With the advent of increasingly inexpensive access to brain imaging technology, neuroscience has entered a fascinating period of rapid advancement. The ability to generate images of what’s going on in our brains is hugely exciting, and the enthusiasm for trying to apply this science to education should come as no surprise.

However, neuroscience is probably the ‘wrong level of description’ to provide meaningful insight into classroom practice: observing the actions of particular groups of neurons, or activity in various regions in the brain is a long way from teaching a classroom full of children. Concepts like neuroplasticity, or findings about the role of dopamine in learning, provide few insights into how best to teach maths to 11 year olds. As professor of developmental neuropsychology, Dorothy Bishop says, “Neuroscientists can tell you which brain regions are most involved in particular cognitive activities and how this changes with age or training. But these indicators of learning do not tell you how to achieve learning. Suppose I find out that the left angular gyrus becomes more active as children learn to read. What is a teacher supposed to do with that information?”

There may come a point when it’s possible to attach electrodes to students and for a teacher’s hand held fMRI scanner to detect neurons firing and synaptic connections being formed in response to specific teaching activities, but for now that’s but a distant dream. Basically, neuroscience tells us little of direct, practical value.

That said, neuroscience does prove useful to education when it enables cognitive theories and models of how children learn to be tested. Take the example of dyslexia. For decades a debate raged between those who were convinced the condition was caused by a disorder of visual-perceptual system, and others who were equally sure that phonological problems were at dyslexia’s root. Brain imagining techniques have been able to shed much needed light on which of these rival hypotheses provides the better explanation. Currently, studies finding reduced activation in the left temporoparietal cortex suggest that dyslexia is better explained by phonological rather than visual perception explanations. This is invaluable information and lets teachers know that time will be much better spent embedding phoneme grapheme relationships than mucking about with coloured filters.

What teacher really need to know about neuroscience is the extent to which its language and imagery can be used to baffle and bamboozle. Several well-meaning but misguided attempts to apply neuroscience to teaching have led to a whole suite of myths and misconceptions. Sometimes these misconceptions are based upon ‘hyped’ versions or distortions of genuine findings, other times they appear entirely spurious; merely cloaking themselves in the language of neuroscience to give the ideas a veneer of plausibility. One of the most widely believed is the thoroughly debunked belief that students have different learning styles. Others include such hoary old chestnuts as the belief that we use only 10% of their brains (in fact we all use pretty much all of brain pretty much all of the time), the idea that people are preferentially “right-brained” or “left- brained” in the use of their brains (we’re not, we need all our brain in order to be logical and creative as anyone who’s ever tried to lop off one hemisphere or other very quickly learns) and the bogus belief that children’s cognitive development progresses via a fixed series of age-related stages.

These beliefs, despite having been comprehensively disproved, are remarkably persistent. This seems, at least in part, because people are easily persuaded by ideas when presented alongside neurological jargon. In one study into how neuroscientific explanations influence out thinking, participants were divided into four groups with each asked to read brief explanations of psychological phenomena, none of which required a neuroscientific explanation. Half the participants read good explanations, the other half bad explanations. Additionally, half the participants saw spurious neuroscientific justifications for the explanation specifying an area of activation in the brain which were entirely irrelevant to the explanation, whilst the other half did not. Participants then had to rate how satisfied they were with the explanations given for each phenomenon.

Although participants could tell the difference between the good and bad explanations, the presence of the irrelevant neuroscientific information led them to judge the explanations, particularly the bad explanations, more favourably. Unsurprisingly, non-experts are even more likely to be persuaded by explanations that use technical language and scientific terminology. There’s even evidence that we may find scientific articles more credible when merely a picture of a brain scan is included!

Example of an utterly fatuous claim based on spurious brain imaging

Are teachers too readily swayed by claims about child psychology or pedagogical techniques appearing to carry the stamp of authority offered by neuroscience? It seems our enthusiasm for neuroscience and our bias towards finding ‘brain-based’ ideas more plausible means that neuro-myths spread easily in education. As professionals we should be just ready to challenge neuro-myths in the staffroom, as we would be to tackle students’ misconceptions in our classrooms. Perhaps the first step is simply to be aware of common misconceptions related to how children learn, so that we can challenge bogus ideas about teaching.

Given the limitations of directly applying neuroscientific evidence to classroom settings, as a rule of thumb we should probably exercise professional scepticism when anyone claims that a method of teaching is ‘brain-based’ or supported by ‘neuroscience’. There’s a good chance that such terminology is being bandied about to persuade us rather than to genuinely justify the approach to teaching.

Even when the invocation of neuroscience is well-intentioned it’s often still unhelpful because neuroscience is the wrong level of description. Consider this recent blog post from LKMCo. Quite properly, it urges teacher to treat definitive claims about the efficacy of applications cognitive science to the classroom with caution. This much is uncontroversial. But then it cites a number of recent reports of neuroscientific ‘breakthroughs’ as evidence that our current knowledge about human memory is defunct. Fascinating as this study appears, where or how memories are stored in the brain are utterly irrelevant to classroom practice. The findings may cast doubt on current neurological theories of memory it has literally nothing to say about cognitive theories. It would be the equivalent of saying a new development in quantum physics means we should change the way chemical engineering plants operate. The idea that “functional reorganization of engrams and circuits underlying systems consolidation of memory” might in some way offer suggestions about how to cope with Year 9 period 1 on a Monday is absurd. On the other hand, the advice which comes from Cognitive Load Theory provides consistently useful insights into why children fail to learn and how teachers can adapt their practices in response.

Uncertainty certainly does still – and always will – remain. Science is always contingent. But the idea that seeing regions of mice brains light up will “send shockwaves through what are fast-becoming, accepted orthodoxies in education” is a trifle hyperbolic. For now, neuroscience offers teachers little beyond a very limited ability to corroborate or contradict psychological theories. A little less credulity when we see those brain images would go a long way.