Neuroeducation: exploring the potential of brain-based education

Most people are aware that learning and mental performance are a function of the brain. As such, neuroscientists spend a lot of time exploring the biology behind processes such as the formation of memories, creative processes, social and emotional cognition, and more. But how can these scientific findings be translated into the real world? That’s what neuroeducation is all about.

Neuroeducation is a fairly new discipline which brings together researchers in neuroscience, educational psychology, and educational technology as well as practitioners such as educators to figure out the links between education and brain processes. It’s an extremely exciting field, with the ambitious goal to bridge the gap between researchers in the lab and educators in the real world.

Learning better with neuroeducation

So far, neuroeducation—which is sometimes called “educational neuroscience”—has been mostly applied in the context of academic performance and in the classroom. How can teachers use neuroscience principles to teach better? How can students use these same principles to learn better? How can complex scientific findings be translated into something actually usable in the classroom?

While it has its challenges, some researchers have argued that neuroeducation currently “provides the most relevant level of analysis for resolving today’s core problems in education.” Another researcher wrote: “Whether neuroscience can be informative to educational theory and practice is not debatable—it has been.”

Some of the main applications of neuroeducation include:

Neuroeducation areas of research
  • Attention. In order to learn, you need to be able to focus, sometimes for relatively long periods of time. In neuroscience, attention refers to the brain processes allowing us to focus on some aspects of our environment, excluding others. For instance, focusing on this article you are reading right now, and excluding the ambient noise around you.
  • Memory. It may sound obvious, but understanding how memory works and how you can make your learning more efficient can make the difference between good and great performance. There are science-based techniques to remember things better which everyone could benefit from applying, such as interleaving and chunking.
  • Executive control. Being able to plan ahead, creating a sequence of mental steps or actions, and to retain relevant and changing information for brief periods of time is crucial to learning and mental performance. While we know most of these happen in the prefrontal cortex and we have identified many of the mechanisms, lots of research still needs to be done to better understand how executive control actually works.
  • Social behaviour. There is a whole branch of neuroscience called Social Neuroscience which is dedicated to understanding how our biology impacts our social behaviours. Learning can be a solo or a group experience, and neuroscience can inform which approaches are the best depending on the learning goals.
  • Neurodiversity. Finally, many people live with conditions such as ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), dyscalculia (difficulty in making arithmetical calculations), dyslexia—which can all impact learning. Understanding these various conditions and how best adapt the learning environment to meet people’s needs is also an important aspect of neuroeducation.

In the classroom and beyond

Fortunately, learning does not stop in the classroom. As adults, we keep on learning, consuming new information, expanding our knowledge, evolving our thinking. While some of this happens in our spare time, a lot of the learning we do happens in the workplace. And many of the current applications of neuroeducation in the classroom are transferable to the workplace.

About $80 billion is spent every year on corporate training in the United States only and an average training budget for large companies of $17.7 million in 2019, the training industry is massive. On average, 44% of the training budget is spent on online learning tools and systems. With so much money being spent, are we even sure these training interventions are effective?

Neuroeducation could provide an answer, ensuring only science-based training interventions are being implemented, and that employees get to understand the fundamentals of how the brain works. Having a basic understanding of the biological processes underlying the way we think, learn, and make decisions should be considered mandatory. And because very few schools currently teach these neuroeducation principles, employers could step in.

Of course, neuroeducation is in its infancy and it is far from being the answer to everything. In particular, scientists still struggle to integrate findings from the laboratory, which are the result of controlled experiments, onto real-life, messy settings, where many complex factors impact the learning experience.

It’s all about having realistic expectations. A first step would be to use neuroeducation to dispel harmful neuromyths which have a negative impact on the way people learn. A second step would be to teach well-researched neuroscience findings in the area of learning and memory to students and employees. Many people are not familiar with these basic findings. Finally, a third and more challenging step would be to figure out a way to teach these neuroeducation principles at scales, while ensuring people actually understand how to make the most of them in a messy, real-life context.

There’s a long road ahead but the impact of neuroeducation on people’s performance and overall mental health could be massive.

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