by Nora Schultz (New Scientist Magazine issue 2726, 16 Sep 2009
NEUROSCIENCE could do for schools what biomedical research has done for healthcare. That’s the conclusion of the Decade of the Mind (DOM)symposium last week in Berlin, Germany, to discuss how the latest findings could be used to improve education.
“In medicine, we have an excellent system in place to go from basic research to clinical practice, while in neuroscience we have the basic understanding of how the brain learns but still need to figure out how to translate this into the classroom,” says Manfred Spitzer of the University of Ulm in Germany, one of the conference organisers. With brain imaging and, increasingly, genetic studies now complementing psychology research, a host of new findings could inform teachers about the conditions in which our brains can be primed to learn best.
One of the main themes emerging at the DOM meeting was that the foundation of successful learning is improving executive function – a collection of cognitive processes important for self-control and focusing on the task at hand. Brain-imaging studies have mapped executive function to several regions, including the anterior cingulate gyrus, which also lights up during error detection and when children learn numeracy and literacy.
Various studies presented at the meeting showed that improving a child’s executive function could be achieved with relatively small changes, for example, by altering the timetabling of exercise sessions or encouraging the learning of a musical instrument (see “Stretch and learn” and “The Stephen King effect”)”
Improving a child’s ability to focus on the task at hand can be achieved with relatively small changes
The development of executive function begins long before the school years and continues into adolescence. Michael Posner of the University of Oregon in Eugene told the meeting that evidence of executive function shows up in children as young as 7 months old. “If I were to change one thing about education it would be to have it start in infancy, and use parents as intelligent tools to work with their kids,” he says.
Education before school can have benefits further down the track, Posner says. The neurotransmitter dopamine has been shown to play an important role in the function of the anterior cingulate gyrus, and genetic variations in the dopamine system seem to interact with parenting quality to affect executive function. Posner found that children between 18 and 21 months old with a particularly active variant of the COMT gene, which leads to less dopamine transmission, showed improved attention compared with those carrying other variants. The children also responded especially well to high-quality parenting (Neuroscience, DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroscience.2009.05.059).
Sabine Kubesch, also at the University of Ulm, says that one day a child’s genes could even be used to inform how they should be taught. “If genotyping our kids before school helps parents and teachers to decide how to best support their learning and development, then yes, I could see this become an established procedure in the future,” she says.
Whether or not that happens, basic findings from neuroscience still need to percolate into the classroom, the meeting’s attendees agreed, as misconceptions about the brain abound in schools (see “Myths and misconceptions”).
Education has a long way to go to mirror improvements in medicine brought about by increasingly evidence-based practice, says Eamonn Noonan of Norwegian research organisation the Campbell Collaboration. “The key to the revolution that transformed what was essentially quackery into modern medicine was professional, science-based training,” says Noonan. He also calls for improved links between scientists and teachers, and more accessible research.
Various organisations are hoping to change that. In the US, the National Science Foundation has invested in centres to research a “new science of learning”, and a group called the Neuroscience and Education Research Network makes similar efforts in the UK.
Bringing an evidence-based approach to teaching does not need to be top-down, says Katrin Hille at the Transfer Centre for Neurobiology and Learning, Germany’s leading neuroeducation group, based in Ulm. Her team recently tested a novel approach to foreign language classes that originated in a school. Teachers at Gymnasium Kirchheim in Kirchheim by Munich, Germany, had found apparent success with a technique called “scenic learning”, which involves choral recitals of vocabulary accompanied by gestures and movements matched to meaning.
In a study of 137 students, Hille found those who had used scenic learning remembered three times as many new words 14 weeks later as those who had been taught using conventional methods, and spoke with better pronunciation and fluency. “I have never seen such strong effects in a previous study,” says Hille.
Stretch and learn
Timetabling exercise at the right time in a school day could help children pay attention in lessons.
Sabine Kubesch at the University of Ulm in Germany and her team found that executive function – the ability to focus and avoid distraction improved after 30 minutes of aerobic endurance exercise (Mind, Brain, and Education, in press). “Physical education should be scheduled before important subjects like mathematics and be offered before the first lesson, not at the end of the school day, as is often the case,” says Kubesch.
This might not always be an option, but researchers say a stronger focus on exercise could help with cognition and learning. In a study of brain electrical activity, Kubesch’s team found that fitter students showed signals that reflected increased concentration and ability to ignore distractions (Brain Research, DOI: 10.1016/j.brainres.2009.02.073). “Regular exercise breaks during the school day will become more popular as a means of raising academic standards and fostering mental and physical health,” predicts Paul Howard-Jones at the University of Bristol, UK.
Kubesch is developing activities for physical education lessons that she hopes will improve executive function. These work to stimulate behavioural control. For example, students have to throw or kick a ball in different ways depending on two signals but are instructed to dribble it instead when a third signal is added.
The Stephen King effect
Listening to classical music makes you smart, right? This notion has been around for a while, and has its basis in the “Mozart effect”, an apparent improvement in performance in spatial tests after people had listened to Mozart. Now it seems that the music itself doesn’t matter.
At the Decade of the Mind symposium in Berlin, Germany, Glenn Schellenberg of the University of Toronto Missisauga in Canada presented a review of various efforts to track down the Mozart effect, including some of his own. His findings suggest there is nothing special about Mozart. “We also found a ‘Schubert effect’ and a ‘Blur effect’ as well as evidence that some people perform better on tests after being read Stephen King if they prefer this over Mozart,” he says. In another study, Schellenberg showed that the creative quality of drawings made by 5-year-old Japanese children improved more after listening to their favourite play songs than to Mozart. Music helps you learn, he concludes, but so do other activities you enjoy.
Music training, however, can have measurable benefits. Schellenberg has showed children performed better in IQ tests. Nevertheless, it is wrong to assume that music can improve your overall intelligence, he says, “or musicians should be all-round geniuses”. Schellenberg found no link between music training and success in tests of general intelligence. Instead, his findings suggest that music lessons work – like many other training approaches – by improving executive function (see main story), allowing students to utilise their intelligence more effectively (Psychology of Music, DOI: 10.1177/0305735609339473).
Myths and Misconceptions
Various “neuromyths” exist in schools. According to a survey of advice literature by the Transfer Centre for Neurobiology and Learning (ZNL) in Ulm, Germany, the topic of the brain is popular among teachers. “Unfortunately, many of the ideas that have made it into the classroom fall under the heading of pseudoscience,” says Paul Howard-Jones of the University of Bristol, UK. Here are five of the most popular:
Myth: We only use 10 per cent of our brain.
Reality: Brain imaging suggests that all parts of the brain are active.
Myth: We have multiple “types” of intelligence, from interpersonal to logical, with corresponding IQs.
Reality: Neuroscientific research distinguishes cognitive processes in the brain, but these do not correspond to different intelligences. A more accepted view is that each person has a general intelligence, and their various cognitive abilities are correlated with how high this is.
Myth: The left side of the brain deals with rational thinking and the right side is emotional. Most people are dominated by one half, which can be remedied by exercises such as the “Brain Gym” programme.
Reality: Each side has different functions, but there is little evidence that these reflect thinking styles. Brain Gym, popular in 80 countries, is considered pseudoscience by several scientific societies.
Myth: Drinking plenty of water is important for brain function.
Reality: Thirst kicks in long before lack of water affects brain function. Drinking water in class may improve performance because it creates mini-breaks that help with focus.
Myth: Bilingual education leads to confusion and delayed development, due to conflict between the two language systems.
Reality: The opposite is true. Switching between languages improves impulse control and the ability to concentrate.