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

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!

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