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Putting Neuroscience in the Classroom: How the Brain Changes As We Learn

The more we know about how the developing brain changes as we learn, the better we can support young learners

April 13, 2020 By: Bruce McCandliss & Elizabeth Toomarian Read time:

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  • Spring 2020
  • Notes From the President: The Learning Curve
  • Crunch: Lifelong Learning
  • Foreword: Learning Is a Science
  • Neuroscience in the Classroom
  • Prepare the Next Generation for Their Future
  • Lifelong Learning
  • Americans and Lifetime Learning
  • Personal Learning
  • Machines Are Learning
  • Five Questions: How the Brain Learns
  • Voices: Learning Requires...
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Putting Neuroscience in the Classroom: How the Brain Changes As We Learn

As we learn, our brains continually change. From toddlerhood to early childhood, all of life’s natural learning experiences—from a playdate with a friend to hearing that bedtime story one more time—are acting to refine the function and structure of circuits in the brain that are central to how we see, hear, feel, and act in the world. When children go off to school, they need to adapt these circuits of their brains in new and profound ways as they learn how to translate letters into words, words into ideas, and numbers into mathematical concepts. Now, scientists and educators are teaming up to study how schooling changes brain development—and to take lessons from what they learn to improve the learning process. 

On a typical day at the Synapse School in Menlo Park, California, where our team of Stanford University neuroscientists works hand in hand with teachers, students might drop by the Brainwave Learning Center, an on-site research lab where they can wear stretchy caps with more than a hundred small, spongy sensors on their heads. These sensors measure the naturally occurring brain waves that fluctuate as they play educational games or engage in guided meditation. The students can also watch live computer displays to witness how their own brain waves change as they concentrate on a task or engage in mindfulness. This interactive experience provides each child the chance to see and think about their own brain activity, how it changes with learning, and even how it changes with moment-to-moment shifts in mindset, which helps instill in students a sense of ownership of their learning process. Meanwhile, the brain activity evoked by the educational games provides important data to ongoing studies of brain and skill development.  

illustration of a brain with animated, stylized neurological animation

This nascent research is bringing together two different worlds: the rapidly progressing field of developmental cognitive neuroscience, which studies how brains change during learning (Related podcast: “The Future of Learning: The Evolving Classroom”), and the complex domain of schools, teachers, and curricula, which shape and support the learning. This emerging field of educational neuroscience goes beyond what either of these worlds could attempt to tackle on their own and will help answer important questions: How does classroom learning place pressure on specific brain circuits to change? Are there differences in these circuits that could help us understand why some children struggle with learning? Are there ways we can improve education to help children with those challenges?

Our understanding of how brain development changes during the early school years is expanding rapidly. Today’s generation of children is the first to grow up in a time when tools such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and wearable brain-wave sensors are widely available. At the same time, collaborative, open-science practices such as data sharing are becoming the norm. This has expanded our basic knowledge about the developing brain circuits of reading, math, and attention, as well as allowing sampling of large populations of schoolchildren that covers the true range of neurodiversity in them.

Just last year, for example, over 11,000 third grade children completed an extensive brain scanning protocol in multiple cities across the country. Each has pledged to repeat the scans every two years as they progress through elementary, middle, and high school, providing the largest brain development study ever carried out and enabling researchers to follow changes in the structure and functions of specific neural circuits and fully explore the diversity of paths that children’s brain development takes.  Importantly, we will be able to explore the question of how all this rich diversity in brain development is linked to each child’s ongoing education through richly detailed assessments of their educational achievement, home and school environment, social media use, and involvement in arts and sports.

Circuits that adapted at very early ages to recognize faces and objects reconfigure to recognize thousands of visual words.

But how can the role of educational experiences be directly linked to changes in brain structure and function? Remarkably, many brain imaging technologies are now sensitive to changes in brain circuits that accrue from one week to the next, allowing researchers to better understand how specific learning experiences drive changes in brain function and structure. In one study, researchers used MRI imaging to take pictures of the brains of struggling readers who tested in the dyslexic range and were undergoing several weeks of intensive tutoring. Brain scans collected every two weeks revealed remarkable changes in both reading skills and in the structural brain scan measures of white matter tracts (the long fiber bundles that connect one part of the brain to another). A control group scanned across weeks of “business as usual” education allowed researchers to make powerful claims about the extent to which this tutoring actually caused changes in the brain circuits. Such results are challenging and even changing our understanding of the term “learning disability.” These findings place increasing focus on how the right educational supports can lead to positive changes in both the mind and brain.

We also can study how week-to-week change accumulates over a school year by observing natural experiments that are occurring in educational systems all the time. For example, schools need to decide when a student enters kindergarten and when a student must wait. Consider a group of 5-year-olds born in September of the same year in a school district that requires incoming kindergartners to have a birthday before the 15th of the month. After a year, students of virtually the same maturity who attended school can be compared with those who had to wait. This provides a rare glimpse into the impact that formal learning in kindergarten—versus alternatives such as preschool or day care—has on developing brains. Such studies are already beginning to show how kindergarten experiences can enhance development in brain networks related to skills such as sustained attention.

Teachers, of course, play a central role in guiding a child’s learning experiences. The way a teacher focuses a student’s attention can affect the nature of learning-induced changes in specific brain circuits. One recent brain-imaging study asked students to learn to read words made up from a set of artificial symbols, not traditional letters, that the students had never seen before. Two different sets of learning instructions either biased them toward a “whole-word” strategy or a “letter-sound” strategy. Words learned under whole-word instructions produced a pattern of brain activity associated with novice learners or unfamiliar words. In contrast, words learned under letter-sound instructions produced a left hemisphere response in regions associated with adult-level word recognition. This adds to a growing body of work suggesting that with their instructional choices, teachers can play a significant role in helping to direct learning, which may have an impact on which brain circuits are changing as a result.

When children understand how their brains change as they learn new things, the whole idea of learning in school could change profoundly for them

Combining the science of reading and math development with brain imaging has led to new insights into how brain circuits change as children master these foundational educational skills. We know that emerging readers’ brains change in two fundamental ways: Circuits that adapted at very early ages to recognize faces and objects reconfigure to recognize thousands of visual words. And circuits for language that developed early to hear and pronounce words adapt to recognize sounds associated with syllables and letters. As children learn to read, these circuits increasingly take on the job of taking a jumble of tiny lines, curves, and spaces and turning them into recognized patterns of letters, letter combinations, and familiar words such as “rabbit,” which happens to be one of the few six-letter words first graders at Synapse know by sight. By middle school, students’ circuits further mature to allow them to recognize any of several thousand words they’ve been exposed to in their days at Synapse in less time than it takes to blink. 

Meanwhile, we know that math is marked by changes in several other areas of the brain, including a region where visual systems recognize number symbols. Mastering math requires children to learn to automatically associate numerical meaning with these symbols—for example, that the quantity “seven” is written as 7. This specific form of math learning changes circuits of the brain that are located within systems more specialized for spatial relationships than language. As children move into middle school, their brain circuits begin to consolidate and retrieve facts to make relationships between numbers with effortless thought.

Every class of kindergartners at Synapse is actively going through those processes during the school year. Each student brings with them a diversity of developing skills in language, vision, attention, and other cognitive factors that can be measured safely and conveniently in our on-site Brainwave Recording Studio. When students place those nets of sensors on their heads, we can capture a thousand “pictures” of activity per second by measuring the natural electrical fields produced by the child’s brain activity.

After six months of learning, students come in again to allow us to trace how their brain circuits have developed. Repeated visits over the subsequent elementary school years will enable our research team and the school staff to watch as students’ brain circuits change as they grow from novice kindergartners to confident middle schoolers who spend hours a day learning through reading. Importantly, we combine these brain measures with leading behavioral reading assessments. The aim is to leverage the overlapping and complementary insights of these approaches to better understand the interaction between educational experiences and an individual student’s strengths and vulnerabilities, and to predict and rapidly respond to emerging challenges.

This knowledge can guide extra instructional support for a young learner, for instance, to focus additional training on phonological processing or visual attention needs. Similarly, we know that children’s early difficulties with ordering or combining sets of objects, recognizing spatial patterns, and understanding quantities—that general sense of how much of something there is—correlate with later math achievement. So this knowledge, too, can help focus extra support for a young learner to strengthen the brain network that underlies math skills. Clearly, we need to move beyond just describing traditional levels of students’ performance—grading whether they meet or fall below expected standards—and to provide insights that might lead to investigating specific instructional approaches and why they work for the students who respond to them.

Around the world, there is a growing number of collaborations between cognitive neuroscientists and schools that are beginning to tackle a large set of issues beyond just reading and mathematics. This work will help us understand how critical factors such as empathy, creativity, self-control, and problem solving develop in school experiences and how schools can influence the brain circuits involved in much of what makes us human.

This is central to our partnership with Synapse School, where social-emotional learning is a foundational principle. Synapse students are trained in mindfulness practices right from kindergarten, including focused breathing during a “mindful minute.” Because key members of our research team are also full-time staff at the school, we have a deep understanding of these school-specific practices and values. When children complete a mindful minute while wearing the net of sensors on their heads, they can actually see their brain waves change as they do something that is common practice in their classrooms.

This insight is possible only because of the continuity that exists between lab and school. The children are also interacting with adults who are familiar to them and with whom they already share a history and deep trust. The neuroscientist who is putting the funny-looking net of sensors on their heads is the same adult who was out at recess the previous week when they lost their baby tooth, or who was in their class that day helping with a project. When the boundaries between the neuroscience lab and the school environments begin to overlap, we are able to push past traditional obstacles and forward into a new understanding of how going to school changes our brains.

By working directly in schools, educational neuroscientists are learning a great deal about the notion of learning itself. The students in these schools, of course, get to see scientists in action. They also get a chance to learn as the researchers go about their work and to see their own brains as the complex entities that they are, that change and adapt to their experiences. And that is a great lesson for all of us: For when children understand how their brains change as they learn new things, the whole idea of learning in school could change profoundly for them.

The Takeaway

We need to move beyond traditional descriptions of educational performance and gain insights that lead to effective teaching approaches and an understanding of why they work for students.

Bruce McCandliss heads the Educational Neuroscience Initiative at Stanford University, where he is a professor in the Graduate School of Education. Elizabeth Toomarian directs the Brainwave Learning Center at Synapse School and is a researcher with the Educational Neuroscience Initiative at Stanford University.

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