Neuroeducation is an emerging interdisciplinary field of study that attempts to apply findings in brain research to education. It combines several disciplines, including neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and education.
The primary goal of this new area of study is to enhance educational practices, improve student outcomes, and develop advanced understanding of how the brain effects learning.
Neuroeducation informs “brain-based” pedagogical approaches and has been referred to by different names, such as “mind, brain and education” (e.g., Fischer, Daniel, et al., 2007; Schwartz & Gerlach, 2011) and “educational neuroscience” (e.g., Campbell, 2011; Geake, 2009).
Ansari et al. (2012) identified several key objectives of neuroeducation, including, but not limited to:
- utilizing insights from brain imaging research to improve our understanding of academic skills
- gain insights into how brain abnormalities affect learning in special populations, such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
- create diagnostic tools that can aid in the assessment of learning disabilities
- and as a means to measure the effects of educational interventions
Evidence for the growth of this new area of study can be seen in the founding of several academic journals: Mind, Brain, and Education, Trends in Neuroscience and Education, and Journal of Experimental Neuroscience.
- Long-Term Memory Store: Understanding the neurological basis of memory traces in long-term storage helps educators understand how lessons in the classroom are transformed into representations in their students’ brains. Enhanced understanding leads to enhanced pedagogy.
- Delaying the School Day: Research on duration of deep sleep and its effect on mood and attention span have led to some schools starting the school day later in the morning. Better sleep can improve cognitive functioning and increase alertness.
- Zero-to-Three Synaptic Growth: Research on the infant brain in the 1990’s revealed that babies are born with more neurons than they need. However, through a process called pruning, neurons which are not stimulated by the environment die, while those that are utilized grow.
- Executive Function and Emotional Regulation: Impulse control and emotional regulation is a function of neuro connections between the prefrontal cortex and the emotional parts of the brain in the limbic system. When children learn to control their emotions it’s a result of these connections becoming stronger.
- The Aging Brain: Understanding the concept of brain plasticity and the aging brain can encourage many people to remain cognitively active throughout their lifespan. This can help keep them alert and strengthen their memory well into the senior years.
- On Policy Formation: Discovering the underlying neurological basis of learning, developmental patterns, cognitive processing, memory processes and learning disabilities can all be used to inform policy. Stakeholders can encourage key decision-makers to become better informed and implement corresponding adjustments to the educational system and childcare services.
- Second Language Acquisition: Research on speech perception and second language acquisition has revealed that the infant’s brain is able to decipher the sounds of a foreign language long before previously thought. These findings were surprising to many educators and parents that once believed that infants were incapable of understanding a second language prior to mastering their native language.
- Rethinking Perceptions: Understanding the neurological basis of learning disabilities can dramatically change a person’s perception of children suffering from these abnormalities. It can increase sympathy and patience. Teachers and parents will often form a more compassionate perspective once learning about the structural deficiencies in cortical regions responsible for these children’s behavior.
- The Role of Nutrition: Insights regarding how proper nutrition can affect brain functioning have helped shape many breakfasts. A healthy breakfast can improve alertness and mood in students, which then facilitates learning and fosters a positive classroom atmosphere.
- Group Projects: Working with others requires the ability to control impulses and make accurate interpretations of others’ facial expressions and underlying emotions. These skills activate specific areas of the brain. When students participate in group projects, they are exercising these areas and making them stronger, which in turn, improves their abilities to perform those behaviors.
Strengths of Neuroeducation
By far one of the greatest results of neuroeducation has been the insights it has provided regarding the underlying brain mechanisms involved in learning disabilities.
Several learning disabilities (e.g., attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder) are now understood as having a genetic basis that alters brain structures in significant ways (Rueda, 2020).
For example, children with ADHD have smaller cerebral volume and total white matter than typically developing (TD) children (Castellanos et al., 2002).
There is no doubt that advanced neuroimaging techniques such as fMRI can offer educators a deeper understanding regarding the causes of learning disabilities.
Weaknesses of Neuroeducation
Early skeptics of neuroscience applications to pedagogy believed that the results were too incomplete to be implemented so eagerly. For instance, Bruer (1997) stated that the leap from research to classroom was “a bridge too far.”
He argued that most of the research (at that time) was almost exclusively based on examination of the visual and motor systems of animals.
As an illustrative example, he pointed out that knowledge regarding neuro pruning and how the environment shapes synaptic functioning cannot provide much guidance for classroom practices.
“There is a gaping chasm between our understanding of what happens to synapses as a result of experience and what happens or should happen in preschool or third grade” (p. 10).
In a similar vein, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development referred to the eagerness to apply neuroscience to classroom practices as being primarily comprised of “neuromyths,”
common misinterpretations about the brain held by educators (OECD, 2002).
Bowers (2006) also downplayed the ability of educational neuroscience (EN) to play a substantial role in shaping classroom practices.
He stated that “research and findings from EN are trivial and are unlikely to add value to the improvement of classroom teaching and learning beyond insights from psychological and behavioural research” (p. 601).
Similarly, Blakemore and Frith (2005) cautioned educators not to be enticed by the simplicity of a “brain scan to lesson plan” approach.
Insights regarding brain mechanisms involved in learning cannot be applied linearly and immediately transform educational practices in the classroom. Instead, neuroscience should exist to augment and deepen our understanding.
Applications of Neuroeducation
1. In Social and Emotional Regulation
Impulsive behavior plays a role in an array of undesirable actions such as substance abuse, anger-driven provocations, and lack of emotional regulation.
Several studies in neuroscience have implicated the prefrontal cortex in suppressing undesirable motor movement (Konishi et al., 1999; Aron et al., 2004; Garavan et al., 1999; Kim & Lee, 2011).
Anderson et al. (1999) examined two adults that had experienced prefrontal brain damage as children. They displayed defective social and moral reasoning, which the authors suggested inhibited their ability to process complex social conventions and moral rules of behavior as adults. For a comprehensive review of how the brain is involved in social behavior see Adolphs (2009).
Silani et al. (2008) used fMRI to study perceptions of emotional states. Results indicated that awareness of the self’s emotions through introspection is associated with reduced activity in the interoceptive cortex, especially the anterior insula.
This area is involved with a wide range of perceptive functions, including empathy, compassion, self-awareness, and interpersonal experiences.
The authors explain that their results suggest a “decoupling” of physiological arousal due to an emotional state from the conscious representation of the arousal.
Lenroot & Giedd (2006) reviewed fMRI studies that examined developmental changes in the brain from childhood through adolescence. Studies have identified large-scale structural changes involved in emotional awareness.
Understanding how brain development affects emotional awareness can deepen teachers’ understanding of classroom behavior and inform instructional approaches geared towards emotional intelligence and related aspects of social behavior.
2. In Mathematics
The ability to categorize, visualize and manipulate mathematics related information extends to virtually all domains of human activity in the modern world (Arispe, 2008; Parsons & Bynner, 2005).
Unfortunately, studies reveal that mathematical difficulties are widespread in school-age children, adolescents and college students (Butterworth, 2005; Butterworth et al., 2011).
Fias et al., (2013) suggest that although previous studies tend to focus on specific brain areas in isolation, there is a need for neurocognitive frameworks to incorporate multiple functional components implicated in inefficient numerical problem solving.
Iuculano et al., (2015) implemented an 8-week one-to-one intervention of cognitive tutoring in math for 30 third-grade students. Half of the students had severe mathematical learning disabilities (MLD) and half were typically developing (TD) students.
The tutoring combined strengthening number knowledge (e.g., cardinality), addition and subtraction, and practice components to build automaticity and decrease cognitive load.
Pre- and post-tutoring MRI scans were taken on all participants, in addition to assessment of math skills which corresponded to the tutoring objectives.
The results indicated that children with severe mathematical learning disabilities (MLD) not only performed better on pre- versus post-math scores, but also exhibited changes in brain activity.
The authors state that “tutoring elicits extensive functional brain changes in children with MLD, normalizing their brain activity to the level of neurotypical peers. Prominent differences in brain activation between MLD and TD groups in prefrontal, parietal, ventral temporal–occipital cortices that were evident before tutoring, were entirely absent after tutoring” (p. 5).
This study is an excellent example of how neuroeducation both informs educational practice and confirms its effects on the brain itself.
3. In Language and Literacy
Dehaene-Lambertz et al. (2002) performed fMRI scans of 3-month-old infants while they were listening to different speech patterns (e.g., forward and backward speech). The scans indicated that several brain regions of infants when processing these speech sounds were similar to those of adults.
These results demonstrate that precursors of adult language areas in the brain are already developing in infants as young as 3 months old. As the authors note, this significantly precedes typical onset of speech production milestones.
Allee-Herndon and Roberts (2018) point to the benefits of many standard classroom activities that enhance brain functioning, albeit with theoretical, not neuroimaging support. For example, storytelling requires planning, organization and elaboration of content; each of which involve executive functions.
Role-plays and collaborative projects can also foster the development of inhibitory control and emotional awareness (Bodrova & Leong, 2007, 2008).
At the same time, performing in plays exercises areas of the brain involved in long-term memory and the language areas involved in speech production.
Neuroeducation involves taking the findings of brain research and integrating them into classroom instruction. This can include having students engage in activities that improve the functioning of specific brain areas, or include deepening teachers’ understanding of student behavior.
Just about every educational activity will involve one part of the brain or another, but brain research allows us to more fully understand what is actually happening, at the neural level.
Neuroimaging studies have identified the cortical basis of some learning disabilities, given us insights into why some children are more socially perceptive than others, and revealed that language skills develop at a much earlier age than previously believed.
Although some have pointed out that the path from research findings to instructional approaches can be a long and misguided journey, given the early stage of the field, some patience may be warranted.
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