Comment: Some educationalists believe that neuroscientists really can tell them nothing

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The Independent Online
THE CRIES of "education, education, education" are still only a year or so old. At the same time, we're facing a century where the cry will be even more vigorous, as we contemplate more leisure, longer lives and a desire for a highly trained workforce - not to mention a humane and literate society: all of us are going to be learning all of the time.

Yet any insight into the learning process has remained, until now, the psychologist's province. Some, of course, argue this is how it should be, as those like myself who delve into the biochemical squalor of the sludgy real brain have little contact with those interested in the ephemeral and subtle changes shown by humans, let alone by humans at different stages of their lives.

I'd argue that there is a need for increasing dialogue between neuroscientists, such as myself, and educationalists. For a start it is artificial to draw a line between psychology and neuroscience - the one shades into the other.

Many colleagues in psychology departments are concerned with the actions of drugs in certain regions of the brain, or how those areas take part in behavioural net functions - not all are simply interested in rats pressing bars, or number crunching from psycho-physical tests. And many neuroscientists are interested in behaviour and more "cognitive" processes. Witness the rise and rise of interest in consciousness among those normally interested in mere molecules - Francis Crick is one notable example.

And it is important to establish, if there is no dialogue, that none is really possible. Any attempts at interactions between educationalists and neuroscientists might lead to surprises that could never have been predicted - new insights or ideas which can then bootstrap up into a whole new approach in either discipline.

To this end I was delighted to find that Dr Chris Brookes from the Lifelong Learning Foundation and the educationalist, Sir Christopher Ball, were enthusiastic about developing and enquiring into just how much the brain scientists could help educationalists, and vice versa.

But the whole issue is to find a focus - we didn't want simply for the neuroscientists to talk about the brain, educationalists to talk about education, each in an exclusive monologue. Rather, the idea that we developed has been to field a team of experts in each area who could, in turn, speak to specific aspects of focus where there might be some overlap.

Brain scientists, for example, often talk about plasticity - a concept not normally featuring in education parlance as far as I understand - while educationalists speak of "intelligence" - a word that doesn't normally feature in the neuroscientists' vocabulary, although we are constantly dealing with cerebral prowess.

Then again, both educationalists and neuroscientists will talk of "stimulation", but again with very different meanings. At the very least I think our forum will clear some semantic ground - although obviously I would like to think that we will also touch on the ideas behind the words.

So, for my part, I am offering a neurosurgeon, Henry Marsh; an expert on hormones and nutrition, Clive Coen; an authority on language and dyslexia seen from a neurophysiological standpoint, John Stein; and a psychologist of whom I have already spoken, who straddles neuroscience with behaviour to study memory mechanisms, Nick Rawlins.

For the educationalists' part, they are fielding Lillian Katz, an authority on early childhood education from Illinois; Valerie Bayliss, an authority on the Royal Society of the Arts' report, Opening Minds, Education for the 21st Century; Peter Honey, an expert on life-long learning; and David Hargreaves who is Professor of Education at Cambridge University.

Each team will present for two hours, with comments from representatives of the opposing side. At the end we will have an extensive question and answer session. I shouldn't really, of course, have said "opposing" as I don't think we are in opposition. On the other hand it is surprising that some educationalists I have met do seem to hold the view that neuroscientists really can tell them nothing, and if they can they know it already, anyway.

But I think - and hope - such a view is in the minority. Like all novel ventures, we do not know how successful it'll be until we've actually tried it out - but I am delighted the Royal Institution can host such an occasion.

If you are in education, neuroscience and/or a parent, or indeed none of the above, but merely interested in the exciting chance to cross disciplines, then mark down 23 November in your diary for this one-day conference to be held at the Royal Institution in London's Albemarle Street.

The writer is Professor of Pharmacology at the University of Oxford, and a director of the Royal Institution