The place of neuroscience in the classroom

Written by: Matt Bromley | Published:
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Great article Matt. I too am a magpie taking from neuroscience and also philosophy, politics, ...

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Neuroscience theories are playing an increasing role in forming and explaining pedagogical approaches in the classroom – but should this be the case? Matt Bromley warns teachers against becoming obsessed with neuroscientific justifications

A couple of years ago I wrote an article called The Magpie Effect in which I argued that teachers are always keen to try out new techniques and technologies in their classrooms – but like magpies they fly around stealing trinkets from wherever they find them and horde them in their nests assuming that, because they are shiny, they are worth keeping.

In other words, teachers are not very good at sifting the 24 carat from the Christmas cracker; they’re innovative but not discerning, they like experimenting but not evaluating.

In recent months, I have been guilty of a spot of magpie-ing myself. I have written articles, delivered speeches and facilitated training courses on that shiniest trinket of our times: the role of neuroscience in education.

Before I flagellate myself, however, I will say this in my defence: I always talk about “neuroscience” with caveats. For example, I am always honest about my tentative grasp on cognitive science and always state my belief that teaching is an art rather than a science.

But, mea culpa, the fact remains: I’ve been guilty of some magpie-ing. I’ve shoehorned the words “neuroscience” and “cognitive science” into my work once too often. Perhaps I do it because it makes me sound good, or because it adds conviction to my argument.

Furthermore, the terms neuroscience and cognitive science are often used synonymously – including by me – when there are in fact differences between the two. Neuroscience is the study of the nervous system; cognitive science is an interdisciplinary which incorporates neuroscience as well as, among other fields, psychology and philosophy.

However, because cognitive science tends to be used in education texts in reference to brain science, I include its use in my concerns here. If the branch of cognitive science being referred to is, say, psychology – in other words, if the evidence being cited is behavioural rather than physical – then I think this should be made more explicit.

In my defence, I have been certain of the validity of my advice, but have fallen into the trap of wanting to add the weight of empirical evidence to what, essentially, have amounted to natural instincts, thoughts built over the passage of time and constructed by trial and error in the classroom.

I don’t believe I’ve said anything that’s demonstrably wrong. I know everything I have said about effective teaching has had firm foundations not just in science but in common sense and experience.

It could be worse, it could be Brain Gym. Dr Ben Goldacre in his book Bad Science said that Brain Gym “is riddled with transparent, shameful and embarrassing nonsense”. It is, he says, “pseudoscientific nonsense”. So how did it become so widespread in schools in the UK?

One obvious explanation is that teachers have been blinded by long, clever-sounding phrases – a phenomenon which was explored in a set of experiments summarised in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience in March 2008.

In the experiments, subjects were given descriptions of various phenomena from the world of psychology, and then randomly offered one of four explanations for them. Some explanations contained scientific language, others did not. Participants then stated whether they thought the explanations were “good” or “bad”.

The result? The experiments found that people tended to accept bogus explanations much more readily when they were dressed up with technical words from the field of neuroscience.

In other words, the very presence of neuroscience language was seen as a surrogate marker of a “good” explanation, regardless of what was actually said. The researchers concluded that there was “something about seeing neuroscience information (that) encourage(d) people to believe they (had) received a scientific explanation when they (had) not”.

In truth, the neuroscience information was merely decorative, and irrelevant to the explanation’s logic.
Sometimes neuroscience language is used not just to add weight to an argument but to divert the reader from weaknesses in an argument. People tend to think that longer explanations are a sign of expertise and when a writer presents related but logically irrelevant details to an argument it makes it more difficult for the reader to encode, and therefore later recall, the main argument of a text because their attention is diverted by “seductive details”.

Dr Goldacre believes that we all have a rather Victorian fetish for reductionist explanations about the world because “they just feel neat, somehow”. In other words, when we read neuroscience language in a bogus neuroscience explanation we feel as if we have been given a physical explanation for a behavioural phenomenon.

In the case of Brain Gym, we feel as if we have been given an explanation for why an exercise break in class is refreshing rather than just being told that it is so. The neuroscience makes “behavioural phenomena feel connected to a larger explanatory system, the physical sciences, a world of certainty, graphs and unambiguous data”.

I have certainly fallen into this trap. I have been certain of the merits of a behavioural phenomenon because I have seen and heard it work in my classroom. I have felt it in my gut, if you like. But in writing or talking about it, I have doubted the rigour of my argument, feared that colleagues would not listen to my advice if I did not somehow connect it to a physical, scientific explanation. So I supported my instinctive, common sense views with recourse to the way the brain works.

I am certainly not alone. Read many of the books that have been published on education recently or skim over many of the most popular teachers’ blogs and you will see I am in good company. We are all at it. We are all talking about neurotransmitters and the working memory.

Some of us are better placed to do so than others, of course; I’m somewhat more forgiving of the cognitive scientists than the psychologists and armchair experts. But a majority of the books and blogs that cite cognitive science are written by non-specialist teachers and journalists (I am both so, I guess, am doubly guilty). Often – and I don’t know why – it’s English teachers rather than science teachers who are fond of citing neuroscience in their arguments (I guess that makes me triply guilty).

So is it wrong to cite cognitive science as an explanation for our common sense teaching advice? If what we say is fundamentally right, does it really matter on which hook we hang it?

Dr Goldacre’s concern is that neuroscience is being used in order to sell something: “You can take a perfectly sensible intervention, like a glass of water and an exercise break, but add nonsense, make it sound more technical, and make yourself sound clever. This will enhance the placebo effect, but you might also wonder whether the primary goal is something much more cynical and lucrative: to make common sense copyrightable, unique, patented, and owned.”

Brain Gym is a commercial product that uses shaky (and pseudo) cognitive science in order to make money. At least I haven’t patented and marketed my ideas on neuroscience.

So, if we are not making money out of it, is it still wrong to use neuroscience in our work? Well, wrong is perhaps too strong a word; we’re not talking in terms of black and white but shades of grey. It isn’t wrong in that it is not dishonest or misleading but it is, I think, unhelpful. After all, why use neuroscience when good old common sense will suffice?

So the fact that I have used neuroscience to explain some common sense teaching strategies is, I admit, unhelpful. But why am I making this confession? No-one has said anything unpleasant about my work and, as I say, I have always been honest about the fact that I am not a cognitive scientist and have a pretty tentative grip on brain science.

I have no reason to apologise for using neuroscience in my articles or speeches but I do so because I fear that cognitive science and the workings of the brain are in danger of spreading a new form of quackery in education.
Far from helping explain common sense, neuroscience is – I fear – in danger, of trumping common sense.

Neuroscience is starting to make teachers question their instincts, doubt their own eyes and ears. They know something works because they’ve done it and seen the impact first-hand but, because there is no neuroscience to explain it, they assume it’s not worthy of their classroom.

There’s a now famous 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 soldiers. For most islanders, this was the first time they’d seen this kind of technology.

When the war ended, naturally 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 this 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 vital elements of it.

People involved in cargo-cult science use scientific terms and may even carry out research. But their thinking and – more crucially – their conclusions are scientifically flawed.

Neuroscience, it seems to me, is in danger of becoming the next cargo-cult. Although it sounds good, many references to the brain in educational books and blogs are devoid of any real value and are what has come to be called “neurosophisms”: the sophisticated but mistaken application of language associated with neuroscience.

Neuroscience has certainly gained traction in recent years and people have become more interested in learning about how the brain works. This is, of course, a good thing and we should always encourage intellectual curiosity of this kind. It is partly what makes teaching a profession, after all. 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.

However, if we insist on using neuroscience to explain common sense approaches to teaching, we are in danger of losing the debate by detracting from the real argument, by making the argument difficult to follow, or by making false connections between behavioural and physical phenomena.

In the next article, we will also examine three simple questions that we can ask to help us determine whether or not the use of neuroscience in education texts is valid.

  • Matt Bromley is an experienced school and college leader, an education writer and consultant. He is currently the group director of a large further education college and multi-academy trust. You can find out more at www.bromleyeducation.co.uk and @mj_bromley.


Comments
Great article Matt.
I too am a magpie taking from neuroscience and also philosophy, politics, psychology and literature to help assist in the art of motivating and teaching students. The best defence against complacency is the realization that there are no perfect answers, only ideas to try out in the classroom. If they work most of the time with most students they can be added to the tools at the disposal of the professional educator. Alan Watts put it well:
'The more one studies attempted solutions to problems, the more one has the impression of extremely gifted people wearing out their ingenuity at the impossible and futile task of trying to get the water of life into neat and permanent packages.'
I think a common mistake is the confusion of correlation with cause and effect. Male Sun readers are more likely to have a beer belly than Guardian readers (correlation), but reading the Sun does not cause a paunch. Neuroscience is similarly muddled in application. Advising students (and teachers) that a good nights sleep is important to support maximum learning potential, is sound, but even a long lie in will not guarantee improved grades. Scientists still can't say why we need to sleep, they only know we do need it.

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