The Rise of Brain-Focused Teaching

April 1, 2010 — Leave a comment

The development of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in the 1980s revolutionized medicine, particularly neuroscience, by giving doctors a unique window into the workings of the brain. Now, fMRI technology, and our advanced knowledge of how the brain operates, is revolutionizing education.

“Neuroimaging can transform a real brain hidden within a skull into a virtual brain observable on a computer. This transformation has finally allowed scientists to observe how various brain processing systems collaborate when they develop a decision and then activate the appropriate behavior,” writes education professor Robert Sylwester in the journal The School Administrator. He suggests that teachers acquaint themselves with the new neuroscience literature and the potential applications of brain science in the classroom.

“Teachers who continually ask students to sit still and be quiet seem more interested in teaching a grove of trees than a room full of students. Educational leaders who eliminate recess and reduce arts and physical education programs seemingly don’t understand the purpose of the brain, and what it takes to develop and maintain one,” he says.

One research project that applied neuromapping technology to teaching was the 2003 Fast ForWord Language study. In the experiment, a group of dyslexic students underwent fMRI scans while participating in various reading tasks. Some of the tasks dealt with sounding out words, while other tasks were concerned with reading. The study allowed the researchers to observe how the children processed the letters visually and aurally and then compare the findings to similar fMRI scans of children without dyslexia. The scientists discovered that the brain of the dyslexic subjects, specifically the portion of the brain associated with hearing and processing sound, was influencing the dyslexia. They used their findings to craft more visceral lesson plans. The result after eight weeks was significant improvement on standardized reading tests.

“This is the first study to use fMRI to document scientifically that the brain differences seen in dyslexics can be ‘normalized’ by neuroplasticity based training. Perhaps of greater relevance to educators, parents, and the children themselves are the accompanying significant increases in reading scores on standardized tests that were also documented as a result of this intervention,” write neuroscience experts Steve Miller and Paula Tallal. They report that, since the results of the study were published in 2003, similar findings have been made available for teachers in more than 4,000 schools across the United States.

“The goal of brain-compatible instruction is more than high test scores,” says Patricia Wolfe, author of Mind Matters: Translating Research into Classroom Practice. “Our students need to develop an in-depth understanding of concepts to the point where they are able to use what they’ve learned in school in the world outside of school.”

Wolfe cautions that not all neuroscience studies will be applicable to the classroom. She suggests that teachers become more familiar with basic brain anatomy before attempting to write lesson plans around the neuroscience breakthrough-of-theday, and that educators not ignore important discoveries in psychology or educational research. However, she is optimistic that our rapidly advancing understanding of the brain will lead to more effective teaching in the near future.

“Granted, much more remains to be learned from neuroscience that will assist us in making our classrooms more compatible with how the brain functions, but it would be foolish to wait until all the research is completed to begin to incorporate the knowledge we now have,” she says. -Patrick Tucker

Originally published in THE FUTURIST, May-June 2007

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