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What can Educators Learn from Neuroscience and Learning Science?

“Brain scans cannot give rise directly to lesson plans.” The possibilities of bridging neuroscience and educational practice are both enormous and limited. Every Monday Pearson asks two experts–one from higher education and one from K12–to apply principles from learning science to today’s classrooms. This is part one of a series of eight questions.

Michael Britt, PhD: I don’t know that there is a lot of useful, day-to-day usable tips or ideas educators are going to get right now from neuroscience. What we’re finding is interesting and may have applications, but it’s probably too soon. Part of what we’re facing is the “chicken and egg” problem. For example, if we find that students who do well on math problems also show more activity in a certain part of the brain (or a part of their brains is larger than most people), what does this mean? Did the subjects do well because they were born with a particularly large or active part of the brain? Or did they do well because their parents got them involved in math at a young age this part of the brain became more developed and active as a result of that activity? We’re observing a lot of interesting things from brain scans, but determining causality is a different–and more difficult–matter.

I think educators have to wait before they jump on any bandwagon and ask themselves and others whether enough studies been done.

A while back marketing professors Peter and Olson from the Stern School from the Stern School of Business responded to an often asked question (“Is Marketing Really A Science?”) by asking an flipping that question around and challenging us to think about this: “Is Science Marketing?”. What they point out in this article is that scientific theories that become popular often don’t do so because they are “proven correct” – they become popular due to simpler things: a) the theory is easy to understand, b) the theory seems to fit everyday observation, c) the theory is heavily “promoted” by people or organizations, d) the theory has a charismatic person behind it, or e) the implications of the theory are easy to implement (even if the theory itself is incorrect). These are many of the reasons why any product on the grocery shelf is successful.

Unfortunately this is where we’re at today: we’re hearing about a lot of theories that sound appealing (“learning styles”) or that are heavily promoted and easy to use (brain games), but which have little empirical support.

We must all put our critical thinking “hats” on these days. There ARE great ideas coming out of learning science (ex: the testing effect) that are now well supported and worth our time learning about and implementing in our classrooms. Let’s all ask whether any new idea is solidly supported from many studies conducted by independent researchers (which brain games and learning styles are NOT) before we spend time figuring out whether or how to incorporate them into our teaching.

Click here to see how research scientist, Liane Wardlow, responded to the question.

This post is part of a series, The Science of Learning – from an Educator and Researcher Perspective that was originally posted on Pearson’s Research & Innovation Network. Click here to learn more.