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Learning Lessons for School


Enquiring minds meet inspiring brain.

When I was about 8 years old, I was taken round the museum at the local medical school here in Birmingham. I was captivated by the various mammalian and human brains that were displayed there. It fascinated me that everything that made me special – my whole personality –  could be contained and operated from a brain like those inside my own head.

Some years later, while I was a researcher at that self-same school, there was big inquiry into the storage of human body parts and, now, that museum of medical curiosities is gone. It has been replaced by a large, very modern lecture theatre. That is progress, I suppose, but I wonder how many young students will be as inspired by their lectures as I was by those brains?

Recent blogs on this site have highlighted the importance of language skills to the development of self-control, as well as changes in how we understand cognition in infants as opposed to older children. These findings have profound pedagogical implications, for example in how we design teaching materials and resource childcare.

Increasingly we are seeing how neuroscience research impacts on our understanding not only of the developing brain but also of early years education in the home and nursery.

Recent examples include:

  • Vallaton & Ayoub (2010)’s work on the differential impact of language learning for the development of self-control in boys;
  • Pessoa’s 2005 study of how emotional visual stimuli are fast-tracked through the brain without attention or awareness; &
  • Johnson et al (2010)’s work looking at the positive impact of education on genetic susceptibility to poor health.

These are just three examples of the tidal wave of research being produced by neuroscientists around the world which, whilst improving our understanding of the chemistry and physiology of the human brain, also improves our capacity to educate across the age-ranges.

“But,” I hear you cry, “we all know how education works, don’t we?” The answer to which is, to quote a renowned academic source, “What do you mean ‘we’, Kimosabe?”

When I first started to work in a neuroscience department, it was a controversial field of study at the cutting edge of scientific endeavour. The brain had, for a long time, been the final frontier: the region of the anatomical map still marked “Here be Dragons!” Well, not any more. Although there is much that we are only at the very beginning of our understanding, neuroscience is no longer new. The new kid on my block is neuro-education.

Neuro-what? Well, we know that genes interact with early childhood experiences and the environment to shape and structure the developing brain. Neuro-education attempts to harness our increasing knowledge about the structure and behaviour of the brain and its components to inform and improve the way that education works.

Detractors call it reductionist science; advocates say society cannot afford to do without it. But, in prestigious universities across the pond, a number of neuro-education institutes have been established. Here, too, there are centres at the universities of Cambridge and London.

There is a good case for supporting neuro-education, and not just because of its implications for early years. There is a genuine case for re-writing the pedagogic and skills content of teacher training. Although government ministers regularly mess around with the deckchairs, the Titanic of teacher education changes frighteningly slowly. Indeed, we teach very much the way that we ourselves were taught.

This is unlikely to go down well with those who run educational institutions. The fear and hostility shown by older colleagues when it was suggested that education specialists might sit-in on their teaching with a view to improving student learning had to be seen to be believed.

It is not just in early years and infant education that the benefits of neuro-education are needed.


Vallotton C & Ayoub C (2010); Use your words: The role of language in the development of toddlers’ self-regulation; Early Childhood Research Quarterly; DOI: 10.1016/j.ecresq.2010.09.002

Pessoa L. (2005); To what extent are emotional visual stimuli processed without attention and awareness?; Current Opinion in Neurobiology; 15(2), 188-196. DOI: 10.1016/j.conb.2005.03.002

Johnson W, Kyvik KO, Mortensen EL, Skytthe A, Batty GD, & Deary IJ. (2010); Education reduces the effects of genetic susceptibilities to poor physical health; International Journal of Epidemiology; 39(2), 406-14. PMID: 19861402

  1. If you ask me, neither education nor medicine knows much – we are in the Stone Ages still. I always wish I could be around three hundred years from now and see how enlightened we might be then!

    Alexa Fleckenstein M.D., physician, author.

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