Teachers, don't use your brains

13th April 2012 at 01:00
Some educators want neuroscience to be our guide to learning. They've lost their minds, argues Tom Bennett

Heard the latest from the world of speculative educational futurism? The DNA of learning has been cracked: it is all in the brain, apparently.

Neuroscience has, we are told, myriad benefits for the classroom - ways of encouraging motivation, learning, thinking skills and better behaviour. It is the philosopher's stone for 21st-century students and their teachers. It is also almost entirely useless to those same teachers: a busted flush, a bum hand, a clown's pocket of unicorn's dreams and optimism.

On the surface, there should not be a problem. As our ability to fumble around the brain has developed using MRI scans, a perfectly valid field of study has emerged that tracks which set of switchboards light up in the brain and when. I can hardly blame them - science has found another frontier to adore and explore. Good luck to them, and I hope they enjoy all their pictures of brains with bits coloured in.

Sensibly, I refuse to participate in telling neuroscientists how to calibrate their magnets. But allow me the same liberty to repel boarders when I am informed that neuroscience can transform the way I teach.

Of course, at first glance it seems to make perfect sense that the brain-wallahs can bring a pile of cheese to the table. After all, learning uses the brain and they study the brain, so ... they study learning. QED.

Not so fast, buster. Neuroscience has a perfectly legitimate locus of operation: studying the observable physical status of brain states. But that is a galaxy away from some of its more elaborate and contestable claims for the classroom. More or less activity observed in this or that cortex may be interesting, and could yield benefits in the future, but I would be happier asking the dinner lady for advice on how to run a class than a neuroscientist. Plus, I would get lasagne on a Wednesday.

Brain activity is one thing; learning is another. Computer models of conductivity in a lump of grey porridge undoubtedly make some people sizzle with the thrill of the new; getting a child to understand why the Cold War was important to European history is something else. Learning, knowledge, understanding, retention: these are social constructs, not devised in a laboratory but forged on the anvil of human experience.

The first problem is the inferred causality. Just because my brain lights up when I watch a video of a cat falling from a tree does not mean that the two enjoy a necessary connection. If I wake up on a Saturday morning, every week, with a sore head and a pocket full of sticky pennies, should I infer that Saturday mornings cause neuralgia and odd souvenirs, or should I look to the empty bottle of Drambuie at the foot of my bed? Causal connections are slippery fish indeed.

The second problem is one of comparing like with unlike. A semaphore of interesting synapse activity is just that: synaptic activity. The experience of learning is an enormously complex interplay of assumptions, ambitions, abstract emotional attitudes, judgement and evaluation.

I teach human beings, not laboratory models; not rhesus monkeys, not glass slivers of brain flesh in formaldehyde. You cannot understand a body by analysing a cell, and there is only so much that knowing the alphabet can tell you about Hamlet. This matters because well-meaning educators often trip over their knickers to adopt the latest trend and that seriously affects how children are taught.

Many of the snake-oil salesmen in education tell us their method has been proven by neuroscience to, for example, develop specific learning skills, unlock the brain's potential or increase achievement. Exercises designed to focus concentration and lift motivation are entirely synthetic and have never been shown to have a measurable, meaningful, repeatable impact on a school-wide scale. Of course not, because the science isn't there yet. Because the claims are essentially hocus-pocus. And because neuroscientists are the new phrenologists.

The brain is not a person - I am a person. My pupils are people, too. We understand each other.


One of the great alleged insights of neuroscience was the claim that the human brain goes through an enormous synaptic growth in the early years, when connections are being made and the brain is in high gear, followed by a pruning process, when links close down and the adult brain emerges.

Correlated to the truism that children learn very quickly at this stage of life, it was imagined that there was a "window" of learning, during which children could be taught almost anything.

However, these "critical windows" were only found in sensory systems such as vision and motor functions. No link was established to real classroom learning.

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