Science is a wonderful thing and as someone who espouses the enlightenment tradition of reason and evidence, I am all for it. I believe it can help us understand and solve many of our biggest challenges and is already curing diseases and extending life expectancy.
However there has long been a problem with some people over-claiming for the impact of science – whether that be tabloid editors announcing the latest “cure” for cancer, or policy wonks claiming that their pet policy is supported by the evidence (what science insiders call “policy-based evidence”).
I fear we are seeing this right now in education in relation to the revolutionary potential of neuroscience to change the way we teach. We are told that recent advances in neuroscience will transform pedagogy and how pupils learn. Our enhanced understanding it seems will unlock the secrets of the infant brain, the teenage brain and even the male and female brains. Educationalists are increasingly being offered lessons from neuroscience on early years learning, how to teach adolescents, educating boys and so on. Politicians, think-tanks, and the educational establishment have seized on these new developments and appear obsessed.
But I suggest we take a lesson from science and subject these claims to a little more scrutiny and scepticism. First, the ambitious claims made for the powers of neuroscience to overcome educational challenges simply don’t stack up.
Interestingly, the neuroscientists themselves are starting to become frustrated at the inflated claims being made. Leading scientist and polymath Professor Raymond Tallis has coined the term “neuromania” to describe the irrational obsession and naïve claims made on behalf of this newly emerging field. MRI scans of the brain make for the most wonderful images and can tell us more about interactions and connections in the brain, but to date tell us little that will make a significant difference to education.
We are in danger of reducing the agency and autonomy of the teacher. Instead of seeing the key to education as a rich, dynamic relationship between teacher and pupil, the fans of neuroscience have reduced education to “inputs”, “outputs” and neural connections. I fear this will result in teachers seeing pupils as objectified lumps of brain matter rather than individuals who can overcome social and physical barriers through inspiring and uplifting teaching.
The approach also reinforces the on-going search for the latest motivational technique which often ends up with fads and gimmicks being substituted for better education. Instead of encouraging teachers to continue to develop our expertise in our chosen subject so that we can inspire students with ideas and knowledge, we are wheeled into meetings and forced to listen to psycho-babble and half-baked lectures about brain gym. The result is cod science and anti-intellectualism.
It is true that this is one of the most exciting times ever for neuroscience. Left in the hands of leading researchers there is a real prospect of unlocking the secrets of the brain and finding new ways to tackle crippling diseases like depression as well as the neurodegenerative diseases that wipe out generations of older people. In short the problem is not neuroscience, but the way it has been hijacked by some in education as the latest substitute for real teaching.
All the surveys of Nobel prize winners in science reveal that the thing that inspired most of them to pursue their passion for science was a great science teacher at school. If we get back to that kind of inspirational teaching we will probably deliver the next generation of prize-winning neuroscientists a lot more effectively than bringing MRI scanners into the classroom.
The only connections that matter in a classroom are those between teacher, pupil and the subject.
This guest editorial has been written by Kevin Rooney, a teacher and head of social science in a secondary school.