Why education isn’t learning the lessons of psychology and neuroscience

I have of  late been involved with spending a lot of my time reading and studying   psychology. I have taken Moocs on various aspects of the subject and have been able to read a number of excellent books showing the progress that has been made in the subject, particularly in the linked area of neuroscience that is showing us more and more how the brain actually works.

I first encountered psychology as a marginal part of my undergraduate course in Politics and it mostly involved looking at areas such as mass behaviour linked to extremism and the workings of the mind of a dictator (such as Adolph Hitler). There were some good books to read, I particularly remember one by Hannah Arendt.

After deciding to become a teacher I was given a number of “developmental psychology” readings particularly those of Piaget, Bruner and Margaret Donaldson come to mind. These were seen as interesting but did not really effect me in any major way or change the way that I thought about education and specifically my role as a teacher.

I did a Masters degree in Education and took Child Development as one of my courses. This allowed me to further the studies of Piaget, Bruner etc., with a lot more recent readings but was seen by me as just another course to be got through with an exam to take at the end of the year.

In my career there were very few times when we sat down, as teaching professionals and looked at what we were doing in terms of  the psychological evidence about what worked (or didn’t work) with children. The only way that psychology seemed to come into our lives was with the occasional visit of the “Ed-Psych” (as the local authority Educational Psychologist was called by all of us).

These people seemed like visitors from outer space who would descend upon a school and give us more work to do with a particularly problemmatical child (or more often children) and we would write down daily observations of their lack of attention, their violence towards themselves or others. We would play the game and they would write their reports and we would attempt to get the child “Statemented” that would allow us to get some extra money to employ a T.A. to sit with them (or with a group involving them) for a part of the day.

We never questioned why we seemed to have an increasing number of poorly behaved children, many of them diagnosed with ADD or ADHD. We never questioned the lack of progress of the under_achieving child. We never really tried to look at the individual child and try to work out what made him behave in the way that we did. We were prone to use the few punishments that were allowed of keeping children in, making them redo their work, making them work elsewhere or, if all else fails, moving them on elsewhere (sometimes to a “specialist unit”).

We seemed to spend innumerable hours in so-called “Professional Development” but I cannot recall having to discuss many of the aspects of environment, parental care (or neglect) and at no time did we question the increasing demands that tests and so-called standards (and standardisation) was having on the mental well-being of our charges. We talked about “personalisation” a lot in the latter years of my career but this did not really equate to the ideas that I have read so often recently about finding just what motivates a child and giving him/her the chance to blossom.

We were very much caught in an “education factory” that was producing similar products for the next phase in the process and discarding the rest into the area of “special education”. We were very much the slaves of  aspects of psychological thinking that we didn’t really know we were following. We categorised children and we put them into ability groupings, we labelled them “clever” or “average” and “slow” or “below average”. We periodically gave them intelligence tests that proved our categorisation. We were dealing with their futures and yet we were willing to play along with the “game” and fit the children into neat little boxes. We were especially taken away with the idea of giving them levels of development in key areas such as language, mathematics and science.

I knew a little about the debate on “intelligence” that had been around in the world of psychology for decades. it was though, obvious that the curriculum favoured literacy and mathematics whilst everything else, including science, was relegated to the afternoon sessions in most primary schools. As each successive Government went out of its way to promote “The Standards Agenda”, we were pushing children more and more to succeed in the “core” areas and neglecting any particular interests they may have had in the arts or crafts.

The school system I left two years ago was putting more and more children through stressful hoops of tests and exams. I am reminded of a book I read by the renowned biologist Robert Sopolski which looked at how our society has created a stressful environment for so many of us on the planet entitled “Zebras don’t get ulcers”….. but increasingly our schoolchildren do!

My readings in psychology and especially social psychology have shown me how we have to deal with stereotypes, racial discrimination and the overcoming of poverty. I have seen how there have been developments in neuroscience that have shown that we have plasticity in the growth of our neurones and that we can make new and powerful connections to increase our learning and skills. I have learnt of the uselessness of most homework, the importance of play and of the key importance of creativity.

I am fascinated by what I call “human potential” because I believe that, as incredible as our journey has been on this planet so far, we have conspired to destroy the only home that we have, The  Earth. I have read of some brilliant findings in psychology that can help us to help ourselves in the future and preserve our existence on this beautiful planet .

I have a number of articles that I have read recently that may give you an idea of how psychology/neuroscience can and should inform how we run our schools:


You can increase your intelligence: 5 ways to maximize your cognitive potential

Robert Sylwester




Creativity Must Be at the Center of Education Big Think interview with Danilo Turk


The 3 Emotions That Drive Deeper Learning  A.J. Juliani


Neuroeducation: 25 Findings Over 25 Years Sara Briggs


Why French Kids Don’t Have ADHD  Marilyn Wedge




The Neuroscience Of Learning: 41 Terms Every Teacher Should Know Judy Willis


Why Life Is Really The Ultimate IQ Test Jonathan Wai

The last of these articles is a review of a book that I would highly recommend “Ungifted” by Scott Barry Kaufman whose website is well worth looking up.

I hope, if you are in the education industry and have taken the trouble to read this article, that I can get you to acquaint yourself with the powerful ideas that have come from studies in psychology and neuroscience that can and should transform our schools. If we continue to ignore these findings we may well  risk our very existence on this planet!

About malbell

I am a retired Teaching and Learning Consultant. Previously I was a Primary school headteacher and deputy headteacher. I enjoy reading, doing MOOCs and learning new things.
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