Blogging on Neuroeducation

from the Dana Press Blog

June 24, 2009


Bridging the gap between teachers and brain scientists

For the nascent field of neuroeducation to progress, the first thing researchers need to learn is how to talk to one another. That’s one of the primary concerns for organizers of the Neuroscience Research in Education Summit, which ends today at the Center for Neurobiology of Learning and Memory at the University of California, Irvine.

Neuroeducation, which aims to translate new brain science discoveries directly into better classroom practices and materials, is one of several interdisciplinary fields that have sprung up following the development of new research tools. One such tool is functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which allows researchers to image the brains of conscious people directly and makes possible a novel class of experiments that could eventually have direct practical applications.

Seeing that potential, major universities—including Harvard and Johns Hopkins—are racing to put together top-notch new research centers to explore the intersection of brain science and classroom practice. Hopkins played host to its first neuroeducation summit, “Learning, Arts, and the Brain,” on May 6 [see stories including “Brain Scientists Identify Close Links between Arts, Learning”].

But, as early writers on the topic repeatedly point out, neuroscientists and education researchers work in different ways and on different topics, framed by distinct conceptual understandings of the world. For instance, neuroscientists adopt a reductionist outlook that doesn’t gel well with the messy real-world situations teachers face, while educators’ focus on variables such as context would mess up the precision that neuroscientific experimentation demands. There are pragmatic concerns, too, such as worries that neuroscience is too expensive or that its insights are too preliminary to inform educational practice. The result, some say, has been a wariness and hostility toward collaboration from both groups.

At the summit, which is sponsored by the Society for Neuroscience, about 60 experts from both sides of the equation are trying to come up with concrete steps to better collaborate. At the heart of the meeting are small-group discussions of two key questions: How can neuroscience research inform education strategies, and how can what teachers want and need to know about how students think and learn drive neuroscience research?

There are no easy answers. Both teachers and neuroscientists are busy professionals who undergo years of training in their respective fields, and overcoming the habits and deeply rooted beliefs that come with such intense education can be difficult. The gap between the world of neuroscience, with its controlled experiments, quantitative rigor and relative abstraction, and education, which must navigate the often conflicting needs of administration, teachers, parents and students, is particularly large.

But both groups have a large stake in finding middle ground. Neuroscience insights into learning and teaching could help ease the difficulties faced by children who struggle with formal schooling and increase the effectiveness and appeal of school for everyone. Neuroeducation also serves as a litmus test for the broader application of “social neuroscience.” A success here could bode well for other genre-crossing research such as neuroadvertising and neuroeconomics; a failure could cement the suspicion that brain science is interesting only on a theoretical level.

Aalok Mehta 

MONDAY, JUNE 01, 2009

Illuminating genius: insights from science and the arts

Nancy Andreasen_FallCat07
Nancy C. Andreasen 
Guest blogger: At the recent Learning and the Brain Conference in Washington D.C., Nancy C. Andreasen, M.D., Ph.D., discussed the importance of providing students with a “liberal education” that combines the study the arts and the sciences. She asked: How important are the arts for optimal development of the mind and brain? How important are the sciences? And how important is it to integrate both in our educational programs?

Concerns have been raised about the failure to integrate education in the arts and sciences for many years. In the 1950s the British writer C. P. Snow expressed concern about overspecialization and the creation of “Two Cultures,” producing a situation in which educated people from diverse backgrounds in the arts and sciences could no longer communicate with one another: “This is serious for our creative, intellectual, and above all, our normal life.” More recently E. O. Wilson addressed the issue again, in his book Consilience, arguing that consilience is a groundwork of explanation that crosses all branches of learning; he believed that in an ideal world knowledge should be unified across the humanities and the sciences.

The arbitrary division of domains of knowledge and the quest for specialization is a relatively recent phenomenon. During the Renaissance, one of the great eras of exuberant creativity, people did not divide the world into art and science. Instead they saw them as a seamless continuum. Michelangelo was a sculptor, architect, painter, engineer, poet and anatomist. Leonardo was an inventor, painter, engineer, sculptor and anatomist. Great naturalists, such as Charles Darwin, made discoveries that we call “science” while trying to understand the beauty and order of the natural world. As one great naturalist, Konrad Lorenz, has said, “He who has seen the intimate beauty of nature must become either a poet or a naturalist and, if his eyes are good enough and his powers of observation sharp enough, he may well become both.” To the extent that our current educational system fails to integrate art and science, it fails in an important aspect of nurturing creativity in young people.

What is the nature of the creative process? Many introspective accounts from individuals as diverse as Mozart or Poincaré or Coleridge share a common theme. Creative ideas, insights and solutions tend to occur rapidly and spontaneously, as sudden flashes of insight, although they may be preceded by an incubation phase. They are most likely to arise while a person is daydreaming or relaxing or engaging in “free association”—a state called REST (Random Episodic Silent Thought) or the “default state” in imaging research studies. During this state, regions of the association cortex are especially active, reflecting the fact that mental connections are being tossed around chaotically—until an original idea sometimes emerges. This process reflects the highly complex nature of brain organization. The brain is able to spontaneously generate novel ideas and content because it can function as a self-organizing system (a concept from “chaos theory”), a system in which components spontaneously organize to produce something new in a nonlinear, dynamic and unpredictable way.

In the Iowa Study of Creative Genius, highly creative people from both the arts and the sciences are currently being studied using neuroimaging tools, personality and cognitive tests, and structured interviews. Although the study is still in its early stages, imaging findings suggest that artists and scientists share similar brain activity during tasks chosen to stimulate the association cortex—thereby perhaps demonstrating scientifically that the arts and the sciences are indeed a unity.

Dr. Andreasen, a member of the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives, is the author of the Dana Press book The Creating Brain: The Neuroscience of Genius.

TUESDAY, MAY 19, 2009

Neuroeducation in the news

Two newspapers published stories covering the news from the Learning, Arts, and the Brain Summit, held May 6 at the American Visionary Arts Museum in Baltimore.

In “Art is smart, Roland Park teachers say,” Baltimore Messenger writer Larry Perl spoke with teachers who attended the summit, a chance for educators to hear from neuroscientists about the latest brain research on learning and for the scientists to hear where educators think more research should be done. While Roland Park Elementary School in Baltimore is "a school that oozes arts integration," it is an anomaly, said participant Amanda Barnes, the enrichment teacher at the school. "I'd love to see a position like mine in all Baltimore City schools," she said.

In “Arts appear to play role in brain development,” Baltimore Sun writer Liz Bowie focuses on the progress of research on learning and the brain, including that of Ellen Winner, Gottfried Schlaug and Elizabeth Spelke of Harvard, who spoke during the summit, and Charles Limb, a Johns Hopkins doctor and a jazz musician who was in the audience and invited to speak on his own research. Bowie quotes Harvard professor Jerome Kagan as saying that research into the effects of practicing the arts on the brain is "as deserving of a clinical trial as a drug for cancer that has not yet been shown to be effective."

Nicky Penttila 

Friday , MAY 15, 2009

The arts in learning: putting theory into practice

On Wednesday, I visited the School for Arts in Learning, also known as SAIL, a public charter school in downtown Washington, D.C. The school uses an arts-integrated curriculum to teach students who have behavioral, learning and developmental disabilities. Principal Terry Bunton and an energetic fourth-grader named James, who was spending the day shadowing Mr. Bunton, showed me around.

The school currently educates students K–6. Seventh and eighth grades will be added in the next two years, after which students go on to various D.C. public and charter schools. Each classroom has 16 or fewer students who are taught by two teachers trained in special-education practices. Some students are learning-disabled, a few are on the autism spectrum and others have cerebral palsy or multiple sclerosis.

What you first notice about the school is that almost all its inside walls are covered with the students’ art, creating a beautiful and cheery environment. It’s a school policy that all students’ work is represented on the walls regardless of its artistic merit.

Inside the classrooms, students work in small groups for learning. Teachers don’t have their own desks but instead constantly move among the groups.

All types of arts-infused activity are integrated into the lessons, most often some type of visual art. The school year begins with blank walls on which each class has free rein to paint; one first-grade classroom this year has letters and words painted all over the walls.

The school is operated by WVSA Arts Connection, an affiliate of VSA arts. Each affiliate does programming to make arts education accessible to children who have disabilities. VSA arts, dedicated to the participation of people with disabilities in the arts and society, is an affiliate of the Kennedy Center and also receives funding from the U.S. Department of Education as well as from private and foundation donors, including the Dana Foundation.

Besides the school, WVSA runs an employment training program and vocational school for special-needs teenagers as well as a gallery called the ARTiculate Gallery. Students learn applied and fine arts and apprentice with master artists. Eventually they display and sell their work in the ARTiculate Gallery, which is open to the public. I encourage you to stop in to see the great works they have on display, all of which are for sale. The gallery and school are at the corner of 16th and L streets NW in Washington, D.C.

—Rebecca Luib

THURSDAY, MAY 14, 2009

Wanted: a neuroeducation teaching model

“A child's opportunity to benefit from the arts should not be restricted by the ZIP code where they live,” said Nancy Grasmick, Maryland state superintendent of schools, during the Learning, Arts, and the Brain conference May 6 in Baltimore. But because few educators understand the benefit of arts learning, the arts are among the subjects and methods of teaching that are perennially in danger of cutting when funds grow tight, most often in less-wealthy school districts.

Grasmick sat in the audience during the day of presentations on how children’s brains change as they practice an art, and then participated in the small-group discussions on how educators could apply this knowledge. At the end of the day, she used her time at the podium to challenge the more than 300 attendees to act on what they had learned.

Currently, she said, “neuroscience is not guiding the decisions we’re making in education.” Teachers, principals, and administrators know little about the science, “even though every day I say they’re brain clinicians” because they foster children’s brain development.

Why isn’t neuroscience part of the conversation? “Because we don’t have a critical model” of how the arts foster cognitive development and how to apply the science to the classroom, she said. She challenged the teachers in the audience, and especially those who teach teachers, including conference sponsor Johns Hopkins University, to create such a teaching model.

“Today’s information is huge,” she said of the new research presented. State educators should use it and work together to build courses allowing teachers-in-training to absorb the science behind learning, she said. “We can use that model for arts educators to understand the cognitive benefits, as well as the emotional and affective ones.”  These new teachers and school administrators would help form a secure foundation for arts education in public schools, one that would not shift with the winds of schools funding.

“Unless we have people who are prepared and knowledgeable in these areas, we will be in jeopardy every time a dollar is cut in the budget” or a given arts advocate leaves a certain school, she said.

Nicky Penttila 

Learning Arts Brain Grasmick Small Group - Content
Nancy Grasmick, Maryland state superintendent of schools, makes a point during the small-group discussions on how to use the results of brain research to improve learning her during the Learning, Arts, and the Brain Summit, at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore on May 6, 2009. (photo by Nicky Penttila) 

Learning & the Brain—a view from the booth

"Are these free?” “Can I take more than one?” These were common refrains at the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives’ booth during the Learning & the Brain conference on “The Creative Brain: Using Brain Research on Creativity and the Arts to Improve Learning” in Washington, D.C., May 7-9. Before we could even unpack all the boxes and neatly display the publications, attendees began taking anything and everything they could find.

Clearly, these educators have a hunger for research about the effects of arts on learning. Over and over, I heard how they needed information to bring back to their principal/superintendent/board so they could advocate for more arts in their schools. Attendees were thrilled to hear that we offer several of our publications in bulk quantities and gratefully took our business cards to write in to request additional copies to share with their faculty, administration and students.

I was surprised that few of the teachers I met and who took the Dana publications taught the arts. I spoke with math teachers, reading specialists and even science teachers who were interested in the role of arts in learning as well as in finding creative ways to reach their students.

The most popular items were It’s Mindboggling [also available in PDF], a booklet for middle and high school students that is packed with information about the brain in a fun format of games, riddles, and puzzles; and the Dana Foundation’s Learning, Arts, and the Brain consortium report.

What struck me the most about the hundreds of people attending the conference was the diversity: Teachers of all stripes came from all over the country. Among those I spoke with was a math teacher at a public high school in Iowa, a private preschool director from New York City and a third-grade reading teacher at a charter school in D.C. All face similar challenges and are eager to find ways to bring creativity back into the schools. The enthusiasm and commitment of these educators was heartening to see.

For future meeting dates, see the Learning & the Brain Web site.

—Rebecca Luib

TUESDAY, MAY 12, 2009

Neuro-education: What to do next?

While many neuroscientists hope that eventually what they have learned about learning will trickle down to how teachers teach, at the recent Learning, Arts, and the Brain summit at Johns Hopkins University, researcher Brian Wandell reminded us that communication goes both ways.

Arts & Cognition Photo - Wandell - Thumbnail
Brian Wandell 
“Is there anything I can do that is useful to you?” he asked the audience of more than 300 teaching artists, educators and arts advocates early in the conference, held May 6 in Baltimore.

At the conference, Wandell spoke of his research on how music training may affect phonological awareness (the sound-system aspect of words) as measured by the strength of linkages that make up the white matter of the brain. “It’s been hard to get data on the white matter,” he said, because it is so fragile, but technologies in the past decade such as diffusion tensor imaging, which measures how much water is in a given tissue, have made such studies possible.

He and others have found that the properties of certain fibers are correlated with specific cognitive abilities. For example, “certain fibers passing through the corpus callosum are correlated with phonological decoding,” he said. The corpus callosum connects the two hemispheres of the brain. These fibers “are essential for learning the skills of phonological awareness,” one of the skills that lead to reading fluency, Wandell said. He and his colleagues reported their early findings in 2008 as part of the Dana Foundations’s Arts & Cognition consortium.

They have discovered a correlation between music training and scores on phonological tests. The training “explains 16 percent of the variance in children’s scores,” he said [see also “White Matter Pathways in Reading,” PDF]. “We also have discovered a modest correlation between visual arts and math,” in ongoing, not-yet-published research led by Jessica Tsang and Mihal Ben-Shachar in Wandell’s lab [listing of their publications]. Wandell and colleagues now are taking images of children’s brains before and after a certain period of arts instruction to see if this direct intervention can cause the effects they have seen in the earlier studies.

The research on math skills came about after Tsang spoke with a public school teacher who wondered if teaching general counting and estimating worked better than teaching exact counting at a certain grade level. Wandell encouraged the audience in Baltimore to ask their own questions; maybe a neuroscientist at the table with them would take up their gantlet. “We’re looking for teachers to ask questions for us to research,” he said.

In the small-group discussions later that afternoon, including the table where I sat, some people took him up on his suggestion. The conference host and co-sponsor, the Johns Hopkins University School of Education, assigned seating to ensure that scientists, educators and policy makers mingled, developing potential education plans as well as sharpening questions the scientists could take back to the labs. Our questions: How does arts training affect mood? Do different artistic disciplines promote different “styles” of focus and attention?

In a few years or so, perhaps we’ll see some answers.

Nicky Penttila 

Learning Arts Brain Small Group Discussion - Content
Educators discuss how to use brain research to improve learning her during the Learning, Arts, and the Brain Summit, at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore on Wednesday, May 6, 2009. (photo by Nicky Penttila) 
TUESDAY, MAY 12, 2009

Self Comes to Mind

Composers have drawn on science in the past (as in the recent John Adams opera “Doctor Atomic,” about Robert Oppenheimer and the atomic bomb), but this is the first I’ve heard of a collaboration between a composer and a neuroscientist. Bruce Adolphe worked with neuroscientist Antonio Damasio to present the multimedia composition “Self Comes to Mind,” which premiered May 3 at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Damasio directs the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California. He is also the author of Descartes’ Error and other books and is a member of the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives.

The 30-minute work for cello and two percussionists is performed while a video of brain scans and recorded text by Damasio plays. A review in The New York Times, though mixed, nevertheless praised the musicianship of the performers and the audacity of the project’s “big questions” approach.

Serendipitously, Adolphe and Damasio’s meeting of art and neuroscience debuted during an exciting week for just such conjunctions. The Learning, Arts, and the Brain summit was held May 6 in Baltimore and the Learning and the Brain conference followed May 7-9 in Washington, D.C. Presenters at these conferences looked at how arts education might affect the learning brain and lead to increased cognitive abilities.

“Art must do something to the mind and brain. What is that? How would we be able to detect that?” asked Barry Gordon, a behavioral neurologist and cognitive neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins University, at a Learning and the Brain presentation May 8. Like Adolphe’s artistic explorations, many of the conference talks blended concepts in the arts with scientific musings. Gordon’s hypothesis was particularly optimistic: “Art, I submit to you without absolute proof, can improve the power of our minds. However, this improvement is hard to detect.”

— Ben Mauk 

MONDAY, MAY 11, 2009

Can everyone become a genius?

Does every child have the potential to become a genius? Scientists still don’t know, but they are gaining new insights into the subject by looking at the brains of young children.

Results presented May 8 at the Learning and the Brain educational conference suggest that brilliance may center on unusual patterns of brain activation as well as subtle changes in the brain’s rate of development. [The conference was sponsored in part by the Dana Foundation.]

Jay Giedd of the National Institute of Mental Health is conducting an extended project to map general patterns of brain development during the first two decades of life. He has found that the amount of myelin sheathing—an insulating wrap that allows nerve cells to communicate faster—continuously increases in the brain, even as synapses dwindle after being produced in large numbers early in development.

And while nearly everyone ends up with similar-looking brains, his research already shows that not all brains seem to develop in exactly the same way. For instance, “in autism, brains are actually larger early in life,” he said, and some speculate that this is because these brains form too many connections. In children classified as gifted, meanwhile, the timing of the peak number of synapses seems to shift. “Counterintuitively, the later the peak [in cortical thickness], the greater the IQ,” Giedd added. “The whole story is in the journey, not the destination.”

As for what effects such altered development may have on the brain, M. Layne Kalbfleisch, a cognitive neuroscience professor at George Mason University, may have some insight. Her  brain-scan research and others’ has found that smarter people seem to recruit different areas during difficult tasks than others. “Alternate patterns are beginning to be mapped for people with superior IQs,” he said. One interesting possibility, she said, is the somatic marker hypothesis, which posits that brain abnormalities can disconnect emotional and logical functions.

Kalbfleisch’s new work also shows that people with Asperger’s syndrome (a form of autism in which patients are high-functioning) performed similarly to nonautistic people on a test of brain speed and reflection. But the Asperger’s group recruited more brain areas, such as the frontal cortex and thalamus, than the control group. “They’re definitely having to pull more and different resources to do the same thing,” she said. People with Asperger’s often have savant-like math and music abilities.

Other new studies of both gifted adolescents and math whizzes showed “really beautiful functional signature in the parietal cortex,” she said. “This may be the place where ability and disability may converge to make living possible in a really beautiful way.” 

An answer to whether a genius is made or born is a long way off. But these results do suggest a strong enough role for the environment to suggest hope for the former. “No, I don’t think everyone can be a genius,” Giedd said. “But I think we can do tons better if we begin to understand the brain better.”

Aalok Mehta 

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Educators schooled by ‘guerilla artist,’ DreamWorks executive

“I was one the system failed,” self-styled “guerilla artist” and high-school dropout Keri Smith warned a crowd of teachers assembled May 5 at Baltimore's American Visionary Art Museum. “I was the rebel, the one who stayed in the back and snuck out for cigarettes.”

Smith, Keri
Keri Smith says teachers from around the world write and tell her how they use her book "Wreck this Journal" in their classrooms.   
In high school, she explained, her classes, filled with teachers who focused on technical skills and accurate landscapes, were stifling. So she couldn't wait to get home, where she could actually “create something.”

“Home equaled play for me,” she said. “So I became a clock watcher.”

Smith wasn't trying to chide the crowd as much as convey just how strong the impulse to create can be in a developing young mind—and why an educational system increasingly focused on test scores at the expense of the creative arts may be leaving all students poorer. A defining moment for her, after all, was a teacher recommending art school to her during her aborted senior year, a place where she would discover she fit in—her “hallelujah chorus,” as she put it. “You know how much power you have for one person,” Smith ended. “So thank you.”

At an event titled “Arts, Creativity and Other Outrageous Ideas,” Smith didn't have to do a lot of convincing. Her current success—including a series of illustrated, interactive books that double as part instructional manual and part performance art—elicited excited nods from many of the educators. “My faith in human nature has been strengthened,” responded the event’s moderator, Harvard psychology professor Jerome Kagan.

The other speakers at the free public event echoed Smith's sentiments. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a psychology professor at Temple University, offered one potential strategy to sell the arts, a growing concern in a time of dwindling budgets. The coming generation, she said, will need six key skills to succeed in the workplace—collaboration, communication, content, critical thinking, creative innovation and confidence—and arts training improves all of those. “Arts and playful learning encourage the very skills needed in the 21st century,” she said. “Integrating information and innovation are going to be key.”

Educational psychologist Alice Wilder, a producer on the hit Nickelodeon educational show “Blue's Clues” and co-creator of the reading tutorial show “Super Why,” asked the crowd not to think of a choice between “arts or reading, writing and arithmetic, but arts and reading, arts and writing, arts and arithmetic.”

She received knowing nods when she added that her mantra is to ask, not assume. “The only way to understand what children are capable of doing, what appeals to them, and what they are thinking is to ask them,” she said. That strategy was key to both of her video shows, which rely on intensive classroom observation to arrive at their characteristic mix of interactive elements, strong narrative and “play to learn” philosophy.

The final presenter, John Tarnoff, head of show development for DreamWorks Animation, offered an outline of the studio’s movie-development process. Because movie animation is a long, intense and complicated process, he said—each movie involves up to 300 people over five years—DreamWorks breaks down movies into small snippets of a few minutes each, with a single animator responsible for storyboarding out each segment. During the course of several weeks, the animator presents his or her work to the movie team, the director and studio executives to gather feedback and “sell” the segment, refining it as necessary through several rounds of meetings.

This process of iteration, collaboration, peer review and shared responsibility for the end product, Tarnoff said, could also form the framework for more elaborate group projects in schools. “Some of the key elements in our process can be useful for your own processes,” he said. “Some of our best practices have an impact far beyond our own walls.”

The free public event served as a kickoff for “Learning, Arts and the Brain Summit,” an academic discussion the following day about how the brain changes as a result of  ­arts education and how knowledge of these changes can be applied in the classroom. The a daylong conference of scientists, educators and policymakers hosted by Johns Hopkin was sponsored in part by the Dana Foundation.

Aalok Mehta