Over recent years a new industry has exploded that sells educational interventions purportedly based on neuroscience to schools. In 2006 a paper published in Nature Reviews Neuroscience reported that teachers were receiving 70 emails per year marketing these tools and it seems the problem has only got worse. Unfortunately, neuroscience research simply doesn’t even remotely back up a great many of the claims that are now being made.
Earlier this month Sense about Science published a great list of neuromyths that have found their way into education and called on Ofsted (the UK regulatory body for schools) to stand up to the use of neuromyths in the classroom. The methods and ideas highlighted by Sense about Science include the assumption that children have fixed auditory, visual or kinetic learning styles; methods based on Gardner’s discredited model of multiple intelligences and the teaching of left/right brain theory. We also saw the publication this month of an extensive review of educational approaches informed by neuroscience by the Education Endowment Foundation.
A Wellcome Trust teacher survey published this month produced a number of worrying statistics, for example a stunning 39% of teachers used to use (and 16% still use) the discredited Brain Gym approach which is based on flawed, non peer-reviewed research. Thankfully only two of the over a thousand teachers surveyed said they planned to start using Brain Gym but for every non evidence-based intervention that is on its way out, there is a new one to take its place.
All of the above is important reading for educators but somehow seems to miss the sheer outlandishness of the rationale that many of the packages being marketed as brain based methods are based on. As Oxford developmental neuropsychologist Dorothy Bishop explained in a blog post earlier this week, at the present time neuroscience is of precious little use in the classroom when compared to behavioural indicators – what use are abstract measures such as brain activation when we can directly assess educational outcomes with methods that teachers can actually use in real life?
A recurring theme in the conversation on educational neuroscience is the fact that teachers are simply not given formal science based guidance on what works, leaving a vacuum eagerly filled by those out to make a buck by masquerading unsupported techniques as based in science. So what does work? The resounding conclusion seems to be that for now, teachers should look to psychology and cognitive science research rather than neuroscience research. This time last year a fantastic literature review of learning techniques was published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest. I’d urge any teachers to read it in full, but as it’s a rather dense document I’ve done my best to paraphrase it here.
Hopefully if we shout loud enough the message will get through and we won’t see another generation of students wearing “VAK” badges pigeonholing them as a “V” an “A” or a “K” (for visual, auditory or kinaesthetic learner); or schools spending thousands of pounds on brain training software based on research that demonstrates nothing but that children who play a game repeatedly get better at that game.