Educational Neuroscience

Neuroscientist Michael Thomas on the connection between neuroscience and education, neural circuits, and practical application of neuroscience in the classrooms

videos | July 4, 2018

Educational neuroscience is an attempt to use new findings that are emerging from neuroscience about the mechanisms of learning in the brain and to understand how they may be translated into implications in the classroom to improve educational outcomes of children.

Why is that that when I’m trying to learn French vocabulary and I forget it few months, a few years later, but I don’t forget that I’m scared of spiders? Why is that? Why is it that after a good night’s sleep I seem to be able to remember what I learned yesterday better? Why is that? Why teenagers all of a sudden start making risky decisions and trying to impress their friends? Why is it that? I seem to be able to new learn a new language better when I’m 5 years of age than when I am 50 years of age. All of these things have no basis for understanding what a computer does. Another example: Why is it that I do lots of learning on my topic, I sit in an exam and I’m really stressed, and suddenly my mind goes blank? All of these aspects, things like phobias, things like sleep, things like puberty, things like aging – these have no basis in how a computer works. Computers don’t get stressed. There are a lot of aspects that appear within children’s behavior, children’s learning that we won’t get any insight into unless we understand how the brain is working.

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Your brain doesn’t work that way. It is content, it is built into specialized circuits, specific circuits. That’s why if you improve, if you strengthen the connections between the neurons in one circuit, it doesn’t transfer to the another circuit connections in other circuits. Of course, you’ve got to think how a system like that is going to work with all these specialized components. This one is for vision, this one is for hearing, this one is for decision-making. What you also have there is a control system – one that will activate the right circuits in the right context and inhibit the wrong one. The goal of education in that framework is to try and see how we can put the right specialized content into the right systems, but also to train the controlling system to make sure that the right parts of the system are activated in the right context.

A good example of how you might transfer from an understanding of neuroscience to what it might mean in the classroom is the example of learning about science. What’s interesting about science is in many cases scientific knowledge oversights intuitive knowledge about how the world works. Take a six-year-old boy. He learns in class that the world is round, it’s a sphere to curve surface. But for all of his six years he’s been running out around so that maybe two years he’s been playing football on the football pitch that looks flat. How does that child go about learning that the earth is a sphere, whereas his everyday experience says it’s flat? One way you might think is you just overwrite that old knowledge, and you put in the new scientific knowledge. Neuroscience studies of expert scientists – and you put them in the brain scanner and see what’s happening in their brain – turns out that what they’re doing is actively inhibiting their intuitive knowledge and activating their scientific knowledge. What makes them an expert is that they are better inhibiting irrelevant intuitive knowledge. That gives us a hint that one of the skills that might help children learn science is helping them with this suppression or inhibition skill.

Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at Birkbeck, University of London, the Director of the Centre for Educational Neuroscience
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