Since the impressive technological advances in brain imaging in the 1990s, neuroscience has enabled cognitive science to take a giant step forward. By observing the mechanisms of the brain in action, we can now confirm or refute certain hypotheses on which our understanding of learning and teaching has been built. Neuroscience has the power to bring us considerable progress in education without rejecting our entire pedagogical heritage or repressing the contribution of teachers in this great march forward—on the contrary.

This is the bet taken by Olivier Houdé, a specialist in cognitive development and learning, in his book L’école du cerveau : De Montessori, Freinet et Piaget aux sciences cognitives. From his and some of his colleagues’ perspectives, here’s why the education of today and tomorrow needs to be guided by neuroscience and how this can be achieved for the greater benefit of all.

Neuroscience 101

The field of neuroscience focuses on the study of the nervous system, from neurons to behaviour, and draws on a vast array of disciplines, from biology to chemistry, mathematics and computer science. The field itself is highly diversified, with several branches or sub-disciplines. To name but a few of the best-known, these include molecular and cellular neuroscience and cognitive neuroscience, which are of particular interest to us in education, such as medical and computational neuroscience.

Cognitive neuroscience, affective neuroscience and social neuroscience are three branches that give us access to a new perspective and analysis of the mechanisms of cognition and learning. Cognitive neuroscience combines neuroscience with the cognitive sciences, including psychology and psychiatry, to better understand the functions and dysfunctions of the neural systems involved in behaviour and cognition. They use neuropsychological tests, cognitive tasks, psychophysics, and the most sophisticated brain imaging techniques to unravel the mysteries of higher mental functions (perception, memory, language, etc.). Affective neuroscience is concerned with the behaviour of neurons in relation to emotions, while social neuroscience aims to understand social processes and behaviours through biological mechanisms.

Observing intelligence in action

At the end of the last century, the development of cutting-edge brain imaging techniques, particularly functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), led to a quantum leap in our knowledge of the brain, making it possible to visualize its structure and functioning live and without danger. Not to mention that brain imaging has brought a significant advantage to the research process itself, enabling us to observe the learner at work without interrupting them to ask questions. All in all, it gave us a more accurate picture of the brain’s cognitive and affective activity during learning. In other words, this tool has finally enabled us to see intelligence developing and unfolding live.

Researchers have thus been able, among other things, to uncover the cerebral mechanisms involved in the acquisition of academic skills such as reading and arithmetic (Dehaene, 2007, 2011), specify the conditions necessary for learning (the 4 pillars), confirm the existence of neuroplasticity, grasp the importance of emotions in cognition and learning, and reveal the cognitive inhibition system, the third system of thought and “key to human intelligence” according to its discoverer, Olivier Houdé (1995, 2000). What is particularly interesting for the advancement of knowledge in education, according to Steve Masson, Professor at the Faculty of Education of the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQÀM) and Director of the Laboratoire de recherche en neuroéducation (LRN), is the fact that we are no longer limiting ourselves to the functioning of the brain. “More and more researchers […] are also trying to understand how this functioning develops and how learning can influence this development,” he explains in an article entitled The contributions of neuroeducation to teaching: from neuromyths to current discoveries. That said, there is another reason – the most important, according to Masson – to examine the links between the brain and education, and that is the constraints posed on learning by the functioning and structure of this complex organ: “Knowing more about these constraints could help us to understand why some learning is particularly difficult, and to consider pedagogical avenues for overcoming these difficulties.”

The terms “neuroeducation” and “neuropedagogy” refer to the same reality, as explained by Olivier Houdé, a specialist in cognitive development and learning, in his book L’école du cerveau:

“The frontiers of the humanities and social sciences are being renewed today, particularly for school education enlightened by cognitive science and neuroscience. With this in mind, in the early 2000s, following the first demonstration by brain imaging of the impact of a pedagogical intervention (cognitive learning) on students’ brains during a reasoning process (Houdé et al., 2000), I introduced the theme neuropedagogy in France. It is strictly synonymous with neuroeducation, often used since (e.g., Eustache & Guillery-Girard, 2016, for memory).”

These two terms, therefore, refer to the “discipline that studies educational issues attributable to normal brain function, using functional neuroimaging to better exploit the brain structures involved in the various learning mechanisms of the student” (Grand Dictionnaire terminologique de la langue française, OQLF).

The new cognitive sciences 2.0

Cutting-edge neuroimaging has reached a major turning point with the recent commissioning of the Iseult MRI, the most powerful of its kind in the world, with a magnetic field of up to 11.7 teslas (T). Built to understand the human brain better, the device can image our gray matter 100 times more accurately than a conventional MRI. About the size of a five-storey building, the giant cylinder is located in France at the NeuroSpin Brain Imaging Center, headed by neuroscientist Stanislas Dahaene. Added to this are the dazzling advances in artificial intelligence (AI), which, among other things, make it possible to analyze very large quantities of data obtained from MRI scans.

As Olivier Houdé reminds us, these technological advances, taking cognitive science a giant step forward, are part of a revival that began in the last century.

“In the Vocabulaire de sciences cognitives (Houé et al, 1992), in collaboration with specialists in neuroscience, psychology, artificial intelligence, linguistics and philosophy, we described the recent history of these new cognitive sciences which, since the middle of the 20th century, have been attempting to elucidate, through experimentation, modelling and the use of cutting-edge technologies (including brain imaging), the mystery of the mind and its relationship with matter: the brain, the body and the computer […]. The origin of this revolution, in the 1940s-1950s, was the birth of cybernetics (from the Greek kubernêtikê, from kubernân, “to govern”), the science of command, control or regulation mechanisms (self-regulation) of living beings and machines. […]

Today, cybernetics has given way to robotics and artificial intelligence (AI). […] These brain imaging technologies add to the traditional toolbox of psychologists (derived from Wundt, Binet, etc.), which since the 1980s has included, thanks to the first computers (after manual stopwatches), fine behavioural measurements, in milliseconds, of response times: mental chronometry. Psychological experiments are thus computer-assisted and programmed with specialized software (common to all cognitive science laboratories worldwide) to ensure synchronized control of the parameters under study: stimuli presented on the screen, types of response, response time and cerebral signal, whether hemodynamic (PET, fMRI) or electrical (MEG, EEG). […] It is thanks to this high-performance instrumentation that we can now explore, with fresh eyes, the question of learning.”

Putting neuroscience to good use in education

This scientific access to the workings of our most complex and fascinating organ has not only led to resistance from those who see it as a reductive approach to understanding the human mind, but has also generated its share of “neuromyths”, as Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, Associate Professor of Education, Psychology and Neuroscience, and neuropsychology researcher Matthias Faeth explain in the book Emotions, Learning, and the Brain: Exploring the Educational Implications of Affective Neuroscience:

“While the emerging field of Mind, Brain, and Education is making strong strides toward informing educational practices with neuroscientific findings, it is important to maintain a caution stance (Fischer et al., 2007). Too often in education, of the sincere desire to understand and help students, educators have grabbed onto various “brain-based” teaching strategies that are based either in misunderstandings or in misapplications of neuroscientific information to education. The teaching and popular press literature are rife with examples, from the overt labelling of elementary school students as different categories of learners, such as kinesthetic or auditory, to the notion that young babies should listen to Mozart to develop better spatial cognition. At best, these neuromyths have wasted monetary or other educational resources; at worst, they may even have been harmful or dangerous to children.”

Olivier Houdé also urges caution when it comes to the misinterpretations and shortcuts that can be very tempting to make in the educational world with neuroscientific data. As one passage in his book underlines, the complexity of cognitive and behavioural interpretations of brain activation, as well as the contradictions between researchers on these same interpretations, still make pedagogical transpositions difficult and sometimes even risky. However, Houdé has confidence in the critical faculties of teachers – who are undoubtedly better equipped than before to debunk neuromyths – and who, in his view, should be able to start benefiting from the contributions of this new science that concerns them so closely.

“[…] schoolteachers, themselves gifted with a critical spirit, not taking (neuro) science at face value, detecting contradictions in relation to their field experience (or their cross-readings), but eager for training, already have a legitimate desire to enlighten their practice, to improve it, by the new scientific (i.e. validated, published) knowledge and theories on pupils’ brains. This is closely linked to the classic analysis of behaviour and performance. We psychologists and neuroscientists therefore have a duty to enlighten them in this matter (in agreement with Ansari et al., 2012; Sigman et al., 2014), while recognizing (i) the uncertainties inherent in this new data, (ii) the need for scientific evaluation of the pedagogical devices that might be deduced from it and, above all, (iii) putting it into perspective with the classic knowledge and theories they have already acquired (sometimes, here, reinforced, nuanced or, on the contrary, invalidated), notably in child development, learning and educational psychology. It’s not a question of reinventing or revolutionizing everything, but of completing the historical edifice of the educational sciences, in the most solid sense of the term, i.e. neuroscience today. As Maurice Merleau-Ponty said at the Collège de France in the mid-twentieth century, it’s a question of teaching science in the making (this has become the motto of this prestigious institution). At the start of the 21st century, let’s adopt the same approach to cognitive and brain sciences for teachers, from kindergarten to university”, argues Houdé, adding that this is the very aim of his book.

As for those who see neuroscience as a strictly materialistic and dehumanizing approach to be kept outside the fortress of the educational sciences, Houdé sees in this posture a misunderstanding of the very nature of the brain.

“We must not be mistaken about the materialistic and supposedly reductionist character embodied by this neuroscientific approach – so often denounced by the traditional sciences of education or by psychoanalysis […]. On the contrary, singularity (freedom, citizenship, etc.) and the brain are not mutually exclusive, nor are the brain and history, sociology (milieu, habitus), philosophy, administration, organization or educational policy, nor even the brain and didactics or specialized teaching. The human brain is social and cultural!”

The specialist in cognitive development and learning reminds us that neuroscience “takes nothing away, but on the contrary, adds information to the explanation of phenomena, to the understanding of children and learning” – as well as to the understanding of adult learners – and that “education is not an unfathomable process.”

“Without giving in to an overly scientistic and naive – or even ideologically dangerous – vision of a perfectly controlled and controllable educational technology, we cannot reject the idea that new pedagogical research, exploiting the current resources of brain imaging and experimental psychology, could shed light on certain elementary neurocognitive learning mechanisms on which more complex educational, social and cultural phenomena depend,” maintains Houdé, before reminding us that the brain, “the theatre of education,” is unfortunately also “the blind spot of national education” (in France); an observation that applies to the education systems of other Western countries. “All too often, millions of brains are still being educated blindly, i.e., by manipulating inputs (school rhythms, class sizes, etc.) and observing outputs (learning outcomes, etc.). ) and by observing the outputs (results of assessments: tests, PISA), without fully understanding the internal mechanisms of the learning brain”, he argues, skilfully using the vocabulary of digital and computer systems (with their inputs and outputs), these systems often endowed with artificial intelligence that we strive to make ever more efficient… which is possible because we know their modus operandi.

Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and Matthias Faeth have written extensively on this subject, in particular on the interdependence of emotions and cognition and the importance of emotions in rational thought, as demonstrated by a vast body of neuroscience (Greene, Sommerville, Nystrom, Darley & Cohen, 2001; Haidt, 2001; Immordino-Yang, 2008):

“Advances in neuroscience have been increasingly used to inform educational theory and practice. However, while the most successful strides forward have been made in the areas of academic disciplinary skills such as reading and mathematical processing, a great deal of new evidence from social and affective neuroscience is prime for application to education (Immordino-Yang & Damasio, 2007; Immordino-Yang & Fischer, 2009). In particular, social and affective neuroscience are revealing more than ever before the importance of emotion in guiding successful learning and the critical role of teachers in managing the social environment of the classroom so that optimal emotional and cognitive learning can take place (vanGeert & Steenbeek, 2008).”

Just as Immordino-Yang advocates several times in his book, Olivier Houdé believes that to improve learning, we must combine and converge all approaches and establish dynamic collaboration between scientists and teachers.

“Pedagogy is an art that must be based on up-to-date scientific knowledge. By providing insights into the capacities and constraints of the learning brain, experimental child development psychology and cognitive neuroscience can help explain why some learning situations are more effective than others. In return, the world of education, informed as it is by day-to-day practice (the latest in pedagogy), can suggest original ideas for experimentation. In this way, a two-way flow from the lab to the school is developing.

Some people believe that neuroscience necessarily runs counter to the principles on which traditional pedagogy has developed. In fact, neuroscience can of course invalidate certain principles and show us when we’re on the wrong track, but it’s not intended to wipe out the entire historical edifice of educational science. As Oliver Houdé makes clear in the conclusion of his book:

“As you may have gathered, my main aim was to correct the idea that neuropedagogy is a completely new science created by brain imaging […]. On the contrary! I wanted to show how much it was nested in and prepared by Plato, Locke, Rousseau (the Enlightenment), Itard, Seguin, Montessori, Freinet, Decroly, Binet, Piaget, Vygotski, Bruner and Skinner! They all lead to experimental pedagogy and psychology, as well as to the exploration of pupils’ brains whenever possible”.

For him, it’s clear that if we approach neuroscience with discernment, we simply can’t deny ourselves what it offers. With the dazzling combined progress of computer science, particularly artificial intelligence, cognitive science and brain imaging, it has become possible to see unfolding before our eyes how learning takes place at the very neural level. “This is one of the most important scientific revolutions to have occurred at the turn of the 20th and 21st centuries,” Olivier Houdé rightly points out. It’s a safe bet that Rousseau, Piaget and all the other great figures who built the historical edifice of the educational sciences would have been delighted to experience this revolution and give it the place it deserves.

Houdé, Olivier, « L’école du cerveau : De Montessori, Freinet et Piaget aux sciences cognitives », Collection Le livre de poche. Document, LE LIVRE DE POCHE, 184 pages, 2021.
Immordino-Yang, Mary Helen; Singh, Vanessa, “The Role of Emotion and Skilled Intuition in Learning”, dans Emotions, Learning, and the Brain: Exploring the Educational Implications of Affective Neuroscience, New York, W.W. Norton & Company Inc., p. 94-95, 2016.
Note: Quotations have been freely translated.
Catherine Meilleur

Catherine Meilleur

Communication Strategist and Senior Editor @KnowledgeOne. Questioner of questions. Hyperflexible stubborn. Contemplative yogi

Catherine Meilleur has over 15 years of experience in research and writing. Having worked as a journalist and educational designer, she is interested in everything related to learning: from educational psychology to neuroscience, and the latest innovations that can serve learners, such as virtual and augmented reality. She is also passionate about issues related to the future of education at a time when a real revolution is taking place, propelled by digital technology and artificial intelligence.