What’s neuroscience got to do with education?

A few weeks ago I completed my Masters in Ed. Technology, and this fall, I have the good fortune to be starting my PhD, at the University of Regina, with Alec Couros. I couldn’t  ask for a better supervisor.  But here’s my dilemma; I can’t seem to find the classes I need.

I’d like to focus on neuroplasticity (the fancy term for how the brain shapes itself, and reshapes itself, as it learns), learning and technology.  But here’s the rub, in education we  seem to rarely talk about the brain unless it doesn’t work “properly”.  Classes centred on the brain at the graduate level in education tend to be Ed. Psych classes, rather than dealing with learning and plasticity or metacognition.

Consequently, I’ve had to look elsewhere for classes.  I’ve literally spent hours scouring the internet trying to find on-line neuroscience classes.  There are dozens of high calibre neuroscience Masters & PhD programs. However, it seems neuroscience is one the few areas not offered in an on-line format.  So, for the moment, I’m stuck as to how I’m actually going to complete this degree.

I’d like to pursue this area because I believe it’s critically important to students and their learning. In my classroom, I tend to use content to teach skills.  I think most content is interchangeable, it’s skills, like problem-solving, collaboration, and critical evaluation that my students need to learn.  Except in one area– their brain.

If we deeply desire the learning in our classrooms to be student-centred, then the most important content they need to learn is how their brain works.  Starting in Kindergarten, all the way through to grade 12.  They need to learn how it morphs and changes as they learn and grow. In math, our students need to learn what the brain is doing when it learns math and struggles with abstract concepts.  And what the brain does when it reads — how the imagination required in stories helps it to wrinkle.  Or when it’s trying to problem-solve and experiences cognitive overload.  Students need to know that cognitive dissonance is perfectly normal, and that neural pathways can be reinforced through practice, or that negative pathways can be reshaped through a process called reattribution.

I wonder how many of our students know that their behaviour is cognitively based and their emotions are biologically based, both are areas that students can learn to gain control over through a skill building process called self-regulation. I also wonder how much the average teacher knows about the brain and how it works.  From the availability of neuroscience classes in most faculties of education, I tend to think, in most cases, it’s very little.

And that’s a problem. Teaching students about the intricacies of their brain fosters self-efficacy and helps them take control of their learning in ways many currently aren’t.   It may help end erroneous thinking like, “She’s smart and I’m not”  or “I’m just not a math person”.  When, for some of our students, their brains simply aren’t ready to do the math.

I believe, if we want our students to be independent thinkers and learners, they need to know how they think and learn. It’s really the most important thing we can teach them.

Photo courtesy of flickr cc: alles-schlumpf

About shelleywright

I love education & learning, which likely explains why I'm a teacher. My areas are ELA, Sr. sciences, and technology. My classroom is best described as a student-centred, tech embedded pbl/inquiry learning environment. Furthermore, I am Buck Institute for Education National Faculty member
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26 Responses to What’s neuroscience got to do with education?

  1. heather hobbs says:

    Congratulations Shelley on your decision to take your PhD! Your comments regarding the brain as I was justing reading a discussion post regarding the difficulty of teaching students about the importantance of social change when their brains have not developed to understand this. Your thoughts have offered a different view to this opinion. Good luck on your quest for the classes!!

  2. Shelley, I agree that this is an area we don’t generally know enough about our own brains, never mind being able to help students understand theirs.
    At my school, we have created a new programme of inquiry. First unit of the year for every grade is Learning to Learn. Our grade 5s will be studying what their brains have to do with their learning, and what they can do to make sure their brains work as well as possible. The more we know about our brains the better!
    I do hope you are successful at finding a course that is a good fit for what you want to do!

  3. andrewcockerham says:

    Hi Shelley,

    I’m interested in exactly the same thing! Learning about how we learn through studying neuro and cognitive science to affect education, pedagogy, and educational policy.

    I found this Harvard program that is promising, (although I dont have the time or money to pursue graduate work at the moment), and even though it may not help you in your PhD, it may be worth connecting with them.

    Hope this helps! Good luck, and keep us posted!


  4. jsb16 says:

    Is that Harvard program an online program? It sounds fascinating, but I can’t exactly commute to Cambridge for classes…

  5. naini says:

    HI Shelly, I am currently working on my masters in education and a part of the course deals with brain based approaches to learning. I have to create a visual representation of my learning. Based on your interest and experience, please do take a look and see if you can comment on it!


  6. giuliaforsythe says:

    Shelley, I am right in line with you about neuroscience and learning. I was a biology major and I hungered for more courses like this. I took my education degree concurrently and so I was always interested in the crossover. I never found anything that fit right so I haven’t gone any further in any formal educational contexts (yet).

    I’m big into independent learning though and I’m loving James Zull, The Art of Changing the Brain and Cathy Davidson, Now You See It. The latter has links back to her course “This is your brain on the Internet” (http://hastac.org/blogs/cathy-davidson/your-brain-internet-syllabus-contract-schedule) which has a very interesting and comprehensive list of readings.

    At this level I think you are capable enough to determine a relevant curriculum based on some key guiding questions. I would normally hesitate to say this but Alec is your advisor so I’ll dare to suggest that you create your own online course out of seminal readings through connecting to online experts.

    That may be pie in the sky, but if you manage to get that happening it will be a great moment in Canadian educational history. At the very least, I recommend you read those books & articles because they are fascinating and can inform just about everything we do as practitioners.

    • thecleversheep says:

      I think Guilia’s idea is very appropriate, especially when one considers that we live in a world of networks that mirror the connections in the human brain.

      Congratulations Shelley, and best of luck in your continued learning endeavors!

    • jaccalder says:

      I’m only part way through my masters, but have been focusing my work, as much as possible when I can, on the brain. I’ve been facinated with the brain since my biomed undergrad… and am always surprised at how rarely I find connections between my two passions – human body/brain and learning. I’m particularly interested on on-task vs. off-task multitasking and the impact (dual coding?) on learning.

      You always share, so I’m sure I’ll be able to learn from what you discover. I’m excited to hear about your adventures. Thanks for sharing the resources Giulia 🙂

    • Thanks, I think it will be an adventure!

  7. Dear Mrs. Wright,
    I would also like to hear and read more on the subject because most of what I’ve learned has come from the field of advertising. They know our brains and the children’s brain the best in order to manipulate us!
    Andre or @mganhdi

  8. lindapemik says:

    Congratulations Shelley on completing your Masters degree, I have followed you since our eci831 days and truly appreciate your fresh views on learning and teaching

  9. lindapemik says:

    Congrats on completing your masters degree. I have followed you since our eci831 experience and find your views on teaching and learning very refreshing. I am looking forward to learning more from you as you pursue your PhD. all the best, Linda

  10. The University of Pennsylvania will start the “Basic Behavioral Neurology” course in July 2012 online, check it out https://www.coursera.org/course/neurobehavior

  11. coollit says:

    Thank you — you’re absolutely right! Kids can only benefit from knowing how the brain works. I imagine a classroom where kids are struggling to learn stuff they are really into, and when a teacher offers to help, a student will reply…”I’m OK, I’m just wrapping myelin right now.”

    Frustration is often associated with failure…what would the impact be if kids knew that when they were frustrated and struggling, their brains were learning the fastest?

    I’ve been very much influenced by the Talent Code, but I know there’s a lot more to know.


  12. 3D Eye says:

    Hi Shelley. Sorry I can’t help you with your course, but a book you might be interested in is ‘Zen and the Brain’ by James H Austin MD (The MIT Press), who is the Clinical Professor of Neurology, University of Missouri Health Science Center, and Emeritus Professor of Neurology, University of Colorado Health Science Center. There are some good reviews of the book on Amazon, one of which says,
    “His analysis of [these events] is that they are physiological, measurable states in the brain, and that they “etch” (his metaphor) the brain, destroying some brain cells and activating other ones . . . ”
    The book is well written but a fairly hefty read – though I’m sure it will be of interest to someone like yourself who’s studying to doctorate level. I hope you find the university you need, and I hope this book is of interest to you.

  13. Angele says:

    The brain fascinates me….I would love to hear more from you as you complete your courses in neuroscience.

  14. You should look into the Mind, Brain and teaching program at Johns Hopkins. I just completed it and am using the classes as my cognate area in an Ed.D. Program. It is an online program

  15. Janet Ott says:

    FIrst, congrats on your masters! Good for you. And yes, neuroscience has everything to do with learning. I started as neuroscientist, and then found education to be what I wanted to do with my life. So I have a Ph.D. in neuroplasticity, which I got at USC. And yes, there are several great programs, but probably none on-line, though you could check by going to the Society for Neuroscience web page. They generally have a list of possible courses in graduate work, and you could see if there were any that were on-line. Alternatively, you could go through a program like Union, where you create your own program and have a set of faculty that sit on your committee and guide you. It isn’t on-line, but you only meet in person a few times during your graduate work. The faculty help you figure out a course of study, check on your progress, help you set up your thesis work and then guide you in that as well. There are several programs like that here in the states, There must be up in Canada as well.

    Best of luck. Love your blog. Let me know if there is anything else I can help with. Also you should check out Eric Jensen’s work. He’s a great neuroscience to educator translator.

    • Thanks for reading. With the background knowledge you have in neuroplasticity, you have a huge advantage in the classroom. I’m hoping that faculty of Ed. will see the value of learning about the brain for both teachers and students. Thanks for the resource!

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