Monday, 20 February 2017

What can educational neuroscience do for teachers?

I recently spoke to some teachers who were new to the concept of educational neuroscience (or mind, brain, and education), and its aim to bring a scientific approach to education. I was surprised that this is still new to some educators, so for me it was a reminder of the importance of keeping up our efforts to communicate with teachers.

The teachers I spoke to, having learnt a bit about the field, were keen to find out about the latest research findings and how they might impact on the classroom. One teacher said she would never implement any new project in school without evidence to back up its effectiveness.

However, I feel that there are some expectations of teachers that researchers are not ready to meet. It is therefore essential that communications between researchers and teachers are honest and that researchers highlight the extent to which translations from science to the classroom are realistic. In particular, teachers were looking for a manual to explain the neuroscience behind various behaviours of their students, and how best to respond to this behaviour. The first problem here is that we are still far from a full understanding of the neuroscience behind all of the different types of behaviours that a teacher may witness in the classroom. The second issue is a belief that it is neuroscience that can explain these behaviours and what to do about them. While neuroscience may have some explanatory power, educational neuroscience aims to bring together all fields of science that are relevant to teaching and learning. It is likely that the best solutions don’t come directly from neuroscience, but may come from other types of research such as cognitive psychology or educational research at the system level. Indeed some prefer the label mind, brain, and education (or MBE) to educational neuroscience, in describing the bringing together of sciences that describe teaching and learning. Further, what works in the lab, or a handful of schools, may not generalise to another school: research findings are likely to be highly contextual.

A further resource that teachers thought would be useful was a place for them to pose their own research questions for scientists to conduct research on. While educational neuroscience researchers value and seek collaboration with teachers in their studies, it is likely that researchers already have their topics of investigation (often with funding attached) and are in fact looking for teachers who have aligned interests. There is also the fact it often takes a couple of years to run a decent study and generate useful results, plus many related studies may be required to answer the specific question that a teacher has.

The enthusiasm from this group of teachers new to educational neuroscience was encouraging, but as a field we must be careful about managing expectations. At the moment, the endeavour of educational neuroscience should be about collaboration: working together, sharing resources and findings, developing a common language. While teachers may not be able to submit their questions for scientists, they certainly can work with researchers to help shape the design of the research. Hopefully working in this manner will lead to benefits for teachers in the long run, even if there is no immediate payoff. For the teacher who vowed to only implement evidence-based school changes, this is a noble aim, but the evidence base is not there yet. Perhaps the best solution for the time being is to try things out, but be wary of being too prescriptive, and monitor changes. The hope is that one day, we will have the evidence that teachers seek. But this will require many years of close collaboration between educators and researchers, working together to try to improve teaching and learning for everyone.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Interviews with Educational Neuroscience researchers

Over on my npj Science of Learning blog, I have started a series of interviews with researchers in Educational Neuroscience. The aim of the interviews is to showcase the work of those who are working hard to bridge the gap between scientific research and the classroom. I also hope they will demonstrate the realistic goals of researchers: nobody in this field is claiming to be able to transform education with some brain scans. I hope you'll agree that there is some great work happening at the moment, in the incremental manner that science works in.

My first interview was with Su Morris, who is researching visual perceptual processing in primary science and maths.

My second interview was with Alex Hodgkiss, who is researching spatial cognition in primary science.

My third interview was with Mike Hobbiss, who is researching attention and distraction in secondary school pupils.

Su, Alex and Mike all used to be teachers, which I think makes them ideal researchers in this field - they have a deep understanding of the education system, the reality of school life, and pressures faced by teachers.

Watch this space for further interviews!