In 2016, Jeffrey Bowers of the University of Bristol published a paper entitled “The practical and principled problems with educational neuroscience”. In this paper, Bowers described what he saw as key issues in the field, ultimately arguing that neuroscience cannot help education. In March 2017, Bowers spoke at UCL’s Language and Cognition Seminar Series, where he argued the main points from his paper.
As a proponent of educational neuroscience, I took this opportunity to hear Bowers speak in person about what he feels the main problems with educational neuroscience are. Bowers started his argument by stating that educational neuroscience has two core claims, which are that teachers who know about the brain will be more effective, and that neuroscience will suggest new forms of teaching. Bowers stated that neuroscience-based claims about education are self-evident, that work that is helpful for education is mislabelled as educational neuroscience, and that educational neuroscience work is misguided. Bowers took the example of brain training games to show that sometimes educational neuroscience is wrong. He used a version of Dorothy Bishop’s table of the possible effects of reading interventions to argue that understanding brain change associated with interventions is pointless. Like Bishop, Bowers also argued that psychology is key if we want to inform education. Bowers finished his talk by explaining that he is not opposed to neuroscience, nor to the science of learning, but neuroscience should not pretend to help education when it can’t.
The description of educational neuroscience that Bowers described did not match my own experiences within the field. Educational neuroscience is not about neuroscientists conducting research and then imparting their knowledge to teachers. Rather it is about bringing together neuroscientists, educators, psychologists, geneticists, and those from any science that is related to education, and collaborating. Most of the people I know who conduct educational neuroscience research are indeed psychologists, so the notion of an educational neuroscientist who does not engage with psychology does not match reality. Psychology and neuroscience go hand in hand, and for me, the core claim of educational neuroscience is that an interdisciplinary, scientific, approach can better explain, and thus enhance, teaching and learning. The researchers in this field that I have come across do not pretend that their work is relevant to education: they actually work closely with teachers (many researchers themselves are also ex-teachers) from the outset of a project, to ensure it is relevant for education.
In terms of teachers’ understanding of neuroscience, the aim is not to simply tell teachers how the brain works. Part of the mission of educational neuroscience is to enable teachers to digest new neuroscientific research themselves. As Bowers mentioned in his talk, brain training games can often present themselves as being based on scientific findings. While Bowers saw this as an example of bad educational neuroscience, educational neuroscientists see it as their duty to inform educators of the perils of these expensive, sometimes predatory programmes. Tackling myths is one of the items on the agenda for an educational neuroscientist. Rather than simply passing on neuroscience findings to teachers, the aim is to enable teachers to access and interpret research.
Opponents of educational neuroscience, such as Bowers, sometimes point to examples of studies that claim to be educational neuroscience, and show that they have not yet impacted on teaching. Educational neuroscience is a young field, and the expectation for droves of findings to help teachers will not be met for some time. The six Wellcome Trust and Education Endowment Foundation funded projects show how the field currently works in reality. These large-scale projects bring together scientists and educators, collaborating, discussing, designing and carrying out research that is both scientifically rigorous and interesting and useful for teachers. There is no pretence that the work is relevant for education, because the involvement of educators ensures that this is a key priority from the outset. Educational neuroscience is often characterised as neuroscientists adding an impact statement to their funding application that states “… and this might help education”. This is a mischaracterisation of the people I know who work in this field, who are genuinely concerned with using an evidence-based approach to improve teaching and learning.
For a much more comprehensive and persuasive response to Bowers’ article, see “The principles and practices of educational neuroscience: Comment on Bowers” from Paul Howard-Jones and others.
Bowers, J. S. (2016). The practical and principled problems with educational neuroscience. Psychological Review, 123, 600-612.
Howard-Jones, P A., Varma, S., Ansari, D., Butterworth, B., De Smedt, B., Goswami, U., Laurillard, D., Thomas, M. S. C. (2016). The principles and practices of educational neuroscience: Comment on Bowers. Psychological Review, 123, 620-627.