Early Childhood

Project Aims to Bridge Neuroscience and Schools

By Christina A. Samuels — October 07, 2008 | Corrected: February 22, 2019 6 min read
Kira Alley and Nicholas Goodwin play a counting game as part of the Tools of the Mind program at Norma Anderson Preschool in Wheat Ridge, Colo.
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Corrected: A previous version of this article gave an incorrect figure for the amount of money the Neuro-Education Initiative has been granted by the Brain Science Institute at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. The initiative has been given $100,000 over two years.

When children with ADHD tackle a simple task—pressing a button when a green spaceship appears on a screen, but holding back when a red spaceship pops up—their brains react differently from those of their peers without the condition.

Using imaging technology that can probe the deepest workings of the brain, researchers have found that children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder are using less of a certain part of their brains to hold back their itchy trigger fingers, compared with typically developing children performing the same task.

The hypothesis scientists are testing is that the regions of the brain that control voluntary action function less effectively in children with ADHD. If those children are calling on other parts of their brains to compensate, the effort may leave less room for tasks like planning and organizing.

That information was shared here recently with teachers as part of a Johns Hopkins University initiative aimed at forging direct and practical connections between neuroscience and schools, while avoiding the kind of overreaching that has sometimes strained the credibility of such efforts in the past.

“These are kids for whom the very basic things don’t run on autopilot,” Dr. Martha Bridge Denckla, a neurology professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, told the audience. “They may have to use all of their organization just to get their handwriting to stay on a line.”

Dr. Denckla’s remarks at the Sept. 25 seminar here focused on “executive function”—the brain’s system for initiating, inhibiting, planning, and organizing activities—and its often-talked-about, and misunderstood, role in cognitive development.

Mariale M. Hardiman, the assistant dean of urban school partnerships at Johns Hopkins’ education school and a co-director of its new Neuro-Education Initiative, said teachers are eager for the kind of information about brain development dispensed at the event.

“They see how schools have changed because of high-stakes accountability,” said Ms. Hardiman, who is a former principal of Roland Park Elementary/Middle School in Baltimore. “They really want to know, ‘How do our children learn?’ They want to go deeper than just the curriculum.”

The Neuro-Education Initiative, housed in the education school, is being underwritten by grants from the university’s Brain Science Institute. Funded at $120 million by an anonymous donor, the institute is pulling together researchers from all over Johns Hopkins who deal with subjects related to brain science, including psychology, education, engineering, nursing, and public health, said Richard L. Huganir, a co-director of the institute.

“The idea is to get everyone talking to each other,” he said.

The institute has granted $100,000 over two years to the Neuro-Education Initiative. As a part of the initiative, the Johns Hopkins education school is launching a 15-credit graduate certificate for educators on “mind, brain, and teaching.” Participants in the program will review current research and its intersection with evidence-based instruction.

Fostering the new insights that can come from teacher-researcher interaction was at the top of the agenda at the seminar, which drew more than 200 educators and other school professionals.

Understanding that children with ADHD have to use a lot of cognitive function to inhibit themselves, for example, has implications for teachers looking for ways to successfully adapt their classrooms for students with the multifaceted condition.

One simple suggestion that Dr. Denckla offered was for teachers to think about whether handwriting is an essential part of a lesson plan. Some children might do better with keyboards, or with human aides serving as scribes, she suggested.

Giving a Grounding

The initiative is a “terrific idea,” said Dr. Marilyn Albert, the director of the division of cognitive neuroscience at Johns Hopkins’ medical school. She joined Dr. Denckla during the seminar in making a presentation on executive function and memory. “We know a lot about how the brain works, and some of it will be useful for teachers,” Dr. Albert added. “I think they should be doing much more of this.”

The challenge for neurologists is distilling the research into an accessible form. At the same time, educators and researchers have to be wary of overstated claims.

Some groups have used the language of brain science to give a veneer of legitimacy to products whose effectiveness may not be validated, Dr. Denckla said.

In an interview, Ms. Hardiman cited the so-called “Mozart effect,” a research finding from a study in the early 1990s that led some people to believe that listening to Mozart’s music alone could boost a child’s IQ. The term was trademarked by a music critic and teacher, Don Campbell, and is now used to sell a variety of products. Though some states started distributing classical music CDs to the parents of newborns, researchers now agree that listening to Mozart does not increase general intelligence.

“We want to be correct within the research and not stretch it,” Ms. Hardiman said. “And we want to give people the grounding. If they see a product that says your kids can improve their executive function, we want them to know, what is executive function?”

The Neuro-Education Initiative had its genesis as a working group of the Brain Science Institute in early 2007. After it received a grant and moved to the education school, the initiative started several different activities, including an informal lunch gathering this past summer that brought together researchers from different Johns Hopkins departments to talk about their findings, the recent seminar on executive function, and a national conference scheduled for May on learning, arts, and the brain.

‘Brain Targets’

The work Ms. Hardiman is doing now with the university is an expansion of a project she began during her tenure as a principal, when she was working toward her doctorate from Johns Hopkins.

In 2003, she wrote Connecting Brain-Research With Effective Teaching: The Brain-Targeted Teaching Model, and she has presented seminars on the model around the country.

The model demonstrates yet another way that neuroscience can be tied to instruction, by saying that the school environment and lessons should be geared to meet six “brain targets.”

For example, “creating a positive learning environment and eliminating factors that cause stress” is one brain target, as described in the book. Another target, the book says, is “develop[ing] ways to ‘hardwire’ important content through diverse and creative lessons, including the frequent integration of the arts into instructional activities.”

Teachers at Roland Park Elementary/Middle School say that their own increased knowledge of the neurological underpinnings of learning has made a positive difference in their teaching.

Amanda Barnes, who teaches enriched math and reading to 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders, said that what she learned only reinforced her natural instincts, such as her enjoyment in using a hands-on approach to lessons.

“I realized that actually meant something, and I do those things already,” she said. “There’s actual research behind it. Some people may call this fluff, but when they get into [Hardiman’s model], they find out it’s very research-based.”

Clare O’Malley Grizzard, the arts-integration specialist and fine arts coordinator at Roland Park, helps train new teachers in the brain-targeted teaching model created by Ms. Hardiman. But making sure the lessons sink in is a challenge. Neurology shows that memories are retained when they are linked with emotion, but “dancing fractions is really not going to make the idea of fractions better understood,” Ms. Grizzard said.

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A version of this article appeared in the October 08, 2008 edition of Education Week as Project Aims to Bridge Neuroscience and Schools


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