How to Avoid Educational Neuroscientism

Jonathan Beale, Researcher-in-Residence, CIRL

The greatest problem facing educational neuroscience and psychology is crossing the bridge between theory and practice: how to move from scientific evidence to its practical application in education. Crossing this bridge too hastily leaves educational neuroscience and psychology open to the accusation of ‘scientism’: excessive belief in the power or value of science. Scientism would be manifested in attitudes such as the dogmatic assumption that scientific methods or findings can be immediately and straightforwardly applied in education.

How can neuroscience and psychology be applied to education without risking scientism? This post offers some suggestions on how to avoid scientism in educational neuroscience and psychology – or, how to avoid what we might call ‘educational neuroscientism’. First, let’s look at some examples of what would count as educational neuroscientism.

Mind the Gap: the greatest problem facing educational neuroscience and psychology is crossing the bridge between theory and practice (image courtesy of Eurodiaconia).

To be scientistic, a view on the application of science to non-scientific areas of inquiry needs to be controversial. An interdisciplinary approach between neuroscience and education cannot be scientistic simply because it holds that certain findings from neuroscience can be used to improve approaches towards education. That would not betray excessive belief in the power or value of science. To be scientistic, the claim needs to be much more ambitious. Accusations of scientism would be warranted against claims such as the following.

Examples of what would count as scientism in educational neuroscience

1.     Assuming that neuroscientific methods and findings can be immediately or straightforwardly applied in educational contexts

Any claim about the application of neuroscientific methods or findings in education needs to be justified, because their application in education is not straightforward, for at least two reasons. First, education is not a branch of science. Second, education is a vastly complex field, comprising a wide variety of methods and approaches designed to suit the teaching of many disparate disciplines to a wide range of people. So, clear links need to be provided between scientific evidence and its application in education.

2.     It is not possible to provide a good education without recourse to educational neuroscience

An example of this would be holding that education that is not informed by neuroscience is inadequate. One can endorse the uncontroversial view that neuroscience can improve education without being committed to the controversial view that without attention to neuroscience, education is in some way deficient. The latter would only follow from the former if educational neuroscience were shown to improve education to a highly significant degree. Then, lack of recourse to neuroscience could result in education being deficient, in the sense that there could be the absence of attention to a field which has been shown to improve education to a highly significant extent.

To illustrate, compare the following. Evidence suggests that effective feedback improves learning and student progress to a highly significant extent. So, it would be uncontroversial to argue that education without effective feedback is inadequate. Until a similar claim could be made about educational neuroscience, one could not convincingly argue that education without attention to educational neuroscience is in any way inadequate. But to hold that educational neuroscience can improve education is uncontroversial.

3.     One cannot be a proficient teacher without an understanding of educational neuroscience

A similar point applies here: while knowledge of educational neuroscience may improve a teacher’s proficiency, it does not follow that a teacher is not proficient unless they possess such knowledge. For such a claim to be justified, it would need to be shown that knowledge of educational neuroscience improves a teacher’s proficiency to a highly significant degree.

The following analogy illustrates what constitutes a healthy approach towards crossing the methodological bridge between educational neuroscience and psychology, on the one side, and the practical application of scientific findings into education, on the other. One can be an outstanding musician with little or even no formal education in music theory. But it’s extremely likely that music theory will improve even the best of musicians; and the best musical education includes music theory as a component. Moreover, the most equipped musicians will be educated in music theory. To apply that analogy to educational neuroscience and psychology: while knowledge of educational neuroscience and psychology is not necessary to be an outstanding teacher, it undoubtedly has the potential to be useful; and the most equipped teachers possess the knowledge yielded by such fields.

The above illustrates three examples of where an accusation of scientism would be warranted against claims about educational neuroscience. What follows are three indicators of scientism which are most relevant to educational neuroscience, and how we might avoid such manifestations of scientism.

Indicators of scientism in educational neuroscience

1.     Dogmatically assuming that scientific methods or findings can be applied in non-scientific domains, or overemphasising the extent to which they can be applied

We should (a) not assume that neuroscientific methods or findings can always be applied in educational contexts; and (b) be careful in how far we claim they can be applied. For any neuroscientific evidence or study, a case needs to be made for its application in education.

This is the most important methodological hazard in educational neuroscience, as it concerns the central problem facing educational neuroscience: how to move from the theory and evidence to its application. This relates to the first example of scientism outlined earlier: the view that neuroscientific methods and findings can be immediately or straightforwardly applied in education.

2.     Using scientific or quasi-scientific language to try to make work look more impressive, without the evidential support for such uses of language

We should have good reason to use the language or conceptual repertoire of neuroscience in educational research and its dissemination. Examples of such language and concepts are ‘neuroplasticity’, ‘synaptic plasticity’, or references to parts of the brain such as areas of the limbic system (e.g., the amygdala, the hypothalamus, or the hippocampus). It is important to use these with good reason because in the scientific age in which we live, such concepts and language can be misappropriated to make work sound more technical, impressive, rigorous and evidence-based. Uses of such language to achieve such ends is one of the ‘signs of scientism’ outlined by the philosopher Susan Haack, in her seminal article on scientism, ‘Six Signs of Scientism’ (2009). 

Usually, the employment of such concepts and language is done with good reason; the peer-review process of academic journals, for example, should aim to ensure this. But with such concepts increasingly entering the parlance of contemporary education, they are employed much more widely: in educational publications for general audiences; at conferences aiming to appeal to all of those working in education; in professional development training sessions; and so on. In order to be discerning consumers and disseminators of research, we should be aware of the ways in which such concepts and terms can be misappropriated to give a misleading or false impression of technicality or rigorous evidential support.

The same caveat goes for psychological concepts, but these can be used more liberally than neuroscientific concepts, since psychology is a science operating on a less fundamental level than neuroscience, so the concepts are less specific – i.e., they are concerned with the human mind and human behaviour, rather than the structure or function of the brain and nervous system. So, psychological concepts such as ‘growth mindset’, ‘emotional contagion’, ‘motivational contagion’, ‘mentalization’ and so on can be used with greater freedom, but the caveat still applies. Such concepts have entered the vernacular of contemporary education, particularly Carol Dweck’s influential concept of ‘growth mindset’, which occupies a staple place within many teacher training and professional development programmes. We need to be careful about how we use and interpret these concepts and other psychological concepts employed in education.

What counts as good reasons for the employment of concepts from neuroscience and psychology in education are, for example, the following:

  1. they are used on the basis of good evidence (e.g., good evidence in a study to support claims made about the importance of attention to ‘neuroplasticity’ in education);
  2. they are used within a sound neuroscientific and/or psychological methodology (rather than, for instance, being used casually or carelessly in an article for a general audience);
  3. they are used in order to justify the practical implementation of research into education, by illustrating ways in which such concepts are relevant to educational practice.

3.     Holding that to explain something scientifically is to explain it away

To explain something in neuroscientific terms is not to explain it away. Just because all areas of human thought and behaviour can be explained in neuroscientific terms, this does not show that other ways of understanding human behaviour can be reduced to neuroscientific terms.

Neuroscientific explanations of areas specifically relevant to teaching and learning, such as how the brain processes information or stores memories, or the neurological underpinnings of emotional regulation, should not be interpreted as reducing teaching and learning to a domain that could be exhaustively understood in neuroscientific terms. Teaching and learning requires much more than the evidence, theories, concepts and language offered by neuroscience and psychology.

Two major obstacles stand in the way of attempts to apply scientific reductionism to teaching and learning. First, teaching is extremely complicated. Education is a humanistic enterprise: teaching and learning involves human interaction and interpretation, across a wide variety of people in a broad and varied set of contexts. It involves judgements about learning on the basis of a wide set of criteria and it involves the input of many areas of inquiry. And it involves monitoring and managing human behaviour.

Consider, for example, an instance of what is sometimes called the ‘cognitive value’ of literature. A great writer can teach us much about human experiences through the ways in which they express particular experiences through their writing, even in the context of a fictional story. A great writer might also be able teach us about experiences in a way that is highly accessible and relatable to readers. Indeed, it could be far more straightforward for many learners to learn about certain experiences by reading fiction than, say, learning about such experiences as they are expressed within and using the language of neuroscience or psychology.

While it would be controversial to argue that all human experiences cannot be explained on some level in neuroscientific and psychological terms, this does not mean that other ways of understanding human experience are not extremely useful and important, particularly for pedagogical purposes. If we were to try to reduce explanations and frameworks for understanding human beings to the domain of neuroscience and psychology, and in the process do away with the kinds of descriptions offered by literature, we would lose an important way of understanding others, the world and ourselves.

Second, the kind of knowledge required in teaching is, as Dylan Wiliam has recently argued, ability knowledge: knowledge of how to do something. The specific kind of ability knowledge a good teacher possesses is not something that can be explained to another person such that they possess the knowledge. To use Wiliam’s example, while you could explain to someone how to solve quadratic equations such that they could then do themselves, you cannot explain to someone how to ride a bike such that they can then do it themselves; rather, people have to figure it out for themselves. In this way, Wiliam argues, ‘teacher expertise cannot be put into words’:

The kind of knowledge that expert teachers have is more like the knowledge of how to ride a bicycle than it is the knowledge of how to solve quadratic equations. I can explain to someone how to solve quadratic equations, but I cannot explain to someone how to ride a bicycle. Each person has to figure it out for themselves. There may be guidance I can give, but there is no set of instructions that will be guaranteed to work. (Wiliam 2019.)

Wiliam uses this argument and others to support an argument concerning the limitations of research in education. While it is important for teachers to know about research in order to ‘make smarter decisions about where to invest their time’, there are many areas of teaching where there is either no research evidence or it is not applicable within a specific context of teaching and learning. So, while education can be research-informed, teaching cannot ever, Wiliam argues, be research-based, because, in short, ‘Classrooms are just too complicated for research ever to tell teachers what to do’.

Wiliam’s argument draws attention to some of the limitations facing the application of neuroscience in education. Some other limitations have been outlined above. Awareness of such limitations puts one in a better position to apply neuroscience in education without the risk of scientism. Failure to acknowledge them puts educational neuroscience at risk of becoming educational neuroscientism. 

This blog post draws upon Jonathan Beale, ‘Educational Neuroscience and Educational Neuroscientism’, forthcoming in J. Harrington, J. Beale, A. Fancourt and C. Lutz (eds.), The BrainCanDo Handbook of Teaching and Learning (Routledge, 2020).

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