Neuroscience: Limited In Informing Learning Practices, But The Future Is Huge What

Neuroscience: What Trainers and Teachers Need To Know By Robert Bacal

There's hardly a day that goes by without mention in the popular media or training literature of new findings from the field of neuroscience, and how neuroscience is informing us about how learning happens, and how to make it happen.

Unfortunately, there's a lot of misinterpretation, some deliberate, about the application of neuroscience research to helping people learn, so that's what we're going to look at. The need to understand the limitations of current brain studies is increasing as more vendors are using the "brain research" to convince buyers that their programs are somehow "better.

Here are a few basics about the state of our understanding of brains.

Neuroscience A Toddler Science At Best

While neuroscience isn't new per se, since people have been studying how brains functions going back 40-50 years (Wilder Penfield and his evoked memories during brain surgery come to mind), it's only been since the advent of new technology -- brain scannning procedures, and other supplementary techniques, that scientists can "look in side the brain" to see what is going on in different situations.

As a result, there is not an extensive body of research on any one specific topic, and single studies mean nothing in science. Without replicatated findings, those single studies you see reported are meaningless if not misleading.

Majority of Research is "Pure" Research

Pure research is experimentation, in essence to find out more about how we deal with information, let's say, but it has no immediate, direct and practical application in the real world. To cite an example, Einstein's work in physics was not intended to solve any specific problem but just to learn more about how the world works. Eventually it was applied to the development of the atomic bomb, and other usable technologies, but that was not WHY Einstein did his work.

In brain science, in part because the discipline is young, the overwhelming majority of research is to "find out about" the brain, and not to solve a specific problem, like "How can we teach more effectively."

There's no question that applied research that focuses on using what we know about brains to better help people will come, but the truth is that we are still a long way away.

So, when you see claims for training or learning systems or methods that are brain based, or based on neuroscience, don't believe it for a minute.

Either it's a scam, a marketing ploy, or someone is ignorant about the meaning of the research he or she claims to use.

Lay People Will Have Trouble Making Sense Of The Pure Research And Misinterpret

Almost every week I find media reporters, trainers and teachers writing about the latest findings, and it's clear they have not read the original research, or understood it. In fact, although I have a research background in cognitive science, it doesn't qualify me to evaluate the meaning of complex research about the brain. And, they aren't qualified either, not even to ask the right questions of the scientists who are doing the research.

Since most of us have limited access, or ability to interpret neuroscience research in journals, we are stuck. It's easy to jump to conclusions about how to apply the research to education and training, but to do so would be incorrect, and again, misleading.

The Current State Of Neuroscience As An Applied Discipline

Scientists have learned a lot about what parts of the brain get involved in different kinds of human situations. What scientists do NOT know is the link between these brain events, reported though processes, and humana behavior.

Let alone how to use the information about how to teach effectively.

It's a HUGE leap from where we are to practical suggestions for the practical world, so we can solve problems in that world.

Here's an example, and it's quite typical. A researcher "wired up" subjects to monitor brain activity in dyads (pairs). He found that the positions people had with respect to each other made a big difference in brain activity, so brains processed information quite differently, when pairs were in a face to face orientation, compared to if they were back to back, or side to side.

It's an interesting finding that probably reflects what we know from other disciplines, sociology and psychology, and eventually it may result in practical strategies to improve communication and learning.

But right now, it's just a bit of information. It's hardly enough to, let's say, recommend that learners sit face to face in pairs during all training.

All we know is the brain acts differently, and know nothing about whether it would be better for learning, or worse, or have no effect.

So, we just aren't at the point where we can extrapolate.

This doesn't stop people from making claims that their training methods are brain based. By and large they aren't any more brain based than any training method.

The Future

We are in effect, building a foundation for the application of a more indepth understanding of how the brain works. But we are FAR away from that, and it may be as long as ten years before our understanding of the brain has improved enough, to make the links to solving very practical problems regarding learning, and teaching.

It WILL be exciting, but until then beware of all the reports, even in traditional media, because THOSE reporters often don't have the background to ask the right questions or report the implications of these studies with the context of applying them to problems.



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