Using neuroscience to inspire educational policy? A suggestion to responsibly translate neuroscience toward effective policy and practice
Education is replete with fads. Millions, even billions, of dollars have been spent in well-intentioned efforts to leverage evidence-based implications in classrooms. Learning styles, self-esteem, and brain-based education are recent examples. In most of these cases, solid scientific evidence is misinterpreted, mis-applied, over oversimplified by intermediaries to serve the goals of education. Policy makers are confronted with such interpretations on a daily basis. Neuroscience is a particularly popular trojan horse within which to hide suspect ideas and conclusions. Yet, neuroscience also shows great promise to impact education when viewed as but one of several important contributors to a more complex and multi-level developmental process. Guiding this developmental process is the goal of education and education policy.
Misconceptions and over-simplifications can detour resources
To be clear, development will happen with, without, or even in spite of, our educational efforts. It is our greatest responsibility to provide a balanced and flexible context to guide development with the goal of a thriving individual in multiple domains, including the development of the qualities of kindness, compassion, resourcefulness, and self-care. However, some of our misconceptions about the brain may be undermining this process.
One of the biggest misconceptions many people have with regard to neuroscience is that the brain works in isolated units. This misconception is, in part, an artifact of how we must study the brain given current technologies: We artificially isolate and model individual parts of the brain in order to understand how each contributes to the activities and behaviors in which we are most interested. But as we learn more, we learn that no one part does just one thing and that many parts are recruited for widely different tasks. Processing in the brain is not modular, but distributed. Basic systems, the same systems important for bodily sensation and movement, for survival instincts like breathing, and for planning actions and attending to the world, couple and decouple with each other and with systems supporting consciousness to create the motivated and complex thoughts relevant to almost anything educators and policy makers are interested in. This coupling and decoupling enables the cross-talk of billions of neurons, making the brain more complex, efficient, flexible and powerful than it could otherwise be.
Unfortunately, this modularity misconception also makes its way into how we talk about, teach, and advocate for children. Whereas scientists may focus on studying only a single domain (for example some study cognition, others study emotion), the parent, peer, or teacher must focus on the whole child in front of them: A child where cognition, motivation, emotion, biology, sleep and nutritional habits, culture, context, current goals, and a myriad of other factors are dynamically interacting in the moment. Similar to the brain itself, a child’s mind reflects a complex interaction of many factors, including their own experience-dependent thoughts and feelings. This is why the leaps from brain to classroom, and from classroom to brain, are difficult. Given the dynamic nature of the brain and the learning, feeling and thinking it supports, the belief that effective practice and policy can be developed based upon but a single aspect of a child is limited, and overemphasizing particular aspects of development over others can even be harmful.
Relatedly, many also mistakenly believe that the brain is a static organ that must be slavishly catered to if we are to build effective educational practice. Again, this is an overly simplistic and severe interpretation of the nature of the brain. The brain both enables and constrains learning and our experience can both expand those potentials and solidify the constraints. Plasticity, the fact that the brain changes with experience, while lauded in talks to educators, is often ignored when developing policy and practice in favor of a set of “rules” based upon “how the brain learns.” These efforts are misguided in both name and goal. The brain is central to the efforts related to learning and development, no doubt. But, this work is guided by the capabilities and constraints of the brain, just as much as it shapes the capabilities and constraints of the brain. The person at the middle of the debate is a multifaceted organism designed to develop through interaction.
Think of this process as similar to a wide valley where, barring a major anomaly, the river has latitude in where it can flow, east to west. But, even if the river sometimes takes a 180 degree turn, it is always, ultimately, progressing forward. The ability of this river to meander and find the best route is constrained, however, by the cliffs that constitute that valley. Like the valley, the brain does, indeed constrain learning. But, the valley itself is sculpted by the river and it is that experience that we charge ourselves with making positive, healthy and productive. And that entire interaction is embedded and influenced by the larger ecology of the region. This is akin to culture.
This necessary interaction between multiple biological systems in the child and the complex cultural context in which the child develops challenges the common assumption that biology is above, or independent of, culture. This assumption encourages many to overemphasize biology and to develop practices that follow, rather than partner, with development. Biology is by no means the only influence or motivator, nor is the brain the only level of analysis with which to view learning and development. We can examine genetic influences, cultural influences, and everything in between. The person at the middle of the debate matters, and that person is situated in a culture that influences, amongst other things, the contexts, goals, and tools that guide development, and the brain itself. It is this necessary interaction, and the opportunities it presents, that enable efforts to guide development possible.
In fact, education is a wonderful example of how culture and brain interact, an inspired admission that “brain-first” or “brain-only” tactics are overly simplistic. Education is a powerful cultural tool aimed at guiding development in the ways in which that culture desires. Effective educational practice and policy prioritizes and codifies the culture’s goals for their citizens and organizes a culture-wide system to achieve them. However, education is not merely a tool of society to develop culturally competent citizens. Education is a societal resource to develop thriving individuals. I believe the primary goal of high quality education is to facilitate the development of the entire individual, rather than to simply train specific competencies (e.g., reading, writing, math, etc.). Further, whether or not an education system explicitly embraces the development of whole individual, the efforts of the educational system forever impact the child in perpetuity.
It should be clear, then, just how important good policy is. Effective policy prioritizes and codifies the culture’s goals for their citizens and organizes a culture-wide system to achieve them. Similarly, the teachers are the primary guides in this process and, thus, it is essential that they are highly skilled and resourced to achieve those goals. However, if neuroscience is not the singular answer to all of our questions, what sort of evidence is necessary to enable high quality policy and instruction? Perhaps developing such evidence IS a goal for policy.
On appropriate evidence for policy and practice
Misunderstandings and over-simplifications about the brain and development can encourage fads that bleed resources and negatively impact student development (and teacher development, too!). No responsible neuroscientist would argue that findings from an fMRI should directly impact pedagogical strategies on their own. Because of the complex and interactive nature of the brain, neuroscience is limited in how singularly useful it can be to inform classroom practice in that it is but one, very important, piece of a more complex puzzle. Indeed, neuroscience can inspire ideas around which effective policy and practice may be developed. However, promising findings from neuroscience must be designed for use within a culturally embedded system of education, and tested for impact before policy can responsibly endorse those practices.
So, what would it mean to overcome our misconceptions about the brain and actually build classroom practices that are informed by science? The link between lab, culture, and classroom is essential to develop, and developing that link is a worthy goal of policy. Policy makers should be developing methods and resourcing efforts to translate and adapt ideas inspired by a mature understanding of neuroscience in the context of their culture and classrooms. Like many other sciences, neuroscientists don’t do that very well as it is rarely their primary goal or their specific expertise.
Scientists have advocated for teacher/researcher partnerships for many years. Yet, these partnerships have seldom yielded useable knowledge for educational practice. Perhaps, this is because the efforts have predominantly been initiated by researchers in pursuit of their scientific goals. Or, perhaps it is because few team members are skilled at deriving, developing and responsibly testing pedagogical designs derived from research in more controlled settings for wide use. Given the role of culture and the responsibility of policy makers to work within that culture’s value system, future policy and practice efforts may benefit from school/district embedded translational systems guided by professionals who are skilled and conversant across these contexts. Indeed, to be effective, translational efforts may look very different depending upon the cultural contexts, resources, and the goals of the educational system.
Misunderstandings and oversimplifications abound in complex systems and policy-makers are not experts in the variety of scientific findings across the myriad of domains that contribute to the development of a person, nor should they be. The great majority of scientific findings are not designed to dictate specific practices. Rather, they are designed to reveal the nature of the learner and the impact of certain experiences. Resources, goals and protocols for developing methods of instruction inspired by scientific findings are essential and worthy goals for educational policy-makers to consider when leveraging scientific findings for wide-use by educators. In fact, they are necessary for impactful and responsible policy. Unlike fields such as medicine, nutrition, or even agriculture there is presently no formal field charged with synthesizing findings and guiding these important translational efforts in education. It is incumbent upon those making policy to cultivate and resource the development of the infrastructure needed by their educational systems to develop useful methods before prescribing specific practices through policy.