Neuroscience and the U.S. Education System, by Betsy Hill

February 16, 2015

Education informed by neuroscience can give new and real meaning to our desire as a nation to leave no child behind.  Moreover, it may offer the only true opportunity for the disruptive change that education needs for current and future generations to be educated to face the challenges ahead.    It can do this in at least three specific ways:

1.  By improving learning at the level of basic cognitive functioning, changing students’ capacity to learn.

Better teaching, better facilities, better technology, etc., are important, but those are external factors.  What about the internal capabilities and stumbling blocks that each student brings to the learning experience?  Neuroscience shows us how to impact the efficiency and effectiveness of the learning process by improving each individual’s underlying mental processing – that is, by changing the experience of learning from the inside out.

One of the things we know from neuroscience is that the brain is plastic, which means it constantly changes, building new pathways and connections.  We also know that every brain is unique – formed and constantly evolving through our experiences.  Experience is not just about facts and declarative knowledge, but about how the brain does what it does.  What one student can do or understand easily escapes another.  Neuroscience helps explain why that is and what to do about it.  Science no longer accepts that intelligence is fixed.  Rather, it continues to document the critical role of experience in developing intellectual ability.

Despite the fact that underlying cognitive skills are essential to all learning, they are not generally taught in schools.  Schools assume that every student brings the necessary cognitive skills to the learning process, or as much of those skills as they will ever have.   The fact that cognitive skills are not explicitly taught in schools does not mean that they cannot be taught, however.  For over half a century, techniques to develop basic cognitive skills have been known and used in various clinical therapies.  Today, these techniques can be delivered via computer-based programs effectively and on a much broader scale, making the delivery of cognitive training programs viable in a classroom setting to all students.  The intellectual gains delivered by a program like BrainWare SAFARI are substantial.

2.  By making schools and teaching more brain-friendly.

Here neuroscience can help us understand and change our practices in a number of ways, including:

  • Better presenting information so that students’ immediate sensory memory lets the right information into the brain.
  • Taking advantage of the relationship between working memory, where we consciously process what we learn, and long-term memory storage.
  • Integrating multiple senses and media to enhance learning, since the brain processes information in multiple ways simultaneously.
  • Incorporating emotion and mnemonics to aid in long-term memory consolidation
  • Making curriculum meaningful, since meaning and relating new information to old are what enable new information to be stored.
  • Understanding the different ways declarative memory and procedural memory are stored and used (retrieved).

The reason to engage students with more meaningful and relevant curriculum and through problems, projects and simulations is not simply because that makes learning more fun, but because it is, in fact, student engagement that results in learning.  And higher levels of engagement result in more and better learning and the ability to apply what is learned in the real world.

3. By helping students develop so-called 21st century skills, the keys to college and career-readiness.

Developing problem-solving ability, communication skills and creativity is fundamentally about developing the brain and its processing ability in each individual student.  These are skills that cannot be taught through pure direct instruction.  One wouldn’t, for example, assume that explaining the principles of pole-vaulting would suddenly imbue a student with the ability to coordinate muscles, brain, strength and balance to clear a bar.  The same holds true for critical thinking and other prized 21st century skills.

While there is broad consensus regarding the importance of these skills, there is much uncertainty about how to help students develop them and over how to measure them.  However, as we move away from measuring content absorbed and toward measuring the effectiveness of mental processes, neuroscience is likely to be indispensable.

Are other ways that you can see neuroscience helping improve the U.S. education system?  Let us hear what you think!

Brain Training Programs: Neither Silver Bullet nor Scam, by Betsy Hill

February 4, 2015

A recent article asked the question: Are Brain Training Programs a Scam? Like many articles on the subject these days, the analysis was right in some respects, but missed several key points. The numbered statements below in italics are from the article. The comments following each point are mine.

1.  Most brain training programs are based on well known neuroscience and cognitive science research tests.

This is a fundamental flaw of many brain training programs. They involve training on the tests themselves. We know that our brains become better at what they do over and over. So, if we practice the very same skills that we will be tested on, you will get better at them and perform better on the test. The real question is how you train skills so that they will be available in everything you do in life.

2.  Brain training companies may claim unique or revolutionary training techniques, but they typically are offering more complex and appealing variations of these basic neurocognitive tests.

This is one of the important ways BrainWare SAFARI is different from other brain training programs. It was built on clinical therapy practices from multiple disciplines over several decades designed to help people function better in school or the workplace or in life, not to perform better on a test.

3.  Cognitive training relies on the process of neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the biological method for how the brain responds to its environment – learning the skills and adaptive behavior necessary to survive. This pattern of learned behavior, skill acquisition, and memory encoding is also known as experience and wisdom.

Neuroplasticity is the basis for all brain training; that is clear. Neuroplasticity is not a method; it is an attribute or property of brains and means that they are constantly changing. Everything we do changes our brains physiologically. Every interaction with the outside environment changes our brains. The purpose of a brain is survival. Brains learn from experience, but I think that the word “wisdom” is misapplied here. Does being able to walk or drive a car connote wisdom? Most brain training programs are about skill acquisition and automaticity, not about judgment, perspective, complex analysis and other hallmarks of wisdom. In discussions of these topics, it is very important to use terminology correctly.

4.  The more specialized a cognitive training program can be will increase the likelihood of effective skills transfer. A good example is immersive cognitive training for military and commercial airline pilots. This is true in one sense. When skills are very specific to a situation, like knowing how to land a plane, then it is important to practice that skill. However, another analogy is executing a football play. Football players do training of basic skills and then apply them in a variety of situations so that the skills generalize. There is a distinction between transfer and generalization.

But will immersive cognitive training in a simulated flight deck improve the pilot’s ability to learn a foreign language faster or be better at playing blackjack? This is an excellent question. Another question is, are there skills that can be developed that are more basic than landing a plane or speaking a language or playing blackjack that, if developed, will help performance in all those activities? That doesn’t mean that training of basic cognitive skills is sufficient to be able to land a plane, but the right kind of training in visual-spatial processing, visual span, oculomotor skills, attention, reaction time, etc., might, and probably would, drive improvement in landing a plane … AND taking off … AND changing course during flight … AND dealing with a sick passenger … AND communicating with passengers when there is a delay  … AND …

5.  Highly specialized cognitive training (for highly specialized occupations) can be effective, and also tends to be very expensive. DARPA, the research and technology arm of the US Department of Defense is working on several cognitive training efforts to boost focus, coordination and control for drone pilots as an example. 

R&D is expensive. That doesn’t mean that it will be expensive to deliver once they develop it, and in fact will probably result in tremendous cost savings once developed because everything else they do will be more efficient and effective.

6.  Structured cognitive training holds the future promise of addressing a host of neurocognitive and neuropsychiatric conditions. There is a substantial amount of venture capital and government research dollars flowing into this area, but independent research validation for most structured cognitive training is still lacking and off in the future.

It is true that independent research validation is not conclusive yet for many training programs. Different programs are at different stages of proof. Research reports on BrainWare SAFARI, which include both peer-reviewed published research and field studies, are available at

7. The brain training industry as a whole faces a serious problem that will be hard to solve, namely, the barrier to market entry for brain training services and products is very low. Any company can create a few online brain games “based on neuroscience” and then market them as a cure-all for Alzheimer’s or dyslexia, or as a quick and easy way to raise your IQ.

This is very true. This is why I take this time to clarify some very important points.

There is new territory for all of us. Consumers, educators, health care practitioners and the media themselves will need to become educated in this area so that they can make appropriate judgments. It will require that people be open but skeptical. And it will require some standards or principles of how to make decisions about brain training programs. For a list of criteria for an effective brain-training programs, click here.

Curing Educational Indigestion – Three Solutions to Overly Full Plates, by Betsy Hill

January 21, 2015

“Our district is currently doing a lot of work to implement STEM (Common Core, new technology, etc.), and our teachers feel like they are constantly having things added to their plates while nothing is removed.”

If I have heard that comment once in the past few years, I have heard it hundreds, if not thousands, of times.  It is as if our education system has confused more with better.  In the hope of better results, we seem to be piling on more and hoping for the best: more work, more standards, more subjects, more of everything.  When we pile more on our plates (think supersizing), indigestion is one likely result (to carry the metaphor to the next step).  Most educators agree that more is a recipe for burnout, feelings of failure, and poor performance.

If education were a business, then any thoughtfully strategic manager would say to herself/himself:  There are three ways to combat this problem of overly full plates and unsatisfactory outcomes.

  1. Make our processes more efficient (reduce redundant efforts, streamline processes).
  2. Focus on the most important things, those with the most leverage in achieving our goals.
  3. Increase the capacity of our employees to manage the work.

Now let’s translate this from a business to an education framework*:

Make Processes More Efficient = Teach More Effectively and Eliminate Non-Value-Added Activities

Teaching more effectively is about teaching in a way that takes best advantage of how brains learn.  Teaching more effectively is taking advantage of what we know about attention, how brains process information, what is required to get information into long-term memory, what is required for memory consolidation, etc.  When we teach more effectively, we can get more learning to happen in less time, without costly rework.

When it comes to non-value added activities in a business setting, one that comes to mind is shutting down the business for three weeks to take inventory.  Most businesses have now realized that we don’t need to do that, that inventory control systems and other less invasive strategies can be more effective.  What is inventory-taking in an educational context?  Standardized testing.  We shut down the business of learning for weeks of every school year to “take inventory” of student learning, when taking inventory could be integrated into the learning process.

Focus on the Most Important Things = Prioritize, Don’t “Cover”

Coverage (covering all the material, covering all the topics, covering the curriculum) is the bogeyman of new standards, and teachers are rightly terrified at the prospect.  Not everything in every standard is equally important.  Some concepts or skills transcend subject matter and, therefore, have more leverage.  It does no good to try to teach everything and have students perform poorly on everything, when some things are less likely to be foundational for future learning.  If we teach the most important things, and teach them well, our students will be better served.  If we spend more time on what’s most important, rather than insufficient time on too many things, our students and teachers will feel, and actually be, more accomplished.

Increase Employee Capacity = Build and Strengthen Students’ Learning Skills

Students actually do the work of learning, and, as any teacher will attest, students have widely varying cognitive capacity and learning skills.  Research over the last decade is increasingly showing that building students’ cognitive skills – including processes like working memory, flexible attention, self-regulation, visual-spatial processing and sequential or simultaneous processing – can dramatically accelerate student learning and academic performance.  We can think about this as akin to expanding intellectual bandwidth; students can simply learn more in less time.

I started this blog with the metaphor of educational indigestion from teachers having too much on their plates.  There is a cure for this indigestion (and it isn’t a pill).  It is time to look strategically at menu planning and not just keep trying to rearrange the items on teachers’ plates.  The three approaches above could make a big dent in educators’ enormous case of indigestion.

*I acknowledge that some educators will be uncomfortable with comparing business and education, but I hope the utility of the comparison will be evident, and I equally hope that educators find value in being strategic.

I Smell Something Amazing! – by Dr. Sara Sawtelle

November 6, 2014

I do smell something amazing … success! A man paralyzed from the chest down from a knife attack in 2010, can now walk! Doctors transplanted nerve cells from his nose into his severed spinal cord resulting in a first of its kind regenerative medicine. Darek Fidyka is walking again after having a completely severed spinal cord! Awesome! How did they do that?

I often get asked if neurons are regenerated. And my answer is that we are all born with billions of neurons and as we age, and for the most part, those are all the neurons we will ever have. But there are two places that undergo neurogenesis (birth of neurons) throughout life: Our hippocampus and the area of the brain called the olfactory bulb. I have always had a way to explain how to use new neurons in the hippocampus to our advantage. The hippocampus is often referred to as the memory center in our brains and it undergoes neurogenesis when we exercise. So, regular exercise is important for your brain, not just your body.

However, until last week, I did not have a great way to talk about the olfactory bulb neurogenesis except to explain why that location needs regenerated . After all, without those nerve bundles behind our eyes, known as the olfactory bulbs, we would not be able to smell anything! The nerve cells in our noses are shed daily. It is part of life. We need to replace them as frequently as we shed them in order to smell grandmas’ pumpkin pie, the roast in the oven … or that sweet smell of success.

What is amazing and exciting about this latest medical development is the use of Fidyka’s own olfactory nerve cells to heal his spinal cord. It was not as simple as blowing his nose, though! It took years. And it will take years more before the procedure is widespread, since the procedure need to repeated and undergo medical trials. Professor Geoffrey Raisman at the University of College London, who performed the technique, is hopeful that this procedure will be a historic change for spinal cord injuries.

Next time you stop to smell the roses, don’t forget the potential power in that nose. The world is changing, and now we know those regenerating neurons in our noses are useful for so much more.

Giving Every Student the Equivalent of a Time Turner — by Betsy Hill

October 28, 2014

In The Prisoner of Azkaban, the third book in the Harry Potter series, Hermione Granger manages to attend extra classes with the help of a Time Turner. The Time Turner allows her to go back in time so that she can, in effect, take two classes at once. To use the parlance of renowned education Robert Marzano and others, it gave her “more time on task.” Of course, Hermione was “quite the brightest witch of her age” and so learned an even more prodigious amount with extra class time.

Many educators would like to figure out how to put more hours in the day – both for teachers and students. But, of course, the time-space continuum is what it is, using a Time Turner isn’t an option. Sometimes, schools look at extending the school day, or the school year, and that seems to have helped in some situations, but perhaps we need to take a step back and look at the time-on-task equation in a slightly different way.

Here is the equation. If Johnny needs an hour to learn to a particular concept, or a series of steps to solve a problem, or set of vocabulary words, then 30 minutes of instruction and study time will leave Johnny short of mastery. The problem for many teachers is that they are pressed to simply “cover” the material. If “covering” a topic takes 30 minutes, that’s just the way it is. The question then becomes whether there is a way to help students learn more material in less time.

I can think of two, and neither of them is a Time Turner. Both ways of helping students learn more material in less time can be effective for those that are the “brightest of their age” and those that are not.

The first is to teach more effectively. It may be that students will “get” whatever it is more quickly if the material is presented in a more effective way. Teachers who understand how learning happens in the brain can often get more and better learning to happen for their students in less time.

The other is to improve the efficiency of learning by building a student’s learning capacity.   What if Johnny could grasp that concept in less time, or manipulate the steps of a story problem more effectively? What if he could sustain his attention better so that he is actually attending to the instruction rather than needing it to be repeated multiple times? What if he could take notes while listening to the teacher? What if he could monitor his own pacing and progress to finish his work?

Many teachers assume that they are stuck with their students’ learning capacity, leaving them to choose between just “covering” the material or taking more time to teach. That assumption no longer holds. Dramatic improvements in students’ capacity to learn are possible in a very short period of time. In 12 weeks of using BrainWare SAFARI, for example, students have improved their cognitive skills by an average of 4 years, according to peer-reviewed published research.

So, if we can help students learn more in less time, how much time will we spend helping them get to that point? Is it worth the investment of time?

Let’s do the math again. The time spent using BrainWare SAFARI is typically 30 to 50 hours over those 12 weeks – usually no more than 30 hours.

If we assume that a typical school year involves 1,000 hours of instruction, 30 hours of cognitive skill development is a one-time investment of 3 percent of instructional time in that particular school year. If one considers that the improvement could be amortized over three years of elementary school (since 3rd grade is a common year in which to incorporate BrainWare SAFARI in the curriculum), the investment of time diminishes to about one percent of instructional time. If learning capacity, then, is only one percent more efficient, it would be an even trade, but learning capacity is likely to be much more efficient than that because learning is not linear and learning one thing better provides the groundwork for learning everything that comes afterward more efficiently. It also doesn’t account for the cumulative effects of students who go on to middle school and high school with the capacity and preparation to succeed at those levels.

Maybe, Time Turners aren’t an option, but that doesn’t mean we can’t enable our students to learn more than they currently do.

What Teachers Should Know About the Brain — by Betsy Hill

October 21, 2014

A recently published research study on teachers’ understanding of the brain and neuroscience research has been getting a lot of attention.  The findings, based on surveys of teachers in the U.K., Greece, Turkey, Holland, and China, showed that teachers had many misconceptions about the brain.  The findings echoed a survey of teachers in the U.S. finding that teachers in American schools have the same misconceptions.

The translation of  neuroscience research to classroom practice is something that is getting increased attention, but unfortunately most teacher training programs do not include much discussion of the brain or how neuroscience research findings can be used to help students perform better.  This gap was documented in a research report by the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE).

As I’ve been reading the stories about how teachers’ misconceptions are potentially harmful to students, I asked myself what factual neuroscience information would be most important to replace those misconceptions.  Here are three neuro-myths — misconceptions that teachers have about the brain — along with something they should know about the brain and may not:

Neuro-myth:  we only use 10% of our brains.

What teachers need to know:  the brain is “plastic” and is constantly changing.  Everything that happens in the classroom physically changes children’s brains.  Teachers need to know more to take advantage of this amazing plasticity.

Neuro-myth: we need to teach differently to right-brained and left-brained children.

What teachers need to know:  first, no one is right-brained and no one is left brained.  Teachers need to teach to whole brains.  But there are very different ways that teachers should teach different types of materials and skills.  If teachers don’t have an in-depth understanding of the difference between procedural memory and declarative memory and how that matters in the classroom, they need to know what the implications for teaching and learning are.

Neuro-myth: children’s brains shrink if they don’t drink 6 to 8 glasses of water a day.

What teachers need to know: physical exercise has a tremendous impact on brain development.  Scheduling time into the day for active physical activity is more likely to improve students’ academic performance than trying to get so many glasses of water down their throats (kids generally drink liquids when they are thirsty, just as adults do).

If you are interested in expanding teachers’ understanding of neuro-reality, I would welcome an opportunity to share ideas!


Funding Professional Development for Teachers — by Betsy Hill

September 24, 2014

Almost two years ago, I blogged about the stunning research by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development on the connection between student scores on the PISA tests and economic well-being.  The bottom line was that if the U.S. could raise every child’s PISA score to the minimum level of proficiency on the PISA (the international tests that enable the academic rankings of various nations), it would unleash $73 trillion of GDP.

Of course, that’s a big number, but may not really help us appreciate the impact at the level of an individual student.  A recent court decision related to tenure provisions in the state of California has highlighted another research study from 2012 by Chetty, Friedman and Rockoff, in which the authors connected state test scores to lifetime earnings for students and the difference that a good teacher can make.  They found that replacing a poor teacher with an average teacher for one year resulted in an additional $50,000 in lifetime earnings for each student.  Thus, the impact of lifetime earnings on a class of 20-30 students for just one year of poor teaching amounts to $1 to $1.5 million in lifetime earnings for those students.

In the last few years, we have seen many school districts cutting or even eliminating funding for professional development for teachers. Not only does this impair teachers’ ability to raise their performance, it means that new research on effective teaching fails to reach teachers at all levels, such as applying neuroscience research in the classroom.  As one example of what recent research is showing, we now understand that cognitive skills training, done correctly, has a substantial impact on student performance, including raising performance on state test scores, the same measure correlated to lifetime earnings in the Chetty research.  Giving teachers tools like BrainWare SAFARI cognitive skills development software, can play an important role in raising teacher effectiveness.

Providing BrainWare SAFARI to a classroom of students along with professional development on applying neuroscience in the classroom would cost a tiny fraction of the $1 million in increased lifetime earnings for those students.  In these days of low interest rates, professional development like that, with a 10-100 fold return, could be one of the best investment opportunities around.


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