There has been quite a lot of buzz around the idea of joining neuroscience and education. Many would claim that neuroscientific contributions have the potential to revolutionise how teachers teach and the impact they have on their learners’ outcomes. I myself have said that on many occasions. However, I currently believe that many of the things effective teachers do are already grounded in evidence (whether they know it or not) and other things might not be in their hands. There is, of course, room for adding a few classroom practices that might yield better results. Let’s take a look at how neuroscience made its way into education, how the science of Mind, Brain, and Education emerged, and what that means for ELT.
Neuroscience applied to education
It was only quite recently, however, that neuroscience became popular in educational debates and started to be referred to as a source of valuable knowledge that could have important implications for learning and, consequently, classroom practice (OECD, 2002; Ansari & Coch, 2006; Howard-Jones, 2010; Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2014). With the quick advancements in neuroimaging studies and the increased number of publications in the field of cognitive neuroscience in the 1990s, many “brain-based” educational forums, workshops, and programmes started to emerge (Ansari & Coch, 2006, Howard-Jones, 2010, Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2014).
On one hand, concerns of how dangerous it could be to try to connect neuroscience knowledge and education were being voiced, particularly after the publication of Education and the brain: a bridge too far (Bruer, 1997). Bruer illustrates the concerns by pointing out that neuroscience and education had so little in common that joining them would be an infeasible task. On the other hand, the pursuit of narrowing this bridge continued and an important landmark happened in 1999, when the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)’s Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI) inaugurated the Learning Sciences and Brain Research project with two main objectives: to understand “a) how the brain processes information, and b) learning processes over the individual’s lifecycle” (OECD, 2007).
In 2000, the United Kingdom launched the Teaching and Learning Research Project (TLRP), one of the biggest and most expensive initiatives with the objective of promoting educational research on how to improve students’ outcomes and what impacts teaching. The endeavour involved hundreds of researchers over the course of a decade who collaborated in 90 projects, including how neuroscience could be applied in education (Blakemore & Frith, 2005; James & Pollard, 2011). TLRP’s outcomes have been widely disseminated in educational settings. They include several publications based on evidence from the projects, including two book series on how to improve learning and teaching, as well as a summarised list of ten principles as shown in the table below (James & Pollard, 2011; TLRP, 2015).
Ten principles of effective teaching and learning proposed by the Teaching and Learning Research Project (TLRP)
|1. Effective pedagogy equips learners for life in its broadest sense.|
|2. Effective pedagogy engages with valued forms of knowledge|
|3. Effective pedagogy recognises the importance of prior experience and learning|
|4. Effective pedagogy requires learning to be scaffolded|
|5. Effective pedagogy needs assessment to be congruent with learning|
|6. Effective pedagogy promotes the active engagement of the learner|
|7. Effective pedagogy fosters both individual and social processes and outcomes|
|8. Effective pedagogy recognises the significance of informal learning|
|9. Effective pedagogy depends on the learning of all those who support the learning of others|
|10. Effective pedagogy demands consistent policy frameworks with support for learning as their primary focus|
The OECD Report and Neuromyths
It is important to mention that in 2002, a report entitled Understanding The Brain: Towards a New Learning Science was published by OECD. This report brought together the discussions that had taken place in three different international forums about child, adolescent, and adult learning, some essential knowledge on neuroanatomy and brain function, including neuromyths, as well as how it all related to education and educational contexts (OECD, 2002).
It’s important to stress here that a neuromyth is a false claim or a wrong and widely held belief about how the brain works. The term was coined in OECD’s Understanding the Brain report (OECD, 2002). Some examples discussed in the report are the idea of a left-brain versus right-brain dominance, the notion that humans only use 10% of their brains, the concept that learning two languages at a time is harmful for kids (OECD, 2002)
The main contributions of this report, besides the call for dispelling neuromyths, were: a) the idea of neuroplasticity, that is, the brain’s capacity to learn and change as a consequence of learning; b) the crucial role of emotions and the environment in learning; c) a better understanding of underlying language acquisition and processing mechanisms; and d) a better understanding of underlying numeracy processes.
The end of this relevant report brought pertinent ethical considerations, such as the caution to avoid using neuroscience as a determinant of good teachers based on their impact on students’ brain, and the concern with the utilisation of brain imaging technology for commercial purposes (identifying students with certain brain patterns and labelling them, for instance) as well as the use of products that affect the brain (drugs) and how brain and technology can or should be integrated.
The report’s main conclusions and recommended future agenda included the recognition of neuroscience and its potential to inform practice and policy; the evidence for the importance of lifelong learning; the need for neuroscience-informed curricula and a better understanding of adolescents’ brains, dyslexia, dyscalculia, and dementia; the need for a more holistic and personalised teaching approach (regarding emotional regulation and differentiation as importantly as memorisation); and the birth of a learning science based on transdisciplinarity. OECD’s project Learning Sciences and Brain Research moved to its second phase focusing on literacy, numeracy, and lifelong learning (OECD, 2007).
The beginning of Mind, Brain, and Education (MBE)
It is worth mentioning that the idea of joining the perspectives from neuroscience, psychology, and education (transdisciplinary approach), can have different labels, such as Educational Neuroscience, Neuroeducation, Educational Psychology, Cognitive Neuroscience, Cognitive Neuropsychology, Brain-based Education, Neuroconstructivism, and Science of Learning (SoL) (Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2014, Weinstein et al. 2018). A possible implication of this great variability is that these areas do not communicate well as they have slightly different focuses and standardisation of their findings may be difficult.
Other important developments in the pursuit of joining neuroscience and education were the creation of Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Mind, Brain, and Education masters course in 2002, the MBE course at the University of Arlington Texas in 2005, the inauguration of the Cambridge Centre for Neuroscience and Education in 2005, and the launch of the Journal Mind, Brain, and Education by the International Mind, Brain, and Education Society (IMBES) in 2007, whose main objectives are to facilitate cross-cultural and transdisciplinary collaboration between cognitive sciences and education in addition to creating useful and applicable resources for teachers by identifying sound scientific information and promoting effective educational practices (IMBES, 2018).
From 2002 onwards, MBE became increasingly more propagated. MBE books, articles and more programmes surfaced, as illustrated by two best-selling books Applying Mind, Brain, and Education Science in the Classroom (Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2010) and Mind, Brain, and Education Science: a Comprehensive Guide to the new Brain-based Teaching (Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2011). The role of MBE started being discussed in journals (Ansari & Coch 2006; Fischer 2009; Ferrari & McBride 2011). Moreover, universities such as Johns Hopkins, University of Bristol, Dartmouth, UPenn started offering master’s courses and/or units in this new subject (Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2014; Ferrari & McBride, 2011).
The purpose of this new science was to merge the contributions of the fields of neuroscience, psychology, and education in order to provide teachers, school managers, and policymakers with scientifically grounded evidence on education, how students learn, and which teaching practices may work best in the classroom. One of the objectives of MBE, thus, is the fight against the dissemination of neuromyths as they can potentially harm students’ learning outcomes by misinforming teachers on effective classroom practices (Fischer, 2009; Dekker et al., 2012; Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2014). Its transdisciplinary character gives MBE a more holistic approach and assumes that no parent field alone should be prioritised over the other two.
The big goals of MBE revolve around research, practice, and policy. Research aims at providing information on mind and brain mechanisms, as well as biological aspects of the body and human behaviour, including those that come from social context (as socioeconomic factors and culture) in order to provide sound information on how humans learn in a holistic way. Practice aims at connecting the information provided by research and apply the new knowledge in real learning situations, particularly the classroom. Its objective is to inform and be informed by teaching practices. Policy is concerned with how neuroscientifically substantiated beliefs can translate into frameworks, governmental programmes, and private initiatives to influence the macrolevel of education (Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2014).
What does that have to do with ELT?
MBE has relevant insights for anyone in education, including, obviously, ELT teachers. MBE authors attempt to translate research into classroom practices that might be useful and, consequently, positively impact learners’ outcomes. A good example is how MBE systematises a few principles to be taken into consideration when planning and delivering lessons (Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2010):
1) Each brain is unique and uniquely organized. Human brains are as unique as faces;
2) All brains are not equal because context and ability influence learning;
3) The brain is changed by experience;
4) The brain is highly plastic;
5) The brain connects new information to old
A sixth principle came from the research of Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist Eric Kandel and it tells us that there’s no learning without attention and memory. What do these mean in the classroom? We can promptly think of aspects such as differentiation and personalisation, prior knowledge, student-centredness and active learning, beliefs and attitudes about learning, emotion regulation and self-efficacy, and the list goes on. Nothing particularly revolutionary so far.
On the other hand, we might regard MBE as a fact-checking tool for many of the things we do in the classroom. A sort of Socratic Triple Filter that checks whether things are true (based on our current understanding and evidence available), good (if they have a positive impact on students’ achievement), and useful (whether teachers can apply them in the classroom). This filter looks at a particular classroom practice and asks: is there a theory in psychology that might explain why this is positive for learning? If there is, then the question becomes: is there neuroscientific evidence to support this? If the answer is yes, then we might want to keep doing it. If the answer from both psychology, neuroscience (and educational practice) is no, we might want to revisit the concept and try a different approach.
That means that, as ELT teachers, we should rethink the idea of labelling students according to their learning preferences since we have robust evidence that a multifaceted approach to teaching, in which we offer multiple representations of new knowledge, is beneficial to every learner.
MBE also gives us quite a lot of insights about how languages are learned (and acquired). We have been witnessing the rise of bilingual schools and the shift from EFL to ELF (English as a Lingua Franca). All these changes have important consequences for how language centers operate around the world.
Based on the body of work from MBE, I can honestly say that I do not consider it as revolutionary as I used to think. People tend to buy into the buzz or trend of “neuro” this or “neuro” that. “Brain-based” here, “brain-friendly” there. These terms may actually refer to magical, therefore unrealistic, solutions that use neuroscience jargon to promise you that “you will enhance your learning” or “unlock your potential” or “you’ll be able to learn anything with five easy-to-follow steps”. It makes it seem that learning a language does not require time, effort and commitment, for example. It also implies that all the research, accreditation, and experience of institutions dealing with language teaching and assessment for years can easily be disregarded because someone was able to crack the code and invent something incredible like “their own method”.
I do think, though, that MBE is a relevant and promising area. I claim that because from my own experience and research I can say that many teachers are still simply replicating what their teachers did to them without really reflecting on their practice and the latest developments of scientific research. I can also say that policymakers are still prioritising types of assessment that do not seem to capture the wholeness of learning and often label students as not good enough. As I mentioned before, I myself have called it revolutionary a couple of times (and it might still slip now and again), but I believe my stance should be that of MBE’s: grounded, down-to-earth. In times of science denialism, flat-earthers, and antivaxxers, and the proliferation of pseudoscientific ideas, we do not need anything revolutionary. We need evidence-based research and we need that to be available from reliable sources and accessible to the non-academic, non-scientific communities. MBE is this reliable source and it can make a difference.
As any good teacher, I’ll leave you with some research to do. We would certainly benefit from learning how to explore strategies such as brain breaks and interleaving, retrieval practice and spaced repetition, pretesting and prior knowledge activation, self-regulation and mindfulness, metacognition and mindsets. The list also goes on. I’ll let you figure out what else to study and a good place to start would be one of the resources below:
BRAZ-TESOL MBE SIG – sign up for our event in Portuguese about memory here.
INTERNATIONAL MIND, BRAIN, AND EDUCATION SOCIETY
SCIENCE OF LEARNING EBC
CONEXIONES PLATAFORMA DE CIENCIAS DEL APRENDIZAJE
MIND BRAIN ED THINK TANKS +
Ansari, D., & Coch, D. (2006). Bridges over troubled waters: Education and cognitive neuroscience. Trends in cognitive sciences, 10(4), 146-151.
Blakemore, S. J., & Frith, U. (2005). The learning brain: Lessons for education. Blackwell publishing.
Bruer, J. T. (1997). Education and the brain: A bridge too far. Educational researcher, 26(8), 4-16.
Dekker, S., Lee, N., Howard-Jones, P., & Jolles, J. (2012). Neuromyths in education: Prevalence and predictors of misconceptions among teachers. Frontiers in Psychology, 3, 429-429
Ferrari, M., & McBride, H. (2011). Mind, Brain, and Education: The birth of a new science. Learning landscapes, 5(1), 85-100.
Fischer, K. W. (2009). Mind, brain, and education: building a scientific groundwork for learning and teaching1. Mind, Brain, and Education, 3(1), 3-16.
Howard-Jones, P. A. (2010). Introducing neuroeducational research: Neuroscience, education and the brain from contexts to practice. Taylor & Francis.
Howard-Jones, P. A. (2014). Neuroscience and education: myths and messages. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 15(12), 817-824.
IMBES (2018). Home. Retrieved from https://imbes.org/
James, M., & Pollard, A. (2011). TLRP’s ten principles for effective pedagogy: rationale, development, evidence, argument and impact. Research Papers in Education, 26(3), 275-328.
OECD. (2002). Understanding the brain: Towards a new learning science. Paris: OECD Publishing
OECD. (2007). Understanding the brain: The birth of a learning science. Paris: OECD Publishing
OECD (2017). PISA 2015 Results (Volume III). Students’ Well-Being. Paris: OECD Publishing.
TLRP, 2015. Publications. Retrieved from https://web.archive.org/web/20150918022927/http://www.tlrp.org/index.html
Tokuhama-Espinosa, T. (2010). Mind, brain, and education science: A comprehensive guide to the new brain-based teaching. WW Norton & Company.
Tokuhama-Espinosa, T. (2014). Making classrooms better: 50 practical applications of mind, brain, and education science. First Edition. New York: W.W Norton & Company.