Updated on March 29, 2018.
Originally posted on January 5, 2016.
The world of learning and development is on the cusp of change. One of the most promising—and prominent—paradigms comes from neuroscience. Go to any conference today in the workplace learning field and there are numerous sessions on neuroscience and brain-based learning. Vendors sing praises to neuroscience. Articles abound. Blog posts proliferate.
But where are we on the science? Have we gone too far? Is this us, the field of workplace learning, once again speeding headlong into a field of fad and fantasy? Or are we spot-on to see incredible promise in bringing neuroscience wisdom to bear on learning practice? In this article, I will describe where we are with neuroscience and learning—answering that question as it relates to this point in time—in March of 2018.
What We Believe
I’ve started doing a session in conferences and in local trade-association meetings I call The Learning Research Quiz Show. It’s a blast! I ask a series of questions and get audience members to vote on the answer choices. After each question, I briefly state the correct answer and cite research from top-tiered scientific journals. Sometimes I hand out candy to those who are all alone in getting an answer correct, or all alone in being incorrect. It’s a ton of fun! On the other hand, there’s often discomfort in the room to go with the sweet morsels. Some people’s eyes go wide and some people get troubled when their favorite learning approach gets deep-sixed.
The quiz show is a great way to convey a ton of important information, but audience responses are intriguing in and of themselves. The answers people give tell us about their thinking—and, by extension, when compiled over many audiences, people’s answers hint at the current thinking within the learning profession. Let me give you an example related to the topic of brain science.
Overwhelmingly, people in my audiences answer: “C. Research on brain-based learning and neuroscience.” In the workplace learning field, at this point in time, we are sold on neuroscience.
What do the Experts Say?
As you might expect, neuroscientists are generally optimistic about neuroscience. But when it comes to how neuroscience might help learning and education, scientists are more circumspect.
Noted author and neuroscientist John Medina, who happens to be a lovely gentleman as well, has said the following as recently as January 2018. I originally saw him say these things in June 2015:
- “I don’t think brain science has anything to say for business practice.”
- “We still don’t really know how the brain works.”
- “The state of our knowledge [of the brain] is childlike.”
Dan Willingham, noted research psychologist, has been writing for many years about the poor track record of bringing neuroscience findings to learning practice.
In 2012 he wrote an article entitled: “Neuroscience Applied to Education: Mostly Unimpressive.” On the other hand, in 2014 he wrote a blog post where he said, “I’ve often written that it’s hard to bring neuroscientific data to bear on issues in education… Hard, but not impossible.” He then went on to discuss how a reading-disability issue related to deficits in the brain’s magnocellular system was informed by neuroscience.
In a 2015 scientific article in the journal Learning, Media and Technology, Harvard researchers Daniel Busso and Courtney Pollack reviewed the research on neuroscience and education and came to these conclusions:
- “There is little doubt that our knowledge of the developing brain is poised to make important contributions to the lives of parents, educators and policymakers…”
- “Some have voiced concerns about the viability of educational neuroscience, suggesting that neuroscience can inform education only indirectly…”
- “Others insist that neuroscience is only one small component of a multi-pronged research strategy to address educational challenges, rather than a panacea…”
In a 2016 article in the world-renowned journal, Psychological Review, neuroscientist and cognitive psychologist Jeffrey Bowers concluded the following: “There are no examples of novel and useful suggestions for teaching based on neuroscience thus far.” Critiquing Bower’s conclusions, neuroscientists Paul Howard-Jones, Sashank Varma, Daniel Ansari, Brian Butterworth, Bert De Smedt, Usha Goswami, Diana Laurillard, and Michael S. C. Thomas wrote that, “Behavioral and neural data can inform our understanding of learning and so, in turn, [inform] choices in educational practice and the design of educational contexts…” and “Educational Neuroscience does not espouse a direct link from neural measurement to classroom practice.” Neuroscientist John Gabrieli added: “Educational neuroscience may be especially pertinent for the many children with brain differences that make educational progress difficult in the standard curriculum…” “It is less clear at present how educational neuroscience would translate for more typical students, with perhaps a contribution toward individualized learning.” In 2017, Gabrieli gave a keynote on how neuroscience is not ready for education.
Taken together, these conclusions are balanced between the promise of neuroscience and the healthy skepticism of scientists. Note however, that when these researchers talk about the benefits of neuroscience for learning, they see neuroscience applications as happening in the future (perhaps the near future), and augmenting traditional sources of research knowledge (those not based in neuroscience). They do NOT claim that neuroscience has already created a body of knowledge that is applicable to learning and education.
Stanford University researchers Dan Schwartz, Kristen Blair, and Jessica Tsang wrote in 2012 that the most common approach in educational neuroscience tends “to focus on the tails of the distribution; namely, children (and adults) with clinical problems or exceptional abilities.” This work is generally not relevant to workplace learning professionals—as we tend to be more interested in learners with normal cognitive functioning.
Researchers Pedro De Bruyckere, Paul A. Kirschner, and Casper D. Hulshof in their book, Urban Myths about Learning and Education, concluded the following:
“In practice, at the moment it is only the insights of cognitive psychology [not neuropsychology] that can be effectively used in education, but even here care needs to be taken. Neurology has the potential to add value to education, but in general there are only two real conclusions we can make at present:
– For the time being, we do not really understand all that much about the brain.
– More importantly, it is difficult to generalize what we do know into a set of concrete precepts of behavior, never mind devise methods for influencing that behavior.”
The bottom line is that neuroscience does NOT, as of yet, have much guidance to provide for learning design in the workplace learning field. This may change in the future, but as of today, we cannot and should not rely on neuroscience claims to guide our learning designs!
Neuroscience Research Flawed
In 2016, researchers found a significant flaw in the software used in a large percentage of neuroscience research, calling the findings of neuroscience research into question (Eklund, Nichols, & Knuttson, 2016). Even as recently as February of 2018, it wasn’t clear whether neuroscience data was being properly processed (Han & Park, 2018).
Neuroscience is done using imaging techniques like fMRI, PET, SPECT, and EEG. Functional Magnetic Resonance Imagining (fMRI) is by far the most common method. Basically, fMRI is like taking a series of photos of brain activity by looking at blood flow. Because there tends to be “noise” in these images—that is false signals—software is used to ensure that brain activity is really in evidence where the signals say there is activity. Unfortunately, the software used before 2016 to differentiate between signal and noise was severally flawed, causing up to 70% false positives when 5% was expected (Eklund, Nichols, & Knuttson, 2016). As Wired Magazine wrote in a headline, “Bug in fMRI sofware calls 15 years of research into question.” Furthermore, it’s still not clear that corrective measures are being properly utilized (Han & Park, 2018).
The problems with neuroscience imaging were most provocatively illustrated in a 2010 article in the Journal of Serendipitous and Unexpected Results, that showed fMRI brain activation in a dead salmon—where none would be expected (obviously). This article was reviewed in a 2012 post on Scientific American.
Are We Drinking the Snake Oil?
Yes, many of us in the workplace learning field have already swallowed the neuroscience elixir. Some of us have gone further, washing down the snake oil with brain-science Kool-Aid—having become gullible adherents to the cult of neuroscience.
My Learning Research Quiz Show is just one piece of evidence of the pied-piper proliferation of brain- science messages. Conferences in the workplace learning field often have keynotes on neuroscience. Many have education sessions that focus on brain science. Articles, blog posts, and infographics balloon with neuroscience recommendations.
Here are some claims that have been made in the workplace learning field within the past few years:
- “If you want people to learn, retain, and ultimately transfer knowledge to the workplace, it is essential that you understand the ergonomics of the brain.”
- “The brain is our primary tool for learning. It’s seat of thought, memory, consciousness and emotion. So it only makes sense to match your eLearning design with how the learner’s brain functions.”
- “Neuroscience changes everything. Neuroscience is exposing more and more about how our brains work. I find it fascinating, and exciting, because most of the theories our industry follows are based on the softer behavioral sciences. We now have researchers in the hard sciences uncovering the wonders of our neuroanatomy.”
- “Neuroscience Facts You Need to Know: Human attention span – 8.25 seconds. Goldfish attention span – 9 seconds… Based on these facts (and a few others)… you can see why 25% of L&D professionals are integrating neuroscience.”
All of these claims are from vendors trying to get your business—and all of these claims were found near the top of a Google search. Fortunately for you, you’re probably not one of those who is susceptible to such hysterics.
Or are you?
Interestingly, researchers have actually done research on whether people are susceptible to claims based on neuroscience. In 2008, two separate studies showed how neuroscience information could influence people’s perceptions and decision making. McCabe and Castel (2008) found that adding neuroscience images to articles prompted readers to rate the scientific reasoning in those articles more highly than if a bar chart was added or if there was no image added. Weisberg, Keil, Goodstein, Rawson, and Gray (2008) found that adding extraneous neuroscience information to poorly-constructed explanations prompted novices and college students (in a neuroscience class) to rate the explanations as more satisfying than if there was no neuroscience information.
Over the years, the finding that neuroscience images lend credibility to learning materials has been called into question numerous times (Farah & Hook, 2013; Hook & Farah, 2013; Michael, Newman, Vuorre, Cumming, & Garry, 2013; Schweitzer, Baker, & Risko, 2013).
On the other hand, the finding that neuroscience information—in a written form—lends credibility has been supported many times (e.g., Rhodes, Rodriguez, & Shah, 2014; Weisberg, Taylor, & Hopkins, 2015; Fernandez-Duque, Evans, Christian, & Hodges, 2015).
In 2017, a research study found that adding both irrelevant neuroscience information and irrelevant brain images pushed learners to rate learning material as having more credibility (Im, Varna, & Varna, 2017).
As Busso and Pollack (2015) have concluded:
“Several highly cited studies have shown that superfluous neuroscience information may bias the judgement of non-experts…. However, the idea that neuroscience is uniquely persuasive has been met with little empirical support….”
Based on the research to date, it would appear that we as learning professionals are not likely to be influenced by extraneous neuroscience images on their own, but we are likely to be influenced by neuroscience information—or any information that appears to be scientific. When extraneous neuroscience info is added to written materials, we are more likely to find those materials credible than if no neuroscience information had been added.
If the Snake Oil Tastes Good, Does it Matter in Practice?
If we learning professionals are subject to the same human tendencies as our fellow citizens, we’re likely to be susceptible to neuroscience information embedded in persuasive messages. The question then becomes, does this matter in practice? If neuroscience claims influence us, is this beneficial, benign, or dangerous?
Here are some recent quotes from researchers:
- “Explanations of psychological phenomena seem to generate more public interest when they contain neuroscientific information. Even irrelevant neuroscience information in an explanation of a psychological phenomenon may interfere with people’s abilities to critically consider the underlying logic of this explanation.” (Weisberg, Keil, Goodstein, Rawson, & Gray, 2008).
- “Given the popularity of neuroimaging and the attention it receives in the press, it is important to understand how people are weighting this evidence and how it may or may not affect people’s decisions. While the effect of neuroscience is small in cases of subjective evaluations, its effect on the mechanistic understanding of a phenomenon is compelling.” (Rhodes, Rodriguez, & Shah, 2014)
- “Since some individuals may use the presence of neuroscience information as a marker of a good explanation…it is imperative to find ways to increase general awareness of the proper role for neuroscience information in explanations of psychological phenomena.” (Weisberg, Taylor, & Hopkins, 2015)
- “For several decades, myths about the brain — neuromyths — have persisted in schools and colleges, often being used to justify ineffective approaches to teaching. Many of these myths are biased distortions of scientific fact. Cultural conditions, such as differences in terminology and language, have contributed to a ‘gap’ between neuroscience and education that has shielded these distortions from scrutiny.” (Howard-Jones, P. A., 2014).
- “Powerful, often self-interested, commercial forces serve as mediators between research and practice, and this raises some pressing questions for future work in the field: what does responsible [research-to practice] translation look like?” (Busso and Pollock, 2015).
As these quotations make clear, researchers are concerned that neuroscience claims may push us to make poor learning-design decisions. And, they’re worried that unscrupulous people and enterprises may take advantage—and push poor learning approaches on the unsuspecting.
But is this concern warranted? Is there evidence that neuroscience claims are false, misleading, or irrelevant?
Yes! Neuroscience and brain-science claims are almost always deceptive in one way or another. Here’s a short list of issues:
- Selling neuroscience and brain science as a panacea.
- Selling neuroscience and brain science as proven and effective for learning.
- Portraying standard learning research as neuroscience.
- When cognitive psychologists portray themselves as neuroscientists.
- Portraying neuroscience as having already developed a long-list of learning recommendations.
- Portraying one’s products and/or services as based on neuroscience or brain-science.
- Portraying personality diagnostics as based on neuroscience.
- Portraying questionnaire data as diagnostic of neurophysiological functioning.
These neuroscience-for-learning deceptions lead to substantial problems:
- They push us away from more potent methods for learning design—methods that are actually proven by substantial scientific research.
- They make us believe that we are being effective, lessening our efforts to improve our learning interventions. This is an especially harmful problem in the learning field since rarely are we getting good feedback on our actual successes and failures.
- They encourage us to follow the recommendations of charlatans, increasing the likelihood that we are getting bad advice.
- They drive us to utilize “neurosciencey” diagnostics that are ineffective and unreliable.
- They enable vendors to provide us with poor learning designs—partly due to their own blind spots and partly due to intentional deceptions.
Here is a real-life example:
Over the past several years, a person with a cognitive psychology background has portrayed himself as a neuroscientist (which he is NOT). He has become very popular as a conference speaker—and offers his company’s product as the embodiment of neuropsychology principles. Unfortunately, the principles embodied in his product are NOT from neuroscience, but are from standard learning research. More importantly, the learning designs actually implemented with his product (even when designed by his own company) are ineffective and harmful—because they don’t take into account several other findings from the learning research.
Here is an example of one of the interactions from his company’s product:
This is very poor instructional design. It focuses on trivial information that is NOT related to the main learning points. Anybody who knows the learning research—even a little bit—should know that focusing on trivial information is (a) a waste of our learners’ limited attention, (b) a distraction away from the main points, and (c) potentially harmful in encouraging learners to process future learning material in a manner that guides their attention to details and away from more important ideas.
This is just one example of many that I might have used. Unfortunately, we in the learning field are seeing more and more misapplications of neuroscience.
Falsely Calling Learning Research Neuroscience
The biggest misappropriation of neuroscience in workplace learning is found in how vendors are relabeling standard learning research as neuroscience. The following graphic is a perfect example.
I’ve grayed out the detailed verbiage in the image above to avoid implicating the company who put this forward. My goal is not to finger one vendor, but to elucidate the broader problem. Indeed, this is just one example of hundreds that are easily available in our field.
Note how the vendor talks about brain science but then points to two research findings that were elucidated NOT by neuroscience, but by standard learning research. Both the spacing effect and the retrieval-practice effect have been long known – certainly before neuroscience became widely researched.
Here is another example, also claiming that the spacing effect is a neuroscience finding:
Again, I’m not here to skewer the purveyors of these examples, although I do shake my head in dismay when they are portrayed as neuroscience findings. In general, they are not based on neuroscience, they are based on behavioral and cognitive research.
Below is a timeline that demonstrates that neuroscience was NOT the source for the findings related to the spacing effect or retrieval practice.
You’ll notice in the diagram that one of the key tools used by neuroscientists to study the intersection between learning and the brain wasn’t even utilized widely until the early 2000’s, whereas the research on retrieval practice and spacing was firmly established prior to 1990.
The field of workplace learning—and the wider education field—have fallen under the spell of neuroscience (aka brain-science) recommendations. Unfortunately, neuroscience has not yet created a body of proven recommendations. While offering great promise for the future, as of this writing—in January 2016—most learning professionals would be better off relying on proven learning recommendations from sources like Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel’s book Make It Stick; by Benedict Carey’s book How We Learn; and by Julie Dirksen’s book Design for How People Learn.
As learning professionals, we must be more skeptical of neuroscience claims. As research and real-world experience has shown, such claims can persuade us toward ineffective learning designs and unscrupulous vendors and consultants.
Our trade associations and industry thought leaders need to take a stand as well. Instead of promoting neuroscience claims, they ought to voice a healthy skepticism.
This article took a substantial amount of time to research and write. It has been provided for free as a public service. If you’d like to support the author, please consider hiring him as a consultant or speaker. Dr. Will Thalheimer is available at email@example.com and at 617-718-0767.
Also of Interest
- The Debunker Club (working to squash myths in learning)
- The eLearning Manifesto (baking research-based principles into elearning design
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