£6 million funding for neuroscience within education research – what does it mean for schools?

Jessica Nash, Head of Special Schools Network and SEN SSAT, writes…

Over the past few years, the concept of ‘brain training’ through various exercises which claim to heighten cognitive function has proliferated. The evidence can’t exactly be said to have stacked up on approaches such as ‘brain gym’, so the recent announcement by the Wellcome Trust and Education Endowment Fund that they are releasing £6 million of joint funding for research into the benefits of neuroscience within education is a welcome opportunity for teachers and school leaders.

The funding will be available for research projects in which neuroscientists and educators collaborate to develop evidence-based interventions for use in the classroom and to test, in a robust and rigorous manner, existing tools or practices.

There’s no doubt that there’s been an increasing appreciation of the potential of neuroscience to inform pedagogy. In his review of research literature for the EEF, Paul Howard-Jones[1] suggests an acceleration from around 200 articles per year in 1995 to over 1,000 articles in 2012. I’m wondering if these learned papers risk overloading my parietal lobe, or have I misunderstood its function of integrating information from different sources?!

The transferability of this evidence into classroom strategies, however, is mixed. So, whilst there’s no doubt that neuroscience has the potential to improve educational strategies, the EEF/Wellcome Trust project is clear that the topic needs to be approached with care. We need to ensure that neuroscience ideas are not adopted at too early a stage, or before they have been properly translated for classroom use.

Currently, the areas in which a sizeable amount of research evidence and understanding have been amassed include: processing of numbers, mapping letter symbols to sound and comprehending meaning, physical activity increasing neural functioning, learning content multiple times, and the effectiveness of testing in improving learning. In the case of testing, more work needs to be done to determine how it is best used and the factors that influence its effectiveness.

If we accept then that neuroscience is continually furthering our understanding of the mechanisms of learning, how interesting that Howard-Jones suggests that one of the outstanding areas on which research should focus is the selection of teaching approaches for different students; that there appears to be significant challenge at present, in terms of the theoretical basis, and indeed limited evidence predicting the likely impact of tailored teaching approaches on children’s learning, might question what we really mean by ‘personalisation’.

Collaboration between neuroscience and education is an area of great of potential, given that the brain is the basis of learning. So whilst the evidence doesn’t yet demonstrate the effectiveness of brain gym, the ‘lazy eights’ may be useful for some to manage the dynamic process of learning. However, what we seek as professionals is evidence that can help to positively impact on learning, so this EEF/Wellcome project’s commitment to funding robust classroom evidence is an opportunity not to be missed.

SSAT is providing an opportunity for special school and SEN practitioners to find out more about neuroscience and the research implications for pupil mental health through a multi-professional conference on 6 February in London.

[1] Neuroscience and Education: A Review of Educational Interventions and Approaches Informed by Neuroscience: Paul Howard-Jones, Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol (January 2014) Education Endowment Foundation, 9th Floor, Millbank Tower, 21-24 Millbank SW1P 4QP

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