It was back in 1910 that Edward Thorndike penned his classic article claiming the huge potential for education and psychology (then a relatively new discipline) to enrich each other. "To an understanding of the material of education," observed Thorndike, "psychology is the chief contributor."
Now, almost 100 years later, his hopes are resurfacing as scientists and educators look at how our new understanding of cognitive neuroscience could revolutionise the theory and practice of teaching.
However, current UK standards in teacher training make little reference to psychology and, at the launch of the most recent commentary on neuroscience and education last year, one representative of the Training and Development Agency for Schools said: "I do not think we see ourselves as including brain science in any format within the standards."
Perhaps, if teachers have survived decades without scientific knowledge of this type, some might argue they can do without it. However, just because it's not in the standards, let's not fool ourselves that teachers don't already have their own ideas about brain function. In fact, "self- education" in cognitive neuroscience starts early. Even before the age of four, we start thinking of the brain as an internal body part involved with a range of distinctly mental acts, though often seeing mind and brain as the same thing. During school years, we begin differentiating between these concepts and, rather than using brain and mind interchangeably as the same type of container, machine or muscle, we're beginning using these two words more selectively. Soon, the brain even starts getting blamed for causing states experienced by the mind (so we might say, "I'm brain-dead" for our mental state, but rarely do we say "I'm mind-dead").
And despite lack of formal training, ideas about brain and mind continue to develop in adulthood. Research reveals we are particularly attracted to brain-based explanations, a tendency also reflected in the high profile of neuroscience on TV, radio and popular press. In addition to this flow of information from the media, educators have regular contact with a range of education-specific brain concepts that are often unscientific but increasingly popular in schools and colleges.
All of this makes it difficult to guess what teachers might think about their pupils' brains and minds, so researchers from the Neuro-Educational Research Network (NEnet) at the University of Bristol decided to ask them. We surveyed 158 trainees about to embark on their teaching careers. Disturbingly, we found evidence of unscientific ideas likely to influence both their attitudes and teaching in the classroom. In their school placements, 83 per cent had already encountered ideas about learning styles, which are often promoted as having a brain basis.
This might explain why 81 per cent of trainees considered individuals learnt more effectively when they received information in their preferred learning style, even though educational evidence does not support this notion, and psychological research rejects it.
Perhaps the most surprising response of our trainee teachers was that 43 per cent did not consider it necessary to pay attention to something in order to learn about it. This may reflect recent interest among educators in the concept of "unconscious learning". This phenomenon has been studied by psychologists chiefly in the context of artificial language, where learners can pick up grammatical rules without being able to consciously express them. While such findings are interesting, they do not mean that pupils can learn without paying due attention, yet our results indicate this idea is emerging as a new and potentially damaging myth.
Among the other popular, but incorrect, beliefs espoused by our trainees were the need to drink six to eight glasses of water to prevent brain shrinkage (no recorded instances in relation to voluntary dehydration), the negative role of emotion in cognition (in fact, emotion is often necessary for cognition), our tendency to use only 10 per cent of our brains (we are always using all of it), and that special exercises can balance hemispheric activity and thereby improve literacy (no valid evidence that co-ordination exercises "repattern" the brain or raise educational achievement).
In more general terms, however, perhaps our most worrying finding was that most trainees agreed, or were undecided, as to whether learning problems associated with developmental differences in brain function were amenable to educational remediation. This suggests that knowing a pupil has ADHD, dyscalculia or dyslexia, without appropriate scientific understanding of what that means, can diminish a teacher's belief in their potential to bring about positive change, as if the label indicates some biological barrier. In contrast, modern scientific perspectives avoid biological determination, emphasise the important role of environmental influences such as education, and highlight the enduring possibility of mitigation too.
However, although our survey revealed some new concerns about teachers' lack of training in these areas, perhaps the question of whether some psychology and neuroscience should be included in initial teacher training is simply a "no-brainer". After all, is there anyone, other than a teacher, who is more professionally responsible for the daily development of mind and brain?
Paul Howard-Jones is a senior lecturer in education and co-ordinator of the Centre for Psychology and Learning in Context (CPLiC) at the Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol. References