23 September 2016

Progress for Educational Neuroscience

Over the last year, I have attended a number of conferences and seminars in the domain of educational neuroscience, or MBE (mind, brain, and education). I believe that the field is moving forward, particularly with the Wellcome Trust and EEF funded projects that are applying neuroscience findings to school trials. However, I believe some research presented at these conferences as educational neuroscience doesn’t quite fall into this category.

A number of talks that I have attended have presented neuroscience or psychology research that has no direct application to education, and only on the last slide has the relevance to education been considered. To me, this isn’t educational neuroscience. A research project that aims to be seen as educational neuroscience should consider the educational implications from the start. This could mean consulting with teachers in the design of the research, to make stimuli that converges with the curriculum. This doesn’t necessarily mean that each individual study should be directly related to the classroom, just that the programme of work should have improving education as the end goal. I find it a shame to see study after study on one area of psychology where the stimuli are irrelevant to education, only to hear “and this could be helpful for education” at the very end of the talk. If you think the research could be relevant to education, then make it relevant! If a study is on learning, don’t use coloured dots and squares, use actual educational material.

This is not to say that there is no place for that kind of ‘pure’ psychological research, only that it cannot be considered educational neuroscience. Some arguments against educational neuroscience are aimed at individual studies that have no implications for education, and are therefore considered irrelevant for education. In some cases, I can see where this argument comes from, however I think it cannot be a criticism of the whole field. I believe a programme of educational neuroscience research can include a variety of studies, the culmination of which will help education. Some of these studies will be doing the groundwork, finding out the underlying cognitive and neural mechanisms which can then inform the educational aspect. These parts of the research are important, for instance, discovering neural underpinnings might indicate potential areas of focus for brain stimulation.

I hope that other researchers who attend these events are encouraged to make their research more relevant to education where possible. Talking to educators at these events has made me consider further how to make my own research more applicable to education, and highlighted how important this is. Teachers are keen to hear from researchers: they want to help inform research and they want to use the findings. I believe that we should try hard to engage with teachers and forge relationships early on in the programme of work to ensure our research can truly inform education.

A final thought from my attendance at these conferences is that while teachers are indeed keen to hear from researchers, I don’t think researchers should become too preoccupied with the idea that teachers need to be at every event related to educational neuroscience. Communication with educators is of course important, and I think it’s great that there are many opportunities for this. I do think though, that the scientific community should feel that they can hold educational neuroscience events to disseminate research without educators present. This is not to hold information from teachers, rather to enable discussion of the minutiae of scientific research that is of less interest to teachers. A current area of contention at educational neuroscience conferences is pitching findings at a level that can be understood by teachers, but also sharing the detail that researchers need. Some teachers that I have spoken to felt that the research presented went into too much detail about the methods and not enough about the implications. Similarly, scientists can feel that talks they attend miss the detail of methods and results. Holding some events just for researchers would allow scientists to share findings in the usual academic way, to interrogate and debate methods and findings. Joint events can then bring researchers and teachers together, to discuss the educationally-relevant aspects of the work.

There have been some excellent events showcasing educational neuroscience, enabling scientists and educators to discuss issues in the field, and how we might move forward. I believe we are progressing, but that a continuing challenge is to make research applicable to education from the outset, rather than as an afterthought.


Since writing this post, an article of mine on educational neuroscience has been published in The Psychologist. It is available freely online here: https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-29/october-2016/learning-educational-neuroscience