Neuroscience doesn’t make teaching better

Educational neuroscience has little to offer schools or children’s education, according to new research from the UK. Understanding the role of different brain structures doesn’t help improve teaching, and it won’t give teachers any insight into how their students progress in class.

In a controversial research paper published by the American Psychological Association in the journal Psychological Review, Professor Jeffrey Bowers of the University of Bristol’s School of Experimental Psychology warns that schools are investing in expensive interventions because they claim a neuroscientific basis.

However, the paper points out that understanding the role of different structures in the brain doesn’t actually help improve teaching or assessing how children learn in school. “There are no current examples of neuroscience motivating new and effective teaching methods,” he writes, and “neuroscience is unlikely to improve teaching in the future.”

“Educational neuroscience only tells us what we know already or gives us information that is irrelevant,” the university quoted him as saying in a press release about his paper and his research. “The problems faced by classroom teachers dealing with learning difficulties can only be diagnosed and addressed through behavioral methods.”

Examples of pointless educational neuroscience findings highlighted by Professor Bowers include:

  • Using brain scans to detect whether dyslexic children have improved their reading skills, rather than testing these children’s reading skills
  • Describing learning as “brain-enabled”
  • Recommending interventions that make struggling children do more of what they’re bad at, instead of finding alternative routes to learning that play to children’s strengths

“The only relevant issue is whether the child learns, as reflected in behavior. Evidence that the brain changed in response to instruction is irrelevant [to teachers]. Teachers should avoid all teaching methods that are marketed on the basis of neuroscience and pay attention to whether the methods improve performance, as assessed in randomized control trials.”

Professor Bowers is an investigator in the University of Bristol’s “Morph Project” testing a new literacy intervention to help struggling third- and fourth-grade readers.

Editorial

Teachers are limited in terms of how much they can learn from neuroscience, but the field of neuroscience can learn a lot from teachers. A big part of neuroscience deals with how the brain changes in response to learning, and learning can be brought about by good teaching.

Just because one side can’t help the other in their profession doesn’t mean the two sides shouldn’t cooperate and strive to increase the world’s understanding of our bodies. Don’t let those marketing machines rope you in, though.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.