You are here


Mind Matters

What brain-based research means for educators and for the future of math, language arts, foreign languages.

We remember that Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492; that Jimmy's father, the fire chief, showed us how to "Stop, Drop and Roll"; and that crabs shed their shells, a lesson we learned while soaking in the briny smell of salt water during a fourth-grade field trip to the aquarium.

What happened, then, to all those vocabulary words, spelling lists and dates of Roman conquests we knew up, down and inside out the night before a quiz or test? A week later, it seemed we'd already forgotten them.

Today, brain research is starting to confirm what many educators have known intuitively for years: Children learn better and remember more when their studies are mixed with music and drama, experience, emotion and real-world context. The more regions of the brain that are involved and the more we engage our emotions, the more means we have for recalling information.

This research, though still in its infancy, could influence everything from how teachers deliver lessons in the classroom to how new school buildings are designed to how often recess is scheduled. It's also throwing old myths out the window: that we use only 10 percent of our brains and that children are either right-brained or left-brained, says Pat Wolfe, author, educational consultant and the founder of Napa, Calif.-based Mind Matters.


Ninety percent of what scientists know about the brain has been discovered in the past decade, and the technology continues to change. Although few studies have had direct applications for the classroom, there is already a great deal of excitement surrounding the information being generated. Enterprises such as Scientific Learning Inc. and The Brain Store Publishing Co. sponsor Web sites and sell software and books based on research, as well as hold yearly conferences to bring together neuroscientists and educators. During the past five years, hundreds of school districts across the country have made steps to thoroughly implement curriculums that include some recognition of how children learn. Another 5,000 to 15,000 are exploring the idea, says Eric Jensen, Brain Store co-founder.

"We have only just started to understand how the brain works," Jensen says. "But we can't wait a hundred years until someone can imbed a chip in a volunteer student and then do five years of research. We have enough circumstantial evidence to proceed."

Today, various technologies are giving scientists a peek at the inner workings of the brain. Among the most widely used is functional magnetic resonance imaging, which makes it possible to map activity in the brain while a subject is performing a specific task, such as counting backward from 10 or identifying different colors. Using powerful magnets and radio signals, fMRI scanners can detect where blood is rich in oxygen-signifying an area of the brain that is working. The resulting image can help scientists map out what parts of the brain are used for speech, vision, auditory and motor skills and more.

So what exactly will this technology do for education? "Brain research is not the be all and end all that's going to solve all our education problems," says Renate Nummela Caine, author of The Brain, Education and the Competitive Edge. "But it is going to make us work harder and understand better."


Brain research shows that learning mathematics isn't a matter of memorizing times tables or geometric theorems, says Diane Ronis, a professor of education at Southern Connecticut State University and author of Brain-Compatible Mathematics. "It's a matter of connecting new learning to previous learning and experience, and when we do that, it's very natural and very enduring," she says. Often, textbook learning is "completely disassociated with the real world. Only in the classroom do we have discrete and separate subjects."

During her 17 years as a middle and high school math teacher, Ronis says she came across few textbooks that engaged students or demonstrated everyday applications for mathematics. So, she created her own "brain-based" exercises that pulled in geography, social studies, writing and a host of other subjects. One activity asks students to determine the annual after-tax payment over a 20-year period to four people who split a winning lottery ticket. The students found they would end up with $8,000 a year, then scouted out consumer guides and dealerships to determine which cars (if any) they could afford to buy. "Students were retaining the knowledge and loved being in class," Ronis says.

Last spring, researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in collaboration with Stansilas Dehaene, a well-known French cognitive neuroscientist, used brain imaging techniques to determine how the brain processes various mathematical problems. Exact calculations lit up the subjects' left frontal lobe, the brain area active in verbal memory tasks, while estimation activated the parietal lobe of the brain, an area associated with visual and spatial relationships. The parietal lobe is also responsible for finger control, and the findings could explain why children learning exact arithmetic often count on their fingers.


Oakland, Calif.-based Scientific Learning Corp. hit pay dirt when co-founder Michael Merzenich, a professor and neuroscientist, helped develop Fast ForWord, a reading program based on the idea that the brain can rewire itself through intense training. According to Merzenich, struggling readers often have an auditory processing disorder that makes it hard for them to distinguish among phonemes, the basic building blocks of language; the distinct sounds fly by so fast in speech, some kids can't match them up with the letters they see on a page.

School districts in New York, Ohio and Texas have reported gains on state standardized tests after using Fast ForWord. At Stanford University, Gabrieli studied a group of 20 10-year-olds, half of them poor readers and half of them average readers. When the software was used 100 minutes a day, five days a week for a number of weeks, fMRI scans showed that the "poor readers' brains normalized during the course of the program," Gabrieli says. The scans also indicated that the poor readers had learned to draw resources from other areas of the brain, possibly to compensate for their weaknesses.

In Clayton County (Ga.) Public Schools, staff development coordinator Bobbi Ford demonstrates ways to teach reading "in a brain-friendly way." Ford says vocabulary words must be placed in context for students to understand and remember them. To teach a word like "sorbet," for example, Ford puts the dictionary aside and brings in a pint of the smooth stuff, tossing out synonyms like ice cream, yogurt and slushy. She also encourages small group learning, activities in which kids teach one another, and "word wheels" that relate words like "minute" to kid-friendly jargon like "teensy-weensy" and "super-small." It sounds like a lot more work, but changing instruction is not so difficult when teachers "see the payoff," Ford says.


A teacher introduces a lesson about the weather by pasting illustrations on the blackboard. Within a short period of time, kindergartners are chattering easily in Spanish about sunny days and cloudy ones. What made it happen?

"The idea is that the brain has a certain plasticity during the earlier years and can be molded and shaped more readily," says Fred Genesee, a professor of psychology at McGill University in Montreal and a leading expert on bilingual education. Research also shows that kids can learn a second language inductively-without formal instruction-even as they're learning their first.

Neuroscientists at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York compared the fMRI scans of people as they recited something in English and then in a foreign language. Volunteers who'd picked up a second language in childhood displayed activity in a part of the brain area considered crucial for language use. Meanwhile, volunteers who had learned a second language as teenagers displayed activity in a different area of the brain when using their second tongue.

"As you get older, it probably is true that you are going to use different areas of the brain to pull in other resources and experiences," says Genesee, but that doesn't preclude seventh- and eighth-graders from learning "ciao" and "bonjour," he adds. "It is very, very clear in the research that when it comes to foreign language instruction in schools, you can be very effective with older learners," Genesee says, "sometimes as effective as you can be with younger ones."

In 1997, educators at Johnston (Iowa) Community School District formed a committee to study the creation of a K-6 foreign language program to capitalize on this early "window," according to Associate Superintendent Roger Scott. "We'll use foreign language to teach current content, so we won't be taking away time from other instruction," Scott says. For example, kids might learn the French words for "apple" and "orange" while an instructor demonstrates the principles of density by dropping the pieces of fruit in a bowl to see if they sink or float.


When money is tight, school districts often show drama and music teachers the door.

Research now shows that participation in the arts promotes the development of motor skills, memory and spatial reasoning-all of which can help kids perform better in a variety of subjects, according to Jensen, who authored the book Arts with the Brain in Mind. The arts also promote attendance, make students better team players and encourage creativity, Jensen says.

Students don't have to be the one strumming a guitar, sketching a drawing or playing the lead in a theater production; just watching the arts evokes emotions like fear, excitement and suspense, explains Robert Sylwester, a professor emeritus of education at the University of Oregon. "Emotion is a kind of biological thermostat; it arouses and alerts us to something our brain ought to pay attention to, whether it's danger or an opportunity," he says. "Emotion drives attention and attention drives learning."

Music has been the most studied of the arts. Gordon Shaw, a neuroscientist known for his discovery of the "Mozart Effect," found in his research that students who took piano keyboard lessons and worked on targeted math software greatly increased their spatial reasoning and their ability to solve mathematical problems involving reasoning, fractions and symmetry.

At the University of California, James Catterall, a professor at the university, stumbled upon a group of 60 fourth-graders who had three years of piano training five days a week, thanks to a jazz musician/teacher who secured keyboards for the classroom through a private foundation. Catterall plans to administer spatial reasoning and mathematics tests to the 60 piano players and to a control group of 120 students. He'll then use fMRI scans to measure brain activity among a select group of students. The expectation is that students who had the music instruction will show greater spatial reasoning.


At Stanford University, psychology professor John Gabrieli uses fMRIs to examine the minds of children who fidget in their seats and fiddle with their pens. "We ask the child to press a button every time a letter appears, except when the letter X appears, then they should not press," Gabrieli explains. "It's the kind of task children don't do as well as adults because there's a tendency to press the button again. It's considerably more difficult for a child with attention deficit disorder because when they have an impulse to do something, it's harder for them to stop."

Brain imaging technology could influence how teachers reach out to students with attention deficit disorder, auditory and speech disorders and learning disabilities. For example, at Yale University, researchers have discovered that, compared to normal readers, dyslexic children use a different part of the brain to read, and show less activity in the brain region that links print skills to the brain's language areas. "We can use brain scans to help us identify students whose difficulties are biological and brain-based, rather than considering that they have an attitude problem, that they lack motivation, that they're lazy, stupid and slow," Jensen says.

Jennifer K. Covino,, is a contributing editor.