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.”
Contributions of neuroscience in education
Adults and children: different brains
Neuroscience has made encouraging research into brain plasticity: “We now know that the brain continues to change and can learn new information at any age,” says Virginia Penhune. It also confirmed two significant distinctions between the brain of the adult and that of the child; distinctions that affect how we learn throughout our life.
First, neuronal connections are not as well established in children as they are in adults. Neurons analyze, transmit and store information in memory while structuring the adapted response. We can say that adults are more effective than children, but since their habits are well established, the mistakes they make are more difficult to correct.
Second, the prefrontal cortex, which is home to several cognitive functions, including language, reasoning, and working memory, is one of the last brain regions to mature. Thus, adults have better control than children and adolescents on their learning.
Tracks for adult education
Researchers have identified three methods that seem useful for adult learning:
Since neuronal connections are well established in adults, the acquisition of new knowledge and skills will result from the development of new neural networks. This progressive process requires the information to be integrated to be repeated – ideally in a varied and challenging way.
- Negative feedback
Through this approach, corrective actions are put in place whenever the learner makes a mistake. This technique generates brain activity, among others in the prefrontal cortex, whereas this is not the case in children. However, adult education should not be limited to this one technique, which may end up being counterproductive.
- Teaching by inhibition
To overcome persistent errors, the learners are first warned that they are presented with exercises that include traps. The exercises in question aim at teaching them to be wary of the incorrect answers that they are nevertheless tempted to give. At the brain level, the goal is to prevent neurons from taking the usual path that leads to the old misconception.
One of the contributions of neuroscience to education is the exposure of the teachers’ firm adherence to neuromyths, which consist of erroneous beliefs about how the brain works. For various reasons, these intuitive assumptions have come to take on the air of scientifically proven notions.
The three most common neuromyths focus on: the existence of learning styles (including visual, auditory and kinesthetic), hemispheric dominance (left brain/right brain) and the effect of coordination exercises (on integration functions of the hemispheres). To learn more: Table 1. The most common neuromyths among teachers
Learning: a continuum
As Steve Masson notes, conventional approaches to education tend to say that learning is either present or absent. From the perspective of neuroeducation, learning is part of a continuum, since the neural connections that underpin it are progressively established and reinforced. Thus, a learning process may be developing in the learner, although we might not see any manifestation of it.