What has neuroscience ever done for us (in ELT)?

Posted: October 24, 2021 in teacher training
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Five years ago, in 2016, there was an interesting debate in the pages of the journal ‘Psychological Review’. It began with an article by Jeffrey Bowers (2016a), a psychologist at the University of Bristol, who argued that neuroscience (as opposed to psychology) has little, or nothing, to offer us, and is unlikely ever to be able to do so, in terms of improving classroom instruction. He wasn’t the first to question the relevance of neuroscience to education (see, for example, Willingham, 2009), but this was a full-frontal attack. Bowers argued that ‘neuroscience rarely offers insights into instruction above and beyond psychology’ and that neuroscientific evidence that the brain changes in response to instruction are irrelevant. His article was followed by two counter-arguments (Gabrieli, 2016; Howard-Jones, et al., 2016), which took him to task for too narrowly limiting the scope of education to classroom instruction (neglecting, for example, educational policy), for ignoring the predictive power of neuroimaging on neurodevelopmental differences (and, therefore, its potential value in individualising curricula), and for failing to take account of the progress that neuroscience, in collaboration with educators, has already made. Bowers’ main argument, that educational neuroscience had little to tell us about teaching, was not really addressed in the counter-arguments, and Bowers (2016b) came back with a counter-counter-rebuttal.

The brain responding to seductive details

In some ways, the debate, like so many of the kind, suffered from the different priorities of the participants. For Gabriele and Howard-Jones et al., Bowers had certainly overstated his case, but they weren’t entirely in disagreement with him. Paul Howard-Jones has been quoted by André Hedlund as saying that ‘all neuroscience can do is confirm what we’ve been doing all along and give us new insights into a couple of new things’. One of Howard-Jones’ co-authors, Usha Goswami, director of the Centre for Neuroscience in Education at the University of Cambridge, has said that ‘there is a gulf between current science and classroom applications’ (Goswami, 2006).

For teachers, though, it is the classroom applications that are of interest. Claims for the relevance of neuroscience to ELT have been made by many. We [in ESL / EFL] need it, writes Curtis Kelly (2017). Insights from neuroscience can, apparently, make textbooks more ‘brain friendly’ (Helgesen & Kelly, 2015). Herbert Puchta’s books are advertised by Cambridge University Press as ‘based on the latest insights into how the brain works fresh from the field of neuroscience’. You can watch a British Council talk by Rachael Roberts, entitled ‘Using your brain: what neuroscience can teach us about learning’. And, in the year following the Bowers debate, Carol Lethaby and Patricia Harries gave a presentation at IATEFL Glasgow (Lethaby & Harries, 2018) entitled ‘Research and teaching: What has neuroscience ever done for us?’ – a title that I have lifted for this blog post. Lethaby and Harries provide a useful short summary of the relevance of neuroscience to ELT, and I will begin my discussion with that. They expand on this in their recent book (Lethaby, Mayne & Harries, 2021), a book I highly recommend.

So what, precisely, does neuroscience have to tell English language teachers? Lethaby and Harries put forward three main arguments. Firstly, neuroscience can help us to bust neuromyths (the examples they give are right / left brain dominance and learning styles). Secondly, it can provide information that informs teaching (the examples given are the importance of prior knowledge and the value of translation). Finally, it can validate existing best practice (the example given is the importance of prior knowledge). Let’s take a closer look.

I have always enjoyed a bit of neuromyth busting and I wrote about ‘Left brains and right brains in English language teaching’ a long time ago. It is certainly true that neuroscience has helped to dispel this myth: it is ‘simplistic at best and utter hogwash at worst’ (Dörnyei, 2009: 49). However, we did not need neuroscience to rubbish the practical teaching applications of this myth, which found their most common expression in Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) and Brain Gym. Neuroscience simply banged in the final nail in the coffin of these trends. The same is true for learning styles and the meshing hypothesis. It’s also worth noting that, despite the neuroscientific evidence, such myths are taking a long time to die … a point I will return to at the end of this post.

Lethaby and Harries’s second and third arguments are essentially the same, unless, in their second point they are arguing that neuroscience can provide new information. I struggle, however, to see anything that is new. Neuroimaging apparently shows that the medial prefrontal cortex is activated when prior knowledge is accessed, but we have long known (since Vygotsky, at least!) that effective learning builds on previous knowledge. Similarly, the amygdala (known to be associated with the processing of emotions) may play an important role in learning, but we don’t need to know about the amygdala to understand the role of affect in learning. Lastly, the neuroscientific finding that different languages are not ‘stored’ in separate parts of the brain (Spivey & Hirsch, 2003) is useful to substantiate arguments that translation can have a positive role to play in learning another language, but convincing arguments predate findings such as these by many, many years. This would all seem to back up Howard-Jones’s observation about confirming what we’ve been doing and giving us new insights into a couple of new things. It isn’t the most compelling case for the relevance of neuroscience to ELT.

Chapter 2 of Carol Lethaby’s new book, ‘An Introduction to Evidence-based Teaching in the English Language Classroom’ is devoted to ‘Science and neuroscience’. The next chapter is called ‘Psychology and cognitive science’ and practically all the evidence for language teaching approaches in the rest of the book is drawn from cognitive (rather than neuro-) science. I think the same is true for the work of Kelly, Helgesen, Roberts and Puchta that I mentioned earlier.

It is perhaps the case these days that educationalists prefer to refer to ‘Mind, Brain, and Education Science’ (MBE) – the ‘intersection of neuroscience, education, and psychology’ – rather than educational neuroscience, but, looking at the literature of MBE, there’s a lot more education and psychology than there is neuroscience (although the latter always gets a mention). Probably the most comprehensive and well-known volume of practical ideas deriving from MBE is ‘Making Classrooms Better’ (Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2014). Of the 50 practical applications listed, most are either inspired by the work of John Hattie (2009) or the work of cognitive psychologists. Neuroscience hardly gets a look in.

To wrap up, I’d like to return to the question of neuroscience’s role in busting neuromyths. References to neuroscience, especially when accompanied by fMRI images, have a seductive appeal to many: they confer a sense of ‘scientific’ authority. Many teachers, it seems, are keen to hear about neuroscience (Pickering & Howard-Jones, 2007). Even when the discourse contains irrelevant neuroscientific information (diagrams of myelination come to mind), it seems that many of us find this satisfying (Weisberg et al., 2015; Weisberg et al., 2008). It gives an illusion of explanatory depth (Rozenblit & Keil, 2002), the so-called ‘seductive details effect’. You are far more likely to see conference presentations, blog posts and magazine articles extolling the virtues of neuroscientific findings than you are to come across things like I am writing here. But is it possible that the much-touted idea that neuroscience can bust neuromyths is itself a myth?

Sadly, we have learnt in recent times that scientific explanations have only very limited impact on the beliefs of large swathes of the population (including teachers, of course). Think of climate change and COVID. Why should neuroscience be any different? It probably isn’t. Scurich & Shniderman (2014) found that ‘neuroscience is more likely to be accepted and credited when it confirms prior beliefs’. We are more likely to accept neuroscientific findings because we ‘find them intuitively satisfying, not because they are accurate’ (Weisberg, et al. 2008). Teaching teachers about educational neuroscience may not make much, if any, difference (Tham et al., 2019). I think there is a danger in using educational neuroscience, seductive details and all, to validate what we already do (as opposed to questioning what we do). And for those who don’t already do these things, they’ll probably ignore such findings as there are, anyway.

References

Bowers, J. (2016a) The practical and principled problems with educational Neuroscience. Psychological Review 123 (5) 600 – 612

Bowers, J.S. (2016b) Psychology, not educational neuroscience, is the way forward for improving educational outcomes for all children: Reply to Gabrieli (2016) and Howard-Jones et al. (2016). Psychological Review. 123 (5):628-35.

Dörnyei, Z. (2009) The Psychology of Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Gabrieli, J.D. (2016) The promise of educational neuroscience: Comment on Bowers (2016). Psychological Review. 123 (5):613-9

Goswami , U. (2006). Neuroscience and education: From research to practice? Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 7: 406 – 413

Hattie, J. (2009) Visible Learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London: Routledge

Helgesen, M. & Kelly, C. (2015) Do-it-yourself: Ways to make your textbook more brain-friendly’ SPELT Quarterly, 30 (3): 32 – 37

Howard-Jones, P.A., Varma. S., Ansari, D., Butterworth, B., De Smedt, B., Goswami, U., Laurillard, D. & Thomas, M. S. (2016) The principles and practices of educational neuroscience: Comment on Bowers (2016). Psychological Review. 123 (5):620-7

Kelly, C. (2017) The Brain Studies Boom: Using Neuroscience in ESL/EFL Teacher Training. In Gregersen, T. S. & MacIntyre, P. D. (Eds.) Innovative Practices in Language Teacher Education pp.79-99 Springer

Lethaby, C. & Harries, P. (2018) Research and teaching: What has neuroscience ever done for us?’ in Pattison, T. (Ed.) IATEFL Glasgow Conference Selections 2017. Faversham, Kent, UK: IATEFL  p. 36- 37

Lethaby, C., Mayne, R. & Harries, P. (2021) An Introduction to Evidence-Based Teaching in the English Language Classroom. Shoreham-by-Sea: Pavilion Publishing

McCabe, D.P. & Castel, A.D. (2008) Seeing is believing: The effect of brain images on judgments of scientific reasoning. Cognition 107: 343–352.

Pickering, S. J. & Howard-Jones, P. (2007) Educators’ views on the role of neuroscience in education: findings from a study of UK and international perspectives. Mind Brain Education 1: 109–113.

Rozenblit, L., & Keil, F. (2002). The misunderstood limits of folk science: an illusion of explanatory depth. Cognitive science, 26(5), 521–562.

Scurich, N., & Shniderman, A. (2014) The selective allure of neuroscientific explanations. PLOS One, 9 (9), e107529. http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone. 0107529.

Spivey, M. V. & Hirsch, J. (2003) ‘Shared and separate systems in bilingual language processing: Converging evidence from eyetracking and brain imaging’ Brain and Language, 86: 70 – 82

Tham, R., Walker, Z., Tan, S.H.D., Low, L.T. & Annabel Chan, S.H. (2019) Translating educational neuroscience for teachers. Learning: Research and Practice, 5 (2): 149-173 Singapore: National Institute of Education

Tokuhama-Espinosa, T. (2014) Making Classrooms Better. New York: Norton

Weisberg, D. S., Taylor, J. C. V. & Hopkins, E.J. (2015) Deconstructing the seductive allure of neuroscience explanations. Judgment and Decision Making, Vol. 10, No. 5, September 2015, pp. 429–441

Weisberg, D. S., Keil, F. C., Goodstein, J., Rawson, E., & Gray, J. R. (2008). The seductive allure of neuroscience explanations. Journal of cognitive neuroscience, 20 (3): 470–477.

Willingham, D. T. (2009). Three problems in the marriage of neuroscience and education. Cortex, 45: 54-55.

Comments
  1. eflnotes says:

    hi Philip thanks! was inspired to comment about myths here https://nextcloud.englishup.me/sites/rethunk/myths
    ta
    mura

  2. […] What has neuroscience ever done for us (in ELT)? […]

  3. Curtis Kelly says:

    Good article Philip. Basically, I agreed with the idea that neuroscience is not opening that many new boxes, but it does give us a solid foundation for what previously was generally intuitive. Yes, it was well-accepted that students who are engaged tend to learn more, and there is some evidentiary data for some learners in some situations that supports that, but that is not nearly as clear or convincing as knowing that in cases of “motivation,” the same neurotransmitter the brain releases to motivate is also one that strengthens synaptic connections. Ie, the brain remembers what makes it feel good.

    In other words, neuroscience is telling us why. There are many things I had inkings of intuitively that neuroscience has fine-tuned and made me take far more seriously, such as the social brain, critical ages, attention, noticing.

    There are other things that neuroscience has explained and made understandable: such as grammar as a tool of predictive processing.

    And still others that drastically changed my teaching style: such as the importance of occasional movement to keep blood flow and cognition up. I no longer pass out quizzes. They come to me.

    In fact, just today, I heard another one, a discovery explained by Stanford Neuroscientist Huberman: Giving students ten seconds of silence after explaining something important leads to neural patterns for that information to be cycled (fired forward and backward very quickly) and thus strengthen the memory, in a way similar to what happens when we sleep.

    • philipjkerr says:

      Thanks for your thoughts, Curtis. Your mention of the social brain made me think of a couple of tweets I’ve seen recently in which the importance of social / collaborative learning is questioned. I’m still trying to track down something more academic than opinion-tweets, but the idea that ‘social learning’ may sometimes be no more than ‘social loafing’ is an interesting one. Similarly, I guess, ten minutes of silence after hearing an explanation might lead to memory reinforcement, although there’s no guarantee that it will. I imagine it must depend on the amount of attention that was paid to the explanation, and what, besides the silence, is taking place in the mind during the silence.
      I think my approach to reading educational neuroscience has moved on from finding confirmation in things we kind of knew already, to finding that it now provokes in me further questions of the ‘yes-but …’ kind. And that’s fine with me!

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