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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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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

  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.


  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.


  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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