Early childhood education is a term that refers to the period of time from a child’s birth to when they enter kindergarten. It is an important time in children’s lives because they first learn how to interact with others, including peers, teachers, and parents, and begin to develop interests that will stay with them throughout their lives. It’s a time when children learn critical social and emotional skills and a partnership is formed between the child, their parents, and the teacher. It aims to holistic develop a child’s social, emotional, cognitive, and physical needs to build a solid and broad foundation for lifelong learning and well-being. But how do teachers and educators do it effectively and successfully? How does classroom learning place pressure on specific brain circuits to change? Are there differences in these circuits that could help us understand why some children struggle with learning?
Are there ways we can improve education to help children with those challenges? In the pursuit of answering these questions, is where “Educational Neuroscience” comes in.
Let us now examine the present state of research in this area, address some key concerns, and argue that educational neuroscience is a worthwhile pursuit with real potential to improve learning.
In recent years, there appears to be a growing appetite among teachers for brain-based findings to guide their work in the classroom. Educational neuroscience is a developing enterprise that encompasses all scientific areas of research that can contribute to education, including developmental psychology, cognitive neuroscience, genetics, and technology. Researchers in this area may link basic findings in cognitive neuroscience with educational technology to help in curriculum implementation for mathematics and reading education. Educational neuroscience aims to generate basic and applied research that will provide a new transdisciplinary account of learning and teaching, which is capable of informing early education.
Education should be individualized as much as possible, to fit the requirements of each child. Understanding underlying processes and causal mechanisms, even at the genetic level, allows for an increasingly personalized approach in providing the level of educational support that each child needs.
For this to happen, we need to move beyond traditional descriptions of educational performance and gain insights that lead to effective teaching approaches and an understanding of why they work for students. We will soon be able to explore the question of how all this rich diversity in brain development is linked to each child’s ongoing education through richly detailed assessments of their educational achievement, home, and school environment, social media use, and involvement in arts and sports.
Today’s generation of children is the first to grow up in a time when tools such as MRI and wearable brain-wave sensors are widely available. This has expanded our basic knowledge about the developing brain circuits of reading, math, and attention and allowing sampling of large populations of school children that covers the true range of neuro-diversity in them. Remarkably, many brain imaging technologies used today are sensitive to changes in brain circuits that accrue from one week to the next, allowing researchers to better understand how specific learning experiences drive changes in brain function and structure. Recent advances in neuroimaging techniques include magnetic encephalography and various types of functional and structural magnetic resonance imaging. These imaging tools have allowed for the previously impossible feat of non-invasively observing brain activity during the performance of various cognitive tasks. In the last two decades, work in neuroscience has corroborated several findings from behavioral studies that previously could not be explained mechanistically. For example, recent research has shed light on how regulation of attention affects memory networks and how attention can be improved through deliberate training. Although applying research from the neuro and cognitive sciences to classroom practice certainly remains a challenge, interdisciplinary collaboration has yielded considerable educationally relevant information about learning mechanisms that could not have been acquired solely through behavioral methods.
Educators now have relevant information about the neural and cognitive underpinnings of emotion, which affects learning in important ways via its influence on higher cognitive functions.
In addition, much has been learned about how the environment influences the developing brain and how symptoms of ADHD may represent developmental delay rather than damage in the brain.
However, responsibility for the disconnect between neuroscience and education has to be shared. Scientists follow an agenda that is rarely related to classroom practice or objectives. Findings in the neuro and cognitive sciences typically do not take into account complex higher-order cognitive processes, nor can they account for the inherently relationship-based, situational practice of teaching. Yet, at the same time, educators appeal to the authority of objective science to legitimize many of their decisions. Neuroscientists should make an effort to relate their work to the kind of behavioral and cognitive research that is sometimes presented to educators in teacher preparation programs. Neuro and cognitive science researchers must make a sufficient attempt to look from the lab to the classroom whenever it’s clear their work is relevant to education.
Significant progress will be made if scientific researchers are willing to step out of the laboratory and collaborate with educators by working in school settings with principals and teachers as co-investigators. In particular, this partnership requires identifying research questions that arise from the real needs of teachers, determining the best ways to test hypotheses, designing studies that allow for rigorous experimentation, and disseminating findings through a variety of print and electronic media in addition to peer-referred journals. To make a meaningful contribution to neuroeducation, scientists and educators must have regular opportunities to exchange points of view, compare professional methodologies, and begin to build mutually beneficial paths toward collaboration. While large conferences provide a chance for teachers to learn about research findings, smaller venues that provide for more meaningful dialogue are important as well. Through roundtable discussions, educators and scientists can identify areas of interest for future research and help jumpstart collaborations with local school principals to develop and conduct school-based studies on the effectiveness of arts integration for enhancing learning and memory.
Wearable Brain-Computer Interface neurotechnologies are the next frontier for brain scanning and sculpting. They rely on electroencephalography (EEG) sensors that can detect brain activity from electrical signals when neurons activate during learning. For example, Muse, a “personal meditation system,” is a commercially available neuroheadset for classroom learning, which has EEG sensors and a neuro-feedback app to alert users in real-time to their personal brain activity. If the sensors pick up indicators of stress or anxiety, the app provides meditative training content to focus the user’s attention. Neuroscientific evidence shows that mindfulness meditation can positively influence brain growth; that EEG-neurofeedback can optimize cognitive performance; and that “brainwave training” can result in neuroplastic changes. Over time, repetitive training on re-focusing helps users develop stronger mindfulness and focus as well as better stress control and improved mood. Such developments could open up a new horizon for brain-personalized learning, with educational courses tailored according to brain-data analytics conducted on neuro-adaptive learning platforms.
With personalized learning a hot topic of development and debate, neurotech-based adaptive learning might appeal to companies looking for a unique pitch, or policymakers seeking a fix for long-term problems. Unanswered questions remain, though, about the accuracy of brain-sensing technologies in the complex context of the classroom, and how neuro-adaptive platforms might impact student cognition, emotions, and behavior.
While the notion of educational neuroscience may be convincing in theory, the reality of teachers incorporating scientific findings into the classroom raises practical considerations. For example, previous studies have emphasized the widespread presence of “Neuromyths” and their persistence, especially among individuals in contact with education. From an educational standpoint, a neuromyth is described as a misconception generated by a misunderstanding, a misreading, or a misquoting of scientific facts. Neuromyths are the consequence of a lack of scientific knowledge, a communicative gap between scientists and teachers, and the low-quality information sources consulted by teachers. In addition, the data on protectors and predictors of neuromyths is inconsistent. There is also no standard scientific methodology nor a guideline to determine a new neuromyth. The results show the need to improve the scientific content in higher education and the importance of in-service teacher training. This research justifies the requirement for university professors to be active researchers and to establish a close link with educators from other fields and levels.
Researchers from the neuro and cognitive sciences have made rapid strides in the last two decades, producing highly relevant findings to the work of practitioners from various disciplines. In response to the ethical issues and challenges posed by the use of this emerging research, a new area of study has arisen—the field of neuroethics.
Neuroethics is described as including not only the ethics of conducting neuroscientific studies, but also the evaluation of the ethical and social impact that the results of those studies might have, or ought to have, on existing social, ethical, and legal structures. Hence, it is the duty of the academic community to provide a high-quality alternative to purely commercial, and often specious, applications of “brain-based” research. This is what the public should expect of educators and schools. It is also incumbent on those with the power to do so to stop misinterpretations before they evolve into widespread trends of thinking. Educational neuroethics provides a platform for bringing to light important social and ethical issues and therefore is perfectly positioned to move the larger educational community toward the cognitive and neuroscientific conception of learning that ought to be the primary focus. Though it may not be possible in the short-term, to reach a consensus regarding the goals of our education system, the emerging field of neuroeducation, with help from neuroethics, can and should broaden everyone’s perspective of what an effective school and an educated child truly are.