The Practical and Principled Problems with Educational Neuroscience

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The core claim of educational neuroscience is that neuroscience can improve teaching in the classroom. Many strong claims are made about the successes and the promise of this new discipline. By contrast, I show that there are no current examples of neuroscience motivating new and effective teaching methods, and argue that neuroscience is unlikely to improve teaching in the future. The reasons are two-fold. First, in practice, it is easier characterize the cognitive capacities of children on the basis of behavioral measures than on the basis of brain measures. As a consequence, neuroscience rarely offers insights into instruction above and beyond psychology. Second, in principle, the theoretical motivations underpinning educational neuroscience are misguided, and this makes it difficult to design or assess new teaching methods on the basis of neuroscience. Regarding the design of instruction, it is widely assumed that remedial instruction should target the underlying deficits associated with learning disorders, and neuroscience is used to characterize the deficit. However, the most effective forms of instruction may often rely on developing compensatory (non-impaired) skills. Neuroscience cannot determine whether instruction should target impaired or non-impaired skills. More importantly, regarding the assessment of instruction, the only relevant issue is whether the child learns, as reflected in behavior. Evidence that the brain changed in response to instruction irrelevant. At the same, an important goal for neuroscience is to characterize how the brain changes in response to learning, and this includes learning in the classroom. Neuroscientists cannot help educators, but educators can help neuroscientists.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)600-612
Number of pages13
JournalPsychological Review
Issue number5
Early online date3 Mar 2016
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2016

Structured keywords

  • Language
  • Cognitive Science


  • Educational neuroscience
  • mind, brain, and education

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