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The Learning Conference 2003

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Presentation Details


Neuroimaging as an Educational Research Methodology: A Pilot Study Using fMRI to Investigate Instructional Strategies Aimed at Enhancing Creativity

Paul A. Howard-Jones.

Advances in neuroscience have offered unique insights that may inspire theories of teaching and learning. Understandably, however, such research has been focused upon extending our fundamental knowledge about brain function rather than directly answering the questions of workers in applied fields such as education. This paper reports upon an attempt by educational researchers to work with experts in fMRI neuroimaging on a study aimed at answering a simple educational question: Can we teach creativity? It explores some of the methodological issues that arose, including ecological validity. It describes how a simulation was developed that provided would-be participants in the study with an experience resembling fMRI imaging, and how this simulated environment influenced performance relative to classroom conditions.

It then describes how this preliminary simulation was used as a basis for selecting and acclimatizing participants for a subsequent neuroimaging study. In this study, student volunteers were required to create stories from sets of words and an independent panel assessed the creative value of their work. Differences in the neural activities of more and less creative students were investigated. Some sets of words were semantically related while others were semantically unrelated and would thus encourage the students to produce more creative associations. Such a strategy is typical of that used by teachers to enhance the creativity of their students, but does it encourage mental processes similar to those of more creative individuals - or does it operate quite superficially by obviating the need for such additional mental activity? In an attempt to answer this question, the neural activity of less-creative students who were helped by this strategy was compared with the neural activity of more creative students working without such a strategy.

Through reflection upon this pilot project, the insights and opportunities that neuroimaging may provide educational researchers are discussed, together with some of the difficulties encountered.


Paul A. Howard-Jones  (United Kingdom)
Director of Research
Cardiff School of Education
University of Wales Institute Cardiff

Paul Howard-Jones is Director of Research at the Cardiff School of Education. His research interests include children's scientific inquiries, e learning, creativity and the application of neuroscience in education.

  • Brain Science
  • Neuroimaging
  • Creativity
  • Research Methodology

(30 min Conference Paper, English)