Neuroprogressive education

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I have noticed a trend towards invoking neuroscience to argue for student-centred or progressive forms of education. I won’t point to particular articles here but you’ll find them easily enough if you are interested. They follow a certain pattern: 

1. The author argues that neuroscience heralds an imminent revolution in the way we view education.

2. The author highlights unremarkable findings such as the fact that it’s possible for the brain to learn new things or that learning can be affected by emotional states; findings that are either trivial or well known through cognitive science research.

3. The author concludes that these findings imply the need for naturalistic learning through contexts, student choice over what and when to learn, catering to individual student differences and an end to traditional forms of education based upon a 19th century factory model.

Take ‘neuroplasticity’, for instance. This simply means the ability of the brain to effectively rewire itself over time and is a physical mechanism for the way that learning might take place. Its relationship to learning is therefore similar to the relationship of DNA to genetics. We already knew about genetics when the precise means of the transmission of genes – DNA – was discovered, just like we already knew that people can learn new things – that taxi drivers can build up complex mental models of a cityscape – before we knew whether this results in physical changes to the brain.

It seems like the former point is relevant to education i.e. that we can learn lots of new things and that the precise mechanism of this is relatively unimportant. Yet ‘neuroplasticity’ has been touted as a reason why we should encourage a growth mindset or not assume some children are maths people and some are not. All of these conclusions seem reasonable from cognitive science and without reference to brain structure. 

I wonder why people might jump on neuroscience in this way. There has been research to show that inserting redundant neuroscience terminology into an argument makes it more believable. 

Perhaps student-centred learning advocates are also looking for a new stronghold from which to promote their ideas given the general lack of more mainstream empirical support.

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6 Comments on “Neuroprogressive education”

  1. Peter Pun says:

    Interesting article Greg! I’m going to look up some of these articles when I get a chance.
    I do disagree with one point in general: ‘we can learn lots of new things and that the precise mechanism of this is relatively unimportant’. Understanding more about how a ‘normal’ brain functions is important for understanding the nature of cognitive developmental disorders. Cognitive neuroscience can give an interesting insight into this. However, I’ll have to look at the articles you talk about to understand this point better I think 🙂 Cheers

  2. Pedro says:

    Reblogged this on From experience to meaning… and commented:
    This is a great paragraph:

    “Its relationship to learning is therefore similar to the relationship of DNA to genetics. We already knew about genetics when the precise means of the transmission of genes – DNA – was discovered, just like we already knew that people can learn new things – that taxi drivers can build up complex mental models of a cityscape – before we knew whether this results in physical changes to the brain.”

  3. Iain Murphy says:

    Hi Greg

    Totally agree that the use of neuroscience is becoming an excuse for bad explanations of learning. It’s worth noting that most neuroscience studies are reactive rather than proactive. So a neuroscientist can show you an image and show images of what part of the brain will light up but has no idea how to create that affect. There are a couple of people trying to bridge this gap, Jared Cooney Horvath is probably the best read on this with His PEN principles. These don’t suggest a style of teaching but help refine, so PEN #1 – written text and spoken word don’t mix. The neuroscience has shown that reading something requires the same part of the brain as listening so doing both at once is counter-productive for students. Well worth a look at.

    Also be careful using genetics and inheritance from Mendel. He would definitely have not passed your tests for good research papers, in fact the scientific community is now starting to question his research as his results are simply too perfect for anything but a mathematical model. How we inherit and the argument of nature vs nurture is pretty tricky.

  4. Ann in L.A. says:

    I love the timing…our kids’ old school posted this on their website 5 days before you wrote the above:

    >> In the first decade of a child’s life, the brain forms trillions of connections. Each individual neuron may be connected to as many as 15,000 other neurons, forming a complex network of neural pathways. As neurons mature, more synapses are made, and the neural network expands exponentially. As ability develops, skill circuits begin to fire more optimally. Children learn to sense how something feels when it is done right, and just as important, they develop awareness of how it feels to struggle.

    >> Ironically, struggle is essential for building mastery and resilience; one must struggle in order to get the skill circuits to fire optimally. Children must “teach” their circuits to become optimal through the experience of having them fire suboptimally. Brains become better at doing what they practice, which is whatever they do frequently. You may have heard the saying, “brains that fire together wire together.”<<

  5. […] should be pretty sceptical at this point. I’ve written before about the way that neuroscience is sometimes used to justify particular teaching methods and I […]


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