An understanding of neuroscience for science educators

By Heather King - October 2013


Oliver, M. (2011). Towards an understanding of neuroscience for science educators. Studies in Science Education, 47(2), 211–235.

Research Brief 

In this review paper, Oliver calls for greater cross-pollination between neuroscience research and educational practice. She asks, “What can educators learn from an understanding of educational neuroscience?”

Theoretical Basis 

Neuroscience may be defined as the investigation of the “processes by which the brain learns and remembers, from the molecular and cellular levels right through to brain systems” (Goswami, 2006, p. 1). Oliver’s paper introduces neuroscience and summarises recent research findings, including those that have attempted—often unsuccessfully—to capture the nature and origins of intelligence.

Of particular interest is the discussion of the ways in which neuroscience findings have confirmed the potential role of educational interventions. For example, the knowledge that particular neurological conditions correlate with particular deficits in, for example, number sense and arithmetic has led to the development of neuroscience-informed initiatives. In one such initiative, adaptive software targets the intraparietal sulcus, an area of the brain that plays a role in numerical processing. The aim is to support learners with dyscalculia, a difficulty in comprehending numbers and arithmetic (see Butterworth, Varma, & Laurillard, 2011)

Oliver’s main argument is that educators need to understand neuroscience so that they can distinguish between current scientific understanding and pervasive but inaccurate notions about our brains and learning. Indeed, she uses neuroscience findings to dispel a number of prevalent myths about learning:

Myth: There are critical periods during which humans can develop cognitive reasoning particularly effectively. Evidence: No critical periods for learning have yet been found in humans, although development can occur in “spurts,” as in infants’ language acquisition.

Myth: Individual students have specific learning styles. Evidence: No neuroscience data supports the claim of preferred learning styles. Even when a “preferred” learning style is used, the brain shows no evidence of greater learning.

Myth: Students are either right-brain or left-brain learners. Evidence: Different activities employ different regions of the brain; the region used depends on the task. The left-brain/right-brain oversimplification distracts from the reality of brain function: that neurons function as a network across regions of the brain. Fostering as many neural connections as possible will result in greater learning.

Implications for Practice 

Use of neuroscience is not a panacea; a richer understanding of the brain’s biochemical processes will not necessarily lead to the development of strategies that better engage learners in science. However, such knowledge may debunk learning theories that produce erroneous practices or ways of thinking. Perhaps more importantly, an understanding of the brain’s synaptic plasticity gives all educators, across all types of learning environments, the encouragement that all students have the capacity to learn throughout their lifetime.