Saturday morning at SfN14 I went to a refreshing session in the “Meet the Expert” series with Dr. Julie Fiez. She was discussing how she came to find herself embedded within the scientific culture of “educational neuroscience”. In describing the field of study she talked about a bridge that needed to be formed with neuroscience, cognitive neuroscience, cognitive science, and education science in order to really drive the field of educational neuroscience. Several pieces caught my immediate attention, including the big “so what?” question that many of us neuroscientists face (whether we know it or not). “So what if the brain lights up here?” “So what if there is brain activity over there when we do this or that?” “So what if the brain changes over time or with age or during different cognitive tasks or with learning?” The answer that many of us basic researchers thrives off of (yes, I still consider myself a basic researcher, at the core) simply doesn’t cut it for those interested in application, that is: “because it’s interesting!!” Instead the end users of neuroscience want to know “How can I apply this?” “How can I use knowledge of neuroscience to make my life, brain, work, classroom, etc. better?”
What Dr. Fiez suggested was that neuroscience can be used to inform design, such as instructional methods for learning. That is to say, we can use what we learn about those areas of the brain that activate under different learning circumstances to inform how, what, when, and maybe where, who, and why, we teach. Dr. Fiez described her own fMRI research where she looked at ares of the brain that were active as college students learned mathematical concepts> They sought to mimic elementary-school learning of basic math like 3+5 or 2x7 but using double-digit numbers. Most of us can do the former quite simply and use that knowledge in extended ways like in algebra and statistics, or much more practically, to know how to add our monthly income and subtract bills. And we learned this basic math largely through drill-and-instill methods.
The rationale for Dr. Liez’s study was that we could apply that same drill-and-instil method of instruction to inspire adult students (through money incentives) to develop similar quick-reference mathematically concepts again but now using double-digit numbers, again with the assumption that these soon-to-be, new basic mathematical concepts would support a deeper knowledge foundation and extension of that knowledge. Indeed, their hypotheses that were supported: This drill-and-instil method of instruction activated the basal ganglia, an area of the brain that responds well to feedback, and this new knowledge lead to an extension to higher-level computations similar to how we extended our childhood learning of basic math.
But, as Dr. Fiez also explained, some of that such research is challenging to produce, publish, and apply. First of all, neuroscience imaging studies involving learning are expensive, labour-intensive, and still do not provide a direct link to how students in class, in the moment, are learning math. Her study on college studies need would still need to be replicated in an age-appropriate group to have greater impact and application. Furthermore, their own study discussed above has yet to be published because of some methodological issues that can best be fixed with additional expensive fMRI testing, for which funding is scarce. This, indeed, poses a problem for the ultimate desire for application and neuroscience-informed methods of teaching. But we know there are challenges everywhere and perseverance prevails.
Unfortunately, research funding is always a limiting factor no matter what phenomenon we seek to understand, although some fields are at more of a disadvantage that others. The field of educational neuroscience is not shy to this concept. So what does one do when funding is scarce yet the need for informed decisions exists? Do we do nothing for the sake of caution and wait and wait and wait? Or do we extrapolate to promote awareness and drive a desire for funding?
Well, I would boldly and controversially suggest that we do the latter because fields that suffer, like educational neuroscience will continue to suffer without a push for greater funding. Right now disease models dominate the minds of neuroscientists, funders, and public interest but understanding simply how the brain learns normally is potentially a very worthwhile endeavour. In pursuit of that agenda, I would rather continue to speculate, theorize, and test in my own ways.
In fact, I do do this myself as an instructor at the university level. One way I do this is in an attempt to reduce stress in the classroom. Now, I know of no study that has shown that providing students with choice on their assignment topics actually decreases stress in a meaningful, sustainable, or reliable way but I do know from other research that a greater sense of autonomy helps reduce stress. And when I apply this knowledge in several ways, e.g., choice on essay questions of a test, choice to load marks to a final exam, or choice to drop the lowest mark in a series of quizzes, I create a multi-angled approach to autonomy and quite possibly stress reduction in my class room, none of which, I am convinced, is based on direct, circumstance-equivalent data. I also know that the brain is well equipped to deal with mistakes when provided with the opportunity to recognize such mistakes early (see error-related negativity ERP literature). So, I provide students with feedback as immediately as possible, for example, answers to the tests right after the last person hands in his/her test. Again, does that exact scenario replicate itself with a series of well-controlled scientific studies? I don’t think so but there is enough converging evidence to suggest that well-timed feedback for students is important for their learning and their brain’s future responses. And so I apply accordingly. Perhaps one day I will get funding to test these methods but until then, I will continue to pilot it myself and I will continue to offer them to other teachers as I have done in the past.
Is that a bad thing? Maybe, but not for my ethical standards. In fact, we do this type of circumstantially-evidence-informed decision making all over the place in society. Medical doctors, for example, make lots of individualized recommendations that are not actually evidence-based as do business people and many teachers on a daily bases.
So I think that the role of neuroscience in informing design and policy and practices is a great intention and one we should continue to strive hard for, but should it limit our ability to apply some of the evidence we already have, even circumstantially? Personally, I don’t think so. But I recognize that is a perspective that will not hold for everyone, whether a neuroscientist, a teacher, a parent, or a combination of all!
Perhaps we need to also recruit the help of additional key players in the chain of educational neuroscience (or other fields that could be applied), people like Knowledge Translators and Applied (Neuro)Scientists who could be a sifting through some of the existing data to inform decisions, decisions that will be based on research that may differ significantly from the circumstances of the classroom, indeed. Perhaps this gap-filling method would get areas of neuroscience the needed attention it deserves to create a brooding funding interest.