NOTE: This post was originally written on 29 November 2021, but it’s published now, months later because of the cyberattack that UAB suffered then and that caused the temporary suspension of this blog
Today’s post is written in reaction to Francisco Mora’s volume Neuroeducación: Sólo se Puede Aprender Aquello que se Ama (2013). Mora is a doctor in Medicine and Neuroscience, not a pedagogue, but he has been working for years on ‘neuroeducation’, that is to say, the field proposing that education could be much more effective if we understood more precisely how the human brain works. This sounds appropriate, in the same way that one supposes that coaching in sports improves the more the coach knows about the trainees’ anatomical features and capabilities. However, I was disappointed by this particular volume since it seems that we are still very far away from adapting education to the stirring of particular areas of the brain. Mora offers, in short, no recipe to remake education so that exercises can be devised to stimulate, as I say, key brain areas. Proof of this is that when dealing with the major problem of how to turn on students’ curiosity he offers the following advice (I’m paraphrasing):
1) Begin with something provoking.
2) Present a mundane question based on everyday experiences that the student can relate to.
3) Create a relaxed atmosphere, so that students feel comfortable; never judge their contributions as being below standard or inadequate.
4) Give time enough for all students to accomplish tasks.
5) In a seminar context, avoid asking direct questions; elicit questions from students themselves.
6) During lectures insert elements that are shocking, surprising, disruptive and so on…
7) … making sure they don’t cause anxiety.
8) In a seminar context, invite students to participate actively.
9) Reward with praise good contributions by students (questions, comments).
10) Help students find the answer to a question, rather than give it to them.
Deep sigh… For this we don’t need neuroscience but plain pedagogical common sense. Of course, if you are the kind of teacher who thinks that transmitting information through lectures in which students needn’t intervene is the best pedagogical method, Mora’s advice must be knew to you. But I do hope you are not that kind of teacher.
Let me go back to the subtitle of Mora’s book, Sólo se Puede Aprender Aquello que se Ama, that is ‘you can only learn what you love’. In theory, the best teachers are those who make you love those matters you were initially indifferent to, or even hostile. Yet, I believe there is a limit to that kind of miracle, and this sudden falling in love with some matter possibly corresponds to the teacher tickling an area of the brain so far dormant. I do not think, however, that in my thirty years as a Literature teacher I have turned any non-readers into readers, though it might be the case that I have interested some students into certain texts. Likewise, even though in my days as an undergrad a good teacher who is now my colleague (Mireia Llinàs) got me very much interested in Linguistics that was not enough to sustain a firm vocation in this area of knowledge, and I ended up embracing what appears to be my natural area of interest, Literature.
I have thought plenty about why some persons, like myself, love reading while others never get the habit. My provisional neuroscientific conclusion is that our brains are wired so that we get pleasure out of that, in the same way the brains of persons who enjoy practising sports get pleasure out of exercising. Education, as we understand it today, supposes that mind and body can be trained to read and to exercise as basic skills that humans require to lead productive lives. Yet, I remember with glee the day at the end of secondary school when I was finally free from the physical education class which had made me so awfully uncomfortable since the age of six. Why this discomfort? Because I was measured against what my colleagues could do, not what I could myself do –none bothered to check, for instance, that I was much better at dancing than at running. I assume, therefore, that many of our students in the English Studies BA feel the same glee when they pass the last compulsory Literature class. For, your see?, ‘you can only learn what you love’, and you cannot learn the beauties of Anglophone Literature if you don’t love reading to begin with. And that, it appears, has to do with your brain’s nature.
So here’s the catch: the neuroeducators like Mora use a general model for the human brain but are possibly missing the nuances of each individual human brain. As education works, we teach children up to the age of 16 the same contents, supposing that this is what they all need to become responsible citizens and persons mature enough to embark on the next stage of their education. The system, however, is producing students who are either so uninterested that they quit, or students who learn to navigate the system even though they never really care about a great deal of what they are being taught. I don’t think there has been ever any single student in primary and secondary education who has enjoyed learning all the subjects, not even those children with the highest grades. Neuroeducators are telling us that if we knew how children’s brains work we could iron out everyone’s difficulties in learning and teach kids with less mutual embarrassment the current curriculum, designed, let’s be honest, with little care for truly awakening a love for learning.
Perhaps it’s the other way round. If we understood well the leanings of each human brain, we could adapt education to each child’s abilities and thus engage this child in his/her education from the beginning. Suppose, for the sake of argumentation, that neurologists find there is an area of the brain that indicates a person has great mechanical skills, perhaps even of an engineering type. Why would this person spend his/her complete childhood never developing those skills, being fed instead a dry diet of matters they will never care for? Same with any other kind of skill, and always supposing a correspondence could be found between certain folds in the brain and certain skills. Try to think of this: those of us with scholarly inclinations adapt more or less well to the current type of education, which is based on producing exercises; but if we were subjected to an education based on working with our hands, we would be probably do poorly. However, few of the persons appalled by the fact of so many children are quitting secondary school ever consider whether the problem is the rigidity of the scholarly model of education.
Am I saying that this should be Brave New World and people should be educated according to a neurological analysis of their brains taken at age three, before school begins? Not really, though I think that any perceptive teacher can see that teaching, for instance, mathematics to certain kids (like me) is a waste of time for teacher and student; or that short kids will never make basketball players. What we do instead when a child does not care for a subject, or for education on the whole, is to dismiss that child as a born loser in the worst case scenario and as an educational failure in the slightly less worse. If we go down the path which Mora’s rumination opens, then, there is no failure on the side of the child but on the side of the system which has failed to understand his/her abilities and provide him/her with the best possible education (particularly at a secondary school level).
As the system works now, in the cheapest possible way, all children are forced into the same mould. It cannot escape anyone’s attention that children from richer backgrounds do better, not because they are more intelligent but because they receive more personalised attention that can bring out their best skills. There are the same number of potential future doctors or designers in each social group, or of crane operators and short-order cooks, but whereas kids from wealthier backgrounds are always being monitored for their skills to bloom, kids in poorer backgrounds are told that they can only do well under exceptional circumstances that require extraordinary commitment either from the individual or from the family. And that hard, low-skilled work is to be their lot.
I am sure you are all horrified by the possibility of that brain scan that will show at age three how each individual should be educated to make the most of their abilities. But perhaps what might be truly scary for the upper echelons is that the scan might show that the brains of little kids show little differences across social classes. I don’t think this is where neuroscience and neuroeducation are going but, as you can see, they may have revolutionary consequences not even Marx could dream of. Yes, some people’s utopia is other people’s dystopia.
I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/. The Spanish version of the posts is available from https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/es/