The false promise of neuroeducation
Today, it is useful, even essential, for educators and anyone else concerned with education to gain an understanding of the scientific basis of learning processes,” asserted the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) 2007 report Understanding the Brain.
It was a conclusion soon echoed by the UK government’s Foresight report on mental capital (bit.ly/mentalcapital) and by the Royal Society, the national academy of science.
Just shy of 10 years later, the science of learning is now well established, with new research centres, professorships and funding. The launch in 2015 of a new journal, Science of Learning, part of the prestigious Nature stable, marked the full institutionalisation of neuroeducation. The journal’s first editorial spelt out the brainocentric project: “We are in exciting times for neuroscience, where the merger of neuroscience with education takes us from the molecular and cellular understanding of brain function to the classroom.”
Yet, while endorsement has come from such authoritative bodies, there is a negative side to this brainocentrism. The rise in neuroeducation offers a new market opportunity: schools are bombarded with mailshots from companies offering products and courses in “brain-based education”. The neuromarketeers are confident they are pushing at an open school gate.
Educators need to be wary: there are neuromyths as well as neuroscience about.
The rise of the neuromyths
Neuroscience, from its beginnings a mere half century ago, has gone mega, with billion-dollar and -euro programmes launched to solve the conundrum of the brain. In doing so, an extraordinary future has been ushered in, one in which neuroscience enables us to change our brains and, hence, our minds. Brightly coloured brain images purport to reveal the sites in the brain of memory, morals, romantic love and even consciousness itself.
Startling claims are made that electrically or magnetically stimulating our brains can solve our personal and social problems, while enhancing children’s brains through early intervention. Neuroeducation, we are told, will transform the nation’s health and wealth.
Teachers, in particular, have been showered with advertising for dubious programmes claimed to enhance learning, some closer to snake oil than science, others based on old and now rejected ideas about how the brain works. The neuroscience community has been quick to denounce such myths in order to guarantee the claims of good science. But how far is the message getting through?
One prominent myth is Brain-Gym (braingym.org), sadly bought into by many schools. It involves pausing a lesson for a brief period in which children are asked to stand up, place thumb and forefinger on the soft spot under the collarbone and rub gently. The process is said to enhance blood flow to the brain and thereby the learning potential of the class.
Despite its improbability, and lack of any physiological evidence, this bizarre activity probably originates in the neuroscientific and cognitive psychological observations that (a) the brain is hugely greedy for oxygen, (b) exercise increases blood flow and (c) interrupting learning for brief exercise may help concentration.
Another widely held myth is the left/right brain difference; the left is said to be cognitive, linear, masculine, the right affective, visual, feminine. Teachers are led to believe that children are naturally left- or right-brained, and that such brain differences will determine a child’s learning style, visual, auditory or kinaesthetic (VAK).
Teaching strategies should therefore be matched to each pupil’s appropriate learning style: visual learning is said to be right brain, auditory left, and kinaesthetic presumably when both are equally engaged.
According to at least one VAK website, learning styles are genetically determined and can be deduced from where a person looks when thinking (V, up, A straight ahead, K down).
The claim that teaching children according to their preferred learning style improves performance is not supported by evidence. Yet a comparative study of UK and Dutch teachers interested in neuroscience, and therefore who might be expected to have more accurate knowledge, found that 93 per cent of UK and 96 per cent of Dutch teachers believed in the importance of VAK learning styles; 91 per cent and 96 per cent believed in the relevance of left/right brain differences to teaching and learning (bit.ly/DekkerEtAl).
The idea that the brain’s part in cognition, emotion and learning styles is partitioned between the left and right hemispheres may very well date from the 1950s studies on patients whose brains had been surgically split to treat their intractable epilepsy. But for people with intact brains, and thus with left and right hemispheres in continuous and coordinated communication, the partitioning of function between left and right brain is irrelevant to performance.
We could go on. There are plenty more neuromyths we could highlight, so prevalent are they in education. The attempts to debunk them have little impact. That they still have some traction may well be down to the fact they are often based on science once seen as true but that is now well beyond its sell-by date.
The limits of neuroscience
With such myths debunked, neuroscientists can make the case for the contribution of their discipline to education. A good example is The Learning Brain; lessons for education, by Sarah-Jayne Blakemore and Uta Frith.
However, although the authors lucidly explain brain mechanisms, worryingly, they also write: “It might be hazardous to suggest that educational research itself does not or could not provide the best approach to many educational issues from its own resources and sound scientific thinking. As well as asking how neuroscience can inform education, it might be useful to think about how brain sciences challenges common-sense views about teaching and learning.”
What they mean by “common-sense views” about teaching and learning is left obscure. Although they speak of the need for a common language between educators and neuroscientists, their glossary contains only neuroconcepts.
What is missing from their book, and indeed from neuroeducation as a whole, is any critical engagement with the existing research base underpinning education. Instead, in lockstep with the OECD and Royal Society, they address teachers with the seemingly unchallengeable authority of neuroscience. So what practical proposals could neuroscientists make for enhancing learning?
Some insight is provided by looking at the grants jointly awarded by the Wellcome Trust and the Education Endowment Foundation. One of these, on changing the school starting time for teenage pupils, is perhaps indicative of the extent to which, as the OECD recommendations put it, “educational neuroscience is generating valuable new knowledge to inform educational policy and practice”.
The science of teen sleep
The teen brain has been seen by neuroscience as the biological base for the erratic, rebellious and risky behaviour of teenagers. This teen brain is responsible, they say, for the well-recognised phenomenon of teenagers staying up late, finding it hard to get up in the morning and having difficulty in concentrating at school.
Some regions of the brain, notably the prefrontal cortex (PFC) – which is associated with planning complex cognitive behaviours, decision-making and moderating social behaviour – do not reach full growth until a person has reached their twenties. Hence the claim that an adolescent’s immature brain is one of – as the OECD somewhat pejoratively puts it – “high horsepower but poor steering”.
Teenagers may look physically mature, but their undeveloped PFC explains why they may “take risks, be impulsive, emotional, rebellious, disorganised, distracted and late”. OECD’s metaphor is routinely echoed, though more sedately, in many studies of the teenage brain.
Sleep researchers suggest that, perhaps as part of coming to terms with the physiological and emotional transition from childhood, adolescents need around nine hours sleep a night.
Other neuroscientists offer an alternative explanation. In adolescence, the circadian rhythm, which describes a person’s pattern of sleep and wakefulness, is shifted towards eveningness; that is, going to bed and waking up late is an intrinsic feature of adolescent neurobiology – hence, “teen sleep”, albeit not a description that characterises the working-class youth of 19th- and earlier 20th-century industrial Britain, with the need to clock in at the factory gate.
Regardless, in their commitment to neuroising teenage sleep patterns, the Wellcome project studies the effect of altering the school start time for adolescents from the standard UK school hour of 9am to 10am. This practice has already been adopted in the US, but with one significant difference. In the US, schools can start as early as 7.15am; in 2014, the American Academy of Pediatrics formally recommended a start time of 8.30am for teenagers. So the adolescent circadian delay in the US is supposed to end half an hour before the normal UK start time, and a full hour and a half before the proposed delayed UK start time.
It is hard to imagine any neuroscientific rationale for this transatlantic difference, except insofar as US culture changes teenage brains differently from European culture. This approach by neuroscientists to accommodate teenage eveningness, however it is caused, is a welcome attempt to adapt the social world to what neuroscientists understand as the teenagers’ biological needs.
But it is something that is hard going in this 24/7 culture – and practically, who is to get the teenager up at the later time when mum/dad has gone to work? Some suspect many teens might prefer to sleep till noon.
This sleep example demonstrates the practical limitations of some of the neuroscience being used for education research. It is also indicative in that much of the education neurotalk is directed not necessarily at teachers and learning, but at the teenagers themselves.
Teenagers, asleep or awake, have become a major focus of the deluge of neurotalk in popular science books, radio and television programmes, which confidently locate their risky behaviour – everything from drug use to pregnancy, sexually transmitted disease and road incidents – in their brains. The assumption is that learning about how their own brain works will provide teenagers with a new way of thinking about themselves – of constructing new subjectivities.
Critical neuroscientist Suparna Choudhury and her colleagues (bit.ly/ChoudhuryEtAl) explored how teenage girls in a London school saw neuroscience. Far from being uncritical sponges, 76 per cent saw the “teen self” of the poorly developed PFC as stereotypical and failing to notice diversity or explain why so many work hard most of the time, are fast developing their social skills, are reasonably well organised and achieve many of their goals. They insisted that it was possible to both party and get straight As – it wasn’t an either/or choice.
Stereotyping was, the researchers observed, “a trope that wended its way through the discussions”, and so far as the teenagers were concerned, the stereotypes employed about them were overwhelmingly negative.
If the team writing the OECD education report with its categorisation of teenagers as having “high horsepower, low steerage” had engaged in discussion with such teens, their knowledge claims would have been less patronising and more complete. The advocates of brainocentricity still live in a one-way street.
Managing pretty well, already
So it is premature to claim that neuroscience can offer new practices for those involved with the development and education of children that will enhance their cognitive and affectual wellbeing.
And education has found many solutions itself already. For example, the source of the learning difficulties that many children face is located in the world that they live in. Their parents may have to manage precarity, food banks, zero-hours contracts and the housing crisis against the sustained interest and aspiration that education both requires and can create. But even against this background, it is increasingly recognised that a relatively small subset of children have learning difficulties, in literacy, numerosity and in the capacity to understand and relate to others, diagnosed by educational psychologists as dyslexia, dyscalculia and autism.
Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), with its false colour images of brains in action, makes it possible to show that children with dyslexia or dyscalculia use slightly different brain regions in attempting to read or calculate. Some have suggested that brain scans in young children might give an early warning of problems to come.
But the reliability of such early diagnoses is uncertain and fascinating to neuroscientists as such findings of the neural correlates of dyslexia and dyscalculia are, so far these have not been translatable into the classroom.
And as we know, special needs is getting on pretty well without this information. Intensive remedial teaching predates and does not rely on brain images. The problem for children with special education needs is one of resources in an underfunded educational system, not a lack of input in that system from neuroscientists.
Yet, there is one neuroscientific issue that the OECD and other reports downplay or even omit, despite its immediate relevance. Parental socioeconomic status (SES) strongly influences a child’s cognitive development and academic achievement. Brain imaging shows that low SES is correlated with reduced numbers of cells in some brain regions.
Nutritional status is vital; after all, the brain demands more energy than any other body organ, and if their brains are energy-deficient, children will simply not have the ability to learn well.
In our increasingly unequal society, the number of children receiving free school meals is steadily rising – it is thought it will soon reach one in three – and many children do not have breakfast because their parents rely on increasingly inadequate benefits or are drowning in the torrent of challenges that confront them.
If neuroeducationists really want to help, they could press the case for a free breakfast programme, in and out of term time. It’s hard to learn on an empty stomach.
Hilary Rose is professor emerita of social policy at the University of Bradford. Stephen Rose is emeritus professor of biology and neurobiology at the Open University and Gresham College, London
Can neuroscience change our minds?
Neuroscience is the latest of the life sciences that offers to tell us both who we are and how we may improve ourselves. The excitement surrounding the brain has seen the “neuro” prefix spill out into all conceivable areas of life, from neuroaesthetics to neuromarketing – and even neurogastronomy.
In their new book, Can Neuroscience Change our Minds? neuroscientist Steven Rose and sociologist of science Hilary Rose (pictured, inset) take a critical look at these claims, as well as the brain science that is said to underlie them.
The Roses argue that, fascinating as this brilliant new science is, it is far too premature to claim that it can offer new practices for those who are involved with the development and education of children, or that the lessons learned will necessarily enhance children’s cognitive and affectual wellbeing.
Politicians from both the Left and the Right have seized upon and amplified the neurotalk, claiming that the enhancement of the mental capital of every child will usher in a post-deficit society of personal wellbeing and a cornucopia of national wealth.
Meanwhile, the evidence piles up that it is, in fact, the social and economic status of their parents that most strongly influences children’s cognitive development and educational success. For the children’s sake, the Roses argue, our priority must be to reverse this growing inequality.