Neuroscience is a multidisciplinary field that aims to understand the workings of the nervous system, which of course, includes the brain. The sub-discipline of educational neuroscience is a rather recent development in the field that aims to understand the relationship between the biology of the brain and related structures with the learning process, framed inside an educational context.
What does Neuroscience mean for Instructional Design?
It seems obvious that understanding the brain, which is ultimately the object that governs how humans learn, is a central goal when designing learning for that brain. Unfortunately early learning theories, all the way from ancient Greece until the middle of the 20th century, didn’t have access to the inner workings of the brain. The best we could do during that time was to treat the brain as a sort of black box. We could see the inputs going in and the outputs going out. From that we made inferences about how we learn.
Some of those inferences have been remarkably useful, others not so much. Either way, today we have direct insight into the biological workings of the brain. It’s true that what we know in neuroscience is still dwarfed relative to what we don’t know, but in absolute terms the growth of neuroscience has been phenomenal. Barely a week goes by that we don’t read about another interesting development or discovery. To a much lesser extent, some of these discoveries have contributed to educational neuroscience. However, the majority of neuroscientific ideas that have been applied to the learning contexts have turned out to be what are commonly referred to as neuromyths.
Neuromyths are the perfect example of the problematic relationship between neuroscience and education. Neuromyths happen when those in the field of education make unwarranted leaps about the implications certain neuroscience discoveries have for teaching and learning. For some reasons these erroneous beliefs take on an aspect of lore and, despite a lack of evidence, hang on for a long time in the practice of education. What are some of the most common neuromyths? That some learning is specific to one brain hemisphere or the idea of a critical period, where you must acquire certain learning or forever lose the chance. Enriched environment? Also largely bunk, at least as applied in teaching. The most egregious example is probably that of “learning styles”, an idea that simply refuses to die a dignified death despite a total vacuum of evidence to support it.
The real problem here is that the core neuroscience research that spawned these myths are not wrong by any stretch. It’s just that educators have overextended and twisted them into something they are not. It’s the same type of error that occurs when a scientist finds a mild correlation between, for example, eating tomatoes and lifespan, and then newspapers state “tomatoes make you live longer”. Scientific claims are almost exclusively cautious and relatively unexciting. Unfortunately that does not sell newspapers or educational solutions. The fact is that throwing neuroscience terminology and vague references to neuroscience research into educational solutions is a way to make them seem more credible to people who are not neuroscientists. It’s the same reason that psychic quacks like to throw the word “quantum” into everything.
So What Does Neuroscience Say About Instructional Design?
The short answer is “nothing yet”. If you want to look to a field with highly applicable knowledge and a good evidence base to support it for use in instructional design, you are better off sticking with cognitive psychology at this point. Neuroscience is a fantastic basic science (as opposed to an applied one), but it isn’t yet clear exactly how most of the revelations that come from its research should change the way we design our learning.
A lot of confusion comes from the inappropriate re-labelling of cognitive and behavioural psychology research as being “neuroscience”. This is an easy mistake to make, since on the surface all these fields ultimately relate to the brain in one way or another. Cognitive research on memory retention and methods such as spaced repetition must necessarily relate back to a neurological process. In fact, many of the hypotheses that neuroscientists test come from observations made by cognitive scientists and in this way the two fields work well together. The difference is that these fields look at the brain at different levels of abstraction and only neuroscience concerns itself with the fine mechanics of the brain itself. So virtually all of the methods that are sold to us as being an example of “neuroscience” inevitably turn out to be products of cognitive psychology. There is of course nothing wrong with strong, evidence based results from cognitive research. To the contrary, instructional designers should be nailed to cognitive psychology journals, where they will find the most effective, applicable and relevant research results. As it stands today, neuroscience may be the sexier buzzword, but cognitive science gets the job done.
That’s not to say that this will always be so. Educational neuroscience is certainly a field to watch, as their methods and tools become better it stands to reason that the insights will also improve. We know that the brain holds the answers to many pressing questions about learning, often suggest by psychological research, but we don’t yet have the means to tease those answers from this amazing organ.
What Has Neuroscience Discovered?
To demonstrate how hard it is to translate neuroscience research into something an instructional designer should care about, let’s have a look at some of the most talked about discoveries of 2015.
One that immediately sounds promising is a paper by Bonelle, Manohar, Behrens and Husain. These researchers have discovered that there may be a biological explanation for observed behavioural apathy. That is, when someone just seems to lack ambition, does not want to engage physically, is unproductive and rarely takes the initiative. They have identified the problem as a lack of physical connectedness between two specific brain structures. It’s all very interesting and it deals with something that instructional care about deeply: motivation,
“Yes!” you may think, perhaps your students lack motivation because these brain components aren’t communicating properly. This is a great piece of research! We should put it to use straight away.
Well, not so fast. The paper deals with clinically significant behavioural apathy, not mildly bored and normatively lazy students. No one is spending money to put those types of subjects into expensive fMRI machines so that they can score a few points better in an assessment. At least not yet. Let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that this newly discovered biological fact does indeed account for a lack of motivation in some of your students. Fine and dandy, but what exactly can you do about it in terms of instructional design. The researchers are certainly not proposing a method to address the issue, their research just identifies it. It would be the next paper’s research that would look at this as a separate problem. That’s just the nature of the scientific process.
Here’s another one that got lot’s of attention. For many years we have accepted that the right-hemisphere of the brain is responsible for many human faculties we classify under “creativity”. The split brain experiments of the mid-1900s seemed to clearly show the left half of the brain as being the rational, logical side and the right half being the creative side. New research by Manish Saggar and his colleagues refutes this idea and pins the seat of creativity in the cerebellum. The lower part of the brain above the spinal cord that is associated with very basic physiological functions. Setting aside that this is early research and there has to be attempts at disconfirmation by other scientists, this is another finding that sounds perfect for instructional design. We care about creativity and this is a potentially earth shattering discovery which shows we’ve been looking at the wrong part of the brain this whole time.
Once again, even assuming that it is all true, how is this applied to instructional design? The link is not clear at all. Now, we must qualify this a little bit. Research such as this may inspire a designer to try something new, but any such approach would have to be tested for effectiveness. Even if it were proven effective, that still would not link it to the neuroscience research in question. So as you see, there is still a long way to go before education and neuroscience are married in any meaningful way.
A New Hope
Despite the current state of the field, we have a lot of hope for the field of educational neuroscience. As neuroscience opens more and more doors, we expect the pieces for practical application in education to slowly fall into place, but how quickly and how effectively this will happen is something no one knows.
For a more academic discussion of the problematic relationship between neuroscience and education be sure to visit the blog of Dr. Will Thalheimer, who has brought together many relevant sources to colour in the state of the art when it comes to educational neuroscience.
As an instructional designer it is up to you to ensure that you only employ proven, evidence-based methods. Don’t succumb to marketing tricks or sexy buzzwords. Just keep asking the key question: what’s the evidence that this works?
For more on instructional design, read this post on the changing landscape of instructional design, OR download the eBook below.