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Alanna Mitchell Special to the Star
Published On Sun Nov 1 2009
About the series
Alanna Mitchell is a Toronto-based writer and journalist who specializes in
global science issues. Mitchell spent much of the past year investigating
the controversial push to use brain science to improve education. She
travelled to England, France, Australia and the U.S. as part of her 2008
Atkinson Fellowship in Public Policy. The fellowship, sponsored by The
Atkinson Charitable Foundation, the Toronto Star and the Honderich family,
aims to further liberal journalism in the tradition of legendary Star publisher
Joseph E. Atkinson.

Call it a modern version of the feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys.
Or the Capulets and the Montagues.

In some ways, it’s a miracle that the warring fields of neuroscience and
education are even thinking about marrying into an international movement.
Yet – unlikely as it may seem – they are.

The movement is new elsewhere and embryonic to the point of invisibility in
Canada. But in other parts of the world, including the United States,
Europe, Japan and Australia, it is gathering strength.

Driven by the scientists, it even has its own interdisciplinary academic
society – the International Mind, Brain, and Education Society – and a twoyear-
old peer-reviewed journal, Mind, Brain, and Education.

Why does it matter? If it works, society’s long-held dream of educating
everyone to full potential could at last be realized: poor or rich, black or
white, male or female, developed world or developing.

And it wouldn’t happen through mass standardization, the hallmark of the
past century of public education, but through mass customization of
teaching to the natural learning systems of the extraordinarily plastic
human brain.

But even some of the neuroscientists who are devoting their lives to the
dream stress the caveats.

“One of the things I worry about tremendously is that the seductiveness
and allure of neuroscience is well-known,” says Paul Howard-Jones, a
neuroscientist at Bristol University in England.

“If we’re not careful, we’re going to end up with nonsense that might be
appealing to teachers in which the science is not translated.”
He and others can point to myths about how the brain works – often
marketed by companies on the scent of profit – that have infiltrated the
classroom and the home but are without scientific merit.

An example: that the brain is fixed by the age of 3 and must be hyperstimulated
before then to make sure it has a running start. The Disney company’s Baby Einstein, a leader in the baby video industry, was forced last year to remove claims from its website that its videos give infants as young as three months a head start on math and language after a challenge from a parents’ group. Recently, the company began offering refunds as well.

Howard-Jones is adamant that any attempt to take real brain science into
the classroom has to be done only by building bridges from neuroscience
to education through the expertise of teachers.

“Neuroscience on its own is completely without meaning,” he says. “It has
to be integrated with psychology and what we know about education.”
It all started with advances in technology – electroencephalogram
recordings (EEGs), magneto-encephalograms (MEGs), positron emission
tomography (PET) and, most importantly, magnetic resonance imaging
(MRI) – that have allowed scientists to watch the brain learn. To see and
understand physical changes in the brain stimulated by certain kinds of

Enter the entrenched, historic hostility between education and science.
The roots of the conflict lie in the fact that schools and medicine were
founded separately and have a different social status, says Kurt Fischer,
the director of Harvard University’s Mind, Brain, and Education program.
For example, over the past century teachers have tended to be female and
doctors, male. That’s shifting now.

But a defining characteristic of education throughout its history has been
that it has not merited a scientific grounding, says Fischer, who sits at the
epicentre of the international neuroscience movement.

In the 1960s, when the “whole child” philosophy of education held sway,
many educators were actively antagonistic to science, believing that
medicine would label children and stigmatize them without opening up their

“If you start with that, you leave out the potential for neuroscience to make
a difference,” Fischer says.

It’s what John Geake, chair of learning and teaching at the University of
New England in Australia, calls the “anti-intellectualism” of today’s teacher

“A lot of teachers don’t have any science or math and ideologically, there is
a certain hostility against science,” Geake says.

When he gave a seminar at Oxford University in 2001 on the possible
benefits to education from neuroscience, it turned into a screaming match.
When Geake suggested that scientists consult teachers about what they
wanted to learn from neuroscientists, a group of senior education
philosophers stormed out of the room. He has been unable, despite many
attempts, to get the proceedings published in education journals because,
editors told him, the material is not of interest to teachers.
However, neuroscientists who are explaining their findings to teachers
directly, rather than to academics in education, find an eager audience,
Geake and others say.

Jonathan Sharples, a neuroscientist at the Institute for Effective Education
at the University of York in England, had a taste of this rancour recently. He
was labelled “intrusive” after he spent the day at a conference of social
scientists and education researchers in Oxford in December.

Visibly shaken, he explained over dinner afterward that some social
scientists question whether there is any objective truth, and whether
evidence shows anything at all. It’s the opposite of the beliefs underpinning
the science of observation, such as neuroscience.

“As you learn something new, the neurons in the brain actually change.
They make new connections,” he said. “Therefore, you classroom
teachers, every time you teach, you’re changing brain structure. You’re
remapping the neural network.”

On the other hand, Howard-Jones recently heard an influential policymaker
in the U.K. announce: “We don’t need educational theory any more,
we’ve got neuroscience.” That’s just as wrong as education not needing
neuroscience, he says.

But the legacy of the alienation between the two fields means that few
university schools of education have biologists on faculty and they don’t
teach neuroscience to budding teachers. Instead, teacher training has
focused on theories of eradicating the inequality of education or on how to
manage schools, Fischer says.

At Harvard, Fischer and a handful of other professors began trying to
change that 10 years ago by developing a better graduate program for
teachers. “We said: `We really ought to have biology in this.’” Even then, he
says it was a struggle to persuade some of those trained in education that
understanding the biology of the brain could be useful.

The same year, 1999, Bruno della Chiesa, a senior analyst at the
Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in
Paris, helped to launch the European branch of the movement. He is
coordinator of Learning Sciences and Brain Research, a program aimed at
figuring out how to use brain research to increase understanding of
learning and teaching.

In Japan, Hideaki Koizumi, an expert in brain imaging who is the senior
chief scientist of Hitachi Ltd., research and development group, launched a
brain-science and education program in that country.

At Cambridge, it was Usha Goswami, who is director of its centre for
neuroscience in education.

Baroness Susan Greenfield, director of Oxford University’s Institute for the
Future of the Mind, has brought the movement before British
parliamentarians, including at a seminar before an all-party group on
scientific research in learning and education in 2007. Her band of
researchers on neuroeducation has now spread to several key centres in
the U.K. as well as to Australia.

Many of the scattered neuroeducators discovered each other and formed a
robust network – just as neurons in the brain do – at a workshop for the
400th anniversary of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in Rome in 2003.
“We became known to scientists around the world,” says Fischer, adding
that policy makers in The Netherlands, Italy, Germany, Scandinavia,
Argentina, Brazil, China and India have become fascinated with the ideas.
In the U.S., public schools in New York, Chicago, Washington and
Philadelphia are striving to incorporate the findings of brain science in the
classroom and a national effort is brewing through the Society for

In Canada, the movement has not made inroads within the school system,
although neuroscientific research is strong. While there is plenty of
innovation in education, and some of it would be supported by
neuroscientific findings, those findings are not driving the changes. There is
no champion here yet.

There’s a serious legacy to the bitter war. In the U.K., says Geake, funding
councils are loath to touch the topic. “Every single researcher I know in the
U.K. has been rejected for funding,” says Geake.

Howard-Jones says that eventually, parents will grasp what neuroeducation
can do and will push for it to be woven into the classroom. But more
research by both brain scientists and teachers is needed before that ought
to happen, he says.

It’s too good an opportunity to miss, he argues. It could improve the
classroom’s ability to strengthen the structure and workings of the brain.
It might even make school fun.

He’s thinking about some research he conducted the day before. He was
watching the brains of two boys playing a game. One won. But the reward
system in both their brains spontaneously lit up. Even the prospect of
winning meant something to the loser. Howard-Jones could see it on the

It seems like a perfect metaphor for the squabbling fields of brain science
and education.

If only a video game could bring them together.

One Response to The Three Rs and Neuroscience: A Love Story

  • Ann Thompson says:

    It might help to stop referring to “THE” brain, as if the possibilities were identical for each child. The word “brains” would be far more appropriate. My 45 years as Spec Ed teacher with students of all ages in six different countries, have taught me that there are limits to the plasticity of the individual brain. And that there are individual physiological as well as neurological variables at work. My thoughts appear on the Beijing Kids magazine website Forum where I have been asked to post as their “resident education expert”. We jump too quickly to too many erroneous assumptions about learning… Learning is, was, and always will be, a highly individualized process.

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