Thinking of the future

31st August 2007 at 01:00
In the last of our series about neuroscience and education, Paul Howard-Jones asks if we're ready for a brave new world.

It's parents' evening and already they're gathering in the school hall. A couple of the usual suspects are waiting by the desk with your name on it, clutching the familiar school folder containing reports, brain scans and tests of neurocognitive function.

There's Mrs Smith (she'll be pleased to hear that her daughter's prefrontal cortex is showing much improved working memory activation) and Mr Young (whose son is benefiting from the new generation of chewable cognitive enhancers for attention and long-term memory).

Then you spot Mrs Edwards and you remember the upset about little Claire's disappointing musical performance in assembly last week. Damn. You'd meant to ask the neuro-educational co-ordinator about her. Never mind, perhaps you can recommend some time with the remedial neurofeedback group?

You could label this little vignette the "brave new world" version of how neuroscience and education may meet in the future. But, in fact, the science is already here. We can "see" the brain activation due to learning, there are drugs that can improve cognitive function and we know neurofeedback (monitoring one's own electrical brain activity) can improve performance of various types.

Our knowledge of the brain can also influence education in less controversial ways. This year, a group of trainee secondary drama teachers at the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff, learned about creativity in terms of the brain and the mind, informed by research from the Graduate School of Education (University of Bristol).

This research even included scanning the brains of the students on the course when they were working creatively. Creativity is hard to pin down it's ill defined and sometimes difficult to assess. Perhaps that's why it's often ignored as an important capability for teachers to be developing in their pupils. But the results of psychological research, images of brain activity and access to the terms needed to talk about creativity have all helped develop the practice of these new teachers. They now feel confident and empowered to foster creativity as an important thinking skill, and their perceptions of learning have been transformed.

As one student put it: "As soon as you build an understanding of how people work and why they work like that, you don't necessarily see someone's behaviour in the same way".

However, despite education having a role in brain development, there is usually no reference to the brain in initial teacher training. These trainee drama students are probably better prepared than most to think about the future and have a voice in shaping it.

This is important because an increasing number of issues are appearing that teachers will have views about. Infant screening for dyslexia, for example, sounds futuristic but could be trialled immediately. There is evidence that a non-invasive and relatively cheap measurement using EEG (electroencephalogram) could detect infants at risk from dyslexia even before they have been introduced to print. Researchers suggest this could allow the earliest and the most effective interventions, significantly reducing the numbers of children with reading problems in later life.

But educators, and indeed parents, may feel things are not that simple. Educators may be more aware of the social and cultural implications of early testing than scientists. Is this "baseline" testing at two to three years old?

Although science tells us what we can do, it doesn't have much to say about what we should do. The future will be shaped as much by educational debate as by scientific advance, and that debate has only just begun Paul Howard-Jones is a lecturer in education and programme director of the MSc in Education, Technology and Society at the Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol. He wrote Neuroscience and Education: Issues and Opportunities, on which this series has been based. Visit www.tlrp.orgpubcommentaries.html

References

Gruzelier, J. H. Egner, T. (2004). Physiological self-regulation: Biofeedback and neurofeedback. In A. Williamon (Ed.), Musical Excellence (pp. 197-219). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gazzaniga, M.S. (2005) Smarter on Drugs, Scientific American: Mind, 16(3), 32-37.

Goswami, U. (2006) Neuroscience and Education: From research to practice?

Nature Reviews Neuroscience 7(5), 406-413.

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