Advances in Educational Neuroscience

Advances in Educational Neuroscience
John J. Russell, EdD

The Windward School/ Haskins Laboratories Collaborative Project 

The Windward School has entered into a formal partnership with Haskins Laboratories. As a result of this relationship, The Windward School is now a contributing member of the Haskins Global Language & Literacy Innovation Hub which is an international and interdisciplinary collaborative that brings together researchers, practitioners, educators, and education technology specialists. The mission of the Hub is to improve language and literacy outcomes for children at risk for reading difficulties across languages and cultures. Through formal affiliations with the Yale University School of Medicine, the Yale Child Study Center, the University of Connecticut Institute for the Brain and Cognitive Sciences, and extensive national and international research partnerships, the Windward/Haskins Collaborative Partnership is in a unique position to efficiently impact positive changes in language and literacy skills and develop scalable solutions to improve literacy rates. Haskins scientists, working with Windward faculty, will conduct in-school research using neurocognitive measures to better understand individual differences in response to different treatments with the goal of establishing a better understanding of what works for whom and why, a critical step in moving toward individuated brain-based instructional programs. The project will also include cognitive and brain imaging research aimed at improved early diagnosis of language-based learning disabilities in at-risk children. In addition, the creation of a joint Windward/Haskins training and professional development program for educators, clinicians, researchers, and other stakeholders will facilitate the transfer of critical research findings to instructional practice.  

This groundbreaking partnership marks an important milestone in the efforts to achieve the long-sought-after synergy among cognitive science, neuroscience, and education referred to as educational neuroscience. This is an emerging interdisciplinary field that seeks to translate research findings on the neural mechanisms of learning to educational practice and policy and to understand the effects of education on the brain (Thomas et. al., 2018). Over the last 25 years, the feasibility of educators being able to use neuroscience to shape policy and to refine instruction has undergone intense scrutiny and debate. 

The Evolution of Educational Neuroscience  

Paraphrasing an old Danish proverb, the Nobel Prize winning physicist Neils Bohr said, “it is very hard to predict, especially about the future.” Numerous other notables have proven this to be true. In a speech at the 1977 World Future Society meeting in Boston, Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) stated, "There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home." Examples abound of very knowledgeable people making some very shortsighted recommendations and doing so with absolute certainty. Obviously, experts are designated as such because of their extensive knowledge in a field and, as a result, are also able to make predictions and recommendations that are worth heeding, but not necessarily as absolutes immune to change over time.  

Responding to a surge in quackery around instructional practices that claimed to be “brain-based,” John T. Bruer published an article entitled Education and the Brain: A Bridge Too Far (1997). In it, he warned that, “Practical, well-founded examples of putting cognitive science into practice already exist in numerous schools and classrooms. Teachers would be better off looking at these examples than at speculative applications of neuroscience.” Are his admonitions still timely? Do applications of neuroscience by teachers remain speculative? A limited chronological review of papers focused on the potential link between neuroscience and education reveals a significant level of optimism emerging over the last 25 years. 

Continuous Progress 

In fact, soon after the publication of Education and the Brain: A Bridge Too Far, Bruer published a paper (1998) for the James S. McDonnell Foundation that presaged the changes that were to come. In it, he states, “Truly new results in neuroscience, rarely mentioned in the brain and education literature, point to the brain's lifelong capacity to reshape itself in response to experience. The challenge for educators is to develop learning environments and practices that can exploit the brain's lifelong plasticity; define the behaviors we want to teach; design learning environments to impart them; and constantly test the educational efficacy of these environments.”  

Striking a similarly optimistic but cautious tone in Pedagogy Meets Neuroscience (2005) Elsbeth Stern noted, “This desire for ‘evidence-based’ education has coincided with a period of tremendous progress in the field of neuroscience and enormous public interest in its findings, leading to an ongoing debate about the potential of neuroscience to inform education reform. Although the value of neuroscience research on this front is seemingly promising, collaboration with educators is doomed to failure if the public is not correctly informed and if the research is not considered in an interdisciplinary context.” 

In 2006, Usha Goswami noted that neuroscience had made significant advances in areas highly relevant to education, however, he counseled that, “there is a gulf between current science and direct classroom applications. Most scientists would argue that filling the gulf is premature.” That gap shrank a bit with the publication of Neuroscience Core Concepts (2008). In it, the Society for Neuroscience stated that neuroscience has the potential to transform teacher preparation and professional development and to ultimately affect how students think about their own learning. Building on this work, Dubinsky, Roehrig, and Varma (2013) proposed that far from abstract background material, the core concepts of neuroscience represent practical knowledge that has the potential to inform teacher practice in classroom settings, as well as to motivate students to learn. Riffing on the title of Bauer’s 1997 article, Sigman et. al. published Neuroscience and education: prime time to build the bridge (2014) arguing, “Neuroscience methods, tools and theoretical frameworks have broadened our understanding of the mind in a way that is highly relevant to educational practice.” This position is further reinforced in Neuroscience and education: We already reached the tipping point (Martin-Loeches, 2015) in which a series of contributing researchers argue that it is not necessary to wait any longer for educational neuroscience to inform curriculum (Zadina, 2015). In the same publication, Usha Goswami (2015) expounds on the effectiveness of electroencephalograph (EEG) systems in the early diagnosis of the phonological processing issues that are characteristic of dyslexia. The editor concludes, “It is not necessary to wait any longer; there is already sufficient neuroscientific knowledge. The most exhilarating is, however, that the future of educational neuroscience appears highly fruitful and promising.” 

The Future of Educational Neuroscience 

Just as Ken Olsen wrongly predicted that there would be no reasons to have computers in homes, Howard-Jones (2010) has gone on record saying that no classroom-ready neuroscience knowledge is ever likely to exist. This overstatement has already been contradicted by researchers working in several areas where the impact of neuroscience on education has been clearly documented.  

For example, exposing pre-service and current teachers to the concept of brain plasticity, the brain's ability to change structure and function, (Kolb, et al., 1998) leads to critical transformations in the ways teachers and learners perceive their roles—moving from the long-held belief of “using the brain” to one of “changing the brain” (Dubinsky, et al., 2013).  Brain plasticity has resulted in the emergence of a new perspective on instruction, “one where teachers come to see themselves as designers of experiences that ultimately change students’ brains” (Dubinsky, et al., 2013). Teachers are likely to be highly motivated by knowing that they have the ability to design and provide experiences that will shape students’ brains, and students will be empowered by understanding that their experiences in school can actually change their brains.  

Neuroscientists have also made considerable progress in explicating the neural processes that make reading possible and have begun to describe at the neural level the biological basis for reading difficulties (EJ McCroryA MechelliU Frith, CJ Price, 2004; SE Shaywitz, BA Shaywitz, RK Fulbrigh, 2003; F HoeftBD McCandlissJM Black, 2011). Still, our knowledge of these processes is evolving and is difficult to translate directly into educational practice (Bowers, 2016), however, the progress that has been made has begun to have a profound effect on education. 

Neuroscience at The Windward School 

Research conducted as part of The Windward School/Haskins Laboratories Collaborative Project will further strengthen the link between neuroscience and education. The inaugural project will use EEG and behavioral measures to assess individual differences in response to core components of the Windward curriculum. These brain measures will be used to explicate key neurocognitive predictors and to link outcomes to diverse learning experiences demonstrating how brain responses can actually guide instructional choices for a given child; indeed the brain responses can predict, long before behavioral changes can be measured, if a teacher is on the "right" track in shaping a learning event to the child's unique brain organization (Pugh, 2019). This project builds upon an ongoing NIH-funded study at Haskins Laboratories that combines frequent simple and non-invasive brain imaging measurement (EEG; fNIRS) before, during, and after a given treatment experience to better understand how treatments work when they do; why some children fail to respond to a given treatment approach; and how to modify treatments to better support individuated training especially for non-responders to conventional approaches. Bringing this NIH-funded infrastructure to The Windward School/Haskins Laboratories Collaborative Project will allow the partnership to contribute to cutting edge issues in educational neuroscience including fostering the use of structured, sequential, systematic, explicit instruction that is so important in learning to read in the broader educational community (Dehaene et al., 2010).  

Over the past 25 years, the bridge between education and neuroscience has evolved from its meager, and often misguided, beginnings into a field with an ever-increasing research base to support it. The model of Haskins scientists and Windward educators working together to translate neuroscience into educational practice is at the vanguard of these efforts to realize the enormous potential of educational neuroscience.  

To stay informed on the Windward/Haskins Laboratories Collaborative Project, visit thewindwardschool.org/haskins.