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Why a Prescriptive Approach to Neuroscience in the Classroom Might be a Poor Fit

By Lisa Carey, Education Consultant, Center for Innovation and Leadership in Special Education at Kennedy Krieger Institute

Current bodies of cognitive neuroscience offer a plethora of information that can teach us how humans learn.  However, if you’re looking for a checklist of things to do in order to be a “brain –based teacher,” you may want to rethink your approach. In our last blog post, we explored Horvath and Donoghue’s (2016) proposal that there are four types of “bridges” that link cognitive neuroscience to education: a prescriptive bridge, a conceptual bridge, a functional bridge, and a diagnostic bridge.  These “bridges” break down types of neuroscience information and how they might be shared, but the article discusses education as a singular concept.  It is important to point out that diagnostic information may be helpful to a special educator considering the needs of a singular student, but not necessarily applicable for a teacher attempting to apply neuroscience information to an entire classroom. Most of the literature about “neuromyths” and use of neuroscience within education focus on implications for the classroom level of instructional and environmental design (Alferink & Farmer-Dougan, 2010; Dekker, Nikki, Howard-Jones, & Jelles, 2012; Ferrero, Garaizar, & Vadillo, 2016).  Therefore, we will assume this perspective as we examine some potential pitfalls of seeking and using prescriptive neuroscience information.

Prior to recent advances in imaging technologies such as MRI and fMRI, access to brains in living humans was pretty limited and most research came from instances of brain injury.  Given new advances in imaging, researchers can now examine brains and related behaviors of large numbers of humans.  What have they found?  The brain is highly variable.  To quote Dr. Martha Denckla, “the human brain is as variable as the human face.”  While we tend to all have the same features in similar locations, there is variability in the size and shape of features, the exact location of features, and the function of features.  For example, I am wearing reading glasses while writing this post because my eyes do not see well when items are up-close, but others may have perfect vision, may need assistance seeing far away rather than up-close, or may have low vision or blindness.  Given that variability is the norm, it becomes difficult to offer prescriptive guidance to teachers who are responsible for the cognitive development of multiple and variable students.  It may be possible to take a prescriptive approach with a singular student who has had an individualized evaluation. However, to offer prescriptive checklists to teachers would only result in sweeping generalizations and an over simplification of science. 

There is a limited amount of information about the brain that can be generally applied to all children, and most of that information is related to general health.  For example, I can say without hesitation that children should attempt to avoid brain injuries.  I can also tell you that exercise, which is good for the whole body, is also good for the brain.  Sleep is good for brain function, as is solid nutrition and hydration.  However, I cannot tell you the magic number of minutes or seconds of wait time that will allow all students in your room to adequately process information.  I cannot tell you the prefect length of direct instruction for all students.  Even with all we now know about reading and the brain, I cannot tell you about a reading intervention or practice that will bring about reading success for all students.   What I can tell you about learning and the brain is that students are highly variable. We can predict the areas in which that variability will occur, and if we take into account the trajectories of neurodevelopment, we can even predict what ranges of options might be the best fit for students of different ages.

While a prescriptive approach for classrooms might not be a great option for bridging cognitive neuroscience to education, the idea of a conceptual bridge might be a much better fit.  Horvath and Donoghue (2016) describe a conceptual bridge as an avenue of information that “allows for individuals to understand or conceive of phenomena at the educational level through theories generated at the neurophysiologic level.”  They explain that this approach allows educators to consider why certain evidence-based practices in education work and build theories based on this expanded information (Horvath & Donoghue, 2016)This approach, they emphasize, does not tell educators exactly what to do. 

This conceptual approach is similar to one found in the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework, which asks educators to consider aspects of cognitive neuroscience such as neuro-variability, the link between emotions and learning, and the need for supporting executive functions.  Similarly, the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) Standards for Students includes considerations of the “learning sciences” (which is one of the many transdisciplinary terms being used to describe the connection between cognitive neuroscience and education.) Note that neither of these frameworks tell teachers specifically what to do in their classrooms, rather they take an approach that asks teachers to conceptualize new information about the developing brain and use it to pick instructional approaches that work for students.

In looking at the prevalent neuromyths examined by Ferrero, Garaizar, and Vadillo (2016), it appears that many of these misconceptions could be avoided if we, as educators, stopped searching for a checklist of brain-based practices.  For example, many teachers who participated in multiple neuromyth studies were under the impression that certain physical exercises for co-ordination and motor-perception could improve reading skills. This myth persists because of prescriptive curricula being sold to schools and teachers filled with lists of activities for building a better brain.  If rather than looking for how-to guides for neuroscience application to education we instead focus on blending conceptual knowledge about the brain with educational research and practice, we can better avoid false claims. 

The remaining challenge is finding mechanisms for blending neuroscience conceptual knowledge with educational research and practice.  This link between research and practice continues to be the driving force behind our blog.  We will continue to interview cognitive neuroscience researchers about application of their work to education. We hope to continue to vet books, videos, webcasts, and other sources that will help educators better understand the brain in ways that is useful to student learning.

References

Alferink, L. A., & Farmer-Dougan, V. (2010). Brain-(not) Based Education: Dangers of Misunderstanding and Misapplication of Neuroscience Research. Exceptionality, 18(1), 42–52. http://doi.org/10.1080/09362830903462573

Ansari et al 2012 Neuroed~Critical review of an emerging field. (2012). Neuroethics, 5, 105–117. http://doi.org/10.1007/s12152-011-9119-3

Dekker, S., Nikki, C. L., Howard-Jones, P., & Jelles, J. (2012). Neuromyths in education: Prevelence and predictors of misconceptions among teachers. Frontiers in Psychology, 3, 1–8.

Ferrero, M., Garaizar, P., & Vadillo, M. A. (2016). Neuromyths in Education: Prevalence among Spanish Teachers and an Exploration of Cross-Cultural Variation. http://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2016.00496

Horvath, J. C., & Donoghue, G. M. (2016). A Bridge Too Far – Revisited: Reframing Bruer’s Neuroeducation Argument for Modern Science of Learning Practitioners, 7. http://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00377

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