Educational neuroscience: Bringing brains together in a neural network

Andy Tolmie 

Not long ago, there was a rage for “brain-based learning” (what other type could there be?). It purported to use neuroscience to design activities that were more amenable to the brain’s structure and behavior, or that helped to integrate the work of the two hemispheres.

Despite what many people believe, educational neuroscience is not about trying to explain learning or educational processes solely in terms of brain function. On the contrary, it represents an attempt to recognise the full complexity of the developing learner, who is influenced by processes at neural, cognitive, social and environmental levels, with multiple interactions taking place between these, and effects running from social or cognitive to neural and vice versa.

Even if there could be a simple and straightforward route to “brain based learning”, we still don’t know enough to devise it.

Those involved in educational neuroscience argue that understanding of learning has to date been piecemeal in nature, because no research has ever done more than focus on subsets of these influences. More complete understanding is only possible by addressing them as a whole, mapping out the interactions between levels in detail.

The objective of building this understanding is to create the basis for a fully evidence-based approach to education, which includes the role of brain function. This would parallel the development of scientific approaches to public health, with which education shares the goals of enabling the full potential of populations to be realised, and removing avoidable impediments to achieving this.

If we take this parallel seriously – and the development of public health does provide a concrete model for how we might proceed – then detailed research using appropriate frameworks is crucial. The origins of modern public health lie in the 1854 cholera outbreak in London, and Snow’s application of then recently developed germ theories instead of older miasma (bad air) theories. This led to a focus on specific sources of the spread of the disease in infected water supplies – the real target – and the aversion of much worse outcomes. This approach spread over time to development of public sanitation, education programmes (e.g. on infant health), and ultimately vaccination, road safety, occupational safety and drug control programmes.

If the development of appropriate research is crucial, though, what the public health model also indicates is the fundamental importance of building multidisciplinary teams (epidemiologists, medical scientists, environmental health officers and so on) capable of working together to ensure research is targeted at agreed issues of concern, and then rapidly translated into suitable practices.

The Centre for Educational Neuroscience was formed in 2008 by staff at IOE, UCL and Birkbeck who recognised from the outset that building this newer discipline had to be a community activity of exactly this kind. This community necessarily involves researchers from a variety of different backgrounds, but it must also include teachers, special educational needs coordinators, and educational psychologists, to help set the research agenda and ensure that it is targeted at application and intervention from the outset.

At present, we are devoting much effort to developing a network of partner schools who will be centrally involved in helping plan research activity, whilst providing a context for small-scale trials of potential interventions. For more information and contact details, see http://www.educationalneuroscience.org.uk/

The Institute of Education runs a Masters course in educational neuroscience. More information here

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Posted in Special educational needs and psychology

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