The potential of neuroscience in education

Neuroscientists and teachers work together to learn more about students’ brains
ElisaRiva, Pixabay.com, CC0 1.0
ElisaRiva, Pixabay.com, CC0 1.0

Every year, when the neuroscience class I teach for psychology students meets for the first time, I see a number of anxious or puzzled faces. My course has a reputation for being very “biological” and “scientific,” and many of my students have little understanding of what neurons, synapses and neurotransmitters have to do with human behavior, let alone the human mind and soul.

By the end of the year, however, it is not uncommon for students to tell me that this was one of their favorite courses because it changed the way they think about human behavior. Most importantly, they say that it has helped them gain insights into themselves and what motivates their own behavior.

Over the past three decades, we have experienced a “brain revolution.” New technologies, such as MRI, fMRI and many more, have advanced our understanding of complex human behavior. We are now able to study the neural processes that underlie learning, memory, cognition, emotions, social behavior, and even the self and human consciousness.

To be sure, there are still a lot of unknowns. But just as my students gain personal insights from taking a single basic course about the brain, teachers everywhere can benefit both personally and professionally from neuroscience courses, especially if these courses are tailored to their needs and relevant to their lives in the classroom.

Convinced that neuroscience can be used in a transformative way in educational settings, my colleagues and I have developed programs to help teachers learn more about the brain. These programs allow teachers in Israel’s public elementary and secondary schools to learn about brain plasticity and the role of the brain in attention, motivation, emotions, stress management, social behavior, and empathy. Our programs also highlight the fact that differences in brain structure and function can lead to differences in the abilities, behaviors, and needs of individual teachers and students.

During the program, teachers acquire academic information about the brain, but they also participate in “personal brain investigations”: short hands-on exercises demonstrating the theoretical content of each lesson in practical and experiential ways.

“One of the main challenges in the field of neuropedagogy is to translate findings from neuroscience into practical tools that teachers can use in their daily work.”

As we complete the exercises together and discuss our observations and experiences, the teachers and I gain insights into various situations that teachers encounter in their classrooms or in their interactions with individual students or colleagues. We also brainstorm about ways for teachers to use neuroscience in the classroom to develop better teaching practices and create more meaningful teaching and learning experiences for themselves and their students.

After learning about the neurological basis for mind-wandering and attentional control, for example, teachers will use short attention-related exercises at the beginning of the lesson, as well as dispersed throughout, to help their students maintain focus and alertness.

This is far from trivial. Indeed, one of the main challenges in the field of neuropedagogy (a scientific discipline that explores ways in which neuroscience can inform education) is to translate findings from neuroscience into practical tools that teachers can use in their daily work.

As my research demonstrates, one of the ways to meet this challenge is to engage neuroscientists and teachers in a shared effort, with neuroscientists providing scientific expertise and teachers contributing their pedagogical expertise. Because teachers are experts in pedagogy, and because they are the ones actually working in the field, their contributions to this effort are invaluable.

“Understanding how the brain works and how teachers can influence their students’ learning should be at the very heart of the educational enterprise.”

The teacher development programs I use are still quite new, and my colleagues and I hope to expand and improve them in the coming years. Yet studies we have carried out already suggest that for at least for some of the teachers, the knowledge of neuroscience they gain from our programs is truly transformative. In that way, they are not so different from my first-year students.

They learn, for example, about brain plasticity and about the power they have as teachers to affect their students’ brains and development in supportive and beneficial ways. Understanding how the brain works and how teachers can influence their students’ learning should be at the very heart of the educational enterprise.

The purpose of the biannual IMBES Conference is to facilitate cross-cultural collaborations in biology, education and the cognitive and developmental sciences. Our objectives are to improve the state of knowledge in and dialogue between education, biology, and the developmental and cognitive sciences; create and develop resources for scientists, practitioners, public policy makers, and the public; and create and identify useful information, research directions, and promising educational practices. The 2018 conference will take place in Los Angeles, California.

Noa Albelda is one of the Exceptional Trainee Policy and Practice Award recipients who will join the IMBES Preconference in Los Angeles sponsored by the Jacobs Foundation.

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