Minds still matter in education

Investigating the brain is exciting and offers huge potential for our collective progress. But, in education, there is good reason to still talk about minds.

Peter Ellerton Peter Ellerton Jul 5, 2019

First of all, let me make it clear that I’m not suggesting we all become dualists. As far as we know at the moment, the human brain is a sufficient (and possibly necessary) condition for the human mind. But although we might acknowledge the material or causal connection between the mind and the brain happily enough, that doesn’t mean we talk about them in the same way.

Arguably, there are good reasons to separate them when speaking in educational contexts. In this post, I will offer some reasons that might make an objective, science-based study of the brain less significant than other forms of engagement with students’ minds.

When we talk about students’ brains we are speaking about an organ of the body. The study of the human brain, like the study of other human organs, is not primarily directed towards an understanding of any particular brain but an understanding of what they all have in common. A heart specialist is not a specialist in your heart, but in human hearts.

Granted the point of this generic understanding is to treat individual cases, but this can only happen after a range of inductive inferences are made from the specific to the general. It is not very scientific to work with n=1. Individual brains, therefore, are understood based on what we know about collective brains, either in how they conform with, or how they differ from, the norm.

In neuroscience, as in all science, experiments should be reproducible. Regardless of who is doing the investigating, we should all be able to get similar results from similar experiments. Your experience of doing the experiment should not be relevant to my experience of doing the experiment. So long as it is carried out under the same material conditions, that is all that matters. Technically, we say that science concerns itself with those things that are invariant under first person transformations. Being “invariant under first person transformation” just means our different subject experiences do not, and should not, influence the results.

The ‘should not’ of the last sentence is interesting, however. What saying ‘should not’ really means is that it is not the business of science to investigate those things that are not invariant under first person transformations. But what kinds of things are those?

Our lives are a series of subjective experiences. In an important sense, that is all we have. Subjective experiences are those experiences that are in some ways unexaminable by others. How a banana tastes to me is unknowable by anyone else. We might hypothesis that all people taste bananas in the same way, but that does not explain the different reactions people have when they eat them. The philosopher Thomas Nagel’s essay "What is it like to be bat?” makes the point that, despite knowing all there is to know scientifically about bats, no one can know what it’s like to be a bat. What it’s like to be a bat is not a question that science can answer. The same is true for all subjective experiences that humans have. No one can know what it is like for you. The claim is not really that we can not experience similar subjective sensations, or that there is no way for us to potentially understand it, or even that it is separate from any brain state, but rather that there is no way to empirically verify that it is the same experience. Science simply does not have the tools to measure such things. This is the so-called “explanatory gap” between the material world and the quality of subjective experiences that haunts many philosophers of Mind.

At this stage the reader may be ready to dismiss such claims using the following argument, or something like it:

[This argument conflates a variety of philosophical positions but my concern is not to be philosophically precise, only to provide a representation of many people’s thinking about brains and minds.]

Even if this argument is sound, however, it still misses the point. An investigation into the brain of a person having a clear and identifiable subjective experience is difficult to justify as providing information about what it’s like to have that experience. At best, it could only support through correlation that a reported experience is happening. An investigation into the brain is not the same as an investigation of the experience because, while an investigation into the brain can give you a full description of what is happening neurologically, it cannot give an equally full description of what it feels like. It is an investigation into a subjective experience in which the investigation itself (i.e. of the brain) is 'invariant under first person transformation', but it is not an investigation of what it feels like for the subject, which is not invariant under first person transformation.

This difficulty science has with subjectivity is a salient point since a student’s educational experiences are, definitionally, subjective ones. No teacher of any worth would imagine that all students in their classes will experience the same thing at the same time for each stage of a lesson. To believe such a thing is to believe that students are irrelevant to the learning process, and that the only thing that needs attention is the activity of the teacher, for this will determine the student experience in full.

What we must take as axiomatic, I suggest, is that the most important thing happening in a classroom at any given time is what is happening in a student’s mind. In other words, their subjective experiences. These experiences are not limited to their emotional reactions to events in the classroom, but include the active processes of building knowledge, constructing schematic understanding and making meaning of, and finding purpose in, their learning. Let me take this a step further and say that the act of thinking itself is a subjective experience. Thinking is something you do in as much as surfing is something you do. You can’t learn to surf from a book, and you can’t learn to think from one either. In both cases, you’ve got to get out and do the thing to get better at it. It is in large part experiential knowledge and, like all experiential knowledge, it cannot be achieved or understood solely through the exchange of objectively verifiable information.

Here, then, I make the distinction between speaking of brains and speaking of minds in educational contexts (I say ‘speaking of brains and minds’ rather than ‘brains and minds’ because I am concerned with a way of capturing different perspectives, not describing actual differences). When we talk of brains we are often talking of the results of our objective scientific investigations. When we talk of minds, we often mean that which contains understanding and makes meaning of a student’s subjective experiences. Both of these approaches are useful (and granted not mutually exclusive), but that does not mean that both of them are as well-grounded, at least not yet. The fact is we know far more about student’s minds than we do about their brains. Excellence in teaching predates neurological investigation.

There is a vast store of wisdom about student minds that should not be ignored or overshadowed by the results of empirical investigation of the brain. We would be making a grave error to dismiss brain research, but we do not know enough about the brain to provide a fully functioning pedagogical approach. Not just yet.

Engaging with student minds also sounds much more acceptable (and possibly less invasive) than engaging with their brains. Speaking of minds helps to put students’ subjective experiences of knowledge construction and meaning-making at the centre of our pedagogical concerns. The insights of neuroscience are valuable and will continue to be productive and even transformative, but we should not be seduced by breathtaking images of brains in action to stop talking about minds. Not just yet.

While we harvest the findings of neuroscience, we should be cautious of their pedagogical implications. The field of neuro-education is an emerging one and, as such, is still sensitive to misinterpretation and to premature commodification, especially in areas such as education that are hungry for evidence-based practice.

A proper development of the discipline will require a sophisticated partnership between neurological and pedagogical experts, it can’t be a one-way flow of information. While we wait for the discipline to develop, we still have a plethora of empirical studies showing the value (or not) of a range of approaches and strategies.

This post is not, therefore, a call to abandon empirical research in education, only to not weaken our core pedagogical strength of engaging with and developing the minds of our students. Wasn’t that why we all became teachers to begin with?

Some readings

Royal Society. (2011). Brain Waves 2: Neuroscience: implications for education and lifelong learning. Retrieved March 25, 2016, from Brain Waves website

Busso, D. S., & Pollack, C. (2015). No brain left behind: consequences of neuroscience discourse for education. Learning, Media and Technology, 40(2), 168–186. https://doi.org/10.1080/17439884.2014.908908

This article originally appeared in Nature's Science of Learning