“Neuroscientists cannot help educators, but educators can help neuroscientists.”

I just was pointed by David Vaillancourt on a new article by Jeffrey Bowers published in Psychological Review that can stir some commotion and discussion. As the abstract is very clear, I’ll first let you read the summary:

The core claim of educational neuroscience is that neuroscience can improve teaching in the classroom. Many strong claims are made about the successes and the promise of this new discipline. By contrast, I show that there are no current examples of neuroscience motivating new and effective teaching methods, and argue that neuroscience is unlikely to improve teaching in the future. The reasons are twofold. First, in practice, it is easier to characterize the cognitive capacities of children on the basis of behavioral measures than on the basis of brain measures. As a consequence, neuroscience rarely offers insights into instruction above and beyond psychology. Second, in principle, the theoretical motivations underpinning educational neuroscience are misguided, and this makes it difficult to design or assess new teaching methods on the basis of neuroscience. Regarding the design of instruction, it is widely assumed that remedial instruction should target the underlying deficits associated with learning disorders, and neuroscience is used to characterize the deficit. However, the most effective forms of instruction may often rely on developing compensatory (nonimpaired) skills. Neuroscience cannot determine whether instruction should target impaired or nonimpaired skills. More importantly, regarding the assessment of instruction, the only relevant issue is whether the child learns, as reflected in behavior. Evidence that the brain changed in response to instruction is irrelevant. At the same time, an important goal for neuroscience is to characterize how the brain changes in response to learning, and this includes learning in the classroom. Neuroscientists cannot help educators, but educators can help neuroscientists.

If I look at the two reasons why Bower dismisses neuroscience in education, the second is a bit out of my league of expertise, although I can follow his reasoning.

I had some difficulty tracking down the original paper, H/T to Daniel Willingham I have been able to read it, check this summary:

In sum, it is hard to see how neuroscience is relevant to teaching in the classroom. At present the strong claims regarding the successes of educational neuroscience are either (a) trivial, in the sense that the recommendations are self-evident, (b) misleading, in the sense that the recommendations are already well established (based on behavioral studies), or (c) unwarranted, in the sense that the recommendations are based on misrepresentations of neurosci-ence or the conclusions do not follow from neuroscience. From my reading of the literature there are no examples of novel and useful suggestions for teaching based on neuroscience thus far.

More importantly, there are principled reasons to think that educational neuroscience will not help improve teaching methods in the future. First, the common approach of using neuroscience to improve our understanding of a learning difficulty is problematic as it is not clear whether remedial instruction should target the deficits or target the preserved skills of children. The only way to find out is to carry out behavioral studies in psychology. Second, changes in brain states are irrelevant for evaluating the efficacy of an instruction. What matters is not whether the brain changes, but whether the child learns as expressed in behavior.

At the same time, it is important to emphasize that an important goal for neuroscience is to characterize how the brain changes in response to learning, and this includes learning in the classroom. So although neuroscientists cannot help teachers in the classroom, teachers can help neuroscientists by changing the brains of their students (by teaching). This suggests that critics of educational neuroscience might reconsider the analogy of a bridge too far. Perhaps a more appropriate analogy is that there is a one-way street linking education to neuroscience. Educational neuroscience is trying to travel in the wrong direction.

What I can say is this, for what it’s worth:

  • often insights from neuroscience underline things we’ve known for quite a long time (e.g. the importance of being concrete as mentioned by Geake). Is this bad, no, it’s extra evidence. Does this change our way of teaching, probably not.
  • It’s almost impossible to put a whole class into brain scanners, so missing out on important elements of education such as social interaction.
  • Most neuroscientists who are busy with educational research ask to come back in 10 years…

I’m sure this article will spur further discussion!

2 thoughts on ““Neuroscientists cannot help educators, but educators can help neuroscientists.”

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