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The Case for Earlier Neuroscience Education, Plus Resources for Educators Who Believe Me

In 2009, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) collected data in classrooms around the world by administering an examination that assesses how far students near the end of compulsory education have acquired some of the knowledge and skills that are essential for full participation in society.  The results were sobering; despite the prominent role our nation appears to enjoy in the global goings-on, American 15-year-olds turned in average or below-average performances in each of the three domains of knowledge tested (reading literacy, math and science). Their lowest scores came in science and math. What does the fact that kids in the United States are consistently outperformed by their peers around the world mean for our countrys future? In short, nothing good. Fewer and fewer American students are pursuing careers in math and science, which is resulting in a surplus of unskilled workers and a deficit of skilled ones.

            The quick fix to this problem is to import workers from other countries that have their act together when it comes to science education. China, for example, graduates four times as many engineers annually as we do. In fact, in 2011, it was estimated that over 85% of the worlds engineers live in Asia. In the short term, we can satisfy our needs for expertise in science and math by dipping into these international nerd-pools. However, the longer we delay reformation of our science education system, the more dependent well become on the rest of the worlds trainees. Indeed, as New York biology teacher David Connelly wryly remarked at a recent education panel, it may sound extreme, but I think if we don't get serious to teach science to our children, we better get ready to teach Mandarin to our grandchildren.

            So what can be done to improve our nations science education system? Governmental efforts to address the issue are becoming more serious; In 2009, President Obama described the values of this aspect of a childs education:

So, yes, improving education in math and science is about producing engineers and researchers and scientists and innovators who are going to help transform our economy and our lives for the better. But it's also about something more. It's about expanding opportunity for all Americans in a world where an education is the key to success. It's about an informed citizenry in an era where many of the problems we face as a nation are at root scientific problems.

How has the Obama administration backed up these idealistic remarks? For starters, its rolled out a number of initiatives to in order to improve the quality of education in this country. For example, Tapping Americas Potential plans to increase the annual number of science, technology, engineering and mathematics bachelors-level graduates to 400,000 by 2015. While programs such as this one are a step in the right direction, it should be noted that simply throwing more money in the direction of schools will not solve the problem. The way educators go about teaching their pupils must be updated to take into account the super fast, information-dense culture in which todays students grow up.

            I propose that one way to accomplish this is to expose kids early to a branch of science thats maturing just as rapidly as they are: neuroscience. What makes me think neuroscience is the key to reviving our flatlining science education system? Here I plan to answer that question convincingly and then, having stated my case, I will provide a few resources for educators who might like to take advantage of what the study of the brain affords us in the classroom.

            To begin, Id like to describe my personal relationship with science education from the 6th grade to the 12th grade. Now, bear in mind that I was fortunate enough to attend a well-funded college preparatory school for these years, so my case is far from representative of the average American education. Nevertheless, for the majority of my high school career, I wanted nothing to do with science. I derived little pleasure from balancing chemical equations or learning about photosynthesis, and I dreaded the introduction of each new topic in my calculus class. On the other hand, I loved my English classes, largely because the readings and discussions they entailed shed light on just how rich, diverse and nuanced peoples thoughts and experiences could be. Science classes were always so abstract and detached from everything I learned through my own experiences in the world. I had nothing tangible to connect each new concept to, and as a result I felt like I was building a whole new world that operated by a series of seemingly arbitrary rules.

            Then, during the second semester of my senior year, a teacher introduced me to Roger Sperrys famous research with split-brain patients (see also: http://nobelprize.org/educational/medicine/split-brain/index.html). It was that experience that demonstrated to me how cool science could be; it just had to be directed at something more human and immediately relevant for me to appreciate it. I set up a senior project with that teacher in the form of a seminar about what neuroscience and philosophy of mind, and now in my junior year of college I can say that my fascination with the brain has only grown since. What I learned that year was that neuroscience has infinite applicability. That is, the study of the brain is relevant to literally anything that involves people, and this because everything we do and think depends on that blob of finely folded tissue that resides in our skulls. Neuroscience has something to say about sex, drugs, and rock and rolland thats just the beginning. Kids that love sports are likely to find information about how the brain controls and interfaces with the body interesting. Those who like their foreign language classes might be captivated by the neuroscience of human language. Id also wager that many kids would be interested in learning about their own development and what they can do to get the most out of their brains. This discussion gets into nutrition and the brain, which of course can naturally connect to the sense of taste and how food stimuli are transduced into sensations by our brains. The point here is that given the central roles the brain plays in our lives, it isnt hard to connect kids interests to topics in neuroscience. This, I think, is the key to successful science teaching: instructors have to make science immediately relevant to their students lives.

            Despite the potential the neuroscience holds to serve as a powerful tool for introducing young people to scientific principles and for generating interest in careers in science, it typically isnt taught before college. This needs to change. The traditional justification for delaying its presentation is that students should have a solid foundation in the more fundamental natural sciencesphysics, chemistry and biologybefore they begin to study the brain because a sophisticated understanding of its function (and dysfunction) draws from all of these disciplines. This is true, but for just that: a sophisticated understanding. The purpose of introducing neuroscience at the middle and high school levels (and perhaps earlier still) is not to confer a detailed understanding of brain. This should be reserved for university level coursework. Instead, the end of these neuroscience lessons is simply to demonstrate to children that science need not be so abstract and detached from their own experience that it becomes boring and onerous.

            Note that I am not suggesting that neuroscience topics should supplant traditional physics, chemistry and biology classes. However, they should inform and enrich these subjects. Physics could be brought to life by considering reaction times and the speed of nerve conduction in addition to the tired old problems about trains careening toward one another. Neurotransmitters activities could be discussed alongside the traditional treatment of acid-base chemistry, and biology, of course, is the easiest of these canonical subjects when it comes to integrating exciting information about the brain with core coursework. I believe that by applying abstract principles from more basic natural sciences to concrete situations in neuroscience and behavior, science teachers around the country could humanize science and dissolve aversions and anxieties students associate with the subject.

            Id like to make one more important point before providing my list of resources to teachers, and its that the application of neuroscience to education doesnt stop with lesson contents. On the contrary, brain science research is beginning to support teaching directly through a recently spawned field know as educational neuroscience. Over the last 20 years or so, educators, neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists have gradually come to engage in collaborative efforts to determine how empirical knowledge about brain function can inform pedagogy. The study of memory in the brain is elucidating the learning process and the factors that determine the strength of memories. Research in affective neuroscience is clarifying the relationship between emotions and memory and promises to yield fruitful insights regarding how teachers can harness the emotions of their students to create ideal learning environments. Many neuroscientists have published surprising results in the realm of neuroplasticity (the ability of the brain to rewire its neuronal projections) that foster hopes that learning disorders may be mitigated or even eradicated with proper interventions. A pioneering program at Naperville Central High School in Illinois has demonstrated that physical exercise prior to class can lead to impressive academic improvement. More information about each of these applications and many others can be found in David A. Sousas recent book, Mind, Brain and Education. While the application of cognitive neuroscience to education is still very experimental, the impressive results obtained by those who have pioneered this practice certainly warrant further research and exploration by both neuroscientists and teachers.

 

            If you are a teacher yourself, by this point I hope youre starting to appreciate the great good that neuroscience stands to do for education on a variety of levels. Now Id like to offer a list of links to resources for teachers hoping to take advantage of the blossoming science of the brain in their own classrooms. I hope you find them informative and useful!

BrainU: A website maintained by a group in Minnesota that provides professional development for teachers specifically informed by neuroscience. Here you can brush up on your own understanding of the brain, browse through a number of exciting lesson plans, activities, movies and images designed to be incorporated into science curricula. If you happen to be a Minnesota resident, you should definitely check out their Neuroscience Teacher Institute. Check out their links page for an extensive compilation of neuroscience education resources.

Neuroscience for Kids: A website created for all students and teachers who would like to learn about the nervous system. Maintained by Dr. Eric H. Chudler, this site is home to a host of mini-pages dedicated to individual topics in neuroscience that could easily serve as foundations for larger lessons. Its also got a number of fun games that illustrate neuroscience principles. One of the cooler functions youll find here is a question and answer service that allows you to ask specific questions you might have to a team of basic and clinical neuroscientists. You can also sift through questions asked by other teachers and students to get an idea of how your colleagues are using the material Dr. Chudler has provided. One more cool feature: a list of news articles pertaining to neuroscience research is maintained and updated frequently to keep you in the loop regarding cutting-edge neuroscience discoveries. Check out Dr. Chudlers extensive list of links for even more cool resources for your classroom.

Neuroscience Education Resources Virtual Encycloportal (NERVE): This is a site maintained by the Society for Neuroscience where youll find a list of neuroscience themes and associated lessons that can be organized by audience (anything from kindergarten to teachers). I havent had time to sift through a lot of what this site has to offer, but doing so wouldnt be difficult thanks to its elegant design. Be sure to check out Brain Briefings, a monthly newsletter that explains breakthroughs in neuroscience in language accessible to lay audiences.

The Dana Foundation: Heres another site thats ideal for tracking the progress of the brain sciences and sharing them with students. Be sure to click on the Brainy Kids Online link of the left for a list of lesson plans about the history of neuroscience and medicine, as well as a number of games and virtual lab activities (no need for any expensive equipment). The Dana Foundation also coordinates Brain Awareness Week (BAW), a program designed to bring neuroscience to people of all ages thats currently established in 52 countries and 36 states. I had the pleasure of attending several events at this year's BAW at Duke University and I look forward to next year's celebration, which will take place March 12-18, 2012.

Comparative Mammalian Brain Collections: An excellent store of high resolution images of brains of more than 175 mammalian species. I imagine it would be incredibly useful for discussions of the evolution of the brain as well as why differences in neuroanatomy underlie behavioral differences.

As always, dont forget that a plethora of print resources--including a recently established journal called Mind, Brain and Education that promises to be a premier source of information from educational neuroscientists themselves--are available for your use.

 

This list is hardly comprehensive, but it should provide a solid foundation for anyone interested in taking advantage of neuroscience in their classrooms. Further exploration will quickly reveal that theres no dearth of resources to support this endeavor.

The thought Id like to leave you all with is something youre probably very familiar with; namely, as a teacher you cannot stop learning. Every day your students offer opportunities to think about the world in new ways and from different perspectives. The advent of educational neuroscience is one more reason for you to continue your own learning. In carefully attending to sciences rapidly unfolding description of the brain, we will all make strides toward a better education for our children. That's all for now; I would love to hear feedback from anyone who reads this about their beliefs regarding the utility of neuroscience lessons in lower levels of education. If any of you actually put some of these resources to use, I'd also love to hear about how your students received them!

 

Colin Martz

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3 comments

Hi Colin.  This is an interesting idea and upon reading I found myself thinking about how absurd it is that neuroscience ISN'T introduced until the university level.  (I took an AP Psychology class in high school and that was the closest I came... but that did not delve into any neuroscientific detail whatsoever.)  So, I completely agree that that children, from a young age, should understand how their brains work, just as they learn how their skeletons and muscles and digestive systems work.  

However, I don't think that introducing neuroscience applications into each subject (physics, calculus, etc.) is a quick fix for making students more interested in science.  I say this because to me, physics and calculus were by FAR my favorite subjects in high school - and for this I credit my high school teachers.  They were passionate about the subjects, and while they did not relate them to neuroscience, my physics teachers found countless ways to get students excited about physics other than problems about careening trains.  I loved doing the problems and I loved the competition with other classmates who also loved doing the problems.  My high school physics and calculus classes were why I decided to major in engineering in college, where I took my first neuroscience class senior year.  

Given my background in biomedical engineering, I was quite sure that I'd love neuroscience as a subject... but it quickly became evident that I couldn't have been more wrong about that.  I loathed it.  There were so many small details that I didn't care about or find at all logical like in physics and math classes.  There seemed to be so much that neuroscientists still couldn't explain.  There were no problems for me to solve so my mind would wander and as a result I never knew what we were talking about in class.  So I was bored and frustrated with it and so thankful when it was over.   

My main point is that, while I think it is definitely a good idea to introduce neuroscience in elementary and middle school classrooms, I think individuals' interest in certain subjects is just that - individual.  Furthermore, what matters most is the TEACHER.  Websites like RateMyProfessors.com are popular for an obvious reason - a lot of students have figured out that what makes a subject interesting is often times not the subject itself - it's the person teaching it.

The most important thing, I think, to "fix" science and math education in the United States, is to make teaching those subjects more appealing.  Teachers need to be paid more and they need to get the proper recognition for how important their jobs are and they need to be appreciated for how hard they work.  When we get a greater number of talented and passionate people into science and math classrooms - THEN we'll start to see an improvement in kids' test scores.  

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Some of the things that we are learning in neuroscience on how we learn and what effects how we learn should be taught at least in middle school. For me understanding things that effect how I learn make me a better learner --- sleep, food, stress. We need to teach kids about these things and how changing some of the things we do will help grade.  What is wrong with teaching kids who have ADD about mediation and yoga, how to quiet their minds. Kids rarely get 8 hours of sleep, they do not think they need it. For a long time we though we could not change our brain, now we do know we can. It is helping older people have a better quality of life, and it can do the same for kids. 

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Anna: Thanks for pointing out the fact that adding neuroscience alone won't fix all of our problems. I completely agree, and I should have made a point to highlight the key roles of the people involved in every educational exchange: teachers and students. This certainly isn't meant to be a one-size-fits-all prescription. I would wager, however, that on average learning about the brain and behavior might interest kids more than learning about how electrons move between energy levels or another equally abstract process. There will, of course, always be kids who immediately find these ideas intriguing-- they're the ones who traditionally end up pursuing science farther than their peers. The challenge is to draw out others who shy away from math and science. Perhaps it's easier to do this with a science more closely associated to the human experience. A skilled teacher can do so with other sciences, as your teachers did as you were growing up.

 

Lindaleea:You make a great point that I hadn't really considered so much before-- why shouldn't we share what we learn from neuroscience about learning with the learners themselves? Stress, in particular, is something I think students rarely appreciate as a threat to their education. I could definitely see the some kind of "Thinking About Thinking" module presented very early on having a powerful effect on students' later achievement. As far as sleep and nutrition go, I think that though a lot of teachers mention their importance to their students, the warning doesn't sink in. Providing tangible evidence for the benefits of these things on brain function might prompt kids to take that advice more seriously. 

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