Neuroscience and education: implications for classroom practice

published 20 March 2009 updated 20 March 2009

Did you know that the concept of individuals being left-brained or right-brained is an example of neuroscientific research data being interpreted incorrectly (Willis, 2008)? Or that the practice of identifying learners as auditory, visual or kinesthetic has never been supported by brain research (Ansari, 2008)? These commonly held beliefs have found their way into urban myth and into some educational conversations.

It may be challenging for beginning teachers to identify valid information and put it to use in the classroom but, with the growing body of work in neuroscience and the connections between brain-based research and learning, it is important that we all have a good understanding of the recent research and its implications for classroom practice. The last 20 years have been revolutionary in the field of brain research due to rapid technological advances which allow scientists to look inside the brain, watch it processing information, and identify which areas of the brain are active during specific tasks. For example, we now know that several areas of the brain show activity during the act of reading, and that adults and children with dyslexia show atypical brain activity profiles. Scientists suggest that in the future, children will be able to enter school with learning disabilities already identified by medical technology, and with learning plans already developed for use by teachers. The implications of brain research for the future look very promising, but teachers can also make use of current research in their classrooms; for example, did you know that daily school experiences actually change the physiology of the brain? Considerable attention has been paid to the fact that the use of technology can change the physical structure of the brain, a fact that has been discussed in educational circles in respect to a perceived shorter attention span seen in students who use technology. However, this is only part of the picture as all activity changes the physical structure of the brain, including learning. Research has shown that learning can stimulate the development of new neurons and neural pathways. This new growth can occur throughout life, not only when the brain is still growing in childhood and adolescence. Pruning of these neurons and neural pathways is also continuous, as pathways that are not used regularly are deleted to make the brain more efficient, while those used regularly are strengthened. This quality, referred to as brain plasticity, has implications for teaching and learning. Jensen (2008) suggests that schools can use this fact to advantage by using strategies that encourage students’ metacognition. Connected to brain plasticity are new understandings about IQ. Research has shown that an individual’s IQ is not fixed at birth, but rather can continue to grow through life, given optimal conditions. In the past, IQ was believed to be a function of nature (genetics) or nurture (environment). Now a third factor is also recognized: that of “gene expression.” Gene expression is described by Jensen (2008) as “the capacity of our genes to respond to chronic or acute environmental output.” Jensen states that “gene expression can be regulated by what we do at schools” so that, as teachers, we can provide opportunities for growth that will enhance the lives of all students. Several other promising practices that reinforce the connection between education and brain research are currently being investigated. One of these supports the multiple intelligence theories of Howard Gardner, and confirms that children learn in a variety of ways and have different ways of expressing what they have learned and understand. If we present information to students in a variety of ways and allow for the expression of learning in a variety of ways, more students will be successful. Further, research has shown that if new information is presented in a multi-sensory manner, this new learning can then be stored in a variety of areas in the brain. If distributed in several places, information can also be retrieved from a number of areas, thus increasing the likelihood of it being retained, and creating strong neural pathways. Another good teaching practice confirmed by brain research is the connection between emotion and learning. Willis (2007) states that “superior learning takes place when learning activities are enjoyable and relevant to students’ lives, interests and experiences.” This speaks to the importance of our knowing about the interests and lives of the students so that we can connect new learning to their past experiences. Yet another teaching practice reinforced in current literature is the belief that students are active learners who construct meaning when immersed in a meaningful performance in a social environment. None of these strategies are new to teachers, but what is new is that these sound educational practices are now confirmed by brain research. Jensen (2008) suggests that educators should be “professional enough to say ‘here’s why I do what I do’ in the classroom.” This means looking to the research to identify good teaching practices. Think about an area of your curriculum that is necessary but not exciting. How might you make that learning that topic enjoyable and relevant? How might you connect this topic to students’ prior experiences, and in what ways might you engage students in studying this material via an authentic performance task? What are some ways in which you can introduce learning to students in a multi-sensory manner? How might you introduce metacognitive strategies to your students? What other teaching practices could you use in your classrooms that are founded on research? By Margaret Pillay. A former teacher, school principal and curriculum consultant, Margaret Pillay now is Associate Director with the Professional Development Unit of the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation in Canada. Her article is reprinted with permission from the union’s paper, Saskatchewan Bulletin.

This article was published in Worlds of Education, Issue 29, March 2009.