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What brain scans can’t teach us


2:30 pm - March 18th 2010

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Guest post by Tom Freeman

This month’s Prospect magazine has a section on neuroscience, and in particular its political implications.

One thing came up in their roundtable discussion that always gets my goat: the idea that neuroscience is going to be a good way of telling what effects on people different policies will have. Barbara Sahakian, a clinical neuropsychologist at Cambridge, says:

For years we changed our education system again and again, but these changes weren’t based on evidence about how we learned. Instead, wouldn’t it be useful if we thought about how the brain really works, and how children learn best, and in turn formulated educational policy based on that?

And the RSA’s Matthew Taylor adds, in a similar but more nakedly political vein:

I am confident that, as we find out more about our brains, it will strengthen the progressive case, in the sense that children learn best when they are actively involved, not being passive.

No, no, no.

Think about it: how could you use neuroscience to tell which teaching methods promote the best learning?

Well, what you’d do is get a load of kids, try out different teaching methods on them and then test how much they’ve learned, and give them brain scans to see what neurological changes have taken place. This should let you identify the neural correlates of learning. So then, in the future, you can get another load of kids, try out another bunch of teaching methods on them, and use brain scans to see what the results are.

The only weakness here is that the brain scans are completely redundant. You’ve already got ways of testing how much children have learned – and however fallible these might be, bear in mind that the neurological method you develop is of necessity based on these already existing methods for its validity.

So, unless brain scans become quicker, easier and cheaper to administer than pencil-and-paper exams, there’s nothing being added here. Yet very many intelligent people are still drawn to neuroscientific evidence as something so much more impressively real then mere psychological or behavioural phenomena (i.e. what we say and do and think).

As Zoe Drayson, a doctoral researcher at Bristol, explains:

Getting back to the issue of why we think neuroscience is so compelling, there have been studies done that show if you give people explanations of behaviour on a purely psychological level, and then you add a bogus additional neurological explanation which is logically irrelevant, people still think that explanation is better. That’s not to say that there are no good neuroscientific explanations, but it does mean we must be careful.

I find neuroscience compelling. But I think its main practical benefits are going to be in medicine, not policy design.

And the reason there’s so little progress in the popular educational policy debate is that teaching is something we’re very ideological about while also thinking that our own experience and common sense have already given us the right answers. It’s not because the academic evidence that already exists isn’t of the right kind.

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Reader comments


I find neuroscience compelling – What, all of it? Even stuff that is flawed or illogical? Weird.

Also, you don’t seem to have considered the possibility that neuroscience could help to identify new or better teaching methods, whose efficacy could then be tested in the old-skool way.

Darn – there was me thinking libcon was going to go all Freudian (via Lacan), nevermind, I will give it a go anyway, brain scans can’t teach us to identify the object petit a!

The problem with the idea of using neuroscience to ‘improve’ education, as with most areas where a science is said to have direct benefits, is that it tends to assume humans are passive animals who will all react the same way. In fact, considering that we appear to be wired to learn differently (kinetic, active etc) what is good for the learning of some may be bad for the learning of others, and this applies even to things based on models of how our brains learn, especially as for all its advance neuroscience has not produced a complete understanding of even one area of the brain’s functions.

It does not surprise me to see Mr Taylor, an archetypical New Labour technocrat (at least in my opinion), lauding such ideas though. The ability to ‘control’ education more effectively and in a way that seems favourable to you is a desire of many of those who seem to dislike individualism and mistake progressive thought with creating a culture of identikit thinking.

4. Mike Killingworth

[3] Quite.

The whole notion is based on a fundamental misconception of the relationship of mind to brain. Mind is what brain does. (Neroscientists don’t want you to know this, of course – but I am open to persuasion: if my formula doesn’t fit the evidence, I’ll recant.) Therefore any attempt to determine mental (as opposed to brain) states by looking at the brain is like trying to discover the acceleration of a body by measuring its speed more and more closely.

And what politicians (and educators, and even parsons come to that) are interested in is what goes on in our minds – what minds do. There is absolutely no evidence that we have any more tools for looking at that than, say, Socrates or the Buddha did.

“There is absolutely no evidence that we have any more tools for looking at that than, say, Socrates or the Buddha did.”

Mike, much as I’d like to agree with you totally, we do have a lot more philosophy, psychology etc than either Socrates (if we’re talking the philosopher not the footballer, who is still alive, and has a doctorate in philosophy apparently… (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/S%C3%B3crates)) or the Buddha. Still. our increased understanding of mind/thought/soul (call it what you will) only acknowledges how complicated it is, rather than providing a map which neuroscientists can use.

What next, Mike? Are you going to start talking about the pineal gland?

It seems a shame that so many people don’t seem to grasp the aim or the advances of cognitive neuroscience, and the insights it has yielded into (among other things) human learning and memory processes, which, if I’m not mistaken, play a fairly crucial part in education, individual differences notwithstanding – if it weren’t for fMRI, Watchman’s 2.51 comment would have very little empirical basis.

As for philosphical meanderings about the relation between mind and brain, if they’re not based on or born out by the evidence, they’re nothing more than speculation, surely? Since when was speculation a good basis for policy?

Just because cog.neuroscience isn’t the full picture, that’s no reason to discard it altogether.

Modern developments in neuroscience are interesting, true. For some reason there is a flaky element amongst neuroscientists who come up with stuff like this. Its simply wrong!

Here’s another example: Neuroscientists using scanners have imaged the brains of people experiencing pain. Neuroscientists announced that their scans could remove the subjectivity in determing people’s level of pain. (Previously pain was determined subjectively on a 1-10 scale. The experience of pain also varies with state of mind and context among other factors.) Of course, it took someone from another team to point out that they would still need to correlate their scan results with subjective determinations. Duh!

Education suffers from an excess of political interference. The extensive National Curriculum and too much fiddling with exams and SATs has had a demoralising effect. Good management could solve a lot of the problems.

As others have said, we have plenty of experience in assessing the success of various educational methods. Do we have the resources in the classroom to enable teachers to apply enough of these methods to the different needs of their students?

Finally my bugbear: We teach loads of facts to be memorised and regurgitated. When will we start teaching kids to think?

Clarice,

“As for philosphical meanderings about the relation between mind and brain, if they’re not based on or born out by the evidence, they’re nothing more than speculation, surely? Since when was speculation a good basis for policy?”

You are falling into the classic modernist trap of valuing science beyond what it has proven. Speculation, in philosophy and especially psychology, is essentially done on the same lines as in science – hypothesis and search for proof. That proof is often not forthcoming is not a reason to discount the hypothesis, as equally it has not been disproved.

Wierdly enough , those advocating neuroscience as a potential advance for education are also putting forward hypotheses, which are currently incapable of proof. So the only reason that their hypotheses are considered (by you) as better than those of another discipline is that you value science above social sciences and arts. But they are all still hypotheses. One day they may be provable, but not yet, and that is the key point. Until they are, the use of neuroscience in this way does not differ from using psychology or philosophy.

Yurrze!,

“Finally my bugbear: We teach loads of facts to be memorised and regurgitated. When will we start teaching kids to think?”

Is that the point of education. I thought it was to show how well the government was doing in meeting targets and getting children through exams…

10. Shatterface

Brain scans before and after lessons aren’t going to tell you much.

Brain scans during the actual act of learning will.

Neroscientists don’t want you to know this, of course – but I am open to persuasion: if my formula doesn’t fit the evidence, I’ll recant

If you don’t know the first thing about a topic, a reasonable plan is to look up wikipedia. Where you will find such statements as:

The task of neural science is to explain behavior in terms of the activities of the brain.

the mechanisms of how neurons process signals physiologically and electrochemically.

addresses the questions of how psychological/cognitive functions are produced by the neural circuitry

So I am not sure which straw man version of neuroscience you think you are arguing against – phrenology perhaps?

The idea that imaging of neural activities can have nothing useful to say for educationalists seems pretty bizarre. If social scientist had a kind of camera that allowed them to actually see social classes, inequality, narratives, or whatever, would you really think that was likely to be equally useless?

@11

I think the point is that there is a lot of hype about what neuroscience can do. FMRI gives lovely pictures of bits of the brain lighting up and there are some interesting developments. I’m sure most neurobiologists will admit its going to be a few years before anything like the ideas sugegsted in this post become possible.

13. Shatterface

‘I think the point is that there is a lot of hype about what neuroscience can do’

Yes, there’s a lot of hype about neuroscience but dismissing it in it’s entirety in favour of a thudding behaviourism which treats the brain as a black box about which we can say nothing, so we should stick to measuring inputs (lessons) and outputs (exam results) is simply knee-jerk anti-intellectualism.

@13 Shatterface

Er, nope, its the truth. I’m not a knee-jerk intellectual!

Neither was I dismissing what neurobiology can do. I suggested it would be some time before the promises in this posting become possible.

I’ve done my time in schools and colleges (as a member of staff, thanks). It may not fit your simple world view, but there are some pretty good teachers working with kids and they actually know what they’re doing without making the kids lie in a scanner and have radiotracers injected into their bloodstreams.

[1] Clarice, I find the subject really interesting, but of course that doesn’t mean all the work done in the field is sounds or all the commentary made about it is right! On “the possibility that neuroscience could help to identify new or better teaching methods” – I’m afraid I’m not sure what you’re getting at. Anything that we can imagine as a possible teaching method is something we can try out anyway.

[3] Watchman, “what is good for the learning of some may be bad for the learning of others”. Very true. I guess that in theory you could scan each child to find out the best way of getting them to learn. And of course there are different type of learning: facts, thinking, practical skills, etc. But all of this will still come back to the point that you’d need to start by calibrating the neural measures against what we all already know from other means.

[4] Mike, I think that ‘the mind is what the brain does’ is actually an overwhelmingly common working assumption among neuroscientists (give or take all the autonomic functions that couldn’t really be called ‘mental’).

[12] Yurrzem! – Hype is pretty much inescapable in a newish field of science, especially one so deeply bound up with ‘who we are’. I think it’ll deliver some great things, but we’ll need a lot of reality checks along the way.

As a neuroscientist whose girlfriend is studying education, this is a subject that is of some interest to me.

I tend to agree with the skeptical views above. At the moment, neuroscience has not developed anywhere near the point where it can contribute much to understanding the high level concepts involved in education. We have only the barest, sketchiest outline of the general principles (if indeed there are any) of brain plasticity, and nothing like an understanding of how high level concepts are represented in the brain. About the only thing we can do reliably at the moment is say which areas of the brain are active when people do different tasks, and even that’s a bit debatable.

On the other hand, I personally feel that there’s almost no doubt that neuroscience will develop to the point where we understand these things well enough to be able to make suggestions to people working in education. I mean – if you understand the neural mechanisms of learning really well, it seems likely that there will be at least some insights into learning at high levels. The way neuroscience contributes probably won’t be of the form described in the article (try out a teaching method then do a brain scan), but will be in the form Clarice suggested in the first comment, it will give inspiration for new learning techniques which can be tested perfectly well without brain scans. This is all a long way off, though.

Incidentally, the same phenomenon is going on in the world of psychoanalysis apparently. People there are very excited about neuroscience, but really it’s a long way off being able to tell them anything.

A more relevant issue is not whether neuroscience can help to understand learning, but about what the function of education and schools in particular should be. It shouldn’t just be about how to cram information into children’s heads so that they can recall it correctly. For a start, children have to learn to think as well as to recall. Beyond that, school should be a place for all sorts of other things, not the least of which making friends and having fun. The danger (which is present anyway without neuroscience) is that we take an overly technocratic view of education. If the specified desired outcomes of education are wrong, then all the scientific study in the world isn’t going to make the system better, it’ll just make it more and more efficient at doing the wrong thing.

nothing like an understanding of how high level concepts are represented in the brain.

So Dan, are you not counting the work of people like Lolly Tyler and her colleagues? Or any of the stuff coming out of the FiL?

Oh, and Yurrzem? There are no injections involved in fMRI, or things like EEG.

I think it’s a great shame that this post and so much of the thread is so dismissive of the entire field, without apparently having much grasp of what it is or what it can do. It’s not just about what bits light up, but the very specific circumstances in which they do and don’t. It’s also about the kinds of patterns of deficits you see with various neurological impairments. @[15] – I was talking about insights that we wouldn’t imagine otherwise. That you couldn’t imagine the possibility of such, sort of makes my point for me.

@18

Yep, getting PET and fMRI muddled. Apologies.

20. the a&e charge nurse

I think we need a very good reason before we go sticking children’s brains inside a very large magnet – so far I have not heard one sensible reason for doing so.

Anyway, don’t NHS patient’s already have long enough waits before they can access this type of imaging?

I mean how will a patient with a possible brain tumour (say) feel about further delays while a coach load of spotty kids lark about in the MRI suite?
Or is it envisioned that these machines will simply be built in the school playground, perhaps with a handy instruction manual for the Head to read before he/she starts pressing the buttons?

@16, Dan

Good points, thank you.

@20

They’ll be hand-held, a spinoff from the mind-readers being developed by DARPA for the Pentagon as we write.

Clarice, I just took a look at her website and a couple of the papers listen on it. It seems to fit my characterisation of our only understanding these things in a very broad, sketchy way. That’s not a criticism, it can be pioneering work even to get to that broad sketch, but it’s nothing like enough to actually start making recommendations for education (yet).

Excellent piece of writing. I think Matthew Taylor’s comments are key:

“I am confident that, as we find out more about our brains, it will strengthen the progressive case, in the sense that children learn best when they are actively involved, not being passive.”

Progressive education fails. Always has, always will. However, as Hannah Arendt’s essay,”The Crisis in Education” observed: “there are no limits to the possibilities of nonsense and capricious notions that can be decked out as the last word in science”.

Progressive educators always need to repackage the same old ideas as new responses to the latest science. They have been doing this at least since Freud. Neuroscience is just the newest excuse they’ll use for dumbing down. It won’t actually be justified by the science, but they will talk about the science so as to persuade people that they know best. Whatever comes out of neuroscience the educationalists will claim it proves the need for less emphasis on content or subject knowledge and more emphasis on understanding, cooperation and discovery.

24
I totally agree with your observations, the I.Q. test (which most now know tests nothing but the content on the paper) was then used to implement an educational system on the basis of a flawed ‘science’.

Yep, it fitted into a particular political agenda.

Funnily enough there has been a sort of acknowledgement of the best way to educate kids by, for example, the requirement for targeted learning and student-centred learning. However in a class of 30 students with one teacher plus perhaps an assistant then this becomes nearly impossible. Add the endless form-filling required by quangos and government and it’s amazing any teaching is done.

27. David Bouvier

So in education, the reaction mostly seems to be “we have nothing to learn, we have a clear position already.” In marketing, despite similar issues and questions, people found interesting experiments to do, with a creative spirit of learning and innovation.

The most interesting one I have heard about was using fMRI to measure activation in response to ad reels, looking at brain activitation as a measure of ad salience and for differences between measured and reported levels of interest – since it is well known that ads do not have to produce conscious engagement to have an impact.

No one pretends that this study is the whole story, or that fMRI will take over everything, but it provides interesting new insights.

Why is education so defensive seemingly wanting to rule out the possibility of change to the status quo before conducting the experiment.

27,

Because we’ve been here before so many times. Our school system doesn’t currently implement a fraction of what we already know about learning. There’s more interest in pseudo-science like Brain Gym than in the hard lessons of educational history or cognitive psychology. Therefore, genuine new discoveries are likely to make only a marginal difference to the large body of unutilised knowledge.

However, any cutting edge academic or scientific discipline, if it is presented uncritically as a source of immediately useful information, is likely to provide a new excuse for repackaging old ideas. What education needs is an end to the search for magic formulas that will make learning effortless and fun and provide a different experience to scientifically selected groups of students. We need to focus on deciding what knowledge we think children need to learn and how they can learn it most efficiently.

29. Matt Munro

“I am confident that, as we find out more about our brains, it will strengthen the progressive case, in the sense that children learn best when they are actively involved, not being passive.”

If anything the opposite is true – neuroscience shows that chilldren learn through repitition, and after a certain amount of repitition they abstract “rules” about how the world works – extensive and highly regarded research on this in the context of language learning was done in the 1970s and 80s (Rimelheart, McClelland at al). It seems that the rote learning brigade had a point after all.

Perhaps the most pervasive nonsense ever promulgated by “progressive” education is the idea that children only learn when they “enjoy” it. It’s actually based on good observation (that children who enjoy learning, learn more) but the logic is backwards. Bright kids who learn relatively easily enjoy learning more than less bright kids that don’t enjoy it. The variable is intelligence, not “enjoyment”.

30. Matt Munro

@24 “I totally agree with your observations, the I.Q. test (which most now know tests nothing but the content on the paper) was then used to implement an educational system on the basis of a flawed ’science’.”

Absolute nonsense. There is a very strong correlation between IQ and academic acheivment (almost all medical graduates have an IQ of 130+ for example). Despite decades of the left trying to denigrate scientific measurement of IQ it is, if anything more widely used than ever – often dressed up as psychometric testing, or assesment centres – it is now routinely used in all sorts of organistion for recruitment and promotion.

IQ is a classic example of the left dismissing science which doesn’t fit with their egalitarian fantasy world.

30
I knew someone was going to quote this old chestnut, but MM, as it was only those children who scored well in those tests who were allowed to access academic education, there could be no other outcome. Our friend ‘self fulfilling prophecy’ has raised its’ head again.
You need to read the history of the 11 plus and its’ founder Cyril Burt, and then make those kind of assertions.

I think it’s quite possible that what will be much more important than finding new ways of getting children to learn efficiently, using flashy techniques and high powered science, is to understand the social aspects of why some children don’t learn. Do teachers have lower expectations of working class children, for example, and does this lower achievement of these children? If so, what can be done about that. This is hugely important and neuroscience has nothing to say about it.

The figure I heard quoted about IQ, and it was from an IQ expert but may be out of date now, is that the correlation between one IQ test and another was the same as the correlation between IQ and height. In other words, you’d do about as well measuring people’s heights as bothering to go through all the effort of doing an IQ test. (And anecdotally, my girlfriend did 3 and got results varying between 105 and 150.)

Matt, I think Rumelhardt and McLelland is a little out of date now. IIRC it was based more on hypothesis than empirical work (which didn’t stop it being very interesting, foundational work). Repetition is important to learning in many cases, but obviously doesn’t explain phenomena such as flashbulb memories or one-shot learning.

Actually, these conclusions based on a lack of understanding of what the research says and what conclusions can safely be drawn from it illustrate quite well the dangers of premature application of neuroscience.

33. Matt Munro

“30
I knew someone was going to quote this old chestnut, but MM, as it was only those children who scored well in those tests who were allowed to access academic education, there could be no other outcome. Our friend ’self fulfilling prophecy’ has raised its’ head again.
You need to read the history of the 11 plus and its’ founder Cyril Burt, and then make those kind of assertions.”

Er I have a psychology degree so I’ve probably studied it a bit more than most people, and I passed an 11+. Yes, he possibly faked some data, that doesn’t mean his theory was wrong (see “climate change”). As to the old cobblers about “Teachers label kids bright and they become bright” it been shown countless time that they pick out bright kids precisely because they are bright – any teacher worth his salt knows the differing abilities of kids, the left just don’t want them to.

33
Psychology degree or not, the outcome of the 11 plus system was still a self-fulfilling prophecy. In fact up until the end of mandatory selection, around 6% of the population held a first degree now it’s around 36 to 40%, so the 11 plus system wasn’t really that efficient in identifying the most academically able.
And I’m surprised that, as a scientist, you are comfortable with an educational system which was based on deliberately forged data. But, of course, passing the 11 plus gave quite a lot of kudos, maybe vanity has over-ruled your judgement as a scientist..

33.

The fact that IQ testing was, historically, based on fraud (not to mention a fair bit of racism and belief in eugenics) does not make it wrong. However, it does make it “flawed” which is the claim you objected to.

By all means suggest which results from IQ testing can be trusted and are useful as a basis for policy, and be prepared to justify any such claims. But please don’t bother to imply that such a policy has all the authority of science behind it and is simply being dismissed by a leftwing conspiracy.

@20 a&e – No-one’s talking about putting children in scanners here, so lets stop with the hysteria. And as for waiting lists, it may, like, really amaze you, but hospitals are not the only places that have scanners. Research and clinical scans are not either/or.

I think this whole debate just shows that educationalists haven’t got a clue what cognitive neuroscience is, or does. But why let that stand in the way of rubbishing it? The problem clearly is in how educationalists misuse science, rather than in the science itself.

@32 Dan – you’re talking about completely different things. the conditions required for the abstraction of rules, or the aquisition of skills or concepts don’t need to explain other phenomena, especially phenomena such as those you mention which in the vast majority of cases have very little place in an educational setting. McClelland and Rummelhart aside, there is a massive literature of robust empirical research (though not all as sexy as neuroscience) that supports MM’s point.

@ 34 steveb – If you’ve spent any time at all teaching in universities over the past 12 years (as I have), you’ll know that a) standards of undergrad intake have plummeted and b) requirements for getting a degree have had to plummet accordingly. Lowering the selection criteria (ie the standards at A-level) has brought less able students in their thousands into a university system they are ill-suited and ill-equipped for, and the universities have had to muddle through the best they can. Maintaining the standards of attainment would have meant that vast numbers of the intake would fail their degrees. As a result, a degree now is not the same indicator of ability that it used to be. Employers hiring new graduates have had to learn the hard way that having expectations of ability based on a university education are no longer realistic. What a good idea removing selection from 11+ education was!

Matt Munro has it right – egalitarianism in education as it has been applied thus far serves no-one. The solution to the link between socio-economic status and educational ability is not to push less able students through a system that then has to dumb down, but to identify the brightest children (regardless of background) so that all can fulfill their potential, whatever the limits of that potential may be. It is a sad fact of life that we aren’t all born with equal ability. This is not controversial in the fields of, say, sport, art or music – why is it a problem that it applies equally to academic subjects?

36
Prior to the mandatory 11 plus being abolished, about 6% of the population held a first degree, it is now between 36 and 40%
Are you now saying that universities are passing students who really do not deserve a degree? And are you really part of that system who provides passes to students who don’t deserve degrees?
It seems that Cyril Burt wasn’t the only fraud on the block.

“I think this whole debate just shows that educationalists haven’t got a clue what cognitive neuroscience is, or does. But why let that stand in the way of rubbishing it? The problem clearly is in how educationalists misuse science, rather than in the science itself.”

Who has rubbished the science? What is under attack here is the claim that the science can be expected to change policy, as if there were lots of untried teaching methods out there that willl be discovered when we know more about how the brain works.

39. the a&e charge nurse

[36] what hypothesis is being proposed here – scientists study children’s ‘brains’ to determine educational policy?

What a mechanistic view of both children and education?

As Dan thesamover suggests [32] – there are far more important question to address, such as “the social aspects of why some children don’t learn” – surely we don’t need a big magnet to work that one out?

40. Shatterface

‘Who has rubbished the science? What is under attack here is the claim that the science can be expected to change policy, as if there were lots of untried teaching methods out there that willl be discovered when we know more about how the brain works.’

Yeah, and what did we need the Heliocentric model of the solar system for when *astrologers* were perfectly capable of making predictions without it?

What could we possibly learn from knowing how things work?

40,

You do get that comparing people to heliocentrics and astrologers is more common among cranks than the advocates of great scientific innovations?

There’s a world of difference between being sceptical about people who claim their ideas are justified by science (or in this case, will be justified by science) and being sceptical about science. This is particularly important in education where arguments from the authority of “science” have been misused again and again to justify bad policies and bad practices.

42. the a&e charge nurse

[41] indeed – the interface between ‘science’ and children is not without significant consequences.

According to the CDC 4.5 MILLION American children were diagnosed with ADHD (in 2006)
http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/adhd/data.html

While the boom in ritalin prescriptions in the UK increased 9-fold over a 5 year period (according to this item)
http://www.wsws.org/articles/2000/apr2000/rit-a25.shtml

43. the a&e charge nurse

[42] Oops – that is 4.5 million in total (not just a single year).

Clarice, doesn’t it rather depend what you mean by ‘repetition’? I imagine (maybe this is unfair) that Matt has something like rote learning of times tables in mind. Is there really good research to support this? Is there an absence of research suggesting the opposite? Is the issue even close to settled? Does this have anything to do with neuroscience?

phenomena such as those you mention which in the vast majority of cases have very little place in an educational setting

Is this an assumption though? Or the result of any evidence? Isn’t there a danger in ruling out certain classes of learning? I can certainly think of examples of things I learnt in school that were flashbulb memories or examples of one-shot learning. They are relatively rare, but disproportionately significant.

In any case, these are just a handful of examples of ways in which we can learn, and without understanding how learning works more generally and more completely, how can we know which ways are more or less important? The danger in taking neuroscientific evidence as more complete than it is is that the context is very narrow – the types of learning that neuroscience has (and at the moment, can) study are quite restricted. Experimental protocols typically require repetition in order to average out noise, for example, and situations are highly simplified so that they can be understood better. It’s not clear that reductionist approaches common in science are appropriate for understanding education. (I don’t use the word reductionism pejoratively btw, it’s just an accurate description of the scientific approach.)

The solution to the link between socio-economic status and educational ability is not to push less able students through a system that then has to dumb down, but to identify the brightest children (regardless of background) so that all can fulfill their potential, whatever the limits of that potential may be. It is a sad fact of life that we aren’t all born with equal ability. This is not controversial in the fields of, say, sport, art or music – why is it a problem that it applies equally to academic subjects?

Aside from the false dichotomy, there are some disguised political assumptions in here which affect the way the evidence (such as it is) is interpreted. Suppose there are natural differences in ability – even if this is conceded it doesn’t tell us how significant they are in comparison to environmental differences, nor what we should do about them. I highly recommend Chris Dillow’s article on chess and IQ on this subject.

I think this whole debate just shows that educationalists haven’t got a clue what cognitive neuroscience is, or does. But why let that stand in the way of rubbishing it? The problem clearly is in how educationalists misuse science, rather than in the science itself.

Turning that around, doesn’t it also show that (some) scientists haven’t got a clue about politics? Sadly, that doesn’t stop them from weighing in with their opinions about how an obviously political thing as education should work. Again – I’m not being pejorative in describing education as political – it is necessarily political. There are different, mutually exclusive aims for education and educational policy, and these are important.

Matt,

As to the old cobblers about “Teachers label kids bright and they become bright” it been shown countless time that they pick out bright kids precisely because they are bright

I’d be interested to see the research on this.

oldandrew,

What is under attack here is the claim that the science can be expected to change policy, as if there were lots of untried teaching methods out there that willl be discovered when we know more about how the brain works.

I don’t think we should rule this out. We should rather be attacking the simplistic, overgeneralising attempts to apply scientific knowledge technocratically. Actually I’m optimistic that at some point we will understand the brain better and this will feedback into education. The point is that this is a long way off, and that anyway there are much bigger social and political issues to deal with in education first. The big picture here is that the way science is often used technocratically to focus our attention on minor details while we miss the huge political assumptions being made.

@37 – Yes, that is pretty much what I’m saying. I can’t believe you’re actually surprised. I admire your idealism in presuming that university staff have any say in the matter whatsoever, least of all in the universities being forced to take more students, or in what’s been done to A-levels over the years. Anyone that’s part of the secondary education system is every bit as much a fraud as the university staff who have to deal with the results. The alternative is to give up on the whole thing and on one’s career, because all the universities are the same in this regard – if we all had your ideals, there’d be no school teachers or universities left at all. You want to take it up with the organ grinders, I would say, instead of having cheap pot-shots at people doing their best in difficult circs not of their making.

@42 – ADHD – So what?

@ 44 Yes, there’s a massive amount of research evidence to show that rehearsal aids encoding in memory. Your question is a bit like asking if there’s any actual evidence that the earth goes round the sun! There’s also a great deal of evidence, for eg, that much mathematical processing relies in part on verbally encoded (ie rote-learned) material such as (but not only) times tables. And yes, there’s research showing that other things are important too (eg visuo-spatial ability).

As to “flashbulb” memory, that phenomenon relates to material of intense personal significance, and is due to being in a heightened emotional state – I’m not sure you really want to advocate having children hyper-aroused as a matter of course – the stress hormones really aren’t that good for you. In addition to which, there’s evidence that these memories aren’t in fact recalled any better than other material, if that material is repeatedly recalled in the same way as flashbulb mems are. Ooh, there’s that word repetition again. So no, not assumptions, just common sense, based on what we know.

We already know an awful lot about how learning works – in terms of acquiring content, conceptual understanding and skills. Which I suppose is rather dull for educationalists and politicians who want to make their names by amazing innovations. But the fact is, we already have a very good idea about what works and why. Since that isn’t on the whole being applied in educational settings, I suppose one shouldn’t really expect any further advances to be applied either.

It seems the problem is that the people “applying” science to education lack the understanding of the science to be able to do so correctly or sensibly.

There would only be political assumptions if I had made any commitment as to how the evidence should be interpreted – I didn’t. And I don’t share your view that education is necessarily political – it’s used as a political football, yes, but to its detriment, and to the detriment of the poor buggers on the receiving end, as well as to the economy.

Your comments about scientists understanding politics is a bit silly and irrelevant really. Politicians have a responsibility towards evidence-based policy if they want to do a good job, in addition to which they are necessarily driven by wanting to be re-elected. Scientists on the other hand have no such driving forces, only to the advancement of knowledge in their field. Scientists don’t dictate to politicians (though ideally their data should), whereas politicians do dictate to science (as well as education). You’re not comparing like with like, quite simply.

46. the a&e charge nurse

[44] “Teachers label kids bright and they become bright” it been shown countless time that they pick out bright kids precisely because they are bright” – I’d be interested to see the research on this.

Yes, so would I – I imagine it will be on par with research demonstrating ‘blacks’ are smarter than ‘whites’
http://www.africaresource.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=528:race-intelligence-and-iq-are-blacks-smarter-than-whites&catid=105:genetics&Itemid=360

Or is it ‘whites’ are smarter than ‘blacks’
http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/article2677098.ece

I wish those pesky scientists would make their minds up?

47. the a&e charge nurse

[45] @42 – ADHD – So what?

Well let me spell it it out for you.

Dodgy science (partly driven by companies with a vested financial interest) based on unproven assumptions = more children on psychoactive medication.
Some regard such developments as a dangerous social experiment that ha proved damaging to a % of children;
http://www.vernoncoleman.com/ritalin.htm

So, if this is an example of science in action what other controversial practices might emerge if we fail to recognise neuroscience (in it’s present incarnation) as a limited, and peripheral tool when it comes to developing mainstream educational policies?

@47 Cor, Breakfast TV’s Vernon Coleman. Is he any good?

@45 Clarice. You seem unwilling to accept the politics intrinsic in your opinion and to insist that anyone who doesn’t wholeheartedly agree with you is against you. Manicheanism, false dichotomy, call it what you like, its not adding to the debate because it simply leads to an ego-based slanging match. If you had a willy I’d call it willy-waving.

When education can be improved by known means it seems foolish to get too excited about the possibilities of a very new research area. That is all the sceptics on this thread are saying. I don’t think anyone would want to write off any future developments if they are useful, but its jam tomorrow, something all too common in schools.

45
This thread isn’t about my ideals it’s, in part, about the science of education, I seem to have disturbed an hornet’s nest though, and I am staggered by your admission. And neither does questioning the honesty of professionals in education amount to taking cheap pot-shots. Students don’t mark papers, teachers do that, and the system doesn’t magically confer degrees. You need to take responsibility for your own actions.
I do, however, believe that it’s short-sighted to place so much emphasis on academic education and perhaps teenagers are being pushed into entering higher education, certainly more so than during my teenage years. The lack of real motivation may be problematic and the smaller numbers previously going through university may represent those who were more enthusiastic about higher education.
But returning to the premise of the IQ test as an indicator for those who are more able towards academia, it’s totally rubbish. The science is, at best, flawed, and the evidence is based on pretency data. IQ scores can be improved upon through practice (this is what they do in private schools but it cannot be done in state schools), Moreover, children change considerably after the age of 11 or 13 and the environment of many children is not conducive to good learning outcomes.
You can argue that the educational system cannot compensate for the poor social conditions experienced by some children but to suggest that there is some inherent quality called ‘intelligence’, which can be measured like weight and mass.
is a nonsense.

50. the a&e charge nurse

[48] perhaps you’d be better off asking those children who found that ritalin was not quite the experience the experts, or indeed their parents had hoped for?

Some died (or suffered other serious adverse drug reactions)
http://www.mhra.gov.uk/home/groups/es-foi/documents/foidisclosure/con2023292.pdf

Others suffered unpleasant side effects (type ritalin into MHRA search engine)
http://www.mhra.gov.uk/index.htm

Clarice, my question was whether there was evidence to support Matt’s contention that “children learn through repetition”. His statement was made suggesting that passive learning by rote rather than active learning was better supported by neuroscience. The fact that rehearsal aids memory doesn’t address that.

I agree that we wouldn’t want children to be in a permanent state of acquiring flashbulb memories – that was an example to show that not all learning requires repetition. More generally, there’s one shot learning which is pervasive and I know for sure that many of the things I’ve learned haven’t required repetition for me to learn them. As I said before, there’s different ways of learning and focussing on just one (repetition) because we understand it slightly better is probably not a good idea for education (hence why reductionism may not be an appropriate strategy there).

As to politics – you have actually made two quite strong political assumptions: (1) that the purpose of education is to store facts in children’s brains in the most efficient way, (2) that high ability children should be identified and (presumably?) more resources allocated to them. These assumptions constitute a view of what education is for, and a technocratic, elitist one at that (which is unfortunately often the way with scientists with unexamined political assumptions).


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  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    What brain scans can't teach us http://bit.ly/9NQysf

  2. Carrie Schneider

    Liberal Conspiracy » What brain scans can't teach us: Well, what you'd do is get a load of kids, try out different… http://bit.ly/cCfe5r

  3. Andrew Old

    A very sensible post over at Liberal Conspiracy (for once): "What brain scans can't teach us" http://bit.ly/aWrUk9

  4. Geoffrey

    An excellent article about Neuroscience in Education http://bit.ly/aWrUk9 via @oldandrewuk





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