What Neuroscience Does and Doesn’t Contribute to Teaching and Learning, by Betsy Hill

October 5, 2016

It has become popular lately for neuroscience experts to disparage the efforts of educators to understand and apply what neuroscientists have been learning about the brain (as a recent article published by PBS does).  Sometimes they even seem to wonder why we would be interested.

  1. We’re interested because that is where learning happens.  Learning doesn’t happen in our big toes or left elbows.  It happens when neurons connect and form neural networks … in our brains.
  2. We’re interested because our brains develop in interaction with our environment. We don’t develop knowledge and skills that our environment doesn’t expose us to and convince us are important.  So, to the extent that we can find ways to make the environment we provide for our students more conducive to having learning take place, the more effective we can be – which is our job as professional educators.
  3. We are aware of the dangers of neuromyths, such as believing that some people are right-brained and some are left-brained. But telling a teacher that that belief is wrong is like telling a child that ice cream is not good for them.  When we have come to believe something (which we can also refer to as having a mental model) and behave accordingly, we need a replacement explanation and practice to change our behavior.  We should understand why that neuromyth became popular and what the consequences are.  That, too, would seem to be our job as professional educators.

Another complaint of what I have referred to in a previous blog as “neurosnobs” is that neuroscience isn’t anything new – that what we present as new and grounded in neuroscience is just what teachers already knew.  That is certainly true of great teachers.  And I find that great teachers are invariably very excited to learn something about why the things that they know work actually work.  But more importantly, it can help convince misguided teachers and administrators to change ineffective practices that are all too common and to adopt practices that are brain friendly.

It seems an odd position to me to suggest that educators “eschew neuroscience” rather than becoming better consumers of neuroscience research and understanding what does and doesn’t translate.    There are some wonderful resources for teachers that are careful to examine what neuroscience can and can’t contribute to teachers.  One such resource is the book Brain Matters, written by Dr. Patricia Wolfe.  When widely respected neuroscientists come to present to the annual gathering of those who have been trained by Dr. Wolfe, they invariably comment on how knowledgeable and competent the group is.

We have enough “we and they” in our world today.  There is too much good that can come from the solid application of neuroscience to teaching and learning to run away from it when we encounter a bump in the road.