A new approach to how students learn, referred to as educational neuroscience, is being continuously explored by researchers worldwide in an effort to understand brain activity in ways that make teaching and learning more efficient and more effective.
At Carnegie Mellon University, students participated in a study in which they were taught about how household objects operate through a physics lesson that took place while inside an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) brain scanner, which allowed scientists to record subjects’ brain activity while learning. Through observing the patterns that appeared, the scientists could decipher which machine the brain was thinking about.
According to the scientists involved in the study, this type of research could help to improve teaching methods and aid in the creation of a new way of assessing what students have learned.
However, not everyone feels the same way. Dorothy Bishop, a professor of developmental neuropsychology at Oxford University, argues that the brain images produced through the fMRI are vague, and the machines are too expensive to use for education on a routine basis. Bishop feels that psychologists can offer much more beneficial information, as they use human behavior to determine the inner workings of mental processes.
Despite this, the largest biomedical charity in the UK, The Wellcome Trust, has decided to partner with the Education Endowment Foundation in the backing of 6 research projects totaling around $10.1 million in an effort to bring neuroscience into the classroom.
Spaced Learning is one such project, which would teach content to students in multiple intensive sessions with breaks in between. The method was first introduced by 19th century psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus, who discovered the importance of repetition in learning. He went on to say that the repetition needed to be spaced out in order to allow for memories to become more durable and readily available.
Additional research in the field has allowed more to be understood concerning how learning creates physical changes within the brain, reports Daniel Ansari, a cognitive neuroscientist at The University of Western Ontario and a director of the International Mind, Brain and Education Society.
“The notion of personalized education is consistent with neuroscience, just not in the way we have carved up individual differences—such as visual learner or right- and left-brain learners,” Ansari says. “We need better measures to differentiate learners.”
Curriculum and professional development are currently being changed across the United States to coincide with these newly-validated neuroscience principles.
“The child who we have failed in past years, the child who fell through the cracks—I honestly believe now, it wasn’t that good teachers failed them, we just didn’t have the skills we needed to reconfigure their brain,” says Vickie Reed, superintendent of Murray County Schools in Georgia. “But the brain can be reconfigured and, now, we’re going to have fewer children falling through the cracks and more children graduating from high school.”