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Out with the Old in with the Neuro

“Out with the Old in with the Neuro”

There continues to be new, innovative education programmes, initiatives and efforts to support schools to improve teaching and learning through better use of evidence. Schools are encouraged to observe and be more research-led and ensure their methods are research-based. However this appears to be weighted towards teaching and learning methodology and there seems to be significant gaps on understanding and implementing cognitive neuroscience with additional focus upon emotional processing and social behaviour. There continues to be theories nearly a century old which are embedded in policies and practices within schools without little adaptation and additional relevance to new findings.

Operant conditioning is attributed to B.F. Skinner, where the consequences of a response determine the probability of it being repeated. Through operant conditioning behaviour which is reinforced (rewarded) will likely be repeated, and behaviour which is punished will occur less frequently.

Skinner’s work around 1948 was based on Thorndike’s (1898) law of effect. Skinner believed that we do have such a thing as a mind, but that "it is simply more productive to study observable behaviour rather than internal mental events".

However new findings from the neurosciences receive much interest for use in the applied field of education. In the past two decades there has been a rapid rise in the interest in research findings about the brain, especially in relation to learning, human cognition, and behaviour. Advancing research methods have improved our understanding of the way we learn, think, reason, and feel, from the perspective of the functioning of the human brain.

Neuroeducation or Education Neuroscience looks at understanding the development of the brain and the cognitive processes in order to ensure effect practice is implemented and support the creation of an optimal learning environment. Whilst Skinners work demonstrates cause and effect and conditioning of human behaviour, much of his experiments were observed on animals including rats within the ‘Skinner Box’. These theories and approaches are still deep-seated in today’s 21st Century education system for 'behaviour modification' (Skinner, 1938, 1953). Rewards systems and consequence systems all play rolls within schools’ behaviour policies and its approaches. However educational neuroscience and understanding ones “internal mental events” as Skinner put it, allows us to ensure those rewards are likely to be attuned to the right audience and at the right time and have the desired impact.

All children and young people are motivated through different means. The adolescent brain is different to that of a child and adults’s brain following developmental changes, changes in neurotransmitters and their effects as well as the 'powering down' of the prefrontal cortex through pruning of weakened and unused synaptic connections. Importantly, insights about changes in sensitivity to peer group and social rewards are crucial for understanding adolescent vulnerabilities such as the high rates of risk-taking. Knowledge of brain development offer insights into the developmental timing of emerging skills related to decision making, perspective taking, self-regulation, and other major cognitive and affective functions which are necessary to identify and understand in relation to the learning environment and practices of schools.

When we do anything that is considered rewarding, dopamine neurons (along with other types of neurons) project to an area called the nucleus accumbens, and when they are activated it results in an increase in dopamine levels in this area. The nucleus accumbens is an important component of a major dopaminergic pathway in the brain called the mesolimbic pathway, which is stimulated during rewarding experiences. When an adolescent receives a large reward, the nucleus accumbens, an area in the brain associated with aversion, reward, pleasure, motivation and reinforcment learning, responds more dramatically than in children or adult brains. Dopamine signalling may be involved with storing information about environmental stimuli associated with different types of experiences. These memory stores can be called upon in the future to help us remember how to realise the pleasurable experiences again or how to avoid the aversive ones.

When adolescents are offered a smaller reward, their nucleus accumbens activation decreased to a level below that of a child and adult. This suggests that adolescents are primed for bigger rewards and not little ones. This should therefore be a significant consideration when implementing so called reward systems and whether this is even likely to have any extrinsic value to the pupil regardless of any intrinsic motivator.

Although the basic structure and functioning of the brain is influenced by genetic predispositions, there is a built-in flexibility in brain development. This allows the brain to adapt to its specific surroundings, thereby enhancing the chances of survival and optimal behavioural adjustment (Bjorklund, 2020; Dehaene, 2020). This built-in flexibility is called “plasticity,” a key neurobiological process that refers to neural changes in response to experience and to specific characteristics of the (internal and external) environment.

Plasticity is also key to typical development and learning at home and in school. The fact that the brain is able to change in response to environmental demands makes learning and education possible. This is essential for the individual to adapt to a changing environment.

Low serotonin levels in adolescence have been linked to loneliness, eating disorders, depression, and self-harming behaviours. Evidence shows that the amygdala, the area of the brain which controls and processes emotions, can be affected by varying levels of serotonin.

So what's the issue?

For the past decade, neuroeducation and the application of neuroscience knowledge are making headway but there appears to be a lack of progress and implementation of cognitive neuroscience theory and practice within education. This is likely to be due to a number of reasons:

  • Neuromyths – Within Education these myths are built on lack of context and misconception of the full validity of research and data and can be based on a ‘professional opinion’. (Further info at

  • A desire and continual need to support CYP and find effective intervention and strategies can sometimes have negative consequences where this enthusiasm can lead educators to readily accept teaching practices and strategies that do not have any basis in neuroscience or have not been tested within an educational context.

  • Evidence is a contested term and the relationship between research and practice is complex

  • There are few studies into how evidence-informed approaches can impact on schools, teachers and pupils. This indicates the potential importance of helping build understanding of evidence-informed practice within school contexts

  • Difficulty for schools to be assured by and judge quality research

  • Schools and teachers have previously advised of the difficulty of reading evidence directly, and how this reflects in practical terms.

An evaluation of the use of and acceptance of research-based practice was commissioned by the Department for Education (DfE) in August 2014 to make an assessment of progress towards a system within which the teaching profession improves practice through the rigorous use of robust evidence.

It found that whilst some schools are strongly engaged, many are not, and suggested that attention needs to be paid to each part of the school and wider education system, including research quality and accessibility; school processes, cultures and leadership; teachers' skills, motivations and knowledge; and the wider policy environment.

Teachers generally focused on pedagogical issues related to implementation rather than interrogation of the research itself.

“Most teachers were unlikely to be convinced by research evidence on its own: they needed to be able to have this backed up by observing impact or hearing trusted colleagues discuss how it had improved their practice and outcomes for young people.”

Notwithstanding the difficulties and barriers mentioned above, there is a strong and positive attitude toward a new “science of learning” in which insights from the neurosciences, cognitive science, educational science and the behavioural sciences are merged (Sigman et al., 2014; Mayer, 2017; Thomas et al., 2019; Dehaene, 2020).

Is it therefore time for a paradigm shift within education to look through a more cognitive lens to further understand those we aim to support, nurture and educate. Whilst there continues to be nurture provisions, wellbeing strategies and broad teaching methods, is there a real understanding of the cognitive reasoning behind these approaches? Wouldn’t they have more weight and intrinsic motivation to staff implementing these approaches knowing the foundations and basis of these approaches and having an understanding on the cognition of the very people we are imposing this on?

Further strength and interaction between neuroscience and education can not only inform educational approaches but may encourage scientific insight regarding the relationship of neural processes to the complex behaviours that are observed in the classroom.

Richard Bell


  • Stiell, Bernadette & Coldwell, Mike & Maxwell, Bronwen & Willis, Ben & Higgins, Steven & stoll, & burns,. (2018). Evidence-informed teaching: an evaluation of progress in England. Research Report.

  • Jolles Jelle, Jolles Dietsje D. (2021). On Neuroeducation: Why and How to Improve Neuroscientific Literacy in Educational Professionals

  • OECD (2007) Understanding the Brain: The Birth of a Learning Science

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