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Research - Neuroscience is a no-brainer? Think again, expert says

news | Published in TES magazine on 28 February, 2014 | By: William Stewart

Expensive studies are ‘not very useful’ for classroom practice

Funding for educational neuroscience projects is booming, but the results will do little to improve children’s learning, a leading academic has warned.

Dorothy Bishop, a professor from the University of Oxford, is concerned that millions of pounds are being spent on research, despite there being a “massive disconnect” between studies and classroom teaching.

“A lot of the research being done is good basic science but is not very useful for the field of education,” she told TES. “People want to do studies with things like brain imaging and so on for perfectly good reasons. But then they start saying, ‘Oh, well, this is going to be terribly useful in education’, and I think it is quite hard to make that case.”

Professor Bishop’s warning has been backed by influential American neuroscientist Daniel Willingham, who counts England’s education secretary Michael Gove among his admirers. Professor Willingham said that the case for educational neuroscience had been “oversold” and that most research produced under the title was “uninteresting”.

Their concerns come only weeks after the UK government-backed Education Endowment Foundation and the Wellcome Trust launched a £6 million scheme that will fund neuroscientific research into learning. The funding will go to new projects that are focused on student attainment and are explicitly related to “a finding in neuroscience”.

But Professor Bishop, whose own research is backed by the Wellcome Trust, believed that the new fund would struggle to find suitable projects that actually constitute neuroscience - the study of the physical functioning of the brain.

“They want something that will be applicable now in the classroom with a neuroscience basis,” she said. “That is a very hard criterion to meet.

“When you push these people and say ‘OK, what can you give me [as a good example of neuroscience that would work in the classroom]?’ most of what it is, is really psychology rather than neuroscience.”

Professor Bishop was concerned that the fund was only one part of a “relentless rise” in educational neuroscience. “I am surprised that this is being taken so seriously,” she said. “It seems to be in the air at the moment. There are a number of courses starting up. There are people doing PhDs in this and master’s degrees and so on.

“Maybe I am too much of a pessimist and some wonderful breakthrough will take place. But as it stands at the moment I think there is a massive disconnect between all the wonderful neuroscience, which is very exciting but doesn’t have immediate application, [and education].”

As a specialist in developmental neuropsychology, Professor Bishop has researched psychology as well as the brain, and argues that the former discipline currently has more relevance for teachers. Funding for educational neuroscience research would be better spent on behavioural studies of learning, particularly as physical research into the brain was so expensive, she said.

“I’ve seen several studies that propose brain scans might be useful in identifying which children will and won’t benefit from an [educational] intervention,” Professor Bishop writes in a recent blog post. “Given that brain scanning costs several hundred pounds per person, it’s not realistic to suggest this has any utility in the real world, especially when there are likely to be behavioural indicators that predict outcomes just as well.”

Professor Willingham has said that educational neuroscience can have some practical applications in the classroom. But the cognitive psychologist, who began his career as a neuroscientist, has also warned that “there is definitely a lot of neuro-garbage in the education market”.

Professor Bishop did not rule out the possibility of neuroscience becoming more useful for teachers in the future. “But I just feel at the moment that people are sort of assuming you can leap from the brain to teaching, and we have got all these steps in between to fill in,” she said.

Hilary Leevers, head of education at the Wellcome Trust, said there was a “huge gulf” between education and neuroscience, which the “cutting edge” research project being run with the Education Endowment Foundation aimed to bridge.

“It isn’t that there are hundreds of fully fledged ideas waiting to be tested,” she said. “Establishing capacity in this area is one of the goals of our collaboration.”

Proposals might need developing, she added, but neuroscience that could help learning did exist.

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