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All in the mind? The role of neuroscience in education


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All in the mind? The role of neuroscience in education

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There is no agreement on whether studying the way the brain works can help improve educational outcomes, but the discussion is a hot topic amongst educational experts.

USA: Brain waves

The Teachers College of Columbia University in New York, founded in 1887, has a tradition of innovation in education. Currently they are studying the electrical activity of the brain, to try and understand how people learn new languages, read, and solve problems.

Dr Karen Froud, who heads the Neurocognition Language Lab at Columbia University, has been working on how people learn to pronounce vowel sounds: “In fact, it’s not really a problem producing the sounds, it’s a problem perceiving the sounds. At the level of the brain we can see that.”

She notes that watching brain activity makes it possible for experts to guess what intellectual activity is occuring. Teachers from all kinds of institutions find these studies useful.

Amira Mandelbaum, who teaches in a therapeutic pre-school, told euronews: “I could understand, sort of, from an outsider’s point of view what was going on with the kids, I could see their behaviour and how they were interacting, but it was really hard for me to understand what was going on in their brains, what autistic children are experiencing. Just understanding that sometimes they need more oxygen to their brain, I’d be able to help them with deep breathing and that could regulate their system a little bit.”

Grace Chung is a student who plans to work with people who have had strokes. She said: “By studying the brain, I think I will be able to learn what part of the brain is causing certain problems my patients are having. I kind of see it as working with muscles; if you hurt your leg muscle, you would not train your arm muscles to work better. So if I know which muscle, or which part of the brain is causing the problem, I can target the skill better.”

For now, rather than showing how to treat disorders, neural research shows that any learning activity physically alters the brain.

Canada: Living with hyperactivity

Roseline and Gabriel both have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or ADHD. For children like them, listening to a teacher, staying focused on an exercise, or even just sitting still on a chair can all be major challenges.

Gabriel explained what it is like: “I’d say it’s more difficult to concentrate and listen to the whole lesson when I want to move about the whole time. All the time I want to move around, and run about outside.”

At home, Gabriel and his sister require constant attention from their parents. To help Gabriel do his homework properly, they have set up a routine. His mother Annie Parenteau, described it: “We have a timetable, so we look at what he has to do over the coming weeks, the coming month and we divide it up week by week and we identify long and short term tasks and make sure he does a bit of both every evening.”

But can neuro-psychology give teachers techniques to boost attention in the classroom? Benoît Hammarrenger, a neuropsychologist, thinks so: “We use a stress ball for example, and this allows students to contract the hand muscles, which helps them pay attention. We also use large elastic straps that attach to the legs of the chair in front, so that the child can push against the elastic with their feet and that stimulates attention too.”

Some estimates are that between five and severn percent of children worldwide have ADHD, although other experts think the figures are lower and in any case, the jury is still out about treatment options.

Benoît Hammarrenger defends the use of drugs: “Ritalin and other types of medication can be good tools for certain problems. It all depends on getting a good diagnosis. With a correct and thorough diagnosis of a neurologically caused attention deficit condition the best tool is in fact medication.”

But there are other treatments too. For example, CerebroGym is an educational game aimed at boosting concentration and overcoming impulsive tendencies. Caroline Julien, the CEO of Creo Production Studio, which came up with the game, said: “These are exercises developed by speech specialists and neuro-psychologists in hospitals to develop cerebral function.”

Neuroscience and education

What are the links between neuroscience and education? For experts like American neurologist Judy Willis, they are self-evident. But for others like Dorothy Bishop, a professor of developmental neuro-psychology, it is too early to make that link.

We posed a series of questions to boht. First, can a knowledge of neuroscience make teaching practices more effective?

Dorothy Bishop: Professor of Developmental Neuropsychology: “There is a big movement trying to integrate neuroscience into education. But I’m dubious as to whether there are any applications as yet. I think it’s too early to really start implementing neuroscience in the classroom. We’re finding out a lot from neuroscience about children and brains and how children’s brains develop but I find it hard to see how you would take that straight to educational practice.”

Judy Willis: Neurologist: “Neuroscience is going to save, is already saving billions of dollars in education. There have been so many neural myths, until we had neuroscience to investigate, people were spending money on doing exercises so they can exercise their right brain, exercise their left brain. But that idea is so untrue! Neuroscience is saving education money, it’s providing a picture of what’s now happening in the brain, so we can use that to test any theory or any intervention.”

Can neuroscience provide new ways of learning and teaching?

Dorothy Bishop: Professor of Developmental Neuropsychology: “We would do better to look at cognitive psychology which could change, for example, learning to read. We know from cognitive neural psychology studies of the reading process, that although many people think of reading as a visual process, it actually involves analysing the sounds in language and that has led to the development of educational methods for teaching children to read that involve a focus on the sound of words rather than worrying about whether they get their letters the wrong way round.”

Judy Willis: Neurologist: “When teachers find out that genius is not in the genes, that everyone’s background doesn’t mean it has to be that way in the future, they have renewed energy and effort toward the student. And after getting a more responsive teacher, students respond with more effort. It is game changing, the letters I get from teachers tell me how much more successful and how much happier they are in the classroom, when they know how the brain works.”

Can the gap be bridged?

Dorothy Bishop: Professor of Developmental Neuropsychology: “The Bridge Too Far was actually the title of a paper that was written about 20 years ago by a man called John Bruer in the States, who is a very eminent person in this field who made exactly that point and said he felt we were trying to go straight from neuroscience to education. What we needed in the middle was cognitive psychology and I think he said it 20 years ago but it needs saying again.”

Judy Willis: Neurologist: “When there is communication among the people involved that’s when we will have the most efficient and best research evaluation tools and, think about this one, teachers who already know what works can tell the scientists to test this or that, then there would be an enduring bridge and there will be three branches to that bridge: cognitive psychology, neuroscience and educators.”

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