Neuroscience can’t tell educators what to do

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It seems intuitive to think that neuroscience will be of great use to educators since it is the study of the brain – a vital organ for learning.

On the other hand, how can electrical signals or blood flow in the brain tell teachers anything about how to teach Islam, Impressionism, netball or algebra?

The two disciplines seem to speak very different languages:

  • Education talks about groups of pupils; neuroscience, brain areas or neurons.
  • Education research measures changes in academic ability; neuroscience measures minute signals in the brain.
  • Education research targets complex skills; neuroscience research targets simple processes.
  • Education research occurs in busy classroom settings; neuroscience research takes place in a sterile laboratory.

Can findings from neuroscience translate into education?

Can we go from ‘brain scan to lesson plan’ (Howard-Jones, 2011)?

If so, how?

Let’s find out by eavesdropping on a dinner party…

Imagine a group of friends, a physicist, a neurobiologist, a cognitive neuroscientist, a cognitive psychologist and a teacher meet for a dinner party at the teacher’s house.

In their respective fields, they all happen to share an interest in learning. The conversation soon turns to this and each of them states their case for why learning is best understood through their discipline.

The physicist tells the group that atoms can store information from the environment and even transmit it to other atoms. This is the most fundamental level from which to understand learning.

The neurobiologist chimes in. It’s much better, they say, to consider learning at the level of the neuron in the brain. This is because neurons are specialised cells that carry information. Their activity underpins learning.

The neuroscientist disagrees. They acknowledge the importance of individual neurons, but suggest it’s much more useful to view learning as patterns of activity across the brain. It’s the changes in memory networks that constitute learning.

The psychologist has their head in their hands. Rather than wrangling over neurons and brain areas isn’t it much better, they say, to view the person as a whole? At a psychological level, we can see learning through people’s behaviour, which is surely the outcome we are most interested in.

Finally, the teacher. It’s all well and good, they say, to study learning in individual people, but have any of them actually set foot in a classroom? There’s thirty pupils. You have to take into account the effects of the socio-cultural environment on the learner.

The group decide to sketch out the following table to show the relationship between their disciplines by organising them into levels:

Table 1

The levels and disciplines.

Adapted from Donogue & Hovarth (2016).

The teacher makes an interesting point: given that they all have different perspectives on learning, can findings from one discipline translate into another? The teacher tells the group how their school has just implemented a new behaviour system with rewards and consequences to motivate and reinforce the behaviours they want to see from pupils. The teacher is worried that the positive effect of the rewards they give out will wear off. Are there findings from other disciplines that might help?

The physicist and neurobiologist bow out quickly: their disciplines are worlds away from giving advice. However, the neuroscientist jumps in. They’ve read neuroscientific research demonstrating that when rewards are unpredictable, dopaminergic activity in the brain increases which may increase attention and ultimately learning. Therefore, the neuroscientist says that the teacher should use unpredictable rewards to keep pupils engaged and improve learning.

But the psychologist disagrees. Psychological studies show that it is only under certain circumstances that unpredictable rewards increase engagement. In fact, uncertain rewards may actually reduce motivation.

The group are interested in this. A finding from neuroscience doesn’t ring true when studied at the psychological level. Why not?

The group realise that for findings from one discipline to translate directly to another, big assumptions need to be true. In this case, the assumption is: what happens in the brain during neuroscience research scales up to the whole organism in its environment during psychology research. Clearly this is an assumption too far.

The teacher remarks that if the assumption is too big when moving from neuroscience to psychology, the assumptions must be even greater and even less likely to hold when trying to jump over levels in Table 1 (Horvath & Donoghue, 2016). For example, to translate findings directly from neuroscience to education (missing out psychology), they have to assume that what happens in the brain scales up to a classroom full of pupils.

The group agree that one discipline cannot prescribe a course of action to another because the assumptions are too great. Instead, what one discipline can do is generate findings that inspire research in an adjacent discipline (adjacent as per Table 1).

They come up with a rule for how findings in one discipline can support another:

Inspiration not prescription: findings in one discipline can inspire research in an adjacent discipline but cannot prescribe a course of action.

When trying to translate research across non-adjacent disciplines such as neuroscience and education, psychology can’t be overlooked. For example, a finding from neuroscience inspires research in psychology which inspires research in education.

This means that for evidence from neuroscience to translate into education, it must do so indirectly through psychology (Figure 1).

Neuroscience cannot directly prescribe how teachers should teach and neither can psychology.

Figure 1

Indirect translation from neuroscience, through psychology, to education.

This all sounds a bit hopeless. If neuroscience can’t tell teachers what to do in the classroom and neither can psychology, what are they good for?

Luckily, there is another way educators can use evidence from these disciplines to aid their teaching: by using concepts to make intelligent decisions.

Find out about this in this post.


Donoghue, G. M., & Horvath, J. C. (2016). Translating neuroscience, psychology and education: An abstracted conceptual framework for the learning sciences. Cogent Education, 3(1), 1267422.

Horvath, J. C., & Donoghue, G. M. (2016). A bridge too far–revisited: reframing bruer’s neuroeducation argument for modern science of learning practitioners. Frontiers in psychology, 7, 377.

Howard-Jones, P. A. (2011). From brain scan to lesson plan. Psychologist, 24, 110-113.

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