Mind control

An article in The Independent earlier this week announced a new fund for neuroscience research into improving teenagers’ learning.

“Improving our understanding of how the brain works will deepen our understanding of how pupils learn. Knowing the impact of neuroscience in the classroom will also make it easier to spot the plausible-sounding fashionable fads and fakes, which don’t improve standards.”

This from the well-established Sir Peter Lampl. Here we go again: I can sympathise with the wish to avoid fads, but he is presuming that it is even possible to measure those ‘standards’ in the first place.

Other lines of investigation may include shorter lessons, Saturday morning school and later starts in the morning. I would like to know upon what evidence these premises are founded. It is certainly true that MRI scanning can indicate which parts of the brain are active – but is this the same thing as learning?

Yet again this is trying to turn a fundamentally human interaction-based activity into some kind of scientific procedure.  I am also left wondering what kind of learning these people have in mind. I could cautiously accept that there may be ways of improving factual assimilation – though we haven’t found anything cast-iron in many decades – but this is not learning as I understand it.

While factual knowledge is clearly a main component of any formalised educative process, I do not consider the absorption of facts in itself to be a useful form of learning. It only becomes useful when the individual concerned uses that knowledge in new and possibly unfamiliar situations. That can include the application of prior knowledge at a later stage of study, or more often it is likely to be the use to which that knowledge can be put in making sense of the world at large. It can also include the sheer inherent pleasure of knowing stuff.

Given that such events generally happen significantly later in time than the schooling process, it is therefore just as impossible to identify how ‘useful’ neuroscience can be in education as anything else. There seems to be no understanding of the fact that the impact of education extends throughout the whole of life – its effects often only becoming clear even decades later. What’s more, such a short-termist view of the learning process neatly undermines any concept of lifelong learning – which from personal experience (albeit in an informal sense) makes such a difference to the life-experiences of individuals.What happens in the classroom is not an end in itself.

But what concerns me the most is where this will all stop. I have a vague sense of unease about the motives of people who see such methods as educationally and even ethically valid. What exactly are they hoping to achieve, even if they do find ways of cramming more facts into the average fifteen-year-old’s skull? Do they really consider it to be in the interests of individual human beings to subject them to such manipulation? And where would they stop? If it became apparent that attaching electrodes to pupils’ brains accelerated their retention rates, would that be permissible? Perhaps we should implant USB ports just above their ears – then we could just upload our schemes of work directly into their brains and save everyone a lot of time and trouble. Except that it wouldn’t be that unique human interaction that is proper education.

I suspect that such developments are actually driven by the same old macro-scale view of education as the way to grow the nation’s collective brain-mass in the hope that it will generate more economic activity, and are nothing to do with individual well-being.

There is a fine line between finding ways of bringing the most out of a person’s mind and insidiously starting to manipulate it, and this kind of thinking has uncomfortably Orwellian overtones. It is not why I came into teaching, and it is not what I remain in it to do. And if I were one of tomorrow’s teenagers, facing the prospect of ever greater manipulation of my brain – and life – by outside agencies, I would be feeling distinctly indignant at the presumption of it all.

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