What educators can learn from brain research

Brain plasticity and reading acquisition

One area where the notion of brain plasticity already is having a profound effect on learning is reading acquisition–and one of the many reading software companies that specializes in implementing neuroscience concepts is Scientific Learning Corp.

The origins of the company go back more than 30 years to the work conducted by research scientists Michael Merzenich and Bill Jenkins at the University of California, San Francisco, and Paula Tallal and Steven Miller at Rutgers University.

Their research collaboration established several key findings: (1) The core cognitive and linguistic attributes that allow a student to learn can be improved through intensive intervention; (2) acoustically modified speech technology can help build a wide range of critical language and reading skills; and (3) computers can be used to create interactive, adaptive learning interventions based on a neuroscience foundation that yield years of growth in as little as a few weeks.

Based on this research, the Fast ForWord family of reading intervention products was created.

In March 1997, after an extensive field trial with 500 children at 35 sites, the first Fast ForWord product, Fast ForWord Language, was launched. Later that year, a second field trial replicated earlier results, showing gains, on average, of one to two years in as little as eight to 12 weeks.

“We know that what works in the lab doesn’t necessarily lend itself well to the classroom. Even after clinical trials, sometimes it just doesn’t work,” said Jenkins. “That’s why it’s taken over 30 years from the research to get this to an actual product, but the results we’ve seen have been worth it.”

According to the company, there are basics to how the brain learns:

– Critical tasks must be practiced at an appropriate frequency and intensity;
– Practice must take place at the right skill level for the individual student–a skill level that continuously adapts to keep the student challenged, but not frustrated;
– Multiple skills must be “cross-trained” at the same time for lasting improvement;
– Rewards must build as a student progresses, maximizing motivation;
– The learning environment must feel “safe,” so students are encouraged to take risks; and
– The content must be age-appropriate and engaging.

For Jenkins, success is measured not just by high-stakes test scores, but by schools’ own internal studies of the software. To date, more than 100 school districts in the United States and Canada have done their own independent evaluation of their student populations for an unbiased assessment.

So far, around 1,000 districts are using Scientific Learning’s products.

Using spatial reasoning to understand math

The nonprofit MIND Research Institute also develops educational software based on the latest neuroscience research–in this case, software that takes a visual approach to learning math.

MIND’s software engages the learner’s spatial temporal reasoning abilities to explain, understand, and solve multi-step problems, the organization says. Aligned with state standards, MIND’s math games are language-independent, self-paced, and use visuals to convey math concepts.

When students make mistakes, the software illustrates the mathematical consequences of those mistakes visually to provide insight into why the action was incorrect. MIND says its software was developed this way because research has shown that basic facts of arithmetic are more effectively learned and retained if the student first understands the conceptual meaning behind the procedures and facts.

Currently, 450 schools across the United States are using MIND’s math software.

Each year, the MIND Research Institute evaluates its entire customer database, and a consistent pattern has emerged: Schools that implement more than 50 percent of the program have fewer students at the lowest performance levels. Schools with student populations below 50 percent proficiency in math to begin with have averaged 15- to 20-point gains in proficiency within two years.

“We believe that neuroscience findings can play a part in the design of educational products and practices, but they shouldn’t be the only basis,” said Matthew R. Peterson, co-founder of the MIND Research Institute and author of MIND’s curriculum. “One needs to conduct lots and lots of field studies of any program with actual teachers and students.”

He added: “From our perspective, it’s an iterative process. We design something. We go out and test it with actual teachers and students. Some of it works, some of it doesn’t work. Sometimes there are gaps that need to be filled. We fix the stuff that doesn’t work and go out and test it again.”


Michael Atherton

Mary Helen Immordino-Yang

Connecting the Mind, Brain, and Education Conference

Johns Hopkins Neuro-Education Initiative

Learning, Arts, and the Brain Summit

MIND Research Institute

Scientific Learning

Note to readers:

Don’t forget to visit the Empowering Education Through Technology resource center. Integrating technology into the classroom can be a challenge without the right guidance. Go to: Empowering Education Through Technology