The Exciting Emergence of Educational Neuroscience
One often needs to connect the dots in order to see the big picture. Educational Neuroscience is an emerging field of study that is connecting the dots between several different disciplines in order to give educators a deeper understanding of how the brain learns. Cognitive neuroscience, educational psychology, and pedagogy have not always been able to connect on a level that informed educators in a useful way. Educational Neuroscience (or Mind Brain and Education) is beginning to change that. The aim of educational neuroscience is to get these fields to work together so teachers can better understand how their students learn, and adjust their practice accordingly.
As this new discipline is in its infancy, it has been met with a mixed reaction from both scientists and educators. Critics say it will be years before discoveries in neuroscience have any application to educational practice. Other critics fear that unsubstantiated claims are being made. These claims, referred to as “neuromyths,” are encouraging educators to adjust their teaching practice without being properly trained on how to discriminate between scientific fact and hype. The concerns are understandable but should not prevent educators from learning what they need to know to decide whether research findings have application to their practice. Supporters of educational neuroscience are pleased with the increased attention to the subject. Several universities in the United States and abroad have established dedicated research centers to examine how discoveries in neuroscience can affect educational practice. For those who wonder how recent discoveries about the brain can affect teaching and learning, we can tell them that this research has done the following:
- Reaffirmed that the human brain continually reorganizes itself on the basis of input. This process, called neuroplasticity, continues throughout our life, but is exceptionally rapid in the early years. Thus, the experiences the young brain has in the home and at school help shape the neural circuits that will determine how and what that brain learns in school and later.
- Startled the scientific world with evidence that neurons in the brain do regenerate, thereby enhancing learning and memory.
- Challenged the notion that the brain can multi-task.
- Revealed more about how the brain acquires spoken language.
- Developed scientifically- based computer programs that dramatically help young children with reading problems.
- Shown how emotions affect learning, memory, and recall.
- Suggested that movement and exercise improve mood, increase brain mass, and enhance cognitive processing.
- Tracked the growth and development of the teenage brain to better understand the unpredictability of adolescent behavior.
- Developed a deeper understanding of circadian cycles to explain why teaching and learning can be more difficult at certain times of day.
- Studied the effects of sleep deprivation and stress on learning and memory.
- Recognized that intelligence and creativity are separate abilities, and that both can be modified by the environment and schooling.
- Highlighted the degree to which a school’s social and culture climates affect teaching and learning.
- Updated our understandings about working memory.
- Added to our knowledge of how the arts develop the brain.
There is, of course, no panacea that will make teaching and learning a perfect process—and that includes brain research. It is a long leap from making a research finding in a laboratory to the changing of schools and practice because of that finding. These are exciting times for educators, but we must ensure that we don’t let the excitement cloud our common sense.