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Brain-Based Education Part I

The field of brain-based education has been under the microscope, so to speak, for over 20 years. The goal has been to reach a common ground on which both educators and neuroscientists can agree. In a nutshell:

Brain-based education means understanding how the brain works and employing teaching strategies based on principles derived from solid scientific research.

Everything we do in education uses our brain. Let’s learn more about it and apply that knowledge.

Here is a terrific article I found on the topic.

3 Categories of Neuroscientific Research

The conundrum is straightforward. By nature, educators tend to be fairly practical. Much of scientific research was done under very narrow constraints and cannot be widely generalized. Schools, by contrast, are far from a fixed environment. They are a run “on the fly” with a varied curriculum, constant staff turnover, unpredictable social and emotional interactions, a wide spectrum of physical buildings, and highly varied students.

The research that educators typically want to draw from also varies. We classify the neuroscientific research into three categories: basic, clinical andapplied.

1) Basic Research is conducted at the micro level. Studies are often done on molecules, cells, genes, structures and bodily processes that can seem distant to educators. But much of basic research does have relevance. For example, basic neuroscience studies revealed neurogenesis (the production of new neurons) is conserved in humans and that neurogenesis is highly correlated with learning, memory, and mood.

2) Clinical Research is typically done with animals or humans, often in a university setting. The experiments are likely to be well controlled and the results more credible.

3) Applied Research is typically done in school where results seem clearer, but there are still issues with demographics, sample size, subject variability, compliance, protocol, and generalizability.

Core Issues In Brain-Based Education

It is clear to both of the stakeholders that each of the three research domains listed above has its limitations. But unless educators understand the theoretical and research basis for any classroom strategy, they aren’t any better off. Unless they can:

1) Articulate the research basis of their strategies being used
2) Understand the context, scope, and limitations of the research being applied
3) Keep track of what is done and the results in the form of actions taken

Are educators any better off than using random strategies?

For example, many teachers use a classroom “energizer” assuming that it’ll increase oxygenation and heart rate, including circulation to the brain. But they may be unaware of the varied contexts for the simultaneous release of chemicals such as cortisol, dopamine or norepinephrine that have a wide (and unexpected) range of effects on student cognition or behavior.

On the other hand, neuroscientists are grounded in research. Research studies are often fraught with confounding variables that suggest limits on the scope, demographics, and certainly on the capacity to generalize the experimental results to the widespread application.

Scientists understand experimental design and want to be cautious about making any classroom “translation” of assertions of the data into a teaching strategy. Their profession has taught them well to avoid making any leaps from theory to practice that cannot be justified without further research. And while the NIH and other funding agencies have increased their requests for applied studies, not everything worth studying can or should fall into the “applied” area of study.

Common Ground

Each of the two groups, educator and neuroscientist, has different perceptions, different work strategies, and different professional needs. What is being proposed is a common ground. Towards this goal, many noted researchers have been fostering interdisciplinary programs (e.g., Kurt Fischer’s degree programs at Harvard, Marc Swartz’s program at UT Dallas). Many forward-thinking educators have also developed opportunities for educators and neuroscientists to interact through mind-brain conferences. These events encourage dialog and increase common knowledge. But what’s needed is a philosophical and theoretical bridge. This common ground could consist of a common set of neuroscientific principles that can be understood by the layperson.

See the continuation of this blog post for a list of eight specific principles.

Jensen, E. (2013). Guiding principles for brain-based education: Building common ground between Neuroscientists and Educators.