Bridging the Gap: Neuroscientists and Educators

Devonshire, I. M., & Dommett, E. J. (2010). Neuroscience: viable applications in education? The Neuroscientist : A Review Journal Bringing Neurobiology, Neurology and Psychiatry, 16(4), 349–56. doi:10.1177/1073858410370900


The premise of this article is that developments in neuroscience can help the field of education, but they don’t.  The authors explore why this gap exists and give three theoretical barriers and two practical barriers to collaboration.

Theoretical barriers.  The first theoretical barrier is that the two fields have fundamentally different goals and those goals are pursued in different ways.  Neuroscientists are interested in the workings of the brain, the architecture of the mind, and how the two work together.  Educators develop pedagogy.  The second theoretical barrier is that the level on which they investigate is different.  Devonshire and Dommett name five levels of investigation:  individual genes/proteins, neurons, functional circuitry (brain regions and circuits), syndrome (all study related to a disorder), and normal behavior.  Most neuroscientists work on the first three levels, while educators are involved with the last level.  Neuroscience hasn’t made much contribution to the study of normal behavior, since most funding comes to the study of dysfunctions.  The “gold standard” is to do research with healthy humans in suitable environments (page 352).  This is a standard that is difficult to attain when dealing with children, schools, and funders.  The third theoretical barrier is translating the content from one field to another.  Teachers are enthusiatic about learning neuroscientists, but the neuroscientists are “cautious…for fear of seeing their work lost in translation” (page 349).  Also, neuroscience can be used to assess educational theories and practices, but it is difficult to use it to create theories.

Practical barriers.  The first practical barrier is that the two fields use a different working language, which creates a need for people who are bilingual.  It is suggested that neuroscientists need to learn to communicate better with teachers and the general public.  This lack of a common vocabulary means that neuroscientists and teachers have different definitions of such basics as “learning” and “research.”  Research design in the two fields is very different–neuroscientists work in labs where they can isolate individual variables, while educators deal with a variety of variables and accept qualitative research as valid.  Action research lacks the stringent controls that neuroscientists demand.  The second practical barrier is finding time and a suitable environment for teachers and neuroscientists to collaborate.

Strengths and Critiques

This article is very well-organized into two main sections (theoretical and practical barriers), and each of these is divided into sub-sections.  This structure, along with clear headings, makes it easy for the reader to follow the line of reasoning.  However, the conclusion misses some of these points in its summary.  Because the article was published in The Neuroscientist and due to the tone of the writing, the audience is neuroscientists and gives thoughts how to bridge the gap between science and society, in this case, educators.  Unfortunately, it seemed to reinforce stereotypical characterizations of both scientists and educators.  I am not sure if this is the fault of the authors or the reader.  The picture painted is one of the scientist working in a sterile lab, unable and unwilling to communicate with outsiders.  Teachers, on the other hand, lack the ability to understand research from a field as stringent as neuroscience, which is “impossible to understand by educators” (page 353).  “Teachers know very little about the brain, and in some instances, their knowledge was not only poor, but actually incorrect” (page 352).

The article is a good read for contemplating why partnerships are not successful, and gives the reader hope that the gap can be bridged.  There are very specific areas for work.

Relation to other readings

I found this to be an interesting follow-up to our class and readings about communities of practice.  One thing that really stood out for me was the discussion of border practices, explained by Wenger (2000, pages 232-238).  Devonshire and Dommett’s analysis of the barriers leads to the conclusion that something must be done to bridge the two communities of practice.  The article is a step in the right direction, enlightening the two fields of the differences between them. Understanding these differences is the first step towards bridging the gap.

Wenger also points out that for collaboration between communities of practice to occur, there needs to be some common ground, as well as areas of real difference (page 233).  Devonshire and Dommett clearly delineate the areas of difference, but leave the question of common ground unanswered.  They even make a point of taking areas that seem to be common ground (i.e., learning takes place in the brain and mind) and change it into an area of difference (i.e., we disagree on what learning is).

I think Devonshire and Dommett would agree with Wenger when he says that the two communities need to find ways to “translate between repertoires so that experience and competence actually interact” (page 233).

Both articles point to the fact that much work needs to be done in order to have a true collaboration between neuroscientists and educators.

Implications for research

I see many important implicatons for my own research.  First, I will need to learn more about the field of neuroscience, trying to educate myself so that I can see through the lens of the scientists.  I will need to undertake what Devonshire and Dommett deem “impossible,” being an educator who is trying to understand neuroscience.  There is nothing I like more than a challenge!  I am now cognizant that words may have different definitions and connotations in neuroscience than they do in education, and that I will have to understand scientific research methods.

They also point out, through many examples, that information found in teacher magazines and mainstream media may be inaccurate.  Two examples given are the idea that a person is right-brained or left-brained (both hemispheres work together) and the fact that there is no conclusive research about the causes of dyslexia, even though policy-makers and teachers ascribe to certain research-based beliefs, while ignoring other research that validates other ideas.


Wenger, E. (2000). Communities of Practice and Social Learning Systems. Organization, 7(2), 225–246. doi:10.1177/135050840072002



Social Learning and Brain Research

Aimlessly flipping through the channels on my television, I can not find anything interesting to watch.  Ah, here’s Dr. Phil; let’s see what strangeness is going on now.  Soon I find myself caught up in the life-drama of someone I don’t even know, cheering, nodding my head and thinking,  “This lady really knows the answers” (I admit, maybe even say aloud).  This is the same feeling that I had reading Etienne Wenger’s Communities of Practice and Social Learning Systems.  Social learning combines the standards set by the group with each member’s personal experience.  This experience can catalyze the group to further learning and increasing standards.  I cheered as Wegner talked about three elements of the social learning system:  community of practice, boundaries, and identity.

Community of Practice.

The learning that takes place in a community of practice is so strong because it reflects what brain researchers know about how the brain learns.  In communities of practice, learning takes place through “joint enterprise,” working together on a project that builds mutual respect and understanding (Wenger, 2000, p. 229).  The brain also has two ways of learning, which Caine and Caine refer to as spatial memory and rote memory (1990, p. 68).  Rote memory requires practice, but spatial memory are those things that you remember the first time they occur, those instant memories that are sometimes indeliably etched on our brains.  The spatial memory is obviously more efficient.  Communities of practice engage the spatial memory as colleagues work together, negotiating “competence through an experience of direct participation” (Wenger, 2000, p. 229).  This explains why we learn better in study groups or when working through a new software application with a co-worker.

Every community of practice has boundaries, and when different communities touch each other, learning occurs and tensions possibly mount.  We must bridge the boundaries in order to learn from each other (Wenger, 2000, pp. 233–234).  My workplace has two communities of practice—the faculty and the office staff.  We bridge these boundaries so that students have the best experience possible.  The office staff and the faculty have to negotiate the use of the computer system that tracks student scheduling and grades.  Staff should understand how faculty use the system, and the faculty need to know some of the logistics that the staff deals with.  For example, faculty want to have their class rosters several days before classes begin, which is not currently possible.  Staff need time to manually enter each student’s schedule, and this can not be done until language placement testing takes place.  On the other hand, staff need to understand that a four-day lag period, while it seems like a half-week to them, means 10-15% of the entire course for the faculty (we have a 40-day program with classes meeting five days a week).  We recently moved a faculty member into a newly-created position to bridge this boundary.

The identities of individuals are shaped by their experience:  we define ourselves by what we know and don’t know (Wenger, 2000, p. 238).  “Identity needs a place where a person can experience knowing as a form of social competence…their need to develop their competence is also part of their belonging” (Wenger, 2000, p. 241).  This mirrors Caine and Caine’s brain principle that the brain needs familiarity, as well as novelty and complexity.  The familiarity gives stability and anchors the search for meaning from the complex (Caine & Caine, 1990, p. 67).  The community of learning can provide this stability and comfort, as a home where the identity feels competent.  This allows the member to be willing to search for the complex and to expand her own personal experiential learning.

I think Wenger gets it right in his assessment of social learning, in light of both my own personal experience and the brain research highlighted by Caine and Caine.


Caine, R. N., & Caine, G. (1990). Understanding a Brain-Based Approach to Learning and Teaching. Educational Leadership, 66–70.

Wenger, E. (2000). Communities of Practice and Social Learning Systems. Organization, 7(2), 225–246. doi:10.1177/135050840072002

**To learn more about Caine & Caine’s article about brain research, see my blog post “A View from the Past: Bridging Brain Research to the Classroom” from May 30, 2014.

A View from the Past: Bridging Brain Research to the Classroom

Caine, R. & Caine, G. (1990).  Understanding a Brain-Based Approach to Learning and Teaching.  Educational Leadership, pages 66-70.

This article contains twelve principles from brain-based research and the implications for teaching.  These points are synthesized and summarized in the chart.

Source: Lippincott, 2014.

Source: Lippincott, 2014.

The goal of Caine and Caine was to introduce brain research and give practical implications for teaching.  This piece was written in 1990, and is based on sources from the mid-1980’s.  Obviously, this research is outdated for a scholar in 2014;  however, I chose it  as a historical starting point for my scholarly study of brain research and neuroscience.   It is based more on psychology than neurology, and I think it will be interesting to trace the development of this still-fledgling field of study to the present day.

Caine and Caine have written a well-organized article that is clearly divided by headings which help the reader preview and focus on each of the twelve principles.  It is a good article for someone who wants to get an overview of the implications of the then-current research about brain functioning and teaching/learning.  The suggestions for classroom teachers are clear for anyone to read, without having to understand a lot of formal, technical jargon.  This piece helps create the bridge from researchers to practioners.  One weakness of the piece is that it does not explain to a reasonable extent the true workings of the brain or the underpinnings of the principles.  For example, the first principle is that the brain handles many different tasks simultaneously.  But, it does not explain how scientists know this.  It is clear that the authors assume that the reader will trust their compilation of previous knowledge and studies, not giving a picture of what those studies actually are.

Implication for humanizing, equitable education.

This article emphasizes that each person’s brain is unique, shaped by the experiences that he/she has had.  Also, emotions play a large role in learning, as do the conscious and subconscious.  The implication is that teachers need to use a variety of methods in their work.  This is consistent with the ideas of a humanizing, equitable education, helping each person have access to learning that will have an impact on their lives.

Also, Caine and Caine suggest that students learn about their own metacognition and reflect upon their educational experiences.  This will make them better learners.  Any time a person can be given control over their own learning processes, this is an empowering moment.  This empowerment can end marginalization by others and humanize the education of each one.

Thoughts for my area of interest.

            My take-away from this article was two-fold.  First, I thought it contained some sound ideas and concepts for teaching that I would like to try and share with my colleagues.  The part of the article that I felt was the strongest argument was the section about the hippocampus and its role in reaction to threatening environments.  Its strength came from the clear, yet simple, explanation of the hippocampus as the relay center for the brain.  When this center is stressed or threatened, it goes into a different mode and communicates only with the primary areas of the brain.  This means that some areas are actually closed-off to us when we may need them.  As educators, we need to recognize the stresses that our students have: pressures from family, teachers, schools, and peers; internal pressures to do well on assignments and tests; pressure from high-stakes testing that occurs too frequently.  These stresses can trigger a very real physical reaction that students can not control, but which impedes their learning.  Teachers should challenge students in a supportive environment, helping them to feel successful and independent in their learning.

Second, at this point, I am just beginning to look into brain research and its implications for teaching and learning.  Critiquing this article helps me see my path a little more clearly: I am going to focus more on actual brain functions and how those affect our behavior and learning, rather than a more psychological view.