What educators can learn from brain research

As technology advances, new discoveries based on brain mapping are helping researchers understand how students learn. And those discoveries, in turn, are enriching and informing classroom practices in a growing number of schools.

Thanks to functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI)–a type of non-invasive, low-radiation brain scan that measures neural activity in response to certain stimuli, and the most recently developed forms of neuroimaging–researchers are learning more about how we learn than many thought possible.

For example, perhaps the most shocking revelation in neuroscience is that the brain’s structure is more flexible than previously thought–a concept called neuroplasticity, meaning that the brain can still learn new concepts after various ages, and that every student can be taught many different ways. In a sense, the brain can be rewired.

Other studies have begun to measure reading aptitudes, the causes of and workings of attention-deficit disorder, and the way the brain processes mathematics.

Yet, with all this new research, it’s important to remember that a single study alone is not definitive–and the best research is tied to classroom practice.

Michael Atherton, a researcher in the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Minnesota, believes educators should look only at specific types of studies when considering implementation strategies.

“Education is an applied field, like engineering,” said Atherton. “If there’s no connection to practice, then that research is best left to basic researchers in the cognitive neurosciences.”

In Atherton’s report titled “Education and fMRI: Promise and Cautions,” he describes detailed research techniques used in fMRI studies as the foundation for a methodological framework that can be used by educators to assess how applicable a study might be for classroom implementation.

This framework has three progressive stages:

– Discovery. This type of study is a good foundational study, but it’s too broad at its current stage to have any direct implications for education. These studies typically focus on one area of the brain in relation to a specific cognitive function. For example, general intelligence seems to be localized in the lateral front cortex.

– Functional analysis. This type of study moves from a generalization to a more focused study of brain activations. For example, if a discovery study researched which parts of the brain were stimulated while playing chess, the functional analysis study would now investigate how these parts of the brain function differently when someone is a novice or an expert. Another example might try to answer the question: “What is it that good readers do that poor readers do not?” Atherton says educators can derive good understanding from these studies, but they still should be cautious.

Pedagogical evaluation. If studies have shown which activations are associated with high levels of performance, the next phase asks: “Which pedagogical method results in students achieving higher levels of performance?” Studies that can answer this question can be used to guide instructional design, Atherton believes.

Emotions count

Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, assistant professor of education at the Rossier School of Education and assistant professor of psychology at the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California, is a cognitive neuroscientist and educational psychologist who studies the brain bases of emotion, social interaction, and culture and their implications for student development.

She also helps educators understand current research studies and practices.

Thanks to her exploratory, yet detailed, work, she is helping spread the word about how the brain affects social interactions–and policy makers are listening.

In her study, “Neural correlates of admiration and compassion,” Immordino-Yang discovered, through fMRI scans, that when the emotion of admiration is evoked, the entire body is stimulated in response.

“Basically, when you feel admiration, the brain has a heightened self-awareness. This affects the body’s basic performances in a positive way, leading to better overall performance. It’s a startling discovery with many educational implications,” she said.