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The Brain in Science Education: What Should Everyone Learn?

Cour­tesy of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, Davis, Cen­ter for Neu­ro­science

What should every­one learn about the brain?

At the nation­al lev­el, the Amer­i­can Asso­ci­a­tion for the Advance­ment of Sci­ence (AAAS) describes what adults should know in its sem­i­nal work Sci­ence for All Americans.[1] AAAS also rec­om­mends learn­ing goals for K-12 stu­dents in its Bench­marks for Sci­ence Literacy[2,3], and Atlas of Sci­ence Literacy[4,5], and the Nation­al Research Coun­cil (NRC) offers a sim­i­lar set of goals in its Nation­al Sci­ence Edu­ca­tion Standards.[6] States and school dis­tricts use the AAAS and NRC rec­om­men­da­tions as a basis for the design of their own stan­dards, which then inform the devel­op­ment of cur­ricu­lum and assess­ment mate­ri­als (those com­mer­cial­ly devel­oped as well as those devel­oped with grant funds). In addi­tion, the neu­ro­science com­mu­ni­ty has devel­oped its own set of core con­cepts that K-12 stu­dents and the gen­er­al pub­lic should know about the brain and ner­vous sys­tem and has cor­re­lat­ed those con­cepts to the nation­al standards.[7]

Between the AAAS and NRC rec­om­men­da­tions, there are some areas of broad con­sen­sus on what stu­dents should know. Accord­ing to AAAS’s Bench­marks and Atlas, for exam­ple, stu­dents in the ele­men­tary to mid­dle school grades should under­stand the fol­low­ing ideas:

  • The brain enables human beings to think and sends mes­sages to oth­er body parts to help them work prop­er­ly.
  • The brain gets sig­nals from all parts of the body telling it what is hap­pen­ing in each part. The brain also sends sig­nals to parts of the body to influ­ence what they do.
  • Inter­ac­tions among the sens­es, nerves, and brain make pos­si­ble the learn­ing that enables human beings to pre­dict, ana­lyze, and respond to changes in their environments.[8]

The Nation­al Research Council’s Stan­dards offers very sim­i­lar con­cepts in the fol­low­ing knowl­edge state­ments:

  • Inter­nal cues (such as hunger) and exter­nal cues (such as changes in the envi­ron­ment) influ­ence the behav­ior of indi­vid­ual organ­isms. Humans and oth­er organ­isms have sens­es that help them detect inter­nal and exter­nal cues.
  • All organ­isms must be able to obtain and use resources, grow, repro­duce, and main­tain sta­ble inter­nal con­di­tions when liv­ing in a con­stant­ly chang­ing exter­nal envi­ron­ment.
  • Reg­u­la­tion of an organism’s inter­nal envi­ron­ment involves sens­ing that envi­ron­ment and chang­ing phys­i­o­log­i­cal activ­i­ties to keep con­di­tions with­in the range required to survive.[9]

For high school stu­dents, both the AAAS and the NRC learn­ing goals include the role of the ner­vous sys­tem in the rapid trans­mis­sion of infor­ma­tion through­out the body through elec­tro­chem­i­cal sig­nals. Some but not all of these ideas are also present in the most recent col­lege- and career-readi­ness stan­dards for sci­ence devel­oped by the Col­lege Board.[10]

Beyond the basic but impor­tant con­cepts about the struc­ture and func­tion of the brain and the ner­vous sys­tem, only AAAS has spec­i­fied any fur­ther knowl­edge in this area as essen­tial to sci­ence lit­er­a­cy. For exam­ple, AAAS rec­om­mends that an under­stand­ing of men­tal health—including ideas about the mind/body rela­tion­ship, fac­tors that shape behav­ior, ways of cop­ing with men­tal dis­tress, and the diag­no­sis and treat­ment of men­tal disorders—be con­sid­ered foun­da­tion­al knowl­edge for all stu­dents. AAAS also includes learn­ing as a top­ic that should be part of a com­mon core of knowl­edge. Nei­ther the NRC Stan­dards nor the Col­lege Board Stan­dards includes any of these addi­tion­al brain-relat­ed con­cepts in its rec­om­men­da­tions. None of the nation­al stan­dards doc­u­ments spec­i­fies an under­stand­ing of the brain that is as detailed and exten­sive as the core con­cepts rec­om­mend­ed by the Soci­ety for Neu­ro­science.

Although most states claim to have based their sci­ence stan­dards on the AAAS Bench­marks and the NRC Stan­dards, they are not bound by these nation­al rec­om­men­da­tions and often inter­pret them in very dif­fer­ent ways so that there is lit­tle con­sis­ten­cy in stan­dards across the states. As a result, many states list the struc­ture and func­tion of human body sys­tems as a broad top­ic in their stan­dards, but only some—including Min­neso­ta and North Car­oli­na, for example—specify ideas about the ner­vous sys­tem; oth­ers, such as Cal­i­for­nia and Texas, do not. Because of their strong influ­ence on the con­tent includ­ed in and exclud­ed from sci­ence text­books, which have been shown to play a cen­tral role in deter­min­ing what is taught in the class­room, the state sci­ence stan­dards are an extreme­ly pow­er­ful lever­age point for any­one seek­ing to change the con­tent of the sci­ence curriculum.[11]

Brain sci­en­tists, like all mem­bers of the sci­en­tif­ic com­mu­ni­ty, have a key role to play in pro­mot­ing a wider under­stand­ing of the con­cepts and skills that are impor­tant to their field and to sci­ence more gen­er­al­ly. To help shape their state and local sci­ence stan­dards, researchers and clin­i­cians can vol­un­teer to work with state boards of edu­ca­tion to review new and revised sci­ence stan­dards doc­u­ments; they can also work with text­book selec­tion com­mit­tees to ensure that instruc­tion­al mate­ri­als are sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly accu­rate and include the sci­ence con­tent intend­ed by their state stan­dards. In addi­tion, brain sci­en­tists can become effec­tive advo­cates for high-qual­i­ty sci­ence edu­ca­tion for all stu­dents in their local com­mu­ni­ties.

Oth­er mod­els of engage­ment might also be use­ful. For exam­ple, as the issue of glob­al cli­mate change has become more urgent, earth and atmos­pher­ic sci­en­tists in fed­er­al agen­cies, uni­ver­si­ties, and non-gov­ern­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions have worked togeth­er to iden­ti­fy impor­tant infor­ma­tion for stu­dents and adults to under­stand about cli­mate and the impacts of and respons­es to cli­mate change. Now that they have devel­oped a frame­work that lays out the essen­tial prin­ci­ples that all cit­i­zens should know about cli­mate science,[12] fed­er­al agen­cies such as NOAA and NASA are fund­ing efforts to devel­op effec­tive ways to help a wide range of pub­lic audi­ences under­stand the sci­ence and engage in the rel­e­vant issues. Project 2061, AAAS’s sci­ence lit­er­a­cy ini­tia­tive is lead­ing one such effort. The project is iden­ti­fy­ing data col­lect­ed by the Nation­al Ocean­ic and Atmos­pher­ic Admin­is­tra­tion (NOAA) and NASA that can be trans­lat­ed into class­room activ­i­ties designed to help stu­dents under­stand a vari­ety of weath­er and cli­mate phe­nom­e­na and the sci­en­tif­ic prin­ci­ples that explain them. Sim­i­lar efforts to iden­ti­fy phe­nom­e­na-based learn­ing expe­ri­ences in the brain sciences—aligned to nation­al and state stan­dards and to the Neu­ro­science Core Concepts—could be the focus of pro­duc­tive col­lab­o­ra­tions between brain sci­en­tists and K-12 sci­ence edu­ca­tors and researchers.

Editor’s note: in this arti­cle for Cere­brum mag­a­zine, reprint­ed here with per­mis­sion, Dr. Jo Ellen Rose­man and Mary Kop­pal from the Amer­i­can Acad­e­my for the Advance­ment of Sci­ence (AAAS) dis­cuss how brain sci­ence fits into nation­al class­room cur­ric­u­la. While rec­om­men­da­tions pub­lished by AAAS, the Nation­al Research Coun­cil, the Soci­ety for Neu­ro­science, and the Col­lege Board all include stan­dards relat­ing to the brain, what stu­dents actu­al­ly learn in the class­room varies great­ly from state to state.

Jo Ellen Rose­man, Ph.D., is direc­tor of Project 2061 of the Amer­i­can Asso­ci­a­tion for the Advance­ment of Sci­ence and over­sees its pro­grams and activ­i­ties aimed at improv­ing edu­ca­tion in sci­ence, math­e­mat­ics, and tech­nol­o­gy for all stu­dents. Dr. Rose­man joined Project 2061 with the release of Sci­ence for All Amer­i­cans in 1989 and has been involved in the devel­op­ment, test­ing, and dis­sem­i­na­tion of its sub­se­quent tools, includ­ing Bench­marks for Sci­ence Lit­er­a­cy, Resources for Sci­ence Lit­er­a­cy: Pro­fes­sion­al Devel­op­ment, Atlas of Sci­ence Lit­er­a­cy and its cur­rent effort to design assess­ments of sci­ence lit­er­a­cy. Dr. Rose­man is the prin­ci­pal inves­ti­ga­tor for the Cen­ter for Cur­ricu­lum Mate­ri­als in Sci­ence, fund­ed through the Nation­al Sci­ence Foundation’s (NSF) Cen­ter for Learn­ing and Teach­ing pro­gram, and prin­ci­pal inves­ti­ga­tor for a cur­ricu­lum devel­op­ment project fund­ed by the U.S. Depart­ment of Edu­ca­tion and focused on mid­dle and high school chem­istry and biol­o­gy.

Mary Kop­pal is the com­mu­ni­ca­tions direc­tor for Project 2061 of the Amer­i­can Asso­ci­a­tion for the Advance­ment of Sci­ence, and is respon­si­ble for the project’s pub­lish­ing and out­reach pro­grams. Pre­vi­ous­ly, Kop­pal was the pub­lish­er for the Nation­al Acad­e­my of Sci­ences’ Issues in Sci­ence and Tech­nol­o­gy, where she began her work as the asso­ciate publisher/circulation man­ag­er. From 1987 to 1994, she was respon­si­ble for the over­all busi­ness and admin­is­tra­tive oper­a­tion of this award-win­ning nation­al sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy pol­i­cy jour­nal. Kop­pal also served as mar­ket­ing direc­tor for the Nation­al Acad­e­my Press, which pub­lished trade, schol­ar­ly, and pro­fes­sion­al titles in all areas of sci­ence, tech­nol­o­gy, health, and pub­lic pol­i­cy.

Fur­ther read­ing

Online Resources

  • Genes to Cog­ni­tion Online: Allows stu­dents to explore top­ics in neu­ro­science in a dynam­ic and flu­id way.
  • Brainy Kids: This Dana Foun­da­tion Web site pro­vides resources and activ­i­ties rang­ing from vir­tu­al dis­sec­tions to inter­ac­tive games.
  • Test My Brain: Researchers recruit par­tic­i­pants via this Web site, allow­ing stu­dents to par­tic­i­pate in and learn about actu­al neu­ro­science stud­ies.
  • Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois Visu­al Cog­ni­tion Lab: This site pro­vides videos of clas­sic neu­ro­science stud­ies on top­ics like inat­ten­tion­al blind­ness.
  • Brain Hat Tem­plate: Edu­ca­tors can use this hat to aid stu­dents in learn­ing the dif­fer­ent parts and func­tions of the brain.
  • Neu­ro­science for Kids: This site has many great resources, includ­ing record­ings of action poten­tials.
  • The Whole Brain Atlas: This site asso­ci­at­ed with Har­vard Med­ical allows stu­dents to manip­u­late brain scans.
  • The Sci­en­tist and Sci­en­tif­ic Amer­i­can: These mag­a­zines have inter­est­ing arti­cles on cur­rent top­ics in neu­ro­science for class­room use with old­er stu­dents.

Arti­cle Ref­er­ences

1. Amer­i­can Asso­ci­a­tion for the Advance­ment of Sci­ence, Sci­ence for All Amer­i­cans (New York: Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1989).

2. Amer­i­can Asso­ci­a­tion for the Advance­ment of Sci­ence, Bench­marks for Sci­ence Lit­er­a­cy (New York: Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1993).

3. Amer­i­can Asso­ci­a­tion for the Advance­ment of Sci­ence, “Bench­marks Online” (2009), (accessed August 2010).

4. Amer­i­can Asso­ci­a­tion for the Advance­ment of Sci­ence, Atlas of Sci­ence Lit­er­a­cy: Vol. 1 (Wash­ing­ton, DC: Author, 2001).

5. Amer­i­can Asso­ci­a­tion for the Advance­ment of Sci­ence, Atlas of Sci­ence Lit­er­a­cy: Vol. 2 (Wash­ing­ton, DC: Author, 2007).

6. Nation­al Research Coun­cil, Nation­al Sci­ence Edu­ca­tion Stan­dards (Wash­ing­ton, DC: Nation­al Acad­e­my Press, 1996).

7. Soci­ety for Neu­ro­science, “Neu­ro­science Core Con­cepts: The Essen­tial Prin­ci­ples of Neu­ro­science” (2007), (accessed August 2010).

8. See notes 2 and 3.

9. See note 6.

10. The Col­lege Board, “Sci­ence: Col­lege Board Stan­dards for Col­lege Suc­cess” (2009), (accessed August 2010).

11. I. R. Weiss, J. D. Pasley, P. S. Smith, E. R. Ban­ilow­er, and D. J. Heck, Look­ing Inside the Class­room: A Study of K — 12 Math­e­mat­ics and Sci­ence Edu­ca­tion in the Unit­ed States (Chapel Hill, NC: Hori­zon Research, Inc, 2003).

12. U.S. Glob­al Change Research Pro­gram, “Cli­mate Lit­er­a­cy: The Essen­tial Prin­ci­ples of Cli­mate Sci­ences” (March 2009), (accessed August 2010).

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  1. Right on! All stu­dents should have knowl­edge about the brain, learn­ing styles, and how to make the best of THE most impor­tant learn­ing tool they will use all their lives. All teach­ers should have brain train­ing inclu­sive of teach­ing styles and mul­ti­ple intel­li­gences to effec­tive­ly reach all stu­dents. In my teach­ings on the brain, I will hand my ‘car keys’ over to a stu­dent on the first day of class and ask them to pull my 18-wheel semi-trail­er around to the front of the build­ing so the rest of the stu­dents can help unload all my equip­ment for class. Of course the stu­dent looks bewil­dered at me and usu­al­ly says he/she doesn’t know how to dri­ve a semi. I ask them why not and they usu­al­ly say they nev­er learned how to dri­ve a semi. The point here is that we teach stu­dents ‘WHAT’ we want in their brains, but we don’t teach them ‘HOW to use their brains. I’ve used my pro­gram here in the US and in Rus­sia, Hun­gary and now most in Tan­za­nia East Africa with 4 year-old to 95 year-old stu­dents and in teacher in-ser­vice work­shops.

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