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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.

————–

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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As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters,  SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking how brain science can improve our health and our lives.

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