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School neuroscience unleashes students' brain power

Districts deploy the science of learning to engage students, close achievement gaps and overcome disabilities
Neuroscience-based software has helped educators in Kentucky’s Boone County Schools better pinpoint students’ strengths and weaknesses.
Neuroscience-based software has helped educators in Kentucky’s Boone County Schools better pinpoint students’ strengths and weaknesses.

Educational neuroscience empowers teachers with new insights into how all students learn and holds promise for enhancing special ed, but myths and exaggerations sprouting up around the burgeoning field could lead to children being labeled, which could limit their abilities, experts say.

Recent neuroscience research has debunked some popular modern education concepts but reinforced others as more is understood about how learning changes the brain physically, says Daniel Ansari, a cognitive neuroscientist at The University of Western Ontario and a director of the International Mind, Brain and Education Society.

“The notion of personalized education is consistent with neuroscience, just not in the way we have carved up individual differences—such as visual learner or right- and left-brain learners,” Ansari says. “We need better measures to differentiate learners.”

While scientists and educators work to better determine those standards, district leaders across the country are updating curricula and professional development based on some of the emerging principles of neuroscience.

In Murray County Schools in Georgia, for example, educators have focused on the concept of plasticity—which describes the brain’s capacity to make physical changes when learning—to close the reading gap for low-income students. Teachers have focused as much on reading skills as on bolstering students’ memory, attentiveness and ability to process information—key elements of learning, says

Vickie Reed, superintendent of the district in which three-quarters of students get free or reduced-price lunch.

“The child who we have failed in past years, the child who fell through the cracks—I honestly believe now, it wasn’t that good teachers failed them, we just didn’t have the skills we needed to reconfigure their brain,” Reed says. “But the brain can be reconfigured and, now, we’re going to have fewer children falling through the cracks and more children graduating from high school.”

A ‘thirst for knowledge’

Neuroscience has found that projects and hands-on learning strengthen students’ understanding of certain concepts because multiple senses receive such information. That means the learning is stored in more areas of the brain than when students simply listen to lectures, says Judy Willis, a neurologist who trains teachers across the country in how the brain works.

Make neuroscience work for your district

Quick tips include:

  1. Encourage parents to test reading levels of children as young as possible to identify potential disabilities. Earlier intervention gives children far better chances of catching up.
  2. Train teachers in neuroscientific principles, particularity plasticity—or the way the brain changes physically during learning.
  3. Teach students about neuroscience, so they have greater knowledge about how their brains work and how they can control their own learning.
  4. Have students make predictions about the projects they are working on. It engages them more deeply in the outcome and encourages them to repeat the process.
  5. Make the “perception-action” cycle central to instruction. Students need to make observations and be active during their work.
  6. Use real-world ideas to help students understand difficult concepts, such as having them build model boats to study buoyancy.
  7. Consider neuroscience-based learning software that incorporates the concepts above.
  8. Make time during the day for relaxation sessions so students can rest between subjects. Movement and exercise also provide more oxygen to the brain, which helps in learning.

For example, students may simply memorize a teacher’s lecture on the principle of buoyancy in water but a more effective way of teaching the concept is to have students watch videos, discuss buoyancy in groups, build their own boat, make predictions about its seaworthiness and then test whether it floats.

Having students make predictions about an experiment is critical because it arouses their curiosity and invests them in determining the outcome, she says.

“What they’ve learned is durable because multiple processing systems of the brain are involved,” Willis says. “Each system holds that concept in different parts of the brain, and when students need to remember it the next year, the brain has it stored so well that it’s easier to retrieve.”

Districts using neuroscientific principles should also explain its benefits to students, particularly those who have struggled, she adds. “Neuroplasticity is equal opportunity. The process doesn’t come as quickly to some—there are kids whose brains are more responsive and get neuroplasticity going sooner,” Willis says. “But students need to believe that, because of neuroplasticity, past performance is not a limitation on the future.”

Another key learning concept is the “perception-action” cycle, says Matthew Peterson, co-founder and CEO of MIND Research Institute, which makes instructional math software that features games based on neuroscientific principles.

For instance, when learning to shoot a basketball, a person looks at the basket, then perceives the distance and how their muscles are working when they take the shot. The person watches the path of the ball, and if they miss, they will adjust their stance, re-aim and change the movement of their arms—thus, making a prediction that their new technique will be successful.

“These reciprocal connections are one of the most fundamental ways your brain is wired up, but we’re not taking advantage of it when teachers stand in front of the class and tell students things—there’s no action,” Peterson says.

On the other hand, “action” might be the only part of the cycle operating in a science lab where, for example, a teacher dictates the recipe of an experiment. But when students develop their own hypothesis and make predictions, they will often make mistakes and have to persevere to figure out how to make improvements.

This leads to higher engagement and deeper learning. “When you give students tantalizingly tricky problems to work on at their level, where they can struggle but figure it out on their own without getting help, they get a thirst for challenge,” Peterson says.

Tackling reading disorders

A promising area of educational neuroscience is using brain scans to identify young children who are more likely to develop reading problems, says Daniel Willingham, an author and professor of psychology at the University of Virginia.

Parents can have very young children tested—even before they learn to read—with an electroencephalogram (EEG) that’s administered while the child is performing listening tasks. Clear differences exist in the brains of children with dyslexia and those who develop typically, for example. “The reason that’s so useful is you now know these are children to keep an eye on,” Willingham says. “We know that if a child develops difficulty reading, the earlier you intervene, the better off the child is.”

Similar research is showing promise with autism, giving parents opportunities to get children the proper therapy earlier, and also to do more challenging and stimulating activities at home, says Martha Burns, a Northwestern University neuroscientist who works with Scientific Learning, another company that makes neuroscience-based educational software.

“If you teach parents how to work with those children starting when they’re first identified as high-risk, there’s a great potential you can decrease the severity or even prevent autism from presenting itself,” Burns says.

And administrators at Murray County Schools have seen increases in reading scores with the use of neuroscience-based software. Allison Oxford, the director of instructional support services, says MRIs of the brains of students with reading disorders show dark areas—and which are normally lit up in students who are progressing normally.

Those inactive areas may, for example, be the parts of the brain that process sounds. “Neuroscience exercises activate the parts of the brain that are dark—they light them up,” Oxford says. “It goes directly to the source of the issue so students can function better with language, memory, attention and processing.”

Imagery and the real world

Relaxation and connecting instruction to the real world are guiding principles of neuroscience that have helped raise test scores and reduce discipline problems in the Metropolitan School District of Washington Township in Indianapolis in the past two years.

The district works with Marian University professor Lori Desautels, who does research in educational neuroscience and has trained Washington teachers with whom she has co-taught. In 2013, the project launched in two fifth grade classes at Crooked Creek Elementary School to improve academic performance and behavior of students making the sometimes tough transition to middle school.

One of the goals was to teach students more about how they learn and what aspects of it they can control, Assistant Superintendent Jon Milleman says.

“There are hundreds of times that, as teachers, we’re causing students moments of stress,” Milleman says. “When you’re able to work with teachers and have them be more aware of the type of stress they’re causing, they’re able to manage that and put kids in a safe place. When students are in a safe place, their brains can get to the learning that they’re pre-wired to do.”

Previously, the district’s schools started each day with a teacher-led “quiet-time,” during which students put their head down, closed their eyes and readied themselves for the instructional day. Now breaks take place throughout the day and are usually led by students who guide their classmates through breathing exercises and other relaxation techniques. Students watch short videos on concentration and focus, says Kimberly Piper, the district’s director of elementary education.

Students also have learned that a brain physically holds onto a stressful reaction for about 90 seconds. But after that, it is the student who is choosing to be mad or irritated. This should help them improve their moods and ability to focus, she says.

As for instruction, teachers are abandoning lectures and using more imagery and real-world examples to explain various concepts to students. For example, a fifth grade teacher dressed in full winter gear to explain writing. Each article of clothing represented a part of the writing process. Another teacher taught long division by comparing it to a car wash.

And students in a social studies class wrote on old-fashioned, Declaration of Independence-style scrolls about the Revolutionary War. The distinctiveness of the lesson reinforced retaining information.

This summer, the district hosted a four-day Neuroscience Institute where teachers from 10 buildings were trained to lead year-round professional development. Neuroscience training has also helped make teachers more comfortable about allowing students to move or stand during class. Movement provides oxygen to different parts of the brain, making students more receptive to learning, Milleman says.

“When you take the time to put students’ minds in the best position to receive information and process it in a meaningful way,” he says, “it’s going to be so much better when you transition to something new—you’re going to gain that time back.”

Closing the gaps

The “growth mindset”—the idea that neither students’ brains nor their IQs are unchangeable—is a neuroscientific philosophy that drives the delivery of instruction at Kentucky’s Boone County Schools, which has 20,000 students. The district, which is part of suburban Cincinnati, uses neuroscience-backed software as a teaching tool in all grades and has seen middle and high school students improve by two to three grade levels in reading during some years, says Superintendent Randy Poe.

The software has helped better pinpoint students’ abilities and tailor instruction to their development level. Teachers can help students develop a particular skill through repetitive practice—such as intensive reading out loud or breaking words into syllables —and this has helped narrow achievement gaps, Poe says. The hope is that it’s helping about 85 percent of students with basic reading, Poe says.

“Neuroscience is not 100 percent effective, but we have been able to meet the needs of thousands of children who in the past might have been left behind or seen the gap continue to increase.”

The district has applied the same principles to professional development. Brain research targets PD toward a teacher’s needs—and for most teachers, one area of development is understanding neuroscience.

“Schools are looking for teachers who have the disposition of the growth mindset—teachers who care that education is more than a test, who know all children can build capacity,” Poe says.

Ultimately, what neuroscience does is better equip students with the skills they need to learn. “Students with learning disabilities—they have a processing disorder not a skills disorder,” says Oxford, of Murray County Schools. “Neuroscience shifts the focus from skills to training the brain to be able to learn. It really is the precursor to learning skills.”

Matt Zalaznick is senior associate editor.

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