Mar 12, 2008
By: Alvaro Fernandez
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.