While the demand grows for collaborations between neuroscience and education that embrace expertise and concepts from both perspectives, such collaborations are not straightforward. One fundamental issue is the significant philosophical divide between perspectives. Educational research, with its roots in social science, places strong emphasis upon the importance of human development, social context and the interpretation of meaning. Neuroscience, on the other hand, is more concerned with controlled experimental testing of hypotheses and the identification of cause-effect mechanisms that can be generally applied. Concepts and language also differ widely, even with respect to the meaning of fundamental terms such as 'learning'. In cognitive neuroscience, learning is often synonymous with general memory abilities at the level of the individual. These include declarative memory, such as our ability to explicitly recall facts, but also non-declarative forms of memory such as the acquisition of skills and habits, conditioned emotional responses and even habituation to a repeated stimulus (Squire, 2004). Educators, on the other hand, more often describe learning in terms of social construction, through authentic exploration, engaging activities, interactive group work and student ownership of the learning process, emphasizing the importance of context. Additionally, educators may consider learning as closely bound to issues of meaning, the will to learn, values and the distributed nature of these and other aspects of learning beyond the level of the individual (TLRP, 2006; 2007).
These differences represent a major challenge for researchers at the interface between neuroscience and education and there maybe no single solution to bridging them. Instead, one may expect some diversity in the approaches taken by emerging centres of research activity. Discussion within NEnet, which has been heavily influenced by the ESRC-TLRP seminar series, has given rise to a 'levels of action' model to help examine the potentially complex interrelationship between the different learning philosophies that meet in this emerging new field (Howard-Jones, 2008b; 2010, pp. 79-97). This model also suggests how the different methodologies associated with educational research and neuroscience can be usefully interrelated in neuroeducational research. The model builds on the brain->mind->behaviour model of cognitive neuroscience (Morton & Frith, 1995) and extends it to place greater emphasis on social processes. In Figure 1, the representation of two individuals interacting helps remind us of the complexity that can arise when processes more often studied at an individual level operate within a social environment.
The two individuals in Figure 1 may be two learners or, perhaps, a teacher and learner. In this diagram, the space between the individuals is filled by a sea of symbols representing human communication in all its forms. The lines separating brain, mind, behaviour and this sea of symbols are shown as dotted, to emphasise the somewhat indistinct nature of the boundaries between them and the difficulty in considering these as separable concepts. This levels-of-action model helps maintain awareness of the usefulness and limitations of different perspectives on learning. For example, work within NEnet has included an fMRI study of creativity fostering strategies (Howard-Jones et al., 2005). This imaging study, which included a focus on the biological correlates of creativity, was useful in revealing how those parts of the brain associated with creative effort in a story telling task were further activated when unrelated stimulus words had to be included. Results provided some helpful indication, at the biological level of action, of the likely effectiveness of such strategies in the longer term. For example, had no such increased activity been observed, this might suggest that such strategies, although known to bring about outcomes that are judged as more creative, may do so without additional rehearsal of the processes regarded as creative. However, that cannot be the end of the story for educators. Taken in isolation, the study provides a poor impression of the issues involved in effectively implementing these strategies in the classroom. When and how
Figure 1: To interrelate the most valuable insights from cognitive neuroscience and the social science perspectives of education (represented by arrows), the brain->mind->behaviour model may need to be socially extended. Even two individuals interacting, as represented here, is suggestive of the complexity that can arise when behaviour becomes socially mediated. Such complexity remains chiefly the realm of social scientists, who often interpret the meaning of such communication in order to understand the underlying behaviour. Cognitive neuroscience has established its importance in understanding behaviour at an individual level but is only just beginning to contemplate the types of complex social domains studied by educational researchers
Figure 1: To interrelate the most valuable insights from cognitive neuroscience and the social science perspectives of education (represented by arrows), the brain->mind->behaviour model may need to be socially extended. Even two individuals interacting, as represented here, is suggestive of the complexity that can arise when behaviour becomes socially mediated. Such complexity remains chiefly the realm of social scientists, who often interpret the meaning of such communication in order to understand the underlying behaviour. Cognitive neuroscience has established its importance in understanding behaviour at an individual level but is only just beginning to contemplate the types of complex social domains studied by educational researchers should they be used? To understand these issues, real world contexts must be meaningfully interpreted. However, the meanings ascribed to actions of students and teachers in the classroom, including their use of language, are multiple, ambivalent and transitory. Although the production and perception of language have been fruitful areas for laboratory-based scientific research, the interpretation of meaning within everyday contexts is essentially a problematic area for experimental scientific paradigms. Interpretations of meaning that cannot be judged by the methods of natural science may be considered beyond its jurisdiction (Medawar, 1985). The recent flourishing of journals focusing on social cognitive neuroscience may demonstrate accelerating progress in this area, but interpretation of social complexity remains chiefly the realm of social scientists. Rather than natural science then, it is social science, with its own concepts of reliability and validity, that appears most accomplished in interpreting meaning at the social level of action, in order to understand the fuller significance of human communication (Alexander, 2006). Such considerations, in the context of our research on creativity, prompted an action research project in which an interdisciplinary team and a group of trainee teachers co-constructed concepts about the fostering of creativity that were both scientifically valid and educationally relevant. This subsequent study highlighted the importance of teachers' broader awareness of cognition and brain function in implementing such strategies (Howard-Jones et al., 2008). Here, experiential accounts and meaning-based interpretations of discourse were useful in understanding the factors influencing pupils' creative progress, and how these might relate to concepts of brain and mind. Our qualitative work drew on educators' personal and classroom experience, together with findings from the fMRI study and further research from cognitive psy chology and neuroscience that made these findings scientifically meaningful. It provided useful insights about pedagogical practice and how decisions to apply particular strategies should take into account the learner(s), their progress and the specific educational context (Howard-Jones, 2008a).
It would appear that neither natural nor social science, in isolation, presently offer sufficient epistemological traction to travel across all the levels of description shown in Figure 1. In this diagram, two of the most frequently travelled pathways of investigation associated with different perspectives are depicted by arrows. Cognitive neuroscience is shown to extend from brain to behaviour but little further, reflecting its present difficulties in penetrating complex, meaning-based social interaction. However the role of cognitive neuroscience is essential, as in our fMRI study of creativity, for supporting careful consideration of individual brain-mind relationships with biological and psychological evidence, and improving understanding of teaching and learning strategies at these levels of action. When it comes to a fuller understanding of how such interventions are applied in specific contexts, issues at the social level of action, such as individual differences in teachers' interactions with children, require exploration from social science perspectives more familiar to educational researchers. It is an interesting exercise to imagine how pathways associated with other perspectives might be depicted on this diagram. For example, phenomenological perspectives, that emphasise the role of mental reflection in understanding our own and others' behaviour, might be shown as an arrow from mind to the sea of symbols. (However, note how this diagram gives greater weight to 'outsider' perspectives and this can limit its helpfulness in representing perspectives that draw on experiential evidence and illuminate important issues of human agency- see below.)
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