The power of neuroscience to improve teaching is 'oversold', academic says

Brain-based teaching methods overemphasise the importance of neuroscience, ignoring the fact that learning is also influenced by society and culture, according to a leading neuroscientist.

But teachers are rushing to adopt such learning methods in the classroom, often with no training at all, Steve Rose, emeritus professor of neuroscience at the Open University, writes in the Times Higher Education this week.

Professor Rose acknowledges that brightly coloured scans of the brain, showing which regions are at work when a student solves a maths problem or learns a language have a “seductive appeal”.

“It is easy to see why the prospect of neuroeducation, or brain-based learning, might excite school teachers anxious to do the best for their students,” he writes.

The problem is not that such articles and courses make bogus claims, Professor Rose says. It is that “the claims of mainstream neuroeducation…have been oversold.”

“Brain imaging has apparently shown that the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex lights up when adolescent girls experience social exclusion,” he writes. “But does this provide guidance as to how the youngsters might be helped?”

Nonetheless, many teachers receive more than 70 mailshots a year, urging them to sign up to courses on brain-based learning. Others do not even need a course: one headteacher told Professor Rose that he had decided to teach lessons in short bursts, after reading an article in Scientific American reporting that similar techniques improved the memory of fruitflies and mice.

But psychologist and science writer Daniel Goleman has said that he advocates the practical application of neuroscience in schools.

“The application in schools that I’ve seen is not at all adulterated,” he told TES. “What the science shows is that attention is a mental muscle, and that it can be strengthened with the proper exercise. The application of that in schools is being done quite well.”

Professor Rose, however, insists that advocates of neuroeducation tend to focus on the brain, rather than on the student around it.

“These advocates seem oblivious to the fact that both teaching and learning are not timeless and isolated activities, but in their very essence socioculturally embedded,” he says.


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