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Procedia Social and Behavioral Sciences 15 (2011) 32913298

WCES-2011

The effects of neuroscience- and non-neuroscience-based thinking


strategies on primary school students thinking
Ali Salim Rashid Alghafria, Hairul Nizam Bin Ismailb
a

PhD. Candidate (Educational Psychology in Universiti Sains Malaysia at Malaysia),Alburaimi, P.O. Box 350/512, Sultanate of Oman,
almorappi@yahoo.com
b
Deputy Dean, School of Educational Studies,Universiti Sains Malaysia, 11800, Pulau Penang, Malaysia, hairul@usm.my

Abstract
This study investigates the difference between the effects of neuroscience-based thinking (NBT) and non-neuroscience-based
thinking (NNBT) strategies on the thinking skills of 62 standard five students at two primary schools in Malaysia. A quasiexperimental design method was employed through NBT and NNBT groups. The findings revealed significant differences in the
total posttest scores of creative thinking, flexibility, originality, and thinking performance scores of science task in favor of the
NBT group, except in fluency, showed no significant advantage. Thus, the study implies that educators should use neurosciencebased thinking strategies to enhance creativity and learning levels among primary school students.
2011 Published by Elsevier Ltd. Open access under CC BY-NC-ND license.
Keywords: Neuroscience; Brain; Neurolinguistic; Creative thinking; Critical thinking; Science
Abbreviations: Neuroscience-Based Thinking strategy (NBT), Non-neuroscience-based thinking strategy (NNBT), Test of Creative Thinking
(TCT), Science Task of Thinking (STT)

1. Introduction
Studying the brain processes of learning and thinking is a contemporary approach in the fields of education and
psychology (Goswami, 2008; Jensen, 2005). Cognitive neuroscience assists educators and psychologists in
understanding learning, thinking, and behavior mechanisms by investigating the functions of brain structures and the
organization of nervous systems (Blakemore & Frith, 2005). These are normally done through several neuroimaging scan techniques (Jong et al., 2009; Wolfe, 2001). However, according to many researchers, only a few
studies have attempted to bridge the gap between the outcome of the suggestive scientific findings or theories and
classroom applications (Blakemore & Frith, 2005; Goswami, 2008; Jensen, 2005; Jong et al., 2009; Katzir & ParBlagoev, 2006; Purves, et. al., 2004; Zull, 2002). This study attempts to fill the gap between neuroscience and
education by using a thinking strategy based on the principles of neuroscience and examines its effectiveness when
implemented in the classroom. In other words, it tries to answer the following question: What are the effects of
neuroscience-based-thinking (NBT) and non-neuroscience-based thinking (NNBT) strategies on creative thinking
and the performance of thinking in science tasks among the participating primary schools students?
2. Neuroscience and the brain
The results of many neuro-imaging scan studies have consistently uncovered the fact that the human brain
includes neurons that are responsible for sending and receiving information through specific transmission processes
18770428 2011 Published by Elsevier Ltd. Open access under CC BY-NC-ND license.
doi:10.1016/j.sbspro.2011.04.288

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when they are connected through the synaptic mechanism (Carey, 1990; Purves, et al., 2004). In order to receive
incoming information, the dendritic fibers increase the surface area of neurons to increase the capacity of
information in several brain lobes (Fiala, & Harris, 1999), and this may encode learning and thinking through certain
activities (Dolcos & Cabeza, 2002; Leff et al., 2002). The frontal lobe is responsible to executive the functions
related to cognitive ability and behavior, such as thinking (Andreason, 2005). In particular, the neocortex of the
frontal lobe performs the higher mental functions that enable humans to use higher cognitive skills and abilities
(Dietrich, 2004) by making strong connectivity among specific cortex regions to produce thinking processes (Stuss
& Knight, 2002). Specifically, the long-term potentiation (LTP) causes synaptic connections within the
hippocampus (O'Keefe & Nadel, 1978).
3. Applying neuroscience in education
The functions of brain structures are of interest to neuroscientists and psychologists as they suggest some
principles of learning and behaviors from a neuroscience perspective to develop and support the improvement of
students learning, thinking, and behavior (Caine, Caine, McClintic & Klimek, 2005; Goswami, 2008). One
theoretical example that used the biological perspective is Piagets learning theory. It is a constructivism theory but
is not based on the functions of brain structures (Lawson, 2003). According to Lawson (2003) studied childrens
mentality through Piagets four stages of cognitive development. He stated that children between ages of seven and
twelve can use logical thinking better and acquire new information by constructing and redefining knowledge to
make experiences (Feldman, 2007; Lawson, 2000). However, Hebb was able to merge neuroscience and psychology
in order to understand learning and thinking; he proposed the Hebbian synapse hypothesis to explain the mechanism
of interaction between neurons based on stimulation to produce thought synthesis (Brown & Milner, 2002).
Moreover, the branch of neuroscience that investigates brain mechanisms supports neuro-linguistics (Arbib,
2003). One neuro-linguistic application is neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), which is directly related to
education (Norman, 2000). It is a model of human behaviors and thinking processes that are related to the brain and
the nervous system, which help one work effectively with others (Bandler & Grinder, 1979). It is noteworthy that
neuroscience (Brown & Milner, 2002; Goswami, 2008; Hebb, 1945) and neurolinguistics (Bandler & Grinder, 1979;
Gow, Reupert, & Maybert, 2006; Robbins, 1986; Tosey & Mathison, 2003) highlighted brain processes and
behaviors, such as thinking and learning.
4. Interpenetration of neuroscience and thinking
Several scholars have spent a lifetime and invested great efforts studying the essence of thinking and learning, as
well as the relationship between the two, to provide learners with opportunities to use their mind and apply their
knowledge to everyday life (Guilford 1950; Hebb, 1945; Piaget, 1963; Torrance, 1963). The foremost example of
these efforts is their attempt to explore both creative and critical thinking. Creative is understood as producing
new and unique things (Torrance, 1963), while Critical implies the use of logical thinking (Dixon, Prater, & Vine,
2004). The two have an intimate relationship and reciprocate with each other (Paul, 1993). According to Paul
(1993), creative and critical thinking processes are closely related to imagining skills. Thus, Lawson (2001)
suggested a model of creative and critical thinking because these thinking types are correlated. Other instances of
scholarly efforts include various studies emphasizing that creativity is related to thought and feeling and might also
increase the interactions between them (Aldous, 2007). Thus, Dietrichs (2004) framework suggested that creative
insights can appear in a spontaneous and deliberate fashion, because both thought and feeling interact with cognition
and emotion.

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5. Integrating the principles of neuroscience in the curriculum


Many neuroscientists and psychologists appeal for the implementation of neuroscience principles in the education
and psychology domains by integrating neuroscience with the psychological theories of education in an attempt to
bridge the gap between them (Howard-Jones, 2005; Jong et al., 2009; Zull, 2002). They call for the integration of
the principles of neuroscience in the curriculum and their application in the classroom as well as in the education
processes because, according to Hale and Fiorello (2004), integrating such principles in the curriculum helps
educators understand the biological needs of students. However, the neuroscientists and psychologists called upon
educators to avoid a strict adherence to the scholasticism of traditional education. In other words, not understanding
the process of how the brain works would be an obstacle in the teaching and learning process (Ward, 2007).
Likewise, many studies maintained that integrating neuroscience-based thinking skills in the curriculum by using
appropriate strategies, approaches, methods, techniques, or activities would help students to enhance their higherorder thinking skills (Beyer & Backes, 1990; Kozlovsky, 1990; Lopez, & Sanchez, 1992; Shaw, 1986; Weinstein,
1988; Westwood, 1993). This is especially true of science subjects, which constitute an essential part of the school
curriculum (Cassel, 1999). Thus, several neuroscience studies found that children combine scientific activities with
daily life when their thinking is driven by the science curriculum (Ward, 2007).
6. Employing neuroscience principles in NBT
This study seeks a neuroscience orientation in education by investigating the effects of integrating neuroscience
principles into the science curriculum of Malaysias primary schools. Although the Malaysian Ministry of Education
desires that students should receive quality learning and master higher-order thinking skills, there are no ongoing
proposals for the implementation of neuroscience in the school curriculum.
6.1. Integrating principles of neuroscience through NBT
According to Arbib (2003), neuro=scientific brain studies improve neuro-linguistics. In addition, neuroscience
and neuro-linguistics consider language and the processes of the brain (Lakoff & Johnson, 1999). Hence, both
cognitive neuroscience and neurolinguistics are integrated into an NBT strategy. The present study attempts to
combine them using partially and/or wholly relevant major principles that can be incorporated in the NTB strategy.
The major principles of NBT strategy is deduced from the principles of cognitive neuroscience and neurolinguistics, which interact in the relevant areas. The major principles are as follows:
1- Learning results from a complex process of the brain and multisensory systems. This cognitive
neuroscience principle of the NBT strategy underlines the processes and sensory systems of the brain.
2- Learning is produced by the brain mechanisms and its memory through a special system. This
cognitive neuroscience principle emphasizes the mechanisms and the memory of the brain.
3- Learning is possible for anyone within the unique features of each brain. The brain is innate and
inherent, and unique to each individual; its capacities are available to everyone.
4- Learning is a patterning process of the positive intentions of the brain map, produced by emotional
information and thoughts of the brain. This principle underlines the area of emotions and thoughts
concerned with patterning, brain maps, and positive intentions.
5- Current learning is the best choice available, where the brain interacts with communications, the
environment, and the surroundings. This principle considers the social environment, the physical
surroundings, the best choices available, and communications.

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6- Learning is developmental and results from the brain processes through conscious and unconscious
experiences. This final principle emphasizes experiences, consciousness, and the interaction between the
brain and the body.
6.2. Implementing neuroscience principles in the NBT strategy
This study proposes a framework of the NBT strategy showing the creative and critical thinking skills that are
controlled by cognitive skills. The NBT strategy attempts to integrate the creative and critical thinking skills
together as interactive elements. Each of them is controlled and influenced by two types of neuroscience principles
(cognitive and linguistic) merged together. These skills do not function separately but interact with one another in
four main stages: brain excitement, conceiving an idea, using thinking skills, and developing the idea in a dynamic,
alternative, and reciprocal mode. This kind of interpenetration and interaction between the NBT elements to make
thinking more teachable and learnable as well as to engage the individuals thinking during the activity in order to
maximize the persons thinking performance. However, the NNBT strategy includes only those thinking skills that
improve one's thinking achievement. Therefore, the students performances depend on the teacher and a syllabus
based on NBT and NNBT strategy components. Hence, the current study attempts to measure the effectiveness of
the NBT strategy of the science curriculum in Malaysia in year 5 (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Components of NBT and NNBT strategies

7. Methodology
Gay and Airasian (2003) stated that experimental study involves steps such as choosing the groups, applying the
treatment to each group, and measuring the influence of the treatment at the end of study. Data were collected from
62 standard five students enrolled in school during the period May through July 2010. A total of 30 students were
placed in the NBT group and the remaining 32 students in the NNBT group. They were selected randomly from two
primary schools.
In the study, the researcher prepared the test of creative thinking (TCT) and the science task of thinking (STT).
These were administered to determine the thinking skills of students before and after the intervention. In order to
acquire the reliability between study instruments, Cronbach alpha and Pearson correlation were used at the.05
level. The Cronbach alpha value of all tests and tasks were significant. The TCT coefficient was 0.79, the STT (form
A) 0.81, and the STT (form B) 0.86. The reliability between forms A and B of the thinking tasks was significant
according to Pearsons correlation test. The reliability of the two instruments used in the present study was checked
through a test-retest method for one month. All the correlations were significant.

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8. Results
In order to determine if the NBT and NNBT groups creative thinking and thinking of science task before and
after the treatment were significantly different, we used descriptive statistics such as means, standard deviations, the
two-way analysis of covariance (ANCOVA), the two-way multivariate analysis of covariance (MANCOVA) test,
and the least significant difference (LSD) statistical method at the .05 alpha level.
8.1. The creative thinking results
The average mean of the posttest creative thinking scores for students in the NBT strategy group (N= 30, M=
13.56, SD= 4.43) is higher than that of the NNBT group (N= 32, M= 11.34, SD= 3.92). The result of ANCOVA
revealed a significant difference between the groups total posttest creative thinking scores (F = 4.057; .05 =
0.049), but Levenes test does not show a significant difference (F = .438; .05 = .511).This result proves that the
assumption of homogeneity of variances has not been violated. The results of all the tests are reported in Table 1.
Table 1. ANCOVA results for the difference between students performances in creative thinking tests
Levene's Test of
Creative Posttest

F= 0.438
df1= 1
df2= 60

Source

Type III Sum of


Squares of
Squares

df

Corrected Model

78.185a

Intercept

1121.271

Group

71.732

Sig.

Partial
Eta
Squared

39.092

2.211

0.119

0.351

1121.270

63.421

0.000

0.432

71.732

4.057

0.049

0.233

0.132

0.718

0.055

Mean
Square

Pre Creative

2.328

2.328

Error

1043.110

59

17.680

Total

10677.102

62

Corrected Total

1121.294

61

Sig.= 0.511

a R Squared = .070 (Adjusted R Squared = .038)

Since the total scores of the two groups in the creative thinking tests were significantly different, the LSD post
hoc test was used to determine the actual pairs. The finding indicated a significant difference (.05 = 0.049)
between the NBT and NNBT groups in favor of the NBT group (mean difference = 2.167, std. error = 1.076).
Therefore, the NBT students were classified as the higher-performance group in the post TCT.
On the other hand, the present study used the means of the posttest scores of three dependent variables (fluency,
flexibility, and originality) in the MANCOVA test to compare the two groups (NBT and NNBT) (see Table 2).
Table 2. Mean and standard deviation of creative thinking skills of the post test in each group
Test
Type

Variables

Posttest

Fluency
Flexibility
Originality

Group

Mean

Standard
Deviation

NBT

5.1143

1.6863

30

TS

6.3884

2.4512

32

NBT

2.8381

0.4916

30
32

TS

2.3661

0.7063

NBT

5.6048

2.6838

30

TS

2.6295

1.6328

32

The result showed that Levenes test of equality of error variances was significant for all creative thinking skills
(fluency: F= 5.521, .05 = 0.022; flexibility: F= 4.068, .05 = 0.048; originality: F= 7.887, .05= 0.007). This
result shows that the skill levels among students are not equal. Boxs test is also significant (Boxs M = 29.588, F =
4.663, > .05 = 0.000). This finding is finally determined by the tests of between-subject effects (fluency: F= 3.086,

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>.05 = 0.084; flexibility: F= 7.048, .05 = 0.010; originality: F= 25.590, .05= 0.000) and the results of overall
MANCOVA shown in Tables 2 and 3, respectively.
Table 3. Multivariate tests of differences between creative thinking skills
Effect

Value of Wilks
Lambda

Hypothesis df

Error df

Sig.

Eta
Squared

Intercept

0.522a

16.801

3.000

55.000

0.000

0.478

Group

0.472a

20.517

3.000

55.000

0.000

0.528

Pre Fluency

0.876a

2.591

3.000

55.000

0.062

0.124

Pre Flexibility

0.826a

3.871

3.000

55.000

0.014

0.174

Pre Originality

0.986a

0.259

3.000

55.000

0.855

0.014

Exact statistic

The result of Wilks Lambda of the (MANCOVA) test indicated significant differences (.05 = 0.000)
between the two groups in post-TCT skills ( = 0.472, F = 20.517, = 0.000). This result proves that the scores of
the study groups were different (see Table 8.3). Multivariate = .460 indicates the effect size, meaning that most of
the 46% variation in pre-test creative thinking skills is attributed to the differences between the students groups. To
determine the direction of the significant differences between the groups, the LSD test was used.
The LSD test indicated no significant difference ( >.05 = 0.084) in fluency skills between the NBT (M = 5.11,
SD = 1.69) and NNBT (M = 6.39, SD = 2.45) groups but showed a significant difference (.05= 0.003) in
flexibility between the NBT (M= 2.84, SD= 0.49) and NNBT (M= 2.37, SD= 0.71) groups with gains for the former
(NBT group), as well as in originality (.05= 0.000; NBT: M = 13.56, SD = 4.43; NNBT: M= 8.31, SD= 3.41),
also benefiting the NBT group. Thus, the NBT group showed higher performance in posttest flexibility and
originality but no difference in fluency.
8.2. Thinking results of science tasks
The average mean scores of the NBT strategy group in post-task thinking in science (N= 30, M = 1.73, SD =
0.27) were higher than those of the NNBT strategy group (N = 32, M = 1.44, SD = 0.31). The results of ANCOVA
showed a significant difference between the groups in posttest general thinking in science tasks (F= 16.612, .05=
0.000), and Levenes test (F= 0.142; >.05= 0.707) showed that the scores of the studied groups were different (see
Table 4).
Table 4. ANCOVA test for difference between study groups in thinking performance in science tasks
Levene's Test of
Thinking
Posttest

F= 0.142
df1= 1
df2= 60
Sig.= 0.707

Source

Type III Sum of


Squares of
Squares

df

Mean
Square

Sig.

Partial
Eta
Squared

Corrected Model

2.123 a

1.062

14.316

0.000

0.327

Intercept

0.364

0.364

4.906

0.031

0.077

Group

1.232

1.232

16.612

0.000

0.220

10.836

0.002

0.155

Pre Thinking

0.804

0.804

Error

4.375

59

0.074

Total

161.797

62

Corrected Total

6.498

61

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Since there was a significant difference between the groups, the LSD test was used. The finding indicated that
there was a significant difference (.05= 0.000) between the NBT and NNBT groups in favor of the NBT group
(mean difference = 0.282, std. error = 0.069). Thus, the students of the NBT group were better in the post STT. In
other words, most of the NBT students showed higher responses to creative pictures in science tasks, while the
NNBT students chose critical pictures.
9. Discussion
The results show that the main objective of the study - to improve students learning by enhancing their creative
thinking and performances of science task (thinking) - is met. The results revealed that there was a significant
difference between the NBT and NNBT groups with an advantage for the NBT strategy except in fluency. One
interpretation of the fluency result is that ordinary thinking is not a very complicated ability and all teachers in both
groups encouraged the students to offer more ideas. It is well known that in the thinking process the brain
automatically triggers its action through a special mechanism. Consequently, the NBT strategy stimulates the brain
to increase the students creativity. This is consistent with the neuroscience principle that learning is produced by the
brain mechanisms and its memory through a special system. The activities that were done for the NBT strategy
students may have increased the synaptic activity of the students brain by repeating the previous processes of
synaptic cells and by persistently stimulating the subsequent synaptic cell (Hebb, 1945) because long-term
potentiating (LTP) might produce thinking (O'Keefe & Nadel, 1978). Another possible explanation is that this is
consistent with another neuroscience principle that current learning is the best choice available, where the brain
interacts with communication, the environment, and the surroundings. Thus, the different learning environments of
the NBT and NNBT strategies might have allowed NBT students to be more focused on new idea as compared to
NNBT students. As a result, there were also some differences in terms of instructions, the syllabus, and thinking
strategies. Therefore, the learning environment could have affected the students thinking style and science thinking.
Hence, students in the NBT group may have been prompted to concentrate more on pictures that stimulate new ideas
related to science subjects. This theory is actually consistent with Wards (2007) study, which found that the
participating children had combined their scientific knowledge with what they experienced in their thought
processes.
10. Conclusion
This study has contributed to the body of knowledge in neuroscience and educational psychology as part of the
efforts to bridge the two fields. It managed to support the thinking and learning of primary students by drawing upon
the principles of neuroscience in a proposed strategy that focuses on thinking skills. It was made to suit all levels of
students. In short, the study was able to (i) identify accurate information on the students thinking levels, (ii) suggest
an effective design of the syllabus for standard 5 science subjects to be used in primary schools, and (iii) provide
information regarding the advantage of NBT in enhancing students learning and thinking skills.
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