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|A Fresh Look at Brain-Based Education|
It has been more than 20 years since it was first suggested that there could be connections between brain function and educational practice. In the face of all the evidence that has now accumulated to support this notion, Mr. Jensen advocates that educators take full advantage of the relevant knowledge from a variety of scientific disciplines.
By Eric P. Jensen
TEN YEARS ago John Bruer, executive administrator of the James S. McDonnell Foundation, began a series of articles critical of brain-based education. They included "Education and the Brain: A Bridge Too Far" (1997), "In Search of . . . Brain-Based Education" (1999), and, most recently, "On the Implications of Neuroscience Research for Science Teaching and Learning: Are There Any?" (2006).1 Bruer argued that educators should ignore neuroscience and focus on what psychologists and cognitive scientists have already discovered about teaching and learning. His message to educators was "hands off the brain research," and he predicted it would be 25 years before we would see practical classroom applications of the new brain research. Bruer linked brain-based education with tabloid mythology by announcing that, if brain-based education is true, then "the pyramids were built by aliens -- to house Elvis."2
Because of Bruer's and others' critiques, many educators decided that they were simply not capable of understanding how our brain works. Other educators may have decided that neuroscience has nothing to offer and that the prudent path would be simply to ignore the brain research for now and follow the yellow brick road to No Child Left Behind. Maybe some went so far as to say, "What's the brain got to do with learning?" But brain-based education has withstood the test of time, and an accumulating body of empirical and experiential evidence confirms the validity of the new model.
Many educationally significant, even profound, brain-based discoveries have occurred in recent years, such as that of neurogenesis, the production of new neurons in the human brain. It is highly likely that these discoveries would have been ignored if the education profession hadn't been primed, alerted, and actively monitoring cognitive neuroscience research and contemplating its implications and applications. Here, I wish to discuss how understanding the brain and the complementary research can have practical educational applications. I will make a case that narrowing the discussion to only neurobiology (and excluding other brain-related sciences) diminishes the opportunity for all of us to learn about how we learn and about better ways to teach. In addition, I will show how the synergy of biology, cognitive science, and education can support better education with direct application to schools.
In 1983 a new model was introduced that established connections between brain function and educational practice. In a groundbreaking book, Human Brain, Human Learning, Leslie Hart argued, among other things, that cognitive processes were significantly impaired by classroom threat.3 While not an earthshaking conclusion, the gauntlet was thrown down, as if to say, "If we ignore how the student brain works, we will risk student success." Many have tied brain function to new models either of thinking or of classroom pedagogy.4 A field has emerged known as "brain-based" education, and it has now been well over 20 years since this "connect the dots" approach began. In a nutshell, brain-based education says, "Everything we do uses our brain; let's learn more about it and apply that knowledge."
A discussion of this topic could fill books, but the focus here will be on two key issues. First, how can we define the terms, scope, and role of brain research in education? That is, what are the disciplines and relevant issues that should concern educators? These issues are multidisciplinary. Evidence will show that "brain-based" is not a loner's fantasy or narrow-field model; it's a significant educational paradigm of the 21st century. Second, what is the evidence, if any, that brain research can actually help educators do our job better? Is there now credibility to this burgeoning field? What issues have critics raised? Can the brain-based advocates respond to the critics in an empirical way?
Defining Brain-Based Education
Let's start this discussion with a simple but essential premise: the brain is intimately involved in and connected with everything educators and students do at school. Any disconnect is a recipe for frustration and potential disaster. Brain-based education is best understood in three words: engagement, strategies, and principles. Brain-based education is the "engagement of strategies based on principles derived from an understanding of the brain." Notice this definition does not say, "based on strategies given to us by neuroscientists." That's not appropriate. Notice it does not say, "based on strategies exclusively from neuroscience and no other discipline." The question is, Are the approaches and strategies based on solid research from brain-related disciplines, or are they based on myths, a well-meaning mentor teacher, or "junk science"? We would expect an educator to be able to support the use of a particular classroom strategy with scientific reasoning or studies.
Each educator ought to be professional enough to say, "Here's why I do what I do." I would ask: Is the person actually engaged in using what he or she knows, or does he or she simply have knowledge about it without actually using it? Are teachers using strategies based on the science of how our brain works? Brain-based education is about the professionalism of knowing why one strategy is used instead of another. The science is based on what we know about how our brain works. It's the professionalism to be research-based in one's practices. Keep in mind that if you don't know why you do what you do, it's less purposeful and less professional. It is probably your collected, refined wisdom. Nothing wrong with that, but some "collected, refined wisdom" has led to some bad teaching, too.
While I have, for years, advocated "brain-based" education, I never have promoted it as the "exclusive" discipline for schools to consider. That's narrow-minded. On the other hand, the brain is involved in everything we do at school. To ignore it would be irresponsible. Thus an appropriate question is, Where exactly is this research coming from?
The Broader Scope of Brain-Based Education
Brain-based education has evolved over the years. Initially it seemed focused on establishing a vocabulary with which to understand the new knowledge. As a result, many of us heard for the first time about axons, dendrites, serotonin, dopamine, the hippocampus, and the amygdala. That was the "first generation" of brain basics, the generation that introduced a working platform for today's generation. There was no harm in doing that, but knowing a few words from a neuroscience textbook certainly doesn't make anyone a better teacher. Times have changed. The brain-based movement has moved on from its infancy of new words and pretty brain scans.
Today's knowledge base comes from a rapidly emerging set of brain-related disciplines. It isn't published in just highly regarded journals such as Nature, Science, and the Journal of Neuroscience. Every people-related discipline takes account of the brain. As an example, psychiatry is now guided by the journal Biological Psychiatry, and nutrition is better understood by reading the journal Nutritional Neuroscience. Sociology is guided by the journal Social Neuroscience. Some critics assert that sociology, physical fitness, psychiatry, nutrition, psychology, and cognitive science are not "brain-based." That's absurd, because if you remove the brain's role from any of those disciplines, there would be no discipline. There is no separation of brain, mind, body, feelings, social contacts, or their respective environments. That assertion is old-school, "turf-based," and outdated. If the research involves the brain in any way, it is "brain-based." The brain is involved in everything we do.
The current model of brain-based education is highly interdisciplinary. Antonio Damasio, the Van Allen Distinguished Professor and head of the department of neurology at the University of Iowa Medical Center and an adjunct professor at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, says, "The relation between brain systems and complex cognition and behavior, can only be explained satisfactorily by a comprehensive blend of theories and facts related to all the levels of organization of the nervous system, from molecules, and cells and circuits, to large-scale systems and physical and social environments. . . . We must beware of explanations that rely on data from one single level, whatever the level may be."5 Any single discipline, even cognitive neuroscience, should be buttressed by other disciplines. While earlier writings did not reflect it, today we know that brain-based learning cannot be founded on neuroscience; we have learned that it requires a multidisciplinary approach.
The Brain Is Our Common Denominator
Today, many of the school- and learning-related disciplines are looking to the brain for answers. There's no separating the role of the brain and the influence of classroom groupings, lunchroom foods, school architecture, mandated curricula, and state assessments. Each of them affects the brain, and our brain affects each of them. Schools, assessment, environments, and instruction are not bound by one discipline, such as cognitive science, but by multiple disciplines. In short, schools work to the degree that the brains in the schools are working well. When there's a mismatch between the brain and the environment, something at a school will suffer.
Schools present countless opportunities to affect students' brains. Such issues as stress, exercise, nutrition, and social conditions are all relevant, brain-based issues that affect cognition, attention, classroom discipline, attendance, and memory. Our new understanding is that every school day changes the student's brain in some way. Once we make those connections, we can make choices in how we prioritize policies and strategies. Here are some of the powerful connections for educators to make.
1. The human brain can and does grow new neurons. Many survive and become functional. We now know that new neurons are highly correlated with memory, mood, and learning. Of interest to educators is that this process can be regulated by our everyday behaviors. Specifically, it can be enhanced by exercise, lower levels of stress, and good nutrition. Schools can and should influence these variables. This discovery came straight from neuroscientists Gerd Kempermann and Fred Gage.6
2. Social conditions influence our brain in ways we didn't know before. The discovery of mirror neurons by Giacomo Rizzolatti and his colleagues at the University of Parma in Italy suggests a vehicle for an imitative reciprocity in our brain.7 This emerging discipline is explored in Social Neuroscience, a new academic journal exploring how social conditions affect the brain. School behaviors are highly social experiences, which become encoded through our sense of reward, acceptance, pain, pleasure, coherence, affinity, and stress. This understanding suggests that we be more active in managing the social environment of students, because students are more affected by it than we thought. It may unlock clues to those with autism, since their mirror neurons are inactive. This discovery suggests that schools should not rely on random social grouping and should work to strengthen prosocial conditions.
3. The ability of the brain to rewire and remap itself by means of neuroplasticity is profound. The new Journal of Neuroplasticity explores these and related issues. Schools can influence this process through skill-building, reading, meditation, the arts, career and technical education, and thinking skills that build student success. Neuroscientists Michael Merzenich and Paula Tallal verified that when the correct skill-building protocol is used, educators can make positive and significant changes in our brains in a short time.8 Without understanding the "rules for how our brain changes," educators can waste time and money, and students will fall through the cracks.
4. Chronic stress is a very real issue at schools for both staff and students. Homeostasis is no longer a guaranteed "set point." The discovery championed by neuroscientist Bruce McEwen is that a revised metabolic state called "allostasis" is an adjusted new baseline for stress that is evident in the brains of those with anxiety and stress disorders.9 These pathogenic allostatic stress loads are becoming increasingly common and have serious health, learning, and behavior risks. This issue affects attendance, memory, social skills, and cognition. Acute and chronic stress is explored in The International Journal of Stress Management, The Journal of Anxiety, The Journal of Traumatic Stress, and Stress.
5. The old-school view was that either environment or genes decided the outcomes for a student. We now know that there's a third option: gene expression. This is the capacity of our genes to respond to chronic or acute environmental input. This new understanding highlights a new vehicle for change in our students. Neuroscientists Bruce Lipton and Ernest Rossi have written about how our everyday behaviors can influence gene expression.10 New journals called Gene Expression, Gene Expression Patterns, and Nature Genetics explore the mechanisms for epigenetic (outside of genes) changes. Evidence suggests that gene expression can be regulated by what we do at schools and that this can enhance or harm long-term change prospects.
6. Good nutrition is about far more than avoiding obesity. The journals Nutritional Neuroscience and the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition explore the effects on our brain of what we eat. The effects on cognition, memory, attention, stress, and even intelligence are now emerging. Schools that pay attention to nutrition and cognition (not just obesity) will probably support better student achievement.
7. The role of the arts in schools continues to come under great scrutiny. Five neuroscience departments and universities (University of Oregon, Harvard University, University of Michigan, Dartmouth College, and Stanford University) currently have projects studying the impact of the arts on the brain. Arts and Neuroscience is a new journal that tracks the connections being made by researchers. This is a serious topic for neuroscience, and it should be for educators also. Issues being explored are whether the arts have transfer value and the possibility of developmentally sensitive periods for the arts.
8. The current high-stakes testing environment means some educators are eliminating recess, play, or physical education from the daily agendas. The value of exercise to the brain was highlighted in a recent cover story in Newsweek. More important, there are many studies examining this connection in The Journal of Exercise, Pediatric Exercise Science, and The Journal of Exercise Physiology Online. The weight of the evidence is that exercise is strongly correlated with increased brain mass, better cognition, mood regulation, and new cell production. This information was unknown a generation ago.
9. Stunning strides have been made in the rehabilitation of brain-based disorders, including fetal alcohol syndrome, autism, retardation, strokes, and spinal cord injury. It is now clear that aggressive behavioral therapies, new drugs, and stem cell implantation can be used to influence, regulate, and repair brain-based disorders. The Journal of Rehabilitation and The International Journal of Rehabilitation Research showcase innovations suggesting that special education students may be able to improve far more than we once thought.
10. The discovery that environments alter our brains is profound. This research goes back decades to the early work of the first trailblazing biological psychologists: Mark Rosenzweig at the University of California, Berkeley, and Bill Greenough at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. In fact, a new collaboration has emerged between neuroscientists and architects. "The mission of the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture" according to the group's website, "is to promote and advance knowledge that links neuroscience research to a growing understanding of human responses to the built environment." This is highly relevant for administrators and policy makers who are responsible for school building designs.
Since our brain is involved in everything we do, the next question is, Is our brain fixed, or is it malleable? Is our brain shaped by experience? An overwhelming body of evidence shows our brain is altered by everyday experiences, such as learning to read, learning vocabulary, studying for tests, or learning to play a musical instrument.11 Studies confirm the success of software programs that use the rules of brain plasticity to retrain the visual and auditory systems to improve attention, hearing, and reading.12 Therefore, it stands to reason that altering our experiences will alter our brain. This is a simple but profound syllogism: our brain is involved in all we do, our brain changes from experience, therefore our experiences at school will change our brain in some way. Instead of narrowing the discussion about brain research in education to dendrites and axons, a contemporary discussion would include a wider array of topics. Brain-based education says that we use evidence from all disciplines to enhance the brains of our students. The brain is involved with everything we do at school, and educators who understand take this fact into consideration in the decision-making process.