French neuroscientist Bruno della Chiesa met with his country's education minister in Paris to talk about the groundbreaking international movement to link the fields of teaching and brain science.

"The brain?" asked the minister. "What does the brain have to do with education?"

It sounds like a joke, but it's not. Neuroscience and education have long been arch-enemies, split over whether it's possible to understand biologically how and, more importantly, why the human brain learns.

But the movement is quietly capturing the imaginations of people all over the world.

It could revolutionize education, making questions about whether the two fields can collaborate all the more urgent.

What if, for the first time, teachers were to use radical new findings about how the brain actually learns? Would teaching look different? Could every child, regardless of family wealth, race, sex or country reach his or her full potential? Could it transform society?

Yes, says Stuart Shanker, research professor of psychology and philosophy at York University.

The roadblock: The education system would have to change from top to bottom. Not necessarily in overall cost, but certainly in attitude, training and research.

"Current educational systems are still greatly influenced by the Victorian attitude based upon the principle that the child can be an object of reward or punishment, as is the case with a puppy," says Rita Levi-Montalcini, a Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in Rome, in the book The Educated Brain, Essays in Neuroeducation.

She argues that it's time to apply several centuries of scientific discoveries to teaching.

"The evolution of information technologies has revealed the enormous and unbelievable capacity of the child and the pre-adolescent not only to receive information, which was considered in the past to be the privilege of the mature brain, but also to use it immediately and thus even to surpass adults, surprisingly," says Levi-Montalcini.

Why aren't we quickly shifting to an education system based on brain science?

For one thing, it's still something of a secret, unknown to most educators and policy-makers and, perhaps more importantly, to most parents.

For another, the precise, creative ways in which teachers will be able to use neuroscientific findings in the classroom are unknown. It's still too early for anyone to set down a recipe. But it's not too early to know the basic ingredients. Here's why.

A hundred years ago, the only way scientists could examine the human brain was with a corpse. Today, scientists can look inside a living brain and watch it work.

That's because the cells of the brain, the neurons, communicate electrically and chemically. They're like 100 billion tiny batteries. The voltage and the magnetic fields they give off when they're working radiate through the brain, the bone of the skull and the skin. And when they work they need oxygen and sugar, delivered by blood.

Scientists have learned to track neurons' electricity through electroencephalogram recordings (EEGs) and their magnetic activity through magneto-encephalograms (MEGs). As well, positron emission tomography (PET) measures blood flow in the brain, ultimately creating a three-dimensional picture.

The big advance, developed in the 1970s, has been magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which creates a magnetic field around the brain. Because different parts of the brain have unique magnetic properties, they are represented differently in scans. It means scientists can peer deep into the structures of the brain.

With functional MRI (fMRI), which began to be used widely on humans in the early 1990s, the magnet can make a three-dimensional picture of the brain's actual, right-now workings by measuring the magnetic properties of oxygen in blood flowing to the parts of the brain being activated.

It means scientists are able to watch the brain learn, which it does by forming connections among the neurons. The more often those connections are used, the stronger they become and the more easily recovered by memory.

And that means scientists can start explaining why, biologically, certain types of teaching work and others don't. They are piecing together the science of learning. And therefore teaching.

Already, they have found that the structure of your brain actually changes as you learn. For instance, a study of London taxi drivers in 2000 used MRIs to examine the brains of male, right-handed taxi drivers compared with male, right-handed men of similar ages who didn't drive taxis.

It turns out that the taxi drivers had a much bigger posterior hippocampus than the men who didn't drive for a living. That part of the hippocampus is an old part of the brain, in evolutionary terms, and is crucial for an animal's ability to navigate.

Not only that, but the longer someone had been a taxi driver, the bigger his posterior hippocampus, and the smaller the anterior part of the hippocampus. It was as if the brain's grey matter had redistributed itself.

The stunning implication is that intelligence is not fixed. You are not born smart or stupid. You build intelligence during your life.

In addition, much of your intelligence – and how you do in life – seems to rely on how well the so-called "executive function" portion of your brain works. That's the brainy front part of the cerebral cortex that gives you the ability to control impulses, sustain attention, hold an idea in your head, plan. And executive function can be both taught and learned at any age.

"We used to say that intelligence was 80 per cent genetic and 20 per cent environmental," says Martin Westwell, a neuroscientist in Adelaide at Flinders University. "Now we tend to say that it's 20 per cent genetic and 80 per cent environmental."

The brain is malleable. And the research is showing that if students think they can learn, then they do. If they think their intelligence is fixed at a low level – whether because of social or economic status, skin colour, gender, family history, which country they live in – then they stick to that level.

"It is absolutely clear that the brain is not fixed," says Westwell. "And in schools the kids who see intelligence as malleable have a better trajectory."

The working theory behind connecting these biological concepts with education is that the human brain has a biological need to learn throughout life, and that many of the modern teaching methods shut that need down. An example is making children sit still and silent when movement and social interaction help build their brains.

To many neuroscientists, today's mainstream education system is mired firmly where medicine was during the Middle Ages. Practices continue based on tradition, not science, just as medieval doctors used leeches to bleed patients without knowing whether it worked. Today we know that bloodletting actually prevented healing.

But some traditional practices do work – like the use of willow bark (which contains the same compounds as Aspirin) to relieve fever.

To the growing movement for brain-based teaching, the great challenge is to get rid of the leeches from the classroom while keeping the willow bark. Understanding brain biology shows which is which.

Unlike most educational theory, neuroeducation is devoid of the political philosophies and fads – such as the child-based teaching phenomenon of the 1960s and 1970s and the back-to-basics movement that characterized the 1990s – that have frequently held sway over education. The marriage of neuroscience and education, by contrast, is about how the brain actually works, rather than how a politician believes it ought to work.

I have seen neuroscientific findings in action in a smattering of classrooms and schools around the world over the past year, including England, Australia, the United States and Canada. So far, they're extremely hard to find.

And while no two classrooms look the same, here are the basic ingredients:

The children and the teacher are on a voyage of discovery together. They are all learning. The teacher is not the deliverer of content, or the keeper of the secrets.

The joy is palpable. Sometimes, there's frustration and gentle encouragement to move through that into solving the problem.

The children are often moving rather than sitting still because movement engages more parts of the brain – this shows up on an fMRI as many parts of the brain "firing" – and, combined with language, encodes the ideas in the brain.

There is little dogma but there are lots of questions. The children always have lots of time to explore on their own, no matter their age.

Emotion – the child's and the teacher's – is openly acknowledged as part of the learning process, helping engage the entire brain. (Studies of people whose cerebral emotional centres have been damaged show they are unable to make decisions, which is, broadly speaking, applying knowledge.)

The theory in microcosm? Have you ever seen a baby mastering the task of climbing stairs? The infant will try and try again, utterly absorbed, relentless, until he or she figures it out. A 7-year-old playing an intense game of soccer? What about a teenager trying to figure out a new video game?

The climbing baby, the soccer player and the teenaged gamer are submitting to the biological imperative to learn. Each is driven by something within. Each desperately wants to learn.

"It's like lighting the fire. Learning skills are inert until they are driven by intrinsic motivation," says Jonathan Sharples, a neuroscientist at the Institute for Effective Education at the University of York in England.

It's the opposite of being ordered to memorize something for no apparent reason and then spitting it out on cue. The human brain just doesn't respond well to being told to hold the body still for long periods, focus the mind and learn something just because another person tells it to do so. The brain needs context and meaning. It needs to know why it should learn.

So, with a nod to your brain's needs as you read this, why does any of this matter? The emerging neuroeducation movement holds out the possibility of engaging the immense power of the human brain in people the world over. Levelling the global playing field on a planet where knowledge has never been more in demand.

The barriers? They're immense. Partly because neuroscientists are just beginning to figure all this out and they will need the help of teachers to know what to study. Teachers will be the ones to determine exactly what works in the classroom.

Partly it's that some education academics and bureaucrats are dead set against changing current practices. And it is hard to alter any gargantuan system that faces intense daily pressure to perform.

It could be, though, as the neuroeducator Zachary Stein of Harvard University puts it, simply a failure of imagination.


Source: Toronto Star –