Neuromarketing and Education

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by: Roger Dooley

Kathy Sierra wrote an interesting post, Marketing should be education, education should be marketing, that suggests what educators really need is more fMRI data.

That summary is a bit simplistic, actually – Sierra makes the point that marketers, using neuromarketing tools like fMRI scans, have a better idea of how to persaude an audience to pay attention and to get their point across. Her ideas of how marketers could help teachers include

Marketers know what turns the brain on (currently, not last week). Teachers need that more than ever today.

Marketers have access to fMRIs. Teachers rarely do.

Marketers are dangerously close to finding the Buy Button in the Brain. Think what teachers could do with that research… after all, that Buy Button could be modified into a Learn Button with very little effort.

Marketers know how to motivate someone almost instantly. Teachers could sure use that.

Marketers know how to manipulate someone’s thoughts and feelings about a topic. Teachers could use that to ‘manipulate’ a learner into thinking, say, “math IS cool.”

Marketers know how to get–and keep–attention. I know some teachers who’d give a kidney for that research.

Marketers spend piles of money on improving retention and recall. Teachers–and students need all the help they can get.

I’m a bit more pessimistic about the prospects for serious brain manipulation via neuromarketing – I think the insights marketers will get from brain scans and other data will be helpful in choosing ads, but pushing a magical buy button isn’t going to happen. (Or does that make me optimistic? ) Similarly, I’d conclude that the answers won’t be that easy for educators, either. Still, Sierra makes good points – better use of marketing principles WOULD be very beneficial to teachers.

One thing that’s certainly true is that the sophistication of messages bombarding students has increased over the last century. Slick commercials, powerful branding messages, MTV, instantaneous communication and messaging… it’s a different world today. And, if our instructional methods haven’t changed much, they may become increasingly ineffective in the competition for attention of twenty-first century students.

Sierra also makes some good points about how educators could inform marketers – demonstrating honesty in their message, helping “customers” through rough spots, etc.

I do think it would be interesting to do some fMRI comparisons of different teachers using different teaching techniques. Such a study would provide some guidance in developing best practices, although as with marketing it’s likely that individual students will vary greatly and that no single perfect approach will be identified.

One key barrier that will hinder educators from adopting more marketing techniques is that some teachers, at least, believe their job is to present the material and that it’s the student’s job to show up motivated and ready to learn. A marketer starts with the assumption that their potential customers probably have no inherent interest in the product being sold, and that the marketer must create that interest and tie the product to aspects of the customer’s life in some positive and meaningful way. Today, though, it’s my impression that more educators (at least in the U.S.) are thinking that way too, and understand that part of their task is to make their material engaging and relevant. And, at least for those enlightened educators, perhaps a brain scan or two might be helpful.

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