Has educational neuroscience actually had an impact on education so far?

“I think we’re just starting to have more productive discussions”
GDJ, pixabay.com, CC0 1.0
GDJ, pixabay.com, CC0 1.0

Cognitive neuroscientist Silvia Bunge talks about the brain’s sensitive periods during childhood and adolescence, and about why reasoning skills are so important.

Sabine Gysi: Is it necessary for the average elementary school teacher to know about changes in brain structure and function during childhood? And if so, why is it important?

Silvia Bunge: Yes. I think it is absolutely important for several reasons. One is to appreciate how much the brain is changing over this time to allow children to focus more in class, remember more, interact more appropriately, inhibit their responses. Another is to remember that all of this is a natural progression that depends on the development of the brain, and that some children are further behind others and have a harder time sitting still and paying attention – and that it’s no fault of theirs.

Another reason is what we’re learning more and more about sensitive periods for brain plasticity – that there are certain things that are best learned early on, and that it’s going to get harder and harder to learn them as you get older. The best example I can think of is language learning. It’s really important to start that early, because we know that these brain networks are most malleable while they’re still developing.

The last reason is that there are certain basic cognitive skills that need to be developed. It is, of course, important to teach content, but an educator also has to be mindful of the ways in which he or she teaches that content. We have to try to strengthen the basic skills that are necessary for learning.

This concept – that the brain gets strengthened or reinforced through practice – is very important, and of course many teachers understand this, but it’s more than just practicing learning content. There is some evidence that practicing attention can actually improve attention, for example.

SG: In your research, you investigate reasoning skills and why they’re so important. Can you explain what is meant by relational reasoning and fluid reasoning?

SB: Relational reasoning is the ability to consider the ways in which two things are related. So at a very basic level, how is milk related to a cow? And at a higher order level, what is the relationship between milk and a cow, on the one hand, and an egg and a chicken on the other? We know that children and students in general learn very well by analogy, so if you want them to learn a new concept, it’s easiest if you ground it in something very concrete.

If you want children to learn about the movement of the planets or to know what DNA or an electron is, it’s best if you can explain it to them based on things they already know.

“We’re learning more and more about sensitive periods for brain plasticity – that there are certain things that are best learned early on, and that it’s going to get harder and harder to learn them as you get older.”

That’s analogical reasoning. But there are other ways in which relational thinking is helpful. For example, transitive inference: If A, then B; if B then C; therefore if A, then C. This kind of reasoning can be very important, especially for thinking through the logic of an argument, or for making a decision. So those are forms of relational reasoning.

Fluid reasoning is a term that relates to the concept of IQ as a measure of intelligence, and if you look at these measures of fluid reasoning, they’re essentially measures of relational thinking or relational reasoning. The idea is that IQ tests should test fluid reasoning, rather than demanding prior knowledge. You’re trying to get a sense of what children are capable of regardless of how much they already know, so that it’s a fair test of their ability to solve a novel problem. That’s why these relational reasoning tests that you find on IQ measures are just about simple shapes and colors. They’re not about vocabulary or anything like that.

SG: What age is the best time to reinforce the learning of reasoning skills?

SB: We don’t know for sure, but in general, the best time to learn anything is when the relevant system is still maturing, and we know that reasoning skills are increasing dramatically over the elementary school period. We see steep increases from age 6 until around puberty and then a shallower increase after that. So these skills are still improving but not quite as dramatically. From that we would infer that the most important period for learning these skills is this elementary school period.

“The foundation of the reasoning skills in the brain is laid down before adolescence and is an important predictor of future reasoning ability.”

We also find that how strong the brain connectivity is in childhood for this reasoning network – the physical “wiring” that connects the brain regions that support reasoning – is a really important predictor of how well a child will reason later and how well these regions will communicate with each other later.

Essentially the structure, the foundation of the reasoning skills in the brain, is laid down before adolescence and is an important predictor of future reasoning ability.

SG: You once said that relational thinking is becoming more and more important for our careers. But hasn’t it always been important? What has changed in our society?

SB: We are working with our hands less and less and working with our brains more and more, and the information flow is just incessant. We need to be able to learn how to manage all this information that we’re getting, how to filter it out and how to integrate it. And this ability to integrate – this idea of relating concepts together – is more and more essential.

SG: Has educational neuroscience actually had an impact on education so far, and if yes, can you give some examples?

SB: I don’t think so. I think it’s still a very young field. I just got back from a conference by the International Mind, Brain and Education Society (IMBES) on this, and I think people are starting to have more productive discussions. At first, it wasn’t clear how we should communicate with one another – we just speak completely different languages, and I think that that is getting better.

This is the first conference I’ve been to where I felt that sense of progress. But as for actually making an impact, I think that progress is extremely slow. It’s a very slow process to change structures like the infrastructure of a school or a curriculum, and our evidence so far from neuroscience is quite preliminary. You know, we have small numbers of subjects, there’s not a clear application of the brain science, and we can’t draw direct conclusions from the brain science to education. All of it needs to go through psychology.

“If we’re focusing on elementary school, I really want to know: Are there specific times to learn specific levels of relational thinking, and if so, can we use this knowledge to inform or to evaluate existing curricula?”

I don’t even like the term ‘educational neuroscience’. I prefer this alternative term, Mind, Brain and Education, which is a name of a society and the name of a journal, and I think that it better captures the role of psychology as being in the center, mediating between the two. I don’t think you would ever just take data about the brain and directly apply it to a classroom. You would say, “Okay, this is what children can do or need to be taught. This is the underlying brain mechanism. This is why we know this is true, and now let’s apply what we know about the behavior to the classroom.”

But these mechanisms that we’re learning about are very important. We gain insights from looking into the brain that we wouldn’t otherwise have. Children could be struggling with the same task for very different reasons, and we may not even know that. We may just think, “Oh, they’re having trouble with this math test or something,” but one child might have a problem with working memory, another one with processing speed, and another one could have an actual issue with the brain machinery that supports math specifically. Neuroscience can help us to tease apart these mechanisms.

SG: I can see that there is still so much to explore in this field. Which are the questions you want to tackle in your next research project?

SB: I’m really curious to know whether there is a window of time during which it’s most important to strengthen your reasoning skills, and I also want to know if there’s a way to reopen the brain to plasticity later on in adulthood. But if we’re focusing on elementary school, I really want to know: Are there specific times to learn specific levels of relational thinking, and if so, can we use this knowledge to inform or to evaluate existing curricula?

So with young children, is it really important to be emphasizing their ability to compare things – to recognize which object is bigger or smaller or which things are more closely related? Is that something we should be building very early on, like in preschool, and then from there building up to higher levels of relational thinking? Should we be exposing children to lots of analogies, lots of transitive inference problems? And to what extent should this be involved in or infused into every subject matter, every different kind of course that the child takes?

“With any kind of cognitive skill that you want to train, it takes many, many hours. And if you want to see generalizability, if you want to see that skill used in many contexts, it has to be practiced in many contexts.”

That last part is not something that I will be able to implement in the near future. But as for the best time to learn these skills and just how much the brain changes as you’re practicing your reasoning – we showed in young adults that three months of intensive practice can change the brain, can strengthen the reasoning network, but it was a fairly small effect.

Our next study is looking at something similar in children practicing reasoning games. We’ve already shown that eight weeks of playing these games can improve a child’s reasoning ability. But if we can now do the same study with brain imaging – collecting brain imaging data multiple times over the course of learning  – we can get a sense of whether these changes are likely to last or not, whether we’ve changed the fundamental structure of the brain or whether we’ve simply given children a strategy for solving a task. Is it something that’s fundamentally changing the way their brain works or is it just a short-term effect?

SG: So you are saying that in school curricula, reasoning should not be a separate subject, but it should be applied, it should be a foundation for every subject, is that right?

SB: Yes. That’s my hypothesis, and we know that with any kind of cognitive skill that you want to train, it takes many, many hours. And if you want to see generalizability, if you want to see that skill used in many contexts, it has to be practiced in many contexts. So, for example in math, we study the way that relational thinking helps you to understand fractions. Let’s say you’re comparing the fraction 3/4 to 1/2, the more that you use relational thinking, we find, the better you do on this task.

SG: You’re looking at ways of prolonging the window of opportunity for significant learning. Were you pleased or disappointed by the test results so far?

SB: We were not sure that we would be able to show training effects on the brain in healthy young adults who are already doing pretty well in terms of their reasoning skills, and I was quite shocked actually to see what looks like a change in brain structure after only three months. So to me that was great news.

Dr. Silvia Bunge is a professor in the Department of Psychology and the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute at the University of California at Berkeley. Professor Bunge directs the Building Blocks of Cognition Laboratory, which draws from the fields of cognitive neuroscience, developmental psychology, and education research. Researchers in the laboratory examine the neural basis of improvements in high-level cognitive functions (reasoning, memory, and self-regulation) over childhood and adolescence. Silvia Bunge is a Jacobs Foundation Research Fellow 2016-2018.

Silvia Bunge