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Biology is not Destiny

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The existence of differences in brain structure or function between different groups of learners may inspire insights and contribute to more effective learning programmes and interventions. However, it can also lead to unhelpful notions of permanent deficits and of ceilings to performance that are biologically determined. This was illustrated recently in the public debate inspired by ���The Dyslexia Myth�۪ on Channel 4(...), which demonstrated how easily biological knowledge becomes incorrectly and unhelpfully associated with deterministic ideas.

Commentators noted how the original TV documentary promoted ���all-or-none theorising amongst the public�۝ and how these misconceptions highlighted the need to ���combine formal and pedagogic approaches, preferably incorporating modern views on brain function�۝ 87. The call to include modern neuroscience arises because current developmental cognitive neuroscience avoids predictive mechanisms of biological cause and effect.88 Current resonances between neuroscience and education encourage models of learning that emphasise the complexity of interaction between biological and educational environments, and the enduring possibility of mitigation.

Cause is not an easy word. Its popular use would be laughable if it was not so dangerous, informing, as it does, government policy on matters that affect us all. There is no single cause of anything and nothing is determined.�۝
Professor John Morton Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience University College London

Biology provides no simple limit to our learning, not least because our learning can influence our biology. For example, although the number of neurons we possess does not change greatly throughout the lifecourse, it has been known for some time that experience can change the number of connections between them, our synaptic density. More recently, there have been several pieces of research demonstrating how even the structure of the brain, including the adult brain, can be changed by educational experience. In a recent study of juggling, the brain areas activated at the beginning of a three-month training period increased in size by the end of it. After three months of rest, these areas had shrunk back and were closer to their original size. 89This graphic example of ���if you don�۪t use it, you lose it�۪ demonstrates the potential importance of education in mediating brain development throughout our lives. Further evidence of the effects of education on brain structure comes from research into Alzheimer�۪s disease, which is associated with the death of brain cells due to the development of deposits called plaques within the brain and the formation of tangles of fibrils within individual brain cells. Despite the biological basis of the disease, it is becoming increasingly clear that the risks of developing Alzheimer�۪s in later life are reduced not only by previous educational attainment 90, but also by the level of challenge encountered in one�۪s working life 91 Even after the onset of Alzheimer�۪s, there is evidence that the progress of some symptoms can be diminished by training.92
ARLT Resources, Dip Soc Studies
Institute of Education
University of London
87. Nicolson, R. (2005) Dyslexia: Beyond the myth, The Psychologist, 18(11), 658-659
88. Morton, J. (2004) Understanding Developmental Disorders: A Causal Modelling Approach, Oxford: Blackwell
88. Morton, J. (2004) Understanding Developmental Disorders: A Causal Modelling Approach, Oxford: Blackwell
89. Draganski, B., Gaser, C., Busch, V., Schuierer, G., Bogdahn, U. and May, A. (2004) Nature, 427, 311-31
90. Elkins, J.S., Longstreth, W.T., Manolio, T.A., Newman, A.B., Bhadelia, R.A. and Johnston, S.C. (2006) Education and the cognitive decline associated with MRI-defined brain infarct, Neurology 67, 435-440
91. Wilson, R.S. (2005) Mental challenge in the workplace and risk of dementia in old age: is there a connection? Occupational and