Challenges with the policy community
At first, it was difficult to predict what would result from our project, and if the investment (including financial, organization efforts, energy, and time) would be worthwhile, which led to interesting differences in the acceptance and support of the project by the education ministries. The cultural background of the political stakeholders played an important role. It quickly became clear that Japan and the United States were leaders in taking risks of this nature, with Europe (Finland, Spain, and the United Kingdom being exceptions) following cautiously behind. Most European countries wanted to see evidence that the project would yield useful results before accepting and supporting (including financially) the project and thus only joined slowly as the project gained momentum (della Chiesa & Christoph, 2003). At its inception in 1999, the project had only five supporting countries, including Japan, the United States, Finland, Spain, and the United Kingdom, but by 2002, 25 countries actively participated. Some countries resisted almost until the end, primarily because they were afraid that hard science might suddenly supplant traditional social sciences as reference disciplines for education (this concern was clearly voiced in countries like France and Sweden, for instance).
Knowledge communication involves exchanging, sharing, transmitting, and cross-linking knowledge (Heinze, 2003) in conferences, networks, publications, or social interaction among members of different groups. However, when representations are not shared, communication is difficult, as those participating in a communicative situation should express their ideas, intentions, and feelings openly and try to identify their assumptions and consider them potentially modifiable. For intercultural communication, this is an even greater challenge than for communication in general, as the readiness to communicate first has to be established and the capacities are more complex to achieve. All communication takes place under the ideal of a possible consensus (Heinze, 2003). A mixture of three of the four boxes of Table 1 come into play here: collective–structural, individual-political-cultural, and collective-political-cultural.
Challenges with the neuroscience community
Communication between specialized fields is important to enable knowledge transfer. However, the transfer of expertise between neuroscience and education is difficult, and three conditions are essential for optimal communication to take place: (a) Experts must be willing and able to share knowledge with those outside their field rather than just their peers.9 (b) Experts need to adapt their “language” and content to the audience, in order to make their knowledge comprehensible to lay addressees (OECD, 2000). In general, participants of different nationalities from the same field had fewer difficulties understanding one another than participants of the same nationality from different fields. (c) Experts need to realize that in the long term connecting information across fields is advantageous for both others and themselves. As Wiater expressed, “knowledge communication only develops when people have the feeling that the exchange is a mutual give and take, a win-win-situation, and that it will be to their personal advantage” (Heinze, 2003, p. 90). At first, it was difficult to find participants for our project that met all three conditions—researchers who were doing good work in their field, were able to translate findings for lay people, and were committed to applying their research results to policy and practice.10 Finding all these competences in a single person is quite rare.11
The reactions of the participants to these three conditions were very different. Brain researchers generally accepted invitations to meetings, seemingly prepared to share and receive new knowledge. However, most speakers were not very effective at communicating their knowledge because they rarely considered the audience and/or purpose. Accordingly, their presentations were too technical, cutting edge, and therefore mainly incomprehensible for lay people. Knowledge transfer was therefore not very successful at first. These difficulties seemed to stem not only from being confronted with an audience of nonspecialists in an unusual situation but also from a global incomprehension of the project and its goals.12 Moreover, even when these were understood, they were sometimes in conflict with participants’ professional goals. OECD/CERI held conferences to have neuroscientists communicate with educators. However, this objective was in competition with many neuroscientists’ goals to exchange information with their peers, present their newest findings, and gain professional recognition. As a result, neuroscientists often provided masses of information relevant only to their peers, in effect drowning findings significant for educators in a flood of technical information. Relevant information for educators was generally only contained in the last slide (usually entitled “Conclusions”) so that 20- or 30-min speeches could have been reduced to 2 or 3 min to promote a genuine exchange with the education community. Neuroscientists were often not willing to sacrifice their own professional goals to promote a more fruitful exchange with the education community.13
In terms of the knowledge management framework, the issues outlined above could essentially be described as individual–structural transfer barriers: Much of the neuroscientific community was characterized by a limited capacity of perception, processing, and learning. Although these problems partially faded over time, they were never completely resolved. The issues seemed closely tied to generational influences. Many of the 30- to 60-year-olds were primarily at conferences to prove their academic capacities to their peers (not only individual–structural but also collective–structural barriers like conflicts of cooperation occurred here). Scientists younger than 30 years, who usually do not yet have a fixed research orientation and could therefore direct their work according to new opportunities, were consequently much more flexible. The same applied to those who had already reached the end of their careers and no longer needed to impress anybody. Therefore, these two age groups could allow themselves to be more open to new ideas and applications (the only transfer barrier that could persist with these groups was the individual–cultural one, in the form of a field-specific worldview). Researchers of the middle age group were already specialized in a research framework and, given the rules of the game in academia, had a stronger need to be recognized by their peers in order to advance in their careers, which narrowed their flexibility and openness to new avenues. New developments like the OECD/CERI project came either too early or too late for them (individual–cultural restraints can also be noticed here: holding on to transmitted patterns of cause and effect that restrict the individual scope for development).
Neuroscientists and educators should recognize that collaboration is mutually beneficial. There is increasing consensus that even basic research should be useful for society.14 It is therefore in the interest of neuroscientists to collaborate with educators because education will be a key sector in which applications of neuroscience are developed for practice. In conjunction, educators should be aware that collaborating with neuroscientists can support much-needed innovation and advancement in education (e.g., Program for International Student Assessment [PISA]; OECD, 2001, 2006).
Challenges with the education community
It was difficult to attract and maintain some educators’ participation in our project as well. Unlike in the neuroscientific community, educators’ patterns of engagement did not seem to be related to their progress in their career (age groups) but rather to function: researchers, policy makers, and practitioners.15 The primary concern of researchers seemed to be that neuroscience would bring something new to their field that could endanger established knowledge and positions16 (not only individual–structural barriers are active here but also collective–structural ones). Some educational researchers seemed to perceive neuroscience research as a potential threat to principles about learning established by social science research, which they had built their careers on. Furthermore, only a few education policy makers accepted invitations to our meetings, possibly because some of them were intimidated by arcane neuroscience and some of them saw a political danger related to the concerns of educational researchers. Namely, that education had thus far always used the social sciences (psychology, sociology, philosophy, etc.) as reference disciplines (OECD, 2000) and they feared that these disciplines would suddenly be neglected and replaced by neuroscience. This attitude created a collective–structural transfer barrier. Specifically, a fear (whether justified or not) that established power dynamics might be endangered by this new science entering other fields disrupted the transfer of knowledge.
This notion that neuroscience might invade the place of the other disciplines certainly reflected a misunderstanding of the project. The project team repeatedly stressed that neuroscience was intended to inform education, along with other disciplines. The goal was to develop a transdisciplinary field that would be a more powerful tool for addressing educational issues than any of the disciplines on their own. Perhaps, though, even this goal was perceived as dangerous because it could lead to new insights that contradict certain policies and practices (OECD, 2000).
Practitioners, in contrast to the other two groups, were generally delighted by the outcomes of our project (sometimes even a little too much17). This may be because teachers are the ones who are confronted with the problems of education systems on a daily basis and are therefore open to any recommendations that might help them cope with their daily struggles.
Overall, it quickly became obvious that there would be some resistance in the education community to using information about how the brain learns to inform education policy and practice. The reasons for this resistance are various—simple incomprehension, mental inertia, the categorical refusal to reconsider certain truths, corporate reflexes to defend acquired positions, or even staunch bureaucracy.18 The obstacles to creating any transdisciplinary field are bound to be numerous because of the complex scientific, political, cultural, historical, and ethical issues related to knowledge management. Even if some constructive skepticism may be healthy, every innovative project finds itself at one point or another in the position of “K,” seeking in vain to reach the Castle (Kafka, 1926).
To further complicate matters, neuroscience unintentionally generated a plethora of “neuromyths” founded on misunderstandings, false interpretations, or even (conscious or unconscious) distortions of research results. Over the past few years, a growing number of misconceptions (pseudoapproaches to how we learn) have started to circulate about the brain, including the myth of the first 3 years (“everything important about the brain is decided by age 3”), gender-related differences in the brain, and so forth. The existence of these neuromyths is sometimes used as ammunition against any use of neuroscience knowledge in education, which created further resistance to the project. Moreover, these neuromyths, which are incomplete, extrapolated beyond the evidence, or plain false, were entrenched in the minds of the public by the mass media,19 which created yet another goal for the project: debunking neuromyths (OECD, 2007).
In addition to the neuromyth issues, a whole range of other, even more fundamental, ethical questions have arisen from the project, including the potential abuse of brain imaging, consumption by healthy individuals of substances that affect the brain, the risk of creating an excessively scientific education system, and so on. Many of these questions cannot be left to science only. It is critical that a well-informed public express their views on these issues because in democratic societies ethical questions need to be addressed through political debate.20 Ensuring that this happens will not be easy, especially because the mass media in the present form are clearly not equipped to adequately, effectively, or honestly deal with such issues21 (della Chiesa, 1993; Bourdieu, 1996).