If you were to Google the benefits of bilingualism you would find a large body of research that suggests that bilingualism aids executive control – a set of cognitive processes that include attentional control, inhibitory control, working memory, cognitive flexibility, reasoning, problem solving and planning. One of the earliest and most influential studies on the relationship between bilingualism and executive control pitted English-French speaking bilinguals against their French-speaking monolingual counterparts on tests including symbol manipulation and reorganization. They found the English-French speaking bilinguals scores were higher. These results have been found across different studies, addressing various aspects of executive control. All very promising you may think, in fact you may be reaching for the Italian dictionary on your shelf right this very instance – but not so fast.
The twentieth century saw neuroscience as being established as an academic field in its own right. We are now entering an age in which knowledge about the brain will inform policy. More recently, the field of educational neuroscience has sprung out of this with the aim of improving learning and development. There is no doubt that our understanding of neuroscience has come along in leaps and bounds, however, is it safe to apply findings from educational neuroscience to education.
Let me introduce you to a concept within educational neuroscience and psychology called the publication bias. The publication bias is a misleading and dangerous attribute of the cognitive sciences – it’s the phenomenon whereby papers are more likely to be published if they find “positive” results that prove the research hypothesis than studies that do not support the research hypothesis. This makes it look like everything within a particular research field is in line and supporting an overarching concept (i.e. bilingualism benefits executive control) but this is just not the case.
Take Angela de Bruin, who while carrying out her final year research project found something she didn’t expect to: on three out of four executive control tasks she tested participants on, monolinguals and bilinguals performed equally well. From this she wondered whether the existing literature was not a reliable picture of the field, so she decided to explore this issue further. In order to test this she looked at conference abstracts (which show research studies in progress) from 1999 to 2012. She noted which of the studies reported went on to be published. It was found that studies with results fully supporting the bilingual-advantage theory were most likely to be published, followed by studies with mixed results. Studies challenging the bilingual advantage were published the least. She further went on to disregard other reasons for this bias i.e. differences in sample size, tests used, or statistical power. Meaning the only thing to account for this publication bias was whether or not the research hypothesis was rejected. Given the inconclusive nature of the results and given we do not yet have a comprehensive understanding of the neural basis of bilingualism and executive control, it may be time to put down that Italian dictionary.
Indeed the publication bias has led to websites deliberately publishing swathes of research where the research hypothesis was not accepted: http://psychfiledrawer.org/. So, if you’re ever searching the web for research within the field of neuroscience and psychology, be sure to stop by this site.
Perhaps more worrying is when neuroscience findings are interpreted wrong and applied seriously. Here, I refer to the left/right brain, analytical/creative mind concept which claims that there are left brain and right brain dominant people. Left brained dominant people are creative and right brained dominant people are analytical. It is true that some cognitive functions occur on one side i.e. motor control is mostly controlled by the left hemisphere. However, there is very little evidence for the left/right brain, analytic/creative mind concept. Yet, this did not stop it becoming widely accepted by teachers and taught in schools. A year after this idea was thoroughly debunked, 91% of UK teachers surveyed believed there were differences in the way that students learn depending on which hemisphere is ‘dominant’.
It turns out there is now no need to worry about whether that career test you took in year 9 labelled you as left brain dominant or right brain dominant but we do need to worry about stopping this flawed information from being passed on to children. Another example of this is the so-called ‘Brain Gym’, which prescribes a series of simple body movements to enhance learning. It claims that children can press certain ‘brain buttons’ under their ribs to focus the visual system for reading and writing. There’s also the idea that your brain goes to sleep for eight hours after watching telly but its okay, because as long as you sit with your ankles crossed you will be protected from the electromagnetic rays. All of this has no scientific basis whatsoever. Before doing these tasks children are required to take a swig of water and hold it in their mouths for a few seconds. When a teacher who had been on a brain gym course was asked why children do this, the teacher replied that water is partially absorbed through the roof of children’s mouths and then absorbed by the brain, improving learning – of course, this is complete nonsense. Somehow, I do not think that misinformed teachers, teaching students wrong information about how the world works is a good way to progress a child’s education.
Perhaps the reason why we cannot apply a lot of neuroscience findings to education is because the methods and technology used within the field of neuroscience are still limited in terms of what they can and cannot tell us. For example, with electro-encephalography it is impossible to tell for sure where exactly electrical data recorded over the scalp was generated in the brain. Another method then is fMRI, however this has low temporal resolution meaning it is not able to tell us which mental process comes before another. Even though it is one of the most widely used methods to visualise the brain, it is based on the movement of blood in the brain – hardly a direct indicator of neural activity. It is also important to note that the brain is a product of genetics, the environment and the interaction between the two. Teachers, peers and parents have their way of affecting learning that interacts with genes and neural development. Concrete evidence into the link between the human brain, behaviour and how it can be applied to education is currently difficult to achieve.
However, all of this is not to say we are doomed. Technology will get better and we are taking many different approaches to understanding the brain – such as the Deepmind initiative by Google. Further, research from other areas of psychology can be applied to education such as the primary and recency effects: we remember the beginnings and ends of lists and the Pomodoro technique: we can increase productivity by working in 25 minute bursts. Albeit, these studies are also not without their criticisms and publication biases. Perhaps, for now, the best way to improve education is to figure out how each individual learns best. This does not mean studying a sum of individuals, collating their data and then applying it back to the individual as psychology and neuroscience tends to do. Instead it means working with an individual to find out the best way that they learn and then using that method with that particular individual.
Perhaps one area in which neuroscience is capable of informing education is that of autism. Research into autism tells us that autism is a spectrum and there is great variation within autistic children. Some autistic children are very sociable and want to have friends around them but some are perfectly happy being less sociable. There is an extraordinarily high heritability of autistic traits, although there is no one gene that accounts for even 1% of cases of autism. Neuroscience has been able to tell us there are actual neural differences between autistic children and others their age, and this allows us to better characterise the different subtypes of autism based on neural evidence as well as their behaviour.
It’s called the endophenotypic approach, which creates a step in between genes and behaviour, which would hopefully lead to better clinical outcomes for autistic children. Within education, we should understand the needs of each autistic child individually to better cater for their development.
So far it seems that a lot of neuroscience research is not capable of informing education at this point due to the issues with the methodology and publication. These examples illustrate the importance of reading neuroscience critically, interpreting studies correctly and not succumbing to the notion that if there is a picture of a brain in the article, then it must be fact. It seems that a good place to start when investigating neuroscience research is to look both at research that has been published and research that has not been published i.e. in the Psych file drawer. Further, be aware that usually the less people know about the neuroscience methodology used, the more likely they are to believe statements without asking questions. Indeed, the validity of neuroscience findings can only be judged upon having serious scientific knowledge of the methodology used. So, we must question things, think critically and find out more information on a topic ourselves. A question we should always ask is, “is there an alternative explanation?” Only then can we escape the misleading claims of popular media and apply techniques that can actually help. Perhaps what is most important in all of this this, is the people we aim to help: students. If you are working in education and wish to employ any techniques from research it is a must that you explore and understand all of the evidence critically yourself before attempting the new learning method in the classroom. Hopefully, our education government ministers might one day also recognise this fact.