Brain Power?

Next week we have a Faculty research conference on the theme of ‘power’ at which I will be offering the following paper (abstract below). I’d love to hear people’s thoughts.

The Power of the Brain Image: on the indoctrinatory use of neurobiological narratives to improve student motivation and achievement

A chapter introducing neuroscience to beginner teachers offers a ‘brain plasticity intervention’ as one of two headline illustrations of the power of brain science to improve children’s learning (Howard-Jones 2013). The claim – that ‘simply knowing about brain plasticity can improve the self-concept and academic potential of learners’ – seems well supported by intervention studies.

I begin by considering the possibility that alternative narratives might have similar effects on student motivation. I will discuss an intervention (Boddie 2015) that employs a narrative from Sartrean existentialist philosophy (‘existence precedes essence’) to make a comparable impact on student motivation.

It might be objected that Sartre’s ontology is contested, whereas neuroscience rests on publicly accepted scientific principles. But this leads to the further consideration of the extent to which the motivational effect of a brain science narrative depends on its target audience’s understanding of those disciplinary principles. How much does a student’s coming to believe in the possibility of transforming his or her own academic success depend on knowledge that tracks the truth about real states of affairs in the brain, as opposed to other belief-inducing factors such as the well-known seal of scientific authority provided by a brain image?

I finally ask to what extent pedagogical uses of the edifying story of brain plasticity can be likened to indoctrination, or even a form of ‘noble lie’ told to students for their own good.