Science of the Brain in UK Education
LONDON—It is well-known today that our brains can continue changing and developing right through the entire span of our lives, a phenomenon known as “brain plasticity.”
Many commercial products claiming advanced learning achievements through their “brain-based” learning methods have hit the markets. These products, however, have not always lived up to their claims. Some developers even later admitted no real scientific backing, leaving many to question the role neuroscience can play in learning.
But with a growing knowledge base on how our brains work, professors and neuroscientists are taking a closer look—and the funds are increasingly available to back them up.
Hannah Smith, a doctoral student at Goldsmiths College–University of London, is developing educational tools informed by neuroscience for children with conduct disorders. Conduct disorders include a range of antisocial behaviors displayed in children and adolescents, including difficulty following rules.
Smith uses an electroencephalograph to record students’ brain activities. She identifies parts of the brain affected by the disorders. She then assesses how different classroom activities affect those parts of the brain.
Her work is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, a public body supported by the U.K.’s Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Smith was 1 of more than 50 researchers who attended a Learnus conference at the Centre for Educational Neuroscience in London in June. Learnus is an international organization dedicated to bridging the gap between neuroscience and education development.
Professor Derek Bell of Learnus said: “The idea is to bring teachers and scientists together to explore where there could be links, where we just don’t know, and where there probably are links. … It’s something we need to explore.”
But, he admitted, when it comes to understanding why one method of teaching works better than another and how much brain functioning has to do with it, “We’re a long way from figuring that out.”
Smith’s research helps her understand how educational methods affect memory, planning, and organization centers in the brain. Professor Uta Frith, chair of the Royal Society Brain Waves Project, said neuroscience can also help students develop better emotional self-control.
Learnus will hold workshops around the U.K. and forge avenues of communication and collaboration with schools.
In early July, charitable organizations Wellcome Trust and the Educational Endowment Foundation held an event in London to collect and discuss progress made by teachers and neuroscientists. Their findings will be officially released in the coming months.
Frith is encouraged by the events bringing experts together and the increasing availability of funding for research in the field. She said with excitement, “It’s happening!”