What's The Truth Behind The Neuroscience Research You Use For Your Learning Design And Delivery?

What's The Truth Behind The Neuroscience Research You Use For Your Learning Design And Delivery?
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Summary: As part of your professional development, how do you consume research-based information and use it to inform the way you design and develop your learning interventions?

Neuroscience Research To Use For Learning Design And Delivery

Neuroscience research shows that if you use electrical stimulation whilst teaching your staff, you’ll have better learners. You’ll modulate neuronal activity during training in order to enhance learning and high-level cognitive functions. The science has shown that you can use transcranial electrical stimulation (tES) to apply a small electrical current to the scalp and improve brain function.

Does this sound too good to be true? It is true, but I’ve also taken some journalistic license with this 2014 research to make a point [1]. The research is real, and it’s fascinating. It shows that there are some benefits to using very small electrical impulses that some people said that they couldn’t even feel.

Behind The Headline

What is thought-provoking for me, as an L&D professional wanting to use research and evidence to inform how I do my job, is the detail in the research. Report author, Kadosh, refers back to research from 1964, and in the article, I read that there are fourteen references to other people's work and research.

This is already highlighting to me the detailed, methodical and relatively slow pace of this work, as it should be. Kadosh included more than 1,000 sessions in his research, and highlighted that “the current findings in each study are based on relatively small sample sizes”. As with all research, it needs to be with large numbers of people, in different contexts, with a variety of activities and obviously includes placebo and blind trials for true value.

Kadosh also highlighted the progression needed in his write-up: “A larger scale study will be necessary for the future. Once we run all the required studies to determine the best stimulation parameters, efficacy, safety, and the potential operating mechanism, it will be a straightforward process to integrate this tool in a full-scale trial, in several sites and countries”.

Like any thorough research, this will take time. Kadosh summarises with “while the current results are promising, there is room for future development”. As L&D practitioners, we need to see the whole research, not just the headline and we don't need to rush into applying little bits haphazardly...

Can Neuroscience Actually Help Our Learning Interventions?

The challenge of how to use neuroscience findings in our practice was highlighted by John T. Bruer [2]: “The methods of cellular and molecular neuroscience are powerful, but it is not always clear that the concepts of learning and memory used by neuroscientists are the same as those used by psychologists, let alone by classroom teachers… [and] that speculations about practical applications are not researched information”.

In his article, Bruer highlights that the study from the book How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School, “modestly concludes that brain research has established that structural changes in the brain encode learning and acknowledges that in the future, neuroscience might provide some practical benefits to educators”.

The key term here is ‘modestly’. It’s highlighting that there is the potential in the future of the science but, at the time of publishing, in 2000, that’s not the case. Technology always progresses at an amazing rate, but has there been enough change since publication that can truly impact education in the way we think it can?

Bruer also stated: “Attempts to link neuroscience with education pay insufficient attention to psychology” and that “what is frustrating to educational researchers and others committed to developing a science of learning is that educators' current fascination with synapses and brain images causes them to overlook a substantial body of psychological and behavioral research that could have an immediate impact in the classroom”.

Other Sciences And Their Contribution

By focusing purely on neuroscience, are we ignoring the other disciplines that can add so much value and be so powerful to our everyday work? Professor of Developmental Neuropsychology, Oxford, Dorothy Bishop seems to think so [3]: “I'm all in favor of cognitive neuroscience and basic research that discovers more about the neural underpinnings of typical and atypical development. By all means, let's do such studies, but let's do them because we want to find out more about the brain, and not pretend it has educational relevance. If our goal is to develop better educational interventions, then we should be directing research funds into well-designed trials of cognitive and behavioral studies of learning, rather than fixating on neuroscience”.

By using neuroscience in its own right to find out more about the brain and its inner workings, we become more informed overall and we will gain insights as well as will be able to ask questions of the research we probably didn’t know we could before.

“Educational neuroscience is a worthwhile pursuit with real potential to improve learning”, states Annie Brookman, a Ph.D. candidate in the Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development, Birkbeck, University of London [4]. “In reality, educational neuroscience does not attempt to link the minutiae of neural mechanisms directly to the classroom, and does indeed incorporate cognitive psychology”.

Our use of neuroscience needs to be in combination with other sciences and bodies of existing research in order to make it useful for us in our roles. An example of this is from Richard Guy and Bruce Byrne from the School of Medical Sciences, RMIT University, Bundoora, Australia. School of Medical Sciences, RMIT University, Bundoora, Australia [5]: “Metacognitive training should be considered (learning how to learn) and Mayer proposed that improving metacognition should be a primary educational objective”.

By using the information in this way in order to inform our practice, we’ll be able to help individuals and organizations far more intelligently than just trotting out the latest brain scan image.


[1] Neuromodulation: could it improve education?

[2] Points of View: On the Implications of Neuroscience Research for Science Teaching and Learning: Are There Any?

[3] What is educational neuroscience?

[4] Learning from educational neuroscience

[5] Neuroscience and Learning: Implications for Teaching Practice