#ED00H0 In defence of neuroscience

Let me start by making clear that I am not a neuroscientist. Nor a psychologist.  I am a mathematics teacher whose formal studies of psychology, excluding a short paper on motivation during my PGCE year, don’t extend beyond A-level.  

Nevertheless as a teacher, I maintain a keen interest in the findings from psychology that may be of use to me in the classroom.

In this capacity I’ve begun to notice a worrying trend in prominent educationalists discounting vast swathes of psychological research.  Today I’ve been reflecting on, and here respond to, an exchange this morning on the potential future usefulness of neuroscience.

Twitter Exchange

Greg Ashman: Neuroscience offers us very little that is relevant to the classroom. Cognitive science / Educational psychology is far more fruitful.

Me: ‘Offers us’ -> ‘Has so far offered us’, ‘Is’ -> ‘Has so far been’. That’s not a grammar correction, by the way, simply recognition that this is a rapidly developing area that needs to keep being monitored and has the potential not only to support learning theories, but also to radically transform them. Because it is the mist rigorous.

Greg: I disagree. In *principle*, neuroscience cannot offer us much. See Bowers. https://research-information.bristol.ac.uk/files/58560169/bowers.educational_neuroscience.in_press.pdf

Given the amount of psychological research that has been accepted by educationalists and included in textbooks during the last 50 years, only to subsequently be rejected as flawed or misreported, the idea of psychology eventually having a scientific basis has always been for me the alluring light at the end of the tunnel.  

Grounding subjective observations of behaviour in objective measurements of physical changes in the brain, along with consistent use of rigorous statistical methodologies to ensure accurate and fairly analysed data, seem to be two key ways that this can be achieved.

The JS Bowers paper referred to above: The Practical and Principled Problems with Educational Neuroscience (2016) makes two claims, firstly that neuroscience has ‘not yet contributed to any new and useful teaching practices’ and secondly that it ‘is unlikely to improve classroom instruction in the future’.  It is the second claim that I contest, emphasised as it is in the paper’s abstract with the provocative wording that ‘neuroscientists cannot help educators, but educators can help neuroscientists’.

The paper supports this claim by proposing that behaviour is the only relevant factor when assessing learning and instruction, or as the paper states, “the only way to assess change in performance is to measure behaviour” and “behaviour is the only relevant metric when assessing the value of an instructional intervention”.
But is it? Keep in mind that the paper is not arguing here about the present, but about the future. And can non-neuroscientific methods ever definitively and rigorously measure behaviour ?  

I have my doubts.  

For one thing, a focus on only measuring behaviour overlooks an important distinction between learning and performance.  

The notion that learning is something that happens over time, not necessarily in correlation with performance over time, is something I understand to be uncontroversial, but to support it let me refer briefly to Dr Robert Bjork’s comments on the same: “The measured performance during a learning process can be highly misleading.  Conditions that improve rapid gains in performance can lead to very poor long term learning.” (Critical Distinction Between Learning and Performance (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K0ZxGGN4R90)

So if we accept long term learning as the primary goal of education, it’s hard to see how we can accept subjective measurement of behaviour in the short term as the only useful measure that can be aspired towards.

Behaviour is influenced by all kinds of factors that cannot be definitively externally measured, such as our emotional states, how well we slept the previous night, how well digested our food is, etc.

Neuroscience offers us the potential to accurately measure these things with more rigour than the questioning and subjective observation that cognitive psychologists studying behaviour use. 

A detailed knowledge of the structure of the brain and an understanding of the implication of activity in different parts of it offer us the potential to gain a much more comprehensive view of what somebody is attending to at any given time than a test or a self report of how easy or difficult a question seemed.

The reason that as an amateur I feel comfortable challenging the views expressed in the paper is that the fundamental issue here is not a psychological or esoteric one, but a simple philosophical one around the value of information.

This is more clearly seen in the early parts of the paper in which Bowers challenges many current findings of neuroscience on the grounds that he considers them trivial and already well known.  He levels this argument against all research into neuroplasticity and the impact of sleep, diet and exercise.

But there’s a problem with this appeal to common sense.  As Kant emphasised in section 5 of his Prolegomena, “An appeal to the consent of the common sense of mankind cannot be allowed; for that is a witness whose authority depends merely upon rumour”.  

Indeed my own mother often told me that having a good sleep the night before an exam was a good idea, but as a teacher I feel a responsibility to try and base such beliefs on more rigorous grounds.  Nobody doubted that calculus ‘worked’, but this was not a reason against developing an analytical understanding of it.  As a mathematician I have always been trained to value rigour as a way to avoid overgeneralising and encountering unexpected errors.

In summary, as detailed above, I am not an expert on neuroscience, my knowledge of it mostly coming from listening to the likes of Colin Blakemore and Vilayanur Ramachandran on radio 4.  But nevertheless, nothing that I’ve heard or read so far discourages me from keeping abreast of new findings in this field and maintaining my, I consider rationally grounded, belief that it has the potential to offer rigorous support to our theories about learning in the future.  

Anything that serves to link the social sciences to the natural sciences, just like anything that serves to link the natural sciences to the most rigorous of all disciplines, mathematics, to my mind can only be of service to humanity.

Of course, only time will tell if neuroscience will achieve this…

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