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Alanna Mitchell Special to the Star
Published On Sun Nov 1 2009
BRAINSTORM
About the series
Alanna Mitchell is a Toronto-based writer and journalist who specializes in
global science issues. Mitchell spent much of the past year investigating
the controversial push to use brain science to improve education. She
travelled to England, France, Australia and the U.S. as part of her 2008
Atkinson Fellowship in Public Policy. The fellowship, sponsored by The
Atkinson Charitable Foundation, the Toronto Star and the Honderich family,
aims to further liberal journalism in the tradition of legendary Star publisher
Joseph E. Atkinson.

Call it a modern version of the feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys.
Or the Capulets and the Montagues.

In some ways, it’s a miracle that the warring fields of neuroscience and
education are even thinking about marrying into an international movement.
Yet – unlikely as it may seem – they are.

The movement is new elsewhere and embryonic to the point of invisibility in
Canada. But in other parts of the world, including the United States,
Europe, Japan and Australia, it is gathering strength.

Driven by the scientists, it even has its own interdisciplinary academic
society – the International Mind, Brain, and Education Society – and a twoyear-
old peer-reviewed journal, Mind, Brain, and Education.

Why does it matter? If it works, society’s long-held dream of educating
everyone to full potential could at last be realized: poor or rich, black or
white, male or female, developed world or developing.

And it wouldn’t happen through mass standardization, the hallmark of the
past century of public education, but through mass customization of
teaching to the natural learning systems of the extraordinarily plastic
human brain.

But even some of the neuroscientists who are devoting their lives to the
dream stress the caveats.

“One of the things I worry about tremendously is that the seductiveness
and allure of neuroscience is well-known,” says Paul Howard-Jones, a
neuroscientist at Bristol University in England.

“If we’re not careful, we’re going to end up with nonsense that might be
appealing to teachers in which the science is not translated.”
He and others can point to myths about how the brain works – often
marketed by companies on the scent of profit – that have infiltrated the
classroom and the home but are without scientific merit.

An example: that the brain is fixed by the age of 3 and must be hyperstimulated
before then to make sure it has a running start. The Disney company’s Baby Einstein, a leader in the baby video industry, was forced last year to remove claims from its website that its videos give infants as young as three months a head start on math and language after a challenge from a parents’ group. Recently, the company began offering refunds as well.

Howard-Jones is adamant that any attempt to take real brain science into
the classroom has to be done only by building bridges from neuroscience
to education through the expertise of teachers.

“Neuroscience on its own is completely without meaning,” he says. “It has
to be integrated with psychology and what we know about education.”
It all started with advances in technology – electroencephalogram
recordings (EEGs), magneto-encephalograms (MEGs), positron emission
tomography (PET) and, most importantly, magnetic resonance imaging
(MRI) – that have allowed scientists to watch the brain learn. To see and
understand physical changes in the brain stimulated by certain kinds of
teaching.

Enter the entrenched, historic hostility between education and science.
The roots of the conflict lie in the fact that schools and medicine were
founded separately and have a different social status, says Kurt Fischer,
the director of Harvard University’s Mind, Brain, and Education program.
For example, over the past century teachers have tended to be female and
doctors, male. That’s shifting now.

But a defining characteristic of education throughout its history has been
that it has not merited a scientific grounding, says Fischer, who sits at the
epicentre of the international neuroscience movement.

In the 1960s, when the “whole child” philosophy of education held sway,
many educators were actively antagonistic to science, believing that
medicine would label children and stigmatize them without opening up their
potential.

“If you start with that, you leave out the potential for neuroscience to make
a difference,” Fischer says.

It’s what John Geake, chair of learning and teaching at the University of
New England in Australia, calls the “anti-intellectualism” of today’s teacher
training.

“A lot of teachers don’t have any science or math and ideologically, there is
a certain hostility against science,” Geake says.

When he gave a seminar at Oxford University in 2001 on the possible
benefits to education from neuroscience, it turned into a screaming match.
When Geake suggested that scientists consult teachers about what they
wanted to learn from neuroscientists, a group of senior education
philosophers stormed out of the room. He has been unable, despite many
attempts, to get the proceedings published in education journals because,
editors told him, the material is not of interest to teachers.
However, neuroscientists who are explaining their findings to teachers
directly, rather than to academics in education, find an eager audience,
Geake and others say.

Jonathan Sharples, a neuroscientist at the Institute for Effective Education
at the University of York in England, had a taste of this rancour recently. He
was labelled “intrusive” after he spent the day at a conference of social
scientists and education researchers in Oxford in December.

Visibly shaken, he explained over dinner afterward that some social
scientists question whether there is any objective truth, and whether
evidence shows anything at all. It’s the opposite of the beliefs underpinning
the science of observation, such as neuroscience.

“As you learn something new, the neurons in the brain actually change.
They make new connections,” he said. “Therefore, you classroom
teachers, every time you teach, you’re changing brain structure. You’re
remapping the neural network.”

On the other hand, Howard-Jones recently heard an influential policymaker
in the U.K. announce: “We don’t need educational theory any more,
we’ve got neuroscience.” That’s just as wrong as education not needing
neuroscience, he says.

But the legacy of the alienation between the two fields means that few
university schools of education have biologists on faculty and they don’t
teach neuroscience to budding teachers. Instead, teacher training has
focused on theories of eradicating the inequality of education or on how to
manage schools, Fischer says.

At Harvard, Fischer and a handful of other professors began trying to
change that 10 years ago by developing a better graduate program for
teachers. “We said: `We really ought to have biology in this.’” Even then, he
says it was a struggle to persuade some of those trained in education that
understanding the biology of the brain could be useful.

The same year, 1999, Bruno della Chiesa, a senior analyst at the
Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in
Paris, helped to launch the European branch of the movement. He is
coordinator of Learning Sciences and Brain Research, a program aimed at
figuring out how to use brain research to increase understanding of
learning and teaching.

In Japan, Hideaki Koizumi, an expert in brain imaging who is the senior
chief scientist of Hitachi Ltd., research and development group, launched a
brain-science and education program in that country.

At Cambridge, it was Usha Goswami, who is director of its centre for
neuroscience in education.

Baroness Susan Greenfield, director of Oxford University’s Institute for the
Future of the Mind, has brought the movement before British
parliamentarians, including at a seminar before an all-party group on
scientific research in learning and education in 2007. Her band of
researchers on neuroeducation has now spread to several key centres in
the U.K. as well as to Australia.

Many of the scattered neuroeducators discovered each other and formed a
robust network – just as neurons in the brain do – at a workshop for the
400th anniversary of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in Rome in 2003.
“We became known to scientists around the world,” says Fischer, adding
that policy makers in The Netherlands, Italy, Germany, Scandinavia,
Argentina, Brazil, China and India have become fascinated with the ideas.
In the U.S., public schools in New York, Chicago, Washington and
Philadelphia are striving to incorporate the findings of brain science in the
classroom and a national effort is brewing through the Society for
Neuroscience.

In Canada, the movement has not made inroads within the school system,
although neuroscientific research is strong. While there is plenty of
innovation in education, and some of it would be supported by
neuroscientific findings, those findings are not driving the changes. There is
no champion here yet.

There’s a serious legacy to the bitter war. In the U.K., says Geake, funding
councils are loath to touch the topic. “Every single researcher I know in the
U.K. has been rejected for funding,” says Geake.

Howard-Jones says that eventually, parents will grasp what neuroeducation
can do and will push for it to be woven into the classroom. But more
research by both brain scientists and teachers is needed before that ought
to happen, he says.

It’s too good an opportunity to miss, he argues. It could improve the
classroom’s ability to strengthen the structure and workings of the brain.
It might even make school fun.

He’s thinking about some research he conducted the day before. He was
watching the brains of two boys playing a game. One won. But the reward
system in both their brains spontaneously lit up. Even the prospect of
winning meant something to the loser. Howard-Jones could see it on the
scan.

It seems like a perfect metaphor for the squabbling fields of brain science
and education.

If only a video game could bring them together.

Alanna Mitchell
Published On Sun Nov 1 2009
Kurt Fischer
The 66-year-old is the modest genius at the epicentre of the international
movement to marry neuroscience and education.

A psychologist who set up a renowned child development program in
Denver and then moved to Harvard University about a decade ago to help
set up a school of education, he has long wanted to know how teaching
affects the brain.

“We are a teaching species, but we don’t know anything about the brain
basis of teaching.”

That led to the establishment of the Mind, Brain, and Education program at
Harvard’s graduate school of education. But for a long time, Fischer says,
the faculty couldn’t agree that the word “brain” even needed to be in the
title.

Fischer helped found the International Mind, Brain, and Education Society
and was founding editor of its peer-reviewed journal. A quiet man, he
comes to life when he talks about his Grade 12 English literature teacher
who was “totally obsessed” with Shakespeare.

“There was real teaching going on there.”

He has helped spawn a new generation of neuro-educators. The most
eminent so far is Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, a former high-school
teacher who is now professor of education at the Rossier School of
Education and of psychology at the Brain and Creativity Institute at the
University of Southern California.

Bruno della Chiesa
Della Chiesa, 47, speaks four languages and heads the developed world’s
push to understand how the brain learns.

Based in Paris with the Organization for Economic Co-operation and
Development (OECD), a research organization for the world’s 30 most
developed countries, he oversaw and edited the book Understanding the
Brain: The Birth of a Learning Science.

A passionate philosopher who is fascinated with the ethics of the biology of
the brain, he is also founder of Utopiales, Europe’s largest science fiction
and fantasy literature festival, held each year in Nantes, France. He has
written a science fiction novel.

Hideaki Koizumi
One of Japan’s most eminent scientists, the 63-year-old is supervisor of
Japan’s Brain-Science and Education program and is director of Japan’s
Children’s Study.

A physicist who studied at the University of Tokyo, he is a fellow at Hitachi
Ltd. who helped make some of the world’s first images of the brain at work.
His research has contributed to more than 400 patent applications.
Usha Goswami

Goswami, 49, is the director of the Centre for Neuroscience in Education at
Cambridge University in England. Trained as a developmental psychologist
at Oxford University, she has made a career of understanding how people
read and of exploring dyslexia.

Susan Greenfield
The 59-year-old is a member of the British House of Lords and is known as
Baroness Greenfield. A specialist in the physiology of the brain, she
researches pharmacology, Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.
She has written many popular science and medicine books, including
Tomorrow’s People: How 21st-Century Technology is Changing the Way
We Think and Feel.

Her image as a chic powerhouse with long blonde hair and bangs made
her one of the world’s most widely recognizable neuroscientists.
The first in her family to go to university, she graduated from Oxford and is
director of its Institute for the Future of the Mind. She has helped to groom
a cadre of top-notch neuroscientists, three of whom have gone on to
establish neuroeducation centres elsewhere. Jonathan Sharples is at York
University in England, Paul Howard-Jones is at Bristol University and
Martin Westwell is at Flinders University in Adelaide.

John Geake
A gruff Australian, he has battled fiercely for a decade to introduce
education academics to neuroeducation.

Geake, 60, has hop-scotched to universities around the world, including
Simon Fraser University in British Columbia in 1995, Cambridge and
Oxford Brookes universities in England. Earlier this year, he took up a new
chair in learning and teaching at the University of New England, north of
Sydney in Australia, his alma mater.

He’s an international expert on gifted and talented children and on chaos
theory and fractals.

Stuart Shanker
Shanker, 56, is a restless psychologist and philosopher who set up the
Milton and Ethel Harris Research Initiative, a cognitive and social
neuroscience institute at York University, with a $5 million grant from the
Harris Steel Foundation.

He works with Fraser Mustard, Canada’s early-child development guru, and
Stanley Greenspan, the American child psychiatrist who set up the Zero To
Three Foundation to support child development.

Shanker is an expert in autism and has developed new, drug-free therapies
to treat autistic children. He was educated at Oxford University.

A child’s ability to delay gratification for 15 minutes pays
educational dividends years later, studies find
Alanna Mitchell Special to the Star
Published On Mon Nov 2 2009
KEITH BEATY/TORONTO STAR
VISIBLE THOUGHT
Neuroscientists are getting a better understanding of executive function by
seeing what is happening biologically inside the brain.

York University professor Stuart Shanker uses electroencephalographs
(EEGs) that look at the dorsal and ventral sides of the anterior cingulate
cortex (ACC) of the child’s brain.

These EEGs show that in children who are not managing anxiety or fear,
the ventral part of the ACC is really firing, spurred by the primitive limbic, or
reptilian, system of the brain.

In children who are showing strong self-regulation, the dorsal part of the
ACC is firing instead, controlling responses from the more primitive part of
the brain.

“You can literally see whether children are controlling anxious responses,”
Shanker says.

It’s called the Marshmallow Test. And some neuroscientists believe it is a
critical first step needed to improve schooling.

“It’s going to be huge,” says Martin Westwell, a neuroscientist at Flinders
University in Adelaide, Australia, adding that many studies show it foretells
success in life more accurately than how well a child can read or do math.
The Marshmallow Test got its name from an experiment at Stanford
University in the 1960s on 4-year-old nursery school pupils. Researchers
told children that they could have one thing they really wanted right away -
a marshmallow, or a candy or a cookie, for example – but if they could wait
while the researcher left the room and came back about 15 minutes later,
they could have two.

It was designed to test self-control. The researchers, led by psychologist
Walter Mischel, found only about 30 per cent of more than 600 children
tested could hold out.

That’s as far as it went until the early 1980s, when Mischel followed up and
discovered the children who had been able to wait for two marshmallows
were also doing better academically.

Jonah Lehrer, in a recent New Yorker magazine article, reports those
children who waited 15 minutes averaged 210 points higher – more than 10
per cent – on college entrance exams than did those who could wait only
30 seconds.

Collectively, the brain skills needed to wait for marshmallows are known as
“executive function” or, more broadly, as “self-regulation.” They include
inhibiting impulses, sustaining attention, planning, prioritizing, and finding
and carrying out strategies to stick to your plan.

In kid-friendly language, it means you can “rise to the challenge.”
Here’s the really exciting thing: Like math and reading, these skills can be
taught and learned. They are not genetic. We can all learn how to get more
marshmallows.

Indeed, teachers could learn to teach the ability to self-regulate, says Stuart
Shanker, research professor of psychology and philosophy at York
University and a leading figure in neuroeducation.

His research on children shows that learning self-regulation is a primary
task of newborns. But the later years matter greatly. Shanker is amused
when he reads about a 5-year-old who has strong executive function skills.
It doesn’t mean that child will have them at 6 or 16 or even 66. Those more
complex executive function skills must be learned as you age.
When a baby is born, he says, it has a relatively undeveloped brain and
primitive emotional circuits – fear, rage, love and curiosity – but no ability to
control them. To do that, he argues, the baby must learn from the higherlevel
brain of its parent or caregiver, laying down pathways of neural
connections through one-on-one stimulus and response between the two.
That’s what a parent is doing by teaching the baby to calm itself, for
example.

“By being regulated, a baby acquires the ability to regulate,” Shanker says.
Sometimes, though, that process is interrupted – by stress, hunger,
environment or the caregiver’s inadequate responses. And that creates
problems for the child at school, for the schools and, ultimately, for society.
Shanker says perhaps as many as half of North American children have
poor self-regulation by the time they get to school, citing a study of nearly
3,600 teachers in the U.S. in 2000. It manifests in high rates of attentiondeficit
disorder or hyperactivity, among many other problems.

He and others trace some of this to the increase in neurotoxins – such as
mercury, air pollution and now-banned PCBs – passing through the
umbilical cords, making some children hypersensitive (and others not
sensitive enough) to touch, sound or sight.

That, in turn, interferes with the child’s ability to learn self-regulation from a
caregiver. Their nerves jangle (or remain numb) at the slightest stimulation.
In sheer self-protection, the supersensitive shut down that sense.
Shanker remembers a child at a school in New Zealand where he was
doing research who was considered uncontrollable. Did she have a
disorder, the teachers wondered. Should she be on drugs?

Shanker talked with her in her classroom. He wasn’t getting anywhere. So
he asked: “What’s going on?” She said: “I can’t pay attention to you when
the fan’s going.”

He looked around the room, trying to find the fan. Straining his ears, he
could hear a faint whir in a ceiling vent. He turned it off and the child
calmed immediately.

“The message to teachers is that they need to be a bit of a scientist too,”
says Shanker. “What we want teachers to understand is that there’s no
such thing as a lazy child or a bad child. There’s always a biological story.
The key is to ask why, why, why?”

Is that realistic for a teacher who has 30 kids in a classroom?
“We don’t have a choice,” says Shanker. “We have to ask ourselves, `What
was the goal of universal education?’ … Realistically, if the goal of
education is to help each child maximize potential and we are nowhere
close to achieving it, then what do we change?”

For example, Shanker has looked at the phenomenon of children doing
well in school only to fall off the cliff, academically, at about 13, a
phenomenon evident in high school dropout rates as children hit a more
complex environment and don’t know how to cope.

“Even if a kid comes into school with poor self-regulation, there’s something
we can do. And if a kid’s got good self-regulation, we can grow it,” he says.
He points to the work of the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who died
in 1934. Vygotsky developed tools – outlined in the modern book Tools of
the Mind by Elena Bodrova and Deborah Leong – that children can use to
learn in a deliberate fashion.

A simple example is asking a child to hold a drawing of an ear while she’s
listening to another child read a story. This helps the listening child
remember what her goal is.
The old game “Simon Says” is a perfect example of an early-school activity
that can help a child improve attention, motor control and control of
impulses. So is having toys just far enough away from a small child so the
child has to get up and get the toy, play with it and put it back before getting
another.

Teaching executive function skills to older students might involve teaching
them how their brains work, explicitly teaching them strategies to
accomplish their goals (including practice and showing them how), and
helping them understand what their goals and motivations are, says Lynn
Meltzer, a Massachusetts-based psychologist.

Shanker stresses that learning executive function skills is not the same as
complying with someone’s orders. Self-regulation comes from within. It is
self-directed.

“Compliance is a terrible indicator of success,” he says, adding an
authoritarian stance at home or at school is a doomed policy. “Zerotolerance?
Are you insane?”

Ideally, says Shanker, it’s not only the pupils who have good selfregulation.
It’s also the teachers, the principals, the community leaders.
“Students do well with teachers who self-regulate. And teachers do well
with principals who self-regulate.”

Zachary Stein, 28, is a PhD candidate in human education and
development at Harvard University’s graduate school of education and a
graduate student of Kurt Fischer, one of the giants of neuroeducation. He
has a word of caution about the rage for executive function.

It’s not a quick fix that can be taught in isolation from other aspects of
neuroscience, such as the need to understand that emotion is a critical part
of decision-making and learning, or that part of the way the brain learns is
to relearn.

By the way, Stein took a later version of the marshmallow test, involving
candies, when he was in first or second grade and living in New Jersey.
He withstood temptation. How? By dancing on his chair and eventually
pushing tiles out of the test room ceiling to distract himself.
“Basically, I misbehaved,” he says, chuckling.

Atkinson Series | The neuro education
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.
2009 Atkinson Series…»

A kindergarten project at the Institute of Child Study offers a
glimpse into neuroeducation, where kids learn by discovering
rather than memorizing
Alanna Mitchell Special to the Star
Published On Sun Nov 1 2009
AVOIDING ‘DRILL AND KILL’ AT THE INSTITUTE OF CHILD STUDY
The Institute of Child Study (ICS) laboratory school has had a string of
policy home runs from its research since it started in 1926.
Among them: Helping establish war nurseries during World War II in
England and establishing research that led to Ontario’s first nursery school
legislation in 1944, then a radical proposition.

It has also been crucial in teaching teachers and school psychologists in
Canada. For several years during the 1970s, ICS had Canada’s only twoyear
advanced elementary teacher program.

The school, part of the University of Toronto and the Ontario Institute for
Studies in Education, is one of a North American network of laboratory
schools created on the model of John Dewey’s school founded at the
University of Chicago in 1896. A laboratory school is the applied education
arm of a university and is where teaching practices are evaluated.
Dewey was a fabled psychologist and education reformer who stoutly
disagreed with the idea that schooling ought to be delivered in an
authoritarian manner as if it were a fixed body of indisputable facts. It’s also
known as the “drill and kill” method of teaching.

Instead, he believed teaching ought to be based on scientific principles of
how children experience learning. Dewey was, in essence, the prime
neuroeducator of his day.

Many of Dewey’s ideas about education were later put aside by those of
the American psychologist Arthur Jensen, who argued that intelligence is
mainly hereditary.

Over the decades, like many other universities with lab schools, U of T has
cut part of its funding for the institute.

Today, pupils pay tuition of more than $11,000 (parents say that’s a figure
rising by 12 per cent a year). That makes ICS a rare public-private hybrid.
But the fact that it gets funding from both domains is a sticking point that
has led some policymakers to ignore its research findings.

It is sometimes mistaken for a school that only accepts the wealthy or the
highly talented when, in fact, admittance is mainly by lottery plus a policy of
having students represent Toronto’s cultural and economic mix.
Ontario Education Minister Kathleen Wynne says the province remains
keen to plug into the school’s riches.

“The tradition of public education in Ontario is excellent and ICS grew out
of that in order to better education,” she said at a meeting with officials at
the school. “It’s a shame if we can’t cross-germinate.”
- Alanna Mitchell

Video: Letting the imagination soar
The senior kindergarten kite-making project at Toronto’s Institute of Child
Study started by accident.

Teacher Carol Stephenson says it evolved out of a months-long chat about
China, which took a side trip into papermaking and finally meandered into a
class-wide fascination with kites.

That led to a four-month extravaganza of 5-year-olds designing,
constructing, testing, researching, seeking expert advice, redesigning,
reconstructing and retesting kites.

“I never quite know which direction it will go,” says Stephenson, sitting at a
child-height table with three of her pupils, lending a hand with the first
incarnation of the kites. “It could have gone anywhere: teapots, claymaking,
anywhere.”

The year before, her senior kindergartners had become so immersed in the
life of bees that, when tested, they had high-school-level knowledge of
apiaries.

Last school year’s kindergarten project, which onlookers began calling a
PhD in kites, provides a rare glimpse into what the growing international
neuroeducation movement might look like in the classroom.

At essence, neuroeducation is about reinforcing connections among the
brain’s nerve cells (neurons) so that they form a well-worn pathway. The
more often that pathway is used, the easier it is for the brain to pull up the
information laid down in the nerve cell connections. That’s the definition of
learning: being able to pull up and use the information later.

These sturdy pathways can be formed, for instance, by making sure the
child uses more than one sense (hearing, seeing, moving) to learn. Or by
finding out information rather than memorizing it.

The Institute of Child Study, a nursery-to-Grade-6 school on Walmer Road
in downtown Toronto, is Canada’s very own neuroeducation Petri dish. It
didn’t set out to be that and its leaders wouldn’t call it that. But because of
its unusual, historic role in public education research in Canada and
because it is the only full laboratory school left in this country – lab schools
evaluate teaching practices – it has the potential to change policy across
the country.

“Our mandate is to explore exemplary education so we get better education
for all,” says Elizabeth Morley, the school’s principal. (See story for more on
ICS.)

In the senior kindergarten class, the children don’t care about the school’s
history: They are kite-obsessed. It’s just after spring break and some of the
5-year-olds spent part of the holiday thinking about how to change their
intricate blueprints – complete with written details about paper weight,
shape and length of tail – to make the kites fly better. (This is not all they’re
doing. They also have regular classes in math, reading and writing. Kitemaking
will take up an hour or so a few days a week but will form a theme
for months.)

The design modifications are part of exposing the children to what Morley
calls “improvable ideas.” That means the teacher picks up on a concept
from a pupil, or introduces a concept, and the whole class, teacher
included, embarks on a quest to find out even more. Getting the child so
involved in what’s learned makes those neural connections resilient and
powerful.

When the children start building their kitesat the table with Stephenson,
(while the others are amusing themselves with blocks and other building
materials), they are reading their own instructions, measuring, cutting out
and constructing. They are imagining the aerodynamics of their creations.
There’s a dolphin, a butterfly, a heart, a shimmering five-part dragon and a
quizzical creature the kids have dubbed “Mr. Eggy” because it looks like a
mobile of egg-shaped formations.

In most classrooms of 5-year-olds, a kite project would be the teacher’s
idea. The teacher would be the expert and tell them what to do and how to
do it. And the kites would be made in the whoosh of a day or two, not over
the exploratory span of four months.

At the lab school, the kites are even made of different papers: one of
wrapping paper, many of construction card, one a heavy clear plastic.
Frames are twig, straws, even metal.

It’s Nathan’s turn. His blueprints call for heavy construction paper and he’s
debating colours. Blue is his final choice and Stephenson gives him a large
sheet so he can transfer his small diamond-shaped design onto the big
page, a huge conceptual leap for a child of his age.

He starts cutting, another challenging skill for this age group. The first long
line is okay. But when he cuts the second, he veers from what he’s drawn
and calls Stephenson. Some kids might expect a rebuke, a response that
would halt the neural connections. Stephenson is unconcerned.
“If that really worries you, you can ask me to help. Meantime, I’ll hold the
paper,” she says, reaching out with one hand as she juggles another child’s
project with the other.

Nathan keeps cutting, finally producing his huge blue paper diamond, plus
the four corners he’s cut off the big page. He looks at them for a few
moments, and then realizes that he can put the four together in a puzzle to
make another diamond-shaped kite. He plops to the floor, rapt.
“Wow, you made another kite,” gushes Stephenson. “Did you know you
were going to do that?”

Nathan, thrilled with himself, replies: “No!”
It’s not all rosy. Daeja’s having a rough day. She’s cut a series of purple
construction-paper hearts to decorate her kite’s tail. They are all different
sizes and that’s tragic. She starts to mope and then tears trickle down her
cheeks. Stephenson ignores her for a while, then turns to her, providing a
lesson in the critical skill of self-regulation, or making the brain ready for
learning.

“Your voice is getting a little whiny and you’re focusing on what you don’t
want. I need you to focus on what you DO want and tell me and then I will
do everything I can to help you.”

Daeja lets out a few more tears, then pulls herself together and begins to
cut out blue hearts the same size. She has risen to the challenge.
Some of the children can’t do it so quickly. One boy needs help just to be
still and listen when the class forms a circle on the floor. A student teacher
often sits with him on her lap to remind him to focus – extra help that would
admittedly be expensive to provide in the public system.
When most of the kites have their shapes and frames and tails,
Stephenson collects the children on the red carpet for a delicate
conversation about which of the kites might fly better.
The challenge is to focus on aerodynamic concepts rather than on who did
what best. It’s a fine line, because if a child’s feelings get hurt her neural
connections won’t be reinforced. Learning will cease.
“We’ve been talking about the kites’ shapes and paper, how big they are,
and how strong or fragile, all those big ideas,” says Stephenson. “But I
want you to think about all the kites and some might be better at flying than
others and we need to know WHY.”

The hands go up. Nathan’s is big, so it might fly well, one child says.
Trevor’s plastic kite will be strong, a big plus, says another.
Abby is worried about Mr. Eggy because “he’s so small the wind is going to
go around it. It will go but not that much.”

And Blaede’s dragon is made of foil wrapping paper and it might be too
fragile, another child says, thinking hard.

“I want to thank you,” Stephenson tells the kids. “You were talking about
the kites, about the big ideas. I don’t think anyone’s feelings would be hurt.”
Finally, Kite Day arrives, rolled into a picnic at Riverdale Farm. It’s the final
field trip of the year and the second time the kids have test-flown their kites
in Toronto’s warm skies. The sun is shining. The scent of fresh-mown grass
is in the air.

The children have either modified or remade their original kites over the
weeks since the first test flight, getting a second chance to experiment.
At their request, Stephenson invited a kite expert to talk about what makes
a kite fly. They’ve been reading and comparing their handmade kites with
bought ones. All this strengthens the neural networks they have already
laid down for this project.

Their vocabulary is stronger, too.
One child yells to her mother: “Mom, help me untangle my bridle!”
They’re watching for the V-shape in the kite’s body that will slice into the
wind and sweep it into the air. Mira has made a clever double-box kite and
Trevor’s has six strings so it won’t spin.

At the age of 5, they’ve figured out not only how to make kites, but also why
they fly. They have also been creating patterns of hard-wired neural
networks in their brains for months relating to building skills, deep research,
experimentation and even the lesson that learning is fun. Their brains are
slightly different now physically than they were before this project. They are
building intelligence – knowledge that can be retrieved and used – the holy
grail of education.

The kids flying their kites in Riverdale Park don’t care about any of this.
Instead, they are watching their crazy kites soar against the sun, unaware
that their brains are soaring, too.

Atkinson Series | We’ve made quantum leaps in understanding
children’s developing brains. So why are classrooms still
organized like last century’s assembly lines?
Alanna Mitchell Special to the Star
Published On Sat Oct 31 2009
RAFFI ANDERIAN/TORONTO STAR ILLUSTRATION
If parents knew that this is how kids learn and that it’s not happening at school, they would mobilize ZACHARY STEIN, HARVARD UNIVERSITY, GRADUATE SCHOOL OF EDUCATION
About the series
Alanna Mitchell is a Toronto-based writer and journalist who
specializes in global science issues.
The author of two books – Sea Sick: The Global Ocean In Crisis
and Dancing at the Dead Sea: Tracking the World’s Environmental
Hotspots – Mitchell spent much of the past year investigating the
controversial push to use brain science to improve education.
She travelled to England, France, Australia and the U.S. as part of her
2008 Atkinson Fellowship in Public Policy, a $75,000 prize with an expense
budget of up to $25,000.
The fellowship, sponsored by The Atkinson Charitable Foundation, the
Toronto Star and the Honderich family, aims to further liberal journalism in
the tradition of legendary Star publisher Joseph E. Atkinson.
The teachers already knew that the girl in Grade 5 had problem parents. In
fact, secretly, they called it the “PITA” family: pain in the arse.
But when the 10-year-old’s year-end social studies project came in on
letterhead from a public relations agency that her father had hired to do the
assignment, it still shocked them.

“What is the father teaching that child?” asked her teacher, who told the
tale at a recent education conference near Boston. “And what is she
learning? That she can’t do a Grade 5 assignment?”
Most would agree that this parent’s actions defy the purpose of schooling.
But do we agree on what schools are for? Or, for that matter, the goal of
education?

I’ve spent chunks of the past year in classrooms all over the world,
pondering this question.

One of the worst experiences was in a respectable public middle school in
North America where I was giving a talk in the auditorium. Teachers
patrolled the sides of the room like prison guards, silently threatening the
children by looming over them when they showed the least bit of
enthusiasm.

I was telling the kids stories and asking them questions, and they were
getting all excited figuring out answers despite the menacing presences.
Finally, one of their teachers sidled up to me and said: “Don’t ask them
questions. Just tell them what you want them to know.”

I formed the image that she wanted me to just zip open their heads and
pour in the information, unfiltered by their own ideas. It felt like she thought
their brains were just storage silos.

So what is school for? The debate has raged for ages, especially in the
past few hundred years, since universal education became the goal of
many countries.

Is it for the transmission of culture and potted knowledge, akin to filling a
CD-ROM? Is it to foster skills that will serve society down the road, or make
dutiful employees? Or perhaps it’s a strategy to make sure a nation’s gross
domestic product keeps rising?

Is it a sorting mechanism aimed at working out where in the class system a
student ought to land? Or to encourage upward mobility? Should it build
character? Endow morals?

Is it a way for the new generation to question the values of the old? Or is it
for making sure they don’t?

You could write a library full of books on this stuff.

Guy Claxton, a psychologist at the University of Winchester in England,
talks about the unconscious images we have in our heads that tell us what
education has been about.

In What’s the Point of School? Rediscovering the Heart of Education, he
notes that one of these hidden, ancient images is of a boy preparing for the
priesthood. That model, developed 4,000 years ago, holds that knowledge
is the “eternal Truth,” never to be questioned.

“The image of school as monastery persists up to the present and the
classrooms of Mesopotamia, 2500 B.C., would be instantly recognizable to
the students of today,” he writes.

The factory model of education, which stemmed from an engineer’s
assembly-line vision of efficiency in putting together the same machine time
after time, has also permeated much of the educational imagery of the
early 20th century.

It relied on standardization and tight quality control (a.k.a. testing), Claxton
writes. Every student was expected to learn the same things at the same
rate in the same way.

“(This supposes that knowledge) can be standardized, installed in manuals
called `textbooks,’ and chopped up into different sized bits – syllabuses,
topics, schemes of work, and eventually the content of individual lessons -
that can be bolted on, as it were, to students’ minds bit by bit,” Claxton
writes.

You can see how it melded with brave new ideas of mass education
emerging at the same time as industrialization.

But then, knowledge was fairly static. Today, it is exploding, and so is our
access to it through computers.

Then, and for generations after, people got out of school, got a job and held
it until they retired. Today, young adults and even middle-aged ones are
shifting jobs every few years.

And the jobs of the future are unknown. Kids in school today might end up
having dozens of jobs or careers. Are our schools preparing them for that?
Should they?

Today, many parents and teachers believe that the best defence against an
uncertain future is to teach children to learn how to learn. To them, that is
the goal of education.

They believe the education system should unearth and ignite their
children’s passion, their intrinsic desire to learn, the deep joy of discovery.
It is a vision completely at odds with the goals of much of the modern
education system.

And neuroscientific findings are telling us that the brain learns – or forms
strong neural connections – when the child is in a calm, emotionally
regulated state.

“That’s telling us that education must be holistic,” says Stuart Shanker,
research professor of psychology and philosophy at York University in
Toronto and a leading figure in neuroeducation.

“The first question is: Have we created an educational workforce that has
the tools to perform this holistic function? And of course the answer is: No,
we haven’t.”

Neuroscience is also telling us that the brain is a platform on which
intelligence can be built, rather than the determinant of a fixed intelligence.
That means we should see the brain as an organ that is expandable,
something to improve rather than prove, Claxton says. Schooling, then, is
to help that expansion happen.

Claxton also suggests replacing the monk and assembly line metaphors
with that of a learning apprentice. The teacher becomes a guide and
model, a co-conspirator on the engrossing quest for understanding and
self-knowledge.

And what should they guide and model? The higher-order habits of mind
that characterize the expert investigator, researcher, thinker and learner,
says Claxton.
There are barriers to all this. One is that the school system faces daily
demands to host our children; it can’t shut down to retool. Another is that
education is big business, set in its ways. It is a livelihood for education
bureaucrats, teachers, teachers’ teachers, textbook publishers and schoolbuilders.

Zachary Stein, who is doing his Ph.D. in human education and
development at Harvard University’s graduate school of education, notes
that when he and a colleague tried to persuade a school board in Texas to
change their tests so that they actually captured what children understood,
those most strongly pitted against the changes were real estate brokers.
Changing a school’s standardized test outcomes would change house
values, they argued.

But at a neuroscience course for teachers that he helped conduct this
summer, Stein raised a tantalizing prospect. What if parents came to
understand that the current education system is at odds with how children
learn?

“If parents knew that this is how kids learn and that it’s not happening at
school, they would mobilize,” he told the group. “The more parents and
teachers know, the better.”

Atkinson Series: Brainstorm | What neuroeducation can do
Alanna Mitchell Special to the Star
Published On Sat Oct 31 2009
ABOUT THE SERIES
Alanna Mitchell is a Toronto-based writer and journalist who specializes in
global science issues.

The author of two books, Mitchell spent much of the past year investigating
the controversial push to use brain science to improve education.
She travelled to England, France, Australia and the U.S. as part of her
2008 Atkinson Fellowship in Public Policy, a $75,000 prize with an expense
budget of up to $25,000.

The fellowship, sponsored by The Atkinson Charitable Foundation, the
Toronto Star and the Honderich family, aims to further liberal journalism in
the tradition of legendary Star publisher Joseph E. Atkinson.
CHELTENHAM SPA, ENGLAND-A line of barefoot 5-year-olds, all dressed
in shorts and white T-shirts, walk into the light-filled auditorium of Lakeside
Primary.

The kids aren’t sure what’s about to happen. They only know that it is to be
an unusual half-hour gym class with a new teacher.

“I’m a dancer,” Sarah Shaw, also barefoot, tells them, in a version of the
speech she will give to the six grades she will teach at this public school
today. “And when you’re a dancer you can pretend things and put things
together to make a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. We’re
going to tell the whole story without talking.”

The kids appear baffled. She puts on music. “We’re going to warm up by
climbing a mountain,” she says, briskly, arms and legs struggling up her
imaginary peak. “Jump around and look at the view!”

The kids leap to their feet, arms in the air, pretending to climb. Some grunt,
simulating extreme effort. Smiles abound.

In their usual classes, the children have been learning about construction.
So Shaw has choreographed a play to music about the Three Little Pigs to
help them live what they’re learning.

They are the pigs from the story, she tells them. They are in a field of straw.
Modelling her, they leap into action, fluidly picking up imaginary bundles of
straw in groups of three. Then they become the houses they are building,
linking their bodies into whatever shapes they think represent walls and
roofs.

Along comes the wolf, in the guise of Shaw banging a tambourine. The
children who are straw houses wave from side to side and fall down.
They practice this energetically a few times, then add a beginning part in
which they become their own homes and their own mommy pigs, leaving
home to make their own way in the world.

“Because we’re dancers, we can be pigs one minute and mommy pigs the
next,” she explains.

Finally, they put all the chunks together, flowing seamlessly through the
performance. At the end, one of the 5-year-old boys is so pumped with joy
and endorphins from the exercise that he gives a bow and a flourish.
Triumphant, they hop out of the room and back to their classrooms.
This is one of the few classes in the world being taught according to the
principles of neuroeducation, a fledgling movement that some argue could
- and should – radically change schooling. It means teaching in ways that
deliberately trigger the brain’s biological ability to learn. (Good teachers
may already be doing some of those things unintentionally.)
Shaw, 54, happened on the movement a few years ago when
neuroscientists at Oxford University offered teachers a seminar. Slowly, as
she learned about how the brain learns, she began to refine her teaching
or, in some cases, to understand why her teaching was already effective.
So, neurologically, what took place when she taught the Three Little Pigs?
It all has to do with building stronger connections among the neurons in the
brain, a process that changes the structure of the children’s brains, building
intelligence. This is the essence of learning.

Shaw’s teaching builds stronger connections by:
ï‚· Combining learning through several senses at once.
ï‚· Building on information and patterns the children have just learned in
order to deepen their understanding.
ï‚· Giving the children some creative control over their dance.
Encouraging visualizations – of fields of straw, pigs, a wolf, houses,
mommies – which activates the visual part of the brain just as if the
children are actually seeing what they imagine and releases
neurotransmitters. And visualizing a positive outcome creates
optimum stress for the kids. If the brain has too little stress, it
becomes complacent. With too much, it goes into anxious lack of
focus.
ï‚· Making connections among physical, mental and emotional states
while they rehearse and perform.
ï‚· Using music to help the children tag the memory emotionally so it is
easier to recover later.
ï‚· Helping the children take risks, stimulating the production of dopamine
in their brains and further strengthening the neural connections.
Imagining is harder for some children than for others. When the Year 2
class of 6-year-olds comes in, Shaw begins to take them through a play on
the theme of transportation and, showing them pictures of the era, asks
them to imagine that they are dressed in Edwardian clothing on the deck of
the Titanic.

“But we’re in a hall,” says one literalist, a girl.
“Yes, but because we’re dancers, we can do anything,” Shaw tells her.
“We’re going to go into a time machine and go back in time. We have
landed on the south bank of England in 1912.”
“But we’re in a hall,” the child asserts, before reluctantly deciding to play
along after the rest of the class leaps into action.
The older children get led through far more complex choreography.
The Year 6 class, who are aged 10, are learning about World War II in
class, so Shaw puts on “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” the Glenn Miller jazz
classic from 1941. The kids strut and cavort, following her guidance to the
happy bop of the music, before Shaw switches the tune to a Jewish dirge.
They’re living in Holland during the war, she says, and they are Jewish.
Then they begin enacting the story of Anne Frank.
For the last scene, one child becomes Anne, arrested and led down a
corridor of unfeeling soldiers to her death in a concentration camp.
Finally, they put it all together for the performance, moving rhythmically
through the complex choreography. The energy in the auditorium is high
and so is the emotion.

At the end, the onlookers applaud wildly. Mike Allen, the acting principal,
gets to his feet, chest puffed. He tells the students that he felt like he was in
Amsterdam during the war. “I could almost feel it and touch it.”

Atkinson Series | Brainstorm: What neuroeducation can do
Published On Sat Oct 31 2009
One thing neuroscientists hate is the way some of their findings get
misinterpreted and then widely publicized. Especially when businesses
pounce on them, skew the ideas still further and sell them to parents,
teachers and school boards as the latest innovation from science.
Some neuroscientists have gone so far as to warn consumers about socalled
“brain-based” products promising to make their children into
geniuses.

Recently, the Walt Disney Co. began offering full refunds for its “Baby
Einstein” videos after being challenged about their educational claims.
Other myths about the brain and education:

1. The human brain is fixed by the age of 3
While it is true that babies’ brains make connections – called synapses -
among neurons at a furious pace until about 10 months, the brain actually
grows and changes throughout life. Even your 80-year-old mother’s brain is
still growing new synaptic connections and replacing lost neurons. As well,
a crucial part of learning is the process of pruning those synapses to make
them work faster. That happens a lot in the teen years and early 20s when
humans begin to think in high-level abstractions and systems.

2. The more you enrich a baby’s environment, the smarter the baby
This is a misreading of the famous “enriched rats” experiment. The rats
were divided into two groups: some in a complex social environment and
some isolated in a simple environment. The enriched rats were able to
learn better than the isolated rats. That has led over-eager parents and
others to insist that infants ought to be stimulated as much as possible so
they build better brains. Commercial enterprises have cashed in on this as
a result. Actually, over-stimulating babies has the opposite effect; the
children shut down and don’t learn. The real finding of the rat study was
that deprivation – intellectual, social and environmental – is bad for baby
mammals. The so-called “enriched” environment was not really enriched at
all. It was akin to what a rat living in the wild would normally encounter. The
lesson for parents is not to isolate babies but to expose them to normal life
- talk with them, let them play with other children and encourage them to
explore on their own.

3. We only use 10 per cent of the brain
Actually, new functional magnetic resonance imagery (fMRI) of the brain
shows that 100 per cent of the brain is active, even when you are asleep or
anesthetized. No part of the brain is inactive or superfluous.

4. Boys’ brains and girls’ brains are different
Apart from average size – which follows the proportions of body size – this
is not true. Just as a boy’s foot and a girl’s foot work the same way, so do
their brains. As the OECD report Understanding the Brain points out: “No
study to date has shown gender-specific processes involved in building up
neuronal networks during learning.” So the way boys and girls create
synaptic pathways – and therefore learn – is the same. When we see
differences in the behaviour of boys and girls, that’s because those
differences are taught. They are social, not biological.

5. You are either a left-brain person or a right-brain person
This enduring myth pops up frequently in conversation and goes back to
primitive experiments from the 1800s. The idea was that the left-brain
thinker was more logical, analytical and rational, while the right-brain
thinker was more creative, emotional and intuitive. Actually, it’s bunk. While
the brain does have two hemispheres – right and left – joined by a wide
band of nervous tissue called the corpus callosum, the brain is in fact an
exquisitely integrated organ. For a few tasks, a single side may dominate,
but both sides must work together for any important tasks. Functional MRIs
show that neither side of the brain can work independently.

6. If we could eliminate emotions, we’d make better decisions
There have been studies of people who have lost the ability to feel emotion
because of brain damage. It turns out they can’t make decisions at all
without emotion. Emotion is an integrated, critical part of each decision and
of learning.

7. An adult’s brain is bigger than a baby’s because it has more brain
nerve cells.

A newborn’s brain has roughly the same number of nerve cells, or neurons,
as an adult’s – about 100 billion. That number remains roughly constant
throughout life. The size difference between a baby’s brain and an adult’s is
mainly the synaptic connections that grow between neurons and the fatty
insulating material that wraps around them, called myelin. Myelin keeps the
electrical connections among neurons moving quickly and efficiently.
-Alanna Mitchell