The Importance of Neuroscience to Education: Achieving the Education-Learning Nexus

by Dr. Chris Kukk

Albert Einstein and Mark Twain didn’t experience ‘it.’ Most of us, however, believe in ‘it’ and many teachers continue to strive to make ‘it’ real in our classrooms. The ‘it’ is an education based on learning. Where Einstein said “the only thing that interferes with my learning is my education,” Twain stated that “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” While Einstein and Twain said it differently, they said the same thing: school-education was not based on learning. Neuroscience research over the last few decades, however, has provided a series of ideas and paths that can guide us into creating school environments where learning is at the center of education. Simply stated, neuroscience provides insights into how the brain learns. The weaving of neuroscience with pedagogical and social science research offers numerous ways to improve learning and develop more effective education policies.

Neuroscience research has recently shed light on how to improve learning; some have characterized their findings as exploring the powers of the social brain. ‘Social’ is used, such as in the title of Matthew Lieberman’s book on the brain, to highlight the fact that we learn best through connections; social-emotional and conceptual. Because all information and memories are immediately broken into fragments and spread throughout the surface of the brain’s cortex, connections (or reconnections) are at the core of learning (the brain’s storage faculty is not like any recording device or computer but more like a cooperative/coordinated event similar to a flash-mob of the brain). If we connect, we learn.

We learn by connecting ideas and emotions. Recent research has found that emotional connections are the keys for unlocking learning potential. John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist, explains in his book Brain Rules that an emotionally charged event (called an emotionally competent stimulus—ECS) creates a kind of chemical Post-It note (written in the ink of dopamine) on the brain for remembering information. An ECS can be something as simple as using paradoxes (i.e., less is more) in class to create associations between concepts for enhancing memory and learning. Neuroscience shows that connecting ideas and emotions is a key part to knowing and learning and we should be incorporating ECS Post-It notes in our classrooms.

A person’s emotions or mood are such integral parts of cognition that they sometimes play the role of gatekeeper for how and to what extent each one of us sees reality. Our vision is literally affected by our emotions. Positive and negative moods, according to a 2009 neuroscience study, affect the way we see the world around us by either broadening (positive) or narrowing (negative) our peripheral vision respectively. The study by Schmitz, De Rosa and Anderson clearly demonstrates that our moods modulate the activity of the visual cortex “with positive affect broadening and negative affect narrowing the distribution, or scope, of one’s field of view (FOV).” The reason, in part, is that we see with our brains, not with our eyes. Because it is our brains that see and not the eyes, emotions and opinions help define our vision of reality. In short, the type of classroom that a teacher constructs (positive or negative) matters more than we have given it credit for. Incorporating the learning of values such as compassion into classrooms can broaden the realm of possibilities for our students—both literally and figuratively.

The realm of possibilities for our students, however, should not be confined by the walls of classroom. Academic success, according to neuroscientists and education researchers, is also linked to playground and recess time. From this week’s (4-8 August 2014) National Public Radio series on the importance of play in schools to analyses about the role of Finland’s “unstructured outdoor play” in achieving high standardized testing scores, the role of physical activity in aiding intellectual achievement is well documented (physical activity generates brain fuel such as oxygen and glucose). Medina says it best: “Cutting off physical exercise—the very activity most likely to promote cognitive performance—to do better on a test score is like trying to gain weight by starving yourself.” Education policymakers throughout the United States should be increasing time for recess and physical activity for students and not decreasing it, which is the current trend in many school districts. It makes no sense that America is trying to move up the international ladder of standardized test scores by making its test takers stand still.

But is standardized testing the best way to learn or measure learning? Even the debates over the most cutting edge theories of neuroscience offer insights into how to address highly controversial education policies such as testing. The neuroscience view, for instance, that the brain is a quantum environment and governed by the processes of quantum mechanics offers a strong critique of America’s current use and focus on standardized tests for learning. Although quantum physics is widely known for the idea that a particle can be in two different places at the same time, it is the not-so-well-known Quantum Zeno Effect (QZE) that provides the source of strength for the standardization critique. QZE maintains that “when any system is observed in a sufficiently rapid, repetitive fashion the rate at which that system changes is reduced.” In other words, QZE is explaining that the more a quantum system is monitored, the less decay occurs. If the human brain operates in a quantum environment (a recent discovery of quantum vibrations in the brain was announced in January 2014) and we, as educators, want the process of learning to be locked in and not decay, we should be instituting the “regimen of regular low- or no-stakes” testing of my schoolboy days and the type of quizzing that Peter Brown, Herny Roediger III and Mark McDaniel recommend in their book Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. The problem with an emphasis on standardized testing, from the perspective of quantum mechanics, is that there is too much information being tested too infrequently for learning to “stick” or stabilize in the brain. This idea of quantum learning supports Roediger’s recommendations outlined in The New York Times: “We need to change the way we think about testing. It shouldn’t be a white-knuckle finale to a semester’s work, but the means by which students progress from the start of a semester to its finish, locking in learning along the way…Standardized testing is in some respects a quest for more rigor in public education. We can achieve rigor in a different way. We can instruct teachers on the use of low-stakes quizzing in class. We can teach students the benefits of retrieval practice and how to use it in their studying outside class. These steps cost little and cultivate habits of successful learning that will serve students throughout their lives.”

Einstein and Twain’s comments regarding the broken education-learning link are, in essence, quantum quotes; they say the same thing in two different ways. Einstein, however, also provided us with a way to repair or bridge the broken link via his idea of “combinatory play,” which calls for combining aspects of several disciplines when looking for solutions. The development of solutions to the Einstein-Twain quantum quote quandary (say that fast 5 times) will come from combining facets of neuroscience, education and social science research. We can improve learning in education if we follow the same type of path the brain uses to learn: a connected path.

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