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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? 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.


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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