Brains, minds and education:

Studies in educational neuroscience help build better classrooms

03/30/2013  |  BY JANE SEVIER
advanced degrees in education

Some 2,400 years ago, Greek physician Hippocrates singled out the brain as the seat of intelligence, but millennia later, we’re still deciphering how that organ works in learning. Now, rapid advances in studies of the brain are bringing us closer to answers.

Human brains are diverse and individual, but there is a growing realization in neuroscience research that many complex behaviors draw on a common set of brain regions and connections across individuals to achieve proficiency. Genes, early adversity, poverty, parenting, culture and education affect brain development and learning in ways we’re only beginning to fathom. Biological mechanisms, in turn, themselves influence how we acquire knowledge.

How can this growing understanding of brain function and learning benefit education? Bringing together cognitive neuroscientists, learning scientists, medical and clinical practitioners, and professionals in education, the emerging discipline of educational neuroscience takes discoveries in the brain sciences and applies them to educational policy and teaching approaches. The aim is not only to provide educators with a scientific basis for understanding some of the best practices in teaching but also to offer new ways of looking at problems teachers grapple with every day. A grasp of how the brain works and how students actually learn allows teachers to apply current studies in their own teaching, research and curriculum development.

For example, the University of Cambridge Centre for Neuroscience in Education works to establish the basic parameters of brain development in the cognitive skills critical for education. Scientists there use a variety of techniques, including event-related potentials (ERPs) — tiny variations in electricity measurable from the scalp when someone is thinking or processing information — to measure changes in children’s brain activity.

Stanford University’s Center for Interdisciplinary Brain Sciences Research focuses on understanding the brain-based causes of dyslexia and other learning disabilities and on applying research findings to enable children with these disabilities to achieve their best in school. By identifying at an early stage those who will have reading problems, Stanford researchers hope to prevent or minimize their reading difficulties, as well as develop brain-based interventions for reading disabilities.

At Vanderbilt University, researchers in education and pediatrics collaborate with those from Vanderbilt’s Institute of Imaging Sciences to examine how children’s brains reorganize as they learn to read. Another study involving scholars in education, pharmacology, and pediatrics investigates how genes may predispose some persons to aggression.

Several U.S. institutions now offer advanced studies in educational neuroscience. The first graduate program in the country to focus on the educational and clinical implications of recent advances in understanding brain-behavior relationships, the Master of Science in Neuroscience and Education at Columbia University’s Teachers College is intended for students interested in fields related to neuroscience and in ongoing research, educational, or clinical practice. Developmental and cognitive psychology is considered the core content area that relates brain function to education. The interface between research and education requires that students focus on an area relevant to some specialized aspect of educational research such as reading, mathematics, developmental disabilities, special education, motor development, art, music, science, technology or educational policy. Supervised practica involve students in ongoing research projects in neuroscience-related fields or in neuropsychological assessments and interventions.

Harvard University’s one-year master’s degree in mind, brain and education (MBE) is designed for students who want to connect cognition, neuroscience, and educational practice, especially involving learning, teaching and cognitive and emotional development. Linked to the Harvard Initiative on Mind, Brain, Behavior, the program includes psychology, pedagogy, and neuroscience, as well as philosophy, anthropology, linguistics, computer science and other relevant disciplines.

“Our immediate mission is to train students both to return to schools and other educational settings where they can use this new knowledge in educational practice and to become researchers with deep knowledge of both biological-cognitive science and education who can therefore create a research base grounded in this union of knowledge,” says Professor Kurt Fischer, MBE program director. “The broad target audience is educators, school personnel, and researchers in general who need to know how to integrate the new biology and cognitive science into education and to base educational practice on relevant research.”

At Harvard, students may focus on cognitive neuroscience, learning and instruction, cognitive development, emotional development, learning disabilities, interventions with children, uses of technology for education, diversity in education or a combination of these topics.

In the fall of 2012, Vanderbilt launched the nation’s first educational neuroscience doctoral program. This interdisciplinary program brings together Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of education and human development and the Vanderbilt Brain Institute to research educational issues within the context of brain science.

“When designing an educational neuroscience program, we wanted to make sure that we not only stayed true to the principles of cognitive neuroscience but also grounded students with an understanding of the challenges and complexities of conducting educational research as well as being teachers in the trenches,” says Professor Laurie Cutting of Peabody’s Department of Special Education.

The new program draws faculty from Vanderbilt’s special education, psychology and human development, and hearing and speech sciences departments and adds a third strand to the institute’s neuroscience training, which already includes emphases in cellular and molecular neuroscience and cognitive and systems neuroscience.

“Because of its historical strengths in education and neuroscience, because of the strong links among our various schools, and because of the intersection in the interests of our faculty around issues associated with educational neuroscience, Vanderbilt is uniquely positioned to be a leader in this new field,” Professor Mark Wallace, director of the Brain Institute, says.

Educational neuroscience at Vanderbilt also involves the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center, the Center for Integrative and Cognitive Neuroscience and the Institute of Imaging Sciences. Candidates for the doctoral program should have backgrounds in neuroscience, psychology or education and should have demonstrated potential for conducting research.

The University of Texas-Arlington Southwest Center for Mind, Brain, and Education allows educators, policymakers and researchers in the cognitive and developmental sciences to apply practical experience to educational research and theories. The center’s master of science in mind, brain, and education is intended for K-16 teachers, school counselors and administrators, corporate trainers, and child development specialists interested in connecting cognition, neuroscience, and educational practice with learning, teaching, and cognitive and emotional development.

For those not pursuing a degree but interested in advanced work, the Johns Hopkins School of Education’s graduate certificate in mind, brain, and teaching is designed to give PK-16 teachers, administrators, and student support staff knowledge of cognitive development and how emerging research in the brain sciences can inform educational practices and policies. Courses integrate diverse disciplines that investigate human learning and development. Offered both as a fully online program and in a face-to-face cohort, the certificate builds on basic and applied research from cognitive science, psychology and brain science, neurology, neuroscience and education.

There are also short-term study alternatives. For example, Learning and the Brain’s educational conferences, symposia, summer institutes and one-day professional-development seminars on research in neuroscience and psychology enable neuroscientists and educators to share their latest findings on the brain and learning and their implications for education. Offerings for 2013 include “Educating for Creative Minds,” “The Neuroscience of Reading” and “Mathematics and the Brain.”

Organizations like the American Educational Research Association (AERA) and the European Association for Research on Learning and Instruction (EARLI) have special interest groups for education and neuroscience. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) Learning Sciences and Brain Research Project runs an interactive website for teachers on brain research. Through its Learner site, the Annenberg Foundation presents an online course for K-12 teachers called Neuroscience and the Classroom.

In marrying brain science to teaching theory and practice, educational neuroscience represents a new frontier in education that can lead to enhanced learning for all.

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Jane Sevier is a writer at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College.
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