Scientists have recently mapped the journey of a thought through the brain, and the craze for anything related to neuroscience continues to grow. Like many “fashionable” trends, it has been the subject of some drifts, with the prefix “neuro” being misused multiple times for marketing purposes. In education, however, the young discipline of neuroeducation is becoming increasingly important. And it’s here that we start the conversation about the limitations and contributions of this exciting field.
Close up on the gray matter
Developed in the 90s, the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has helped us make a significant leap in our understanding of the brain, allowing live and safe visualization of its structure and functioning. Moreover, brain imaging has brought a substantial advantage to the very approach of research by allowing the close observation of the learners at work without interrupting them for questioning. All these allowed us to create a more accurate portrait of the cognitive and affective activity of the brain during a learning process.
Researchers have therefore been able to uncover the brain mechanisms involved in the acquisition of learning such as reading and numeracy (Dehaene, 2007, 2011). More interesting for the advancement of knowledge in education, as noted by Steve Masson, professor at the Faculty of Education at the University of Quebec in Montreal (UQÀM) and director of the Neuroeducation Research Laboratory (LRN), is the fact that we are no longer limited to the way the brain is functioning: “… more and more researchers […] are also trying to understand how this function develops and how learning can influence this development.”
That said, there is another reason, the most important, according to Mr. Masson, to examine the links between brain and education and these are the constraints that the functioning and structure of this complex organ pose to learning. “Knowing more about these constraints could help us understand why some learning is particularly difficult and consider pedagogical approaches to overcome these difficulties,” he explains.
Virginia Penhune, professor, and researcher in neuroscience at Concordia University, as well as director of the Laboratory for Motor Learning and Brain Plasticity, says: “Thanks to neuroscience, we can better understand the brain networks important for learning, how they change and develop throughout life,” adding that this knowledge is crucial for creating better learning environments.
It should be noted that other sophisticated devices, such as eye tracking systems or electroencephalographs, now supplement fMRI to decode our brains further.
Electroencephalography (EEG) is an electrophysiological monitoring method to record the electrical activity of the brain.
It is typically noninvasive, with the electrodes placed on the scalp
Neuroeducation has thus emerged as a new field of research that examines problems in education at a cerebral level, a method of analysis previously inaccessible. Many neuroscientists, teachers and even learners would benefit from knowing the basics of the brain’s modus operandi. The French neuroscientist Stanislas Dahaene goes so far as to say that “it is amazing that many teachers know their car better than the brain.”
But is it fair to believe that this knowledge would really help some to teach and others to learn? Well, according to an OECD report (2007) published after eight years of research into this question, the answer is a resounding “Yes!”.
Managing fears … and the trend effect
In the field of education, not everyone sees neuroscience in a good light. Some fear that they will relegate traditional educational approaches to the background. Others worry that it generates unrealistic expectations, particularly with regard to learning problems. Interviewed by Le Devoir in the wake of the 41st Congress of the Institute of Learning Disorders on the phenomenon of “fashion” that surrounds the neurosciences, Steve Masson said that his role, as a researcher, was “to see what is justified in this trend while remaining very rigorous.”
Building bridges between cognitive sciences in general – of which neuroscience is one – and the education community also seems vital to neuroscientists. Recalling that these sciences are recent, evolving and still to become stable, Stanislas Dahaene argues that “it is necessary to establish a permanent dialogue to verify and validate in class what cognitive science can say of a very general point of view on the organization of the brain.” There is no question of rejecting approaches based on the theories of learning – constructivism, cognitivism, and co. The goal is to use the unique insights of neuroscience to determine the most effective evidence-based educational approaches. It is also common for neurosciences to arrive at the same conclusions as other research methods, which reinforces their scientific value and therefore the very credibility of the sciences of education.
Innovative neuroscience research is essential not only to advance our knowledge of learning but also to improve the treatment of neurological conditions. To this end, the federal government and the Brain Canada Foundation have announced a $ 10 million grant to develop a platform to help neuroscientists disseminate their data more efficiently. We should also remember that neuroscience and education are just at the beginning of their collaboration. As Virginia Penhune points out, “the brain is a big place, and we have only begun to explore its complexity.”