The case for a new dimension of teachers’ professional knowledge. The impact of policy initiatives on the practice and perception of brain based methodology

This research reports on the findings of a doctoral case study based in a local authority (LA) in northern England into the practices and perceptions of brain based methodology by secondary educators.

Although the nascent academic field continues to grapple with many of the arguments that will ultimately define the discipline of educational neuroscience, there are concerns about the prevalence (or the misappropriation) of the use of quasi neuroscience taking place within education (Hruby, 2011; Ritchie, Chudler et al, 2012). To distinguish it from the genuine, if extremely limited educational applications of neuroscience, educational methodology based on unsafe and unsound brain science continues to be classified as “brain based”. Here it is argued that “brain based” is essentially a tautological description of learning originally mooted by “edu-prenuers” who proposed that the adoption of a brain compatible teaching methodology would lead to the preferential state of faster, deeper and more expansive learning. Introduced in the mid-1990s, mainly under the evocative label of Accelerated Learning, this ‘brain based’ methodology appeared to gain early popular traction amongst educators.

In the LA in question, pressures across the secondary education phase prompted an authority wide implementation of a teacher professional development programme based on the pedagogical tenet of Accelerated Learning. Consequently an entire cohort of secondary teachers were thus not only formally exposed to, but were actively encouraged to integrate brain based methodology into their existing pedagogical framework to improve examination results across the LA.

The little research available on the use and perceptions of brain based methodology appears to suggest it remains popular and practiced. This research seeks to discover if this is the case and more specifically what factors can account either for the continued popular application or demise of brain based methodology. Methodologically challenging due to local socio demographics, this study captures the qualitative perceptions of key educators in the LA on the concept of brain based learning and compares this to classroom practice. Data collection methods encompass non-participant observation, semi-structured interviews, and documentary analysis.

The results question whether brain based methodology was ever substantially practised, and suggest that its current limited practice can be accounted for by performativity, efficacy and pedagogical concerns. Following on from dominant extant models (Shulman,1987: Banks, Leach and Moon, 1999) the key implication of this research is that there is a case for a new dimension of teacher professional knowledge based on neuroscience, that of neuroscientific pedagogical knowledge.

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Banks, F., Leach, J. & Moon, B. (1999) New Understandings of Teachers Pedagogic Knowledge. Learners and Pedagogy. J. Leach and B. Moon. London, Sage.
Hruby, G. G. (2011). “Minding the Brain.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 54(5): 316-321.

Ritchie, S. J., E. H. Chudler, et al. (2012). Don’t try this at school: the attraction of ‘alterative’ educational techniques. Neuroscience: The good, the bad and the ugly. S. Della Sala and M. Andersen. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Shulman, L.S. (1987). Knowledge and teaching:foundations of the new reform, Harvard Edcational Review, 57: 1-22.