Magazine article District Administration

Mind Matters: What Brain-Based Research Means for Educators and for the Future of Math, Language Arts, Foreign Language, the Arts and Special Education

Magazine article District Administration

Mind Matters: What Brain-Based Research Means for Educators and for the Future of Math, Language Arts, Foreign Language, the Arts and Special Education

Article excerpt

We remember that Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492; that Jimmy's father, the fire chief, showed us how to "Stop, Drop and Roll"; and that crabs shed their shells, a lesson we learned while soaking in the briny smell of salt water during a fourth-grade field trip to the aquarium.

What happened, then, to all those vocabulary words, spelling lists and dates of Roman conquests we knew up, down and inside out the night before a quiz or test? A week later, it seemed we'd already forgotten them.

Today, brain research is starting to confirm what many educators have known intuitively for years: Children learn better and remember more when their studies are mixed with music and drama, experience, emotion and real-world context. The more regions of the brain that are involved and the more we engage our emotions, the more means we have for recalling information.

This research, though still in its infancy, could influence everything from how teachers deliver lessons in the classroom to how new school buildings are designed to how often recess is scheduled. It's also throwing old myths out the window: that we use only 10 percent of our brains and that children are either right-brained or left-brained, says Pat Wolfe, author, educational consultant and the founder of Napa, Calif.-based Mind Matters.

Intellectual Activity

Ninety percent of what scientists know about the brain has been discovered in the past decade, and the technology continues to change. Although few studies have had direct applications for the classroom, there is already a great deal of excitement surrounding the information being generated. Enterprises such as Scientific Learning Inc. and The Brain Store Publishing Co. sponsor Web sites and sell software and books based on research, as well as hold yearly conferences to bring together neuroscientists and educators. During the past five years, hundreds of school districts across the country have made steps to thoroughly implement curriculums that include some recognition of how children learn. Another 5,000 to 15,000 are exploring the idea, says Eric Jensen, Brain Store co-founder.

"We have only just started to understand how the brain works," Jensen says. "But we can't wait a hundred years until someone can imbed a chip in a volunteer student and then do five years of research. We have enough circumstantial evidence to proceed."

Today, various technologies are giving scientists a peek at the inner workings of the brain. Among the most widely used is functional magnetic resonance imaging, which makes it possible to map activity in the brain while a subject is performing a specific task, such as counting backward from 10 or identifying different colors. Using powerful magnets and radio signals, fMRI scanners can detect where blood is rich in oxygen--signifying an area of the brain that is working. The resulting image can help scientists map out what parts of the brain are used for speech, vision, auditory and motor skills and more.

So what exactly will this technology do for education? "Brain research is not the be all and end all that's going to solve all our education problems," says Renate Nummela Caine, author of The Brain, Education and the Competitive Edge. "But it is going to make us work harder and understand better."


Brain research shows that learning mathematics isn't a matter of memorizing times tables or geometric theorems, says Diane Ronis, a professor of education at Southern Connecticut State University and author of Brain-Compatible Mathematics. "It's a matter of connecting new learning to previous learning and experience, and when we do that, it's very natural and very enduring," she says. Often, textbook learning is "completely disassociated with the real world. Only in the classroom do we have discrete and separate subjects."

During her 17 years as a middle and high school math teacher, Ronis says she came across few textbooks that engaged students or demonstrated everyday applications for mathematics. …

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