Professor Uta Frith FRS introduces the Royal Society Brain Waves Module 2 report (4 mins, requires Flash Player).

Our report Neuroscience: Implications for Education and Lifelong Learning is launched today. You are invited to leave comments about the report on this blog post. Whether you are a neuroscientist, teacher, or a member of the public, it is important you share your views.

Here are two innovations…

Innovation 1: you can get a minimalist version of the report to print out on just 14 A4 pages, without colour.

In addition you can find two other versions of the report; one is the traditional booklet, A5 size, in the familiar format of other Royal Society Reports. You can also obtain this as a printed booklet.

There is also a maxi-version, which has a fat appendix. This summarizes a Roundtable discussion before the report was written up.  Each of ten tables had a mixture of scientists, teachers, policy makers and other interested people, and each had a twitter account.  The twitter lines are all preserved in the appendix. They convinced the Working Group that one of the most important things we can do with the report is to open up a dialogue. This is the reason for…

Innovation 2: you can write in comments on the report. This is a test trial so please tell us below what you think.

I am very excited to see how these innovations will work. Will they make it more likely that you will read the report? Will the report stimulate you to write in your own comments?

  • This is a thoroughly welcome and timely report and I ( amongst many others) am delighted to see that education is the subject of the second report in the Brain Waves series. As Chief Executive of Dyslexia Action, a national charity providing educational services for individuals with dyslexia and other specific learning difficulties, I believe that the important recommendations from ‘ Neuroscience, Implications for education and lifelong learning’ should be acted upon with some urgency and energy.

    The complex nature of the interaction between genetic factors and the educational options needs to be much better understood amongst parents, educators and most importantly amongst policy makers, who are often driven by ideological imperatives rather than robust evidence. For those of us who strive to improve the educational outcomes of children with specific learning difficulties, the understanding of heritable factors and the part played by genes is an important part in an individual coming to terms with their learning barriers. In our 38 years of experience, finding out that your difficulty stems from an inherent problem can be liberating and the first step to making progress in education.

    We have long advocated for an evidence based approach to the teaching of all children and particularly those with dyslexia/ SpLD and have included findings from neuroscience in our own postgraduate course in dyslexia and literacy. The recommendation that the findings from neuroscience should be included in initial teacher training and continuing professional development is one with which we would agree and would be happy to advocate alongside colleagues in the scientific community.

    I have no doubt that those of us in the voluntary sector who support children with SEN will wish to share this report with parents and educators in our networks and will band together to urge policy makers to act upon the recommendations in this important report. Dyslexia Action would be pleased to work with the report’s authors to support the implementation of the recommendations and to overcome the challenges outlined in the report.

    Shirley Cramer
    CEO Dyslexia Action

  • I found this to be a highly readable overview of the field – a model for how to communicate numerous and diverse scientific findings in an accessible, concise and balanced way. This seems especially important given the rush by commercial, educational companies to exploit the appeal of ‘neuro’ interventions and technologies. The report acts as an authoritative counter-point to all the conflicting and often biased information that parents and teachers are bombarded with. I thought the idea of creating a web-forum, possibly co-hosted by the BBC or Open University, where science and education experts could discuss new findings and products, to be particularly appealing. I’m looking forward to the remainder of the BrainWaves modules, especially if they can match this one for accessibility and balance.

    Dr Christian Jarrett
    Editor, BPS Research Digest
    Journalist, The Psychologist magazine

  • This is a very interesting report and has some important points that hopefully will be taken forward.

    The future will depend so much on how well our society educates children of today. If evidence from neuroscience can help reverse some of the very retro policy coming from the current education secretary then great.

    Strengthening links between neuroscientists and teachers will be of fundamental importance, and could open exciting avenues of research. There are many different educational models, which could perhaps be compared using neuroscience and behavioural tests for effectiveness?

    A few approaches that have struck me as potentially very beneficial involve some form of meditation or system built upon positive values. e.g. West Kiddlington Or striving for more balanced education on head (logic, science, language etc), heart (spirit, feelings, thoughts) and hands (manual work, sport, cooking etc) at the Small School in Hartland.

    There is also some amazing work in primary schools to deliver integrated curriculum focussed on value added to each individual pupil rather than overall grade, a much better measure of how good a school really is, rather than the demographics of any given school.

    I am neither a neuroscientist or a teacher, but have a strong interest in preparing for the future and trying to maximise the positives and minimise the negatives. I am a scientist by background, but have recently started exploring the spiritual literature, and have come to think science and spiritualism are very similar. Both involve careful observations, but science investigates the material world whilst spiritualism investigates self/thoughts/emotions/feelings. I hope the future will bring expertise from both these backgrounds together in order to perhaps help everyone make wise choices.

    Perhaps neuroscience will be an important bridge between these worlds, with some ability to translate the metaphysical world of thoughts and feelings into images and connections displayed on a computer screen!

    Exciting stuff anyway.

  • Really good to have a report that is authoritative and balanced yet still conveys the great potential for neuroscience in education – a potential that no longer feels to be many years away.

    Professor Michael Reiss
    Institute of Education
    University of London

  • I enjoyed reading the report and have distributed to all colleagues in teacher education. I suspect it will find its way onto a few Moodle sites especially for those of us who teach Theories of Learning.

    Having talked to a few colleagues it would be wonderful to have some simple resources that would help us in myth busting. Learning styles is still a popular concept as it left and right brain etc. We aim to teach our trainees to be critical and evaluative but for those of us without a science background the reading can be very challenging. That is why this report is so welcome. An interactive resource for our VLEs (Moodle) with a poster and hyperlinks to the science for further depth would be ideal.

    Kirstin Sawyer
    Bradford College

  • A well written and balanced summary of the field.

    These issues go beyond compulsory school education. As an academic in a Russell Group university I am constantly having to live a double life whereby my lab life as a neuroscientist has to be put aside to tick the boxes required of me during the teaching I deliver, ironically in neuroscience!

    Dr Alison Cooper
    University of Birmingham

  • It was a privilege for me to read “Brain Waves Module 2: Neuroscience: Implications for Education and Lifelong Learning.” I thought it absolutely superb—clear and nuanced, with the correct mixture of enthusiasm and appropriate caution. This is an excellent platform for encouraging development of a neuroscience that can be useful for education, and that can be comfortably applied by teachers and evaluators of the educational system.

    As it stands, the report is quite complete. But if I force myself to think about additional topics one might want to include, I would perhaps consider the following four topics:

    1) One of the key ideas to emerge from your report is that early intervention can be helpful in language and numerical disabilities. Although diagnoses can often be made correctly clinically by simply observing the child and by giving the child conventional tests, diagnoses would certainly become more reliable if there were independent biological markers that could perhaps best come, at the moment, from imaging experiments. You might want to have a discussion of a) improving imaging methodology so as to allow more effective attempts to find biological markers for various cognitive disorders, and b) to have them improved so they will be particularly useful and safe for studying early cognitive development. For example, an effort is currently being made in the US to develop safe and reliable ways for making an early diagnosis of autism using fMRI.

    2) There is a great mention of various methodologies that could be helpful for evaluating students. But there is no discussion of the personality characteristics of the teacher. I think that in addition to evaluating the pupil, one may want to evaluate the teachers for their ability to empathize and work with students. I’m very much taken with Patricia Kuhl’s finding in the acquisition of a second language by infants that the physical presence of a teacher makes enormous difference when compared to video presence. We all know from personal experience how important specific teachers have been. Is it absurd to think that we might also develop methodologies that would bring out people’s potential for interacting empathically with students so that we can have a way of selecting for teachers, particularly for certain subjects and certain types of student?

    3) Some kids will in certain cases benefit from psychotherapeutic intervention. Britain has pioneered in using cognitive behavioral therapy clinically because it lends itself to evaluating the outcome of psychotherapy. This may be too far afield but I wonder whether some mention of imaging as a potentially useful tool for evaluating the outcome of behavioral interventions of various kinds, including outcomes, when necessary, of psychotherapeutic intervention.

    4) Finally, I wonder whether or not you might take up the concern that so many people feel about how the internet and the computer age is going to affect the intellectual development of children. What is the impact of the ready access to on-line information, the almost addictive power of cell phones, texting, emailing, video games, substituting google for going to the library? This is a bit like the development of the printing press, which undoubtedly opened up completely new avenues for mental functioning, such as greater ability to read. But that may well have led to a decline in oratorical arts. I’m throwing this out as an extreme example but I just wonder how children will fare as we allow these methodologies to dominate their minds and their way of working. Will it lead to the substituting of a new set of memory faculties at the sacrifice of older ones?

    Eric R. Kandel, M.D.
    Fred Kavli Professor and Director, Kavli Institute for Brain Science
    Columbia University

    • ianthornton

      A reply from Professor Uta Frith, Chair of the Working Group on Neuroscience: implications for education and lifelong learning

      1. We should improve diagnosis of learning disabilities through neuroimaging techniques
      I agree that biomarkers would revolutionise our ability to diagnose learning disabilities. Yet, our report is cautious about developments in this area. This is because we are waiting for advances in the study of individual differences in brain structure relevant to a range of cognitive abilities. Here is an example. Schwarzkopf, Song and Rees (Nature Neuroscience 2011 ) found not only that primary visual cortex, area V1, differs in extent between different people, but also that this difference meaningfully related to how strongly people perceived certain visual illusions. This example gives hope that eventually we will be able to relate cognitive markers of dyslexia or dyscalculia to brain markers. Autism is a far more complex disorder, but here too there is reason to hope that both cognitive and brain markers will be identified and that this will allow a safe and secure diagnosis in individual cases.

      2. We should use neuroscience techniques to study what makes a good teacher
      Teaching and learning are two sides of the same coin, and I agree that studying only one side is not only narrow, but misleading. We have not said anything in our report since there is hardly any work on processes involved in teaching that have been tracked by neuroscience methods. I would very much welcome developments in this area and believe that a promising start has been made by the exciting experiments on Natural Pedagogy by Csibra and Gergely (see RS PhilTrans 2011 ). The universal tendency of human adults to speak in motherese to young children is a sign of how automatically the brain engages in ‘teaching’. It is not at all absurd to think that there might be individual differences in this ability.

      3. We should track the outcome of behavioural interventions by neuroscience techniques

      4. We should address the public concern with the effect of the new media on brain development.
      This is an important but somewhat incendiary point, which I believe has prematurely polarized opinion. As our report states, everything we do changes the brain. And clearly, what an individual does for many hours of the day (as in the taxi driver example), leads to tangible changes in brain structure and function. Is this good or bad? This question cannot be answered by neuroscience. But science can help to make clear that measurable outcomes have to be found when we wish to compare the effect of substituting Google for going to the library. These outcomes may conceivably be better attentional focus and worse memory. Is this perhaps an adaptation to current and future environmental challenges? When discussing the effects of computer games and social networks, we need to remember that so far literacy has changed the brain probably more than any other technology.

    • ianthornton

      A reply from Professor Dorothy Bishop, Professor of Developmental Neurospsychology at the University of Oxford and a member of the Working Group on Neuroscience: implications for education and lifelong learning.

      1) In principle, early diagnosis using neurological biomarkers is a goal that many are striving towards, but it is fraught with difficulties. The problem is not just that we lack biomarkers that are sufficiently sensitive at distinguishing disorders from normality. The situation is harder still if we try to distinguish one disorder from another. For instance, in clinical practice, it’s not so hard to tell that a child has a problem, but it can be difficult to decide whether the appropriate diagnosis is autism rather than mental retardation or language impairment. It is noteworthy, for instance, that a much-publicised study that used brain scans to identify autism in adults, found reasonable accuracy for diagnosis of autism vs no autism, but poorer accuracy for autism vs. ADHD. (See postscript to this blogpost). Furthermore, within a given disorder, there is often much heterogeneity. Many researchers on autism are coming to the opinion that its aetiology will be like that of mental retardation: many different causes converging on a final common path. If so, then, just as we would not expect only one kind of brain difference between those with mental retardation and those of normal intelligence, it may be unrealistic to expect brain biomarkers that reliably distinguish autism from normality.

      2) This is an important point, all too often overlooked, and of concern to those who want to substitute computer programmes for teachers.

      3) There is a growing body of research using imaging in conjunction with psychotherapy to evaluate the brain changes that accompany successful or less successful intervention. Nevertheless, caution is needed. There is a tendency always to assume that somehow if we see a change in the brain it is ‘more real’ than a behavioural change. The two are unlikely to be perfectly correlated, raising the question of what we conclude if someone shows a brain change after therapy, but no behavioural change, or vice versa. The behaviour is what we are most concerned about, and so it would seem illogical to put more weight on a brain-based measure. Yes, let’s look at brain changes to understand better the mechanisms of intervention, but we need to get away from the idea that brain measures are more valid.

      4) This is a fascinating question and one about which there has been much speculation but little hard evidence. As Maryanne Wolf documents in her fascinating book “Proust and the Squid”, Socrates was implacably opposed to the development of writing, for exactly this reason: he felt that valuable skills of memory would be lost. And comparisons of literate and illiterate societies prove he is right: see Ong, W. J. (1982). Orality and Literacy. London and New York: Routledge. But would we therefore agree with Socrates that literacy is bad for us? Of course not. The advantages it brings are so vast that we accept a reduction in our oral memories as a reasonable price to pay. There is potential for doing comparative studies of children who do and don’t have access to modern technologies, to look at the impact. But it’s not a phenomenon we can control: the popularity of mobile phones, etc, is evidence that they are so well adapted to human abilities and motivations that we must learn to use them to our best advantage, rather than attempt to limit their use.

  • As a teacher I have always been interested in the relationship between the cognitive development of pupils and their achievement in Physics. It would be very interesting to find out if the concepts that we teach are placed at suitable neurological developmental stages (I suspect not for many pupils – hence the cry ‘Physics is difficult’)

    As a scientist I feel that research such as outlined in the report should be a vital component of reviews of the curriculum. (Government departments please take note!)

    Nicola Percy
    Head of Physics
    Haberdashers’ Aske’s School For Girls

    • You might be interested in work on naieve scientific concepts using fMRI brain imaging:

      • In reply to Paul Howard Jones, from John Crossland, Educational Consultant.

        For teachers, the Dunbar paper ends with an extremely important point, linking cognitive psychology with the research outcomes from neuroscience. The action research completed in North Yorkshire using the expertise of 4 Advanced Skills teachers of science showed that it is possible to provide effective guidance for learning and teaching by using evidence from neuroscience to underpin models of learning in cognitive psychology.

  • I was particularly struck by the vision of the “knowledge exchange network” linking education practitioners and researchers in various disciplines. This is something incredibly hard to do and sustain for a variety of reasons: different agendas, different levels of personal investments, unidirectionality of information flows.

    I’ve already been working on some ideas of what a research community bringing together researchers and practitioners in a truly collaborative manner could like. Here’s a suggestion on how it might work to meet the goals outlined by Recommendation 4 on page 10 of the report:

    Dominik Lukes

  • Dear Professor Frith,

    I am writing to congratulate you and your colleagues on your recent Royal Society publication on neuroscience and education.

    In a small way, I and my colleagues have been promoting evidence-based education for children with Down syndrome for many years, drawing on developmental and cognitive research in typical development and in Down syndrome. Your paper supports the underlying principles of our work which we frequently share with educators as we provide training worldwide – and we will now be able to use some excellent quotes from your paper in our work.

    We have close working links with, and share the views of, Debbie Fidler and Lyn Nadel whose work you mention in the paper. The identification of specific profile of cognitive strengths and weaknesses associated with Down syndrome – and the design of teaching approaches which take these into account – has certainly begun to improve outcomes for the children although we need many more RCTs to test out the teaching approaches. We are currently running two RCTs, one evaluating a reading intervention adapted for children with Down syndrome, the other a trial of the Cogmed Swedish memory training programme mentioned in your paper (this also made us feel we were on the right track!)

    I hope that the paper will stimulate further discussions and if there is any way in which I can contribute to any future developments, I would be very pleased to do so.

  • The Montessori movement welcomes this kind of exchange with professionals from the world of Neuroscience. The Montessori approach to education is based on the premise that education is about helping children to develop their natural capacities to learn – the child that has a logical, flexible, creative mind, can persevere and has self-control can not only learn anything but also grows into an adult who is a socially aware, empathetic, participating member of society. In the Montessori approach this is done by preparing a supportive environment and training an adult who is also prepared to take a different approach with the child – that is, to guide rather than teach – so that the child becomes the active one, as compared to the traditional approach where the teacher is the one who educates the child by telling him what he needs to know and finding out if he has learned it by testing him. When the developmental approach is taken – as in the one taken when training Montessori teachers here at the Maria Montessori Institute AMI – the child learns how to learn because the environment is dedicated to facilitating what Neuropsychologists would call the development of cognitive flexibility, inhibitory control and working memory. The chair of the AMI Global Research committee is a neurospychologist, Dr Steve Hughes – he is an ardent supporter of the Montessori approach to education saying that a Montessori environment is exactly what a talented neurospychologist would design as the perfect environment for optimal child development. He says this is why Montessori children are good at doing things – you can see and hear what he has to by visiting his website The executive director of AMI [], Lynne Lawrence recently spoke at a conference on Neuroscience in Canada – Montessori is keen to get into the debate and get on board – we only need to be invited and in return we would invite you to contact us at the Maria Montessori Institute and come and see how this all works.It is not true that there is no practical application that totally supports brain-based education – this is exactly what Montessori does and has been doing for 100 years – neuroscience is just catching up.

  • I offer the following.

    • We have learned much about how learning takes place and what that process entails. This includes the interplay of various regions of the brain, the role of emotion (affect) in learning as well as the role of interest in learning. If we begin to understand the implications of these discoveries we will create goals and models of schools/classrooms that are significantly different from the conventional ones we see/use today. There is need, for example, of greater “customization” at the student level, to correspond to the unique learning style and pace of each student.

    • If we can make the accommodations that are required we will find that students are in fact learning and not merely “remembering” presented content; we will find that students actually integrate the material that they study/explore, with the result being that they have created meaning for themselves. This leads to the ability to be creative with the real knowledge (understanding) that they now possess and can become the innovators that society needs. As Sir Ken Robinson so aptly puts it: we need people who will be able to solve the problems of the future- problems that we can’t even imagine today. This will only be possible by creating the paradigm shift in education that neuroscience indicates is required. The problem of lifelong learning will cease to be a problem if we offer an educational process that focuses on “talent development” rather than “content delivery”.

    • Suitable adaptations to teacher training will necessarily follow from a significant change in what schools look like and how the new goals of education are defined.

    This is remarkable work, indeed, necessary work. I applaud the Royal Society for this undertaking.

  • Hugh Williams

    I would be very interested in the neuroscientific study of bias in researchers, or at least the power of a priori assumptions. This report, while being better written and more cogent than many in the field, still suggests that neuroscientists could start by looking at themselves (though, of course, we all share these attributes).

    The underlying assumption remains that constructions of disability such as ADHD are givens in some physically based and discrete way even though at one point the alternative social constructionist view is briefly mentioned:

    ‘There is a widespread belief in some circles that ADHD is a convenient label used to explain away bad behaviour, with corresponding concern that medication is being used to control what is essentially normal behaviour.’

    However the fallacy of such belief is shown by the otherwise unsupported statement:

    “Neuroscience provides concrete evidence of biological differences
    between children with ADHD and others ……”

    Since the report doesn’t give detailed evidence for this view we can only surmise that it is based on studies using MRI scans of those diagnosed with ADHD such as those relating to adults reviewed by Schnieider (2006). Closer examination of these studies shows that questionable assumptions are presented as givens. The data of the studies show increases and decreases in grey matter in (surprisingly varied) areas of the brain said to be linked to the condition- but in summary these are described in terms such as ‘dysfunction’.

    One would think that in a report which states:

    ‘Dynamic changes to brain connectivity continue in later life. The wiring of the brain changes progressively during development for a surprisingly long time. For example, the connections in the frontal part of the brain involved in impulse control and other ‘executive’ functions are pruned progressively and adaptively during adolescence and beyond.’

    such studies would be treated with some caution since the concept of ‘dysfunction’ and ‘normal effects of neurological plasticity of those with similar behavioural attributes/experiences’ might be easily confused.

    (Interestingly the report notes that London Taxi drivers show significant increases in grey matter in their hippocampi. Neurologists should perhaps ask themselves why they don’t call this HLGK* syndrome.)

    So after dispensing with the implied straw man:

    ‘Neuroscience research suggests that learning outcomes are not solely determined by the environment. Biological factors play an important role in accounting for differences in learning ability between individuals.’ ( does anyone believe the opposite?)

    the report shows the inherent weakness of its position by asserting:

    By considering biological factors, research has advanced the understanding of specific learning difficulties, such as dyslexia and dyscalculia.

    This is a pity because other than in this respect the report is good. However, for me it shows the dangers of using interesting data from neuroscience to reinforce an unquestioned deficit based medical model of individual difference which goes well beyond any sensible and safe boundaries.

    Can I suggest that with all these labels- dyslexia, adhd etc (and dare I say it asd!) we adopt a skeptical model? When data from a study appears to point to a discrete medical model deficit condition the assumption ia always subjected to a full analysis using a null-hypothesis. This could state that what is being observed is an extreme of one of the multitude of normal spectra often described in terms of human diversity.

    I cannot believe there is anyone who has worked with children in education with an open mind who doubts the dangers of the current rampant pathologising that this report is unwittingly in danger of giving such august support.

    Schneider, M, Retz, W, Coogan, A, Thome, J, Rösler, M. (2006) Anatomical and functional brain imaging in adult attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)—A neurological view. European Archives of Psychiatry & Clinical Neuroscience Vol. 256, pi32-i41 (paper chosen pretty much at random!)

    *heightened London geographical knowledge syndrome.

    • ianthornton

      A reply from Professor Dorothy Bishop, Professor of Developmental Neurospsychology at the University of Oxford and a member of the Working Group on Neuroscience: implications for education and lifelong learning.

      Two issues are treated together in Hugh Williams’ comment. The first is whether there are neurobiological differences between children with conditions such as attentional difficulties, and the second is a more fundamental one about whether a medical model is appropriate for describing children who have problems that are commonly identified as dyslexia, ADHD, and so on.
      In terms of evidence for neurobiological differences between children with different conditions, the report cited Giedd, J. N., & Rapoport, J. L. (2010). Structural MRI of pediatric brain development: what have we learned and where are we going? Neuron, 67(5), 728-734. We selected this review precisely because it is far more cautious than many reports in the field, and written by two experts who have considerable experience of research in this area.
      The point of the report is not to argue that neurobiology is everything: on the contrary, as Hugh Williams notes, we stress the importance of environmental influences on the brain. He argues that the statement “Biological factors play an important role in accounting for differences in learning ability between individuals” is a straw man, claiming nobody believes otherwise. The experience of Working Group members is different. Biology is often totally ignored in explaining children’s difficulties, which are laid squarely at the door of poor parenting or bad teaching.

      Turning to the second point, we were aware that the use of medical terminology to refer to conditions such as ADHD and dyslexia would be unacceptable to many who merely see this as “pathologising” children. There was a wide range of views in the Working Group on this topic. A discussion of the advantages and drawbacks of medical labels can be found on my blog, with interesting commentaries from other professionals and those affected by the conditions, see
      As I discuss there, if you conclude that we should dispense with labels this does have practical implications for how children are viewed, whether they are given help and how seriously their difficulties are taken. It does also tend to go hand in hand with a belief that all difficulties have social determinants, though there is no logical reason for this to be the case.

  • The dyslexo-centric universe

    At the heart of the dyslexo-centric universe is the definition of the word dyslexia itself. Thus as an entity ‘dyslexia’ is rather curiously defined as a specific but multifaceted neurological condition involving a phonological language deficit. The latest roll call of its adherents and its catechism are to be found in the Royal Society’s “ Brain Waves 2: Neuroscience: implications for education and lifelong learning” report.

    * Stephen Pepper’s World-Hypotheses: A Study in Evidence; in particular his use of root metaphors to identify core world views, Animism, Mysticism, Formism, Mechanicism, Organicism and Textualism on the one hand and his views on dogmatism, utter scepticism and reasonable scepticism on the other,
    * Karl Popper’s view that there is no such thing as interpretation free (ie theory-bound) observation on the one hand and that science is a problem-driven and not discipline-based enterprise on the other,
    * the criteria for calling a theory scientific: it should be parsimonious, and have predictive and heuristic value,
    * Imre Lakatos’s notion of progressive and degenerative problem shifting,
    * Larry Laudan’s distinction between conceptual and practical problems: the former being solved suddenly by diktat and the latter gradually through trial-and-review,
    * David Bloor’s criteria for identifying strong ‘sociology of knowledge’ programmes

    The aim of the sociology of knowledge is to explain how people’s beliefs are brought about by the influences at work on them. According to Bloor this strong programme can be broken down into four requirements:

    * causality: it must locate causes of belief, that is, general laws relating beliefs to conditions which are necessary and sufficient to determine them,
    * impartiality with respect to truth and falsity: no exception must be made for those beliefs held by the investigator who pursues the programme. Special pleading must be avoided and causes for those beliefs subscribed to, as well as for those which are rejected,
    * reflexivity: it must explain its own emergence and conclusions,.
    * symmetry with respect to true and false beliefs: not only must true and false beliefs be explained, but the same sort of causes must generate both classes of belief.

    The focus of this critique is the report’s final summary point.

    The emerging field of educational neuroscience presents opportunities as well as challenges for education. It provides means to develop a common language and bridge the gulf between educators, psychologists and neuroscientists.” (p iii)

    To jump in headlong, it is clear from even a cursory reading of the report that it:

    * treats dyslexia as an observed fact rather than a theoretical construct, and therefore fails Popper’s ‘test’,
    * is primarily concerned with an essence, conceptual ‘what is dyslexia?” question. This is indicative of a degenerative problem shifting programme that has little to do with the progressive problem shifting operational issue of identifying those teachers who successfully craft children (and adults) through their ineluctable learning difficulties (Lakatos and Laudan).
    * fails the parsimony criterion since it starts with a definition of a word rather than detailing the range of data / phenomena the ‘theory’ is supposed to embrace. As a consequence it also fails to meet the predictive and heuristic criteria.
    * it falls within Pepper’s mysticist, formicist and mechanicist world-views. It does so by referring to seemingly mystical ‘mights / maybes’ (rather than puzzles); locating the cause of dyslexia within the individual’s plastic rather than malleable brain and offers foundationalist rather than contextual and textual explanations for arrested phases in the evolution of expert behaviour.

    The pre-Copernican status of the dyslexo-centric view
    In many respects the views expressed in the report are redolent of the pre-Copernican geocentric view of our universe. For example, the dyslexo-centric view of writing and reading difficulties has its own priesthood and liturgy: high priests and acolytes abound amidst its worshipful congregation. All reading and writing ‘learning’ problems are swept within its orbit.

    Its pre-Copernican status is confirmed by both its need to invent a number of major epicycles to embrace dyscalculia, dyspraxia, ADHD, autism and a variety of other ‘cognitive processing deficits’ on the one hand and by its treatment of its various dissenters on the other: an obscure German (Dr Johanna Barbara Sattler), worthy of almost literally being hung, drawn and quartered (Graham Stringer MP), denied a voice (Dr Peter Mathews) or ignored.

    Like the field of psychology before it, which used to apologize for its apparent lack of relevance or usefulness by claiming to be a new discipline, we find the same mantra being uttered here. Its high-priesthood, by and large, are metamorphosed psychologists, wrapped in the cloak of cognitive neuroscience. Not only does the report present little that is new in the field of psychology, it has a blinkered notion of education (to enhance learning) and fails to emphasize the fact that the ‘new’ brain science at best evidences only correlations between brain-behaviour events.

    Because ‘dyslexia’ is used as both a descriptive label and the explanation for apparently intractable writing and reading difficulties it manifests all the features of the cognitive deceit. Furthermore, the Janus-like nature of the dyslexo-centric universe is evident in its claim that just because the condition is genetic in nature does not mean that teachers cannot help children resolve (some of) their reading-writing problems.

    It’s always a sign of a sinking ship when we see the deck-chairs being rearranged without a fundamental change in structure, or in this case, labels and vocabulary. It is q common feature of a degenerative problem shifting programme. The report briefly alludes to a fundamental practical knowledge / action-research problem when it states:

    * The emerging field of educational neuroscience presents opportunities as well as challenges for education. It provides means to develop a common language and bridge the gulf between educators, psychologists and neuroscientists. (Summary iii)
    * A knowledge-sharing mechanism is clearly a worthwhile aim. However, aligning the needs and interests of different professions presents a substantial challenge. There are significant differences in assumptions, theories, phenomena of interest and vocabulary. (page 8)

    Whilst the gulf between educators and psychologists is long standing,, introducing the emerging field of neuroscience into the arena will do nothing to resolve the gulf amongst all three. Peppper’s perspective allows us to see and therefore state clearly that the root metaphors of each are fundamentally different. Thus although much the same vocabulary may well be found in all three fields, the same terms will have different meanings because they’re embedded in different networks of action and talking about action. Bloor captured the essence of this ‘pseudo-problem’ when he succinctly stated, for example, that ‘Mathematics is an institution’. Stringer came close to this when he referred to Dyslexia as an Industry. Therefore the hope that it will be educational neuroscience that will enable a common language to emerge is mistaken on a single count. Education is all about crafting value-laden change, whereas neuroscience is all about discovering value-free brain-behaviour concomitants.

    The Fabro-Centric Universe
    If all apparently intractable writing and reading problems are not caused by dyslexia what else might cause them and other potentially intractable well-being difficulties? Is it possible to change the mind-set of dyslexo-centric adherents by finding a different ‘core’? While the latter question is open to empirical verification, the former question has already been solved by noting the role of hands in phylogenetic and ontogenetic evolution. The view can be labelled fabro-centric after the Latin ‘faber’ to construct / manipulate (with the hands and metaphorically with the mind).

    The fabro-centric view of the educational universe is fundamentally different from the dyslexo-centric view, briefly, in the following ways:

    * faceted perspective: it entails treating individuals holistically presenting different facets – physical, intellectual, emotional and social -not different components,
    * faceted corollary: if one facet is found to be out of kilter, other facets will, on closer probing be found to be out of kilter too,
    * systemic perspective: individuals are treated as micro-worlds embodying the macro-worlds in which they are embedded,
    * systemic corollary: the source of intractable personal, social, educational or occupational difficulties are to be sought initially in the worlds pupils inhabit,
    * regards the body-mind as malleable and not plastic,
    * defines the essence of the difference between people and other non-human animals as the craft of graphing, in general and writing in particular,
    * identifies writing efficacy as a key to individuals’ sense-of-self in literate societies,
    * acknowledges that handwriting is primarily a uni-manual activity involving the contra-lateral hemisphere,
    * seeks to confirm that the writing had is the adept hand,
    * defines the adept hand operationally as the hand that is able to read the mind’s-eye-image with seemingly effortless ease when performing manipulo-spatial tasks, including writing,
    * defines thinking, broadly as a manipulo-spatial activity.

    Some reasonable sceptical questions?
    Q1: Is writing with the non-adept hand ‘theory’?
    A1: No, it is a verifiable condition.

    Q2: Why should writing with the non-adept hand cause writing and reading problems?
    A2: The simple answer is the non-adept hand, ‘controlled’ by the wrong hemisphere has to read off the mind’s-eye mirror-image. In other words the non-adept writing hand has to attend to both the content of the message and its graphic forms, ortho- amd calli-graphic.

    Q3: Why should writing with the non-adept hand cause secondary, emotional, social, and co-ordination difficulties?
    A3: There are two answers. First, only atomists would ask this question. Those who work within the pedagogic mode can point to the co-morbidity of symptoms amongst ‘dyslexia, dyscalculia, ADHD, autism’. The second answer derives from the faceted perspective. It follows that the claim for the ‘specificity’ of the diagnostic symptom cannot be sustained on wider probing.

    Q4: What evidence would convince dyslexo-centric adherents that their core belief is mistaken? The policy formulation and implementation question is: what might induce a paradigm shift and what might be the obstacles to achieving such a shift?
    A4: This question, is the key question – since it is a reflexive one – to be taken up by teachers and teacher educators. However, it can be taken up only at a personal level. If the answer is ‘Nothing can convince me otherwise’ then we know that its adherents are acting out of blind faith. It is reflexive since it is the very question teachers are tackling everyday when they are trying to induce a change from novice to expert status amongst their pupils and students.

    Q5: What type of hearsay evidence might convince dyslexo-centric adherents that their core view is mistaken?
    A5: I would cite briefly three sets of facts as evidence:

    * physicist Prof David MacKay’s Dasher project: he was not inspired by neuroscience and yet his work has application in many fields.

    * tactile hand-on-hand finger spelling with deaf and blind infants. Were it not for Anne Sullivan, Helen Keller’s communication problem would be regarded as a non-remediable learning problem. Anne Sullivan’s manual hand spelling, however, proved that Helen Keller’s problem was not a learning one but that she was deaf and blind. Neither condition precluded her ‘brain’ from being educated. What additional insight if any would have been gained by substituting educational neuroscience for Anne Sullivan’s pedagogic mode?
    * metaphor, handedness and autism. Every culture possesses its own peculiarities, some of which are overly simplified as follows:

    English: utterances – ‘phonic’ and mono/polysyllabic; script – left to right; glyphs – finite, discrete / cursive, consonants and vowels, writing hand – generally right,
    Chinese: utterances ‘tonal’ and predominantly monosyllabic; script – top to bottom; glyphs – radicals – seemingly infinite, few-many strokes; writing hand – generally right,

    Arabic: utterances -‘phonic’; mono/polysyllabic; script – right to left; glyphs – tri-consonantal roots / finite / cursive, vowels indicated with diacritics / initial, medial, final position forms; writing hand generally right.

    Although neuroscience might eventually be capable of identifying the brain-behaviour concomitants of these cultural differences, it is not clear what, if anything, it can contribute to identifying the ‘neurological causes’ of those metaphorical differences which define cultures; and the field of autism itself.
    Moreover, were educational neuroscience to be totally reflexive it would invite dyslexo-centric and fabro-centric adherents to be the subjects of their own research, one aspect of which would be to examine the brain correlates of this world-view difference: for differences there must be on the educational neuroscientists account: why else would they not hold the same world view?

    Can education survive the proposed BBSRC 20% neuroscience funding cut?
    To place this critique in a different institutional context, it obviously must be distressing for neuroscience fund holders to find themselves subject to a BBSRC recommended 20% funding cut. However if the cuts are confined solely to the emerging and burgeoning field of educational neuroscience then education will have little to lose but much to gain. It will be able to establish and consolidate the pedagogic mode: at the heart of which lies:-

    * a rejection of body-mind dichotomy (adept hand – contra-lateral hemisphere are as one!),
    * a rejection of process-product dichotomies (there is not a ‘how’ part of the brain that operates independently of the ‘what’ part),
    * rejection of the label ‘learning’ since there isn’t a learning part of the brain which operates independently of cognizing, attending, remembering and doing parts,
    * regards tasks as being multi-faceted and multi-purposed,
    * one corollary of the multi-valent perspective is that tasks can be seen to lie within-tasks and not arranged in linear sequences,
    * both teacher and learner are regarded as learner and teacher in an ever evolving reciprocal interaction.

    A common- ground, common-sense and common-good.
    If any common-ground is to be found amongst educators, psychologists and educational neuroscientists it will be in their open-ended and experimental attitude to problem formulation and solving. This critique calls into question educational neuro-science’s attitude on both counts.

    Those children and adults who have been involved in handedness evaluations have accepted the practical philosophy of a fabro-centric view of education. It is the ‘monks in the monasteries’, not being subject to the same sight, sound and handling experiences, who adhere dogmatically to their dyslexo-centric view of apparently intractable writing and reading difficulties.

    At the heart of this critique lies the radical view that education, properly conducted, is itself a researching, that is curiosity driven and resolving, enterprise. In so far as education is treated as an institution, it is promoted, presumably, to promote the common good. It is therefore no accident that UK ministers have taken note of the lessons of our PISA ranking. For nowhere in the OECD PISA literature is educational neuroscience identified as something teachers, teacher educators or education policy formulators should be made aware of. And with good reason, for it is not the content of inquiry (here, the brain) that defines a field of activity as scientific or educational but its form.

  • This is an admirably clear and sensible report, with major implications. The OECD’s Centre for Educational Research and Innovation, where I used to work, began to address this issue over 10 years ago – I know that one or two of those associated with this report also contributed to the CERI work – and it is excellent to see it taken forward in such an authoritative and constructive way.

    Two suggestions:

    1. As a non-scientist I found many of the references very helpful, especially some of those which deal with lifecourse trajectories. One major step forward would be to complement these scientific references with relevant ones from different disciplines. for example, on ref 6 (impact of cognitive training on older people in care homes) there is valuable work being done at the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, and there is much evidence more generally on the wider benefits of learning.

    2. As director of Longview, a small thinktank concerned with promoting the value of longitudinal research I can see huge potential in combining the new neuroscientific techniques with a longitudinal approach, tracking the same populations over time(see I wonder if this is currently being done to any extent?

  • Joe Wilson

    I would firstly like to express both my gratitude for the report and my admiration for its writers. I believe that documents such as the report, which in my experience has proven accessible to members of my own profession and to educators with whom I have discussed it, play a very important role in helping those of diverse disciplines to explore the impact which each field can have on another. Providing an accessible ‘position paper’ on current educational neuroscience is an important starting point for the process of potential further development.

    Several responses above highlight the importance of considering epistemology in the implications which one very distinctive discipline can have for another. Several of my colleagues have expressed opinions similar to that of Hugh Williams (above) regarding the potential for a more post-positivist viewpoint to be represented.
    I believe that challenges in this area are quite substantial given the perceived difference in mindset between professionals in these two fields, and the need to make the ‘hard science’ accessible to those who may not have a ‘science background’. A common language and epistemology will be necessary for cohesive progress in the field (as noted by Dr Howard-Jones(1)), and I hope that the suggestions presented in part 3.3 of the report can overcome the challenges also discussed there. Dominik Lukes’ comments above are a very interesting speculation on this, and I have been idly wondering if it might be possible to explore the issues through organizational psychology approaches or soft systems methodology.

    A colleague of mine refers frequently to the ‘So What Factor’ of any research in relation to the day-to-day practice of education. I believe that the implications presented in this report are very important and derive clearly from the content and evidence presented, but several teachers who read it have mentioned that they don’t understand what they can do as a result of reading it. Education is by nature a very practical field (at least in my experience) and it might be worth exploring the possibility of forming the potential neuroscientific influences on teacher training (section 4.2) into a more specific and practical document which interested school staff might be able to utilise and cascade through a school if they wish. This is obviously a significant challenge given the ongoing need for research in the emerging educational neuroscience field, but I feel that sources such as ‘The Learning Brain’(2), recent pieces in The Psychologist (3), and accessible articles such as Geake’s on educational neuromyths(4) are all examples of good steps towards this sort of practical information which I believe many in education would appreciate most.

    The discussion of future research directions is particularly fascinating to me both in terms of personal curiosity and in my role as a practitioner scientist working to support children. This very personal experience would lead me to tentatively suggest that the potential described by Professor Kandel above around the neuroscience implications of teaching, as well as the ongoing research around language/literacy/mathematics acquisition and technology and training approaches such as CogMed, might be most likely to bring a benefit in the near future, but the potential implications in all branches are very encouraging. Professor Bishop’s thoughts around neuroscientific monitoring of therapeutic approaches (above) are also fascinating to me, and I could again believe that a very useful future tool for education is attainable.

    Lastly, I feel strongly that Educational Psychologists like myself would be one group of professionals who might have the necessary training and experience to facilitate links between neuroscience and education and help to achieve point 4.4. We as a profession could be seen to have a unique skill set in terms of utilising and sharing psychological knowledge (including neuropsychology) within education and other child-focussed settings, as well as the ability to carry out very varied research as scientist-practitioners, and I feel that EPs are well placed to operate at all levels within this emerging field and support a productive omni-directional sharing of ideas. I’m very pleased to note that several EPs have been involved with this working group in different capacities, and at strategic levels in initiatives such as the London CEN. I sincerely hope that we as a profession will continue to participate as fully as possible in this exciting emerging discipline.

    Joe Wilson
    Trainee Educational Psychologist

    (1) Howard-Jones, Paul A. (2011) ‘A Multiperspective Approach to Neuroeducational Research’, Educational Philosophy and Theory, Vol. 43, No. 1, 2011
    (2) Blakemore, Sarah-Jayne, & Frith, Uta, (2005) ‘The Learning Brain: Lessons for Education’, London: Blackwell
    (3)Howard-Jones, Paul. (2011) ‘From brain scan to lesson plan’, The Psychologist, 24 (2), 110-113
    4. Geake, John (2009) ‘Neuromythologies in education’, Educational Research, 50: 2, 123-133