Navigating the Sea of Neuro-mythology in Search of the Land of Valid Applicability

At its core, education is a research profession.  With the advancements of neuro-technology in recent years, the contributions of neuroscience to the educational processes hold tremendous promise for the future development of teaching and learning strategies.  Further, with the increasingly differentiated educational approaches, and a more clear conceptualization of learning styles, a greater understanding of how the brain works will allow educators to further identify best practices based on scientific findings.  While these advancements are no doubt romantic as they induce a feeling of idealized excitement at the massive possibilities of the outcomes, there has been a controversial saturation of the literature that has many researchers, neuroscientists and educators skeptical of the information being championed as educational neuroscience or brain-based learning.  To date, there has been no data to support that we can “spot teach” a student by purposely activating a certain part of the brain in a classroom lesson.  However, despite the neuromythology that accompanies the growing literature, there is concrete scientific data that does suggest that certain cognitive tasks do activate certain parts of the brain. As such, the data from the neuroscience community is increasingly compelling for educators.  While brain –based research has manifest ideal conditions concerning nutrition, hydration, movement, lighting and physical position that have allowed educators to create physically archetypal environs wherein students are more comfortable in their educational activities and theoretically more able to learn, being able to use fMRI, DTI and other data to guide pedagogical practices represents an area of educational neuroscience that renders educators both enthusiastic and guarded.

In the journey of reviewing current literature regarding how neuroscience has already elucidated how the brain learns, or better phrased, what part of the brain is doing the work when an individual is performing a certain type of cognitive task we have likewise learned that proper rest, nutrition, hydration, movement and variance in classroom activities based on what educational neuroscience tells educators represents not an epiphany for those who have been passionate, reflective practitioners for many years, but rather a reinforcement and data-driven affirmation of what many a master teacher already knows. I have said that the eyes are the experienced educator’s fMRI machine.  That being said, there are questions that we must seek to answer, in particular:

Can neuroscience provide concrete, focused scientific data that is accessible for educators to synthesize into their practices in generating new approaches to teaching and learning, while also providing affirmation of the practices that currently manifest successful results in the classroom?

The possibility of an educator being able to develop instructional practices that he/she knows will inspire heavy brain activity through the presentation of novelty that places students in a zone of proximal development, spikes higher order critical thinking processes or ignites intrinsic motivation will transform education- neuroscientists are providing educators with findings that conceivably will be able to achieve such a lofty goal.

During the odyssey of discovery that my studies in this area have led me on , my questions have evolved a number of times based on the dictates of the research available and my own interest in what path I wanted to follow.  Originally,I sought to make connections between educational neuroscience, teacher practices, self-efficacy and metacognition.  Unfortunately, as Dr. Joann Deak (a foremost educational neuroscientist with whom I have workshopped) responded in her email to me recently, there just is not any empirical data on that topic.  Wanting to continue to pursue the brain-based core element as it represents an area that  holds ever-growing interest for me, I began to read as much as possible to allow the process of study to help me shape my inquiry. Some other questions I have considered are:

  • What can fMRI imaging show educators that can help them to create better learning and teaching strategies for students?
    • Can neuroscientist provide educators with scientific data that will provide for the latter a requisite understanding of how the brain works leading the development of better pedagogical practice?
    • What relevance can findings from cognitive neuroscience have for teaching and learning?

However, another important discovery during the odyssey was that there exists as much contradiction, conflict and disagreement in the educational neuroscience communities as there is in any philosophy-strong intellectual discipline. Nevertheless, in order to answer my questions, close attention must be paid to the importance of perspective, navigation, identification and determination with regard to what research really tells us and how we can accurately and effectively use it to improve the educational experience of our students.

Ultimately, understanding how the brain works, a revolutionary work that neuroscientists are trail-blazing, represents a bold endeavor that provides educators with information that will allow us to better provide for our children’s developmental needs.  But how well can practitioners can translate that revolutionary work into a medium that is accessible and translatable for educators to use purposefully and meaningfully in the classroom considering the sharp juxtaposition between the backgrounds of the two groups remains the central catalyst in answering the central question posed in the opening of this blog.

Can neuroscience provide concrete, focused scientific data that is accessible for educators to synthesize into their practices in generating new approaches to teaching and learning, while also providing affirmation of the practices that currently manifest successful results in the classroom?

The answer is increasingly yes, but as the references to neuromythology teach us, we must be guarded. However, as stated in the opening, education is a research profession- and relevant research starts with good questions. So as a profession, we need to continue to ask questions- to question what we already know and do, and to encourage the symbiotic relationship between science and philosophy to grow in a hotbed of tropic intensity.

On both the neuroscience and education fronts, there is great passion and purpose. But the success of the joint venture, depends on yet another inquiry: Can the two communities, the neuroscience and educational communities, come together in a mutually beneficial relationship that is transcendent for both fields?  Again, the answer seems to be affirmative based on the work of the researchers such as the late John Geake. Geake has authored both the empirically data-driven research and a philosophical statements on the process and product of his work, exemplifying throughout the latter how integral the mutually beneficial interaction between the two communities has been for the advancements in his own work.

While the field has been developing for over 20 years, the recent awareness of the neuromythology is also important to address.  The attention to the heightened, guarded perspective both educators and neuroscientists encourage all practitioners to maintain reflects that mythological element of the literature.  BBL, MBE and a variety of other schools of educational neuroscience that have grown from the movement all have truths and myths to which they adhere as doctrine.  Fortunately for the educators, so much of what they have proposed has reaped highly successful results in the classroom.  Whether the results are truly based on neuroscience, logic, other biological factors or some other serendipitous entity, the important point is that improved results in our effort to serve our children’s cognitive, affective and physical needs are being realized.

Having been involved in brain-based  professional development over the past 4 years, and admittedly a major skeptic for the better part of that period, it has been very enlightening to find the real science and what it tells us with regard to how the brain works, and likewise revealing to discover the neuro-mythology that also litters the literature on this topic.  Yet the empirical data reveal compelling data and images that convey that neuroscience has seemingly surreal capacities to show us neural correlates of higher-order thinking skills, creativity, intelligence and even levels and types of motivations.  The power of this information in transforming education, while also providing affirmation of current practices,  renders the development of the educational neurosciences not merely a fad as this educator thought it would be when I sat in front of Judy Willis four years ago. It will change the education profession, especially if the unification of talent from both fields ignites a mutually beneficial endeavor to serve both fields- but ultimately, to provide a better experience for all of our children.

I am hopeful that advancements will be made that will allow us to connect neuroscience and self-efficacy and metacognition.  Some suggest that motivation is traceable, so the connection to that study inspires optimism that the field is in pursuit of this research goal.  Further, finding a way to measure neural activity outside the highly controlled and constrained confines of the fMRI will allow greater accuracy of information to be discovered. For the classroom, the real implication is that through professional development; educators can become increasingly aware of how the brain learns- and through research studies developed by the unified front of educational neuroscience, increasingly relevant information about how to design environs and instruction to better serve student needs will continue to nurture  organic educational environs. The other compelling understanding that needs to be shared through professional development, beyond the ability to find neural correlates of creativity, intelligence and motivations, is the concept of Neuromythology.  This collection of inaccuracies that folks in the community are peddling as scientific doctrine allow all readers of educational neuroscience literature to have a healthy skepticism about it. As one who was already initially skeptical, this empowered me to allow accessible research to be digested.

While the information explored for this blog fascinates most because of the seemingly anachronistic quality of such practices that are suggested or exemplified in the work of the theorists/researchers, the bridge between cognitive neuroscience and classroom practices is one that still needs to be built carefully on solid, tangible research-supported data and strong collaboration between educators and scientists.   With that said, as a 15 year veteran of the classroom, an fMRI machine is not needed to determine how engaged a student is- the eyes are the experienced master teacher’s brain scanner. Yet, with the aforementioned and exemplified sample of collaboration, neuroscience has and will continue to provide concrete, focused scientific data that is increasingly accessible for educators to synthesize into their practices in generating new approaches to teaching and learning, while also providing affirmation of the practices that currently manifest successful results in the classroom.

Thoughts, comments, questions welcome!

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