Solutions

Solutions: How to ensure neuroeducation actually improves teacher performance 

The rapid revolution in neuroeducation risks being lost to mutations and poor implementation unless we shift from ‘what works’ to why and how, writes Ross McGill

The rapid revolution in neuroeducation risks being lost to mutations and poor implementation unless we shift from ‘what works’ to why and how, writes Ross McGill

28 Mar 2023, 5:00

As a result of social media, many teachers have grown professional learning networks that would have been unimaginable 20 years ago. One of the biggest wins is that many have become critical consumers in the relatively young sector of neuroeducation, or cogsci as it is sometimes referred to.

We’ve seen a rapid revolution in this field over the last decade. In effect, it has come to incorporate cognitive neuroscience, which focuses on the relationship between cognition and the functions of the brain, and cognitive psychology, which considers how the mind operates and theorises the underlying mechanisms of learning.

Evolution takes time

Neuroeducation then is an applied science which aims to help super-busy teachers tailor their instruction in evidence-based ways to improve student outcomes. It includes retrieval practice, spaced and interleaving practice and metacognitive strategies among others and taps into the profession’s sense of social justice with its promise to help identify and address learning difficulties and transform potential.

A recent Education Endowment Foundation literature review, however, concludes that applying is harder than knowing the principles of cognitive science, and that they “do not determine specific teaching and learning strategies or approaches to implementation”. 

This is something we should all take seriously. In essence, teachers themselves need an environment with regular retrieval opportunities to support their development of new habits and practices. The science of implementation suggests this can take anything from two to four years!

Beware of mutations

Rosenshine’s 1982 ‘principles of effective instruction’ are a case in point. They’ve achieved prominence only recently, and there are great examples of schools adopting them as part of their professional development programmes. In more worrying cases, some have turned them into an observation checklist – a way to prove teaching rather than improve it.

Others are digging deeper into metacognitive strategies including retrieval practice. Mutations aside, it’s important to remember that a blended approach to teacher instruction is more likely to yield benefits than a fixed methodology. After all, how many online quizzes can you do before you get bored?

The key to successful implementation then is to adopt a wide perspective rather than relying on ‘knowledge brokers’ on social media and elsewhere to impart a pre-packaged pedagogical model. The risk isn’t just a waste of precious teacher time and effort. The British Psychological Society worries that cognitive science could “damage confidence in educational psychology if it undermines the quality of teacher education and teaching”.

Indeed, I recently delivered an ‘education myths’ session at a college and was shocked to find that 65 per cent of teachers in the room still believed in learning styles. We can ill afford to instil new myths that take decades to unpick.

Natural selection

In a seminal paper from 2013, Dunlosky and colleagues concluded that “the benefit of most of the techniques in representative educational settings needs to be more fully explored”. A decade later, these words could just as easily have been included in the EEF’s literature review.

Take retrieval practice. Almost all the research is conducted in high school and college settings and in academic subjects. Primary teachers and teachers of mechanics, drama or PE will find it much harder to find and translate research recommendations into their contexts – let alone to know whether it’s worth the effort.

Macro observations from my work in schools and analytics from my website suggest many teachers are critical consumers of neuroeducation. The challenge for them, and even more so for those who are not yet engaged, is navigating the plethora of related resources and organisations offering them.

All teachers should learn about neuroeducation from teacher training right through career-long professional development. But reflecting on the past decade, I’m reminded of a recent conversation with John Hattie, who said we should move away from the ‘what works’ agenda towards prioritising ‘why and how’.

No matter how much we know individually, it is our collective wisdom that will take our profession forward. And as with all things, a diversity of thought and practices is most likely to deliver the benefits we all want.

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