Neurocognitive Foundations for the Learning Sciences


Contributor: Sashank Varma

Can neuroscience findings inform educational practice? This important question is being increasingly addressed by cognitive and developmental neuroscientists, who are investigating the complex forms of cognition of greatest interest to learning scientists, including mathematical thinking, scientific reasoning, problem solving, and language comprehension. Their studies are using non-invasive methods such as functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to reveal the neural correlates of complex cognition. More importantly, they are also providing new insights into why some people have more difficulty learning academic content than others, revealing the neural consequences of different instructional approaches, and spurring the development of new approaches for helping people with dyslexia and dyscalculia, often through the development of new learning technologies. Moving beyond cognition and development, neuroscience studies are also changing our understanding of social and emotional processing, student motivation, moral reasoning, and even art appreciation and performance. The question of what, if anything, these neuroscience findings have to offer the learning sciences has, we believe, an affirmative answer. There is overlap in the research questions of neuroscience and the learning sciences. This represents a potential source of new methods, phenomena, and theoretical perspectives for each discipline. This potential is already being realized in studies that take their inspiration from, and contribute their results to, both fields. Such transformative research is possible only when neuroscientists and learning scientists collaborate on questions of mutual interest. Such collaborations, although difficult to orchestrate, have the potential to make important contributions to the learning sciences.

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  • Varma, S., McCandliss, B. D., & Schwartz, D. L. (2008). Scientific and pragmatic challenges for bridging education and neuroscience. Educational Researcher, 37, 140-152. [Access Online]

Learning Scientists Who Have Researched This Topic

  • Daniel Ansari
  • John Bruer
  • Bruce McCandliss
  • Mitchell Nathan
  • Daniel Schwartz
  • Priti Shah
  • Elsbeth Stern
  • Sashank Varma
  • Daniel Willingham