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.
Competencies, badges and authentic assessment; these approaches have been touted by some as the solution to issues associated with rising costs, cheating and the demand for more flexible learning. Are they really though?
A competency-based approach is what is commonly used in vocational education where students must demonstrate that they have a defined range of skills mapped against a set of predetermined criteria. Badges are micro-credentials that validate that students have met a specific learning outcome. These outcomes tend to be much smaller in scope than a formal qualification. Authentic assessment is assignments that resemble in some way real life work-related activities.
What all these approaches have in common is the assumption that a large body of knowledge and way of seeing the world can be reduced to focussed, skills-based modules of learning that align with the workplace.
A university education is not simply about the accumulation of a series of well defined packages of knowledge, nor is it just about learning how to function in a particular job by completing assessment tasks that simulate work students will do when they graduate.
These sorts of approaches have more in common with a trade apprenticeship than they do with the traditional aims of higher education. They also seem to have more in common with an industrial age approach to education than what is required for high-level knowledge work in the 21st century.
Ways of being
University learning is about changing who students are, to turn them into job ready graduates and into educated members of society who can analyse and synthesise knowledge in sophisticated ways. A university is supposed to not just change what students think and can do but to change who they are, to change their way of being in the world.
Before it is possible to undertake authentic tasks, there needs to be a base level of knowledge established. That knowledge needs to be situated and integrated with what students already know. It also needs to be synthesised into meta-level constructs that allow students to become self-sufficient learners, to transfer what they learn to novel settings and adapt to unforseen developments.
If a university degree is to be distilled into a set of competencies or micro-credentials, at what point are all the pieces put together? Does it remain up to students to figure out for themselves how to coalesce a series of modules into a systematic network of interrelated concepts and ideas?
By modularising higher education into smaller components that are supposedly authentic and badge-worthy risks not giving students an opportunity to develop the meta-level constructs required for them to adapt and transfer what they learn. In focussing more on the real world and authentic trees there is an inherent risk of developing a generation of graduates who can’t see the forest.
Remembering and applying
While competency-based authentic assessment and badges might help overcome some of the problems currently facing higher education, they are ultimately about demonstrating what students can do at a micro-level. By assessing what they can do, we make an inference about what they know.
Do they truly understand the broader meaning and context of what they are doing? Do they remember the core ideas and can they integrate and analyse concepts in order to function effectively as educated members of society?
Just because a student can provide evidence that they can do something, authentic to the workplace or not, it still provides little direct information about how well they understand the knowledge required to complete the task. More importantly, doing an authentic task provides no information about the student’s understanding of how that knowledge fits into the bigger picture.
Given the types of complex and unpredictable problems facing graduates in the years to come, being able to prove that they have met a series of loosely connected competencies isn’t going to be enough. They need a clear understanding of the forest and the trees.
Job ready or life ready?
The problem here is really about the balance between core knowledge and competencies required to function as competent professionals, scientists, scholars etc. and what is required for a career and a life contributing to the greater good.
At some point all the pieces need to be pulled together, not for the purpose of getting a job but for the purpose of thinking creatively and critically, of addressing old and new problems in different ways.
It has been argued many times that too strong a focus on employability and job prospects risks turning higher education into vocational education. Competencies, badges and authentic assessment could all be labelled as moves in that direction. What is not clear is what kinds of authentic tasks and competencies are required in the mid 2060s. That is after all when school leavers entering university in 2015 will still be in the workforce.