Should You Build a Brain-Based School?

There’s a push for teachers and students to draw on our knowledge from neuroscience to rethink how we teach and learn. This includes, for example, a variety of new “brain training” tools that promise to make us learn more efficiently. But what does neuroscience really say? Randolph-Macon College psychology professor Cedar Riener helps differentiate here between “brain-based” science and marketing speak.

Do you have what it takes to be a neuro-leader? Is your school brain-based? All aboard the brain train! Educational neuromanagement and school neuropolicy are coming soon to a system near you! Don’t get left behind!

I hope your eyebrow is raised and skepticism activated, because while developments in neuroscience are certainly exciting, their immediate application to educational leadership is neither straightforward nor assured.

While the 1990s were officially declared the Decade of the Brain, neuroscience has stayed in the front of our minds, or perhaps become hard-wired in our collective frontal lobes. Neuroeconomics promises new understanding of our financial decisions. The neuronovel (and neuro lit crit) is heralded as a new approach to literature. We are even promised neuronutrition that targets the brain to boost the body’s neurological systems! (we’ve got that, it’s called caffeine). The prefix “neuro-“ often seems to connote that science of the brain has untapped magical properties to solve all of society’s woes. Such excitement and hype has resulted in a neurobacklash to the overextension and exaggeration of neuroscientific findings.

It is enough to make one neurotic.

In the following essay, I’ll try to sketch out why applying neuroscience to education is complicated, and what other scientific research might be more useful. Can neuroscience improve educational practice? How much neuroscience should school leaders know? If not neuroscience, what science should school leaders know?

First, can neuroscience improve educational practice? The answer to this is a qualified yes, but far less than most people think.

First, can neuroscience improve educational practice? The answer to this is a qualified yes, but far less than most people think. The connection is rarely simple and straightforward. Developmental neuroscientist Dorothy Bishop notes

I’m all in favour of cognitive neuroscience and basic research .. of typical and atypical development. By all means, let’s do such studies, but let’s do them because we want to find out more about the brain, and not pretend it has educational relevance.

Cognitive psychologist Dan Willingham agrees that neuroscience applied to education is “Mostly unimpressive.”

To begin to understand why this is, consider the following case of language in the brain: For one group of students, over 95% have language processing areas mostly in their left hemispheres. For another group of students, that number is closer to 70%. This second group is more likely to have more even language representation in both halves of their brain. If there were a simple mapping of brain to behavior, from language lobe to learning, this fact would have critical consequences for education. Wouldn’t such differences in how one’s brain represents language lead to big differences in language learning or verbal ability? Shouldn’t school leaders want to identify such bilateral language learners and differentiate lessons accordingly?

The answer to both questions is a resounding no. The characteristic that separates these two groups of students is simple: handedness. Left-handed people’s brains are far more likely to have bilateral language processing. Lefties can have different brains, but we don’t have left-handed language classes — nor should we.

When considering educational interventions, both the measures and the outcomes are psychological; learning and memory, not wiring and firing. When neuroscience concepts can be linked directly to these measures and outcomes, then neuroscience can be useful. Daniel Willingham and John Lloyd offer examples of  four particular techniques in which neuroscience can be applied to educational settings. However, they caution that these techniques are far more likely to be useful in low-level behaviors, such as reading or basic number sense in math, rather than complex behaviors, such as classroom management.

So how much neuroscience should school leaders know? Do you need to know the insula from the amygdala, the hippocampus from the hypothalamus? In most cases, such knowledge, while fascinating, is not directly applicable to educational settings. Many neuroscientists would love for everyone to know more neuroscience, but some would prefer if people believed fewer neuroscience myths. The brain doesn’t light up. Expertise and increased performance can be associated with fewer neurons firing, not always more. We use our whole brain, not just 10%. We are not left-brained or right-brained.

If not neuroscience, is there science that school leaders might find more useful? Cognitive psychology is a better match than neuroscience. Insights from the science of learning in the laboratory can often be applied to classroom settings.  The National Academy of Science’s report “How People Learn” is an excellent resource.  The title of that report is instructive. We educate people, not brains; we develop minds, not neurons. Cognitive neuroscientist and writer Christian Jarrett makes this point applied to other practical situations, cautioning that apparent benefits of neuroscience understanding are often based on findings in psychology. All too often, neuroscientific jargon adds rhetorical force without helping people understand the relevant causes and consequences of behaviors. For example, any aerobic activity (including learning) is at some level “caused” by the Krebs cycle of converting fat, protein and carbohydrates into energy, but no teacher’s pedagogy or school leader’s management is dependent on their knowledge of acetate oxidation.

Social psychology also has a great deal to contribute to educational settings. David Yeager and Gregory Walton review social psychological interventions in education, noting that while in some cases relatively small interventions like writing letters to a struggling student can have outsized impacts on student achievement, social psychology is not magic. Situating these interventions within social psychological theory, Yeager and Walton suggest that social psychological studies provide a reminder that effective learning is not merely an accumulation of facts and building of mental models, but also navigating social obstacles and changing attitudes towards school. For example, while programs intended to improve self-esteem do little to improve academic achievement, other research on attitudes and beliefs has been adapted to improve educational systems.

Reminding students how the brain resembles a muscle can be an effective educational intervention.

I’ll conclude with a case study of the usefulness of social psychology which, to close the circle, involves neuroscience and some of the issues I have addressed here. Carol Dweck has shown that students’ implicit theories (or mindsets) of intelligence influence academic achievement. Students who think intelligence is flexible do better than students who think intelligence is fixed. Further, interventions designed to shift mindsets from fixed to malleable improved student achievement. One of the interventions used to remind students of the malleability of intelligence used neuroscientific language:

Students in a New York City public school .. learned about study skills and scientific research showing that the brain grows connections and “gets smarter” when a person works on challenging tasks.

In other words, reminding students how the brain resembles a muscle can be an effective educational intervention.

But is this another use of the inflated rhetorical currency of neuroscientific evidence? Isn’t it equally true to say that the mind expands with use, or that thinking is a skill that improves with practice? While I am often skeptical of the uses of neuroscience language in education, in this case, I find myself making an exception. These brainy words have persuasive power, even if the science itself rarely can be directly applied in educational settings. While we should be skeptical of claims that say “Just add neuroscience!” perhaps we can harness the social psychological power of the language of neuroscience to improve student motivation.


A question or two to stimulate your brain:

  • How can school leaders better read, understand, and apply scientific research?
  • And by extension, how can they better avoid “snake oil” products that rely on pseudoscience?

Image credits: Ivan, Nick Mustoe

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