Neuroscience is shaping up to be a fierce battleground for how we should organise our societies, as Prospect has predicted in the past. Gender differences, criminal law, political persuasions—we should be prepared to tackle difficult questions about whether or not “our brains make us do it.” To judge from some commentaries, the more established psychological frameworks such as Freudianism and Kleinianism traditionally used to decipher behaviour such as dysfunction, trauma and intelligence—are about to be replaced with the MRI scanner.
One of the bloodiest fields of combat is likely to be education—not only because of the levels of angst that schooling already invokes in parents but because few areas of social policy are so susceptible to ideology, fads and dogma. That’s why a recent report from the Education Endowment Foundation looking at the supposed neurological evidence for specific teaching techniques is so timely. The report focuses on 18 methods and distinguishes between those that have sound neurological support, such as the cognitive value of minimising stress and engaging in physical exercise, from those for which the evidence or understanding is a long way from offering benefits in the classroom, such as genetics or personalised teaching methods.
The report also acknowledges that some techniques, such as learning games or using physical actions to “embody cognition” (enacting “action verbs” rather than just reading them, say), warrant serious consideration despite the current lack of understanding as to how best translate them to the classroom. These findings, along with earlier studies by specialists of the “neuromyths” that propagate in classrooms, are nicely rounded up in a commentary by Sense About Science, a non-profit organisation that seeks to help people make informed choices about scientific issues and whose successes include debunking the myth surrounding the pseudoscientific programme called Brain Gym, which has convinced many schools worldwide (including the UK) that it can make children’s brains “work better” through a series of movements and massage exercises.
All this helps cut through the hype and fuzzy thinking. The EEF report will be valuable reading for teachers, who are rarely encouraged to investigate the basis of the methods they are required to use. But we need to be wary of setting up neuroscience as the arbiter of our understanding of the brain and cognition.
It is, after all, still a young science, and we have a sometimes rudimentary understanding of how those colourful…