Is educational neuroscience a legitimate area of knowledge which can help teachers and students, or is it mostly "neurobabble" as some articles in the Melbourne Age and in The Conversation have recently suggested?
The authors of both these articles correctly point out that there is an increasing amount of brain-based language in education discussions. And also that much of the 'brain' and 'neuro' language being used has little scientific basis.
But that does not mean all discussion of the role of neuroscience in education should be dismissed as useless "neurobabble". In fact educational neuroscience is now a recognised scientific discipline which is being studied in some of the world's leading universities including Stanford, Columbia and Vanderbilt in the USA and Cambridge University in the UK.
What is educational neuroscience?
Scientists working in this new branch of neuroscience are looking at which parts the brain are involved in various learning activities. They are trying to determine the best ways to teach different subjects and to add a solid scientifically based component to the art of teaching.
We have learned more about the human brain in the past 5 years than the prior 100 years, according to Nobel Laureate Eric Kandel. And this includes much more knowledge about how our brains learn.
There are now generally well-accepted tasks and methodologies to define which brainwave activities are associated with cognitive processes involved in learning such as memory, attention and emotional engagement. They can now be measured precisely, just as temperature is measured with a thermometer.
Why is educational neuroscience creating a wave of change?
For the last century the education paradigm has been that the teacher's role is to deliver the curriculum to students in the most engaging way so that the students can learn. Education policymakers have focused on two key elements: curriculum and teaching.
Now neuroscience changes that to include a third element, the learning capacity of the student’s brain. We now know – from neuroscience research - that students’ capacity to learn what the teacher is teaching can be improved in as little as 2 or 3 terms, by using targeted neuroscience-based brain training exercises.
Neuroscientist, Dr Steve Miller, points out that educational neuroscience is fuelling an eLearning revolution. He says this is due to the coming together of three trends:
- Accelerating breakthroughs in neuroscience
- The increasing power of computing technology
- Dissatisfaction with current eLearning approaches
Australian and New Zealand schools, as well as schools in over 30 other countries, that are using neuroscience-based learning enhancement technologies are on the leading edge of a wave of change that can transform our society.
The transforming power of building student's brains so they are better learners, so they have greater learning capacity, is becoming clear from better student outcomes (on tests), improved student self confidence and behaviour, and greater satisfaction for teachers.
Additionally, all education systems are under pressure to produce better outcomes without increasing resources. This new science will help principals, teachers and education policy makers achieve these goals.
Many scientists developing new learning applications using neuroscience
The learning application developed from neuroscience research that is most widely known and used (by over 2,000,000 students) is the Fast ForWord program.
But there are many scientists currently developing other learning applications. As these become available, educators will have an array of neuroscience-based learning tools to help them achieve better student outcomes.
The challenge for educators will be to separate the few effective programs which are grounded in solid neuroscience research and validated by user effectiveness data from many others which purport to be "neuroscience programs", but are not scientifically valid. Educators will need to make decisions about educational software and neuroscience programs.
The great news is that there are courses and resources being developed to help teachers and parents in this decision making. And these will help accelerate the wave of change that educational neuroscience will make to teaching and learning.