Directors: Antonio M. Battro and Kurt W. Fischer
Program officer: María Lourdes Majdalani
Conveying complex scientific messages without oversimplifying: a key challenge for the 21st century
Brain research alone will not solve every educational problem. In fact, it is not to solve any. But thanks to recent findings in cognitive neuroscience, it is now possible for educators to shed new light on issues that other disciplines have reflected upon for centuries. Such an approach is not too positivistic or too “hard science” oriented, as long as nobody tries to sell it as a panacea, but only acknowledges it as what it is: new knowledge. The emerging "educational neuroscience" is generating valuable knowledge that can inform, if not guide, educational policy and practice – which could thus depart from pre-scientific, ideology-only-informed debates. Indeed neither neuroscience, nor any other science, is designed to provide recommendations to policy makers and practitioners. Apart from the fact that neuroscience is not equipped to directly address these kinds of issues, there is another major reason for this: neuroscience, as a descriptive discipline, is interested in what is true or false (describing the world); education, as an intervention discipline, is not particularly interested in true/false debates, but rather in efficient/not efficient ones (changing the world); but first and foremost, it deals with what is desirable and what is not (which, to some extent, amounts to determining what is good or bad: this is the role of ethics, not of science), and what is feasible and what is not (which is, after taking ethical considerations on board, all what policy is -or should be- about).
Therefore, a constant dialogue between the neuroscience community on the one hand, and the education community (teachers, students, parents, policy-makers, and researchers) on the other, is more and more necessary. Such a dialogue should develop at an international level, because no single country alone can deal with the questions that brain research findings raise within the educational field. To better integrate education researchers and policy-makers within the debate is a major challenge, since it is much easier to find neuroscientists interested in education than education researchers interested in neuroscience. Another, particularly difficult, question we are confronted with is how to make a "Columbus approach" (research-driven and not policy-driven) understandable and sustainable.
There is abundant resistance to taking on board neuroscientific discoveries for educational policies and practices, sufficient, in fact, to discourage even the most fervent advocates. The reasons are various – simple incomprehension, mental inertia, the categorical refusal to reconsider certain “truths”, corporate reflexes to defend acquired positions, or even staunch bureaucracy. The obstacles are numerous to any transdisciplinary effort to create a new field, or even more modestly, to shed new light on old issues. This poses delicate problems of “knowledge management”. Even if some constructive skepticism can do no harm, every innovative project finds itself at one point or another in the position of “K”, seeking to reach Kafka’s Castle.
To make things even more difficult, neuroscience unintentionally generates a plethora of “neuromyths” founded on misunderstandings, bad interpretations, or even (conscious or unconscious) distortions of research results. Over the past few years, a growing number of misconceptions about the learning brain have started to circulate, and are often used as ‘arguments’ against any use of neuroscientific knowledge by the detractors of approaches which would take brain research findings into account when designing or implementing education policies.
Because these neuromyths, entrenched in the minds of the public by the mass media, are incomplete, extrapolated beyond the evidence or plain false, they need to be debunked in order to prevent education from running into dead-ends or plunging into other pitfalls. They raise many ethical questions, which in democratic societies need to be addressed through political debate. These questions cannot be left to science only: a well-informed public opinion will have to express its views. This won’t be easy, especially since the mass media in their present form are clearly not equipped to adequately, efficiently or honestly deal with such issues (della Chiesa, 1993; Bourdieu, 1996). A particularly hot issue here is how to translate research findings for lay people without oversimplifying. This is a major challenge for democracies in the 21st century.