Neuroscience: A word of warning

Written by: Matt Bromley | Published:
Image: iStock

Is neuroscience in education the new ‘cargo cult’? In the second part of his two-part discussion, Matt Bromley says that if we insist on using neuroscience to explain common sense approaches to teaching, we face losing our own sense of professional judgement

In the first part of this article (Neuroscience in the classroom, SecEd 428, November 5, 2015), I recounted a story about the residents of an island in the South Pacific who, during the Second World War, saw heavy activity by US planes bringing in goods and supplies for the soldiers.

When the war ended, so did the cargo shipments. Confused and keen to see the activity resume, some islanders built fake air-strips with wooden control towers, bamboo radio antennae, and fire torches instead of landing-lights. They believed this would attract more US planes carrying precious cargo.

The physicist Richard Feynman used the event to coin the phrase “cargo-cult science”. Just as the islanders’ air-strips had the appearance of the real thing but were not functional, cargo-cult science refers to something that has the appearance of science but is actually missing the vital elements of it. In other words, people who peddle cargo-cult science use scientific terms and may even perform research but their thinking and – more importantly – their conclusions are scientifically flawed.

In my last article, I argued that neuroscience was in danger of becoming the next cargo-cult because many references to the brain in education books and blogs are devoid of any real value.

The brain is fascinating and, although there remains much mystery about how it works, a lot more is now known that could influence the way we behave and, crucially, the way we teach and learn. But if we insist on using neuroscience to explain common sense approaches to teaching, we are in danger of losing
the argument.

As well as the use of neuroscience language to add weight to a common sense argument – or indeed to distract the reader from a weak argument – some education texts cite research as being from the field of neuroscience when it actually comes from a different – usually behavioural – field. In other words, a text may claim that research has been conducted by neuroscientists when it has actually been conducted by psychologists without using any neural measures

The difference may seem subtle but it’s important: the research doesn’t provide information about the brain, it provides information about human behaviour.

If I am honest, I am pretty relaxed about most of the references I have made in past articles and presentations to neuroscience. However, there is one that makes me slightly uncomfortable.

I have written about the role of dopamine as a neurotransmitter that not only rewards us for overcoming a challenge but actually helps forge new connections in our brains. Again, I believe in all the teaching advice my article contains and think it is all explained by common sense and experience. But I am uncomfortable with the references to dopamine – not because I think it is inaccurate (it may be a tenuous link to science but I don’t think it is demonstrably wrong), but because the reference just isn’t needed.

I have included neuroscience simply to put a new, modern gloss on some pretty old ideas from the field of psychology. As I say, it is not bad advice but it is some old advice repackaged and “sold” as new.
My concern is that, as long as I and others are talking about neuroscience, countless companies out there will be willing to exploit it.

I receive an endless stream of unsolicited emails every week from people trying to sell me something and a large proportion of them, in recent years, have included references to the brain and cognitive science.
An alarming number contain what even I, with my tentative grip on science, know to be fundamentally wrong.

For example, many organisations use brain-imaging research to try and substantiate their education programmes – but they often misunderstand or misuse this research.

Often, while people are performing a certain task a photograph is taken of the brain that shows a region where there is a lot of neural activity. The problem is brain imaging doesn’t work quite like that. Measurements taken from a brain scanner do not directly reflect how active a region of the brain is while a particular task is being performed – the measurements are much more indirect.

What brain scanners actually measure is the content of the blood flowing through each brain region – in other words, the ratio of haemoglobin in the blood that has oxygen bound to it, to the amount of haemoglobin in the blood that has no oxygen bound to it.

The region of the brain that has been working hard needs a supply of oxygen brought to it in the blood. Accordingly, the blood vessels will dilate and bring in extra oxygenated haemoglobin. Therefore, a few seconds after the hard work has been done, the haemoglobin ratio will be high.

This high haemoglobin ratio can only be measured by comparing two conditions, or by comparing two groups of subjects.

So brain scans only really show us that a certain region of the brain has more oxygenated haemoglobin some time after a certain task has been performed than it did at another time or while under different conditions.

What is more, finding regions of the brain that are more active when people are doing a particular task than when they are doing a different task does not explain how people achieve a task, and therefore such brain scans cannot help us to understand how we learn to perform tasks, why some people find some tasks more difficult to do than others, and how we as teachers can help students to overcome their difficulties. In short, brain scans cannot – yet – help us as educators. And yet...

One of my worries is that schools may have their heads turned by companies presenting the results of brain scans as confirmation of the effectiveness of their programmes and, as a result, schools may divert some of their precious funding to implement unproven schemes.

We have to be discerning with the schemes we buy into. Of course, governments don’t help – their heads are turned just as easily and once they pronounce on some new initiative, schools feel duty-bound to invest in its development. That way madness – and Brain Gym – lies.

And remember: the neuroscientists who actually carry out brain studies have repeatedly said that their findings are not yet ready to be applied to the classroom. They recognise the limitations of neuroscience in education.

In fact, in September 2007, Science magazine published a statement signed by more than 100 prominent neuroscientists declaring that neuroscience was not yet ready to relate brain processes to classroom outcomes. In their letter they asked: “How did the myth of brain-based pedagogy become so pervasive in educational discussions? How did policy-makers, educators, and the public become so misinformed?”

To conclude, I would encourage you to question teaching advice that’s presented as neuroscience and to be wary of salesmen who want your school to sign up to a programme backed by research from the field of cognitive neuroscience, especially if it comes adorned with pretty brain scans.

You can make a quick start simply by asking the following questions whenever you come across an article, book or marketing flyer that cites neuroscience:

  1. Can I replace the word “brain” with the word “student” (or similar) without losing any of the meaning? If so, then the argument being made – which may be no less valid for it – is a behavioural one not a physical, neurological one. In other words, it is common sense and there is no need of neuroscience. Try it with an example from my own work. In a recent SecEd article I wrote “...repeating the same task over and over – reading and re-reading a list of words, say – makes our brain progressively less interested in the material. It has just heard, and stored, a word so if the same word is repeated again, then a third time, the brain pays progressively less attention to it”.
  2. Is the advice being presented new or is it the product of common sense and experience and something I have been doing successfully in my classroom for years? Again, if it is common sense, it does not make the argument any less valid but it should be presented as such and not deferred to neuroscience.
  3. Is the research that is cited in support of the argument, psychological, educational or behavioural? If so, there is no need to defer to neuroscience.

Conclusion

The point of this two-part article is to advocate that teachers use their own professional judgement, whether or not their instincts are supported by cognitive science and other evidence. But don’t get me wrong: I think we should find out as much as we can about the science of learning and should always be willing to engage with evidence-based approaches. Nevertheless, we should always trust our gut. And we should never forget that teaching is about the warm, personal interaction between a teacher and their students and between a student and other students.

  • Matt Bromley is an experienced school and college leader, an education writer and consultant. He is currently the group director of a large FE college and multi-academy trust. Find out more at www.bromleyeducation.co.uk or follow him on Twitter @mj_bromley


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