Neuroscience approaches with promise

A new review commissioned by the Education Endowment Foundation summarises existing evidence about education approaches and interventions that are based (or claim to be based) on neuroscience. The review looked at 18 different topics and considered the strength of evidence to support them and how close they are to a practical application in education.

Five topics were found to be the most developed in terms of educational application and have the most promising evidence about their impact on educational outcomes. These were:

  • Mathematics. Maths anxiety interferes with neurocognitive processes that are crucial to learning, but the effects can be mediated by an individual’s recruitment of cognitive control networks.
  • Reading. Mapping letter symbols to sound and comprehending meaning.
  • Exercise. Participating in physical activity to increase the efficiency of neural networks.
  • Spaced learning. Learning content multiple times with breaks in between.
  • Testing. Being tested on studied material aids memory.

The author notes that there is a growing interest in neuroscience-informed education, but that this enthusiasm means that the topic needs to be approached with care. He concludes that all of the parties involved – neuroscientists, cognitive psychologists, educational researchers, and teachers – should work together to ensure that the neuroscience is properly interpreted and applied through educational interventions that are meaningful, feasible, and rigorously tested.

Source: Neuroscience and Education: A Review of Educational Interventions and Approaches Informed by Neuroscience (2014), Education Endowment Foundation.

The importance of learning maths facts

Pupils with higher and lower maths scores use different parts of the brain when doing simple calculations, according to a new study in The Journal of Neuroscience. High achievers use an area of the brain associated with arithmetic fact retrieval, whereas pupils with lower scores use an area associated with quantity-processing mechanisms. The suggestion is that the ability to recall maths facts (rather than do the sum from scratch) helps the pupils to go on to more complex mathematics.

The researchers used an fMRI scanner to examine the brains of 33 pupils (aged 17-18) as they performed simple, single-digit arithmetic. There was a clear association between particular areas of the brain and the pupils’ scores in the PSAT maths test (taken at age 15-16). The results suggest a correlation between arithmetic fact retrieval and higher scores, but more research is needed to see whether there is also a causational link – for example, whether interventions where lower-scoring pupils learn maths facts lead to changes in brain activity and/or higher maths scores.

Source: Why Mental Arithmetic Counts: Brain Activation during Single Digit Arithmetic Predicts High School Math Scores (2013), The Journal of Neuroscience, 33(1).

Neuromyths in education

Possessing greater general knowledge about the brain does not appear to protect teachers from believing in “neuromyths” – misconceptions about neuroscience research in education.

A study in Frontiers in Psychology found that teachers who are interested in the application of neuroscience findings in the classroom find it difficult to distinguish pseudoscience from scientific facts. Researchers tested 242 teachers in the UK and the Netherlands with an interest in the neuroscience of learning, using an online survey with 32 statements about the brain and its influence on learning, of which 15 were neuromyths.

On average, the teachers believed 49 per cent of the neuromyths, particularly those related to commercialised education programmes like Brain Gym. One of the most commonly believed myths was that “Individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style (eg, auditory, visual, kinesthetic)”, which was said to be correct by over 80 per cent of teachers in the study.

Although loosely based on scientific fact, these neuromyths may have adverse effects on educational practice. The researchers conclude that there is a need for better interdisciplinary communication to reduce misunderstandings and create successful collaborations between neuroscience and education.

Source: Neuromyths in education: Prevalence and predictors of misconceptions among teachers (2012), Frontiers in Psychology