What can brain science bring to education?

African students in a school in Kenya.
What can brain science bring to education?
12 August 2014

Neuroscience is a rapidly developing field. Can a better understanding of what is happening in a child’s brain inform educational practices? Ongoing work by the Educational Endowment Foundation (EEF) and Wellcome Trust examines the potential use of neuroscience in the classroom, highlighting areas such as reading and mathematics where developments in neuroscience could help inform education.

The idea of using brain science in a school setting is exciting for neuroscientists and educators alike. Neuroscientists are keen to show how their research can be applied in the classroom. Educators are interested in whether, and what, they can learn from modern research on the brain.

With enthusiasm on both sides, care needs to be taken to make sure that ideas from neuroscience are not applied in the classroom before they are ready.

This is part of the motivation for work by the UK-based EEF and the Wellcome Trust. They want to understand how neuroscience is already informing education – and how it might contribute in the future. As part of a broader program on the topic, a recent review explores which neuroscience-informed interventions look ready to have a positive impact on learning, which are worth testing, and which seem not to have a positive effect.

The review found that some programs based on neuroscience have “promising evidence about their impact on educational outcomes.” However, other areas require a lot more work before they are close to being ready to apply in a classroom setting. Still others are not well linked to brain science or do not appear effective.

Among the educational programs found to draw the strongest evidence from neuroscience were ones to tackle mathematics anxiety and to improve reading skills.

Mathematics: Controlling anxiety, improving performance
Neuroscience has been useful in designing a program to control mathematics anxiety. If a young person is anxious about doing math, they will be less likely to engage with the subject and it may impact on their performance. Young people with math anxiety reveal different patterns of brain activity when doing math compared to typical “non-anxious” individuals.

In a recent study, children with math anxiety revealed greater activity in the amygdala (an area of the brain often associated with emotional processing) while doing math. They also showed decreased activity in areas of the brain associated with working memory and the processing of numbers.

These findings suggest that anxiety interferes with brain processes important for doing mathematics. However, the results should be treated with caution.

They should not be seen as evidence that math anxiety is a biologically determined condition that cannot be changed. The negative effects of anxiety on performance may vary depending on the situation.

For instance, focusing on controlling emotions towards math may help students to overcome the impact of anxiety. A recent intervention that asked students to write about their emotions towards mathematics before taking a math exam was successful in improving performance.

Reading: Do reading interventions affect the brain?
Neuroscience has also been applied to a number of different reading programs and software packages. One such intervention is Graphogame, a software system developed at a Finnish university.

According to their website, Graphogame is a “child-friendly computer game that helps children to read in their local language.” When a child uses Graphogame, the system rewrites itself to target the specific language difficulties experienced by the individual child. The program has been shown to improve reading-related skills as soon as three hours after a child begins using it.

Researchers have used neuroimaging to investigate how Graphogame affects a child’s brain. These studies show that Graphogame activates areas of the brain that later become essential for mature reading.

A note of caution
Overall, this review demonstrates a promising link between neuroscience and education.

Neuroscience can be used to support current educational practices. For example, in the case of Graphogame, evidence from neuroscience indicates that the program is successful in impacting areas of the brain that are important for reading.

Nevertheless, the review also highlights some potential dangers of using neuroscience in education. For instance, the work on math anxiety reveals how care must be taken to make sure that differences between children in brain activity are not seen as fixed and unchangeable.

Also, as neuroscience becomes the next fashionable trend in education, it is worth watching out for interventions that jump on the “neuro bandwagon,” even if they have little or no solid link to neuroscience.

As the work by EEF and the Wellcome Trust continues it will be exciting to further explore the evidence for using neuroscience in the classroom.

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Reference:
Howard-Jones, P. (2014). Neuroscience and Education: A review of educational interventions and approaches informed by neuroscience. Bristol, UK: Education Endowment Foundation.

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