Reflections of the Lifelong learning Meeting: Frank Coffield





Reflections on                                                                         Frank Coffield

Third LLL Network Meeting                                                     School of LEID

January, 2005                                                                         Institute of Education

Wako-shi, Saitama                                                                 University of London


Based on an original idea by Cath Tate Cards


1.         Introduction

“Despite the remarkable progress, brain research has not yet found an application in theory or practice of education.  And yet, one of the major contributions neuroscience is capable of making is illuminating the nature of learning itself”.

(Blakemore and Frith, 2000:3)

Brain science possesses many admirable qualities, but modesty does not appear to be one of them.  I prefer the stance taken by Masao Ito who claimed that “brain scientists … have refrained from offering immature advice derived from incomplete research works” (2004:429).  Such appropriate restraint from a leading exponent of this young science is, however, quickly followed by a rather extravagant claim to the effect that “New knowledge of the critical or sensitive period of development for various brain functions will help us choose appropriate timing for curricula of child care and education such as literacy, numeracy, music, art and physical education” (ibid).

Education is apparently about to be swept off her feet by the omniscient new god of neuroscience, who will answer all her questions and solve all her problems.  When?  How long shall education have to wait?  Five, ten, twenty years?

I returned from Japan refreshed and invigorated by the Network meeting, but with a number of growing concerns: for example, if brain science does not learn from the past failures of psychologists, who promised teachers the moon and gave them instead such shoddy goods as intelligence tests, programmed learning and learning styles, then it may suffer the same fate of being ignored.  If teachers are turned off by premature claims that prove to be overblown and inaccurate, brain science is likely from then on to be overlooked, no matter what advances it continues to make.  The first pitch, the first chat-up line, the invitation to the dance is all important; finding out what the main stresses are on teachers and how neuroscience can help may be a better starting point.

More positively, we are witnessing the emergence of a new discipline, which already has more than 40 branches, and which brings with it the promise of an inter-disciplinary science of learning.  Recent progress has indeed been remarkable, many of the findings and methods of brain science are genuinely fascinating, but it is no simple task to relate them to educational theory, practice or policy.  After more than 3,000 years of thinking, writing and practice, education has no laws; few, if any, agreed principles; endless, competing theories; and three overarching metaphors of acquisition, participation and construction.  It remains much more of an art than a science.  It has also been starved of research funds, but has little systematic and cumulative knowledge to show for what monies have been spent on it.  In sharp contrast, brain science is new, brash, methodologically sophisticated, technically advanced and, in the modern jargon, ‘sexy’.  It also appears to be lavishly supported by research funds, but what total sums does the discipline have at its disposal and who is commissioning the research?  Is it any wonder that the two of them look rather an odd couple when they take to the floor?

The rest of this paper is organised as follows:  I shall discuss briefly a few important and intriguing findings from brain science, a number of gaps in our knowledge base, and some general concerns.  I shall finish by discussing some hopes for the future and some suggestions for policy.

The general approach will be, as before, that of healthy scepticism, tempered by the remark made to me in Wako-Shi that scepticism which is healthy ought to mean an openness to be convinced by arguments that prove to be well-founded.  Unhealthy scepticism tips into cynicism and pessimism.  It is, however, exciting to be asked to dance, especially when, like me, you can’t; it’s also wonderful to choose, but more wonderful still to be chosen (Miller, 2003).


2.         Findings

The brain appears to be wired for lifelong learning, which is just as well.  It was suggested in Tokyo that the main findings from brain science of significance to education concern plasticity (the ability to adapt appropriately to changes in the environment), and periodicity (the claim that there are critical / sensitive periods for learning).  As with any science, knowledge is provisional, as can be seen from the move by neuroscientists from the belief in rigid and inflexible ‘critical’ periods to more subtle ‘sensitive’ periods.

It is, however, difficult for an outsider to neuroscience to evaluate the status of many of the claims being made.  Are they the considered and unanimous judgement of the research community?  Or are they the hyperbolical assertions of one researcher with idiosyncratic views, who has carried out one study with a small sample?  Take, for example, the claim that brain science can now predict the onset of dyslexia seven years after brain activity has been recorded.  If this is a well-founded claim, then some hard thinking needs to be done on the implications for the substantial population of dyslexics.  This claim also needs to be set against the conclusions drawn by four specialists on dyslexia to the effect that “a very small percentage of impaired readers may well be afflicted by basic cognitive deficits of biological origin”, and that practitioners need to shift away from assessing cognitive and biological causes of reading difficulties in favour of assessment that leads to individualised instruction (Vellutino et al, 2004:31).

Would it be fair to say that a superstructure of intriguing hypotheses is currently being built on a rather narrow knowledge base?  Masao Ito, for instance, speculated that “it is likely that there are differently timed sensitive periods for acquiring different types of knowledge and skills such as literacy, numeracy, art and physical education” (2004:431).  Indeed, the surprise would be if there were not, but we are here in the realm of speculation rather than of hard fact.

Counter-intuitive results may, however, have a major role to play in catching the attention of the media and of teachers.  For instance, one of the many unexamined and fashionable clichés in education today is that ‘learning is, or should be, fun’.  That will come as a surprise to anyone who has ever poured over Portuguese irregular verbs, but the phrase is repeated almost ad nauseam at educational conferences.  Teachers who have internalised this conventional wisdom may be brought up short by such findings from brain science as “better learning occurs under a certain level of stress.  Learning can be very fast for a noxious stimulus.  This type of learning is important for survival” (Blakemore and Frith, 2000:33).  This contention would have come as no surprise to Bruno Bettleheim (1970) after his experiences in a Nazi concentration camp or to Bill Williamson (1998), who has written well on learning in extreme situations, such as the collapse of whole industries (like mining in the UK) in modern ‘turbo’ capitalism.

Neuroscience presents another type of challenge.  Some of the strongest scientific evidence, if it were responded to appropriately, would call for rather significant changes in policy and practice and so, for that very reason, is likely to be quietly side-lined.  For example, there appears to be wide agreement among the specialists that language discrimination begins with babies at the age of six months, but the teaching of a second language (L2) starts at the age of 8-10 in some educational systems, and as late as 12-14 in others.  The clear implication of the research is that L2 teaching starts far too late, but a fitting response would result in a veritable upheaval in practice and policy.  Educational systems move very slowly and the practice in many contemporary classrooms, apart from the use of ICT and whiteboards, looks very similar to that in classrooms I sat in 50 years ago in Glasgow.

I also suspect that there is much more controversy within and between each of the 40+ branches of the new science than I currently know about.  What are these controversies about?  Methods?  Theories?  Criteria?  Findings?  There were, I remember, some detailed findings which the three workshops at the third LLL Network meeting failed to agree on.  What education needs from brain science is some public statement about what is common ground among neuroscientists, what is currently disputed territory, what are the controversial claims of eccentric individuals or ‘rogue’ teams, and what can be safely dismissed as ‘neuromyths’.  Clearly, such a statement would need to be revised periodically as knowledge advances.


3.         Gaps in our Knowledge

The small amount of reading that I’ve so far undertaken into brain science has sparked off a whole series of questions which I guess practising teachers would love to have straightforward answers to.  For example, when does the human brain mature?  When should we begin teaching foreign languages?  How should we most effectively teach bilingual children?  Is learning bilingually different in kind from learning a second language?  Have brain scientists made contact with the experts in bilingualism?  What’s the effect of cannabis, TV, and binge drinking on the adolescent (and the adult) brain?  Are there sensitive periods for the learning of reading or maths or for different kinds of mathematical ability?  How can we best compensate for children brought up in poor cognitive environments?  Can we manipulate sensitive periods?  Have brain scientists looked at the huge variation presented by individuals and how is this reflected in their brain development?  What are the determinants of successful cognitive aging?  When will brain science move from the study of simple to complex learning tasks?

I don’t know how many of the questions above have already been answered or are unanswerable by neuroscientists.  But what seems sensible to me is that we prioritise what it is we want to know, what kinds of help are likely to be forthcoming from brain science and estimate when we’re likely to get answers and of what kind.  I still do not know what would constitute for a brain scientist an intriguing and researchable question.  What, above all, I’d like to know is: how can brain science help those with learning impairments, because for me education is fundamentally about social justice and not just about intervention and ‘what works’; it is intervention with a moral purpose.


4.         Concerns

It may come as no surprise to readers that I recorded in Tokyo more concerns than findings or hopes for the future.   I restrict myself to the following, which are in a rough order of importance:

a)         biology, culture and context

The two words I would have like to have heard much more of at the LLL Network meeting were ‘culture’ and ‘context’.  Paul Howard-Jones at the Conference and Blakemore and Frith (2000) in their review each used an explanatory framework, which combined biological, cognitive, behavioural and environmental levels of description.  Both models help us to think about the links between the brain and behaviour “via the inferred cognitive level whose raison d’être is to bridge the gap between them” ie the mind (Blakemore and Frith, 2000:3).  See Figure 1 on p10.

So far, so good.  But just as we cannot understand human behaviour without reference to biology, we also need culture and context to understand that behaviour fully.  If, for instance, I raise my right arm above shoulder height, am I a Royal Prince giving a Nazi salute? or am I a Primary pupil asking to leave the room to go to the toilet? or am I trying to catch the Speaker’s eye in the House of Commons?  Only an understanding of the gesturing individual embedded in a particular context and culture can help answer that question.  In the words of Jerome Brunner: “It is practically impossible to understand a thought, an act, a move of any sort from the situation in which it occurs.  Biology and culture both operate locally” (1996:167).  So the methods of the new science will need to be biological, cultural and situational; full understanding of human behaviour cannot be reduced to its neural substrates.  Hence, the significance I attached in my Tokyo talk to situated learning (Lave and Wenger, 1996).  Do the models of Howard-Jones and Blakemore and Frith cope with culture and context?  I do not think so.

b)         the Complexity of Learning

Neuroscientists may only be beginning to come to terms with the sheer complexity of learning; and a lot of data appears to have been collected on animals or on human subjects performing simple, meaningless tasks like finger tapping.  This is light years away from understanding all the interacting factors involved in teaching and learning in a crowded classroom.  At the very least, the educational researcher has to take into account:

·         characteristics of the students (age, gender, ethnicity, ability, motivation, interests, attention, priorities, previous history of learning, peer group pressures to conform or to ‘mess on’, etc)

·         characteristics of the teacher (age, gender, ethnicity, ability, education, professional training, experience as teacher, subject knowledge, attitudes towards students, the curriculum, and teaching as a career, etc)

·         characteristics of the context (subject being taught, academic or vocational stream, private or public school, single sex or co-educational, top set or bottom set, percentage of students speaking English as a second or third language, percentage of pupils with what is officially called ‘challenging behaviour’ eg carrying knives, last period on Friday afternoon at the end of a long term or first period on Monday morning after Newcastle have won the Cup on Sunday … hope springs eternal.

I could go on to list the perceptions of both students and teachers of the task immediately confronting them, the students’ general attitudes to learning, their understanding and use of meta-cognition and their grasp of how well the aims, content, methods and assessments of the course are constructively aligned or not.  In short, the factors are innumerable and perhaps immeasurable.  To drive the point home, I attach a model from an overview of research into dyslexia, which sets out the different cognitive processes and types of knowledge involved in learning to read (Vellutino et al, 2004).  See Figure 2 on p10.

c)         the Dependence on (Animal) Experimentation

The report on the Second LLL Network meeting recorded that “approximately 60 per cent of contemporary neuroscientific research is done on rodents” (2004:14).  If we add all the research done on cats and monkeys, what percentage is carried out on human beings?  Generalisation from animals to mankind will not do.  To quote Bruner again, “Culture imposes revolutionary discontinuity between man and the rest of the animal kingdom” (1996:164, emphasis as in original).

The Tokyo meeting also introduced a term new to me, namely, “neuroethics”.  I’d like to know what this new field of enquiry has to say about the morality of blinding new-born kittens or monkeys in one eye in order to find out whether the process is irreversible or not.

More generally, Brain Science now has to face the dilemma which confronted experimental psychology 50 years ago: does it cling to experimental rigour and the scientific purity of blind, randomised controlled trials?  If so, it will have to face the criticism that such laboratory conditions bear no resemblance to real classrooms.  Alternatively, does it change its methods and conduct research in authentic contexts, thereby sacrificing control and rigour?  Some workable compromise needs to be reached between these conflicting demands.

d)         a niggle, a grumble and a meta-grumble

I admit to being mildly niggled by what I see as a tendency for neuroscientists to enter fields about which they appear to know precious little, but still make sweeping generalisations without quoting any supportive evidence.  For example, “motivation and attitude are possible more important than cognitive factors in learning”.  And possible less important or as important, but who’s to say without evidence and without reference to particular people in particular contexts?

My grumble concerns the technical language of brain science, which is obviously necessary when specialists are addressing fellow experts.  But if this new discipline is to communicate with the wider worlds of education, medicine or child care, then such phrases as “transgenic overexpression of a neurotrophin” needs to be explained for non-experts.

The worry which I’ve elevated to the status of a ‘meta-grumble’ concerns the distinction between correlation and causation.   Here I raise a genuine point of information: are the changes in synaptogenesis causally linked to learning?


5.         Hopes for the Future

“When I was a bachelor, I had six theories of child rearing.  Now I’m married with six children and I have no theories of child rearing” Sir Philip Sydney (1554 – 1586).

Great expectations were expressed at the meeting in the RIKEN Institute that the present ‘small island of knowledge’ generated by brain science might turn out to be a ‘continent’.  Such attractive optimism may, however, need to be tempered by hard realism; it may be better to moderate the expectations of practitioners and policy-makers in case they come to believe that neuroscience is about to provide them with simple, biological solutions to their complex, social problems.

A clear illustration of this danger is the attention the media give to any story about ‘sleep as a teacher’.  This interesting research topic sparks off in many people the rather forlorn hope that some intrinsically difficult task (eg speaking a foreign language fluently) can be learned overnight by, for instance, slipping a tape under one’s pillow.

What cannot be gainsaid is the real hunger of desperate teachers for help in dealing with, for instance, students with a whole range of special educational needs; and it may be in this area that brain science has most to offer and where research should be prioritised.  A new profession of educationally sensitive brain scientists and neuroscientifically sophisticated teachers is called for – we need a plan to produce a new cadre of ‘neuropedagogues’.

Other age groups who are likely to benefit from the findings of brain science include:

·               mothers with toddlers, if we can learn to counteract the impact of post-natal depression

·               the aging, which means everyone, if we can implement new policies and priorities, based on new knowledge on the healthy aging brain and on the interactions between cardiovascular and cognitive fitness.  The finding that brain plasticity remains high up to advanced ages has suggested the slogan ‘use it or lose it’.  A better slogan may be ‘use it and improve it’.  The grey haired, pensioners and the retired, they all get a poor press in the Anglo-Saxon world, but other cultures behave very differently.  Like so many words in English beginning with ‘re-‘ (recant, recede, repress etc), retirement has a negative connotation.  But not so in Spanish, where the retired are los jubilados, the jubilant.  Roll on the day.

·               many of those in their 80s, 90s and above, of whom there are more each year, are demented and their quality of life has been shown to be fairly unsatisfactory.  Can we, for instance, learn to postpone (or obviate) the onset of Alzheimer’s?

Above and beyond all of this lies the biggest prize of all: after 3,000 years of argument, can brain science provide the sound basis for a science of learning?  Is this likely, however?  The establishment of the interdisciplinary research field of ‘Nurturing the Brain’ under Masao Ito, and of the longitudinal studies in Japan under the direction of Dr Koizumi are two of the most optimistic signs on the horizon, but what are we to do while we await the findings from such research?  And how will such research cope with the interactions of biology, culture and context?


6.         Suggestions for Policy

Blakemore and Frith (2000:5) argue not only for a common vocabulary between brain scientists and “educationers (sic)”, but also for an interactionist (ie “what do educationers need to know that can be informed from brain science?”), rather than a one-sided approach (ie “can brain science be applied to classroom practice?”).  I would prefer a genuine interactionist approach ie what do neuroscientists need to know about learning and teaching generally, and about learning and teaching in inner-city schools, in particular?

Brain scientists also need to acknowledge the political context of educational practice and reform.  Blakemore and Frith, for instance, pose the questions: “If teachers know about how the brain learns, do they behave differently towards children?  Would they change their class size, teaching or testing methods?” (2000:43).  Teachers, or at least teachers in Tony Blair’s New Labour England, are not free agents, who can choose the content or even the pedagogy and certainly not the size of their classes.  The curriculum, the assessment and increasingly the pedagogy are laid down explicitly by government and brain science will have to come to terms with these harsh political realities.  There is no simple, linear progression from research findings to implementation in classrooms; to mention just one major intervening variable, politicians either ignore or rubbish or ‘cherry pick’ research results in support of what they want to do anyway.

The first aim of any new grouping of brain scientists, cognitive psychologists, educationists, (and, I would now add, anthropologists and experts in artificial intelligence), who wish to collaborate on research and its implications for policy and practice, should be, in my opinion, to attract and maintain the interest and commitment of teachers, teacher trainers, institutional leaders, policy-makers and politicians.  That means, I’m afraid, the production of different types of report for these different audiences.

One of the most difficult decisions to be made in such reports will be at what level to pitch the advice to professionals, which, I hope, will be general in nature, with teachers left to determine the implications of any particular finding for their own specific circumstances; in other words in teaching and learning, the context is everything.  But three possibilities need to be considered before any advice is offered at all.  First, could the proposed changes make matters worse? eg “premature and simplistic applications of ‘basic’ science can be dangerous and damaging” (Hargreaves 2005).   Second, are there other options for intervention (eg Assessment for Learning), which are more firmly grounded in research evidence, and which may be more beneficial?  Third, is the corpus of findings from brain science sufficiently robust and relevant that this is the appropriate time to go public?  Should, for instance, the curriculum of teacher training be changed now to include a component on Learning and the Brain?  If so, what should be dropped from the curriculum, because the training programme in England is so densely packed into 38 weeks that something will have to give if something new is to be introduced.

Let me end on a positive note.  What little I’ve learned so far about brain science suggests that it may achieve its biggest impact by promoting intergenerational learning.  Small-scale projects have been successfully carried out in Sweden, for instance, where teenagers teach retired people computer skills in return for the older generation sharing their knowledge and experience of the labour market and encouraging young people to stay in education, training or employment.  In short, teenagers adopt grannies, and grandpas ‘buddy’ young tearaways to their mutual benefit.  One group gains disinterested advice and the benefits of experience from an ‘honest broker’, while the other gains new skills and social networks.  As they say in that ugly modern phrase, it’s a ‘win, win situation’.


7.         CODA

Finally, I would like to offer one early finding from an experiment I’ve conducted without controls (randomised or otherwise), and with both eyes open (rather than in a double blind condition).  This research contradicts one of the established findings from neuroscience, namely, that the brain can compensate for the slow but sure deterioration with age.  In sharp contrast, my evidence suggests that the over 60s can actually improve their performance significantly as they grow older.  The only problem is that the size of my sample was one and the subject was myself.  In other words, I’m not yet ready to ask my wife to join me in the new dance that’s all the craze among pensioners in Vienna: the zimmer waltz.



Bettelheim, B (1970) The Informed Heart, London: Paladin.

Blakemore, S-J and Frith, U (2000) The implications of recent developments in neuroscience for research on teaching and learning, London: Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience.

Bruner, J.S. (1996) The Culture of Education, Cambridge, Ma: Harvard University Press.

Hargreaves, D.H (ed) (2005) About Learning, Report of the Learning Working Group, London: Demos.

Ito, Masao (2004) “’Nurturing the brain’ as an emerging research field involving child neurology”, Brain and Development, 26, 429-433.

Lave, J and Wenger, E (1996) Situated Learning: legitimate peripheral participation, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Miller, S (2003), The Story of My Father, London: Bloomsbury.

Vellutino, F.R., Fletcher, J.M., Snowling, M.J and Scanlon, D.M (2004) ‘Specific reading disability (dyslexia): what have we learned in the past four decades?, Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 45, 1, 2-40.

Williamson, B (1998) Lifeworlds and Learning, Leicester: NIACE.