Progress but Limitations too?

Dr Simon Walker, who heads the Centre for Human Ecology Theory,  warns us in a recent blog , about the  limitations of neuroscience when it comes to understanding the process of learning and in developing practical tools to help in the classroom.

Neuroscientists focus on the brain and its impact on behaviour and cognitive functions. It is  now  an interdisciplinary science which liaises  with ,and straddles other disciplines, such as mathematics, linguistics, engineering, computer science, chemistry, philosophy, psychology, and medicine. Behavioural neuroscience is, for example, the study of the biological bases of behaviour. Looking at how the brain affects behaviour. Cognitive neuroscience , on the other hand,  is  the study of higher cognitive functions that exist in humans, and their underlying neural bases. Neuroscience, is, it is claimed,  producing new insights  in the ongoing development and evaluation of new approaches to learning and development .

Dr Paul Howard-Jones, a reader in neuroscience and education at the Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol, says that understanding the nature of brain development has helped economists to challenge the idea that assumes we have an innate fixed ability. And research supports the idea that investment in learning improves our ability to learn more and emphasises the importance of considering when we invest, as well as what we invest in (Heckman 2000).  Our brains are certainly more ‘plastic’ when we are younger, but their connectivity, function and even structure can change dramatically in response to learning throughout our lives. This presents exciting possibilities.  Indeed researchers believe that   much of the building of our brains comes through the use of skills and experience, which can happen at any age.

Howard Jones’ work for CIPD is interesting and instructive  in this respect ( Fresh thinking in learning and development Parts 1-3- Neuroscience and learning- Feb 2014-CIPD) see link below

But Simon Walker urges caution when it comes to neuroscience. Sometimes the neuroscience itself has been bad science, he claims. ‘ More often, the application of the science by teachers has been bad practice. Neuroscience has that seductive appeal, the promise of unlocking the kernel of what learning actually is. But neuroscience does not and, indeed, cannot achieve that. Peering into the neural activity of thirty teenagers rampaging in science, lesson three Monday morning, is currently beyond the scope of the fMRI scanners. Teaching may draw on bits of hard neuroscience but in the end, classroom teaching is a social collective experience. Neuroscience does not adequately deal with collective cognitive affective phenomena. No, teaching is informed by studies inside the brain but it will never be fully described by them. Teaching is a live happening, a collective event,’ he says.

Although Walker has a point, he caricatures the  issue,   and   is probably too dismissive of the potential of neuroscience to  provide important insights into the learning process, and how best to prioritize resources . Its  an area of science that has seen massive progress over the last generation and the evidence it reveals will surely  play an increasingly important role in informing policy development and at least  some classroom practice

Blog-Simon Walker

Fresh thinking in learning and development Parts 1-3- Neuroscience and learning- Feb 2014-CIPD



  1. I can’t imagine that any experienced teacher would find Sarah-Jayne Blakemore’s insights into the teenage brain anything other than entirely reflective of their experience. What I find more interesting is her notion that teenage brains are still engineered to learn (risk taking, peer pressure etc) and the question that begs is, do secondary school teachers do enough to exploit that advantage? I suspect far too many suffocate rather than stimulate.

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