Embracing Science in the Classroom: Teaching for the Brain

The phrase “education reform” doesn’t usually conjure positive feelings, however, emerging research can make thinking about the new possibilities exciting. We live in a time of fundamental change with research that should influence the decisions we make on how to move away from the past and move forward into the future. Neurological research is one area that is taking us beyond simply teaching and learning and showing us the how behind teaching and learning to develop the most effective practices.

Last week, a study found children who get anxiety from doing a math problem have brain functions that differ from those who don’t have anxiety, according to the article “Study: MRI Reveals Brain Function Differs in Math-Phobic Children.” Using functional MRI (fMRI) scans, researchers performed scans on 46 second-and third-grade students while they carried out addition and subtraction problems, finding children with high math anxiety are neurobiologically similar to those who suffer from other phobias. The lead researcher commented that it is possible for someone with a math phobia to be good at math, but unless the student is helped through their phobia, they most likely won’t challenge themselves in math classes and become deficient.

Neurologist and teacher, Judy Willis, recently wrote the Edutopia article “Neuroscience and the Bilingual Brain,” where she explains bilingual children, compared to monolingual children, “develop greater attention focus, distraction resistance, decision-making judgment and responsiveness to feedback.” Research from fMRI scans shows bilinguals have stronger executive functions  most commonly thought to be formed by the need to “select” which language to use in a situation. This study could be used to influence both monolingual and bilingual homes to teach young children a second language, as well as influence elementary schools to include foreign language studies.

It doesn’t take an MRI to notice today’s kids can pick up on technology faster than the generation before them. However, scientists are using cognomics, a digital analysis of the brain, to take a look inside and see that technology is changing the neural pathways to process information, according to Karen Boyes in the article “The 21st Century Brain.” Changing neural pathways didn’t begin in the 21st century brain. Today’s students’ parents learned differently than their parents, and their parents differently from theirs, and on, and on. How can teachers use this information to their benefit? They must update their teaching style to reflect their pupils. “It is your responsibility to give them the skills for the future and equip them for the 21st century by teaching, alongside the regular curriculum, thinking skills, habits of mind, team skills and communication skills,” says Boyes.

We know technology has changed how we receive and process information, but technology has also afforded us to take a look inside and learn how to learn. How do you use new research on brain functioning to influence your lessons?

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