The role of neuroscience in education, by Loren Leclezio MSc (Med) in neuroscience

Brain plasticity is arguably one of the most exciting concepts in the field of neuroscience over the past 40 years. It refers to the revolutionary discovery that the brain can change itself, and with the right stimulation and intervention, can strengthen weakened neural connections and even form new neural pathways in the adult brain. The brain constantly rewires itself based on sensory input to become physically different from what it was in the preceding moment. It is this remarkable ability of the brain that scientists and educators around the globe are attempting to leverage.

Research into how the brain learns has been ongoing for many decades, mostly focusing on addressing cognitive and developmental deficits as well as targeting traumatic brain injury (TBI). Renowned brain scientists such as Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, professor in the department of psychology and the graduate programme in neurosciences at the university of California, has focused on and developed strategies to assist patients with TBI whilst Michael Merzenich, professor emeritus neuroscientist also at the university of California, used his discoveries in brain plasticity to develop educational intervention programmes (Fast ForWord®) that has dramatically changed the educational landscape not only in the United States (US), but globally. And over the past decade or so, renowned universities such as Cambridge in the UK and Johns Hopkins in the US, along with non profit organisations such as the MIND research institute has formalised their research and development efforts into entire departments focusing solely on neuroscience and its role in education. This is terribly exciting, but what does it mean for us in South Africa?

We need to start with what we know. We know that the brain can be trained to form new neural pathways with the right intervention and under optimal circumstances. Starting at the very beginning: consider the critical role that sleep, diet and exercise play in the learning environment. This is something that is not necessarily within the control of a teacher or therapist, but it is our responsibility to educate parents about the seriousness of the matter. We need to stay abreast of the latest developments and research, incorporating what we can into our everyday dealings with students. For example; emotion, curiosity, choice and empowerment are all linked to effective and lasting learning. This can easily be used in a classroom setting i.e. students can write essays and deliver orals on something that they have a keen interest in and emotional link to, one can excite students by delivering curricular content in a “solvable mystery” format etc.
There is of course also a role for new technology, be it usage of an i-pad in the classroom or embracing new programmes. There are very few programmes available in South Africa that are scientifically sound, and they come at a cost. This does not mean that we shouldn’t consider them. Many schools and parents have access to funds and it is our ethical responsibility to make parents and educators aware of what is available. Then it’s up to them to make an informed decision. The popularisation of neuroscientific ideas about learning and neuroscience-based interventional programmes poses a real challenge for professionals and teachers. The clever people at SharpBrains, an independent market research firm tracking health and performance applications of neuroscience, recently released a brain training programme evaluation checklist. This is an excellent tool to aid in distilling of the myriad of “neuroscience” programmes being offered. For more information on this and to access the checklist, feel free to contact me directly at: loren@indigolearning.co.za or visit my website www.indigolearning.co.za

Neuroscience research is not going to deliver a magic bullet, transforming learning, but it can guide our teaching, therapy and intervention.