Neuroscience and Education: Worlds apart?

(Click here to read in Spanish – leer en castellano)

Neurodidactics, Neuroeducation, a Brain-Based Classroom? When I think of a „Brain-Based Classroom“ I imagine a scene like this…

Brain-based classroom
“Brain-based classroom” by Katharina Pittrich (CC0)


What does the image convey to you? Would you like a classroom to look like this?

To any specialist in the theory and methods of education (educationist), the futuristic „Brain-Based Classroom“ scene probably doesn´t look very appealing. There are some crucial things missing: Social interaction, curiosity, creativity and the process of knowing something together with someone. What are the limitations and what are the potentials of Educational Neuroscience?

 What is “learning”?

I would dare to say that the ”learning” that is studied by neuroscientists is a different phenomenon from the “learning“ that most educationists would refer to as their object of study.

”Learning“ as understood from a perspective that focuses on neuronal networks is based on cognitivist ideas that assume that mental representations and cognitive functions have underlying neuronal structures or networks and the brain is conceived as an information processing mechanism. In this conceptual framework, cognitive differences are expressed through structural and functional differences in network activity and a large majority of neuroscientific research focuses on regional localization of brain functions and interconnectivity between regions as well as factors that influence their connectivity. Hence, neuroscience has given us fascinating insights on the neural mechanisms of the learning brain and an encouraging picture of the brains´ plasticity across the lifespan.

Nevertheless, an aspect that is completely left out by mainstream cognitive science is that human cognition is characterized by reacting to the meaning of a signal rather than to externally observable stimuli. The individual´s perception is mediated by concepts or internal representations that are the accumulated result of previous experience and historical and cultural evolution. The advanced forms of human thinking which are associated with language use play a crucial role in teaching and learning scenarios as they constitute the basis of human cognition.

When discussing to what extent neuroscience can inform us about education and pedagogy, we have to consider that contemporary pedagogical approaches are generally based on a Constructivist theoretical framework that take into account the semiotic character of advanced forms of human thinking. Constructivist approaches in education aim to facilitate learning environments that promote “meaning making” by using reflective and collaborative methodologies considering the individual´s prior knowledge and experience as a basis for knowledge construction.

“Meaningful” social learning: A uniquely human ability?

When attempting to draw conclusions about human learning based on neuroscientific studies that were conducted on non-human primates or even mice, it is crucial to keep in mind that human learning relies on complex social interactions.

Nowadays, even the process of social learning is divided into several categories, such as social facilitation, stimulus enhancement, imitation, and emulation, among others. To understand what makes “human learning“ actually human, I´d like to point out the difference between two of those concepts:  imitation and emulation . Imitation refers to the reproduction of the behavioural strategies of an observed model, which implies two things. First, to understand the goal that the observed model tries to achieve and the strategy selected. Second, to use this strategy and adapt it to achieve one´s own goals. Emulation, on the other hand, entails learning only about the results of others’ actions without understanding the intentions of the observed model. Emulation is therefore indeed a form of social learning that is expected in very intelligent and fast learning species, nevertheless it cannot be considered imitation as it doesn´t imply the comprehension of others as intentional beings. While apes seem to focus on the results of the actions when observing a demonstrator (emulation), humans show a tendency to copy the actions of the demonstrator (imitation). Imitation is therefore considered a uniquely human form of social learning. Though this is still a controversial conclusion, Tennie, Call and Tomasello point out that all previous studies reporting evidence of imitation in apes in problem solving have not distinguished the influence of the demonstrator’s actions from the results produced by those actions.

Joint attention – the basis for teaching and meaningful social learning

A uniquely human characteristic underlying social learning is known as „joint attention“, a capacity that plays an essential role in learning and human development. According to Tomasello´s theory of cognition which is inspired by Vygotsky´s Social Constructivism, children’s ability to learn symbolic representations and language is based on their capacity to share attention with others, apprehend their communicative intentions and imitate a model´s behaviour to solve a problem. This ability appears between 9 and 12 months of age and implies to focus attention together with someone on an object and encourage one another to do so.  According to Tomasello, it is one of the mental capacities that distinguishes humans from non-human primates, as it requires the ability to form beliefs about the mental states of others. Furthermore, it forms the basis for a fast transfer and improvement of social information from one generation to the next as it allows us to consciously create scenarios for teaching knowledge and skills. In other words, it allows us to use specific methodologies (pedagogy) to facilitate learning (education).

The limitations of Educational Neuroscience at its current state of the art

Unfortunately, so far neuroscience rarely reveals innovative insights into learning in real-world contexts that promote meaningful knowledge construction. As its research predominantly relies on Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), Electroencephalography (EEG) and Magnetoencephalography (MEG), using these methods limits social interaction, as participants usually give their answers by pressing buttons. While performing a task, almost the whole participant’s brain is active and activation differences between two experimental conditions can only be interpreted when both conditions are very similar and only differ in one or two cognitive processes they evoke. This hardly reflects real-life teaching and learning scenarios that require joint attention and other complex social interactions.

 Educational Neuroscience: Fiction or facts?

Apart from these limitations, Neuroscience has and will make important contributions to education. Here is why…

  1. Neuroscience helps to identify the “hidden” causes of learning disabilities

While psychology explains reality at a phenomenological level, neuroscience contributes to topics that are not directly observable. The origins of dyslexia, for instance, are expressed on a phenomenological level while hidden neuronal factors might be the cause of these symptoms. The theory that neural systems could influence reading was first proposed over a century ago, based on studies of adults who had strokes with subsequent acquired alexia (the sudden loss of the ability to read). These neuropathological studies implicated left hemisphere posterior regions, a theory which has now been confirmed using functional brain imaging. Most dyslexic children have an impaired phonological awareness and while resolving tasks such as identifying letters and syllables that rhyme, they reveal less neural activity in temporoparietal areas. Discoveries of the neural systems involved in dyslexia have significant implications for the acceptance of such learning disabilities as a valid disorder. These findings are then used to inform educational policy and practices. 

  1. Neuroscience may offer early diagnosis of cognitive developmental disorders

Neuroscience can deliver evidence to provide early diagnosis of developmental disorders before they become behaviourally observable. In the future, brain imaging may be helpful for the assessment of very young children at high risk of developing dyslexia. Diffusion tensor imaging, for instance, can show connectivity of white-matter tracts (brain tissue containing fibers which connect neurons of different regions) without requiring the child to perform a task, such as reading. Currently, neuroscientific methods do not yet allow for this kind of reliable early diagnosis of cognitive developmental disorders at the individual level, nevertheless, it is a promising field of research.

  1. Neuroscience helps to develop evidence-based precursor training programs

The training of basic cognitive skills required for the development of certain abilities (called precursor skills) is another promising field of Educational Neuroscience. The capacity to blend and segment phonemes in words, for instance, is a critical precursor for learning to read. Precursor skills play a crucial role in learning processes for which it is not biologically determined which factors initiate them, such as reading, writing, and mathematics.

To wrap it all up

Neuroscience has offered new insights on the origins of learning disabilities and neuroscientific studies can complement relevant psychological theories in education. However, drawing conclusions about instruction and teaching methodologies requires researchers to investigate the uniquely human forms of social learning and identify under which conditions they can be optimized. The development of evidence-based precursor skill trainings and the investigation of how specific didactic methods can influence the development of cognitive processes underlying reading comprehension, mathematical reasoning or even multilingualism are therefore promising fields for Educational Neuroscience.

To fully understand a phenomenon in its complexity, it is necessary to integrate distinct levels of analysis and perspectives. Without interdisciplinary collaboration, neuroscientists without any background in education are at risk of running naïve experiments informed by their personal experience on how children acquire certain knowledge and skills of a specific content area. On the other hand, educationists without a thorough understanding of neuroscientific research might misinterpret to what extent neuroscience findings can contribute to education and pedagogy.

Are Education and Neuroscience two worlds apart? I don´t think so! We just need to step across the boundaries and start a conversation.



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