‘Neuroeducation’ Emerges as Insights into Brain Development, Learning Abilities Grow


by Aalok Mehta

June, 2009

“Neuroeducation”—an interdisciplinary field that combines neuroscience, psychology and education to create improved teaching methods and curricula—is moving increasingly close to prime time as researchers gain a more sophisticated understanding of how young minds develop and learn, leading education and brain experts say.

Johns Hopkins University’s “Learning, Arts, and the Brain” educational summit in Baltimore and the “Learning and the Brain” meeting in Washington, D.C., last month shed new light on links between arts education and general learning, how learning physically alters the brain, and what goes wrong in students with learning disabilities. These findings are beginning to directly influence how classes are organized and taught, speakers at the meetings said.

“The interest among educators in neuroscience is enormous,” Ken Kosik, a professor of neuroscience at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said during Learning and the Brain. “We need neuroscientists in schools. Just like we have teaching hospitals, we need teaching schools.”

The many signs of neuroeducation’s growing potential include research programs on the subject that have been established at Harvard University, Johns Hopkins and the University of Texas, Arlington. Other academic departments around the country also now look to recruit faculty in the area.

Meanwhile, the Learning and the Brain conferences, held two or three times a year, continue to attract hundreds of educators interested in learning how neuroscience might affect their profession. In fact, the D.C. meeting marked the series’ 10th anniversary with a program revolving around arts and creativity.

Many of the speakers there were doing double duty, also having participated in Hopkins’ Learning, Arts, and the Brain summit. At that meeting—the first of planned annual gatherings—scientists and educators expressed strong optimism about neuroeducation and called for more studies that could directly impact classroom practices. (Both the summit in Baltimore and the conference in D.C. were sponsored in part by the Dana Foundation.)

But experts also warn that, so far, the transition from laboratory to classroom has been slow, a circumstance likely to continue because studies involving school-age children are difficult to design and conduct. In addition, many education-focused companies have made grandiose assertions about the science behind their commercial products, “burning” the scientists evaluating their potential and increasing the burden for researchers working in the field.

Current research with potential neuroeducation applications follows two disparate but related strands, says Kurt Fischer, a professor of education at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education and director of the school’s Mind, Brain, and Education Program. Most scientists in the field are working on specific developmental conditions that can cause learning problems, such as dyslexia or autism. Though such research is geared toward specific treatments for these conditions, Fischer says, the findings often have implications for how to help normal students learn as well. On the other hand, insights into how the brain works and develops in general also sometimes offers insights specific to teaching.

He points out recent work that has found that children with dyslexia suffer from two specific problems: trouble analyzing and processing sound and difficulties with rapid naming of objects. Addressing those problems specifically and early in development seems more effective than later, more general treatments.

“Phonological intervention in kids—before they get into trouble in school—appears to prevent dyslexia in kids,” Fischer says. “The old finding was that dyslexia was a hole in brain, a deficit in mental capacities. But no, that may not be the case. Dyslexic kids show the brain patterns of people who haven’t learned to read well. We all have a range of capabilities, arranged on a normal distribution …. These kids may just be on the low end of the distribution, instead of having some problem in their brains.”

As for the alternative approach, he mentions a forthcoming study showing that children from troubled family situations show a drop in abnormally high levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, while in preschool. “This suggests that we might encourage placing children from troubled families in preschool, where they can be in a safer environment,” he says.

Another example is work done by Mariale Hardiman, co-organizer of the Learning, Arts, and the Brain summit, when she was simultaneously principal of Baltimore’s Roland Park Elementary/Middle School and a graduate student in education at Johns Hopkins. A paper Hardiman wrote eventually blossomed into a book, Connecting Brain Research with Effective Teaching: The Brain-Targeted Teaching Model, outlining a six-point strategy for incorporating general neuroscience and psychology principles in schools to foster learning and achievement. The strategies include connecting kids emotionally, creating enriched physical learning environments, designing curricula based on big-picture concepts, teaching for mastery, teaching how to apply knowledge, and evaluating learning outcomes periodically.

“I applied six elements that I had identified as really important to long-term learning and included what we needed to do as educators,” says Hardiman, who applied the program at her school before moving on to become chair of interdisciplinary studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Education. To this day, the model garners interest at both Roland and other schools nationwide, and she continues to lecture and revise her book as new information becomes available.

“We can say that we are learning more and more every day—for example, what influences memory, the importance of sleep,” she says. “But we have to conduct that research; on what children learn and remember, on the practical needs of teachers …. That [was] part of the reason for the summit.”

At the Hopkins summit and elsewhere, researchers are continuing to incorporate several aspects from Hardiman’s model, particularly the importance of emotion. Education in the arts, to which children often respond emotionally, is by extension also an important area of study.

For instance, seven groups of scientists involved in the Dana Arts and Cognition consortium recently showed tight correlations between artistic endeavors and cognitive abilities. New findings by Michael Posner, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, suggest that studying the arts may be an effective way to train attention, which in turn can cause general increases in intelligence. And an extended imaging study comparing young children who take up music instruction with those who do not has shown “profound changes” in brain connections, says Gottfried Schlaug, a neurology professor at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School.

“Research in the field is now extending into the realm of normal abilities, and that’s exciting,” says Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Southern California’s Brain and Creativity Institute. “There are general principles that you can take from that and apply across fields, and that have implications for way we teach math, reading and more normative pathways.”

Aalok Mehta is a Web journalist for Dana Press. He may be reached at amehta@dana.org.