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Brain Connection: Eric Jensen on Learning and the Brain

Eric Jensen is a former middle school teacher and former adjunct professor for several Eric Jensen Learning and the Brainuniversities including the University of California, San Diego. He co-founded the Learning Brain Expo, a conference for educators, and has written 21 books on the brain and learning. Jensen is currently completing his PhD coursework. His most recent book, Enriching the Brain: How to Maximize Every Learner’s Potential (Jossey-Bass, 2006), is highly recommended for educators and parents alike. He wrote this recent article in Phi Delta Kappan in February 2008, sparking a healthy debate on the value of neuroscience applied to education.Eric, thank you for your time. Can you explain the role that you and your organization play?

We act as translators between the neuroscience and education fields, helping to build a Brain-Based Education movement. We launched the first conference that attempted to bridge these two worlds in 1998. The goal of the conference, called Learning Expo, was for teachers to speak to scientists, and, equally important, for scientists to speak to educators.

Critics say that neuroscience research can add little to educational practices. What we say is that, whereas it is true that much needs to be clarified, there are already clear implications from brain research that educators should be aware of. For example, four important elements that are often neglected by educators, given the obsessive focus on academic scores, are nutrition, physical exercise, stress management, and overall mental enrichment.

Since 1998? How would you characterize the progress so far?

The good news is that today many educators, more than ever, are learning about how the brain works. There is a growing number of academic programs such as Harvard’s masters program in Mind, Brain, and Education, and peer-reviewed journals such as the Mind, Brain and Education Journal.

Still, there are clear areas for improvement. Too many staff developers are weak on the science. I see too many books saying “brain” in the title that are not grounded in any brain research. Something I always recommend when shopping for books is to check the References section, making sure the book references specific studies in credible journals from 2000 on.

Now, those are mostly awareness-related initiatives. What, if any, are the implications in daily teaching and learning in schools?

You are right, this is still an emerging field. A number of private, independent, forward-thinking public schools and charter schools are implementing specific initiatives, mostly around brain-based teaching strategies, nutrition and exercise. But these are tougher for some public schools, which have limited resources and flexibility. to implement. We also see an growing number of enlightened parents learning about the principles we discuss and applying them at home.

Have you seen any impact at the policy level? specifically, what do you think about the current debate about the merits or demerits of No Child Left Behind?

I agree with the move towards accountability. Now, the question is, accountability for what? for creating narrow, specific test scores? or for helping nourish better human beings. I have seen very little policy activity in the US; some in Asian countries such as Singapore and China, that are evaluating how to refine the curriculum for 5-10 year olds. In the US, there was a major push for music enrichment programs, that was somehow misguided, in the late 90s. The problem is that, whereas it is clear that enrichment has an impact, it is tough to measure specifically what type of enrichment, since much of the benefit develops over time. The short term “stock-market” mentality that measures student growth over a few weeks or months has to be tempered by long-term measures, too.

For example, it seems clear that there are important skills that can be trained, that make for a better and more successful human being – such as the ability to defer gratification, sequencing, emotional intelligence, improved working memory, vocabulary, and processing skills. However, the type of assessments used today to measure schools’ performance don’t focus on these. We would need broader assessments to allow educators to focus on those important long-term skills, beyond the immediate pressures.

A specific area going from bad to worse is the level of stress in the system, and the lack of resources and knowledge to regulate it.

You mention processing skills, as well as other cognitive skills. In your recent column you highlight Scientific Learning’s computer program that can train auditory processing. What’s your view on the role of computer-based programs?

It is encouraging to see programs based on extensive research, such as Scientific Learning’s. I appreciate the value of such programs to tailor individualized interventions to the needs of specific kids. So I believe these programs present a huge potential.

Now, we must not confuse what is just one narrow tool with a whole enrichment program. Brain-based education also must take into account other important factors such as nutrition, physical exercise, the arts, stress management, social interactions…I summarize much of this in my recent Phi Delta Kappan article.

Tell us more about interesting research going on

The great news is that an increasing number of researchers are working with educators to find the best ways to bridge theory and practice. For example, UC Davis’ Sylvia Bunge is working with schools to measure the impact of cognitive training interventions not just on cognitive functions but also on how those benefit s transfer to daily life. Researchers such as Larry Parsons are evaluating what type of music can enhance cognitive and academic performance.

What will have a larger and more sustained impact is the effort by the NIH to fund practical research done in a systematic manner. There is an ongoing initiative funded by the National Science Foundation that gathers 30 neuroscientists, including Scientific Learning’s Paula Tallal who is part of the Temporal Dynamics of Learning Center. This NSF program is designed to advance an integrated understanding of the role of time and timing in learning. The initiative has two corporate partners, Scientific Learning and Jensen Learning (our company).

In our conferences and workshops, we strive to make this emerging research meaningful for educators who want to improve their teaching. For example, educators are among the professions that should really know how to cope with chronic stress, given the growing research on how chronic stress affects neurogenesis and cognitive performance overall.

This is a stimulating and evolving field. What are some good online resources for educators who want to be informed about the latest developments and how these may influence their thinking and practices?

ScienceDaily.com provides a continuous stream of fascinating news. Now, given that the amount of findings and news can be overwhelming, educators need to find translators they can trust, who analyze them and make them relevant. That’s what my organization’s conference tries to do twice a year. We aim to summarize the most important developments. It is also what Bob Sylwester has been doing in his Brain Connection monthly column or our own conferences also do. And what your SharpBrains team does as well – from a broader brain health perspective.

Eric, many thanks for your times and insights.

Thank you.

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Note: You may enjoy more of the interviews in our Neuroscience Interview Series (included this one with Robert Sylwester, referenced above), or some of these recommended Books.

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7 Responses

  1. Marion Dyer says:

    Good afternoon
    Do you have any research or know off any studies supporting right /left brain connectivity and early learning success or readiness for reading writing and arithmetic?
    I would appreciate any help you can offer
    Marion

  2. Alvaro says:

    Hello Marion,

    In general, the supposed left/ brain dichotomy is one of those myths that neuroscientists are trying hard to dispel…so we can’t refer to any specific research about that point.

    You can find good sources of info regarding learning, reading, arithmetics…in some of the sites listed in our Directory of websites (under Resources)

  3. Kenneth Heinrich says:

    I really like this interview, and I also read his article in the Phi Delta Kappan. I am sending this to my psychologist sister, and her education-reform husband! It is interesting that Jensen talks all about avoiding absolutes, as though all that can be learned has been learned, and yet he cites the “global warming” controversy as though everything had been settled, when any honest search into the topic reveals that there are excellent scientists on both sides of the argument! He demonstrated that not one of us is perfect, and although I will eagerly read and follow his work, he has a chink in his armor as do we all.

    Ken

  4. Alvaro says:

    Hello Ken, glad you enjoyed it.

    1) Neither Eric, you nor I would agree with “all that can be learned has been learned”…the whole premise of our field (and science in general) is that there is much to learn…and our brains benefit from learning.

    2) Global warming: I wouldn’t frame the debate as consisting of “both sides”. There is a clear emerging hypothesis, which of course can be refined, and whose public policy implications are subject to cost-benefit analysis, but the scientific discussion is not about “sides”, that sounds more of a political debate.

  5. Kenneth Heinrich says:

    Sorry, I was guilty of poor syntax! The intended use of the “all that can be learned…” phrase was directed at those who say that knowledge in a field is absolute, static, and that no more discussion is warrented, or would be tolerated. Obviously, Jensen is not saying that knowledge is fixed and complete, and that we need to keep looking and evaluating new ideas with an open mind. That is the way I feel about the global warming hypothesis, that very erudite climatologists are not in agreement, nor have they come anywhere near forming a true consensus, therefore we all need to be looking at all the evidence on the issue.

    Ken

  6. DENISE PRUITT says:

    What is you definition of Intelligence? I’m reading –Teaching with the Brain in Mind, and I can’t find it, although I swore I read it.

  7. Susan says:

    Have you done any studies related to training the brain of stroke survivors?

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