Teachers, neuroscientists, and policy officials – they might sound like they have nothing in common.  But whether more familiar with the classroom, laboratory or Whitehall, over 100 of these seemingly disparate professionals gathered together last Tuesday as part of the Royal Society’s Brain Waves study’s module on neuroscience, education, and lifelong learning.Once synonymous with lobotomies and other more obscure brain surgeries, neuroscience is now increasingly recognised for its relevance and potential applications to a number of public policy areas including education.

The word “brainy” has long been used as an informal way to describe someone considered to be intelligent or knowledgeable – so if the brain is recognised as fundamental to the learning process, why don’t the teaching community know more about how it works? Can information about the brain optimise teaching outcomes? Should education policy be taking this into account? Last week’s discussion was a starting point for answering these questions and for exploring the implications of future developments in neuroscience.

The event, held jointly with The Wellcome Trust, began with an enthusiastic welcome by Professor Uta Frith FRS, chair of the Royal Society’s Brain Waves working group on neuroscience, education, and lifelong learning. Short talks were given by former Education Secretary Baroness Estelle Morris, who spoke about the importance of evidence in education policy and Professor Barbara Sahakian from Cambridge University, who gave an introduction to neuroeducation. David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science spoke to the group about the importance of lifelong learning.

The central activity of the event was a series of ten simultaneous roundtable discussions, with the dialogue logged live via Twitter using the hashtag #neuroed.

Recurring themes included:

–      Challenges of translating research evidence into practical outcomes

–      improving mechanisms for improving collaboration between teachers and scientists

–      accessibility of relevant and robust information from reputable sources.

These themes provided substantial fodder for an open floor discussion, which was brilliantly facilitated by Daniel Glaser from the Wellcome Trust.

Although attendees acknowledged the challenges still to be overcome, the atmosphere was overwhelmingly positive. There was optimism about the potential for brain imaging to contribute to early intervention and a real willing from teachers to trial different approaches in the classroom and beyond. There was passion for interdisciplinary collaboration and co-operation, an enthusiasm for neuroscience to revitalise new ways of thinking about learning and a genuine readiness to begin building bridges across the yawning fissure between neuroscience, education, and policy.

Feedback from this event will provide invaluable input for an report on neuroscience, education, and lifelong learning, due to be launched by the Royal Society’s Science Policy Centre in early 2011.

If you want to know more, the meeting handbook can be downloaded here.  One of the work group members for this study, Professor Dorothy Bishop, blogs regularly on these issues.

The Centre for Educational Neuroscience held a conference on similar themes in June, which works as an excellent web resource.

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