Neuroscience is finally finding its footing in the field of education with a new study that seeks to determine how much of the learning process is hardwired into our brain. By mapping the areas of the brain that are active while learning is taking place, scientists have been able to determine that the organ actually makes adjustments as the person gains experience, showing much greater flexibility than the scientists initially suspected. Contrary to the conventional view that sees the brain like a telephone switchboard, it actually acts more like a language. As children develop, they acquire the basic building blocks – letters – that, with experience, they learn to combine those blocks, hardwired into the hippocampus, into words, sentences, and more complex structures.
That analogy offers a whole different idea of how the brain develops, both normally and abnormally.
"When I first started, we made the mistake of talking about, âOh, the hippocampus is memory; the prefrontal does decisionmaking, impulse control'—and it's sort of a half-truth,'" Dr. Giedd said at a recent Learning and the Brain Society talk.
"I was looking for letters—a hole in this part of the brain, damage in that part of the brain," he said. Researchers do find predictable problems, he said, "but it's not because of everything that lies in that spot; it's because it's part of a word or sentence or paragraph that uses that letter a lot. â¦ The cells that fire together are wired together—and grow together."
Getting a better idea on how brain response is altered by experience would finally bring this research into the realm of the classroom.
The promise of such connection is high, but the idea has been around for much longer. Since 1990s, the scientists were hoping that improved brain-scan technology would lead to a breakthrough that would finally bring insight into how to more effectively help kids learn. Still, after many a false start, one of the top scientists in the field, McDonnel Foundation's John T. Breur, in 1997, declared that it might not ever be possible to bring the concreteness of a brain scan to something as nebulous as determining the optimal methods of instruction. He said that if there was progress to be made in this area, it was to be made by combing the efforts of neuroscientists with those of cognitive and behavioral psychologists and researchers specializing in education.
"All of our outcome measures, the things we are hoping to see, are not neurological changes; they are behavioral changes," explained Daniel T. Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville. "We don't measure how are your dendritic connections, we measure how well you can read.
"Trying to leverage behavioral science [for education] is complicated enough," he said. "For neuroscience to get into the mix, we have translation problems. The more distant you get from the level of the classroom, the less likely [the research] is to make a difference in the classroom."
But for the first time, scientists are drawing some conclusions directly from brain scans. Some early successes included mapping a specific brain pattern associated with dyslexia. Although the disease was initially associated with some permanent processing problems in the back left part of the brain, subsequent studies have shown that people who suffer from different kinds of dyslexia process language and mitigate the problem in entirely different ways.
"We got very excited about that" finding, Mr. Fischer said, "because it shows we need to stop thinking about simple disabilities; we need to think about patterns of understanding, patterns of processing. Different kids learn differently."