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Linking Teachers to Neuroscience: A Look at Bridges of Information

By Lisa Carey, Educational Consultant for the Center for Innovation and Leadership in Special Education at Kennedy Krieger Institute

I am a teacher who works with neuropsychologists and neurologists to translate their clinical expertise and research into information and instructional practices that are useful to my fellow teachers.  It’s a fairly unique job description that it gets a very different reaction depending on whom I’m speaking to. When I explain my role to those in the cognitive neurosciences, they frequently begin telling me all of the findings they want teachers to know about - “Tell them the brain is plastic!” “Let them know that we see with our brains and not with our eyes!” “Make sure they understand neurodevelopment and stage-environment fit!” If you follow the Linking Research to Classrooms Blog, these topics will sound familiar.  We’ve used this blog to help connect those researchers to the audience they crave to speak with.  Many of the researchers I work with are concerned that they are too frequently only talking back to their field rather than those who could do the most with great cognitive neuroscience information – teachers.  They also fear that if they aren’t talking to teachers about the brain, others, with less valid information, will.

I get a slightly different reaction when speaking with teachers.  “I love brain science!” is the very frequent response, but it is typically followed up by a statement of misinformation about the brain that makes the worries of the researchers valid.  Someone is talking to teachers about brains – and it isn’t necessarily the people you’d want.  As Dr. Nancy Grasmick, former State Superintendent of Maryland, has stated, “We [educators] are in the business of cognitive development, why wouldn’t we want to learn all that we can about the brain?”  Many teachers agree.  Many marketers know that.  Slapping a brain on something or using the prefix neuro is a great way to tempt teachers into purchasing books, buying classroom materials, and paying for trainings(Sylvan & Christodoulou, 2010). Unfortunately, there is no overarching vetting agency that gives stamps of approval to these products.  Teachers are frequently on their own, trying to guess what sounds plausible, and, according to studies repeated around the world, the struggle is real (Dekker, Nikki, Howard-Jones, & Jelles, 2012; Jäncke et al., 2016).  Given the difficulty of independently vetting brain information, teacher belief in neuromyths is an international phenomenon.

Part of the reason linking teachers to good cognitive neuroscience information has been so problematic is because the small (but growing!) transdisciplinary field of mind, brain, and education science hasn’t determined the best to mechanism for communication.  There is no practitioner version of the Mind, Brain, and Education journal.  Practitioner journals that attempt to publish work that includes neuroscience aren’t necessarily prepared to vet journal articles that include research about the brain – with the result being that my colleagues and I come across some fairly strange articles.  In addition to solving the problem of how to share information, one of the biggest problems has been determining what information is most useful for teachers. That question of what is much harder than I would have initially thought., which is why coming across Horvath and Donoghue’s (2016) article “A Bridge too Far- Revisited: Reframing Bruer’s Neuroeducation Argument for Modern Science of Learning Practitioners” left me shouting – “Yes!”

Horvath and Donoghue (2016) propose that there are four distinct types of cognitive neuroscience information shared with educators: prescriptive, conceptual, functional, and diagnostic.  Prescriptive information about the brain aims to tell teachers what to do within their classrooms. Prescriptive information about the brain tends to be the most dangerous in terms of spreading misinformation.  According to multiple studies, the majority of the neuromyths believed by teachers would fall into the category of prescriptive information (Dekker et al., 2012; Jäncke et al., 2016).  For example, having students coordinate specific movements to help with reading skills by building the brain is suggested by a program called “Brain Gym,” which has been largely discredited (Dekker et al., 2012; Jäncke et al., 2016). Prescriptive information is not always bad, but it can lead to oversimplifications and generalizations.  Furthermore, prescriptive information is not necessarily helpful for teachers working with a large and diverse group of students, as they do not take variability into account.    

Conceptual information encourages educators to understand the educational context through “theories generated at the neuropsychological level (Horvath & Donoghue, 2016).” Horvath and Donoghue (2016) make the clear distinction that conceptual information is not prescriptive -  educators are encouraged to understand the relationship between what is known about the developing brain, but never given explicit instructions in how to teach. For example, Universal Design for Learning (UDL) asks teachers to consider the importance of emotional engagement to attention and memory, but does not tell them how to engage students emotionally.  While some teachers find this a frustrating aspect of UDL, it protects teachers from using neuropsychological information as a checklist and encourages teachers to consider student variability, another aspect of neuropsychological research UDL embeds within its framework.

Functional cognitive neuroscience information is used to help teachers narrow their instructional choices to better fit the needs of students.  For example, neurologist Dr. Martha Denckla has pointed out that given variability among the neurodevelopment of young children, it is perfectly reasonable to assume that some students in kindergarten will not be developmentally prepared to grasp a pencil.  Rather than prescribing certain activities to practice this skill, she recommends that teachers be creative finding other means of demonstrating knowledge of letters and numbers and creating artwork.

Hovarth and Donoghue (2016) describe diagnostic information as a means for using neuropsychological information to determine “how a student is learning (or failing to learn).” The types of testing conducted at the Kennedy Krieger Institute Neuropsychology Department are diagnostic in nature.  Clinicians use valid and reliable measures to determine strengths and needs in a child’s ability to use and control cognitive their abilities. This information is then shared with teachers through reports that explain considerations for the classroom.  For example, a student with difficulty in the area of working memory may benefit from task lists and copies of notes. These suggestions do not tell teachers exactly how to support the student’s working memory, but they do indicate that this is an area in need of attention and consideration when planning.

We will dive deeper into these categories within later blog posts this month.  There are benefits and concerns regarding how each of these avenues of information connects with educators. Regardless of the types of neuroscience information teachers encounter, it is important to recognize that not all brain science is high quality, science reporting often includes over generalizations and misinformation about quality studies, and marketers are using teacher interest in the brain to specifically target educators.  Teachers have wonderful critical thinking skills - just be sure to not lose your head when someone says the word “brain.”

References:

  • Dekker, S., Nikki, C. L., Howard-Jones, P., & Jelles, J. (2012). Neuromyths in education: Prevelence and predictors of misconceptions among teachers. Frontiers in Psychology, 3, 1–8.
  • Horvath, J. C., & Donoghue, G. M. (2016). A Bridge Too Far – Revisited: Reframing Bruer’s Neuroeducation Argument for Modern Science of Learning Practitioners, 7. http://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00377
  • Jäncke, L., Rossi, S., Kalbfleisch, L., Ferrero, M., Vadillo, M. A., & Garaizar, P. (2016). Neuromyths in Education: Prevalence among Spanish Teachers and an Exploration of Cross-Cultural Variation. http://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2016.00496
  • Sylvan, L. J., & Christodoulou, J. A. (2010). Understanding the role of neuroscience in brain based products: A guide for educators and consumers. Mind, Brain, and Education. http://doi.org/10.1111/j.1751-228X.2009.01077.x
  • Dekker, S., Nikki, C. L., Howard-Jones, P., & Jelles, J. (2012). Neuromyths in education: Prevelence and predictors of misconceptions among teachers. Frontiers in Psychology, 3, 1–8.
  • Horvath, J. C., & Donoghue, G. M. (2016). A Bridge Too Far – Revisited: Reframing Bruer’s Neuroeducation Argument for Modern Science of Learning Practitioners, 7. http://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00377
  • Jäncke, L., Rossi, S., Kalbfleisch, L., Ferrero, M., Vadillo, M. A., & Garaizar, P. (2016). Neuromyths in Education: Prevalence among Spanish Teachers and an Exploration of Cross-Cultural Variation. http://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2016.00496
  • Sylvan, L. J., & Christodoulou, J. A. (2010). Understanding the role of neuroscience in brain based products: A guide for educators and consumers. Mind, Brain, and Education. http://doi.org/10.1111/j.1751-228X.2009.01077.x
     

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