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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),×11-March09FinalLR.pdf (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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