The history of the application of psychological research in the classroom is a cautionary tale of over-simplification.
For example, IQ testing as the basis of the mid-20th century "11-plus" assessment, constructivism cartooned as a pedagogical technique in which direct teaching does not feature at all, and the use of the growth mindset motivational technique as a "sticking plaster" in relentless summative testing regimes.
More recently, the fact that cognitive psychology draws upon discrete, artificial models of information processing within what is in fact a far more complex and interactive human brain have led to calls for more careful and considered research prior to classroom application (Robertson 2017).
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It therefore seems that, drawing upon past example, attempts to translate neuropsychological research to education practice might inevitably unfold as a controversial process, in which simplistic and over-enthusiastic adoption and commercial exploitation are likely to intrude, creating controversy (Thomas et al, 2018).
So what is the premise of neuropsychology, and why should we even consider its application to education practice?
Neuropsychology’s underpinning concept is rooted in the complexity of the physical brain and its complex clusters of over-lapping mechanisms. For example, the recent discovery of "grid cells" (Constantinescu, O’Reilly and Behrens, 2016), suggesting that areas of psychological functioning that were once thought to be discrete are in fact highly interdependent.
Pessoa (2017), meanwhile, categorically states "emotion and cognition are functionally integrated systems".
A range of empirical findings also support this possibility, for example cortisol malfunction emergent from infant stress, leading to poor mental and physical health in adulthood (Felitti et al, 1998), and the so-called "cognitive lag" (Jensen, 2009) associated with poverty: “There is good evidence that low socio-economic status is a stressful condition associated with deficits in brain physiology in regions associated with typical language development’ (Perkins et al, 2013, p11).
It is this growing evidence base indicating the intricate interweaving of the cognitive, the emotional and the social that has convinced me that education needs to revise its model of the child as it moves into the mid-21st century, despite the considerable challenges that this will involve.
In the early years of life, synapses are formed at a rapid pace while surplus connections are gradually eliminated; so called "blooming and pruning".
As this process unfolds, children’s ability to organise thought exponentially increases, as does the ability to focus attention without becoming distracted by the intrusion of non-relevant thoughts, leading to an increasing ability to self-regulate (Whitebread and Vasilio, 2012).
Gopnik (2011) proposes that over-directive teaching in this developmental phase consequently “lead[s] children to narrow in, and to consider just the specific information a teacher provides”.
Social and emotional
Neuropsychological research bears this out; for example Naravaez et al (2012) propose “natural social play may be an experience-expectation process that helps certain forms of neural maturation with benefits for the development of higher executive brain functions”.
Pellis and Pellis, (2012, p1) suggest that such play helps young creatures of many mammalian species to "finely tune their behaviour in a contextually relevant manner with peers and so modify the brain mechanisms that underpin social skills”.
Pellegrini and Blatchford (2000) offered a practical example of this phenomenon in human beings in their finding that six-year-old boys’ level of success in social problem-solving was predicted by the amount of time spent in active social play one year earlier.
With respect to the teenage brain, recent neuropsychological findings on routine neuronal pruning in adolescence suggest that this developmental programme lies at the heart of teenage social vulnerability (Blakemore, 2018), and in the non-neurotypical arena neuropsychological imaging is also making ground-breaking discoveries.
For example, that people with dyslexia appear to have difficulties with detecting the prosody (rhythms) of speech, leading to calls for interventions that trial the use of rhythm in special needs literacy pedagogy (Flaugnacco et al, 2015, Goswami, 2017).
The challenge of integrating such complex overlapping social, emotional and cognitive functioning into education practice would be considerable, particularly when it is considered that cognitive psychology’s discrete processing models of memory and attention are far more attractive to current modes of classroom practice, with their concentrated focus on the intellectual.
However recent findings relating to the impact of what have been deemed "non-cognitive" skills on life outcomes suggest that the relevance of neuropsychology within the classroom is, despite predictable difficulties, a challenge in which we would be advised to engage.
Scorza et al (2016) reflect that while in the past, literacy, numeracy and "IQ" were the main factors researchers focused upon as the key elements underpinning human capital, current research points towards self-regulation skills as the underpinning engine of human achievement: "Of course…knowledge is important, but it is of little use unless one has the capacity to execute this knowledge in the heat of the moment" (Scorza et al, 2016, p.314).
Like Perkins et al (2013), they call for a focus on early social and emotional development, and the need for children to be protected against the toxic stress that emerges from insurmountable adversity (Shonkoff et al, 2012).
Worth the effort
In conclusion, the challenge of integrating neuropsychological concepts into education should not be underestimated, not least because what the research suggests is that in consequence, the resulting practice could not be entirely premised upon the intellectual; however, indications are that this will be the future for which the sector has to prepare.
Scorza et al (2016) call for health scientists, psychologists and neurologists to create a shared human developmental agenda.
From my own perspective as both a neuro-interested psychologist and teacher, I would propose that an important piece of the jigsaw would be missing if educators were not also involved in this conversation.
Dr Pam Jarvis is a reader in childhood, youth and education at Leeds Trinity University
Further reading and references
- Blakemore, S (2018) Inventing Ourselves, London; Doubleday
- Constantinescu, A, O’Reilly, J, Behrens, T (2016) "Organizing Conceptual Knowledge in Humans with a Grid-like Code", Science, Jun 17; 352(6292): 1464-1468.
- Felitti, VJ, Anda, RF, Nordenberg, D, Williamson, DF, Spitz, AM, Edwards, V, Koss, MP, Marks, JS (1998) The relationship of adult health status to childhood abuse and household dysfunction. American Journal of Preventive Medicine Vol 14, pp.245-258.
- Flaugnacco, E, Lopez, L, Terribili, C, Montico, M, Zois, S (2015) "Music training increases phonological awareness and reading skills in Developmental Dyslexia: A randomized control trial", PLoS ONE, 10, e0138715.
- Gopnik, A (2011) Why Preschool Shouldn’t Be Like School. Slate.
- Goswami, U (2017) "A neural basis for phonological awareness? An oscillatory ‘temporal sampling’ perspective", Current Directions in Psychological Science, 27, 56–63
- Jensen, E (2009) Teaching with Poverty in Mind
- Naravaez, D, Panksepp, J, Schore, A, and Gleason, T (2012) Evolution, early experience and human development: From research to practice and policy, Oxford University Press
- Pellis, S, and Pellis, V (2012) Play-fighting during early childhood and its role in preventing later chronic aggression, In Tremblay, RE, Boivin, M, Peters, RDeV (eds) Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development [online], Montreal, Quebec: Centre of Excellence for Early Childhood Development and Strategic Knowledge Cluster on Early Child Development; 2012:1-4.
- Pellegrini, A, and Blatchford, P (2000) The Child at School, Arnold
- Pessoa, L (2017) Emotion beyond brain regions: Networks generate cognitive-emotional interactions. Emotion Researcher
- Robertson, A (2017) Cognitive Science needs ‘fair scepticism’, Schools Week
- Scorzaa, P, Arayad, R, Wuermlib, A, Betancourtca, T (2016) Towards Clarity in Research on “Non-Cognitive” Skills: Linking Executive Functions, Self-Regulation, and Economic Development to Advance Life Outcomes for Children, Adolescents and Youth Globally Hum Dev 58(6): 313-317. doi:10.1159/000443711.
- Shonkoff JP, Garner AS (2012) The lifelong effects of early childhood adversity and toxic stress, Pediatrics, 129: e232–e246. DOI: 10.1542/peds.2011-2663
- Whitebread, D, Basilio, M (2012) The emergence and early development of self-regulation in young children Profesorado 16 (1) pp15-33