simultaneous equations or memorise chemical formulae. Consciousness is by no means the sum total of our neurological output but just one small part, not even of special significance biologically speaking.

Most of our brain is autonomous, processing sensory input, deciding what might be important for us to pay attention to and controlling our breathing, heart rate and digestion. We are more the CEO of a very large company than a sole trader; our conscious thoughts give us overall direction but not complete control. Our emotions can substantially modify our ability to think at all and hijack our minds to respond to important situations in instinctive ways, even if it's not actually the most helpful thing to do.

This is why students panic in exams and lose the ability to think clearly. To ensure the ability to perform under pressure we need to train, repeatedly, to build good habits. These good habits then become our instinctive response, performed automatically without thought and keeping the emotional parts of our brain calm. This is readily seen in high pressure roles such as the armed forces or emergency medicine; people can be trained to do things very different from their instinctive response through repeated training and experience.

Memory and learning
Another area of great potential to education is schema theory, a proposed explanation of how we form and retrieve memories. Schema theory suggests that knowledge is organised in a series of complex networks. We store and retrieve information by association with other ideas or stimuli. This neatly explains how classical conditioning works; Pavlov’s dogs associated the idea of food with the sound of a bell. The respective brain cells physically built a stronger connection. When bells were sounded at a later date the neurons responsible for bells directly activated the neurons associated with anticipating food, before the dogs even thought about the sound.

This explains much of how learning works. The message for educators is this: link a few new concepts (one or two at a time) with as much of what the student already knows as possible, so long as the links are relevant. Teach rules which apply in different scenarios rather than simply encouraging rote learning. Use analogies as a way of ‘copying and pasting’ complex relationships from a familiar context to an unfamiliar one with comparative ease. Provide a range of examples to develop the schemata of your relevant subject area. Prime the students to be more curious by touching on more advanced ideas or sophisticated examples and enabling them to fill in the gaps in their knowledge.

Many good educators do these things already. Indeed, one of the participants at the recent neuroscience seminar commented that “it reinforces a lot of what I learnt on my PGCE 30 years ago”. The advantage is that now we can identify why these methods work, and why dumbing down a curriculum is so destructive. It leaves students with an impoverished understanding of a subject, it is dull and uninspiring and it ultimately makes it harder, not easier for them to use and recall the rump of information that we thought we were helping them to focus on.

Neuroscience can confirm and complement good educational practice, not replace it. It certainly has much to offer. But be wary of those who make utterly incredible claims; if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

John Nichols MTA

March 2017

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