Will neuroscience help education sort the truth from the quackery?


Little or no sound evidence exists to support claims that brain training, and other brain-based programmes that are now used widely in schools and colleges will accelerate learning and improve performance. Even the much-vaunted Brain Gym has precious little peer-reviewed neuroscience evidence to back it up.

Now, the whole region of neuroscience and its potential benefits for education is to come under the microscope with a £6m fund created by The Wellcome Trust and Education Endowment Foundation launched jointly this week at the Education Media Centre.

Education ministers have constantly talked up the need for evidence-driven policy and in 2013 Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, appointed Ben Goldacre, doctor of medicine, Guardian columnist and author of the award-winning Bad Science, to carry out a detailed inquiry into the role of evidence in shaping education policy.

Goldacre challenged critics who argued that traditional scientific research such as the use of double-blind and randomised controlled trials amounted to unethical experimentation on young people. Indeed, evidence supporting his position is already available and was explored at the EMC launch of the fund which will be used for grant-aided work over five years in schools and colleges.

Teams of teachers and neuroscientists will put to the test a wide range of topics from brain training and links between exercise and academic performance to issues such as the effects of stress on the learning of maths, organisation of the school day and the influence of good sleep patterns on brain activity. Charges that randomised trials are unfair will be countered in various ways, for example by involving half the participants one year, the other half the next.

The EMC meeting excited much media interest. Here are some examples of reports:

Do teens who stay in bed longer learn better? A £6m neuroscience study will find out – Independent

Brain scientists to work with schools on how to learn – BBC News

Why sleepy teens DO need their beds: Letting youngsters lie in could boost exam results – Daily Mail

‘From brain scan to lesson plan?’ Millions for neuroscience research in UK classrooms – TES

Neuroscience in schools research gets funding boost – Children and Young People Now

Myths about how the brain works have no place in the classroom – The Guardian

Members of the Policy consortium are involved in the EMC. Andrew Morris is Chair and Ian Nash is a Trustee.

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