Why Teachers Need to Know About Educational Neuroscience

01/31/2017
David A. Sousa

Any educator who has been in the profession long enough remembers the numerous and well-intentioned curriculum programs and instruction initiatives that have appeared, faded, and even disappeared over the last few decades. Names such as Learning Styles, Cooperative Learning, New Math, Whole Language, Teacher Expectations and Student Achievement (TESA), Discipline with Dignity, and Multiple Intelligences, conjure up memories of what we used to call staff development. Many school districts ran one-day workshops conducted by outside consultants, purportedly designed to train teachers adequately to successfully implement these initiatives. However, because there was little or no sustained follow-up or support for implementation, most of these programs faded, and teachers went back to their previous instructional methods. Over time, teachers inevitably grew suspicious---some might even say cynical---of any new reform. The mantra in faculty rooms was, “This, too, shall pass.”

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The current-day version of professional development includes a concept called Professional Learning Communities (PLCs). A PLC is a group of educators that meets regularly, and works collaboratively by sharing knowledge and expertise with the goal of improving instructional skills to enhance student achievement. PLCs shift the focus of professional development from an emphasis on teaching to an emphasis on learning. Proponents believe that through collaboration, rather than isolation, teachers can improve their practice by exchanging ideas and strategies, and by exploring new insights into the teaching-learning process. 
    PLCs come in many forms and sizes from grade-level or subject-area teams to whole-school committees and even school district or statewide groups. This approach has met with a considerable degree of acceptance among teachers, mainly because they feel they have significant control over the structure and functioning of the PLC, and because the focus is on helping students learn rather than on “fixing” the teacher. We should be encouraged that PLCs and similar professional development formats are gaining ground as a structure, but the question we should be asking is: What content are the participants discussing, reviewing, and analyzing to improve student achievement? In my view, the answer to that question is educational neuroscience.
    Research over decades continues to show that the most important factor in determining how much students achieve is the quality of their teachers’ preparation, and the way teachers translate their knowledge base into effective instructional strategies. The research also indicates that years of teaching experience does not significantly relate to student achievement after the teacher’s first five years in the profession. In other words, knowledge is not power (sorry, Francis Bacon), but the application of that knowledge is the real power.
    If teachers are only as effective as their knowledge base, then we have to examine the contents of that knowledge base, especially in light of what teachers should be doing in the classroom. Essentially, they should be changing brains. Let me repeat that: they should be changing brains. Whenever a student learns something new, and because of the teacher’s efforts the student’s brain encodes the new learning into long-term memory, then that brain changes forever. The encoding creates new neural connections while strengthening others, thereby changing the brain’s anatomy and communication networks. Successful teachers are brain changers! Consequently, the more they know about how the brain learns, the more successful they can be as teachers. Enter educational neuroscience. 
What Is Educational Neuroscience?
    For more than two decades, psychologists, neuroscientists, and educators have been examining whether the vast amount of new discoveries about the brain’s inner workings could offer deeper insights into teaching and learning. Over time, applications became apparent.  As a result, a new field of scientific inquiry emerged called educational neuroscience (earlier terminology was Mind, Brain, and Education). It specifically looks at ways to apply the research findings in neuroscience to teaching and learning.  
    Here is the good news. More educators are becoming aware of educational neuroscience and revising their curriculums, instruction, and assessments to reflect the new research. Several universities and colleges have established programs dedicated to this effort. Harvard University, for example, has a post-graduate Mind, Brain, and Education Program focusing on how the latest findings in cognitive science and biology affect educational decisions. Johns Hopkins, Stanford, and Vanderbilt universities have similar initiatives, all aimed at alerting pre-service and in-service teachers of exciting new discoveries about how we learn. This is an impressive lineup, but it is reaching only a tiny fraction of the total number of educators who should be actively involved with the practical applications of educational neuroscience.
    Now for the bad news. First, too many schools of education are still graduating prospective teachers from outdated curriculum programs. When I was a superintendent of schools, I asked teacher applicants during the interview to tell me what they knew about how the brain learns. Sadly, much of what I heard was the pedagogy of the 1960s and 1970s. These graduates are going out to teach 2017 brains with a 1970s kitbag of strategies. It will not work. A recent study sponsored by the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation raised questions regarding the quality of pre-service teacher preparation in numerous education schools. The study encouraged these schools to build an evidence-based system for teacher preparation so teachers can select instructional strategies more likely to succeed with today’s students. Educational neuroscience is an excellent source of evidence-based approaches. 
    Second, school leaders are not doing enough to help in-service teachers recognize one of the major findings from educational neuroscience, namely, how much technology is changing the brains of their students. I recently wrote a book providing research evidence that the vast amount of time students spend interacting with technology is actually altering their brains. This is because the brain possesses neuroplasticity---the ability to rewire itself as a result of input from its environment. For today’s students, much of the input from their environment involves hours of texting, gaming, and surfing the internet on digital devices. Because of neuroplasticity, the brain adapts to this constant flow of information by reconfiguring cognitive, emotional, and social networks. Studies are revealing that the cerebral areas most affected include attention systems, memory networks, thinking processes, and social skills. These areas are critical for successful learning to occur. 
The Critical Areas for Learning Are Changing
    Let us take a brief look at what appears to be happening in the four areas mentioned above. Attention systems developed to constantly monitor our environment to detect threats, hunt for prey, and find a mate---all necessary for survival of the species. These systems also allow us to focus with intent to learn. Teachers frequently tell me that their students’ attention spans are decreasing. There is no reliable research evidence to support that observation. What is happening is that the demands on students’ attention are increasing. Facebook, Twitter, e-mails, gaming, Snapchat, cell phones, and even homework, are often simultaneously demanding and dividing the students’ attention. However, once they find something of real interest, they can focus on it for hours. The challenge this presents in the classroom is that teachers need to devise strategies that will convince students to focus on the lesson rather than to disengage and turn to their digital devices. No easy task, but educational neuroscience can offer some clues.  
    You recall from psychology class that we possess both short-term and long-term memory networks. Short-term memory---now called working memory---has a limited capacity and serves as a temporary processing area until the learner decides which items to permanently store or discard. For a long time, researchers have accepted the average capacity of working memory after the age of 14 years to be about seven items. However, recent studies of memory suggest that the capacity of working memory may be declining somewhat, especially in younger individuals.  Nobody knows for certain why this is occurring. One prevailing explanation is that modern technology is teaching the younger brain that it is easier to learn where to look up information rather than remember it. For example, instead of learning the names of the planets in our solar system (eight memory items), digital devices are showing students where to find that information (one memory item).
    This decline in working memory capacity, as well as the tendency for students to defer to a search for information rather than remembering it, has critical implications for curriculum content, instruction, and assessment. For instance, should instruction be focusing primarily on strategies to find information? How do we decide what content students really need to remember and what content they can just look up? Moreover, is the working memory’s capacity decline necessarily a drawback? Perhaps that frees up memory resources for deeper learning and higher-order thinking. If teachers spend less time presenting facts that students can look up, will this give teachers additional time to present real-world applications that make the curriculum more meaningful? Educational neuroscience has some pertinent suggestions. 
    The ease with which students can find information on the internet is having an impact on their thinking, especially in how they approach solving problems. Before students had such immediate access to so much information, they needed to do their own  thinking when teachers asked them questions such as, “What are some other ways you could solve this problem?” Now, they are accustomed to turning immediately to the internet and see how others have solved the problem. Thus, other people’s thinking replaces their own, missing those crucial opportunities to be analytical and creative. Is this what schools should be encouraging? If not, what are some effective strategies that promote higher-order thinking in the face of this information tidal wave? It is possible that educational neuroscience can help us here.
    Another aspect of student learning that technology significantly influences is the development of social skills. Have you heard of mirror neurons? They are clusters of neurons that fire not only when we perform a task, but also when we observe another person performing the same task. It is one major reason why we enjoy watching actors in theatrical productions, dancers at recitals, or players at sporting events. Our mirror neurons replicate their behavior in our brains, stimulating the emotional centers and giving us similar feelings of pleasure and excitement. 
    Mirror neurons support mimicry, helping toddlers imitate and learn the sounds of the language they hear when interacting face-to-face with their caregivers. Mirror neurons also process empathetic behavior and response. They help us feel the joy, embarrassment, or pain of others who are in our presence. When we unintentionally offend someone in face-to-face conversation, mirror neurons spot that person’s distress and immediately prompt us to make amends. Simply put, as we grow up, mirror neurons develop and guide our direct and personal social interactions with others.
    Because of their addiction to digital devices and social media, more students perceive social interactions as device-centered rather than person-centered. Consequently, with barely any face-to-face communication, they have little understanding of nonverbal cues (e.g., facial expressions and body language), they are uncertain about how to maintain personal relationships, and they lack discretion in their digital messages.  Students text things to each other over the impersonal internet that they would never say to each other in a face-to-face setting. Among other things, hurtful messages lower self-esteem. More often, social media has really become anti-social media. How do teachers maintain a positive learning climate in their classrooms when their students lack the skills for appropriate and meaningful social interactions?
    Then there is the matter of sleep. Studies show that a high percentage of middle and high school students stay awake late during school nights so they can communicate with their peers or surf the internet. This practice, called vamping, results in sleep-deprived students who are more likely to be irritable, fatigued and inattentive throughout the day, sleep in class, and get poorer grades than students who are not sleep-deprived.  Educational neuroscience also tells us that less sleep means the brain encodes less information into long-term memory. There are instructional strategies that can help teachers address this serious problem. 
    Teachers who are aware of how their students’ brains are changing and who adapt their instruction accordingly will likely be more effective than those who are unaware. If school leaders and deans of schools of education continue to be slow in recognizing the important findings from educational neuroscience, then students will continue in classrooms where teachers are working hard, but from an unacceptably outdated knowledge base.    

Dr. David A. Sousa is an international consultant in educational neuroscience. He has written nearly two dozen books on the applications of brain research to teaching and learning. His email address is [email protected]
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Issue 19.1 | Summer 2017

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