As we learn more about the workings of the brain there is increasing discussion about what neuroscience might be able to do to enhance education. The crux of the justification for the emerging field of educational neuroscience is that knowledge about how the brain learns can have a direct impact on teaching practice. This impact would be similar to the influence fundamental biomedical sciences and randomised control trials have had on medicine.
The consequences of this argument are many but amongst them are that teachers should have a working understanding of the brain and that the growing body of knowledge about basic neurological processes can ‘fix’ education by eliminating fads and myths. In other words, the implication would appear to be that scientific rigour should be privileged over the complexities of the context in which teaching occurs.
As has been discussed in articles in The Conversation by Max Coltheart, and my colleague Jared Horvath, the reality of using neuroscience to enhance education is a little more complicated than that.
Molecular gastronomy as a better model
Part of the problem with educational neuroscience is that medicine perhaps does not provide the best model for translation of neuroscience for enhancing education. A better analogy might be that of cookery (perhaps somewhat conveniently as I am a former chef).
Like teaching practices, cuisines and cooking techniques have existed loosely for millennia and more formally for centuries. The art of both have developed within complex social, political and cultural settings and through extensive theorising and trial and error. It takes skill in both cases to take the raw components, be they students or ingredients, and make the most of them in the unique context in which the practice occurs.
The seeds of change in cookery sprouted about fifty years ago when a small group of chemists and chefs started to take food science seriously as a method for rigorously testing established cooking practices. Sometime later, the molecular gastronomy movement was born and has become possibly the most striking example of the fusion of art and science.
It is not necessary for every chef to also be an expert in chemistry. The work being done in laboratory-like test kitchens by people such as chemist Hervé This and chef Heston Blumenthal is having a profound influence on the practice of cooking globally. Enhanced cooking practices filter down from test kitchens to every kitchen.
For example, the cook at the local fish and chips shop doesn’t need to be a chemist but they do know exactly what temperature the frying oil needs to be at and what consistency the batter needs to be for the best tasting result. The increasing impact of scientific evidence on traditional cookery is largely responsible for cooking techniques being significantly refined over the last few decades.
However, food science has not fundamentally changed established cuisines or taken away from the artistic flair required to be a good chef.
Similarly, the introduction of neuroscience could impact the education through careful translation to teaching practice. Neuroscientists are not required in classrooms to tell teachers that they are doing it all wrong and teachers need not become proficient in the workings of the brain. There are multiple layers of interpretation required as the widely used phrasing ‘from neuron to neighbourhood’ suggests. Cognitive scientists, psychologists and educational researchers are all important in the translation process.
The aim should instead be to take what is already known about the art of good teaching practice and work collaboratively towards using evidence to refine existing approaches.
As I’ve discussed previously, this collaboration is unlikely to produce prescriptive recipes for teachers. There is, however, potential for creating enhanced tools and approaches such as flexible lesson templates that teachers can then expertly adapt for use their specific context.
What path forward?
The main difficulty with multidisciplinary integration is that each researcher brings with them their own ways of seeing the world and conducting research based on their disciplinary background. These differences are difficult to reconcile and make translation of research to practice problematic due to a lack of shared understandings and confused terminology. For example, feedback means something very different to a neuroscientist than it does to a teacher or educational researcher.
These difficulties mean that simplified translation models adapted from medicine cannot be implemented uncritically. A more nuanced conversation needs to evolve about what neuroscience might be able to do for education and vice versa. The discussion should happen both ways as it has been between chemists and chefs.
Enhancing education through the use of evidence is also about what expert teaching practitioners and new sources of data about learning ‘in the wild’ might be able to contribute to the investigation of learning at biological and cognitive levels. For example, large scale collection and integration of data about student learning known as learning analytics is providing an increasingly sophisticated view of how students are learning with technology in the 21st century. What is gleaned from these real world data is useful for generating research questions to be tested in the laboratory.
As has been argued elsewhere by Peter Goodyear from the University of Sydney, to ignore the complexities and art of teaching practice and the work already being done in established fields such as the learning sciences is at the peril of anyone seeking to use neuroscience to enhance education. In other words, the aspiration should be to bring scientific rigour and the relevance of the context together, rather than privilege one over the other.