Make better decisions using neuroscience

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Surely research about how the brain learns is useful to educators?

However, neuroscience cannot directly prescribe what educators should do. This is because it involves a big and unlikely assumption: what happens in the brain scales up to a classroom full of pupils.

This is true of cognitive science generally (including psychology): findings don’t transplant into education (Perry et al., 2021).

But all is not lost.

Educators can use neuroscientific concepts about how the brain learns to support them to make good decisions in the classroom and avoid fads.

They can translate rather than transplant neuroscience into their practice. Let me persuade you.

Here’s my argument in brief:

  1. Education is complex and will never directly take on research and become ‘evidence based’.
  2. Still (and perhaps because education is complex), education needs tethering to stable concepts about learning taken from kinder and useful learning environments.
  3. Concepts about learning at the psychological level are useful but concepts from neuroscience may be better.
  4. Tethering to better concepts helps educators make more intelligent decisions and avoid fads.

Figure 1

Educators can tackle problems using a mixture of their teaching expertise and helpful concepts about learning, e.g., from neuroscience. This leads to more intelligent decision-making.

Here’s my argument in more detail.

  1. Education is complex and will never directly take on research and become ‘evidence based’.

Schools are complex environments. So much so that when a teacher does something, the ‘feedback’ they get from the environment to tell them if their action was any good can sometimes be deficient or downright misleading!

For example, say a teacher teaches their class a concept and then pupils crack on with independent work, seemingly without issue. The teacher thinks ‘I must have taught that well – they’ve learned it’. Counterintuitively though, instruction that slows down pupils’ short-term performance, can benefit long-term learning (Bjork & Bjork, 2011). The feedback they got from the environment was misleading.

When feedback is deficient, missing or misleading, we call it a ‘wicked learning environment’ (Hogarth et al., 2015).

It’s hard to conduct research in wicked learning environments: how do researchers know if an intervention caused the consequence?

It’s hard for findings from other disciplines to translate to wicked learning environments: the complexity of the classroom seems to dilute the effect of positive strategies.

It’s therefore impossible for teaching to become evidence based.

If feedback from the environment is poor, how do educators decide which actions to take?

2. Education needs tethering to stable concepts about learning taken from kinder and useful learning environments.

Like it or not, by making decisions and taking actions, educators are constantly demonstrating they are tethered to one idea or another, such as – ‘all pupils learn differently’ or ‘direct instruction works best’.

How do educators know if these are the best ideas to tether themselves to given the goals they have for their pupils?

These ideas may come from educator’s experience (not to be undervalued), but evidence from other disciplines should also weigh in, without compromising the fact that educators are experts in their classrooms.

What evidence should educators use to feed into their decisions?

I think they should use evidence generated from –  

a) kinder learning environments and

b) useful disciplines.

First, a kinder learning environment (than education) is one where there is a clearer feedback loop. In snooker you hit a ball you see where it goes. In neuroscience you get participants to recall information, you measure brain activity. Disciplines that are less messy than education get clearer feedback from research and can generate stable concepts about learning.

Secondly, the disciplines educators draw from must also be useful, i.e., describe things in terms that educators can actually use to make decisions. Physics describes learning in terms of atoms (not useful). Psychology describes learning in terms of the individual (useful).

Psychology and neuroscience are kinder and useful disciplines where educators can find evidenced concepts about learning.

Table 1

How disciplines compare to education: only psychology and neuroscience are kinder and useful.

What do I mean when I say educators can ‘tether’ themselves to these concepts?

As we’ve said, educators can’t directly transplant findings from any discipline into the classroom. ‘Tethering’ is not transplanting.

Educators tethered to concepts are bound to consider the concept when they make decisions. Think of a boat tethered to a dock: its movement is restricted and this prevents it setting off in whatever direction the wind dictates.

This is a good thing so long as the concepts educators tether themselves to are backed by good evidence. I’ve suggested these come from psychology and neuroscience…

3. Concepts about learning at the psychological level are useful but concepts from neuroscience may be better.

Cognitive psychologists study cognition, e.g., memory, attention, consciousness. They use evidence from behavioural studies to describe what they think is happening in the brain, inferring useful constructs/metaphors, such as ‘working memory’. They can then describe these constructs based on their findings, e.g., ‘working memory has limited capacity’. These concepts can be used by educators to make instructional decisions, e.g., ‘I should introduce information in small chunks to novice pupils’.

The problem is that these constructs/metaphors are not entirely accurate. The construct ‘working memory’ suggests there is one part of the brain called ‘working memory’ that we can train. This led to brain-training fads. In fact, neuroscientists understand that there are many parts of the brain that deal with working memory-like functions. Understanding how cognition works in the brain can provide even better concepts for educators (Thomas et al., 2019).

Here’s an example. Lots of educators now use retrieval practice (low-stakes quizzes) with their pupils because retrieving from memory benefits long-term memory. Psychology can provide some useful rules of thumb for using retrieval practice, e.g., space it out over time. But understanding neuroscientific concepts about memory, e.g., how memories consolidate (get stored), enables educators to understand why retrieval practice works.

Part of the explanation is that ‘retrieval speeds up memory storage’. Understanding this concept helps educators see that retrieval practice is potentially a double-edged sword: if pupils retrieve the wrong answer, this is likely to be quickly stored. It gives educators a more useful concept on which to base their decisions about how to use retrieval practice.

4. Tethering to better concepts helps educators make more intelligent decisions and avoid fads.

‘Tethering’ means teachers are bound to consider a concept. The concept becomes part of a teacher’s networks of knowledge about how pupils learn.

Choosing the right concepts (which I have argued derive from psychological and particularly neuroscientific research on learning) will help educators make more intelligent decisions (Biesta, 2007).

Educators are already making intelligent decisions, but by tethering to well-evidenced concepts, they can make even better ones. As Dylan Wiliam puts it:

“…every teacher needs to improve, not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better…” (Wiliam, 2019).

Furthermore, if educators choose well-evidenced concepts about learning, tethering will help educators avoid “counterproductive actions in tough times.” (Carew & Magsamen, 2010, p. 687).

A teacher tethered to concepts they have consciously and critically examined is immune to the winds of change.

Think how nice it would be to hear educators discussing their previous practice and not hear them say,

“I can’t believe I used to do [INSERT DISPROVEN FAD]. What a waste of time…”

Now we know why tethering to concepts from kinder, useful disciplines like psychology and particularly neuroscience can help educators, we’re going to learn what these concepts are. First, we look at the overarching principles of memory.

References

Biesta, G. (2007). Why ‘what works’ won’t work: Evidence-based practice and the democratic deficit in educational research. Educational Theory 57(1): 1–22.

Bjork, E. L., & Bjork, R. A. (2011). Making things hard on yourself, but in a good way: Creating desirable difficulties to enhance learning. Psychology and the real world: Essays illustrating fundamental contributions to society, 2(59-68).

Carew, T. J., & Magsamen, S. H. (2010). Neuroscience and education: An ideal partnership for producing evidence-based solutions to guide 21st century learning. Neuron, 67(5), 685-688.

Hogarth, R. M., Lejarraga, T., & Soyer, E. (2015). The two settings of kind and wicked learning environments. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 24(5), 379-385.

Perry, T., Lea, R., Jørgensen, C. R., Cordingley, P., Shapiro, K., & Youdell, D. (2021). Cognitive Science in the Classroom. London: Education Endowment Foundation (EEF). The report is available from: https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/evidence-summaries/evidencereviews/cognitive-science-approaches-in-the-classroom/

Thomas, M. S., Ansari, D., & Knowland, V. C. (2019). Annual research review: Educational neuroscience: Progress and prospects. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry60(4), 477-492.

Wiliam, D. (2019, May 30). Dylan Wiliam: Teaching not a research-based profession [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.tes.com/news/dylan-wiliam-teaching-not-research-based-profession.

4 responses to “Make better decisions using neuroscience”

  1. […] In this blog we’ll find out how learning happens. This gives us insights we can use to make better decisions about pupil learning. […]

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  2. […] In this blog we’ll find out how learning happens. This gives us insights we can use to make better decisions about pupil learning. […]

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  3. […] Remember, neuroscience can’t tell teachers what to do. Neuroscience is one source of valuable evidence to help teachers make better decisions. […]

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