Neuroscience is full of urban myths that have latched on to the collective consciousness and stuck there. It’s not just the obvious ones like the old saw that “humans only use ten per cent of their brains at a time” – myths about how sleep loss or drinking lots of water affects the brain are often taken at face value, even in schools.
To try to kick myths out of the classroom and reconnect education with neuroscience, the UK’s Wellcome Trust and Education Endowment Foundation has launched a £6m fund to gather evidence-based research into just how schoolchildren’s brains learn. The Trust has warned that teachers may be wasting public money and resources on educational tools or methods that don’t have a strong scientific basis.
“Schools could be spending resources and teacher time on activities that aren’t beneficial – and it’s also possible that some of them are directly detrimental,” Dr Hilary Leevers, head of education and learning at the Wellcome Trust said at a briefing.
“It’s really important that teachers start looking for stronger evidence in any activities they do, but particularly in those that say they’re based upon neuroscience, because our scoping work really suggests that there’s very little evidence currently for interventions based upon neuroscience having impact on educational outcomes.”
“There might be some exploration of particular ways of presenting information that make people learn better, but it’s very rare that anybody’s actually tested that in a classroom setting,” she said. “[Even] if they’ve reached that step, they haven’t actually then tried to do it as a large trial that could tell us if it would benefit education across the country.
“It isn’t to say that all of those things don’t work, we just don’t know if they do or not.”
All sorts of ideas can catch on in schools, like playing music to pupils to help them learn or teaching students in their own “learning style”, but despite the fact that it’s unclear if these methods work, teachers are embracing them wholesale.
“Teachers have a very enthusiastic attitude towards the brain, but there’s no neuroscience in teacher training at the moment and that makes teachers a little bit vulnerable to the very skilled approaches of entrepreneurs in selling products that are supposedly brain-based but actually are not very scientific in their basis and have not been properly evaluated in the classroom,” warned Dr Paul Howard-Jones, a leading expert on the role of neuroscience in educational practice and policy at the University of Bristol.
“Perhaps the outstanding example is “learning styles”, which is [the idea] that we have regions of the brain that are associated with auditory or kinaesthetic or other modes of perception and some people may have preferences in one region or another and therefore you should teach to somebody’s learning style,” he explained. “But there’s no psychological evidence for it, no convincing educational evidence and in fact the brain is so massively interconnected that the whole idea doesn’t really make sense.
“Nevertheless, I know from my own research – a cohort of trainees that I surveyed – just before they were going off into schools, over 80 per cent of them believed that you should teach to a student’s learning style.”
Howard-Jones said there was work going on in neuroscience at the moment that could really help children to learn, such as the discovery of a “sort of instinct about numbers” that humans share with animals that could completely change how mathematics is taught or greater understanding of how games can be linked to learning.
Before cutting edge research makes it into schools however, it needs to be rigorously tested.
“You can’t go directly from brain scan to lesson plan,” he said.
The newly launched fund aims to connect neuroscientists, psychologists, educators and other stakeholders to projects like systematic testing of different school start times or lesson lengths to give strong evidential support for education tools or methodologies. The Foundation also hopes that improved understanding of the brain will help teachers to send the peddlers of fads and fakes packing.