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Irish Educational Studies Vol. 27, No. 3, September 2008, 197Á208 Neuroscience and education: how best to ﬁlter out the neurononsense from our classrooms? Noel Purdy* Stranmillis University College, Belfast This article considers the extent to which neuroscience is being applied to education, both on a classroom level and also on the level of curricular reform in Northern Ireland. The article reviews recent research in the area of neuroscience and education and examines a number of popular ‘neuromyths’. It urges the educational world to take aDownloaded By: [University College Cork] At: 14:32 1 October 2008 more informed, cautious and critical approach to neuroscience in education, not least in terms of the Northern Ireland Revised Curriculum, and also makes a plea to the neuroscientific community to police in a more rigorous way the application and misapplication of research findings in schools. Keywords: neuroscience; education; curriculum Introduction: exploring common ‘neuromyths’ Recent years have seen an astonishing rise in the popularity of educational packages and programmes which claim to be based on the latest brain research. Where once neuroscience and education seemed poles apart, it would appear that the gap is now being bridged. However, while some are incredibly enthusiastic about the educational benefits to be gained from neuroscience (Greenleaf 1999; Clark 2001), others have expressed reservations and urged caution. Importantly, many of these criticisms have come from within neuroscience itself, where several recent and authoritative publications have voiced concern that neuroscience itself is being discredited by some of the classroom packages. Goswami (2006), Director of the Centre for Neuroscience in Education at the University of Cambridge, correctly diagnoses the core issue: despite continued uncertainty in neuroscience, school teachers are being bombarded with ‘brain-based learning’ packages which contain a number of significant ‘neuromyths’, a term first employed in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report on brain learning (OECD 2002). The OECD report refers to three examples, which will be considered briefly in turn: first, the over-literal interpretation of hemispheric specialisation, where brain attributes are assumed to come from either one hemisphere or the other, and which has led to teachers being encouraged to identify pupils as either ‘left-brained’ or ‘right-brained’ learners. Those children who are artistic are seen as ‘right brained’ while those who are logical or mathematical are seen as ‘left brained’. This over-interpretation of laterality has been widely criticised (see Bruer 1997; OECD 2002; Goswami 2004; Hall 2005). The OECD report notes that one part of the brain rarely works in isolation, and that, with few exceptions, cognitive tasks require both hemispheres to work in parallel (OECD 2002, *Email: firstname.lastname@example.org ISSN 0332-3315 print/ISSN 1747-4965 online # 2008 Educational Studies Association of Ireland DOI: 10.1080/03323310802242120 http://www.informaworld.com
198 N. Purdy §4.6.2). Hall (2005, 3) adds that this notion of ‘laterality’ is based on a ‘gross over- simplification which is not supported by the brain research literature’ and notes that it was based largely on examination of ‘split brain’ patients rather than subjects with normal, healthy brains. Despite this criticism, references to hemispheric specialisation abound. In one recent publication (Spooner 2006) which aims to support trainee teachers, newly qualified teachers (NQTs) and teaching assistants in their work with children with special educational needs (SEN), it is claimed that the two sides of the brain have ‘different processing styles’ and that ‘in spite of some shifts in recent years, many classrooms and teaching styles still largely favour the left-brain processors’ (61). Second, the OECD report considers the ‘neuromyth’ that certain ‘critical periods’ exist during which the brain requires a specific type of environmental stimulation in order to develop normally. This suggests that if the biological ‘window’ is not exploited, then the opportunity to learn is missed for ever. The report argues that it is more accurate to speak of ‘sensitive’ rather than ‘critical periods’. Goswami (2004, 11) adds that ‘there seem to be almost no cognitive capacities that can be ‘‘lost’’ at an early age’ and that learning isDownloaded By: [University College Cork] At: 14:32 1 October 2008 still possible even after a period of environmental deprivation. Blakemore and Frith (2005, 31Á2) note that much of the clear evidence has been gathered in relation to sensory development (for instance, visual or auditory development in babies). It is simply not known whether such sensitive periods exist in terms of the development in formal educational settings of skills such as reading, writing and numeracy. This remains an area where education must be wary of the groundless over-generalisation of research evidence from one aspect of cognitive development (sensory) to all other forms. The OECD report concludes that ‘although education at an early age is highly important, it does not mean that a large part of a person’s education must be concentrated into the childhood years’ (OECD 2002, §4.6.3). Third, the OECD report dispels the myth that the development of neural connections or synapses (synaptogenesis) requires an enriched environment, the implication being that children require enriched classroom environments in order to facilitate normal neural development. The scientific basis for this neuromyth is discredited on the grounds of lack of evidence (OECD 2002, §4.6.3). Blakemore and Frith (2005, 32) report that the original research carried out by Greenough discovered that rats raised in an enriched environment (with wheels, ladders and other rats to play with) had up to 25% more synapses per neuron in sensory areas of the brain than rats who had been deprived of such stimulation. Rats raised in enriched environments were also better at learning tasks and negotiated mazes more effectively. Blakemore and Frith (2005, 32) make the point, however, that the so- called enriched environment was actually much more like the normal environment in which rats live in the wild. Consequently they suggest that it is more accurate to say that a ‘normal environment leads to more synaptic connections than a deprived environment’ (33). In relation to the education of children in schools, caution is once more urged: while the evidence might suggest that there is a sensory threshold below which a child’s brain might not develop normally, there is no necessity artificially to enrich a normal environment as there is no evidence to suggest that there is any benefit. Indeed over- enrichment or hot-housing young children may actually be harmful, but as Blakemore and Frith (2005) make clear, once again there is no clear evidence to confirm the hypothesis. Aside from these three myths which the OECD report highlights, Goswami (2006) notes two further neuromyths that have become popular across the United Kingdom in recent years. The first of these myths relates to learning styles, the use of which is advocated by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA 2004a) and more locally
Irish Educational Studies 199 by Education and Library Boards (ELBs) in Northern Ireland (see, for instance, Thompson and Maguire 2001). One of the most common models is the VAK classification where learners are tested to discover whether they are visual, auditory or kinaesthetic learners. Thompson and Maguire (2001) outline the different learning styles and suggest strategies to promote greater learning: visual learners, it is claimed, learn better through seeing pictures, diagrams, moving images and colour, and are encouraged to use pictures, mind maps or different colour pens to help the brain remember better; auditory learners learn by storing sounds in their brains and are encouraged to listen to music while learning, repeat their work out loud in funny voices and make up raps about their work; kinaesthetic learners learn by movement or touch and should do things practically, walk around while reading, do brain gym exercises (see below) or squeeze a sponge or stress- release ball while working. As Goswami (2006) reports, children often wear badges labelled V, A, or K to show their learning style for the benefit of their teachers, who are in turn encouraged to differentiate their lesson planning to accommodate these three styles. The source of this VAK model is difficult to trace despite its widespread application, but hasDownloaded By: [University College Cork] At: 14:32 1 October 2008 been linked to Dryden and Vos (2001) and Dunn and Dunn (1992, 1993). Coffield et al. (2004), in their comprehensive study of 13 leading models of learning style (including the Dunn and Dunn model, about which they express serious reservations), maintain that there is a need for ‘independent, critical, longitudinal and large-scale studies with experimental and control groups to test the claims for pedagogy made by the test developers’ (61) and agree with Curry’s summation (Curry 1990, 54) of the current position of research into learning styles where ‘researchers and users alike will continue groping like the five men in the fable about the elephant, each with a part of the whole but none with full understanding’ (61). The appeal of the VAK model is clearly its simplicity and its use is widespread, but there is a need for further research, taking into account the ‘Hawthorne Effect’, and how long the purported gains last. Recent publications, however, do not take this uncertainty into account. Spooner (2006) notes that ‘the teacher needs to present the lesson in a way that enables sensory preferences to be used by the learners’ (61), while Thompson and Maguire (2001, 15) advise pupils to ‘think about your preferred learning styles and develop the method of learning which suits you best’. The final myth recorded by Goswami (2006) is that of the ‘Brain Gym’ programme (Dennison and Dennison 1988), which advocates exercises to encourage whole-brain learning. The programme is based on the premise of brain laterality (see above) and promotes exercises to develop the ability to cross the brain’s ‘midline’, from right to left or from left to right, ‘an ability fundamental to academic success’ (Dennison and Dennison 1988, 1). For instance, one of the sections of the programme encourages pupils to massage ‘brain buttons’ to the left and right of the sternum with one hand while holding the navel with the other (Dennison and Dennison 1988, 25). Such a movement, it is claimed, improves reading, coordination, the correction of letter and number reversals (central to dyslexia), consonant blending and the ability to keep one’s pace while reading. In a review commissioned by the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) to examine research relevant to the Early Years Enriched Curriculum Project in Northern Ireland, Sproule et al. (2001, vii) note that ‘there is no reputable, peer-reviewed neuroscience research which has application to the theory or practice of education (except in confirmation of some general inferences which were already available from other sources)’ and warn against the over-interpretation of research findings, particularly, in this case, in relation to early years education. Sproule et al. (2001) cite Camissa’s research into the ‘Brain Gym’ programme (Camissa 1994) which found an improvement in motor skills
200 N. Purdy following the programme but no significant change in academic performance. However, Sproule et al. (2001) fail to condemn the programme outright and indeed consider that the ‘Brain Gym’ programme, though supported by ‘tenuous’ research evidence, ‘is unlikely to cause harm’ (49). They further note that many teachers appreciate the value of the programme ‘in promoting co-ordination and muscle control, the training of attention skills and the use of language (particularly in the naming of body parts and in the use of prepositions such as across)’ (49). Nonetheless, ‘Brain Gym’ represents one of the most obvious instances of ‘neurononsense’ and, in contrast to the reaction of Sproule et al. (2001), there is a clear need for the educational and neuroscientific community to speak out against such programmes, given that they make unjustified claims to enhance not only motor skills but also a wide range of other cognitive skills, such as literacy and numeracy. As Goswami states: In my view we should not remain quiet when claims that we know to be spurious are made, such as that children can organise themselves for reading and writing by pressing their ‘brain buttons’. (Goswami 2006, 7)Downloaded By: [University College Cork] At: 14:32 1 October 2008 Goswami notes the urgency of the need to dispel such myths, but interestingly, in reporting a recent conference for teachers and neuroscientists held in Cambridge, recounts the frustration of the teachers in attendance at being told that there was no scientific basis for the brain-based programmes in use in their schools. Moreover, Goswami acknowledges the failure of neuroscience to communicate effectively to teachers, most of whom, it is claimed, ‘prefer broad brush messages with a ‘‘big picture’’, and being told ‘‘what works’’’ (6). Unfortunately, although there have been words of caution voiced by the neuroscientific community, numerous ‘scientifically spurious applications’ (7) remain unchecked in many schools. Criticism of the role of neuroscience in education is not new. Bruer, deemed ‘the most outspoken critic of a premature application of brain research to education’ (Blakemore and Frith 2005, 9) famously argued (Bruer 1997, 5) that the ‘neuroscience and education argument may be rhetorically appealing, but scientifically, it’s a bridge too far’. Bruer makes the case for cognitive psychology as a potential intermediate level of analysis, necessary to link brain science to education, but urges caution in attempting to make direct links between classroom learning and neuroscience: Neuroscience has discovered a great deal about neurons and synapses, but not nearly enough to guide educational practice. Currently, the span between brain and learning cannot support much of a load. Too many people marching in step across it could be dangerous. (Bruer 1997, 15) More recently Geake and Cooper (2003) argue for a more considered ‘middle path, but with cautious optimism that the relationship between cognitive neuroscience and education will be for the long term’ (7). They ask educationalists to give neuroscience a ‘fair hearing’ (8) and argue that the embrace of neuroscience by educationists is a necessary means to stem the ‘increasing marginalisation of teachers as pedagogues’ (11) from politicians and board room directors with their predominantly instrumental objectives. They hope that with knowledge of neuroscience, teachers will be better equipped to play a greater role in the future of educational policy-making. The danger in not doing so, they argue, is that teachers’ autonomy will be further eroded and that they will be marginalised in their own workplace. Geake and Cooper (2003) conclude that ‘there are implications and applications for education in cognitive neuroscience’ (17) and they look forward to the
Irish Educational Studies 201 day when there might be enough known about brain activity to monitor learning and evaluate the effectiveness of instruction. Geake and Cooper (2003) present two future vignettes based on a parentÁteacher evening at a primary school where a parent is discussing the poor mathematics results achieved by her son, Chris. In the first scenario the teacher has available a neuro-imaging report compiled as Chris undertook his assessment tasks wearing a neuro-imaging headset. The results were later statistically analysed by computer and the parentÁteacher report generated. On the basis of this computer-generated report, the class teacher identifies Chris’s relatively weak short-term memory and recommends a remedial course to strengthen the relevant circuit. The parent is pleased at the decisive action taken by the teacher and is impressed by her ‘professionality’. In the second vignette the teacher admits to a frustrated parent that she doesn’t know what is causing Chris’s problem, but recommends that the parent goes to see an external agency (Cognitive Services Inc.) specialising in cognitive processing. The teacher’s words succinctly express her lack of confidence in herself and in her profession: ‘How would I know what to do? After all, I’mDownloaded By: [University College Cork] At: 14:32 1 October 2008 only a teacher. I don’t know what is causing the problem’ (18). Geake (2005, 12) is quick to point out that there have been mistakes made in the past as ‘intellectually unscrupulous characters’ have expounded over-simplistic theories, such as learning styles, left- and right-brain thinking or ‘Brain Gym’ exercises (see above). Geake insists that ‘university educationists need to provide a rigorous critical filter lest more neuro-nonsense infects the nation’s schools’ (12). It is now time, Geake argues, that education not only takes account of the developments in neuroscience but also begins to make a contribution to the future agenda of neuroscientific research. Geake concludes that ‘a cognitive neuroscience-education nexus should be a two-way street’ (12). As Geake and Cooper (2003) suggest, there has recently been a high level of interest in brain functioning (Changeux 1985; Rose 1992; Greenfield 1997; Pinker 1998; Carter 2000; Damasio 2000, 2004). In particular, interest has focused on the role of emotional intelligence, spurred on by Goleman’s (1995) Emotional Intelligence. There has also been increasing interest in the application of such neuroscientific findings to the social sciences and, in particular, to education, most commonly on the micro scale of methodological recommendations for the individual classroom. On a broader scale, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA 2004b, 7) has noted that ‘Developments in neuroscience, for example, provide new insights into the way the brain works. We now know that intelligence is multi-dimensional, that an individual’s capacity for learning is linked to their emotional well-being and that people learn in a variety of ways.’ Perhaps more alarmingly, in Northern Ireland, the education system is approaching an unprecedented curricular reform (which was being phased in from September 2007) whose rationale is essentially based on cognitive neuroscience. Neuroscience and the Northern Ireland educational context In its 2003 rationale for the new Northern Ireland curriculum at Key Stage 3, CCEA (2003a) claims that neuroscience has ‘established’ factors about how we learn and notes that these factors have been taken into account in the designing of the new curriculum. CCEA suggests that these findings from neuroscience correspond with the findings of the preceding Northern Ireland Cohort Study (Harland et al. 2002), a study of almost 3000 pupils in 51 schools, which had highlighted the need for the curriculum to be more relevant, connected and skills-based. Significantly, however, following criticism of this
202 N. Purdy over-emphasis on neuroscience, more recent statements by CCEA have reduced and, most recently, removed altogether the mention of research into the brain as in any way shaping the design of the new curriculum. The ‘revised’ Northern Ireland curriculum (CCEA 2003a) comprises nine Learning Areas (30): Learning for Life and Work (to include Education for Employability, Local and Global Citizenship, and Personal Development, including PSHE and Home Economics), and eight further General Learning Areas (the Arts; English and Irish; Environment and Society; Modern Languages; Mathematics; Science and Technology; Physical Education; Religious Education). It is further proposed that the following ‘skills and capabilities’ should infuse every Learning Area: Personal and Interpersonal Skills, Critical and Creative Thinking Skills, Communication, Application of Number, and Information and Communication Technology (32). The statutory curriculum itself is outlined as a minimum set of statements of entitlement, rather than as detailed Programmes of Study. It is expected that this will give schools considerably more freedomDownloaded By: [University College Cork] At: 14:32 1 October 2008 than at present to design a curriculum to suit the needs of their particular pupils, and, indeed, schools will be encouraged to interpret and organise the entitlement framework in different ways: options include organising the curriculum within Learning Areas, combining subject strands from different Learning Areas, organising the curriculum thematically or continuing to teach in discrete subject strands as before (33). In a brief section of the rationale entitled The Learning Challenge, CCEA (2003b, 22) notes that ‘recently neuroscience has established a number of factors which are critical to learning and to motivation, about how our brains process information’. The following paragraph sketches out the explicitly neuroscientific rationale for this major curricular reform, although CCEA provides no references to the source literature: We now know that the human brain creates meaning through perceiving patterns and making connections and that thought is filtered through the emotional part of the brain first. The likelihood of understanding taking place is therefore increased significantly if the experience has some kind of emotional meaning, since the emotional engagement of the brain on some level is critical to its seeing patterns and making connections. Learning is particularly effective when we have opportunities to apply what is being learned and when we can transfer learning from one situation to another. Neuroscience, therefore, highlights the need for learning to be emotionally engaging to the learner, particularly during the 11Á14 age range when so much else is going on with adolescents to distract them from school. (CCEA 2003a, 22) CCEA also chooses to use neuroscience as the justification for placing collaborative project work in which learning is contextualised, relevant and emotionally engaging at the centre of the curriculum: Recent brain research indicates that the brain searches for patterns and interconnections as its way of making meaning. Researchers theorise that the human brain is constantly searching for meaning and seeking patterns and connections. Authentic learning situations increase the brain’s ability to make connections and retain new information. When we set the curriculum in the context of human experience, it begins to assume a new relevance. (CCEA 2003b, 3) CCEA argues that learning must be ‘connected’, and that learning must be approached ‘in a more connected way’ (CCEA 2003a, 22). CCEA takes ‘connectedness’ to mean that the traditional emphasis on teaching discrete subjects is being ‘questioned’ by recent neuroscience. CCEA instead stresses the value of interdisciplinary skills and greater collaboration between pupils and among subjects as a preparation for the world of work:
Irish Educational Studies 203 Our current emphasis on learning within separate subject disciplines dates back at least a century and is based on the notion that each subject is a distinct form of knowledge with separate characteristics, concepts and procedures which encourage efficient learning. Over the last decade, we have begun to learn more about how the brain processes information and the multi-faceted nature of work in the modern world. We are beginning to question the wisdom of compartmentalising learning while expecting young people to cope with multi-dimensional problems. There is growing recognition that separate subject teaching may prevent pupils from seeing the relationships between subjects. (CCEA 2003b, 2Á3) CCEA has already faced trenchant criticism of its overuse of neuroscience to justify the curriculum innovations. Morrison (2006) refers to Strauss (2001), who argues that brain research has been ‘oversold’. Strauss cites Kurt W. Fischer, director of the Mind, Brain and Education programme at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, who has written, ‘You can’t go from neuroscience to the classroom because we don’t know enough about neuroscience.’ She also laments that many educators still believe that education can be ‘reborn’ through neuroscience and therefore by buying what SamDownloaded By: [University College Cork] At: 14:32 1 October 2008 Wineburg, Professor at the College of Education at the University of Washington in Seattle, calls ‘snake oil’. CCEA responded to Morrison’s critique by claiming that it takes the ‘middle ground’ in terms of its application of neuroscience (CCEA 2006, 10). CCEA refers directly to a review of the contribution of brain science to teaching and learning, commissioned by the Scottish Executive Education Department (Hall 2005), in which a number of neuromyths are dispelled (as in OECD 2002) and in which there is a cautious embrace of some findings from neuroscientific research. CCEA (2006) concludes by playing down the foundational role of neuroscience in the formation of the Revised Curriculum, despite evidence to the contrary cited above in the earlier rationale of 2003: CCEA emphasises, again, that neuroscience is not, and was not, the sole or prime foundation for the review of the Northern Ireland curriculum. The review was based on a raft of research, consultation and trialling to which neuroscience makes but one contribution. (CCEA 2006, 11) Interestingly, however, in CCEA’s most recent rationale for the new curriculum at Key Stage 3 (CCEA 2007a) there is no mention whatsoever of neuroscience, suggesting a further reduction in emphasis even since their 2006 statement above. It is astounding how CCEA’s faith in neuroscience could have been so quickly and comprehensively lost in just four years. Nonetheless, CCEA has not withdrawn its support for a recently reprinted, widely distributed publication (Thompson and Maguire 2001) aimed at educational professionals in Northern Ireland and including sections on ‘Right and Left Brain’, ‘Learning Styles’ and ‘Brain Gym’. In a foreword to the publication, the Chief Executive of CCEA (at the time) notes that ‘it seems foolish to wait until we are absolutely certain about everything, before we start to convey to young people some of the basics about how the brain works and how this impacts on their learning’ (Boyd, cited in Thompson and Maguire 2001, 2). Moreover in the most recent guidance offered to teachers in advance of the implementation of the Revised Curriculum in September 2007, CCEA (2007b, 48) recommends using mind maps in the classroom as they ‘appeal to different learning styles such as visual and kinaesthetic and encourage pupils to think about connections in their learning content. They oblige pupils to use both sides of the brain.’ Is the continued support for such ‘neuromyths’ really characteristic of taking the ‘middle ground’?
204 N. Purdy While CCEA also claim that the new curriculum better reflects the views of employers in Northern Ireland, it would appear that by mentioning neuroscience at all in the rationale, CCEA had hoped to endow the reforms with credibility and a certainty, which, as Goswami (2006) reminds us, neuroscientists themselves are simply not prepared to endorse. If leading neuroscientists themselves are quite prepared to acknowledge the uncertainty and limitations of their research, then CCEA should do likewise in any publications. Recommendations: a time for caution In light of the reservations expressed by leading neuroscientists (Bruer 1997; Byrnes and Fox 1998; OECD 2002; Goswami 2004, 2006; Blakemore and Frith 2005; Hall 2005), it is clear that there is an urgent need to re-educate the educational community in relation to the prevalent neuromyths which have been gaining in popularity over recent years. As Goswami (2006, 2) remarks, anecdotal evidence would certainly suggest that ‘the speedDownloaded By: [University College Cork] At: 14:32 1 October 2008 with which packages and programmes supposedly based on brain science have gained widespread currency in schools is ‘‘astonishing’’’. And, as Geake reports (2005), even the recently retitled Department for Children, Families and Schools has succumbed, with their website seeming to endorse the use of VAK learning styles. As Geake notes with some alarm: It is not clear who should be more insulted: neuroscientists (for the misinterpretation of their hard-won results), or teachers (for the implication that they are too dumb to understand scientific complexities). (Geake 2005, 12) This process of re-educating the educators will necessitate more effective dissemination of the most recent neuroscientific research findings to the educational community. Until now this has been attempted purely at the level of the academic journal or the textbook, while it has been the more spurious publications which have made it into staffrooms and classrooms through effective marketing and sales pitches. As a result of the inaccessibility of much scientific research, most teachers remain unaware that many of the brain-based learning packages being advocated are in fact based on generalisation, simplification and dubious research evidence. Goswami (2006) criticises the neuroscientific community for their inadequate communication skills and calls for a network of communicators of neuroscientific research ‘who can bridge the current gulf between neuroscience and education by providing high-quality knowledge in digestible form’ (7) and also for the feeding back of research questions from the classroom to the scientists. Both Goswami (2006) and Geake (2005) report the effectiveness of conferences in Cambridge and Oxford to bring teachers and neuroscientists together and they can only be applauded for their efforts. However, it is clear that only a small number of teachers can be educated in this manner and that a more comprehensive strategy is required on a national scale to address the problem before questionable practice becomes even more entrenched. The scale of this challenge is, however, immense in terms of the number of teachers who need and deserve to be informed, first, of the latest insights to be gained from neuroscience, and, second, of the limitations of the research to date. Part of the difficulty also lies in the fact that the field of neuroscience is developing all the time, making it difficult for the non- specialist to keep up to date with the progress. Nonetheless, Hall (2005) notes that there has been something of a consensus in recent evaluations of the educational import of
Irish Educational Studies 205 neuroscience. These reviews, while not entirely dismissive of the ‘enthusiasts’, have expressed some caution, and have argued against the neuroscientific ‘panacea’: What has faded slightly is the belief that some grand scheme of ‘brain based education’ can be made instantly available to transform learning and teaching. In its place is a more cautious and incremental approach which acknowledges that our current state of knowledge is incomplete and may be, in some aspects, inaccurate. (Hall 2005, 19) The OECD report (2002) highlighted the need for ‘a healthy dose of scepticism’ (71) in relation to the ‘neuromyths’ it identified, such as hemispheric dominance, synaptic development, and critical periods and enrichment. Too often, it is claimed, ‘educators and policy makers are left in a quandary discerning fact from fiction’ (70), as articles both for and against these ‘neuromyths’ appear regularly in journals and the popular press. However, in order to arrive at this position of scepticism, a certain foundation of knowledge is required at classroom level, and, it would seem, at the level of the Education and Library Boards/Local Authorities who have been actively promoting some of the mostDownloaded By: [University College Cork] At: 14:32 1 October 2008 spurious programmes in many schools. As the OECD report highlights, the situation is complicated further by the varying degrees of certainty which exist in relation to different neuroscientific findings. This only militates against the broad, brush-stroke messages which, Goswami (2006) suggests, most teachers would like to receive. There is a need to make the distinction between: a) what is well-established (plasticity), b) what is probably so (sensitive periods), c) what is intelligent speculation (the implications of gender) and d) what is a popular misconception or oversimplification (the role of ‘left and right hemispheres’). (OECD 2002) It now appears that there is a need for educationalists to reclaim some of the ground that has been eroded from them by cognitive neuroscience researching on their ‘turf’ (Geake 2005, 11), and perhaps Geake is right to suggest that there is a valid self-interest argument for educationalists to enter into dialogue, however sceptical they might be, lest their input be completely overlooked by policy-makers. Moreover, Hall (2005) notes the increasing acknowledgement that ‘any account of how education works which makes any claim to be complete, coherent and scientific will need to be entirely congruent with what we know about how the brain works’ (19). For those who are arch-sceptics, it would appear that neuroscience is here to stay and that there is a real need to engage in the critical filtering process to ensure that teachers are protected from programmes which make hollow claims. There is an onus, therefore, on specialists in the field to publish their work in forms which are more likely to reach a wide, general audience rather than purely limiting themselves to academic journals. Conclusion This article has highlighted the common misapplication of brain science to education. It has attempted to specify and dispel a number of the most common ‘neuromyths’ that are in circulation and has made a number of recommendations so that teachers and ultimately children in schools can be protected from the worst instances of ‘neuronon- sense’ before any more time and money are wasted attempting, for instance, to cure dyslexia by massaging ‘brain buttons’ on the sternum and navel. This article also considers that to base an entire curricular reform on a neuroscientific rationale is perhaps a little hasty, given the uncertainty which persists in many areas of neuroscience.
206 N. Purdy It would appear, given the absence of neuroscience from its latest rationale for the new curriculum in Northern Ireland (CCEA 2007a), that the CCEA may also have come to the same realisation. Three recommendations are made. First, education would be better served by acknowledging the uncertainty which exists in terms of how children learn, an uncertainty which neuroscientists are quite happy to accept. Bruer (1997) though highly critical of the over-hasty, direct application of neuroscience to education, is, however, hopeful with regard to the potential of cognitive psychology, which, he claims, is a ‘much better bet’ (15) as a guide to educational practice and policy. Bruer notes the ‘possibility’ (15) that cognitive psychology in combination with brain imaging and recording technologies could eventually offer insights into learning difficulties and facilitate the development of more effective classroom intervention strategies. The language used by Bruer is consistently tentative, reflecting his scepticism about brain-based educational practice, and yet cautiously optimistic, redolent of his faith in the ‘two-bridge route’Downloaded By: [University College Cork] At: 14:32 1 October 2008 (from neuroscience to cognitive psychology, and from cognitive psychology to the classroom). While such guarded optimism is welcome in principle, there seems to be little convincing evidence to suggest that the span between brain and learning is any more robust even a decade later, or any more capable of supporting the ever-increasing numbers of educators and parents ‘marching in step across it’ (15). To acknowledge uncertainty should therefore not be seen as a weakness but rather as a welcome display of honesty and humility. Second, there is an urgent need for more rigorous scrutiny of learning programmes which claim to be ‘brain based’ before implementing them in the classroom. At present there is an urgent need for what Geake (2005, 12) refers to as a ‘critical filter’ provided by those with enough specific knowledge to identify correctly the ‘neuromyths’ in new publications destined for the classroom. The feasibility of such a filter is of course questionable, given the proliferation of publications and the shortage of available critics from within the neuroscientific community. However, this is undoubtedly an area which must be addressed on a national level before further questionable practices are engaged in at the level of the classroom. Currently many teachers who unwittingly follow the plethora of brain-based learning packages are teaching ‘brain gym’ movements with the aim of improving academic attainment, or are labelling children as ‘visual’, ‘auditory’ or ‘kinaesthetic’ learners, or are carrying out activities to promote greater balance in development between left- and right-brain hemispheres, when there is no scientific justification for any of these activities. Children too need to be disabused of the misconceptions which may be passed on to them by their teachers and which encourage a narrow focus on one learning style at the same time as the revised curriculum (influenced by employers’ comments) aims to develop a broader range of skills as preparation for the modern workplace (CCEA 2007a). Third, there must be a greater and more meaningful dialogue between the educational and neuroscientific communities. Conferences such as those held recently in Oxford and Cambridge are welcomed in this regard but should be held regularly and on a much wider geographical scale. Moreover, their conclusions should be disseminated to all schools in a form which allows the non-specialist, busy classroom practitioner to read and discern what is fact and what is fiction in brain-based learning packages. Finally, in calling for greater humility, is it not time to admit how very little we still know about the brain and about how children learn?
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