Sarah-Jane Blakemore, a professor in cognitive neuroscience at University College London, recently pointed out that it’s only in the last few years that we have learned much about adolescent brain development. This is leading a movement in which a new approach to education is being called for. Yet it’s not just adolescents who can benefit from a neuroscientific approach to education, it matters for younger children too.
One of the most important things to know from a neuroscientific perspective is that the brain is ‘plastic’ and so there is no such thing as normal or typical. While brain development is influenced by genetics and all brains have structural similarities, every single thought, emotion, behaviour and interaction changes the brain. As Jenni Newcombe, an experienced SENCo, teacher and curriculum designer with a masters in educational neuroscience, says, “Schools decide what’s typical, brains don’t.”
In discussion of the benefits and risks of separating children into ability streams, that’s worth remembering. Schools put limits and parameters around what needs to be learned at both extremes, and its usually too much or too little. Children learn at different speeds and in different ways. One of the great myths is that people have different learning styles and if they are taught the right way (such as aurally, visually, mechanically), they will learn better. The reality is that children may have learning preferences but, to a certain extent, it doesn’t really matter how content is delivered, it can be learned.
The real question then seems to be why are we teaching children content rather than teaching them how to learn. The Finnish education system, which is considered to be the best in the world, focuses on developing and applying skills across the curriculum rather than on learning content. In a world where much analytical work will soon be delivered by computers, isn’t it more important that we equip the next generation with the skills to learn new things in new ways?
Examinations are being introduced at ever earlier ages and while they are supposed to be ‘low stakes’ the amount of stress experienced by many children taking these tests is enormous. While the school may make clear that the tests will not affect the children’s future, that doesn’t prevent children’s concerns about competition, failure, letting down parents and all sorts of negative thinking. According to Newcombe, exams themselves fail because they measure the child’s value (they rate how ‘good’ they are) rather than assessing their skills and knowledge effectively. Instead, testing should only be used, at least until exiting school, to assess for further learning—to identify the gaps, ideally.
If the outcome of any test is expected to be a measure of the child, surely that’s a failure in our thinking. How can the factual recollection of content in an examination environment help any child in preparing for the new work and home paradigms of a digital society?
If they have the learning skills they can learn the content anywhere. In the brain activation is greater if children have done something they have learned from, not when they know something. As Newcombe says, “There is no benefit in the brain to knowing, the benefit comes from learning and the use of that learning in doing something new.”