Educational science and neuroscience - can they benefit one another? Researchers in both fields are enthusiastic to build bridges, but the expectations must be realistic. An educational neuroscience meeting was hosted in Leiden to get the dialogue going.
What is educational neuroscience?
Educational neuroscience is an emerging field of research that brings together neurocognitive and educational sciences. This new field studies the brain mechanisms of learning, and the potential for training reading, math, and attention in relation to education. These lines of research focus not only on typical development but may also examine situations where development goes wrong, as in the case of problems with reading (dyslexia), math (dyscalculia), or attentional deficits such as ADHD. The ultimate aim of researchers in this field is to promote better learning through insights from brain sciences.
Small but inspiring meeting
It was an exciting week for science in Leiden, 14-20 September 2015. Not only did we host a meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD) on social neuroscience, but also the Flux meeting on developmental cognitive neuroscience, with Eveline Crone of the Brain and Development lab as local congress chair. In between these giants, there was a small but inspiring meeting on educational neuroscience, open to scientists, practitioners, and the general public.
What was discussed at the conference?
A number of renowned neuroscientists took the floor, each presenting his or her unique work and views on educational neuroscience. Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore of University College London started off by stressing the importance of debunking 'neurobollocks': nonsense claims backed up with fake neuroscience. People should be wary about believing any impossibly simple story about the brain that claims to be able to improve their lives in the blink of an eye. This applies to consumers, but also to educational institutes. That said, Blakemore convincingly illustrated that neuroscience has fundamentally changed what we know about development. For centuries scientists thought the brain was “complete” by the end of childhood. It is thanks to neuroscience that we now know that brain development takes a long time and continues well into our twenties. Also neuroscience fostered the insight that besides governing our behavior, our brains are just as much shaped by the experiences we encounter. Knowing about this plasticity of the brain is important in helping us to understand sensitive periods in development.
The second speaker was Professor Bruce McCandliss of Stanford University. He continued the discussion on the plasticity of the brain, thinking about how we could shape educational experiences to stimulate the developing brain and behavior. McCandliss highlighted that brain measures may have potential to predictive value for future (academic) outcomes. For instance research showed that brain signals of children before they could read proved to be a good predictor of their reading level in third grade. But McCandliss urged us not to interpret this as a negative message about “predetermination”. Rather he stressed the potential of this finding for reading interventions. That is, given that we know this brain activation is predictive, a second step is to stimulate brain activation during learning experiences. McCandliss is therefore carrying out attentional training studies with the ultimate goal to foster reading skills in young children.
The final speaker was Professor Lydia Krabbendam of the VU University, who talked about different learning mindsets. A fixed mindset is one that views behavior as static, leading you to avoid challenges or put no effort into trying. A growth mindset, on the other hand, embraces development and change; it includes persistence, and the idea that practice makes perfect. Krabbendam is studying interventions to promote a growth mindset in students. She stressed the role of teachers in building children’s mindsets by giving verbal feedback that encourages children and praises them for the effort they have put in. Surprisingly, Krabbendam’s research shows that only a small percentage of teachers in regular education (2%) actually seem to give such growth feedback. This led her to conclude that there was plenty of room for growth in this field.
What can we learn from educational neuroscience?
What we will not find in educational neuroscience, and should not expect, is bold statements about abandoning or changing entire educational systems. Science is as science does: a careful set of incremental steps to first understand what is going on and then test subsequent interventions. Yet this meeting made clear that there are many grounds for more intense dialogue between neuroscience and education. Knowledge about how the brain changes in puberty, and about how it is altered by experience and by training, can be of value to educational science in direct and indirect ways. One concrete example of this is a randomized controlled study due to start in the UK in 2016, which goes by the name of Teensleep. Based on neuroscientific insights into changing sleep-wake rhythms in puberty, this study will test the effects of early versus later school starting times on adolescents’ school performance. All in all, any new field has to prove its merits, but I will follow the continuing dialogue between these fields with great interest.