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Impact Activities: Case studies

Project impacts: Across the lifecourse | Improving outcomes | Improving practice | Developing dialogue | Informing policy
Programme impacts: Public debate | Principles into practice | Westminster showcase | Electronic resources | Widening participation


Neuroscience and Education: public debates

Public interest

The TLRP Seminar Series “Collaborative Frameworks for Neuroscience and Education” consisted of six seminars organised between April 2005 and June 2006 and building on an earlier report, commissioned by the TLRP (S.J. Blakemore and U. Frith, The Implications of Recent Developments in Neuroscience for Research on Teaching and Learning, 2000). The series reviewed the latest advances in the knowledge of the brain, identified examples of how neuroscience (as opposed to “neuro-myths”) had already informed educational theory and practice, and indicated practical ways in which these findings may influence and inspire future approaches to education practice and policy. In addition, the series evaluated the validity of different approaches to developing and applying a brain-basis for learning and drafted an agenda for future interdisciplinary research. Over 400 teachers, educational researchers, psychologists and neuroscientists attended one or more of the events in this series. The outputs, including transcripts of discussions, were published on the series’ website, as well as on the TLRP website.

The series attracted media attention - see e.g. national press coverage in The Guardian, 27 January 2006; the Daily Mail, January 2006, focused on cognitive function-enhancing drugs. Paul Howard-Jones (convenor of the series) was cited in The Guardian to have said: "This is science fact not science fiction. There is likely to be a big market for these drugs and as educators we need to be more informed about it. What are the ethical implications and questions? Will there be pressures to use them in the future?".

In March 2006 the seminar series was the subject of a question by Baroness Susan Greenfield in the House of Lords (6 Mar 2006: Column WA115). The question related to Government’s assessment of the implications of the seminar series and to possibilities of future collaboration between education and medial researchers in the neuroscience arena.

In April 2006 the seminar series was mentioned again in the House of Lords, as part of a debate initiated by Baroness Greenfield. In her opening speech, she commented :“initiatives such as the Economic and Social Research Council-funded seminar series, Collaborative Frameworks in Neuroscience and Education, have been a catalyst for bringing together neuroscientists and educators to help us start to understand learning and create an evidence base on which 21st-century education can be built”. She urged efforts “to ensure public engagement in the process” by “co-ordinating on a nationwide scale within both the public and private sectors the best of science and technology initiatives” (20 Apr 2006 : Column 1220). Several speeches were made as part of the debate that expressed belief in the importance of this emerging area. Baroness Greenfield also discussed the issues on the Today BBC Radio 4 program (20 April 2006).

Wide dissemination
The impact of the seminar series lasted beyond 2006 and was sustained through the publication of the TLRP commentary Neuroscience and Education: Issues and Opportunities authored by Paul Howard-Jones, with a preface by Ian Diamond, ESRC’s Chief Executive. The commentary, which challenged “folk neuroscience”, was launched in May 2007 at Portcullis House, in the presence of MPs and Peers from an All Party Group led by Baronesses Susan Greenfield and Estelle Morris and Phil Willis, as well as of teachers, policy-makers, educational researchers, and neuroscientists. Baroness Morris said at the event: “dialogues such as these today set the scene for improved collaboration between education and science in the future, which are necessary to help reshape our education system around the need of our children”.

The commentary was part of the TLRP Commentaries series, which was aimed primarily at non-specialist audiences, including practitioners, other decision-makers, and the general public. As evidenced, for example, by requests for electronic and hard copies and by references in the media, parliamentary debates, policy documents, and practitioner publications and websites, the commentaries were an effective way of reaching these audiences.

The commentary on neuroscience and education illustrated this clearly. It highlighted the ways in which “education may have much to gain from greater cognisance of the workings of the brain and improved dialogue with those working in the neuroscience and psychological communities” (p.4). It introduced and made accessible for non-academic users up-to-date evidence about brain development, developmental disorders, and brain care (including topics such as the effects of sleep habits, water intake, and food supplements, e.g.Omega-3 and, caffeine). It translated this evidence into implications for teaching and learning, but recommended caution in the transfer of concepts between neuroscience and education and in scrutinizing future developments with potential impact in the area (e.g. the development of “smart pills” or neurofeedback techniques). The message was repeated in TLRP’s impact leaflet: “popularised neuroscience is seductive, but can be dangerous when prematurely applied in the complexities of classrooms” (p.2).

The commentary was widely discussed and disseminated. For example, from May 2007 until the end of May 2009 the Commentary received 213,170 downloads on the TLRP website. Over 2000 hard copies were also distributed through ESCalate, the ESRC, the Neuroscience and Education network, universities, and also to the All Party Parliamentary Group and at events, including TLRP and BERA conferences.


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