Conducting emotional subjects: neuroscience in schools

By Helen Pallett

Classroom

Image credit: Marlith

On January 7th it was announced that a new fund has been launched, backed by the Wellcome trust and the Education Endowment Foundation, to promote the use of neuroscience research and neuroscientific understandings of learning in classrooms in England. As Dr Hilary Leevers of the Wellcome trust put it, many are concerned with an apparent ‘evidence gap’ between advances in neuroscience and real classroom practices.

In an article in the Guardian Leevers described certain neuroscientific concepts currently used in schools, such as the idea of children being left-brained or right brained, or tests to work out whether children are visual, auditory or kinsaesthetic learners as little more than “neuromyths”. In the response to the prevalence of such apparently ill-conceived ideas, Leevers and colleagues have proposed that the new fund will seek to support partnerships between teachers and neuroscientists to develop and test evidence-based interventions in classrooms.

This development is part of a broader set of changes in actions and attitudes around education policy in England and Wales, related to calls for the use of more rigorously scientific methods and ideas in the implementation and evaluation of new policies and programmes. Alongside the importing of ideas from neuroscience into the classroom, such developments have also included attempts to monitor and evaluate changes in education policy through quasi experimental methods such as randomised controlled trials (for example, see here).

In a new paper in the journal Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers Elizabeth Gagen describes a specific aspect of this emerging relationship between neuroscience and schools, namely the introduction of emotional literacy into the curriculum. Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL) was introduced into schools in 2007, giving pupils resources to improve their self-awareness and anger management, amongst other moral virtues. Gagen analyses this new development not only as an instance of knowledge transfer allowing the productive use of recent neuroscientific ideas in the classroom, but she also sees SEAL as being linked to a broader citizenship agenda in English schools. 

The compulsory teaching of citizenship began in 2002, mostly focussed on the political aspects of citizenship in the hope that it would promote political engagement amongst young people and reduce anti social behaviour. For Gagen the later introduction of emotional literacy into this curriculum represents a re-imagining of the ideas of citizenship and subjectivity, which has been enabled through the development of new ideas in popular neuroscience. She argues that pupils are not simply being schooled in developments in neuroscience and emotional coping strategies, but rather they are being disciplined into a certain understanding of emotional conduct and citizenship, which has broader implications beyond the classroom.

In this new world of neuroscience-informed education practice, it is important not only to question the evidential and conceptual bases for new developments, but also to think more broadly about the kinds of citizens such initiatives imagine and seek to bring into being and what implications these modes of disciplining might have as school pupils develop.

Elizabeth A. Gagen, 2014, Governing emotions: citizenship, neuroscience and the education of youth Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers DOI: 10.1111/tran.12048

Myths about how the brain works have no place in the classroom The Guardian, 7 January

Brain Scientists to work with schools on how to learn BBC News, 7 January

One thought on “Conducting emotional subjects: neuroscience in schools

  1. Pingback: My Geography Directions posts | Helen Pallett

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