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.