Education Opinion

Is the Fuss About Brain Research Justified?

By David A. Sousa — December 16, 1998 12 min read
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What we are discovering about learning has the potential for making the greatest contribution to our practice in recent memory.

We are in the middle of an unprecedented revolution of knowledge about the hu-man brain, including how it processes, interprets, and stores information. Never before have we known more about human learning. Thanks to a rapidly growing body of research in neuroscience, teaching is no longer just an art form--it is also a science. Never before have we had the potential for being successful with more students. Although the research is no magic bullet, what we are discovering about learning has the potential for making the greatest contribution to our practice in recent memory. Yet despite this incredible promise, many educators still question its significance.

In my travels throughout North America, skeptical teachers have posed several probing questions about the value of the research to educational practice. Here are the recurring questions I’ve encountered, followed by my responses, which I hope will encourage more teachers to embrace what neuroscience is revealing.

Why the sudden fuss about brain research? Haven’t we always tried to teach to the student’s brain?

Yes, but what most teachers learned about the brain was based largely on behavioral psychology. In recent years, advancements in neuroscience have produced a wealth of more detailed information about the inner workings of the human brain. Sophisticated medical instruments, such as functional MRIs (magnetic resonance imaging) and PET (positron emission tomography) scans, produce new three-dimensional maps of the human brain in action. These maps reveal which parts of the brain are involved in performing various activities, including learning. The model of how the brain learns is changing, and although some of our time-tested teaching strategies are still consistent with that new model, others are not. Yesterday’s methods worked well for yesterday’s students. But the student brain of today is quite different from the one of 15 years ago.

How is the brain different? The rapidly changing, multimedia-based culture and the stresses from an ever-increasing pace of living have a dramatic impact on how the developing brain interprets and interacts with its world. Today’s children spend much more time with television and other electronic media than with their parents. They have become accustomed to rapid sensory and emotional changes, and they respond more readily to the unique and different--what we might now call novelty.

Despite all the rhetoric about reform, teaching and schools have changed little as old practices die hard. The industrial model and agrarian calendar persist (although year-round schedules are on the increase). Lecturing continues to be the main method of instruction in secondary schools, and the overhead projector is often the most advanced technology used. Because students see little novelty and relevancy in what they are learning, they have a difficult time focusing for extended periods and are easily distracted. For many students, school is seen as a dull, non-engaging environment that is much less interesting than what is happening outside of school.

The irony is that the valuable new information about the brain and learning can help us understand and deal more successfully with today’s students. Unfortunately, this information is not getting to educational practitioners fast enough.

Isn’t this just another add-on program that is going to make my tough job even tougher?

This skepticism is understandable, considering how staff development in the past too often focused mainly on the teaching process. But the advancements in neuroscience require that we now shift our focus to the learning process. The brain-based approach is not a packaged program or bandwagon. It is an acknowledgment that when teachers have a thorough understanding of how the brain develops, learns, and organizes itself, they will make better decisions about teaching, and will use programs such as multiple intelligences, learning styles, and cooperative learning more effectively. It comes down to working smarter, not harder.

What are some ways that the current brain research can influence our educational practice?

Here are a few examples:

  • BRAIN growth and development. We are learning more about how the young brain grows and the different stages of cognitive and skill development. A newborn’s brain makes connections at an incredible pace as the child absorbs its environment. The richer the environment, the greater the number of interconnections that are made, and learning takes place faster and with greater meaning. As the child grows, the brain selectively strengthens and prunes connections based on experience. Although this process continues throughout our lives, it seems to be most pronounced between the ages of 2 and 11, as different development areas emerge and taper off.
Educators can no longer remain on the sidelines while neuroscience reveals important information about how the brain learns.

These so-called “windows of opportunity” represent critical periods when the brain demands certain types of input to create or consolidate neural networks, especially for acquiring language, emotional control, and learning to play music. Certainly, one can learn new information and skills at any age. But what the child learned during that window period will strongly influence what is learned after the window closes.

This research reminds us that the early years are important in helping children establish meaningful associations between learnings, and to make emotional and rational sense out of their world. By understanding the different times and areas of brain growth, teachers of the primary and intermediate grades can decide how best to approach the content and skills in their curriculum, and provide an enriched, brain-friendly classroom environment.

  • MEMORY and recall. We are learning more about memory and recall, and how strongly past experiences influence new learning. What we already know acts as a filter, helping us attend to those things that have meaning (that is, relevancy), and discard those that don’t. Thus, meaning has a great impact on whether information and skills will be learned and stored. If students have not found meaning by the end of a learning episode, there is little likelihood that much will be remembered. To help students find meaning, today’s curriculum must contain connections to their past experiences, not just ours. Paring down and integrating the secondary curriculum will also help students make relevant connections between and among the content areas, thereby improving retention of learning.
  • EMOTIONS in learning. We are learning more about the power of emotions in learning. How students “feel” about a learning situation determines the amount of attention they devote to it. Their emotions interact with reason to support or inhibit learning. Students, for example, must feel physically safe and emotionally secure in their schools and classrooms before they can focus on the curriculum. Consequently, society must ensure that schools are free of weapons and violence. Then teachers can promote emotional security by establishing a positive climate that encourages students to take appropriate risks while learning.

Until recently, emotion was not part of the mainstream of cognitive science. As a result, most teachers have not had adequate preparation in how to use emotions productively in their classrooms. In addition, we should explore what, when, and how we teach students about their own emotions, so that they can be successful learners and productive citizens. Daniel Goleman, the author of Emotional Intelligence, suggests we teach about such topics as reducing stress, controlling impulses, delaying gratification, and expressing feelings.

  • SENSORY engagement. We are learning that the brain makes new neural connections when it gets actively involved in interesting and challenging situations. Yet, in too many secondary schools, students sit passively for long stretches in rooms with little sensory stimulation, listening primarily to teachers talk. Classrooms should be busy, interactive environments where learners are teaching, and teachers are learning. By using a multisensory approach consistently, teachers keep students actively engaged in their learning. At appropriate intervals, students should be standing up, moving around, and discussing with each other what they are learning while learning it. Task-centered talking is critical to the memory process since it helps maintain focus while enhancing sense and meaning. This social interaction is also emotionally stimulating and supports the learning process.
  • TIMING is crucial. We are learning more about the importance of timing in lessons. Because today’s students are accustomed to quick changes in their environmental stimuli, many find it difficult to concentrate on the same topic for long periods of time. This is particularly true if the teacher is doing most of the work, like lecturing. Shorter learning episodes, therefore, are usually more effective than longer ones. Twenty-minute lesson segments are more likely to hold student interest, and result in more retention of learning. There is more remembering time in two 20-minute lessons than one 40-minute lesson. In block scheduling, an 80-minute period can be a blessing or a disaster, depending on how the time is used. A block containing four 20-minute segments will be more productive than one continuous lesson.
  • BIOLOGICAL rhythms. We are learning more about circadian rhythms and how they affect student performance both in and out of school. The biological rhythms responsible for overall intellectual performance start later in the day for an adolescent than for an adult. This shift in rhythms means that most teenagers usually perform better in problem-solving and memory tasks later in the day rather than earlier. Some districts are aligning high school opening times, as well as course and testing schedules, more closely with the students’ biological rhythms to increase their chances for achievement.
  • LEARNING disabilities. We are gaining a deeper understanding of learning disabilities, such as autism and dyslexia. Scanning technology is revealing which parts of the brain are involved in these problems, giving hope that new therapies can help learners overcome their difficulties. It may be that some children who are called “learning disabled” are merely “schooling disabled.” And the more we learn about the cerebral origins of their problems, the more successfully we can design schools and teaching methods that will stimulate their brains and help them learn.

Are educators really qualified to determine how brain research can be put into practice in schools and classrooms?

Some neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists say that it is premature to apply brain research to practice, and that educators are not trained for this role. I don’t agree. There is already too much encouraging evidence that teaching strategies based on brain research are having positive effects on student learning. Educators can no longer remain on the sidelines while neuroscience reveals important information about how the brain learns.

A neuroscientist said to me recently with some disdain, “The problem with teachers is that they try to change the human brain every day while knowing almost nothing about it.” I was unable to counter his remark because I knew he was right. A few months earlier, an experienced 5th grade teacher told me with considerable distress about a parent who had asked her what she was doing in the classroom to address her daughter’s windows of opportunity before they closed. Although the teacher tried to cover as best she could, it soon became obvious that she had no knowledge of the windows-of-opportunity research. As the public learns more about brain research through the popular press, scenes like this are destined to be repeated, further eroding confidence in teachers and schools.

Knowing more about how the brain learns will raise our level of expertise about our practice so that we can restore the public’s confidence in our work and regain control of our profession. We must demonstrate to the public that we are expert practitioners whose knowledge base is current, and that we are talking with cognitive researchers and with each other about ways to use that new knowledge to improve student success.

The question now is: How do educators get the competence to use the brain research to benefit students? I strongly concur with those who suggest that educators must acquire a more scientific understanding of the brain before they can determine the educational applications of the research. Going to a one-day workshop may raise awareness, but it is not adequate preparation. We need programs that give all prospective and current teachers a working knowledge of brain growth and development, and that include frequent contacts with cognitive researchers to keep abreast of relevant research findings. With such a long-term commitment, teachers will have the competence to determine which classroom strategies are more compatible with the current understanding of today’s brain.

Are colleges and universities including this brain research in their teacher-training programs?

To their credit, some have been updating their teacher-training programs to include the research in neuroscience. But on several occasions in my recent travels, student-teachers and recent graduates have told me that they have not heard much in their courses about this research. Their instruction focused primarily on behavioral psychology and offered little or nothing in neuroscience. Not surprisingly, their instructors rarely modeled brain-friendly strategies. Granted, the evidence I offer is anecdotal, but it is still unsettling. The revolution in neuroscience provides an excellent opportunity to create permanent liaisons among the neuroscientists, the cognitive psychologists, and the education faculties on teacher-training campuses. By working together, they can improve their own teaching while ensuring that they are preparing new teachers to deal successfully with the modern brain.

So, is the fuss justified? In a word, absolutely. The public has never before demanded so much of schools and teachers. Yet, at the same time, we have a continuous stream of new knowledge about how the brain learns that will enhance our school and classroom practices. This is an exciting time to be in education because neuroscience holds the promise for a quantum leap in our profession. As a colleague put it, “We are like the pioneers, venturing not westward, but inward.”

David A. Sousa is an educational consultant in Plainfield, N.J., and the author of How the Brain Learns (National Association of Secondary School Principals) and The Learning Manual for How the Brain Learns (Corwin Press).

A version of this article appeared in the December 16, 1998 edition of Education Week as Is the Fuss About Brain Research Justified?


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