In two minds

21st October 2011 at 01:00
Neuroscience and education can have a fertile relationship if neither party moves too fast, says Ellie Dommett

It is easy to see what neuroscientists and educators have in common - the brain. Educators dedicate themselves to developing the intellect and skill of those they teach, which ultimately rests on the workings of the brain.

Likewise, neuroscientists occupy themselves with understanding these workings. Indeed, many educators are keen to have more knowledge of neuroscience to support or develop their classroom practice and neuroscientists are stepping out of the laboratory and talking to teachers, keen to see further application of their research.

Given the current desire for neuroeducation and the wave of so-called brain-based products on the market, one could be forgiven for thinking that this is the start of a new relationship, but, in fact, the idea of the two fields working closely together was initially proposed in the 1960s. Since then, there have been regular pulses of enthusiasm for neuroeducation, but so far the relationship is still very much in its early stages, with ground rules still being set, making the two fields somewhat uncomfortable bedfellows at present.

One of the main reasons for the relationship still being at the stage of setting ground rules is that the two fields are fundamentally different and, in fact, despite a common interest in the brain, have very little shared ground. This makes communication and interpretation of information extremely difficult and causes frustration on both sides, much like in any other new relationship between quite different people.

So why are neuroscience and education so different? One obvious way in which they differ is their goals. An educator may, for example, be interested in developing an appropriate pedagogy for which one source of information is neuroscience. In contrast, a neuroscientist is unlikely even to consider pedagogical development as a goal of their work. This goal difference means that the two fields have very different aspirations.

A less obvious, but another very important, way in which they differ is the level of research the two fields employ. Both can be broken down into a number of levels and in neuroscience the lowest level is perhaps that of individual genes and chemicals. At the highest level, a neuroscientist may investigate the workings of the whole brain, often in quite artificial laboratory settings where people find themselves lying in a scanner and watching a screen. In contrast, education research often starts at the level of the individual and progresses up to group behaviour, meaning that the two fields really only meet in passing where they can tentatively reach out to each other.

Of course this brief point of contact is very important and can provide useful information for both fields, but is this enough for a lasting relationship or is it just passion in an otherwise baseless partnership? New collaborations, joint research forums and new scientific publications all dedicated to neuroeducation indicate that it is enough for the two fields to come together.

However, it is critical that both sides recognise what they can and cannot bring to the table or the relationship will falter. We have seen the great cost in education of over-generalised neuroscience, with water coolers installed all over schools and drives to begin education as early as possible to name but two of these. So what can we learn from these over-generalisations? Most certainly we can learn that what is discovered in a laboratory rat may not be directly applicable to your average four-year-old child. But perhaps more generally we can say that research levels must be thought of as steps on a flight of stairs. Go up or down one step and you are relatively safe, but try to take three steps at a time and you will find yourself with some nasty bruises.

In terms of research, this means that what is learnt at the level of the gene might explain the proteins that gene codes for, but it cannot be clearly extrapolated to the behaviour of the whole person. As such, neuroscientists should avoid allowing such extrapolations and educators should resist accepting them.

Careful relationships, with these respected boundaries, are already being formed in laboratories and schools and are proving undoubtedly rewarding. Even more rewarding than the research process and outcomes, however, are the opportunities that arise from them. These include neuroscientists leading outreach sessions in schools and teachers educating their pupils on how the brain learns, something which is not only intrinsically interesting but also seems to provide the pupils with a greater drive for learning. Therefore, by taking cautious small steps towards each other at present, neuroeducation can change from being a momentary passion into a lasting friendship and one with distinct benefits.

Dr Ellie Dommett is a lecturer at the Open University and co-author of the 'Learning and The Brain Pocketbook'.

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