No one knows how much knowledge students take home with them after a day at school. Tests, homework and inspections give a snapshot of learning but ultimately it’s something that you cannot see; it’s invisible and personal.
The educational researcher Graham Nuthall spent 40 years trying to understand how we learn. He wired classrooms in New Zealand for sound, installed video cameras, sat in on lessons and interviewed hundreds of students. But despite crunching mountains of data, he was not able to draw any conclusions.
In recent years, a new field of enquiry has burst onto the scene with the hope of finally unlocking the secret of how learning takes place. It’s been referred to as educational neuroscience, neuroeducation and mind, brain and education.
This approach has been explored by scientists at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, US, who conducted a study last year. They taught students about the inner workings of household objects in a physics lesson which took place inside an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) brain scanner.
As the students learned about the simple mechanisms, the neuroscientists recorded the activity in their brains. By looking at what patterns appeared, the scientists could work out which mechanism the brain was thinking about. The scientists behind the study made big claims, suggesting this kind of research could lead to improved teaching methods and a new way to assess students’ learning.
But not everyone is convinced. Dorothy Bishop, a professor of developmental neuropsychology at Oxford University, has well-reasoned reservations about educational neuroscience.
For her, the brain images fMRI studies generate are inherently vague and the technique is too unwieldy and expensive for routine use in education. Bishop thinks psychologists, who use human behaviour to infer how mental processes work, have much more to offer.
– Ben Martynoga