Cognitive Neuroscience and Education Today

Both The Quick and the Ed and Intel­li­gence Test­ing  blogs men­tion the Amer­i­can Edu­ca­tor arti­cle Brain-based” Learn­ing: More Fic­tion than Fact, by cog­ni­tive psy­chol­o­gist Daniel T. Willingham.

The arti­cle does a very good job at debunk­ing some myths, and show­ing a skep­tic face to the edu­ca­tion­al val­ue of ultra-sophis­ti­cat­ed fMRI scans. I ful­ly agree with his attempt to debunk those myths, and with his prag­mat­ic approach in terms of fMRIs. I would add that what in most class­rooms today is called “brain-based learn­ing” is qua­si-com­mon-sense in a pret­ty dress, with no base on sol­id research and clin­i­cal evi­dence.

The 3 spe­cif­ic myths he cov­ers are:
1. Some peo­ple are left-brained, some are right-brained, and schools are designed for left-brain stu­dents;
2. Schools are designed to fit girls’ brains;
3. Clas­si­cal music is a proven inter­ven­tion to make young brains smarter

Now, I think the author premis­es don’t war­rant his dras­tic and pes­simistic con­clu­sion that “the pay­off (of neu­ro­science research) is like­ly to come only in the dis­tant future, not in the next five or 10 years”.

Let’s review some neu­ro­science-find­ings that are being use­ful TODAY. Cer­tain­ly they are not main­stream prac­tices yet, but are help­ing thou­sands of kids. Which reminds me of the quote “The future is already here ‑it’s just uneven­ly distributed”.

Let me break them down in 2 categories:

a) Neu­ro­science-informed Instruc­tion: books such as The Art of Chang­ing the Brain: Enrich­ing the Prac­tice of Teach­ing by Explor­ing the Biol­o­gy of Learn­ing, by neu­ro­bi­ol­o­gist and edu­ca­tor Dr. James Zull, pro­vide a great overview for edu­ca­tors who want to bet­ter under­stand how peo­ple learn. And, there­fore, how we can bet­ter teach. The core con­cept is that there is an effec­tive Learn­ing Cycle, or Learn­ing How to Learn mus­cle, that we must prac­tice, with 4 stages: 1) get infor­ma­tion, 2) make mean­ing of that infor­ma­tion, 3) cre­ate new ideas from these mean­ings and 4) act on those ideas. And then back to 1). From this he pro­pos­es that there are four pil­lars of learn­ing: gath­er­ing, ana­lyz­ing, cre­at­ing, and act­ing. You can read our inter­view with Dr. Zull on Learn­ing, from which we extract the following:

AF (me): “Do you think this (Learn­ing Cycle, Learn­ing to Learn) is hap­pen­ing today in our schools?”

JZ (James Zull): “I don’t think so. First, of all, too many peo­ple still believe that Edu­ca­tion means the process by which stu­dents pas­sive­ly absorb infor­ma­tion. Even if many edu­ca­tors would like to ensure a more par­tic­i­pa­to­ry and active approach, we still use the struc­tures and pri­or­i­ties of anoth­er era. For exam­ple, we still pay too much atten­tion to cat­e­go­riz­ing some kids as intel­li­gent, some as not so, instead of focus­ing on how they could all learn more.”…

AF: “can you give us an exam­ple (of Prof. Zul­l’s empha­sis on the need to help the learn­er make con­nec­tions based on what they already know)”

JZ: “Well, an exam­ple I use in my books is that mid­dle school stu­dents often have a hard time learn­ing about Mar­tin Luther and the Ref­or­ma­tion because they con­fuse him with Mar­tin Luther King Jr. We can choose to become frus­trat­ed about that. Or we can exploit this say­ing some­thing like, “Yes! Mar­tin Luther King was a lot like Mar­tin Luther. In fact, why do you think Mar­tin Luther King’s par­ents named him that? Why didn’t they name him Sam King?”

In short, we should pay more atten­tion to Learn­ing to Learn. Based on neu­ro­bi­ol­o­gy. Yet, we don’t.

b) Clin­i­cal­ly-val­i­dat­ed Com­put­er-based Cog­ni­tive Train­ing Pro­grams: we must find a sex­i­er name (we are try­ing Brain Fit­ness Pro­grams), but the fact is that a num­ber of these pro­grams are help­ing thou­sands of kids, today. Yes, maybe these pro­grams require a change in how teach­ers per­ceive them­selves, and the val­ue they bring to edu­ca­tion (maybe they will become the per­son­al brain train­ers of the future?), but we should not neglect them sim­ply because they are dif­fer­ent to the way we typ­i­cal­ly think about edu­ca­tion and schools.

Tar­get­ed com­put­er-based exer­cis­es can be extreme­ly help­ful, right now, for peo­ple who have spe­cif­ic “learn­ing readi­ness bot­tle­necks”, or cog­ni­tive deficits, and are being refined for all stu­dents. If a kid does­n’t pos­sess enough work­ing mem­o­ry, it is sim­ply fruit­less for a teacher to repeat a ques­tion 50 times and hope the kid will per­form a com­plex men­tal cal­cu­la­tion. We need to help the kid over­come his or her prob­lem, at the root. Some cog­ni­tive chal­lenges that affect many of our chil­dren, and where neu­ro­sci­en­tists have already designed pro­grams and shown results, are:

1) Dyslex­ia: a proven inter­ven­tion is Sci­en­tif­ic Learn­ing’s Fast­For­word. Check their research page


2) Work­ing Mem­o­ry Deficits (which affects a large pro­por­tion of kids with ADD/ ADHD): a proven inter­ven­tion is Cogmed’s Work­ing Mem­o­ry Train­ing pro­gram, RoboMemo. Not in US schools yet, but avail­able through schools in Swe­den and clin­i­cal prac­tices in Europe and the US. Even “nor­mal” stu­dents and adults have been shown to expand their work­ing memory. 

Some read­ings:
Inter­view with Dr. Torkel Kling­berg, Work­ing Mem­o­ry Train­ing lead­ing researcher
Inter­view with Dr. David Rabin­er, ADD/ ADHD lead­ing researcher
Reflec­tions at a meet­ing with a num­ber of school superintendents

3) Anx­i­ety and stress: not only test anx­i­ety, but over­all high-lev­els of anx­i­ety that inhib­it learn­ing and high­er-order think­ing: a pro­gram already used in many schools, and with promis­ing research results, is the Insti­tute of Heart­Math­’s Freeze­Framer. Read How stress and anx­i­ety may affect Learn­ing Readi­ness, and Why chron­ic stress is some­thing to avoid.

For any­one inter­est­ed in this top­ic, and I’d say every par­ent and edu­ca­tor, 2 books are required reading:
— Dr. Mar­i­an Dia­mond’s Mag­ic Trees of the Mind : How to Nur­ture Your Child’s Intel­li­gence, Cre­ativ­i­ty, and Healthy Emo­tions from Birth Through Adolescence 
— Dr. Mel Levine’s: A Mind at a Time.

A bit more tech­ni­cal, but very enlightening:
— By the Com­mis­sion on Behav­ioral and Social Sci­ences and Edu­ca­tion How Peo­ple Learn: Brain, Mind, Expe­ri­ence, and School Com­mit­tee on Devel­op­ments in the Sci­ence of Learn­ing .
— Dr. Elkhonon Gold­berg’s: The Exec­u­tive Brain: Frontal Lobes and the Civ­i­lized Mind .

You can also check more infor­ma­tion on Brain Fit­ness and Brain Fit­ness Pro­grams.

Obvi­ous­ly, there is a lot of room for future pro­grams. Neu­ro­sci­en­tists are just at the begin­ning of this jour­ney. But the jour­ney has start­ed. Neu­ro­science is already help­ing thou­sands of kids, today. True, focused first on kids who need help the most. But oth­er kids are ben­e­fit­ing, too. It will take, in my view, less than 10 years, even less than 5, for sig­nif­i­cant num­bers of stu­dents, beyond Spe­cial Ed, to ben­e­fit from what neu­ro­science can offer them.

We will approach Daniel Will­ing­ham, author of the Amer­i­can Edu­ca­tor arti­cle. We would enjoy being able to con­tribute with input and research, to a future col­umn. And to bring the best tools of each trade to our com­mon goal: to bet­ter equip our chil­dren (and why not, adults) for the future.


  1. Elona on October 20, 2006 at 6:42

    An absolute­ly great resource. Thanks for point­ing me towards your arti­cle. Lat­er this week­end I will take the time to read it thor­ough­ly and pass it on to the oth­er spe­cial ed/special needs teach­ers at my school. I’m par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ed in the work­ing mem­o­ry deficits arti­cle. Many of my stu­dents have this prob­lem and although I have taught them strate­gies to try to com­pen­sate for mem­o­ry prob­lems in my learn­ing strate­gies class, I’m always look­ing for new strate­gies to share. Thanks. :)

  2. Alvaro on October 23, 2006 at 10:28

    The author of the French blog above (first com­ment) men­tioned some stress and anx­i­ety man­age­ment pro­grams being used now in Ger­many. We asked him for infor­ma­tion about those pro­grams-and thanked him for his article.

    See his answer below (in French in his site).

  3. Paul Cheyrou-lagrèze on October 23, 2006 at 10:33

    Hi,I did answer in my blog, but here’s an answer in Eng­lish language :
    Seen in the doc­u­men­tary: that was broad­cast­ed in that,CmC=972546.html

    Sci­en­tifics Papers should be avail­able in :Cen­ter for Edu­ca­tion­al Research and Inno­va­tion (CERI Evi­dence-based Pol­i­cy Research in Education).,2688,en_2649_35845581_1_1_1_1_1,00.html

    Any­way the stress con­trol thing was giv­ing “stress han­dling lessons” to stu­dents using EEG device so that they mon­i­tor them­selves their stress lev­el (seems like the EEG neu­ro­feed­back used at but using a sort of ear clip mon­i­tor­ing heat, heart­beat, etc…Teachers were sen­si­bi­lized with some stud­ies and exper­i­ments on the sub­ject so that they seri­ous­ly try to reduce stress in class. Very alike the “learn­ing ambiance” Montes­sori thought that was a pil­lar for learning.

  4. Alvaro on October 23, 2006 at 10:43

    Hi Elona, please let me know what you think. Now, there are 2 dif­fer­ent con­cepts here: 1) learn­ing “strate­gies”, 2) train­ing and expand­ing cog­ni­tive skills/ men­tal mus­cles. Both are impor­tant and complementary. 

    What is new is that those com­put­er pro­grams are designed to train and expand spe­cif­ic cog­ni­tive skills/ men­tal mus­cles in ways that learn­ing “cop­ing strate­gies” can not accomplish.


About SharpBrains

SHARPBRAINS is an independent think-tank and consulting firm providing services at the frontier of applied neuroscience, health, leadership and innovation.
SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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