Beginning in the brain: Pioneering the field of educational neuroscience
HGSE visiting lecturer Bruno della Chiesa
Educators and neuroscientists are now working together to understand how learning and the brain are related, and how this interconnectedness will better inform our educational policies and school systems. Bruno della Chiesa, visiting lecturer at HGSE and a senior analyst at the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), has been a pioneer in the development of this field. B. della Chiesa conducts educational neuroscience research, collaborates with researchers worldwide, and writes books and papers that synthesize the research that has been done to give us insight of why educational neuroscience is important to the future of learning, and where future directions might lie for the field.
Just a decade ago, educational neuroscience was in its infancy, an idea that only a few researchers thought to pursue. Now, with the publication of a critically acclaimed journal, the inauguration of an international conference, and the establishment of university degree programs, the field of educational neuroscience is becoming recognized for its potential by educators and neuroscientists alike.1 Scholars from a wide variety of academic disciplines have begun extensive collaboration, seeking to understand the connections between our thinking, brain, and learning processes. One of those scholars, Bruno della Chiesa, has played an instrumental role in nurturing educational neuroscience into a widely recognized and respected field.
B. della Chiesa is the manager of several projects under the Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI), a division under the OECD devoted to identifying policy and practice issues that will soon emerge as major considerations in education. One of his CERI projects, entitled “Learning Sciences and Brain Research” began in 1999, when the links between neuroscience and education had not yet been formally acknowledged. Over the next eight years, B. della Chiesa and his colleagues worked on several research initiatives, which led to several publications, the last one of which is the book Understanding the Brain: The Birth of a Learning Science in 2007.
Understanding the Brain offers a comprehensive introduction to the field of educational neuroscience, translating research findings from the OECD and other researchers into text that laypeople can understand – without oversimplifying the complexities of neuroscience research. Too often, B. della Chiesa notes, the media takes a research study conducted on animals and overgeneralizes the results to general public. Even worse, unscrupulous people sell “educational” products and push for school-wide policies based on problematic or misunderstood research results.
Educational neuroscience and educational policy
Although educational neuroscience does have the potential to inform policy makers and shed new light on children's learning, B. della Chiesa says that it is too simple to view neuroscience as the “answer” to policy and curriculum. According to him, it is not the job of science to make policy, which often has to consider political and ethical ramifications in addition to the researched facts. Instead, the importance of science lies in its ability to observe and describe phenomena in the world.
Rather than having neuroscience tell educators what to do, B. della Chiesa emphasizes that the role of neuroscience is to tell educators, before making a policy-changing decision, what they should know about how children learn—what has been scientifically proven and what remains to be studied. While it would be wrong to dismiss neuroscience from the field of education, we must also be careful when evaluating neuroscience research in terms of educational policy.
B. della Chiesa especially cautions against “neuromyths,” common but incorrect beliefs about the brain. Common neuromyths include the following:
- At any given moment, we only use 10% of our brain.
- Some people are “left-brain” people, while others are “right-brain” people.
- Gender differences in the brain can account for learning outcomes differences.
- A young child's brain can only manage to learn one language at a time.
Neuromyths are often founded on misunderstandings, bad interpretations, and distortions of research results.2 Because of their seeming plausibility, neuromyths easily mislead people in their understanding of the brain. Worst of all, the presence of neuromyths are often used as an argument against the use of neuroscientific knowledge to inform educational policies, discouraging educators from taking advantage of the insights neuroscience can offer.
So what can educators—including both parents and teachers—do? B. della Chiesa recommends that the best way to help laypeople become intelligent consumers of neuroscience research is to train teachers to develop critical views of what is reported in the media. As an example, Finland held a CERI conference in Helsinki, inviting both researchers and the heads of teacher training programs across the country. Once CERI and invited researchers (including HGSE Professor Kurt Fischer) presented their findings, the participants separated into small groups to discuss what they had learned and how this new knowledge could shed new light on their policy decisions and practices. B. della Chiesa is hopeful that through such meetings, educators will become less susceptible to neuromyths and more knowledgeable about neuroscience.
Another way to help educators in understanding neuroscience research is to develop educational neuroscientists – “transdisciplinarians”3 who are truly knowledgeable in both fields, and more. The Mind, Brain, and Education master's program at HGSE plays a key role in training these transdisciplinarians, who can then help translate research findings for educators as well as communicate educational needs to researchers.4 In addition, with the inauguration of the International Mind, Brain, and Education Society (IMBES) conference last year and the establishment of the Mind, Brain, and Education research journal, there are now more venues for researchers to contribute specifically to the educational neuroscience field. Less than ten years after the field began to take shape, there is now a clear arena for educational neuroscience researchers to learn from one another.
So is B. della Chiesa's work in pioneering the field done? With the publication of Understanding the Brain, he is now moving on to a more specific topic of interest in the educational neuroscience field—second language learning. He is particularly interested in the differences between monolingual and bilingual/multilingual brains; and with the start of a new CERI project, he has hopes to find answers in the next two to three years, further paving the way for educational neuroscientists to follow.
Understanding the Brain: The Birth of a Learning Science is partially available, free of charge, from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
For further reading:
della Chiesa, B. (2008). Long live lifelong brain plasticity! Lifelong Learning in Europe (LLinE), Vol. XIII/2, pp. 78-85, Helsinki, 2008
della Chiesa, B., Christoph, V., & Hinton, C. (2009). How many brains does it take to build a new light: Knowledge management challenges of a trans-disciplinary project. Mind, Brain, and Education Journal, March 2009, Vol. 3, No. 1, pp. 17-26
Fischer, K. W., Daniel, D. B., Immordino-Yang, M. H., Stern, E., Battro, A., & Koizumi, H. (2007). Why Mind, Brain, and Education? Why now? Mind, Brain, and Education, 1(1), 1-2.
Hinton, C., Miyamoto, K., della Chiesa, B. (2008). Brain Research, Learning and Emotions:
implications for education research, policy and practice. European Journal of Education, Vol. 43, No. 1, pp. 87-103
Koizumi, H. (1999). A practical approach towards trans-disciplinary studies for the 21st century.
Journal of Seizon and Life Science, 9, 5-24.
- 1 Fischer, Daniel, Immordino-Yang, Stern, Battro, Koizumi (2007); Hinton, Miyamoto, della Chiesa (2008)
- 2 della Chiesa (2008)
- 3 Koizumi (1999)
- 4 della Chiesa, Christoph, Hinton (2009)
Published: March 2009