Review: The Future of Educational Neuroscience. Report

The summary of this report by Kurt Fischer immediately seemed to make sense to me, yet it does attempt to cover an enormous swathe of territory.

“The primary goal of the emerging field of educational neuroscience and the
broader movement called Mind, Brain, and Education is to join biology with cognitive science, development, and education so as to create a sound grounding of education in research on learning and teaching.”

Biology, cognitive science, development … education – those are pretty big areas in themselves and so the name of the area has to be big. Hence, the name Mind, Brain, and Education has emerged.

I have worked as a teacher for about 20 years and was involved in full-time education for a long time before that, so I figure that I know a fair bit about education and the one thing that I can say with certainty is that it is complex and non-homogenous. While there is no doubt that mind and brain are a huge part of education, the social element is so pervasive that I wonder if the name is really suitable. We do not learn as solitary minds or brains, but rather as social beings who are highly influenced by the social context. I’m sure that the discipline of MBE will try to bring in the social element, but the first two words seem to place to emphasis strongly on the individual rather than on the social learning context.

“The field of medicine provides the closest analogy to education, combining
scientific research with practice to improve the long-term well-being of human beings.”

This is an interesting analogy and I would be interested to hear other people’s viewpoints on it. Medicine has traditionally focused on an illness-focused model. Perhaps the same could be said about education? I would like to think that we are focused more on positive growth.

The report calls for more serious research on education (in the classroom) and rightly points out that much of the well-funded research for education has been over-focused on testing.

“Most important, for educational neuroscience to reach its potential, infrastructure must be created to catalyze research on learning and teaching, creating scientific knowledge for education. Then research tools such as brain imaging, analysis of cognitive processing and mental models, and genetics assessment can be used to illuminate the “black box” and uncover underlying learning mechanisms and causal relations (Hinton & Fischer, 2008).”

This quote seems so chunked up and generalized as to be almost pointless. I understand that the report is general in nature, but does this sentence really actually say much?

“Readers find articles more convincing when they contain brain images as opposed to graphs or other illustrations (McCabe & Castel, 2008), and neuroscience information is particularly influential in readers who lack relevant background knowledge (Weisberg et al., 2008).”

So true! A few brain images immediately adds credibility to some quite ludicrous statements. I have admittedly used the same technique myself – flashing an image of a brain scan in order to demonstrate some point which may not truly hold up. There is a long way between pictures/interpretations of momentary brain activity and actual behaviour/learning. As we all know, photoshop can be deceiving, and brain scans are highly subject to interpretation, too ;)

The report authors also note the gap between neural images and behaviour when they say “Moving from knowledge of the brain such as images of brain activity directly to educational application is indeed difficult in many cases.”

I found the slightly chunked-down research goals of the report to be the most useful element.

1. Understanding the Development of Structured Representations
e.g. examining development of phonology in children
2. Understanding Complexity through Models
e.g. Cognitive linguists have analyzed how mental models function in human communication and
learning (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980) [One of my favourite books actually)
3. Creation of Longitudinal Databases

The report promotes better teacher education, more interdisciplinary research, and “creating educational engineers.” The last item jumped out at me because I am an ex-engineer now working in education and the way of thinking in engineering and teaching is generally very different, even at the engineering university where I work. I’m not completely convinced that we can apply the same kind of precise mathematical thinking to education, but as a metaphor it may be useful.
The report suggest that “They will have expertise at translating or applying findings from cognitive science and neuroscience to learning in classrooms and other educational settings.”
It’s a nice idea and one that seems worth investigating.

A useful suggestion in this report is ” Asking Grant Holders to Use Shared Measures in their Studies”. There is such wastage and replication within all areas of research because of a lack of standardization. Of course, academic and research freedom is useful, but so too is standardization!

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Overall, I didn’t find this report to be useful. It seems to be written as a consensus report trying to bring together researchers in different areas under a common banner of MBE. Perhaps this is useful in sharing research findings and combining different findings. At this point in my reading in this area, it wasn’t really a useful article. Perhaps if it could be chunked into smaller bites, it might be better.