Experts Call for Teaching Educators Brain Science

'Neuro-myths' seen permeating the field

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A little knowledge about the brain can be a dangerous thing, and experts in mind, brain, and education studies are calling for more formal teacher training in the biological underpinnings of learning.

"We don't have much neuroscience in our teacher training; most of the books available are from the brain-based-learning industry, not scientists," said Paul A. Howard-Jones, a senior lecturer in psychology and neuroscience at the University of Bristol, in the United Kingdom, and the director of, a site that analyzes new research for teachers. "In the absence of legitimate neuroscience in education," he said, "a neuro-mythology has arisen in schools."

The science of mind, brain, and education—the melding of cognitive psychology, educational neuroscience, and education—is still a nascent research field, but it has seen rising interest among teachers.

Yet only a handful of preservice teacher and administrator programs offer certification in educational neuroscience, among them Harvard University's Mind, Brain, and Education program, in Cambridge, Mass.; the Southwest Center for Mind, Brain, and Education at the University of Texas at Arlington; and the Brainsmart graduate program at Nova Southeastern University, in Winter Park, Fla.

Interactive Game

"For the most part, teachers are not exposed systemically in a way that allows them to understand things like brain plasticity," said Michael J. Nakkula, the chairman of applied psychology and human development at the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education. Mr. Nakkula is part of the Students at the Center project, a series of reports on teaching and learning launched this spring by the Boston-based nonprofit group Jobs for the Future.

'Bits and Pieces'

As a result, many teachers are exposed to "bits and pieces" of professional development about neuroscience, said Donna Wilson, the chief academic officer of Nova Southeastern's Brainsmart master's degree program.

In a study of 158 preservice secondary school teachers in the United Kingdom, Mr. Howard-Jones found that more than 80 percent believed incorrectly that students should be taught based on their brains' "learning styles," and another one in five mistakenly thought a student's brain would shrink if he or she drank fewer than six glasses of water a day.

Two researchers at Arizona State University, in Tempe, found that a majority of both incoming and veteran teachers reported they followed neuroscience research on the Internet, on television, and in journals, and believed neuroscience findings could help "answer questions now debated in education," particularly on ways to help students with cognitive disabilities. But the researchers—M. Zambo, an associate professor of educational leadership, and Ronald Zambo, an associate professor of teacher preparation—also found a majority of the teachers believed that evidence supported various brain myths.

Dr. Janet N. Zadina, a former high school teacher who is now an adjunct assistant professor in neurology at Tulane University, in New Orleans, said more cross-training of teachers and neuroscientists, including lab work for the teachers and classroom experience for the researchers, would help stop the "telephone game" of half-truths conveyed now in the education neuroscience field.

Examining Practice

Dr. Judy Willis, a neurologist, has seen evidence of those myths in practice.

Dr. Willis had been a clinician for 15 years when what she calls the "weird" referrals started piling up in the late 1990s: Teachers were sending rising numbers of students to be evaluated for conditions they didn't have, from attention deficit disorder to epilepsy.

"It was so profound that I finally had to check it out," she said.

In classroom observations, Dr. Willis said, she found high rates of boredom and stress among students, and teachers who often had little understanding of potential stress-related neurological reasons for their students' behavior. Rather, she heard teachers attribute problems to students' brain hemispheres or to whether they were drinking enough water.

She later went into teaching herself, becoming a teacher trainer who shares research on the effects of student disengagement and stress.

"The amount of information is increasing logarithmically," Dr. Willis said. "Unless you have a basis of foundational knowledge, it will be impossible to evaluate claims and data."


Dr. Zadina, who won the Society of Neuroscience's 2011 science educator award for her work training teachers in brain processes, said she hopes eventually that most school districts will have an educational neuroscience liaison on hand, much like curriculum directors, to connect with researchers and translate new research into practice.

"There's just no mechanism in place now for them to work with scientists," she said.

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A handful of programs are trying. The Southwest Center partnered last fall with Texas' Arlington Independent School District and the Center for Brain Health at the University of Texas at Dallas. Four Arlington district teachers are among 15 working on master's-degree research projects related to district issues, and the center also brings in neuroscience researchers for in-service professional development on topics from dyslexia to math.

As teachers learn more about the realities of educational neuroscience, so neuroscientists are trying to learn more about teachers.

"This is really the other 50 percent of education," said Vanessa Rodriguez, a Harvard doctoral student and researcher. Harvard's Mind, Brain, and Education program is developing a model of the "teaching brain" by scanning 10 to 15 veteran teachers of kindergarten through high school.

"Once we have the teaching brain and the learning brain, we can start to look at the interaction of the two," Ms. Rodriguez said. "Understanding teaching can help us understand learning better."

Vol. 31, Issue 33, Pages 16-17

Published in Print: June 6, 2012, as Teachers Need Lessons in Neuroscience, Experts Say
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