Teachers teach and scientists research. So what happens when scientists are researching how children learn?
Does the information cross over from the academic paper to the interactive whiteboard, in so-called ‘knowledge translation’? And how can neuroscience inform and transform what happens in the classroom?
It’s a “no-brainer” that neuroscience and education should be connected, says Daniel Ansari, Professor of Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, in a session at the Global Education and Skills Forum 2019, coordinated with the Jacobs Foundation.
But neuroscience should complement other elements in our approach to teaching and not be put on a pedestal, he warns - rather used as part of a wider, interdisciplinary effort to improve how we help children learn.
Lessons from neuroscience
Due to advances in brain imaging technology, we’re now able to measure everything from the way a baby responds to faces, to the enlarged size of a London cab driver’s hippocampus - an example of plasticity or how the brain adapts to the demands of its environment (such as memorising the intricate network roads around the UK’s capital).
This knowledge that the brain could change shape into adulthood was a revolution in neuroscience, says Ansari. It sparked people’s interest in connecting education and neuroscience, beyond cognitive development.
“Knowing about the mechanisms of learning, the way the brain carries out complex tasks, can change the way teachers work,” he adds.
“To quote the psychologist Daniel Willingham, teachers need to have the mental models of learners in their classroom, and those models need to be informed by the science of learning, including neuroscience.”
But Ansari warns there are some common myths about the brain neuroscience has exposed, such as that we only use 10% of our brain: “Most brain imaging scans show even when we’re asleep, most parts of the brain are active.”
The notion of ‘left’ and ‘right’ brain people is also a myth. And even though the idea of learning styles – that some children are better auditory or visual learners - is hugely influential in education, Ansari says it has “absolutely no grounding in neuroscience”.
“There is a lot of evidence about how the brain learns - and some misapplication.”
Learning by being physically active
Marie-Christine Ghanbari Jahromi is one of the pioneering teachers who is experimenting with the science of learning in her school.
A 2017 Global Teacher Prize Top 10 Finalist, she has been boosting the self-esteem, motivation, and empathy of her students, using action-oriented learning methods, such as her Sportpatenproject, which strengthens and encourages children with the help of a sports mentor and physical activities.
She says: “The brain is really related to our body, so we need to do something. We have a high physical inactivity level worldwide, but physical activity is related to brain function and how I feel about myself.
“In Germany, children have a minimum of 31 minutes physical activity per day and we need to have at least 60 minutes, so we can concentrate better, feel better and higher self-efficacy, which is very important for problem-solving and creativity.”
She uses cooperative learning with group activities to engage students in learning by doing, including African movement games that focus on team spirit and rhythm not winning or losing.
“You wouldn’t be able to ride a bike after seeing diagrams in a classroom. We have to start with the do - it’s a key component in learning.”
What is key in Jahromi’s lessons is how she embeds the learning in the exercise, which is facilitating the transfer of information across brains.
Science and maths teacher Glenn Wagner was a Top 10 Global Teacher Prize finalist in 2015. In his ‘spare time’, he publishes articles on innovative practices in science teaching, including peer instruction (taking a concept and asking multiple choice questions), spaced practice (reintroducing the concept), concept mapping (drawing diagrams on a subject) and knowledge building.
He says all are examples of methods to help students “dip the forgetting curve” and make memories stick.
“Learning can be recognised as a permanent change in the way we think and act, because if there’s no change, we haven’t learned.
“Over time, people forget, but what do we want students to remember? It’s incumbent on educators to make sure we use learning science to keep things sticking.”
But he’s also on a mission to address one of the biggest challenges facing all educators - how you keep students intrinsically motivated to learn and raise their dopamine levels to help them concentrate.
He says the best teachers do this through a combination of autonomy (giving students a choice in what they learn, how they learn it), competency (working at their level, giving them freedom) and relatedness (like-minded people in their class, introducing a social element to learning).
Ansari concludes that educationalists should “temper their enthusiasm for neuroscience”: “Teaching is an art and not a science – but if how students behave can be informed by science, that’s really powerful.”