Neuroeducation: Implications for Policy and Practice
From Neuroeducation: Learning, Arts, and the Brain

November, 2009

In three parts: A view from science; A view from educationA view from arts education 

Part 1: A View from Science

By Guy McKhann, M.D.

The relationship between those in neuroscience and those in education historically has been some­what edgy. Those in education would like to know what neuroscience can tell them in a practical way— what can help them in the classroom now. Those in neuroscience have little concept about what those in education would like to know. What questions are educators asking? What ideas or myths are out there that neuroscience might be able to clarify? Most importantly, those in neuroscience have little idea about the limitations involved in modifying a tightly controlled curriculum. Finally, it is apparent that the level of knowledge about the brain among educators, even by science teachers, is quite low.

All of this is starting to change now that several different groups have initiated interdisciplinary approaches to bringing educators and neurosci­entists together. These include a discussion of K-12 education as part of the NIH Blueprint for Neuroscience Research in 2008; a conference on neuroeducation sponsored by the Society for Neuroscience in 2009; the summit, which is the basis for this report; and a recent discussion in a Decade of the Mind symposium in Germany.

From these discussions several concepts emerged:

  1. There is a need for a source of reliable infor­mation for educators so they will have a place to ask their questions. Such questions may be readily answerable, but also might stimulate ideas for research.
  2. There may be genetic factors that influence a child’s reception to types of input—some to music, some to art, and some to dance.
  3. Exposure to a type of input in the arts may have an effect by enhancing attention mech­anisms. But could these mechanisms also be affected by other exposures? For example, is exposure to music having specific effects? Or is playing a computer game doing the same thing?

Does exposure to the arts change the structure of the brain?

Previous studies have suggested that the structure of the brain is different in accomplished musicians than in non-musicians, particularly in the corpus callosum. (See Dr. Gottfried Schlaug on this topic, chapter three.) What these previous studies could not determine was whether the “musician brain” had always been different or whether the differ­ences were acquired. The longitudinal studies of Dr. Schlaug and Dr. Winner started with children whose brains looked the same, and indicate that exposure to music is associated with changes in the brain. This is the first indication from a prospective study that music induces specific brain changes.

One should not underestimate how difficult these types of longitudinal, controlled studies are to do. Ideally one would recruit a pool of subjects and then randomly assign a group to exposure to music and another group to some other, non-music exposure. From a practical point of view, such a study would be impossible to perform over a longer period of time. How many mothers are going to sit still while an investigator tells them their kids can’t take music lessons or have music in school? Schlaug and Winner did the next best thing; they recruited a group already planning to take music, and then recruited a control group. Fortunately, the brains were all the same at baseline, or the studies would be uninterpretable. As more sophisticated forms of imaging are used, as discussed by Dr. Wandell, the specificity of the effects of music, or other arts, may be more precisely defined.

Does music acquisition enhance performance in other cognitive areas?

This is the major question that this research would like to answer. Investigators use terms such as near transfer and far transfer. Near transfer applies to skills that are an integral part of music training, such as finger dexterity or rhythm discrimination. Clearly there are near-transfer effects.

One possible near-transfer effect is enhanced attention. Attention, however, is a complicated area. Music may positively affect attention mechanisms, but so may other activities, such as computer games. Any proposed effects of music must be evaluated within the concept of the question, “Compared to what?” In the next phase of studies of the effects of the arts on the developing brain, choice of control groups might include kids spending equal time on computers as other kids do with their musical instruments. How you keep kids from doing both, I leave to the investigators and parents, and not to grandparents like me.

Far transfer is where many of the unsubstan­tiated claims lie. The studies to date suggest that transfer may occur in mathematics, as outlined by Dr. Spelke, but only in specific mathematical func­tions associated with spatial performance. The other aspect of Dr. Spelke’s work relates to how early these effects of music may occur, possibly indicating to educators that preschool or early school expo­sures to music and other arts may be more impor­tant than previously thought.

But possibly not for all children. The studies of Dr. Posner suggest what many parents already know—some kids respond to music and others to visual arts. Determining how to sort these kids out at an early age, possibly by genetic testing rather than cognitive performance, may set the stage for the education of the future.

Where are we?

The studies of the Winner/Schlaug group and of Spelke indicate the feasibility of controlled studies over time. It is not clear that such studies can be performed within the educational system. Perhaps comparing one school to another is more likely. Pilot projects within a school system are another possibility. The emphasis needs to be on improving education and not “experimenting with our kids.” How to move forward is the next challenge!

Part 2: A View from Education

By Mariale Hardiman, Ed.D. 

As we consider next steps and implications for the information disseminated at the summit, it is impor­tant to consider exactly which implications we want to address. As the summit revealed, the answer is not so simple.

At the highest level, we are talking about the implications of collaboration among cognitive scien­tists, neuroscientists, educators, applied researchers, and faculty from schools of education. Critical input will also come from artists, arts educators, and advo­cates of the arts who have already built a strong case for applying methodologies that make the process of education more engaging and effective.

Collaboration is the big-picture objective, but what exactly do we expect this collaboration to yield? And how will it work?

As we heard again and again at the summit, educators are seeking research that sheds light on how children learn translated in ways that are rele­vant and useful in authentic school settings.

What are the requisite conditions of this collaboration? Researchers must understand how teachers teach and which measurements are most useful. Teachers need to understand what research currently can deliver and how to frame the demands they make on it. Arts educators and proponents of arts integration should codify the meaning of arts learning so that teachers in other disciplines under­stand its benefits and are more prepared to accept and use it. Universities that train teachers, provide in-service professional development, and develop new curriculum models need to understand their key role: higher education won’t bear this burden alone, but it should be a leader in redefining the standards of success.

Underlying all these conditions is the need for communication to engage parents, families, school boards, legislators, and others who determine educational policy.

Now What?

Improving instructional quality is the ultimate objective of the collaboration between the educa­tion and scientific communities. We believe that it is critical to begin this collaboration through the emerging field of neuroeducation and organize it as a discrete field of study.

The already emerging field of neuroeducation will explore how children learn and what prac­tices and interventions promote and sustain the learning process.

Neuroeducation is the collaborative discovery and application of new knowledge to:

  • More effectively engage students in content and the process of acquiring and retaining content
  • Explore the benefits of arts-based learning and recommend strategies for its inclusion in the classroom and across the curriculum
  • Design instructional strategies that imbue the learning experience with greater meaning and purpose, and equip students with a more diverse set of skills
  • Train new teachers to leverage the new knowledge and new curricula, and inspire experienced educators to employ new meth­odologies for engaging their students
  • Create new benchmarks for how we define the success of our schools and students by moving beyond the narrow lens of math and reading scores.

Accomplishing this objective will take time. Building the field of neuroeducation is a hugely important task, but there is little agreement on how to proceed. Diverse professional and advocacy inter­ests must align with the public’s notion of effective education. And, as Howard Gardner has pointed out, there is no tradition of practice on which to base this movement.14

Educators will have to deal with extreme opin­ions about the relevance and utility of biological and cognitive research for pedagogy from both skeptics, who think there is none, to enthusiasts, who over­state and misinterpret the research.

Agents of Change: Who Will Get Us Where We Need To Be?

As students are the ultimate beneficiaries of this effort, educators are natural partners in neuroedu­cation. At the grassroots level, effective change will come from classroom teachers. They want to know how children learn, and how the new research they are hearing about can play out in the classroom.

To many educators, the question is not whether we should have arts in the classroom, but how the arts influence learning. How do the arts enhance attention and connect to content, and how do they create emotional connections? What is testable and what questions are educators asking that neurosci­ence has not yet developed the means for studying?

The purpose of this collaboration is not to justify having the arts in school. Teachers are intrigued by the reported neurological phenomena, but they’re really interested in the potential for realizing prag­matic outcomes. Educators who already know that the arts make students more creative learners do not need research explaining why. But neuroscience does add a level of confirmation. Scientific evidence on the influence of arts-based learning will add new dimensions to educational practices and policies.

Most educators are aware that curriculum changes come about through revised perceptions, programs of accountability, and the demand for specific skills. Research and teacher-training institutions have the potential to develop and test individual modules for sample grades and subjects. Testing will reveal if students respond to integrated methodologies—does their retention improve, and are they better at applying what they learn? Testing standards determine both curricula and instructional methodologies. Today, teaching is constrained due to the mushrooming burden of prescribed content and accountability, which is largely misaligned with real workforce needs.

Summit participants frequently mentioned the need for translation—getting from the lab to the classroom. Collaboration among multiple fields will be critical, with a focus on topics and problems rather than disciplines. Bringing together scientists and educators in lab schools and other forums will encourage a joint solution to problems that neither domain could answer alone.

Hinton and Fischer have already begun to create such teaching laboratories.15 University-based researchers design and develop research in response to the practical needs of teachers; they test new methodologies, evaluate the effectiveness of interventions, and provide real-time opportuni­ties for teacher development. Based on the medical-school model, researchers spend a residency period integrating theories about learning with practical applications in real classroom settings.

At Johns Hopkins, through the School of Education’s Neuro-Education Initiative and courses leading to its Mind, Brain, and Teaching certificate, scholars share knowledge from the brain sciences with educators to inform their teaching and identify the questions that will shape translation research in the future.

Such university programs, including the Mind, Brain, and Education degree at Harvard, will produce a new generation of scholars who will bridge the division between scientists and educators. These translational researchers will move beyond individual disciplines and approach learning from a more inclusive perspective—testing hypotheses in authentic settings, designing and evaluating best practices, and training educational practitioners.

Higher education will be a core driver of change, but not the only one. Leadership will also come from such organizations as the International Mind, Brain, and Education Society and the Society for Neuroscience, whose 2009 Presidential Initiative relates to the intersection of neuroscience and education. The National Institutes of Health has included in its Blueprint for K-12 Efforts an explo­ration of how to apply neuroscience to teaching and learning. The U.S. Department of Education has offered research grants to support the study of how the cognitive sciences apply to and promote student learning.

As neuroeducation takes shape and develops momentum, leaders must emerge to encourage dialogue and guide the collaboration, focusing strategically on improving four major components of the education system: teacher preparation, the curriculum, pedagogy, and school governance.

Wagging the Dog

We have outlined our view of what has to happen in education now, but this process will not be one of quick fixes.

Ironically, understanding what makes students better learners may remain disconnected from substantive changes in educational policy. Certainly educators will make incremental improvements in curricula and teaching methodologies, but real policy change has to do with repairing two funda­mental breakdowns, the disconnect between what children can do and our expectations of them, the disparity between official accountability, and the clamor for more creative skills and abilities.

Educators can adjust to teaching to the test. But the preoccupation with limited measures has distracted them from a clear view of what they should expect and how best to measure real success. This should be the concern of educational policy; neuro­education can help re-center the field of education.

In a recent seminar at The Johns Hopkins School of Education, Martha Bridge Denckla, M.D., of the Kennedy Krieger Institute and the Hopkins School of Medicine, shared with teachers her research and clinical experience in the area of executive func­tion. She explained how children’s brains develop, pointing out that educational practice is frequently inconsistent with students’ cognitive development. Because of curricular demands, we start reading instruction in preschool and require that young adolescents take algebra before many are ready for conceptual thinking. The timetable for what we teach is often out of sync with what some students are ready to learn.16

Business and industry leaders say they need creative thinkers and problem-solvers, and they complain that U.S. schools are not delivering them. But policy makers are assessing an opposing set of skills: both our curricula and our pedagogy hold students and schools accountable for far-too­narrow achievement in quantitative and literacy abil­ities. There is obvious misalignment between what workers need to be successful in the 21st century and how policy makers are holding schools account­able for effectiveness.

As educators have been slow to take the lead in defining success, politicians and policy advocates have done it for them. Given what we know today, can we continue to justify such an exclusive focus on reading and math? Or should we broaden the base of our expectations, and test accordingly?

Standardized tests are a sacred benchmark for evaluating schools and students. There is risk in changing the playing field and how we keep score, but if we know better we are obliged to use everything we know to change our practice and our policy.

T.S. Elliott once said, “Anything worth doing is at first impossible.” Below is a model for how to make the impossible take root for the field of neuro­education, developed at Johns Hopkins University’s Neuro-Education Initiative to begin to address the dynamics of multiple disciplines, domains of learning, and constituencies. 

Part 3: A View from Arts Education

By Janet Eilber 

“Arts, Creativity & Other Outrageous Education Ideas,” a workshop for Maryland educators which preceded the Hopkins summit, provided an appropriate launch for the work of the next day. The afternoon’s presentations and panel discus­sion gave the educators an inside look at diverse approaches to learning based on the arts and the creative process.

Presenters included Alice Wilder, Ed.D., creator and producer of a number of interactive television shows for young children, such as Blue’s Clues and Think it, Ink it. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek talked about her book, Celebrate the Scribble: Appreciating Children’s Art, and the importance of process and discovery for young minds, while Keri Smith, author, illus­trator, and guerilla artist, presented a decidedly less conventional approach. Her books, Wreck This Journal and Living out Loud – Activities to Fuel a Creative Life, have inspired a devoted following of educators who use her techniques to engage students in middle and high school. The after­noon closed with John Tarnoff, an executive at DreamWorks Animation, who demonstrated how the process of developing an animated film offers a template for dynamic teaching and learning in other subjects.

These approaches are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to new teaching and learning methods using the arts. Arts-education advocates have always believed intuitively that the arts are a highly effective vehicle for improved learning, and scientists are now showing us how this intuition is supported by a growing body of serious brain research. The field is deeply involved in translating research findings into teaching practice; its wide array of curricula are being retroactively “vetted” as new findings in cognitive science emerge.

Neuroeducation advocates are now asking the “how” questions needed to launch this new field: How will this collaboration between scientists and educators work? How will we get these new ideas into the classroom and ultimately into the minds of students?

Arts education has been pro-active about its own “how” question (How can we get more arts learning into the schools?) since it lost ground in the late 1970s. The better strategies that have emerged for developing and disseminating research-based arts curricula will offer useful models to neuroedu­cators, but the field has also honed methods outside the classroom that neuroeducation advocates will need: for example, how to increase public aware­ness and support, and how to influence national and local educational policy.

By the turn of the millennium, most parents, policy makers, and school leaders no longer needed to be convinced of the value of arts education. Although there was a call for more “hard science” that initiated many of the studies reviewed at the Hopkins summit, there was also growing realiza­tion that success rested not only on the proof of research or the demonstration of best practices. More was needed. Arts education began to recog­nize the need for its own bridge between the science of learning and the practice of teaching.

Focus shifted to fostering new relationships with a much wider range of constituents, resources, and policies. Arts-education advocates looked for better ways to connect with all stakeholders, from helping classroom teachers by aligning arts-education curricula with state learning stan­dards to creating support groups for principals and superintendents that help incorporate arts learning into the school day. 

Arts-education advocates and organizations began creating better connections with higher education to improve arts training for pre-service classroom teachers. We worked with school systems to provide better professional development for teachers already in the classroom. We are pressing for stronger relationships between schools of educa­tion and schools of the arts, and for better tools for measuring the impact of arts learning so that the arts can be as accountable as other core subjects in schools.

In the last few years, this drive for more produc­tive collaborations has led to projects that incor­porate the views of all stakeholders at the earliest stages of the planning process. Listening to all voices—including the contrarian voice—has emerged as a rewarding strategy. For example, it has provided solid foundations for influential proj­ects such as Arts for All, the ten-year plan to secure sequential arts learning in every K-12 classroom in Los Angeles County. On the national level, the Education Leaders Institute, created by the National Endowment for the Arts, brings together teams of diverse constituents from each state to hammer out new support for arts in the schools. Neuroeducation has already reaped the benefits of this technique. The Hopkins summit gave educa­tors and scientists the rare opportunity to interact face to face. The ideas developed through this cross-pollination provide fertile ground for the next steps in the field.

This kind of activity has primed the landscape for neuroeducation. As the new field works to answer the question of “how” and to develop the bridge between the lab and the classroom, it will do well to take advantage of the resources already in place.

Arts education now offers a network of partners that are working with school systems and building a reputation for alternative learning processes. A growing body of arts-based curricula is account­able to the states’ learning standards, supported by the findings coming out of neuroscience, and can provide models for new brain-based pedagogy. With cohesive advocacy efforts and a range of approaches to education policy and reform, arts education stands ready to champion some of the basic elements needed for the brave new world of neuroeducation.

The summit at Hopkins this year, the unofficial launch of the new field of neuroeducation, under­scored the ways that the arts can play a larger, more integrated role in what research is telling us about quality education, school improvement, and effec­tive teaching methods. Arts education has orches­trated a shift in its reputation in recent years, from a special interest group to an important catalyst in helping children learn. As neuroeducation reframes the most essential questions of education, the arts are poised to help provide answers.