School & District Management

Educational Forecasting

By Debra Viadero — November 16, 2004 8 min read
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A new generation of study programs worldwide is examining the links between brain science and children's learning problems and skills.

It’s a scenario that sounds like something right out of science fiction.

Picture a busy hospital nursery. As nurses gently lift the newborns from their cribs, scientists attach electrodes to the tiny babies’ heads. As the infants listen to sounds, the electrodes take quick, painless measurements of their brains’ electrical activity.

The results then predict which babies will have trouble learning to read eight years later and which ones will become master readers.

There is no fiction in this science, though. In dozens of experiments around the world, researchers have already used this technology to predict dyslexia in children with 80 percent accuracy. It’s just a matter of time, experts say, before these and other new innovations emerging from mind-brain research find their way into schools.

“I think, within a few years, families will show up in schools with neurological data, maybe even genetic information, and they’re going to say, ‘I want you to make use of this in educating my kids,’ ” says Howard Gardner, a professor of cognition and education at Harvard University, which held an international conference here last month on mind, brain, and education studies. “If educators do not know how to make sense of this data, I think education runs the risk of becoming subsumed by some sort of medical profession.”

Helping to bridge that gap between the laboratory and the classroom is one aim of a new generation of study programs popping up at universities in the United States and abroad. Forging a new study frontier at the crossroads of biology, psychology, and education, such programs have begun over the past decade at Harvard; Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H.; Tufts University in Medford, Mass.; and Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., to name a few places. By bringing multiple academic fields to bear in studying the brain, these scientists hope to fashion cutting-edge research findings into applications educators can use to help children learn.

“So far, this research hasn’t been used very well in educational settings,” says Kurt W. Fischer, the Harvard professor who started the graduate school of education’s Mind, Brain, and Education program three years ago. “What we’re trying to do is to train people to bring all these perspectives together.”

Yet, while scholars agree that this emerging interdisciplinary field holds practical promise, they also caution educators against embracing new brain-science findings too eagerly.

“The idea that we’re finally going to get to the bottom of things by examining the brain processes is really appealing,” says Mark O. Seidenberg, a professor of psychology and cognitive neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “[But] there’s enormous potential that prematurely turning this into educational applications could be disastrous.”

Scholars who attended the Harvard conference here last month say their wariness is born of experience. The lure of brain science has led educators and policymakers astray before.

Brain-Science Product Debate

The developers of Fast ForWord, a computer-based program that helps children sharpen auditory skills that may be key to reading, hail the program as one of the early educational success stories of brain-science research.

The software, now used by 375,000 students around the country, was developed by neuroscientists Paula Tallal of New Jersey’s Rutgers University, and Michael Merzenich of the University of California, San Francisco. Built on the theory that subtle auditory deficits may be a root cause of reading problems, the program uses games and drills to help students strengthen those skills.

Encouraged by studies showing that the program could produce marked gains in language skills in just a few months, the developers in 1996 formed Learning Sciences Corp., a publicly traded San Francisco-based company, to market Fast ForWord and other educational products.

But the editors of Nature Neuroscience—a New York City-based national magazine published by the Nature Publishing Group—questioned in an editorial in January 2004 whether the researchers had moved too far, too fast, to get their program into schools.

“Although these are promising results, which have been replicated using related methods in other laboratories, studies in peer-reviewed publications have had a relatively small number of subjects compared with those that would be required for a new drug,” the editors wrote. “There may be various reasons why children have trouble reading.”

However, Tallal says it’s unreasonable to expect educational products to meet the same testing standards the federal government sets for drugs.

“There are not any studies similar to Food and Drug Administration-type studies for any educational products, including textbooks, curricula, tests,” she says. “If something is useful and has stood the test of time, teachers are going to want to use it.”

—Debra Viadero

Take the studies in the early 1990s that suggested classical music and piano lessons could improve students’ performance on certain kinds of mathematical tasks. Those findings prompted then-Gov. Zell Miller of Georgia to launch a program to distribute classical-music cassettes or compact discs to all parents of newborns in his state in the hope of making babies smarter. The problem, says Fischer, was that some of the studies Miller cited have been conducted only with college-age students—and they measured only short-term effects, such as how performance on spatial sorts of mathematical tasks usually improved right after listening to classical music.

Fischer adds in a paper on the topic, “Here’s another myth: otherwise intelligent school administrators have said they need to repaint classrooms in pastel colors because brain-based research indicated that children learn better in a pastel environment.”

That’s just “nonsense,” Fischer says in the paper.

Nonetheless, the hope that brain science will deliver on its educational promise is getting buoyed by the advent of new technology that makes it much easier to chart brain activity in children. Two decades ago, researchers commonly relied on Positron Emission Tomography, or PET scans, for a window on how the brain functions. PET scans measure rates and areas of glucose metabolism in the brain. But they are considered too invasive for use on children because they require ingesting radioactive substances.

Later on, functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, or fMRI, scans offered researchers a less risky alternative to PET scans. But because that technique—which uses radio waves and a strong magnetic field to map the brain’s blood flow and oxygenation rates—requires subjects to remain perfectly still, researchers found it difficult to use with squirming children.

New techniques, however, now permit researchers to track brain activity in people as they move. Near Infrared Spectroscopy, for instance, takes a reading of the brain’s blood oxidation levels by directing light to specific areas of the brain through optical fibers.

“Now, we’re accumulating a fast-growing base of knowledge on how the brain learns to read, the relationship between genes and the environment, and how the brain processes learning,” says Tami Katzir, an assistant education professor at Harvard who helped organize the Oct. 6-8 conference. “We also have new technology to identify children potentially at risk.”

The hospital-nursery experiment offers a case in point. In that study, University of Louisville researcher Dennis L. Molfese, who was at Southern Illinois University at the time, monitored the size and speed of the electrical responses in newborns’ brains as they listened to recorded speech and nonspeech sounds. Molfese also tracked the children for eight years, giving them IQ and reading-comprehension tests every two years.

What he and his research partners found was that most of the babies who were eventually labeled dyslexic by age 8 had also exhibited abnormal brainwave patterns 36 hours after birth.

The hope that brain science will deliver on its educational promise is getting buoyed by the advent of new technology that makes it much easier to chart brain activity in children.

Molfese says his work, which began in the 1980s, has since been replicated in 30 other studies around the world. He is now tracking 400 children through age 13 to determine whether early remedial help can head off later reading problems and alter brainwave patterns.

“If you can identify a baby at birth who’s at risk for a disability, you can start intervention much earlier than you do now,” says Molfese, who chairs the department of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Louisville. “Our hope is that this will eventually get picked up by hospitals.”

But Molfese’s method, which relies on electrodes to record changes in electrical activity taking place on the surface of the brain, also tagged a few children who never developed reading difficulties. That worries some researchers, who fear that a possible downside to the identification of biology-based markers for learning problems is that children could be misidentified or become stigmatized in school.

Molfese’s research is among a growing body of work in the field that is beginning to identify predictors of later learning problems. At nearby Tufts University’s center for reading and language development, for instance, Director Maryanne Wolf, a professor of child development, and her colleagues suggest kindergartners who are slower than average at naming letters and objects may also be prone to problems with reading fluency in 1st and 2nd grade.

She says that her findings run counter to research focusing on children’s awareness of the basic sounds that make up speech—or phonemes—as the main predictor of reading problems. Her work suggests, instead, that children’s reading deficits could stem from different sources, and she is developing and testing an intervention program, called RAVE-O, that attempts to address several of them. The program name stands for retrieval, automacity, vocabulary elaboration, and orthography—which represent elements related to reading fluency.

Wolf also uses functional MRI techniques to back up her findings and provide fodder for further study.

A growing body of work in the field is beginning to identify predictors of later learning problems.

So far, those studies are showing that the areas of the brain that are activated when children are performing naming-speed tasks, such as calling out the names of 50 letters displayed in rows as quickly as they can, are different from the brain regions that get busy when children are given phonological activities to do. This suggests that reading may indeed be more complex than most research has shown so far.

“In some ways, we are cognitive cartographers,” Wolf says, “and we are making ever more precise maps.”

Even so, John T. Bruer, a skeptic on the practicality of brain science in the classroom, says it may be 20 years before schools can make use of this kind of new knowledge. In the meantime, educators should look instead to cognitive psychology for proven classroom interventions and learning theories, says Bruer, who is the president of the St. Louis-based James S. McDonnell Foundation, a major underwriter of research in cognitive science, a branch of psychology that focuses on human thinking and learning. He calls for caution because schools that embrace unproven brain-science findings could develop some very misguided educational programs.

Says Bruer: “There are a lot of half-baked ideas about brain-based education floating around.”

Still, Harvard’s Fischer says that doesn’t mean brain researchers shouldn’t try to link up with other disciplines to build practices and interventions that educators can use.

“Louis Pasteur wasn’t deterred,” Fischer points out, citing the pioneering French bacteriologist. “And neither are we.”

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A version of this article appeared in the November 17, 2004 edition of Education Week as Educational Forecasting

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