Comprehending Brain: The Bethlehem of Science

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After two decades of pioneering work in brain research, the education community has started to
realize that “understanding the brain” can help to open new pathways to improve educational research,
policies, and practice. This report synthesizes progress on the brain¬informed approach to learning and
uses this to address key issues for the education community.
1. OECD/CERI International Conference
“Learning in the 21st Century:
Research, Innovation and Policy”
Understanding the Brain:
the Birth of a Learning Science
New insights on learning through cognitive and brain science
The following paper, taken from the recent publication of the same title, provide an overview and bring together the key
messages and potential policy implications, showing how neuroscientific research is already contributing to education
and learning policy and practice. The themes include discussion of lifelong learning; ageing; holistic approaches to
education; the nature of adolescence; ages for particular forms of learning and the curriculum; addressing the “3 Ds”
(dyslexia, dyscalculia, and dementia); and assessment and selection issues in which neuroscience might increasingly
be involved. The chapter also points to areas needing further educational neuroscientific research that have emerged
from the different chapters of the report.
After two decades of pioneering work in brain research, the education community has started to
realise that “understanding the brain” can help to open new pathways to improve educational research,
policies and practice. This report synthesises progress on the brain¬informed approach to learning, and
uses this to address key issues for the education community. It offers no glib solutions nor does it claim
that brain-based learning is a panacea. It does provide an objective assessment of the current state of the
research at the intersection of cognitive neuroscience and learning, and maps research and policy
implications for the next decade.
Part I “The Learning Brain” is the main report, which is the distillation from all the analyses and
events over the past seven years of the OECD/CERI “Learning Sciences and Brain Research” project. Part
II “Collaborative Articles” contains three articles devoted to the “learning brain” in early childhood,
adolescence and adulthood, respectively. These have been written, in each case, by three experts who have
combined their experience and knowledge in synergy of the different perspectives of neuroscience and
education. Annex A reproduces some insights and dialogue that have emerged from the project‟s
interactive website, open to civil society and including notably a teachers‟ forum. Annex B updates the
reader with developments in neuroimaging technology which have proved so fundamental to the advances
discussed in this report.
The first chapter offers a novel “ABC” of the contents of the report by listing and discussing
keywords in alphabetical order. This serves both to give short summaries of complex concepts and to steer
the reader towards the relevant chapter(s) providing the more in-depth coverage. This is followed in the
first half of the following chapter by a short but essential overview of the brain‟s architecture and
How the brain learns throughout life
Neuroscientists have well established that the brain has a highly robust and well-developed capacity
to change in response to environmental demands, a process called plasticity. This involves creating and
strengthening some neuronal connections and weakening or eliminating others. The degree of modification
depends on the type of learning that takes place, with long-term learning leading to more profound
modification. It also depends on the period of learning, with infants experiencing extraordinary growth of
new synapses. But a profound message is that plasticity is a core feature of the brain throughout life.
3. There are optimal or “sensitive periods” during which particular types of learning are most effective,
despite this lifetime plasticity. For sensory stimuli such as speech sounds, and for certain emotional and
cognitive experiences such as language exposure, there are relatively tight and early sensitive periods.
Other skills, such as vocabulary acquisition, do not pass through tight sensitive periods and can be learned
equally well at any time over the lifespan.
Neuroimaging of adolescents now shows us that the adolescent brain is far from mature, and
undergoes extensive structural changes well past puberty. Adolescence is an extremely important period in
terms of emotional development partly due to a surge of hormones in the brain; the still under-developed
pre-frontal cortex among teenagers may be one explanation for their unstable behaviour. We have captured
this combination of emotional immaturity and high cognitive potential in the phrase “high horsepower,
poor steering”.
In older adults, fluency or experience with a task can reduce brain activity levels – in one sense this is
greater processing efficiency. But the brain also declines the more we stop using it and with age. Studies
have shown that learning can be an effective way to counteract the reduced functioning of the brain: the
more there are opportunities for older and elderly people to continue learning (whether through adult
education, work or social activities), the higher the chances of deferring the onset or delaying the
acceleration of neurodegenerative diseases.
The importance of environment
Findings from brain research indicate how nurturing is crucial to the learning process, and are
beginning to provide indication of appropriate learning environments. Many of the environmental factors
conducive to improved brain functioning are everyday matters – the quality of social environment and
interactions, nutrition, physical exercise, and sleep – which may seem too obvious and so easily
overlooked in their impact on education. By conditioning our minds and bodies correctly, it is possible to
take advantage of the brain‟s potential for plasticity and to facilitate the learning process. This calls for
holistic approaches which recognise the close interdependence of physical and intellectual well-being and
the close interplay of the emotional and cognitive.
In the centre of the brain is the set of structures known as the limbic system, historically called the
“emotional brain”. Evidence is now accumulating that our emotions do re-sculpt neural tissue. In situations
of excessive stress or intense fear, social judgment and cognitive performance suffer through compromise
to the neural processes of emotional regulation. Some stress is essential to meet challenges and can lead to
better cognition and learning, but beyond a certain level it has the opposite effect. Concerning positive
emotions, one of most powerful triggers that motivates people to learn is the illumination that comes with
the grasp of new concepts – the brain responds very well to this. A primary goal of early education should
be to ensure that children have this experience of “enlightenment” as early as possible and become aware
of just how pleasurable learning can be.
Managing one‟s emotions is one of the key skills of being an effective learner; self-regulation is one
of the most important behavioural and emotional skills that children and older people need in their social
environments. Emotions direct (or disrupt) psychological processes, such as the ability to focus attention,
solve problems, and support relationships. Neuroscience, drawing on cognitive psychology and child
development research, starts to identify critical brain regions whose activity and development are directly
related to self-control.
4. Language, literacy and the brain
The brain is biologically primed to acquire language right from the very start of life; the process of
language acquisition needs the catalyst of experience. There is an inverse relationship between age and the
effectiveness of learning many aspects of language – in general, the younger the age of exposure, the more
successful the learning – and neuroscience has started to identify how the brain processes language
differently among young children compared with more mature people. This understanding is relevant to
education policies especially regarding foreign language instruction which often does not begin until
adolescence. Adolescents and adults, of course, can also learn a language anew, but it presents greater
The dual importance in the brain of sounds (phonetics) and of the direct processing of meaning
(semantics) can inform the classic debate in teaching reading between the development of specific phonetic
skills, sometimes referered to as “syllabic instruction”, and “whole language” text immersion.
Understanding how both processes are at work argues for a balanced approach to literacy instruction that
may target more phonetics or more “whole language” learning, depending on the morphology of the
language concerned.
Much of the brain circuitry involved in reading is shared across languages but there are some
differences, where specific aspects of a language call on distinct functions, such as different decoding or
word recognition strategies. Within alphabetical languages, the main difference discussed in this report is
the importance of the “depth” of a language‟s orthography: a “deep” language (which maps sounds onto
letters with a wide range of variability) such as English or French contrasts with “shallow”, much more
“consistent” languages such as Finnish or Turkish. In these cases, particular brain structures get brought
into play to support aspects of reading which are distinctive to these particular languages.
Dyslexia is widespread and occurs across cultural and socioeconomic boundaries. Atypical cortical
features which have been localised in the left hemisphere in regions to the rear of the brain are commonly
associated with dyslexia, which results in impairment in processing the sound elements of language. While
the linguistic consequences of these difficulties are relatively minor (e.g. confusing words which sound
alike), the impairment can be much more significant for literacy as mapping phonetic sounds to
orthographic symbols is the crux of reading in alphabetic languages. Neuroscience is opening new avenues
of identification and intervention.
Numeracy and the brain
Numeracy, like literacy, is created in the brain through the synergy of biology and experience. Just as
certain brain structures are designed through evolution for language, there are analogous structures for the
quantitative sense. And, also as with language, genetically-defined brain structures alone cannot support
mathematics as they need to be co-ordinated with those supplementary neural circuits not specifically
destined for this task but shaped by experience to do so. Hence, the important role of education – whether
in schools, at home, or in play; and hence, the valuable role for neuroscience in helping address this
educational challenge.
Although the neuroscientific research on numeracy is still in its infancy, the field has already made
significant progress in the past decade. It shows that even very simple numerical operations are distributed
in different parts of the brain and require the co-ordination of multiple structures. The mere representation
of numbers involves a complex circuit that brings together sense of magnitude, and visual and verbal
representations. Calculation calls on other complex distributed networks, varying according to the
operation in question: subtraction is critically dependent on the inferior parietal circuit, while addition and
5. multiplication engage yet others. Research on advanced mathematics is currently sparse, but it seems that it
calls on at least partially distinct circuitry.
Understanding the underlying developmental pathways to mathematics from a brain perspective can
help shape the design of teaching strategies. Different instructional methods lead to the creation of neural
pathways that vary in effectiveness: drill learning, for instance, develops neural pathways that are less
effective than those developed through strategy learning. Support is growing from neuroscience for
teaching strategies which involve learning in rich detail rather than the identification of correct/incorrect
responses. This is broadly consistent with formative assessment.
Though the neural underpinnings of dyscalculia – the numerical equivalent of dyslexia – are still
under-researched, the discovery of biological characteristics associated with specific mathematics
impairments suggests that mathematics is far from a purely cultural construction: it requires the full
functioning and integrity of specific brain structures. It is likely that the deficient neural circuitry
underlying dyscalculia can be addressed through targeted intervention because of the “plasticity” – the
flexibility – of the neural circuitries involved in mathematics.
Dispelling “neuromyths”
Over the past few years, there has been a growing number of misconceptions circulating about the
brain – “neuromyths”. They are relevant to education as many have been developed as ideas about, or
approaches to, how we learn. These misconceptions often have their origins in some element of sound
science, which makes identifying and refuting them the more difficult. As they are incomplete,
extrapolated beyond the evidence, or plain false, they need to be dispelled in order to prevent education
running into a series of dead-ends.
Each “myth” or set of myths is discussed in terms of how they have emerged into popular discourse,
and of why they are not sustained by neuroscientific evidence. They are grouped as follows:
 “There is no time to lose as everything important about the brain is decided by the age of three.”
 “There are critical periods when certain matters must be taught and learnt.”
 “But I read somewhere that we only use 10% of our brain anyway.”
 “I‟m a „left-brain‟, she‟s a „right-brain‟ person.”
 “Let‟s face it – men and boys just have different brains from women and girls.”
 “A young child‟s brain can only manage to learn one language at a time.”
 “Improve your memory!”
 “Learn while you sleep!”
The ethics and organisation of educational neuroscience
The importance and promise of this new field are not the reason to duck fundamental ethical questions
which now arise.
6. For which purposes and for whom? It is already important to re-think the use and possible abuse of
brain imaging. How to ensure, for example, that the medical information it gives is kept confidential, and
not handed over to commercial organisations or indeed educational institutions? The more accurately that
brain imaging allows the identification of specific, formerly “hidden”, aspects of individuals, the more it
needs to be asked how this should be used in education.
The use of products affecting the brain: The boundary between medical and non-medical use is not
always clear, and questions arise especially about healthy individuals consuming substances that affect the
brain. Should parents, for instance, have the right to give their children substances to stimulate their
scholarly achievements, with inherent risks and parallels to doping in sport?
Brain meets machine: Advances are constantly being made in combining living organs with
technology. The advantages of such developments are obvious for those with disabilities who are thus
enabled, say, to control machines from a distance. That the same technology could be applied to control
individuals‟ behaviour equally obviously raises profound concerns.
An overly scientific approach to education? Neurosciences can importantly inform education but if,
say, “good” teachers were to be identified by verifying their impact on students‟ brains, this would be an
entirely different scenario. It is one which runs the risk of creating an education system which is
excessively scientific and highly conformist.
Though educational neuroscience is still in its early days, it will develop strategically if it is trans-
disciplinary, serving both the scientific and educational communities, and international in reach. Creating a
common lexicon is one critical step; another is establishing shared methodology. A reciprocal relationship
should be established between educational practice and research on learning which is analogous to the
relationship between medicine and biology, co-creating and sustaining a continuous, bi-directional flow to
support brain¬informed educational practice.
A number of institutions, networks and initiatives have already been established to show the way
ahead. Vignette descriptions of several leading examples are available in this report. They include the JST-
RISTEX, Japan Science and Technology‟s Research Institute of Science and Technology for Society;
Transfer Centre for Neuroscience and Learning, Ulm, Germany; Learning Lab, Denmark; Centre for
Neuroscience in Education: University of Cambridge, United Kingdom; and “Mind, Brain, and
Education”, Harvard Graduate School of Education, United States.
Key messages and themes for the future
Educational neuroscience is generating valuable new knowledge to inform educational policy and
practice: On many questions, neuroscience builds on the conclusions of existing knowledge and everyday
observation but its important contribution is in enabling the move from correlation to causation –
understanding the mechanisms behind familiar patterns – to help identify effective solutions. On other
questions, neuroscience is generating new knowledge, thereby opening up new avenues.
Brain research provides important neuroscientific evidence to support the broad aim of lifelong
learning: Far from supporting ageist notions that education is the province only of the young – the
powerful learning capacity of young people notwithstanding – neuroscience confirms that learning is a
lifelong activity and that the more it continues the more effective it is.
Neuroscience buttresses support for education‟s wider benefits, especially for ageing populations:
Neuroscience provides powerful additional arguments on the “wider benefits” of education (beyond the
purely economic that counts so highly in policy-making) as it is identifying learning interventions as a
7. valuable part of the strategy to address the enormous and costly problems of ageing dementia in our
The need for holistic approaches based on the interdependence of body and mind, the emotional and
the cognitive: Far from the focus on the brain reinforcing an exclusively cognitive, performance-driven
bias, it suggests the need for holistic approaches which recognise the close inter-dependence of physical
and intellectual well-being, and the close interplay of the emotional and cognitive, the analytical and the
creative arts.
Understanding adolescence – high horsepower, poor steering: The insights on adolescence are
especially important as this is when so much takes place in an individual‟s educational career, with long-
lasting consequences. At this time, young people have well-developed cognitive capacity (high
horsepower) but emotional immaturity (poor steering). This cannot imply that important choices should
simply be delayed until adulthood, but it does suggest that these choices should not definitively close
Better informing the curriculum and education‟s phases and levels with neuroscientific insights: The
message is a nuanced one: there are no “critical periods” when learning must take place but there are
“sensitive periods” when the individual is particularly primed to engage in specific learning activities
(language learning is discussed in detail). The report‟s message of an early strong foundation for lifetimes
of learning reinforces the key role of early childhood education and basic schooling.
Ensuring neuroscience‟s contribution to major learning challenges, including the “3Ds”: dyslexia,
dyscalculia, and dementia. On dyslexia, for instance, its causes were unknown until recently. Now it is
understood to result primarily from atypical features of the auditory cortex (and possibly, in some cases, of
the visual cortex) and it is possible to identify these features at a very young age. Early interventions are
usually more successful than later interventions, but both are possible.
More personalised assessment to improve learning, not to select and exclude: Neuroimaging
potentially offers a powerful additional mechanism on which to identify individuals learning characteristics
and base personalisation; but, at the same time, it may also lead to even more powerful devices for
selection and exclusion than are currently available.
Key areas are identified as priorities for further educational neuroscientific research, not as an
exhaustive agenda but as deriving directly from the report. This agenda for further research – covering the
better scientific understanding of such matters as the optimal timing for different forms of learning,
emotional development and regulation, how specific materials and environments shape learning, and the
continued analysis of language and mathematics in the brain – would, if realised, be well on the way to the
birth to a trans-disciplinary learning science.
This is the aspiration which concludes this report and gives it its title. It is also the report‟s aspiration
that it will be possible to harness the burgeoning knowledge on learning to create an educational system
that is both personalised to the individual and universally relevant to all.
Conclusions and Future Prospects
After seven years of a pioneering activity on learning sciences, it would be tempting on the one hand
to exaggerate the claims that can be made, but also easy to hide behind the plea that further research is
needed before we can reach any conclusions. On the latter, it is certainly true that more research is needed,
and some key lines for further research are suggested below. On the former, this concluding chapter largely
abstains from specific recommendations. The field is still too young, and the connections between
neuroscience and education too complex, for this to be justified. There are few instances where
8. neuroscientific findings, however rich intellectually and promising for the future, can be used categorically
to justify specific recommendations for policy or practice. Indeed, one of the messages from this activity,
made already in the 2002 Understanding the Brain – Towards a New Learning Science report, is that we
should beware of simplistic or reductionist approaches, which may grab headlines or offer lucrative
opportunities but which are a distortion of the knowledge base.
This chapter brings together the main themes and conclusions from the preceding analysis. It is
possible to put forward some broad propositions or challenges which can open up and refresh the debate on
the future shape and character of our education systems. If we witness the birth of a science of learning,
new ideas and evidence will rapidly arise and transform the current landscape. We do not need to wait for
that research; part of CERI‟s mission has always been to help OECD countries think through their future
agendas. The conclusions are at quite a high level of generality, precisely in order to give the necessary
impetus to carry the discussion across the very broad terrain mapped out in the preceding chapters.
Key messages and conclusions
The most important scientific revolutions all include, as their only common feature, the
dethronement of human arrogance from one pedestal after another of previous convictions about
our centrality in the cosmos.
Stephen Jay Gould
Educational neuroscience is generating valuable new knowledge to inform educational policy and
The sweep of this volume – from the learning that takes place in the earliest years of infancy through
to that of the elderly, from knowledge related to specific subject areas through to that concerned with
emotions and motivation, from the remedial to the more general understanding of learning – shows how
wide-ranging is the contribution that neuroscience can make to educational policy and practice. It has
shown that the contribution of neuroscience to education takes different forms.
On many questions, neuroscience builds on the conclusions of existing knowledge from other sources,
such as psychological study, classroom observation or achievement surveys. Examples discussed in this
volume – such as the role of diet to improve educational performance, the turbulence of puberty, or that
confidence and motivation can be critical to educational success – are not new. But the neuroscientific
contribution is important even for results already known because:
 It is opening up understanding of “causation” not just “correlation”; and moving important
questions from the realm of the intuitive or ideological into that of evidence;
 By revealing the mechanisms through which effects are produced, it can help identify effective
interventions and solutions.
On other questions, neuroscience is generating new knowledge, opening up new avenues. Without
understanding the brain, for instance, it would not be possible to know the different patterns of brain
activities associated with expert performers compared with novices (as a means to understanding
comprehension and mastery), or how learning can be an effective response to the decline of ageing, or why
certain learning difficulties are apparent in particular students even when they seem to be coping well with
other educational demands.
9. To these two key contributions can be added a third – that of dispelling neuromyths. Such distortions,
discussed in detail in Chapter 6, risk to distract serious educational practice with the faddish, off-the-shelf
solutions of the airport lounge bookshop.
Another key set of distinct contributions by neuroscience to education is:
 Research which is deepening the knowledge base of what constitutes learning as a central aspect
of human and social life, and in ways which cut across the different institutional arrangements
called “education”.
 Neuroscience is developing the means for revealing hitherto hidden characteristics in individuals,
which may be used for remedial purposes – to overcome reading problems or dyscalculia for
instance. Eventually, they may also be used to select or improve performance or exclude, raising
a raft of thorny ethical issues as discussed in Chapter 7.
 It is, along with other disciplines, able to inform how best to design and arrange different
educational practices, especially as regards the match between findings on how best learning
takes place and when, on the one hand, and how education is conventionally organised, on the
other. It is another question whether that knowledge is being sufficiently acted upon at present.
Brain research provides important neurological evidence to support the broad aim of lifelong learning
and confirms the wider benefits of learning, especially for ageing populations
One of the most powerful set of findings concerned with learning concerns the brain‟s remarkable
properties of “plasticity” – to adapt, to grow in relation to experienced needs and practice, and to prune
itself when parts become unnecessary – which continues throughout the lifespan, including far further into
old age than had previously been imagined. The demands made on the individual and on his or her learning
are key to the plasticity – the more you learn, the more you can learn. Far from supporting ageist notions
that education is best concentrated on the young – the powerful learning capacity of young people
notwithstanding – neuroscience has shown that learning is a lifelong activity and that the more that it
continues the more effective it is.
As the demands for having an evidence-base on which to ground policy and practice grow, so has it
become even more important to broaden the understanding of the “wider benefits” of education beyond the
economic criteria which so often dominate policy cost-benefit analyses. There is growing evidence to show
for instance that educational participation can have powerful benefits in terms of health or civic
participation (see also CERI work on the “Social Outcomes of Learning”). This report has underpinned the
arguments about the wider benefits of learning: the enormous and costly problems represented by senile
dementia in ever-ageing populations can be addressed through the learning interventions being identified
through neuroscience.
Combinations of improved diagnostics, opportunities to exercise, appropriate and validated
pharmacological treatment, and good educational intervention can do much to maintain positive well-being
and to prevent deterioration.
We need holistic approaches based on the interdependence of body and mind, the emotional and the
With such a strong focus on cognitive performance – in countries and internationally – there is the
risk of developing a narrow understanding of what education is for. Far from the focus on the brain
reinforcing an exclusively cognitive, performance-driven bias, it actually suggests the need for holistic
10. approaches which recognise the close interdependence of physical and intellectual well-being, and the
close interplay of the emotional and cognitive, the analytical and the creative arts.
The ways in which the benefits of good diet, exercise, and sleep impact on learning are increasingly
understood through their effects in the brain. For older people, cognitive engagement (such as playing
chess or doing crossword puzzles), regular physical exercise, and an active social life promote learning and
can delay degeneration of the ageing brain (see Chapter 2).
The analysis of this report shows not only how emotions play a key part in the functioning of the
brain, but the processes whereby the emotions affect all the others. Especially important for educational
purposes is the analysis of fear and stress, which shows how they, for instance, reduce analytical capacity,
and vice versa how positive emotions open doors within the brain.
This is just as relevant for the adult student confronted by an uncomfortable return to education as it
does for the young person confronted by the unfamiliar demands of secondary or higher education. It has
an equity dimension, for fear of failure, lack of confidence, and such problems as “maths anxiety”
(Chapters 3 and 5) are likely to be found in significantly greater measure among those from less privileged
We need to understand better what adolescence is (high horsepower, poor steering)
This report is particularly revealing about the nature of adolescence in terms of the stage of brain
development in the teenage years and particularly in terms of emotional maturation.
The insights provided by neuroscience on adolescence and the changes which take place during the
teenage years are especially important as this is the period when so much takes place in an individual‟s
educational career. The secondary phase of education is conventionally covered by this phase, with key
decisions to be made with long-lasting consequences regarding personal, educational, and career options.
At this time, young people are in the midst of adolescence, with well-developed cognitive capacity (high
horsepower) but emotional immaturity (poor steering).
Clearly, this cannot imply that important choices should simply be delayed until adulthood. It does
suggest, with the additional powerful weight of neurological evidence, that the options taken should not
take the form of definitively closing doors. There needs to be stronger differentiation of further learning
opportunities (formal and informal) and greater recognition of the trajectories of adolescent maturation.
Neuroscience also has developed the key concept “emotional regulation”. Managing emotions is one
of the key skills of being an effective learner. Emotional regulation affects complex factors such as the
ability to focus attention, solve problems, and support relationships. Given the “poor steering” of
adolescence and the value of fostering emotional maturity in young people at this key stage, it may well be
fruitful to consider how this might be introduced into the curriculum and to develop programmes to do this.
We need to consider timing and periodicity when dealing with curriculum issues
The work of psychologists like Piaget has long influenced our understanding of learning linked to
individual development. Educational neuroscience is now permitting the qualification of the Piagetian
models (including demonstration of the capacities already possessed by young infants), while broadening
the understanding of timing and optimal learning through the study of “sensitive” periods.
The message emerging from this report is a nuanced one: there are no “critical periods” when learning
must take place, and indeed the neuroscientific understanding of lifetime “plasticity” shows that people are
11. always open to new learning. On the other hand, it has given precision to the notion of “sensitive periods”
– the ages when the individual is particularly primed to engage in specific learning activities.
The example of language learning has featured prominently in this report, and is a key subject in an
increasingly global world. In general, the earlier foreign language instruction begins, the more efficient and
effective it can be. Such learning shows distinct patterns of brain activity in infants compared with school-
age children compared with adults: at older ages more areas of the brain are activated and learning is less
efficient. Even so, adults are perfectly capable of learning a new language.
This report has also dispelled myths about the dangers of multilingual learning interfering with native
language competence; indeed, children learning another language reinforce the competences in their
mother tongue.
These are important questions for education. These findings deepen the basis on which to pose
questions about when in the lifespan certain types of learning should best be undertaken, grounded on
evidence rather than tradition. They support the importance of laying a very strong foundation for lifelong
learning, hence further emphasise the key role of early childhood education and basic schooling, not as
ends in themselves but as giving the best possible start.
At the same time, the report (Chapter 6) has warned against over-emphasising the determining
importance of the ages birth to three years on later learning.
Neuroscience can make a key contribution to major learning challenges
The contribution that neuroscience is already making to the diagnosis and identification of effective
interventions is most clear in what might be termed the “3-Ds”: dyslexia, dyscalculia, and dementia.
Dyslexia: Until recently, the causes of dyslexia were unknown, but now it is understood that it results
primarily from atypical features of the auditory cortex (and maybe, sometimes, of the visual cortex). Only
recently has it been possible to identify these features at a very young age. Early interventions are usually
more successful than later interventions, but both are possible.
Dyscalculia is now understood to have comparable causes as dyslexia, though early identification and
hence interventions are well less developed.
Dementia: The very significant findings about learning and dementia have been mentioned above, and
education is being identified as an effective, desirable source of “prevention” to among other things delay
the onset of Alzheimer‟s symptoms and reduce their gravity.
On the more general understanding of literacy (Chapter 4), the dual importance of phonological and
direct semantic processing in the brain during reading in English suggests that a balanced approach to
literacy instruction may be most effective for non¬shallow alphabetic languages. As for shallow
orthographies, neuroscience seems to confirm the appropriateness of “syllabic methods” to learn reading,
and there is interesting potential to be explored in comparisons between alphabetic and non-alphabetic
languages on reading acquisition.
On numeracy (Chapter 5), since humans are born with a biological inclination to understand the world
numerically, formal mathematics instruction should build upon existing informal numerical
understandings. Because number and space are tightly linked in the brain, instructional methods that link
number with space are powerful teaching tools.
12. More personalised assessment to improve learning, not to select and exclude
The potential of brain imaging could have very far-reaching consequences for education, as well as
raising critical ethical issues. Knowledge about how the brain functions, and about how competence and
mastery are reflected in brain structures and processes, can be applied at a system-wide level, interrogating
conventional educational arrangements and practices to ask whether we organise them for optimal
learning. Many conventional forms of assessment, where success can be boosted by cramming, have been
shown to be “brain-unfriendly” with low retained comprehension.
But beyond these general findings, the results of neuroscience may eventually also be applied on
individual learners to find out such matters as whether they really comprehend certain material, or about
their levels of motivation or anxiety. Used properly, this individual focus may add fundamentally powerful
diagnostic tools to the process of formative assessment (OECD, 2005) and personalised learning.
This relates to the pursuit in a number of countries of greater “personalisation” of curricula and
educational practices (OECD, 2006). Neuroimaging potentially offers a powerful additional mechanism on
which to base personalisation. At the same time, studies of the brain show that individual characteristics
are far from fixed – there is constant interaction between genetic function and experience and plasticity,
such that the notion of what constitutes an individual‟s capacities should be treated with considerable
But, on the other side, such individual applications of neuroimaging may also lead to even more
powerful devices for selection and exclusion than are currently available. A biological CV would be open
to profound risks, while being potentially attractive to such users as universities or employers. It would be
an abuse of the valuable tools of neuroimaging if they were deployed in the negative ways of rejecting
students or candidates on the grounds that they do not show sufficient learning capacity or potential
(especially when the plasticity of the brain shows how open to development is the capacity to learn). The
excessively “scientific” conception of education described in Chapter 7 – used as the basis for selecting
students and teachers alike – would be anathema to many.
Key areas for further educational neuroscientific research
If we value the pursuit of knowledge, we must be free to follow wherever that search may
lead us.
Adlai E. Stevenson Jr.
The below research areas do not pretend to be exhaustive of interesting fields of educational
neuroscientific enquiry; instead, they have emerged from the analysis of this report as priority areas. Some
of them represent the need to deepen knowledge where at present our understanding is sketchy.
It is also about setting an educational agenda for neuroscience as well as the medical agenda which
has naturally tended to dominate it up to now. It is for the neuroscientific community to realise how
valuable its contributions are to better understanding the key human activity of learning for educational
purposes as it applies for all – gifted through disabled, young through old – and not only for those
requiring remediation.
 Better understanding of optimal timing for what forms of learning, especially in relation to
adolescents and older adults where the review shows that the knowledge base is not yet well
developed (Chapter 2). This includes “sensitive periods” – when the capacity to learn is greatest –
in specific areas such as language learning.
13.  Understanding the interaction between increasing knowledge and declining executive function
and memory. More research into the ageing process, and not only among the elderly but also
adults in their middle years – both in terms of capacity to learn and in terms of the role of
learning to delay the deleterious effects of ageing.
 Much is needed on emotions in the brain. Further investigation using psychological and
neuroimaging studies is needed of the neurobiological mechanisms which underlie the impact of
stress on learning and memory, and the factors that could reduce or regulate it. A specific
question for further investigation is how the adolescent‟s emotional brain interacts with different
kinds of classroom environments.
 Better understanding of how laboratory conditions influence findings, and the applicability and
transferability of results in different settings other than those in which they were generated. The
key role of appropriate learning materials and specific environments needs to be analysed so as to
move away from the crude formulations which ask whether environment does or does not make a
 Confirmatory studies showing how beneficial nutrition can impact positively on brain
development and more studies directly related to the educational domain. The same applies to
physical exercise, sleep, music and creative expression.
 Much more is needed on what types of learning requires the interaction of others and on the role
of cultural differences. This should be further broken down in terms of student demographic
(especially gender) and socio-cultural differences, but it is also a minefield for misinterpretation.
Neuroscience should certainly not be brought into the service of racist or sexist stereotypes.
 Research can help lead to the better understanding of multi-dimensional pathways to competence,
for instance in reading. The need to expand the focus to real-world educational situations and
applications, e.g. whole sentences rather than single words or characters.
 It would be very useful to further build up the differentiated map of mathematics in the brain,
which builds on the insights gained already on the apparently paradoxical combination of
dissociable skills and brain functions, on the one hand, and interconnectivity, on the other.
Identification of approaches to overcome “mathematics anxiety” would be very useful.
 Understanding different brain activity – neural networks, role of cognitive function and memory
– among “experts” as compared with average learners as compared with those with genuine
problems. This will inform both the identification of successful learning and of effective, targeted
teaching methods.
Birth of a learning science
Recent advances in neuroscience have produced powerful insights while educational research has
accumulated a substantial knowledge base. A neuroscientific perspective adds a new, important dimension
to the study of learning in education, and educational knowledge could help direct neuroscience research
towards more relevant areas. Because both fields are well-developed, however, they have deeply-rooted
disciplinary cultures with field-specific methods and language which make it extremely difficult for
experts from one field to use the knowledge from the other. A new trans-disciplinarity is needed which
brings the different communities and perspectives together. This needs it to be a reciprocal relationship,
analogous to the relationship between medicine and biology, to sustain the continuous, bi-directional flow
of information necessary to support brain-informed, evidence-based educational practice. Researchers and
14. practitioners can work together to identify educationally-relevant research goals and discuss potential
implications of research results. Once brain-informed educational practices are implemented, practitioners
should systematically examine their effectiveness and provide classroom results as feedback to refine
research directions. Establishing research schools with educational practice intimately connected to brain
research is a promising way to stabilise trans-disciplinary work.
Educational neuroscience can help to drive the creation of a real learning science. It might even serve
as a model of trans-disciplinarity for other fields to emulate. We hope that this publication will help give
birth to this real learning science, as well as a model for continued trans-disciplinary fusion.
OECD (2002), Understanding the Brain – Towards a New Learning Science, OECD, Paris.
OECD (2005), Formative Assessment – Improving Learning in Secondary Classrooms, OECD, Paris.
OECD (2006), Personalising Education, OECD, Paris.
OECD (2007), Understanding the Brain: The Birth of a Learning Science, OECD, Paris.