Busting ‘neuromyths’: Scientists step in to improve learning

C0085314 Education and Learning Team

Hilary Leevers, Head of Education and Learning at the Wellcome Trust

Many areas of neuroscience have the potential to have great impact on the classrooms of the future, but progress is often hindered by a shortage of scientific studies into teaching methods and poor communication of results among educators.


The Wellcome Trust aims to fill these gaps by driving research initiatives to improve the relationship between scientists and educators, and test how digital technologies can improve educational outcomes.



In an interview with OEB News Editor Annika Burgess, the Head of Education and Learning at the Wellcome Trust Hilary Leevers, whose colleague Lia Commissar will be giving a keynote presentation at the upcoming OEB 2015, talks about how to reconnect education with neuroscience, the prevalence of neuromyths in the classroom, and what we know about teaching and learning in the digital age.


What factors will contribute to better communication between scientists and educators and the implementation of research findings in teaching?


There is a lot of momentum in the UK at the moment to better connect educators with research evidence and to ensure that researchers are testing their theories using robust methods. The ambition is for educators to draw upon the available research to improve their practice and ultimately to improve student outcomes.


Unfortunately, the current evidence base is not always particularly practice-oriented, teachers struggle to physically access journal articles behind pay walls and they are not always well equipped to understand the research.


These problems are exacerbated when researchers and educators use different terminology, or to complicate it even further, sometimes use the same terms differently. They also have different personal drivers – while educators can prioritise improving educational outcomes, scientists also need to consider how they are most likely to achieve sustainable research funding for themselves and their research teams. Funding needs to incentivise collaborative efforts.


This may all sound a bit bleak, but, over the last few years in the UK and elsewhere, there have been many new initiatives aimed at improving communication between scientists and educators. For instance, at the policy level, the government launched the Education Endowment Foundation in 2011. With an initial investment of £125 million, it is charged with improving the evidence base of what works in education and how this evidence is implemented to change practice. Its research funding includes grants to test how digital technologies could improve educational outcomes. The Wellcome Trust also partnered with the Education Endowment Foundation in a £6 million initiative on Education and Neuroscience to develop and evaluate the impact of education interventions informed by neuroscience research.


Scientists have also been forming collaborative networks to better connect with teachers, such as through the work of the Coalition for Evidence Based Education which went on to launch the Education Media Centre in 2013 (with support from the Wellcome Trust), and aims to make media coverage of educational issues more evidence-informed.


Perhaps most notably, in 2013, ResearchEd, a teacher led movement, began to connect teachers with researchers. It now hosts regular Saturday conferences for teachers and researchers, and is moving internationally, touring to the USA and Australia.


While all this is undoubtedly progress, it is telling that different sectors have developed their own responses to the challenges and it will be important for these to harmonise to lead to tangible improvements to student outcomes.


You have spoken about replacing the myths; what are some of the most common myths that are hampering effective teaching and/or learning with technologies?


An international report published last year looked at the prevalence of different neuromyths; the most common misconception, held by more than nine out of ten of teachers (in the UK, Netherlands, Turkey, Greece and China), was that ‘individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style (for example, visual, auditory or kinaesthetic)’.


Teachers naturally want to harness new approaches to improve their practice, but may have limited research knowledge and be susceptible to engaging ideas, such as learning styles, or attractive but unproven techniques, Brain Gym® perhaps being the most infamous. As part of our scoping of the Education and Neuroscience Initiative, the Wellcome Trust published a teacher survey asking teachers about neuroscience and education. More than nine out of ten respondents said that their understanding of neuroscience influences their practice, although most report knowing just a little about it. Teachers also said that they learned about interventions from schools and other teachers, rather than from scientific or academic sources, although they did express a desire for new interventions to be supported by evidence. These findings emphasise the need to ensure that high quality evidence is readily accessible to educators and they have the opportunity to connect with researchers directly


Can you give an example of how neuroscience research – knowledge and understanding about the brain in our learning and teaching – is being applied?


One of the greatest impacts of neuroscience may be the recognition that neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to reorganise itself) lasts much longer than we had originally thought. This means that the brain retains the ability to change and learn throughout life, although it may be more effective at doing so at certain times. For instance, it had been thought that neuronal representations of speech sounds were fixed by exposure to language in infancy. This would make it difficult to later improve the speech processing skills of children with related language difficulties. Neuroscience studies led to interventions which harnessed new technologies in the ‘90s – computer games – which required children to discriminate between increasingly challenging speech sounds, adapted to individual performance and monitored remotely online. The evidence that student outcomes are not pre-determined by a certain stage in development is empowering for educators and an important message for students.


There are many areas of neuroscience which have the potential to have great impact on the classrooms of the future, but very few have been systematically tested. The research we are funding as part of the Education and Neuroscience Initiative seeks to fills this gap, and covers diverse topics, such as delaying the school start time to suit adolescents sleep/wake cycle or testing the impact of uncertain rewards on student learning. The projects all provided pilot research demonstrating promise, but without robust large scale, we cannot yet say whether the research should be applied more widely to educational practice.


What kind of new research questions are being raised for teaching and learning in the digital age?


We recently funded an online engagement project that enabled teachers to participate in discussions and ask questions directly of neuroscientists and psychologists about learning and the brain. Some of these questions concerned the use of new technologies. One asked about a current controversy concerning the possible negative consequences of the high levels of use of new technologies by children.


The majority of the research questions that are being explored in the six grants of the Education and Neuroscience Initiative use new technologies to deliver the interventions or monitor their impacts. For instance, two of the grants use technology to deliver adaptive training for students, and another uses cutting-edge technology to collect data on students’ sleep and activity levels.


How can neuroscience keep up with the pace of technological change?


Neuroscience and technology are developing alongside each other – new technologies enable and sometimes drive new forms of experimentation, similarly, new understanding of how the brain works suggests new technological avenues to explore. With a high rate of progress, it is important that robust research tracks the impact of new educational interventions, looking for a wide-range of impacts to capture those that might be unforeseen or even undesirable.


It is also important to take the time for more thorough consideration of ethical issues about the use of new technologies. For instance, some neuroscience research exploring how the application of very small electric currents to the scalp may benefit learning has been rapidly developed into commercial offers without time for deeper understanding of its wider or long-term impacts, related ethical considerations, and what regulation might be needed.


After sounding a note of caution, I should finish by conveying my excitement at the improving symbiotic relationship between education research and practice and the potential that the union between contemporary neuroscience and cutting-edge technologies has to transform educational outcomes.


Thank you Hilary for the interview.


Hear more about the pionerring work of the Wellcome Trust at OEB 2015. Lia Commissar, Project Manager at the Wellcome Trust, will be speaking in the plenary ‘Tomorrow’s New World: Extending the Reach of Learning’ taking place on December 4, 2015.

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