Thursday, 23 October 2014

Why Educational Neuroscience?

Two weeks ago the Wellcome Trust and the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) announced the six grant winners of their call for educational neuroscience research. While this funding call was met with excitement from those in the field, others were less positive. There is a concern that neuroscience and education are just too far apart for any real benefit. In addition, widespread 'neuromyths' are being passed from teacher to teacher and providing false information which may harm learning. Last week, results from a published survey showed the extent of these neuromyths in teachers around the world. Although some would argue that it is psychology, not neuroscience, that can have an impact in the classroom, and that neuroscience can have no real impact on education, I would argue otherwise.

Psychology and neuroscience
Clearly it is important to use psychology methods and behavioural measures when investigating the impact of an intervention. However, if we find one intervention that works well compared to another intervention, we may be left wondering why one was better, and what we really changed. By investigating what is going on at a deeper level, we gain a clearer picture of how the intervention worked. This may in turn help us to build even more effective interventions. Psychology as a discipline incorporates neuroscience, and I think these two approaches complement each other in finding out more about our interventions. The Wellcome-EEF funding was awarded to projects where the neuroscience added something extra, and was not simply an add-on with no relevance.

Teachers want evidence
Teachers are keen to hear from neuroscientists, and want to know exactly how they can enhance learning in their classrooms. I believe neuroscientists therefore have a duty to engage with teachers and pass on relevant information. If neuromyths are left to continue spreading, the situation may get worse. Eventually we want to be able to replace these myths with useful neuroscience findings.

Evidence-based education
The field of education is in need of a strong evidence base. Ben Goldacre compared education to medicine, arguing that one day teaching could be an evidence-based practice just like medicine. If teachers are keen to get involved with neuroscience research, then this is a good thing as researchers need the help of schools to build up an evidence base.

Until recently we didn't have the means to fully implement an educational neuroscience approach. Technology has vastly improved, as has our knowledge, and we are now at a stage where we can make some really meaningful findings. Just because we don't know exactly where this young field might go, we should not decide that it isn't worth investigating.

The future
I think the growth of educational neuroscience is very positive. It is helping to bring a science base to the field of education, and its aims are to directly influence and improve education for all learners. Psychologists and educators have been known to not interact with each other when they often have overlapping goals. Educational neuroscience will help to bring neuroscientists, educators and psychologists into the same room, to work together with the common goal of improving education.

One example of good practice in educational neuroscience is the Centre for Educational Neuroscience, which is a joint enterprise between Birkbeck, the Institute of Education, and UCL. They aim to bring together education, psychology, and neuroscience, to improve education for all. I think educational neuroscience has an exciting future ahead, and I look forward to seeing the field grow.