Neuro-Focused Discourses


Applying insights into the structure and dynamics of the nervous system

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … dynamic networks
  • Knowing is … situation-appropriate responses
  • Learner is … a nervous system
  • Learning is … iterative restructuring
  • Teaching is … triggering




The 1990s saw an explosion of publications out of Neuroscience and Cognitive Science that were aimed at popular audiences. Almost overnight, it seemed, thinking about the brains in terms of containers or computers gave way to notions of vibrant complex systems that arise in, are coupled to, and are elements of many and varied other complex forms. By 2000, many educators and educational researchers were signaling how this shift in thinking undermined prevailing sensibilities on learning, intelligence, identity – sensibilities that infused or oriented much of schooling practice. Since then, researchers have been seeking to understand educational implications of the brain’s networked structure, its lifelong plasticity, and many other emergent insights … all with, disappointingly, little obvious impact on entrenched schooling practices. Associated discourses and frequently encountered topics of discussion include:
  • Genetics of Intelligence – an academic domain focused on better understanding the roles of genetics in intelligence – and, in particular, the manners in which genetics influence neural structures
  • Mirror Neurons – a neuron cluster that fires when one acts, when one observes another performing that act, or when one imagines engaging in that act. There was a spike of interest in the phenomenon among educators in the early 2000s, embraced simultaneously as support for and critique of action- and experience-based teaching emphases.
  • Neural Constructivism – the perspective that cognitive development involves the dynamic interaction of the neural substrate of one’s brain and one’s environment
  • Neural Decoding – the attempt to retroactively interpret traces of electrical activity in the brain in terms of the receipt and interpretation of sensory information as well as the triggering of decisions and activities based that information
  • Neurobiology – a field of research that combines interests in Neuroscience and physiology. In this sense, Neurobiology might be described as the complement of Psychology among discourses on learning. Whereas Psychology looks at the functions of the brain and the nervous system, Neurobiology studies their structures and dynamics.


The matter of how the brain works is not the same as the matter of structuring the learning experiences of the school-aged learners. Part of the reason for that is the obvious fact that knowing about a subsystem in a complex evolving form rarely affords much insight into that grander form. Another, much more subtle part of the reason is that “knowing how the brain works” and “knowing what learning is” are not at all the same thing. Unfortunately, while much of the recent brain-focused advice for educators is well-grounded, many popular movements have arisen that try to reach too far. Neuro-Focused Discourses have contributed greatly by revealing flawed assumptions and indefensible practices. It is also demonstrating much promise in informing a range of education-related issues. But it must be engaged in conversation with – not in ignorance of – insights into learning from Psychology, Sociology, cultural studies, ecology, and other domains. On that detail, associated critical discourses include:
  • Neurocentrism (Sally Satel, Scott Lilienfeld; 2010s) – the reductive assumption that humans can be understood by looking principally (or exclusively) at their brains


  • Genetics of Intelligence
  • Mirror Neurons
  • Neural Constructivism
  • Neurocentrism
  • Neural Decoding
  • Neurobiology

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Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2022). “Neuro-Focused Discourses” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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