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Neuroscience and education: Addressing the global learning crisis

Mon, April 15, 8:00 to 9:30am, Hyatt Regency, Floor: Bay (Level 1), Bayview B

Group Submission Type: Refereed Round-Table Session


From the press and the Internet’s growing interest in the way the brain works, to commercial projects claiming that they are “brain based”, fascination with the “learning brain” has recently exploded into the world’s collective consciousness. To be sure, this interest and demand for bringing brain science into closer register with education signifies more than a fad, a passing instance of “neuroscience cheerleading, to put it crudely” (McGinn 2014). There is a hope that brain research will foster “deeper knowledge of learning and teaching” and even begin to provide information that is useful for shaping educational practice and policy. An important motivation behind this new and exciting dialogue concerns the need to develop a twenty-first-century education system that is supported by concrete evidence of how we learn.
Why would building a scientific groundwork for learning, teaching, and assessment matter?
While policies about the role of education in development are commonplace, specific and concrete instruments for enacting these policies remain both scant and ineffective. In today’s world, the perceived heightened role of education in human and societal development coexists with heightened frustration about the irrelevance of educational practices to modern challenges and opportunities. Some of the evidence for this frustration is the alienation of young graduates from their cultures, their functional illiteracy, their lack of digital skills required by their labor markets, etc.
Building a scientific groundwork offers hope, by providing an expanded, updated, and potentially useful toolkit for improving education and learning. For a long time, progress in developing new learning methods has lagged behind human accomplishment in many other areas, and changes in our approach to learning have been relatively modest. Scientific technologies and concepts, particularly from neuroscience and related fields, are aiming to change that.
Brain science is now providing new discoveries about the basic mechanisms of learning that can begin to inform, in an authentic manner, everyday practices. This is a two-way venture in which scientists can explore their concepts in “real world” environments, and education can gain insight into learning processes and practices. Techniques such as neuroimaging allow us to study brain function while active learners acquire skills. Through understanding the underlying processes of learning, educators and scientists are starting to collaborate on developing neurocognitive and psychological interventions (for typical and atypical learners) for improving literacy, numeracy, reasoning, and many other skills. Thus, understanding the “learning brain” can provide an additional tool for educators and parents to facilitate students’ learning and development. Moreover, cognitive science can give us potent means to understand, prevent, and heal societal prejudices and stereotypes that seep into the minds of very young children (Meltzoff 2013; Skinner, Meltzoff, and Olson 2017).
Neuroscience is revolutionizing our understanding of learning and revealing a fresh perspective that combines mind and brain. Key concepts such as ability, disability, learning preferences, creativity, flexibility, self-regulation, to name a few, can be described in the new light of differences in how individual learners’ brains work and adapt to their physical and social environments. Many factors, within and beyond the classroom, “sculpt” the unique brain of an individual learner.
Cutting-edge research is also introducing new dimensions that have not traditionally or explicitly been linked to classroom learning, such as emotion, and underlying environmental, evolutionary, and biological variables—all factors that are both potential constraints and potential springboards for acquiring human learning and knowledge.
Including in teacher training and development a basic grounding about how the brain learns promises to expand teachers’ education and empower them to approach their own practice more scientifically.
A scientific understanding of learning is also particularly relevant for ensuring educational reform in a culturally diverse world, respect for which is emphasized in Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4. Teachers’ response to top-down reform necessarily involves their own process of cultural adaptation, integrating their own reflections, attitudes, and behaviors with the recommended changes. This undermines any sense that a “one-size fits all” approach to educational reform can ever be entirely successful. Success will rely, in large part, on teachers’ own interpretation of how learning works and how ideas might, therefore, best be adapted for their students (Cunnington, D’Angiulli, Howard-Jones, Prado, and Reigosa-Crespo 2016).
This panel, organized by UNESCO International Bureau of Education (IBE), brings together leading scholars from neuroscience and psychology with a strong interest in education and social sciences. They will engage critically and articulate innovative analytical frameworks for examining the links between their fields and education and learning.


Cunnington, R., D’Angiulli, A., Howard-Jones, P., Prado, J., & Reigosa-Crespo, V. (2016). 21st century education and the learning brain. In Focus. Annual magazine. Geneva: UNESCO IBE.
McGinn, C. (2014). Storm over the brain. New York Review of Books, April 24 issue.

Meltzoff, A. N. Origins of social cognition: Bidirectional self-other mapping and the “Like-Me” hypothesis. In M. R. Banaji & S. Gelman (Eds.), Navigating the social world: What infants, children, and other species can teach us (pp. 139-144). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Skinner, A. L., Meltzoff, A. N. & Olson, K. R. (2017). “Catching” social bias: Exposure to biased nonverbal signals creates social biases in preschool children. Psychological Science, 28(2), 216–224. doi: 10.1177/0956797616678930

UNESCO & UNICEF (2013). Making education a priority in the post-2015 development agenda. Report of the Global Thematic Consultation on Education in the Post-2015 Development Agenda. Paris and New York: UNESCO and UNICEF.

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