Is Educational Neuroscience for Real? Dr Martha Burns explains

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Peter Barnes
Brain Science, Learning Capacity, Podcasts, Educational Neuroscience

Educational NeuroscienceWhat is educational neuroscience? Is it a specialist area of knowledge or just a general title for intellectual sounding conversation? Can it help teachers get better learning outcomes for their students?

Maybe it's just "the latest thing" which will fade away in a year or two, just as many educational ideas that initially sound good, turn out not to be very useful.

Dr Martha Burns, Director of Neuroscience Education at Scientific Learning corporation answered these questions, and more, in a discussion on The Learning Capacity Podcast.


Dr Burns explains that educational neuroscience is a new branch of neuroscience.

The history of neuroscience

Neuroscience is a relatively new discipline which emerged in the early to mid 1990s. Before that there were groups of people who studied the brain: neurologists studied illnesses of the brain and neuropsychologists studied mind and emotions.

Then, around 1990 - 1995,  the field of neuroscience (including cognitive neuroscience and systems neuroscience) started looking at how the brain works, particularly how the normal or typical brain functions.

Educational neuroscience has emerged as a branch of cognitive neuroscience in the last three or four years. "It  is a formal discipline. It does exist. It does have its own body of research. And it is brand-new", says Dr Burns.

The best ways to teach different kinds of curriculum

Scientists working in this new branch of neuroscience are trying to figure out, using a very objective measures, what are the best ways to teach different subjects. For example, if you teach literature, you could use one or more of these three methods:

  1.  Have the student read the book and just read it over and over again.
  2.  Ask the student to paraphrase the book they read.
  3.  Get the student to paraphrase the book and then ask them to explain it to someone else.

Educational neuroscience looks at which parts of the brain are involved in these three methods and which have the most profound effects on the brain.  While a teacher will know from observation and testing which method produces the most lasting results, the science provides an objective answer by looking at what's going on in the brain.

The same applies to the teaching of maths, physics or any other subject.

Teachers see test results and behaviour, neuroscience sees what's going on in the brain

Dr Burns stresses that teachers needn't worry about what's going on inside their student's brain. She says that teachers just need to see that students are:

  •  Responding better
  •  Remembering more
  •  Paying better attention, and
  •  Are more motivated to learn

Teachers can see these things through observation and from test results.  Educational neuroscientists are looking at how best to build the student's brain so that there are learning capacity improvements, and how best to teach various areas of the curriculum.

Core capacities for learning

Is there a single capacity that underlies all learning?  No, says Dr Burns. She explains, " Attention and working memory are two core capacities for learning but there are others. For example in maths,  students need the capacity of number sense. They need to have a sense of more and less, far and near, high and low, and big and small. To learn reading they need language skills".

Tips for Teachers

Dr Burns has some tips in her podcast for teachers who might be interested in experimenting with some teaching techniques directly informed by educational neuroscience.

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