• Question: Is there any research from the neuroscience of behaviour that you think would be useful for teacher to know about? Or advice about addiction which we should be telling students from a young age?

    Asked by lifelonglearner to Crawford, Dana, Iroise, Mark, Sarah on 22 May 2015.
    • Photo: Crawford Winlove

      Crawford Winlove answered on 22 May 2015:

      An interesting question – and one which I’ve written rather a lot in trying to answer…….

      There have been many suggestions as to how Neuroscience in general, and of behaviour in particular, should inform teaching. As already described in detail by others (http://tinyurl.com/ow92lg6) many of these suggestions reflect flawed interpretations – others are simply nonsense.

      Despite this, it is clear that such apparently Neuroscientific explanations are attractive even if logically irrelevant: http://tinyurl.com/8od7gxy.

      So, now for my contribution!

      First, a straight-forward recommendation: encourage students – and fellow teachers – to get some sleep. There is compelling evidence that sleep deprivation negatively impacts waking mood and cognitive performance: http://tinyurl.com/lcst39w. What’s more, sleep is crucial to the consolidation of new memories: http://tinyurl.com/nlgbwv8.

      Second, I think it would be useful for teachers to be aware of the evidence that adolescents perceive risk differently to adults. Recognising this could help to explain why “adult-type” educational interventions that try and shape adolescents’ knowledge, beliefs, or attitudes are largely ineffective. This important area of work is summarised in this paper http://tinyurl.com/p93ogt4, and this 15 minute video by Sarah-Jayne Blakemore: http://tinyurl.com/pqsq5jd

      Third, and closely related to risk-taking behaviour, are differences in impulsivity. On visiting schools, I have regularly been struck by the number of students in low sets because of their impulsive – and disruptive – behaviour, rather than their academic ability. Some of these students may be suffering the unrecognised consequences of childhood injuries, but most are simply at one end of the spectrum of trait impulsivity. Our education system, arguably partly designed to create people ready for routine employment during the Industrial Revolution, is an uncomfortable place for such individuals. Crucially, impulse control improves for most individuals as they get older. The priority must therefore be the medium-term management of those struggling with impulse control when they are young such that they still have education-dependent life-choices open to them when they grow up. My personal view is that attempting to train students inhibitory control is less likely to be effective than structuring lessons in such a way that directly promote intellectual and emotional engagement.

      In relation to addiction, high-levels of impulsivity are clearly associated with psychostimulant abuse, in particular. However, it remains incompletely understood whether increased impulsivity is a risk-factor for addiction or its consequence.

      In terms of talking to students about addiction, I think the first thing is to recognise that their perception of risk and hazard is likely to be different to that of the adult speaking to them. As a result, “scare tactics” are unlikely to work. What might be better is an explanation that they do have different attitudes to hazard, and that behaviours established during a period of high neural plasticity – rapid learning – can have especially long-lasting consequences.

      Alongside this, I am also a big fan of trying to “humanise” the subject of addiction: addicts are not weak-willed immoral people, they suffer from an illness; the closest many sufferers come to pleasure is simply a short-term relief from suffering.

      Beyond that, in talking about addiction, I think it is good to emphasize practical points: these may prove more important than a knowledge of which bits of the brain are involved. So, withdrawal, especially from sustained alcohol-abuse, should not be attempted with medical supervision; many addiction-related deaths follow relapse, not on-going drug-use, because pharmacological tolerance to drugs falls very quickly.

      As such, if students have friends or family that are affected they must always bear in mind that early abstinence is just the beginning of recovery, and is a period in which the hazard of relapse is huge. Above all, anyone experiencing relapse should take very low doses…….

      Hope this helps!


      P.S – The falling number of references with each paragraph reflects my move into areas I am more familiar with, meaning I am less reliant on the work of others. I hope this doesn’t reduce the usefulness of the later sections!