Is educational neuroscience the next big thing in education?

A growing number of schools are implementing educational neuroscience in an attempt to improve learning and teaching. But can this new scientific discipline truly revolutionise education?

  • What is educational neuroscience?
  • Educational neuroscience in practice
  • Barriers to wider adoption
  • The future of neuroscience in education

The human brain is a fascinating thing. It is involved in almost everything we do and governs our thoughts, feelings, and memories. In other words, it basically makes us who we are. Although we have managed to uncover many of its secrets over the years, there is still a lot we don’t fully understand about this remarkable organ. This is particularly true when it comes to matters related to learning, behaviour, and human cognition, many aspects of which remain a mystery to this very day. That is slowly starting to change, though. Thanks to advancing research in neuroscience, behavioural science, and cognitive science, we now have a much better understanding of the brain’s structure and function, as well as how it influences the way we learn, think, and feel. Considering this inextricable relationship between learning and the human brain, it’s only understandable that educators have grown increasingly interested in the field of neuroscience over the last couple of decades and have begun to explore how its findings could be applied in the classroom. This eventually gave birth to a new discipline called educational neuroscience.

What is educational neuroscience?

Educational neuroscience is an interdisciplinary field that combines neuroscience, education, and psychology. Sometimes also referred to as neuroeducation, cognitive neuropsychology, or brain-based learning, it aims to improve teaching and learning by taking findings obtained by neuroscience and merging them with educational theory and practice. The reasoning behind this innovative approach is that a better understanding of how their students’ brains work can help teachers identify the differences between various teaching and learning styles and encourage them to adjust and optimise their teaching strategies in accordance with the actual needs of their students. This, in turn, will make the learning process more fun and enjoyable for students, promote student participation, increase their motivation levels, and ultimately result in better learning outcomes. Educational neuroscience can also provide teachers with valuable insights about students with special learning needs or those with learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, ADHD, or ASD, and help them design courses that are more in line with their needs.

Educational neuroscience in practice

A growing number of educational institutions around the world are turning to educational neuroscience in an attempt to improve their teaching practices. Located in the US state of Maryland, Frederick County is the largest US public school district to implement this innovative approach. According to Meg Lee, the county’s director of organisational development, educational neuroscience enables teachers to “help students learn to study better, and we can actually even organise the curriculum better, so that the brain has an opportunity to forget and then remember, forget and then remember — that reinforces learning a lot better”. To implement educational neuroscience, the district first called in experienced educators to come and explain the concept to their teachers, train them, and help them write school curricula. Furthermore, teachers who are just starting out in one of the schools in the district are now required to complete a micro-course on educational neuroscience. “Now we’re seeing classroom teachers who are helping to teach students how to learn most effectively, how to persevere over challenges and how to make sure that their brains are wired for learning every day”, adds Lee. The results have been rather encouraging. According to a recent case study published by the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning, the SAT score of students at Frederick County was higher than the state average in 2019. What’s more, the class of 2021 had a 6.5 per cent higher graduation rate than the state average, while their dropout rate was among the lowest in the state.

The pandemic has placed both students and teachers under enormous pressure, which caused many of them to experience chronic stress and a range of other mental health disorders. To help schools address this issue and ensure a safer school environment for both students and teachers, Dr Lori Desautels at Butler University developed the Applied Educational Neuroscience (AEN) framework, which was designed to provide educators with theoretical and practical knowledge of educational neuroscience and teach them about how adversity and trauma impact our brain and the nervous system. The framework consists of four pillars. The first pillar, Educator Brain and Body State, focuses on providing educators with the support they need to recognise and regulate their emotions. The second pillar, Co-Regulation, prioritises warm and responsive interactions that will create a safe environment for students where they won’t feel threatened. The third pillar, Touchpoints, involves targeted and intentional interactions between educators and students. An educator may, for instance, notice their student’s strengths, passions, or interests and validate them, which can help the student build resilience and ensure better engagement with others. The fourth and final pillar, Teaching Students and Staff About Their Brain and Body States, focuses on teaching students and staff about their neuroanatomy and autonomic nervous system, as well as the relationship between their brains and bodies. The Tippecanoe School Corporation, a public school district located in the US state of Indiana, implemented the AEN framework for the first time back in 2017. Since then, the framework has been rolled out across nineteen schools that belong to the district, allowing them to better understand and assess the social and emotional needs of both students and staff and create “brain-aligned and adversity-responsive classrooms”.

Barriers to wider adoption

However, not everyone is convinced that educational neuroscience is going to revolutionise education as some have predicted. Part of the problem is that transferring lab data into the classroom has proven rather challenging, even if neuroscientists do raise some interesting points. Furthermore, since our educational systems are usually highly centralised, most schools don’t have much room to experiment. Some teachers are also questioning whether cognitive science can truly be of any practical use in the classroom. “I do not see much usefulness or direct consequences of neurological research on teaching practices”, says Nicole Vidal, professor at the Freiburg Advanced Center of Education in Germany. “After the initial hype, it turned out that deriving educational applications from brain functionality is not as easy as was first thought”. Her thoughts are echoed by Stefan Hopmann, professor of education at the University of Vienna, who doesn’t believe that neuroscience can be particularly useful for educators. “A lot of common-sense pedagogical knowledge is inflated to more than what it actually is”, he remarks. Due to the sensitive nature of neuroscience data, some have also raised privacy concerns regarding the collection, processing, and sharing of this type of data. The lack of regulatory safeguards is completing the matter even further, all of which could reflect negatively on the future of this emerging field. Another major obstacle is the exorbitant cost of MRI scans and other neuroscience tools, which is making large-scale application all but impossible. “We can’t scan every kid’s brain, and it would be a really bad idea to do that even if it was possible”, says Adam Green, associate professor at Georgetown College of Arts and Sciences.

The future of neuroscience in education

So what exactly does that mean for the future of neuroscience in education? Thanks to advances in technologies like functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), we now have a much better understanding of how the human brain functions and the mechanisms involved in learning. These findings could one day enable us to tailor education precisely to each student’s individual needs. They will also make it easier for teachers to identify students who are struggling and require additional help. By analysing their brain structure and activity data, we will be able to identify each student’s strengths and weaknesses and devise a personalised learning style. One day, we may even complete the mapping of the human synapses, which will help us unveil the mystery of how learning takes place. We will then be able to use this knowledge to develop biological strategies for enhancing learning. Although there are still some issues and concerns that need to be addressed, potential implications of neuroscientific discovery should ensure that this discipline has an important role to play in the future of education.