Neuro-Education: New Ways to Think About Learning

Strategic Philanthropy
Thursday, May 27, 2010

Last week I had the opportunity to attend two related events on learning and the brain: a summit at Johns Hopkins University, “Attention & Engagement in Learning”, and a conference in D.C., “Focused Minds: Enhancing Student Attention, Memory & Motivation”.  Both events explored the intersection of neuroscience and learning by bringing together researchers, educators, and policy makers, who sought to apply what they know about how people learn to what takes place in the classroom.   

 Neuroscience incorporates chemistry, biology, physics, psychology, and engineering.  It helps to explain how thinking works and what we know about human behavior and motivation.  By nurturing a free flow of information between researchers and teachers, the brand new field of neuro-education seeks to structure classrooms for optimal student learning.   

 At last week’s events, David Willingham of the University of Virginia, and author of the provocatively titled Why Don’t Children like School? , talked about the human need to have choices and to feel like we are making a contribution. Edward Deci of the University of Rochester, focused on the fundamental human need to be autonomous; according to Deci, we learn best when we are intrinsically motivated.  

What would schools look like if they were to effectively apply neuroscience research to the classroom setting?  Students would have the opportunity to solve real problems.  They would understand that they can develop their intelligence through hard work and that failure was o.k. as it often leads to learning.  Teachers would offer explanations for what they were asking students to do, and they would offer students choices in how to go about satisfying academic requirements. We would look at broader outcomes for children than just test scores. Probably most importantly, every student would be made to feel valued and shown that he or she has a unique contribution to make.

 The field of neuro-education is very new but judging by the tremendous turnout from educators throughout the U.S. to last week’s events, there is huge interest in the promise it offers to re-think how we go about educating students.