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Education and neuroscience: An expert review

January 7, 2014


By Moheb Costandi

Our understanding of how the brain works has advanced rapidly in the past few decades, and there is now more public interest in neuroscience than at any time in the past. We have reached the point at which neuroscience has the potential to inform classroom practice and improve children’s educational outcomes – consequently there has been a significant increase in so-called “brain-based” classroom interventions which purport to do so.

At the same time, research suggests that myths and misconceptions about the brain are  prevalent among schoolteachers, and that those who are enthusiastic about the potential applications of neuroscience on teaching practice find it difficult to distinguish between pseudoscientific claims and scientific facts. Indeed, a recent survey by the Wellcome Trust found that many teachers use or have used educational activities which they believe to be based upon neuroscience but which rarely have a sound basis in the science – nor have they been systematically proven to improve performance. Teachers are clearly eager to improve their practice, but are trying to do so before the educational applications of neuroscience have been fully developed and tested.

As well as providing approximately £90 million per year in funding for neuroscience research, the Wellcome Trust is committed to improving science education and has funded a number of education and engagement projects about neuroscience in the past. One focus of the Trust’s 2010-2020 Education Strategy is to examine the ways in which brain research is being used to inform teaching and learning and, where possible, to develop further investigations into the strength of the evidence and how it can support and improve the quality of education.

To this end, the Trust’s education team has commissioned an expert review that examines the interface between neuroscience and education. Researchers, each with expertise in an area of brain research that has the potential to be applied to educational practice, were asked to: examine the readiness of their field to shape education; make judgements about whether or not their field is likely to yield testable and fruitful educational interventions; and provide recommendations about how it would be best to approach funding the testing of such interventions.

The review consists of a series of articles written by the contributing researchers. Selected summaries of these will be published on this ThInk blog over the coming weeks, covering a wide range of topics, from brain stimulation to neurogenesis and learning. The review was not intended to be exhaustive, but to help the Wellcome Trust decide on its next action in this area. For instance, research into circadian rhythms – that is, your body’s biological clock – is not covered in the review, but has already been tested in some schools and provides an interesting example of how neuroscience might improve educational outcomes. Circadian rhythms change dramatically during puberty and adolescents experience a delay of approximately two hours in their sleep/wake cycle as a result. In practical terms, this means that the school day starts too early for most adolescents, at a time when pupils are reaching the end of the sleep phase of their cycle. It follows that starting the school day an hour or two later would be beneficial, because timing the start of school with the onset of the wake phase of the cycle would optimise pupils’ potential for learning.

Circadian neuroscience researcher Russell Foster is one of the biggest advocates of this approach, which has recently been implemented in a UK school, although not in a way which allowed controlled assessment of its impact. It has, however, been tested in the US. In 1997, seven high schools in and around the Minneapolis area shifted their start times from 7.15 to 8.40am on the basis of these findings, and the first longitudinal study has shown that later start times had significant benefits, including improved attendance rates and less fatigue and sleeping in class.

To complement the Wellcome Trust’s work, the Education Endowment Foundation, with which the Trust has been partnering in this initiative, commissioned a review of the educational literature to identify other areas of research that could potentially be applied in the classroom. Conducted by Paul Howard-Jones, the review examines the available evidence about education initiatives that are, or purport to be, informed by neuroscience, and was guided by questions considering the validity of the alleged scientific basis of the educational concepts and approaches and the quality of evidence for impact.

Together the views of expert neuroscientists and the understanding of current practice from teachers themselves, as well as the educational literature review, have convinced the Wellcome Trust and the Education Endowment Foundation to embark on a new funding initiative – Education and Neuroscience. This £6 million one-off scheme aims to develop, evaluate and communicate the impact of education interventions grounded in neuroscience research. Do check back or sign-up for updates to read more of the expert opinions that helped to shape this work over the coming weeks.

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