The neurosciences and learning: the challenge of university-school collaboration

Image: Sergey Nivens/

In Europe as in many other parts of the world, the neurosciences have entered the world of education. The aim of this association of the neurosciences with education is to create a common conceptual and methodological framework to guide school systems wishing to incorporate the neurosciences into their practice. Neuroscientific knowledge about brain development can help teachers enrich their pedagogical practices.

With the aid of techniques such as Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) which can show images of the brain in real learning situations, neuroscientists can now help teachers better understand learning processes. Brain imaging has, for example, provided a better understanding of all memory mechanisms, and this knowledge can help teachers to modify or adapt their teaching so that pupils remember it better. So it seems very important for neuroscientists and teachers to collaborate on this new knowledge so that, together, they can work on transposing the findings of MRI into didactic and pedagogic competences.This new field of joint research called the “neurosciences of education” is essential for the future of schools throughout the world.

But this field must remain a crossroad, a meeting-place, between the sciences and the human and social sciences. In the future, we cannot – must not – consider the perspective of education as exclusively scientific. The neurosciences have a particular insight into cognitive functioning and may be able to suggest some pedagogic adaptations to the professionals of education, as may those of psychology, philosophy or sociology. All these fields will contribute to the schools of the future. The new approach to education requires the intellectual solidarity of all the disciplines on which our humanity is based.

The neurosciences and the sciences of education have a long common history. In their work they share three fairly closely related concepts, which are cognitive educability, cerebral plasticity, and epigenetics. I remember a time when the concept of cognitive educability was still being debated: the teachers resisted the term and challenged researchers in education to justify this conception of education, which was not based on any proof. The “intuition” of educability that was then postulated seemed very thin evidence to the teachers, who then thought that their pupils’ intelligence was fixed. Nowadays, the neurosciences and education work together in the area of brain plasticity, which is no longer disputed. In other words, we know that the brain is malleable, that we create new neurons and that we learn throughout our lives. The concept of cerebral plasticity has changed many ideas about the learning process. It is very important for education professionals because it has opened up many possibilities for remediation or therapies for people with specific needs. 

In future, it seems impossible to imagine learning without the contribution of the neurosciences. But we must avoid falling into the traps that are already apparent as regards over-simplified uses of neuroscientific knowledge, or ready-made solutions offering tools inappropriate for this specific and specialised field of research. This danger is perhaps accentuated by the persisting lack of links between neuroscientists and teachers. This is one reason why it is very important to encourage scientific collaboration between the two sides, to break the traditional top-down model. In that old model, schools wanted answers to explain children’s learning difficulties, regarding memory, attention, biorhythms, etc. The researchers naturally tried to respond, but the insights they offered often lacked context for schools. Each side knew virtually nothing of the professional reality of the other. Involving schools and universities in an understanding of learning processes requires each side to be attentive to the everyday practices of the other, so as to clarify the paradigms of each side and evaluate the results of the projects undertaken. Teachers and researchers should be collaborators in research programmes, each side bringing to the other the wealth of its methodology. These are challenges for the school of the future, which also need to be founded on ethical and anthropological thinking.

Pascale Toscani is a lecturer in cognitive psychology. She is the director of GRENE (Group of Research in Educational Neurosciences), at the UCO Angers University (Faculty of Education), France, and works there to promote neurosciences in educational practices.