The Science of Lifelong Learning

On Tuesday evening I attended the lecture / debate “The Science of Lifelong Learning“, co-hosted by the RSA and the NIACE. The evening was centred on neuroscience and how understanding of its mechanics can impact upon education. The event was recorded, and I believe that feed will soon be uploaded here.

It was an enjoyable evening, though with over-running speeches the debate was sadly lacking and limited to a couple of rounds of questions (incidentally, this was the first panel where I’d seen questions asked in groups, rather than one at a time. Is this standard?).

If there was one overriding theme, it was an echo of Public Enemy – Don’t Believe The Hype. Neuroscience may aid an advancement in our understanding of how the brain works, but it does not work in isolation and cannot alone answer all questions.

The five speakers were a mixture of scientists and educators. Sarah-Jayne Blakemore (a neuroscientist at UCL) opened things up by looking at the “seductive allure” of neuroscience. Aids such as the Brain Gym are, apparently, sold on “facts that aren’t factual”.

She quoted a great study from Weisenberg et al (2008), which indicated that people became more satisfied with a “bad” explanation of brain activity once extraneous technical words were included. This was true for both neuroscience novices and students. Neuroscience experts were immune to this effect; amusingly, they instead felt the “good” explanation was less satisfactory when the neuroscience terms were included.

The takeout for the advertising industry is that products designed to improve intelligence will sell better if brain words are included in the description.

Despite the seductive connection between the mind and brain, Blackmore concluded that neuroscience can still be used effectively – e.g. we have discovered that the brain still develops within teenagers.

Usha Goswami, a neuroscientist from Cambridge, followed up by positing that creating optimal conditions for early learning makes our later learning more efficient, and increases the complexity of what can be learned. However, the ongoing environment has a bigger effect on development trajectory. This is a reason why continual learning is important (it can also help fight Alzheimer’s disease).

Paul Howard-Jones (University of Bristol) then presented evidence that training can improve targeted cognitive functions. While there is less evidence that this can transfer to non-targeted functioning, a recent study (Willis et al, 2006) suggested that reasoning tests in 74 year olds resulted in less self-reported functional decline in everyday life. Paul also had some very snazzy glasses, where the visual shapes projected within the lenses have been shown to enhance cognitive functions.

Andrew Pollard (ESRC Institute of Education) contended that there are four ways in which we can learn – formal workshops/training, personal support, a learning culture, and opportunities for self-reflection. He placed particular emphasis on the final point, saying that biography and history shouldn’t be overlooked. Learning needs to recognise the nature of phenomena; not just the brain but meaning and identity.

Matthew Taylor (Chief Executive, RSA) rounded off the speeches by agreeing that neuroscience is important but shouldn’t be overhyped. He also spoke about the extended mind and distributed cognition. The former refers to how external devices (e.g. a mobile phone) can extend our cognitive capacity while the latter relates to intelligence embedded in our social networks. He argued that learning takes place in groups, and that “collaboration is a meta-skill for lifelong learning”. Something our friends in social media will surely agree with.

A couple of interesting points also came out of the questions. Sarah-Jayne Blackmore said that different learnings have different sensitive periods e.g. social learning can continue for decades. Matthew Taylor noted that within schools, differing innate abilities meant that few could ever fall within a sweet spot of motivated learning and that assessment systems only added to the problem. Andrew Pollard named it the tragedy of the education system – feedback is not in a loop and so people cannot take it on board.

For further reading, see the blogs of Matthew Taylor and Tom Schuller, who chaired the evening.

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Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/fornal/

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One Response

  1. Very nice write up! You grasped Andrew Pollard’s points much better than I did. The questions three at a time thing is standard practice in some circles – more efficient and forces better questions, apparently. I still find it odd though!

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