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Bringing Neuroscience Towards Alternative Education?

Helen Lees Max Hope

On March 10th 2017, at Newman University, UK, an event attempting to better understand the interface of neuroscience and alternative education occurs. What happens? Well as we write this the event is yet to take place. We are still busy ordering the lunch and informing portering to put out tables for the lunch to go on.

In general what can be expected from such a meeting of disciplinary areas? People interested in neuroscience might be said to be the kind of people who believe in random control trials and a “what works” approach. Right? Perhaps wrong. They believe, do they not, in the manipulation of the brain? Ignore the soul or the heart or the transcendent, ineffable nature of humanity? These ‘junctures’ of opinion are not the whole story.

One of our keynote speakers Dr Kris De Meyer speaks at the event from his chapter The Mind of the Educator in the recent Palgrave International Handbook of Alternative Education. His focus is on the ways in which the brain-mind can be a trap or a source of conservative delusion, holding tenaciously to ideas despite evidence to the contrary. His recent film Right Between Your Ears about dissonance and belief highlights this issue. Kris’s work is tackling the conservatism of thinking which harms us because it leads us up the garden path, whether that be through adherence to the sayings of a false spiritual guru or a belief in education as required to be done a certain way.

Our second keynote speaker, Dr David Aldridge, will consider how the narrative of the plasticity of the brain works as a powerful myth to evoke educational alternatives. He will discuss how the word ‘myth’ is important here, since current neurobiological understanding of the shaping of the brain in response to stimuli cannot yet be invoked to explain anything an educator would recognise as an event of learning. He says “A host of conceptual problems must be addressed, most importantly the seductive power of metaphors of pathways and connections, and the analogous employment of the idea of learning itself. Yet the neuroeducational movement proceeds in the confidence that future science will yield such explanations. In the meantime we know that narratives of the neurone, accompanied by colourful brain images, can be invoked for emancipatory effect – that is, they can be employed successfully in the manipulation of learners’ ideas about their capacity to change, and thus their motivation and eventual achievement. But given that neuroscientific understanding does not yet provide warrant for such beliefs – which could in any case be fostered by a number of alternative narratives – the question must be asked whether the emancipatory teaching of brain plasticity constitutes at best a ‘noble lie’ and at worst an indoctrinatory practice unworthy of an alternative education.”

An interface between a sense of neuroscience as offering solutions for all and the force of alternative education as a way to allow any solutions – local and personal – to be identifiable is the energy of this gathering’s purpose. We seek in the BERA Alternative Education SIG – in collaboration with the network – to understand better our own field of education otherwise than the mainstream school. We aim to juxtapose that often lonely but increasingly fashionable arena with some of the other (possibly?) lonely yet fashionable domains. What happens when they come together? What happens when alternative education questions neuroscience and says: “What are you good for?” Of course neuroscience is welcome to ask us the same question. Together we might know the answers better?

So far ideas have been surprising and we haven’t had the event so we look forward to what emerges on the day. We did not expect someone to mention consciousness and holism as part of interrogation of neuroscience but, yes. Transcendence of the ‘brain-facts’ approach is a vital aspect of what we need to question, as is the possible insights into such areas neuroscience might bring. Fascinating times: mechanism versus value for Foucauldian technologies of the self. The evidence for mechanisms of the mind is a good place to explore when we want to know more about the spontaneity and freedoms for natural emergence of non linear educational forms.

In one sense alternative education with its value-base for child-centered and autonomous, democratic learning seems to be the antithesis of neuroscientific values. Both domains are, as they develop, surely more nuanced and able to converse than such prejudicial assumptions. But as yet we do not know why, how, when, where or what. This is the purpose of our event.

In the Alternative Education SIG we are fascinated by the Royal Society’s “BrainWaves” series on neuroscience of 2012 and the Education Endowment Foundation’s assumption that RCTs can deliver useful information. Where do all these assumptions come from and can we glean from them something for alternative education? The fact is that alternative education with its supposedly ‘hippy’ credentials is a serious educational set of pathways delivering effective outcomes, practices that (what) ‘work’ and no doubt neuroscientific information which could be relevant to other domains. Yet our kind of education shies away from the impositions of science. Too often this renders views of our field as overly non-scientific. We do not know what the conversation to be had is yet but we intend to find out.

It is not the case that this is a brand new debate. O’Grady (2011) has already combined the two fields: “As advanced brain imaging studies detail cognitive function more precisely, the new neuroscience serves to confirm the long-standing principles of the progressive and alternative education movement” (p. 586). Joldersma (along with De Meyer’s chapter mentioned above in the same volume) has recently tackled alternative education and neuroscience’s coming together in his chapter for the Palgrave International Handbook of Alternative Education (2016). No doubt such combinations will continue. Neuroscience is not for alternative education to ignore and vice versa.



Joldersma, C. W. (2016). Promise and Peril of Neuroscience for Alternative Education. In H. E. Lees & N. Noddings (Eds.), The Palgrave International Handbook of Alternative Education. London: Palgrave MacMillan.

O’ Grady, P. (2011). Progressive Education Standards: A Neuroscientific Framework. US-China Education Review, B(4), 586-591.