The rise of behavioural and life sciences in education

Precise and personalised education holds a powerful promise for education to become as calculable, predictable, efficient, and effective as possible. This promise is often twinned with the knowledge and research by behavioural and life sciences, such as psychology, psychiatry, genetics, biology, and neurology. According to this “new science of learning”, the main premise for education is, that in order to ensure effective education, the process of an individual’s learning needs to be carefully monitored and controlled. In the FuturEd project, we have been describing this as a shift from education and teaching to learning. We consider this ‘new science of learning’ as a condensed and politicised form of neuroscience, genetics, psy-knowlegde and new behaviourism

The introduction of behavioural and life sciences as a valid evidence-based form of education comes with assumptions, that need to be critically examined. First, education is thought to be learning individual skills or pieces of information, that can then be repeated and thoroughly tested. The second assumption is, that education’s effectiveness can be measured through systematic and rigorous testing. The third assumption relates to the monitoring of the learning process, where biometrical data is seen as a way to recognise whether or not learning is happening for individual students. Fourth, education is reduced to learning as a cognitive process that is happening in an individual’s brain, and teaching is reduced to brain stimulation techniques.

Also, the role of social and emotional learning as part of education is increasing, as can be seen in the efforts of the OECD to build global comparison studies to measure and compare the social and emotional skills of students as a part of educational outcomes. The measurable efficiency of education does not only concentrate on the learning process itself, but also on different emotional, behavioural and psychological factors. We see the connection of this emphasis on social and emotional skills to the accumulation of human capital, and promises for future economic growth through education.

In the FuturEd project, we ask:

  • What new knowledge do behavioural and life sciences introduce to the field of education?
  • What are the ideologies and assumptions behind this new knowledge?
  • What are the possible consequences for education from a wider, societal perspective?
  • What stakeholders are promoting the “new science of learning”, and how these stakeholders are connected to wider global and local public and private institutions

Selected publications

Brunila, K. (ed.), Harni, E. (ed.), Saari, A. (ed.) & Ylöstalo, H. (ed.) (2021) Terapeuttinen valta: Onnellisuuden ja hyvinvoinnin jännitteitä 2000-luvun Suomessa. , Tampere: Vastapaino. 367 p.

Brunila, K., Vainio, S. E. & Toiviainen, S. ( 2021)The Positivity Imperative in Youth Education as a Form of Cruel Optimism. In Journal of applied youth studies.

Toiviainen, Sanna & Brunila, Kristiina (2021). Emerging Multi-Professional Assemblages of Precision Youth Guidance and Support for Future Oriented Citizens. Nordic Journal of Transitions, Careers and Guidance.

Brunila, K. & Ylöstalo, H. (2020). The Nordic Therapeutic Welfare State and its Resilient Citizens. Nehring, D., Madsen, O.J., Cabanas, E., Mills, C. & Kerrigan, D. (eds.). International Handbook of Global and Therapeutic Cultures. Routledge.

Saari, A. (2019). Out of the box: behaviourism and the mangle of practice. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 40(1), 109–121.