Brain science and education: seeking the right connections

 Kevan Collins

What can neuroscience tell us about education? This question elicits a wide range of responses from teachers, neuroscientists and educators – from the pessimistic “Nothing. What can a brain scan tell a teacher about what to do with a difficult Year 9 class?” to the very optimistic “Everything! If only I could see what my pupils were thinking I’d know what to do”.

At the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), we believe the answer is likely to be much more complex and that the potential for this area of work is huge. That’s why we have joined with the Wellcome Trust in a £6m Neuroscience and Education funding initiative.

Neuroscience has already confirmed that certain existing educational practices have an impact on the brain. But it can also prompt questions about how best to implement them. “Spaced Learning” – the idea that it is better to split the time spent learning something into several short bursts rather than learning it in one large block – has long been used in education. However, recent neuroscience research suggests that the positive impact may be due to the additional time spent thinking about the material. This raises questions such as: How long should you leave between sessions? And what type of activity should you do in between?

Neuroscience can also provide us with fresh ideas for educational approaches. One such idea is that of uncertain reward and computer games. It seems that one of the reasons that computer games are so compelling is that they employ “uncertain reward”. Sometimes an action is rewarded and sometimes it isn’t, so whether you progress in the game is partly down to skill and partly down to luck.

This type of reward structure stimulates a much greater dopamine release in the brain than completely certain or completely uncertain reward. Dopamine is important for motivation, but also for memory formation – a combination that would surely prove useful educationally. Learning games that employ the same reward structure as commercial games are being developed [link] and could provide a powerful learning tool.

Ensuring that neuroscience can usefully inform education requires the involvement of many groups: neuroscientists, psychologists, educational researchers and teachers, for example. It also requires the careful use of evidence throughout the process:

  • firstly looking at the evidence generated by neuroscience to select those ideas most likely to be useful to education;
  • then ensuring these ideas are applied within the classroom in a way that is both feasible and supportive of teaching and learning approaches identified as effective by educational research;
  • and lastly the neuroscience-informed approach or intervention needs to be rigorously evaluated.

It is this process that the Wellcome Trust and EEF are hoping to facilitate through the new funding initiative.

Many practitioners are excited by the idea that neuroscience could influence education; indeed a recent Wellcome Trust survey found that eight out of ten teachers would collaborate with neuroscientists doing research in education. This is very encouraging. However, it’s also important that ideas are not adopted before they have been rigorously tested, and that their neuroscientific basis is sound.

There is then potential for neuroscience to inform education, enhancing current practice and providing new ideas. Developing educational interventions truly informed by neuroscience would also stop unproven commercial products from filling the current gap in the market. The EEF and Wellcome Trust funding initiative intends to generate evidence about the impact of existing neuro-informed educational interventions, as well as funding some more developmental projects to develop and pilot new approaches. Generating a much larger body of evidence to provide an answer to our opening question and hopefully identifying approaches that raise the educational attainment of young people.

More information on the funding round can be found here, including a literature review that discusses other ideas from neuroscience that could be applied within education. 

Kevan Collins is Chief Executive of the Education Endowment Foundation and a Visiting Fellow at the IOE

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