What (if anything) can teachers learn from neuroscience?

I’m sceptical of headlines that claim neuroscientists might have discovered the mechanisms that lead to bad behaviour, why teenagers are heavily influenced by their peers or why rewards don’t always work with adolescents. Such reports are usually accompanied by a stock photograph of a brain or diagram of a synapse and often dismissed outright by the more sceptical education poster-people on social media.

But is there anything to be learned from such studies; somewhere beneath the weight of neuro-hype and technical density can we find something that could educate or inform?

Just because I’m sceptical, it doesn’t mean that I’m not truly fascinated by neuroscience, after all, there are many similarities between neuroscience and cognitive science –  neuroscientists just spend a lot more of their time scanning brains.

In short, what these studies are attempting to discover is what the brain is actually doing when it engages in certain behaviours. For example, researchers might want to discover the brain mechanisms involved in aggression, or perhaps how similar these mechanisms are between species, or perhaps identify the parts of the brain that are involved in different kinds of memory.

Prior to the development of sophisticated brain scanning techniques, researchers would have to rely on studies of individuals with brain lesions, often caused by trauma or disease.

One early study that used brain scans was conducted by Endel Tulving in 1989. The study was carried out for two reasons: First of all Tulving wanted to investigate the differences in the processing of episodic memory (the memory of events) and semantic memory (the memory of facts and meanings). He also wanted to know if brain scans could tell anything about how the brain stored information. To carry out the study, participants were first injected with a small amount of radioactive gold and then asked to retrieve either an episodic memory or a semantic memory. Brain scans indicated that episodic memories resulted in greater activation in frontal lobes, while semantic memories resulted in greater activation in the posterior region of the cortex.

These days, researchers have access to the likes fMRI scanners that can observe the living brain while it’s engaged in actual tasks, adding an extra dimension to what can be observed.

The problem arises, however, when we attempt to explain what has been observed and there is always a certain amount of leaping involved. We also need to ask ourselves if these conclusions are useful and, for me, the answer is, not yet.

One would think, therefore, that these types of study serve little real-world purpose and that the scepticism often directed towards them is warranted.

However, if we take the time to delve beneath the headlines, we often discover that many of these studies are grounded in tried and tested cognitive-behavioural traditions.

Take, for example, this recent headline from The Conversation:

The participants in this study were asked to carry out a behavioural task while having their brains scanned. Conclusions were then drawn from both the results of the task and the brain images: the first component identified the behaviour, the second attempted to explain why the behaviour occurred in terms of brain function.

Another study conducted by Lawrence Steinberg and colleagues used a driving simulator to investigate the influence of peers on risk-taking behaviour. The findings revealed that when adults and teenagers used the simulator alone, they displayed about the same amount of risk-taking behaviour, but when peers were added to the mix, teenagers displayed significantly more risk-taking behaviours. An additional element of the study utilised brain scans to identify the regions involved in such behaviour, but the behavioural element of the study is still strong enough to stand by its own conclusions.

Often, the brain elements of these studies are of little interest to teachers and simply provide big headlines guaranteed to attract readers. We might be tempted to ignore them altogether because we are sceptical of headlines that attempt to convince us that the area of the brain responsible for this or that behaviour has been identified. Take a little time to delve deeper, however, and the underlying principles might (and I stress might) prove enlightening.

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